Yael Dragwyla and Richard Ransdell email: polaris93@aol.


First North American rights 11,600 words

The Eris War
Volume 1: The Dragon and the Crown
by Admiral Chaim G. Resh, USN detached

Book 2: This Devastated Land
Part 1: Deep Impact
Chapter 11: Bridge Over Troubled Waters
“What, Thomas?” Jeanie asked him. “—Oh, hey, Rachel’s waking up again,” she said, sounding more cheerful than she had for some time. Indeed, Rachel was opening her eyes, blinking them against the bright white Coleman light. “Steve? Steve?” she mumbled. “Where are you?” “Um, I don’t think she’s completely awake yet,” Adelle said. Stepping up to the bed, standing next to Tom’s wheelchair, she took Rachel’s hand in hers, saying, “Rachel, it’s all right, you’re in the hospital here in Eltonville. Remember?” “H- hospital?” the sick woman asked weakly, her eyes rolling as she looked wildly She didn’t seem to be able to focus very well.

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“Yes, you’re in Eltonville. You were visiting us and you got sick and we took you here so they could take care of you,” Adelle told her gently. “Wh – where’s Steve?” “He’s not here right now, but you can talk to him.” “Talk?” “Over the radiophone. We have that right here. You talked to him over it the other night, remember?” “Want . . . Steve.” Laying a hand on Rachel’s forehead, Adelle drew it back with a hiss, as if she had been burnt. “Her fever’s back?” Janet asked her. “Yes. Here, let’s get the thermometer . . .” Delirious as Rachel was, hallucinating with returning fever and toxic byproducts of the activity of whatever microbes were in her system, she tossed and turned so much that it was nearly impossible to take her temperature – she almost spit out the thermometer a couple of times, and Janet and Tom had to help hold her down while Adelle held the thermometer in her mouth. But finally the digital thermometer beeped, signifying it had a good reading. Taking the thermometer out of Rachel’s mouth, Adelle looked at it, then hissed again. “What does it say, Mom?” Tom asked her. “I’m not sure I believe it – 106°!” “What? Can I see it?” She handed the thermometer to him. He stared at the digital readout, disbelief warring with terror in his expression. “Dear God – 106 degrees it is! She’s burning up! – And she was feeling so much better earlier . . .” “Looks like whatever she has is somehow countering the ascorbate and the minerals we’ve been giving her,” Jeanie said. “Poor woman, she’s wasting away – she’s only skin and bones now,” said Janet, looking down at Rachel. “Her cheekbones looks sharp as razors, and I’ll bet you could count every one of her ribs – no, every vertebra in her spine if you rolled her over! If she can’t keep some weight on . . .” “Maybe if we place a call to Steve for her, she might rally a little?” Tom suggested. “God knows, she might,” Janet said. “It’s worth a try, anyway. Of just about everyone here in the hospital except the four of us right here with her, she’s lasted longer than anyone else. I’ll bet you anything that she’s holding on until she can see her husband again. I know I would, if it were me.” “No takers, love – I’m sure you’re right,” Tom told her, smiling, taking her hand. “All right, let’s give it a try. Come on, give me a hand with that rig. We want to do this while she’s still coherent, at least enough to talk with Steve.” It didn’t take them long to position the rig next to Rachel’s bed and get it ready to transmit. “Hello? Hello, Morbicon? Anybody there? This is Tom Villemur, calling from Eltonville Hospital. Anyone there?” A sudden crackle of static was followed by the welcome sound of Joe Cabrini, saying, “Thank God! We tried to call you earlier – couldn’t reach you.” “We didn’t have our rig working. What’s wrong?” “Nothing wrong – well, Steve Yeats is nearly foaming at the mouth with worry about his wife. Is this about – about –” he began, his voice trailing off – clearly he didn’t want to tempt fate by saying the worst. “About Rachel? Yes – she wants to talk with Steve,” Tom said. A sigh of relief answered that, one so loud it could be heard clear across the room, making everyone save Rachel, who wasn’t compos enough to realize what had occurred, grin in spite of themselves. Then: “He’s right here. Been here for two hours while we tried to raise you. – Here’s Steve.” A moment later Steve Yeats’ voice came from the radiophone’s speaker: “Rachel? Baby, are you there?” Tom held the receiver close to Rachel’s mouth, praying she’d have it together enough to answer her frantic husband. “I’m . . . Steve . . .” said Rachel. Though she was still sandbagged by whatever she had caught, her voice sounded stronger than it had just moments before. Adelle gave a thumbs-up and grinned at the others with a “See? Told you she’d rally if she heard his voice!” expression. “Oh, Rachel . . . Rachel, how are you?”

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“I – I’m a little better, darling,” Rachel told her husband, making a heroic effort to sound like it. Though she didn’t succeed very well, Yeats’ need to know she was all right, that soon they’d be together again and that everything would be fine, made him believe her. “You sound tired, Rachel.” “Yes, I’m . . . a little tired. I’ll be better . . . after a nap, I think.” “Thank God. Thank God you’re all right! – Rachel, I don’t want to tire you out any more than you are already. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay, and let you know that as soon as this storm lets up, we’re gonna fly out to you on that helicopter.” “Oh, Steve . . . it’s dangerous . . .” “No, we’ll wait until it’s okay to fly. Some of the guys here are pretty sure that there’s a break coming in the storm, and when it comes, we’ll take off and get there to you as quick as we can. Okay?” “Oh, Steve . . . I miss you so . . .” “It’s a promise, sweetheart.” “I . . . can’t wait to see you again, darling . . . hold you . . .” “Me either, Rachel. Now, you do everything they tell you and get well for me, okay?” “I . . . will, darling . . . I love you, Steve . . . I love you . . . let's go home together now . . .” she whispered, her voice, full of yearning, finally growing too weak even for those in the room to make out. Her head fell back onto her pillow. Quickly taking the receiver from Tom, Adelle said, “Steve, this is Adelle Villemur. Rachel’s gone back to sleep. I’m sure she just needs a rest – her body’s been fighting whatever this thing is hard, and she’s worn out. But we’ll take good care of her – I’m sure she’ll be feeling much better by tomorrow, and it won’t be long until you’re both together again.” “Sure, Adelle,” Yeats said, sounding tired himself, and more than a little lost. “Did you really mean it about coming over here in the helicopter?” “Yes! Soon as we can. I don’t know how long that’s going to take, though – the winds are extremely turbulent up there, thanks to this storm.” “Same here, too. Call us before you take off, okay? You don’t want to jump from the frying pan into the fire.” Chuckling wanly, Yeats said, “I guess it wouldn’t help much if I ended up getting killed in a helicopter crash on my way to my wife, would it?” “No, it sure wouldn’t!” “Mrs. Villemur?” “Oh, call me Adelle, please! – What is it?” “How is your family doing?” “Well, my son Tom’s right here, he just talked to you a little bit ago, he’s doing fine. Martin’s . . . uh, away at the moment.” “But you’re all fine.” “Pretty much so. I’m afraid your friends the Hamiltons aren’t in very good shape, though.” “Does anyone know what they have?” “They’re, uh, still working on it. We’ll get back to you soon as we find out,” she said, giving Jeanie, Tom, and Janet a “Don’t anyone dare say a word to him about what really happened!” glare that would have intimidated a rogue elephant as she did so. “All right . . . I guess I’d better get off for now. Don’t want to run your batteries down,” he said. “It’s all right, we have plenty,” she told him. “Don’t hesitate to call if there’s a question or something comes up.” “I won’t. – Take good care of my wife,” he said. There was a note of desperation in his voice. “Don’t worry, Steve, we will,” Adelle told him in motherly tones. “You take care now.” “I will. Talk to you later.” When they disconnected, Janet said to Adelle, “Why didn’t you –” “Janet, all that telling him about the Hamiltons’ deaths – or Martin’s, either – would do now is make him worried sick. What I’m afraid of is that if he gets worried enough, he’ll sneak out and try to pilot that chopper here all by himself – he’s got a pilot’s license, you know. If he did, the way this weather is now, he wouldn’t even get halfway here before he was forced down somewhere and died of cold, or crashed, and died that way.” “That’s true . . . I hadn’t thought,” Janet said. “What’s up, Jan – you don’t look very well,” Adelle said, concerned.

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“I – I’ll be fine, Adelle. I’m just tired. The last three days have been rough.” “The understatement of the millennium, I’m sure,” Adelle told her, smiling a little. “All right, then, I think I’ll go take a nap – you know where I am if you need me. Don’t hesitate to come get me if you need help with Rachel or anything else.” “Thanks. I think I’ll be all right here with Thomas and Jeanie, though.” Giving Janet’s hand a quick squeeze, Adelle turned and left the room, on the way to the room she had so recently shared with Janet’s mother, marveling at how strong and calm Janet seemed, after losing both her parents and so many others who had been important to her, and seeing Tom becoming ill, as well. Behind her, Janet was thinking the same about Adelle, hoping that she could do a tenth as well as her future mother-in-law was doing, while Tom looked on them both with little short of awe, wondering whatever he would do should – God forbid! – he lose either of them. The rest of the afternoon was spent getting the hospital generator going – there was plenty of fuel for it, and all they had to do was switch on the feeds to it from the outside fuel-tanks, then hit the right buttons and stand back – and then setting up space-heaters in Rachel’s, Adelle’s, and Tom and Janet’s rooms. Jeanie, who had already decided to take one of the other beds in Rachel’s room to sleep in, worked with Janet and, after Adelle had awakened from her nap and rejoined them, Adelle to set up the heaters and get them going where they would be needed most. After a brief debate over whether to use electric lighting at night or continue to rely on the Colemans, they decided to go with the lanterns and save the now virtually irreplaceable gasoline in the generator fuel tanks for heating only. Tom, who was not really feeling very well, wanted to help the women, but they insisted he rest – the tasks themselves weren’t difficult, and no heavy lifting was required. He contented himself with sidewalk superintending, teasing them about supposed problems and making them laugh heartily as they worked. As Janet remarked later to Adelle, that he had been able to get them all laughing again, if only for a little while, was one of the best things anyone could have done for them at that point – he’d paid his dues in full, no need to feel guilty about not shoving some dusty space-heaters around! Finishing around 7:00 that evening, using the hot-plate that had been sitting on a counter-top in Rachel’s room, they heated soup from cans that they’d found on the shelves of the hospital kitchen. The soup, eaten from bowls that had also come from the kitchen, and bread and margarine from the pantry which they decided to use up before it went bad, constituted their dinner. First, however, they tried to get the intermittently conscious, delirious Rachel to take some soup. She was able to take water from a bottle equipped with a straw, but the soup was beyond her – every time they spooned some into her mouth, she coughed it right back out. Using a tongue-depressor to look down Rachel’s throat, trying to see what the problem was, Jeanie reported, “My God, I wonder if she has diphtheria! There’s a membrane in there just like you see in diphtheria cases – that’s why she’s having trouble breathing, then.” “How’s her temp?” Adelle asked her. “I’m afraid to check,” Jeanie told her softly. “Here – put your hand on her forehead,” she said, tugging the older woman’s hand down to touch Rachel’s forehead. Hissing, Adelle yanked her hand back. “I don’t see how she’s made it this far! Hot as a stove! – Well, she can get the water down with that straw, so let’s give her as much of that as she’ll take – we’ve got tons of water, all we have to do is melt snow for her.” “I wonder if it’s radioactive,” said Tom. “If it is, we’re all toast, anyway,” Jeanie told him grimly as she held the water bottle so Rachel could continue taking water through the straw. “The water should make her more comfortable, cool her mouth and throat down, so why not? Sure, it’d eventually make her much sicker – only as sick as she is now, I don’t think that’s gonna matter one hell of a lot, do you?” “No, I guess it won’t,” Tom said, sighing. “Six of one, half dozen of the other,” Adelle said. “Right now, the water can only help her. That membrane, though, Jeanie, that worries me.” “Yeah, that – and everything else,” Jeanie said, frustration edging her voice. “What bugs me is that the rest of her symptoms don’t add up to diphtheria. I’d swear what she has is a viral infection. Could she have diphtheria on top of a virus?” “Diphtheria’s caused by a bacterium, isn’t it?” “Yeah. And it doesn’t present like this – well, I don’t know. I’ve seen just one case of it in all my career. It’s almost been wiped out, and you never expect to see it any more. For all of me, maybe she has

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both, a virus or viruses hitchhiking on a diphtheria bacterium. – I wish she’d wake up for awhile,” she added, looking down at the semiconscious Rachel, who was staring upward at the ceiling, mouthing silent syllables between sips of the water, occasionally reaching up a little with one hand for something, then withdrawing the hand, laying it back down again. “She must be awfully strong,” Tom said. “As sick as she is, she’s lasted all this time when so many others were just fine one minute and dead the next, it seems like.” “That’s true,” Adelle said, like Jeanie looking down at Rachel with deep concern. “Poor thing is skin and bones now. I don’t know how she’s managed to hang on, but somehow she’s doing it. Maybe she’ll survive this. I hope so. God, please, please let this good woman live! There’s too many bastards in this world – let some of the good ones live, to balance things out!” Jeanie said something under her breath that sounded as if it might have been “Amen.” Soon, Rachel lapsed back into unconsciousness, unable to take any more water. Jeanie put the bottle down on the night-stand next to Rachel’s bed. The four of them turned back to their sparse meal, finishing it in silence. That evening, after setting the radiophone rig up in the hall, where the sounds of conversation wouldn’t bother Rachel should her coma wane, and being reassured by Adelle and Jeanie that they’d watch over Rachel in the meantime, Janet and Tom called St. Albans to talk with Joe Cabrini and find out how Steve Yeats was doing. Joe was understandably worried about Yeats. So far, they’d been able to keep him from trying to commandeer that helicopter and fly it, all alone, to Eltonville, to be with Rachel. “I tell ya, guys, I’m not sure just how much longer we can hold the man back, unless we knock him over the head, tie him up, and lock him in his room! He’s really anxious about his wife. I guess I’d be the same way if I were in his shoes – you know she’s seen him through all kinds of shit nobody else would have?” “Yeah,” said Tom. “I was reading his autobiographical thing, On the Word-Smith and His Craft, came out awhile back. God, he’s done everything, hasn’t he? And Rachel – I can see why he loves her the way he does. They make one hell of a team, don’t they?” “That they do,” Cabrini said, his voice warming. Then, becoming more businesslike, clearing his throat, Cabrini asked, “What’s the latest you hear on the, the epidemics? How bad is it?” “You really don’t want to know, Joe,” Janet told him. “Oh, yes, I do – I gotta know what we’ll all be coming back to if we make it home again.” “Like I said, you really don’t want to hear. But I’ll tell you what I know anyway,” she said, forestalling further protest from him. “For all I know, we – Tom, his mom, my friend Jeanie, poor Rachel, and me – we’re the last ones left in town. Everyone else is – well, they aren’t here in the hospital. Supposedly they’ve got a tent hospital set up in town big enough to hold everybody – everyone who’s left, anyway. They may have evacuated that to a local school building by now, though.” “So there are people still there besides you?” “I . . . hope. I won’t lie to you, Joe – we honestly don’t know.” “Oh, Christ.” There was a short pause, then: “You don’t know because you can’t get down to the tent city? Why not use the radiophone?” “If they’ve got one down there, Joe,” Tom told him, “I don’t know what frequency it would be using. One of us would have to walk over there and find out. So far, nobody’s come back here to let us know anything, and it’s snowing too hard for us to go to them. So . . .” “Ah, well, maybe in a couple of days you’ll hear something – the weather’s beginning to clear over here, just a little, maybe it’s part of a trend. Once it starts clearing up there, there’s sure to be somebody in town come to check on you there.” “I . . . hope so,” Janet said, crossing mental fingers – deep inside, something was insisting on just how unlikely that was. But this was no time to spook Joe – especially because if he was spooked, he’d spook Steve, and as Adelle had said, that might make him try to get to Eltonville on his own, something that would probably be suicidal. “We’ll go down and check ourselves as soon as possible. It’s probably all right. It’s just that’s the weather’s been so bad here.” “Yeah, that’s understandable,” said Joe. Something in his voice made Janet flash on a man lost at sea, swimming desperately, grasping for what he hopes is a piece of timber to hold him up but will probably turn out to be nothing but kelp. Even so, she envied him – instead of just five people with extremely limited resources huddled in a tiny little eight-bed hospital, who might be the only people left alive for fifty miles or more around, Joe and the people there with him were in a large hotel with lots of room for

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everyone, a big kitchen, and probably, between what had been there originally and what they’d brought to the convention with them, enough supplies and equipment to last them the winter. According to what Joe, a self-declared survivalist, had told her, many of those there, who were, like Joe, survivalists themselves, had had lots of training in how to deal with just about anything from a broken leg to scratching up a decent dinner from little more than a few moldy potatoes and herbs picked from a field to delivering a baby, and how to use weapons of all kinds, everything. Many of them, also like Joe, who’d served in the Army, had been or were now in the armed forces, as well, giving them even more of an edge on things. They’d make it, if anyone would. Most of them had come to the convention by car, their own or rented vehicles or carpools, so they had lots of gasoline to use to power the hotel generators – they had electricity, they had plenty of water, they had – “Do your toilets work, Joe? I mean, there at the hotel?” “Yeah, they do, as a matter of fact,” he said, chuckling. “The sewers are a gravity-fed system, and so’re the water-lines. There are electrical pumps which help things along, if you see what I mean, but even without those it works pretty well, and if it doesn’t, we can probably rig something using one of the generators here. – “You got problems with your toilets?” “Not so far. Supposedly ours work on the same sort of system. But if they start backing up, we’ll have some real problems, I mean, worse than we’ve already got.” “Yeah, I can kinda see how that would be. Well, let me know if something happens to your system there – we’ve got technical advice to burn over here. And if this weather ever lets up, we’ll be coming over there in that chopper, bringing Steve, and I’ll be sure to bring all my tools with me, so if you got anything needs fixing, we can do that.” “You’re so sweet,” Janet told him, giggling a little. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a frown on Tom’s face, one that was quickly replaced by his usual smile. Why, he’s jealous! she thought, and was hard put not to giggle again. “Uh, tell me, Joe, what are you survivalists like? I mean, as people? I’ve heard lots of rumors, but you’re such a good guy, I can’t believe most of what I’ve heard is true.” “Well, like anything else, Jan, there’re survivalists and survivalists. Some of us are bastards – and yeah, if you’ve heard there are some skinhead types in the survivalist movement, I’d have to say that’s true. To be honest, there are some groups that are real Nazis, absolutely dote on Hitler, wear the uniforms, the whole nine yards. But they aren’t the majority, by any means. “Most of us are just guys, you know? – Well, and some gals, too. ‘Survivalism’ for me and my buddies here means learning how to survive if the going gets rough, whether it’s because the government has collapsed or something has happened like this asteroid strike and the stuff that followed, or in case of something as ho-hum as getting lost in the woods or marooned at sea. – Which, of course, isn’t ho-hum as far as you’re concerned if you’re the one stuck out there in the woods or on the ocean, all alone, with nothing but a bottle-opener handy and not a beer in sight” – provoking another giggle from her and, this time, a genuine smile from Tom. “It’s all about how to survive – that’s why we call ourselves ‘survivalists.’ You could say our motto is, ‘Shit always happens.’ Because it does. Into every life at least one disaster must fall, whether it’s a car-wreck or the death of your brother or whatever. The name of the game is how to get through such times and their aftermath – because otherwise Mother Nature, who, believe me, can be a real mother at times, hands you a big fat pink slip, and there you are,” he said. Now she was laughing out loud, and so was Tom. “Hah – I got ya laughing,” he said. “You sure have,” Tom said. “God, we’d both love to meet you! It’s too bad you’re so far away.” “Well, like I said, once this weather lifts we’ll come over there with Steve – in fact, why don’t we airlift you outta there, take you back to St. Albans with us? There’s plenty to go around for thousands of people here – it looks like most of the people living here are taking off for the hills, or already have, panic, you know. So most of the buildings here are empty, and there’s plenty of stuff to be salvaged. I don’t think most of the people who’re leaving are ever coming back, so it’s all up for grabs. So you’d be welcome here, and then some. You’ve got medical training, too, both of you – and that nurse who’s your friend, Jeanie. We could sure use you here. There’s a clinic down the road, somebody said, the doctors there were some of the ones who’ve left town, they told us, so you’d have good medical facilities.” “What about pharmaceutical supplies?” Tom asked him. “Well, we figure they’d have taken everything they could with them when they left, the doctors, I mean. But we got lucky. Right next door to this hotel there’s a Rite-Aid Pharmacy that was managed by a man who was a science-fiction fan and came on over here to join us every chance he got. – I say ‘was,’

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because when we got the first news about the War, he had a coronary, and he never recovered. A couple of other people who worked there are also fans, and they’ve sort of joined us. They got us to help lock the pharmacy up so tight nobody’s gonna get in there without our help this side of the Last Trump – and we’ve got armed guys inside there, guarding it, taking turns on rotation at guard duty. Which probably isn’t necessary, because, like I said, so many people have left town and the ones who’ve stayed, besides us at the convention, aren’t likely to try to rob a pharmacy. I think. You never know, though. Some drifters could come into town on their way from somewhere else to nowhere, need medicine or looking for a high, and try to break in there. So we got plenty of guards in there, packing a lot of authority. “Anyway, essentially we’ve got everything in that pharmacy for ourselves, from all the medications to the food they carried, the toys coffee and greeting-cards and pet supplies and all the rest of it. We’ve got plenty of juice to run the refrigerators for the perishable stuff, like insulin, too. So we’re all set for at least the next couple of years.” “Wow! If only you could see my eyes now!” Janet said. “Why?” “’Cause they’re green with envy! There’s so much stuff we need, especially for Rachel, even simple things, like vitamin C. And we’re out of hydrogen peroxide.” “They were selling ozone generators in there. You need one?” “Oh, God, do we ever!” she told him. “That and a colloidal silver generator if they’ve got one and there’s silver to go with it.” “I don’t know about the colloidal silver generator, but there’s tons of the stuff in bottles. – Look, soon as we can get there, why don’t we airlift you all outta there, bring you back with us to St. Albans? There’s no sense staying there in the cold, all alone, when you could all be warm, safe, and surrounded by friends here. We can bring stuff with us, too, but that would be for treating Rachel with whatever she needs during the ride back, or just in case the weather locks up again once we get there and we’ll all have to stay there where you are until it’s safe to fly and we can go back.” “Oh, Joe, that would be wonderful! And of course Steve would be with you, to take care of Rachel – it would be such a comfort to both of them! Do you think there’s a chance it might be soon?” “Yeah, I do. Like I said, it’s not as bad here now as it was the last few days. It’s still snowing, but not a blizzard like we were having, and there was even a sort of break in the clouds around 1 p.m., which is really noon, God’s Time, during the Summer. They say that no matter how bad the weather gets, there’s always a moment around noon when you get a glimpse of sky and a little sunshine, because of the way the Sun shines straight down on where you are right then. Well, they are wrong about that particular thing. I am here to tell you that around here, it’s been as black as the inside of a dead Democrat’s heart every minute of every day since the War started, without a break at all, up until today. I even went outside and looked – didn’t go far, but it’s a short walk from the front door of the hotel out to the street, and looking straight up from the street, you couldn’t see anything. It’s been so dark out there that the beam of the flashlight I have with me when I go outside only goes about 10 feet before it’s swallowed up by the darkness – for real, Janet! That sounds like a line in a book, and as a matter of fact, I’ve read that line in a lot of books. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen it. Let me tell you, my friends, that’s the creepiest feeling in the world, turning that flash on and seeing that light reach out and stop dead at ten feet or less!” “God, I guess,” Janet told him, shuddering. “Well, anyway, come around noon today – I mean, real noon, not Daylight Savings Time noon, I think it was a Democrat who invented that shit, but anyway – come around noon I went out there and looked up and by God, I could see this little wiggly slice of pale blue opening up right above me! The prettiest thing I think I’ve ever seen in my life. It didn’t last long – began to close up almost as soon as it opened – but in the meantime, the darkness lifted some all around me. I could actually see buildings across the street, down the block, trees lining the streets, all sorts of things. The snow and rain had stopped, and it didn’t feel quite as cold as it had, either. “Up until then, outside visibility had been limited to no more than ten feet with a flash, a lot less without one. But now I could see for blocks. It was like a heavily overcast day during a normal Winter in the City, that’s New York, you know, it was gloomy and chilly but not a problem, the way I was dressed up. “About ten minutes after I went inside, it socked in again, but not as hard as it had been for the last few days. And right now I’m looking out a side window on the hotel’s ground floor, and I can see all the way across the street, even though night’s coming on! – Oops, that reminds me, let me go do something . . .”

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Several minutes passed. Then he returned. “Sorry about that. Just remembered, we’re supposed to keep all the windows covered with curtains or blankets to retain as much heat as possible. Saves on fuel,” Cabrini said. “So I just went to cover the window I was looking out of with its curtain and tack the curtain down. – Say, I don’t want to run your battery down too much. But I did want to know about the epidemics. How bad have they been? I know you’ve said real bad, but anything more on ’em?” “Actually, there is.” She told him what Dr. Pellis had said in the journal Jeanie had found on the floor. After telling him about Pellis’s fears concerning mutating and genengineered pathogens, she sketched the doctor’s speculations about retroviruses for him. “God, I hope he’s right about viruses ‘infecting’ us with resistance to those damned plagues!” said Cabrini. “Maybe within a few years most people – not to mention other animals, plants, fungi, etc. – will have enough resistance against most of these new bugs that those who get sick with them will have a chance to recover. If nothing else, maybe the horrific speed with which the things kill, often in less than two days, will be offset by such genetically conferred resistance, giving those who fall sick with the bugs a chance to get treatment that can cure them,” Tom said. “And look at Rachel – so many people have died, so fast,” Janet said, “but Rachel is still holding on! She’s very, very sick, but she is hanging in there. She could survive this, I just know she could! Maybe she got that resistance from some retrovirus in that mix of toxic waste and biowarfare stuff! You know what they say – even Murphy fucks up sometimes! I’ll bet anything that some of the viral pathogens in there have already begun mutating into forms that could do that for us and other species, and maybe Rachel caught some of those, too.” “Or maybe she’s always had a strong immune system,” Tom put in. “Either way, she is hanging in there, and with any luck she and Steve’ll be back together in a few days and she’ll be well on her way to getting over whatever it is she’s got. “—Anyway, you’re right, we do need to go easy on our batteries, so we’d better wrap this up,” Tom told Cabrini. “But we’ll call again tomorrow, maybe around noon. Or you can call us – the standby’s on a computer-type battery, sort of thing lasts for at least five years, so if you call, we’ll see the signal and pick up the phone.” “Sounds like a plan, m’man,” Cabrini said, chuckling again. “All of you take care, now. We need you over here, so keep well, and we’ll be getting over to you just as soon as the weather lifts enough, maybe in the next day or two. How’s that sound?” “Sounds wonderful!” Janet said. “That goes double for me,” Tom added, with a chuckle of his own. “Okay, then, time to hang up the phone. I’ll bring Steve in to talk, too, next time.” “Sounds good,” said Tom. “Be seeing you, then.” After they terminated the call, they went back to Rachel’s room, Janet pushing the wheeled table on which the radiophone rig sat. “How are they all doing over there?” Adelle asked as Janet and Tom entered Rachel’s room. “Sounds like they’re doing one hell of a lot better than we are here,” Tom told her. He told her what Cabrini had just told him and Janet about the situation in St. Albans. “My God, some people have all the luck, don’t they?” Jeanie said. She was standing by Rachel’s bed, wiping down Rachel’s face with the corner of a towel that she’d dampened with rubbing alcohol, which was much better than water for cooling someone down. “Where’d you find the rubbing alcohol, Jeanie?” Janet asked her. “Oh, I snatched a case out of the storeroom a couple of days ago, stashed it here because I figured none of those thieving idiots from the tent hospital would think to look in this room for supplies – too scared of getting whatever it is she has. I was right, too. – You think they’re gonna be able to make it over here anytime soon in that chopper they say they’ve got?” she asked. “He says they should be,” Tom told her. “If the trend he’s noticed in the weather continues, I don’t see why not.” “Big ‘if’, though,” Jeanie muttered. “I don’t think I want to count my chickens before they hatch and I can see whether they’re chickens or vultures.” “Jeanie!” Jan said.

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“Well, way things have been going around here and everywhere else lately, can you blame me?” Jeanie asked her. “—Here, can you come over here and help me change her catheter bag and then clean her up and make her bed?” “Sure,” Janet told her, coming over to help. “Here, I’ll empty her catheter bag while you two are cleaning her up,” Adelle said, joining them. “Can I help?” Tom asked. “No, no, stay there, too many cooks and all that,” Adelle told him. “But thanks,” she added, smiling, as she headed for the bathroom with the catheter bag, the fluid in which, Tom noted with alarm, was a dark yellow-brown shot through with scarlet tendrils. Clearly Rachel was still bleeding from her kidneys. How much longer could that go on before it killed her? Yet somehow, Rachel Yeats’ magnificent immune system, waging a war to the death with the pathogens in her body, was still managing to hold the line. And it continued to hold on, and her body held on with it, though none of those with her could say just how. She was so terribly, terribly thin, now, her skin yellowed parchment stretched tight over bones that seemed sharp enough to cut right through the skin covering them, yet somehow delicate, as if even they were being slowly trimmed down to nothing by the unknown pathogens swarming through her body, slowly burned away in the fires of her horrendous fever, which now hovered around 105.5°. The whites of her eyes were no longer white, but a febrile yellow, the color of dust-storms and drought-blasted prairies, shot through with delicate networks of bright scarlet threads – clearly her liver was heavily damaged by whatever it was she had. There was probably central nervous system damage, too, for her occasional periods of semi-lucidity, which occurred with less and less frequency, bespoke a mind adrift in a sea of strange hallucinations, random memories, chaotic impulses and feelings. And no wonder, not with that fever, and the unthinkable burden of toxins filling her system to overflowing, poisoning every system in her body until, clearly, only a miracle could have kept her alive this long. Yet whenever she was at all awake, there was always one brilliant light steadily before her: her husband Steve, and the profound, indefatigable love she and he had for each other. Of the few words she spoke that they could understand at all, almost all of them had to do with Steve, her driving need for him, her will to see him again, to be with him. Watching Rachel, listening to her disjointed, rambling, delirious monologues, Janet wondered, amazed, at the strength of that love, strength so great that it was, clearly, all that was keeping Rachel alive now, her sheer will to be reunited with her beloved. Will Tom and I be like that? she wondered. I know I love him, and that he loves me, so very, very much. But so much, enough to defy death like that? She shouldn’t be alive now! And yet she is, and it’s her love of Steve that’s keeping her alive now, nothing else. In the meantime, Steve, over in St. Albans, frantic with worry about his wife, railed and raved at the relentless weather which, in spite of Joe Cabrini’s earlier reassurance, had by the morning of the 19th turned even nastier than it had been on the 17th. Outside, said Joe in a conversation between him and Tom the afternoon of the 19th, even at noon it was so dark that even with the hotel’s porch-light on he couldn’t see four feet down the walkway to the street. The snow was pelting down harder than ever, and there was a strong wind coming now from the north – before, it had trended mostly from the southeast, but now, he said, it seemed to be coming straight down from Canada. That put paid to the idea of coming over to get them in the helicopter for awhile – in fact, said Cabrini, visibility was so low out there that there was no worry that Steve would try to take off himself, alone, for Eltonville, for there was no way he could have found his way to the helipad, on foot or any other way. Their main worry now, he said, was that Steve might try to get out to the helipad anyway, get lost on the way, and die of the cold before they could find him. During the morning of the 19th, Rachel Yeats slipped into a coma, from which she did not emerge, even when they took blood from her to see if they could identify the pathogen or pathogens that were killing her. Bleeding more heavily than ever into her urine now, she was unable to take nourishment save IVs of normal saline – that same morning Tom, wheeling himself about the little hospital, looking for anything they could salvage, for something to do, found a case of the stuff which, for whatever reason, someone had left tucked in a men’s room down the hall from Rachel’s room, and they began giving her that, trying to reverse her now advanced state of dehydration. Jeanie had also done some scavenging, looking through her purse and the purses of the other women, and had found some vitamin C tablets in Adelle’s purse; powdering these with a hammer some workman had left on the countertop after wiping it clean and sterilizing it with rubbing alcohol, she added the powder to one bottle of IV solution, tightly

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recapped the bottle, and administered it to Rachel. It didn’t seem to help, but it didn’t hurt her, either, and perhaps it prolonged her life just that much more. Several times during the 19th and 20th, Janet Parker talked with Steve Yeats, who repeatedly called them from St. Albans. Still making herself believe that, against all odds, Rachel would recover, Janet did her best to convince Steve of the same. She must have succeeded, for she actually got him to laugh at some of her jokes. That night, during another call from St. Albans, Joe Cabrini thanked her profusely for helping to keep Steve on an even keel. “Don’t know what we’d have done without you – he’s still got hope, and that’s what counts.” “How’s the weather?” “It sucks pond-scum. – No, make that industrial effluent – pond-scum isn’t even in it! The only good thing about it is that there’s no way in hell he could get over to the chopper on foot, now, the way the weather’s going. Otherwise I think we’d have to tie him down to keep him from trying.” “You take such good care of him,” she marveled. “You like him, don’t you?” “We all do, Jan. He’s a great guy – great in a lot more ways than most people know. Brilliant man, kind as anything, but he doesn’t take any shit from anybody. Loves his country and hates the government – well, doesn’t hate it, just doesn’t trust it at all. Likes people and hates anyone and anything that makes them less than they are. Loves his family and God help anyone who messes with ’em, because nobody but God could help the so-and-sos! (If we all live through this little problem we’re all having right now, I swear he’ll track down every single asshole responsible for the shit that’s come down in Maine and do them all in single-handedly, all the way up to and including the President, if the bastard’s still alive by then! If he ain’t, knowing Steve, he’ll just go on down to Hell to look up the President and whoever else has joined him by then and clean more than a few clocks, you mark my words!)” Chuckling at the image, Janet said, “I hope this weather starts clearing up soon – I really want to meet him! He sounds like a wonderful man.” “Oh, he is, Jan, he is. There aren’t many like him in the world – if there were, this world’d be a far better place than it is. – Listen, I’m running your batteries down. Let’s sign off, we can call you tomorrow – or you call us.” “I think we’ll be okay – Tom found some spare batteries for the rig stashed in the pantry, of all places.” “Yeah, well, better safe than sorry. We’ll talk later, Jan. You guys take care, okay?” “Oh, yes. You do the same, now.” “Sure. ’Night.” “Night.” That night, Tom suddenly began to feel much sicker than he had. Though he tried to reassure Janet and keep her from worrying, she began to feel a sense of dread. Even when her own parents had died, she had still felt confident that she, Tom, and the others, even Rachel, would somehow survive and that the world would eventually get back to normal. But now she began to feel the approach of death, if not for herself, then for Tom, his mother, Jeanie, Rachel. Who would be the first to go? Would any of them make it? The next morning Tom was running a temperature of 102°, and felt almost too tired to sit up in bed when Janet brought him breakfast in the form of some toast and a cup of bouillon, made from some of the fruits of his treasure-hunt of the previous day. “How bad is it, Thomas-cat?” she asked him as she took his pulse, which was somewhat elevated. “Oh, it’s not . . . well, it isn’t too bad,” he told her. “Liar. You look terrible – look at you, bags under your eyes, your forehead’s hot as a stove, you need to stay in bed and rest for awhile,” she scolded him gently. “Okay, I didn’t have any pressing engagements for today, anyway,” he said, beginning to laugh. The laugh turned into a cough. A moment later he found himself staring in amazement at the pillow beside his head, where a great glob of crimson-streaked, yellowish phlegm now lay. “Oh, Tom, let me get you another pillow,” Janet said, turning to the empty bed next to the one they had been sharing the last several nights. Grabbing the pillow off the empty bed, quickly she exchanged the one Tom had been using for the fresh one, holding his head up with one hand while she slid the fresh pillow underneath and fluffed it up with the other. “There,” she said, gently lowering her hand until his head was lying on the fresh pillow. He mumbled something she didn’t catch. “What?”

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“I said, I don’t know what I’d have done without you now,” he told her, his voice sleepy, almost whispery. Trying hard to resist the sudden sleepiness now slipping over him, he said, “I love you, Jan . . .” His voice trailed off. He began to snore. “Oh, Lord,” Janet said to herself, staring down at her man. Then: “Oh, God, please let him be all right. Please,” she prayed spontaneously. Since she’d graduated from Sunday-school at age 10 or so, she’d never been much of a church-goer herself, but now she found herself wishing there were a church nearby, a synagogue, a house of God by whatever name, where she could go and offer up every prayer she’d ever learned in the presence of God. Wasn’t God supposed to be nearest to us in those places we consecrated to Him? She found herself thinking, a little deliriously, about what it would take to consecrate a room to God in the hospital, rig up some sort of altar in it, a place to be close to God here. There were no churches close to the hospital, not close enough, anyway – in this weather, with snow pelting down and the winds blowing the way they were outside now, she’d make at most about a hundred yards from here before collapsing in the snow and dying of exposure or something. So if she was going to talk with God, it was here or nothing . . . “Are you all right, sweetie?” Startled by the voice, whirling around at the sound of it, Janet said, “Oh, Adelle! Uh, Yes, I’m okay, just thinking . . .” “How is Tom doing?” the older woman asked, nodding to indicate the snoring man in the bed. “He’s – he’s not feeling well. He wanted to sleep in for awhile.” “Probably a good idea. I see he didn’t eat his breakfast,” Adelle said, pointing at the tray Janet had brought in for Tom, which, still untouched, Janet had set down on top of the dresser. “I’ll heat it up for him later – or make him something else, fresh,” Janet said. “Nobody really wants recycled toast.” “Oh, the birds would love it, I’m sure,” Adelle said, laughing a little. Janet looked at her sharply, saw the imp-light in Adelle’s eyes, began to laugh herself. “At any rate, I think you’re being paged – the ‘callwaiting’ light is on on the radiophone.” “Uh-oh, that’s probably Joe. Or Steve. I’d better take it . . .” Hurrying back into Rachel’s room, where Tom and Janet had left the radiophone before going to bed, she picked up the receiver and began flipping switches to open the connection. “Jan?” came Joe’s voice. “Yep. What’s up?” “Steve’s throwing a fit – well, no, it’s more like he’s a caged tiger or something, pacing up and down whatever room he’s in, looking for something to do, starts doing it and gives up five minutes later, goes looking for something else, tries to read, can’t keep his attention on a book for more’n a minute.” “He wants to talk with Rachel.” “Gee, how’d ya know?” he asked her, chuckling. “Oh, I could just sorta tell. Sometimes I’m psychic.” “Yeah, right. – Uh, is Rachel, uh, able to talk?” Oh, shit. Glancing over at Jeanie, who was doing something to the IV line that snaked down from the bottle to Rachel’s arm, she cleared her throat and, when Jeanie looked up, mouthed, Is she awake? Jeanie’s eyebrows arced up like the backs of a pair of angry cats. Then she shook her head, an emphatic No! Turning back to the ’phone, Janet said, “She’s . . . not awake just yet. We have to give her some breakfast, make her bed, that sort of thing. Why don’t I call you back once she’s awake? Shouldn’t be long.” “Sure, that’ll work. I’ve got some work to do here, cleaning my guns, checking to make sure my boots are okay, that sort of thing. I’ll be here for a couple of hours, at least.” “Great. Let me call you back, then.” “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” Jeanie told Janet when the call had been terminated. “Jeanie, I’m not ready for this – I didn’t know what to tell him!” “Tell him the truth – Rachel is out of it right now, we don’t know when she’ll wake up.” “Ah, God, look at her, Jeanie – she’s never going to come out of it, is she?” Janet cried, her will to believe the best, to continue hoping, finally shattering in the face of the overwhelming reality. “No, kiddo, I’d say she isn’t,” Jeanie told her, sighing. Carefully adjusting the IV line – she’d just finished repositioning the needle in Rachel’s arm, and was now making sure the line would feed the saline

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solution into Rachel’s system properly, without bleeding out into the muscle tissue under the skin or otherwise not going where it was supposed to – she said, “It’s rough, I now. I’ve seen a lot of people die in my time, and it does not get easier. The worst part is how to tell the relatives and friends the truth. I hate having to do that. But when the ball is my court, somehow I manage to do it. Want me to talk with Joe next time?” “I – would you?” Janet asked her, hope suddenly suffusing her voice. “Poor Jan – you sound like you’re at the end of your tether. It’s been hard on you, hasn’t it, baby?” “Uh, I . . .” “It’s okay. It’s been hell on all of us – I’m more used to it, because I’ve been a nurse for so long. Kinda had it spread out over years instead of getting it all at once, in one big lump, the way we have lately. Maybe it’s immunized me a little. Anyway, I don’t mind taking a turn talking to Joe. Plus there are questions I want to ask him, see if they’re starting to get sick over there.” “Next time a call comes in, you want to take it?” “Sure. I know how to do it now, after watching you and Tom with the rig the last few days.” “I could, too.” “Oh, hi, Adelle,” Jeanie said. “Everything okay?” she asked the older woman, who had just entered the room. “Well, Tom’s feeling a lot worse all of a sudden,” Adelle said. “Wonderful. Just what we need,” the nurse grumbled. “I can take care of Tom, it’s okay,” Janet said. “No, you can’t,” Jeanie told her. Still professional and briskly efficient, still apparently full of energy, the nurse said, “You can do things like bring him breakfast, I suppose, but there are some things you need me for. I’ll teach you what I can, but you let me do the really important stuff, okay?” “Like what? Jeanie, we’re all out of everything! The best we can do is give a few normal-saline IVs, like you’re doing with Rachel, and maybe catheterizing, which I hope and pray we do not have to do to Thomas, because it’s such a painful damned procedure for men, but otherwise there’s so damned little we can do!” Her voice rising higher and higher, swept by a sudden dizziness, Janet staggered backward. An instant later she felt strong hands on her arms, steadying her, carefully guiding her steps over to one of the room’s empty beds. “Here, hon’, just lie down, lie down,” Jeanie was saying as she and Adelle helped Janet take a seat on the bed, then lie down on it, her head resting on the pillow. The pillowcase felt so crisp and cool, Janet mused dazedly, it felt so good to just lie there . . . While Adelle took Janet’s pulse, Jeanie got a thermometer-strip out and placed it on Janet’s forehead. Weirdly, Janet heard herself asking Adelle, “How can you take a pulse without your watch?” “I’ve been doing it for years, got a built-in clock,” Adelle told her with a warm laugh. “Now you just rest, sweetheart, it’s okay . . .” After a few minutes, Janet began to feel better, the dizziness she’d experienced earlier ebbing away to nothing, the blackness that had hovered around the fringes of her vision dispersing, gone. Carefully she propped herself up on one arm. “No, you lie back down now!” said Jeanie, who was still standing next to the bed on which Janet lay. “Hey, I’m fine! Really, I’m okay.” “No, you’re not. Now, lie down,” the nurse told her, pushing her back down on the bed. “What happened to me just now?” Janet asked, still feeling a bit loopy but no longer dizzy and lightheaded the way she’d been. “Are you pregnant?” the ever-practical Jeanie asked her. “Uh, not that I know of.” “Here, let’s check your temperature . . .” Pulling the Thermo-Strip off Janet’s forehead, Jeanie checked it. “Says you’ve got about a degree of fever.” “Centigrade or Fahrenheit?” “Fahrenheit – as far as I’m concerned, they can take the whole damned Metric system and, well, anyway, not to bruise your delicate, virgin ears,” Jeanie said, chuckling. “We sent that entire order of Metric thermometers back to Winnipeg, had them replace it with these Fahrenheit strips like we’d ordered in the first place. Clinton may have committed us to the damned Metric system as far as weights, lengths, and all that rot go, but so far we’ve managed to keep our Fahrenheit thermometers and 12-hour clocks, thank you very much, sir, and I swear it’s mainly because of our medical schools, which have been teaching by means of them for so long you couldn’t get them out of us with nukes!

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“Anyway, it’s only a degree or so. If you want, I guess you can get up for awhile, but the first sign of anything wrong and it’s back to bed with you, young lady!” she said, offering Janet a helping hand. With Jeanie’s aid, Janet slowly got to her feet, testing to make sure she wasn’t going to lose her footing again. “Really, I’m fine, now. What was it, do you think?” she asked the nurse. “God alone knows. Could you be pregnant?” she asked in a hope-against-hope tone. If Janet were pregnant, her sudden attack of vertigo might have been due to the countless biochemical adjustments the body makes during the first few weeks of pregnancy, preparing the mother’s body for nine months of hosting the precious little vampire that is the fetus. “Well . . . no, I don’t think so. My last period ended a few days ago, and I won’t be fertile for at least another week.” “Shit.” “Oh, don’t worry, it’s probably nothing.” “Oh? You’ve been here in this hospital with all of us, so many people here have died in the last few days of every conceivable and inconceivable pathogen under the Sun, Tom is down sick and you’re sleeping with him, and on top of that you’ve been helping take care of Rachel, here, all this time? Honey, the big mystery is why you haven’t showed any sort of symptoms of anything until now! The moment you start feeling bad again, I want you to tell me, so at least we can put you to bed and keep you warm and feed you. Hear me?” “I – sure, Jeanie, I will . . . Oh, Lord, whatever are we going to do?” Janet said. “Tough it out, babe, that’s all we can do. – Look: why don’t you go lie down in your room anyway, get some rest? You said Tom was sleeping in. Well, why don’t you take a nap, too? There’s an old saying: ‘Food is sleep.’ When you can’t eat very well, then get all the sleep you can. The food we’ve got here, such as it is, isn’t the greatest in the world, and no more nutritional supplements, either. So you go catch 40 winks or so, and don’t worry, if Joe calls, I’ll take the call. Okay?” “S-sure. Thanks, Jeanie.” When Janet was gone, Jeanie asked Adelle, “What do you think?” “You’re the one with the most medical expertise, Jeanie, it’s you’re call.” “I think she’s sick with something. I hope she isn’t, but everyone else around here, just about, has come down with one thing or another. I’m praying that if she does have something, it’s mild and she’ll get over it.” “Oh, Lord, I hope so. What scares me is how many different illnesses we’ve seen here in the last couple of days! If you don’t come down with one thing, it’s a dozen others. Look at poor Rachel there – I really don’t have much experience with microbiology, but when I looked at her blood under the light microscope, I could swear there were at least three or four types of things in there that didn’t have a damned thing to do with blood cells, red or white, things that didn’t belong in there at all. Could she have gotten infected by that many microbes at the same time?” Jeanie, shrugging, said, “Honey, your guess is as good as mine. Whatever happened over there on the other side of the mountains, it must have stirred up a witch’s cauldron of pathogens, that’s for sure! And very few of them are like anything I’ve ever seen in all my years of nursing. Take that thing that makes people’s guts explode – well, never mind,” she said, seeing Adelle wince, “the devil may be in the details, but they’re not to the point right now. “Anyway, we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve never heard of anything like what we’re going through now. Don’t think anyone else has, either.” “I know,” Adelle said. “There’ve been a lot of bad plagues down through the ages, but they all seem to have involved only one or two diseases. This – it makes you think of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, except that there must be a hundred of these things, maybe more, and all of them make what Egypt went through look like a mild case of poison-ivy or something of the sort. “—All right, I’d better go and check to see whether Jan got back to her room safely, and if Tom’s okay for now. Holler if you need anything. And if you want me to, I’ll take the next couple of calls from Mr. Cabrini and Steve. Or we could take turns. Poor Janet – she’s really out of her depth with this.” “Ain’t we all, sweetie? – Sure, you go check on Jan and Tom. Then come on back and we’ll make some lunch, how’s that sound?” “Sounds good. See you in a few minutes.” So saying, Adelle left the room. Two or three times during that day, the 20th, Joe called, hoping to find Rachel awake and able to talk with Steve, but learning only that “she’s still sleeping, we think she’ll be awake soon,” rang off again, after

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getting Jeanie or Adelle to promise that if Rachel did awake, they’d contact him right away. The third time he called, he was puzzled when he found that neither Janet nor Tom were manning the radiophone; when Jeanie told him, in her brisk, breezy way, that Tom was a little under the weather and Janet was taking a much-needed nap, but they should both be able to talk with him in the evening, he perked up. “I was afraid you were gonna tell me they’d come down with something bad, like the others,” he said to the nurse. “Naw – both of ’em are too mean. They’ll both be right as rain soon, you wait and see.” “Sure. Uh – when should I call back?” “Oh, say, an hour from now.” “Okay, I’ll do that. God, I hope I can get Steve to calm down in the meantime – he’s climbing the walls around here!” “Why not give him a few shots of bourbon?” “Uh, he took the Pledge years ago, you know?” “Oh, that’s right, his alcoholism. Damn – well, if you can find some syrup of laudanum, slip some into a soft drink or something like that and give it to him. – No, that’s an old joke,” she said quickly, forestalling his questions. “My grandma got that from her grandma, whose mother grew up when it was still legal to sell opiates over the counter. Laudanum was tincture of poppies – opium poppies – in a solution of grain alcohol, to make it get into the system faster. Nothing you’d want to give anybody now, unless they were dying of incurable cancer and it was the only pain-killer around. “Anyway, try again in about an hour, okay, sweetie?” “Sure, doll,” Cabrini told her, chuckling – Jeanie’s endearments tended to become infectious, and after talking with her two calls ago, Cabrini was now using his own endearments completely unselfconsciously. “Okay, talk to you later.” “Now who’s a liar?” Jeanie said, turning to look at Adelle after she’d hung up the phone. “Hm?” “Me. This morning, I kind of gave poor Jan a bad time about not leveling with Joe about Rachel’s condition. I said I’d do it for her – and I still haven’t, and this is the third call from him I’ve taken.” “Oh, Lord. Jeanie, it’s all right – you’ve done the work of all of us together and then some, why not let me take the next call from him? I offered earlier – I’d be more than happy to do that.” “Oh, God, I – oh, well, yes. Would you? I’m too chicken, Adelle. I thought I wouldn’t have a problem telling him, and here I am, sweating blood at the idea of letting him and Steve know just how bad off Rachel really is.” “It’s okay, Jeanie, it’s all right. Here, you’ve made the rest of us take our naps, you look like you could use a rest, too. Why not lie down for awhile, or at least read a book?” “Maybe I could rustle up some dinner for us. Any idea what time it is?” “Two hairs past a freckle – I can’t find a clock in this place still running.” “EMPs, must’ve been.” “No, too much countryside and too many mountains between here and anyplace they’ve nuked. Anyway, I’ve got the best clock of all right inside me, and it says it’s time for dinner – I’m hungry.” “So am I, if you want the truth. Okay, you stay here, man the rig, while I go see what there is to eat.” It took Jeanie longer than she had expected to find something to make a halfway decent meal. Eventually, scouring the pantry again, then checking out in the snow around the hospital’s back door for whatever Tom had managed to scavenge and stash there earlier, she rounded up a jar of bouillon, some packages of ramen noodles with little foil packets of seasoning inside, accompanying the noodles, a package of bagels, and a roll of knackwurst. By the time she finally returned to the room she’d been sharing with Rachel, the question of what to tell Joe and Steve about Rachel, and who should do it, was already academic. Entering the room, she found Adelle and Janet waiting for her there, hollow-eyed, looking as if they’d both been crying. Beyond them Jeanie could see Rachel’s bed – the bedclothes pulled all the way up, covering Rachel’s face and head. “Oh, God, is Rachel – ” “She’s gone,” Adelle told her in a voice from which all the life seemed to have gone. “Oh, no – when did it happen?” “A – a few minutes ago. Jan, do you want to tell her what happened?”

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“Yes,” Janet said. Turning away for a moment to hide tears, finally getting herself under control again, she told the nurse, “She seemed to come out of her coma a little right after you left the room. It was so strange . . .” Just after the nurse had left the room, Janet had entered it, hoping to find Adelle, because she needed to ask her something about Tom. The room was becoming quite dark; they didn’t have much fuel for lamps left, and had to husband what they had as stringently as possible. “Adelle, are you here?” Janet asked as she entered. “—Oh, it’s dark! Why don’t we at least light one lamp?” she exclaimed, annoyed, after she had almost tripped over a wastebasket that had been in her way. The darkness of the room had prevented her from seeing until it was too late to avoid it. “I guess we could, Jan, it –” And then Rachel began to sing. Astonished, both women turned to stare at Rachel, whose face could barely be seen in the wan light coming into the room from the Colemans they’d set up in the hall, their wicks set low to conserve fuel. Quickly Adelle rushed over to the countertop where the Coleman lantern they kept in the room had been parked and got it lit. She carried it over to the nightstand next to Rachel’s bed, and set it down there. Now they could see Rachel clearly. She was indeed singing, an old, old song: When the night has come And the land is dark And the moon Is the only light we’ll see, No, I won’t be afraid, No I won’t be afraid Just as long as you stand by me. . .

*– From Ben E. King, Mike Stoller, and Jerry Leiber, “Stand by Me.”

Unaware of Janet and Adelle in the room, watching over her, until the very end, she continued to sing softly: . . . Darling, stand by me. Won’t you stand by me. If you’re in need, Won’t you stand by me. And if the sky You look upon Should crumble and fall, And the mountains Should fall to the sea, No, I won’t be afraid, No I won’t shed a tear, Just as long as you stand by me. As Rachel sang the last couple of lines of the song, she suddenly reached out and grasped the hand that Adelle had extended to her, smiled, and said, looking not at Janet but at an invisible something by the other side of the bed, “I knew you’d come back to me, Steve, I knew –” And then her head fell back on the pillow, and she was gone.

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“Oh, my God,” said Jeanie, sounding sandbagged. Then, somehow recovering herself, putting the foodstuffs on the countertop next to the hotplate, she said, “Well, guess we don’t have to worry about what to tell Steve, do we?”

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