“So have you girls seen Terri yet?” the old woman called, popping out of the kitchen. Rachel and Ellie froze, Ellie with her hands behind her back like a schoolgirl, to hide the handgun.
“You know,” Rachel said. “We haven’t yet. We’re, uh, looking forward to seeing Terri.”
Ellie nodded vigorously.
“She had a boy, did you hear? Nine pounds, two ounces. After you have dinner here, you can go visit her in the hospital.”
The old lady popped back out of sight behind the door, and Rachel and Ellie looked at each other, Ellie’s face full of exaggerated alarm.
“Shit,” Ellie said, laughing.
“Shhh,” said Rachel. She wanted to get out of there. It didn’t help that Ellie was in one of her moods, deceptively amiable. Her eyes were too bright, her fingers twitching.
“Okay, okay. Don’t freak.” Ellie set the gun down on the roll-top desk and started leafing through papers, muttering with disgust. Dividing her nervous attention between her and the kitchen, Rachel tugged at the knob on the glass-fronted china hutch. The door stuck. Dim figures lurked behind the glass, porcelain clowns and cloisonne boxes. She tugged harder, her fingers numb and clumsy.
“This sucks,” Ellie said. She dropped a pile of papers back on the desk, and the whole stack tilted and cascaded to the floor. Ellie kicked it, sending papers flying across the carpet.
“Ellie,” Rachel said, rising exasperation in her voice.
“What?” Ellie said, all innocence. She held out her hands. “It slipped.” She made a face at Rachel and went back to ransacking the desk. Without looking at Rachel, she said acidly, “Feel free to help.”
Screw you, Rachel thought. She tugged again at the glass door to the cabinet and it flew open with a rattle. A china dog fell over with a loud clatter.
Behind her, Ellie said, “Hey, Rachel, I have news for you. They are not going to put their ration cards in with the little clownsies and puppy dogs.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not looking for ration cards.” She turned back to the cabinet. Her mother’s china hutch had been dark stained walnut like this one, with the treasures of a lifetime tucked away in the dark and dust. Her grandfather’s ring. Her mother’s pearls. A diamond stick pin. Lost twice, once in tangled plaques caking her mother’s brain, and again when the house and its contents were sold after her mother’s death.
She reached back into the farthest corners, grimacing as she encountered nothing but dust balls. Ellie was right – she wasn’t going to find anything in here.
“Have you girls seen Terri yet?”
Startled, Rachel bumped her head on the shelf before she could get out of the hutch. She turned around, rubbing her head. The old woman had come out again, a cold casserole dish held in kitchen mitts. This time a vee of worry marked her forehead between her gray brows, but her voice trundled on. “Did you hear–?”
“Yeah yeah, a baby boy,” Ellie said. “We heard. Come on, where do keep the ration cards?”
Tears sparkled on the old woman’s cheeks. “So, have you girls seen Terri yet?”
Ellie looked at Rachel and shook her head. “I hate Fast A.” She drew the handgun and cocked it, pointing it at the old woman.
“Ellie,” Rachel said.
“I mean it. We just want the goddamn cards. I don’t see that bitch Terri coming around here. Come on. The ration cards. Credit cards. And the car keys while you’re at it. Might as well.”
“Ellie, you can’t shoot her.”
“Because you’re not that kind of girl.”
Ellie turned to look at her. She actually did kind of look like that sort of girl, Rachel had to admit – wide-eyed, short dark hair askew, low-rise jeans, tank top. Sun-kissed freckles across her nose. Manic eyes.
“Since always.” Between them the old woman whimpered. Rachel sighed. “Look. Why don’t you look upstairs, see what you can find. I’ll have a few words with her, and see what she can tell me.”
Ellie lowered the gun sulkily. “She’s not going to tell you anything. Not when she’s looping.” But she stomped up the stairs anyway.
Rachel looked over at the old woman and went and took the casserole dish from her. It looked like she had stirred together tuna, ketchup, and breadcrumbs. “Come on,” Rachel said. “Let’s sit at the kitchen table.”
The old woman sat hesitantly, flinching at every loud sound from Ellie’s upstairs rampage. Her eyes were clouded with cataracts. Rachel set the dish aside. On the table was a stack of ration cards. Rachel slipped them into her pocket, then put one back. Don’t be such a wuss, she could almost hear Ellie say, and she sighed and picked it back up again.
While she dithered, the old woman folded her hands in her lap. Her fingers were gnarled and curved, the knuckles swollen. Rachel set down the cards and smoothed the gray hair off the woman’s forehead. She kept stroking, and the old lady relaxed, her eyes drooping.
“Shhh. Shhh. It’s all right. Tell me your name. What’s your name?”
“Ni-nine pounds. Nine–” Her voice trailed off.
Sometimes touch could interrupt the looping, make a person seem almost normal. Sometimes nothing could be done. Rachel kept stroking, on the off chance that she could get something useful.
“Wow. A boy, right? What did she name him?”
The old woman smiled and just like that, it was hello honey, I’m home. “Carl Joseph. Carl was so proud. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was. Our first grandbaby.”
Rachel froze. She had a husband. Was someone else in the house? Ellie’s up there alone. She probed tentatively, risking losing the woman. “Where’s Carl now?”
“He’s at the summer house.”
She let her breath out. Not here then, if the woman could be trusted. “Really? Do you want to go see him? We could take you there.” Maybe if they told the woman they would drive her there, she would give them the keys to the car out front. It was covered with dust and the tires were low, but they had peeked in and the gas gauge showed half full. A car and ration cards – that would be a haul.
“Summer house,” the woman said softly. “ Our own secret garden.” She closed her eyes and smiled. “ Amid all the pretty pigs and feaches.”
“Do you want to go there?” Rachel said again, trying to tamp down her impatience.
“Oh, the things we did there,” the woman said, rocking a little. “It was our private place.” Her smile became wicked. “The things we did there.” She leaned forward and whispered in Rachel’s ear, her breath so rotten Rachel had to turn away.
“That’s sweet,” she struggled. “I’m sure you were quite, uh, something in those days.”
“The things we did there,” the woman said. She lifted her hands with difficulty and pulled back her matted gray hair in a travesty of wantonness. Muted sunlight from the clouded window glinted on diamonds in her ears and at her throat. “The things we did there.”
Oh. My. God. For a moment Rachel forgot to breathe. The diamonds were dots of brilliance against the woman’s faded skin.
“Shhh,” she whispered. She stroked the woman’s forehead again. “Just sit nice and quiet now, okay?” She began to unscrew the posts from the woman’s ears, her fingers thick and clumsy. “Shhh.” The old woman’s eyes followed Rachel’s hands as she put the earrings in her own ears, each one making a tiny prick of pain. Just to try them, she told herself. I’ll give them back.
She was clasping the necklace around her neck when a thud from upstairs caught their attention. The old woman looked up, for an instant wholly normal. For a moment there was silence and then Ellie’s rising wail.
Rachel bolted for the stairs. She went down the short hall first one way, saw nothing, and ran down the other end. She stopped in the open door. Ellie stood there, pointing the gun, her hand shaking so much the gun wobbled. Her eyes were huge, her breathing coming in shallow gasps. She turned to look at Rachel and the gun aimed itself at Rachel’s heart. Rachel thought she would stop breathing. Instead, she took a step sideways, bumping into the door, and reached out and took the gun.
“Elena?” she said.
Ellie pointed into the room. “I think we found Terri.”
The woman sat in a white rocking chair, the rocking chair creaking as she pushed back and forth, back and forth. She held a small soiled bundle in her lap, and her bright birdlike eyes locked onto their presence.
She sees us. Rachel began to back away under the woman’s bright gaze, drawing Ellie with her. Ellie made to speak but Rachel gave her a warning shake of her head. The old lady was one thing. She could still be soothed, the virus dormant.
In her daughter it had reached full flower.
Rachel tugged on Ellie’s elbow and backed her out of the door, and the woman turned to gaze down on the bundle as if she had forgotten them. Rachel let out her breath.
“Holy shit,” Ellie said, voice shaking, too loud in her fear and relief. “Did you see what she was holding?”
The woman’s head whipped back up to look at them. Her face went mad.
Rachel pushed Ellie out of the room and slammed the door shut, holding the doorknob with one hand, the gun with the other. From the other side of the door she could hear a moan and a thud. The door shuddered as the woman tried to get out.
“Shit!” Ellie said again.
“Run,” Rachel said. “Just run. I’ll hold her here.”
A noise behind them made them turn around. The old woman had come up the stairs behind Rachel, holding the rail and stumbling.
The hall was narrow – they would not be able to get past her.
The door shook again. Rachel tightened her grip. She raised her voice to the old woman. “Go back. Go back to the kitchen.”
“Su – summer,” the old woman said. “Hou – hou –” Then she said, “Pigs and feaches.”
“What the hell?” Ellie said.
“She’s gone. Last stages,” Rachel said. She raised her voice. “Go. Back.”
Stupid. As if enunciating would help. She steadied the gun. “Cover your ears, El.”
“Pigs and feaches!” the old woman insisted. Her voice broke.
My God, Rachel thought. Is she crying? She lowered the gun and looked closer.
“Rachel!” Ellie screamed. The door pulled from her grip and Terri pushed it open, lumbering out before Rachel could slam it shut again. Rachel squeezed the trigger and put three bullets into her. The reports banged sharply in the confined space. Terri slid down the wall, her clawed hand just missing Ellie’s ankle as she fell. Ellie jumped.
“Feaches!” screamed the mother.
“Do it,” Ellie said. “Dammit, Rachel.”
Rachel steadied the gun and fired one more shot.
The old woman toppled over in mid-feach.
They clattered down the stairs, bursting through the front door with its faded quarantine poster. The dusty old car waited next to the sidewalk, its tires sagging. Rachel and Ellie jumped down the stone stairs leading from the front door to the street, holding on to each other.
“Okay,” Rachel said. “Okay.” She forced herself to breathe, to stop repeating herself. “Are you okay?” she asked.
Ellie nodded, breathing hard. She gestured and Rachel handed her the gun. Ellie put the safety on and then put the gun in her belt.
“So, no cards,” Rachel said. She heard her voice shake and thought she wouldn’t say anything for a while. She sat down on the stairs and Ellie sat with her.
It was a fine autumn day, slightly chill. No one else was on the street. They sat at the top of a hill, the street sloping away from them, a row of narrow townhouses riding the contour of the land, every one of them with a quarantine poster tacked to their front doors. Rachel rubbed her fingers – they had gone numb again. She was glad she had been able to hold the gun and fire it.
“Where did you get those?”
Rachel started. Ellie looked at her, her dangerous brightness muted. Rachel touched the necklace self-consciously. She shrugged and got to her feet, trying to ignore the icy sweat that trickled between her shoulder blades. “I dunno. Listen, I want to check out one more thing.” Ellie said nothing. Rachel flushed. “It’ll only take a minute.” She had to return the diamonds. Shit. What have I done?
Ellie waved a hand, looking out over the street. “Whatever.”
Rachel left her sitting in the sun, a small figure in the deep stone steps. She didn’t want to go back in the house. Instead, she followed a flagstone path to the side of the townhouse. A wooden gate hung ajar. She pushed it open into the shaded back yard. The stone path led into an overgrown garden, weeds and grass springing up between the flagstones. Fig trees, their leaves rounded like puzzle pieces, bent over the path and she had to push the heavy branches aside. The garden opened up, and a twisted grove of peach trees, whip-thin branches scraping the ground, surrounded a stone birdbath.
At the back of the yard stood a small screened house, barely larger than a gazebo. The summer house. The things we did there. So this was where the old woman screwed her husband. Despite herself, Rachel grinned. She followed the flagstones straight to the little house. The screen door hung askew, the wooden framing weathered. She strained to see inside and could make out some furniture.
“Did you kill them both?”
Rachel whirled around. Carl?
A skinny old man stood in the peach grove at the bird bath. His clothes were worn, but neat – faded jeans, a work shirt. Boots. His beard was grizzled but trimmed. Still, for good measure she looked down at his hands. He followed her gaze and gave a wry smile.
Shit, she thought. He didn’t have Fast A, but that could be worse. More dangerous. He was old, sure, but he was far from frail.
He gave her his own frank appraisal, and she flushed. She remembered the things the old woman had whispered.
In the silence, he nodded at the door to the summer house. “Go on in. Not much to see.”
She hesitated, then acquiesced. She pushed open the creaky door and stepped inside.
The floor was a dark wood, stained by time and weather where rain came in the screens. A few bugs scuttled off into dark corners, and it smelled of deep mildew. It was much cooler inside.
An old brass bed took up most of the little house. It had linens on it and was neatly made. He slept here, then; the house was for his wife and daughter.
The door creaked open again and sprang shut.
“How did you keep them from coming out here?” She asked.
“I think she knew not to.” He was right behind her. “The more I’ve seen of it, the more I think they’re still in their heads. They just can’t get out.”
Rachl remembered the old woman’s catch in her voice when she stared at her over the gun.
“You just want to believe that,” she said. “That they’re still in there.”
“What do you believe?”
She lifted her shoulders, trying to sound offhand, though her heart beating very hard. She was very conscious of his closeness. “It’s Fast A. Once the plaque destroys all the connections, that’s it.”
She imagined the virus racing toward her brain with every beat of her heart, ready to encapsulate her neurons in its own genetic material. Fast A. Super-Alzheimer’s.
“So you can just kill them. Convenience or mercy?” Before she could answer, he gestured toward the bed. “Have a seat.”
She thought of herself in that bed, with him, doing the things the old woman had done, feeding her own desire. Her heart thundered. She sat down on the bed, and drew off her boots. He hesitated only a second before sitting down next to her, drawing her dark hair through his rough fingers until it hung loose around her face. He pushed down the straps of her thin tank top, dropping a kiss at her breastbone. She lay back and he pressed himself against her and they sank into the old mattress together.
They took their sweet time, and when they finished, lying together in a sweaty tangle with the cool evening air wafting through the summer house, she drifted into sleep.
She woke in the dark, shivering, sweating. She was thankful she was lying down; she felt dizzy.
He muttered something.
“I have to go,” she said. “My friend’s waiting for me.” She didn’t really think so; Ellie had probably given up and gone on into town, where there was a safe house for the uninfected.
Rachel sat up slowly, letting the vertigo recede, and collected her scattered clothes. She dressed and he watched her, propped up on one elbow.
“Mercy or convenience?” he said at last.
She stopped and looked at him. “I did shoot her, and I’m sorry for that. But Fast A killed her long before I did.”
She sat down to put on her boots, but before she could move away, he reached out and touched her ear, his finger sliding along the earring. She froze.
“Do you know what one of the first symptoms is? Increased sexual appetite. The virus wants to spread, and the best way to do that is to increase proximity to hosts.”
“I don’t have –”
“When she got infected, she told me she wanted to remember this place. She knew she didn’t have much time, so she remembered what she loved the most — here.” He gestured. “Our summer house in its grove of fig and peach trees. When I saw you at the gate, I knew she had told you, and I knew she had remembered. She gave you these, didn’t she. Her gift – she gave you – ”
He was crying. With clumsy fingers, Rachel took out the earrings and pulled hard at the necklace, snapping the thin chain. They fell to the floor with a soft tinkle. She pushed blindly toward the screen door, stumbling a little. It screeched open and banged shut behind her. It was dark in the garden, the flagstone path a pale glimmer, and she had to fumble at the gate latch before it would open.
The front stoop was empty. Rachel began the long walk down to the town.
She was shivering hard by the time she reached the business district. Her throat was sore, her fingers stiff. She stretched and clenched her fists, and the stiffness eased a bit. She had to find Ellie. She had to tell her – she didn’t know what she had to tell her. Hello, I’m in here. Don’t shoot.
She didn’t know how much time she had. No, she thought. I can still think. I can still reason. To prove it, she looked up at the street sign, illuminated by a fading electric light from a nearby store. She could barely make out the words – she was at Brookes and Highland Avenue. “All right,” she said out loud, her voice shaking. “Fi-five blocks to the safe house.”
If they would let her in.
They have to, she thought. They have to. I have to tell Ellie. The old woman was able to remember the two most important things. Rachel knew she could do it too. She concentrated on the words she needed, imagining herself forming new neural connections as the virus wove itself around the old ones.
Someone screamed and Rachel jerked up, but they ran before she could see what they were screaming at. She hurried.
She fell a couple of times – her feet didn’t work right. She broke out into a sweat – she could feel it matting her hair. Her fingers finally curled up into useless fists. Damn it, she thought. I need to find Ellie. I have to tell her.
Something hit her, and Rachel fell to her knees, crying out. She put up her fist to her stinging head and pulled it away. It was wet and sticky. She wiped the blood on her shirt and got up shakily. Stop, she wanted to say.
All of a sudden people were everywhere, shouting at her. Another rock hit her. Light flared from flashlights, and she held up her arm, wincing. Where’s Ellie? she tried to say. Ellie!
She scanned the crowd, trying to see through the glare, forcing the words to come out. Ellie! “Fi–fi–” No. That wasn’t it. She had to find Ellie before it was too late.
“Rachel?” She spun clumsily. Ellie looked at her. “God, Rachel. No. No. Not you.”
Ellie, listen. Listen. You have to listen. I’m still in here.“Figs-fig-fi–” Rachel forced herself to stop.
Ellie was crying. She pulled out the gun. “No Rachel. No please, go away.”
Listen. I’m still here. And I love you. I keep you sane, remember? You keep me crazy. And this has nothing to do with us. I will go with you, wherever you want. I won’t touch you, I won’t infect you. Because I can control this. I swear it.
Dammit. It was important and now she couldn’t remember what she wanted to tell Ellie.
“Stop saying that!” Ellie aimed the gun. “Please Rachel. Go away.”
She sent me to him, and I went. And oh God Ellie, I have so much to tell you. What she said, about pigs and feaches, she meant figs and peaches. Peaches, Ellie. The summer house in the grove was where they made love, and she sent me to him as a gift. Please, Ellie, listen to me. I love you so much, Fast A is just a part of it.
The sound of the safety clicking off rang like a shot itself in Rachel’s ears. She almost wept. Up until this point, Ellie had the safety on. She wasn’t going to shoot. She didn’t want to shoot. Rachel could still convince her. Rachel stumbled forward, hands outstretched. See? They’re fists, I closed them like that so I couldn’t touch you or hurt you. I can’t hurt you. I’m harmless.
The first shot dropped her and she stumbled and sat down, blinking, staring up at Ellie, who was screaming until her voice almost disappeared. “Go away! Go away! Goawaygoawaygoway!”
The pain spread in Rachel’s chest. It was hard to breathe. She concentrated with the last of her strength.
Ellie fired again. The bullet exploded through the tendrils of plaque, for one single bright instant throwing Rachel’s brain into sudden clarity. She looked straight at Ellie and said, “I’m here, Ellie. I’m here.”