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Dark Places Where Monsters Dwell (Secrets and Lies Remix)

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Police tape litters the front lawn of Neptune Memorial Hospital. One strip decorates the granite sign, as if to ward off passers-by.

Mac doesn't need to read the tape to know they should stay away.

Veronica's all business, plans, and orders, while Mac just wants to keep Madison from falling to pieces and Dick from doing something hopelessly stupid like taking on Veronica -- or like driving Logan's Xterra through the hospital's glass doors and much more solid barricades.

The grill holds up pretty well, all things considered.

Much to Mac's relief, Veronica doesn't yell at Dick for being an idiot, since at least his recklessness got them in. Besides, all that Jägermeister seems to be doing a pretty good job of making Dick feel like crap. Logan would have hated seeing Dick puke all over his SUV, but Mac decides it improves the hideous yellow shade.

Eight days ago, they buried Logan on the beach. Mac still feels the gritty sand under her fingernails.

 

***

 

Veronica was right when she made them ignore the "healthy quarantine" order that Goodman put out as his last mayoral act. Maybe no more sick people were brought in, but being locked in here did the healthy people no favors. There are bodies everywhere. Mac unfocuses her eyes and tries not to breathe as they follow the signs to intensive care.

They pass the neonatal ward, and Mac imagines it in the faded sepia of the late '80s: orderlies with bad Luke Skywalker hair and administrators off the set of Dynasty. Were the MacKenzie baby and the Sinclair baby at the ends of two rows of bassinets? Did someone lift, bathe, change and then set each baby back down in the wrong place?

Google says Precision Dynamics wristbands have been in use since the 1950s. They are supposed to prevent this kind of human error. Mac remembers seeing her hospital ID bracelets -- impossibly tiny, sized for a newborn's wrist and ankle -- in her mom's baby book. They said MacKenzie. Somehow, the wrong bracelets made it onto her. Human malice, perhaps?

The plastic bracelet is slack on Lucy's withered wrist. Mac fights the urge to vomit. She's been babysitting Lucy over the long months of Duncan's custody battle with the Mannings. Laughing and gurgling, that's what Lucy should be doing. Lying still, with skin like tissue paper, the once-adorable baby looks twisted and grotesque.

But Veronica promised Duncan on his deathbed that she'd bury his baby, so here they are. And here Lucy is, still hooked up to IV drips that aren't dripping and according to her chart, haven't been feeding her for five days.

Always helpful, Dick picks that moment to swallow a handful of pills.

Veronica picks Lucy up. Mac herds Dick and Madison back to the car, following Veronica. Dick staggers and Mac has to half-carry his puke-smelling self past all the bodies on the way out. They smell worse than Dick does.

 

***

 

After Lucy's funeral, Madison decides to start talking about the final illness of her dead little sister -- who happens to be Mac's dead little sister. And Dick, being Dick, thinks being a smartass is the right response.

Between Madison and Dick, Mac can't stay at the bonfire anymore. She chokes back a sob and stands, twisting an ankle in the loose sand. She runs down the beach, past Lucy's grave, away from the so-not-funny turn in the conversation. Fucking Dick.

"They don't know," Veronica says, coming up alongside her.

"Still," Mac spits out, "I can't listen to that. I already had to watch the rest of my family cough up their lungs. I guess I was just hoping Lauren... I don't know. That it wasn't so horrible for her."

Veronica puts a hand on Mac's arm, the lightest of fleeting contacts, and then drops it to her side. She lowers herself to the sand and looks up at Mac.

"I don't understand how they can all be gone," Mac says, sitting next to Veronica.

Veronica is quiet enough for Mac to look over at her. Shaking her hair out of her eyes, Veronica says, "I don't understand why we're not."

"Natural immunity?" Mac suggests.

Veronica shakes her head. It's like all the energy is drained out of her, and Mac sees for a second how tiny Veronica really is. You don't notice that when somebody has that much presence, until they don't anymore.

Veronica puts out an arm, and Mac snuggles under it. She's perversely glad they're out of Dick's range of vision; she doesn't want to put up with his lewd comments. Veronica's offering comfort, and Mac clutches at her, grateful.

 

***

 

"They're all dead" was pretty much the main thing showing up in Mac's RSS aggregator when it started.

Not that they (for most values of they) really were, at first, but the weight of the rumors gained urgency as each blog fell silent: Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow, Wil Wheaton.

When it showed up on the evening news, her family finally took her fears seriously.

She tells Veronica about this as they listen to the roar of the black ocean and feel the spray on their faces. Sitting there, in the cold and the wet, it all seems unreal but for the omnipresent smell.

Eventually, Veronica and Mac get chilly enough to come back to the bonfire. Madison is curled up in a little ball, and Dick's sprawled out on his back, too still to be asleep. They lie down next to Madison, zipping themselves into sleeping bags and letting the darkness erase mindfulness for a while.

Mac wakes up to sunlight reflecting off the ocean. Madison's clothes define a haphazard trail down to the water. Veronica squeezes Mac's hand.

Madison wasn't even related, but Mac feels like she's lost the last tie to her family.

 

***

 

Mac's parents thought they could avoid this new flu if they hit the road with their trailer and their camping gear, maybe head for Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. One look at a traffic website, though, and Mac talked them out of it. They'd never make it past El Cajon -- the 8 was a parking lot.

She's read enough post-apocalyptic fiction to know that you either get out fast or you ride it out. Or there's always choice number three: have the killer plague hit so fast that it's a decision considered and concluded in three harrowing days.

Mac's little brother died first. Her dad was in the living room coughing up this horrible phlegm stuff, and her mom was holding a glass of water for him. Ryan was bugging Mac for something to eat. They couldn't exactly go to the grocery store, so Mac was rummaging through the camping supplies in the garage, pulling out these disgusting MREs. She got back into the house and her brother was lying on the kitchen floor, quiet and still.

Her dad died that night, and her mom held Mac, her sobs trailing off into muffled coughs. Her mom didn't say much for the next couple of days. She just coughed and tried to hide it, looking nervously at Mac with sickness-bright eyes. Mac held her mom as she coughed and even after she stopped Mac sat there for a while, holding her.

 

***

 

Veronica's too quiet. She's quiet like Mac's mom was quiet. Mac finds herself speaking louder, with false cheer, trying to rouse Veronica from this slump.

Mac builds a fire and unwraps vacuum-sealed hot dogs. They'll probably keep longer than Twinkies, and they've got more nutrients. And there might be meat in there somewhere, but Mac can't bring herself to care. There aren't any buns, but Mac's got ketchup for dipping. She squirts some on a paper plate, piles it high with potato chips, and hands it to Veronica with a freshly-toasted hot dog.

Veronica's thanks turns into a cough, painful and drawn-out. Mac sets a bottle of water near her and turns back to the fire, poking at it to conceal her worry. She catches Dick's eye over the flames, and he looks back at her with a growing awareness.

"I want to go home," Veronica says, her voice raspy and low. "Can you take me, when..."

Two days later, they're pulling up at Veronica's apartment complex. The pool is full of dead leaves, with suspicious dark shapes floating under the debris. Dick hops out and opens the driver's side rear door, and Mac climbs in from the other side and lifts.

Together, they bring Veronica's body to unit #110, with the incongruously cheery dolphin on the number-plate and the blanket covering what's on the couch. They hold their breath and carry Veronica into her bedroom.

 

***

 

It's about three weeks since Beaver died. The hurt was so fresh then; he died before any of her family, before most of Neptune. Now he's part of this dull ache she carries around, along with everyone else who's gone.

Right now, she misses Beaver's quick wit and clever schemes to rival her own. Dick isn't much with the planning. He's pretty much okay with staring at the stars by night and the ocean by day. They run out of candy bars and bottled water after a day or so of that, and Mac prods Dick into heading up to the strip of coffeeshops and boutiques.

There's not much of use in the Blue Wave Cafe, but it's the first building they find that doesn't have the stench of death. Not that the air is fresh -- most of the perishables are smelling pretty bad, the packaged smoothies bloating out of their plastic bottles.

But at least there's no tripping on outstretched arms. Damned sales clerks and their willingness to die behind the register. Not that they had much warning, Mac guesses. The flu got bad faster than anyone imagined.

Dick pokes his head up from behind the counter. "These hippie candy bars work for you?"

Mac picks one up, smoothing over the glossy wrapper and reading the warnings. Contains milk, soy, and tree nut ingredients. Not vegan, but she's in no position to be choosy. "Sure, Dick. Grab them all." She marvels a little at the fact that he cares what she likes.

She sifts through the debris in the back alcove, looking for matches, batteries, anything useful. The wrapped cash, she leaves. Commerce is dead.

She notices the wireless access point, its ethernet cables still attached but its lights dark. She flashes for a second on the idea of cutting off the end, stripping the wire, and running the copper right into her veins. She shakes her head and steps away. That's the stuff of cyberpunk fiction from before she was born. Wrong genre for this scenario.

Turning back before she goes, Mac picks up an extra hoodie abandoned on the back of the office chair. As she zips it on, she notices a scribbled desk calendar, and tries to count the days since... Since. It's about six weeks since the day Dick and Beaver's dad died in that boating accident. Big Dick went when the new flu was just starting to pop up on conspiracy watch sites.

This month, Mac should be sifting through college offers and picking the one with the best aid package. Scrounging for food with her dead boyfriend's idiot brother doesn't really match her game plan. And now that she's actually thinking in weeks and months instead of in hours and days, her game plan is looking even worse.

"This place sucks," Dick whines. "Let's hit a gas station -- at least they'll have beef jerky." He turns away, seemingly oblivious to Mac's scowl.

Beef jerky, blankets, and more bottled water round out their scavenging trip. Back at the beach, she tries to figure out how to tell him.

"We can't stay here forever," she starts, and then the rest of the words choke her. Dick gives her this look like he might actually want to be helpful and that gives her the courage to spit out the rest of it. "I think I'm pregnant."

 

***

 

Dick seems dazed by the process of siphoning gas. Probably all the drinking he's been doing since she told him. Mac steps away from the Xterra and across the street, into what's left of Shady Hills Family Clinic. No dead protesters plus no dead medical staff equals no smell; she's grateful for that much.

She looks around and breaks the locks on a few cabinets until she finds the Mifeprex. Being a Google News addict comes in handy sometimes, because the slim gray box doesn't say RU486 anywhere. It does, however, have a sticker saying "To be taken in conjunction with misoprostol." It takes her a minute to find that, its brand-name variant (Cytotec -- where do they get these names?) bright with cheery primary colors. She grabs both types of pills, stuffs them in her backpack, and is back in the car, heart pounding, before Dick even notices that she's gone.

Sneaking a peek at the brochure, she sees that it needs to be used before she's seven weeks along. She doesn't even know for sure that she's pregnant, but if she is, she needs to do this soon.

 

***

 

Packing for a trip of indefinite length and uncertain destination isn't as fun as it's cracked up to be, but it does fill Mac with an unnatural glee because hey -- free shopping! They ransack the Wal*Mart (Dick's choice -- Mac doesn't bother with business practice objections, because come on) and load up carts with everything they think they'll need. Shelf-stable pouches seem like a great idea, until Mac notices how many of them require a microwave. She looks for those that will do okay being boiled.

Dick is in snack food. Mac sighs and makes a mental note to hit camping and see how picked over it is. But first...

The pharmacy cage swings jaggedly open. Somebody probably made off with anything they could use to get high. She grabs antibiotics, the few remaining painkillers, and prenatal vitamins (another kind of insurance) before moving back out to the regular aisles and finding the pregnancy tests. She looks at all the brands before deciding on one that boasts two lines.

Pushing her cart up to the front, she leaves it with Dick and heads for the bathroom, pink box up her sleeve.

Both lines are visible through little heart-shaped windows. She feels sick.

Dick drops the pee-stick when she hands it to him. Fat lot of help he's going to be.

 

***

 

Mac can think fast when she needs to and when she doesn't have a headache from crying and highway hypnosis. She can plot shortest-path graphs in her head. But logic puzzles don't have guys lurking in the shadows of a mini-mart outside Reno, and no AP exam features said guy lunging at you with a knife.

Mac doesn't hear him coming, but she sure as hell hears the explosive blast as Dick shoots the guy. Movies and TV lie; gunshots in enclosed spaces are deafeningly loud.

Relief wars with worry as Mac's heart pounds. She carefully avoids looking at the linoleum floor, at the spreading pool of blood. Instead, she crouches down and focuses on Dick, asking, "Are you going to be okay?"

Dick's crying on her shoulder, and Mac's ashamed of her relief. She's never shot a gun, and she doesn't really want to start now. For the first time, she's glad Dick is there. She holds him tightly to her chest.

She leaves the abortion pills in the parking lot of the mini-mart, their slim cardboard packages outlined against the asphalt. She's pretty sure Dick doesn't notice that in the rear-view mirror as they drive away.

 

***

 

They drive for what used to be called flyover country. After the mini-mart, Dick wants to get away from other people, and Mac doesn't blame him. No friends on the open road, and staying in the arid Southwest after the end of the water-pipeline era is untenable.

The interstates are clogged with stalled cars, doors hanging open and bodies lying a few yards away. Mac and Dick veer off, choosing two-lane highways since they can drive a couple of miles at a time without having to use the Xterra's offroad capabilities.

Dick jokes that all the abandoned cars provide a constant supply of gas stations, and wonders why nobody ever thought of this before. Mac's of the opinion that having to siphon gas is a bug, not a feature, but arguing with Dick is no great improvement on silence.

They drive north and east and finally past a sign welcoming them to Nebraska, the Cornhusker State. They stop when Dick sees a silo and decides he can hunt farm animals with his bare hands. Mac approves of conserving their ammo, both for the handgun and for Dick's salvaged hunting rifle, but still laughs as Dick chases a chicken all morning.

It's not like she's stressing over eating stolen non-human animal products anymore. But somewhere in the last few years, she lost her taste for meat. It's got all these horrible fibers in it, and she can picture the chicken sending twitch impulses through them, just before Dick wrings its neck.

Mac gulps and swallows. She needs the prenatal nutrition; her body will absorb vitamins better from food than it will from pills.

Dick starts talking about how pregnancy is, you know, preventable. To his credit, he's not a complete ass about it. Still, talking with Dick about her relationship with his dead brother? Not really high on Mac's list of Fun Stuff. She's managed to avoid thinking about how much she misses Beaver for weeks, thank-you-very-much.

But amidst the awkwardness of justifying why she had end-of-the-world unprotected sex, Mac realizes she has something funny to tell Dick.

She swallows a bite of chicken (but not before making the obligatory face at the texture) and smiles gleefully. "I should probably tell you about me and Madison." She pauses just long enough to fuel Dick's stereotypical chick-on-chick fantasies, and then says, "Our families took the wrong babies home from the hospital. I grew up with her parents, and she got mine."

Watching Dick choke and sputter is the funniest thing she's seen in months.

 

***

The cabin is probably somebody's summer home. No bodies and far away from the road: it works. Mac is giddy with excitement when they pick it (after a good bout of argument as per usual). It's on a hill, and they can see for a long way around. Fresh water's a ways away, but carrying it is decent enough exercise.

Not that getting enough exercise is a problem for either of them, these days. Despite her rounding belly, Mac's in the best shape of her life. She's never spent this much time away from a book or a screen before. And Dick is losing that pampered '09er look he had. Splitting wood is a lot more work than surfing.

Also, keeping busy means they don't need to talk to each other.

Some days, Mac really misses the net. She knew people the world over. Now she just has Dick and his scintillating conversational skills. About five minutes of that and she's ready to throw something at him.

When he shuts up, though. He's okay. More than okay. It's like some variant of Stockholm Syndrome, Mac supposes. As it turns out, if he's the last man on Earth, even Dick Casablancas has his good points.

 

***

 

When Dick kisses her, it's nothing like kissing Beaver. Suggestive nicknames aside, Beaver kissed her like she mattered, like he wanted to kiss her more than anybody else.

Dick? Dick kisses her like he's lost, like he feels that he should be kissing somebody, and there isn't anybody else.

He kisses her and she's tingly and there's a rushing in her ears. She feels like she's at the edge of a precipice. She has no idea what's below, except a long drop.

She pushes him away gently. She is of about a dozen minds about the kiss, but she lets him see the calm, polite mask. She tells him it sucks, that she doesn't want to be doing this. It's better this way.

He doesn't protest, and Mac's mental image of '09er-jackass-Dick melts away a little bit more.

 

***

 

Mac doesn't want Dick to grow a beard.

He's got bullshit reasons for wanting one, all wrapped up in half-remembered movies bathed in a romantic light. Roughing it's nowhere near that exciting, and a beard isn't going to make him Kevin Costner (may that bastard rot in hell for what he did to The Postman). But mostly, Mac doesn't like the idea of kissing a guy with a beard, and she just may kiss Dick one of these days.

Dick hones his hunting skills, and they eat a lot of rabbit and lamb and even deer. Today, it's wild pheasant. She sits on the back steps watching him as he expertly dresses the game. He still seems to think he's useless, but critters large and small attacked the garden before the ground froze; they wouldn't be eating without him. Of course, it would be awkward and weird to tell him that, so she just sits and watches his hands move.

He has good hands. Large and steady. She hopes that's enough. Complications could kill her. So could distraction on his part. He's going to have a hard enough time delivering her baby without more emotional involvement. That's the main reason she's not kissing him.

She's got the wood-burning stove running pretty efficiently now, but it's not safe to leave more than embers at night. So they sleep in the big bed together, with an imaginary dividing-line down the middle of the bed that dissolves as the night goes on.

It's not like she's never thought about it. Not like she could get more pregnant. And while Dick may have talked a good game, he didn't seem to have all that much luck with the ladies. He's probably not all crudded up like the monkey in Outbreak, but even the remote possibility is another good reason to wait until the baby's born.

On the nth morning when she wakes up before him and his leg is thrown over her and she can tell what kind of dream he's having by the little whimpers he makes and by the prodding at her thigh, her reasons start seeming kinda thin.

So she goes in the kitchen and mopes to a battery-powered DiscMan, turned-up earmuff headphones sitting on the counter. She keeps her poor sad PowerBook Galactica on the counter too, even though there's no electricity.

Even if she could power it, she doesn't need to open her laptop; that last Firefox tab is seared into her brain. Dick thinks Lizzie disappeared, but Mac knows where she and the rest of the Mannings were planning to go. After reading the tirades on the Levi Stinson Community Retreat site, though, she'd rather take her chances with Dick.

If things look like they're going south, she'll tell him how to find that compound in Idaho. Poor dead Lucy's grandparents may be fundie whackjobs, but Dick sure as hell can't raise Mac's baby on his own.

With Mac, though, she thinks he'll do just fine. These days, Dick's a long way from the guy she had the misfortune of knowing back in Neptune.

Mac turns off the music and goes to the bathroom. She swallows a vitamin and brushes her teeth in front of the mirror. Her red streaks are growing out, but that's okay. She twists her hair into one thick braid behind her head.

Her baby kicks, and she smiles as Dick's reflection shows him yawning behind her. She takes his hand and puts it on her belly.