Monday, March 3, 2014

The Fear of the Dead

"Hey, honey, did you see this?  Honey?  HONEY?"

He bounded down the stairs, two at a time, and stepped with a flourish into the large open basement space, lycra clad legs in bike shorts, eyes bright.

"See what, sweetie?"

Off in the corner, a large screen glowed in front of her, her face suffused with its soft blue light. "This post on the town page.  There's this guy, he's been walking around and knocking on doors, and then taking off.  He's been to maybe two or three houses today, and a couple of other people say they saw him..."

"You on Facebook again?  I thought you were working on that proposal."

"Um...I..well...I'm just taking a break.  You know, just for a couple of minutes."

"Uh huh."  He grinned.  "Sure you are."

She glared daggers his way, and his grin widened.  "Mind your own business," she attempted to snarl, but the mock snarl melted into an exasperated look.  "You know I'll get it done. And anyway, it's good to know what's going on.  There's so much bad stuff out there, you just have to keep aware of it.  Who knows what this guy's up to?  There are always strange people coming through town, and I..."

He shook his head.  "C'mon, Jan.  It's not like we live in Kandahar.  This town's just about as safe a place as you can imagine.  Probably just some kid whose gotten himself into a door-to-door gig selling something. You'd be more likely to get mugged by a Hobbit in Bag End."

She sighed.  "You always were an optimist, Jim.  But the world's changed.  It's not like when the kids were little.  There's just so much horrible stuff out there.  Like on the news yesterday, that little girl they finally found in California, oh, that was so horrible, can you imagine her poor parents?  And..."

"Sweetie, there are always stories like that.  The more horrible the story, the more play it gets.  You can't spend so much time on it, 'cause life just isn't like that, and the more you think about it, the more it'll mess with the whole way you look at the..."

"You just don't know.  You just don't.  And there's no reason something like that couldn't happen here.  None at all.  It's a scary world out there, and things just keep getting worse.  I just don't know sometimes."

He shook his head.  "It can't be all that bad.  We're still good, right?  And the kids?  They both managed to grow up and get themselves off into the world just fine.  That's not so bad."

She pushed back in her chair, and gave him a look.  "But bad things do happen, Jim.  Jesus, you know they do.  All the time. You just don't know when.  I mean, remember where you were twelve months ago?  You just don't know.  You just don't."

He gave her a wan little smile, and his fingers played upward, mindless, grazing over the scars on his chest under his riding shirt.  "Yeah, but I'm here now, aren't I?  And I'm planning on sticking around.  Gotta be taking care of myself more, sure.  But I've got plenty more years in me."

Her eyes flickered over his clothes, registering them for the first time.  "So you're going riding again?  You will take it easy, won't you?  You know you're not supposed to get your heart rate too high, not yet, and I know Dr. Chang said you were ready for more exercise, but I was reading on this site the other day that..."

"Honey, I'll be fine.  I take it nice and easy.  I'm not like those hero guys who go tearing around like they're racing in the Tour de France.  I just ride."

"But there are so many crazies out there on the roads now.  Like just yesterday, I saw on Facebook that this guy in a pickup truck had almost run Becky's daughter off the road, and I'm pretty sure it was that Williams kid who's always tearing around town, his parents just aren't..."

"What was I saying about spending too much time on Facebook, O my sweetness?"

She huffed.  "I'm serious.  You have to be careful.  People just don't see cyclists."

"I know, honey."

She gave him an intense, searching look.  "You have to tell me what route you're riding.  You know I worry."

He sighed.  "You know my loop.  Same ol', same ol'.  Through town, then Partnership to River to Willard.  I'll be back in no time.  And if not, you can send out the dogs to find me.  Should I leave something with my scent just in case?"

"Oh, shut up.  Just be careful.  You have your phone?"

"I will and I do.  Love you!"

"Love you more!"

Back he went up the stairs, bounding them two at a time.  He moved through the kitchen swiftly, snagging his helmet from the island with one swift motion, and then moved out the door to the garage.

-----

It felt good to ride, on these roads, on this beautiful spring morning.  The air was right, the sky was a gentle blue, and his legs were finally, finally feeling strong again.  It had been a long road back.  Too long, but at least he was back.  His simple old solid frame Trek 820 still fit him like a glove.  It felt familiar.  Straightforward.  Easy.

He'd been riding when it happened, pushing himself, when suddenly a great toothless shark took his chest in its mouth and gummed down hard.  Out of nowhere.  He wasn't an idiot.  In those moments he knew what it was, knew exactly what it was, read about it dozens of times, and it wasn't so much pain as pressure, like the life itself was being crushed from his body.

He had registered it, started to react as his whole body went numb but before he could even fall everything had gone to white, and the next thing he knew, it was days and surgeries later and he was waking to a choking tube down his throat.

Massive damage, they'd said.  Almost didn't make it, they'd said. The hospital stay'd gone for weeks, and more surgeries had followed.  The bills from it all were larger than the GDP of some small Latin American nations, as Bob in HR had helpfully noted when he finally visited the office.

But it was worth it, now that he was a cyborg.  In his chest, nestled like a medal under his breastbone, a little box now sat waiting to jolt his damaged heart if it forgot to beat or got too excited.  Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator, he'd been told by the surgeon, sternly.  "Battery backup," one of his doctors had called it with a wink. She was kind of cute, actually.

Rehab, and setbacks, and more rehab, and more setbacks, but finally here he was.  He wasn't pushing it, not at all, and his ego was alright with it.  Fifty two wasn't young, but neither was it anywhere near old enough to have them say you'd lived a good long life at your funeral.

So he took it easy, and rode slow.  You could still enjoy the world, riding slow.  In fact, he'd realized over the last few weeks that he preferred it.

Life had been too rushed, and he'd been too rushed.  The eighty hour weeks on a good week, and leaving home in the dark at four thirty, and driving home on those darkened roads every night after ten, and what was the point of it all?  Sure, he was a partner, finally, and he deserved it.  Sure, they were living in a nice new house in a sweet little town, kids finally off in college, with fields and farms just a stone's throw away.  But none of that mattered much if you were dead.

The heart attack had laid the brakes on, and life had stayed slower.  Which meant, now, that it was a Saturday morning and he wasn't working, and that was good.  Which meant that Jan was working from home more, and they were together, and that was good.  Especially now that...um.."cardio" had been given the go-ahead.  Jan was still a really good looking woman, if he did say so himself.

He shook himself out of that pleasant reverie, and focused on the road.

He arced his bike around a turn in the road, and slowly chugged past the perfect fencing that surrounded the picture book fields.   To his left, there was a neatly manicured and refurbished farmhouse with a sprawling rooftop solar array.  Such a lovely place, if you could afford it.  And he and Jan could.  Here in the ag reserve, locked away from growth by the Central Committee of the People's Republic of Montgomery County, it was different.

The irony that it took a cabal of hyper regulating leftists to save that small town feeling conservatives so love was not lost on him.  But who cares how you got there?  It was what it was, and that was so much better than life in the 'burbs.

Here on the little roads running through open fields, you could almost imagine things were as they'd been a hundred years ago, before DC had sprawled out and consumed everything in an endless drabness of Starbucks and Harris Teeter's and Ruby Tuesdays.  

Especially in the spring.  The fields were coming alive all around him, the spring leaves young and bright and rich. The air was clean and fragrant, a little island of life in the sea of striving stress.

He bumped up the pace for a moment, and arced over a rise in the road at a little country crossing.  That one was more fun in the Mustang, worthy of a Dukes of Hazzard Yeee-Haaaw whenever you hit it just a bit too fast.

Which he always did.  Always.

He passed horse fields on his left, the road humming slow below him, dappled with the rich morning light as it played through the trees.  He felt good.  Loose.  At ease.  A car shushed by him, giving him a wide berth as it rushed onward, the doppler tie-fighter sound of tires on asphalt in its wake.  He was in no rush.  He'd been good about not being tense, and it didn't hurt to live in such a place.

Not that folks didn't bring stress home, most of his neighbors rolling into their garages late at night.  Everyone in their own box, all day in front of a screen, then behind the wheel, then all night in front of a screen.  He'd been there.  He'd lived that.

That stress and isolation made it so much easier to be scared of the world, to seal yourself away and fret about every unfamiliar face, convinced that danger was all around, that every stranger was a threat, and you'd walk by them, eyes down, making sure not to have any connection at all.  Don't want to seem weird, as if human contact was a weird thing.

He worried about Jan, a little bit.  Work, and anxiety, and work, and anxiety, that seemed to be her whole day, holed away in front of her devil-box in the basement.  She needed to get out here more.  Here, with the fields and the sun.  It was a good thing.  He'd ask her to get out her bike again, and ride with him, once he was stronger.

He rode on, hanging a right on River just like he'd promised Jan.  Then, slowly, slowly, barely faster than jogging, he rode up and over hills.  To his left, out of sight behind fields and trees, the Potomac flowed.  To his right, more fields and old farms.   A stinkbug pranged off his forehead as it flew clumsily by.

He reached the last turn in the circuit, the turn on Willard, and pedaled right and homeward.  He checked his phone, snug in a stretchy plastic armband.  Wow.  That had taken so much longer than it used to.  She wouldn't be worried, not yet, but wow he was slow.  At least he wouldn't get a talking to about pushing too hard.

A few more hills now, and he could feel himself tiring.  A little up.  A little down.  But more up than down, now that he was riding away from the river.  Man, but this used to be nothing.  It was easier than a few weeks ago, back when he finally got the go-ahead to ride.  But it used to be nothing.  The telephone poles marked his pace, counting off one at a time.  They used to count off so much faster.

As he turned a bend and cleared a rise with a long gentle down-slope before him, there came a whirring, coming up fast from behind.

"Passing on the left," came a sharp, deep voice, and then one two three four five six of them pumped by fast.  Hardcore, matching jerseys, one of the tight little packs of twentysomethings who filled the perfect roads around town with their thousand dollar bikes every weekend.

So strong.  So fast.  Ah, to be young.  He was almost envious, almost, as they tore forward into the downhill stretch ahead, moving like a tight fit lycra cloud under the bright spring sun.

He felt the incline begin to take him, and he coasted, watching Team Twentysomething pull away into the brightness.

Lord, it was bright.

It was so bright.

It was wrong bright, salmon bright, then rich and red and wrong bright, the light shifting, the shadows around him changing and deepening.

What.  What.

He looked up, through the greened fingers of the trees, and something was--tearing a hole--in the sky. 

It was tearing a hole in the sky. 

And the hole was widening and opening like a light-filled wound, bleeding light so red it was dark, ripping and tearing and oozing light.

"Oh my God," he whispered, and he braked to a jerky stop, eyes wide upward and transfixed, as the sky tore itself in two, gaping wider, opening like onrushing jaws.

"Oh my God," he whispered, barely.  Wider, and wider, until the hole was the whole sky, everything, and it swept over him, and it swept through him.

And he felt it in him, felt the fear, felt it rise up like a wave, felt his throat seize and his chest grow tight and hard as steel and he wanted to scream, scream to the riders, anyone, help me, help me.

Jan, he thought, and then his heart exploded and the world went white.

-----
The pain woke him.

It was several flavors of pain, dull and sharp, and all over.  His right arm, sharp.  His right knee, sharp.  His face, dull.  His chest, dull and heavy. There was another sensation, a taste, bitter and metallic, mingling with the rich beefsteak of his own blood in his mouth.

"Oh Jesus," he said, pushing himself to his knees.  "Oh Jesus."  He'd fallen right there, right there in the middle of the road, face-first, and his lip felt fat and swollen.  He pulled himself slowly and painfully away the bike, still tangled up with his legs.

He checked himself, starting with the places that hurt.  His right arm and leg were torn, hamburgered from where he'd hit the tarmac.  His nose hurt.  His lip hurt, and was tender to the touch.  But everything seemed to work, more or less.  Nothing broken, thank God.

"What was that," he muttered again to himself.  "What was that?"  That was nothing like before, nothing at all.  Crap.  He'd pushed too hard.  He hadn't thought it, but he'd pushed too hard.  Jan was going to be pissed.

Jan.  He needed to call Jan.  He reached to his phone, fixed to his right arm just above the bicep.

It was a shattered mess.  He'd landed right on top of it.  He groaned and cursed under his breath.  There's a reason you magical morons shouldn't make phones out of glass.

He stretched a bit, and cleared his head.

Huh.

Strange.  It was--well--it was later.  Much later.  No phone meant no watch, but the sun wasn't where it had been before. It was low in the sky, behind clouds, and the day was warmer.  It had to be afternoon.  Had to be.  Maybe very late afternoon.

"What the hell?"  It had to be later.  And the blood on his arms, at least some of it, was crusted and scabbed and dried.  Had he really been lying there for hours?  On a Saturday?  That just wasn't possible.  This wasn't North-freakin'-Dakota.  Folks were up and down Willard just about every minute.  There was just no way.  No way. 

He hefted the bike up, and started walking forward, still lost in thought.  Oh, sure, people were self-absorbed and didn't get into each other's business, but he'd been lying in the middle of the road.  And the town was still a small town, still had some of that Mayberry flavor, folks knowing each other and looking out for each other.  It just didn't make sense.

Ahead, in the road, he saw them.  There they were a hundred yards ahead, lying there, a tangle of bicycles, cluttering and blocking both lanes of the little road.  He approached them, slowly, limping forward as the pain from his right leg grew sharper.

He slowed as he approached, and peered at them, his mind struggling a bit.  Six bikes, all racing bikes, really nice ones.  These must have belonged the guys who tore past him.  Must have.  There was just no question.

Here and there, on the ground near the cycles, were bloodstains.  A helmet lay by the side of the road, like a dark upended turtle.

Jim leaned on his bike and looked around, peering across the waving grass of the surrounding fields.  Nothing.  There was no-one.  He shook his head, and walked on towards town, pushing the bike at his side.

A hundred yards further on, he found the silver minivan.  It was an Odyssey, late model, lying on its right side in a small culvert, where it had clearly run off the road. The sliding door on the driver's side was open.  He approached it cautiously.

"Hello?  Everyone alright?"  But there was no answer.  This was wrong.  This was all so wrong.  He set his bike down, and moved towards the van, slowly, and felt the hackles on the back of his neck rising.  Slowly, carefully, painfully, he leaned over to look in the front windscreen.

It was empty, three carseats still firmly affixed in the middle row.  He peered closer.

On the inside of the window, unshattered and sitting inches above the grass, there was pooled blood, now congealed.

And in the blood, the prints of little shoes.

He shuddered, involuntarily, and it shot pain through his arm and neck.  Something very bad was happening.  Or he was dreaming, and this was some nightmare.

He had to be dreaming.  This was just too off, and too wrong.  But it didn't feel like a dream, not at all.

He stepped away from the van, and shouted once, and then again.  Still nothing.  He began walking more quickly towards the town.  Another couple of hundred yards, and near the entrance to the golf course he encountered an older big white Beemer six series, just stopped in the dead center of the road.  The driver's door was open.  The keys were still in the ignition.  It was still running, purring away quietly to itself, the cooling fan whispering softly under the long, sinuous hood.

He knew the car.  This was...this was...Doug's car.  Oh, shoot, what was his last name?  Jim couldn't quite remember. Started with an R.  He'd met him last year, at a meal at the church.  Decent guy.

Jim moved carefully around the side of the car.  Nothing.  No-one there.  He checked the gas gauge.  It was a little under a quarter tank.  He turned the key, and shut the thing down.

"Jesus, what's going on here?"

There were three more abandoned vehicles on the way into town.  A pickup truck, rolled over at an intersection.  A little electric car, one of those Nissans.  A white work van, an old Dodge.  All empty.  The van was still running, and rattling a bit, and it stank of burning oil.  He shut it down.  And the electric car?

Well, it might have been on.  Hard to tell.  It was on, or something, a "key missing" error code flashing on the screen.

There were also a smattering of bikes, in the road, by the side of the road.

But there was not a sign of a human being.  Not a one.

He was almost to town, now,  and the stinging in his leg was worse.  But the neighborhood and home right there up ahead on the left, the high school up ahead on the right.  Still nothing.  No one walking, not that most people did.  But no cars.  No movement.  No nothing.

He limped up to Spurrier, and then angled towards his house, visible right there, two in from the edge of the development.

Now, finally, his house was right there.  Home.  Thank God.

He dropped the bike, and made his way to the front door, and turned the handle.  Locked.  Dangit.  C'mon, Jan, he always said.  This isn't a locked door kind of town.  It was her and the Facebook, with the stories of abductors and stalkers and rapists and the peril of door-to-door zombie Mormons.

"Oh, c'mon," he muttered, as he fumbled in his small pack for his keys.  "C'mon."  He got out the key chain, found the key, and turned the handle.  The door swung open.

There was a sudden explosion of motion, and his dogs tore past him, nearly knocking him over in a soundless blur of dark fur and golden fur and flying legs.

"Lumpy!  Grover!  Get back here!  Lumpy!  GROVER!"

But the dogs raced off as fast as they could, not turning, peeling off from one another, each in a different direction.

The Golden disappeared first, young strong legs taking him off in a moment, and he was gone.  But the thick old black lab was moving fast too, faster than he'd seen him move in years, stumpy black tail fixed down firmly between his legs.

"Lumpy!  C'mon back, boy!  LUMPY!"  But the black haunches vanished around the corner of the house across the street, and were gone.

"Jaaaaan!  JAAAAN!  The dogs are out!  Jan!"  He turned a half circle and gesticulated wildly, helplessly.  "OH, C'MON!"

He stared out across the street, totally unsure what to do next.  His head hurt, and his leg hurt, and he realized all of a sudden that he felt really, really tired.

He turned back, and stumbled into the foyer.  Inside the house, the lights were on, but there was no sound.

"Jan!  JAAAAAN!"

His shouts sounded through the halls of the house, bouncing back from tall and unadorned walls.  There was no reply.  Where was she?  He shouted her name again, and then again.  There was no answer.

He moved into the kitchen, his sense of fatigue growing.  At the sink, he started the water running, and gingerly rinsed out the wounds on his arm and his leg.  He winced, slightly, as he gently dabbed the grit out of the torn flesh.  Under the sink, the first aid kit yielded bandages and alcohol, and he gritted his teeth as the alcohol sterilized the would.  Jesus, that stung.

Bandaged and cleaned, he sat on one of the stools at the kitchen island, and as the pain from his leg and arm faded into a dull ache, the weariness broke over him like a wave.

So tired, now.  So very tired.  He felt himself fade a little bit, like he was falling asleep in the chair.

He knew the fatigue wasn't right, was a sign that things were not well with him.  He picked up the phone in the kitchen, and dialed nine one one.

On the other end, there was nothing.  Nothing at all.  It was a completely dead line.

It didn't surprise him.  It seemed right somehow.  His eyes closed for a second, and he jerked his head up.  With an act of will that seemed not really even his own, he stumbled over to the sofa in the great room and fell into its softness.  Within a moment, he was asleep.

----
The sound pushed through the darkness, and his lidded eyes fluttered open.

He felt drugged, felt stunned, and he hurt, but a noise cut through the cloudiness.  He forced himself upright, forced himself out of the haze, and listened.

Night had fallen, and in the darkness outside the house, there was screaming.

It was muffled by the triple-glazed windows, but it was there, rising and falling, not one voice but many.  Jim pulled himself to his feet, still feeling the heaviness in his chest and in his head, and made himself go to the front door.

He looked out through the kitchen window, into the light cast by the streetlamp.   There was nothing. He forced himself to walk to the door, his steps growing stronger as he regained focus.  He put the chain on the door, opened it slowly, and listened.

Then he unchained the door, and carefully stepped outside, taking in the sounds, every hair on his body rising.

It was everywhere, all around.  It was not one person screaming, or two.  The night air, rich with the fragrance of spring, was richer still with the sound of hundreds and hundreds of voices.  He could pick them out, one by one, as they blossomed.  Individually, they sounded like abject terror,  lungs filled to their near bursting depth and then vented in one single tone.

It was human, but not human.  Older, it was older, that last, hopeless, primal cry into the face of the leopard.

The screams came from every house in the neighborhood.  Some were lower, some were higher, but they were endlessly, endlessly cycling and repeating, muffled behind well insulated walls and nice new Andersen windows.

But the sound had more depth.  In the spaces between cries, he could hear countless others filling the air with a seamless fluidity, like the rich drone of lovelorn cicadas in late summer, when an August day sounds like an alien world.

There were not hundreds of voices.  There were thousands of voices.  Miles of voices, layered deep, filling the night with the endless sound of their terror.

He took a half step back towards the open door, without even realizing it, his vision blurring, his eyes tearing.  "Oh God.  Oh Jesus."

At that moment, the lights went out.

And from behind him, in the darkness of the house, came a scream.

----

It had come once, and then a pause, then again, and then a pause, and then a third time.  At the third scream, as he fell back into the house, back into the blackened foyer, he knew it was coming from downstairs.

On the wall of the hallway, a little rechargeable flashlight glowed a dull green, and he grabbed for it.  It came on, a little circlet of light, feeble and small in the enveloping blackness.  He moved to the stairs, and purposefully went to the bedroom.

There, he went to the bed stand.  Hers, not his.  He opened it, and took out his wife's gun.  It was a stubby, over-designed little Walther, a thirty-eight.  He hadn't wanted to get it, hadn't wanted to have it, didn't see the point.  But that was back before the heart attack, when it was her, alone in the house and consulting.  She had insisted.

"Baby, you don't need it," he had said.  "Not here."

But she would have none of it.  "I'm all alone in this house, Jim.  Nobody's around most of the day.  I just don't feel safe.  I just don't.  And you don't get home till so much after dark.  And it's my money, anyway."

And so, of course, she got it.  She'd shot it a few times, out at the range, a couple of years ago.  That was that.

He felt it in his hand, checked the magazine, checked the safety, and went down to the first floor.

He moved quietly through the foyer, listening.  Nothing, just stillness.  He moved to the top of the stairs, open and dark, and shone the flashlight down into the void.

Stairs.  There they were.

Inside the house, still only silence.  The flashlight held in his left hand, he took the little pistol from his pocket with his right, careful to keep his finger out of the trigger guard.  He stepped down onto the first step.  Then another.  Then another.

When he reached the bottom, he shone the light through their rec room.  Pool table.  Bar.  Galaxian.  All there, the perfect entertainment room, just like a developer's brochure.  He played the light over Jan's workstation, off in the corner.  The chair, toppled.  Papers, strewn from files.   A shattered coffee mug on the floor.

But it was not silent.  From behind the closed door to the utility room, there was a sound.  Rustling, at first.  Then, a faint, hard scrabbling, like the dogs when their nails were too long.

He moved towards the door, and pressed his cheek to it.

"Jan?" he whispered.  "Jan?"

The sound stopped, suddenly.

He eased it open, playing the beam into the room.  The light danced, as his hand trembled slightly.  At the far end of the room, lying pressed up against the painted cinderblock wall, was Jan.

She was still in her flannel and long shirt.  Her comfy suit, she called it.  Her feet were bare and shoeless.  Her face was turned away to the cinderblock.  Her hands played up and down the surface of the wall like panicked spiders looking for a hole.

"Jan?  Baby?"   They stopped, and trembled, and started again.  Her nails, always so neat, always so perfect, were torn and bloody.

He moved forward, squatting in slowly, the beam of light trained on her.  "Jan?"

He leaned in, and touched her foot.  It was cold, cold as the concrete floor, and it snapped away at his touch.  She turned to face him.

Jan was not there.  Her face, but not her face, a wild, kabuki mask of terror.   The eyes glittered black, as wide and empty as the sky.

She heaved in a breath, a grasping, seizing, convulsive rasp, and her jaw opened to the point of unhinging, teeth bared, and she screamed.

Jim fell back, back, his legs buckling, his heart racing in his ears.  He stumbled away, and she screamed again, and he felt the pressure, that terrible weight bearing down on the life in him, his vision blurring to white.

Then the little robot brain embedded in him stirred, and a steel mule kicked him in the chest, hard, from the inside.

"Huuuuh," he heaved, and God it hurt, but the pressure lifted and his vision cleared.

He scrambled backwards like a drunken crab, and slammed the utility room door into the face of the sound.

-----

He was sure he hadn't slept.  It had been night, deep in the morning, he was sure, and yet when he opened his eyes, it was midday.  So much that he was sure of, he wasn't sure of.

It took a moment to orient, and half hope that what he remembered was not where he was.  There was the gun on his bed stand.  And his arm and his leg hurt, and he felt like his heart was a sucking hole.

The night had felt like a haze, a fever dream, a bad trip, but it had been real.

And that meant that Jan was downstairs in the utility room.  If that was Jan.

The screams from behind that closed door had gone on, and on, and on, until they almost stopped seeming real.  He could count them off.  One one thousand.  Two one thousand.  Three one thousand.  And then a cry, sharp and intense, fading only as the last breath was squeezed from her lungs.  And then one one thousand.  Two one thousand.  Three one thousand.

He had counted like that for an hour, staring at the door to the utility room, the Walther in his hand, the safety off.  At any moment, he had been sure, the thing she had become would come smashing through that door.  He'd seen this movie a hundred times.  But she never did, and so he found himself counting.  The counting had calmed him a little bit, for a while.  It was like being six and alone in his bedroom, counting down the time between the flashes of lightning and the thunder of an incoming storm.

It felt predictable.  In the face of how insane he felt, a little bit of predictable was nice.  Eventually, the cries grew hoarser, and hoarser, and then they were barely audible at all.  He had heaved chairs and shoved the pool table into a makeshift barricade at the utility room door, and come upstairs, and gone insane.

Crying, and laughing, and raging, his mind a seething chaos.  He could barely remember, but he'd been that way for a while.

He picked up the pistol, and got out of the bed, and made his way downstairs.  Silence.

And not just silence in his house.  Silence outside.

He made his way into the tastefully appointed kitchen, all stainless steel and granite, and realized he was hungry.  Really hungry.

But the power was out.  "Generator," he muttered to himself.

It was out in the garage, an absurdly overpriced but totally trusty Honda.  Couldn't quite run both AC units for that great vault of a house, but could handle most everything else.  Jan had wanted one of those big natural gas units, but he'd refused.  Those things are too loud, he'd said.  Plus, if there's a real emergency and the house is damaged, what's the point of a generator you can't load into the back of the Tahoe and take with you?

That had convinced her.

He made his way into the garage, opened the doors, and wheeled the generator outside.  Before making the hookup to the house system, he stopped and again listened.  The chorus was gone, silent in the quiet of the day.

And it was quiet, utterly quiet.  He stood still for a while.  No traffic.  No cars.  No children's shouts.  No planes on approach to Dulles.  No sound of human beings at all.

It was more than that.  There was no birdsong.  No barking of dogs.  It was deeply, completely hushed.  The silence pressed in, odd and alien.

He plugged the Honda into the transfer switch, and turned the key, and it fired right up into a soft and well muffled I'm-a-good-neighbor purr.  The hum seemed welcome.  Friendly.

He went back into the house, and the kitchen glowed with lights.  The fridge compressor hummed.  Normal.  Cheery.  Nothing to see.  He made himself some tea...no coffee, Lord, that had been a tough transition...and some eggwhites, and some toast.  Whole wheat.

Out of breakfast habit, he started up his little tablet, but though the house wifi was strong, there was no net on the far end.  Nothing.  He figured as much.  He kicked on the old radio in the kitchen.  Nothing, nothing but static.

He didn't bother trying cable.

As he ate, every few moments, his eyes would flit to the doorway leading downstairs.  The lights were all on.  It was all so normal.  She'd be downstairs, with her coffee, clacking away at her desk.  That's what it should be.

But that was not what it was.  That was not what was downstairs.   He was going to have to go down there.

----

He sat on his haunches, and watched her body slowly moving, still furtively clawing at the wall.  It was her body, now.  Not her.  Just her body.

When he'd moved the makeshift barricade and opened that door, the little Walther in hand, he was half sure she was going to spring out at him.  She didn't.  She was right where she had been before, curled up tight and hard against the cinderblock.

When he approached, slowly, carefully, she had turned at him, just as she had the night before.  It was just the same.  That familiar, beautiful face was still a distorted mask of horror.  The mouth opened, but the scream did not come, not today.

It was just a croaking rasp through shattered vocal cords.  He stood and watched her, as she went through the cycle.  Her face would distend, and then contract.  Her mouth would gape wide open, then closed.  Her eyes would go wide, the expression fear, but unchanging fear.  They saw nothing, looked right through him, through everything.  Empty fear.  The mask of fear.  It was a reflex, like retching, or a seizure.  It was not her.

His own fear faded, as he watched this nothing that had been his wife.  Tears came, and then more, and he didn't bother wiping them away.

Eventually, the tears ran dry.  But he couldn't stop watching.  He was not ready to stop watching.

----

In the early afternoon, he shut down the generator.  Then he took his adz and the pistol, and went out into the neighborhood.  The adz felt good in his hands, heavy and purposeful.  It had been a few years since he'd used it, back at the old house, back before the new house where every fireplace was gas and clicked on by remote control.

He walked to the house next door, Shelly and David and the girls.  He rang the bell, just out of habit, and then shook his head at his own stupidity.  He rapped hard on the door with his knuckles, and called out their names.

When there was no answer, he hit against the heavy glazed decorative glass of the door with the sledge side of the adz.  His first swing was too weak.  Not surprising.  He didn't smash open neighbor's doors often.  So he stepped back, and swung harder.  The glass shattered inward, and he spent a moment knocking the remaining shards out before stepping in.

Lizabeth, their youngest daughter, was at the bottom of the stairs in the foyer.  She was ten.  She was dressed in her pajamas.  She had fallen, and her head was twisted at an odd angle, and she was not moving.

He looked at the small body, and stepped over it.  He didn't bother calling out the other's names.

Instead, he moved room to room, slowly.  He found Shelly in the far corner of the nice finished basement.  David was in the study, behind a futon, on the third floor.

The other of the girls, Chloe, thirteen and pretty, dressed and ready for cheerleading practice, was scrabbling softly in the farthest corner of a large closet of her top floor room.  From her face, makeup smeared and stretched, the same eyes looked at him, the same struggle to scream, the same empty desperation, the same helpless attempt to flee.  The same fear.

Staring into that young face, eyes empty, bright youth erased by a mindless fear, he raised the pistol.  But then he lowered it.  There was no person to put out of their misery.  There was no point.

He turned, and walked down the stairs, and stepped back out into the day.

That afternoon, he went to Doug and Donna's house.  And to the Peterman's house.  All the same.

And then out of the neighborhood, walking through streets scattered with cars.  He went by the church, and the door was open.  He found the pastor in a pile of books in the corner of the study.

After looting the CVS a little bit, he walked to the middle of the town commons, set down the adz, and took out the Walther.  He looked at it for a while, as competing impulses warred in his mind.

He chose one, clicked off the safety, and pointed it in the air.

He fired, a surprisingly loud bark for such a small gun.   Then he waited.  He fired again, and waited.  There was no response, just the retort of the echo off the town hall and nearby houses.

He stood there for what felt like a very long time, and saw no other living thing.

He made sure to be back at the house before dark.  That night, the air was quiet and still and soundless.

----

It took Jan's body three days to stop moving.

On that third day, her movements--its movements--had grown weaker every time he had gone down to watch.  On the last day, the hands stopped scrambling against the wall, and lay trembling at her side.  The head lolled, eyes now sunken but still wide and black as marble, the mouth gaping open and closed like a fish.

He was able to come closer, and whatever it was that animated her was no longer able to pull away.  He held the body for a while, looking at the shell of his wife as it trembled and twitched.

He closed the eyes, and they did not reopen.

There was a sudden convulsion, and the body tightened up in his arms, and then relaxed.  The mouth opened a little, and stayed open, and all of the tension and fear left the face as it sagged.

It still did not look like Jan.

----

That afternoon, he took his time digging the shallow grave, behind the window of the kitchen, right by the side of the deck.  Though the spring ground was soft, he knew there was only so hard he could push himself.

----

The days blurred.  He kept on living.

----

It might have been two weeks, or maybe three.

He'd lost track.

He was walking down the road out of town, just to walk, just to not be among the emptiness and stench of the houses.  So much decay, in the houses.

Sometimes he couldn't tell if he was thinking, or talking to himself.  Sometimes would think he saw movement, off in the bushes, off in the shadows.  Or he would think he heard a plane, or laughter, or the barking of a dog.

None of it was real.

Sometimes, he would feel afraid, or angry.  Sometimes he missed Jan.  Mostly, though, he felt almost nothing.

He was walking down the middle of the road, past the town sign, through the fields on the long rise of two lane leading towards the city.  He was not sure, not sure at first, what he was seeing.

But it was a figure, silhouetted against the sky, coming down the road towards him, two hundred yards away.  The figure stopped.

He stopped.  He peered at them, squinting, trying to focus.

The figure began moving, coming forward, slow and easy.  Jim stood where he was, and watched them approach.  He watched for a while.  It was a man.  Just a person.  A stranger.  He looked a little lost.

At ten yards away, the man stopped, and seemed not to know what to do.

Jim did not know him.   Jim took a step forward, and then another.  Their eyes met.  His were brown, and tired.

"Hey," said the stranger, in a voice that cracked and hitched from disuse.

"Hey," he said back, in a soft voice without fear.



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