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Authors: Peter Clines

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BOOK: Ex-Purgatory: A Novel
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A sedan beeped at him. The driver, an Asian man, gestured at
the still-inaccessible space. “Can you get that out of the way,” he called out to George, “so we can park?” The teenage passenger looked mortified. She winced and mouthed an apology through her window.

“Sorry,” George said. “Just a second.”

He decided to risk trying to lift the couch to his shoulder. It felt pretty light, and it was far enough away from the parked cars he was pretty sure he’d miss them if he had to drop it. He gave the upright couch a tug, knelt, and caught it on his shoulder. His arms wrapped around it and lifted.

The couch came off the ground. It wobbled on his shoulder for a moment and he steadied it with his hands. He took a few steps and it didn’t tip. His back didn’t twinge, either. He’d caught it at that perfect balance point where it seemed to weigh nothing. He turned until the dumpster came into his field of view, then started across the parking lot.

When he reached the dumpster he let the couch settle forward until one end sat on the rim. He worked his way backward, trying not to tear his shirt on the metal frame, until he had the other end in his hands. He heaved again. Gravity grabbed the couch and flipped it into the dumpster with a loud clang.

Slow applause broke out behind him. George turned and saw Nick leaning against his BMW. His friend was still wearing office clothes. The Beemer was parked in the center of the lot, blocking at least half a dozen cars.

“Very impressive,” said Nick. He clapped a few more times, but his head was turned back to watch the young Asian woman unloading the backseat of the sedan.

“Don’t ogle the students,” said George.

“I’m not ogling,” said Nick, “I’m appreciating. Look at those legs. I’m betting swimmer or gymnast.”

Nick was two inches shorter than George, but made up for it with attitude. His dark hair was spiked out and his eyes were hidden behind a pair of sunglasses that probably cost more than George made in a week.

“So what brings you to campus?”

“I know I’m not supposed to be here,” said Nick, “but I needed to talk to you. I need a favor.”

“And you drove over here rather than called because …?”

“It’s a face-to-face, look-you-in-the-eyes kind of favor.”

“Great,” said George. “Take the glasses off.”

“Hah. Hah,” said Nick. A bad blood transfusion a few years back had left his eyes sensitive to light. He never took his sunglasses off outside, and rarely inside. “Coldplay at the Bowl next Thursday.”

“It sold out, didn’t it?”

“Yes it did. And my boss got a set of complimentary tickets this morning and doesn’t want them, so—score. I’m taking Nita and you need to be my wingman because her college roommate’s in town.”

“Which one’s Nita?”

“The publicist.” Even as he said it, Nick glanced over his shoulder again. The young woman was walking across the lot with a swollen backpack over one shoulder and a suitcase in either hand. “Damn, she is really cute.”


“Fine.” The dark glasses turned back to George.

“So that’s it? You need a wingman?”


“What’s the catch?”

“I’m asking you to spend the night with a woman you have absolutely no chance with so I can spend the night with a woman I have a pretty good chance with.”

George frowned. “That far out of my league?”

“More like you’re that far out of her circles of interest.”

“So you’re setting me up with a lesbian?”

Nick shook his head. “I’m not setting you up because we’re all acknowledging there’s no chance of anything happening. I’m just asking you to keep a third wheel occupied.”

George smiled and shook his head. “Are you buying drinks?”

“I got the tickets.”

you the tickets. And don’t you want to impress
Nita the publicist with what a generous, high-powered agent you are?”

“That’s not how I’m hoping to impress her,” said Nick. “Fine, I’ve got you covered, don’t worry about it. You in?”

George drummed his fingers on his thigh. “Yeah, sure.”

Nick smiled and pulled out his phone. “Excellent. I’ll lock things down with her right now.”

“Hey,” called a man. He stood by one of the cars Nick’s Beemer was blocking. “D’you mind moving?”

Nick gave the man a quick wave and opened his door. “Talk more later,” he said to George. “You want to meet up tomorrow night? Grab a drink or three?”

“Maybe.” His Nextel chirped and he pulled it off his belt. He and Nick saluted each other with their phones.

The Nextel chirped again. “You there, George?”

George waved good-bye and the Beemer pulled out of the lot. “Yeah, what’s up, Jarvis?”

“You need any help with that couch?”

“Nah, no problem.”

“Get yourself back here, then. I need you to sign your timecard.”

George checked the time on the phone. Half an hour until quitting time, and if Jarvis was calling him back to the office there wasn’t anything left to do. Nothing that could be done in half an hour, anyway.

As he walked across campus he debated telling Jarvis about the falling glass. He didn’t want to lose a day with an unnecessary doctor’s visit. On the other hand, he knew a couple of people who’d held off mentioning injuries they thought were minor only to get a hassle from workers’ comp later when they turned out to be serious.

Of course, as far as he could tell, the big blade of glass hadn’t left any injuries, minor or otherwise.

George slipped past two families chattering away about classes and dorm life. Someone was already blasting music out of a window. A young man whipped past him on a bicycle.

He’d have to mention the shirtsleeve. It was too slashed up for
a quick fix. He’d have to replace it. That would give him a chance to get the incident on record without actively claiming an injury.

A crowd of people approached. At least two or three families. They had the absent, flitting expressions of people trying to take in a lot of details while not really paying attention.

George stepped off the concrete path to go around them. If he picked up the pace he could be back in the office in under ten minutes. There was a slim chance Jarvis would even let him punch out early.

Then his stomach dropped. He’d forgotten to move his car. A day’s pay just vanished to a parking ticket, assuming it hadn’t been towed.

The crowd passed and revealed a woman in a wheelchair. She looked up at him and her face shifted. As George stepped back on the path he moved to the left and gave her a quick nod. He wanted to be sure she knew he saw her and wasn’t going to collide.

She tugged on the wheels of her chair, rolling it back into his way. He caught himself before banging his shins on the wide wheel. His legs jammed up for a second and he came to a stop.

The young woman had large eyes and dark hair that passed her shoulders. Her skin was the pale hue of someone who never got outside. A look of relief broke across her face as she stared at him. “Oh, thank God,” she said. “It’s you.”

George smiled. The price of wearing a uniform and an ID badge was everyone assumed you were there to help, but it didn’t really bother him. “What can I do for you?”

“I wasn’t a hundred percent sure you’d be here,” she said. “I thought I remembered you saying once that you worked here before, so I figured it’d be the best place to start looking. Mom and Dad weren’t happy with me switching schools at the last minute. I’ve been looking for you ever since we got here.”

He blinked. “Sorry,” he said. “Do we know each other?”

“George,” the young woman said, “it’s me. Madelyn.”

He blinked and looked at her. There weren’t many students he was on a first-name basis with, and he didn’t remember any in a wheelchair. Then he had the awful thought that maybe the
young woman hadn’t been in a wheelchair the last time he saw her. He studied her face and tried to guess her height if she was standing.

She stared back at him and then her face fell. “Damn it,” she said. “You don’t remember anything, do you?”


said George. “I think you might have me confused with someone else.”

Madelyn shook her head. “Nope.”

He tried to look apologetic. “I don’t know you.”

“I’m Madelyn Sorensen,” she said. “The Corpse Girl.”

“The what?”

“And you’re George Bailey,” she continued. “St. George? Formerly the Mighty Dragon?” She said the last two names—or maybe they were titles—in a hopeful way.

The use of his full name shook him until he realized that someone with good eyesight could read his name off his badge. And if she’d been in the wheelchair for a while, she was probably used to reading things from a distance. He glanced down at the gloves hanging off his belt, his name written on each one in big letters.

Madelyn watched his face. “Nothing?” she asked. “You don’t remember me?”

He shook his head.

to remember,” she said. “What about Barry?”


“Stealth? You have to remember Stealth.”

“Is that a person?”

She smacked the arm of her wheelchair. “What about dreams? Are you having dreams?”

George paused. He remembered waking up in the middle of the night, still exhausted in the morning. “What do you mean?”

“They probably seem more like nightmares if you don’t remember anything,” she said. “Are they—”

“Maddy,” called a voice. “Everything okay, hon?”

She glanced back over her shoulder. “Yeah, Dad,” she answered. “Just getting directions to the dining commons.”

A man with a silvery-gray beard nodded to her and waved at George. George waved back automatically. The man looked like faculty. If not here, then somewhere.

Madelyn turned back to him. “Okay, listen,” she said, “this is important.”

George looked at her.

“This is all wrong,” said Madelyn. “The world isn’t supposed to be like this. None of these people should be here.”

He looked at the crowds. “They won’t be,” he said. “It’s just like this while everyone’s moving in. In a day or two—”

“No,” Madelyn said. “They shouldn’t be here in the bigger sense.”

“How so?”

“There was a plague,” she said. “It broke out in the spring of 2009 and wiped out most of the world—”

“Spring of 2009?” interrupted George. “Four years ago?”


“Is this a game?” he asked her. “One of those LARP-things?”

“No.” She shook her head.

“Is it the assassin one, where you’re supposed to tag another student, because the university has some pretty solid rules about—”

“This is real,” she said. “It happened. Everyone died. Even me.”

“You’re dead?”

“Yeah. For about four years now.”

He looked at himself. “Am I supposed to be dead, too?”

She scowled. “Don’t be stupid. If you were dead, how could I be talking to you?”

He smiled and tried to make it look sincere. “Right, of course.”

“You have to believe me,” she said. “Billions of people died. You gathered all the survivors into a film studio here in Los Angeles—”

“I did?”


“Me, personally?”

“Yeah. Well, I mean, I don’t know how much you did by yourself, but you did a lot of it. Everyone trusted you to keep them safe.”

George wondered if the young woman was a student. Maybe she was just a visiting relative, here to see her brother or sister or cousin off to school before going back to … therapy? Heavy medications? “Okay,” he said. “And everybody trusted me because …?”

“Because you’re a superhero,” she said.

“I’m sorry?”

superhero. The Mighty Dragon. I had a poster of you in my bedroom before everything fell apart.”

Any student mentioning their bedroom set off warning bells in George’s state-employed mind. He looked past her and tried to catch the eye of the bearded man. There was a quick contact and her father understood something was wrong.

Madelyn watched him for some kind of reaction. “None of this means anything to you?”

“Probably not the meaning you’re hoping for.”

“Everything okay here?” asked the bearded man, setting his hands on the wheelchair’s handles. “It’s taking a while just to get directions.” He was a little older than George had first thought, and up close it was clear the beard needed a trim.

“I had a few other questions,” said Madelyn with a bitter look at George.

“I hope I answered them,” said George.

The bearded man held out his hand. “Emil Sorensen,” he said. “It seems you’ve already met my daughter.”

“Yeah,” he said. “George Bailey.” The bearded man’s polite smile trembled and George tapped his ID badge. “Honest.”

“And you’re part of the welcome staff?”

“No, sir. Just with the maintenance department. They ask us all to help out where we can on the move-in days.”

“Come on,” Sorensen said to his daughter. “Your mother wants dinner and she’ll be getting cranky soon if we don’t get some food in her.”

George took the moment to give a formal bow of his head to Madelyn and then to Sorensen. The bearded man acknowledged him and George slipped past them to continue down the path. The girl raised her voice to shout, “Wait!” and her father hushed her. George heard them argue for a moment, and then he was far enough away that their voices blended into the background noise of moving day.

He reached the next parking lot, squinted into the afternoon sun, and wished he’d remembered his sunglasses. Or his work cap. The light bounced off a hundred windshields and rear windows. At least there was shade on the far end of the parking lot.

A young woman on the other side of the lot, one of those people who felt the need to raise their voice two or three notches to talk on the phone, chattered on her cell. George could make out half her conversation from fifty feet away. She stumbled off an unseen curb, glanced back, and her laugh echoed between the buildings. She dug in her purse with her free hand, barely looking at the lot.

He hoped no one pulled out, because she’d never see it coming.

A few steps ahead of her, maybe as much as four or five yards, a man shuffled between the parked cars. He wore a suit coat over jeans and a T-shirt, and his hair was a ratty mess. He stumbled in the narrow space, and his head twisted up to look at the chattering girl. His mouth moved as if he was trying to say something, but George was too far to hear anything. Especially over the young woman.

BOOK: Ex-Purgatory: A Novel
10.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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