Tears blurred Molly’s vision. “Remember…this is no time for lies, Paulie.”
“Haven’t told any.”
Silently, a rain-drenched, wild-eyed mob raced toward and past the TV camera. They appeared to be fleeing in terror from something.
From the phone, Paul said, “Listen…I have to go. I don’t think there’s much time left.”
“What’s happening there?” Neil worried.
“I finished saying Mass a few minutes before you called. But not everyone gathered here is a Catholic, so they need a different kind of comforting.”
On the screen, the cameraman was knocked over by the panicked throng. The point of view swung wildly, crashed down to pavement level, revealing running feet that splashed up luminous sprays from darkly jeweled puddles.
Holding tightly to the handset even though the speakerphone feature was engaged, as though he were keeping his brother on the line sheerly by the intensity of his grip, Neil said, “Paulie, what did you mean—the courthouse can be more easily defended? Defended from who?”
Interference distorted the reply incoming from Hawaii.
“Paulie? We didn’t hear that. The line broke up a little. Who’re you expecting to defend against?”
Although audible again, Paulie sounded as if he were speaking from the bottom of a deep pit. “These are mostly simple people, Neil. Their imaginations may be working overtime, or they might see what they expect to see rather than what really is. I haven’t seen one myself.”
Static fizzed and crackled.
Among the broken, twisted words issuing from the speaker, one sounded like devils.
“Paulie,” Neil said, “if this line goes, we’ll call you right back. And if we can’t get through, you try calling us. Do you hear me, Paulie?”
On TV, in a city now identified by caption—Berlin, Germany—the last of the soundless, running feet chased across the streaming pavement, past the fallen videocam.
Suddenly out of distant Maui, as clear as if originating from the adjacent kitchen, Paul Sloan’s voice once more swelled loud in midsentence: “…chapter twelve, verse twelve. Do you remember that one, Neil?”
“Sorry, Paulie, I didn’t catch the book,” Neil replied. “Say it again.”
In Berlin, captured blurrily through a wet lens, legions of luminous raindrops marched across the puddled street, casting up a spray more glittery than diamond dust.
A prescient awareness of pending horror kept Molly’s attention riveted on the muted TV.
The action seemed to be over, the mob having moved on to other territory, but she assumed that the accompanying audio must be telling an important story. Otherwise, the network would have cut away from Berlin when the camera struck the pavement and was not at once snatched up again.
She still held the remote. She didn’t press MUTE and summon the sound again because she didn’t want to risk blotting out anything that her brother-in-law might say.
On the phone, Paul’s voice fell into an abyss, but just as Neil was about to hang up, the connection proved intact, and Paul rejoined them briefly again: “‘…having great wrath because he knows that he hath but a short time.’”
The line finally went dead, transmitting not even the click and scratch of static.
“Paulie? Paulie, can you hear me?” Neil pumped the disconnect bar in the phone cradle, trying without success to get a dial tone.
On the TV, as silent as a bubble drifting into frame, a human head, perhaps that of the luckless cameraman, precisely cleaved in half from brow through chin, dropped to the pavement, landing flat-side down, one dead terror-brightened eye peering along the microwave pipeline from Berlin to California.
UNTIL NOW, MOLLY HAD NEVER FELT A NEED to take a loaded pistol to the bathroom.
She put it on the yellow ceramic tiles beside the sink, the muzzle toward the mirror. The presence of the weapon gave her no comfort, but made her bowels quiver.
In the quick, when either you had the heart for justice or you didn’t, Molly could squeeze the trigger without hesitation. She’d done it once before.
Nevertheless, the prospect of having to shoot someone half sickened her. She was a creator, not a killer.
On her porcelain prie-dieu with flusher handle, she prayed that regardless of what might transpire in the hours ahead, she would not have to defend herself against other human beings. She wanted only enemies so alien that, after the shooting, there could be no cause for doubt, no reason for guilt.
Although acutely aware of the multiple ironies and absurdities of both her position and her prayer, she sent each word to God with sincerity, in a fever of mind and bone. The humor of the moment was too bitter to tease from her even a wretched laugh.
She had chosen the windowless half-bath off the kitchen. From beyond the door, through the white noise of the rain on the roof, came the clink and clatter of Neil packing two insulated coolers full of provisions to take with them in the SUV.
Each of his two careers had required that he think ahead. These days he worked as a cabinetmaker. He knew the importance of having good plans and precise measurements before making the first cut.
He worried that they would grow hungry before they were ready to come home. Worse, events might prevent them from returning home at all.
More monk than adventurer, Diogenes to his Columbus, Molly regretted the need to leave. Her preferred strategy was to bar the doors, board the windows, press sleep from lidless eyes, and wait for trouble to knock. And hope that it never would.
She knew, however, that Neil’s argument for action was the wiser course. Whatever might be coming in the rain or on the wake of it, they would be more vulnerable alone than they would be in the company of their neighbors.
Before she washed her hands, she lowered her face to the sink and warily breathed the steam rising from the gushing water. She could not detect any trace of the scent of the rain.
The tainted storm had not yet found its way into the public water system. Or if it had found its way, it traveled now in this bland disguise, undetectable.
Before picking up the cake of soap, she transferred the pistol from the counter to the toilet tank—beyond the grasp of anything that might reach through the mirror.
With such bizarre precautions already second nature only hours into this new reality, Molly wondered if she would know when she had gone mad. Perhaps she had already left sanity behind. Perhaps she had journeyed so far from rationality that Neil could never pack enough hampers of provisions to feed her during a return trip.
She washed her hands.
She remained the only presence in the mirror, not stained and ruined and grown over with strange vines, nor cleaved through the face from brow to chin, but still so young, and bright-eyed with a desperate hope.
Coolers filled with food, a case of bottled water, and basic first-aid supplies had been loaded aboard the SUV in the garage. They were prepared for travel where the ways were deep and the weather sharp.
Molly had also packed her mother’s books, and the four that she herself had written, plus her current uncompleted manuscript. Worlds might perish but, in her view, never the written word.
Gathering courage to depart, she and Neil stood side by side in the family room, watching TV.
Channel by channel, chaos had expanded its domain. More than half of the microwave highways were clogged with snow, scintillation, flare, woomp, and third-generation ghosts of people and objects unidentifiable.
Another third carried the pulsing, serpentine, kaleidoscopic patterns of intense color. These were accompanied by the humming, hissing, blurping, wow-wows, squeals, whistles, and birdies that also rendered the telephone useless.
They could find no news, no meaningful information.
A handful of channels continued to broadcast clear signals: sharp pictures, surprisingly pristine sound. Every one of these was devoted to entertainment programming.
For a minute, they watched an old episode of Seinfeld. An audience, real or virtual, laughed and laughed.
Neil changed channels, found a game show. For a quarter of a million dollars and a chance to go on for half a million, name the author of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
“T. S. Eliot,” Molly said.
She was right, but she suspected that one week from now a quarter of a million dollars might have no more value than last week’s newspaper.
On another channel, in the black-and-white Casablanca night, Bogart said good-bye to Ingrid Bergman as total war descended on the world.
Neil knew the dialogue so well that he could recite it word for word. His lips moved to match those of the actors, though he made no sound.
He switched channels: Here, Cary Grant, with exquisite comic timing, grew increasingly flustered in the face of Katharine Hepburn’s nonstop screwball patter.
And here, Jimmy Stewart wisecracked with an invisible, six-foot-tall rabbit.
At first Molly didn’t understand why Neil watched these old films with such shining-eyed intensity. Only moments ago he’d been determined to seek out the company of their neighbors as quickly as possible.
Soon she realized that he expected never to have the opportunity to enjoy these movies again, or any other, if all of Earth fell under the rule of an alien people clutching their new gods.
Greedily, then, she watched Gary Cooper walk the dusty streets of a Western town under the high-noon sun. Watched Tom Hanks gumping his way through a life charmed by virtue of simplicity. Watched John Wayne sweep Maureen O’Hara off her feet.
Repeatedly she found herself holding her breath, a sweet pain in her breast. What had once been mere time-filling entertainment now seemed inexpressibly beautiful and profound.
Neil surfed out of old movies and into a contemporary program—one of those orchestrated geek fests mislabeled “reality TV,” which celebrated cruelty, championed ignorance, lured viewers with the promise of degradation, and never quite faded from popularity. A female contestant was eating a plateful of pale, squirming slugs.
Here, a more recent film. A beautiful, lithe blonde executed impossible martial-arts maneuvers, wielding a sword, beheading a series of adversaries, stabbing them in the eyes, eviscerating them with delight, prettier than a Barbie doll and just as heartless.
Suddenly the remote control seemed no longer to be an instrument allowing random selection, seemed instead to be programmed to seek out atrocities. Channel after channel, blood burst, blood sprayed, blood spattered across the screen.
Pay-per-view pornography—to which they had not subscribed, and which therefore they should not be able to receive—filled the screen with an explicit scene of violent gang rape. The victim was shown to be enjoying her vicious brutalization.
Shrill comedians telling mean jokes drew meaner laughter from braying audiences.
No crafted piece of propaganda could have mocked the pretensions of humanity more effectively than this apparently random selection of cruel entertainment.
Neil pressed the POWER button on the remote, but the TV did not switch off. He tried again, without success.
Under the control of some taunting entity, the screen swarmed with rapidly changing scenes of violent sex and horrendous murder. Here unspooled a chilling montage of humanity in its most debased and savage condition.
“This is a lie,” Neil said through half-clenched teeth. “This isn’t what we are. It isn’t all we are.”
The unseen master of the airwaves chose to disagree, and the images of primitive lust and blood hunger surged across the screen, tides of cinematic sewage.
Molly remembered reading about one of the Nazi death camps—Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, or Dachau—in which the Jewish prisoners had been subjected to propaganda that portrayed their heritage as a deformed tree watered with lies, feeding on the labor of others, its branches twisted by greed. Their tormentors wanted them first to embrace this false history of their people and then to renounce it before accepting execution as their proper reward.
Even the architects of genocide, their hearts sold to Evil and their souls already held in the portfolio of Hell, feel the need to justify their abuse of power. They wish to believe that their victims, at the penultimate moment, acknowledge guilt and recognize the justice of mass murder—which suggests that, even if unconsciously, the executioners know how far they themselves have fallen.
Molly turned from the hideous spectacle on the TV. She glanced anxiously at the blinded windows, at the ceiling that seemed to press lower under a roof-crushing weight of roaring rain.
She sensed that death trains, or their equivalent, were being marshaled now in railroad yards. Long chains of cattle cars were waiting to be packed with human cargo and hauled to mass graves where the remains of millions, plowed over, would eventually fertilize vast, lush meadows for the pleasure of creatures that were deaf and blind to the beauties wrought by untold human generations.
High in the house, something thumped loudly. Rattled. Then subsided into silence.
Perhaps a broken tree branch had dropped onto the roof. A loose chimney stone, sluiced from its mortar bed by the rain, might have rolled along the shingles.
Or some unimaginably strange visitor had entered by the attic, and now explored the space under those cobwebbed rafters, searching for the trapdoor and spring-loaded ladder that would give it access to the second floor.
“Time to go,” Neil said.
“Waste and void. Waste and void. And darkness on the face of the deep.”
—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock”
FOR ONCE UNCONCERNED ABOUT NEXT MONTH’S electrical bill, they left lights on rather than allow darkness to take up residence in the house during their absence.
In the utility room, they quickly donned rubber boots and black raincoats. The deep tread of the rubber soles squeaked on the tile floor.
Beyond the utility room, the garage was chillier than the house. The humid air smelled of damp wood, moist Sheetrock; but as yet the rain had not worn a leak in the roof.
The Ford Explorer stood ready, loaded. Although worried about the size of the monthly payments, they had recently traded up from their ten-year-old Suburban. Now Molly was glad to have this newer and more reliable vehicle.
She took two steps toward the SUV before Neil drew her attention to his workbench. Thirty or forty mice had gathered on that surface. Because the rodents were silent and for the most part as still as ceramic figurines, Molly had not at once noticed the infestation.
Field and forest mice, some brown, some gray, had fled their natural habitat for the refuge of this garage. As many of them congregated under the workbench as perched on top of it.
In groups, mice huddled in the corners and along the walls. On the lids of the two trash cans. Atop a row of storage cabinets.
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