They took shelter outside of Boulder, in a cookie-cutter subdivision that had seen better days. Five or six floor plans, Dave Kerans figured, brick façades and tan siding, crumbling streets and blank cul-de-sacs, no place you’d want to live. By then, Felicia had passed out from the pain, and the snow beyond the windshield of Lanyan’s black Yukon had thickened into an impenetrable white blur.
It had been a spectacular run of bad luck, starting with the first news of the virus via the satellite radio in the Yukon: three days of disease vectors and infection rates, symptoms and speculation. Calm voices gave way to anxious ones; anxious ones succumbed to panic. The last they heard was the sound of a commentator retching. Then flat silence, nothing at all the length of the band, NPR, CNN, the Outlaw Country Station, and suddenly no one was anxious to go home, none of them, not Kerans and Felicia, not Lanyan or his new girlfriend, Natalie, lithe and blonde and empty-headed as the last player in his rotating cast of female companions.
On the third day of the catastrophe — when it became clear that humanity just might be toast — they’d powwowed around a fire between the tents, passing hand-to-hand the last of the primo dope Lanyan had procured for the trip. Lanyan always insisted on the best: tents and sleeping bags that could weather a winter on the Ross Ice Shelf, a high-end water-filtration system, a portable gas stove with more bells and whistles than the full-size one Kerans and Felicia used at home, even a Benelli R1 semi-automatic hunting rifle (just in case, Lanyan had said). The most remote location, as well: somewhere two thousand feet above Boulder, where the early November deciduous trees began to give way to Pinyon pine and Rocky Mountain juniper. Zero cell-phone reception, but by that time there was nobody left to call, or anyway none of them cared to make the descent and see. The broadcasts had started calling it the red death by then. Kerans appreciated the allusion: airborne, an incubation period of less than twenty-four hours, blood leaking from your eyes, your nostrils, your pores and, toward the end — twelve hours if you were lucky, another twenty-four if you weren’t — gushing from your mouth with every cough. No-thank-yous all around. Safe enough at seventy-five-hundred feet, at least for the time being — the time being, Lanyan insisted, lasting at least through the winter and maybe longer.
“We have maybe two weeks’ worth of food,” Kerans protested.
“We’ll scout out a cabin and hunker down for the duration,” Lanyan said. “If we have to, we’ll hunt.”
There was that at least. Lanyan was a master with the Benelli. They wouldn’t starve — and Kerans didn’t have any more desire to contract the red death than the rest of them.
All had been going according to plan. Inside a week they’d located a summer cabin, complete with a larder of canned goods, and had started gathering wood for the stove. Then Felicia had fallen. A single bad step on a bed of loose scree, and that had been it for the plan. When Kerans cut her jeans away, he saw that the leg had broken at the shin. Yellow bone jutted through the flesh. Blood was everywhere. Felicia screamed when Lanyan set the bone, yanking it back into true, or something close to true, splinting it with a couple of backpack poles, and binding the entire bloody mess with a bandage they found in a first-aid kit under the sink. The bandage had soaked through almost immediately. Kerans, holding her hand, thought for the first time in half a dozen years of their wedding, the way she’d looked in her dress and the way he’d felt inside, like the luckiest man on the planet.
It had all turned sour on them.
“I’m taking her down, first thing in the morning,” he told Lanyan.
“What for? You heard the radio. We’re on our own now.”
“You want to die, too?” Natalie asked.
“I don’t want her to die,” Kerans said. That was the point. Without help, she was doomed, anybody could see that. There wasn’t a hell of a lot any of them could do on their own. A venture capitalist and a college English professor and something else, a Broncos cheerleader maybe, who knew what Natalie did? “Even if it’s as bad as we think it is down there,” he added, “we can still find a pharmacy, antibiotics, whatever. You think there’s any chance her leg isn’t going to get infected?”
Grim-faced, Lanyan had turned away. “I think it’s a bad idea.”
“You have a better one?”
“How are you going to get down, Dave? You planning to use the Yukon?”
Kerans laughed in disbelief. “I can’t believe you’d even say that.”
“What?” Lanyan said, as if he didn’t know.
“You were the best man at my wedding. Hell, you introduced me to Felicia.”
“The rules have changed,” Natalie had said. “We have to think of ourselves now.”
“Fuck you, Natalie,” Kerans said, and that had been the end of the conversation.
He was wakeful most of the night that followed. Felicia was feverish. “Am I going to die, Dave?” she’d asked in one of her lucid moments. “Of course not,” he’d responded, the lie cleaving his heart.
Lanyan woke him at dawn. They stood shivering on the porch of the cabin and watched clouds mass among the peaks. The temperature had plunged overnight. The air smelled like snow.
“You win,” Lanyan said. “We’ll go down to Boulder.”
• • • •
The snow caught them when they were winding down the rutted track from the cabin, big lazy flakes sifting through the barren trees to deliquesce on the Yukon’s acres of windshield. Nothing to worry about, Kerans thought in the backseat, cradling Felicia’s head in his lap. But the temperature — visible in digital blue on the dash — continued to plummet, twenty-five, fifteen, ten; by the time they hit paved road, a good hour and a half from the cabin, and itself a narrow, serpentine stretch of crumbling asphalt, the snow had gotten serious. The wipers carved slanting parabolas in the snow. Beyond the windows, the world had receded into a white haze.
Lanyan hunched closer to the wheel.
They crept along, pausing now and again to inch around an abandoned vehicle.
“We should have stayed where we were,” Natalie said, and the silence that followed seemed like assent.
But it was too late to turn back now.
Finally the road widened into a four-lane highway, clogged with vehicles. They plowed onward anyway, weaving drunkenly among the cars. By the time they reached the outskirts of Boulder, the headlights stabbed maybe fifteen feet into the swirling snow.
“I can’t see a thing,” Lanyan said. They turned aside into surface streets, finding their way at last into the decaying subdivision. They picked a house at random, a rancher with a brick façade in an empty cul-de-sac. The conventions of civilization held. Lanyan and Kerans scouted it out, while the women waited in the Yukon. They knocked, shouting, but no one came. Finally, they tested the door. It had been left unlocked; the owners had departed in a hurry, Kerans figured, fleeing the contagion. He wondered if they’d passed them dead somewhere on the highway, or if they’d made it into the higher altitudes in time. The house itself was empty. Maybe they’d gotten lucky. Maybe the frigid air would kill the virus before it could kill them. Maybe, Kerans thought. Maybe.
They settled Felicia on the sectional sofa in the great room, before the unblinking eye of the oversized flatscreen. Afterward, they searched the place more thoroughly, dosing Felicia with the amoxicillin and oxycodone they found in the medicine cabinet. Then the food in the pantry, tools neatly racked in the empty garage, a loaded pistol in a bedside table. Natalie tucked it in the belt of her jeans. Kerans flipped light switches, adjusted the thermostat, flicked on the television. Nothing. How quickly it all fell apart. They hunched around a portable radio instead: white noise all across the dial.
Welcome to the end of the world, it said.
Not with a bang, but a whimper.
• • • •
The snow kept coming, gusts of it, obscuring everything a dozen feet beyond the windows, then unveiling it in quick flashes: the blurred limb of a naked tree, the shadow of the Yukon at the curb. Kerans stood at the window as night fell, wondering what he’d expected to find. A hospital? A doctor? The hospitals must have been overwhelmed from the start, the doctors first to go.
The streetlights snapped alight — solar-charged batteries, the death throes of the world he’d grown up in. They illuminated clouds of billowing white that in other circumstances Kerans would have found beautiful. Cold groped at the window. He turned away.
Lanyan and Natalie had scrounged a handful of tealight candles. By their flickering luminescence, the great room took on a cathedral air. Darkness encroached from the corners and gathered in shrouds at the ceiling. They ate pork and beans warmed over the camp stove, spread their sleeping bags on the carpet, and talked. The same goddamn conversation they’d had for days now: surely we’re not the only ones and how many? and where? and what if?
“We’re probably already dying,” Natalie said, turning a baleful eye on Kerans. “Well, we’re down here now,” she said. “What’s your plan, Einstein?”
“I don’t have a plan. I didn’t figure on the snow.”
“You didn’t figure on a lot of things.”
“Cut it out,” Lanyan said.
“We didn’t have to do this, Cliff,” Natalie said.
“What did you expect me to do? I’ve known Felicia for years. I’ve known Dave longer. It’s not like we had access to weather reports.”
No, Kerans thought, that was another thing gone with the old world. Just like that. Everything evaporated.
By then the cold had become black, physical.
Kerans got to his feet. He tucked Felicia’s sleeping bag into the crevices of the sofa. She moaned. Her eyes fluttered. She reached for his hand.
Kerans shook two oxycodone out of the bottle.
“These’ll help you sleep.”
“Will you stay with me, Dave?”
All the way to the end, he thought, and he knew then that at some level, if only half-consciously, he had accepted what he had known in his heart back at the cabin. She was gone. She’d been gone the moment she’d slipped on that bed of scree. And he’d laughed, he remembered that, too. Whoops, he’d said, and she’d said, I’m hurt, Dave, her voice plaintive, frightened, tight with agony. He’d never heard her use that voice in seventeen years of marriage, and he knew then that she was beyond help. There was no help to be had. What had Natalie said? The rules have changed. We have to watch out for ourselves now. Yet Lanyan had surrendered the Yukon, and they had knocked on the door before barging into this house, just as they had knocked on the door of the summer cabin in the mountains before that. How long, he wondered, before they reverted to savagery?
“Will you stay with me, Dave?” she said.
He slid into his sleeping bag. They held hands by candlelight until the oxycodone hit her and her fingers went limp. He tucked her arm under her sleeping bag — he could smell the wound, already suppurating with infection — and lay back.
The last of the tealights burned out.
Kerans glanced at the luminescent dial of his watch. Nine-thirty.
The streetlight’s spectral blue glow suffused the air.
He closed his eyes, but sleep eluded him. An endless loop unspooled against the dark screens of his eyelids: Felicia’s expression as the earth slipped out from under her feet. His helpless whoop of laughter. I’m hurt, Dave.
He opened his eyes.
“You awake, Cliff?” he said.
“You think Natalie’s right? We’re all going to wind up coughing up blood in twenty-four hours or so?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe the snow,” Kerans said. “Maybe the cold has killed the virus.”
They were silent.
“One way or the other, we’ll find out, I guess,” Lanyan said.
Snow ticked at the windows like fingernails. Let me in. Let me in.
“About the Yukon —” Kerans said.
“It doesn’t matter, Dave. You’d have done the same for me.”
Would he? Kerans wondered. He liked to think so.
“I’m sorry I was an asshole,” Lanyan said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Felicia’s going to be okay.”
“Sure she is. I know.”
Kerans gazed across the room at the shadowy mound of the other man in his sleeping bag.
“What do you figure happened?”
“Hell, I don’t know. You heard the radio as well as I did. Something got loose from a military lab. Terrorists. Maybe just a mutation. Ebola, something like that.”
Another conversation they’d had a dozen times. It was like picking a scab.
A long time passed. Kerans didn’t know how long it was.
“It doesn’t matter, I guess,” he said, adrift between sleep and waking.
“Not anymore,” Lanyan said, and the words chased Kerans down a dark hole into sleep.
• • • •
Lanyan woke him into that same unearthly blue light, and for a moment Kerans didn’t know where he was. Only that strange undersea radiance, his sense of time and place out of joint, a chill undertow of anxiety. Then it all came flooding back, the plague, Felicia’s fall, the blizzard.
Lanyan’s expression echoed his unease.
“Get up,” he said.
“What’s going on?”
“Just get up.”
Kerans followed him to the window. Natalie crouched there, gazing out into the sheets of blowing snow. She held the pistol in one hand.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“There’s something in the snow,” she said.
“I heard it. It woke me up.”
“You hear anything, Cliff?”
Wind tore at the house, rattling gutters. Kerans peered into the snow, but if there was anything out there, he couldn’t see it. He couldn’t see anything but a world gone white. The streetlamp loomed above them, a bulb of fuzzy blue light untethered from the earth.
“Heard what?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It woke me. Something in the snow.”
“The wind,” Kerans said.
“It sounded like it was alive.”
“Listen to it blow out there. You could hear anything in that. The brain, it” — he hesitated —
“What?” Natalie said.
“All I’m saying is, it’s easy enough to imagine something like that. Voices in the wind. Shapes in the snow.”
Natalie’s breath fogged the window. “I didn’t imagine anything.”
“Look,” he said. “It’s late. We’re all tired. You could have imagined something, that’s all I’m saying.”
“I said I didn’t imagine it.”
And then, as though the very words had summoned it into being, a thin shriek carved the wind — alien, predatory, unearthly as the cry of a hunting raptor. The snow muffled it, made it hard to track how far away it was, but it was closer than Kerans wanted it be. It held for a moment, wavering, and dropped away. A heartbeat passed, then two, and then came an answering cry, farther away. Kerans swallowed hard, put his back to the wall, and slid to the floor. He pulled his knees up, dropped his head between them. He could feel the cold radiating from the window, shivering erect the tiny hairs on his neck. He looked up. His breath unfurled in the gloom. They were both watching him, Lanyan and Natalie.
“It’s the wind,” he said. Hating himself as he said it, hating this new weakness he’d discovered in himself, this inability to face what in his heart he knew to be true.
Came a third cry then, still farther away.
“Jesus,” Lanyan said.
“They’re surrounding us,” Natalie said.
“They’re?” Kerans said. “They’re? Who the hell do you think could be out there in that?”
Natalie turned and met his gaze. “I don’t know,” she said.
• • • •
They checked the house, throwing deadbolts, locking interior doors and windows. Kerans didn’t get the windows. You wanted to get inside bad enough, you just broke the glass. Yet there was something comforting in sliding the little tongue into its groove all the same. Symbolic barriers. Like cavemen, drawing circles of fire against the night.
As for sleep, forget it.
He leaned against the sofa, draped in his sleeping bag, envying Felicia the oblivion of the oxycodone. Her skin was hot to the touch, greasy with perspiration. He could smell, or imagined he could smell, the putrescent wound, the inadequate dressing soaked with gore.
Across the room sat Lanyan, the Benelli flat across his legs. At the window, her back propped against the wall, Natalie, cradling the pistol in her lap. Kerans felt naked with just the hunting knife at his belt.
The snow kept coming, slanting down past the streetlamp, painting the room with that strange, swimming light. Lanyan’s face looked blue and cold, like the face of a dead man. Natalie’s, too. And he didn’t even want to think about Felicia, burning up under the covers, sweating out the fever of the infection.
“We should look at her leg,” he said.
“And do what?” Natalie responded, and what could he say to that because there was nothing to do, Kerans knew that as well as anyone, yet he felt compelled in his impotence to do something, anything, even if it was just stripping back the sleeping bag and staring at the wound, stinking and inflamed, imperfectly splinted, oozing blood and yellow pus.
“Just keep doling out those drugs,” Lanyan said, and Kerans knew he meant the Oxycodone, not the Amoxicillin, which couldn’t touch an infection of this magnitude, however much he prayed — and he was not a praying man. He couldn’t help recalling his mother, dying in agony from bone cancer: the narrow hospital room, stinking of antiseptic, with its single forlorn window; the doctor, a hulking Greek, quick to anger, who spoke in heavily accented English. We’re into pain management now, he’d said.
“How much is left?” Natalie said, and Kerans realized that he’d been turning the prescription bottle in his hands.
“Ten, maybe fifteen pills.”
“Not enough,” she said. “I don’t think it’s enough,” and a bright fuse of hatred for her burned through him for giving voice to thoughts he could barely acknowledge as his own.
After that, silence.
Kerans’s eyes were grainy with exhaustion, yet he could not sleep.
None of them could sleep.
Unspeaking, they listened for voices in the storm.
• • • •
At two, they came: one, two, three metallic screeches in the wind.
Lanyan took one window, Natalie the other, lifting her pistol.
Kerans stayed with Felicia. She was stirring now, coming out of her oxycodone haze. “What is it?” she said.
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
But it was something.
“There,” Natalie said, but she needn’t have said it at all.
Even from his place by the sofa, Kerans saw it: a blue shadow darting past the window, little more than a blur, seven feet long or longer, horizontal to the earth, tail lashing, faster than anything that size had any right to be, faster than anything human. There and gone again, obscured by a veil of blowing snow.
Kerans’s own words mocked him. Imagination. Shapes in the snow.
He thought of that icy snow tapping like fingernails at the window.
Let me in.
Felicia said, “Dave? What is it, Dave?”
“It’s nothing,” he said.
Silence prevailed. Shifting veils of snow.
“What the hell was that thing?” Lanyan said.
And Natalie from her window. “Let’s play a game.”
Nobody said a word.
“The game is called ‘What if?’” she said.
“What are you talking about?” Kerans said.
“What if you were an alien species?”
“Oh, come on,” Kerans said, but Lanyan was grim and silent.
“Way ahead of us technologically, capable of travel between stars.”
“This is crazy, Dave,” Felicia said. “What is she talking about?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
“And what if you wanted to clear a planet for colonization?”
“You read too much science fiction.”
“Shut the hell up, Dave,” Lanyan said.
“We’re intelligent. They would try to —”
“We’re vermin,” Natalie said. “And what I would do, I would engineer some kind of virus and wipe out ninety-nine-percent of the vermin. Like fumigating a fucking house.”
“And then?” Lanyan said.
“Then I’d send in the ground troops to mop up.”
“It’s craziness, that’s all,” he said. He said, “Here, these’ll help you sleep.”
Nothing then. Nothing but wind and snow and the sound of silence in the room.
After a time, they resumed their posts on the floor.
Felicia, weeping, lapsed back into drugged sleep.
“We’re going to have to get to the Yukon,” Natalie said.
“We can’t see a fucking thing out there,” Kerans said.
“At first light. Maybe the snow will stop by then.”
“And if it doesn’t?” Lanyan said.
“We make a run for it.”
“What about Felicia?” Kerans said.
“What about her?”
Kerans looked at his watch. It was almost three o’clock.
• • • •
He must have dozed, for he came awake abruptly, jarred from sleep by a distant thud. A dream, he thought, his pulse hammering. It must have been a dream — a nightmare inside this nightmare of dark and endless snow, of a plague-ravished world and Felicia dying in agony. But it was no dream. Lanyan and Natalie had heard it, too. They were already up, their weapons raised, and even as he stumbled to his feet, shedding like water the sleeping bag across his shoulders, it came again: a thump against the back of the house, muffled by snow and the intervening rooms.
“What is it?” Felicia said, her voice drowsy with oxycodone.
“Nothing,” he said. “It was nothing. A branch must have fallen.”
“That was no branch,” Natalie said. “Not unless it fell twice.”
And twice more after that, two quick blows, and a third, and then silence, a submarine hush so deep and pervasive that Kerans could hear the boom of his heart.
“Maybe a tree came down.”
“You know better,” Lanyan said.
“Dave, I’m scared,” Felicia whispered.
“We’re all scared,” Natalie said.
Felicia began softly to weep.
“Shut her the fuck up,” Natalie said.
“I said shut her up.”
“It hurts,” Felicia said. “I’m afraid.” Kerans knelt by the sectional and kissed her chill lips. Her breath bloomed in the cold air, sweet with the stink of infection, and he didn’t think he’d ever loved her more in his life than he did at that moment. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he whispered, wiping away her tears with the ball of his thumb. “It’s just the wind.” But even she was past believing him, for the wind had died. The snow fell soft and straight through the air. The streetlamp was a blue halo against the infinite blackness of space. Natalie’s game came back to Kerans — what if — and a dark surf broke and receded across the shingles of his heart. Felicia took his hand and squeezed his fingers weakly. “Just don’t leave me here,” she said. “Don’t leave me here to die.”
The glitter of shattering glass splintered the air. Felicia screamed, a short, sharp bark of terror —
“Shut her up,” Natalie snapped.
— and in the silence that followed, in the shifting purple shadow of the great room with its sectional sofa and the gray rectangle of the flatscreen and their sleeping bags like the shucked skins of enormous snakes upon the floor, Kerans heard someone — something —
— let’s play a game the game is called what if —
— test the privacy lock of a back bedroom: a slow turn to either side. Click. Click.
Felicia whimpered. Kerans blew a cloud of vapor into the still air. He clutched Felicia’s fingers. He remembered a time when they had made hasty love in the bathroom at a friend’s cocktail party, half-drunk, mad with passion for each other. The memory came to him with pristine clarity. He felt tears upon his cheeks.
And still the silence held.
Lanyan snapped off the safety of the Benelli.
Natalie put her back to the foyer wall, reached out, and flipped the deadbolt of the front door. She pushed it a few inches ajar. Snow dusted the threshold.
“The Yukon locked?” she whispered.
Once again, the thing tested the lock.
“Dave, don’t leave me —”
She froze him with a glance, and something else she had said came back to Kerans. The rules have changed now. We have to look out for ourselves. God help him, he didn’t want to die. He choked back a sob. They had wanted children. They had tried for them. In vitro, the whole nine yards.
“I won’t leave you,” he whispered.
Then the privacy lock snapped, popping like a firecracker. The door banged back. Something came, hurtling down the hallway: something big, hunched over the floor, and God, God, shedding pieces of itself, one, two, three as it burst into the room. Guns spat bright tongues of fire, a barrage of deafening explosions. The impact flung the thing backward, but the pieces, two- or three-foot lengths of leg-pumping fury, kept coming. Snapping the Benelli from target to target, Lanyan took two of them down. Natalie stopped the third one not three feet from Keran’s throat. It rolled on the floor, curving needle-teeth snapping, leathery hide gleaming in the snow-blown light, and was still.
Those alien cries echoed in the darkness.
“Time to go,” Natalie said.
Lanyan moved to the door.
Felicia clutched at Kerans’ hand, seizing him with a tensile strength he did not know she still possessed. The cocktail party flashed through his mind. They had wanted children —
“Felicia —” Kerans said. “Help me —”
“No time,” Natalie said.
And Lanyan: “I’m sorry, Dave —”
The moment hung in equipoise. Kerans wrenched his hand away.
“Time to go,” Natalie said again. “We can’t wait. You have to decide.”
And regular as a metronome inside his head: the rules have changed the rules have changed the rules the rules —
Natalie ducked into the night. A moment later, Lanyan followed.
Glass shattered at the back of the house, one window, two windows, three.
“Don’t leave me, Dave,” Felicia sobbed. “Don’t leave me.”
Outside the Yukon roared to life.
The rules have changed. We have to watch out for ourselves now.
“Dave,” Felicia said, “I’m scared.”
God help him, he didn’t want to die —
“Shhh,” he said, brushing closed her eyelids with his fingers. “Never. I’ll never leave you. I love you.”
He bent to press his lips to hers. His fingers fumbled at his belt. They closed around the blade.
A moment later, he was running for the Yukon.