Hope interjected, “No elevators. Nobody wants to tromp up and down a million stairs to get to their room. Everybody would prefer to just pile down at the bottom. Owen declared his people got the good floors.”
I said, “Why did I wind up back at the asylum?”
TJ shrugged. “Like they’d tell us. Loudspeaker came on and said you needed to go to the gate. Truck hauled you away. That was Friday morning. Now you’re back.”
“How long can we keep this up? Before the food and everything runs out?”
TJ said, “They dropped in supplies. Truck dumped out boxes of stuff. I assume they’ll do it again.”
“Yeah, but I’m saying … let’s say that hypothetically they can’t figure out a cure or even a reliable test for the infection. They keep dumping the suspects here in the quarantine and … what? We’re still here ten years from now? Somethin’ has to give, right?”
Looking into his cup, TJ said, “What would you do?”
“Drop a nuke on it. Write a letter of apology to the surviving family members. Send ’em some coupons to Outback Steakhouse as compensation. Rest of the country breathes a sigh of relief.”
He shrugged. “That rumor started about two minutes after outbreak. I was hearing that shit everywhere. Man, people got a low opinion of the armed forces, don’t they? Watch too many zombie movies. No way they get away with that in the real world.”
Hope said, “What if they cover it up? Make it look like something else?”
I said, “What, like fake a gas line explosion?”
“No, all they have to do is poison our food. Then say the infection did it.”
That brought silence to the room.
TJ said, “Both of you think you bein’ cynical, but you’re not. Reality is, if they wanted us dead, they don’t have to do anything. Situation we got here is what cops call a self-cleaning oven. Some gang neighborhoods, they’d just let be. Come back in five years and it’s all quiet, all on its own. You know, because everybody shot each other. It’d be just like that here, because instead of organizing and figuring out how to work together, we all got paranoid, like Owen.”
He stood up.
“It’s early, but I’m goin’ to bed. No TV and it too dark to read. What else am I gonna do?”
Hope said, “Ugh. The nights are the worst. I’m to where I can tolerate the days as long as nobody dies. But the nights go on forever.”
TJ said, “I agree. And yet, the night comes just the same. Like the rotation of the Earth don’t give a shit what we think.”
Hope was making a huge freaking understatement when she said the nights were the worst. I realized when TJ left that I was also exhausted, but it was only after I went to bed that it became screamingly apparent that we had no lights and no heat and were basically living in a third world gulag. I tried to remember what day TJ said it was. Sunday? So the rest of the country was probably watching Sunday Night Football. Or were they? Maybe it was like this everywhere. Everyone in America huddled in the dark, waiting.
TJ and Hope left the room to me at bedtime, so I guessed it was my room. I wrapped myself up in as many blankets as I could find. I knew exactly where to find them, just as I knew where to find the hunk of particle board we used to cover the broken window. My specific memories never came back but a lot of the automatic stuff was still programmed in. I suddenly remembered that I had broken the window by throwing a little television out of it. I couldn’t remember why.
I shivered and wrapped up the covers a little tighter.
We had a bunch of emergency kerosene space heaters that had been left behind in a storage building, but not much kerosene to fuel them. Here on the fifth floor we had two of them in the hall and they’d keep them lit for a few hours at night to take the chill out of the air, but that was it. People set pots of water on top to heat, killing two birds with one stone. Some people slept in the hall to be closer to the heaters, but the kerosene fumes stank so bad the stench radiated into my brain and gave me a headache. TJ pointed out that the stuff was jet fuel, after all.
I shivered. Couldn’t get warm. Or maybe the shivering was something else. So damned quiet. No TV. No ticking clock. No soft whoosh of heat blowing through vents. Not even the reassuring hum of countless electronic devices that you don’t even register until it’s gone.
Somebody coughed out in the hall. A dog barked way off in the distance.
I remembered getting into a drunken argument with a guy about American prisons, him talking about the injustice of the system, me talking about how it’s ridiculous that we spend forty grand a year per inmate to maintain what are basically super-clean hotels for rapists and crack dealers, complete with a computer lab and TV room and pool tables. But now I understood what he was saying. That knowledge that you can’t leave, it’s a twisting knife in your gut. All I could think about was that razor wire at the top of the fence, meant to slice your hands down to the tendons if you tried to climb over. My own government put that there, with my hands in mind. Those hundreds of vicious blades hanging fifteen feet over the bloodstains and brains in the grass of the last guy who tried to climb up. But even prisoners knew when their sentence was up, they could tick off days on a calendar, feel themselves progressing toward freedom. But this place? They could keep us here forever. Or poison our food, like Hope said. Or starve us out. Or let the drone operator use us for target practice. Or fill the yard with nerve gas.
I couldn’t stop. I laid on my side and brought my knees up, trying to control it. Where was Amy right now? Could she have gotten out of town? How the hell could she, the way they were locking the place down at the end there?
I thought I’d lay there, shivering, staring at the wall until the sun came up. I could sense no sleep on the horizon. But when I heard footsteps in my room later, I realized I had drifted off.
I didn’t move. I pulled open my eyes and stared at the wall. I heard nothing, decided I dreamed it. My eyes slipped shut—
My bed shifted. Weight. Gentle, settling in.
I thought, Hope?
She was friendly earlier, but were we … friendly? Holy shit was that possible? I wouldn’t think I’d do that to Amy but … here, alone, in this cold place? Would I turn down a warm girl and soft skin and the chance to do the one thing that would let me forget all this? I admitted, I didn’t hate the idea. I stayed frozen, on my side, not sure what to do. I thought about reaching back, looking for a thigh or a hip. Casually, you know. Just to see who was there. I wondered if I would find her naked. An entire separate part of my nervous system roared to life at the thought. I moved my hand, slowly. My heart was pumping.
Now watch, you’ll roll over and it’ll be TJ, wearing a tiny leopard-skin thong.
I reached out and rolled over at the same time.
I grabbed a handful of red fur.
Note: Do not ask the author how the details of the following sequence of events were obtained. The explanation would only leave you more confused and dissatisfied than would any theory you could come up with from your own imagination.
Experienced pet owners know that if your pet ever goes missing, the first step is not to panic. The vast majority of the time, the pet will simply find its way back home on its own.
Molly knew this, so she hadn’t been all that concerned when her male human first went missing nine days ago. In the beginning, things had been in a general state of agitation everywhere Molly went, so she figured it had something to do with that.
That was the day all of the people had been shouting at each other, and running, and falling down. It was hard to find a place to sleep quietly but eventually she found a shady spot between two buildings, and she curled up in the shadow of one of those huge green boxes humans use to store their extra food. This one had some great-smelling poultry in it, maybe four or five days old, but those boxes were hard to get out of once you got into them and she wasn’t hungry. She had just eaten the rest of the discarded meal that her human had forgotten to give her the night before.
What passes for language among dogs—made up mostly of a lavishly detailed sense of smell and a well-tuned but cautious sense of empathy for all living things—cannot be translated neatly into English. But if it could, the closest translation of Molly’s name for her human, the one other humans called David, was “Meatsmell.” His breath always smelled like meat—always, as if he had just eaten some recently, no matter when you encountered him. To a dog that spoke of an awe-inspiring accomplishment. She was proud of Meatsmell’s ability to always have access to such riches. She knew she had taught him well.
But she also knew that Meatsmell was always getting confused. Molly knew that he couldn’t look after himself, and that he depended on her. She guarded his house every night, keeping all of the predators and bad guys at bay. She sometimes let him pet her, feeling his stress and agitation melt way as he did so. She also kept dropped food picked up off the floor, and fished out the edible items when he would accidentally drop them into those big flimsy bags and take them out to the yard (where anyone could get them!). Molly was certain that Meatsmell would not last more than a day or two on his own.
On the evening of that day, the day when everything went wrong, Molly had woken up after dark, the hard ground having grown cold under her. It had started to rain a little. She made her way back toward home, but that took a long time. She kept having to stop and investigate smells. There was smoke that stung her nose everywhere she went, things were burning here and there and she knew that could not be good news because the humans were already riled up. When things started catching on fire that rarely calmed them down. She had stopped and sniffed a patch of fresh blood, and the freshly dead human laying next to it in the rain. A little way down the road, she stopped and smelled another one, sniffing around where some of its insides had spilled out onto the ground.
She got closer to her home and there were several such people laying around, with parts separated and some burned up. One of them was very small. None of them were Meatsmell, she would have known that from far away. The smoke smell was here, too. There was no fire now, but there had been recently. Now, everything was just smoky and cold and wet. She went into the house, because the door was open, and went right to her food and water dishes.