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Lay Your Head Down To Sleep

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It affects older people first, older people and babies. They just don't wake up. They're all covering the story. The CDC doesn't know what it is, a bacteria maybe, or a virus. Twenty-thousand people die the first night, eighty thousand the next. It takes almost three days to figure out that something is really wrong.

Rachel stocks up on caffeine. Just to follow the story at first, but after the first week, the age bracket starts creeping up. Children are dying now, and people in their sixties, and every night she goes on the air and tells people not to panic. She doesn't know why she bothers, she's panicking, too.

There is less rioting than one might expect. Maybe because there is no warning. People just go to sleep and never wake up. Every doctor and medical researcher and everyone else beside is scrambling for an answer. Something to stop the Somnus.

Keith laughs at the name, and suggests they pour out some libations to the old Greek gods, for all the good modern science is doing them. Anderson takes him up on the idea, pouring out his beer onto the New York pavement. Stephen and Jon stand back and watch, while Richard curls an arm around Anderson. There is no one over sixty in the entire world now. At least, not that any reporter or health official can find.

People stop coming to work halfway through the second week. The Somnus is taking everyone now. No one says anything, they all just show up at Rachel's apartment after work, arms full of alcohol and food. No one turns on what is left of the news.

Rachel mixes drinks and Jon and Stephen crack jokes. Keith perches on her counter top to provide color commentary and Anderson and Richard put in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

"Really, you didn't bring Forbidden Planet?" Stephen asks.

"I have the extended version of Lord of the Rings," Rachel offers.

"And Star Wars," Keith says, looking through Rachel's DVD collection.

"It's a good thing you finally got a television," Anderson adds.

Stephen opens his mouth to comment, but Richard beats him to the punch. "Rachel did not buy the TV to watch your show."

Jon and Anderson crack up, and Stephen pouts. "How do you know?"

"Because I had to help carry it up the stairs!" Richard replies.

"It's true," Rachel yells from the kitchen and then appears with popcorn.

They mock their way through the movie, and fall asleep on the floor, curled around one another.

Keith dies that first night. They move his body to the bed, tucking him in beneath the coverlet, and open the window to let in the winter air.

Rachel spends twenty minutes in the bathroom, falling apart and then putting herself back together.

"We think," Anderson says when she comes back out, "that we should just stay here."

She doesn't ask what the news is saying , or if someone has tipped Anderson off to something even worse, instead she nods, and walks back to the liquor cabinet. They gather around as she pours Keith's whiskey into five glasses and then pass them around.

"To Keith," she says, and the rest follow before throwing back the alcohol.

The rest of the day is spent drinking to Keith and telling stories. When the sun goes down, Stephen puts the first disk of Lord of the Rings into the DVD player, and Richard cooks stir fry.

They eat together on the floor, knees touching knees and watch as Sauron is defeated. No Gandalf has appeared to set them on a quest to stop this waiting death. The CDC has no cure and there is nothing to do but wait.

Rachel hates waiting.

It's worse when she catches Jon and Stephen in the kitchen, saying goodbye before they say goodnight. She backs out slowly, so that they don't notice. They are so wrapped up in each other, she probably could've stomped like an elephant and they wouldn't have noticed.

She ends up between Richard and Jon, and in the morning, when she wakes, Jon is cold. She slips out from between them, and wakes Stephen, who is still curled beneath Jon's arm.

"Shh," she hushes him as he weeps into her shoulder.

They move Jon to the bed beside Keith, tucking him in with the same care.

The day is somber. It rains and the apartment starts to feel claustrophobic. Stephen spends most of the day napping on the couch, as she and Richard and Anderson watch out the windows as the rain washes down empty New York streets. She wonders how many people are left alive out there.

Stephen seems almost disappointed when they wake him for dinner. He barely touches the grilled cheese, but he does finish off the beer, all in uncharacteristic silence. She wishes he would just say something.

When he does, Rachel almost wishes she could take back that thought. Stephen pulls her into the kitchen, much like he had done with Jon, and kisses her on the forehead. "It was a good life," he says.

"It was," she says, and he reaches over to wipe the tear trailing down her cheek.

He says goodbye to Richard and Anderson, too, and they hold him between them, tight in their arms for a moment before letting go.

Rachel joins them in the living room as Stephen goes to say goodbye to Jon.

"It would be better if he doesn't wake up in the morning," Richard says softly, and Rachel hates it, but she agrees. She lets Richard pull her up under his arm.

"There aren't as far as I can tell, many people left," Anderson says just as softly. "Twitter is almost silent now, and none of my contacts have responded to email today. Maybe if we... maybe tomorrow we should go outside and see if we can find anyone. We're almost out of food."

"And alcohol," Rachel adds, trying to smile. Anderson pulls them both into a hug then, tight and fierce.

"Tomorrow," he says like a promise.

"Tomorrow," Richard repeats.

Stephen returns, and Rachel pulls him close to her as they drift off to sleep.

In the morning, Stephen does not wake, and neither does Richard.

She and Anderson work silently as they move the bodies to the bed. It's funny, Keith's the one who convinced her she needed the king size. "Better for those lesbian orgies," he'd said with a smirk. She'd punched him in the shoulder and ordered the bed anyway. There have never been four people in it before.

People used to say that the dead looked asleep, but they never do. There is no animation, no soft snuffles or restless legs. There is only the stillness of death in this bed.

She doesn't resist when Anderson pulls her away.

He takes her outside even though it is still raining. They walk through the puddles and let their clothing get soaked through. Neither is worried about catching a cold after all, even though it is cold enough to see their own breath.

"I've never seen New York like this," she says.

"Me either," Anderson replies, as he looks up and spins in a slow circle. "I lived here most of my life, and New York has never felt so haunted."

She shivers and tries to rub some warmth back in her arms.

"Come on," Anderson says. "Let's head back."

The streets are just as empty on the return trip. She realizes the third or forth time Anderson reaches out to touch a building that this too is a goodbye. He's saying goodbye to this city of his.

By the time they make it back to the apartment she is cold and tired and scared. There isn't much time left. There can't be.

They both change into dry clothes, and when they are done she takes Anderson's hand. "Take a nap with me?" she asks, and the sad, soft smile that crosses Anderson's face lets her know he understands.

"Of course," he says, and touches her face softly. "Of course I will."

They both lie down in the pile of bedding and Anderson curls himself around her, and they fall asleep together like that, one last time.