LONG WAY HOME
PART ONE - THE
“Every generation thinks it has the answers, and every generation is humbled by nature.”
“Hey, Benny, you know what the best part of this whole wilderness
Ray, in the lead for this section of the trail, shifted his pack
straps and took a deep breath. It was actually a lovely morning. The trail
was reasonably level and dry, the mosquitoes had, thank God, thinned in
number to mere occasional annoyances, and the air was still summer-warm.
He imagined that he could actually smell the difference between the
spruces and the firs among the green and spicy scents. Not that he could
tell them apart. But something in the air seemed to have a direct
connection to his sense of well-being. And if he felt this good, he could
just imagine how Fraser must be feeling.
“Ray, you don't really mean that,” came Fraser's voice from
behind him, with only the slightest trace of reproach.
“Yes, I do. After six weeks out here, even your old neighborhood
“I think it's been a very pleasant month already,” Fraser said
stoutly, as Ray knew he would. Fraser picked up the pace, forcing Ray to
speed up in turn. They had been playing this form of tag all morning. Even
without looking back, Ray could picture Fraser perfectly. The bright red
flannel would be peeking out from under his open jacket. His tousled brown
hair and his well-browned face with its open look would present the image
of a man perfectly content and at home.
Fraser nipped at his heels again. “Only you, Fraser,” Ray
announced to the empty path in front of him. “Only you would consider
sleeping on rocks, communing with bugs, and eating stuff from unknown food
groups as pleasant. Not to
mention the joy of home construction in the middle of the howling
wilderness. Other people go to gyms when they want a little healthy
exercise, they don't travel three thousand miles to go and chop down trees
to do it.”
Ray swung under an overhanging snag, neatly gauging the space
needed for his pack to clear. The trail had entered another washout and
gone steep and stony underfoot. Ray slowed, rock-hopping down the polished
granite boulders. He could hear Fraser behind him, negotiating the terrain
with somewhat less noise and effort.
“It was your idea, Ray.”
“It was my idea three, no, four years ago now. I didn't think it
would become our life's work every summer. At this rate we'll still be
rebuilding at the end of the next millennium.”
“Well, if you really prefer to sleep outside we could always stop.” Fraser's voice held
just the right touch of patient long-suffering. “It probably won't
snow quite so heavily this winter as last and most of the rafters aren't
sagging too much. At least, not the ones we've stripped the shingles off.
And I'm sure the outhouse is still perfectly functional.”
Ray smiled to himself, and then stomped deliberately through the
boggy spot at the foot of the slope they had just descended, raising a
cloud of late-season bugs. Diefenbaker, having decided that the two men
were going to be at this for a while, trotted stiffly on ahead, carefully
choosing the easiest path on the uneven ground.
“Inside, outside, when you're this far from civilization it
hardly makes a difference where you sleep,” Ray said, beginning to let
himself exaggerate a little. “Your privacy can still be invaded at any
moment by winged and four‑footed wildlife. At least in
“I'm sorry, Ray. I didn't realize you were still so out of shape.
Do you want to rest for a while?” There was a definite note of teasing
glee in Fraser's voice. Ray mentally kicked himself for letting his
rhetoric get away from him. Point to Fraser.
“No, no, not unless you do. I am anticipating that cup of coffee
at the general store way too much to stop now. This time we're gonna get
twice the usual coffee supply. I don't want to go through another week
again of caffeine withdrawal.”
“Well, you know, Ray, there are several shrubs in the forest here
that make perfectly adequate coffee substitutes. The leaves of ephedra
make a very stimulating tea and I believe the roots of the kinickinick,
when dried, have a flavor similar to coffee, though I admit I've never
“Just keep it up, Fraser. You're making the big city look more
appealing by the minute.”
They walked along for a while in companionable silence. It had been
a good idea to take such a long vacation this year, Ray thought. Total
absence of anything remotely resembling police work, or undercover work,
or consulate work; plenty of opportunities for complaining and teasing and
being teased as they stretched their competencies in the chores of
rebuilding; time to try to re-establish and re-tune their friendship; time
to get the world in proper perspective, before returning to the violence,
speed, danger, and sordid tedium of their professional lives. Another
couple of weeks of this, and Ray knew he might half regret leaving it
behind for the real world.
As for what Fraser felt, well, that was a little harder. He was
always happy to return home to the
What a horrible vision.
But for the moment Fraser seemed happy as a clam. A particularly
apt expression for him, Ray thought, stealing a glance over his shoulder,
since Fraser was usually about as expressive as the average mollusk. But
there was more eagerness in his eyes and freedom in his movements than he
ever showed in
“I really think you're being a bit hard on the wildlife, Ray,”
he said, picking up the argument. “I don't think that chipmunk meant to
bite you when you tried to feed it—”
“See, that's just what I mean.” Ray didn't miss a beat. “Back
home you wouldn't have chipmunks barging through the windows and
panhandling in your kitchen. And remember the wolves howling that we heard
last night?” Ray was glad Fraser couldn't see the growing glee on his
“Well Ray, you have to admit that's an experience that
“I wouldn't want it to. I don't need to go all the way to the
armpit of the North to see nature red in tooth and claw. Don't you think
that cranked-out junkies screaming abuse and shooting random Joes
for twenty bucks for the next hit bear a striking resemblance to the
“Not at all, Ray. You have a common misconception about the
nature of wolves. They are not vicious, pointless killers, they are highly
cooperative, intensely social animals, with a community structure that
optimizes survival for the maximum number.”
Ray made a vaguely skeptical sound, preoccupied by picking his way
down a steep bouldery bit. Fraser, naturally, chose to take that for
“The entire pack is organized around ensuring sufficient food for
the breeding pair and their pups, the alpha pair, as they are called, and
around minimizing social stress between the pack members, because the
individual wolf cannot reliably survive in this harsh environment.”
“Harsher than the streets of
“Much harsher. Only in a pack are they able to hunt and kill
enough large prey to survive. And each wolf knows its place and function
in the hierarchy. The alpha leads the hunt and gets first feeding at the
kill; the beta mediates between the other wolves, almost like a policeman,
if you will.”
“A place for everyone and everyone in his place. Nature must
abhor a democracy.”
“Even the lowest rank, the omega wolf, is important. He is not
only a scapegoat for aggression, protected against abuse by the beta wolf,
but also serves the function of breaking societal barriers in encouraging
the pack to play. You know play is one of the signs of an evolved
Fraser was really warming to his subject, and showing all the signs
of wandering off into other, even more tangential fields. Ray ruthlessly
nipped him in the bud.
“Fraser, do I look like I care about the social lives of
“Well, I don't know, Ray, as I can't see your expression...”
“Trust me, I do not look interested. The only wolf whose social
life interests me is Diefenbaker, and that's because it coincides with
mine, especially the lazing around and mooching jelly donuts part.”
“Ah, but Diefenbaker is only part wolf. And five years in
“Yeah, get some other dumb wolf to do all the work for him.”
As if hearing his name, Diefenbaker turned around and trotted back,
with a pathetically lolling tongue and a considerably more exaggerated
limp than he'd displayed five minutes previously. Fraser got out a treat
from his pocket and Dief snapped it up.
“I'm afraid so.”
The wolf looked inquisitively at Ray, who made a show of keeping
his hands well away from his pockets. Dief snuffled in disappointment and
went back to ambling along beside the two men.
“He's moving a lot slower these days, isn't he?”
“Well, he's over ten years old. That's approaching old age for a
wolf. And the fact that he's spent the last five years in
“He's just disappointed that out here we have to get places the
slow way on foot, instead of sitting in the back seat and letting me drive.
And have I told you that I'll never forgive you for letting the Riv blow
up that third time?”
“Yes, Ray. About five hundred and eighty-seven times, so
“Oh. Well, just so long as you're counting.”
“Somebody has to,” Fraser muttered, but Ray pretended not to
Ray paused and glanced back at Fraser. The trail was ending and Ray
was feeling generous, so he stepped aside to let Fraser pass.
The trail looped one last time, angling sharply down to the
highway. Well, actually it was a road.
Fraser was scanning up and down the road. “I wonder if we can
find out what's happened to the road crew? They were supposed to have
fixed that washout weeks ago.” Fraser sighed. “I suppose I'll have to
get Carey to drop a couple truckloads of gravel for me. Dad used to do it
every other year.”
Ray groaned theatrically. “And are they going to spread
the gravel? No, of course not. That's for the idiots in the only cabin up
the road, who have nothing better to do every summer than find more ways
to do other people's work for them.”
As they headed up the road Fraser commented, “Quiet, isn't it?”
They had been walking for almost twenty minutes, and not a single car had
Ray sighed. “Never thought I'd say it, but it's kinda nice
without the RVs barreling by. Even if it means we can't get a lift.”
“Hmm. This time of year they're usually like a herd of starving
caribou hurtling south.”
“Well, I guess there's a road break somewhere. Must be why the
road crew isn't working on ours.”
Another few minutes passed while they walked side by side. Insects
buzzed in the cotton grass that filled the drainage cuts with white fluff.
“Okay, I can tell you're listening to something. What?”
“Nothing, Ray. Everything's just so—normal.”
“Nothing wrong with normal. I'm all for normal.
This far north, even the
sun slanted in the sky,
glinting brightness off Fraser's dark hair, highlighting the worn denim
and leather and flannel. Here in his native country, even grunge favored
him, Ray thought, with more admiration than envy. “So, Fraser, why did
your Dad build so far from the road? It'd make the resupply so much easier
to be closer in. Not to mention cheaper.”
Fraser's head turned slightly as he scanned the trees. His voice
skipped backward, fading in and out between the sounds of Ray's boots
kicking gravel. “Well, actually, the distance is quite right. Close
enough for a one‑day trip there. Far enough—”
“Far enough to forget the neighbors. Yeah, I know, Fraser. Only
you'd think that twenty-five miles is a reasonable neighborly distance.”
Ray shifted the backpack as he adjusted to the leveling path. “And of
course mountains just don't factor into this neighborly distance, do
Fraser turned his head forward and Ray pressed ahead to catch his
reply. “These aren't mountains, Ray. They're just foothills to the
Ray grinned, keeping his mouth shut. He trod closer to Fraser,
egging the pace along. He really needed that coffee.
He was glad to see the first buildings edge into view. Carey
Klafter's Blue Heron Café was just a general store and eatery, but to Ray
it had the allure of civilization. It even had a neon “Open” sign. And
it sold the only coffee, gas, and propane for seventy miles.
The “town” scrunched next to the café, a few cabins and a
small motel, and the open field across the road that was kept cleared for
a landing strip. Someone had planted quick-growing summer vegetables
among the fireweed where the gravel shoulder petered out. Ray stepped past
a zucchini the size of a small car with amusement. Everything was big in
The empty road curved away from them toward the café, then back
out again into the distance. Fraser crossed without pausing and Ray
hurried to catch up. Fraser had kept moving, his shoulders bunching as he
What's his hurry? Ray
thought. The town was quiet, no one in sight. The sunlight, falling in the
haze, softened the weathered wood and peeling paint of the storefront. The
café's neon “Open” sign hung there in the window, dark and unlit. Carey's going to be pissed it's not working. He just bought that thing.
Said it'd draw truckers like bugs at night.
Fraser clumped up the café steps quickly, pausing at the top. Ray
stopped at the bottom, automatically scraping the mud off his boots, while
Diefenbaker trotted back and forth along the frontage, nose to ground.
Fraser stood on the porch, scanning the mountains behind them with a
puzzled air. Diefenbaker, having found a scent of major interest, took off
around the side.
Something wasn't right. Ray could feel it now, that cop's sense
that the pieces were out of order. It pricked him between the shoulder
blades and made him move a little quicker, lighter on his feet. He wished
automatically for his gun, then tried to shake the feeling away. This was
“I don't see it, Fraser. Just more mountains, same as last
“That's not it, Ray. It's something¼” Fraser shook his head and turned abruptly into
the café. Ray lurched forward, catching the screen door before it
The store was cool and dark, unusually dark. And quiet.
Ray stopped sharply, his inner voice flaring. Fraser's tense
movements showed the same awareness. Ray watched Fraser's silent motion
behind the counter.
Scanning right, then left. No lights. The cash register was dark.
“Power outage,” he breathed in discovery. Fraser nodded, still alert.
“Probably all through town.”
Fraser carefully eased out of his pack and leaned it against the
wooden counter. Ray followed suit, shrugging his muscles loose and ready.
“Mr. Klafter?” Fraser called, leaning over the counter to get a
view into the back rooms. After a moment, Fraser walked around behind the
counter and called again through the door. Fraser turned and looked
directly at Ray. His mouth was taut, his face floating palely above his
flannel shirt. He looked almost ghostly in the dim silence. It really was
quiet, even for such a small town.
Moving loudly, he stamped to the counter. Carey's latest toy was
still sitting where Ray had left it after their last visit: a plastic
outhouse with the words “Charity Piggy Bank.” Can't
believe I let a man named Klafter fool me with this thing. Ray fished
out a penny from his jeans pocket and slid it into the piggy bank.
The outhouse exploded with a loud crack!,
pieces scattering to reveal a butt-naked occupant caught mid-stream. Ray
snickered and knelt to pick up a loose piece.
“Ray—” he heard Fraser whisper and glanced back over his
shoulder. Carey Klafter stood shadowed in the doorway, the light spilling
around him like a halo. Diefenbaker slunk around his feet and took up a
watchful position in front of the counter. Fraser whispered to Dief and
Ray focused more closely. Carey's shoes were covered with mud up to his
ankles. Blinking, Ray rose to his feet. Actually, Carey was covered in
mud. His face was blank, his eyes closed. He stood, rooted, his upper
torso shaking, hands clutching a dirt-encrusted shovel. It banged against
his right knee rhythmically.
Ray's hand shot to his waist in a reflexive grab for the gun he did
not carry. Keeping his hands low, he signaled over his left shoulder to
Fraser with his chin.
Fraser nodded once. “Hello, Carey,” he said softly. “We
wanted to pick up a few supplies but were having some difficulty locating
the red beans. Could you show them to us?”
The shovel kept banging rhythmically. Carey's bearded face was pale, his black hair matted. Ray felt his chest tighten. He inched closer on Carey's left. Fraser kept talking: “And Ray's been asking for more coffee. Do you still have that Nicaraguan blend?”
mouth finally moved, his voice paler than his face. “Couldn't wait to
bury her. It still gets warm during the day.”
Ray and Fraser exchanged glances. Ray swallowed and moved closer.
Carey's mumbling increased in speed. “I told her we'd be fine.
We're safe here, I said. No matter what caused the power to go out,
silenced the radios, deadened the phones—we're safe here.” His right
leg began jerking stiffly in counterpoint to the shovel. Ray angled
further to the left, eyes fixed on Carey's hands. Always watch the hands,
he remembered. Safer bet than the eyes.
He was almost close enough when Fraser spoke again. “Well, I
guess we can do without the beans and coffee for now. But we'll need some
more flour. That's an essential building block—”
Ray had tensed to reach out when Carey's voice exploded. “But
Lavelle—Tom, the pilot—he decided to fly into
Carey choked, tears running down his bearded face. Ray kept still.
“Rose—Rose—she wanted to leave. Said it was too dangerous. I
told her we'd be fine. No need to run to a place where we'd only be
strangers. But then Barry died that night. Bled to death in his own
kitchen. His wife
He paused, staring straight into Ray's face, awareness unfolding in
his eyes like a crumpled piece of paper. “You can't stop the bleeding
once it starts. Rose only had a nosebleed. She used to get those before. A
little ice, pinch the nose, and it'd stop.”
“And this one didn't,” Fraser said gently, moving around the
end of the counter next to Ray.
Carey's hands stilled. The shovel's point clunked gently on the
“This one did. We were fine. Just like I told her. We were fine.
Everybody else was gone but us. I told her we'd leave in the morning.”
His voice became thick with tears. “And when I woke this morning, I
He reached out with his left hand, a note clenched tightly in his
fingers. Fraser eased it gently from him, his arm resting around Carey's
shoulder. Ray took the shovel out of the other hand, holding it out of
reach. His chest hurt and he forced himself to breathe.
Fraser's lips moved silently and then he handed the note to Ray.
“Come on over here, Carey, let's sit you down.” Tugging, Fraser
shifted the man into a shambling, wide-legged walk. Ray stood in the pale
light, dust flowering in the air, his throat closing as he read the note.
Carey—It's not fine. It
will never be fine again. We've unleashed hell and can never go back. I
can't wait for it to eat away at me. I love you dearly. Don't wait too
Ray raised his eyes to the sweat-stained man moving
hesitantly toward the back rooms, shepherded by Fraser. He breathed once,
deeply. Then again. Oh, God, he thought. It must be contagious. He threw
the shovel and note away with both hands and rubbed them on his jeans. How
was it transmitted? Could it be airborne? What was the latency period?
What was it?
Oh, God, Fraser had touched Carey. Fraser's hands had touched the
sweat-and mud-soaked shoulder. He had to get them away from
here. To someplace safe.
His boots echoed loudly through the store. He ran around the
counter, crunching plastic pieces. The back rooms were littered with
clothing, suitcases, and shoes. Stumbling, he heard Fraser before he saw
him: “Close your eyes and rest. We'll take care of you.”
“Why?” Carey's voice was thick with tears. Ray paused in the
doorway. The windows faced west, casting a reddish glow over Fraser
kneeling beside Carey's bed. He held a limp hand, tucking it gently under
“Why what, Carey?”
“Why take care of me? It'll be over soon. Why bother? Why bother
with any of it?”
Fraser sighed. His eyes, charred with sadness, were abstract,
distant. “It's what we do, Carey. Now rest.” Carey closed his eyes
tightly and curled himself on his side, tense and motionless. Fraser
crouched watchfully beside the bed. Carey lay like that for only a few
minutes, until exhaustion tricked him into sleep. Fraser rocked back on
his heels and closed the nightstand drawer. Then he pulled an empty bottle
off the nightstand, tossing it to Ray. Holding the bottle up to the fading
light, Ray read its label: digitalis.
“If she took these—”
Fraser shook his head, motioning them both into the hall.
Diefenbaker remained in the bedroom, lying on the rag rug by the bedside
like a watchful sphinx. Fraser pulled the bedroom door halfway shut. “If
she took them, then she died quickly.” Fraser took the bottle back,
rolling it between his fingers, his face brittle, cold and white as bone,
“I don't believe it,” Ray said fiercely. “It's crazy. Carey's
gone nuts from his wife's suicide and imagined the whole thing.” He put
all the conviction he could into his voice, willing Fraser to agree with
“I don't think so, Ray. A mass epidemic explains a lot: the
emptiness, the lack of power, the absence of traffic. We need to see if
anyone else is still around, what information they might have, and find
the evidence of what's happened.” The sad look was gone. Fraser's voice
was decisive and calm, though a little too quick.
“Okay, fine, I'm on it.” Ray couldn't wait to get out of the
claustrophobic back rooms, out into somewhere cleaner and alive.
“Ray, wait.” Fraser's voice sounded oddly muffled in the
hallway. Concerned, Ray turned back. Fraser's silhouette had faded in the
gloom. The faint ticking of a clock, the wind whistling though the front
door, and his harsh breathing filled the silence. “I think you should go
straight to the post office. If any phone line is still up, it'll be that
Ray frowned. “Sure, Benny.”
“Then maybe the Hensons'. They have a CB, I think.”
Ray opened his mouth and then closed it. “See you in about an
hour, Benny.” Ray reached for the flashlight kept under the stove and
clicked it on. Shining the light, he saw the newspaper racks and grabbed a
They came out of the dark store onto the porch, into the sunlight,
and looked out again over the empty road, the silent buildings, and the
dark forested hills surrounding it all. Quiet. Not a sound in the still
air. Ray held his breath with the intensity of listening. He could hear
the soft creak of Fraser's leather jacket, the minute rustle of cloth, the
faintest squeak of the floorboards shifting under their weight. But beyond
the circle of their bodies there was only a vast dumbness.
“Christ, Benny,” Ray muttered. “Jesus Christ.” He heard his
breathing increase, could feel his legs tremble.
Fraser pressed his hand to Ray's shoulder and let it lie there, a
link of stability and permanence. “We don't know anything yet, Ray. They
could all have fled.”
Ray nodded, grateful for the solid feel of Fraser, the press of him
along his side, the direct gaze. “Right. What you don't know will hurt
you. Right.” He spun his fear and anger into his words, felt the flush
of adrenaline clearing his thinking. “Okay. We'll start the
door‑to‑door. But let's assume Carey's right. That makes this
a fatality without survivors or witnesses.”
“And neither of us are trained in forensics, and the crucial
evidence of the origin could be far away. As least as far as
“That's if Carey was right about Lavelle being the first. So
there might be a mention in the newspapers of the beginnings of
unexplained illness.” Ray's brain was working again, going through the
familiar stages of talking out a case strategy with Fraser. The vertigo
“Who's got a radio or TV?” Fraser spoke abruptly, washing away
the last of Ray's fuzziness.
“Right. I'll check the radios and phones again. Maybe the
problems have cleared up.” Ray pushed away, eager to have clear
directions. Fraser strode off in the opposite direction, toward the small
clustering of cabins near the road. His eyes flicked back and forth in
constant watch for any sign of movement.
Ray crossed the road to the cabin that doubled as post office,
campground office, and airstrip terminal. A couple of RVs were parked in
the back. The Canadian flag hung limp over the door. The tiny shack,
hardly bigger than a mailbox, was usually crowded with people arranging
deliveries, or storing supplies, or just shooting the breeze with
The phone was dead. Ray poked behind the tiny desk and found a
mailbag, not even unsealed. Inside, the letters' postmarks were all over
two weeks old.
Out the back door the illusion of normality was abruptly lost. On
the edge of the gravel RV lot was a large blackened patch, where someone
had apparently been burning garbage. As Ray drew nearer a small breeze
picked up, carrying a sickly garbage smell as of a rancid barbecue. A
couple of the ubiquitous ravens flew up and landed in the trees just
behind the lot, their croaks breaking the silence as nerve-shatteringly as
a sonic boom.
Ray didn't need to go closer. He could see the bodies now, charred
but still grotesquely recognizable as human. It was a lot more difficult
than most people thought to reduce a body to ash, and even soaking the
corpses in aviation fuel hadn't raised the heat high enough to do more
than consume the clothing, hair, and skin. There were at least a half
dozen, probably more, but Ray had no intention of going close enough to
count. The barbecue smell was making him gag. He started to skirt the edge
of the burn, startling a coyote preoccupied with gnawing on something.
“Get away! Get! Get out of here!” Ray yelled, but the coyote
just looked at him, then unhurriedly trotted off into the trees.
Ray knew he should check out the RVs, but just at this moment he
didn't think he could. He went back around the front of the post office
and pulled a few more newspapers from the rack. The breeze was picking up
and the flag overhead flapped at tired intervals. He sat on the steps and
began skimming the papers. Weather, local sports, inept politicians. He
checked the date. The paper was three weeks old. Tossing it aside, he
sorted for a more recent date.
outbreak” floods emergency room with patients. This one, from the Vancouver
Sun, was dated fifteen days ago. He kept digging.
“Flu” more serious than
originally reported. Authorities investigating. Curfews and health
advisories will be announced this afternoon. He could not find any
Reading the newspapers again for greater detail he discovered that
the “flu” had been detected on the eastern seaboard first, spreading
west and north. Early reports also indicated that
He kept reading. Disease is characterized as highly contagious. He checked the date.
This was the last report, from the
He dropped the papers. He knew what that meant. He thought of his
colleagues, holding the barricades back. You could not hold back a city of
half a million. In
The gunshot reverberated across the dusty road, slicing into his
awareness. He scrambled for the flashlight and sprinted to the store. As
he slid into the hallway, he slowed, training and instinct extinguishing
the flashlight. Crouching low, he called softly, “Fraser?” He waited a
few seconds and then edged closer to the partially open bedroom door:
“It's all right, Ray. You can come in.”
Still cautious, he stepped into the dark room, keeping a low
profile. He could barely make out Fraser. But the smell of cordite and
blood was unmistakable.
“Are you...?” he asked, still holding the unlit flashlight.
“I'm fine.” Fraser spoke slowly, distantly.
Ray flicked on the light and scanned the room. Carey had
half-fallen off the bed. Blood dripped from his skull, pooling on
the wood floor. Ray swung the light in circles, looking for the gun.
“Where did he get it?” he wondered aloud. Then he saw the
opened nightstand drawer and nodded. “Right. I guess we should have
checked before we left him alone.”
Fraser stood quietly in the middle of the room, holding the
revolver firmly in his hand. With a smooth motion, he released the trigger
guard and put the weapon back in the drawer. “I did check.”
“Hey, he could have kept it under his pillow, for all we know.
You can't keep a man from killing himself. Not out here, anyway.” Ray
picked up the blanket and covered the body. “Come on, let's get some
air.” He moved toward the door, pulling Fraser in his wake. He thought
he could see an unfamiliar expression flicking across Fraser's face, but
it was too dark to be sure. “Come on, Fraser,” he urged, uneasy in
this dark room filled with the smell of blood.
The long afternoon twilight stretched around them, peppered with
the faint chirps of the last surviving insects. Fall was approaching and
the air had become biting. Suddenly tired, Ray slumped on the porch steps
and leaned into his knees. “So...” he said.
Fraser did not answer. He slowly rolled down his sleeves, buttoning
them and smoothing the fabric. His face was unreadable.
“The motel was empty, cleaned out. It looks like only the
Klafters stayed behind,” he said at last.
“The RV park is empty too—I guess when it got here they all
took off.” Fraser must have caught something in Ray's voice, and turned
to look at him with a clear-eyed acceptance that made it easier somehow.
Ray went on, “There's a pile of bodies on the edge of the airstrip.
Someone must have collected them and tried to burn them. Didn't do too
good of a job.”
“How many?” Fraser asked thinly.
“I don't know. Not enough to account for everyone who lives
“I found a government quarantine notice on the motel door,
listing the symptoms and ordering three weeks' isolation, but not
suggesting any treatment.”
Ray tried again. “The papers weren't much help. Whatever it is,
it's big. Worldwide.” He looked up at Fraser, standing still in the
dimness. “And contagious.” He felt his remaining strength flowing out
into the emptiness.
“The symptoms described sound like a type of hemorrhagic fever,
but more virulent. Almost as if it were artificially enhanced. It could be
a variant of Lassa, or Ebola, or dengue, or¼”
“Oh, shut up, Fraser! Just shut up!” Ray yelled, all patience
with Fraser long forgotten. “It doesn't matter. We don't know how it's
transmitted or incubated; even corpses could still be infectious. Shit,
shit, shit! We're probably dying already.”
“It'll be fine, Ray.” Fraser kept staring into the distance,
scanning the dark.
“No, it won't, Benny. We're cut off, we don't know the incubation
period, and we don't know if there's any hope of outside contact. Or
The silence stretched between them, magnifying the tension. Ray let
it build and then forced himself to speak: “I want to go home. I want to
see my family and hold them and make them safe.” He turned his head
toward Fraser's shape. “It's what I do, Fraser. It's what I'm supposed
Fraser sighed and then cleared his throat. “I know. We're two
hundred miles from
“It doesn't matter. It's never mattered to you when you had
someone to protect.” His jaw was hurting now.
“I didn't say it didn't matter. Your family matters to me too,
Ray. But what if we are contagious? What if they have it contained and we
reintroduce it? Or we bring back a mutated version?”
Ray clenched his fists, the nails biting into his palms. He wasn't
thinking clearly. Of course, who would be, but he should have thought of
that. “How long until we know?”
Fraser stepped down, moving carefully around Ray. “Three weeks.
One month. How long before we're willing to risk their lives?”
Ray clamped down again on his knees, forcing himself to think.
“You're right. So we keep checking the phone and radio.”
“Yes.” Fraser sounded relieved. Hard to tell sometimes. Strange
how the dark could make you feel closer to someone—an intimate
connection of sound and sensation. “And start preparing in case we have
to winter here.”
“Right.” Wintering seemed so remote. They'd know within a few
days at most, if Carey was right. Until then, he wouldn't let Fraser down.
He could handle this. They could handle it.
The wind picked up, blowing briskly across the road. Leaves rustled in the darkness, rasping across the pavement, and beneath their trembling chatter, he heard the silence of the dead. Ray leaned his forehead on his knees. “Shit,” he whispered. “Shit.” The porch door banged sharply, rattling loosely in answer. It wouldn't take too much time. Before they had an answer. Before they knew.
Skip To Part Two (Chapter 7)