A Single Light
I miss ice cream. The way it melts into a soupy mess if you draw out the enjoyment of eating it too long. That it has to be savored in a rush.
I miss the Internet, my cell phone, and Netflix. I was halfway through the first season of Stranger Things when the lights went out.
I miss the sky. The feel of wind—even when it carries the perfume of a neighboring pasture. The smell of coming rain.
But even fresh air is a small price to pay to be sane and alive. To be with the people you love.
The ones who are left, anyway. My five-year-old niece, Truly. My mom’s former best friend, Julie, and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Lauren. And Chase—my (what? boyfriend?)—who has made it his mission to keep me safe since we met three weeks ago.
We’re five of the lucky sixty-three who have taken shelter from the flu-borne pandemic in an underground silo west of Gurley, Nebraska.
I used to hate that word—lucky. But there’s no better way to describe the fortune of food and water. Amenities like heat, clothing, and a bed. Not to mention an infirmary, gymnasium, library,
hydroponic garden, laying hens, and the company of uninfected others. All safe and living in relative comfort due to the foresight of a “doomsday prepper” named Noah, who thought of everything—including the pixelated walls and ceiling of the upper lounge aglow with a virtual meadowscape of billowing grasses and lazy bees beneath an artificial sky.
We spent the first four days confined to two of the silo’s dorm levels with the rest of the last-minute arrivals, waiting to confirm the rapid tests administered upon our arrival. Mourning the loss of Julie’s husband and Lauren’s father, Ken, and my sister, Jaclyn—Truly’s mother. Stiffening at any hint of a cough across the communal bunkroom, fully aware that there is no fleeing whatever we may have brought with us; the silo door is on a time lock, sealed for six months.
By which time the grid will be back up and the disease causing fatal madness in its patients should have died out with the flu season . . .
Along with most of its victims.
Luckily (there’s that word again), the tests held true and we emerged from quarantine to find our places in this new community.
That was nine days ago. Nine days of meeting and learning about the others, of feeding chickens on the garden level, starting a formal children’s school, and assuming new responsibilities on the kitchen, laundry, and cleaning crews.
Of speculating about what’s happening in the world above as we watch the electric sunset after dinner.
That first week I helped the children make calendars to hang by their beds so they could color in a square each night until Open Day—which is how I realized the scene in the atrium lounge is always attuned to the same sunny month: June.
If we had come here in June, would we be looking out on a snowscape more closely resembling the December weather above?
Yesterday was Christmas—the first one I’ve observed in fifteen years. I caught Julie crying and knew she was thinking of Ken, and wished, for the thousandth time, that Jaclyn was with us as Truly and I decorated a construction-paper Christmas tree.
She asks questions at night. About why I took her away from the compound we grew up in. Why her daddy couldn’t come. Questions I answer with lies.
• • •
I TAKE A seat on the floor near the end of the L-shaped sofa in the atrium, one of the last to arrive. It’s become regular practice for the community to gather on the upper level beneath the pixelated stars after the children are asleep. To sing songs everyone but me knows the words to as Preston, who used to run a bait and tackle shop, plays the guitar.
But mostly to share what we know about the disease. To mine hearsay for information in the absence of any real news, which is a scarce commodity.
Especially down here.
The chatter is lively tonight. I gaze up at the constellations I had no names for (I’d been taught it was a sin to see anything in the heavens but God) until the night Chase and I brought a sky map up from the library below and spent an hour lying on the floor, tracing their shapes in the air.
I rarely speak at these gatherings. My story of growing up in a religious commune, while apparently fascinating, has little to offer these discussions.
Julie, however, is the widow of the former field epidemiologist who caught the disease while traveling with the CDC team that linked its spread to the flu. As such, she’s routinely peppered with questions.
“Do they have any idea of the virus’s origin?” Rima, our resident nurse and one of the first people here, asks. Her adult son, Karam,
told me yesterday she used to be a doctor when they lived in Syria. “Is it a bird flu, or swine?”
“Forget the origin,” Nelise, a retired rancher who oversees the hydroponic garden with an obsessive fixation that could give even my OCD a run for its money, says. “How long till there’s a cure?”
She’s asked the same question every night since we were cleared to leave quarantine.
“Too long for anyone sick,” Julie says. She’s changed in the three weeks since I left her in Naperville. The woman who suffered no idiots is gone. She’s thinner, her complexion ashen as the lusterless gray taking over her once-blond roots.
But I know there is no cure. That the best anyone can hope for is a vaccine. That the fatal disease eroding the sanity of North America emerged with a caribou carcass from the melting Alaskan permafrost to infect a herd of pigs and mutated when an infected slaughterhouse worker also became ill with the flu.
I know this because I carried the index case samples myself to the man who is, at this moment, involved in the creation of a vaccine.
“Winnie?” Piper, our resident fitness instructor, says, startling me. It’s what Truly calls me, the name I gave on our arrival—the closest I dare get to my real name, which I will never speak again.
Piper is the thirty-something wife of Jax Lacey (also known as Jax Daniels for the cases of whiskey he brought with him), who preps meat in the kitchen—including a few hundred pounds of frozen game he shot himself. It’s apparently delicious, not that I would know; meat wasn’t allowed in the compound I grew up in.
And these days I’m glad to be vegetarian.
I glance at Piper and then follow her gaze across the room,
where Chase has just emerged from the tunnel connecting the subterranean atrium to the silo itself. The short crop of his hair has grown an inch in the three weeks since we met, and he hasn’t shaved for days. I like the rogue scruff even if it does obscure his dimples, but the tight line of his mouth worries me.
“How did you two meet?” Piper asks as I slide over to make room for Chase on the floor.
She thinks we’re married. That my last name isn’t Roth, but Miller.
“Oh, it’s a long story.”
I can’t say that it was while fleeing with the stolen index case samples.
Or that I’m wanted for murder.
I wouldn’t have even revealed my history with the cult I grew up in except I couldn’t risk Truly, whom I took from there just fifteen days ago, contradicting my story. At least the only people who’ve seen my picture on the news were those who had generators—and then only as long as stations managed to stay on air.
For now, I’m banking on the hope that by the time the lock opens and we emerge from the earth like fat cicadas, the hunt for me will be forgotten as the fugitive Wynter Roth becomes just one of thousands—possibly tens of thousands—missing in the aftermath of the disease. We have time to plan the rest.
169 days, to be exact.
In the meantime, I like to tease Chase that he’s stuck with me, which is more fact than joke. But at least he seems okay with that.
“What’d I miss?” Chase says.
“Piper wants to know how we met,” I say. I note the way she’s looking at him, taking in his fighter’s physique and olive skin. The mixture of ethnicities and striking blue eyes that would snag anyone’s gaze for a second, appreciative glance.
Chase chuckles. “The short version is Winnie’s car broke down while she was learning to drive—”
“After getting kicked out of that cult, right?” Piper says.
“After she had gone to live with Julie’s family, yes,” Chase says, stretching his legs out before him. “So there she was, stranded on the highway without a valid driver’s license. In Julie’s stolen Lexus.”
I roll my eyes. “It wasn’t stolen.”
It kind of was.
He leaves out the fact that it happened the morning after the grid went down as panic dawned with the day. That I barreled my way into his car—and his life—out of desperation to get the samples to Truly’s father at Colorado State.
“Ooh, so you’re an outlaw,” Piper purrs, glancing at me.
More than she knows.
I’m relieved when Nelise starts back in about the time she caught a cattle thief on his way to the auction house with two of her cows.
It always goes like this at night: speculation about the disease, and then stories from before. Some meant to impress. Some to reminisce. Others to entertain.
All of them pointless.
We will never be those people again. Julie, the Naperville socialite, whose money can’t buy her a single meal or gallon of fuel. Chase Miller, the former MMA fighter and marine, unable to combat the killer running rampant within our borders. Lauren, the popular high school junior who may never see her friends alive again.
Me, just starting over in the outside world, only to retreat from it more radically than before.
Today, a hospice center janitor is our chief engineer. An insurance broker heads up laundry. Julie runs a cleaning crew. Reverend Richel preaches on Sundays and is the only one Nelise trusts near the tomatoes. Chase works maintenance and teaches
jujitsu. Delaney, who ran a food bank in South Dakota, plans our menus. And Braden, who flipped burgers at Wendy’s, oversees the cooking.
I teach, as I did the last five years of my life inside the Enclave, and rotate between kitchen and cleaning shifts. I look after Truly. I am her caretaker now.
Micah, the computer programmer whose son, Seth, has become Truly’s new best friend, glances at his watch. At the simple gesture, conversations fade to expectant silence.
At eleven thirty-five exactly, the scene on the curved wall before us breaks, a shooting star frozen in midflight. And then the night sky vanishes, replaced by lines of static before the screen goes dark. A moment later it glows back to life, pixels reconfiguring into the form of a face.
It’s larger than life, the top of his head extending onto the curved ceiling. I’ve grown fond of the gray whiskers on his dark-skinned cheeks, the gaps between his front teeth. Even the rogue white hairs in his otherwise black brows that I wanted to pluck the first time I met him.
They are as endearing to me now as the man himself.
He’s a man resolved to save his own soul by saving the lives of others and one of the few people here who knows my real name. This is his ark.
But he is not with us. The time lock meant to keep intruders, chemical weapons, or nuclear fallout at bay requires someone from both the inside and outside to set it.
Noah sits in an office chair, plaid shirt peeking through the neck of a tan fleece jacket. The clock in the round wooden frame on the wall behind him shows just past five thirty. The usual time he records these briefings.
“Greetings, Denizens,” he says, with the calm assurance that is as much a part of him as the creases around his aging eyes.
“Hello, Noah!” Jax calls as similar greetings echo throughout the room.
“If you can hear this, knock twice,” Noah says with a grin. Chuckles issue around me. Last night it was “If you can see me, blink twice.” It’s a running joke; the atrium is three stories belowground and video communication is strictly one-way. Our messages to the top have consisted of nothing more than a digital “all is well” and “thank you” once a week since Day 1.
“What news we have is sobering,” Noah says. “Our ham radio operator reports dire circumstances in cities. Shortages of water, sanitary conditions, medicines, food, and fuel have led to more riots, fires, and the kinds of acts good men resort to when desperate. The death toll of those dependent on life-support machines will climb steeply in the days and weeks to come as those devices shut down, I’m sorry to say.”
Preston, sitting across from me, rubs his brows as though his head hurts, and Julie sits with a fist to her mouth. I know she’s thinking about her grown sons in New Mexico and Ohio. About her mother, already sick by the time she and Lauren fled the city for her house. Who turned them away without opening her door.
I think of Kestral, who first told me about this place. Whose return to the religious compound I grew up in must have induced a few coronaries given that our spiritual leader had told everyone she was dead in order to marry my sister. I hope Kestral’s safe. That even Ara, my friend and enemy, is, too.
“The greatest shortage after food, water, and fuel, of course, is reliable information,” Noah continues. “We are in the Middle Ages once more, operating on hearsay and what radio operators report. What I can tell you is that the attack on the substation in California
three weeks ago appears to be the act of terrorists working in conjunction with the cyberassault on the grid in order to prolong the blackout. The consensus is Russia, though there are those celebrating in pockets of the Middle East and Pakistan and groups claiming unlikely credit.”
“What about the attack on the CDC?” Nelise says.
“It’s got to be them,” Preston says.
“How is it possible we’ve harbored Russian terrorists in our country and not even—”
“Shh!” several others hiss as Noah continues.
“The president has not been heard from since his radio address last week. Foreign borders remain closed to Americans, and our neighbors to the north and south have sworn to vigorously defend their borders in an effort to stem the tide of Americans attempting to enter Canada and Mexico illegally. They don’t want us there, folks.” He hesitates a moment, and then says, as though against his better judgment: “There are reports that an Alaskan ship full of Americans was deliberately sunk when it wandered into Russian waters.”
Piper glances from person to person with a wide-eyed stare. Chase sits unmoving on my other side, jaw tight. There was news of a missile strike in Hawaii hours before we entered the silo. But that turned out to be only a rumor.
“There’s talk of aid from our neighbors and allies in the form of food, fuel, generators, relief workers, and engineers. How much and how quickly remain to be seen. I imagine sharing information toward the creation of a vaccine in exchange for help manufacturing it will be a part of that discussion. Our knowledge of the disease will be the best bargaining chip we have,” he says, gazing meaningfully at the camera with a slight nod.
“What knowledge?” Nelise says, too loudly. She’s unaware that not only does Noah know about the samples being used in the
production of a vaccine but two of his crew helped us get them over state lines in the middle of a manhunt. His pause is a silent acknowledgment of Chase and me.
“Meanwhile, we hear it may be March before the first power grids come back online. By which time we hope to have not only vaccinations but your favorite television shows waiting when you all reemerge. I will, of course, keep you apprised as we learn more. Hey, Mel—” he calls, leaning out in his chair. “Remind me to get a television, will you?”
Quiet laughter around me.
Noah looks back into the camera and smiles.
“We are well up here. You may be interested to know we’ve acquired our first acupuncturist, as well as a zookeeper specializing in reptiles. We are fifty-three in number. As you might guess, the bunkhouse is full, as is the main house. Packed to the gills. There’s a long line for the showers—those of us who grew up in houses with only one bathroom never knew we had it so good.”
He chuckles, and then says, more somberly, “I’m sorry to report that we have had to close our gates. I hope the day does not come that we have to defend them. And so our number stands at one hundred and sixteen souls above- and belowground. Too few, at the risk of being too many.”
He pauses, and I hate the disappointment that’s etched into his features. It causes his lip to tremble as he looks away.
Gazes drop to hands and laps around me. Julie swipes at her eyes.
A few seconds later, Noah continues: “Five of our number have assembled a country band. Which leads me to say that I hope you’re making good use of the keyboard and guitar in the library. Perhaps when you return to the surface we’ll enjoy an old-fashioned summer jam—” His attention goes to something below the edge of the
screen. “We have someone who wants to say hello.” He turns away in his chair and reaches down.
When he straightens, there’s a dog in his arms—a brown and white mix of churning feet and floppy ears panting happily at the screen.
“Buddy!” I shout happily at sight of the puppy Chase rescued during our journey west. A round of “aww” circles the chamber. I wish Truly was awake to see him. It’d been difficult to leave him topside, but in the end, practicality won out over the comfort of his presence.
Chase laughs and glances at me. “Can you believe how big he is?”
“You won’t believe how big this fella has gotten,” Noah says, and Chase points at the screen as Noah steals his words. “Artemis the cat, on the other hand, has become strangely thin despite the fact that I fill her bowl repeatedly throughout the day.” Chuckles issue around me as Noah lifts one of Buddy’s paws and waves.
“We’re signing off for now. I wish you a good night’s rest, a happy Boxing Day, as it were. A holiday I’m fond of for its—”
The screen freezes, Noah’s face separated into two disjointed planes by a line of static.
We wait, collective breath held, for the video to buffer and finish.
The screen goes blank instead.