Every anthology needs a horror story to keep readers awake and worrying.
Can the world be destroyed with a thought? With a sound? With a transmission or electrical charge that circles the globe and touches a thought in every brain and thereby causes every brain to stop functioning?
Apparently, but please do not ask me how. I am not a scientist.
What I was on the last day of my memory was an extremely angry woman, living in a small house in a rural area, miles from neighbors, bored to distraction by my situation but hanging in there for the sake of the man I thought shared my love. And then he left me.
After the sobbing and screaming and last crashing bang of the front door behind his retreating shape, I headed for the phone, reached the bank and discovered he had cleaned out the accounts. All that money in his pocket and some bimbo waiting for him somewhere, well, of course I was furious. But not stupid.
I needed to drive into town, an amazing metropolis of about six thousand residents and so you know how many banks and law offices it contained. Yup, one of each. I needed to scream and pound desks and somehow retrieve some small amount of our bank accounts for myself until I could put my life together enough to figure out my next move.
Seven years! Seven years wasted living his dream, planting and tending a vegetable garden that supplied most our needs and took all my energy. Every day he drove off to his office, my idiot dentist husband, and every day I did the “back to nature” thing that hadn’t been my idea at all.
But I am tenacious. For love of the man, I made it work. I even split wood to feed a wood stove and pumped water from a well. I oversaw the installation of solar panels and a windmill that then provided all of our electricity, while my brain rotted because I had no time to build a career for myself. Worse, I never had more than a few minutes a day to scan the newspaper, which my husband usually forgot to bring home for me, and even less time to read a book.
With all those furious thoughts swirling, I rushed to the truck. He had a new car. I had an old truck. But it ran. And so I jumped into it, did a U-turn in the yard that left tracks in the thin snow, and sped down the road.
Angry, angry, angry, I slammed my foot on the gas pedal so hard the truck slid sideways across the icy road and skidded along the edge, tires slipping on gravel. I did remember how to correct. I pulled hard on the wheel and slid back to the center.
The last thing I heard was a horn blaring. Not mine. Someone else’s.
When I woke, I was on my back in a hospital bed with tubes attached everywhere. And for a terrible moment, I thought I must be horribly crippled. But when I tried to move, I could. And so I called for help.
My throat felt strangely dry, as though I hadn’t used it in months. When no one answered, I tried the rest of my body.
Everything seemed to work. Pain stayed in the bruised and aching range. Moving slowly, I sat up and pressed a call button on the bedside table. After waiting a bit, I let my independent nature kick in. I ripped off tape and pulled out tubes and finally managed to stand. Barefoot in a stupid hospital gown. And nothing at all wrong with me. I knew that because when I tried to walk, I could. Nothing collapsed.
My clothes were in a small closet. Possibly they were replacements. They showed no sign of damage. Perhaps someone had brought them from my house. Clean worn jeans and one of my old flannel shirts, plus underwear and shoes, and that’s really all I needed.
I did a stop in the rest room. When I saw my face in the mirror, I nearly fainted. I looked as though I hadn’t eaten in months. All the bones of my skull showed behind my dead white skin. The last time I’d seen my reflection, I’d had a round and suntanned face.
Thoughts clicked in. Memories of that horn honking. Obviously, I’d been in an accident, been unconscious for a day or two. Who loses that much weight in a couple of days?
And how long would it take to find someone who would give me honest answers? With my trust levels shot to hell by my philandering spouse, I naturally rushed to the foot of the bed and pulled out the manila folder. The rest of the world might be on computers but I was in Nowhereville’s hospital-clinic. Records were still kept by hand.
Daily records. Daily entries. It took me five minutes to read my file and another five minutes of frozen disbelief to digest it. I had been in an accident, had minor injuries, but had immediately gone into coma. And there, according to the record, I stayed through three months worth of daily entries. Three months. A season. A quarter of a year.
Someone was playing a joke on me.
I looked out the window. The bare trees of winter were now covered in the bright green leaves of spring.
What now? All right, a step at a time, I decided, and pulled on my clothes and headed out the door. And stumbled over a body.
It was a nurse, a Katrina someone. I vaguely recognized her the way I vaguely knew everyone in town. Although I grew all our vegetables, I did come to town once a week for other groceries and over seven years I had stood in the grocery checkout line with many of the six thousand town residents and chatted about the weather.
“Katrina?” I dropped to my knees. Her skin was warm. “Help!” I shouted and then I realized her eyes were open and staring at nothing. I felt for a pulse at her wrists and throat, screamed again for help, and pressed my ear to her chest.
She was beyond help. I knew that. But she must have just died within the last few minutes because she was still warm. I jumped up and swung toward the main corridor screaming as I ran.
Around the next corner I tripped over one of the doctors and almost stepped on another woman, this one wearing jeans and shirt much like mine, and then I looked down the hallway and saw three more people lying on the floor. Each warm. Each dead.
I should have gone back into a coma and stayed there. My life would have been so much easier.
Instead I continued to hurry through the small hospital, refusing to accept the idea that everyone in it was dead. Outside rows of cars gleamed in the sunlit parking area. And between the cars, and in a few cases, inside the cars, were more dead bodies.
Maybe I was still in a coma. Maybe this was a coma nightmare. Maybe the whole situation was nothing more than a normal nightmare and I would wake to find my husband sleeping peacefully beside me and we would laugh about this. Should I tell him I’d dreamed he cheated on me and then left me?
Unable to keep kidding myself, I went back into the hospital to use the phone. I had to step over a receptionist’s body to reach it. I think I was crying but maybe I was beyond that. When I picked up the phone, and heard a dial tone, I hit 9-1-1. And heard the ring tone. It went on and on and on.
Outside the wind stirred in the trees. That was the only sound in all the world. No traffic. No airplanes overhead. No footsteps. On the wall above the reception desk a television monitor flickered in one of those patterns that come on for emergency testing. Nothing else. No sound.
And then I did hear a sound. I heard crying. Very low and small but clearly crying, rather like cats mewing, except I knew it wasn’t.
Following the sound I found the nursery for newborns. There were eleven of them in their little hospital beds and half of them were making small whimpering noises. The rest were sleeping. Seven wore pink hats and four wore blue hats. The ones who were crying probably needed to be fed. My knowledge of babies ended there.
Desperate, I went down every corridor and checked every room in the hospital, as horrible as the job was. All I found were dead bodies in beds and dead bodies on the floors. And several newspapers. I carried them into a reception room that was empty, no bodies, and sank down into a chair and started reading. I started slowly. Then in the same way I had dashed through the hospital, I tore through pages searching for the articles about the threatened invasion.
Another country claimed to have a weapon far more powerful than any bomb. They had developed, they claimed, a technology that could enter minds around the world and shut them down with a command to stop functioning.
And they would do that unless all the nations of the world agreed to accept their demands for wealth and power and world domination or something like that.
I didn’t understand the scientific explanations any more than I understood the political demands. Besides, the threat was scoffed by all the world governments. Their claim was impossible, according to reports.
Stunned, I stared into space. Was it possible? Was that why everyone in the hospital was dead?
And then I heard the mewing again. In that whole building the only living creatures were eleven babies and myself. I trudged back to the nursery. In an adjoining lab, I found small nippled containers of formula. And I knew enough to warm them to room temperature. For the next hour I managed to get enough into each little person to send them all back to sleep. From the way they woke at various intervals, I knew another would wake again soon.
Hoping that a few minutes of crying wouldn’t damage them, I went out to the parking lot, dragged four bodies out of the way of the drive, got in a truck with keys in the ignition and headed for town. I passed stopped cars, some on the road, some off, all still occupied by unmoving people. As the size of the town didn’t create much traffic, I was able to swing around obstacles and drive through the business section, then through residential streets. Not a living soul to be seen.
At the grocery, the lights were on. The freezers were running. The people were dead. I automatically filled a cart with all the cans of baby formula and then pushed it out to the lot and lifted the whole cart into the back of the truck.
At the hospital, looking down at those eleven tiny creatures, I knew I couldn’t stick them in the truck. And so I went searching the parking lot until I found an ambulance with a driver in the seat and the keys in his pocket. The dead driver ended up on the pavement. I was past sorrow and had no energy to waste on being horrified.
After moving the ambulance to the hospital entrance, I tucked the babies two in a bed and trundled them outside, beds and all, where I slid the six little beds with their high protective sides into the back of the ambulance. From the truck I added the grocery cart filled with formula.
So here I am, back at my house, my living room filled with little beds and eleven infants.
In the week since I left the hospital I returned once to load the ambulance with all the infant supplies I could find in the nursery area, plus five more beds.
My next trip, done quickly between feedings, was to the grocery. I didn’t try to enter. The bodies were beginning to smell and I knew I couldn’t do it. Instead I went around to the loading dock for the storeroom. It was empty of people, one small stroke of luck in an impossible situation. I loaded a huge delivery van with everything that might be useful, putting refrigerated foods in last and next to the door to be moved to my own freezer and fridge.
I have no idea how long the electricity will continue to work in the store but my own appliances and well will be powered indefinitely by the solar panels and my windmill.
Hope is the best I can do. I have gone on-line and I have tried to phone and I have flipped through every possible radio station and I have found nothing. Whoever they were who set off this disaster, I think it must have backfired. I think they must be dead, too. But I don’t know.
All around the world there may be people like me, brains not functioning in whatever portion was targeted at the time of the attack. I hope there were other adults. Because in hospitals everywhere there must have been infants whose brains were not yet capable of receiving whatever evil command was sent.
If no other adults survived, I am the last mother in the world until my eleven babies are old enough to begin another world.
Copyright(c) Phoebe Matthews
This story is in the Wicked Good Stories anthology. The ($4.99) anthology is on sale for $2.99 August only, at Kindle.