The whateverpocalypse. That’s what Touré, a twenty-something Cambridge coder, calls it after waking up one morning to find himself seemingly the only person left in the city. Once he finds Robbie and Carol, two equally disoriented Harvard freshmen, he realizes he isn’t alone, but the name sticks: Whateverpocalypse. But it doesn’t explain where everyone went. It doesn’t explain how the city became overgrown with vegetation in the space of a night. Or how wild animals with no fear of humans came to roam the streets.
Add freakish weather to the mix, swings of temperature that spawn tornadoes one minute and snowstorms the next, and it seems things can’t get much weirder. Yet even as a handful of new survivors appear—Paul, a preacher as quick with a gun as a Bible verse; Win, a young professional with a horse; Bethany, a thirteen-year-old juvenile delinquent; and Ananda, an MIT astrophysics adjunct—life in Cambridge, Massachusetts gets stranger and stranger.
The self-styled Apocalypse Seven are tired of questions with no answers. Tired of being hunted by things seen and unseen. Now, armed with curiosity, desperation, a shotgun, and a bow, they become the hunters. And that’s when things truly get weird.
|Product dimensions:||7.90(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.30(d)|
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Robbie wasn’t sure how he ended up back in his own bed. Not that this was an unwelcome discovery. He’d gone to his first bona fide collegiate keg party the night beforea staggeringly bad idea given it fell just before his first full day of classesand drank . . . well, a lot. He wasn’t sure how much; potentially enough to warrant measurements in gallons, but not enough to convince him he liked beer. The party was in an off-campus apartment roughly six blocks from the dorm, so his being able to drunkenly stagger back to the room and then pass out on his own bed made plenty of sense. He just didn’t remember doing it. He rolled onto his back and noted that he was still fully clothed. His shoes were still on. He still had his wallet. All good things. Then he took a look at the alarm clock. It had no display. “Hey, what time is it?” he saidto nobody, apparently, as he was alone in the dorm room. He had two roommates. He barely knew them, because everyone was a freshman, and it had only been four days since they had come together for orientation. There was Nguyen, about whom Robbie knew only two facts: He was Vietnamese, and he groomed his own eyebrows with tweezers every morning, for no good reason. The other roommate was Taylor, who folded his underwear. That was the extent of what he knew about them, up until he discovered there’d been some kind of power failure during the night. Now he could add “won’t wake up their roommate even though he has an early class the next day” to the list. He dug his cell phone out. It was dead. “Aw, come on.” He got out of bed, ignored the rush of blood that made him a little dizzy, and pulled open the dorm room door. The hallway had no lights. It was daytime, clearly, but the only windows in the hall were at the ends, which didn’t do much to help illuminate the middle. “Hey, does anyone know what time it is?” he shouted. No answer. He stepped back into the room. “Well, this is crazy,” he said. It was a weird moral quandary. The sun was up, so it was evidently morning. Probably early morning, but maybe not. Could be, he’d missed his first Intro to Macroeconomics class already and was now well on his way to missing Freshman English. He should be grabbing his bookbagwhich he’d packed the night before, after memorizing the locations and optimal paths for all his classesand running out. Brushing his teeth and getting a proper shower would have to wait, and he probably smelled a little funky in the same clothes as the night before, so when he got to class, he’d have to hide in the back or avoid talking to women until that situation was rectified, but it was all manageable; he just had to leave right away. The quandary was, he should probably be knocking on doors and letting everyone know the dorm had lost power. Unless they had all gotten up and left already, in which case they didn’t do for him what he was thinking he should do for them, and anyway, why was it his problem? He walked around the side of the bed to grab his bag. It was gone. “Great.” Maybe the problem is that I’m in the wrong room, he thought. The beds all had the same bedsheets, which not incidentally smelled like mildew. He didn’t notice that the first few nights, but thanks to all the alcohol, his nose was going out of its way to call to his attention every smell that would trigger bad behavior from his digestive system. Likewise, the dressers were all basically the same, and the layout was a standard arrangement. This could be any room in the building; it didn’t have to be his. He opened a drawer, and no, those weren’t his clothes. “All right, Robbie, buddy, when you tell this story tonight it’s going to be hilarious. Get it together.” He pulled open the door and checked the number: 315. Unless he was remembering it wrongand he liked to think he had a very good memoryhis room number had been 315 all week. “Right room number, wrong building?” He was in a section of Harvard called the Radcliffe Quadrangle. Robbie had only been inside one of the buildingshis ownbut he could imagine a scenario where (1) all of the room designs in the quad had the same square footage and initial state, (2) he walked into the wrong building the night before but went to the right room, and (3) somehow gained admittance to that room and passed out on someone else’s bed. He decided what would make this really funny was if the owner of the bed he’d crashed on had also gone to the same party and later made the exact same mistake Robbie did and was now waking up in Robbie’s bed, wondering where all his stuff was. Yes, that would be funny, but this was not the time for funny. There were few things in his life Robbie dreaded more than being late. This was likely due to some deep-seated anxiety going back to childhood, although he couldn’t point to any trauma in particular. One of his first memories was being upset that he’d missed a television show in which he was deeply invested, because he and his mother were traveling and they didn’t make it home until halfway through the show. He couldn’t remember the name of the show, and he couldn’t remember why they were traveling, so he always took that memory as evidence that he’d spent his entire existence fretting over being late and missing something. Sleeping through his first class, then, pushed all the wrong buttons. “Maybe it’s a closed building,” he said. He was talking to himself out of an instinctive need to fill up what was becoming an eerie silence. “That’s it, they haven’t put anyone in this dorm yet, because freshmen check in early. You’ve solved it, hero. Now let’s get to class.” Except someone else’s clothes were in the drawer. It couldn’t be a closed building where someone also lived. As preoccupied as he was with the death of the closed building theory, it didn’t register right away that the place was no longer silent. Someone was shouting. No, not shouting: screaming. It was a woman, and she was screaming “HELLO??” over and over. It didn’t sound like they were on the same floor, but probably they were in the same building. Even then, he wouldn’t have heard it at all if the place wasn’t so quiet already. Then he realized it wasn’t just the noise in the building he wasn’t hearing. There was no traffic outside, either. Robbie grew up in rural Connecticut, surrounded by farms, a lot of open sky, and a surplus of quiet. He hated it. His joke when giving people directions there was We live ten miles past the point where you’re sure you’ll never see civilization again. When he got into Harvard, he was just as excited for a chance to live in a city as he was to go to the school in the first place. Cambridge wasn’t even that loud normally, but the sound of traffic going past his window was more exciting for him than it should have been. Now that sound was entirely absent. So was all the other ambient noise the neighborhood was supposed to be making. All except the woman. Screaming. He stepped all the way into the hallway, cupped his hands around his mouth, and answered back. “HELLO?” The screaming stopped. Then: “Hello? Someone? Is someone there?” “Yes,” he said. “I’m here.” He had to shout, but a full-throated roar wasn’t necessary. She must be on the first or second floor, he thought, just below him. “Have you seen my dog?” she asked. This question was just strange enough for Robbie to wonder if she was speaking in code. “No?” “You don’t see a dog?” “No, I don’t see a dog.” “I’m missing my dog,” she said. “I’m getting that. My name is Robbie.” Introducing himself made little sense in the context of canine retrieval, but he felt it was time to move ahead, because he had stuff to do. “And I’m late for class,” he added. “Do you need, um, do you need help?” “Yes,” she said. “If you are not just a voice in my head, or a ghost, then I need your help.” The notion that he might be a ghost haunting a dormitory at Harvard University suddenly struck him as theoretically feasible. “I’m not a ghost. Why would you even say that?” “I’m sorry. I’m very worried about my dog, that’s all. My name is Carol. Please come find me and we’ll go to class together. I think I’m on the second floor.” He headed for the stairwell at the end of the corridor, wondering as he went how Carol could not know what floor she was on. He thought about suggesting she just look at one of the doors and tell him what room number to go toward, but it was only one flight. By the time he reached the door’s crash bar, he was convinced they were in an unused building. It had a certain not-lived-in feel to it, and there was a lot more dust than there probably should have been. Yes, there were clothes in the dresser drawer, but he was willing to excuse that if all the other available evidence supported his theory. Maybe it was shipped with clothing in it, he thought. Like the fake televisions in furniture stores. The second floor was no more notable than the third. The walls were brick, the doors were wood, the lights were out, and the hallway was empty. “Carol?” he shouted. “You’re not on the second floor.” “I’m not? Okay. Do you see a dog?” “No dogs.” “Maybe the first floor, then.” “Is this some kind of joke, Carol? Because I already told you I’m late for class.” “No, it is not a joke. I must be on the first floor.” “Can’t you just look at a door?” “No, I can’t.” “Are you trapped under something?” “Your voice is getting louder, you must be getting closer.” He sighed, and went back to the stairwell, and down one more flight. Carol was standing in the middle of the hallway. She was a short, thin Asian woman, with dark glasses and a cane. “Hello?” she said when she heard the door open. “It’s me,” he said. “Robbie, I mean. It’s Robbie.” Sorry, I didn’t know you were blind, he nearly said. He didn’t say that, because somehow that seemed more awkward than any of the awkwardness that had preceded this moment. “Nice to meet you, Robbie. I’ve been shouting for an hour and you’re the only one who’s come.” “You have a dog?” he asked. Still awkward. “Yes, his name is Burton, and I don’t know where he is. He should have been with me when I woke up. I’m worried something bad happened. Not just to him. Maybe we should go outside so you can tell me what I’m not seeing.”2
Robbie took her by the arm and walked her out of the dorm and into the quad. Everything outside looked wrong. The grass was suddenly too tall, and it wasn’t exactly grass. Rather, it wasn’t entirely grass:There was crabgrass, moss, dandelions, and some other growths he couldn’t readily identify. All of it had become so overgrown, the walkways were essentially gone. Then there were the trees. The ones that were still alive seemed taller somehow, although he’d only been in the quad a couple of times and couldn’t speak with authority as to how much taller. Two dead trees also took up space on the lawn. One was upright, but clearly dead, as moss had overtaken it completely. The other looked like it had collapsed very recently. Other than the strange overgrowth, it was a warm, sunny, breezy-but-pleasant September day, with exactly no human beings. “So?” Carol asked. “What’s happened? Where is everyone?” “I don’t know. Not here. Beyond that, I’m not sure. And it looks like whoever does landscaping for the university is on strike.” “What do you mean, ‘not here’?” “I mean, the entire quad has nobody in it except for you and me.” “Oh. Well. That’s good, I guess. I think if they were here, they would all be dead, because they aren’t making any noise.” She sniffed the air. “It smells different,” she said. “Not corpse-like.” “Honestly, I would tell you if there was a pile of bodies here. It’d be the first thing.” “Earthy I think is the word. Like a garden. Did the quadrangle become a garden overnight?” “Yeah, I think it must have rained,” he said. “It’s like all the plants went nuts.” He turned around to get a better look at the dormitory they just exited, and realized, first, it was the right building, which meant . . . well, he didn’t know what that meant yet; second, the ivy on the outside wall had an overnight growth spurt, just like the rest of the plants. It covered the entire wall now, and half of the windows. “Hey, did you wake up in your own room?” he asked. “What an odd question. Did you?” “I don’t know anymore. The building’s the right one, but the clothes in the drawer weren’t mine and my stuff was gone. I have no idea what to make of that.” “That’s interesting. You were at a party last night, I take it?” “I, um . . .” “Your clothes.” All at once, everything that was wrong with the morning disappeared from Robbie’s brain, replaced by the embarrassing prospect that his body odor was intolerably bad. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I fell asleep in them, and I didn’t have a chance to take a shower.” “It’s all right. The truth is, I don’t know if I woke up in the correct room. I do know I went to bed in the correct room. When I got up, Burton was missing, my electronics were dead, and my roommate was gone; I didn’t stop to check the clothing in my drawers. But we can go back and find out, if you think it’s important.” “No, it’s probably not. Let’s . . . let’s sit down and see if we can work this out.” He led her to a bench in the middle of the quad. Two rabbits ran past them on the way, and a large squirrel on a tree nearby decided to chirp angrily. They sat on the bench in silence. Robbie tried to come up with a simple explanation. When that didn’t work, he tried a complicated one. “I’ve got nothing,” he admitted. “This doesn’t make any sense at all. Maybe they all . . . went somewhere. I mean, they had to, right? They’re not here.” “All at once? With my dog?” “I’m not saying it’s reasonable, that everyone left at the same time, with your dog,” he said. “I’m saying that’s the only conclusion we have to go with right now.” Carol turned her head and listened. “I want you to be honest with me, Robbie,” she said. “You asked earlier if I was a part of some sort of joke, or prank, and now I have to ask you the same question.” “No, of course it isn’t.” “It’s only that . . . your perspective on this scenario is profoundly different from mine. You understand? Someone took my dog, and now you tell me there’s nobody here aside from you. I don’t think you were a party to the circumstances that took Burton from me, because that is a truly awful thing to do and you don’t seem like an awful person. But just the same, the logical conclusion for me is that there are other people here, hiding, out of earshot. This is irrational, because I can’t imagine a single situation in which it would be . . . funny for an entire campus to orchestrate a practical joke on a blind person. I choose to believe people are not this terrible. The second option is that they are all dead. But again, I don’t smell death out here.” “That would be terrible,” he agreed. “I don’t even know how anybody would pull that off. There are no cars, either, right? It’s not just the campus; this whole part of town is completely deserted.” “You’re right; I haven’t heard a car all morning.” “Well, the answer is, I swear, I’m just as in the dark about this as you are.” She smiled. “In the dark,” she said. “Sorry, no pun intended.” “It’s all right.” They fell silent again, waiting, perhaps, for someone to run up and explain it all so that they could get on with their day. Robbie was stuck between the usual niceties one went through when meeting someone newwhere are you from, what’s your major, and so onand the patent absurdity of their circumstance. He didn’t entirely know how to proceed. He pulled his phone out again, just in case it had recovered since the last time he checked. It had not. “You don’t have the time, do you?” he asked. She laughed. “Because you’re late for class? It’s only seven-thirty; you aren’t late.” She held up her free arm to show off the featureless disk on her wrist. “It’s blank,” he said. “It’s in Braille.” “But it says it’s seven-thirty?” “I checked it when you said you were late, so I could tell you when you arrived that you were not. And then I forgot to do that. But it was seven-fifteen then, so now it’s about . . .” She ran her finger across the surface of the disk. “Oh,” she said, “never mind.” “What do you mean, ‘never mind’?” “It still says seven-fifteen. My watch has stopped.” “I could be late, then.” “Yes, I’m sorry. But I don’t think you’re late.” Robbie could feel a vein pulsing in his forehead. “You have no way of knowing,” he said. “You can’t be late if the class is not happening. It appears we’re the only people here, and I promise, I am not your professor. Ergo, you are not late.” “Hey, hey, wait: What if we’re in a quarantine zone?” She raised an eyebrow. “What is your major, Robbie?” “Economics. Not sure what kind yet. I was thinking of . . . Anyway, economics. You?” “Bio. This is not how quarantines work.” “Wrong word, then. Some kind of . . . emergency, where they evacuated this whole area and they forgot us. Or maybe we’re radioactive right now.” “What about Burton? They evacuated my dog, but not me?” “I’m not saying it explains everything. It doesn’t explain how someone else’s clothes were in my dresser either. Hey, did you wake up dressed too?” “Yes. I did.” “Do you remember going to sleep that way?” She thought about it. “I don’t recall. It isn’t something I ever do, yet . . . yes, I was already clothed. I didn’t even think about it once . . .” She sighed. “I miss my dog, Robbie. I want to find him.” “I’m sure Burton’s out here somewhere,” he said. Just then, he saw movement at the other end of the quad and wondered if he’d just managed to conjure Carol’s dog into existence by uttering his name. But it wasn’t a dog. “What is it?” Carol asked. “You stopped breathing. What do you see?” There was a deer walking through the open field. It looked nervous, as deer tended to, but this was not the behavior of a wild animal who’d wandered into a metropolis by mistake. “Carol, we have got to figure out what’s happening,” he said.3
The walk from the quadrangle to the middle of Harvard Yard was barely a mile, which Robbie had already worked out. The way in could either avoid Harvard Square entirelyby cutting through Cambridge Commonor it could skip across the side of the Square, which required taking Garden Street straight down. Both routes involved concerning oneself with some measure of auto traffic, bike traffic, and foot traffic, which grew increasingly heavy and complex the closer one got to the center of the Square. He’d expected cars, and knew to look for them. Conversely, he’d nearly been killed by a bike at least twice so far. They occupied the boundary space between pedestrian traffic and car traffic, they were silent, and they moved entirely too fast. After the second close call, he learned to check, even when he didn’t hear or see any cars around. He was still doing that as they headed toward Harvard Square, even though there was no evidence of human life in any direction. There were parked cars here and there, but they all looked abandoned: Even with the keys, he was pretty sure none of them was going to start. Given all the traffic lights were out, that was probably not the worst thing. Three blocks away from the quadrangle, they still hadn’t encountered a single person, or heard an anthropogenic noise. But there were plenty of birds, and the deer he saw was evidently one of many. Carol was walking in silence, with one hand under the crook of his elbow and the other holding her cane. It was odd enough for him, actually seeing all of this; he couldn’t imagine what it was like for her. “Maybe all the people were turned into animals,” he said, as three squirrels ran past. “You suppose Cambridge is under a witch’s curse?” she asked. “If it works both ways, this could mean you are Burton.” He laughed. “I should be terrified that this isn’t the craziest idea we’ve come up with,” he said. “That’s definitely the craziest idea. The quarantine sounded reasonable.” “I didn’t mean that. I meant the one where you asked if I was a ghost.” “Oh. I thought that was also reasonable, because we had not yet met. Now that I can confirm your corporeality, it seems much more absurd, but context is everything.” “Unless we’re both ghosts.” “Yes, that’s still on the table.” He didn’t think it was really still on the table, but decided that was largely because he didn’t think he believed in ghosts. It wasn’t something he spent a lot of time considering, notwithstanding when he was eight years old. Back then, ghosts were a major feature of his existence, and so were UFOs, dragons, and Egyptian mummy curses. “Well then,” Carol said, “let’s find some people to haunt, shall we?”4
There was a hotel a couple of blocks from the center of Harvard Square. It was situated across from the leading edge of the Cambridge Common, and was where Robbie and his parents had stayed when visiting the school during the application process. The stay wasn’t necessarythe drive from their Connecticut home was under three hoursbut his mom wanted to go sightseeing and his dad had a powerful aversion to night driving. Also, they could afford it. It was a nice hotel; Robbie had thought it an interesting combination of quaintly old-fashioned and situationally modernized: oak desks and WiFi, rotary phones and giant flatscreens, tin ceilings and in-room coffee machines. He enjoyed the experience of the place, and thought about popping in again on the three or four times he’d gone past it during orientation. Remember me? he’d say, I was in room 454 last summer. Just wanted to say hi. It looked completely empty now. The front doors were locked, and the awning leading to the street looked frayed. The restaurant attached to it was also empty, and likewise locked up. Both places looked abandoned, as if everyone decided to get out of town all at once, but in an orderly fashion. The chairs in the restaurant were still up on the tables, waiting for the morning shift to arrive. There was a church next to the hotel. A placard out front listed the upcoming homily subjects. It hadn’t been changed for a whilethe dates were offwhich seemed more like a lazy-pastor problem. Or they lost the key to the lock on the underside of the sign or something. The place looked just as closed as the hotel, anyway, which was sort of a shame. The upcoming homily was called “Feeling Alone in the Modern World.” “Where are we?” Carol asked. “In front of the church.” “The church. Which church? It’s so quiet, I can’t tell.” Robbie was suffering from a failure of imagination, descriptively. “We’re not in the Square yet, but . . . I dunno. The church. The church next to the hotel.” “There are three churches!” “Are there?” “Yes.” Carol let go of Robbie’s arm and put her hand on the railing that defined the church lawn. She was getting upset, and he couldn’t tell why. “Okay,” he said. “If there are three churches, we’re in front of one of them. It’s across from the common. Um. I don’t know what to give you, for landmarks. Name one and . . .” Carol started crying, so he decided to shut up. It was only a little gasp at first, but then it came on hard, in body-shaking convulsions that dropped her to her knees. “Hey,” he said, quietly. Maybe too quietly for her to hear. “Hey, it’ll be okay.” She let go of her cane and rolled over until she was sitting on the pavement, clutching her knees. Robbie was torn, because when someone you know is falling apart in front of you, you’re supposed to hold them until they feel better. But he’d met Carol maybe a half an hour earlier, under perhaps the most ridiculous set of circumstances in history. It was not the best situation in which to gauge whether they had, in their brief time together, developed that kind of friendship. He did not, in short, want to make it any worse in a misguided effort to make it better. Also, misreading signals from women was basically his major in high school. He decided that sitting down next to her and waitingfor her to stop crying, or to run out of water, dependingwas the best recourse. Briefly, he considered whether he should be crying as well, and if not, whether there was something wrong with him. But the situation was so absurd, he couldn’t fathom any resolution beyond it’s all a big misunderstanding. He was sure his parents were just fine because the house was three hours away and therefore well outside of the sphere of influence that resulted in whatever this was. If anything, they were probably worried about him. Likewise, Gertie, his younger sister, would be enjoying her first week at prep school in Groton. That was much less than three hours away. The situation didn’t seem hopeless; it just seemed ridiculous. “I’m sorry,” Carol said, quietly. She’d taken off her dark glasses to wipe her eyes and was now staring at the space just to his right. “I need you to understand how hard this is for me.” “I do understand,” he said. “No, I don’t think you do. I thrive on sound. I need to hear the cars going by, and the chirps of the walk signals, and the chatter of other people. Today was my first day of classes. Burton and I were supposed to be paired with a sophomore volunteer, for long enough until I could count the steps to my classes and Burton could learn the route. The volunteer’s name was Derek; I first met him two days ago. Derek didn’t show up this morning, and Burton is missing, and now I’m in an auditory bubble. All I hear is birds, and whatever’s making that sound in the trees. I can’t navigate using birds. I feel . . . really blind now. And I miss my dog.” “It’s a squirrel. In the trees.” “That’s what a squirrel sounds like?” “I guess. Look, we just have to keep going,” Robbie said, standing. “This isn’t a big deal; we’ll work it out. Meanwhile, I don’t think you have to worry about not hearing things.” He took three steps into the street. Pointing out to a worried blind woman that on the bright side she wasn’t going to get run over by a car probably wasn’t the best approach, but he had no better ideas. “It’s too quiet,” he continued. “I get it, but at least if there isn’t anyone around, there’s less to worry about, right? We can stand in the street if we want.” “Robbie . . .” “You can try it too. We don’t have to stick to the sidewalks and you don’t need walk signals to let you know it’s safe. Let’s just walk right down the middle.” “No, be quietI hear something now.” “Not birds?” “Not just birds, and not the loud squirrel. Something from that direction.” She pointed toward the corner, where Garden Street met Mason Street. Robbie turned in that direction, just in time to see the bike before it ran him down. He and the guy riding it both adjusted, thankfully in opposite directions. “Whoa!” the cyclist said, nearly losing control before circling around to a stop a few yards away. He did not look like the sort of person one might expect to see on a racing bike. He had on cargo shorts and sneakers with no socks, and a large black T-shirt that read MY IMAGINARY FRIEND SAYS HI. He looked like he’d be more at home with a game controller in his hand. “Hey, guys!” he said, genially. “Did you sleep through the apocalypse too?”Touré1
Touré screwed up huge this time around: He’d promised delivery on code that was gonna take a solid thirty-six hours to hammer down . . . and then he left himself only eighteen hours to do it. It was his own fault. It was always his own fault, but this particular assignment of blame underscored a larger character flaw, to wit: Whenever he saw all the steps needed to get from point A to point B, he got the time commitment wrong. He was great when asked to do something impossible, because then he came in earlyusually earlier than everyone elsebut the stuff that was right there in front of him? Not so much. As his second-to-last ex-girlfriend once said, if you asked him how long it would take to cook a three-minute egg, he’d say, About a minute. The screwup here was on a big job, with a firm deadline. It was super easy, and it paid well: the best of all possible combinations not involving a winning lottery ticket. But because it was super easy, around when he should have been coding, he was down the road at the Science Fiction Interdiction, a bookstore with a too-clever name and a gaming dungeon. The dungeon was a gamer Xanadu, packed on most nights to a fire-code-threatening headcount, with a you-name-it collection of role-playing games. It was fair to say his real screwup was going to the dungeon in the first place. He didn’t escape the Science Fiction Interdiction due to superior willpower and natural charisma, much as he wanted to believe that; in truth, he only left because they had to close the place down for the night. Then he raced home and got to work on the project he was supposed to have been halfway through already. And yet, all of that was just the penultimate screwup. He was about six hours into some fine work when he realized he was entirely out of stimulants. There was no coffee, soda, caffeine tabs, or energy drinks to be found in the place. He tried to push through using sugar packets and toothpaste, but that really didn’t give him the necessary boost, so after the third time he caught himself falling asleep at the keyboard, he bolted for the all-night spot on the corner. That was the last thing he remembered doing before he woke up on the couch in his building’s lobby. Clearly, he significantly underestimated how tired he was.2
Even without checking his watch, as soon as the sunlight hit him in the face, he knew he’d really stepped in it this time. “Seriously, nobody could’ve woken me up?” he said loudly, for anyone in earshot. There wasn’t anyone obviously around, but he liked to think they heard him from behind their doors, at least on the first floor. He started working out stories that could justify how late his code was going to be as he took the stairs. The excuse he’d come up with was good enoughby the time he made it to his doorto buy him at least another day, and probably get him a sympathy card. He just had to get back into his apartment . . . which he couldn’t do, because the door was locked. That should have been fine. When he ran out in the middle of the night, he sometimes relied on the door to the street to protect his belongings, thinking his neighborsa harmless combination of grad students and retireeswouldn’t be awake, or if awake, not inclined to steal anything. But this time he’d locked it, which was cool; he had the key. Except the key wasn’t working. He tried it every way he knew how, including shouting at it and banging on the door. Briefly, he wondered if he was capable of knocking the door down entirely, but decided even if he was, it should be the lastthing he tried. He went back down to the first floor, around the corner of the staircase, and to the doorway of the building’s super. His name was Mr. Elonzo, he was terrifying, and there was some evidence that he was actually a goblin. Touré never saw the man smile, but was positive if he did, he’d have pointed teeth. He didn’t like Mr. Elonzo, was basically the problem. Mr. Elonzo didn’t like Touré back, and they were both cool with that arrangement. But now Touré needed Mr. Elonzo in order to get back into his apartment, and so he knocked. When this didn’t work, he knocked harder. Then he tried saying Mr. Elonzo’s name loudly. A lot. By then, someone else in the place should have, at minimum, poked their head out to see what all the ruckus was. Nobody had, so it was possibly even later in the morning than he thought: Everyone could be at work, and/or wherever old people go during the day. He checked his watch and quickly decided either it was two in the afternoon or his watch had stopped during the night. The third possibility was that it was two in the morning and a seriously unusual cosmic event was going on outside. There was a spare key not involving Mr. Elonzo. Ducks had it, and he was only a mile away. Touré didn’t know if Ducks was home, and the telephonic device necessary to find that out was sitting on the desk, next to his computer, on the other side of the door. “To Ducks’s it is,” he declared, to all the sleeping, dead, or absent cohabitants of the building.3
Outside was exactly the right kind of wrong to paralyze him temporarily. He lived one side quest from the middle of Central Square, a place where the traffic was so bad that the only rational response to it was to move to the country and raise animals. But he was used to it, in part because he had no car, and had no real interest in driving one in the future, especially given the aforementioned traffic. What was interesting was that everyone else apparently decided moving to the country was a good plan, overnight. They left behind the animals, though. It was dead quiet, except for birds, and he never heard birds before in the middle of the city, regardless of the time of day. What movement existed was non-automotive in nature: squirrels, mostly, plus a few rats, and something that looked a lot like a bobcat. No people. He ran to the corner and found more of the same. A family of raccoons was walking down the median strip of Mass Ave., evidently going shopping. Ahead, a hawk swooped down to nab a chipmunk. Up a side street, there was a four-point buck just staring at Touré like the two of them were in the middle of an insurance company commercial. He was chewing grass from a patch in the middle of the road where there shouldn’t have been any grass. Likewise, there were climbing plants all over the sides of the buildings, and the sidewalks were riddled with cracks from an eruption of tree roots. Nature had exploded. And still, there were no people. Even the panhandle corridorwhere all the homeless congregated to see who had any smokes leftwas empty. Those dudes didn’t have the money to get out of town, never mind head to a farm or whatever. It made no sense. Touré kept running, from block to block, looking up and down every street for some explanation. A sign, maybe, like HIDE-AND-SEEK DAY STARTS NOW. TOURÉ IS IT. He didn’t stop until he reached the front of the twenty-four-hour store he should have been hitting the night before. It was a point of pride for the owner, Stefan, that this place never closed, for any reason, ever. Nor’easters, hurricanes, police actions, it didn’t matter. Unless it was the end of the world, Stefan said, he’d have the place open. It was closed. The conclusion was inescapable. “Touré, my man, the world ended and you survived it,” he said, to nobody. Because there was nobody. He was the last man left on Earth. He sat down on a bench, and started laughing.4
When he was a kid, Touré’s parents made him see a psychiatrist to figure out why he hated them. (That wasn’t, probably, how they’d pitched it to the doctor.) He didn’t remember much about the guy, other than that he liked to play chess with Touré and ask leading questions. It was maybe three sessions before the guy decided Touré was just bored with everything, and then they got on okay. The psychiatrist came to mind once Touré stopped laughing, which took approximately half an hour. He figured the doctor would call this a minor psychotic break, if there was such a thing as a minor one. The doctor wasn’t there, because he was dead now. Touré’s parents had to be dead too, a fact he found a little sobering. It didn’t have the sort of impact it was supposed to, though, for a well-adjusted adult human. Touré wanted this to be because he was a survivor who had no time for grief, but that wasn’t right. The problem was that the idea was so new, and so enormous, that he was probably experiencing something like shock. Maybe that was what the doctor would say instead, if he were able. The other option was that there was something deeply wrong with Touré, and he didn’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole. The next person he thought of was Ducks, because he and Ducks used to get in arguments about which of them would survive an apocalypse. It got really involved, and included flow charts and props. The great news was that Touré was right all along. It was a little anticlimactic, though, because he couldn’t very well gloat about this to Ducks. Touré decided then that he was jumping to conclusions. He didn’t know for sure that Ducks hadn’t survived, and he didn’t know for sure that he was really the last man on Earth. He was the last man on his block: anything more than that was prematurely hyperbolic. So, he knew what was quest number one: Get off the bench and get to Ducks’s apartment to see if Touré really had won the apocalypse challenge. He did thisit wasn’t farand discovered a new problem, immediately. The building was gone. Admittedly, it had been a while since he and Ducks had hung out, but not that long. Not so long that receiving a quick Hey, I had to move because they’re demolishing my building was an unreasonable expectation. There was a sign out front saying the place had been torn down to make room for new condos, and that didn’t make any sense either. Not because the old building wasn’t a rat trap in need of demolitionit wasbut because the sign said the new building wouldn’t be ready for thirty years. Touré decided this was a successful completion of the first quest anyway, because he had arrived at Ducks’s apartment; it was only that the apartment failed to continue existing. Quest number two: Widen his search parameters for signs of life. There was a high-end bike shop across the street from Ducks’s hole in the ground. Touré was not an athletically inclined person, but he liked riding bikes okay, and he knew how, and this place had a bike in its window that cost more than a small car. He used to go by it all the time wondering what made that bike so amazingly awesome that it cost that much. This seemed like an excellent time to find out.5
The super-expensive bike in the window he had to break to get inside was a different one than he remembered, but he tried it anyway, more for the price tag than the utility of it. This ended up being an instructive error. He learned that most of the price corresponded to the lightness of the bikeit felt like it weighed less than his shoesrather than the kinds of features he might personally value much more highly. Comfort, for example. In addition to the lightweight frame, it came with razor-thin, puncture-proof tires. The puncture-proof part was an excellent idea, but the razor-thin component turned out to be a great feature only as long as the pavement was relatively level. That was not the case anywhere around the shop. The roadway had developed potholes all over the place, apparently overnight. Likewise, the ground under the sidewalk erupted at random intervals, revealing soil and newly grown grass. Touré couldn’t remember Mass Ave. ever looking quite this bad, in so many places at once. After a block of travel in which he nearly fell over three times, he turned around and walked back to the store, in search of a more sensible option. He found a bike with fat tiresstill puncture-proofand a lot of springs. It felt as heavy as a small car, and that was fine. Then he had to figure out where to go, to accomplish his current quest. The largest nearby concentration of people would either be Newbury Street in Boston, or Harvard Square. From the bike shop, he figured it was about the same distance to either place; it was just a matter of going left or going right. He went right, toward the Square, both because he was intimately familiar with the layout already and because there was a bridge between him and Boston. He didn’t want to discover that the instantly crumbling infrastructure problem he was seeing on the Central Square streets extended to the Mass Ave. bridge. Certainly not while he was on that bridge. The thing about being on a bike was that, at first, that was all he could think about: watching where he was going and making sure he didn’t fall over and so on. This was especially true since the last time he rode one was when he was fifteena solid decade ago. Having something so specific to concentrate on actually helped him deal with the fact that clearly he really was all alone, and this really was the end of the world. That was always the fun part of planning for the apocalypse: It was hypothetical, which made it easy to ignore all the dead people and focus on the ones who hadn’t died instead. But if he and Ducks ever took any of it seriously, they would have moved to a cabin somewhere and prepped. Touré came to a stop just past the halfway point to the Square, in the no-man’s-land part of Mass Ave. between Central and Harvard, to reassess. Where he stopped fell between a closed bike shop (another one, because Cambridge) and an office building with a spin class gym on the ground floor. He used to find the fact that these two places of business were across from one another really funny. Today, it was mostly just sad, because the shop was locked and there was nobody on the spin bikes across the street. The traffic light directly over his head wasn’t working, which wasn’t notable, because none of them was. “You haven’t seen any lights,” he told himself. “The power grid is down. What causes the power grid to go down and all the people to vanish at the same time?” There were no apocalypse scenarios in his mental playlist that included everyone dying without leaving behind a body. The power failure could be an EMP, but unless everyone else in town other than Touré had been a computer-generated hologram, that didn’t help resolve the central mystery of the missing people. He should have been considering a zombie version of the apocalypse, probably. That would mean everyone died, and then got up and went somewhere, which was why there were no bodies. It nearly fit the available info. In that hypothetical, an entire city of zombies was only a couple of blocks awayhe just hadn’t stumbled upon them yet. He didn’t think that was going to happen, primarily because of the birds. There was no birdsong during a zombie apocalypse. That seemed obvious, although he couldn’t come up with a reason why. Didn’t make it untrue. Probably not a neutron bomb, he thought. He knew almost nothing about them, except they were supposed to kill the people and leave the buildings. So that didn’t explain the bodies vanishing, or how he neither died nor vanishedunless he was immune to radiationand it didn’t explain the birds . . . or the squirrels, or the deer, or any of the other animals running around all over the city. Radiation killed wildlife, too, and there was a lot of wildlife about, so unless he fundamentally misunderstood what a neutron bomb was, that wasn’t the answer. As he climbed back onto the bike, he wondered how many more blocks it would take before he considered it proven that he was truly alone.6
A few minutes later, Touré nearly ran someone over. The dude was standing practically in the middle of the street, so it wasn’t like the near-collision was Touré’s fault. If there were still cops and traffic laws, he would definitely be in the right. Fortunately, there was no collision, because there was no ambulance to call, and the phone to call it on probably wouldn’t work anyway. They also didn’t have to deal with the irony of the last man on Earth accidentally killing the second-to-last man on Earth. The guy looked like he was new in town. Every year, the colleges brought in a bunch of newbies who didn’t know how to get around, dress, or just generally comport themselves in public. Touré dealt with them on the regular, because Central Square fell right between the Harvard and MIT campuses. He was a Black kid wearing khakis and loafers, a collared shirt and a denim jacket. All he was missing was the too-heavy knapsack on a hunched back and he would’ve been Every Freshman on His Way to Class. A guy like this was not on Touré’s mental shortlist of likely apocalypse survivors. More like second zombie from the left. The Asian woman on the sidewalk, wearing some kind of pantsuit, was a bit harder to peg. They both looked younger than Touré, but for her, this didn’t mean she actually was. Part of that was because she was a girl, and he was historically bad at figuring out the ages of women between puberty and thirty. Basically, she could have been the same age as the kid she was with, or she could have been his teacher. He would have believed either one. The woman didn’t look right at Touré, which was weird up until he figured out she was blind. That definitely put her off the apocalypse survivor shortlist. “Hey, guys!” Touré said. “Did you sleep through the apocalypse too?” “The apocalypse?” the kid repeated. “Is that what you’re calling this?” “Sure,” Touré said. “What’s happened to everyone?” the woman asked. “Do you know?” “Are there other people?” the kid asked. “Have you seen a dog?” she asked. “One at a time, guys,” Touré said. “But for real, I have the same questions. Oh.” He turned to the blind woman. “A dog, huh?” he said. “You’re missing your dog?” “Yes, did you see one?” “No, I’m sorry. That must super suck.” “Thank you, yes, it does . . . super suck.” “But, look, I’ve been riding all over the place, and whatever happened, the animals all look okay. Better than okay, actually . . . like there was . . . an overnight population explosion or something. I mean . . . what I mean is, I bet your dog’s just fine. If he’s around here, like, maybe we can call for him.” She responded silently, with a resigned nod, before slipping her dark glasses back on and trying to get back up to her feet. Touré got the sense that he’d interrupted an argument. “So what happened?” the kid asked. “We were thinking everyone just left town and forgot to tell us, or . . .” “Or a quarantine,” the woman said. “That’s what he was thinking. You’re the first person we’ve come across, so perhaps there are others and we’re not alone after all.” “I don’t know,” Touré said. “You’re the first people I’ve seen too. But yeah, solid reasoning. I’m not the last one alive now, and neither are you two, so we can scratch that off the list and work from there. Definitely we have to find some more people. But hey, maybe we should find someplace to sit down and eat first, huh? I’m starved. Who wants breakfast?”7
Once it was established that both of his new friendsthe guy’s name was Robbie and the blind woman was Carolwere indeed new in town, Touré felt an obligation to take charge and pick a place to eat. This was stupid, of course, because it didn’t matter how good the brunch was at one place versus another if both places were locked and abandoned. Yet that was what he tried. He brought them the rest of the way into the Square, past the closed bookstore, the closed banks, the closed pizza place, and the closed convenience store, to the closest thing the area had to a proper greasy spoon. It was closed too, but more than that: It didn’t exist anymore. “Damn, when did this happen?” he asked. “It looks like a clothing store,” Robbie said. “Yeah, I know, but it was a restaurant, like, last week. Maybe. I can’t remember the last time I came here, but it wasn’t that long ago. Crazy.” “This seems very far down the list of our current concerns,” Carol said. “Yeah, but I loved this place.” There were a dozen other restaurants to consider breaking in to, but after the surprise of seeing his favorite one shut down, Touré began to appreciate that the hunt for proper food was going to end up being more involved than he’d thought. Even if they broke into a restaurant, they had no means by which to, for instance, cook an egg, because there was no electrical power. Maybe a gas stove would still work, but he didn’t know enough about gas stoves to be positive that this was so. “C’mon,” Touré said. “I need some food in my stomach or I can’t think straight.” They crossed over to the pharmacy across the street. Like everything else, it was locked, but thanks to the sudden deterioration of the sidewalk, a loose brick was easy enough to find. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Robbie asked. “I mean . . . Actually, never mind. It’s a great idea. Let’s get the police down here.” “No private property after an apocalypse,” Touré said. “It’s a rule.” Touré shattered the glass door and stepped through. Robbie and Carol followed, with Robbie guiding her carefully, over the glass. We’re going to have to find a safe place for her to camp out, Touré thought, seeing how much trouble Robbie was having just to get Carol past the glass. We can’t move very fast otherwise. It was the first time he considered their situation from a Darwinian perspective, and he hated that it had even occurred to him. He shoved it into the back of his mind, to be dealt with at a future point. “Whoa,” Robbie said, on his first look around. “What is it?” Carol asked. “The shelves are kinda empty,” Touré said. This was an understatement. The place had been cleaned out, from top to bottom, by someone in a hurry. Had it not been for the locked doors, Touré would have assumed this was the consequence of looting. “I’m not certain I understand your concern,” Carol said. “I’m just adjusting the parameters of our apocalypse,” Touré said. “This looks like what happens in an evacuation.” “Right, an evacuation,” Robbie said. “That’s what I’ve been saying.” “I think you need to stop saying that word,” Carol said. “Evacuation?” Robbie asked. “Not you.” “She means apocalypse,” Touré said. “Yes,” she said. “Something clearly transpired to which we weren’t privy, for some reason, but I am far from ready to declare everyone dead simply because this one area has been abandoned.” “Quarantined,” Robbie said. “Maybe you’re right,” Touré said. “But until I . . . Ah-ha!” Past the aisles, there was a second set of checkout registers, in front of which were a half-dozen candy bars. Touré scooped them all up and shoved them into his pockets. “Quest completed,” he said. “Let’s restore health and then work out what’s next.”8
They settled on a bench near a shuttered newsstand, in the dead center of Harvard Square. The owners had pulled down all of the magazines in the windows and taken in the racks. The university bookstore across the streetthe Coopwas similarly emptied out, with no books in the windows. Touré began to get the unsettling idea that maybe he was in a hyperrealistic video game that they hadn’t finished rendering yet. “Here’s what I’m thinking,” he said, between bites. He was on his second Snickers already, while the other two were still just thinking about eating their firsts. The candy bar was incredibly stale, but he had generous standards of edibility. “The three of us must have something in common that can explain why we’re still here and nobody else is. What were you guys doing last night?” This didn’t end up being a fruitful line of pursuit. Robbie was at an off-campus party the night before, near Porter Square, and Carol had gone to a reception at a Chinese restaurant on Mass Ave. She was in bed by nine, Robbie at some indeterminate time past midnight. And Touré had crashed on a couch around three in the morning. None of that left enough time for the entire city to evacuate. But they already knew that. Their extended life stories weren’t any more helpful. Robbie was an African American from Connecticut, Carol emigrated from China as a child and was raised in Florida, and Touré was a second-generation Mexican American who grew up in nearby Jamaica Plain. “Maybe we’re all sick and we don’t know it,” Robbie suggested. He seemed preoccupied with a quarantine theory, at which Carol shook her head whenever he brought it up. “Maybe,” Touré said. “Seems sketchy. I don’t feel sick.” “We could be, or we could not be,” Carol said. “This is a waste of time. We have to stop speculating and find someone who knows what happened. Why don’t we get a car and drive to where the people are?” “We don’t know where they are,” Robbie said. “That’s the point.” “We know where they aren’t,” she said, “which is a start. How far could they have gotten? I assume one of you knows how to drive.” “I can drive,” Robbie said, “but I don’t know how to start a car without a key.” “Neither do I,” Touré said. “All the cars around here look like crap anyway. Not sure they would even start.” “You’re holding out for a nicer car?” Carol asked. “That’s not what I mean. They look . . . junky. Not up to the task.” “Then we’ll find another way to contact the outside world,” she said. “You boys are so interested in solving this mystery yourselves when there’s no need. We’ll ask someone who was awake when it happened.” Touré thought this was overly optimistic of Carol, but didn’t say so. It was self-evident that the world ended and forgot to take the three of them, and that was that. She also wasn’t wrong, though, for the same reason he’d taken the bike to go out and look for additional survivors in the first place. He wondered if it made sense to do this again: leave Robbie and Carol to make do where they were, and head further out. Not to discover the entire city of Cambridge was now hiding in Arlington, necessarily, but to see if he could nearly run over another survivor or two. “We could find a radio,” Robbie said. “One using batteries, since the power’s out.” “I think we got hit by an EMP,” Touré said. “I don’t know what that does to radios. Killed my watch, and your phone.” “We’ll know when we find someone who knows,” Carol said. She turned to Touré. “You need to stop sounding so excited about all this and think about what our real situation is, especially if the three of us are the extent of who we can rely upon, for the near future. Until we find someone else, we’re in a circumstance where we have no food, water, or shelter. It’s pleasant out right now, but it will be colder at night, and we have no heat. Unless one of you was a Boy Scout, I expect we don’t have the knowledge necessary to make a fire. Surviving this apocalypse you keep talking about isn’t going to be so remarkable if we can’t figure out how to last on our own beyond a week, whether we’re the only ones left or not.” “I keep expecting someone to pop up and tell me this is all a joke,” Robbie said. “Or I was thinking that, until we met you. If it’s a joke, you aren’t in on it.” “Nope,” Touré said. “But I agree with her; it’s a big jump to go from nobody’s here to nobody’s alive. But for now, we should deal with what’s in front of us.” “Yeah, okay,” Touré said. “Food, water, shelter. Once we’re settled down, we’ll work out where to check for more survivors. You’re both right; we need a camp. But we have a little . . . Hang on.” Touré stood up, turned around a couple of times to make sure he had his orientation right, and then started laughing. “What is it?” Robbie asked. “I think I found some more time in the day for everyone to have gotten out of town,” Touré said. “What do you mean?” Carol asked. “It’s supposed to be morning, right?” he said. “We agree on that?” “We don’t know what time it is,” Robbie said. He said it like this was the worst thing ever. “Yeah, but morning. Because we all woke up and it was morning, because that’s when you wake up, right?” “You’re going in circles,” Carol said. “The sun’s in the wrong place.” He pointed to the sun’s current position in the sky. “That’s west,” Touré said. “It’s not climbing. It’s setting.” Robbie stood and did some of the same calculations, albeit with different mental east–west markers. “I think he’s right,” he said, to Carol. “I guess we’re both really late for class.” Just then, they heard something that may have been a howl, from hopefully a great distance away. It started off high, and then lowered into a more canine register. “I don’t suppose that was your dog?” Touré asked. “No,” Carol said. The sound had an impressive impact on the local wildlife. Two deer ran past them, then up JFK Street, unconcerned about the nearby humans, but clearly alarmed about the animal howling in the distance. Likewise, an abundance of smaller creatures scampered across the open area in search of shelter. Touré was stunned by how many there were; it was like seeing a nest of spider eggs hatching. Squirrels, raccoons, rats, wild cats as small as housecats and as large as bobcats, chipmunks, possums, a couple of foxes, and a possible badger. “What’s happening?” Carol asked as a tabby cat darted past her leg. “Um, not sure,” Touré said as another howl sounded, from a slightly different direction. “I think it’s safe to say that everyone’s afraid of whatever’s making that noise,” Robbie said. “It sounds like a wolf,” Carol said. “It sounds like a lot of wolves,” Touré said. “Maybe we should step up our plans to find food and shelter,” Robbie said. “Where’s the nearest supermarket?” Touré had to think about it. “If we go that way,” he said, pointing up JFK in the same direction the deer ran, “and dogleg left at the river, there’s one a couple of miles further.” “Fresh water,” Carol said. “It’s a river, so yeah, I’m pretty sure.” “I know, I wasn’t asking. Access to a viable source of drinking water is of great value.” “Can we make it?” Robbie asked. “Shouldn’t be that tough,” Touré said. “It’s just down there.”9
They only got a few blocks before it became obvious that Carol’s blindness was going to be a problem. Touré had his bike still, which he was walking down the middle of the street at the same pace Robbie and Carol were moving. It wasn’t fast, but she either couldn’t run or Robbie wasn’t willing to push her to go any faster. “I can try jogging,” Carol said, aware of the tension in the moment. It had less to do with any immediate, in-their-face threat than with the general atmosphere of panic surrounding them. Even the birds sounded tense. And the baying of the wolves was now coming from at least three directions, and seemed to be getting closer. On top of that, it was as if someone had shot the sun out of the sky, given how fast it was going down. This part Carol probably didn’t know. “Can you?” Robbie asked. “Yes, if the surface is even. I used to run with Burton.” “No, there are potholes everywhere,” Robbie said. “But we’re fine. Hey, Touré, why don’t you go on ahead?” Touré stopped where he was. They’d made it as far as a parking garage he considered the symbolic end of the Square. He could see the bridge that spanned the narrow end of the Charles up ahead. He was pleased to see that the bridge was still there. “You want to split up?” Touré asked. “It’s just down to the river and then left, isn’t it?” Robbie asked. “I can find it.” “Yeah, it’s hard to miss, if you keep the river on your right. It’s still a good distance off, though.” “That’s fine. We’ll be fine. You go on ahead on the bike. It’ll give you a few minutes to figure out a way inside without breaking a window.” Robbie had a point. The brick-through-the-glass approach worked great if you didn’t mind who else got inside with you. But now that a predator had been introduced to the dynamic, it was hard to understate the value of an intact window and a closed door. “Okay,” Touré said, “but . . . I mean, you’ve seen at least one movie in your life, right? Splitting up is, like, a textbook mistake.” “For goodness’ sake, this isn’t a movie,” Carol said. “We’ll catch up to you there.” “All right, all right.” He kicked his leg over the bike. “Be safe, guys.” Touré took off. It was actually sort of a great feeling, getting on the move, even though he was about ninety percent sure he’d never see Robbie and Carol again as soon as he made it around the corner, and he was probably not going to like the way that would play out. An unscientific survey of every movie he could think of led him to the conclusion that if anyone was about to be eaten, it was him. The lone character sent ahead as a scout almost never makes it back unless he’s the hero. Touré liked to think he was the hero, but it was too early to tell. Fortunately, as Carol took pains to underline, this was not a movie. The air near the river was much cooler, although this could have been partly due to the impending sunset. The edge of the Charles was an absolute menagerie of waterfowl and land animals in need of water. Touré was thirsty himself, butas good as Carol’s point about needing a water source washe would kill for a coffee or an energy drink. If he thought he was dying, he’d have some water. Otherwise, something with caffeine would be really nice. He was a couple of blocks from the supermarket when a large cathe decided on the spot that it was a cougar, but had no history with cougars to support the theorycharged across Memorial Drive (which he was biking down) and attacked a crowd of Canadian geese near the waterline. A standoff ensued between the largest goose and the cat, and if there had been some sort of glass partition Touré could stand behind, he’d have stopped to watch. There wasn’t, so he kept going. He soon reached the supermarket parking lot, at the edge of which was a coffee shop that was just as closed as everything else in the city. It taunted him; he ignored it, and kept on the move, until reaching the main entrance to the market. He hopped off the bike. The sun was in its full glory now, a simply gorgeous and very red sunset. Touré had to hurry if he wanted to find a way in without breaking any glass, but he became transfixed, temporarily, by the red sun. Portent of doom? he wondered. Or does that just work for comets? “Never mind, man,” he said, forcing himself to turn away. He checked the front door, which was locked. He’d have to find another way, and was about to when he wondered if it was even worth the trouble. The pharmacy had been looted clean. Why would it be any different here? Leaning up against the window, he cupped his hands against the glass to block out the glare and peered inside. What shelves he could see looked empty, all right, but there was something else in there. Something weird. It looked like little cubes sitting on a pallet in the middle of an aisle. The cubes were unevenly stacked, and there was a sign in front of them that he couldn’t read. He had no idea what he was looking at. “I should just break in,” he said. “We’ll find another place to camp out in the morning.” Then someone walked in front of the stack of cubes. “Hey!” Touré shouted. “HEY!” He banged on the window. The figure jumped at the sound, and turned. It was a teenage girl. He guessed she was no more than fourteen, but again, this was something he was bad at, and looking at her in the dying light through a tinted glass window did not help. She walked closer. White girl, short black hair, tiny stature. He thought this was what an elf would look like, if elves were real. “We’re closed,” she said. “What?” he asked. “I said, we’re closed.” “Come on, you don’t even work here.” She looked around. “Says who?” she asked. There was a loud howl from an entirely new direction: up the river, opposite from the way he had come, and very close. We’re surrounded, he thought. The girl on the other side of the glass heard the sound, too, and looked approximately as alarmed, even though she appeared to be in a safe place. “Come on,” he said. “Let me in.” She stared at him for a few seconds, evidently making her own Darwinian-perspective choice. He tried to look harmless and trustworthy. “Go around,” she said, pointing to his right. “The side door.” He ran past the main entrance and around the corner, to a windowless metal door next to a dumpster. It was locked. He tried to open it a dozen times, but it continued to be locked no matter what. It was beginning to look as if his entire day was going to be defined by locked doors when it swung open from the inside. “Come on,” she said. He thanked her and stepped into the near-total darkness of the grocery store. “I’m Touré,” he said, holding out his hand. “Thanks.” “Bethany, and you’re welcome,” she said, without returning the handshake. She walked past him and back to the front of the store. The sunset lit up the front window; the red made it look like the river was on fire. “How’d you get in?” he asked. “I picked the lock. Figured you were here to tell me I was trespassing, but that’s dumb, huh? The world ended or something.” “I’ve got two friends on their way here; we’ll have to let them in too.” “Close friends?” she asked. There was something pacing around at the far end of the lot. It was on all fours, and moved somewhat like a dog would be expected to move, except it wasn’t a dog. It looked to him like it was the size of a horse, although there was nothing for scale. It howled. “I just met them a couple of hours ago,” he said. “Okay, because between you and me, I don’t think they’re gonna make it.”Carol1
It sounded as if she was in the middle of a stampede of ruminants, fleeing the predatory equivalent of a forest fire. There was no fire, and there was no forest, but there was something just as bad out there. A wolf, surely. It almost howled like one. Carol’s prior experience with howling canines involved listening to the nature channel on weeknights. According to Touré’s theory regarding their current predicament, this would make her the world’s leading expert in howling, if only by process of elimination. Her own expert opinion was that the sound came in too high to be a wolf. A hyena was a little closer, but also wrong. Wolflike, then. She also couldn’t imagine wolves hunting in the middle of a city, but since deer running about in the city also made no sense, essentially nothing about this met the minimum rational vigor, and yet appeared to be true nonetheless. “Careful,” Robbie said, without telling her what she was supposed to be careful about. They were walking alarmingly fast, but the frequency with which he stopped in order to lead her around an obstacle was so high that she had begun to question the wisdom of his chosen pace. But there was a lot he wasn’t telling her, either because there was no time to describe it all or because he didn’t want her to become unnecessarily concerned. She could feel his pulse, though, through the wrist she was holding on to, and it was elevated. “You’re worried,” she said. “We can’t have much farther to go.” “I don’t think we do, but the sun is going down,” he said. “It’s happening fast; I can’t believe we didn’t notice sooner.” “It has been a day of alarming things. The directionality of the sun wasn’t near the top of the list of concerns.” “Yeah, but . . . I just don’t understand. Whoops, hang on.” They stopped. She heard a creature with hooves walking ahead of them, left to right. A little further up the road, she heard the low growl of a cat. Above, a squirrel scampered among the branches. To their right, something made a sound like a trumpet. “Deer crossing,” he whispered. “I gathered. Just one?” “Just one. I don’t think it’ll attack, but I also don’t want to be wrong. Okay, we can go again.” “What is it you don’t understand?” she asked. He chose a pace that was just short of a jog. “The clock in my head shouldn’t have been this off,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been known to oversleep after drinking, but not past noon. I’ve never slept past noon, not once. I’m the guy who wakes up before the alarm during the week, and at the same time without the alarm on the weekend. My mental clock’s all messed up.” There was a new barrage of wolf howls coming from behind them. It sounded like a call-and-response, as if they were talking to one another. It remained quite distant, but spurred Robbie to up their pace nonetheless. “Is there a tiger to our right?” Carol asked. Whatever was purring a moment earlier had begun to walk alongside them. “No,” he said. “Mountain lion, maybe.” “There are no mountains here.” “Yeah, I know. It’s a cat, and it’s big. I don’t think it wants to be our friend.” “Perhaps you should find a place to hide me, and then run ahead,” she said. “To protect yourself. You can come back in the morning.” “Don’t be ridiculous.” Just then, there was a new almost-wolf howl, only louder, and in front of them. “Crap,” Robbie said. “What is it?” “Um. Carol, I don’t know how to . . . Is it all right if I picked you up?” “Do you think you’re strong enough to carry me?” “Fireman’s carry. I’ll throw you over my shoulder.” “If you feel that’s necessary . . .” “I do.” “Then do it.” He grabbed her cane with one hand, then wrapped his arm around her waist and dug his shoulder into her stomach, tilted and lifted. It wasn’t at all comfortable for her, and probably was no more so for him, largely because he didn’t seem to have broad enough shoulders to accomplish this maneuver. However, once he started running it became clear that this would be a faster approach, provided his strength held out. They weren’t heading down the road, however. She was having a tremendously difficult time keeping track of where anything was, but it seemed like he’d changed course. This was confirmed a few seconds later when she heard a gate open and close. Then he was putting her down again. He pulled both of them into a crouch. “What—” “Shhh,” he said. “Something’s coming.” She reached out and touched the metal bars of the gate he’d taken them through. Wrought iron, flecked paintcold and sturdy. She felt her way along the bars until she reached the hinge, and then the brick on the other side. It was a walled-in courtyard. There was an eruption of activity near the river. She heard birds take flight, the cat’s purr turn into an enraged roar, and the scampering of hundreds of little feet. There was the clip-clop of hooves on the pavement, as at least one deer successfully fled. Another was not so lucky. The sound of the deer dying was terrible. It emitted a grunt that turned into a shriek while its legs and feet clapped out of rhythm on the tarmac, a frightened tap dancer stuck in a closet. What was killing it made hardly any noise at all, which was perhaps the most frightening element of the whole horrible scenario. She heard jaws close on flesh, heavy breathing, and bass-tone growls of at least two, maybe three animals. They hunt in packs, she thought, but kill in silence. She found Robbie’s hand, and squeezed it tightly. “How many?” she whispered. “Three,” he said. “I think. Two of them came out of nowhere.” “What are they?” “It’s hard to see them; the sun’s gone down. Wolves, or close enough. Big ones.” “All the people are gone and the streets are overrun by packs of wolf-monsters. Is that what we’re saying now?” “Shhh.” He squeezed her hand tight, and she heard him stop breathingvoluntarily; he was holding it. There was a slight rustle of movement from Robbie, and then his hand was on her shoulder and he was gently pushing her backwards. Then she understood why. There was a noise Burton used to make when he sniffed an odor that displeased him in some way, a sharp exhale through his nose that sounded a little like humph. She heard that same sound, just as Robbie was making an effort to move her away from the fence. She felt the hot breath of the animal on her free hand. There was a wolf on the other side of the gate. She wrapped an arm around Robbie’s neck and put her lips up to his ear. “Can it jump over?” she asked. “I don’t know. Maybe.” The beast dug at the ground, sniffed the air some more, and paced along the fence. It felt large. Carol’s interaction with the world didn’t include sight, but her other senses were usually pretty good about assembling a loose approximation. Air displacement, perhaps, coupled with the smell of its breath and the sound of its heavy footfall, or the fur rubbing against the bars of the gate. The aggregation of what her other senses told her was that there was a massive hell-beast just a few feet away. The rational side of her brainwhich still had a voice, albeit a quiet onesuggested perhaps her imagination was acting as an extra sense in this case. It’s just a large puppy, she thought. Think of it as just a large puppy. “Okay,” Robbie said, after they sat there, as still as possible, taking turns holding their breath, for about a hundred years. “I think it’s gone.” They were sitting on grass. The ground was cool and damp from a recent rain she couldn’t recall. Her pants might be muddy now, and she had no way to get to a change of clothing for possibly the remainder of her life. They were her good slacks, too. She couldn’t decide what was more frustrating: that she hadn’t chosen more sensible clothes for the end of the world, or that she cared. She heard Robbie get to his feet, so she held out her hand and let him pull her up as well. He handed back her cane. “Sorry about all that,” he said. “That was close.” “Don’t apologize. Thank you. Where are we?” “One of the Harvard buildings fronting the river. It has a walled-off yard. I went by this place during orientation, but the gate had an electronic lock. I took a chance that whatever killed the rest of the power around here also killed the lock. Good thing I was right, huh?” “Yes. I think we should stay here for the evening. Unless you think it’s safe to push forward.” “No, I can barely see my hand in front of my face right now, and those wolves are still out there,” he said. “There’s no moon tonight, and the stars aren’t doing much. Maybe you should be leading me.” There was more howling at the river, which could mean more wolf-monsters on their way, to share the kill. Carol wondered how long it would be before one of them tried to jump over the brick wall for fresh meat. Waiting for that to happen would be a horrible way to spend the night. “It’s a building courtyard,” she said. “Let’s see about getting into the building.”2
The lock at the gate wasn’t the only thing to have been disabled by the power outage. All it took to get into the building was a twist of a knob. It was a musty place. That was Carol’s entire experience with it, initially. “What do you see?” she asked. “Nothing,” Robbie said. “There’s no lighting in here. I can almost make out a table in the middle. I really can’t believe how dark it is without electricity. We’re going to have to find power or make a fire.” “I have a wall on my right,” she said. “Why don’t I make my way around in this direction and you go the other way, and we’ll work out together what kind of room this is?” “That hardly seems fair; I don’t have a cane.” She laughed. “You’re right, that’s not fair at all.” She headed to the right, slowly, feeling her way around. The room sounded high-ceilinged, which automatically excluded a number of options: They weren’t in a classroom, or a dorm room, or a kitchen. The wood trim on the wall was finished, but covered in a thin layer of dust. She found a table against a wall, which was similarly covered in dust. There was a loud noise on the other side of the room that made her jump: a metallic clatter, and then a thud of someone falling over. “I’m okay,” Robbie said. “I tripped.” “What did you trip on?” “I don’t know. I didn’t see it, and I still don’t.” “Feel your way back to itthat sounded interesting.” “Okay.” He shuffled around on the floor for a few seconds. “Nope, not interesting,” he said. “It’s a freestanding light. I’m surprised I didn’t knock it over. How are you doing over there?” “I’m wondering if this building was in use. There’s so much dust.” “That’s what I thought about the dorm,” he said. “Maybe Harvard’s just dusty. It’s old enough.” She came upon a glass display case. It was shaped like a dome, covering something she would have needed eyesight to discern. “I think we’re in a museum,” she said. “What do you have?” “A case. I think I’d have to break it to find what’s inside.” “Oh, I bet we’re in one of the common rooms. Whoops.” “What happened?” she asked. “Yep, common room. I found a couch.” He coughed. “You’re right, there’s a lot of dust,” he said. “What are we looking for?” “I don’t actually know,” she said. “Something useful.” “Yes, but like what?” She sighed. “Robbie, we have such a long list of needs, almost anything would qualify. Food, water, shelter, communication with the outside world, a rational explanation for all of this . . .” “A toilet.” “Yes, a toilet, and a shower, and a change of clothes, and my dog.” “I can get you a wolf.” She didn’t answer that. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That was insensitive; it’s been a really long day, and it feels like it’s only supposed to be half over.” “It’s okay. Yes, we slept in, didn’t we?” She felt along the edge of the glass for a latch or a hinge, but if there was one, she was checking the wrong place for it. “When I mentioned this case,” she said, “why did that make you think we were in a common room?” “On my tour, I saw a couple of the nicer dorms. They had stuff under glass in some of the common areas. I think they were just showing off. I figured they took it all back to the museum, or wherever they came from, during the year, but maybe not. I bet there’s a pool table around here somewhere.” “Do you think this dorm has a cafeteria?” she asked. “Don’t know. You want to stumble around in the dark where there are knives? Maybe we should wait until morning.” “Water. Food.” “Yes. Right. Water and food. Sorry. You know, I keep expecting to wake up from all of this. Like maybe I can force it if I just lie down right here. Tomorrow will be a nice normal day, and I can go for a bagel and a coffee and forget this ever happened.” “In the morning, you’ll just be more dehydrated,” she said. “Which will make it even more difficult to function.” “Ah, but in the morning, I will be gifted with the power of sight.” “And I will not.” “Yeah, I know.” She found her way to the couch and sat down next to him. A puff of dust signaled her arrival. “It was a joke,” he said. “Yes, I didn’t take it personally. I’m just not feeling amused right now. What if you aren’t here in the morning? I would like to know my way around enough to locate water. We can survive for days without food, but not water.” “Why wouldn’t I be here in the morning? Of course I’ll be here.” “Burton wasn’t,” she said. “Please, Robbie.” “Yeah, okay.” He stood up. She reached out and found the hand he was offering. “I’m not tired yet anyway,” he said. “Let’s go break some shins and find some water.”