Radio Silence by James Owens


The sun has no mercy on the naked scree above the last trees. Climbing toward the shack perched on the crest, Neil wipes sweat out of his eyes and chooses his footsteps with care, knowing the stones can shift. A broken ankle would mean disaster.

At the top, he sinks onto the steps of the shack to catch his breath, looking back over the climb, the scree, a band of short, tough grass, and then aspen and dark conifers thick on the slopes sweeping down into the valley. He can't see the cabin, and that is good because it means Thea and Sharon can't see him, either. He doesn't want to have to explain what he is doing up here. He told Thea that he was going to search other cabins for supplies. A marmot whistles at him and scuttles into its burrow.

The shack is tiny, just rough walls and a tin roof lashed to the mountain with steel cable to keep it from tumbling over in a storm. It is a shelter for hikers who might get stuck overnight, though Neil hasn't seen anyone hiking since they arrived from the city almost a week ago. There is no furniture inside—nothing except a small stove and a stack of wood in one corner, likely meant to save the life of whoever might be fool enough to wander up here in the winter.

The first time Neil was here, he’d found a mouse's nest in the pile of wood, hairless babies squinch-eyed and curled like spat-gobbets of pink flesh, latched to their mother for food and security. He’d replaced the wood and left them be.

He takes the radio from where he has hidden it behind the stove; It doesn't need batteries. Neil unfolds a crank from the plastic case and turns it to build up a charge that will last for a few minutes. He found the radio in the cabin on the first day and brought it up here to find a scratchy, sputtering signal. The mountain is beyond the range of phones, there is no TV or Internet in the cabin, and he must hear the news. He is responsible for bringing his wife and daughter to this isolation. They trust him to keep them safe, and he needs to know if the chaos will reach out to take them, even here so deep into the wilderness.

“... catastrophic, according to this morning's reports from the Pacific coast,” the voice comes faintly through a veil of static. Twisting the volume knob just makes the static louder. Neil leans in and concentrates, his ear an inch from the speaker, trying to parse the message from the noise, a voice reading an official announcement. “.... say earlier estimates of infections in the low tens of millions are likely a gross underestimation. Wide swaths within cities along the coast have fallen dark, and it is unknown what is happening in those zones. Efforts at containment have been ineffective, as police and now members of the Army National Guard succumb to the infection and abandon their posts, fighting among themselves and turning their weapons on civilians. The infection appears to be spreading out from the urban centers, with little to stand in its way ….”

When Neil packed Thea and Sharon into Barney's van and headed out of the city, his only impulse had been to come here, the cabin in the mountains (also Barney's) where Neil had visited for a hunting weekend a couple of years ago. Distance would be a buffer, he thought. Now he wonders if they should have kept running—whether the contagion, whatever it is, might trail them into the high country, along the winding gravel road and across the high bridges. But it might be too late to abandon their hideout. What would they find waiting for them out on the highways?

Now there is a different voice on the radio: a doctor or a university professor, her voice slowed and weighty with the gravity of reason confronting the incomprehensible, perhaps with a wish to broadcast calm. “The government keeps using words like 'infection,' but what evidence of infection have we seen? None that I am aware of, nothing bacterial or viral or fungoid. I don't know what they are talking about when they say that, and I'm not sure they do, either.”

The newscaster asks a question that is lost in a long crackle of static.

“Oh, yes, I think they know a lot more than they are telling us. They always know more than they tell us.”

Neil nods. Whatever is behind the spreading wave of violence and destruction, it is no ordinary infection, no mere disease. He has seen that for himself.

There is no further news. No one knows anything, or rather, no one will admit to knowing anything.

Neil makes his way down the rocky slope, finding the trail that will take him back to Thea and Sharon. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a small mouse scurrying underfoot. Without thinking, without notice, he stomps on it, eradicates it, hears its bones crunch underneath his boot.

The feeling inside isn't much yet, nothing he can't resist—just a pinch of angst, a high-pitched, plaintive disharmony filtering through his bones, like the notes of a mournful flute, half-unheard through trees. An itch on the inside of his skin. He doesn't want it to happen, but holding it back is like holding his breath. He can't do that forever. But he can do it for now.

Neil feels himself turning into someone unrecognizable.

A box of cheese crackers is missing from their dwindling store. Neil knows that he’s an asshole for caring about a damned box of crackers, but they don't have much, and who knows how long that little bit will have to last? He hoped they would find a stock of food already at the cabin, but there was nothing, so they have to rely on what they brought with them. They stopped in a so-far-untouched little town on the way and bought cans and boxes of things that wouldn't need refrigeration. Neil remembered that there was no electricity up here except for a generator that he still has not managed to get running.

He hasn't told Thea and Sharon what happened to Barney, his friend and now late employer. He told them Barney loaned them the cabin and the van because he didn't want to leave the city.

Neil slams the cupboard door with a sharp slap that startles Thea from the book she is reading and Sharon from gazing aimlessly out the window. They glance at each other, and a guilty cringe runs over Thea's shoulders as Sharon shoots him a defiant glare. He looks in the trash basket and sees the corner of the red and white box, flattened underneath other garbage that was already there, poorly hidden. There are no crumbs on the table which has been swept clean, but there are crumbs on the floor around Sharon's chair and on the front of her sweater. His daughter has always been a sloppy eater.

Neil does his best to control his anger. What's done is done, but it mustn't happen again. Hunger and things worse than hunger are gaunt specters knocking on a door at the back of his mind. He is aware that there is something else inside him, darker than normal anger or worry, a container of some new rage that he steadies by force to keep it from tipping over.

“Did you guys have a party while I was out? You couldn't have thought I wouldn't notice.”

“Notice what, Neil?” Thea asks. Then without waiting for an answer, “Jesus, it was only a few crackers. The box wasn't even full. They're a dollar sixty-nine at Fresh Co.”

“Sure, they are. I know that, but the nearest market is two hours away, and ...” he feels his lips thinning grimly into a smile that isn't a smile, “What we have is all we have.”

“So, let's go home,” Sharon whines.

Neil ignores her. He keeps looking at Thea until she drops her eyes and mutters, “I'm sorry.”

Sharon defends her mother.

“I was hungry, Dad. It was me. Leave Mom alone.”

Neil is hungry, too. Hunger sits like a gnarled little fist twisting inside his stomach, but he has self-control.

Sharon moves toward the door, and Neil says, “Stay near the cabin, OK?” and when she ignores him, “I mean it, Sharon! Stay in sight of the cabin and out of the woods. We don't know what might be out there.” She raises a middle finger toward him as the door closes behind her. He knows she is bored here—no phone, no internet, no friends. It isn't fair, and she is scared, too, underneath the boredom. She saw what was happening as they left the city. She saw people die right on their own street. He aches for her, loves her, but he has to be strong. He has to show her an example of strength.

Neil takes a large cardboard box from under the sink, opens the cupboard again, and starts taking out boxes and cans of food.

“What are you doing?” Thea asks.

“I'm going to store this stuff in the van.” The van locks. Neil has the only key.

Thea doesn't argue. She moves toward him and lifts her hand to touch his face, and he allows it to happen. The feel of her cool fingers on his hot cheek is unbelievably sweet, and he senses the rage he has controlled with difficulty settling now, but then he thinks of her touching another man with the same tenderness. It's unfair, he knows. He shrugs her off and goes back to his work, refusing to look at her.

Thea sounds worried, but a softness comes into her voice, too. “I don't understand this, Neil,” she says. “I know you, and this isn't you. You aren't behaving like yourself.”

She is right about that.

There had already been reports of violence from distant places, concerning accounts of people changing, though no one seemed to know what that meant. All the theories were just gossip and rumors. Neil was standing with Barney and Ed outside the old library they were going to empty of books and furniture ahead of the demolition crew. Ordinary life was going on, no matter what might be happening elsewhere.

“I'm telling you, it's extraterrestrial,” Ed said. Barney snorted, as if were about to blow coffee out of his nostrils. Ed was a great fan of conspiracy theories, and Barney liked baiting him and then shooting his ideas down. Neil tended to listen rather than take part.

“I'm serious,” Ed insisted. He was a nervous fireplug of a guy, eager to have the inside scoop before anyone else. “Remember a couple of months ago, when all the pilots were seeing UFOs? You saw one yourself. It came screaming across the sky when you were out late in the van, right?”

“A meteor,” Barney said. “It hit ground in Idaho somewhere. Chewed up a thousand acres of trees.”

“Sure, that's what they said, wasn't it? They even had pictures. But that was the same time the pilots were seeing weird stuff every day, so many strange objects—military pilots, commercial pilots, lots of them. What if the Air Force brought something down? After that, the sightings just stopped, dead silence. I don't think that makes sense, guys. Do you think those were all meteors? Like hell they were.”

“What were they, then?” Barney was a good boss. It was hard work, but he paid his crew well, and the morning-coffee-together ritual before work was something he insisted on, supplying the coffee himself from his big, silver thermos, keeping everyone's mug in his van, no over-priced paper cups of sugary sludge from a chain store. He said it made them work better together. Neil thought he was just lonely for conversation after his wife had passed away.

“I don't know what it is, exactly.” Ed was evasive. Of course, he didn't know, and Neil did not believe in flying saucers, but the stuff on the news, out of India, out of South America, yesterday in Florida—though the reporters later admitted they had been mistaken about Florida—was scaring everybody. “It's too much to be a coincidence, though. It is something that's not from Earth, I'm telling you. An invasion, who knows? A plague?”

He trailed off, allowing all kinds of dire speculation to hang in the air like swirls of smoke. Barney turned to Neil.

“So, tomorrow's your day, I guess?” Neil took a final drink of coffee and poured the last few drops from his mug before answering.

“Yeah, tomorrow will settle it.” Neil was supposed to be in court at ten in the morning. He might not be coming back for a time, depending on how the judge saw things.

“Well, you know you have a job with me, whatever happens. I can't see my way to blaming you, as I understand the situation. A man carrying on with my wife, I'd've busted him up, too.” Barney's wife had lingered for months, her body steadily worn away by the cancer. He was the kind of man who never missed work, but he had been at the hospital every evening, often sleeping through the night in a chair beside her bed.

“You scared?” Ed asked. “I'd be scared. These judges, they're going to side with the rich guy no matter, you know?”

“I'm not worried,” Neil said. “Hell, I did it, and the fucker deserved what he got. I'd do the same again. Too late to be scared now.” He wasn't sure that was true, but it sounded good.

They got to work, carting books out of the library and loading them into the back of a long trailer and knocking apart the empty shelves. Neil wasn't exactly sure why the city didn't just demolish the building with the books inside, then bulldoze the whole mess into the landfill, but he guessed there was something about destroying books that just wouldn't sit right with people. He suspected they would end up in the landfill. anyway, but this looked better: every dusty, old book carried out lovingly by hand. He tried not to think about his hearing while he worked. Realistically, he figured he was looking at a fine and probation, not jail time, but anything was possible.

Neil never found out if he was right about that. About midway to lunchtime, Barney killed Ed.

Neil was lifting armfuls of young adult fiction down from a shelf and keeping an eye out for anything he might want to slip into a pocket and take home for Sharon, who liked the kind of angsty, post-apocalyptic teen novels that get made into summer movies. He was paying no attention to his co-workers when Ed gave a single, surprised grunt and dropped to his knees, then tumbled face-forward onto the floor. The head of a claw hammer was buried in the back of Ed's skull, the padded steel handle angled up over his right shoulder like a check mark. His legs and arms twitched as blood gushed out in a scarlet halo around his head.

Barney leaned over and worked to wrench the hammer free. It was caught in Ed's skull, which probably saved Neil's life, giving him a moment to assess and react.

When Barney had the hammer loose, he lurched toward Neil, holding it hoisted above his head, as if to pound a stubborn nail. Neil threw a book, which seemed a silly thing to do when he recalled it later on. The nearly weightless paperback bounced off Barney's chest, but Neil had more success with the length of thick board he snatched from the cleared shelf. The board whacked Barney across the forehead, and he stumbled and dropped the hammer, which Neil picked up and used to smash his friend's face to purple mush.

It had all taken thirty seconds, beginning to end. Neil flung the dripping hammer away from him and stood bent over, his hands on his knees, breathing hard.

When he stopped being afraid that he was going to faint, he tried to call the police, but no one answered. The radio in Barney's van was busted, so he couldn't get any news that way. Sirens tore the air from every direction.

Neil and Thea make love, needing each other for comfort, but it is a nervous, shallow functioning of instinct, and it leaves them unsatisfied and lonesome afterward as they lie naked, side-by-side in the dark. Through the screen of the open window, they either hear wind soughing in the tops of the pines around the cabin, or if the wind slacks for a moment, they hear the bright-voiced little stream where they have been getting drinking water; it laps across stones on its way down to the valley and sounds like an ordinary summer night.

Disarmed, Neil almost tells Thea the things he has been hearing on the radio, the truth about his last day at work, how it was no longer Barney glaring at him through Barney's eyes before Neil battered his friend's skull in, how afraid he is that the same thing will happen to him, to all of them. The words are in his mouth before he clamps his jaw on them.

He doesn't want to frighten her with what he knows, but it is more than that. It is his own behavior and the dark pool of rage that is always inside him now, threatening to spill without his constant effort to hold it back. He is afraid she will hear and then look at him strangely, suspiciously.

“We can't stay here forever,” Thea says quietly into the darkness. It isn't a question. She is lying on her side against him, as he stares up at the ceiling, his arm starting to fall asleep under her shoulders. He feels her breath warm on his chest when she speaks. Until he started changing, he had loved her very much. He tells himself that he still does. Sharon, too.

“No, not forever. A few days more. We have to be sure.”

“How can we be sure of anything? For all we know, everything might be back to normal by now, might have been back to normal days ago. We've at least got to get down off this damned mountain and find out.”

“Eventually, yes. First, we're going to hold out here as long as we can. We're safe here, Thea. You saw what was happening before we left.”

“How do you know we're safe here? We don't know anything.”

She disentangles herself from him and sits up in the bed. He feels his skin start to cool along the line of their contact where they have sweated together.

“And what do you mean by 'hold out here as long as we can'? We've already done that, Neil. There's no food left. Sharon is scared of you.”

“Of me? No.”

Thea hesitates. He senses that she is weighing what to say.

“When you were out today, doing whatever secret thing it is that you do...”

“I told you, I was going through the woods to check other cabins and see if anyone was there. I didn't want to use the van and attract attention. And we had better conserve gas.”

“OK, sure. While you were out, I caught Sharon trying to run away. She was heading down the road with her backpack. If I'd looked for her two minutes later, I wouldn't have seen her. I had to go after her and beg her to come back, and I had to promise we would all leave together soon.”

“That was dumb of her. It's miles to the highway.” He was afraid, imagining what might have happened to his daughter.

“She knows that. But, Neil, I was tempted to go with her. This is crazy. Sitting here, starving, and doing nothing is crazy.”

He is about to reply when she raises a hand in a gesture that means silence. Her silhouette is dim beside him. She is listening.

“What is that? Do you hear?” she whispers.

The wind has died. Outside the cabin, someone snorts or coughs. They listen for the space of three heartbeats, and the sound comes again.

Neil is instantly out of bed and pulling on pants. He grabs a flashlight and moves down the stairs as quietly as he can, slips through the door and into the yard, swinging the flashlight back and forth.

“Who’s there?” he asks. He means to shout, but his voice is not much more than a whisper.

At one corner of the yard, where the trees come closest to the cabin, he sees someone crouching low among the bushes, obscured by leaves. In the cone of light, Neil can make out a back and shoulders, eyes shining back at him. He suddenly feels naked, barefoot in the wet grass. He steps forward, shouting fully this time, “Hey, you!”

The intruder snorts again, transforms himself into a deer, and bounds off into the night.

“I can't tell you what it is, but I'm pretty sure of a few things that it isn't. Basically, all the popular theories are dead wrong.” The professor from the university is on the radio again. Another interview. Perhaps there aren't many other experts left to ask for opinions. Neil wonders how long the station will keep broadcasting. Her voice is assured, ironic, sexy, even as the world might be ending. Neil likes her.

“It isn't a normal disease, at least not one transmitted by any vector we understand. It isn't a military experiment gone wrong. It isn't from outer space. It isn't the Last Judgment. It isn't the goddamned zombie apocalypse.”

“What's left?”

Neil can practically feel her shrugging.

“What's left is speculation or less than that: a vague guess. Did you know that mice sometimes commit suicide, or seem to anyway? There's a tiny, highly specialized parasite that can reproduce only if it passes through the digestive system of a cat. So, this clever little bug gets itself swallowed by a mouse, then it goes to the mouse's brain and switches off its instinctual fear of cats. The mouse walks right up to the first cat it sees, gets eaten, and the parasite is in business. Brilliant, isn't it?”

“So … a parasite in our brains is making us kill each other? Why?”

“Not a literal parasite, probably. This spreads too fast for any biological carrier. But the brain is just a processor for information, mouse or human. So, maybe something more like a computer virus. There are all kinds of ways to hack a computer.”

“And why?”

The professor sighs.

“Remember I said it was all a guess? Look at a map. This—whatever it is, compulsive killing, species suicide, whatever you want to call it—always starts from the ocean and works its way inland. The West Coast and the East Coast are both chaos now. Soon it will hit St. Louis and Wichita from both sides. The Midwest is bracing, but nobody knows how the fuck to stop it. Same thing in Europe. It came up from the Mediterranean, in from the Atlantic. China, and India, and Australia, South America, people start slaughtering each other in the coastal cities, and it moves inland, slower where the population is sparse, but not stopping.”

“So, you're saying something in the ocean....”

“Yeah. Something in the ocean is really, really fucking pissed at us.”

There is a gun cabinet in the cabin, and Neil had hoped to find guns inside, but when he pried open the lock, he found it empty. Barney wasn't the kind of guy who would have left guns out here for some hiker to steal. Now Neil has taken to carrying the short-handled ax from the woodpile with him wherever he goes. He wonders if he will be able to wield it effectively should the time come.

Neil has never thought of himself as a violent man except for those rare occasions when he was: a few fights in high school and during his early twenties that he has not thought worth mentioning to Thea. One close brush with the law the year after Sharon was born, and he was sleep-deprived and worried about paying the bills and was too easily provoked by some loudmouth in a bar, though he managed to stay out of jail that time. He doesn't think the damage done to Thea's boss, David, should count against him considering the degree of provocation. He rubs the knuckles of his clenched fist and seems to feel, even weeks later, the broken skin where he battered them on David's chin and cheekbones.

He had suspected Thea of having an affair, had felt guilty about being suspicious when she had to work late, helping David scramble to meet some deadline. It seemed there was always an urgent deadline, papers never ready to file ahead of time. She joked that she must work for the sloppiest lawyer in history. The thing was, though Neil had guessed something was going on, he hadn't believed her affair was with David, who was a pasty, chubby little guy with soft palms who wouldn't know what to do with a woman. But he guessed “working late” might be a cover for something else. It was true that she had really been at work on the couple of times he had invented excuses to call, but maybe that was just her good luck. Even if she honestly worked some late nights, there were a lot of other times he wasn't so sure about.

One night, Neil went to wait for Thea outside David's office. If everything were okay, if she left work and headed for her car alone, he would tell her that he was there to surprise her by taking her out for late drinks like they used to do when they