World of Trouble

World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters



For Diana

“… I’m gonna love you

till the wheels come off

oh, oh yeah …”





“And I won’t let go and I can’t let go

I won’t let go and I can’t let go

I won’t let go and I can’t let go no more”

—Bob Dylan, “Solid Rock”







“Are you here about the dust? Please tell me you’re here to do something about the dust.”

I don’t answer. I don’t know what to say.

The girl’s voice is throaty and ill, her eyes looking out over a nose-and-mouth mask, staring hopeful and crazed at me as I stand baffled on her doorstep. Beautiful blonde, hair swept back out of her face, dirty and exhausted like everybody, panicked like everybody. But there’s something else going on here, something not healthy. Something biochemical in her eyes.

“Well, come in,” she says through her allergy mask. “Come on, come in, close the door, the door.”

I step inside and she kicks the door shut and whirls around to face me. Yellow sundress, faded and tattered at the hem. Starved-looking, sallow, pale. Wearing not just the allergy mask but thick yellow latex gloves. And she’s armed to the teeth is the other thing, she’s holding two semiautomatics and has a smaller gun tucked in her boot, plus some kind of heavy-duty hunting knife in a calf sheath at the hem of the sundress. And I can’t tell if it’s live or not, but there is unquestionably a grenade dangling from a braided belt at her waist.

“Do you see the dust?” she says, gesturing with the guns, pointing into the corners. “You see how we’ve got a serious problem with the dust?”

It’s true that there are motes hovering in the sunbeams, along with the garbage scattered on the floor, heaps of dirty clothing and open trunks spilling over with all manner of useless things, magazines and electrical cords and wadded-up dollar bills. But she’s seeing more than what’s here, I can tell, she’s in the outer reaches, she’s blinking furiously, coughing behind her mask.

I wish I could recall this girl’s name. That would help a lot, if I could just remember her name.

“What do we do about this?” she says, rattling out words. “Do you just vacuum it, or—? Is that it—do you just suck it up and take it out of here? Does that work with cosmic dust?”

“Cosmic dust,” I say. “Huh. Well, you know, I’m not sure.”

This is my first trip to Concord, New Hampshire, since I fled a month ago, since my house burned down, along with much of the rest of the city. The chaos of those final frantic hours has died down to a grim and mournful silence. We’re a few blocks from downtown, in the abandoned husk of a store on Wilson Street, but there are no jostling anxious crowds outside, no frightened people rushing and pushing past each other in the streets. No klaxon howl of car alarms, no distant gunfire. The people are hidden now, those that remain, hidden under blankets or in basements, encased in their dread.

And the girl, disintegrating, raving about imaginary dust from outer space. We’ve met once before, right here at this same small shop, which was once a used-clothing store called Next Time Around. She wasn’t like this then, hadn’t fallen prey to it. Other people are sick in the same way, of course, to varying degrees, different kinds of symptomatology; if the DSM-IV were still being updated and applied, this new illness would be added in red. A debilitating obsession with the gigantic asteroid on a collision course with our fragile planet. Astromania, perhaps. Delusional interstellar psychosis.

I feel like if I could only call her by her name, remind her that we have a relationship, that we’re both human beings, it would ease her unsettled mind and make me less of a threat. Then we could talk calmly.

“It’s toxic, you know,” she’s saying. “Really, really bad. The cosmic dust is real, real bad on your lungs. The photons burn your lungs.”

“Listen,” I say, and she makes a panicked gasp and rushes toward me, her assorted armaments jangling.

“Keep your tongue in your mouth,” she hisses. “Don’t taste it.”

“Okay. I’ll try. I won’t.”

I keep my hands at my sides, where she can see them, keep my expression neutral, soft as cake. “I’m actually here for some information.”

“Information?” Her brows knit with confusion. She peers at me through clouds of invisible dust.

It’s not her I’m here to talk to, anyway; it’s her friend I need. Boyfriend, maybe. Whatever he is. That’s the guy who knows where I need to go next. I hope he does, anyway. I’m counting on it.

“I need to speak to Jordan. Is Jordan here?”

Suddenly the girl finds focus, snaps to attention, and the pistols come up. “Did he—did he send you?”

“No.” I raise my hands. “No.”

“Oh my God, he sent you. Are you with him? Is he in space?” She’s shouting, advancing across the room, the barrels of the semiautomatics aimed at my face like twin black holes. “Is he doing this?”

I turn my head to the wall, scared to die, even now, even today.

“Is he doing this to me?”

And then—somehow—miraculously—the name.

“Abigail.”

Her eyes soften, widen slightly.

“Abigail,” I say. “Can I help you? Can we help each other?”

She gapes at me. Heavy silence. Moments flying past, time burning away.

“Abigail, please.”





1.


I’m worried about my dog.

He’s limping now, on top of everything else, on top of the dry cough that rattles his small frame as he breathes, on top of the nasty burrs that have tangled themselves irretrievably in his matted fur. I don’t know where or how he picked it up, this deep limp in his right forepaw, but here he comes now, moving slow out of the evidence room behind me, slipping through my legs and slouching with a pronounced foot-drag down the hallway. He shuffles away, poor little guy, nosing along the baseboard, his coat smudged but still white.

I watch him with deep unease. It wasn’t fair of me to take Houdini along. A mistake I made without even thinking about it, inflicting upon my dog the rigors of a long and uncertain journey, the unhygienic drinking water and sparse food, the hikes along deserted highway shoulders and through fallow fields, the fights with other animals. I should have left him with McConnell and the others, back at the safe house in Massachusetts, left him with McConnell’s kids, all the other kids, the other dogs, a safe and comfortable environment. But I took him. I never asked him if he wanted to come, not that a dog in any case could fairly weigh the risks and rewards.

I took him, and we crossed eight hundred fifty complicated miles in five long weeks, and the wear is showing on the dog, no doubt about it.

“I’m really sorry, pal,” I whisper, and the dog coughs. I pause in the hallway, breathing in the darkness, staring up at the ceiling.

It was the same in the evidence room as in the rest of the place: thick coatings of dust on the shelves, filing cabinets turned over and emptied out. Odors of must and mildew. In Dispatch, on someone’s desk between the blank laptops and the old foot-switch RadioCOMMAND console, there was an ancient sandwich, half eaten and crawling with ants. Nothing good, nothing helpful or hopeful.

We arrived very late last night and began our search immediately, and now it’s three hours later and the sun is beginning to rise—dull pale beams filtering in through the glass-paned front door, down at the east end of the hall—and we’ve worked through most of the building and nothing. Nothing. A small police station, like the one in Concord, New Hampshire, where I used to work. Even smaller. All night I’ve gone through on my hands and knees with my magnifying glass and fat Eveready flashlight, taking the place room by room: Reception, Dispatch. Administration, Holding Cell, Evidence.

Cold certainty slowly filling me, like dirty water rising in a well: there’s nothing.

Officer McConnell knew it. She told me this was a fool’s errand. “So you have, what, the name of a town?” is what she said.

“A building,” I said. “The police station. In a town. In Ohio.”

“Ohio?” Skeptical. Arms crossed. Scowling. “Well, you won’t find her. Also, if you do? So what?”

I remember what it felt like, her being angry, justified in her anger. I just nodded. I kept packing.

Now, in the flat dawn light of the empty hallway of the empty police station, I make a fist with my right hand and raise it to a forty-five-degree angle and bring it down like the hammer of a gun, slam it backward into the wall I’m leaning against. Houdini turns around and stares at me, bright black animal eyes glinting like marbles in the dark.

“All right,” I tell him. He makes a wet noise in the back of his throat. “Okay. Let’s just keep looking.”


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