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.”