Hugo Award-winning writer Will McIntosh has blown us away with novels like Love Minus Eighty and Defenders — but he's also shown a unique spin on the apocalypse in his book Soft Apocalypse. And now, he's written a unique apocalyptic vision for the anthology The End Is Now, and we're excited to share it with you.
McIntosh's story "Dancing With Batgirl in the Land of Nod" appears in the anthology The End Is Now, the second volume of the Apocalypse Triptych edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey. This book, out now, also includes stories by Tananarive Due, Sarah Langan, Jonathan Maberry, Elizabeth Bear, Ken Liu, Seanan McGuire, Robin Wasserman, Jake Kerr, Howey himself, and yours truly. Plus many others.
So here's McIntosh's story in its entirety, and check out the rest in the complete book:
DANCING WITH BATGIRL IN THE LAND OF NOD
Words were coming out of Eileen's mouth, but they didn't make sense. The voice in Ray's head, the one screaming that they had to fill the bathtub, had to stockpile more food, was making it impossible for him to understand.
He grasped Eileen's shoulders. "I don't think grocery stores are safe. Too much risk of exposure. What if I—"
"Did you hear what I just said?" Eileen asked.
She'd always reminded Ray of a cartoon ladybug, and now more than ever, with her eyes big and round, her face framed by red curls. Ray realized it was an odd thought, given the situation.
"Not really, no," he answered. "I think I may be in shock." The walls looked strange, like they were advancing and receding, advancing and receding. The virus was in Los Angeles. It was spreading like mad. They should have prepared better.
"I said I'm having an affair with Justin."
"What, what—" Ray stuttered, utterly lost. Maybe Eileen was in shock as well. "You're not making sense." He turned toward the bathroom. "We have to fill the bathtubs."
"No, Ray, listen to me." She grasped his shoulder, turned him around. "I'm having an affair with Justin."
"An affair?" They didn't have affairs. They weren't the sort of people who had affairs. They were the good guys, the couple other couples wished they could be.
Only, Eileenwashaving an affair. She'd just said so.
Ray thought he was going to vomit. "You're telling me thisnow?"
Eileen looked at her feet. "I want to face what's coming with a clear conscience. I don't want this lie between us."
It was hard for Ray to breathe, like there was something pressing on his chest.
Her eyes welled with tears. "I'm sorry."
Ray swallowed, trying to flatten the lump in his throat. He wasn't going to cry. Hewantedto cry, but he wasn't going to. He also wanted to find Justin Schneider and smash his teeth in, but he wasn't going to do that, either.
"Do you love him?"
"With everything that's happening, I honestly don't know what I feel." Eileen looked up at Ray, blinking rapidly. "If you want me to leave right now, I'll understand."
"That would make things easier for you, wouldn't it?" said Ray. "If I kick you out, you can go to Justin with a clear conscience."
Ray had a flash of her in Justin's arms, kissing him. Ten minutes earlier that image would have struck him as absurd. Billions of people were dead, or lying paralyzed, waiting to die, and Eileen had chosen this moment to clear her conscience.
"I'll tell you what: I'll make it even easier. I'll leave." Ray spread his arms wide. "It's your house, after all. Your parents paid for most of it."
Eileen stiffened. Ray thought he saw something cross her face—hope, relief that she was fighting to mask. Suddenly he couldn't stand the sight of her. "Just go away so I can pack in peace."
She reached out. "Ray, I'm—"
He pulled away. "Just go."
There was nowhere for her to go. The virus could be anywhere. It lived on surfaces for days; one cough from someone who was infected and you were dead.
Red-eyed, Eileen looked around, and finally headed into the garage.
He had to do something to blunt the pain rising in him. There was too much of it, heaped on top of the terror. Ray staggered to the kitchen cabinet over the refrigerator—which served as their liquor cabinet—and pulled down a bottle of vodka. For the first time in his life he drank straight from the bottle.
It helped a little. Just a little.
Trying to think about nothing, Ray went upstairs. The walls in the stairway were covered with eight-by-ten photos of him and Eileen. He watched his feet, not wanting to see them.
After packing clothes and toiletries he went to the basement and brought up a brown backpack filled with survival gear they'd bought at Target two months ago, back when the possibility the nodding virus would reach Los Angeles had seemed so remote.
He had no idea where to go. Walter would take him in, but Walter and Lauren didn't need Ray sitting in their living room while they dealt with this.
When everything was packed and in the car, he couldn't bring himself to get in and drive away. Not yet, at least.
He went back inside. In the living room, newscasters updated the situation in breathless tones just shy of panic. It was in all the major U.S. cities now. It was everywhere; there were paralyzed people in a billion houses, in a million hospitals. Any minute, Ray could join them. He wouldn't know he had it until the nodding began, and by then it would be too late. It was already too late, if he had it. But they'd stayed indoors, hadn't left the house in three days. Surely he was clean.
Somewhere outside, a siren wailed.
He went to his collection room to calm himself. Being surrounded by his Batgirl memorabilia comforted him. He'd owned some of the pieces in the collection—the lunchbox, the action figure—since he was nineteen. They reminded him that he'd had a life before Eileen, and could have one after.
If he didn't catch the nodding virus.
If he did, he would sit frozen until he died of dehydration. The thought set his pounding heart racing.
He looked at his wall of autographed photos from the oldBatgirlTV show, trying to dampen the fear threatening to swallow him, but this time they provided no solace. They were nothing but glossy paper marked with black ink.
The frame closest to the edge of the wall held nothing but a manila envelope. He'd kept it because Helen Anderson had personally written her return address in the top left corner before returning one of the photos he'd mailed to her to be autographed. The postmark was 1998; nearly twenty years ago.
Ray took the framed envelope down, studied the return address, neatly written in Anderson's beautiful, looping cursive. She was divorced, estranged from her only child. She could be alone right now, just like Ray. Her house was a thirty minute drive, in the direction of the bay, opposite the refugees fleeing the city, passing the virus between them.
Ray imagined Helen Anderson opening her door.
I'm your biggest fan,he'd say to her.Is there anything I can do to help you?
Right. Great plan.
But just imagining meeting Helen Anderson lifted the black cloud, the despair, if only slightly. What was the worst that could happen? She would say she was fine and thank him for his concern.
Ray already regretted his grand proclamation. He should have let Eileen pack up and leave.
He touched the glass over the spot where Helen Anderson had written her address. He knew she still lived there. He'd confirmed it on the county tax assessor website a dozen times over the years, each time he dreamed of driving over there on some pretext to meet her before talking himself out of it.
It was a crazy idea; Don Quixote on steroids. But chances were he was going to die very soon. Why not seize the day? Why not do something a little crazy?
Ray paused outside his car, considered going to the garage to say goodbye to Eileen. He might never see her again. They might both be dead in a week.
Then he remembered the look on her face, when he said he would leave. Masked joy and relief.
He climbed in, yanked the door shut.
Half a block from his house, Ray slowed.
A woman was lying on the sidewalk, twitching.
Until now it had all been on TV. This woman, lying right outside his car, made it real. Ray's every instinct screamed that he had to stop and help her. Her forehead was bleeding where she'd hit it on the pavement. Her head was jerking up and down, her eyes round with terror.
If he touched her, he would die too. The symptoms wouldn't show up for a week, but he'd be infected immediately.
Around the corner he passed a wreck—an SUV wrapped around a light pole. The driver was nodding so violently her chin was bleeding where it rubbed the airbag that pinned her to her seat. In the back, two toddlers strapped in child seats nodded in unison.
Ray's chest hitched; he raised a hand to shield his eyes from the SUV. It was too much—he didn't want to see any more pain, any more clear, terrified eyes.
He was surprised to see Walter and Lauren sitting on their front porch. He rolled down the passenger window.
Walter raised a hand in greeting. Lauren, sitting in the rocker beside him, was nodding wildly.
"Oh, shit," Ray said. He raised his voice. "Oh God, Walter, I'm so sorry."
Walter looked down at his lap. "It started an hour ago." He touched her shoulder. "I brought her outside. She'd rather see grass and sky than four walls."
"Is there anything I can do?" Ray asked.
Walter shook his head. "I'm just waiting for it to take me. I kissed Lauren on the mouth to make sure."
Ray wasn't sure how to respond. In a way he envied Walter. At least he and Lauren were going to die together.
"We've had a good life," Walter called from the porch. "Please give Eileen my love, and Lauren's love, too."
"Eileen left me," Ray blurted. "Or maybe I'm leaving her. She was having an affair."
Walter's head drooped. "I'm so sorry."
A lump rose in Ray's throat; this time he couldn't stop the tears. "Thank you. You've been a good friend." Then he remembered Lauren could see and hear everything. "You too, Lauren. I'm sorry."
Lauren went on nodding. Soon the nodding would stop, and she'd be still.
Walter raised his hand in farewell. Ray couldn't believe this was probably the last time he'd ever see Walter. No more listening to the Dodgers in Walter's backyard; no more drives to the Green Leaf for a beer. Despite being thirty years older than Ray, Walter was still his best friend—the best friend he'd ever had.
Wilshire was chaos. The sidewalks were crowded with people humping backpacks, their mouths covered by surgical masks, gas masks, scarves, scuba gear. Each minute it seemed they had more victims to step over. The road was littered with standing vehicles, their drivers frozen at the wheel, heads nodding. Ray tried not to look at them as he weaved around. There was nothing he could do, he kept reminding himself. There was no cure, no treatment, no room in hospitals.
South Doherty was completely blocked. Ray pulled onto the sidewalk and inched through the crowd until he reached the intersecting street.
The traffic lightened as he hit the winding residential roads of Beverly Hills, where mansions were set back from the road on huge shady lots. He wanted to turn the radio off, because the news made his heart hammer and turned his mouth to cotton, but he had to stay informed.
Communications were down on the East Coast. States in the Mountain West were the only ones spared the plague so far. They were shooting refugees who tried to enter.
Ray pulled onto Cardiff Drive, glanced at the envelope in the passenger seat to confirm that he was looking for eleven fifty-seven Cardiff. He slowed in front of Helen Anderson's house. It was smaller than the others, with sloping roofs and an alpine feel to it. Two big trees blocked much of the front, and the gardens and shrubbery around it were lush to the point of being overgrown. Wondering what the hell he was doing, Ray turned in and rode up the long driveway.
He took a few whooshing breaths at her front door, shifted from foot to foot. Finally he reached up and rang the doorbell.
It occurred to him that it might not be Helen Anderson who answered. As far as he knew she wasn't seeing anyone. (And if anyone would know such a thing, it was Ray, because he read everything he could find about her online.) But what if a friend, or a housekeeper answered?
A lock clattered; the door opened six inches until a chain inside snapped taut. Helen Anderson's face appeared in the crack. She was barely as tall as his shoulder. He'd known she was five-four, but somehow hadn't realized how small that was.
"Yes?" Her hair was short and unkempt. She was wearing no makeup. She was beautiful, her eyes the light gray of misty mountaintops.
"Miss Anderson, my name is Ray Parrot." His tongue clicked off the roof of his dry mouth. "I—" Suddenly the words he'd rehearsed seemed foolish.I'm your biggest fan?He couldn't say that. "I've come to see if you need help."
Helen Anderson tilted her head. "Do I know you?"
"No—I'm an admirer of your work."
Helen Anderson gently closed the door. Ray waited, hoping to hear the chain rattle so she could open it further. Instead, he heard receding footsteps.
He waited a few minutes, then headed down the steps, his face burning. He felt like such an idiot. Had he really thought Helen Anderson was going to swing her door open to a complete stranger, maybe invite him in for tea?
Ray turned. Helen Anderson was on her stoop in a blue sweater and jeans.
"Yes?" He took a step toward her, paused. "I'm sorry. It was rude of me to show up on your doorstep like this."
"No, I'm the rude one. As usual. I don't need any help, but, thank you for asking. That was kind of you."
Ray nodded. "You're going to ride it out in your home?"
Helen smiled. It was not her dazzling Batgirl smile, but the saddest, most heartbreaking smile he'd ever seen. "Something like that."
"You have enough food? Water?"
She closed her eyes for a second. "More than enough."
"Well, good luck, then."
When Ray got to the end of the driveway, he put the car in park and stared at Helen Anderson's mailbox. What now? Try to get to Omaha, where his sister lived? The National Guard was shooting refugees on sight in Nebraska and the rest of the Midwest.
What had she meant bySomething like that?It was a peculiar reply, especially paired with that sad smile. Ray wondered if she meant she was going to start drinking again. Helen Anderson was a recovered alcoholic, sober twenty years, a vocal supporter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Ray couldn't blame her for falling off the wagon at this particular juncture. If he'd ever stopped drinking he'd be leaping off the wagon.
There was something about her answer, though. Something about her whole demeanor. She hadn't been scared; she'd beensad.
Ray headed back up the driveway on foot.
This time when Helen opened the door, there was no chain.
Ray held up both hands, palms out. "I'm so sorry to bother you again, Miss Anderson, and feel free to slam this door in my face, but I'm worried that maybe you're not all right."
Helen raised her eyebrows. "Excuse me?"
"When we spoke a minute ago, you didn't back away from the door like you were afraid to catch the virus from me. You just seemed sad."
Helen swept a stray hair out of her face, folded her arms. "Well, Ray, I'll let you in on a little secret. Iamsad. I've been sad for a long time."
Ray nodded slowly. "When I asked if you were going to ride this out at home, you said, 'Something like that.'"
Helen half-turned, looked off into the trees. She was fifty-eight years old. Ray could see those years in the lines under her eyes, the loose skin under her chin.
"I came back to make sure you're not going to hurt yourself."
Batgirl's eyes locked on his. "How could you possibly—" she stammered. "A complete stranger, at my door on this particular day, coming to see if I'm okay." Helen pressed her forehead. "You could have come yesterday, or tomorrow. Even two hours from now." She studied his face, shaking her head.
Finally, she swung the door open. "Come on in, Ray."
His mind reeling, Ray followed Helen Anderson into her house, through a high-ceilinged living room, into a spacious kitchen with black marble countertops.
Helen snared a bottle of tequila from the counter as she passed, took a big swig as she continued to the kitchen table, which had an army of pink pills and three prescription bottles spilled across it. Helen gestured at them. "I was just about to get started when you rang."
Movement out the window caught Ray's eye. Little birds, darting between a feeder and the safety of an orange tree. To them it was just another day.
"My wife left me today. We were married twenty-two years." It just came out.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Ray." Helen went to a cabinet and pulled down a glass, then ducked and produced a second fifth of tequila from under the sink. She set the glass on the kitchen table, twisted the cap on the fresh bottle. "Probably not a good idea to share a bottle." She poured, slid the glass in front of him, pushing some pills out of the way in the process.
Ray took a swig.
"What's your wife's name?"
"Eileen." Ray set the glass down with athunkas the tequila burned its way down his throat. "She told me she's been having an affair. Justin. From work."
Helen nodded. "So, your wife walked out on you, and you got in the car and came to make sure the star of a thirty year-old TV show was all right?"
Ray shrugged. "Whenever I feel bad I watch a few episodes ofBatgirl,and I feel better. I was feeling so bad that I figured only Batgirl herself could make me feel better."
Helen threw back her head and laughed. "Maybe if you'd turned to Eileen when you felt bad instead of a TV show, things would have turned out better."
Seeing Ray flinch, Helen clutched his forearm. "I'm sorry. That was a terrible thing to say." She reached for her bottle. "Now you know why I've had three husbands walk out onme."
"They were all out of their frickin' minds."
"No," Helen said. "No. They were smart." She surveyed the pills scattered across the table, muttered, "I was always uneasy about all the higher power shit they went on about at AA, but this . . ." She shook her head. "It's like God sent you to tell me, 'Not so fast. You're not through here yet.'" She looked up at Ray and laughed. "Which makes you my guardian angel."
Ray spread his arms. "That's exactly right. That's me."
• • • •
The giant TV on the living room wall was muted, which was fine with Ray, because the images were loud enough. Times Square in New York, shown from above; the streets were hopelessly clogged, drivers frozen at the wheel. People with covered faces pushed along the sidewalks, climbed through the maze of traffic, stepped over other people lying on the ground twitching, nodding, or just perfectly still. They were all trying to get out of the city, even though they were being told to stay put. The more people moved around, the more the virus spread.
Ray had always imagined that if there was an apocalypse, it would be a violent thing—people fighting, buildings burning, looting. But this was quiet. Civilized. When you're afraid to let other people breathe on you, let alone bleed on you, it made sense that things would be peaceful.
Lightning flashed outside. The sky was dark; the palm trees in Helen's back yard bent and thrashed as rain hammered the ground.
He eyed the pile of empty bottles in the corner, then looked at Helen, amazed all over again that he was there, sitting in her living room. Eileen would choke if she knew. On her good days she'd tolerated his passion for all things Batgirl with amused disdain. On her bad days she'd told him he was embarrassing himself.
Helen looked at him. "What?"
Ray shrugged. "Nothing."
"Stop staring at me all the time."
"I can't help it."
"It makes me paranoid. I feel like you're trying to catch a glimpse of Batgirl behind the bags and the wrinkles." Her words were only slightly slurred, which was impressive, given how many pulls she'd taken from the bottle since morning. "That face is gone."
Ray sprung from his seat. "Are you kidding me? Is that really what you think?"
Helen stared, glassy-eyed, into the bottle.
"I can't take my eyes off you because youareBatgirl. The way you move, your expressions. Since I was fifteen I've been mesmerized by you, and now you're right here, moving around this house. I can't help watching you."
She gave him a flat cynical, very un-Batgirl look. "I'm an aging has-been who had very little talent to begin with."
Ray clicked his tongue. "What a shame that you think that. So many people would give anything to be you. You should savor it."
Helen sighed heavily; she looked like she was about to cry.
The TV, the lights, flicked off. Outside, the hum of the air conditioner died.
"Damn it," Ray hissed. They'd been expecting the power to go out for days, but it was still a blow. Things were about to get harder.
Helen went to the kitchen counter and twisted open one of the prescription bottles lined up there. "Shit." She dumped the contents into her palm. "I only have three Xanax left." She looked around, as if searching the bookshelves for a stray bottle she might have left lying around. Her gaze settled on Ray. "I can't make it without my Xanax, Ray. I'll die."
Ray grabbed his keys off the counter, where they'd been sitting, untouched, for four days. "I'll get it."
She intercepted him as he headed for the front door, wrapped him in a warm hug. "My guardian angel. Do you want me to go with you?"
"No. Stay here."
• • • •
On West Pico, Ray passed a red-haired woman wearing a surgical mask who reminded him of Eileen. Ray wondered where the real Eileen was. Home, with Justin? Lying frozen on some street corner, waiting to die? Would Justin care for her if she got the nodding virus, or just leave her? Ray had no idea, because he didn't know Justin. Eileen had cheated on him, but that didn't mean he didn't care what happened to her. He wondered if he should check on her.
The thought made him chuckle dryly. What if he showed up with Helen? Imagining it gave him a childish glee that quickly morphed into sadness. He missed her; his life felt so strange without her in it.
The parking lot of the Wal-Mart on Crenshaw Boulevard was half full, the glass doors smashed so he could step right through. Ray pulled the silicone rubber skirt of his scuba mask tighter around his ears.
Even through the mask, the stink of rot and urine hit him almost immediately. The aisles were crowded with people laying frozen—their chests rising and falling—mixed with corpses. Ray wound a path through the bodies, down the main aisle perpendicular to the registers, toward the pharmacy. Everyone who was still alive followed Ray with their eyes as soon as he stepped into view, silently pleading for help. It made his skin crawl, all of those eyes staring at him.
The store was silent, save for voices over in the supermarket section.
"Excuse me," he whispered as he stepped over a teenaged girl who stared up at him, terrified. "I'm so sorry."
A young Indian woman in a pharmacy vest lay in front of the swinging half-door that led into the pharmacy area, so Ray climbed over the counter. The shelves were almost empty, boxes scattered on the floor. The young Indian pharmacist was dead, her skin a horrible, waxy gray. Ray tried to hurry, moving up and down the shelves, a finger extended as he read the labels.
The shelf aboveXanaxwas empty. The same forKlonopin, Valium, Atavan, and the rest of the row. Cleaned out.
"Damn it," Ray hissed.
• • • •
All of the pharmacies in the area were cleaned out. In hindsight it seemed obvious that would be the case. The first person who went inside for sedatives would take them all, because who knew when there would be more? Maybe there would never be more.
The thought rattled Ray. When the Internet was still up, some had been predicting ninety percent of the world's population would die off. Some estimates were even higher. What sort of world would be left?
Helen opened the door, eyebrows raised, as Ray climbed the front steps.
He shook his head. "Cleaned out. I went to every drug store in the area."
He wasn't prepared for her reaction. She sank to the floor, covered her face with her hands, and wept. Ray squatted beside her, rubbed her shoulder.
"We'll find some. Maybe we can find a drug dealer, or a black market."
Helen shoved him away, hard."Where?Where would we find a black market in the middle ofthis?"She wiped under her eyes. "I'll just have to drink more." She nodded. "I'll just have to drink more." She looked at her watch. "In fact, it's almost noon and I haven't started yet. Time to get going."
In her autobiography, Helen had described the alcoholic years after Batgirlwas cancelled in great detail. It hadn't been pretty. "Don't do that." He thought for minute. Where could he get sedatives?
Then it hit him. He stood. "This is Beverly Hills. Every other house on this street probably has Xanax in the medicine cabinet. I'll go door to door. I'll break into the houses where no one answers."
Helen nodded, still wiping her eyes. She struggled to her feet, weaving as if they were on the deck of a ship. "God, I'm so sorry. I was such a sweet girl, before I moved to LA. Before Batgirl."Her gray eyes were bright with tears. "The fame does something to you. Even the little bit I had; it burned a hole right through me. All the actors I know who made it are fucked up beyond belief. None of them made it through whole."
She stepped close to Ray; he instinctively wrapped his arms around her. She pressed close, resting her cheek on his shoulder, her hands against his chest. Her breath was sour with last night's tequila, but to Ray it was the sweetest perfume. He closed his eyes, reveled in her warmth.
When her lips touched his, he was so startled he flinched.
"I'm sorry, I didn't—" Helen said.
Ray leaned in and kissed her back.
Helen turned her head aside, whispered, "Make love to me. I want to be touched. I want to feel normal for a little while."
• • • •
Back in high school, when Batgirl was a popular prime time TV show, Ray had read A Tale of Two Cities in English class. Mr. Patel made a big deal out of the opening line of the novel, and that line was the only thing Ray remembered about the book. The line was: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Laying in Helen Anderson's bed, with her sleeping beside him, that line was a perfect description of how Ray felt.
He couldn't shake a tinge of guilt, as if he were cheating on Eileen. That guilt was pillowed by a soaring sense of joy; sparks of awe, magic, and wonder as he studied Helen's sleeping profile in the early morning light. That joy was wrapped in a ball of terror and dread, as the reality of what lay outside Helen's front door crept along in the back of Ray's mind. They hadn't been outside in five days, but the radio reports were enough. His terror looped right back to concern for Eileen. She'd cheated on him, she'd left him, but part of him still loved her, still worried.
Helen opened one eye. "Stop staring," she sang sleepily.
"Sorry." He lay back and stared up at the ceiling, thinking about Eileen. Odds were she had it by now. The thought rattled Ray, but in the last radio report, between seventy and eighty percent of Los Angeles residents had the disease, so yes, there was a good chance his wife was frozen, was dying. Maybe she and Justin both had it.
"What's the matter?" Helen asked.
Ray looked at her, questioning, then realized there was a tear on his cheek. He wiped it with the back of his hand. "I was just thinking about my wife. My ex-wife, I guess. I was wondering how she's doing, whether she's . . . you know."
Helen put a hand on his arm. "You're a good soul. I have a grown son in Houston, and all I'm thinking about is how to get more Xanax."
Ray reached up, took her hand in his. "You've done a lot of good in the world."
Helen laughed harshly. "Yeah. I was in a bad TV show."
"It wasn't bad, and anyway, that's not what I'm talking about. What about all the money you raised for autism research?"
Helen sighed, shook her head, but didn't argue.
"I can't stand the thought that Eileen might be like these people. All alone. Dying." He rose up on his elbow. "Would you mind if I . . ."
Helen stiffened. "You want to go to her?"
"Just to make sure she's all right."
"And what if she isn't? Will you stay with her?"
Ray hadn't thought that far ahead. "I'm staying with you. If that's what you want."
"Of course it's what I want. You're my guardian angel, remember?" She leaned over and kissed his nose. "If I was married and my husband ditched me while this hell was breaking loose, he could be bleeding to death on my doorstep and I wouldn't bring him a Band-Aid." She gave a little one-shouldered shrug. "But that's just me."
Ray wished he could feel that way; it was all Eileen deserved. But he couldn't. They'd spent twenty-two years together, and even if the in-jokes and silly banter had faded over the last five, they'd always watched out for each other. The more he thought about it, the more urgently he needed to check on her.
He turned and kissed Helen. "I'll be back in two hours. Three at the most."
"Would—" she paused. "Can I come with you?"
She was safer inside, but Ray could see this meant a lot to her. It meant they were together, not two strangers waiting out a storm together.
• • • •
There were bodies everywhere. In the street, on sidewalks, on lawns, in driveways. In cars, both parked and wrecked.
Ray hit the brake as a teenaged boy lurched out from behind a delivery truck, right in front of the car. The boy's arms were raised, his head nodding, eyes wild with terror.
"I'm sorry," Ray shouted through the raised windows. "There's nothing we can do. I'm so sorry." He inched the car forward. "Please, get out of our way. Move, please." The boy set his hands on the hood of Helen's Prius, opened his mouth, trying to speak. With each jerk of his head he began to sink, his legs freezing up. Ray turned to look behind him, backed up until the boy slid to the street. He steered around him.
Helen had her hands over her eyes. "This is terrible. These poor people."
"Why are there so many in the streets?" Ray asked as he steered around a woman in a bathrobe. He was fairly sure she was still breathing, but he avoided looking at her as he passed. He didn't want to see her eyes tracking them.
"They don't want to die alone," Helen said, her voice slurred. She'd gone through half of the tequila bottle since they'd left her house. There were tears on her cheeks. "Once they start nodding, they're not afraid to catch it any longer, they're afraid to be alone, with no one to help them. So they run outside."
Head down, Helen held her hands on either side of her eyes to shield her from picking up glimpses of the accident victims in her peripheral vision as Ray inched along. He wished he could look away as well.
Helen shook two Xanax into her hand and washed them down with tequila. He'd have to locate more pills before too long.
As he turned onto Walter's street, he spotted a boy standing on a lawn, a baseball mitt on one hand. Ray slowed. The boy just stood there.
"Christ. Look at that." Helen pointed out her window at a man clutching a push lawn mower, one foot back as if he were walking. Only he wasn't walking.
On the lawn beyond, Ray spotted two older people sitting on a stoop. Across the street a man stood beside his car, a garden hose in one hand, the nozzle pointing at his truck as if he was washing it. No water came from the hose.
As they passed Walter's house, Ray expected to see Walter sitting frozen beside Lauren on their porch, but Lauren was alone.
Ray drove on. "Someoneposedthose people," he said. It was like an elaborate art exhibit, a still-life of Saturday in the neighborhood. Back when the nodding virus was nothing but an item on the evening news, one of the early reports had a doctor demonstrating how victims of the virus would stay in any position you put them in, like living mannequins. When you were infected, your muscles worked just fine; you just couldn't tell them what to do.
"This is horrible," Helen said.
They passed a woman with short red hair kneeling over a flower bed; Ray flinched, certain for an instant it was Eileen, but they were still two blocks from their house.
Eileen's minivan was in the driveway. Ray pulled in behind it, his heart racing.
It felt strange to knock on his own door, but he did.
The door swung open. Eileen took him in, recognizing him instantly, even wearing a surgical mask. She seemed surprised, but maybe not overly-so. As she pushed the screen door open she noticed Helen, and froze. She studied Helen, her eyebrows clenched in confusion.
"What is this?" she finally asked.
Ray grasped the screen door, opened it the rest of the way. "I came to make sure you're all right."
"Is that Batgirl?" There was a familiar hint of disdain in her tone. "What is this?"
Helen stepped toward the doorway, stumbled, caught the door jamb to keep from falling. "No. It's not fucking Batgirl. My name is Helen Anderson."
"Oops," Helen said. "Seems I've had a bit too much to drink. Or not enough. Opinions vary."
Eileen looked up at Ray, wide-eyed, confused.
"Are you all right? If so, we'll leave you alone." Ray caught a glimpse into the living room. Justin was sitting on the couch, perfectly still.
"Am I all right? Let's see." Eileen looked up. "I'd have to say no. But thanks for asking. I'd invite you in, but that wouldn't be a good idea. In fact even with those masks it's probably not a good idea for you to be talking to—" She trailed off, let the breath bleed slowly out of her in a long sigh.
She was looking at Helen, surprised anew at Helen's presence, in the flesh, at her door. It did take some getting used to.
Was she bothered by Helen being here with Ray? All of Ray's petty revenge fantasies had melted away at the sight of Justin. Eileen had been exposed; unless she was one of the two or three percent of people who were naturally immune to the virus, she was going to catch it, too.
Eileen went on looking at Helen, who was clinging to the door jamb, trying to remain upright, her shoulder length golden blonde hair rising and falling with each nod of her head.
"Oh, Helen," Ray whispered. He grasped her shoulders, gently turned her to face him.
Her face was stiff, her lips pulled back in terror. "My Xanax. Keep giving me my Xanax. Please."
Ray put his arms around her. "I will. I'll take good care of you. I promise. I'm so sorry."
The last words she spoke came out garbled, but Ray understood. "Thank you. My guardian. Angel."
"Bring her in." Eileen held the screen door open.
Ray led Helen inside, put her in the big chair he'd always sat in when they watched TV. He knelt beside her for a long time, patting her knee, whispering whatever soothing words came to him as he cried.
It was ironic, that Helen had gotten sick here of all places. He would carry her to the car and take her home at some point, but for the moment his only concern was making her as comfortable as possible.
Eventually Helen's nodding slowed, then stopped, and she was still.
Ray stood, brushed her hair back into place.
He turned, and the first thing he saw was Justin on the couch, his hands in his lap.
Ray nodded to him. "Justin." He was going to leave it at that—a polite acknowledgment and nothing more, but even Justin deserved more, given the circumstances. "I'm sorry."
Eileen handed him a glass of ginger ale. "If I get it before you, I want to be outside, in the backyard. Would you do that for me?"
Eileen turned to look at Helen. "I'm happy for you. I was afraid you were going through this all alone. The thought of it just about killed me."
"I appreciate that." Ray was glad to be leaving things on good terms with Eileen, but offered nothing more. Helen was right there in the room, and she was in hell right now.
"Thank you for coming to check on me. You're a good man." She nodded. "You deserved better than me. And you found her, in the end."
Ray nodded. He felt uncomfortable talking about this with Eileen; he cast about the room, looking for a way to change the subject.
A wonderful idea came to him. He went to Helen, lifted her. "I want to show you something."
He carried her into his collectibles room, turned three hundred sixty degrees so she could see everything, then set her in the recliner. It was the only seat in the room, so Ray stood.
"I know you're ambivalent about Batgirl. I wish you weren't. I wish you could feel proud of what you did."
Ray surveyed the objects in the room, seeing children's toys. Brightly-colored junk.
"This makes me look pretty obsessive, doesn't it?" He rested a hand on Helen's shoulder, hoping it was reassuring to feel someone's touch, hoping she wasn't cringing inside. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have shown you this."
"Let me get you some water." He went to the kitchen to get some ice water, gave Eileen, who was sitting on the couch beside Justin, what he hoped was a comforting smile as he passed.
He found straws in the back of the pantry. Then he remembered: Xanax. It was the one thing Helen had asked him to do for her. Her purse was on the front stoop, where she must have dropped it.
"Here you go." He slid a Xanax tablet onto her tongue, put the straw in her mouth. Her lips closed on it, her mouth suddenly coming alive. She drank three hard pulls, then went still again. It was a frightening reminder that she was still completely alert, able to respond, even though her nervous system wasn't allowing her to initiate any movements of her own.
What must it be like? How did it feel? A sour dread ran through Ray as he realized he might find out for himself. With every hour that ticked by, it grew a little more likely that he was one of the very lucky few, but there was no guarantee.
"Ray," Eileen screamed from the living room.
Ray flinched at the urgency in her voice. "I'll be right back."
Eileen's head was bobbing, her tight red curls bouncing. Ray hurried over, knelt and took her hand.
"My poor Eileen. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." He kissed her hand. Justin watched him, probably jealous as Ray comforted his estranged wife.
"I'll be right back." He set Eileen's hand in her lap, and went to get Helen. It would be simpler if they were all in the same room. Ray had read about caring for victims of the nodding virus; soon he'd be changing wet and soiled clothes—even Justin's.
From her position in the recliner, the only way to lift Helen was to take her wrists and draw her forward until she fell into his arms. With her face pressed into his shoulder he carried her back to his TV chair, cradled the back of her head as he set her into it.
When she was settled, he kissed her cheek.
Straightening, he surveyed his silent charges. All of their eyes were on him. As he took a few steps, their eyes followed.
He wanted to say something, but found himself at a loss. What could he say to an audience of his ex-wife, her lover, and his newfound love? There were things he'd like to say to each of them individually, but nothing he wanted to say to all of them together.
Eileen had asked to be outside. In the week he'd spent at Helen's house, she'd spent a good deal of time in her backyard, so he guessed she would like that as well. He couldn't care less what Justin liked.
One by one, he carried them out to the padded lawn chairs on the back patio.
Justin had wet himself, so first Ray had to change him. He did his best to mask his disgust as he tugged off Justin's wet underpants.
It was a nice day, with a light breeze, the sun occasionally eclipsed by clouds. Ray sat beside Helen, trying to ignore his pounding heart, his sweaty palms. If he developed the virus there would be no one to take care of them.
"I'm not much of a cook," he said aloud, mostly because the silence made him feel terribly alone, reminded him that most everyone on Earth was either dead or dying. "I guess since all we have to eat is canned food, that doesn't matter."
He'd positioned Helen with her hands and elbows resting on the arms of her chair, as if she was about to spring into action.
For a moment, against all logic, it looked as if Helenwasspringing into action. Then Ray realized she wasn't moving—he was. His neck was.
As his heart pounded wildly, he willed himself to face this bravely. "I have it. I guess we all knew it was only a matter of time." He lifted his gaze to Eileen, struggling to keep his eyes on her as his head bobbed violently. "Eileen, we had twenty-two good years. I'm grateful for those."
Then he turned to Helen, tried to chuckle, but it came out as a gargling choke. "I've only known you for a week, Helen, but I—" He was going to say he would never forget it, but he was going to be dead in a few days. He was going to sit there until he died of thirst, but first he would have to watch Eileen and Helen die.
His chest hitched as his heart found another gear. All along, he thought he'd been facing the truth head-on, but deep down he'd always believed he'd be one of the lucky three percent.
"Shit." The words were garbled beyond recognition.
Soon the nodding slowed, and stopped, and Ray was still.
He'd made a mistake, sitting beside Helen. He couldn't look at her. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the merest shadow of her profile. That was all.
A fly landed on his hand. Its legs flitted along on his skin, and he felt it as acutely as ever, but he couldn't move his hand, not even the slightest flinch to shoo it away. His chest rose and fell, rose and fell; he couldn't speed up his breathing or slow it down, couldn't take a deeper or shallower breath.
A wave of claustrophobic terror hit him; he wanted to scream, to flail his arms, to run from this silent lawn party, but his body remained perfectly still, breathed in and out.
Eileen was watching him. He gazed back at her. What was she thinking? Did she regret her affair with Justin? Was she wishing it was just the two of them here? She looked up, maybe into the branches of the palm trees deeper in their backyard, or maybe watching a bird fly by, envying its freedom.
He looked to his left, toward Helen, straining to see as much of her as possible, but still saw only a ghostly outline. She was there, though. If he had to die in this terrible way, in his wildest dreams, he couldn't have guessed he would die beside Batgirl.
He clung to that thought—for courage, to dull the sting of dread. Helen wasn't at all the person he'd thought she was, and maybe that shouldn't have been a surprise. No one was Batgirl, after all.
• • • •
The spreading, burning warmth of urine was a shock. Ray felt slightly ashamed.
It was getting dark. Soon they'd be sitting under the stars. He was afraid of what he might dream.
Eileen was looking at him again. There was something she wanted to say to him, something that had occurred to her since she became frozen and had nothing but time to think. Or maybe it was his imagination.
She looked away, over Ray's shoulder; her gaze held steady, just a bit to his right.
"Oh hell. I was hoping you made it." Walter stepped into view, stopped a few feet in front of Ray. "I'm so sorry, Ray." He wiped a tear from his cheek.
When Walter noticed Helen, his brow creased. "My God." He took a step toward Helen, studied her face. "Unbelievable. Jesus, Ray, I wish you could tell me the story." Folding his arms, he looked from Helen to Ray, then turned and looked at Eileen. "Maybe I can figure it out for myself."
Ray strained against the prison of his paralysis, willing his jaw to open.
"I guess I'm one of the 'lucky ones.'" Walter grunted. "I know I shouldn't be feeling sorry for myself. I know what you're all going through is much worse. But I'm not feeling very lucky right now. I think I'd rather be dead than see everyone I know suffer like this." He put his hand over his mouth as a sob escaped him.
"Here." He went over to Ray, slid his arms under Ray's armpits and lifted him to his feet. When Walter let go, Ray was sure he would flop back into the lawn chair, but he didn't; his leg muscles flexed and held, keeping him upright.
Walter lifted Helen from her chair, led her across the lawn toward Ray. She moved as if there was absolutely nothing wrong with her. The easy grace of her steps was astonishing.
Walter stopped Helen in front of Ray. He lifted her right hand, put it on Ray's shoulder, then took her left hand, raised it high and laced it into Ray's.
"It's all I can think to do for everybody. I'm sixty-nine years old; I can't feed and change everyone on the street forever. I'm not sure you'd all want me to, even if I could." Sobbing, his nose running, Walter put Ray's left hand on Helen's hip. "There."
Walter attended to Eileen and Justin, setting them in an identical dancing pose.
Ray looked into his Batgirl's eyes. Her face was flat, expressionless, but he could see the pain in her eyes, the fear. Her Xanax was wearing off, the tequila as well.
Music rose from the screened porch. Tears in Heaven. Eric Clapton. From Eileen's Blues Love Songs CD. The music broke the weight of the silence, and unleashed a rush of memories in Ray. They'd played the CD constantly on their vacation road trip up Route 66, in 2005. Ray had bought it for Eileen when she was in the hospital with pneumonia earlier that same year.
Over Helen's shoulder, Eileen "danced" with Justin. Her eyes met Ray's, and again, Ray couldn't help feeling that Eileen was trying to tell him something.
Did she want to tell him she'd made a mistake, that she wished she was dancing with him?
I don't want this lie between us.
The words came to Ray so clearly it was as if Eileen was speaking them. She'd said them right after her confession. Ray had been too shocked and confused to register much of what she was saying at the time, but he remembered the words now.
I don't want this lie between us,she'd said, and then, If you want me to leave right now, I will. That was what she'd said, wasn't it? What he'd heard was,I want to leave you right now. I want to face this with Justin, not with you. Will you let me off the hook? Will you let me go? But that wasn't what she'd said. The words were important. If Eileen didn't want a lie between us,she'd still thought there was an us.
She hadn't wanted him to leave; she'd wanted him to forgive her. If he'd only put his arms around her and told her that he still loved her, they'd be dancing together now, without Justin, without Helen. Helen was a kind and wonderful woman even if she didn't realize it, but she wasn't his Batgirl.
Ray tried to answer Eileen. He tried to tell her he forgave her, he loved her, that he understood it all now and wished he hadn't pushed her away. He tried to say all of this with his eyes, and could only hope it was reaching her, as night fell, and Tears in Heaven gave way to I'll Take Care of You.