It was the end of October, by Grant’s reckoning, and he was staring at the shiny chrome door of his Pod.
He’d come down to the basement to get a turkey dinner from the freezer. He had yet to tire of the taste, which was good, since that was all he had for food after the rats had gotten into his stash of Lucky Charms. There was also half a tub of crystallized peanut butter ice cream in there, theoretically saved for some special occasion he couldn’t quite admit would never arrive.
The Pod had been the trademark name for the cryosleep chamber. His folks had perished early in the Virus Era, leaving him the run of the house and enough money to make the cutting-edge purchase, back in a time of edges and purchases. He’d seen it in one of his father’s glossy magazines, the kind inflated with ads for luxury watches and mid-sized yachts. A ridiculous buy, made more so against the backdrop of the new mystery plague squeezing down on the world. Now it was his lifeline; his escape three months out of the year, a lowered-metabolism limbo of pleasant dreams and disorientation upon waking until remembering the world he was waking to. The redeeming cup of coffee, precious spoonfuls dug out from his very last desiccated jar of instant. It was important to have something to look forward to.
The Pod was his last line of psychological defense. Absent his annual 90 days of pod-bliss in “80% deep torpor” (that’s what the handbook said, and he had no reason to doubt it) there was only the cold comfort of his father’s old oiled-up pistol and an unopened box of bullets, neither of which he knew how to use but could figure out if necessary. He had become resourceful. He’d done a bit of shoplifting, and some mild housebreaking a couple of blocks over, when he had to.
He had kept the Pod a secret easily enough. Neighborliness was out, with everyone spaced out and huddled up in family knots. No one seemed to miss him when he disappeared three months out of the year. No one kept up with anything beyond the scope of their own existence. Last he’d heard the Deep South had been doing better, but were letting no one across their borders. The Supreme Court had decided in their favor in its last decision — a 4-3 verdict, after two Justices had perished suddenly from the virus. Congress had been decimated. He’d heard nothing about the president in years.
The boundaries against chaos would thin as the air chilled, with poignant memories of Christmases past intruding, leading to bitter reaction: looting, murders, suicides, general mayhem. Why not fast forward through it if you could, and eventually gain a few precious years of life? Maybe long enough to glimpse an end on the horizon? He had a freezer full of food that would last 14 months, if he spaced it out with the Pod and the house wasn’t ransacked. He kept a combination lock on the freezer.
Civilization is only three meals deep was the last thing he remembered from high school, a stray comment from his bored math teacher, right before they shut down the schools. Where was that poor sap now?
Sometime in the early days (memory became squishy when all days were the same), an old woman from the neighborhood had come around begging. An ugly, officious pest who had bitched for years to his folks about high grass and dog mess. Grant still remembered the beaten look in her eye after he had lied and said he had no food to give her. The little surge of glee he’d felt turning her down came back at him at odd intervals in bursts of shame. She hunched through his cryo-dreams right along with all his other neighbors, living, dead, or unknown, along with their slightly feral children and their dogs, filing past one by one, muttering cryptic things to each other that were puzzling even within the dream bubble.
Grant realized he had been staring at the chrome door for some time. How long? Who knew? The wall clock was stuck forever at 25 minutes to six.
He went back up the stairs, huffing past the spotted mirror. He didn’t need it or the dead digital scale to know he’d lost weight. The way his ratty clothes hung on him told all. His face was pocked with acne. He’d become thin and greasy, just like he’d been in high school. And out of soap, though that didn’t matter. The handwashing cult had been out for years.
He shoved the dinner in the oven.
He threw a blanket around his shoulders and stood in the doorway (the door was propped up on hinges) taking in the air in deep heedless lungfuls. Dead trees with sagging limbs remained, but the birds kept shy. So many had been shot or poisoned at the beginning, suspected of being spreaders.
Mrs. Parks was out on the sidewalk, her eyes focused on her bare feet as she navigated the crumbled, weedy path, face half-hidden in gray hair that hung in hunks past her shoulders, in her face and eyes. Either she’d finally run of rubber bands to hold it back or she’d found it no longer worth her while.
Neither of them acknowledged the other.
The Parks were a grumpy, middle-60s couple with not much to recommend them, but he appreciated the fact that they were still hanging around (the husband lived in a camper in the driveway). You didn’t see old folks anymore. Most had quietly dropped out of the equation. When kids started getting the virus, the whole society had kind of sagged.
He didn’t see his annoying neighbor Grasley, which was fine. Grasley owned Harvey, a German Shepherd with a similar mean personality. The man had originally resided four houses down but had taken over next door after the owners had died. He had helped himself to Grant’s fridge once too often, so Grant had spiked some bean dip with rancid dog food. That had been their last exchange. Too much alike to like each other — like staring into a dirty mirror.
The last census had been a cause of national dispirit, with several killings and even rumors of cannibalism. It had put a damper on the door-to-door concept. No official entity tabulated deaths anymore. Only the street counts of backyard holes remained. Death was a buzzing bee; noticeable, but reduced to the background if you’d been listening for long enough.
Grant had no one to dig a grave for him, but he kept a hole fresh. Maybe someone would pity him. If they noticed he was missing. Maybe he could set the house on fire. Did he even have matches…?
He looked in on the TV dinner. About halfway done.
It was a restless evening, colder than usual, even with the blanket slung around his shoulders that made him look like a thrift-store emperor. Evening entertainment was spotty. The DVDs that were supposed to last forever had corroded beyond use. The porn clips on his creaky laptop still worked but made him feel wan, left him wondering what happened to the girls. Especially the little redhead, who seemed so frail.
Without conscious effort, Grant found himself back in the basement, staring at the Pod. He was feeling itchy tonight. If he went in tonight he would wake up in late January. He’d have preferred emerging in spring as usual, like a butterfly, but there was a strict limit of 90 days of cryosleep per 12-month period, a rule he was afraid to override lest he disrupt the machine’s delicate mechanics and be stuck living 12 months every year until he died.
Impulsively, Grant set the process in motion, letting the Pod warm up the required three minutes. Then he set the timer to the maximum 90 days and unlocked the door and stepped inside and let it close on him.
The next second he was frozen unconscious, and soon he was dreaming of strange neighbors and gentle dogs.
He woke to a creaking, cranking sound — the mechanism was straining, balky. He kicked the hatch open from the inside with his weakened legs. His first sensation was a strong smell of soot. Staggering out, he peeled the sleep from his eyes and saw the outside of the hatch had been dinged up, like someone had taken an iron bar to it.
He staggered up the steps and opened the door and stepped out into a cold, airy world without walls.
The house was gone, burnt to the tiles.
He had left the oven on.
He drifted toward the stovetop on instinct, but the oven was a warped and melted wreck. No coffee today.
No coffee ever again.
Grant’s vision began to unblur. All that remained of his family home were the sturdiest pieces of furniture, like his metal dining table, which now had several people gathered around it. Even a couple of kids. The Parks were standing together, for the first time he could remember. Beyond the thin, bony shoulders of his neighbors, the vista had expanded, emptied out.
Besides the kids, he recognized all eight or nine guests, though not all by name. So many years since he had seen people packed so close together. It was hard to take in. They had come unkempt, uncombed hair full of ash, all wearing the same short blue feathers in their hair. A rescue party? A block party? Was this a feast laid out for him, as the guest of honor? His mouth tingled.
“Can I offer you some refreshment, ladies and gents? Some ice cream, perhaps?” Hope, the dangerous thing, flickered. Otherwise it made no sense for everyone to be standing so close together…
“Took you long enough,” Grasley said, hoarse. The tallest, he stood behind the rest, restraining a thinned, frantic Harvey on a leash. His beard had gone slate gray, the features behind it no longer jowly, just haggard. Not even the cruel light in the man’s eyes, which on bright days could pass for mischief, remained. “We figured you were in that contraption downstairs.” Harvey whimpered on the close leash.
The others stood slumped at his command, stoically freezing in ragged clothes. He recognized their look, from his long-dead neighbor.
A bonfire raged in the backyard — his grave pit had been repurposed. He moved toward the fire, warming his hands reflexively. The air was much, much colder.
Grasley whistled, and the others rushed Grant, even the children, each holding a segment of rope manifested from somewhere, a ludicrously thin strand that wound around and around him. His shape had long dissipated, crystallized inside the sleep chamber, and the fervor of desperation gave his captors strength. They wound him meanly tight and pushed him toward the pit. His flaccid legs gave no resistance.
“Spin him around.” Grasley ordered, stepping forward with a carving knife. Grasley’s whole body trembled with the effort but his grip did not fail as he started slicing at Grant’s neck.
After the first sharp shock it went painlessly: Dizziness, then a curious warm feeling surging through his veins. Then he was in the bonfire, and the warmth increased.
They gathered above him, shadows against the sky, plates in hand, mouths open in anticipation, watching him writhe. A panicky high-pitched barking reminded him of the chirp of birds.
His last thought: Don’t forget Harvey.