Chapter Two

Claudia
On his way north, Harrison fumbled through a box of cassettes in the passenger seat. Mozart's clarinet concerto trickled from the speakers, chosen because it relaxed him. But he no longer wanted to be relaxed. He settled on a tape by a band named the Treadles and popped it into the deck. He had never heard of the Treadles, which stood to reason, since none of the members had been born yet. In all likelihood, they never would be. The cassette showed a copyright notice from 2031, which put it twenty-eight years into the future. The fact that cassettes, already obsolete by 2003, had somehow managed to survive as viable commercial products implied that the Treadles might not even be from Harrison's future. Maybe they came from some other parallel one. In either case, it was a future no longer likely to happen. Three months earlier, everyone Harrison had ever know, and every trace of civilization, had flashed out of existence. He had watched it happen. There had been no warning, no obvious cause. In three months, no other survivors had made themselves known. Harrison's early assumption was that the world had come to an end, but discoveries like future music, dinosaurs, and sentient sunflowers complicated that model. It wasn't an ending; it was a bizarre, colossal shuffling, and Harrison's life went on. Each time he discovered some remnant of the world he had known, he embraced it with the small hope that it might help keep him from losing his mind. An enormous sign came into view. It offered the irrelevant sentiment, Welcome to Vermont. The landmark meant he had about forty miles to go before I-91 came to an abrupt end at the bottom of a steep, tall rock. Some days, he would drive right up to the cliff, stop, turn around, and head back. Driving the length of I-91 had become a favorite outing as of late. Not much of it was left. It now stretched from the cliff face in Vermont to the point just north of where New Haven, Connecticut, used to be, where the road plunged into the ground and was overgrown with brush. Some days, he would explore a side road. All the exit ramps were still in place, although most of them now led to nothing. Still, the odd ramp led to a road, or what was left of one, though none of the roads he had found so far went more than two miles in any direction. Most of them led to no more than dead ends and more forest. He did luck into the occasional gas station, and, of course, the music store where he had acquired the Mozart and the Treadles. He had also found the ruins of a small apartment building, unsuitable for habitation, and a coffee shop, overrun by bugs. His greatest find, a motel, became his home base. Otherwise, the highway was adorned with exits to nowhere. So after a typical day out, he would head back to the comfort of his room. Today, however, he was hesitant to return to what might be carnivorous dinosaur country. His rational mind knew that the probability he would encounter a live specimen of what he had seen today defied measurement. But in his gut, he could not shake the belief that a pack of those things waited for him right now and might even have tracked his exhaust fumes. Worst of all, the sun had just passed behind the cover of the Berkshire Mountains. Prefacing the darkness to come, their shadows descended upon him. Harrison had no idea what a dinosaur's night vision could detect. A slow panic began to superimpose itself over all other considerations.

The Treadles tape wore on his nerves. No, he found it easier to blame his agitation on the unfamiliar music than on the obvious culprit, the dinosaur. He determined that he needed to hear something from his old life, hit eject, and caught the intro to "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles. "Perfect," he said aloud. Ironic as well, he thought. As he put the rejected tape back into its case, he began to sing along. Thoughts of his next move troubled and eluded him. He often considered how it would feel to drive right into that Vermont rock at top speed. His newfound fear of carnivorous dinosaurs was a point in favor of that choice. Better that than be eaten. Of course, better eaten than not quite killed in a terrible wreck with no hope of rescue in a world with no hospitals. In the middle of his morbid line of thought, he heard the song enter its bridge and began to sing along at top volume. Then it dawned on him. He had never put in a Beatles tape. The song came from the radio. He stopped singing. It would have been difficult to continue over the din of his heartbeat, anyway. Aware of safety concerns for the first time in a long while, he focused on the drive. A radio station existed and transmitted. He allowed that thought to develop before he added the logical implication. That station had an operator. Another person had survived. Despite the evidence of his eyes, there must be something left of Springfield, or maybe Hartford, that included a radio tower. The trip across the Vermont border ruled out Hartford as too far away for adequate reception. That left Springfield, which he could reach in about an hour if he turned around and hightailed it. If he decided he wanted to. He was halfway through concocting a search plan when the song ended. "Hi," said the radio. It was a female voice. He turned it up. His hand was trembling. "Hi," he said. His throat felt tight. Moisture nagged at the outer edges of his eyes. "You're still listening to Claudia. That was µHere Comes the Sun' by the Beatles. I'd like to take a moment to repeat my message for anyone listening who hasn't heard it yet. This is an open invitation for any survivors to meet me here in Chicago." Harrison missed the next bit, which was drowned out by the scream of his tires against the pavement and his own screams. The car started to spin. It almost started to roll when its momentum ran out. It stood balanced on the two driver's side wheels for what must have been far shorter time than it seemed before it flopped back down onto all four wheels with an unceremonious thud. "« further instructions. I'll be broadcasting until midnight, Eastern Daylight Time, for those of you still keeping track. Remember, come to Chicago. Tell your friends." Harrison identified the initial chords of a Fleetwood Mac song whose title he could not recall as he attempted to refocus himself. His reflex to stomp on the brakes did not feel productive. "Chicago," he said, just to hear it out loud, "is a thousand miles away." *** It took him about a half an hour to get to the motel he called home, near what was once Northampton, Massachusetts. The whole way there, he listened to Claudia. She presented a selection of pop songs from the sixties and seventies to which he sang along. It felt warm and friendly to do so. A song still on his lips, he pulled into the motel parking lot.

After killing the engine, he kept his hand on the ignition. After a minute, his hand continued the motion one click back to start the radio again. Harrison sat there for four more songs until he yielded to the desire for the comforts of home. He emerged from his car just in time to watch a plume of teal light shoot straight up from a pine tree ten feet from the building. It left a vertical trail that extended much further than he could see. After a few seconds, the trail dissipated into tiny sparks that bounced around at random and fizzled out to nothing. "Good one!" Harrison said to the tree. This light show presented itself almost every day, and the color varied. Harrison suspected that multiple trees entered into the performance, but he never remembered to keep track of which one he had seen last. Like the sunflowers, this display illustrated the extent to which the world had changed. The creature comfort of the motel was a godsend. He had slept in a Laundromat for the first few days before he had worked up the fortitude to explore. After that, he had ventured out and found a gas station whose convenience store had a wider variety of food. It was luxurious by comparison with the selections in the Laundromat snack machine. Then he came across the motel. As with the other buildings, he found this one with every door unlocked, every room deserted. Unlike the other buildings, these doors could be locked from the inside without a key. This excited him until he found that none of the locks stayed locked when he tried them. The deadbolt to his room snapped open every time he tried to force it shut, so he settled for the chain. At this point, he had been living behind unlockable doors for so long that he had convinced himself locks were unnecessary, anyway. Still, it bothered him. One more irrational change to his world. Not only did the motel offer him a bed, but it also had power and running water. Of course, any power plant within fifty miles of this place would have long since disappeared. The less he thought about it, the easier it was to live with. It shocked him how easy it became not to think about it. He let himself in now, with care to keep it slow and cautious so as not to scare himself. He chained the door, sat down on the bed, and, for the first time since he had moved in, turned on the television. All he got was snow on every channel, so he turned it off again. "So much for that hunch," he commented. The room held no radio, a detail he had not noticed or missed before. He missed it now. For a moment, he entertained the idea of a whole night spent in his car. Then he thought about dinosaurs. He opted for the bed. He had a beer. He tried to sleep. It was about two in the morning when he rolled out of bed and turned on the light, covering his eyes against the sudden brightness. He groaned a little and sighed a little. He had reached a state of paradox: too anxious to sleep, too depressed to stay awake. He needed something to do to get himself back on an even keel. He planned his journey. Using a piece of the motel stationery and a pen from the nightstand drawer, he sketched a map of the continental United States. Even in his crude rendering, the distance looked imposing. One thousand miles. On foot. Through totally unknown terrain. Populated by hungry dinosaurs. His hands began to shake. Maybe a life here in New England wasn't so bad after all. He had his comforts. Now he had the radio, so he could fake human contact if he decided he needed it. But even as he ran through these arguments in his head, he knew he would not convince himself, no matter how much he wanted to do so. He did not feel safe here anymore. If he ever

truly had. He would need other people, to make it. He could not sit on his hands in a comfy motel room while whatever was left of humanity congregated in Chicago. So, he thought, what kind of time could he expect to make? Given optimum walking conditions, he imagined he would be able to maintain a speed of four miles per hour. He next budgeted himself ten walking hours per day, giving him an advancement rate of forty miles per day. This was already sounding better. One thousand divided by forty was twenty-five. Twentyfive days. That sounded doable. If he left tomorrow, he would be there in just under a month. Then the fear came back. Travel time represented only one of his challenges. What about the dinosaurs? He tapped the pen against the paper several times, then put it down and stared at his map. He put it aside, then after a count of three, out loud, he grabbed it back and in an area roughly analogous to New York state, scrawled Here be Dragons. There. Enough of that. Back to work. What about his lack of survival skills? He had been surviving on snack foods and canned products and would either have to pack a month's provisions (he winced as he imagined the burden of seventy-five cans of Spaghetti-O's and a spoon for a thousand miles) or find some other food source along the way. This worried him most of all. At least, he hoped, water would not be a problem. There should be enough streams, and he expected to find more buildings intact, all with sinks that still worked. He wished he had taken more of an interest in camping when he was younger. His last thought before the stress of the day overtook his desire to stay awake was that he was grateful no one was here to watch him make this up as he went along. At some point before dawn, he woke just long enough to realize that he had fallen asleep with the light on and his map on the bed. He brushed the map to the floor and turned off the light. Then, in his half-awake state, he noticed the glow that emanated from outside his window. He found it pleasant and soothing, if unremarkable. He was halfway back to sleep, and it seemed like the sort of thing one might find as the backlight of a dream. He had, for that very reason, in fact, failed to attach any significance to this glow for several weeks. Had he been awake enough to notice the glow, even more than once, he might have dismissed it as a lightning bug, or as many lightning bugs. The glow was faint enough that its size would not have been obvious, and it was inconsistent enough that it might appear to have more than one source. To compound what could be illusion, the glow did not always hold still, but wove and bobbed at random intervals, though it always remained within the border of the window frame. Unlike any bug, though, it also put off sparks, not quite at random. And²perhaps most significantly²it did not buzz. It hummed. And sometimes whistled.

Author's Note: I'll be adding more chapters in advance of the book's official publication date in September 2010. The book is being published by WorldMaker Media, a new publishing company from the people behind Booksie.com and TheNextBigWriter. It was workshopped extensively on TheNextBigWriter.com and was a #1 Novel on the site. It also won the 2008 Strongest Start Novel Contest and was a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest.

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