Naomi flipped through the channels on a mammoth television set that looked like it had occupied the same patch of shag carpeting for thirty years. Every station drowned in static.
Jack lifted a telephone, held the receiver to his ear. Silence.
They walked down the hallway, the hardwood groaning under their footsteps.
“Can’t we turn some lights on? I don’t like it dark.”
“Lights might attract someone, Cole.”
“You mean like someone bad?”
“Where do you think these people went?” Naomi asked.
“No telling. Probably just left their home like we left ours.”
Jack shined his flashlight through the first doorway they passed. A bedroom with two trophy cases and a large photograph above the headboard—a teenage boy riding an enraged bull.
They went on.
Naomi said, “Something smells bad.”
Jack stopped. He smelled it, too. Sharp enough to overpower the gasoline overload in his nasal cavity.
Dee said, “Kids, let’s go back to the kitchen.”
Naomi said, “What’s wrong?”
“Go with your mother.”
“Come on, guys. Jack, be careful.”
“Na, think about your brother before you say another word.”
“What about me?”
“Come on, Cole, let’s go with Mom.”
Jack watched his family retreat and then turned back toward the closed door at the end of the hall, the smell intensifying with each step. He breathed through his mouth as he turned the doorknob and shined the light inside.
A man and a woman lay in bed. White-haired. Seventy-something. Framed photographs of what he presumed were their grown sons resting on their stomachs. The woman had been shot through the forehead, and the man cradled her to himself, a hole in his right temple, his right arm outstretched and hanging off the bed, a revolver of some caliber on the floor below his hand. The white comforter darkened with blood. Above the bed, Jack put his light on a series of fifty-one photographs that, in the lowlight, looked almost identical. He moved closer. The last photograph of the montage was a recent portrait of the couple on the bed, the man wearing an oversize tuxedo that swallowed him whole, the woman squeezed into a ragged wedding dress many sizes too small, and as Jack ran his light back through the portraits, the couple grew younger and their wedding clothes fit better and their smiles brightened toward something like hope.
Jack walked into the kitchen, found Dee and Naomi standing around the island, drinking from glasses of ice water. In the living room, Cole flipped through channels of static on the television.
“Everything all right?” Dee said.
“They weren’t murdered. He shot her and then himself.”
“Can I see?”
“Why would you want to, Na?”
She shrugged. “You saw it.”
“I had to make sure everything was safe for us. I wish I hadn’t seen it.”
Jack found the radio setup in the den—a low-band rig, microphone, headphones, power meter. The room had no windows, so he turned on the desk lamp and settled into a cracking leather chair. The amateur radio license hanging on the wall above the equipment had been issued to Ronald M. Schirard, callsign KE5UTN.
“What’s all this stuff?” Naomi said.
“It’s a ham radio.”
“What’s it do?”
“Let’s you talk to people all over the world.”
“Isn’t that what cell phones are for?”
Dee said, “You know how to use this?”
“I had a friend in high school whose Dad was a ham. We’d sneak down into the basement at night and use his radio. But this equipment looks way more sophisticated.” He turned on the transreceiver and the microphone and put on the headset. The radio had been tuned to 146.840 megahurtz, and he didn’t tinker with it, just keyed the microphone.
“This is KE5UTN listening on the 146.840 machine.”
Thirty seconds of silence.
He restated the callsign and repeater identification, then glanced up at Dee. “This may take some time.”
Dee came back after a half hour and set a cup of coffee on the desk. Jack didn’t remove the headphones, just said, “Thanks, but I can’t go through caffeine withdrawal again.”
“Not a word.”
An hour later and still no response, he finally reached for the dial to change the receiver frequency.
A voice crackled over the airwaves.
“KE5UTN? This is EI1465.” Heavy Irish accent.
Jack keyed the mic. “This is KE5UTN. Who am I speaking with please?”
“Ron? Thank God, I thought something had happened.”
“No, this is Jack Colclough.”
“Where’s Ron Schirard? You’re using his callsign.”
“I’m in his house, on his station.”
“Where’s Ron, mate?”
Jack heard the door open behind him. Glanced back, saw Dee walk in. He said, “You a friend of Ron’s?”
“Never met him, but we’ve been talking on the radio going on nine years.”
“Mr. Colclough? Is my modulation off?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Ron and his wife are dead. Where are you, if I may ask?”
The silence in the headphones went on for a long while, and the voice finally returned much softer.
“Belfast. What are you doing in Ron’s house?”
“We fled our home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, three days ago, and just stopped here to look for supplies. Cell phones don’t work. Or landlines. There’s no internet. Do you have any information about what’s happening? Has it spread worldwide?”
“No, it’s only the lower forty-eight states of America, southern Canada, and northern Mexico. There aren’t too many reports coming out of the affected region, but you’ve heard about New England?”
“We’ve heard nothing.”
“Boston and New York have been devastated. Total chaos. Astronomical death tolls. There’s a handful of videos circulating—movies shot on mobile phones. Streets clogged with bodies. People trying to flee the cities. Real doomsday stuff. Are you and your family okay?”
“You’re lucky to be in a low population-density area.”
Jack glanced up at Dee, said, “You should really be keeping a lookout in case someone comes.”