The Hole — Chapter 1
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Elliot sat on the front steps of his house and sipped a warm Dr. Pepper as he watched his neighbor drag her husband’s corpse to the curb.
She was short, dark haired — like a pixie. Her husband was fat and stiff and filthy. Elliot liked her look. He was used to her husband’s.
Setting down the pop can, still feeling numb at the horror his life had turned into, Elliot realized he’d come to assume he was the only one left. It was a shock that this woman was alive.
He stood and walked across the lawn toward her. “Need help?” he called.
She turned and stared at him. Elliot smiled and lifted his arm in a half-hearted wave. He said, “You want me to help you?” Now only a handful of paces away, he said, “Evajean, right? Your name’s Evajean?”
She nodded, the dead man’s wrists huge in her small hands.
“I’m Elliot. I live next door.” He looked down at the body. “Where are you taking him?”
“Away,” she said.
“Okay. I’ll help. If he’s too heavy for you, I’ll help carry him.”
She nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Yeah.”
Elliot took the large man’s ankles, which were cold and greasy and the skin slid too easily over the bone. They moved him to an old Subaru — rusted and flaked, with the shadows of bumper stickers across the back — parked in front of Evajean’s house. She pulled keys from her pocket, unlocked the car, and lifted hatchback. “In here,” she said.
Elliot didn’t move. He thought, in the trunk?
Evajean didn’t seem to notice. She lifted and strained, trying to pull the body into the car. After a moment, Elliot shook his head, briefly closed his eyes, and helped her.
When they had her husband stowed away, Evajean reached up and yanked the hatchback closed. She looked through the dusty window at the body, her hands pressed to the glass.
Elliot stood behind her, one foot up on the curb, and waited. A moment later, Evajean turned away. “I’m going inside now,” she said.
“Sure,” Elliot said.
“Are you the only one?” she said. “The only one alive?”
“Besides you,” he said, “I think so.”
Evajean looked at him, at his chest and then his face and then a point beyond him. She nodded and walked up the middle of her lawn to the front door of her house, opened it, and went inside. She pulled the door shut behind her.
Elliot peered through the window of the hatchback. The man was hefty, he saw, not quite fat. His skin had gone black around his mouth. His lips had deep gouges and little crescent cuts. From fingernails, Elliot somehow knew, when she’d tried to force those lips closed.
From when she’d tried to shut him up.
With his own wife, Elliot had almost done the same.
He’d gone back into his house after that.
Elliot wanted to see her again. He’d thought he was alone, the last one left in Charlottesville, and now there was this woman, right across the street. Living and breathing — and not sick, not mad, not crazy.
But he knew the look on her face, the vacancy in her eyes. He wouldn’t disturb her. He’d let her grieve.
He poured a drink and took it to the living room. He sat in the large recliner and flipped up the leg rest and set the tumbler on his stomach as he looked out the front window. The sun had fallen below the tops of the trees across the street.
He wasn’t alone. He smiled at this simple pleasure and drank.
His wife and daughter were dead. Callie had gone first, her young body twisted at the end, her muscles taut against the pain. At least the madness had been brief — she’d been one of the lucky majority — and the disease took her without reducing her to an animal first.
With Clarine it was different. His wife died shortly after their daughter. They’d both known it was coming. She’d had the first symptoms days before they buried Callie. She’d grown lethargic, was then afflicted with something like the flu — but so much worse, so much more hateful and awful. The gibbering started a week later and Elliot had known it would be bad, that the madness which bypassed Callie would take his wife in full.
The flu part had gone away and her strength returned, but this was only the next step in the disease. She began to mumble under her breath and slur when she spoke to him. She tried to hide her terror at what was coming.
When Clarine could no longer control her speech and sat babbling in this same chair in which Elliot now drank and remembered, she’d pleaded with him to make it stop. She scrawled incoherent messages on scraps of paper and gazed into his eyes with pity and pain.
But he couldn’t cure her — and couldn’t bring himself to make the convulsive babbling cease. Not like Evajean had done.
So Clarine silenced herself. Before the disease claimed her entirely, turning her feral before killing her, she’d taken a crystal candlestick from the mantle, broken off the narrow end about two-thirds of the way up, and driven the base with its long glass spike into the fleshy area under her chin. It penetrated easily, cutting through the floor of her mouth, her tongue, and into her skull. Where she found the strength, he didn’t know.
Elliot finished his drink and set the glass on the coffee table. He leaned back and stared at the ceiling and fell asleep.
Evajean was knocking at the front door.
Elliot rubbed his eyes and climbed out of the chair, blinking in the sunlight coming through the window.
He opened the door and stepped back to let her in. She hugged herself and stared past him.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Please, come in.”
She didn’t. She said, “I — Is there…”
“There’s nobody else inside,” he said. “They’re buried under the tree.”
She exhaled and her shoulders relaxed. She stepped inside.
“You want anything to drink?” Elliot said. “I have bottled water. Also some whiskey.”
“Yeah,” she said.
He poured and handed her the glass. She took it and looked down into the drink. “Thank you.”
“Do you want to sit down?”
He took her into the living room. She sat on the couch. Elliot said, “I’m sorry about your husband.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Did you — ”
“A wife and daughter.”
“I knew that,” she said. “I’d seen them.”
“Clarine was my wife. Callie was my little girl.”
“Henry,” she said. “My husband was Henry.”
They both sat. Neither spoke.
A moment later, Evajean said, “What’s going to happen to us?”
Elliot thought about it. “We survive. We figure out how to survive.”
“I don’t think we’re going to get sick,” she said.
“Neither do I.”
“Why aren’t we?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many people died?” she said.
Elliot didn’t know. The plague had come only a month ago. In less than two weeks, nearly everyone he knew was dead. The power went out, the radio stations stopped broadcasting, and the Internet was silent. Newspapers stopped almost immediately. News outside of Charlottesville was impossible to come by. Clarine had always insisted they keep a stocked basement pantry, so Elliot and his family had not gone hungry. What little he’d learned of the plague came from watching his neighbors succumb, from talking to friends and relatives before the phone service collapsed, from seeing the disease kill Clarine and Callie and everyone else — except him. And except Evajean.
Elliot said, “Everyone died, I think.”
“Everyone but us.”
“Everyone but us,” Elliot said.
“Do you wish you’d died with them?” Evajean said.
Elliot looked away and scratched his arm. “No,” he said.
“You do,” Evajean said. “I do, too.”
Elliot shook his head. “No,” he said. “I thought I would, but I don’t.”
“I’m sorry I upset you.”
“No,” Elliot said. “I’m fine. Actually, I’m hungry. Do you want breakfast?”
They ate — canned peaches poured over dry cornflakes, with cranberry juice boxes. Evajean wolfed hers. When she’d finished, she said, “We can’t stay here.”
Elliot set down his spoon.
Evajean said, “Every house is full of bodies and the ones that aren’t, they’re buried in the yard. There’s no food in the stores. We’ll have to go into the houses and forage to get things to eat. I don’t want to do that.”
Elliot didn’t either. “Where would you go?” he said.
“Henry told me — He talked to me once about how I should go to Salt Lake City if anything happened to him.”
She laughed. “It’s crazy. I told him what am I going to do in Utah? He said — Henry said…” She stopped and stared at the table, closing her eyes.
Elliot let her sit.
Eventually, she said, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Elliot said.
She inhaled and let the breath out slowly. “I want to go to Salt Lake City,” she said.
“I want you to come with me.”
Elliot didn’t think before he answered, nor was he surprised by his response. “Of course,” he said.
“Really?” She grinned. She leaned across the small kitchen table and hugged him, then quickly pulled away. “Thank you,” she said.
They planned. Elliot had a pickup truck. Evajean had camping gear. They filled the truck’s bed with a tent and sleeping bags, with a portable stove and fuel, with cans of food and dry goods.
They agreed it wasn’t enough, not to travel across the bulk of the country. Not to travel into that unknown expanse of dead land.
There was a Walmart in Charlottesville. They’d drive there and see what they could find.
Elliot felt nothing leaving his home behind. Only a moment he spent looking out at the two mounds in the backyard, under the oak tree, one smaller than the other. Only a moment he thought of how they’d come to live here, he and Callie and Clarine — how his wife had suggested the move, had picked out the house, and he’d gone along with it. Just like he was going along now.
Evajean said “Thank you” as they pulled out of the driveway. Elliot tilted his head to look at her. She said, “This could be stupid. We could die out there. Thank you for coming with me.”
“Don’t worry about it. You were right, anyway. I can’t stay here.”
She nodded, staring out the window.
He hadn’t been off the block since Clarine died. Charlottesville’s streets and lawns were free of corpses. Folks sought privacy in death. The town didn’t look like a tomb. It was just vacant, like everyone had left to watch the big game.
The air stank. Faint, not overpowering, but noticeable as the wind carried it in through the truck’s open windows. Decay. A town rotting behind cheerful doors, within manicured tombs.