Cover Image
Linda Griffin
The Cockroach Chronicles: Dave Randall’s Story

Vernon pointed to his watch and gave me a thumbs-up signal. If I hadn't had the regulator mouthpiece between my teeth, I would have cussed at him. He always wanted to go up before I did, and it wasn't because I was particularly reckless. He was one of those never-take-a-chance guys who would drive five miles below the speed limit and hold up traffic.

     It was so damned beautiful at that depth. Maybe it's nostalgia. Maybe it's because it was the last time, but I remember it as an especially good day. We were only down about thirty feet, and we could still see orange. The colors were fantastic, and I captured an endless series of exquisite images with little or no flash. Vernon was always clinking around with his knife and turning over rocks, searching for something different. He never found it, and he never took any pictures. No wonder he always got bored while we still had plenty of air. It was never boring for me. Never. It was like another world, remote and peaceful. It always made me forget my troubles. I guess Vernon didn't have anything to forget.

     I shook my head, but he just signaled again and started to ascend. I said I wasn't reckless; I wasn't about to stay down there alone. I knew better, but I took my time about following him. I wanted one more shot of the coral, and then this big angelfish swam close to my head. It was fantastic — beautiful and quiet, with no sound except my own air after his clinking stopped. I hated to leave, but Vernon was gone, and he'd get anxious if I delayed.

     I broke the surface near the pontoon boat, kicked over to the ladder, and handed up my weight belt. Nobody took it. "Hey!" I reached up and dropped it on the deck and grabbed for the harness straps. "Vernon! Jack!" I was answered by a muffled groan and stopped short. I didn't want to climb the ladder in fins and a heavy air tank, but it was better than waiting for assistance that might not come.

     Vernon lay on the deck, moaning softly, his face contorted, hands half clutching his chest. I was stunned. Cautious, no-risk Vernon? We had been down only thirty feet, and I wasn't two minutes behind him. Not the bends, obviously. An accident? Accidents don't happen to people like him. He had apparently removed his air tank and collapsed beside it. He still wore his fins and weight belt. "Vernon?" I knelt beside him and touched his arm, but he didn't respond. I glanced around for Jack and found him in the bow, slumped against the railing with his mouth open. He looked dead. "Vernon," I said again and shook him. He opened his eyes and stared right at me. "What happened?" I asked. He reached up towards his throat with one hand, and his lips formed the words "Help me," but he made no sound. Two seconds later, he was dead.

<  2  >

     I took a deep breath and reeled. "Jesus!" A strange, sickeningly sweet smell I couldn't identify almost overwhelmed me. I inhaled again and was immediately dizzy and lightheaded. I didn't waste time trying to reason it out, not with two of my friends lying dead on the deck. I reached for my regulator and knelt beside Vernon, breathing air I knew was safe. I was sick to my stomach and still a bit woozy and couldn't tell how much was physical and how much was the bodies. Something was wrong; something was poisoning the air. Maybe I already had my lungs full of whatever had killed Jack and Vernon. Maybe it was in my bloodstream. Maybe in another minute I would slump unconscious beside them, and if I didn't, what would I do when I had used all the air on the boat?

     After a few minutes, I was a little calmer and almost clear-headed. A terrible tragedy had overtaken two friends of mine, diving buddies of three years standing, but I was alive. Vernon had obviously fallen ill almost as soon as he stepped foot on the boat, and there was no sign Jack had had time to reach for an air tank or the radio. He appeared to have fallen back, his mouth open in surprise, and died immediately. Since I had been breathing the air for a few minutes before I started to feel sick, it must be becoming less virulent. It hit me then: those last few photographs and my reluctance to leave the underwater isolation had saved my life.

     Still breathing compressed air, I went forward to the radio. I figured I could get back to land on my own if I had to, but a Mayday call was certainly in order. The Coast Guard would come and get me. Maybe they would know about some freaky poisonous cloud that was knocking people out.

     I wasn't familiar with the radio, but it wasn't hard to figure out. "CQ, CQ, CQ…Any station, any station, any station." Nobody answered. I repeated it several times and tried "Mayday" again and again, but never got anything back except occasional static. I figured the radio had been knocked out too, or I wasn't using it right. Okay, forget the Coast Guard.

<  3  >

     I peeled out of my wet suit and dressed in the dry clothes from my backpack. I started the engine and headed to shore. I could see the San Diego skyline, and everything looked normal. The sky above me was as blue as when we went out, with a few wispy clouds scattered around. At first, I didn't see any other boats, but soon enough, I did and wished I hadn't. A sailboat with its sail gone slack drifted by, and the two people on board were dead, one hanging over the rail. A motorboat made a wide circle around me, no hand on the tiller. One deck shoe was sticking up at an odd angle. After that, I didn't look and headed straight for the pier.

     Boats had come to grief against the piles, fishermen were slumped over the railings, and tourists lay dead on the walkways. I moored the boat, put my camera in my backpack, and started up the steps. A young girl in jeans and a halter top lay across my path, camera still clutched in one hand. She had an expression of horror on her face. At first I couldn't look away, and then I had to and stepped over her. One of the fishermen had a hand to his throat, but most of them apparently hadn't seen it coming. I went to the bait shop and to the snack bar, but nobody was around. Nobody alive, I mean. I headed east, and everywhere, it was the same. I shouted, "Hello! Is anybody here?" but only echoes replied.

     I was still carrying the oxygen tank, breathing from it most of the time, but when I removed the mouthpiece, the chemical smell was less pungent. Another odor was present, though, one I couldn't identify at first. It was the stench of death.

     As I entered downtown, things got even scarier. Cars were everywhere, engines still running, but if they hadn't stopped at traffic lights, they had run into each other or into buildings. Pedestrians lay in the crosswalks and on the sidewalks. Everybody was dead. Everybody. Except for the hum of engines, it was silent. No voices, no traffic, no construction noise.

<  4  >

     I stopped walking and stood in the middle of the street, taking it all in. I couldn't think what I should do, where I should go. What had happened? Biological warfare? Who did this? Russia? North Korea? Al-Qaeda? Martians? This was bigger than 9/11, and my first instinct was to see if it was on TV. There was nobody to ask, and even if there had been, I would still have very soon craved the ubiquitous fount of information: CNN.

     I went hunting for a bar. Not a difficult assignment, even for a habitual nondrinker. The first one I came across didn't have a TV on, and I couldn't find a remote or a switch to turn it on with. MacGyver, I'm not. The smell was really bad in there, too. Spilled alcohol and maybe something burning. It wasn't the bodies, and I discovered something there I hadn't noticed before. I brushed against the bartender's arm while I was searching for the remote, and it was dry and warmer than I would have expected. The side of his face I could see looked sunburned and was peeling a little.

     In the second bar, the TV was on. A soap opera. I went behind the bar, found the remote, and changed the channel. A game show. A western movie. A Seinfeld episode. CNN, however, was a black screen. Nobody left to report the news? Nobody to flip the right switch? Not just San Diego, but the whole damn country or large parts of it?

     I needed a drink. It didn't help. The cash register was open, and I could have helped myself to the cash, and nobody would know or care — but would the money be worth anything? In the end, I didn't take anything, but I didn't pay for the drink either. I wasn't using the oxygen anymore, and it was heavy, so I left it behind. I hoped an attack this virulent wouldn't need to be repeated.

     Back outside, I tried to decide where I should go. I had survived; I couldn't be the only one. Who else would have survived? Other divers? People in airplanes? I had read about the fabrication rooms where they assemble electronics — they had their own air supplies. The city must have a crisis center — where? Would the phone number be listed?

<  5  >

     I went into a bank building to see if someone might have survived in an elevator. A car responded as soon as I pushed the button, but nobody was inside. I tried the rest and two of them had dead people in them. What about the vault — could someone have survived inside? I yelled, "Hello, is anybody here?" but heard only silence.

     I kept walking. I didn't have a lot of choice. I couldn't take a bus or call a taxi. Stealing a car would have been easy, but the roads were blocked. I walked. Information was what I needed, so I headed for the public library. On the way I almost stumbled over an Asian guy with a cell phone still up to his ear. I took it and called 911. No answer. This guy was sunburned too, or he had a skin condition, or — and this really made my skin crawl — all these bodies were starting to flake away like dead insects. In the block before the library, a woman with a bag of birdseed lay surrounded by the pigeons she had been feeding, all as dead as she was.

     The library was cool and quiet — too quiet. No phones ringing, no staff answering questions, not even computer keyboards clicking. I picked up the first phone I found and tried 911 again. Nothing. More people were in there than I expected, and yes, the bodies were drying out, and these weren't even in the sun.

     I went to the computer lab on the second floor. Some of the patrons had fallen out of their chairs, and some were slumped over the computers. I stepped over one of the fallen ones and sat down at his computer. He had been writing an e-mail. I'm not sure what it was about, but he was a very bad speller. Under the circumstances, he wouldn't mind me deleting it. I went to Google News and and found a lot of depressing headlines, but nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, maybe all these other problems had just been solved. I clicked Reload, but nothing changed.

<  6  >

     My best bet to contact someone else was a divers' chat room. I'd never visited one, but I was sure some must exist. I searched Facebook Groups for "Scuba Divers." Most enlightening. Dating sites galore, posters slamming each other for whatever they'd said before, links to porn sites. Some of the groups were in other countries. The distance made them promising, but except for the British dating sites, they were in languages I didn't speak. I did find a few sites actually discussing diving, but no very recent postings. I'd been at it for about fifteen minutes before I hit pay dirt.

     "WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED!?!" posted by Scubafan83.

     I had to register before I could post, and I was terrified the other diver would log off before I could reply. I had to come up with a password with letters and numbers, and my mind went completely blank. I finally settled on "Vernon2024" and posted, "I don't know, but everybody in San Diego is dead. Where are you?"

     No immediate answer came, and while I waited, I checked the news again and tried a few more sites. The body at my feet was flaking away as I watched. Whatever he had taken into his lungs was consuming him.

     "Florida. They're all dead, my Mom, everyone. What are we going to do?"

     Not having a family has some advantages. My mother died when I was fifteen, and I hadn't seen my father since I left home at eighteen. I didn't need to call anyone to see if they were still alive. "Sorry about your Mom," I typed back. "I don't know what to do either. Wait and see, I guess. There must be other survivors. Are you okay where you are?"

     "I guess. This is really scary. Please keep in touch."

     "I'm in the library, and I'm going to try to get home. I'll let you know when I get there."

     I did want very much to get home, but it was a long walk. When I came out of the library, I checked the bicycle rack, but of course all the bikes were locked up. I started walking and then noticed the sun had gone behind a cloud — a dirty brown cloud. Somewhere something was on fire. Maybe a plane had crashed, or maybe this was another phase, another weapon of mass destruction.

<  7  >

     As I walked down the street with bodies everywhere, I remembered the Stephen King story — The Stand, wasn't it? — where the guy walks through the Holland Tunnel, climbing over bodies in the dark. That scene gave me nightmares. At least it was still light, but if I had to walk all the way home, darkness might fall before I made it. The trouble with reading Stephen King is you start to wonder what else might be out there in the dark.

     Almost an hour passed before I finally happened on a bicycle that wasn't badly damaged when its rider pulled it over on top of him. The rider was a well-muscled young man who wore a red jersey and a very surprised expression on his face. Or half of his face anyway — the other half had flaked away. A little further on, a dog with a guide dog harness lay across his master's body.

     On the bicycle, I was making good time, weaving in and out of stalled traffic and walking when necessary, when I thought of the hospital. It was a straight shot down Fifth Avenue, and somebody might be alive there, somebody more useful than Scubafan83. Hospitals use oxygen, and while survivors were most likely to be sick people, a doctor or nurse could have been in isolation with a patient.

     I put the bicycle in the rack and didn't bother to lock it. The hospital was the same as everywhere else I had been. Bodies on the floor, slumped over desks, or in chairs. Computer monitors were on. The elevators worked. The familiar antiseptic hospital smell was everywhere. I walked through the corridors, calling, "Hello? Is anybody here?" and getting no answer. I tried the surgery wing, where I found doctors and nurses on the floor and one patient with a rubber mask covering his face. He was dead, but his skin wasn't flaking away. He was what you might call collateral damage.

     I took the stairs to the next floor, which included obstetrics, and that was the worst part. The dead babies, I mean. Most of the mothers died happy, though. The incubators in the NICU were empty, but one woman in a rocking chair held a tiny baby in her arms. They were both dead. On the third floor, I opened a few doors, but it was always the same, patients dead in their beds. I kept walking and calling, but I was losing hope.

<  8  >

     "Hello? Is anybody here?"

     "Well, it's about time!" I jumped. The voice had come from an open door and was muffled or distorted. I went in, and a woman lay on the bed with an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose. She stared at me in apparent astonishment and pulled the mask away from her face. "Who are you?" she asked. "Where's the damn nurse?"

     That's how I met Elinor.

     She was a small, slender woman with big dark eyes and hair so short I knew she must have had radiation or chemotherapy. I couldn't have guessed her age. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes a little too bright, but she didn't look terribly sick. She was, in a quiet, unshowy way, quite beautiful.

     "My name is Dave Randall," I said. "And I'm pretty sure the damn nurse is dead."

     She just stared back at me. Later, she told me she thought at first I was a serial killer, but she wasn't frightened, only a little startled. She had come to terms with death some time ago. I explained what had happened, and she said, "You made that up."

     "I wish I had," I said.

     Elinor reached for the remote control on her bedside table and turned on the TV. It was a good idea — the CNN blackout might be over. It wasn't, though, and several other stations had also gone black. Seinfeld was still on; it must have been a marathon. Elinor left the TV on, muted, and reached for the bedside phone. She let it ring for a long time before she put the receiver back in the cradle. "I guess he went first, then," she said matter-of-factly.

     She didn't bother telling me her life story or asking for mine. I told her I had been on the way home. I still wanted to go home, but I couldn't leave her. Circumstances had made me, to some degree, responsible for her, unqualified as I was. I wasn't equipped to be the hero of this story.

<  9  >

     "Is anyone else — here?" she asked.

     "I don't think so. You're the first I found. I didn't check the rest of this floor."

     "Check," she said. It was a suggestion, not a command.

     I told her I'd be back in a few minutes and finished my search of the hospital before I went downstairs again to find a computer or cell phone with internet access. I had to move the body of an admissions clerk, a plump red-haired woman whose name tag read Sally. She was very light, and some of her skin came off in my hands. Even her bones appeared to be crumbling. I lay her on the floor as gently as I could and took her seat. I checked in with Scubafan83 and told him I wouldn't be going home tonight.

     I guess he had been waiting anxiously to hear from me. He was glad I had found somebody else alive — I didn't bother to mention she would probably die without medical attention — but decided he'd better not try to search for anybody outside. He was safe alone in his apartment, with enough food to microwave for a few days, and he had his video games. My opinion of his probable age kept dropping, which was depressing. I was responsible for him, too, as much as I could be clear across the country with no means of transportation. The best we could hope for was to survive until somebody in charge figured out how to communicate with us.

     "I guess I don't have to go to school tomorrow," he said.

     "No, I guess not," I typed back. I checked a few other message boards, but nobody else had posted. There were still no updates on Google News or I tried the British dating sites and even a German site. Nothing.

     Next, I went hunting for food. Whatever else happened, we had to eat. The kitchen was very fancy, but the microwave controls were self-explanatory, and the refrigerators were fully stocked. I'm not much of a cook, but I scrambled some eggs, toasted bagels, and heated coffee. I figured I'd have to find out what Elinor could or would eat before I went any further.

<  10  >

     "I carried the tray up to her room — at first, I couldn't remember which one it was, but when I called, "Elinor?" she answered right away. She looked pleased to see me but didn't ask what took me so long. She took a few whiffs from the oxygen mask.

     "Can you eat any of this?" I asked. "I can get something else."

     "This will do nicely," she said. The bright spots in her cheeks were brighter, and she was very pretty. Fever or excitement?

     "You were waiting for the nurse before," I said. "Can I do anything for you?" I had in mind a pain pill, a bedpan, or another pillow, hopefully, nothing involving needles.

     "You done good," she said and bit into a bagel. "I shouldn't drink coffee, but what the hell, right?"

     "Right," I agreed. The eggs tasted great, if I do say so myself.

     "When we're done eating, maybe you could help me to the bathroom. Damn good thing you came along," she added.

     I told her about Scubafan83, whose name was actually Marcus.

     "Jeez, poor kid," she said.

     "I guess I'll have to keep track of him until he connects with somebody," I said. "Like a Big Brother at long distance."

     There was a silence while we both contemplated what would happen to him if he didn't connect with anybody. How long could he survive by looting grocery stores or whatever? How long could I?

     When the food was all gone, I helped her get out of bed, a complicated process requiring the unhooking of wires, and walk the few steps to the bathroom. She didn't need much help, but she was almost as light as Sally, the admissions clerk, and her skin was very warm.

     We tried all the TV channels again, and then we sat and talked for a while about scuba diving and rose gardening, which was her passion, and other pleasant subjects. We didn't wonder what had happened or why. There was just no point.

<  11  >

     She fell asleep early in the evening, and I went downstairs and posted to Marcus. I told him about the coral and the angelfish and about Elinor's rose garden, and he told me about his video games, and then he said he was going to bed — it was three hours later in Florida, and he was well past his bedtime.

     I went back upstairs and checked on Elinor and then found an empty bed, almost directly across the hall from her room. I left both of the doors open in case she called during the night. I was exhausted, and even the narrow hospital bed felt good, but I couldn't sleep. My mind kept racing, going over and over the events of the day and all the things we hadn't talked about. It doesn't happen every day that life, as we know, completely changes while you're watching an angelfish.

     I may have dozed on and off, but I was wide awake when Elinor called. Even before I got into her room, I knew what she was going to say because I felt it too.

     "Something is outside," she said.

     Something was very definitely outside. I looked out the window and couldn't see anything, and I couldn't hear anything except Elinor's oxygen, and I didn't smell anything but the familiar hospital smell, but it was out there. I could feel it. It was creepy as hell.

     "What is it?" she whispered. I shook my head. We couldn't possibly sleep and could think of nothing to do or even to say. We sat together, holding hands for comfort, and waited. We never heard anything, but once we sensed a vibration as if there had been an earthquake or something had hit the building. She finally fell asleep with the mask over her face, but I stayed in the chair by her bed, holding her hand.


     I woke up still in the chair, and sunlight was coming in the window. I got up and looked out but didn't see anything unusual at first. It took me a minute to realize what was different. I couldn't see any cars in the parking lot, and several had been visible from the same window the day before. I thought maybe I was losing my mind.

<  12  >

     I started for the door, and Elinor took off her oxygen mask and said, "Where are you going, Lord Randall, my son?"

     Not to be outwitted, I smoothly replied, "Huh?"

     "Where are you going, my pretty young one?"

     I stared at her. Maybe she was losing her mind.

     "Oh, never mind," she said. "As George W. Bush once said, the illiteracy level of our children is appalling."

     "Whatever you say," I said. "What would you like for breakfast?"

     She beckoned me closer to the bed. In an apologetic tone, she asked if I could find the nurse with the narcotics keys on her belt and get her meds from the locked cabinet.

     I could, and I did.

     "I'm not really hungry," she said.

     "You have to eat, though," I said. I didn't want her to leave me. She was all I had. I went back downstairs and explored the pantry cupboards. I wasn't hungry either. Nothing looked good. I took some fruit and bread and bottles of water and put coins in a vending machine for candy bars. I checked the internet again — no news, no word from Marcus, no postings on the scuba diving sites.

     Elinor glanced at the food without interest. She drank some water and lay back with a sigh. "Is Marcus okay?" she asked.

     "He's fine," I said.

     She studied me intently. "I think that's the first time you lied to me," she said. She sounded a little short of breath but didn't reach for the mask.

     "Nothing gets past you," I said. I didn't want to think about what might have happened to Marcus.

     She didn't eat very much, and she might have been weaker than the day before, but her mind was certainly sharp enough. "You should go home," she said.

<  13  >

     I nodded. I was nervous about leaving her for very long, but I figured I could get home and at least check on things, get some clothes and stuff, and come back. What would happen to Elinor if something unforeseen happened and I didn't get back? What would happen to her even if I did?

     "Do you have a girlfriend?" she asked.

     I shook my head. "I did. We broke up a few months ago." I felt a little guilty because I hadn't even thought of her. I saw no reason to think she would be alive.

     I didn't go home. I was gathering up the breakfast dishes when Elinor suddenly, fearfully, said, "It's back."

     It was back. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

     I started toward the window, and Elinor, my lovely, fearless Elinor, clung to my hand to hold me back. "Don't," she said, but I pried her fingers loose and went anyway.

     And yes, this time I saw it. "Holy crap," I said.

     "What is it?" she asked. "What do you see?" I didn't answer. I went back to the bed, unhooked the wires, and helped her get up. She had to see it for herself. Something very big was out there, something huge and white that moved smoothly past the window. It slithered, if something taller than a house can be said to slither.

     "Holy crap," she affirmed. "What is it?"

     "Moby Dick," I said.

     "Moby Grape," she countered. She was a pistol. She was right too; it was not so much white as a very pale green. It disappeared around the corner.

     "Stay here," I said, pulling a chair up to the window for her. I ran down the corridor and took the stairs two at a time. Through the glass doors of the lobby, I saw it again. My view of the street was blocked by a massive wall of greenish-white with no discernible features or texture. Every hair on my body stood at attention. At first, I couldn't tell whether or not it was moving, but finally, it slid past, ending in a huge round tail. The street was empty. I went closer to the doors and could see no cars, no parking meters, no traffic lights, and yes, we have no bicycle rack.

<  14  >

     In the middle of the night, I had reasoned that water and electricity and the internet would be available until lack of maintenance led to eventual failure, but now I could see the possibility that wires would soon be down everywhere.

     I went back upstairs. Elinor was half asleep in the chair, and I helped her back to bed. "Is it gone?" she asked.

     "I think so." I didn't know what else to say.

     "I guess there's peace in the Middle East," she said.

     "Yeah," I agreed. "And we don't have to worry about the price of gas."

     The bedside phone rang. We both jumped. She reached for it — it might be her husband — but I got there first. It only rang once, and then the line was dead. No phone, no internet. There went my chance to repopulate the earth with a British diver. Would cell phone towers still work? Or landlines in neighborhoods where undergrounding was complete?

     "I guess we lost Marcus," I said. I wished we had traded phone numbers while we still had time. My mind raced with things I should do for my own survival. Electricity would be next. I should have emptied the vending machine and eaten the perishables first. If I went downstairs right now — but I didn't want to let go of Elinor's hand. When the electricity went off, the frozen food would spoil, too. I could live on canned goods for a long time, and then what?

     "Hospitals have emergency generators," she said. She could read my mind.

     "But how long will it last?" I still wanted to go empty the vending machine, but I could always break the glass. Rules I had followed all my life no longer applied. "I should have brought the bike inside," I said. I told her about the streets being cleared.

     "Cleaning up," she said. "They exterminated us, and now they're tidying up. They're moving in."

<  15  >

     "You know what that makes us," I said. "We're the cockroaches."

     We sat in silence for a few minutes. She was turned toward the window, and I thought about what was outside — and what wasn't. I was overwhelmed until I remembered something that made me laugh. Elinor looked back at me, ready to be amused.

     "My mother died when I was fifteen," I said. "A few months later, I dreamed she came back. She showed up on the doorstep with a suitcase and explained that heaven was full, so they sent her back."

     She laughed, too, a scary, breathy little laugh. "Yeah, I guess it's full now. Did you ever see the play Our Town?"

     "I read it in high school."

     "I always liked Wilder's idea that the dead could know what was going on with the living as long as someone remembered them. Will you remember me?"

     "You know I will," I said. "But who will remember me?"

     "Other people must have survived," she said.

     I nodded. "Other hospital patients, other divers. But how will I find them?"

     "I don't know, but you will. Cockroaches have survived for millions of years," Elinor said. "Be a good little cockroach, Dave. Survive."

     I stared at her. She was right, but I wasn't sure the ones who died instantly weren't the lucky ones.

     It was the last real conversation we had. She took a long nap, ate a few bites of lunch, and drifted off again. I didn't want to lose her, but it was inevitable. I might never see another living person, and she was more alive than most, even when she was dying. I thought again about heading home, but to what? My landlord and neighbors crumbling in the halls? My apartment was the one door I had a key to, but there must be a lot of unlocked doors to choose from. What possessions did I have in my apartment that mattered?

<  16  >

     Elinor died during the second night. I was tired enough to sleep for a couple of hours, but then I started to obsess about what to do with her body. I couldn't leave her to rot in her bed. I could put her in the freezer while we still had power. I wanted to bury her someplace nice, like the rose garden in Balboa Park. She would like that. But I had no transportation — if the Grape Snakes had cleared the roads, they had also removed all the vehicles. I didn't know when they might come back or how safe it would be out on the streets, day or night. Even if I could transport her to the park and find a shovel and dig a hole — I knew what agoraphobics must feel. My instinct was to stay in the shadows, in the corners, not to be caught in the open. Cockroach instinct, I guess.

     In the morning, I tried to eat and couldn't. I couldn't let depression and apathy win if I was going to survive. Elinor had wanted me to survive.

     The hospital lobby, where I had seen the Grape Snake, snapped me out of it. The huge glass doors would open automatically when approached, but the creature had not come in. It had cleared the streets but didn't go into the buildings. Would the entrance to an underground parking garage be identified as another street or as part of the building?

     The hospital didn't have underground parking, but it was only a couple of blocks from a complex that did. I had been to the movies there, and it had levels of parking below ground. You could enter from the street through a tunnel, and I wasn't sure it was big enough for one of those things to go in, assuming they were all as big as the one I had seen.

     As soon as I thought of it, I couldn't rest until I checked it out. It was all I could do to make myself proceed with minimal caution, stay close to the buildings, and scurry across streets like — yes, a cockroach. I didn't take anything with me, which was probably foolish, but all I could think of was reaching my destination. Never mind what I might find there or whether I could get back.

<  17  >

     When it came down to it, I couldn't bring myself to go down the ramp for fear I would come face to face with a Snake — if it had a face. I went into the courtyard and got on the elevator, but as soon as the doors closed, I broke out in a cold sweat. If the power went out while I was in there, I would be trapped and starve to death. I would prefer to be eaten. I took the stairs.

     I opened the stairwell door cautiously, but I had no sense of danger. I could see a good part of the garage from the doorway. It was full of parked cars. One car had run into the wall, and one into another car. I thought I would have to break a window to get in, but I got lucky. The decomposed body of a driver, little more than a pile of clothes, lay next to his car, and when I shifted it with my foot, I found the key fob underneath. The car chirped when I hit the button — it was so ordinary and familiar a sound it was as if someone had spoken. The car was roughly perfect — one of the smaller SUVs, easy to maneuver, but with plenty of storage space. I could transport Elinor's body or fill it up with supplies.

     Just sitting behind the wheel gave me a tremendous sense of freedom and power, but I might also call attention to myself. The engine started easily, but getting out of the garage was tricky. A car was stopped at the pay booth, and I couldn't get past. The driver's side window was rolled down, and I reached in and unlocked the door, but the car was out of gas. To get it out of the way, I would have had to push it uphill all the way to the street. So I backed the SUV down and around the corner, out of the way, climbed back up the ramp, and pushed the car downhill. Once started, it gained momentum so fast that it crashed into the wall. No loss, but I was afraid the noise would attract a Snake.

<  18  >

     Once the car was out of the way, driving through the gate, which broke with a sharp snap, and up the ramp was easy. At the top, past the "Watch for Pedestrians" sign, I looked instead for a flash of greenish-white in any direction. The coast was clear.

     I drove the SUV right through the hospital entrance, the glass doors swinging open ahead of me. The electricity was still on. I went upstairs to Elinor's room. I had pulled the sheet over her face, and the mound she made was pathetically small. I wrapped the sheet carefully around her and lifted her off the bed. She made a light but awkward burden. I carried her to the elevator. After a brief debate with myself, I decided the probability of the hospital's generator failing while I was in the elevator was smaller than the chance that I would fall down the stairs or drop Elinor if I tried to carry her down two flights.

     I laid her across the back seat. She couldn't feel anything, but she looked uncomfortable, so I snagged a pillow from an empty room and put it under her head. Then, I started loading up the cargo space with supplies. I kept looking out the front doors to see if they were coming after me, and my sense of urgency had me almost running through the halls. I took some medical supplies, enough food to last me a few days, and, after some hesitation, the security guard's revolver. I didn't imagine it would be much use against something that took out cars and telephone poles with no apparent effort, but I did hope to find other survivors, and what if they weren't as friendly as I hoped they would be? There ought to be plenty of the world's goods for the taking, but what if somebody wanted something I had or wanted me to do something I didn't want to do? I wasn't at all sure I even knew how to fire it, but I took it just in case. I had a sneaking feeling I was borrowing trouble.

     When I had loaded the SUV, I drove out through the entrance and headed downtown. The freeway might have been faster, but I figured the surface streets would provide more places to hide. I kept glancing nervously in the rear-view mirror, but the driving was a cinch — no traffic, no red lights, no stop signs, no need to watch for pedestrians. I kept my speed down and was still downtown in minutes.

<  19  >

     I was headed down Broadway when I glimpsed a flash of movement behind me. I didn't wait to identify it but immediately hunted for a parking garage. The first one I came upon was in a hotel that was being renovated, so the entrance was blocked by plywood barriers. I plowed right through them and drove straight to the farthest parking spot I could find. Because of the construction, the space was nearly empty, with only a cluster of cars near the entrance, probably belonging to the construction workers. Scaffolding and more barriers on the far side created dimness inside, and it was a good place to hide if I could count on the Snake not following me in.

     It was a Snake — I never saw more than a quick flash, but I could feel it out there. I sat as still and silent as I could for almost an hour, and God, I missed Elinor. I started worrying that if I had been seen, they might use the chemical again. How long could I hold my breath, even if I knew it was coming?

     Finally, I decided it must be gone. If it wasn't, if I was wrong that I would always be able to feel their presence, it would never be safe anyway. I might as well take my chances. I drove back to the entrance and looked up and down Broadway before I ventured out. The coast was clear, and I drove straight to the pier.

     There were no bodies left in the streets, but the fishermen and tourists from the first day were still on the pier, much reduced. The pontoon boat was tied up where I had left it. The bay was, as always, so clean and beautiful that it took my breath away. I wished I knew whether it was a safe place to be and whether or not the Snakes would have invaded it, too. I badly wanted a TV anchorman or news website to tell me what precautions I needed to take.

     In the end, I couldn't resist, even if it might be my last resting place too. I took Elinor's body on board and cast off. I didn't start the engine but let the current take me out. The day was bright and sunny, hotter than the day civilization ended. I didn't see any life, but at least I didn't see dead fish on top of the water. Maybe I wouldn't have to become a vegetarian after all. The silence out there was wonderful, not like the unnatural quiet on the city streets. I could hear only the waves slapping against the hull and the wind. I missed the cry of seagulls, though.

<  20  >

     The skyline looked so normal from the water. No sign of death or destruction, no grape-colored invaders from outer space. If I was sure those things couldn't swim, I would have stayed out and gone down to see if the underwater world was unchanged.

     After a few minutes of soaking in the sun and sea air, I said a quick prayer and eased Elinor's body over the side. Burial at sea, an old and respected tradition. I hoped she wouldn't object. If she did, she might haunt me.

     I turned on the engine and headed back to shore. I thought about fishing off the pier for my dinner, but it was too exposed. I got back in the SUV and drove back to the hotel parking garage. It would be easier to hide and evade on foot and save the SUV for necessary longer trips. The library, full of books on every subject, and a supermarket full of supplies were within walking distance. Downtown was the logical place to stay. There was another hotel in the next block, and I had no trouble finding an unlocked and unoccupied room — if I ignored the decomposing body of a maid in the hallway. I carried in some of the supplies from the SUV and left others for a quick getaway. I made myself at home — it was a very nice hotel — and put together a meal. There is a great deal to be said for having nobody else to worry about, but it was damned lonely.

     The hotel was right across the street from the Spreckels Theatre, which gave me a great idea. I crossed the street and investigated. Fortunately, a door was unlocked, so I didn't have to break in. I found a custodian's closet and a backstage workroom, and I found where they kept the letters for the marquee.

     After a quick survey of the empty street, I climbed up on a ladder and changed the marquee. SURVIVOR DAVE RANDALL ROOM 17 GRANT HOTEL. I trusted Grape Snakes couldn't read English and hoped other survivors would eventually travel down Broadway.

<  21  >

     I spent the rest of the day exploring. The electricity was still on, and the plumbing worked fine. I went to the supermarket and unlocked a side door from inside so I wouldn't have to break the glass to get in when the automatic doors failed. I went to the library and gathered some books. The Wi-Fi did work, but I didn't find anybody online. The catalog computers still worked, too, and I looked up books on how to grow vegetables and cook fish. I took a few novels, too, as my other entertainment options were limited.

     I couldn't get into anything the first night in the hotel. It was so quiet I couldn't concentrate. Or maybe I was just scared and lonely. I locked the door when I went to bed, although I had left it unlocked when I was out during the day, hoping to find a visitor when I came back. Fat chance. I put the gun under the bed.

     I dreamed about diving, about Elinor, and about a world full of people and noise and all its familiar problems. It was hard to tell whether I was sorry or glad to wake up to the new, silent, empty world.

     On the third day downtown, I couldn't resist going back out on the water. I went out where I had buried Elinor, and I found myself talking to her out loud, but the words were lost in all the silence. I considered putting on my wet suit and going down to see if anything had changed, but I didn't. It wasn't safety rules or anything like that. I couldn't pretend it was the same world.

     I fished off the side of the boat using a pole I found on the pier. I didn't catch anything, but I still believed there was life under the surface. Only the air breathers would have perished. I wasn't an experienced fisherman — I'd rather photograph them than catch them — but I was confident I would catch something sooner or later.

     I was drifting, enjoying the sun and the water when a shadow passed below me. A very big shadow. Like a whale or — oh, my God, a Grape Snake that could swim! I had the engine on and was heading for the pier before I could draw a breath. It was all I could do to make myself tie up the boat in case I dared ever use it again before I ran up the steps and along the pier. I ducked into the bait shop to hide, and I peered out the window just as it came up out of the water.

<  22  >

     The size and shape were right for a Snake, but it wasn't grape colored; it was gray, a glistening, metallic gray. It was still at some distance, but it made a horrible braying sound as it came up, like nothing I had ever heard.

     Markings showed on the side facing me. Curves and lines. They were oddly familiar, but my rattled brain took a few seconds to place them.

     U S N

     It was a submarine.



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