“So … Dorothy. I understand my uncle’s doing okay.”
“Yes,” she said, leading me down a corridor. “He seems to have taken … it … surprisingly well.”
The flashlight slipped from his hand, spinning like a lighthouse as it floated up and out of reach. It settled bulb-first against the reactor room bulkhead 40 feet above, plunging Lee into darkness.
“Touché you bastard,” he yelled to the wayward light. “But I really don’t have time for this.”
Time, Lee mused while unhooking his tether, had apparently conspired with the fusion reactor and flashlight to kill him. Over the past hour, his life horizon shortened from what once seemed an eternity to perhaps no further than this moment.
Lawrence pressed the “prepare meal” switch and the processor whirred into action, mashing protein cubes into the paste that would be breakfast.
He left the machine working while he checked the meteorological forecast: minus 20 max, blizzards, improving over the next 24 hours. The snow had been falling on and off for two weeks now. The airstrip was covered, and tall drifts had formed on the north side of the main building.
He returned to the kitchen, adjoining the operations room, and switched off the processor. He pressed “deliver x3” and three plates rolled out of the base of the machine and onto the stainless steel bars that served as a shelf.
“Is there anyone out there? I repeat, is there anyone out there?”
The words had become automatic and no longer held any meaning for Karl. He sprawled on his back in the middle of the darkened control room, radio receiver clutched to his mouth. He stared up at the stars through the huge window above him as he mindlessly repeated the distress message.
He had been an astronaut for many years and had long since become accustomed to the sight of the stars, but now when he had little to do but look up at them and wait for death, he was reminded how beautiful they were. Their feeble light and that of the shuttle’s emergency power was the only thing that separated him from the true darkness that the inky black sky threatened.
“I repeat, is there anyone out there? Shuttle in distress, potential loss of human life.”
Pema stared hard at the results as if the numbers might change, might realize the error of their ways and correct themselves.
She ran the analysis again, watched as nutrient levels, base saturations, and mineral ratios spread across her handheld’s screen, held her breath again. Shook her head again. Phosphorus, off target. Not by much, but by now Pema knew that’s all it took.
The pathogen had spread.
Once upon a time there was a house—no, darling, not a haunted house, at least it didn’t have any ghosts in it. But it was a horrid house. It actually ate people! Just imagine that! A house where you walk in the front door and the entrance hall—much bigger than ours—is the mouth, and the house just swallows you up. I know, right? That must have been awful. Walking in the entrance and being gulped down, and never coming out because you’re in the house’s tummy and it’s digesting you, just like you digested that doughnut this afternoon. All white and doughy, and when you bite on it—SQUELCH! A load of red … jam squirts out. Eurgh indeed! No, I wouldn’t want to be a human doughnut either!
“Hey, Megan! Have you heard the story of the Pitchfork Killer?” Tate asked from the front seat.
I sighed and looked out the window as trees flashed past. He was driving too fast, and us three girls in the back seat were getting jostled together.
“Refresh my memory,” Megan said, because he so obviously wanted to tell the story. She was a good sport that way. She had lived here for nearly six months now, so she must have heard multiple versions of Pineville’s urban legend by now.
Steve turned around and smiled at her, adoration in his eyes. He used to smile at me like that.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” Tate said in a comic spooky voice and cackled. “The local loser boy had finally had enough. He was desperate hot for the Harvest Queen, and he decided that if he couldn’t have her, no one could. He took a pitchfork from his dad’s barn and set off for town.”
How many times had I told them? They didn’t believe me. My whole family thought it was a phase, a childish trait. Every time I listened to them and forgot about it, I heard it again. It was loud and clear, unmistakable. Again, the knocking that came from inside my closet was not in my head; it was not my mind playing tricks on me. This was real.
I cried out for my mother.
Alice sank down into the deep-red, velvety, cotton-wool-comfy sofa. On a small table to her side were all the necessary provisions for an evening’s TV viewing: a bottle of Pinot Noir, some nuts, some chocolate, and a large box of popcorn.
Bernard was away at a conference for the weekend; he had his work to do and his hoped-for promotion to cultivate. He was a stickler for being active and ‘doing’ stuff, so this was Alice’s chance to be self-indulgent for once.
She sighed with pleasure at the prospect of doing nothing much at all and felt the stress ease out of her body, a stress caused by their recent move and a certain tension that had built up between her and Bernard. She shook her head now as she remembered the petty source of the tension: the sofa itself.