Life Rafts on a Great Black Lake
The day the world started to end, it was hot outside. When the sun came up over Masterson that fateful Sunday, nobody could have foreseen the carnage that was about to unfold. Before lunchtime, half the citizens of that sleepy New Hampshire town would be dead.
It was a little after nine and it was already getting warm out. Dick Carnaby on The Weather Round-Up said it would hit a hundred degrees by midday. But nothing seemed out of place in Masterson. It looked just like your typical Sunday morning. Sprinklers showered down on luscious green lawns. Songbirds fluttered from one tree to the next. The paperboy peddled through the streets, tossing the Sunday Gazette onto porches. And, perhaps most traditionally of all, Milo Winters and his dad were out on the driveway, washing the car; a chore they tackled together every weekend.
Milo’s mom had insisted that they both wear their thick-brimmed hats; the ones they used to take fishing, back before Milo became a brooding teenager. But whilst Milo could give fishing the cold shoulder, he couldn’t say no to washing the car with his dad – it was the only condition of his weekly allowance, which he’d be saving up for the latest Goblin Avenger game.
Besides, it wasn’t a particularly hard chore. He just had to stand out on the driveway and hold the bucket up every time Mr Winters came over to re-dunk his sponge. Bucket-holder, as his dad called it, had been Milo’s job every Sunday morning since he was too young to remember. He was thirteen that hot, awful day, so he was well-practised by then.
Milo was scrawny and pale and had an untidy mop of mousy-blonde hair. He was wearing an oversized white shirt with the Goblin Avenger logo emblazoned across the chest. It was a fantasy role-playing video game and the latest craze among his small tribe at school.
The opposite of his son, Dallas Winters was tall and broad, with a protruding chest and thick biceps – the result of many an evening spent with the lifting bench in the garage. He kept his hair shaved close to the scalp, and he had an all-year-round tan, even though he spent most of his time in an office. He wore ugly tinted specs that went brown in the sun.
‘Binko, play The Berries,’ Dallas said, as he dunked his sponge into Milo’s bucket.
The smart speaker he’d set down on the lawn started to play. The Berries were a little-known and even-littler-appreciated barbershop band from the sixties. Dallas had become obsessed with them after hearing them on Throwback Hour on Radio Six. Now, he played them on loop: whilst driving round town in the Mamba; whilst mowing the backyard; whilst working out; even whilst washing the car on a Sunday morning.
His birthday was coming up in July. Milo already knew exactly what to get him. He’d seen a t-shirt online, with the cover of his dad’s favourite Berries album printed across it. His dad would wear it at every opportunity, he was certain.
Milo thought about that as he watched his dad run the sponge over the car’s hood. The suds turned crusty-white the second they touched the Mamba’s skin, and vapour drifted softly upwards into the warm morning air.
That car was his most treasured possession. It was a classic red sportster (Volcanic Red if Dallas was to correct you) from the late seventies. He’d gotten it five years back when it came up for auction at Riley’s Motor House, down on Benvale Street. He knew he shouldn’t have bought it, but when his dad died, it triggered something in him, and he felt like life was too short not to treat yourself once in a lifetime. So he went down to the bank and withdrew half his retirement pot (even though he was still a good thirty years off retiring).
He’d have three long decades to build it back up, he told his wife. But she wasn’t the biggest fan of that reasoning. Cue a long series of heated arguments and smashed plates.
That was all ancient history now, though. Milo’s mom had gotten over it, in the end. She even admitted it was a nice car. She might mention the whole debacle, though, once in a while, if Dallas ever questioned some lavish online purchase of hers. ‘Remember the time you spent half your retirement fund on that fucking car?’ He’d bite his tongue pretty quickly.
The Berries ended, abruptly, and a news reporter came over the air. ‘More casualties are being brought into emergency rooms across the states with as-yet undiagnosed symptoms. The strained services are imploring you-’
‘Binko, play The Berries!’ Dallas demanded.
The blue LED wheel on the front of the smart speaker started to spin, and then his favourite barbershop quartet rang out across the garden again.
‘Smart speaker, my ass.’
A breeze tickled down the street and Milo heard something flap around in the gutter. He set the bucket down and went to take a closer look.
It was a mask, from the virus, caught in the storm drain. All beat-up and sun-faded. It’d been a long time since he’d seen one. Two years, probably. The Winters used to have a different colour for each family member, for when they went out to the mall. They hung on nails by the front door. His little sister, Sally, was born just before lockdown and was too young to wear one, but their mom would pull her blanket up over her mouth in the pram.
Milo was glad to be rid of masks. They made his face hot and sticky and the elastic cut into his ears. If he ever had to wear one for more than a couple of hours, he’d be guaranteed a fresh zit or three on his chin or just above his lip.
All the adults got their vaccinations down at the school. Milo and his classmates couldn’t use the gymnasium for months because there was a queue of adults snaking through it all day. Sheriff Callow had to set up camp on-site because protestors kept trying to burn it down. Before they were sent away, of course.
The virus went away after that. The vaccine had done its job. No more masks. No more video-call quizzes with Grandma and Grandpa Winters every Thursday evening. No more staying out of the playroom where the games consoles were set up, because his dad’s makeshift office had taken over.
Things had gone back to normal. It was easy to go about your day without remembering the virus – unless you drove down Hughes Drive, of course. There’s a big memorial plinth there, next to the library, with all the names chipped into the marble. Or unless a battered old face mask blew into your life.
‘Milo, where’s my bucket holder?’ Dallas called, over his shoulder. He was standing there open-mouthed with a bone-dry sponge.
I daydream for a few seconds and the whole operation falls apart, Milo thought.
He picked up the bucket again and took it over to his dad so he could sink his sponge in.
The fire alarm started going off inside the house. The boys in the driveway weren’t too concerned. It had become a typical sound on a Sunday morning. Mrs Winters would often load up the griddle with bacon and sausages, and then get distracted by Sally.
Milo watched as his mom threw open the window and wafted out the smoke with an oven mit. He could hear the sound of the bacon hissing in the pan.
‘Smells good, hon,’ Dallas shouted across the lawn. He turned to Milo and whispered, ‘smells like that time we let Uncle Malc put gasoline on the barbecue.’
His dad worked the sponge into the ridge along the bottom of the windscreen. When he peered back into the bucket, he saw there was nothing left but some black swill at the bottom, so he dropped the sponge inside.
‘Right, time to hose her down.’
Dallas went to the back of the driveway and started to unreel the hose. When he reached the Mamba, he suddenly stopped to clutch at his stomach. The hose-head clattered onto the concrete and came off. Water spewed out from the open mouth.
‘Are you ok?’ Milo set the bucket down and stepped towards him.
His dad was hunched over, holding his belly with one hand and his knee with the other, breathing deeply.
‘Shall I get mom?’
His dad didn’t reply. He just sucked in breath through clenched teeth.
‘I’ll get mom.’
‘No, no. Don’t worry your mother!’ He shouted. ‘It’s just gas, I think. It was hurting last night. It’ll pass in a sec.’
He straightened up, took a few more slow, controlled breaths, and then forced a smile. ‘All good!’
‘Yeah, yeah. Come on. Let’s get this finished up. Breakfast will be ready soon.’
His dad fixed the head back onto the hose and rinsed away whatever suds hadn’t burnt off in the sun.
‘Go and get the rags, kiddo!’
Milo fetched the box of rags from the garage. Every time his mom wore a hole in a kitchen towel, it would end up deposited in the rag box. Every Sunday, Milo and his dad would use them to buff the car dry, to prevent any nasty streak marks.
As Milo stretched to start buffing the roof, his shirt brushed against his chest, and he winced.
‘You alright?’ Dallas asked; glancing at his son’s shirt. ‘Is that hurting?’
‘Only if my shirt catches.’
‘Are you putting the cream on, that Doctor Chamberlain gave you?’
Milo nodded. He mostly had. He’d certainly missed the odd day or two, though.
The air was suddenly filled with the ringing of a bike bell and the screeching of brakes.
Mrs Sampson and her children came to a halt on the road next to them. The three of them were straddling a bike each and touched their feet down to steady themselves.
The Sampson family lived a couple of doors down. They used to barbecue together all the time before Uncle Malc had offended them.
Mrs Sampson rode at the front. She was a petite woman with a blond bob. The basket fixed to her handlebar cradled two over-stuffed grocery bags that were starting to tear in the corners.
Behind her, rode her daughter, Becca. She was a pale girl with a dyed-black fringe, purple lipstick, heavy eyeliner and a choker clasped around her neck. She wore black from head to toe – from the leather jacket down to the fishnet stockings that fed into her boots. She was a year older than Milo.
Milo blushed uneasily as she fixed her deadly gaze on him, with her arms folded firmly across her chest.
Given a choice, Becca would be at home in her room, with the blinds down and Courting Armageddon blaring out of her Binko. But her father had been puking his guts up all morning and the stench had crept into every room in the house. For once, she was happy to be out in the open air.
Brody rode at the back of the Sampson convoy. He was seven. Fairly heavy-set. Pale like his sister, with short brown hair, and watchful green eyes. He was very quiet. But very clever, mechanically speaking. He was always building some contraption or another. He has a touch of the autism, as Mrs Sampson had announced to everyone, one barbecue.
There was a special assembly about autism at Milo’s school one morning, on behalf of Brody, not long after the doctors diagnosed him. His name wasn’t mentioned, but all the kids knew who it regarded. They all turned their heads and sniggered at him as he stared blankly at the stage.
‘You two will have to stop by and do mine next,’ laughed Mrs Sampson, as she rested on her bike at the roadside, with both children parked behind her.
‘Put Dan to work! It’s a nice enough morning,’ Dallas said, with a smile.
‘Oh, he ain’t feeling too well,’ Mrs Sampson said. ‘We just went to the shop to get him some meds, didn’t we?’
Brody nodded. Becca stayed stony still – her hateful scowl fixed on Milo.
‘Poor Dan,’ Dallas said. ‘What’s up with him? Have you called the doc, over at Long Pines?’
‘Can’t get through to the doc. Dan’s been in bed two days now. Puking a lot. Started with bad stomach cramps.’
Milo looked at his dad.
‘Probably a bug going round,’ he told her. ‘You tell him I send him my best.’
Milo’s dad shifted his gaze to Brody, who was staring back at him, expressionless.
‘How’s it going, Brody?’ he asked.
Brody didn’t say anything. ‘Oh, he’s just fine,’ Mrs Sampson said.
‘Built anything cool lately?’ Dallas continued his line of questioning.
Again, Brody didn’t reply. Just stared. Becca smiled.
‘Another slingshot,’ his mom said, disapprovingly.
‘Ah. Still haven’t fixed my fence from the last one,’ Milo’s dad half-laughed.
At one of the barbecues the families had used to frequently enjoy together, Brody had pulled his latest contraption from his backpack. It was a wooden box, about the size of a shoebox, with a hole in one end, a lever on the top, and a small trigger on the bottom. He then plucked a stone out of the sidings in the backyard. He fed it into the hole, pulled back the level, aimed it at the fence, and then pulled the trigger. It blasted a hole through the wooden slats, a foot wide.
‘Yee-har! This mute little dipshit is good for something after all!’ Uncle Malc had shouted – so excited, he spilt beer all down himself. The Sampsons went home, both embarrassed and insulted, and they hadn’t arranged another barbecue since.
‘Anyway,’ Mrs Sampson said coldly, as she stood by the roadside. ‘We better get these meds back home.’
She cycled away and her children followed.
‘Breakfast is on the table!’ Milo’s mom called through the window.
Dallas finished buffing the hood and then threw his rag onto the driveway. Milo threw his down, too. They looked the car over and then headed inside. His dad brought the smart speaker in and set it down on the kitchen counter, next to his hat.
Sally sat in her high chair at the table. She had mousy-blonde hair, and a few small freckles dotted her cheeks. A bowl of small cut-up cubes of bacon and hash brown sat on the tray in front of her. The bowl had suckers underneath to stop her throwing it across the room. She swung her chubby legs happily as she stuffed the breakfast cubes into her mouth.
‘Wash your hands first, both of you!’ Milo’s mom barked.
Jill Winters was a short woman with curly blonde hair. She wore thick green glasses, shelved by a study little nose. Her loose, summery dress danced as she circled the table; filling a round of glasses with O.J. from the carton.
Milo rolled his eyes and then lathered up his hands with soap at the sink. His dad did the same. They towelled them dry and then came over to the table. Milo drew up his usual chair. His dad kissed Sally on the forehead and then drew up his.
The plates each had two rashers of well-done bacon, two hash browns, two stubby little sausages, a small mound of scrambled eggs, and a side of beans. They started to eat.
‘I saw Jo go by on the bikes,’ Jill said.
‘Went to the grocery store,’ her husband replied.
‘Dan wasn’t with them?’
‘He isn’t feeling good.’
‘Poor dear. What’s up with him?’
‘Puking and stomach cramps,’ Milo said.
‘Really, Milo? Puke at the breakfast table?’
‘You asked,’ Milo laughed.
‘Anyway,’ his mom started, ‘I was thinking we haven’t taken our bikes out in a while. Seems like a nice day for it.’
‘Sure, hon. I’ll dig them out of the garage.’ Dallas slurped beans off his fork.
‘We can go and see if that ice cream truck still parks up by Donerson Park,’ Jill said, with a waggle of her eyebrows.
‘Park!’ Sally said, happily. She always got a lemonade ice lolly and would have to fight the wasps off.
Dallas set his cutlery down. His stomach gurgled. He necked his orange juice, and then went to the sink to fill the glass with water. He swallowed that down, too.
‘You alright, hon?’ his wife asked.
‘Yeah, just thirsty. It’s hotter than I thought out.’
He turned and saw Milo staring at him, with a face full of concern.
‘I’m fine, really!’ his dad encouraged him. Then, as if suddenly remembering, he patted his back pocket. ‘Hon, seen my wallet?’
He went down the hall and rummaged through the pocket of his jacket, which hung on the pegs by the door. When he came back, he was palming a five-dollar note.
‘Here you go, chief,’ he said, as he handed it to Milo. ‘The weekly wage.’
Milo took it, and slipped it into his pocket. But his look of concern didn’t go away. He observed his dad closely as he sat back at the table.
‘What was it you were saving up for again, My?’ his mom asked.
‘Goblin Avenger four. Everyone at school already got it.’
‘Didn’t we get you that for Christmas?’ Dallas asked.
‘That was Goblin Avenger three point five.’
‘Three point five?’ his mom quizzed.
‘Yeah, it’s like three, but with some bonus stuff.’
‘More goblins,’ Dallas said, with a smile.
‘Gollin!’ Sally added.
‘Well you’ll appreciate it all the more by earning it,’ his mom said.
Dallas sank back into his seat, holding his stomach.
‘Still feeling rough?’ Mrs Winters asked him. ‘Maybe we should call Doctor Chamberlain.’
Her husband looked at her and forced a smile. ‘I’m – fine. I’ll be fine. Please, just eat.’
‘Maybe you’ve got what Mr Sampson has got,’ Milo said. ‘Didn’t Binko say people were getting sick?’
Dallas’ face was wet. Wet as though he’d just climbed out of the pool. Beads of sweat speckled his cheeks and forehead. His stomach gurgled again.
He opened his mouth as if he were about to speak. Only no words came out. Then his eyes widened, as if a dagger had plunged deep into his back. The pupils began to dart between the loved ones surrounding him at the table. And then it came. Through his lips shot a long, continuous jet of thick black blood, which hit Sally in the face. It pooled over the tray of her high chair, onto the table, and washed over the eggs and the beans and the bacon fat.
Dallas’ face contorted in terror and agony as the blood continued to pass through his lips, like a fire hose of black congealed jello, puss, and scrags of flesh. His fingers clutched the table firmly, like crooked talons. Then the jet stopped, and he slumped back lifeless in his chair.
Sally broke into a howling scream that pierced the room. She was black with blood. All that was visible was the whites of her eyes and the pinks of her tonsils.
Mrs Winter’s chair clattered to the floor. She was standing over her husband in a heartbeat; clasping his cheeks and listening for breath from his open mouth. Blood drooled in long strings from his lips, down onto his shirt. ‘Dallas?’ she screamed. ‘Dallas? Oh my god. Talk to me. Talk to me baby. Dallas? Dallas?’
Milo looked down at his plate. His beans floated in the blood like life rafts in a great black lake.
‘Call an ambulance!’ his mom shouted.
Milo could hardly hear her. He couldn’t take his eyes off that plate.
‘Call a fucking ambulance!’