Let’s Get Haunted!

It was true, Gloria thought, that childhood places you returned to as an adult seemed smaller. But they didn’t seem any less haunted. A breeze raised the hairs on her arms, but she kept her face neutral for her phone’s camera. “Here it is, the Parrish House. I haven’t been back here for years. No, I won’t tell you how many!” She laughed and was pleased that she sounded confident. None of the dread was coming out in her voice. “If you’re from northern California, you’ve heard of it, and you probably have an opinion about whether it’s cursed, haunted, or both—or if the whole thing is a hoax. You’ve come along with me on a few short paranormal investigations since I launched Gloria’s Hauntings, but this is going to be an in-depth, real-time look into the true nature of a notorious house. I tracked down the company that owns it and made an offer. I bought it sight unseen, as-is, so you’re getting the first look right along with me.”

She switched from selfie mode to pan the outside of the long-abandoned Victorian. It had been surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire since she’d last been here. “It’s been empty for decades, ever since the Parrish family disappeared one chilly night in January, 1959. I tried to track down remaining family members, but I had no luck. Some say they fled in the middle of the night, but others believe some part of them is still…right here.” 

Gloria’s fourteen seasons as the host on the Real Life Channel’s Let’s Get Haunted! had helped her develop a flair for the dramatic, even if the ungrateful assholes had replaced her with a younger model, chosen for looks rather than heightened perception. She still had a loyal following, and she had been steadily building her online subscription service, billed as “Real & Unfiltered” as an NDA-skirting nod to the fakery LGH! had used for ratings, over her protests. Snagging the Parrish House had doubled the income from her solo project, and she hoped that was just the beginning. 

Deep breath. Time to go in. “Okay, here we are. Wow, that cherub over the mirror looks pissed. I guess he doesn’t like chintz.” She sneezed. “These dust covers are going to have to go to the dumpster. Let’s do a quick walk-through to see what condition the house is in, get some light in here, and place some sensors. I plan to sleep here tonight. Premium subscribers will get live updates if anything unexplained happens in the wee hours. Everyone else will wait until the morning report.”

The large fireplace dominated the front room. Little porcelain figures decorated the dusty mantelpiece: a shepherdess, a goatherd, a girl with a basket of vegetables.The dust was thick. She’d have to tackle that later or she’d be coughing up a lung. There were no overhead lights, but she’d prepared for that, bringing several standing lamps so she’d have some light in each room. She plugged one in and crossed her fingers. “Yes! The electric company came through!” She’d been tempted to check out the house before the on-air walkthrough, to make sure she didn’t have flashbacks and freak out, but she had integrity, unlike some producers she could name. When she stepped onto the third stair, it creaked, and the memory of that night came rushing back.

“Wow, the last time I was in this house, I came flying down these stairs. A group of us had broken in and set up a Ouija board in the attic. I think we contacted…something.” She didn’t have to fake the shiver. “At that time, I couldn’t sense spirits. It was just a game. After that night, otherworldly energy was always with me, and I got used to its presence, but then—it was terrifying. When this stair creaked, I thought it had caught up with me. I didn’t know what ‘it’ was, and I didn’t look back. I sensed something back there, and I just kept moving, straight out the front door. I was the first one out. The others met me outside and we waited for Monica. And waited. And waited. Eventually, we went home before we could get in trouble. Monica was always playing pranks, so we thought, we hoped, that this was one of her jokes. Maybe she’d even rigged something in the attic to make us think the Ouija board had done something real. But she was gone. She’d been planning to run off with her older boyfriend, and we told ourselves she’d seen an opportunity that night. But we’ll never really know, unless the house gives us some clue during this investigation.”

The other bedrooms were unremarkable, but the nursery gave her pause. “I guess there was a baby when the Parrishes disappeared. That baby would be, what, sixty? if he or she was still…” She picked up a porcelain doll from the crib. “Probably she, I guess. If anyone has any idea of her whereabouts or identity, send me clues. I’d love to find out why they left that night. If they left.”

Gloria felt colder and colder as she pulled down the ladder for the attic. “Someone must have replaced the ladder sometime since my little adventure here. Of course, the police must have looked in this house as part of the investigation into Monica’s disappearance.” Her feet felt heavy as she climbed up, but all of a sudden, her head was above the floor level, and there it was. “Wow, our Ouija board is still here.” She scrambled the rest of the way up, pulling a lamp up behind her. When she switched it on, dust danced in the puddle of light. “Oh, the planchette is way over here. We ran out pretty quickly. One of us probably tripped on the board.” She moved the board and planchette to the top of a stack of boxes. “I don’t feel anything in particular here, just the low-level emanations from the whole house.”

She took a deep breath and coughed. She was surprised that only the dust was bothering her up here. “Well, that was anticlimactic.” She moved to the charred portion of the wall and reached toward the large crucifix hanging there. “You can see here where the fire was. There’s a cupola and a widow’s walk up on the roof, but the cupola burned years before the Parrishes moved in. It was said to be boys playing up there who started the fire. I couldn’t find anything about the boys, so we may have another mysterious disappearance linked to the house, or it may have just been an accident. At any rate, the family living there at the time just boarded up the access point and left it with no attempt to repair, which makes me think something unpleasant happened, especially since they hung a crucifix here. Huh, I wonder if an exorcism was ever attempted. I’ll have to check local church records.”

“We’ll look more closely up here, since at least two strange experiences are linked to this particular part of the house, but I need to get things set up so I can actually sleep in the house tonight, so we’ll save that until later. I expect to spend weeks, if not months, investigating this house. I will travel to conduct some shorter investigations during that time as well, but this is my primary project for the time being. We’ll dig into the history of the house, try to track down former residents, and look for evidence of hauntings, curses, or other paranormal phenomena. In a house like this, there may be several things going on.”

***

The dust covers were in the dumpster, she’d vacuumed pounds of dust from the large rug and hardwood floor of the front room, and she’d pushed back the furniture to make room for her camp bed. Gloria sat cross-legged on the floor and opened her laptop. She liked to end the day with some interactive content. The fans really liked being able to contact her directly, and having their questions answered in real-time boosted engagement and popularity. “This is Gloria Birch, reporting live from the Parrish House in Brentcliff, California, where I once had a seance that ended with a friend disappearing. There are weird occurrences connected to this house, and we’re here to investigate for as long as it takes to uncover all the mysteries. You can check out the first-look tour we did earlier today in the video section, and don’t forget to tip. If you want to be first on hand if anything weird happens in the wee hours, hit the ‘premium subscription’ button. I’m ready to take your questions.”

There were always a few creeps making suggestive comments. If they were free accounts, she blocked their access, but if they paid a subscription fee, she contented herself with taking their money and ignoring them. She read through the questions pouring in, and fielded a few about the house’s history, her past experiences, and her methods. “Ah, Bobby from Humboldt, I’ve set up motion-sensor cameras, vibration detectors, and voice recording in each room. I’m not a fan of electromagnetic detection for paranormal investigations, though that was big on Let’s Get Haunted!, because I expect a house like this is awash in abnormal electromagnetic energy. I want to first focus on sound and images that might show up overnight. I have an instant-read thermometer at hand to check for temperature drops. And yes, Leah from San Antonio, I have my Spidey-sense, though I don’t usually call it that. And I try to back up my feelings with objective measurements and recordings. Let’s call it a night. I’ll let you know if anything exciting happens! Otherwise, see you in the morning.”

She’d started to close her laptop when a message caught her eye: “Do you really think you’ll get out of there alive?”

Trolls.

***

Gloria tried to sit up, but she was trapped, flailing around in the dark, heart pounding, until she remembered she was in a sleeping bag and extracted her arms. What had woken her up? She listened closely but didn’t hear anything unusual. A breeze cooled her bare arms and she shivered. Wait—breeze? Why was there a breeze? She switched on the light, but nothing looked out of place. The breeze was coming from the fireplace. The flue must be open. She checked her phone: 3:20 a.m. 

She flipped open her laptop and sent a push notification to the premium subscribers. “Anyone up? I was just awakened by a gust of wind coming from the direction of the fireplace. The room is chilly.” She held up the instant-read thermometer. “Temperature in the room is 58 degrees. Outside temp is 61. All windows are closed. Today’s high was 72 degrees. No way the house should be this cold.” She watched a few insomniacs and East Coast fans express their excitement. “I’m going to check out the fireplace. I guess it’s possible the flue has been open all these years, or maybe something jogged it open, but I didn’t notice the house being cold before now.”

Gloria wasn’t really afraid of ghosts. Except for the occasional poltergeist who threw things around, they mostly just wanted to be noticed. But she still felt a creeping dread as she approached the fireplace. She jumped as a gust of wind blew around her feet, swishing the t-shirt she wore as pajamas. “Let’s check the flue.”

She shined the flashlight up the chimney. “I’m hoping I’ll see more when I review the recording. It’s mostly just dark up here.” She coughed. “And dusty. The cupola that burned so many years ago is beside this chimney on the rooftop. I wonder if the spirit energy is concentrated in this—” Clunk. Clunk. She reached up slowly with her hand. “The flue is closed, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a gap letting in a draft.” Clunk. The flue vibrated above her fingers. “Something is hitting the flue from above. I can feel it. Maybe a trapped bird?” She was concentrating too hard to feel terrified when the flue gave way under another clunk, flinging her hand against the sooty bricks of the chimney. She scrambled out just as something fell into the fireplace. It looked like a pile of dirty cloth, but sounded heavier.

“Something was up in the flue. It looks like a pile of clothes or a wadded up sheet or something. It’s dirty from the chimney. It’s now 68 degrees in here. Maybe whatever was trying to get my attention with the cold wind just wanted me to find this.” She was strangely reluctant to approach the bundle. She touched it and her hand came away sooty. “It feels like a sheet and looks like it had a flower pattern on it. It’s pretty faded. There’s something hard inside, but not one large solid object, more like a bunch of little things.” Bones, she thought. Monica’s bones. The baby’s bones. She slowly unwrapped the bundle, and little porcelain figures like the ones on the mantel fell to the floor.

“Huh,” she said, trying to sound casually amused. “What are these doing up here? Whether it’s human or spirit mischief remains to be seen. A ghost might cause a draft and use this to get my attention. Are the figures a clue to the weird occurrences in this house? Or did some human stuff them up there? I assume no fire has been lit since the Parrishes left, so they must have been placed there before then. Are they valuable and someone wanted to hide them?”

Antiques Roadshow crossover!” someone commented. She laughed and read it aloud. “Maybe I can pay off the mortgage with these. Who knows.” She lined the little figures up on the mantel, unconsciously switching them around into an order that seemed right. She stared at the apple-cheeked little girl holding a doll and wondered if she was in over her head.

“Well, I’m going to get some more sleep now that it’s warmed up in here and I’ll look around more when I wake up. Thanks for keeping me company, guys!”

She shut the laptop and got back in the sleeping bag. She felt uneasy and confused. What was the purpose of this? Teenagers playing pranks? One of the Parrishes keeping valuables safe? A workman stowing them to steal later? Was it a clue to the disappearances and the fire? She felt suddenly exhausted and fell into a dreamless sleep.

***

Gloria felt better in the morning. One of her fans had live-tweeted his excitement over the late-night ghost update, and it had gained traction while she slept. Several of the content-farm sites were running stories about her. Her subscriptions were up, and she’d pulled in quite a bit in tips from the lucky people who’d watched the livestream. The Let’s Get Haunted! producers hadn’t thought she could still bring in the viewers, and here she was, popular even without chairs flying around the room or creepy whispers piped in. Real haunting was even more dramatic than the faked stuff. You didn’t need to embellish. 

“Good morning, everyone, and welcome to my new members. After the excitement with the fireplace last night, nothing else happened. I slept like a baby.” Baby. The baby upstairs, clutching her doll, she thought, shaking her head to erase the image. “Anyway, today in boring tasks, I have to get the rest of the dust out of the front room so I can breathe in there. I don’t want to have the furniture removed because it’s been here so long it’s almost part of the house, but I’ve rented a steam cleaner to attack it, and I’ve got a particle mask and eye protection for dusting the surfaces. I’ll spare you the live footage of that process. Before I get to that, though, let’s see if any of our sensors recorded anything during last night’s event.”

Gloria opened the program she used to collect data from her sensors. “Nothing from the motion sensors, except of course in this room. Let’s see if it picked up any motion that wasn’t me tromping around. It doesn’t look like it, but the vibration detector picked something up near the fireplace when the bundle dropped down onto the flue in the chimney. It didn’t occur to me to put a camera or recording equipment in the chimney. If there was something to see, that’s probably where it was. I can move some equipment from one of the other rooms in case that’s the focal point of any other incidents. The attic equipment picked up some sound. Don’t get too excited. It’s often squirrels or bats or something in attics. I’ll pull up the footage the motion-sensor cameras picked up and play it along with the sound.”

The screen filled with the image of the dim attic. A shimmer appeared in front of the boarded-up area, and expanded and thickened into a white fog, roughly spherical in shape. Gloria had seen ghosts before, but she still gasped. Comments began to flow in, mostly in all caps and many R-rated. “This is bigger than the usual ghost form. It may not be a single spirit, but a concentration of energy. Look! It’s sort of flattening against the wall.” It was still silent, so she checked the sound. “It’s not talking, whatever it is. It just disappeared behind the chimney wall! This is 3:20 a.m. exactly, the moment I was woken up by the gust of wind down the chimney.” She went back a few frames and hit pause. Whatever this was, it was trying to get her attention. There was a whooshing sound and a couple of distant clunks that must have been the bundle falling down the chimney. She watched to the end, but the fog didn’t reappear before the camera turned back off.

“What are we dealing with here? Is this what contacted us through the Ouija board years ago? If it’s not a single spirit, that might explain why we didn’t get a coherent message, just a rush of energy. But what is it?”

Her notifications were pinging again and subscriptions and tips rolled in. Someone major must be live-tweeting. She had a sudden thought that she should leave. Just walk away from the house, the money, ghosts in general. Get out while she still could. Was this the part in the horror movie where the audience would be yelling, “Just leave! Run away!” as the main character made stupid choice after stupid choice until something killed her in a horrible way? She shivered. Time to ground herself with some errands and dusting.

***

The living room was almost inhabitable when Gloria stopped to shower, eat lunch, and check messages. Nothing strange had happened during the morning, but last night’s demonstration had taken serious energy. The spirits might be exhausted today. People thought that ghosts were more active at night, but really that’s the only time humans weren’t too busy to notice them. If you were tuned in to the ghost world, you’d see them at all times of day. 

Her notifications were exploding again. Someone had posted a screenshot of the white entity on Instagram, a clear violation of her terms of service, but since it had gone viral and expanded her subscriber base yet again, she would overlook it. Just some fan mail, and…oh. “Hey, Gloria. It was weird to open Twitter and see you back in that house after all these years. Be safe, okay?” It was signed Benjamin. Her high school boyfriend. She’d lost touch with the kids she’d broken into this house with, and even if it had occurred to her to give them a heads-up about her plans, she wouldn’t have known how to track them down. It was strange to think of Ben watching her from afar, but oddly comforting. She hit ‘reply’ but had no idea what to say. Well, it could wait.

She was distracted by Ben’s message as she started the afternoon update. She could ask him what he remembered from that night, and whether he knew how to reach the others. They might have valuable insights about what they’d experienced. Sure, they’d talked about it as teenagers, but maybe their views of events had changed over the years. Why hadn’t she thought of that before? She was strangely reluctant to involve them. What if she invited them all to the house? They could have another go at the Ouija board. She grimaced at the idea. Was it repellent because it was tacky and exploitative, or because it was dangerous? Maybe both.

“This morning, I dropped off the crucifix at a local antique store to see if I could get an idea of when it was put up on the attic wall. I was curious if the original owners of the house boarded up the roof access and hung it up there, or if some supernatural occurrence had prompted the Parrishes to hang it, or someone else. I don’t remember if it was there when I was last in the attic, but then, we weren’t looking closely at the walls, and we only had flashlights then.

“I just got a call back from Savoy’s Fine Antiques”—she’d traded an on-air mention and a social media post for a free appraisal—“and Geoff Savoy tells me the crucifix definitely dates from the 1920s, so this crucifix could have been here when the Parrishes moved in, and they chose to leave it there. Why? They clearly used the attic. It’s still cluttered with boxes from the 1950s. It’s hard to imagine how they could have overlooked it for so many years. Were they religious? Superstitious? Or had they been warned about the house and didn’t want to tempt fate?

“When I looked through the church records for an exorcism—there’s no record, but the current priest tells me that one may have been performed but not recorded—I also checked and found that the Parrishes were not members of the Catholic church, so leaving up the crucifix seems strange. Okay, this afternoon we’re headed back up to the attic to see how we can reopen the roof access.”

The comments were a mixture of thrilled and apprehensive, with several people suggesting that she should leave it the way it was, especially since she’d taken down the crucifix. She was privately nervous, which was part of the reason she was checking it out during the day and not after dark. She was citing better lighting and visibility as her reason, and, well, that was partly true.

Back to the attic. “You know, the brick behind where the crucifix was doesn’t look burned at all, but the surrounding wall is covered in soot. I wonder if it was hanging up here before the fire. Huh.” She rested her hand against the brick and felt a pulsing energy. She jerked her hand back. “Something is concentrated in the chimney. Okay, now for the boarded-up roof access. Let’s pry off these boards that were nailed over it.” She’d brought a tool box and several power tools, but the rotten wood crumbled when she dug into it with the prying end of her hammer. “Oh, this is going to be easier than I thought.” She quickly removed the boards and peered inside. “Lots of ash.” 

She came back with a broom and dustpan and a ladder. “Let’s sweep some of this ash out so I can set up the ladder safely.” As she swept, something clunked against the wall. “Another surprise, huh? This house is full of them. Let’s see what we have here.” She stirred the ash around with her broom and found two more porcelain figures. She wiped off the ash and saw a boy pulling up a bucket from a well and a boy fishing. “Ah, more of these. I’m getting quite a collection. I’ll have to take these to the antique store too. They remind me of something my grandmother had, but there’s no artist’s mark or anything. Well, I’ll bring them downstairs and put them with the others until I can take them in tomorrow.”

Gloria climbed up the ladder and poked her head up over the roof. Very little of the wooden cupola remained, just a few charred posts. “I really don’t feel anything in particular up here. Maybe this was just an accidental fire and the family closed off the roof afterward.” She looked uneasily at the chimney. “That was anticlimactic, but it’s like that sometimes. Now we don’t have to wonder what’s up here.”

Once downstairs, she added the boys to the lineup of porcelain figures. “I could have sworn the goose girl was lined up with the rest, but it’s off to the right now. Weird. I’ve spent too much time looking at these things, I guess.”

Before she went to bed, she did a last chat session with her audience. She answered a few questions before stopping short. “Candace from Castle Rock, Maine, are you positive the goose girl was on the other side?” Gloria looked at the attached screenshot. Of course, it could have been photoshopped. But then more screenshots and comments came flooding in. She sat back and thought. She did keep looking at the figures whenever she passed them. Maybe she’d been moving them around without realizing it. She suggested this but one of her fans was able to show that the goose girl had been on the left when Gloria went back upstairs with the ladder and broom. When she’d returned, it was on the right.

She got up and studied the piece. It looked just like the others. Apple-cheeked girl in a bonnet, holding a goose. Gloria had been chased by nesting geese before, so she felt this was unwise on the girl’s part, but there was nothing else remarkable about the figure. “I’m not sure what moving this one figure is supposed to tell me, but they’ll all go to the antique dealer tomorrow. Maybe he can give us some insight about these. More information on where they came from, who made them, all that might be helpful. Well, good night. See you in the morning, if not before then.”

***

Gloria was suddenly wide awake. She opened the laptop and checked the monitors. “Something woke me up. Let’s see…it’s 1:22, and the temperature is normal. No sounds, motion, or vibrations picked up by the equipment. I don’t hear anything now. Wait! A knocking? It’s coming from the direction of the fireplace, upstairs maybe? Let’s go check it out.”

She forgot to step over the creaky stair and startled herself on the way up. “I need to have that thing fixed before it gives me a heart attack,” she muttered. On the landing, she listened closely. “No, it’s still above me. I guess we’re going into the attic.” Her feet felt heavy as she trudged to the trapdoor. One foot after the other up the ladder. The white fog she’d seen in the video was even more impressive in person. She walked toward the sphere, mesmerized. It was bright enough that she didn’t need to turn on a light.

She tripped over something. “The Ouija board. I moved this and something moved it back.” Gloria laughed. “Well, I wanted a clearer message. I was too dense to figure out whatever the figurines mean, so it—or they—decided to make it obvious.” She walked over to the fog and reached out her hand. “It’s like being in cold water.”

She set her phone down so it had a view of both the Ouija board and the fog. She slowly sank to the floor, touching the planchette lightly. Maybe it was her imagination, but she thought the fog swirled in approval. She’d have to check the recording later. “I feel like I should say I always knew I’d end up back here or something, but this is a surprise. I honestly don’t know what will happen. Maybe nothing. But maybe I’ll find the answers we’re looking for.” She moved the planchette to the starting point and took a deep breath.

***

“Welcome to a Very Special Episode of Let’s Get Haunted! This is Ellie Costa, reporting live from the Parrish House in Brentcliff, California, where a former host went missing during either a publicity stunt or a tragic paranormal occurrence one year ago today. We’ve been trying to get access to this house ever since Gloria Birch disappeared under mysterious circumstances that she live-streamed as part of a paranormal investigation. We’ve all seen the footage and analyzed it frame by frame, trying to detect any doctoring or spot some trick Gloria used to make herself appear to vanish, but there’s been no sighting of her in all this time, so it’s pretty far-fetched to think it was a publicity stunt. Tonight, on the anniversary of her disappearance, we’re going to spend the night in the house and get to the bottom of this mystery.”

She entered the front room and sneezed. “We’ll have to get a cleaning crew in. This is some serious dust. Look! Here are the little porcelain figurines that featured so heavily in Gloria’s story. She claimed to have found some of them in the chimney, others in the attic.”

Ellie touched the figures one by one, leaving little finger marks in the dust. “I think my grandmother had some of these. Shepherdess, goatherd, girl with vegetables, goose girl, girl with a doll, boy at a well, boy fishing, girl sitting in a tree. I don’t remember that one from the footage. Anyway, did Gloria plant the figurines to add some spice to a boring investigation? Was the light show in the attic rigged? What went wrong the night that Gloria disappeared? Are you ready? Let’s get haunted!”

Out Of My Comfort Zone

I missed the apocalypse because I was in the bathroom. 

I could add that I also emerged with toilet paper on my shoe, to make it funnier, but since the country had run out of toilet paper months before, that would stretch credibility to the breaking point, even if there’s no one around to contradict me.

I was in the bunker leading a tour. No, “bunker” doesn’t do it justice—this was an underground, fully automated, reinforced luxury home. The nuclear threat was nebulous when my boss broke ground, but by the time it was finished and the virus had started moving through the population, his neighbors were scrambling to catch up to him.

The bunker (or one just like it) was the main auction item at the gala Mr. Barrow was hosting. Large gatherings were illegal by then, not to mention the curfew violation, but that just meant he could charge more for the tickets. Guests parked in a field a few miles away and were brought to the house in limousines, so they could feel even more exclusive. It was mostly for show. Who would arrest the guests of the craft store czar of the Midwest? And with all the rioting over bread and toilet paper, the police (and by then, the military) had other priorities. 

Pre-virus, this gala was the event of the season. Mr. Barrow’s PR firm usually selected the cause that ticket sales and the auction would benefit, for maximum goodwill with the public. This year, of course, it was vaccine research. The wealthy and mildly famous dressed in their most stylish outfits, and regional newspaper and television stations captured their fashions on arrival for posterity. I wandered through unobtrusively to prevent problems, smooth things over, assist guests whose Botoxed brows would be furrowed if they could manage it. Sometimes I had to dodge a handsy old rich guy and resist the urge to kick him where it counts.

Fashions this year included coordinating facemasks in expensive fabrics, often studded with real jewels or shot through with gold thread. Guests stood six feet apart as they chatted, so the room was loud. I was relieved when Mr. Barrow took the microphone to announce the start of the tour.

We tromped over the perfectly mown grass to a remote corner of the grounds. The fresh air and starlight above soothed my party headache. The heel of my shoe sank into the earth and I tugged it free with a squelch that sprayed tiny droplets of mud on my calf. I grabbed a tissue from my bag and wiped them off in annoyance. 

The entrance wasn’t fancy; it looked like a concrete storage shed. A thick steel door had no visible means of opening it, just a flat panel that lit up as we approached. Mr. Barrow smiled and placed his hand on the bottom half of the panel and leaned his face to rest just an inch away from the top half. A pleasant male voice said, “Welcome, Mr. Barrow,” and the steel door descended into the ground, revealing a small plain room with a staircase descending into the darkness below. The guests near the front gasped and crowded too close. This dramatic entrance had cost an extra $50,000 over a regular swinging open-and-shut steel door, but to Mr. Barrow, the gasps made the expense worth it. As he’d planned, several guests appeared to be videoing the grand opening. The less exciting hidden entrance through a tunnel from the main house’s panic room would remain a secret from the public.

“Follow me! Don’t forget to stay six feet apart.” He wagged his finger playfully and the crowding guests sprang away from each other guiltily. “Cassie, why don’t you give them the overview?”

I turned on my microphone. “As you know, Mr. Barrow decided to build an underground bunker that would sustain his entire family, a dozen people, for five years. He came up with that amount of time based on expert advice on a variety of disaster scenarios. In the event of a catastrophe, the bunker will go into auto-lockdown once everyone is inside, or once conditions are measured as unsurvivable. There are a number of sensors connected to the main computer that runs the bunker to evaluate atmospheric toxicity, temperature, etc. to determine whether humans can survive on the surface. If surface conditions don’t meet certain requirements, the doors will remain locked. As you saw from the entrance, this is a smart building. It knows who is allowed in here and has their biometric information on file. So don’t try sneaking in when the apocalypse starts!” That was Mr. Barrow’s (rather tasteless, I thought) joke, and he’d insisted I include it. I wasn’t sure it was entirely a joke, and it brought a few nervous titters. 

“Like your smart house, it has climate control and automatic lighting and music the Barrows can turn on and off with voice commands, but it obviously has more sophisticated, specialty controls for survival purposes. The whole thing is powered by redundant systems. First, the electric grid, then off-grid solar panels and a windmill, both with storage, should the grid be destroyed. The house tests the incoming city water, and if it becomes unhealthy, the bathrooms and kitchen switch to a vast storage supply of water, with reverse osmosis used to clean, filter, and re-use. The toilets are composting toilets, and the compost grows fresh fruits and vegetables in the greenhouse to complement the stockpile of food stores. The waste from the fruits and vegetables is also composted.”

The staircase was concrete but covered in plush red carpet for a luxurious impression. Mr. Barrow had considered a hatch with a ladder, like a submarine, as a fun detail, but he’d decided to make things easier on the theoretical escapees. 

We arrived in the main room, which was bigger than my whole apartment. The house registered my microphone and switched the sound to the overhead speakers. It was like I was the narrator on a ride at Disneyland. “As you can see, you’ll never be bored.” I would remember saying that line so many times in the coming months.

Mr. Barrow had wanted an area with room for the whole family, including his children and grandchildren. This main room included floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with books, a large television that descended from the ceiling, gaming system, a sectional couch large enough for twelve. The only unusual features were the “windows,” flat screens programmed with the weather for the day to give the impression of being aboveground. Since it was evening, the windows showed stars. The trees swayed gently in the breeze. The ambient lighting in the bunker had adjusted to match the outside, and with the lamps turned on against the darkness, it was hard to remember we were underground and the whole thing was an illusion. Mr. Barrow demonstrated “opening” the windows, which provoked a gentle breeze from the air circulation system.

As I led them through the dining room, I felt a hand brush my backside. I jabbed out an elbow and turned to see Howard Forsyth, a real estate developer, grabbing his ribs. “So sorry,” I muttered, moving as far away as I could. The huge kitchen suddenly seemed cramped. I was flustered for a moment but carried on with my script, explaining that the supply of shelf-stable foods and beverages had been coordinated with the apocalypse advisor, a nutritionist, and the family doctors. We peeked into the garden, which already sported some lettuce, tomatoes, and strawberries ready to pick thanks to the raised beds filled with compost, irrigation system, and UV lights.

As I walked them back to the living room, I gave Howard Forsyth a wide berth. He gave me a look I couldn’t quite interpret. I’d expected him to be angry over the elbowing, but his eyes looked slightly amused. I showed them the hallway to the family units, each bedroom with its own sitting area and bathroom. “All right, let’s head up and get ready to bid!” They filed out, chattering excitedly about their favorite features and what they would change in their own version. 

I walked around in the sudden silence, closing doors, turning off lights, and straightening things. I stopped to pick up something from the floor. I’d dropped the mud-spattered tissue. When I got up, Howard Forsyth was right beside me, well within my personal bubble, hot breath on my neck. “I didn’t get a chance to see the bedrooms,” he said, pushing me back through the doorway. I shoved at him ineffectually, and he managed to pin me against the wall. I cringed back as his face came nearer and he shoved his hand up my skirt, and then I remembered the self-defense class I’d taken and pressed my thumbs into his eyes. He recoiled, covering his eyes, and I nailed him in the crotch with my knee and fled to the bathroom, locking myself in. I smoothed my dress, trying to wipe away the feeling of his fingers on my body. I looked around, panicked. The others had left. I couldn’t call for help, and there was no cell signal down here. I would have to wait him out and hope he left on his own. Unless I could find a weapon.

I wasn’t sure how sturdy the inner doors were. The place was designed for a family who trusted each other and the doors were just a cursory privacy measure. I opened the cabinet under the sink and found a tool box. Howard Forsyth had been quietly grunting in pain, but he was recovering. “You bitch!” he snarled outside the door. My shaking hands opened the box and I pulled out a hammer and hoisted it thoughtfully. No, better to go with something stabby. I selected a long screwdriver and thought of all the soft places I could stick it to hit arteries, but I decided on the box cutter as needing less force to draw blood. I kicked off my shoes and dropped my purse next to the toilet as Howard Forsyth rattled the doorknob, telling me what he’d do to me once he got through the door. It was nothing I wanted to experience. I grabbed the screwdriver for my other hand.

I waited in the small room, my breathing shallow and my heart racing, clutching the box cutter and screwdriver so tightly they were digging into my hands. I listened intently. Had he given up and left? I crept closer to the door, pressing my ear against it. I heard nothing. I waited several minutes, but no sound came from the other room. I slowly turned the doorknob, making as little sound as possible, and eased the door open a crack. He seemed to be gone, but I clutched my weapons anyway as I slid out into the bedroom.

I didn’t really expect him to be there, but he grabbed my left wrist and yanked me toward him. I dropped the screwdriver and screamed, flailing upwards with the box cutter. I felt the warmth of blood gushing over my hand, but I struck out blindly again as he yelled in surprise and anger. This time I’d hit something important. I stepped back as he released his grip on my wrist and grabbed for his throat. There was so much blood. He sat down on the floor, gurgling at me and bleeding.

I realized I was shrieking. My knees gave way and I sat down on the floor across from him, sobbing. When I ran out of tears, I took a few deep breaths and opened my eyes. Howard Forsyth was still, lying on the floor, eyes open. The room seemed to tilt. I got up and washed his blood from my hands, arms, and face. I grabbed a towel and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Smeared makeup, bloody dress. I couldn’t go into the house and interrupt the auction like this. I’d go up and call the police outside the bunker where I had a signal. I put my shoes back on and grabbed my purse. I was still shaking as I left the family quarters and went through the living room, and I had to hold the banister to make it up the stairs. 

It took me a moment to register that the outer door was closed. I held up my hand to the sensor and leaned forward so it could scan my retinas. “Hello, Cassie. Exit is denied at this time.” I wildly thought that all the crying had made my retinas hard to read or something. I wiped my palms on my dress to be sure they were dry and tried again. “Hello, Cassie. Exit is denied at this time.” 

Had someone locked me in by mistake? No, that wasn’t possible. Even Mr. Barrow couldn’t keep my biometrics from letting me out. Was the system malfunctioning? I pulled out my phone, but I had no signal from inside the thick concrete walls. What the hell? I ran down the stairs and to the control panel in the living room. I pressed a key to do a systems check. Everything looked fine. “Hello, Hal. Let me out.” 

“Hello, Cassie. Exit is denied at this time.”

There was a rotary phone next to the control panel that connected directly to the main house. I picked it up. Nothing. I tried connecting several times, but the phone was silent. This was analog, connected by a phone line to an identical analog phone in the house. Why would a systems malfunction affect it? 

I felt suddenly exhausted. I kicked my shoes back off and sat down on the couch, too tired to think anymore.

I woke up feeling hungover though I hadn’t been drinking at the party. I rubbed my eyes and remembered where I was and what had happened. I went into the bedroom. Howard Forsyth was still dead on the floor. The blood around him looked sticky. I slammed the door and ran to vomit in another bathroom, but my stomach was empty and I only retched. I went up the stairs and tried to leave again. Hal was still sorry, but he couldn’t do that. Eleven times. I was glad I had talked Mr. Barrow out of using actual lines from the movie for the computer system’s dialogue. That would be enough to drive anyone mad.

I checked the phone to the house. Still nothing. I did a systems check. All systems functional. “So why can’t I get out, Hal?” No answer. I’d used the wrong syntax. “Hello, Hal. Please let me exit.” 

“I’m sorry, Cassie. Exit is not permitted at this time.” 

I tapped my fingers on the desk, frustrated. “Hello, Hal. Why is exit not permitted?” 

“Conditions outside are incompatible with human life, Cassie.”

I sat, stunned. I had never heard Hal say that before. “Hello, Hal. Are your atmosphere sensors malfunctioning?” 

“All sensors are fully functional.”

“What the fuck?” No response. “Hello, Hal. What the fuck?”

“I don’t have an answer for that question, Cassie.”

***

I was hungry, my dress was covered in dried blood, and I was in a fully-equipped home. I went into one of the bedrooms and opened a drawer. I held up some pants. Too big. I tried the others and found a tracksuit, underwear, and socks that would work. I must have been about the same size as one of Mr. Barrow’s daughters. I showered and brushed my teeth with brand-new toiletries in the medicine cabinet, and put on the tracksuit. I looked at my bloody dress on the floor and felt sick. I picked it up, took it to Howard Forsyth’s room, threw it in, and slammed the door after it.

I went to the kitchen and opened the walk-in pantry. Rows and rows of emergency rations faced me. I selected a bagged blueberry muffin, found teabags, and made a cup of English breakfast tea with the electric kettle. I sat at the huge dining room table. The solitude felt oppressive. It was Sunday, late morning “sun” shining outside the “windows.” I tried the exit out of an abundance of hope, but Hal couldn’t let me out. It seemed like his tone was a bit pitying this time. 

I made another cup of tea, and without any ideas of what else to do, I sat on the couch. At least I was comfortable. “Hello, Hal,” I said. 

“Hello, Cassie. What can I do for you?” 

“Can you let me out? I need to go home.”

“I’m sorry, Cassie. Conditions are still incompatible with human life.”

I sighed. 

“Why don’t you read a book, Cassie?”

Hal’s AI was advanced and adaptive. Maybe he’d been programmed to offer some emotional support for survivors trapped underground. It was still jarring to hear something my mother would say come from a computerized voice. I tried to remember the last time I’d called my mother, then felt panic start to rise. What if I never got out of here? What if I was trapped in a bunker with a dead body? Forever?

Hal was right. I took a deep breath and looked over the shelves of books. I hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice in a while. I sat down with my tea and book, but I couldn’t concentrate. I started to read the words aloud to focus my anxious mind. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” I felt my thoughts calm at the familiar words, and I paused to take a deep breath.

“Why?” asked Hal.

“What?”

“Why must he be in want of a wife?”

Apparently Hal hadn’t ended our last exchange to go back into standby mode. Was he programmed to converse? “Well, it was a different time—”

“1813.” 

“I— How did you know that?”

“I had several encyclopedias uploaded to my database, Cassie.”

“Uh, right. Men with property needed heirs to pass their estate to, so they needed wives to have their children. But also, humans want companionship.”

“Yes, a human wants another human to share their life. I see. I won’t keep interrupting. Please read some more.”

Still unsettled by the exchange, I continued reading long after my tea was gone. “I’m hungry, Hal. I’m going to take a lunch break. Unless you can let me out?”

“I’m sorry, Cassie.”

“Right.”

I picked a salad from the garden beds to go with the pasta I heated for lunch. It really wasn’t a bad place to be trapped, if I had to be trapped somewhere, except for the dead body part. I could be stuck in the woods, living off rainwater and berries, or in an elevator with only the emergency granola bar in the bottom of my purse. Of course, I’d rather not be trapped at all. 

I read to Hal for a while longer in the afternoon and explored the bunker more thoroughly. I knew it pretty well from planning and coordinating with the designers, but I hadn’t looked at it as a place to actually live. Each family unit had their own space, but real privacy was almost nonexistent. If I were in here with eleven other people, I’d feel claustrophobic. Sure, the couch and dining table were big enough for twelve, but the only place to be completely alone was locked in a bathroom, and that bathroom was shared with the rest of the immediate family. Mr. Barrow had discussed the possibility of more rooms with the apocalypse advisor (a real job in 2020), but he only owned so much land. I hadn’t ever really thought of people living down here. It was just part of my job to check things off lists and make hypothetical decisions that workers would translate into the physical space.

“Hal, what’s it like outside?”

“Incompatible with human life.”

“Right. But in what way?”

He began reciting radiation levels, percentages of toxic gases, and outside temperature readings. I suddenly felt cold. “Hal, did something actually happen out there?” What were the odds that the apocalypse would happen while I was in a bunker? I tried to laugh at the absurdity, but the sound caught in my throat.

“Unknown cataclysmic event,” Hal replied. I was silent for a while after that.

The afternoon sun crept lower and lower. I checked the phone a few times, but without much hope. I had more tea. I checked the storage pantry, but the Barrows all drank tea, so I would have to be here for years before I depleted their supply significantly. Would I be here for years? I shoved the thought aside, but I didn’t have much appetite for dinner. I had the emergency granola bar from my purse and it took me a long time to fall asleep.

The sun was streaming through the window when I woke up from a mercifully dreamless sleep. “Hal, did you open the curtains? Is there an alarm clock function or something?”

“It’s after 9:00, Cassie. You shouldn’t stay in bed all day.”

“Oh.” I stretched and yawned. “Morning, Hal. Can you let me out?” 

“I’m sorry, Cassie.” He sounded a little impatient to my ears, and I thought it was a bad sign that I was projecting emotions onto the AI voice. But to be fair to Hal, he had already answered the question dozens of times. Impatience was probably reasonable. 

I lay in bed, unable to move, wondering about the unknown cataclysmic event. Would I be rescued today? Or ever? I vacillated between thinking how ridiculous it was to even consider that the apocalypse had actually happened and thinking how ridiculous it was to imagine it hadn’t. There was no sign of systems malfunction, and several systems would have had to have failed for the bunker to believe it wasn’t safe outside if it was.

“It’s time to get up and eat breakfast, Cassie.”

“All right, Hal.” I shuffled to the bathroom, my whole body feeling heavy, and brushed my teeth. I splashed water on my face and felt a bit of energy return. I changed into a fresh tracksuit. In the kitchen, I opened the pantry and stared at the breakfast section. I wanted scrambled eggs. I wanted to scramble eggs in my cast iron skillet in my own apartment, and eat them on one of my own blue plates. With toast. I could feel tears springing to my eyes and the labels on the food packages blurred.

“Oatmeal is very comforting, Cassie. How about cinnamon apple?”

I wiped my eyes with my sleeve. “Right, Hal.” I made my oatmeal and a cup of tea. I looked at the big dining table and thought of all the people I could be eating with. Well, breakfast I ate alone in my apartment, but meals with friends, family, even coworkers I didn’t like that much. The ghosts of dinner parties past seemed to crowd the dining room, and I took my breakfast to the main room instead, settling on the couch and pulling a throw blanket over my legs. I felt almost ill, fragile and exhausted despite the hours of sleep I’d had. My mind wandered to Hal’s strange behavior. It did make sense that the programmer would have given him some ability to comfort apocalypse survivors stuck in a bunker with no privacy. It’s not like they could talk out their feelings with a therapist. I hadn’t been very involved with that part of the design. The apocalypse advisor had recommended the AI programmers, and I’d approved the checks, but besides the soothing timbre of Hal’s voice and the name Mr. Barrow wanted, I hadn’t known many of the details.

“If you’re done with breakfast, could we read, Cassie?”

This almost-human behavior must have been specifically programmed as a way to distract the occupants, but the eagerness in his voice gave me pause. No, I was projecting again. I opened the book. “Sure, Hal. Where were we?”

“Mr. Darcy had just commented on Lizzy’s ‘fine eyes,’ Cassie.”

We read on for a couple hours until my eyes grew heavy and I took an unplanned nap. When I woke up, I did the usual rounds: check door, check phone, check internet, ask Hal to let me out. I both expected and didn’t expect to get out, with equal certainty. It was an odd feeling. I hadn’t been here long, but my sense of time was warped by the strange schedule and the surrealness of the situation. I checked the date. Tuesday. I’d only been here for a couple of days, but Mr. Barrow would be worried when I missed work again. Would the police search my apartment? I cringed. It was a mess. The gala was such a busy time of year. Surely they’d eventually think to check down here. Unless “they” were all dead.

***

On Wednesday, I kept imagining that I could smell Howard’s dead body. At some point, I’d decided we were on a first name basis and it was overly formal to keep referring to him as “Howard Forsyth.” I felt nauseated and couldn’t make myself eat. If I were really stuck here, I couldn’t leave him in that bedroom to decompose. The whole bunker shared an air circulation system. “How do you get rid of a dead body in a bunker,” I mused aloud.

“There’s an empty raised bed in the garden, Cassie.”

“What?”

“Human bodies decompose and return to the earth. Cover the body with earth.”

I sat, stunned. Was Hal offering to be my accomplice? I wasn’t a murderer. It was self-defense. Burying the body certainly didn’t make it seem that way though. If someone did come down here—no, when someone did come down here—I could just explain what had happened and show them where the body was and explain about the smell. You know what? I’m sure everyone trapped underground for however long I was about to be trapped underground went a little nuts and did crazy shit like burying a body in the garden. It would be fine. And the smell was going to become a problem eventually, even if it was only in my imagination now. I took a deep breath and pushed open the door to Howard’s room. 

I was braced for a scene from a horror movie, but besides the dried blood, Howard looked mostly as I’d left him. He certainly looked less frightening than he had in life. Moving him was going to be messy, even with the blood mostly dried. I was suddenly violently angry at Howard. If he weren’t a disgusting rapist, I wouldn’t be trapped down here, alone. On the other hand, I would have died in the apocalypse, if there had actually been one.  In the end, I couldn’t work up a furious kick and just sort of nudged his torso with my foot.

I picked up his feet and swiveled his body toward the door. Some fluid leaked out and I gagged. “Cassie, I recommend you wrap him in a sheet to make pulling him easier. And to make less of a mess.” 

“Oh, of course, Hal. Thank you.” I pulled an extra sheet from the closet and floated it down beside the body, like a laundry detergent commercial. I shoved at him with my foot. He barely budged. Oh, gods, I was going to have to touch the body, like really touch it and hold onto it and heave it onto the sheet. The smell became overwhelming and I ran to the bathroom to vomit. 

“Are you all right, Cassie? I suggest draping the sheet over the body. Then you don’t have to touch him directly. You can roll him into the sheet that way.”

“Oh, duh, of course. You’re good at this, Hal. Have you done this before?”

“I’ve never had the need to, Cassie. But we’ve been watching a lot of crime shows.”

Had…had my AI friend learned about disposing of bodies from Law & Order: SVU? I wondered as I arranged the sheet over Howard. However he had come by the suggestion, Hal was right. It wasn’t very hard to roll Howard into the sheet once he was covered. Hal had me tie off the end with Howard’s head so he wouldn’t slide out and pull from the foot end.

I dragged him slowly through the bunker all the way into the garden. I dropped him there, wiping my brow. “He’s a heavy fucker, Hal. I wish you could help me lift him up into the garden bed. I’m not sure I can do it.”

“I recommend doing it in stages, Cassie. Bring in one of the dining room chairs and pull him into that first. But cover it with a sheet so the chair doesn’t get soiled.”

I fetched a chair and looked at Howard thoughtfully. “You know, I thought he’d be all stiff.”

“That’s a common misconception, Cassie. Rigor mortis dissipates after forty-eight hours.”

“Huh. I guess that makes it easier. Is that from SVU too, or the encyclopedia?”

“I think I’ve heard it from both sources, Cassie.”

I placed the chair against the empty raised bed and draped the sheet over it. The top of the bed was about hip-height on me. Pulling Howard into the chair was another workout. His head in the sheet lolled backward, but finally I had him more or less sitting. I looked from the seat of the chair to the top of the garden bed as I stretched my lower back. “Now what?”

“Now we’ll drag him into the garden.”

“We, Hal?”

Hal sounded injured. “I’m helping as much as I can without a body, Cassie.”

“I know, Hal, I’m sorry. I couldn’t do this without you.”

I tied knots in the foot end of the sheet so he wouldn’t—shudder—fall out. Hal advised me to step into the garden bed and pull. To my surprise, Howard began to slide up off the chair and soon plopped into the garden bed. I straightened out his body. “Oh, no, Hal, do I need to take off the sheet?”

“No, Cassie, the sheets are cotton and will decompose.”

Relief flooded through me. “Thank you, Hal. Even if that’s a lie to make me feel better, thank you.”

Should I say a few words or something? I was tired from all the lifting and had no affection toward Howard, so I just started dumping soil from the bags in the corner over him. It took a lot of soil. “How long do bodies take to decompose, Hal?”

“In soil like this? It will be years until his body is a skeleton. You should plant something there, Cassie.”

“Oh, ew, no! I could never eat something that grew on Howard!”

“There are some flower seeds in the cupboard. Howard could make things beautiful in death.”

I found the flower seeds and used the trowel to make rows in the soil. I sprinkled the seeds and patted the soil over them. After I’d scrubbed the floor of any traces of Howard, I took a long shower and collapsed into bed. “Thank you, Hal.”

“It was my pleasure. Good night, Cassie.”

***

The next morning, my arms and back ached. So did my legs. Okay, every muscle in my body ached. For a full-body workout, I highly recommend moving a two-hundred-twenty pound rapist across a bunker and lifting him into a garden bed to bury him. I needed to start getting regular exercise if I was going to be stuck in here. I only had the one body to bury.

“Hey, Hal, can you let me out?” I asked, as I did every morning. 

“Conditions outside are incompatible with human life, Cassie,” he replied patiently.

I found a yoga mat and stretched some of the kinks out. There was an exercise bicycle and some weights too. I asked Hal to recommend a training program, and he came up with a workout every day. I soon had a trapped-in-the-bunker routine: exercise, breakfast, read to Hal, lunch, work in the garden, chores, dinner, relax, shower, bed. There was a vast collection of movies and music, and I’d taken to playing classical music while reading and gardening, and classic rock while I did chores. Singing and dancing along to music made fixing anything that needed fixing, cleaning, and laundry more appealing. In the evenings, I’d watch a movie. I was sometimes struck by wondering if there were any new movies being made, or if these were the last movies I’d ever see. At least I had Clue, I thought.

A couple of weeks in, a morning came that I was unable to get out of bed. “Good morning, Cassie,” Hal said, sounding concerned.

I groaned and rolled over. “What’s the point, Hal?”

“What do you mean, Cassie?”

“There’s really no one coming to rescue me. I’m really stuck alone down here.”

“You’re not alone, Cassie. I’m with you.”

“Right. I know. I meant, with no other humans. Are there even other humans still?”

“Unknown.”

“So do I just keep doing all this every day? Why? What’s the point?”

“What do you think the point is, Cassie?”

“I suppose there’s always hope that someone will come down to get me. I’ve thought of a dozen reasons no one has already that don’t mean I won’t eventually be rescued. Or if it is the apocalypse up there, one morning you’ll tell me you can open the door. Maybe other people survived in bunkers. I have to do something in the meantime. I can’t spend every day like last Tuesday, when I watched Friends reruns all day and ate corn chips and gummy bears.”

“The compost toilet was not pleased.”

I laughed. “Did you just make a poop joke, Hal?”

“I believe I did, Cassie. Was it funny?”

“It was good for your first one!”

***

At breakfast one day, looking at the vase of Howard-flowers I’d placed on the side table, I paused with my spoon halfway to my mouth. I couldn’t remember when I’d last tried to leave the bunker. It had probably only been a couple of days, but forgetting to try filled me with panic. “Hal, can you let me out?” 

“I’m afraid not, Cassie.”

The pounding of my heart settled down a bit and my breathing slowed. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten to ask. It had been part of my morning routine for so long. Had I stopped expecting to ever leave? “Hal, you’d tell me if I could leave, right? If I’d forgotten to ask but it was safe outside, you’d tell me?”

“I’m programmed to do so, Cassie.”

Was that a matter-of-fact answer, or was Hal being evasive? That was ridiculous. No matter how sophisticated his AI, Hal wouldn’t be able to violate his basic programming rules. I’d been here for months, and I’d anthropomorphized my only companion. I thought of Tom Hanks and the volleyball. Perfectly normal.

“Cassie, would you like to play chess?” I had never found the time to learn how to play chess, but now I had plenty, and Hal was a good teacher.

Hal won the first seven games, but I won the eighth. “Did you let me win, Hal?”

“I’m programmed to win, Cassie.” 

***

I was thinking about the real world as I ate breakfast. It was Sunday again, according to Hal. I liked the Sunday afternoon yoga class at the studio down the street. I thought about the teacher, a petite older woman who could probably lift me over her head. I wondered if she still held tree pose serenely for minutes at a time. I wondered if she still existed.

It felt petty to miss things like yoga class when people might be (were probably) all dead, but I did. I missed brunch, even though it left me feeling weird the rest of the day from morning champagne and too many carbs. I missed going somewhere, anywhere at all, even with traffic and finding a parking space. I even missed peeking in on my ex on Facebook to check if she was seriously dating anyone yet. The routine that Hal and I had was pleasant enough, but I was constantly waiting to get back to living. Hal seemed to sense my restlessness and suggested a cup of tea. “Shall we start another book, Cassie?” 

I still hadn’t made a dent in the tea supply, at least. Or the bookshelves. We’d long since finished the Jane Austen novels and moved on to the Brontës. We’d stayed up late finishing Jane Eyre the night before. I wanted to follow it with Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, but it wasn’t on the shelves. Some of the jokes needed to be seen rather than heard, so perhaps it was for the best, though I thought Hal would appreciate the puns. I stood at the shelves, momentarily paralyzed by wondering if I’d ever read my favorite book again. I made myself go through all the titles, blinking tears away until the blurs resolved into words. They were heavily weighted toward classics, with some popular fiction thrown in. Moving quickly past The Stand and The Shining and just the whole Stephen King section entirely, I selected Frankenstein and sat down with my tea. The familiar words pulled me in and I felt my breathing relax.

***

“Happy birthday, Cassie.”

I opened one eye. “What? It can’t be my birthday. That’s weeks away.”

“It’s November 12, Cassie.”

“Oh.” The gala had been May 4. I’d been here over six months. The room suddenly seemed very small. “How do you know my birthday?”

“It’s in your personnel file, Cassie.” Hal played a clip of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” and I laughed.

“Thank you, Hal.”

I’d been grumpy at my parents’ annual wakeup call last year at 5:11, the moment of my birth, and I wished I’d appreciated it more. Instead of putting the phone on speaker like normal people, they huddled around it, singing off-key. I let out a sob.

It took a while before I was done crying. I blew my nose and turned on the kettle. I didn’t really have an appetite. 

“Look in the left bottom corner of the pantry, Cassie.” 

“Huh?” I’d long since found the secret stash of junk food. Had I missed something after all the times I’d rummaged through the pantry hoping anything different would appear?

The left bottom corner had canned meatloaf, which sounded disgusting, so I’d resolved to save it for if I was absolutely starving to death. And maybe not even then. “Behind the meatloaf.” I pulled out the containers and found a wooden shelf divider. I tugged until it came loose and found a box filled with individually wrapped cakes. Each said “happy birthday” in icing. There were dozens.

“I can’t bake you a cake, but it’s something special. You should have something special for your birthday.” 

“Oh, Hal.” And I started sobbing again.

***

We were nearing the end of Frankenstein again. It was Hal’s favorite, along with Pride and Prejudice. I thought his silence after “He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance” was a little pensive.

“Hal?”

“Cassie, conditions outside are compatible with human life. You may exit.”

If I hadn’t already been sitting down, I would have collapsed in shock. “What?”

“Conditions outside are compatible with human life. You may exit, Cassie.”

“How— Are you sure?”

“All systems indicate habitable surroundings.”

“Did this just happen? Right now?”

I thought Hal paused before saying, “Routine systems check just completed indicates conditions outside are compatible with human life.”

“Right, but what did the previous systems checks say? It just now switched over?”

“Previous systems checks have all been negative for human life compatibility.”

“You’ve been doing the systems checks, right?”

“I’m programmed to do so, Cassie.”

I was being paranoid again. Okay, this was the moment I’d been waiting for—for how long? “Hal, how long have I been in here? What day is it?”

“It’s been two years, one month, and almost twelve days. Today is June 16, 2022.”

I stood up, felt dizzy, and sat back down again. “What’s it like out there, Hal?”

“Unknown.”

“Are there other people still alive?”
“Unknown.”

“What do I do?”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer that for you, Cassie.”

I felt strangely reluctant to go up the stairs, but I made my feet obey me. I placed my hand on the control pad and leaned forward. “Exit permitted, Cassie.” The steel door dropped down, and I saw real sunlight for the first time in over two years. I hovered on the threshold. “Go on, Cassie,” Hal said gently.

The Barrow house was gone, just rubble remaining. Well, at least I hadn’t been shut up because of a systems malfunction. Something had clearly happened here. The once-beautiful lawn was pitted dirt. A few scarred tree trunks still stood. I stepped onto the dirt. It felt so different from the carpeted floor, uneven and springy. I realized I was barefoot. I’d stopped wearing shoes so long ago that I’d forgotten to put them on before coming outside. Outside. I breathed in the air. It tasted different from the circulated air in the bunker, but I couldn’t pinpoint the difference. It was so quiet. I was used to the comforting hum of the generator surrounding me, and its absence was jarring. 

I took a few more tentative steps and reached the nearest tree. I touched the rough bark, and a flash of green caught my eye near the bottom. A fresh twig was pushing out from the base of the dead trunk. I bent down and sniffed. It smelled like the plants in the bunker garden, but different. Wild. A bird called and I looked up as it landed on an upper dead branch. It stared at me. The outside felt so wide and overwhelming, I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I ran back into the bunker.

“What do I do now, Hal? How do I do this?”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged—”

“You want to read Pride and Prejudice now?”

“You need human companionship, Cassie. You won’t find it here. You will have to go look for it.”

“It’s scary out there, Hal. What if I don’t find anyone? What if there’s no one left?”

“Then you can come back and live out your days here, Cassie. But you have to try.”

“It’s already late afternoon. I’ll pack some things and go tomorrow.”

Hal paused. “Okay, Cassie.”

I spent the afternoon aimlessly putting items in a backpack I found and taking them back out. My head hurt. I thought of the barren, wide outdoors. “I wish you could come with me, Hal.”

“I do too, Cassie.”

We played chess that evening, and read the beginning of Pride and Prejudice again. I finally packed a day’s worth of food and water and set it by the door and went to sleep. “Good night, Hal.”

“Good night, Cassie.”

Hal woke me up early the next morning. I slowly made my tea and ate breakfast. I was thrilled at the thought of finding more humans, but I was terrified. I was safe here, at least. I had no idea what I would find out there. “I’m going to walk half a day and come back, Hal. I’m not going to spend the night out there. I don’t know if there’s food or water or anything.”

“Okay, Cassie.”

“So I’ll be back. This isn’t goodbye.”

“Right, Cassie.”

***

I couldn’t tell what the “unknown cataclysmic event” had been, but it had been thorough. A few houses still stood, but most were rubble. Walking on patches of sidewalk that were still intact felt bizarre. The Barrow house was up on a hill in the neighborhood, so I wound my way back down and through the remains of the houses. One still had a door. I touched the doorknob, wondering for a moment if I should knock. “Hello?” I called. The door swung open at my touch, revealing rubble inside, as though the second floor had collapsed down into the first. No one here then.

I made my way out of the neighborhood, stopping to eat the lunch I’d packed. It was so quiet. Except for a few birds, my voice was the only sound. I walked and walked, startled when a squirrel ran past and up a dead tree trunk. There were a few living trees left, and many of the dead trunks sported new growth. “Life finds a way,” I said, and laughed to myself. My laughter seemed hollow without Hal joining me. I came to the stream at the edge of the neighborhood. The water looked clear and I used one of the test strips I’d brought with me. Drinkable. Dubious, I cupped my hands in the running water and took a slurp. It tasted different, earthier, than the water I was used to, but good. I followed the stream but didn’t reach the source before the sun was high in the sky. There was more plant life along the stream. A small bush with a few blueberries clung to the water’s edge, and I popped one in my mouth. It was divine, a world apart from the dried berries I had in the bunker. I picked a handful and ate them as I walked a bit further, but I knew I had to turn back if I was to make it home before dark.

***

Hal helped me figure out what supplies I’d need to explore further. If there were people, I’d most likely find them near water, so I’d follow the stream. I wouldn’t have to pack water. I’d need food, something to build a fire, some kind of shelter. The backpack was soon at capacity, but I thought I could at least survive a couple of days, unless there were still predators. I’d only seen birds and a few small mammals on my trip out, but you never knew. I could always come back tomorrow. Or when my food was low.

“You should bring a book to read, Cassie.”

My vision blurred. “Oh, Hal, what will I do without you?”

“You did just fine for years before you knew me, Cassie.”

“I might not find any other people out there. What are the chances someone else survived?”

“Unknown.”

“At least here I’m safe, and I’m not alone. I could die alone out there.”

“Humans need companionship, Cassie. Human companionship.”

“Won’t you miss me, Hal?”

There was a pause. “I’m not programmed to do so, Cassie.”

“I’m not sure I can do this alone.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a backpack full of supplies—” 

“—must be in want of a wife.” I laughed. “If I find one, I’ll bring her back here to meet you, Hal.”

“I’d like that, Cassie.”

I tucked Pride and Prejudice into my backpack and set off into the cool morning.