By the time the city's core rose into view, Grey knew he would have to abandon the interstate. There was simply no way around the cars, and the situation was only going to get worse the closer he got. He drew the truck into the parking lot of a 7-Eleven and checked his map. The best route would be circling downtown to the south, he decided, though this was just a guess; he didn't know Denver at all.
He veered south, then east again, picking his way through the suburbs. Everywhere was the same, not a living soul about. He wished he could at least have had the radio for company, but when he scanned up and down the dial, all he could get was the same empty wash of static he'd heard for a day and a half. For a while he honked the truck's horn, thinking this might alert anyone left alive to his presence, but eventually he gave up. There was no one left to hear it. Denver was a crypt.
By the time the engine died, Grey had entered a state of such complete despair that for several seconds he actually failed to notice. So disturbing was the silence that it had begun to seem possible that he would never see a living soul again-that the whole world, not just Denver, had been swept clean of humanity. But then he realized what was happening, that the engine had lost power. For a few seconds the truck coasted on its own momentum, but the steering had locked up, too; all Grey could do was sit and wait for it to glide to a halt.
Christ, he thought, this is all I need. Sliding Iggy's gun into the pocket of his jumpsuit, he climbed out and lifted the hood. Grey had owned enough junky cars in his day to know a broken fan belt. The logical step would have been to abandon the truck and find another vehicle with the keys in it. He was on a wide boulevard of big-box retail outlets: Best Buy, Target, Home Depot. The sun was glaring down. Each lot had a scattering of cars in it. But he had no heart to look inside them, knowing what he would find. He'd swapped out a fan belt lots of times. All he needed was the belt and a few basic tools, a screwdriver and a couple of wrenches to adjust the tensioner. Maybe the Home Depot had auto parts. It couldn't hurt to look.
He crossed the highway and headed for the door, which stood open. The cage of propane tanks by the entrance had been pried open, all the canisters taken, but otherwise the front of the store appeared undamaged. A phalanx of lawn mowers, chained together, rested undisturbed by the doorway, as did a display of patio furniture dusted with yellow pollen. The only other sign that anything was amiss was a large square of plywood propped against the wall, spray-painted with the words NO GENERATORS LEFT.
Grey drew the pistol from his pocket, wedged the door open, and stepped inside. The power was out, but a semblance of order had been maintained; a lot of the shelves had been stripped bare, though the floor was mostly clear of debris. Holding the gun out before him, he advanced cautiously along the front of the store, his eyes scanning the signs over the aisles for one that said AUTO PARTS.
He had made it halfway down the rows when Grey stopped in his tracks. From ahead and to his left he heard a quiet rustling, followed by a barely audible murmuring. Grey took two steps forward and peered around the corner.
It was a woman. She was standing in front of a display of paint samples. She was dressed in jeans and a man's dress shirt; her hair, a soft brown, was swept behind her ears, fixed in place by a pair of sunglasses perched on top of her head. She was also pregnant-not have-the-baby-right-this-second pregnant, but pregnant enough. While Grey watched, she pulled a little square of color from one of the slots and angled it first this way and then the other, frowning pensively. Then she returned it to its slot.
So unexpected was this vision that Grey could only gaze at her in mute astonishment. What was she doing here? A full thirty seconds passed, the woman taking no notice of his presence, wholly engaged by her mysterious business. Not wanting to frighten her, Grey gently placed the gun on an open shelf and took a cautious step forward. What should he say? He'd never been good at icebreakers. Or even talking to people, really. He settled for clearing his throat.
The woman glanced at him over her shoulder. "Well, it's about time," she said. "I've been standing here for twenty minutes."
"Lady, what are you doing?"
She turned from the display. "Is this or is this not the paint department?" She was holding out a group of sample chips, fanned like a deck of playing cards. "Now, I'm thinking maybe Garden Gate, but I'm worried it will be too dark."
Grey was utterly dumbfounded. She wanted him to help her pick paint?
"Probably nobody ever asks your opinion, I know," she continued briskly-a little too briskly, Grey thought. "Just put it in a can and take my money, I'm sure that's what everybody says. But I value the judgment of someone who knows his business. So, what do you think? In your professional opinion."
Grey was standing within just a few feet of her now. Her face was fine-boned and pale, with a subtle fan of crow's-feet at the corners of her eyes. "I think you're confused. I don't work here."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "You don't?"
"Lady, no one works here."
Confusion swept over her face. But just as quickly it disappeared, her features reorganizing into a look of irritation. "Oh, you hardly need to tell me that," she said, tossing his words away. "Trying to get a little help around this place is like pulling teeth. Now," she went on, "as I was saying, I need to know which of these would go best in a nursery." She gave a bashful smile. "I guess it's no secret, but I'm expecting."
Grey had known some crazy people in his days, but this woman took the cake. "Lady, I don't think you should be here. It's not safe."
Another little hitch of time passed before she answered; it was as if she was processing his words and then, in the next instant, rewriting their meaning.
"Honestly, you sound just like David. To tell you the truth, I've had just about enough of this kind of talk." She sighed heavily. "So, Garden Gate it is then. I'll take two gallons in an eggshell finish, please. If you don't mind, I'm in kind of a hurry."
Grey felt completely flustered. "You want me to sell you paint?"
"Well, are you or aren't you the manager?"
The manager? When had that happened? The fact was dawning on him that the woman wasn't just pretending.
"Lady, don't you know what's going on around here?"
She pulled two cans from the shelves and held them out. "I'll tell you what's going on. I'm buying some paint, and you're going to mix it for me, Mr.- Now, I don't believe I got your name."
Grey swallowed. Something about the woman seemed to make him absolutely powerless, as if he were being dragged by a runaway horse. "It's Grey," he said. "Lawrence Grey."
She pushed the cans toward him, forcing him to take them. Christ, she practically had him filling out an employment application. If this went on much longer, he'd never get a fan belt. "Well, Mr. Grey. I'd like two gallons of Garden Gate, please."
"Um, I don't know how."
"Of course you do." She gestured toward the counter. "Just put it in the whatchamacallit."
"Lady, I can't."
"What do you mean, you can't?"
"Well, just for starters, the power's out."
This remark seemed to have some beneficial effect. The woman tilted her face toward the ceiling.
"Now, I think I did notice that," she said airily. "It does seem a little dim in here."
"That's what I was trying to tell you."
"Well, why didn't you just say so?" she huffed. "So, no Garden Gate. No color at all, from what you're saying. I have to tell you this comes as a disappointment. I was really hoping to get the nursery done today."
"Lady, I don't think-"
"The truth is, David should really be the one doing this, but oh no, he has to go off and save the world and leave me stuck in the house like a prisoner. And where the hell is Yolanda? Pardon my French. You know, after everything I've done for her, I'd expect a little consideration. Even just a call."
David. Yolanda. Who were these people? It was all completely baffling, and not a little weird, but one thing was obvious: this poor woman was completely alone. Unless Grey found a way to get her out of here, she wouldn't last long.
"Maybe you could just paint it white," he offered. "I'm sure they got lots of that."
She looked at him skeptically. "Why would I want to paint it white?"
"They say white goes with anything, right?" For the love of God, listen to him; he sounded like one of those fags on TV. "You can do anything with white. Maybe add something else with color in the room. The curtains and stuff."
She hesitated. "I don't know. White does seem a little plain. On the other hand, I did want to get the painting done today."
"Exactly," Grey said, and did his best to smile. "That's just what I'm saying. You can paint it white, then figure out the rest when you see how it looks. That's what I'd recommend."
"And white does go with anything. You're correct about that."
"You said it was a nursery, right? So maybe later you could add a border, to jazz it up a little. You know, like bunnies or something."
"Bunnies, you say?"
Grey swallowed. Where had that come from? Bunnies were the glow-sticks' all-time favorite food. He'd watched Zero gobble them down by the cartload.
"Sure," he managed. "Everybody likes bunnies."
He could see the idea taking hold of her. Which raised another question. Assuming the woman agreed to leave, what then? He could hardly let her go off on her own. He also wondered just how pregnant she was. Five months? Six? He wasn't a good judge of these things.
"Well, I think you really may have something there," the woman said with a nod from her fine-boned chin. "We really seem to be on the same wavelength, Mr. Grey."
"It's Lawrence," he said.
Smiling, she held out her hand. "Call me Lila."
* * *
It wasn't until he was sitting in the woman's Volvo-Lila had actually left a wad of cash at one of the registers, with a note promising to return-that Grey realized that somewhere between his carrying the cans to the car and loading them into the cargo area, she had successfully maneuvered him into agreeing to paint the nursery. He didn't recall actually doing this; it just kind of happened, and the next thing he knew they were driving away, the woman steering the Volvo through the abandoned city, past wrecked cars and bloated bodies, overturned Army trucks and the still-smoking rubble of gutted apartment complexes. "Really," she remarked, guiding the station wagon around the burned-out hulk of a FedEx delivery truck with barely a glance, "you'd think people would have the sense to call a wrecker and not just leave their cars sitting in the road." She also chattered on about the nursery (he'd hit pay dirt with the bunnies), tucking in more snide asides about David, who Grey figured was her husband. Grey guessed the man had gone off somewhere, leaving her alone in her house. Based on the things he'd seen, it seemed likely he'd gotten himself killed. Maybe the woman had been crazy before, but Grey didn't think so. Something bad had happened to her, really bad. There was a name for this, he knew. Post-traumatic something. Basically the woman knew but didn't know, and her mind, in its terrified state, was protecting her from the truth-a truth that, sooner or later, Grey would have to tell her.
They arrived at the house, a big brick Tudor that seemed to soar above the street. He'd already guessed the woman was well-off from the way she'd spoken to him, but this was something else. Grey retrieved the supplies from the Volvo's cargo area-in addition to the paint, she'd selected a package of rollers, a tray, and an assortment of brushes-and mounted the steps. At the front door, Lila fumbled with her keys.
"Now, this always sticks a little."
She shouldered the door open to a wash of stale air. Grey followed her into the foyer. He had expected the interior of the house to be like something in a castle, all heavy drapes and overstuffed furniture and dripping chandeliers, but it was the opposite, more like some kind of office than a place people actually lived. To his left, a wide arch led to the dining room, which was occupied by a long glass table and some uncomfortable-looking chairs; to the right was the living room, a barren expanse interrupted only by a low-slung couch and a large black piano. For a moment Grey just stood there, dumbly holding the cans of paint, trying to put his thoughts together. He smelled something, too-a pungent whiff of old garbage coming from deep within the house.
As the silence deepened, Grey scrambled for something to say. "Do you play?" he asked.
Lila was depositing her purse and keys on the little table by the door. "Play what?"
Grey gestured at the piano. She swiveled her head to look at the instrument, seeming vaguely startled.
"No," she answered with a frown. "That was David's idea. A little pretentious, if you ask me."
She led him up the stairs, the air thickening as they made their ascent. Grey followed her to the end of the carpeted hall.
"Here we are," she announced.
The room felt disproportionately snug, considering the dimensions of the house. A ladder stood in one corner, and the floor was covered by a plastic drop cloth taped to the baseboards; a roller sat in a tray of paint, hardening in the heat. Grey moved farther in. The room's original tone had been a neutral cream, but someone-Lila, he guessed-had rolled broad, haphazard stripes of yellow up and down the walls, following no organized pattern. It would take him three coats just to cover it.
Lila was standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips. "It's probably pretty obvious," she said with a wince, "I'm not much of a painter. Certainly not a professional such as yourself."