A few houses from the school grounds, the sidewalks were relatively clear; Maureen hurried
back to her car. She drove home quickly but carefully, watching for lunatics driving through
intersections. Her route took her a block from downtown, and when she glanced down Main she saw a
gang of teenagers in oversize shorts and Raiders jackets rocking a parked car. It's been less than an hour,
she thought. Looking toward downtown, she saw a plume of smoke. A few minutes later, the sound of
fire sirens split the air. "In the event of a real emergency ..." she remembered then: she turned on the
radio. Bombs had fallen on Los Angeles and Seattle; the East Coast was devastated, the announcer said.
He put a static-garbled, hysterical voice on the air from Raleigh, North Carolina, a newsman who had
seen television coverage of the erasure of New York. The broadcast, he said, had ended abruptly when
the equipment died. It was believed to be the Chinese, but it could be North Korea. There were reports of
"silent bombs"; he took them to be biological. She wondered what she would see or hear if a nuclear
bomb fell near San Francisco. She cast an involuntary look at the northern sky. Nothing but the rich
California blue. A few wispy clouds.
She pulled into her garage and closed the door behind her. Driving toward the school, she had worked out what should happen next.
"Alee, we're going to move into the basement for a few days. You go to your room and get some books and toys, OK? Take your pillowcase and fill it up."
"Can I bring Pooh?"
"You can bring all you can carry in three trips. Take the pillowcase and empty it and go back. I'll get your clothes; you just get toys and books. OK?"
Alee hopped from the car and ran for the inner door. Maureen hurried after, headed for the kitchen. As she scrabbled out the grocery bags stored under the sink, she heard Alee thunder up the hall stairs.
Nothing refrigerated; no place to keep it. She filled grocery bags with canned goods, rice and pasta, as many as she could carry, and took them downstairs. She ran to the front room and gathered up the couch cushions and tossed them down the basement stairs. The laundry was downstairs. Once they were settled in, she'd run everything. She ran upstairs with a couple of grocery bags and cleared the medicine cabinet into them. There was half a package of toilet paper under the sink; she grabbed that, and tried to remember where Alee's potty was. When she pictured it stored in the basement, she laughed. She remembered then that Alee's child bed, still barely big enough for her, was also in storage. Alee walked by the bathroom door with a lumpy pillowcase, dragging it behind her like a little Santa.
They met on the stairs to the basement, Maureen headed down, Alee coming back up.
"Can I have my sleeping bag?" Alee said.
"Sure. Tell you what: throw it on the floor and will fill it with stuff and I'll help you take it down. Hustle!" she added cheerily.
Maureen ran back up the stairs and up to her bedroom. She grabbed the clock radio, glancing at her watch when the radio lights blinked out. Remember to reset it, she noted. She did the master bathroom then, getting medicines, soap, a hand towel. A bottle of perfume sat on the sink from that morning; it was her favorite, she took it too.
She was counting Alee's trips as she worked. When the little girl came back from her third descent to the basement, Maureen came with her to her room. The Sesame Street comforter was opened on the floor, Alee's Winnie the Pooh sitting happily in its center. "Let's make a bundle," Maureen said, and she pulled the top drawer from Alee's dresser and dumped a jumble of panties, tanktops, and shorts onto the comforter. "We can zip it all together and drag it away like our loot!"
Alee grinned and ran to her closet. She emerged with an armload of dresses. In a few minutes, they had the comforter loaded. Maureen zipped it together and they each took a corner. "Get your pillow." Alee dropped her end, tucked the pillow under her arm, and grabbed the corner of the comforter as Maureen dragged it through the door. It thumped down the stairs.
"Like a dead body," Alee said. Maureen's brain shuddered. "How 'bout the TV?"
"Maybe later. We don't need TV. Did you bring your tapes?"
"I got 'em."
They lived in the basement for fourteen days. At first, Maureen left the radio on all day, but the broadcasting got to be intermittent and it was unrelievedly bad news--details of the devastation from the bombs, looting, nightmares of mayhem in the cities, and the Reaper. It took five days before the truth about the Reaper emerged. They didn't call it that yet, of course. It was reports of "mystery illnesses wiping out sections of unbombed cities," then "rumors of a flu-like epidemic" and finally, confirmation from NORAD that biological weapons had been detonated in key parts of the country, including Los Angeles. The last reports stated that the two-day war had been world-wide. Civilization, one radio voice said grimly, was over.
On the fourth day, Maureen went upstairs and hauled Alee's little TV set downstairs. She brought down the VCR and Alee's tapes and a few of her own favorite movies--Notorious, Charade, Sleeper--downstairs, set everything back up, and they watched tapes or listened to Alee's cassettes. She turned the radio on for five or ten minutes every few hours, then just at noon and around six. She heard the Reaper stalk north from Los Angeles, to Fresno, to Soledad and Salinas. They had hidden from the bombs, then from looters and thugs, and finally, quiet as mice, from the plague. It killed in two hours, sometimes, sometimes it took days. It killed everyone who contracted it. They hid. It killed quickly but not, according to the scarcely sane voices that now rode the airwaves, selectively. By the end of the first week, there were no stations within reach; the last of the LA stations went silent. It was no loss.
The first two days, the phone rang a few times upstairs. Then Maureen remembered the portable phone she'd gotten as a promotion with a recliner. She'd never liked the thing; it was in a pile of stuff by the hot water heater. She plugged it in, got a dial tone. It didn't ring for another week. Then one morning it rang. It was Timothy Clauson.
"I'm trying to find out who made it," he said.
"We're OK," Maureen replied.
"Alee too? I guess you know that's a statistical miracle." She hadn't known Timothy Clauson very well. He had a reputation as a nut-and-bolts pediatrician--cool and abstract, unpopular with mothers who wanted their children liked as well as healed. She had once heard him say to another nurse, Amy Talmadge, when she asked if a newborn was healthy, "Thirty per cent viable."
"He wasn't kidding!" Amy told her later.
"I'm just working my way through the phone list," he said when she did not reply. Still she said nothing. She knew what he wanted. He was at the hospital.
"I'm hearing estimates of ten and twenty per cent survival for this virus," he said. "Two people from the same family. Unusual."
"I thought it killed everyone," she said.
"Not us. It just seemed like everyone. Eighty percent is bad enough." The phone was silent. Then he added, "I'm at the hospital." He paused again. "Did you hear the organizers?"
"They went through the streets with a PA system. Didn't you hear them?"
"Maybe I did. I heard something a couple of days ago."
"I'm supposed to salvage the hospital."
"Is anyone else there?"
His laughter shocked her. "Yeah! A few dozen dead patients. A couple of hundred dead visitors. The parking lot--" He stopped, then went on. "There are a couple of men helping. I need some professional help."
"It's hopeless, Dr. Clauson. What can you do?"
"Nothing." That answer, she thought, didn't mean to him what it meant to her.
"I have to stay with Alee. What could I do?"
"There's a child center. Leave her there."
"What about the flu?"
"She's as safe there as anywhere. You can't hide. It'll take you, or it won't. It's in the air. It's on your clothes right now. Look, I'm trying to clean the place out, keep it viable. For the survivors."
"Hauling out the dead."
"Checking medicines, supervising. I can't do it alone."
"It's too soon."
"The committee is trying to round people up. They haven't had a reported death from the Reaper in two days. Maybe the worst is over. The hospital will be a cesspool of disease, if we don't do it now." His voice quavered a little.
"I have to think," she said. "If you can't find anyone else, call me."
He was silent, a silence filled with reproach. She was high in the alphabet, she thought. He's barely started looking. Surely--
"All right," he said. I'll call you in the morning."
He did. When she answered the phone, he just said, "No one." He waited. She had thought it through, talked with Alee. In the early evening, someone had pounded on the front door and shouted her name, a man's voice, firm and authoritative. They did not respond, and considering this, Maureen realized they couldn't hide forever. But they would emerge gently, slowly, tentatively, sniffing the air like a deer, she thought.
"I can come for two hours. That's all."
"We can't get anything done in two hours."
"Two hours. Then I have to go home, then two hours in the afternoon."
He was waiting in the parking lot. She parked on the street; the lot was a chaotic jumble of cars. Two men in safe suits and gas masks were wheeling a gurney through the main doors. It was piled with bodies, three, no four of them.
Dr. Clauson handed her a gas mask and surgical gloves. He was carrying OR greens; he helped her into them. "All they care about," he said, "all they care about is getting the dead out of the wards. They dug a pit over there--" he gestured vaguely in the direction that the men were going, across the parking lot. "I said to lime them, like in the plague. I just want to get them out of the hospital."
For two hours they labored, sorting through the medicine chests, filling a gurney with useful things, consolidating their finds in the pediatric ward; it was the area he was most familiar with, and she had worked there for a while. They heard the gurneys in the hall with the dead, clanking, rattling shrilly, rolling outside, where she imagined the bodies piling up like cordwood. She doubted if this was as important as he thought, but it felt good to be working. He talked constantly about the importance keeping the hospital "viable."
When her two hours were up, she went home. Alee was watching her second movie, a bag of potato chips in her lap.
"You OK, baby?"
"I got scared, but not much."
Maureen sat on the floor and watched the end of The Jungle Book with her, absent-mindedly nibbling at the potato chips. They couldn't live in the basement forever. She wondered if how many were left in the entire town. Dozens? Hundreds? "Statisically unlikely," she muttered.
"Nothing, honey. Hey, when the movie's over, let's move back upstairs."
"I'm scared to."
"OK. How about if I go out again, and I get some good stuff for a party. When I get back, we'll have a party, and then we'll sleep upstairs. We can sleep in my bed, huh?"
"Together. For a few days, anyway. Then you'll get bored with my snoring."
"Ha. You don't snore."
"I sure do! Daddy used to complain all the time."
"Can we call Daddy?"
Maureen realized with a slight shock that she had assumed Teddy was dead. What if he was alive? She picked up the phone. "I'll try." She pushed his phone number, neglecting to hit '1' for a long distance circuit. The phone protested. "It didn't go through," she said. "We can try again later." She needed time to think. Alee didn't look suspicious; Maureen felt dirty.
When the movie was over, they ate lunch.
"I told Dr. Clauson I'd try to come back and help him again. Is that OK?"
"Can I come?"
"It's not a good place for you. How about if you stay here like a good girl, and when I come back, we'll go outside for a while?"
"OK. Can I watch Cinderella?"
"Sure. You know what? I bet I can get some more movies on the way home. What would you like?"
"A horse movie!"
"OK. I'll see what I can do."
She walked Alee through the instructions for running the VCR again, and then, when the little girl was settled in front of her movie, she went back upstairs. There were dead in the streets. She looked out the back window, hoping there were no visible horrors; there were none. She could take Alee into the back yard.
Driving back to the hospital, she decided to look at the "children's center." It was a few blocks from the hospital, a day care facility. There were only a dozen children at the center. She didn't recognize the woman who ran it. Vera Nash was her name; she had been a cook at Miller's. "My kids are all gone," she said after introducing herself. "Moved away, I mean. I mean, I don't know if they are alive or not. We have to protect what we have left. I hope someone is doing the same for Michael and Deborah and their girls." The children were all wearing surgical masks. Mrs. Nash had painted animal muzzles on the masks. Maureen decided to stick with her arrangement as long as Alee was OK, to avoid the place herself, just to be careful. She went on this way for three days. Alee seemed to adjust to it quickly. the next time she asked to talk to her father, Maureen was ready. She called Teddy's number; she got his machine: "Sure enough, you caught me out selling a car to some lucky customer! Leave that number on your phone, so I can call you back and do the same for you! Just kidding! Just leave your number, and I'll get right back to you. I may be out, or maybe I just can't come to the phone right now. If I'm asleep or something. Just leave your number, OK?" The machine squealed.
"He's not home, baby."
"Or dead," Alee said gravely.
"We don't know."
"He wouldn't come here."
"The roads are probably a mess."
Teddy lived in Salinas. Maybe he would come, if he was alive. She didn't know what to say.
On the third afternoon, she asked Timothy where he was living.
"My house. It's just two blocks."
"Would you like to come to my place? There's room. It would be nice to have some adult company."
"I'm not much company."
"Come eat with us, at least. Alee's never met you. She's curious."
He agreed to come to dinner. He brought a bottle of wine; she found the gesture sweet and archaic. Wine was sitting in the liquor stores, waiting to be appreciated. Or maybe not. That would have been the first stores looted. She put the bottle in the refrigerator.
"Why do you suppose we still have electricity?" she said when they sat to table.
"Some kind of automatic system. Don't get used to it. It will fail eventually."
She thought about the VCR. That would be the hardest loss.
"I have to keep some things going," she said.
"Maybe we can find a generator. They run on gas. A portable."
He went with her to the survival headquarters the next morning, the WalMart on the main drag. Most of the people were wearing surgical masks; otherwise it looked like another bustling WalMart. Men were bringing truckloads of useful commodities--canned goods from the grocers, equipment from hardware stores--into the building. There were forms to fill out: registering heself and Alee as Grenville residents, giving their address.
"You still have phones?"
"Good," the clerk said. "You're the first with that prefix," she explained. Once the paperwork was complete, she was issued a small portable generator and a huge cable of a cord.
"Keep the generator outside. Carbon monoxide," the man who signed it out told her.
Driving back home, she suggested to Timothy that he move to her place. He demurred, then reconsidered. He arrived that night with a suitcase.
It was nearly a month before the Reaper deaths seemed to have tapered off. Timothy speculated that it was planned that way.
"The artificial strain isn't communicable," he told her one afternoon. "We got a fax from Atlanta early on; it may not be communicable."
"How can that be?"
"Bred for it. Oriental efficiency. You don't want to release a virulent germ and have it keep spreading indefinitely. The bastards probably even have an antidote, some treatment. Maybe they inoculated the whole country before they fired the rockets."
They lived together for two months. Maureen was uncertain what he wanted; she gave him what he asked for. She grew weary of him when she saw that Alee didn't like him. He treated her like a patient, the girl said one day. "Like I'm not important because I'm not sick!"
He departed from her personal life as coolly and abstractedly as he had entered it. She stayed on at the hospital; they met in the corridors and over coffee. They were friendly, as if they had never touched each other's bodies in dark intimacy. Maureen was not surprised that she had so little effect on him. When she thought of herself, words like "serviceable" and "dependable" shouldered to the front of her mind. Clothed, she was square and solid. She had the face, she had observed one day to her mother, of a heroic woman on one of those Communist statues.
"You're no Communist, I hope," her mother replied.
She would have looked as good as she was going to, wearing a Chinese Communist uniform, another square, drab drudge drudging her square drab way through a square, drab day and off to her square, drab bed. Naked, she fared a little better, or so she thought on her good days, when she didn't feel bloated with menstrual retention. She had a nicely proportioned curve from rib to thigh, subtle. Her breasts were small, yes, but round, firm, and high, supported by the chest swimming had given her in high school. On her good days, when she liked what she glimpsed as she passed the mirror in the closet, hustling from the shower, she looked like a woman who could haul a field pack into the Sierras and make mad love that night under the moon. Could, hell. She'd done it, and would again.
She remembered the first boy who saw her naked. She had fumbled with others, lifting skirts in the backs of cars or, sweet luxury, Frederick Freeman's father's van, but Andy Markham was the first boy whose gaze she had laid naked under. It was camping at Mono Lake, and she had stripped in the summer heat after the moon came up, a bright silver moon nearly full. Andy was fiddling with a campfire, cooking hot dogs, and when he turned and saw her, luxurious as that painting, the one with a clothed version and a naked one, he had blurted, "You have a great bod!" like it was the surprise of the century. He was so embarrassed that she forgave him.
But no, really, those were triumphs that predated pregnancy, that mauling women's bodies never recover from. Teddy had told her it gave her "great tits," and him she had not forgiven. They swelled for six months and then they shrank again. Their surfaces were spiderwebbed with stretchmarks, and her nipples, so delicate and symmetrical, became big, crude raspberries when they were erect. Her belly was not soft; on the contrary, she was strong and contained everywhere. Standing in front of a muscle chart one day, looking the peeled man in the eye, she imagined her skinned body rich with marbling but red too, muscle and energy reserves succulent as a plump deer.
Her belly was not soft, but a layer of fat cells slackened the skin and ruined her tummy's profile. When she was a teenager, she had pirouetted naked in front of a full-length mirror, one day her parents left her home alone, and admired the firm globes of her bottom, the curves of her waist and breast, the definition of her chin, and been for a few moments contemptuous of those concentration-camp models that she envied on most days. A year after Alee was born, she turned this way and that, before a mirror one morning, her eyes clinical and cold, and did not even think of weeping. "I'm old," she said, not loud enough for Teddy to hear.
She was no catch. She didn't wonder that Timothy Clauson hardly noticed that he had left. He wasn't what she wanted any way.