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They numbered more than a hundred, perhaps over two hundred. Many stood on their hind feet, alert, trembling, whiskers quivering, pink noses testing the air.


Under ordinary circumstances, the mice would have scattered when Molly and Neil entered. These didn’t react. The cause of their fear lay outside, in the storm.


Although Molly had always been squeamish about rodents and had taken more than the usual precautions to keep them out of the house, she didn’t recoil at the sight of these timid invaders. As with the coyotes, she recognized that men and mice lived under a common threat in this perilous night.


When she and Neil got into the Explorer and closed the doors, Molly said, “If their instinct is to come inside, should we be going out?”


“Paul and his neighbors are gathered in that courthouse on Maui because its architecture makes it more defensible. Our house, with all the windows, the simple locks…it can’t be defended.”


“Maybe no place can be.”


“Maybe,” he agreed.


He started the SUV.


The mice did not react to the noise of the engine. Their eyes shone red and silver in the blaze of headlights.


Neil locked the doors of the Explorer with the master switch. Only then did he use the remote to raise the garage door.


Molly realized that she had not locked the house. Keys and deadbolts no longer seemed to offer much security.


Behind the Explorer, the segmented garage door rolled upward. She could barely differentiate the rumble of its ascent from the unrelenting voice of the rain.


She was overcome by the urge to bolt from the vehicle and return to the house before the crouching night could be entirely let into the garage.


A desperate domestic fantasy gripped her. She would make hot tea and serve it in a mug. Oolong, with its distinctive fragrance, grown in the distant Wu-I Mountains of China.


She would drink it in the cozy parlor, eating butter cookies. Warmed by an afghan. Reading a love story of eternal passion and timeless suffering.


When she turned the last tear-stained page, the rain would have stopped. The morning would have come. The future would no longer be bleak and impenetrable, would instead be revealed by an invisible light too bright for mortal eyes.


But she did not open the passenger door and pursue that fantasy of tea and cookies and easy happy endings. Dared not.


Neil popped the brake, shifted into reverse, and backed out of the garage, into the windless storm. The rain fell straight down with such judgmental force that the Explorer seemed to quiver in every joint, to strain at every weld, from the impact.


Less out of concern for their property than in consideration of the frightened mice, Molly pressed the remote and closed the garage door.


In the headlights, the formerly muted fluorescence of the rain brightened, seething with scintillating reflections.


The cedar siding of the house, quaintly silvered by time, was more brightly silvered by the luminous wet. Along the roof line, from long lengths of overflowing rain gutters spilled shimmering sheets that veiled whole aspects of the structure.


Neil turned the Explorer around and drove uphill toward the two-lane county road. The ascending driveway funneled a descending stream through which slithered great swarms of false serpents, more sinuous luminosities.


When the SUV reached the top of the driveway, Molly peered back and down, through the rush of rain and the steadfast trees. All lights aglow, their house looked welcoming—and forever beyond reach.


The shortest route into town was south on the county road.


The two-lane blacktop remained passable because it followed the ridge crest around the lake, shedding rain from both shoulders. Here and there the pavement was mantled with a thick slippery mush of dead pine needles beaten from the overhanging trees by the storm, but the SUV had all the traction needed to proceed unimpeded.


Even at high speed, the windshield wipers couldn’t cope with the downpour. Sluicing rain blurred their view. Neil drove slowly and with caution.


To the east, the forest—portions burned out in the previous autumn’s fire—descended toward treeless but grassy hills, which in turn gave way to more-arid land and eventually to the Mojave. Only a few houses had been built in that territory.


On the west face of the ridge, residences were numerous, though widely separated. The nearest neighbors to the south were Jose and Serena Sanchez, who had two children, Danny and Joey, and a dog named Semper Fidelis.


Neil turned right at their mailbox and halted at the top of the driveway, headlights focused on the house below.


“Wake them?” he wondered.


An indefinable quality of the house, something other than the lack of lights, troubled Molly.


If the Sanchez family had been home, surely the unprecedented power of this rain would have awakened them. Curiosity stirred, they would have risen from bed, turned on the TV, and thereby discovered the fate of the world.


Molly recognized the monotonous drone of the rain as the voice of Death, and now it seemed to speak to her not from the heavens but from the house at the foot of the driveway.


“They’re gone,” she said.


“Gone where?”


“Or dead.”


“Not them,” Neil hoped. “Not Jose, Serena…not the boys.”


Molly was a mystic only to the extent that she was a writer, not to the extent that she suffered visions or premonitions. Yet she spoke with the certainty of unwanted intuition: “Dead. All dead.”


The house blurred, clarified, blurred, clarified. Perhaps she saw movement behind the lightless windows; perhaps she did not.


She imagined a sinuous and winged figure, like the mysterious thing they had glimpsed beyond the mirror, flitting now through the rooms of the Sanchez house, from corpse to corpse, capering with dark delight.


Though she spoke in a tremulous whisper, her voice carried to Neil above the chanting rain. “Let’s get out of here. Now. Quickly.”


10


SOUTH OF THE SANCHEZ PROPERTY, THE WIDOWER, Harry Corrigan, had lived alone since the previous June, when his beloved Calista had died at the foot of an ATM.


This stone house, with a hipped and gabled roof, stood much nearer to the county road than did Neil and Molly’s place. The driveway was shorter and less steep than theirs.


These were the lights that she had seen when she had first gotten out of bed and gone to the window to assess the violence of the storm. They had looked like the running lights of a distant ship on a mean and swelling sea.


Every pane appeared to be lit, as if Harry had gone room to room, searching for his lost wife, and had left every lamp aglow either with the hope of her return or in her memory. No shadows loomed or swooped beyond the glass.


If Harry was here, they needed to join forces with him. He was a friend, dependable.


At the foot of the driveway, in the turnaround, Neil parked facing out toward the county road. He switched off the headlights.


As Neil reached for the key in the ignition, Molly stayed his hand. “Leave the engine running.”


They didn’t have to discuss the danger or the wisdom of going together into the house. Wise or not, they earlier had established that henceforth they went nowhere alone.


Their raincoats featured hoods. They pulled them up, and were transformed into monkish medieval figures.


Molly dreaded getting out of the SUV. She remembered how vigorously she had scrubbed her rain-dampened hand with orange-scented soap…and had nevertheless felt unclean.


Yet she could not sit here eternally, paralyzed by the weight of fear or by a lack of faith. She could not sit here, shape without form, gesture without motion, waiting for the world to end.


The 9-mm pistol nestled in a pocket of her coat. She kept her right hand on it.


She got out of the Explorer and closed the door quietly, though a slam would not have carried far in the drumming deluge. Discretion seemed advisable even during an apocalypse.


The tremendous force of the downpour staggered her until she planted her feet wide and moved with conscious attention to her balance.


The rain was no longer ripe with the scent of semen. She could identify a faint trace of that odor, but it was now masked by new and sweet fragrances, reminiscent of incense, hot brass, lemon tea. She detected, as well, smoky essences for which she could think of no familiar comparisons.


She tried to avert her face, but rain found its way past the hood of her coat. The pelting drops were no longer warm, as they had been earlier.


Unthinkingly, she licked her lips. The taste proved to be not salty with the memory of the sea, but faintly sweet, pleasant.


When she thought of the children eating blue snow, however, she gagged and spat, only to drink in more rain.


The driveway drain had been blocked by fallen pine needles and wads of sycamore leaves. A pool of water, six inches deep, churned around their boots, brightened by silver filigrees of dancing eldritch light.


Neil had unzipped his raincoat to be able to carry the shotgun under it. With his left hand, he clutched the front panels of the garment, holding them closed as best he could.


A sloped flagstone walkway led from puddled pavement to front steps.


Sheltered by the porch roof, Molly threw back her hood. She drew the pistol from her coat. Neil held the shotgun with both hands.


The door of Harry Corrigan’s house stood ajar.


An orange spot of light on the casing indicated the illuminated bell push, but these were not circumstances that recommended the customary announcement. With one boot toe, Neil gingerly nudged the door inward.


While it arced wide, they waited. Studied the deserted foyer for a moment. Entered the house.


They had frequently been here as invited guests before Calista’s murder in Redondo Beach, and a few times since. When the kitchen had been remodeled four years ago, Neil had built the new cabinetry. Yet now this familiar place seemed strange, nothing exactly as Molly remembered it, nothing quite in its place.


The first floor offered much evidence of a simple life conducted in longstanding routines: comfortable furniture well used, landscape and seascape paintings, here a pipe left in an ashtray, here a book with the reader’s place marked by a candy-bar wrapper, houseplants lovingly tended and lush with glossy leaves, purple plums ripening in a wooden bowl on a kitchen counter…


They saw no indications of violence. No sign of their friend and neighbor, either.


In the foyer once more, standing at the foot of the stairs, they briefly considered calling out to Harry.


To be heard above the fierce cataracts crashing upon the roof, however, they would have to raise their voices. Someone or something other than their neighbor might come in answer to a shout, a prospect that argued for continued silence.


Neil led the way to the second floor. Molly ascended sideways, keeping her back to the wall, so she could look both toward the top and the bottom of the stairs.


In the upper hallway, the solid-oak door to the master bedroom had been wrenched off its hinges. Cracked almost in half, it lay on the hall floor. Bright fragments of the lock were scattered across the carpet.


Each of the two substantial hinges remained anchored to the jamb by its frame leaf, although each leaf—a quarter-inch steel plate—had been bent by the fearsome force that had ripped away the door. The barrel knuckles joining the frame leaf to the center leaf of each hinge were also deformed, as was the steel pivot pin that connected them.


If Harry had taken refuge behind the locked bedroom door, the barrier hadn’t stood for long.


Not even a steroid-pumped bodybuilder with Herculean slabs of muscle could have torn the door off its hinges without a winch and tackle. The task, accomplished barehanded, would have defeated any mortal man.


Expecting slaughter or an outrage so inhuman in nature that it could not be anticipated, Molly hesitated to follow Neil into the bedroom. When she crossed the threshold, however, she saw no signs of violence.


The walk-in closet stood open. No one in there.


When Neil tried the closed door between the bedroom and the adjacent bath, he found it locked.


He glanced at Molly. She nodded.


Putting his face close to the bathroom door, Neil said, “Harry? Are you in there, Harry?”


If the question had been answered, the reply had been too soft to be audible.


“Harry, it’s me, Neil Sloan. You in there? Are you all right?”


When he received no answer, he stepped back from the door and kicked it hard. The lock was only a privacy set, not a deadbolt, and three kicks sprung it.


How curious that whatever had wrenched off the sturdier door to the bedroom had not torn this one away, as well.


Neil stepped to the threshold, then recoiled and turned away, the features of his face knocked out of true by a seismic jolt of visceral horror and revulsion.


He tried to prevent Molly from seeing what he had seen, but she refused to be turned away. No sight could be worse than some that she had endured on that terrible day in her eighth year.


Eyeless, his head hollowed out as completely as a jack-o’-lantern, Harry Corrigan sat on the bathroom floor, resting against the side of the bathtub. He had sucked on a short-barreled, pump-action, pistol-grip shotgun.


Sickened but not shocked, Molly turned at once away.


“He couldn’t stop grieving,” Neil said.


For an instant, she didn’t understand what he meant. Then she realized that in spite of all he had thus far witnessed, he remained to some degree in denial.


She said, “Harry didn’t kill himself because of Calista. He retreated to the bathroom and blew his brains out to avoid coming face-to-face with whoever tore down the bedroom door.”


The directness of “blew his brains out” caused Neil to flinch, and his face, paper-pale since he’d seen the dead man, shaded to a penciled gray.


“And when they heard the shotgun,” she continued, “they knew what he had done—and had no further interest in him.”


“They,” he said thoughtfully, and looked to the ceiling as if remembering the enormous descending mass that he had sensed earlier in the night. “But why not use the shotgun on…them?”


Suspecting that the answer might await discovery elsewhere in the house, Molly didn’t reply, but instead led the way back into the hall. A further search of the second floor turned up nothing of interest until they reached the back stairs.


This single narrow flight descended to a mud room adjacent to the kitchen. Molly knew that the lower chamber led also to the backyard.


Apparently Harry Corrigan had first encountered his unwanted visitors down there. He had been armed with the shotgun and had used it more than once on these stairs. Buckshot had gouged and pocked the walls, had chopped chunks and splinters from the wooden stairs.


Backing toward the second floor, firing down on the intruders, he could not have missed any target in that tightly confined space, considering the spread pattern of a shotgun. Yet there were no dead bodies on the stairs or at the foot of it. No blood.

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