The rabbit seemed aware of the profound silence that had come over the town in a blanket of musty heat. It daydreamed off on the road as if confident no rumble over the pavement would disturb it anymore. Lucy watched it for a long time before realizing her attention had strayed off in the middle of trying to decide the order in which to bury the bodies.
In the end, she saved the oldest for last, and that was the retired pharmacist Lou Dadds, the last soul she'd had to talk to before he finally succumbed. He had been a slight man and lighter than her husband, but it was heavy labor just the same. She worked herself into an ache all over that sedated her, made her fall asleep facing that grim cloak of blackening sky with her head in the weeds and one of her hands still close to the shovel.
In the morning she was grateful she had buried Marcy first, for if she had been at her most tired when it came down to it, she may have balked at the impossible thought of putting her baby in the ground. But now, either way, it was done, and she was alone.
- - -
Later on she wouldn't be able to say how many hours or how many days she spent wandering around the town screaming to see who would answer her. It hadn't taken long for her to understand that Lou would be the last, but she went on doing it anyway.
Outside of the old shoe repair shop, when she was on her way to the drugstore, she heard a rustling of motion and walked up, her heart crying out.
A garbage can rattled an echo, and the cat mewed from under the noise. Watching it run off, Lucy's tears turned numb, and she knew the utter finality of giving up. She wouldn't try any more.
- - -
By the time Wes had caught it, the whole town had known they'd be coming down with “the rales” sooner or later, even if they hadn't said so out loud or even to that quiet room of their own dread.
Through the initial solitude, Lucy struggled to accept that she was soon to suffer and die entirely on her own.
She ought to choose her place to perish; nobody would be around to bury her. She could go through this entirely without dignity, as long as she was willing to die without it. That was horrific enough, to think that death could be that dead, known in advance as the utter isolation that mortality often made folks reach to resist. Control over how it might happen was all she had left.
After choking in that fear for some few days and coming out of it in hollow bravery, she found she had a new and deeper horror to stomach, and this was the simple evident fact that for some ungodly reason she seemed set to go on living.
She collapsed shakily to her knees just in front of the Artaxerxes fountain, having wandered into Lebanon for no reason at all. "Oh, God,” she moaned. “Oh, God. Please. No. Oh, God.” She had asked God-please when her baby took the last turn. Her God-please was obviously not good enough, not enough to stay the lesson she was supposed to learn, whatever punishment this was.
Much later, the thought would feel stranger, but it almost never occurred to her to leave town and try to find other people. Having decided that she was the last human being in the world, that conclusion was at least her own answer to the feeling that she got night after night, the sense that she could hear some indescribable crack through the blue air of countless bodies decaying as slowly and sizably as the movement of the continent. It was worse even than the smell that was only now beginning to fade from the hot winds. But if she were to set out and still find no one, then it wouldn't simply be the truth, but a message, a fact created by someone or something else.
She knew what the punishment was for. She was unworthy of any biblical justice, clearly, as this was too direct to have any poetry to it, as literal as someone’s nightmare in a movie. You like to love, Lucy Swann? You like it don't you, a little too much, maybe? I can help you break that little habit. Easily.
I tried, she protested in her mind, thinking of her little family, their slippers still sitting by the bed, the little kitchen where they had to store the roaster inside the oven. I changed.
All those bodies, once so warm and tempting, once almost as countless in number once they charmed her into some cozy naked place or even, once, the bathroom stall at Jody’s bar (or was that twice), or where the bleachers cast their shadows across the dark grass. The men who sensed this one was easy and were right because she loved to love. They were swept into cold death for the sake of God knows what, but she was still alive, she knew, just to be condemned to this slow gnawing of abstinence against her skin and bones.
No children either. No babies, no women. No touch. No flu. No nothing.
- - -
Her weak attempts at enjoying the lack of society began with a manic baton-twirling performance in the middle of the Lebanon high school football field.
She found the costume still fit her like a glove when she tried it on in front of the mirror beforehand, and even that frisky fact was felt with precariously lonely thoughts as she smoothed her hands down the red satin tuxedo trim, watching the way the fringe at the bottom still speckled a hint of shapely lines around her ass and thighs. Oh, yes, her mother had hated this uniform; she’d never said, but Lucy could always tell. She did encourage the hobby when Lucy was still in grade school, but as with just about everything else, it came under a wary scrutiny once her daughter was catching eyes. Even after a regional judge had approached her at one of the football games to tell her about a pageant with a nice scholarship award, her mother found reasons to protest, eventually wearing her down. The extra reading time didn't do much to raise her grades. Lucy had always been more of a quick physical study.
The middle of the field almost had the effect of an amphitheater, or it was just the surrounding stillness that made her singing seem to echo and bounce as she pitched a surprisingly well remembered set of lyrics to "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.” The moves came back to her more gradually, but she gave herself a whoop when, on only her ninth repeat through the routine, she didn't drop the baton once. She wanted the beats to pull a little tighter, though, so she did it nine more times in the hot field as the sun began to go down, aware if she sang along now that her notes hit in a wavering, pleading way. As the desperation of this exercise became more undeniable she pushed through it even more, hungry and sweating, limbs shaking.
Late that night the grass quivered and looked a stale yellow against the green-black poison of the night. One bare foot followed the other again and again down a border line on the field, her eyes cast down on the painted grass under her toes until they moved to see the line disappear into dark like the lane strips out of a headlight’s halo. The line went on and on, her feet never reaching the end of the field. Were there ever snakes in this grass?
There are snakes in all grass, she thought, if you know how to be careful; some refrain from the caution that came from Mother. Unwieldy, heavy caution. She had wanted to be out from under that overwrought care and under someone else's, someone heavy, something –
Whistling from beyond. A tune she couldn't place though it rang some kind of bell, doped out on the air in a strong volume. Why not whistling on such an evening on this walk down the
field of green and darkness? Why not a stranger saying hi with a tune?
But it came from everywhere and nowhere; maybe the noise slid like a snake between patches of heat, cooling the ground. The grass was starting to feel different. Cold sweat over the earth, and when a wind blew over the grass it was the planet shaking with the flu.
She looked down to her feet brushing over the sickly green blades, listening to the whistling as she made one step after one step after one step. She strained – had the whistling stopped? Was anyone there? – one step, eyes down, one step.
She stopped when she almost walked into two feet facing her from the dead symmetry of the white line ahead. Cowboy boots.
She was beginning to look up at his face when she startled hard to waking, a hostage of strange surroundings until she looked around. Her skin was sweating on the grass close to the goal post. The sun was low and already cruel. As shocked by her misery as yesterday and the day before, she lay back with a hand over her face, and baked and cried.
- - -
She thought about raiding the stores for clothes she could never have previously afforded – oh, isn't that what any woman would do, some inner paternal voice clucked – but she would have to walk downtown, passing God knows what that she’d have to see – and the thought held no appeal anyway.
Sooner or later she’d still have to go over and bury her parents, she knew, but every time she thought of it she got on that same question of what her last conversation with her pop had been like and for the life of her she could not remember, for the life of her she was not going to go bury him before she could remember that. Though for all she knew one of them had managed to bury the other before they went; she shuddered and decided to stop sorting through all the possibilities. Deciding it was one thing, as she knew now. She would need a distraction.
The bed was beckoning her earlier and earlier these days, but that night she had to work herself into being tired. Some jolt of unease was still humming through her, had been since that morning. She set herself on cleaning the floors for a second time, this time with a toothbrush for the tile cracks. She scrubbed the foyer and up to the closet, and there Wes’s old boots frowned at her, the leather old and slouched. She remembered something, some nightmare thing with a dark fickle tune to go with it. As soon as she realized how vividly it was stenciled in her recollection, not as vague as the usual dream, she tried to push it back out of her mind.
Somehow she knew he would be there again.
The clean tiles were cold under her feet even though in the daytime nothing in the house had felt cool. The crisp white bi-fold closet doors were opened in a drowsy half-awake slit. There were shadows of boot-shaped dirt prints walking out of it, the footprints leading out the front door.
Her distance from the closed door was stretched and distorted somehow; she was walking the length of a never-ending throat and into the light. The door pulsed with its contained truths; the handle felt hot, but in spite of the warmth she could sense on the other side, she shivered.
There was a voice, deep and pleased with its own jokes.
She lingered and went still, recognizing the voice for who it was, what it was. The plague, or its portents, or its spawn.
Lucy, don't you want to come along? I can make you less longing, less needy, less, less. Loose little Lucy, come on. I can make you long less...
There was a strange flickering outside, an apoplectic night and day, night and day. His promise was a deep hiss:
I can make you clean.
She held the handle and it turned. Bursting out onto the porch, she found herself transported.
It was not her porch, not her yard. This scene shouted with daylight. In a small gust of wind, a tire swing sang its rusty chains out in a haphazardly tended but cheerfully big stretch of grass.
You better leave that be, child, someone said. Just come on over here.
Turning, she found herself face-to-face with a woman who was rocking slowly, tending to something small in her hands. Her dark skin was cracked, ancient. Her face was spotted, her eyes deep and forgiving.
You don't need nothing from that man, she was assuring, as if the two of them had been in the middle of a conversation already. Though if he is a man or not...I have a feeling we’ll know.
She wanted to ask the woman who she was. She had the inclination to ask her where she was, but a part of her felt like she already knew. And do you know what I need? All alone like this?
Bitter words won't help you, girl. They'll just fill you up inside.
But I need to be filled. She was crying; it brought new frustration, the feeling that this was her only consolation and she could only complain, plead, as every part of her begged for something. I need to be full.
You know well what to plant within yourself. Her smile was a soft nudge of encouragement. Don't you?...You'll come and see me, will you?
Her mind scoffed at this, but just as soon was trying to understand the shame she felt for doubting her.
That flickering again. I'm waking up, she thought, and suddenly was desperate to stay here in this dream. She looked to the old woman as if for help, just as everything went black, and there was the man again, suspended through some atmosphere that was nothing and nowhere. He floated in the air, arms out with the cheery spasm of hellfire.
When she gasped in one breath, he turned his face to her, and it was void.
She woke sweating heavily in her bed, the sheet a frothing tangle around her legs, and felt like something had been cut out of her. For the briefest moment, she had been sure the old woman was real. That she had been with someone.
She got up and thoughtlessly went out to her own small porch, and didn't know what she was doing when she looked around. She didn't know what she was still doing in this house. She didn't understand why she was in this life.
The sobs came harder than they had in days. She crouched and sat in the company of them, for a long while, until she had to eat something.
- - -
A week went by, or something close to it – time filled, she remembered later, with more dreams and greater fears than she dared to think about later on, time she ultimately lost to the nearly catatonic state she found herself in on the day she went by the park.
She used to know the owner of the convenience store many truckers stopped at right off of highway nine, but that didn't go very far in explaining why she’d taken a shocked stupor of a stroll into that direction on the day she supposed was somewhere past the middle of July. The fireworks tent that went up every summer was still propped up close to there, and she was stalled just next to it in her surprised observation that it still had that sooty papery smell steaming from the inside, when her mind wrote down the fact that a couple voices carried briefly on the wind, almost filed it away as a bird’s noise – then froze.
No. That had been a man's voice, distant but deep and sonorous on that briefest of a breeze, and at such a mutter that it was pure luck she'd picked it up at all.
The sound pulled her down the narrow street that led to the park. For the next few moments still certain she'd imagined it, she walked down to just before the incline up a slight hill, and swallowed hard as she came to see at the top of it.
Just as her vision cleared out of the first rush of overwhelmed tears, the form was closer than she expected and oddly shaped at first; then she realized it was a young boy holding a guitar by the neck, his profile shaped in a restless glance away from her.
She gasped an “Oh” of painful relief, and the boy’s eyes went to her, squinting and almost suspicious for a second, and then he turned to walk away. Following his movement she finally found the source of the voices: a man and a woman sitting down. The man had an affectionate hold around the shoulders of the other, the arm loosening away even as she began to run towards all three of them.
Her legs were almost shaking too hard to carry her forward. As she came closer, the boy was throwing a thumb in her direction. She was talking nonsense as the man and woman caught on to her, polite customary nonsense, and she was crying in jubilation.
The world was going up white, blowing her over like she was a strand of grass. The man, close now, caught her by the shoulders before she could fall over. His eyes were like a reflection of her own in a darker pool.
He had skin. He had a name and was telling it to her. They all had names and faces and stories worn all over their tired looks.
Struck in the awe of this mirage, she was exclaiming, "Oh my God, are you really people?” She went to the woman to see she was real.
It was a moment almost like the very change of vision after her baby wept from her body and into her arms. They were all so gorgeous she thought she could die.
- - -
Once her amazed fit had passed, the woman, Nadine, took her back to the house on one of their motorcycles, and helped her pack. Though she mostly watched; Lucy suspected she was mainly being a gentle hand to keep her from lingering, which she may well have needed. She felt self-conscious as she wrapped the framed family photos in newspapers to tuck them into her knapsack, but when she looked over Nadine was only glancing at the surroundings with crossed arms and a kind of reluctant, curious reverence. The simple house with its quilted and colorful textures seemed utterly foreign to her, Lucy realized.
It was getting dark once they got back to Larry and the boy. That night they discovered their own minds, their shared dreams. It scared them all, but something about it seemed to scare Nadine the hardest. When they all saw the old woman in a dream together, Lucy could somehow feel the trepidation coming off the others, and Nadine’s was different, colder. She'd dug her heel into the middle of somewhere.
And then it was the dream of the dark man again, the one where he chased her around Enfield, crooning maniacally. Looosey, let me make it better. They'll just dirty you up, baby. I got the permanent antidote. Aren't you tired? I got the cure.
None of them talked about their dreams in the morning as they got ready to leave for Stovington. They didn't want to know which parts had been shared.
When Lucy opened some canned peaches for breakfast Larry was already off somewhere, maybe just taking a leak, and carrying from his fancy was a good bellowing of "Lookin' Out My Back Door" that made her stop to listen. There was such an impressive rumble to his singing and she thought of the day before, how one note of words had snaked up the street on the air, just far enough to catch her. One of her hands had idled at the hem of her shorts over a sun-warmed thigh, and Nadine was looking over as if in question.
Getting back to her movements, she remarked, "That skinny boy’s got some pipes.”
"Oh. Sure. You should see Joe play."
Encouraged, Lucy looked to the boy with a smile. "Is that right?...Look, honey, you want to tie those boots now. You'll trip.”
Joe surprised her by extending his leg a bit as if used to having help, and she leaned over to tie his laces. Just as soon as she'd done it, Nadine was bending down on his other side to make more thorough work of his other boot, and had her head turned down in a frown as she took his other foot to redo Lucy's work from the bottom up. The action made her back away to start getting her things together, a bit stung, but when she remembered with painful nostalgia her own impatient disapproval of the smallest things her own mother had done with Marcy, it was easy to gloss over the rudeness with good faith.
She assumed when they got on the motorbikes later that Larry would take the boy, but when they were setting off Nadine beckoned for Joe to get on with her, and she wasn't lingering on her own reluctance to seat it with Larry.
"Just hold a good fistful of my shirt if you want," he said good-naturedly as she reached with uncertainty around his ribs. He seemed, she realized, genuinely concerned she wasn't holding on enough, but she swallowed with her chin to his back, afraid she'd hold on a little too tight.
- - -
Stovington and the plague center were no hope at first, driving Nadine further and further into her unpredictable hysterics, but when they arrived there they had no idea that they were less than a day away from coming into contact with others. Between the note left at the lab building and the surprisingly firm intentions of their two new companions to pursue a way to make sense of those vivid dreams, Lucy felt they were slowly arriving at some new and remotely satisfying definition of sanity.
The fighting over what immediate course of action was best got brutal for a good twenty minutes at least. These moments created an incidental leader out of Larry, whose personality ingratiated well with Mark Zellman and kept him off Nadine’s inconceivable stubbornness, until he managed to insist on the compromise of trying out the CB radio at least for a couple days.
That had been Nadine's idea and when she realized he was siding with her so firmly there was a strange expression on her face, as if no one had ever spoken up on her behalf before, and Lucy felt an uncomfortable ache of sympathy for her. It was too humiliating, the thought of herself feeling pity for such a woman.
The fact she was clearly older wasn't even a factor; it certainly didn't matter to Larry, and it wasn't even just about her beauty, at least not as far as Lucy could sense. Even with those white hairs and her high-strung appearance there was something to the woman like a perfectly smooth pearl, something essentially rare on the inside. Something…clean.
The thought felt like superstition, but it carried over from the dreams, the place where they all seemed to be reaching for each other. All of them, except for Nadine.
Either way, it was good that none of that seemed to bother Larry, or distract him from her magnificent prettiness. It would certainly be the last of Lucy's self-respect, wouldn't it, if she opened her legs for the very first man she'd come across after the end of the world? It hadn't taken her long to feel more than a little mocked by his sweet eyes set in the middle of an overall rough exterior, though not by any intention on his part, she was mostly sure. Though, she might end up having to admit it was more than that for her too, more than a nice face. She liked the man he seemed to be becoming before her. That gentleness to him came only in moments he fumbled at with novelty; but there hadn't been a single moment with him when she thought he didn't mean well, and that was making her love him all the more, for the grief he seemed to give himself.
Mark and Laurie had come back from town suspecting the military had ordered an evacuation or that someone had at least started a terrifying and true rumor to the same effect; there were very few bodies around and half of the shops were locked up. Relieved about the chance to pick up supplies without stepping around the dead, she and Larry quickly liked the idea of riding in, but Nadine refused to, wanting to sit by the radio for the afternoon.
Coming along a huge lot next to the movie theater, they saw the light glittering off a brilliant grid of polished vintage cars. "Wow," she exclaimed to Larry. "It must be one of those collector car shows. They all just left them…?”
"They probably thought they'd be able to come back," Larry said as he slowed the bike more. He was appraising the variety, asking, “Spot your dream ride yet? We could get off and walk by. I wouldn't mind stretching my legs.”
Surprised by the suggestion, she realized she didn't know why she’d been anxious about them getting back soon, and was finally realizing Larry’s company for the pleasantry it could be. "Fine," she accepted.
They walked down the street just next to the lot with their hands in their pockets.
"Look at that pretty Chevy," she said, grinning at a big blue one. "Sit on that and you feel like a calendar girl.”
Chuckling at her reflexive tone of envy, he pointed out, "Well, you can. It's all an oyster.”
Giving him a shyly gleeful smile, she sidled up to it, and didn't sit on it but leaned far over the hood to rest her chin on her hands with an eyelash-batting pose like some kind of Betty Boop.
Something changed in his smile, and she didn't think she imagined the way his eyes traveled over her briefly. Doing a humored shake of his head, he gruffly quoted, “‘Anything so innocent and built like that just gotta be named Lucille.’”
Seeing her expression, he dissolved into half-nervous, half-delighted laughter.
"I'm sorry. Did you never see Cool Hand Luke?”
"I don't think so." They were both laughing now as she caught up to him with a hand at his arm.
- - -
"You better just keep it longer until you meet somebody who knows what they're doing.” She met his eyes in the mirror. "I can give you a trim though."
Lounging back in the salon chair, he asked, "What about the beard?”
"Uh, that's your business," she said pertly, making him smile.
The combs had been left swimming in the neon blue Barbicide and she fished for one to untangle his hair back with what she hoped was a good imitation of professionalism. She snipped off just an inch or so, quickly finding it was that much easier than doing it to the back of your own head. One time when she looked up to catch his expression he wore a kind of soft smirk; the other time he was more pensive, and she tried not to look anymore.
When she was done she said so, smoothing down the ends to check the lengths. Catching his smiling eyes in the mirror again, her hand drifted naturally down to his shoulder. The most innocuous couple seconds passed, but then she became unbearably aware that she could not leave her hand there, where the simple sturdy warmth of muscle underneath his shirt affected her more than she could've expected.
Suddenly his hand was covering hers, and she realized she'd started visibly crying.
“Hey,” said Larry.
The two different people she wanted to be were tearing her right down the center. She pulled her hand away. “Um...” She cleared her throat. “I saw a couple things through the window next door that I'd like to try on.”
He let her make her escape. The department store was unlocked. They had the exact fancy ladies’ watches she'd always had in mind as a good gift to get her mom should she ever have won the lottery. She tried one on from behind the counter and didn't see any reason to take it off. Then she stripped out of her sweat-stained blouse to take a tank top right off one of the mannikins. Pacing around and still feeling a little wound up, she finally paused and grabbed a hanger off one of the lingerie racks and retreated to the civilization of the dressing rooms, adding a small pile of makeup to the stack in her arms on the way in.
Later after finishing up the job with her favorite mascara she stepped back from the mirror to get a look at herself in the embroidered luxury of the thing – they’d called them “teddies” on the soap operas – and she felt a sober elation at simply having decided to put it on. This was no feisty smiling at her own body in the mirror but a meditative, almost confrontational reflection in the literal sense.
She thought of Nadine and her own inescapable feeling of being some battered work in progress, the mistakes scratched out into a mess of scribbles she could never fully erase. Her envy for some snow-clean surface like a porcelain doll’s, innocent and never unmade. But looking forcefully at herself, she thought suddenly of the black-haired woman's impenetrable isolation, not yet quite cured by the presence of others if it even could be. She thought of the enigmas of the old woman in the dreams, passing over her days and nights, intoning over her confusion the hopeful lessons she only half understood. Because, of course she would have to make up for her own mind what all of it meant.
You know well what to plant within yourself.
The knock at the door of the dressing room didn't startle her as it could have.
"Hey. Are you okay?”
Larry sounded a touch impatient, but she sensed that was his frustration with himself coloring over a restless worry in his voice. He must have looked all over the store for her while she wasn't even hearing him. By now she was leaning into one of the walls, head hung as if in prayer, still dressed in only the silk and lace. She was silent.
"Lucy, I'm sorry if I didn't…” A sigh. "Let me know you’re alright.”
All boldness, she opened the door.
His eyes went down, and his expression glowed with embarrassment, and then with something else that tugged at the edges of his lips. She smiled at him, and it became mischief.
His mouth was flinching open to ask something. Before he could ask it she snuck by him, and began to run, so that he could chase her.