Illuminated, page 2
A small sip. This was a light pinot noir from Washington State, something that didn’t weigh too heavily on the stomach. It probably deserved something better than creamed corn. Unfortunately, Sarah didn’t have a lot of options. The forests around here had their share of wildlife, true, but she’d never been a hunter. A couple of times she’d managed to bag a rabbit with the .22 she carried around on her daily expeditions. Although the whole process of skinning the animal and getting any kind of useful meat off its bones had made her want to gag, she’d grimly forced herself through the process, knowing she needed the protein. The last rabbit had been more than a week ago, however. She’d found some canned chicken and tuna on her foraging expeditions, but she was doing her best to ration that out as well. One meal every couple of days with protein, the rest canned vegetables or fruit, and then bread or biscuits. Her cooking skills might not have been the equal of her father’s, but she could manage biscuits without too much trouble.
The dancing flames in the hearth glinted off the barrel of her pistol, which now lay on top of the coffee table. Sarah found some comfort in taking it everywhere with her, even though she had no idea whether she’d be able to use it effectively if she really were attacked. Not by a human, of course; she knew she was the only human being in this town, possibly in the entire county. But there were coyotes, and maybe Mexican gray wolves, and definitely bears. She’d never seen one come anywhere near town, although she’d spotted a few while she was out hiking. Anyway, better safe than sorry, even though she feared the pistol wouldn’t do much to stop a bear. It was a risk she had to take, even knowing that, if she ventured out completely unarmed and a wild animal did attack her, she wouldn’t have anyone to treat her wounds afterward. She knew some basic first aid, but that only went so far. A really serious injury would kill her.
Which was also why she’d avoided rock climbing, or any hike more strenuous than was necessary to look for rabbits or squirrels to eat. Back before the world changed, she could afford to be more adventurous. It was still a drive down the hill to get to a hospital, but at least there were hospitals. And doctors and nurses and antibiotics and all the other good stuff.
Living alone like this was definitely no fun, but a solitary life was still better than no life at all.
Sarah was just reaching for her glass of wine again when three loud knocks sounded at the door. Good thing she hadn’t actually been holding the glass, because otherwise she would have certainly dropped it.
It had been so long since she’d heard a sound she hadn’t made herself — or hadn’t been made by the local wildlife — that those knocks rang in her ears like shots from a gun. Heart hammering in her breast, she reached for the pistol and slowly stood.
Maybe she was going crazy and had started hearing things. Or maybe a tree had fallen over and hit the side of the building, and it only sounded like someone knocking.
Pistol in hand, she began to inch toward the door to the reception area. Out of habit, she always locked it when she was here…or even when she wasn’t. Safer that way, since the last thing she wanted was an adventurous raccoon to get in and cause havoc in the kitchen.
The three knocks came again. Sarah gulped back a gasp, then forced herself to continue moving forward. A horrible story came into her mind, one that her friend Alyssa had told one night back when they were in junior high and having a sleepover with a bunch of other girls from their class. Something about how a demon would knock three times, in a mockery of the Holy Trinity.
Yeah, and they’re supposed to knock between midnight and three in the morning, Sarah told herself sternly. It’s probably not even eight o’clock yet.
True, but even if it wasn’t a demon…what if Rebecca the ghost had finally decided to make an appearance? Sarah might have joked to herself that she’d welcome the spirit’s presence, since it would mean she wasn’t alone here in the hotel, but that sort of joke was a lot more amusing in the bright light of day. Now, with the only light coming from the fireplace and one Coleman lantern turned down to its lowest setting, the prospect of a ghost roaming the halls of the Lodge suddenly wasn’t funny at all.
All right. She steeled herself to open the door, trying to convince herself that the sound of the knocks had been all in her mind. And if it wasn’t….
Her fingers tightened on the grip of the gun she held. Kyle’s old Colt single-action pistol. More than once he’d told her proudly that the gun never jammed, had always been there for him when he needed it. She had to hope he’d been telling her the truth.
With her free hand, she reached out to disengage the bolt on the door. Now all she had to do was turn the knob.
A quick breath, and she flung the door open. A tall figure loomed over her, and she gasped and took a step back. It really was a bear —
Then he stepped forward, just enough that some of the dim light from down the corridor touched his face.
No, not a bear. A man.
A tall, handsome man.
At least, she thought he appeared to be handsome, although she couldn’t make out too many details of his appearance because of the uncertain lighting. She stared up at him, and he said quickly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” His gaze flickered to the gun in her right hand. “But I saw what I thought was a light, up here in the trees. I haven’t seen anyone in months, and so — ”
Sarah found her voice. “So you thought you’d better check it out.”
“Yes.” He hesitated, appearing to look past her and down the hallway to where the fire burned in the hearth. “Is there anyone else here?”
Maybe she should lie, tell him that yes, there was a large group of survivors staying here at the hotel. However, that kind of falsehood would be easy enough to disprove. “No,” she replied, desperately hoping she wasn’t making a huge mistake. “They’re all dead.”
His mouth tightened. “I know. That is, no one was alive down the hill, either, so I figured it would be the same up here.” A pause, and then he added, “I’m Cam, by the way. Cameron Allen.”
“Sarah Wright. I — ” It felt so strange to be talking to someone, to realize she wasn’t completely alone in the world after all. Her mouth suddenly didn’t want to form the correct syllables. “Come on in. There’s a fire. It’s freezing outside.”
“Well, not yet, but probably later tonight.” As he spoke he flashed her a smile, one that made the blood rush to her cheeks.
What were the odds that her only fellow survivor would look like a male model?
She stepped out of the way so he could enter the building. Once he was inside, she closed the door, automatically locking it. “This way.”
It was a little better to have him following her. That way she could avoid staring at him. Because she wanted to stare, even as her mind kept tripping over itself, trying to make some sense of his sudden appearance. Beyond that, she felt very self-conscious. Was her hair a tangled mess? Did she look like she’d just rolled out of bed? With nothing but time on her hands, she actually did spend a few minutes each day putting on some mascara and gloss, or at least tinted lip balm. Stupid, she knew. Well, maybe not completely stupid. At least the balm protected her lips from the sun and the wind.
As they came into the firelight, she could see that Cameron wore a heavy pack on his back — a real rucksack, intended for serious hiking. He paused next to the couch, undid the straps, and eased the pack down to the floor. Rubbing his shoulder, he said, “That’s better.”
“Where did you come from?”
A pause. Sarah noticed how his gaze moved toward the bottle of wine on the table, then shifted toward the floor, as though he didn’t want to look as though he was staring.
“Do you want some?” she asked. Maybe it had been rude not to offer him some right away. She wasn’t entirely clear on end-of-the-world etiquette. “I can go get another glass — ”
“That would be great. Thank you.”
Yes, she supposed that hiking up the road from Tularosa would be thirsty work
She hurried to the bar and got another glass, then came back into the lobby. Cameron had seated himself on the couch opposite the one where she’d been eating when he arrived. Now that he was closer to both the fire and the Coleman lantern, she could see his features much better. Her first impression had been correct — he really was gorgeous, with cleanly chiseled features, and longish dark hair that touched the edges of the hoodie he wore. A faint scruff of beard covered his cheeks and chin, as though he hadn’t shaved in a few days, but the facial hair only seemed to enhance his looks, rather than detract from them.
“Here,” she said quickly, then set down the wine glass in front of him. She picked up the bottle of wine and filled up his glass a good deal further than halfway.
“Leave some for yourself,” he said, sounding a little surprised at the amount she’d just poured for him.
“It’s all right. I’ve already had a glass.”
“If you’re sure — ”
He lifted the wine glass and swirled its contents, appearing to inspect the flickers of garnet and ruby within the liquid. Then he raised it toward her. “To not being alone on this planet.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Sarah said, although his words struck a chill within her. Clearly, he had to have come here from the flatlands. If he was toasting her for letting him know he wasn’t the only survivor, then he must not have met anyone else during his journey here. She forced herself to take a sip from her nearly empty glass. “So you didn’t see anyone else?”
He was in the middle of swallowing, and so he didn’t answer her right away. When he spoke, his expression was solemn. “No. I’m from Roswell. No survivors there, at least as far as I could tell, and I think I walked every street in that town, looking for someone. Anyone. So I packed what I could and hit the road. I went over to Ruidoso. No one there. And then I decided that maybe I’d have better luck in a bigger town, so I thought I’d keep heading west, go on to Las Cruces.”
“Then why Cloudcroft?” Sarah asked. “It’s sort of out of the way.”
“If you take the main roads. But I came down the back way, along the 244. Prettier country, and it’s actually more direct. And I figured it couldn’t hurt to check out Cloudcroft, just to see. It was almost dark when I got here, so I thought I’d bunk in one of the cabins down off the highway. But I guess I must have been looking in just the right direction, because I thought I saw a light on top of the hill, coming down through the trees. I figured I’d better go check it out, even if it turned out to be nothing. Luckily, I’d heard of the Lodge, so I knew there was a hotel up the hill, even though I’ve never stayed here.” He chuckled, and drank some more of his wine. “Too rich for my blood.”
Something about those words helped to ease a bit of the tension in Sarah’s neck and shoulders. He sounded so refreshingly normal, despite his model looks. Yes, the hotel would’ve been a little pricey for a lot of people, and if he was from Roswell, Cam probably wouldn’t have seen the need to stay overnight anyway. The town was close enough to Cloudcroft that you could day-trip it.
“Me, too,” she said. “I’m just here because….”
He lifted an inquiring eyebrow at her. “You wanted to see how the other half lives?”
She smiled. “Not exactly. I actually worked here. So did my father — he’s…I mean, he was the chef.”
The light seemed to go out of Cam’s dark eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Empty words. Of course it wasn’t all right…it could never be all right…but that was the sort of thing you were supposed to say. “We’ve both lost people…haven’t we?”
A nod. He glanced away from her, at the flames in the hearth as they flickered and danced. “I mostly try not to think about it.”
Sarah couldn’t argue with that. Every day she tried her best to do the same thing, to act as though the world wasn’t gone. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. The world itself was still here — the buildings and the trees and the animals. Only the people had disappeared, gone to gray dust.
“Anyway,” she went on, “do you think there’s a real possibility of people being in Las Cruces?”
Cam swallowed some more wine before he put his wine glass back down on the table. “I don’t know. It only seemed like the most logical place to look.” One hand rubbed at the stubble on his chin, absently, his thoughts clearly very far away.
Don’t stare, she thought. It was hard not to, though. After so much time alone, just hearing the sound of another person’s voice was enough to upset her fragile composure. Having the source of that voice be possibly the best-looking person she’d ever met…well, his looks made it all that much harder.
All right, if she was going to be completely objective, he wasn’t perfect-perfect. His nose was long, and his lips on the thin side. Even so, the combination of his features still worked out to something pretty spectacular.
“I haven’t heard anything from over there,” she said. She reached for her wine but didn’t drink, instead held the bowl of the glass cupped in her palms.
“‘Heard’?” Cam repeated. “What do you mean?”
“I have a ham radio setup,” Sarah explained, then quickly amended, “That is, it belonged to a friend of the family. He taught me how to use it. I’ve been scanning for weeks and haven’t heard a damn thing. Except….”
His gaze sharpened. Those dark eyes suddenly seemed very piercing. “Except what?”
“At the beginning…or close to the beginning. Maybe the end of the beginning. Anyway, after everyone was gone, but while the power was still on, I was trying to figure out what to do, and I remembered Kyle’s radio. So I went to his place and started running through the bands, hoping I could find something. I thought I heard a man’s voice really briefly, but I lost the signal. I couldn’t even make out anything of what he said. Maybe something about a lab, but even that’s just a guess.”
“A lab,” Cam repeated, his tone musing. This time his gaze tracked toward the French doors, although of course you couldn’t see anything of the grounds outside. Just utter pitch black, as though the resort was suspended in the center of an obsidian globe. “Like at Sandia?”
“Yes.” He retrieved his wine glass, drank a little more, put it back down. “They had a lot of labs there. Defense, classified stuff. Maybe someone at Sandia figured out a way to survive the Heat.”
“‘The Heat’?” Sarah hated to ask so many questions, but it was obvious she’d missed a lot, isolated up here as she’d been. “That’s what it was called?”
“Well, it wasn’t official or anything. It probably ran through the population more quickly here because you were so isolated, and there weren’t many of you to begin with. Out in the rest of the world, it took a little longer. Enough for the disease to get a nickname that was passed around before everything went dead.”
She supposed she couldn’t argue with that. As to which scenario was worse, she couldn’t really say. Up here in Cloudcroft, it seemed as if the whole thing was over and done with in the space of a day. Out in the world…apparently the apocalypse had lasted a bit longer than that.
“Anyway,” Cam continued, “you’d think if anyone had figured out how to survive the disease, it would have been someone at a government installation, or at the CDC or someplace like that. So it makes sense that the person you’d heard speaking might have said something about a lab.”
“I guess.” Sarah didn’t want to sound quite so dubious, but one syllable wasn’t much to go on. If only that one brief burst had lasted longer than a second or two. But it hadn’t, and no matter how she tried, she couldn’t seem to lock on to that same channel again. “Albuquerque’s a long wa
He nodded. “True, but it’s not like there aren’t plenty of cars just lying around for the taking.”
“So you drove here?” Even as she asked the question, she had to wonder. If he had a car, then why the heavy rucksack?
“Part of the way. Then my truck ran out of gas. I guess I could’ve taken one of the cars abandoned on the road — sometimes right in the middle of the road — but something about that felt strange. The dust, you know?”
Oh, how she knew. She’d spent days cleaning the residue of the hotel’s guests off the floor, off the beds. Never mind that no one would ever sleep in those beds again. It still seemed disrespectful to just leave the dust where it had fallen. Once, that dust had been people.
“I get it,” she said. “Besides, the weather’s been pretty nice lately.”
“True. I think it helped to walk, actually. Gave me a chance to clear my head, come to grips with what was going on.”
Sarah understood that sentiment as well. Some days, it seemed as if her walks in the woods were the only thing that kept her from going completely crazy. She hadn’t wanted to contemplate what she’d do when the snows of winter closed in, if not trapping her in the hotel, then at the very least making it much more difficult to get out and about.
Cam yawned then, and sent her an apologetic glance. “Sorry. I’m up at dawn most of the time, and I guess it’s catching up with me.”
“That’s all right.” She hesitated. The situation was already strange enough, but it would be far stranger to have him stay here at the Lodge with her. But what else was she supposed to do…send him off to sleep at a cabin that hadn’t been cleaned out, a house that still had its former inhabitants’ dust lying on the floor? The hotel was nothing except empty rooms, all of them as clean as she could make them. Not the Governor’s Suite, since she’d taken that one for her own, but there were several parlor suites with king beds that should suit Cam just fine. “Let me get you a key for one of the rooms. I have heat for cooking, but there’s no running water, so — ”
by Christine Pope / Romance / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes