In the third week of August, near enough to Fay’s thirty-fifth birthday that she could feel its crackling heat, the whole impossible horrifying thing became real. Word had already gotten loose, of course. Information was uncontainable these days. Fay had seen the YouTube clips, the “hoaxes” that had gone crazily viral. She’d heard the stories that went with them as well, quiver-lipped ghost tales told around the cultural campfire. It didn’t matter that these stories were passed along in texts and tweets. Fear was fear, and it found the means to propagate.
Now, though, official word had come down, and that gave the terror real substance. The government didn’t admit to emergencies or disasters unless it could make a political profit. Unhappy accidents that didn’t serve the power structure—British Petroleum Gulf Coast catastrophe, anyone?—normally, those got swept out of public view.
So Fay Holstrom felt a dread that weighted her heart and numbed her fingers and toes as she watched the presidential press brief, and the talking head analysts afterward, and the CDC officials doling out crisis protocols. None of what was said sounded at all useful to her. But the fear had now assumed the aspect of reality: people were becoming monsters.
And: it couldn’t be stopped.
That was what Fay took away from the TV broadcasts, anyway. With leaden heart and benumbed fingertips and toes, she staggered away from her flat screen, thumbing the power off. Around her the house was quiet and empty. For five emotionally luckless but financially lucrative years the house had stood like this. Elegant. Lavish, almost. Designed and decorated by professionals, but lacking any sort of human mood. Certainly the home didn’t reflect how Fay thought of herself—or, at least, how she wanted to think of herself.
It was a chill place, even in the broil of summer. Here was where she would change, she realized as she wandered her rooms. It was night. Outside, the city was lit. Civilization still functioned. World leaders, the president included, were talking confidently about a remedy to this phenomenon, about containment, about orderly procedures and inevitable resolutions.
But it was already over. Fay knew it. They had admitted to what should not—could not—exist. All else followed from that. Everything would crumble.
Fay, in her silent, tastefully appointed house, waited for the change to come. Waited for the scales, and the claws, and the burning yellow eyes.
She dealt with legal matters. Her attorney’s office was still operating, the woman to whom Fay spoke a familiar, brittly chipper voice on the phone. The matters were seen to. Property, possessions, money, all arranged into tidy rows of disposal. It was like settling one’s affairs before—No. It wasn’t like. It was that, and that precisely.
In the past two days, the state of world had gotten considerably more chaotic and unhinged. The powers that be had done themselves no favors by acknowledging what was happening. It had given everyone consent, as it were, to react hysterically. Governments would tumble; economies were going to crater. The legal niceties Fay had just concluded would likely mean nothing in the end.
Or maybe it would all be resolved, the human race saved. Fay didn’t know for sure, after all. But she had already decided how she meant to behave.
The motorbike was gassed up. Fay had fired it up in the garage, at first wincing at the noise, then grinning. A barely remembered tingle crept over her flesh. From a deep closet she’d gotten her leather riding jacket and boots. She drew back her curly red hair, tied it off with an elastic, and stuffed it and her head into the helmet. She rolled down the drive. Everything she was taking on this trip was in the saddlebags. Ahead, the city was her obstacle course; it was why she’d opted for the bike. Behind, the chilly ornate house hadn’t even noticed her absence, she felt sure.
Fay Holstrom wrung the throttle. She had to get where she was going while she was still human.
Travel was an ordeal, like she’d figured. But monsters weren’t running amok in the streets. It was mostly just the first signs of social breakdown—panic, disorder, a growing disregard for lawfulness. Hell, Fay thought as she wound through the maze of wrecks and occasional swarms of people, the world had been headed this way anyway.
But that world hadn’t yet been overrun by the monsters, by the transformed humans, those who had metamorphosed, growing reptilian scales over their bodies, sprouting claws, their eyes turning to inhuman pools of blazing yellow.
Fay left the city, and the motorcycle let her cut across fields and around trouble spots as she made her way north. The suburbs played out, the countrified communities whipped past, then she was deep in rural territory. He had gone out a long way. He had wanted the distance. It was one of the last things he’d ever said to her, directly to her.
She was pleased with how she handled the bike. But as she rolled up to the house, put down the kickstand, and swung off onto her booted feet, she felt the aches of the road, all at once. Her joints throbbed. Her butt smarted. She wrestled off the helmet and gasped in the August heat, that was nonetheless cool on a damp forehead pasted with red curls. She was—suddenly, it seemed—not a youngster anymore.
The house was quite unlike hers. Aging walls stood against the elements. The porch was falling in, it looked like. No professional hand with an eye toward sophisticated aesthetics had ever meddled with these premises. Still, it was no hovel. It looked, Fay thought after a moment of serious study, like a comfortable undemanding place where a person could live.
She waited out front, stretching, unzipping and removing the leather jacket. She had, of course, imagined this very scene. Sometimes Howard came bounding out to greet her; sometimes he waited, as if presciently, on this unpaved drive. And sometimes he emerged, eyes wide and paranoid, with a shotgun in his hands.
The one scenario she hadn’t permitted herself was the one where he was scaly and yellow-eyed. She had never gotten further in that imagined scene than the sight of claws extended, unrecognizable features twisted with bloodlust, just like in those viral videos where the monsters came charging straight at the screen, right before the shot went awry, the angle spinning crazily as the phone or camera flew out of the victim’s hand.
Instead, there was a creak from inside. Howard pushed out through the door, yawning, bending to scratch through his blue jeans just above his kneecap. He looked at her a moment, then his gaze focused on the motorbike. A smile was flickering on his lips when he turned back to her, and asked, “You forget something?”
For the count of three heartbeats Fay thought it might be cruel sarcasm. He was capable of that. So was she.
She started to shrink back, but he went on in a genial tone, “Come on in. Watch where you step, or you’ll be knee-deep in porch.” He was already going back inside the house. Fay followed. He hadn’t changed. Yet. Maybe, she thought wryly, he hadn’t changed at all.
He didn’t have a pot of coffee going. He had always brewed his a cup at a time, and he put one together for her now. She had brought in her saddlebags and left her jacket on a bed in a narrow room at the back of the house. Wallpaper with roses peeled from the line high up on the wall, and the cover on the bed was fuzzy with dust. But Howard hadn’t pushed her for information, hadn’t asked any meaningful questions in fact. She was here, and he had installed her in a spare bedroom. It was matter-of-fact country hospitality. Or something more, or less, than that. But she was grateful, anyway.
A big boxy old-fashioned tv set occupied a space between the front room’s two windows. The news was on. Hell, news was all there was now. News and dead air.
Fay sat with the coffee he’d made. He had added almost the right amount of milk for her himself. She winced, sitting. Riding the bike had been like being on horseback. She felt as if she’d physically participated in the journey. She sipped from her cup. It was good coffee.
She looked sidelong at him more than at the television screen. His hair was short in a way that suggested he’d used clippers on it himself. Fading tufts stood up among the black. His eyes crinkled a little more than she remembered as he watched the TV. But his face was still his face, and he looked fit and moved without any middle-aged hitches or groans. Howard, then, was still Howard.
“It’s going to shit,” he said, nodding at the footage, some foreign city. Minarets twilit in the background; in the fore—, people screaming. And here and there among the crowd shapes were on the move. A clawed limb lifted into view. Howard looked across to her. “You get here okay?”
Like it had all been planned, she thought. Like he’d expected her. Maybe he had; but probably not. Not the way they had left it for five years. “It wasn’t as bad as I’d prepared myself for,” she said. Which was true.
He nodded again, maintaining the casual air. “Bike didn’t give you any trouble?”
“Purred the whole way.” It wasn’t what he was asking. He guessed that she hadn’t ridden in a long time—it was an accurate guess—and wondered if she’d struggled with the machine. It was the setup for a nasty gibe. Or it would have been, once.
“Good,” he said, another smile flickering.
Fay waited, during those first hours, for the girlfriend to show up. Two-thirds her age, she figured. Or else something equally melodramatic, some other shoe dropping on this ridiculous situation she’d barged her way into. But after a while she stopped expecting anything, as she and Howard settled into a comfortable parody of domesticity. She had a shower. He put her bike into the shed adjacent to the house. It had been a big deal when she’d bought it, with him helping pick it out. Later, he showed her the generator he had out in that same shed. Also, the kitchen was stocked with ranks of canned food, and they would never run out of water.
“There’s a well,” he said, pointing toward the sunset that was assembling over the grassy acres behind the house. Gold and pink had at each other.
The quiet was deeper but much more relaxing than what Fay had had at her house. “A well. It’s really a farm.”
Howard looked a little sharply at her. Maybe he was tensing against what he perceived as a potentially sarcastic comment, just like she had done. “No. Just a farmhouse.”
“It’s a nice place,” she said, overemphasizing her sincerity, which left him wary. They were still circling each other, she thought with a gloomy silent sigh.
It started in earnest at dinner. Howard had potatoes, and he mashed up quite a lot, adding garlic.
“There’s not enough garlic in garlic for you, is there?” Fay said.
“I like garlic,” was all he offered.
After that came the snips. Each of them initiated, each parried and returned. They were ugly little comments tarted up as innocuous asides, and Fay hated herself every time she jabbed him with one. It was too familiar. Even the venue, the dinner table. How many meals had they spoiled this way? She asked about his painting. He congratulated her on her profitable business accomplishments. It was all tone. Fay couldn’t even taste the food.
She’d made a mistake in coming here. Soon enough he would tell her as much, directly. They would pass through the years of their marriage and arrive at its apocalyptic crescendo, all in the course of an afternoon and evening. By tomorrow they would be at each other’s throats. Maybe literally, if the change came.
Howard poured drinks after dinner, and they returned to the television, because monitoring the situation seemed the responsible thing to do.
On screen, somber people were talking about communicability vectors and quarantine zones. Competing experts spoke of early warning symptoms.
“There’s no running from it,” Howard said.
Fay was in agreement, but she heard herself say, “Then how it is happening? It doesn’t spread? How can you know that?”
He didn’t like her accusatory tone any better than she did. He lifted his glass, and ice rattled. Finally he said, “My neighbors… well, you got to understand what `neighbor’ means here. We aren’t sandwiched together like in the city, where—”
“I get it.”
“My neighbors. A half a mile that way.” He pointed at a wall. “Husband and wife. Two days ago she…” He gestured more vaguely and much more energetically this time. “She became one of those. She chased him down that road out there. He was loading a gun as he went. I looked out, saw him stop, turn, shoot it. Shoot her.”
Fay wanted at that moment to say something sympathetic, but she could only think of things she’d seen on the way out of the city, and that would have been one-upmanship; or Howard would have taken it as such.
She said nothing. He went on, “Later, he said to me they hadn’t had any visitors. No contact.”
“But you had contact with him.”
“And I’ve had contact with you.” It was his turn to lace accusation into his voice.
It was useless, Fay saw. More than a mistake, this venture was a disaster. It was just that she’d had nowhere else to go, nobody to turn to. No one with whom she’d shared anything loving or painful or meaningful. But it was all played out between them, with no revisiting the early good times they’d had. Very good times. The best, really.
They watched TV awhile more, then Fay went to bed. This would have to end in the morning.
She was starting clammily awake every ten minutes, it felt like, not even long enough for nightmares to take hold. She was anticipating those bad dreams and preempting them. She was also, she knew, afraid the change might come while she lay helpless in this bed, in this narrow back room.
Stupid, she thought. She would be helpless to the change no matter when and if it came.
The country quiet wasn’t silence, and at night it was something different from what it had been during the daylight. It wasn’t menacing, but it was very alive with the groans of branches and the mutters of living things. After a while that was what finally unnerved Fay. She got up, left the room, made her way through the house. In the dark, somehow, she caught the smell of paint more distinctly. She hadn’t been into the room being used as a studio. She hadn’t asked to see it nor been invited to. The smell, warmer than a chemical odor, was an undercurrent, one she remembered.
Howard was sleeping when she pushed open his door, but he woke when she drew back the covers, and he held a hand toward her, which she took as she climbed into the bed with him. He murmured, “Happy birthday,” to her because it was after midnight, and because he had remembered the date. After that they said nothing to each other, nothing at all. And that was the best they could do for one another now.
She went back to her room briefly, then stepped out onto the porch, careful of where the wood was spongy. The light was thin but vivid. Dawn would pour onto the house. Already there were bird calls, almost a riot of them. How, Fay wondered, would these animals react when the humans were all gone? What would they make of the replacement species?
Her body still ached from the bruising ride up here. Or… had that been mentioned as being among the early signs of the change’s onset—pain in the joints? She wasn’t sure. She looked at her hand. It appeared normal in the delicate light.
She felt warm, a deep bodily warmth, something beyond the satisfaction of sex. It was an old feeling, right at the edge of familiarity, almost lost. She could never get back what she and Howard had once had between them. There wasn’t time. And even if they’d had the time, there was no retrieving what they had squandered. But last night had been enough.
Far out over the wooded landscape, the sun’s upper crescent was just beginning to bleed over a range of mountains.
Behind, in the house, there was movement. It sounded confused and violent. Fay heard something crash to the floor. She listened for the footsteps, for the scratching of claws. When she heard them, she turned and raised the pistol she’d taken from her saddlebags. She didn’t say anything to him. Words no longer worked between them.
|Eric Del Carlo’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Redstone Science Fiction, Shimmer, and many other venues. He has authored a number of novels, including the Wartorn fantasy series with Robert Asprin. His story “Devil Rides Shotgun” appears in the brand new anthology, Splatterlands: Reawakening the Splatterpunk Revolution, which was released in October through Grey Matter Press.|