THE HOUSE, AT LAST, was livable again.
Even more so than before, in fact, for he had finally taken three days and soundproofed the walls. Now they could scream and howl all they wanted and he didn't have to listen to them. He especially liked not having to listen to Ben Cortman any more.
It had all taken time and work. First of all was the matter of a new car to replace the one they'd destroyed. This had been more difficult than he'd imagined.
He had to get over to Santa Monica to the only Willys store he knew about. The Willys station wagons were the only ones he had had any experience with, and this didn't seem quite the time to start experimenting. He couldn't walk to Santa Monica, so he had to try using one of the many cars parked around the neighborhood. But most of them were inoperative for one reason or another: a dead battery, a clogged fuel pump, no gasoline, flat tires.
Finally, in a garage about a mile from the house, he found a car he could get started, and he drove quickly to Santa Monica to pick up another station wagon. He put a new battery in it, filled its tank with gasoline, put gasoline drums in the back, and drove home. He got back to the house about an hour before sunset.
He made sure of that.
Luckily the generator had not been ruined. The vampires apparently had no idea of its importance to him, for, except for a torn wire and a few cudgel blows, they had left it alone. He'd managed to fix it quickly the morning after the attack and keep his frozen foods from spoiling. He was grateful for that, because he was sure there were no places left where he could get more frozen foods now that electricity was gone from the city.
For the rest of it, he had to straighten up the garage and clean out the debris of broken bulbs, fuses, wiring, plugs, solder, spare motor parts, and a box of seeds he'd put there once; he didn't remember just when.
The washing machine they had ruined beyond repair, forcing him to replace it. But that wasn't hard. The worst part was mopping up all the gasoline they'd spilled from the drums. They'd really outdone themselves spilling gasoline, he thought irritably while he mopped it up.
Inside the house, he had repaired the cracked plaster, and as an added fillip he had put up another wall mural to give a different appearance to the room.
He'd almost enjoyed all the work once it was started. It gave him something to lose himself in, something to pour all the energy of his still pulsing fury into. It broke the monotony of his daily tasks: the carrying away of bodies, the repairing of the house's exterior, the hanging of garlic.
He drank sparingly during those days, managing to pass almost the entire day without a drink, even allowing his evening drinks to assume the function of relaxing night-caps rather than senseless escape. His appetite increased and he gained four pounds and lost a little belly. He even slept nights, a tired sleep without the dreams.
For a day or so he had played with the idea of moving to some lavish hotel suite. But the thought of all the work he'd have to do to make it habitable changed his mind.
No, he was all set in the house.
Now he sat in the living room, listening to Mozart's Jupiter Symphony and wondering how he was to begin, where he was to begin his investigation.
He knew a few details, but these were only landmarks above the basic earth of cause. The answer lay in something else. Probably in some fact he was aware of but did not adequately appreciate, in some apparent knowledge he had not yet connected with the over-all picture.
He sat motionless in the chair, a sweat-beaded glass in his right hand, his eyes fastened on the mural.
It was a scene from Canada: deep northern woods, mysterious with green shadows, standing aloof and motionless, heavy with the silence of manless nature. He stared into its soundless green depths and wondered.
Maybe if he went back. Maybe the answer lay in the past, in some obscure crevice of memory. Go back, then, he told his mind, go back.
It tore his heart out to go back.
There had been another dust storm during the night. High, spinning winds had scoured the house with grit, driven it through the cracks, sifted it through plaster pores, and left a hair-thin layer of dust across all the furniture surfaces. Over their bed the dust filtered like fine powder, settling in their hair and on their eyelids and under their nails, clogging their pores.
Half the night he'd lain awake trying to single out the sound of Virginia's labored breathing. But he couldn't hear anything above the shrieking, grating sound of the storm. For a while, in the suspension between sleeping and waking, he had suffered the illusion that the house was being sandpapered by giant wheels that held its framework between monstrous abrasive surfaces and made it shudder.
He'd never got used to the dust storms. That hissing sound of whirlwind granulation always set his teeth on edge. The storms had never come regularly enough to allow him to adapt himself to them. Whenever they came, he spent a restless, tossing night, and went to the plant the next day with jaded mind and body.
Now there was Virginia to worry about too.
About four o'clock he awoke from a thin depression of sleep and realized that the storm had ended. The contrast made silence a rushing noise in his ears.
As he raised his body irritably to adjust his twisted pajamas, he noticed that Virginia was awake. She was lying on her back and staring at the ceiling.
"What's the matter?" he mumbled drowsily.
She didn't answer.
Her eyes moved slowly to him.
"Nothing," she said. "Go to sleep."
"How do you feel?"
He lay there for a moment looking at her.
"Well," he said then and, turning on his side, closed his eyes.
The alarm went off at six-thirty. Usually Virginia pushed in the stop, but when she failed to do so, he reached over her inert body and did it himself. She was still on her back, still staring.
"What is it?" he asked worriedly.
She looked at him and shook her head on the pillow.
"I don't know," she said. "I just can't sleep."
She made an indecisive sound.
"Still feel weak?" he asked.
She tried to sit up but she couldn't.
"Stay there, hon," he said. "Don't move." He put his hand on her brow. "You haven't got any fever," he told her.
"I don't feel sick," she said. "Just . . tired."
"You look pale."
"I know. I look like a ghost."
"Don't get up," he said.
She was up.
"I'm not going to pamper myself," she said. "Go ahead, get dressed. I'll be all right."
"Don't get up if you don't feel good, honey."
She patted his arm and smiled.
"I'll be all right," she said. "You get ready."
While he shaved he heard the shuffling of her slippers past the bathroom door. He opened the door and watched her crossing the living room very slowly, her wrappered body weaving a little. He went back in the bathroom shaking his head. She should have stayed in bed.
The whole top of the washbasin was grimy with dust. The damn stuff was everywhere. He'd finally been compelled to erect a tent over Kathy's bed to keep the dust from her face. He'd nailed one edge of a shelter half to the wall next to her bed and let it slope over the bed, the other edge held up by two poles lashed to the side of the bed.
He didn't get a good shave because there was grit in the shaving soap and he didn't have time for a second lathering. He washed off his face, got a clean towel from the hall closet, and dried himself.
Before going to the bedroom to get dressed he checked Kathy's room.
She was still asleep, her small blonde head motionless on the pillow, her cheeks pink with heavy sleep. He ran a finger across the top of the shelter half and drew it away gray with dust. With a disgusted shake of his head he left the room.
"I wish these damn storms would end," he said as he entered the kitchen ten minutes later. "I'm sure… "
He stopped talking. Usually she was at the stove turning eggs or French toast or pancakes, making coffee. Today she was sitting at the table. On the stove coffee was percolating, but nothing else was cooking.
"Sweetheart, if you don't feel well, go back to bed," he told her. "I can fix my own breakfast."
"It's all right," she said. "I was just resting. I'm sorry. I'll get up and fry you some eggs."
"Stay there," he said. "I'm not helpless."
He went to the refrigerator and opened the door.
"I'd like to know what this is going around," she said. "Half the people on the block have it, and you say that more than half the plant is absent."
"Maybe it's some kind of virus," he said.
She shook her head. "I don't know."
"Between the storms and the mosquitoes and everyone being sick, life is rapidly becoming a pain," he said, pouring orange juice out of the bottle. "And speak of the devil."
He drew a black speck out of the orange juice in the glass.
"How the hell they get in the refrigerator I'll never know," he said.
"None for me, Bob," she said.
"No orange juice?"
"Good for you."
"No, thank you, sweetheart," she said, trying to smile.
He put back the bottle and sat down across from her with his glass of juice.
"You don't feel any pain?" he said. "No headache, nothing?"
She shook her head slowly.
"I wish I did know what was wrong," she said.
"You call up Dr. Busch today."
"I will," she said, starting to get up. He put his hand over hers.
"No, no, sweetheart, stay there," he said.
"But there's no reason why I should be like this." She sounded angry. That was the way she'd been as long as he'd known her. If she became ill, it irritated her. She was annoyed by sickness. She seemed to regard it as a personal affront.
"Come on," he said, starting to get up. "I'll help you back to bed."
"No, just let me sit here with you," she said. "I'll go back to bed after Kathy goes to school."
"All right. Don't you want something, though?"
"How about coffee?"
She shook her head.
"You're really going to get sick if you don't eat," he said.
"I'm just not hungry."
He finished his juice and got up to fry a couple of eggs. He cracked them on the side of the iron skillet and dropped the contents into the melted bacon fat. He got the bread from the drawer and went over to the table with it.
"Here, I'll put it in the toaster," Virginia said. "You watch your… Oh, God."
"What is it?"
She waved one hand weakly in front of her face.
"A mosquito," she said with a grimace.
He moved over and, after a moment, crushed it between his two palms.
"Mosquitoes," she said. "Flies, sand fleas."
"We are entering the age of the insect," he said.
"It's not good," she said. "They carry diseases. We ought to put a net around Kathy's bed too."
"I know, I know," he said, returning to the stove and tipping the skillet so the hot fat ran over the white egg surfaces. "I keep meaning to."
"I don't think that spray works, either," Virginia said.
"My God, and it's supposed to be one of the best ones on the market."
He slid the eggs onto a dish.
"Sure you don't want some coffee?' he asked her.
"No, thank you."
He sat down and she handed him the buttered toast.
"I hope to hell we're not breeding a race of superbugs," he said. "You remember that strain of giant grasshoppers they found in Colorado?'
"Maybe the insects are… What's the word? Mutating."
"Oh, it means they're… changing. Suddenly. Jumping over dozens of small evolutionary steps, maybe developing along lines they might not have followed at all if it weren't for… "
"The bombings?" she said.
"Maybe," he said.
"Well, they're causing the dust storms. They're probably causing a lot of things."
She sighed wearily and shook her head.
"And they say we won the war," she said.
"Nobody won it"
"The mosquitoes won it."
He smiled a little.
"I guess they did," he said.
They sat there for a few moments without talking and the only sound in the kitchen was the clink of his fork on the plate and the cup on the saucer.
"You looked at Kathy last night?" she asked.
"I just looked at her now. She looks fine."
She looked at him studiedly.
"I've been thinking, Bob," she said. "Maybe we should send her east to your mother's until I get better. It may be contagious."
"We could," he said dubiously, "but if it's contagious, my mother's place wouldn't be any safer than here."
"You don't think so?" she asked. She looked worried.
He shrugged. "I don't know, hon. I think probably she's just as safe here. If it starts to get bad on the block, we'll keep her out of school."
She started to say something, then stopped.
"All right," she said.
He looked at his watch.
"I'd better finish up," he said.
She nodded and he ate the rest of his breakfast quickly. While he was draining the coffee cup she asked him if he had bought a paper the night before.
"It's in the living room," he told her.
"Anything new in it?'
"No. Same old stuff. It's all over the country, a little here, a little there. They haven't been able to find the germ yet."
She bit her lower lip.
"Nobody knows what it is?"
"I doubt it. If anybody did they'd have surely said so by now.
"But they must have some idea."
"Everybody's got an idea. But they aren't worth anything."
'What do they say?"
He shrugged. "Everything from germ warfare on down."
"Do you think it is?"
"Yes," she said.
"The war's over," he said.
"Bob," she said suddenly, "do you think you should go to work?"
He smiled helplessly.
"What else can I do?" he asked. "We have to eat."
"I know, but . ."
He reached across the table and felt how cold her hand was.
"Honey, it'll be all right," he said.
"And you think I should send Kathy to school?"
"I think so," he said. "Unless the health authorities say schools have to shut down, I don't see why we should keep her home. She's not sick."
"But all the kids at school."
"I think we'd better, though," he said.
She made a tiny sound in her throat. Then she said, "All right. If you think so."
"Is there anything you want before I go?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Now you stay in the house today," he told her, "and in bed."
"I will," she said. "As soon as I send Kathy off." He patted her hand. Outside, the car horn sounded. He finished the coffee and went to the bathroom to rinse out his mouth. Then he got his jacket from the hall closet and pulled it on.
"Good-by, honey," he said, kissing her on the cheek. "Take it easy, now."
"Good-by," she said. "Be careful."
He moved across the lawn, gritting his teeth at the residue of dust in the air. He could smell it as he walked, a dry tickling sensation in his nasal passages.
"Morning," he said, getting in the car and pulling the door shut behind him.
"Good morning," said Ben Cortman.READ MORE >>