Marie woke to the fragrance of coffee brewing. At least she thought she could smell it. She couldn’t remember the aroma being so strong. Maybe Bill had made it his special way this time.
“Bill?” Still mostly asleep she reached for the comfort he would give her. But his side of the bed was cold. “Bill?” She forced her eyes open. Grayness greeted her. There was no longer the fragrance she enjoyed. A heavy weight spread through her chest. The sour taste, that never seemed to go away, grew stronger. Accepting the inevitable, she sat up and stretched to slippers that waited to protect her feet from floor tiles that bent up, eager to nip at her toes. When she braved going into the main room, wooden furniture stood to attention, offering little solace. Thin fingers of frosty white fog crept through cracks and under doors.
In the kitchen, the coffee pot was cold. There was no electricity. Disappointment bit into her as she lit the camp stove. The old percolator took its time, but finally started to spit and sputter. Hot water pressed through the last of the coffee grounds. She didn’t wait for it to finish, instead she poured the strong liquid into Bill’s favorite cup. Even though she preferred it black, she used what was left of the milk to fill the mug to the brim, adding three spoons of sugar to the concoction. This had become her waking tradition. Now, that would come to an end too, just like so many other things had.
In the living room she sat on the faded leather couch, and faced the cold lifeless hearth. A familiar grip tightened in her chest. During better times a warm fire had blazed bringing a soothing heat to the apartment. She pulled her knees to her chin and rested the mug so the steam could waft into her face. Don’t look up, the words screamed through her mind. Against her will, her eyes moved upward. On the mantel above, a cold gray urn held Bill’s ashes. Reality twisted through her.
The doorbell rang, startling Marie from her reverie. “Marie? Marie Wickstran. It’s me, Sam Nhatim.” When Marie unlocked it, Sam pushed the door all the way open so she could enter. Long blond hair hung in wet strings around her face. “Aren’t you ready yet?” Greenish water dripped on the worn blue carpet.
“I’m not sure I want to go.” Marie returned to the couch and sat down.
“Mmmm. That smells good.” Sam pointed at the mug. “Do you have more?”
“Sure.” Marie nodded, then motioned with her head to the kitchen. “I used all the milk, but there’s more coffee. It’s the last.” Marie ducked her head.
When they finished, she could put it off no longer. Marie grabbed her coat. What could it hurt? It wasn’t as if they would change her mind about staying behind. If somehow they could bring Bill back, maybe. That wasn’t going to happen.
The meeting was in the middle of the park on the outskirts of town. In the half empty parking lot, Sam turned off the engine of the small red car. It rattled its reticence to quit, then coughed with a final shudder.
A bright flash of lightning lit the way into the one standing structure, a small elongated building with large windows on one side. These overlooked the rushing torrent of a greenish brown river. In happier times, weddings and family birthdays were celebrated here. Now old with decay, the smell of mold greeted them when they entered. Another flash joined with a deep rumble that shook the air.
“It’s starting.” Sam shivered. “Mark, make room, please.” Sam’s smile could melt any man’s heart. She was one of those people everyone wanted to get to know.
Slender and nondescript, Mark sat on one of the benches that lined all the walls, except the one with the windows. He smiled and stood. “Sure thing sweetie.” Another flash brightened the room.
Before dark settled back, Marie sat down on the bench between Sam and Mark. Chairs placed in rows across the floor held a mixed assortment of unfamiliar faces.
In the middle of this small sea, a heavyset woman stood. “My son says we have nothing to fear. We just have to–”
An angry response of mumbling voices overpowered her words.
“Now Ethel, we all know what your son says. But where is he now?”
“He…he…’ Ethel plopped back down as if the growl of voices pushed into her seat.
“That’s Ron,” Sam whispered. “He’s got everything set up for us.”
The droning voice of Sam’s friend pressed Marie further into her corner. I shouldn’t have come. Marie wished she were home, wrapped in the soft blue blanket Bill had bought her on their second wedding anniversary. Instead, here in the thickening mist, cold penetrated even the heavy coat she wore. Something tickled her ear. The only thing visible was a soft tendril of fog that touched the heavy gray material. She pulled the collar closed.
The meeting didn’t last long. For Marie it only brought more questions and doubt about any success for survival.
Even though there was no use arguing, Sam tried. “Why don’t you come out into the woods with us?”
“What makes you think it’s safe out there?” Marie brushed at the moisture that still clung to her jacket sleeve. “Ouch.” A dot of bright red blood grew on her finger.
“We’ve got all kinds of ammunition and plenty of fuel for our fire. That’ll stop ‘em.” Sam didn’t pay any attention to Marie’s reticence. “Anything or anyone that tries to get us will have to face an army. Here we don’t stand a chance.”
“I’m so tired of hearing about surviving. Nothing’s going to be the same. I just want to curl up and… and…” Marie let her voice trail off with a sob. She put her finger in her mouth and sucked. There must have been a sticker in the sleeve, from the last time she and Bill went camping. The salty taste of her own blood strengthened what little resolve she had.
Another clap of thunder brought a shudder to the building. A window shattered. Plaster fell around them. Wind and rain battered the roof, tearing the protection to shreds. In the growing gale, angry clouds gobbled the sky’s remaining light.
“We need to get out of here.” Mark stood. “You have a car don’t you?” He asked.
The others flooded out, leaving them to fend for themselves.
“Yeah, come on.” Sam led them back to her car. At first it wouldn’t start. Finally, after letting it grind and grind, the motor coughed to life.
“Whatever else you do, take me home first. Or I’ll get out and walk,” said Marie.
“Fine. We can talk more there.” With a continuous clank, Sam drove them back to the house. When she pulled to the curb, the car moaned and belched a black cloud before it died.
The storm that first made itself known at the park grew stronger.Lightning struck, sending sparks cascading from a large maple tree in the yard.
“Let’s get inside,” Sam hollered.
Marie tried to beat them inside, hoping the other two would turn back and leave her alone. She should have known better. Mark was too fast. He grabbed the door and held it open. As puny as he looked, there was no way she could overpower his grip. “No,” she coughed. The ozone stench that reminded her of bleach and cat urine overwhelmed her, leaving no further words to escape. The only thing to do was stomp to the couch, where she plopped down. Pulling the blue blanket off the back of the sofa, she drew her knees to her chin, and wrapped the soft fabric around her.
Mark grabbed for her. An almost invisible tendril of mist licked out at him. He flew backwards against the fireplace, and slid to the floor. “What the?”
Sam knelt beside him. “We can’t force her.” She whispered, as if she were afraid someone, or something might hear her.
“No you can’t,” Marie gasped, not sure how she really felt. What she thought she’d seen totally unnerved her. She got up, with the blanket still wrapped around her. Keeping her distance she edged past them, and made her way to the bedroom. Before she could say anymore, a flash of lightning cut through the dark. A round ball of electrical current bounced through the room. The ozone stench grew. Marie reached for the knob. Something made her hesitate and pull her hand back.
The electrical charge turned away. A loud bang sounded. A bright spike of energy shot out barely missing Sam and Mark.
Once more Marie reached for the handle. A gentle warning grew in her mind. On the other side of this door was what she had planned for the last month. It’s time to give up, she thought. Sadness overwhelmed her. The little pocket in the coastal region of the north-western hemisphere had offered a unique, quiet life. Now the only thing it gave her was a place to curl up, a place to die alone. She’d accepted that long ago. She just wished it would happen so she could join Bill. After all, it was her fault. Still, she could not force her hand to move.
Not your fault. A musical voice sounded in Marie’s mind.
Chill from the thought spread through her. She turned around. “I thought I was ready.”
A soft tendril, more like smoke, wafted to the ceiling. Mesmerized, Marie watched the swirling white mist grow. It stopped in front of her for a moment, then moved away in a fluid movement, as if a soft unheard ballad inspired its progress.
“If you go in there, it’s over,” Sam gasped, drawing Marie’s attention back to her and Mark.
Before Marie could respond, the building began to shake. On the mantel the container with Bill’s ashes fell to the floor and broke open. The front window shattered. Wind and rain entered unabated. Another shudder brought the ceiling down in chunks.
It’s my fault. Again music formed in Marie’s mind. But the only thing that concerned her were the ashes. She tried to make her way to the fireplace. “I…I have to–” A blast of thunder overpowered her words. The floor buckled, and the walls began to give way.
The growing white vapor made a quick turn and descended at a dizzying rate, to plunge into the contents of the shattered urn. A long drawn out yowl made Marie shiver. It was too much like the usual reprimands from Jinx, the black cat, whose ashes were mixed with Bill’s.
“Marie?” Bill’s voice joined with the cat’s cry. “Marie, I need you.”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” said Sam. Somehow, she and Mark had made their way to Marie’s side. “I’m not sure what’s going on, but we can’t stay here.”
“Please Marie. I need you.” Bill’s voice pleaded.
“I want it to be Bill. I need it to be Bill. But…” Marie sobbed.
Sam extended her hand. Marie grabbed hold as if it was a lifeline that would pull her back to a secure reality. Something wrapped around Marie’s right ankle and yanked hard. She screamed.
Just as suddenly as it grabbed hold, it let go.
Another, longer yowl grew with an accompanying boom of thunder. Everything went dark.
Marie felt something tug at her pant leg.
Someone, or something took a strong grip on her arm and pulled. The bedroom door flew open, then slammed closed once she was on the other side.
The same force drew Marie to the bed. A soft inviting touch pulled her down.
“I’m back.” Bill’s soft voice joined with a gentle caress on her neck.
Marie pulled back. “It can’t be,” she cried, wanting it to be him so badly she could barely breathe. Overwhelming longing overpowered her.
“Why not?” her husband’s soft voice taunted.
“Marie. Marie. Come out of there.” Pounding on the door accompanied Sam’s words.
Lightning struck, leaving a gaping hole high in the wall. Chunks of ceiling rained down.
“It’s alright.” Bill’s touch grew more passionate. Soft fingers stroked down her body, between her breasts.
“It can’t be Bill,” Mark joined with Sam trying to draw her out. “He’s dead.”
Those words struck Marie with a hurt no physical blow could cause.
“Don’t listen to them,” Bill’s voice whispered.
But Marie did. “They’re right. I started the process. I talked you into going to the asteroid.”
Marie sat up and pulled away. A chunk of ceiling fell, striking her on top of the head. It hurt so bad, she thought she would throw up. “Why can’t you be Bill? I’d go with you this time. If only you could come back to me.”
“It is me.”
Light stretched glowing fingers under the door. Dim as it was, it shattered the dark. Marie felt more than saw the swirl of mist encircling her. The touch she’d so enjoyed pulled away.
With a louder bang than the thunder, the door caved in leaving a gaping hole. Mark leaned on Sam. Neither made a move to enter.
“Please,” Sam whispered. The ax she’d used to break down the door fell as she adjusted Mark’s weight against her right side.
Marie stood and put her hands out and took the lantern Sam held in her left hand. Brightness flooded through the room, as it reflected off the mist that swirled throughout.
“Good,” Mark’s voice rasped over the growing rumble of walls collapsing. “Let’s get out of here.”
Marie didn’t wait for instructions. She ran for the outside. All around, things tossed and pitched through the air. Lightless lamp posts fell over. Darkness grew palpable. Mist built with a growing spiral that followed them. Buildings collapsed with a growl. Metal groaned as it crumbled, like so much tinfoil.
“Marie.” Bills voice tugged her back.
She didn’t want to ignore it, but she knew this was her only chance.
“Just a little farther,” Mark called. He ran down the middle of the street, motioning for Marie and Sam to follow. “The others are waiting us.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth, than an old yellow school bus rumbled up. The door opened. Marie climbed in with Sam and Mark following. Close to the back, Marie took a seat in front of the one Sam chose. Mark sat down across the long empty isle from them. Mist batted against the window, but found no entery.
A soft rustling from overhead brought a downpour of soggy leaves. As if in response to the fear that raced through her body, branches pounded against the bus. The back window shattered, leaving tracks through the glass that reminded her of the spiders’ webs that hung from ceilings in old abandoned school buildings.
Wind that whistled along the sides gained access. Thin fingers of mist reached through the hole. Bill’s voice called out. “Marie. Please. I need you. You need me.”
The naked truth of the statements tore into her. Her stomach twisted into a tight knot. “Leave me alone,” she cried.
“If I can’t have you, I’ll take someone else.” The wisps grew thicker as they reached past and wrapped around Sam’s neck. “Shall I take her?” The transparent threads released and wrapped around Mark. “No, he would be better.” The grip tightened.
Mark tried to scream, but no sound came out. His eyes bulged and his tongue protruded between blue lips.
“Bill wouldn’t do this,” Marie hissed.
“Wouldn’t he? Then why am I the last of my breed?”
The words chilled Marie. She didn’t have to ask. Somehow she knew it had something to do with the asteroid mining she’d convinced Bill and his friends to participate in.
“Stop!” Sam jumped up. From a pocket, she pulled out a lighter. The rich yellow flame cut through the mist with a sizzle.
The overpowering smell of ozone choked Marie. “But there wasn’t anyone on the asteroid,” she said.
“Maybe not anyone. But there was something… Many some things.” The voice carried such pain it was like a knife cutting into her.
The mist retreated down the isle, pulling Mark. Sam followed, trying to use her lighter. The tendrils evaded her. “I’ll be back. You owe me.” Bill’s voice seethed.
“Let him go,” Sam begged. It did no good.
Mark’s limp form bounced along the floor and out the back window. Pulled up, for a long moment his feet dangled, kicking wildly. Loud bangs on the roof traced his route along the ceiling to the front of the bus. When his terror-frozen face slid down the front windshield, Sam screamed. His eyes, now devoid of life, streaked the window, leaving a viscous trail.
The driver jammed on the brakes.
Stunned silence filled the bus. Marie couldn’t move. She should have done something, but what she wasn’t sure.
“Ma…Mark,” Sam sobbed. She was first to the front of the bus. The door swung open at her pounding. Two men jumped up from the front seat to grab her.
“Shut that door,” the taller of the two turned and shouted at the driver.
“We can’t leave him out there.” Once more Sam pounded on the door.
The second man, shorter than the first with long black hair, tried to wrap his arms around Sam and pull her back.
She kicked and scratched, trying to get away. “We can’t leave him there,” she screamed again.
The pain in Sam’s voice struck Marie. It was like waking from a deep sleep. “She’s right. Let me go out. I can bring him in.” She pushed her way past and pressed against the door. It opened with a screech. Before anyone could stop her, Marie stepped into the dark and moved around until the brightness of headlights surrounded her.
Mark’s lifeless body had caught on the front bumper.
She tugged on the arm closest to her. At first nothing happened. A sound in the dark startled her. She turned. Her foot landed on a surface too slick to give the traction she needed to remain upright. With a squish, she slid with the force she’d exerted. Mark’s body pulled from its anchor. His head rolled around. His one remaining eye stared at her, as dead weight pulled him with a thud to the ground. His other eye, still attached to the window, popped open and splattered when his right hand swung out and struck it.
The music Marie’d heard back in her apartment blared from somewhere deep in the woods. She jerked out of the way of the falling corpse and fell back. But instead of pitching onto the hard ground, something caught her. Tender arms wrapped around and gently lowered her body.
“I won’t hurt you, my love,” Bill’s voice whispered in her ear.
A sense of fingers pressed into the small of her back. The sweetness of rich earth filled her nostrils. The sensation of a soft nibble on her neck made her shiver. She found no comfort in the words or the tender caress. “You killed my friend.” Her tone was flat. “Why won’t you leave us alone?”
He reached for her, as if he would consume her. “My temper got the best of me,” he said. “I didn’t understand how fragile your species is. Mine was stronger, but you are the ones who survive.”
“I didn’t realize.” Emotion choked the words from her. “You are the last?” Even though she knew this was not Bill, he was as close as she would ever get.
“You’re beautiful.” The gentle touch pulled away. “I’m sorry about your friend.” Quiet, overpowering quiet grew between them.
Marie sensed forms staring at them. It was the occupants of the bus. Some seemed to be shouting. There was no sound. Sam was jumping up and down. With sadness that tugged at her heart, Marie realized all these people were strangers to her. She didn’t even know Sam that well. Here in front of her, on the other hand, was the incarnation of her dead husband, the one person who knew her better than anyone else. The person she’d chosen to spend the rest of her life with. That last thought made Marie take a deep breath. Whatever this was in front of her, it was not a person. It definitely was not Bill.
“I know.” The words came out of the lips that looked so much like Bill’s. “Before I leave give me one thing.”
The pleading in soft blue eyes could not be denied. “If I can,” she whispered.
“Lie with me before I go. Close your eyes and be with me, not Bill.”
“I can do that.”
“First.” Bill raised his hand. All went dark.
All those who shouted at her disappeared from sight. Somehow Marie knew they could no longer see her either. There was no need to keep her eyes open, so she closed them.
Soft and gentle, the sensation of an inquiring touch spread over her body, as if two human hands explored every part of her. She felt more alive than she had ever felt. “Take me with you.” The words burst from her.
“I can’t do that. But I can give you something to live for.”
With that her body felt like it was on fire, consumed by passion that built beyond her ability to bear. She tried to reach out, to find something solid to grab hold of, but there was nothing but the soft grass beneath her, crushed by her body. The smell lingered building with the memory of sadness and surrender.
“Marie?” Sam’s voice startled her.
Marie opened her eyes. “Oh!” Everyone from the bus had made a circle around her. Headlights brought brightness back. Overhead, neither mist nor fog dimmed the light of a full moon. Stars winked as if they knew her secret.
“What happened?” Sam asked.
“He had to go.” Marie said. “We don’t have to worry any more.”
“He?” The man who’d kept Sam from leaving the bus asked.
“The last of a dying breed. We can rebuild our lives without worry of his return.” Marie put a hand on her belly. At least not about that, she thought.