Soaked, Sam’s T shirt and shorts cling, heavy on his skin. Through the dark the rain comes at him almost sideways, windblown, stinging. The wet sand deepens and tugs at his bike tires, but he presses on slowly to Bramble Lane.
Barely a shadow, a low shape darts and stops and darts again in the tilting periphery of his vision, and he cannot blink it away, even with the quick hand he lifts from the handlebars of his bike to wipe at his rain-spattered eyes.
He would slow, but can go no slower without stopping, so he stops, touching his toes down for balance as he peers into the darkness. A dog stares back, trembling too, fearful but drawn slowly forward, short fur rippling.
“Hey, boy. Hey.” Have animals been infected, too? What would their pain be like, of awareness uninterrupted, of constant movement, noise, light, endlessly?
The dog whines, stops and half turns away, turns back, whining again. Sam approaches slowly, a hand extended, palm down, low. “Easy. Easy there.” A metal tag glints, dangling from a black collar Sam can barely see against the dog’s soaked fur.
How far has this one wandered? Sam shields his eyes from the downpour and looks around; he’s on a remote stretch of lane between dunes, and his eyes strain to see another glint of light – from the open doorway of a lone beach house, flickering distantly between gusts of rain, like a broken beacon as the door swings open and shut to no rhythm but the wind’s. Not a hundred yards off.
The dog starts slowly toward it, pausing to look back, as if leading. But why follow? If that’s his home, he’s not far enough to be lost. But the door left open to the storm? The dog quivering with fear?
Sam sighs and starts forward, half-rolling, half-dragging his bike along through the wet pelted sand. The house sits atop a dune tall enough to require steps, and these are tiered railway ties with broad landings, a few too many to drag the bike up, so Sam leans it against a rickety wooden erosion fence and follows the dog up to the yawning doorway.
“Hello?” The wind swallows it, so he shouts, “Hello?” his voice ringing off the hardwood floors and wainscoting.
A hand out, grasping the edge of the front door before it swings again, Sam steps into the doorway, hesitating to listen. Close by, the surf sends up its broad, menacing sound, basso thunder and seething hiss. Rain streaming from the eaves, the gurgle and clatter of runoff in roof gutters. No one.
The high foyer light is a wooden chandelier, a ship-timber theme repeated in the gray hardwood planks of the floor Sam steps slowly across. Ahead, another half open door seems a reproach, the hallway dimming along its length to another door shut tight, no trace of light beneath it.
Sam peeks slowly around the edge of the first, at a clean, well-lighted living room of white denim slip-covered couches, hurricane-style lamps, wood barrel end tables of distressed staves: Pottery Barn Cape Cod, spacious but inviting, neat as if ready for company.
He glances back to see the dog has disappeared, suddenly, unaccountably.
It’s dim at the other end of the hall, which is just exactly that, of course – a hall to a door, where they all seem to lead, the point of a hall, after all. He wants to laugh and yawn at the same time, a twinge at the joint of his jaw. A hollowness within slows him, a flutter of viscera. There’s a gap in the drumming of rain, filled by a moan of wind.
His hand twitches for his lost flashlight, but he takes a breath and a few resolute steps to the shut door and raps on it, knuckles first — thin, unconvincing impacts — and then simply bangs the heel of his palm hard against the wood.
“Hello?” He shouts it. Why waste anyone’s time here?
The doorknob feels warm in his wet fingers, and turns easily, the latch mechanism releasing smoothly. He tries a soft push first, to just glide the door open.
It’s loose, but stuck, too, somehow. Something heavy up against it, other side.
A muscle lurches in Sam’s chest, a quick gripping, as if against some larger force trying to pry his arms wide, trying to open him. But it’s just another door right here, in a world of others.
A firmer shove still fails to budge it, and Sam finally puts his shoulder into it, nearly slipping in the wetness of his own soaked boat shoes.
The door gives, grudgingly, a fraction of an inch.
Again, cursing softly, “Fucker.” Harder now.
Something on the other side slips, flops heavily over, with a thick, dull slap on the floor.
A prickle crawls up the back of his neck, the tightness in his chest twists outward, and he leans with his full weight to push the door harder against the weight of whatever prone thing is now sliding away, an obstinate inch at a time along the floor.
A sightline opens, narrow, into darkness complete. He lifts a hand to feel blindly around the edge of the doorframe for a light switch, but a heavy waft of cloying odor, palpably warm, feels like someone’s breath on his face, and he yanks his hand back.
Back up, now, away. Call the Chief and let him find whatever there is to find. The Fire Auxiliary guys, Steve, Tim, what’s-his-name, the EMT. It’s their jobs, best luck to them. So just turn now, blunder away back to the bike, and pedal hard straight back to his boat snug in its marina slip and a warm berth, where sleep may yet come.
He moves quickly back down the hall to the lit foyer, eyes searching. For what?
There, a faux-antique wooden boot bench with a hinged seat. He lifts it and rummages past the rubber boots and umbrellas to find what he hoped for: a serious, four “C”-type battery flashlight. He flicks it on; even in this bright shadowless foyer, the trace of a beam snaps out, dancing along the wainscoting.
Good enough, it seems, when he returns to the ajar door at the end of the hall and sends a broad beam into a shadowy, cluttered, if tidy kitchen. He hesitates, seeing stacked baking tins, pricey stainless cookware hanging from a pot rack. Behind the chunky stove, a row of prep knives gleams darkly from a mag strip. A cook’s kitchen.
He shoves the door wider, enough to step carefully inside, a hand covering his mouth, beam already finding a bay window behind dual prep sinks, sealed with layers of gray duct tape. Quick now, to pull a knife from the block and slash sideways at the duct tape, parting it, yanking the frayed edges of the gaping split back to crank open the side casements, and breathe in great lungs full of rich, wet night.
To the stove, now, a chunky stainless, commercial-style affair with oversized, gleaming knobs set full on, burners hissing like snakes. He snaps them off, and stops, a glimpse worrying the edge of his vision, still safely at the edge of his vision just so long as he doesn’t turn his head to look.
He turns his head, points the beam floorward, and takes a step around the edge of the broad kitchen island.
Fear would be familiar, something to which one may become accustomed, but this dread is a cold fist around his heart, a brutal, insolent grip.
His first recognition is of squares of solid colors, and he blinks to see they’re pillows — on which lie three prone, naked human forms, white as bone. His eyes follow the beam’s lit swath over details, refusing them, even as he understands they are a family: a young pre-adolescent girl, a father, a mother – though her body’s hands are not covered in quilted oven mitts like the others. Like the others, though, a quilted sleep mask covers her eyes, and her ears are hidden – behind furry-looking earmuffs.
Her hands are bare, one wrapped loosely around the wrist of the other and the other upturned, as if awaiting receipt of some object, a key or coin, a talisman to grant her passage.
Only after he has done his best to shut it from his mind and his memory of her, can he let himself admit he recognizes her, can he let his eyes wander again up her angled white neck to her lifeless head to her dull, lank red hair. Red.
The woman he quoted Wordsworth to. The world no longer with her, late and soon.
A dim, small white square on the countertop draws him closer. He bends to it, pointing the flashlight beam, to see his own rushed scrawl on the wrinkled, wet page from his prescription pad: the prescription never filled, somehow, with neither real nor ersatz sleeping pills. No matter which now.
His gaze darts away, to the young girl, and the downturned cell that lies beside her, the edge of its screen dimly flashing. He moves nearer, bending to flip it over and see the home screen notification center, pushed tweets appearing white on black, each new one pushing the last downward, one after another, all #sleepless43, until one stops him with a lurching in his chest, an ache in his throat:
asleep is the new dead