MORNING. A SUN BRIGHT hush broken only by the chorus of birds in the trees. No breeze to stir the vivid blossoms around the houses, the bushes, the dark-leaved hedges. A cloud of silent heat was suspended over everything on Cimarron Street.
Virginia Neville's heart had stopped.
He sat beside her on the bed, looking down at her white face. He held her fingers in his hand, his fingertips stroking and stroking. His body was immobile, one rigid, insensible block of flesh and bone. His eyes did not blink, his mouth was a static line, and the movement of his breathing was so slight that it seemed to have stopped altogether.
Something had happened to his brain.
In the second he had felt no heartbeat beneath his trembling fingers, the core of his brain seemed to have petrified, sending out jagged lines of calcification until his head felt like stone. Slowly, on palsied legs, he had sunk down on the bed. And now, vaguely, deep in the struggling tissues of thought, he did not understand how he could sit there, did not understand why despair did not crush him to the earth. But prostration would not come. Time was caught on hooks and could not progress. Everything stood fixed. With Virginia, life and the world had shuddered to a halt.
Thirty minutes passed; forty.
Then, slowly, as though he were discovering some objective phenomenon, he found his body trembling. Not with a localized tremble, a nerve here, a muscle there. This was complete. His body shuddered without end, one mass, entire of nerves without control, bereft of will. And what operative mind was left knew that this was his reaction.
For more than an hour he sat in this palsied state, his eyes fastened dumbly to her face.
Then, abruptly, it ended, and with a choked muttering in his throat he lurched up from the bed and left the room.
Half the whisky splashed on the sink top as he poured. The liquor that managed to reach the glass he bolted down in a swallow. The thin current flared its way down to his stomach, feeling twice as intense in the polar numbness of his flesh. He stood, sagged against the sink. Hands shaking, he filled the glass again to its top and gulped the burning whisky down with great convulsive swallows.
It's a dream, he argued vainly. It was as if a voice spoke the words aloud in his head.
He kept turning from one side to another, his eyes searching around the room as if there were something to be found, as if he had mislaid the exit from this house of horror. Tiny sounds of disbelief pulsed in his throat. He pressed his hands together, forcing the shaking palms against each other, the twitching fingers intertwining confusedly.
His hands began to shake so he couldn't make out their forms. With a gagging intake of breath he jerked them apart and pressed them against his legs.
He took a step and cried aloud as the room flung itself off balance. Pain exploded in his right knee, sending hot barbs up his leg. He whined as he pushed himself up and stumbled to the living room. He stood there like a statue in an earthquake, his marble eyes frozen on the bedroom door.
In his mind he saw a scene enacted once again.
The great fire crackling, roaring yellow, sending its dense and grease-thick clouds into the sky. Kathy's tiny body in his arms. The man coming up and snatching her away as if he were taking a bundle of rags. The man lunging into the dark mist carrying his baby. Him standing there while pile driver blows of horror drove him down with their impact.
Then suddenly he had darted forward with a berserk scream.
The arms caught him, the men in canvas and masks drawing him back. His shoes gouged frenziedly at the earth, digging two ragged trenches in the earth as they dragged him away. His brain exploded, the terrified screams flooding from him.
Then the sudden bolt of numbing pain in his jaw, the daylight swept over with clouds of night. The hot trickle of liquor down his throat, the coughing, a gasping, and then he had been sitting silent and rigid in Ben Cortman's car, staring as they drove away at the gigantic pail of smoke that rose above the earth like a black wraith of all earth's despair.
Remembering, he closed his eyes suddenly and his teeth pressed together until they ached.
He wouldn't put Virginia there. Not if they killed him for it.
With a slow, stiff motion he walked to the front door and went out on the porch. Stepping off onto the yellowing lawn, he started down the block for Ben Cortman's house. The glare of the sun made his pupils shrink to points of jet. His hands swung useless and numbed at his sides.
The chimes still played "How Dry I Am." The absurdity of it made him want to break something in his hands. He remembered when Ben had put them in, thinking how funny it would be.
He stood rigidly before the door, his mind still pulsing. I don't care if it's the law, I don't care if refusal means death, I won't put her there!
His fist thudded on the door.
Silence in the house of Ben Cortman. White curtains hung motionless in the front windows. He could see the red couch, the floor lamp with the fringed shade, the upright Freda used to toy with on Sunday afternoons.
He blinked. What day was it? He had forgotten, he had lost track of the days.
He twisted his shoulders as impatient fury hosed acids through his veins.
Again the side of his hard fist pummeled the door, and the flesh along his whitening jaw line twitched. Damn him, where was he? Neville jammed in the button with a brittle finger and the chimes started the tippler's song over and over and over. "How dry I am, how dry I am, how dry I am, how dry I…"
With a frenzied gasp he lurched against the door and it flew open against the inside wall. It had been unlocked.
He walked into the silent living room.
"Ben," he said loudly. "Ben, I need your car."
They were in the bedroom, silent and still in their daytime comas, lying apart on the twin beds, Ben in pajamas, Freda in silk nightgown; lying on the sheets, their thick chests faltering with labored breaths
He stood there for a moment looking down at them. There were some wounds on Freda's white neck that had crusted over with dried blood. His eyes moved to Ben. There was no wound on Ben's throat and he heard a voice in his mind that said: If only I'd wake up.
He shook his head. No, there was no waking up from this.
He found the car keys on the bureau and picked them up. He turned away and left the silent house behind. It was the last time he ever saw either of them alive.
The motor coughed into life and he let it idle a few minutes, choke out, while he sat staring out through the dusty windshield. A fly buzzed its bloated form around his head in the hot, airless interior of the car. He watched the dull green glitter of it and felt the car pulsing under him.
After a moment he pushed in the choke and drove the car up the street. He parked it in the driveway before his garage and turned off the motor.
The house was cool and silent. His shoes scuffed quietly over the rug, then clicked on the floor boards in the hall.
He stood motionless in the doorway looking at her. She still lay on her back, arms at her sides, the white fingers slightly curled in. She looked as if she were sleeping.
He turned away and went back into the living room. What was be going to do? Choices seemed pointless now. What did it matter what he did? Life would be equally purposeless no matter what his decision was.
He stood before the window looking out at the quiet, sun-drenched street, his eyes lifeless.
Why did I get the car, then? he wondered. His throat moved as he swallowed. I can't burn her, he thought. I won't. But what else was there? Funeral parlors were closed. What few morticians were healthy enough to practice were prevented from doing so by law. Everyone without exception had to be transported to the fires immediately upon death. It was the only way they knew now to prevent communication. Only flames could destroy the bacteria that caused the plague.
He knew that. He knew it was the law. But how many people followed it? He wondered that too. How many husbands took the women who had shared their life and love and dropped them into flames? How many parents incinerated the children they adored, how many children tossed their beloved parents on a bonfire a hundred yards square, a hundred feet deep?
No, if there was anything left in the world, it was his vow that she would not be burned in the fire.
An hour passed before he finally reached a decision. Then he went and got her needle and thread. He kept sewing until only her face showed. Then, fingers trembling, a tight knot in his stomach, he sewed the blanket together over her mouth. Over her nose. Her eyes.
Finished, he went in the kitchen and drank another glass of whisky. It didn't seem to affect him at all.
At last he went back to the bedroom on faltering legs. For a long minute he stood there breathing hoarsely. Then he bent over and worked his arms under her inert form.
"Come on, baby," he whispered.
The words seemed to loosen everything. He felt himself shaking, felt the tears running slowly down his cheeks as he carried her through the living room and outside.
He put her in the back seat and got in the car. He took a deep breath and reached for the starter button.
He drew back. Getting out of the car again, he went into the garage and got the shovel.
He twitched as he came out, seeing the man across the street approaching slowly. He put the shovel in the back and got in the car.
The man's shout was hoarse. The man tried to run, but he wasn't strong enough.
Robert Neville sat there silently as the man came shuffling up.
"Could you… let me bring my… my mother too?' the man said stiffly.
Neville's brain wouldn't function. He thought he was going to cry again, but he caught himself and stiffened his back.
"I'm not going to the… there," he said.
The man looked at him blankly.
"I'm not going to the fire, I said!" Neville blurted out, and jabbed in the starter button.
"But your wife," said the man. "You have your…"
Robert Neville jerked the gear shift into reverse.
"Please," begged the man.
"I'm not going there!" Neville shouted without looking at the man.
"But it's the law!" the man shouted back, suddenly furious.
The car raced back quickly into the street and Neville jerked it around to face Compton Boulevard. As he sped away he saw the man standing at the curb watching him leave. Fool! his mind grated. Do you think I'm going to throw my wife into a fire?
The streets were deserted. He turned left at Compton and started west. As he drove he looked at the huge lot on the right side of the car. He couldn't use any of the cemeteries. They were locked and watched. Men had been shot trying to bury their loved ones.
He turned right at the next block and drove up one block, turned right again into a quiet street that ended in the lot. Halfway up the block he cut the motor. He rolled the rest of the way so no one would hear the car.
No one saw him carry her from the car or carry her deep into the high-weeded lot. No one saw him put her down on an open patch of ground and then disappear from view as he knelt.
Slowly he dug, pushing the shovel into the soft earth, the bright sun pouring heat into the little clearing like molten air into a dish. Sweat ran in many lines down his cheeks and forehead as he dug, and the earth swam dizzily before his eyes. Newly thrown dirt filled his nostrils with its hot, pungent smell.
At last the hole was finished. He put down the shovel and sagged down on his knees. His body shuddered and sweat trickled over his face. This was the part he dreaded.
But he knew he couldn't wait. If he was seen they would come out and get him. Being shot was nothing. But she would be burned then. His lips tightened. No.
Gently, carefully as he could, he lowered her into the shallow grave, making sure that her head did not bump.
He straightened up and looked down at her still body sewn up in the blanket. For the last time, he thought. No more talking, no more loving. Eleven wonderful years ending in a filled-in trench. He began to tremble. No, he ordered himself, there's no time for that
It was no use. The world shimmered through endless distorting tears while he pressed back the hot earth, patting it around her still body with nerveless fingers.
He lay fully clothed on his bed, staring at the black ceiling. He was half drunk and the darkness spun with fireflies.
His right arm faltered out for the table. His hand brushed the bottle over and he jerked out clawing fingers too late. Then he relaxed and lay there in the still of night, listening to the whisky gurgle out of the bottle mouth and spread across the floor.
His unkempt hair rustled on the pillow as he looked toward the clock. Two in the morning. Two days since he'd buried her. Two eyes looking at the clock, two ears picking up the hum of its electric chronology, two lips pressed together, two hands lying on the bed.
He tried to rid himself of the concept, but everything in the world seemed suddenly to have dropped into a pit of duality, victim to a system of twos. Two people dead, two beds in the room, two windows, two bureaus, two rugs, two hearts that…
His chest filled with night air, held, then pushed it out and sank abruptly. Two days, two hands, two eyes, two legs, two feet…
He sat up and dropped his legs over the edge of the bed.
His feet landed in the puddle of whisky and, he felt it soaking through his socks. A cold breeze was rattling the window blinds.
He stared at the blackness. What's left? he asked himself. What's left, anyway?
Wearily he stood up and stumbled into the bathroom, leaving wet tracks behind him. He threw water into his face and fumbled for a towel.
What's left? What's…
He stood suddenly rigid in the cold blackness.
Someone was turning the knob on the front door.
He felt a chill move up the back of his neck and his scalp began prickling. It's Ben, he heard his mind offering. He's come for the car keys.
The towel slipped from his fingers and he heard it swish down onto the tiles. His body twitched.
A fist thudded against the door, strengthless, as if it had fallen against the wood.
He moved into the living room slowly, his heartbeat thudding heavily.
The door rattled as another fist thudded against it weakly. He felt himself twitch at the sound. What's the matter? he thought. The door is open. From the open window a cold breeze blew across his face. The darkness drew him to the door.
"Who," he murmured, unable to go on.
His hand recoiled from the doorknob as it turned under his fingers. With one step, he backed into the wall and stood there breathing harshly, his widened eyes staring.
Nothing happened. He stood there holding himself rigidly.
Then his breath was snuffed. Someone was mumbling on the porch, muttering words he couldn't hear. He braced himself; then, with a lunge, he jerked open the door and let the moonlight in.
He couldn't even scream. He just stood rooted to the spot, staring dumbly at Virginia.
"Rob… ert," she said.READ MORE >>