Authors: Christine Pope
She’d put down her paintbrush and hurried out the door, not even bothering to throw on a jacket. Traffic had been oddly light, but she really didn’t think about the number of vehicles on the street, was only intent on getting to her father’s house as quickly as possible.
He was lying on the couch in the living room, his dropped cell phone on the floor next to him. Madison had picked it up and put it on the coffee table, then knelt by his side. Her father was a tall man, and he didn’t quite fit on the sofa, his legs slipping down to touch the carpet. His face was flushed and sheened with sweat, his breaths a shallow pant.
Had she ever seen anyone that ill? Maybe her mother when she was in the last stages of her battle with cancer, but this was an entirely different kind of sickness. Even from a foot away, Madison had felt the waves of fever heat coming from her father’s body.
Of course she’d grabbed her phone to call 9-1-1, but all she got was a fast busy signal, indicating that the circuits were overloaded. Her entire body tensed at the sound, even as her mind shied away from acknowledging what that busy signal probably meant.
And then he’d whispered her name.
She’d bent toward him, while at the same time worrying what in the world she was going to do, and whether he was contagious — even as she scolded herself for harboring such a selfish thought — and who she should call now that emergency services didn’t seem to be responding. “Dad?”
He pointed toward the cell phone she held and shook his head. “No use,” he whispered. His eyes were wide, so wide that she could see the whites all around the irises, even though those whites weren’t really white at all, but choked with angry-looking red veins. “All gone.”
“What do you mean, ‘all gone’?” she asked, a terror she could barely comprehend beginning to well up in her.
“Everything,” he said simply, the word barely more than a breath. “Madison….”
“What, Dad?” Her own voice was nearly as hushed, but that was more because of the tears she could feel rising, choking her vocal chords.
Of course she knew about the shelter. Clay Michaels had treated her family as if they were his, and so he’d told them about the secret bunker twenty feet below the surface of his backyard, the entrance cleverly hidden in the bottom of a gazebo surrounded by roses. When she’d first learned of the shelter, around the time she was sixteen or so, she’d thought Clay was being just a little paranoid — after all, the Cold War was long over — although she’d kept her opinion to herself.
“I need to get you to a hospital,” she told her father in reply. How she’d manage to do that, she had no idea. Yes, she’d inherited her father’s height, and kept herself in shape by hiking or working out on the elliptical in her apartment when she didn’t have time to get out and about, but that didn’t mean she’d be able to lift a man who was six foot three and weighed around two hundred pounds.
“No hospitals,” he replied weakly. “Gone. Nothing…go to the shelter.”
“Dad — ”
His eyes shut then, and a strange rattle came from his throat. Hearing it, her blood went cold, but she forced herself to reach out and take his wrist, so strangely, frighteningly hot, the skin slick with sweat.
She couldn’t feel a pulse. Forcing in a breath, she moved her fingers to his throat, praying that she’d be able to feel the stronger beat of his heart there, but there was nothing to feel.
Nothing. Just as he’d said.
She knelt there for a long moment, her eyes burning, dry. Somehow she knew if she started to cry, she’d never be able to stop.
The night was so still. From far off she thought she could hear the wail of a siren, but otherwise, the only thing echoing in her ears was the thudding of her own heart.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” she said at last. Thinking her failure at getting through to 9-1-1 earlier had to have been a fluke, she tapped the screen on her phone again. This time she didn’t even get that fast, angry busy signal. There was nothing. Dead air.
She’d wanted to fling the phone at the wall in denial, but she didn’t. Instead, she set it down and forced herself to confront what she must do next.
No one would be coming to take her father’s body away. She’d climbed the stairs to the second floor, thinking she could fetch a sheet and bundle him up in it, then take him away from here, to the plot in the cemetery where he’d always planned to be laid to rest next to her mother. How in the world she’d manage to bury him, she didn’t know, but it seemed horribly wrong to leave him here, even though he’d told her he wanted her to go to the shelter.
His last wishes warred with her sorrow, with her need to do right by him, and she didn’t know what the hell she was supposed to do.
When she descended the stairs to the living room, though, she couldn’t see her father’s body anywhere. Relief came to her out of nowhere. Maybe she’d just thought she couldn’t find a pulse. Maybe he’d snapped out of that strange fever, and everything would be okay.
As she approached the sofa, however, she could see by the light of the floor lamp next to it that the cushions were all covered in fine gray dust. What the —
A horrible suspicion came over her, one she didn’t want to acknowledge. But she also knew deep in her heart that her father had been dead, that his heart had stopped beating a few minutes earlier. He hadn’t gotten up and walked away. And he’d been burning with such a terrible fever….
Her free hand, the one not holding the sheet she’d just gotten from the linen closet, went to her mouth. A strangled sound came from her throat, like a whimper throttled before it had a chance to really begin. And then she was turning and running out the door, hurrying to her car so she could turn on the radio. Not the satellite music she usually listened to, but a local news station.
What the hell was going on?
She’d halfway feared no one would be broadcasting, but a man’s voice came through the speakers. He sounded young and scared, and Madison had a feeling he wasn’t a reporter at all, but maybe someone who worked at the station.
Maybe he was on the air because everyone else was already dead.
“Emergency service are no longer responding,” he said. “They told us to stay indoors and away from other people, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference. If the Heat gets you, it’s over.”
That’s what killed my father.
“There’s no contact from Washington,” the young man went on. His voice cracked on the last syllable. “No contact from anyone. I think they’re all gone.”
. That word again. She didn’t want to hear it ever again.
After viciously stabbing the power button for the radio, she pressed down on the accelerator, weaving in and out of cars that seemed to have stalled in traffic. Or maybe the people driving them had dropped dead behind the wheel, leaving behind little piles of gray ash.
Her father had told her to go to the shelter, so that was where she’d head. Part of her thought that maybe she should go home first and pack some belongings, but that would be going the exact opposite direction of Clay Michaels’ home out on the border of Kirtland Air Force Base. Besides, he’d said the place was fully stocked with clothing, food, toiletries.
Of course, were weapons even necessary if everyone else was dead?
A hiccupy little sob forced its way out of her throat, and her eyes blurred with tears. But she kept driving. For one crazy instant, she had the idea that maybe she should go to the radio station, find the person who had been broadcasting there. No, that was stupid. She’d be going far out of her way, and from what he’d been saying, he could very well be dead by the time she got there.
Fingers white-knuckled around the steering wheel, she made herself drive on.
Some instinct made her park her car around the corner from Clay’s house. The last thing she wanted was to attract any attention. His street was dark, though. Two houses showed some kind of dim illumination from within, but that was the only sign of life.
Madison got her purse and the Mag-lite flashlight she always kept tucked under the passenger seat of her Nissan Rogue, then hurried down the sidewalk to Clay’s house. It, too, was dark. She didn’t know what to think of that. Maybe he was already hiding in the shelter, hoping against hope that Madison and her father would make it there.
Or maybe he’d succumbed to the Heat, the same as everyone else.
It was entirely possible that this was a fool’s errand, that at any second she’d break out in a sweat, her body flushing with a fever so hot it burned its victims to dust.
But she kept walking anyway, the flashlight clutched in her hand. She hadn’t turned it on, though, was carrying it more as a handy weapon than anything else. Using the flashlight for its real purpose would only attract the attention of anyone on the block who hadn’t yet succumbed to the horrible disease.
She went in through the side yard, not bothering to go into the house. There shouldn’t be anything inside she needed anyway. Her real destination was in the backyard.
The gazebo glimmered faintly white within a garden of carefully trimmed rosebushes. Madison went around to the back and then squatted down next to what looked like a control system for the sprinklers. It had a keypad, and she typed in the code her father had taught her.
A little joke, and maybe a reference to the “hide in plain sight” nature of the shelter itself. In the next moment, a piece of the lattice at the base of the gazebo slid aside, and she remained crouching so she could slip under the floor of the structure and into the hatch that revealed itself there. Three turns, and it was open as well.
Inside was a corridor that sloped gently downward. LED bulbs burned overhead, lighting her way.
“Clay?” she called out. “It’s Maddie.”
Only silence in reply, and she swallowed. Well, the shelter was huge, stretching nearly to the property lines. How Clay had managed to build this place without his neighbors noticing, Madison had no idea. She’d have to ask him.
If he was here.
In a way, she didn’t know what would be worse — for him to have died along with everyone else, or for him to have survived so they’d be forced to share the bunker for the rest of their lives. She’d always looked on him as a sort of uncle, but would he see her as a niece…or as a woman who could help him repopulate the earth?
She pushed that thought aside, knowing she was allowing her mind to go down all sorts of crazy pathways because it was a good way of distracting herself from what had just happened to her father…to all of Albuquerque…to maybe the entire world.
The corridor widened as she descended, and she came to the final hatch, the one that would allow entrance to the actual living quarters themselves. As she opened it, she called out again.
Nothing. She went inside and methodically walked from room to room, calling his name periodically. But he never answered. The shelter was clearly empty.
She didn’t know what she’d been expecting. Sometimes Clay Michaels had seemed nearly invincible, but apparently even he couldn’t withstand the strange virus that had swept through the city’s population.
Fighting back panic, she headed to the room she knew had been designated as hers. It held a queen-size bed, a dresser, and a small table and chair in one corner. A door opposite the one she’d just entered led to a Jack-and-Jill bathroom.
She looked in the dresser and found stacks of jeans and T-shirts, as well as a drawer filled with underwear still in its packaging and several bras with the tags still attached. Creepy. Or was it? She’d left some things behind when she moved out of her father’s house. For all she knew, he’d used the sizes on those items to make sure the proper items waited for her here in case the worst happened.
Same thing in the bathroom — soaps and cleansers and moisturizers in all the brands she liked, an electric razor still in its box. Ditto for an electric toothbrush and a blow dryer with a diffuser that wouldn’t cause her long, curly hair to frizz.
All the comforts of home,
she thought, and a weird little giggle rose to her lips. She pushed it back, because otherwise she worried she might break into hysterical laughter then and there.
Since she didn’t know what else to do, she went to the media room and turned on the television. Even though this bunker had been prepared in the event the apocalypse occurred, it still had cable. Half the channels were blank, though, or showing reruns of sitcoms no one cared about. MSNBC had a camera fixed on an empty desk, as if someone had been sitting there but was now gone. For all Madison knew, the cameraman had dropped where he stood, but the feed kept rolling and probably would continue to do so until the power failed.
It wasn’t until that moment that she realized this was real. The Heat hadn’t hit only Albuquerque, or even just New Mexico. No one was safe anywhere.
She sat there all night, watching as the channels dropped out one by one. From time to time she dozed, then jerked awake, praying that she’d open her eyes and see Clay standing there, exuding his usual quiet confidence. By morning, she thought she would have been happy to be his Eve to her Adam, if only it meant that she wouldn’t be alone.
But he never came. And the next night she slept in the room that was supposed to be hers. And the night after that. All the cable stations were blank. Moving the radio along the FM and AM bands produced only static. Fear coiled in her belly, but she couldn’t give in to it. Not while waking, anyway. She would fall asleep and then wake screaming from nightmares where she was surrounded by a faceless horde, only to have them shiver into dust and blow away as she watched. Or the ones where her father would take her by the hand, and an unnatural heat would race up her arm, and she herself would begin to fall apart into nothing.
She screamed herself hoarse, but there was no one to hear her. By the time the fourth or fifth day rolled around, she realized dully that, for some strange reason, she was immune to the disease which had killed everyone else. Otherwise, she would have been dead her first night here.