Jared lay on his bed, unable to see, but he could hear snatches of her conversation in the other room. She was on the phone. He tried to move but realized he couldn’t.
He tried to remember what had happened. He’d come home with Melody after lunch. She wanted to see his packs again, to see how he’d managed to get so much into his BOB and to the EDC kit that he always had with him ever since Jennifer died.
Jennifer… He could see her in his mind’s eye, lying on their bed, in the old Victorian that they were refinishing, rubbing her belly and talking about names. He imagined he could smell her perfume – Envy, by Gucci – although she’d never been in this bed in the city. Her black hair would fall like a halo of obsidian around her small head. She would smile that big smile with her magnificently white teeth. He had always said she should be in toothpaste commercials. That smile was the only thing big about her – and her belly! Eight months pregnant when Sarafina hit.
He had her hands, he had them and then he didn’t.
Still remembering made him shudder. He tried to turn his mind to the present, but it didn’t want to stay. He kept drifting back to Jennifer. He felt like he couldn’t concentrate. But he’d felt that way ever since Jennifer died, hadn’t he? It had felt just like this, so heavy he couldn’t move.
In the two years since, Jared had moved on in some ways. His friends said he hadn’t, but they didn’t understand. They said he had become obsessed with the what-ifs – what if he’d had a boat, and they could’ve escaped? What if he’d had some way to see her in the darkness? What if he could have saved her? What if he had died instead? What if she was still alive – they’d never found her body? Maybe she’d come back, she’d have the baby… But this one he never said aloud to anyone. He knew no one would understand that one; they’d say he’d gone off the deep end.
But he had moved on. He was just sure that this time he’d be ready. He would be able to save… somebody. Himself, at least – he had no one else to save just yet. But he went to the meetings and they really helped. That’s where he’d met Melody.
Melody was now.
“Iodine?” she’d asked as people were talking about their BOBs at the Wednesday meeting in the basement of St. Aggripina’s. “Like, salt? I should pack salt?” No one seemed to be paying attention to her.
Her eyes were big and serious and so very young. Jared smiled at her warmly. “No, not salt. If you pack iodine you can put a little in water or, if there’s nuclear fallout, it’ll reduce the radiation poisoning until you can get someplace safe.”
“So it’s like… flavor? Like Crystal Light?”
A lithe woman with an iron grey bob laughed, he thought, cruelly. “No! It’s to make sure your water is potable!”
Melody had nodded slowly, confusion on her face. “Potable… like floatable? Water… water floats? I mean, things float in water…”
Jared threw the older woman a harsh glare. Preppers weren’t supposed to judge one another. They were all here to support each other, to prepare for the worst. “No, she means the water might not be safe to drink, so you put a little iodine in and it makes the water safer.”
She had turned her resplendent hazel eyes on him and smiled thankfully, nodding her head.
“You can buy kits on the internet,” he’d added, not sure what to else to say, but mesmerized by her eyes. They spent the next hour talking about what comprised a BOB – a bug out bag, although his was more like a bug out back framer and an EDC kit – your everyday carry kit, just in case. He told her what the Red Cross recommended and how he’d modified it to his understanding of possible TEOTWAWKI (the-end-of –the-world-as-we-know-it) scenarios.
After that she came and sat next to him at each meeting for the next few weeks. She asked him questions and wrote down what he said, her forehead wrinkled in concentration, making sure she was getting everything right.
She told him that her parents had been down the shore when Sarafina hit too, just like he and Jennifer had been. Her parents were told to leave but they hadn’t and both died. An only child, Jennifer was now alone in the world. Just like him. Sort of. He still had his parents.
Who was she on the phone with? He tried to move again, thinking maybe he was just so deeply asleep that he was sluggish. He tried to recall how he had come to fall asleep but couldn’t. He tried to push his hands down on the bed. He couldn’t even really feel his hands. He tried to turn his head. It wouldn’t turn. But he could see, he realized, it was just very dark. The curtains were drawn, he thought, and the lights all out, the computer off, the door to his room almost entirely closed. He turned his eyes, the only part of him that seemed to obey his mind, towards the door to the bedroom. His eyes were starting to adjust, but he couldn’t see Melody.
Then he heard her voice. She sounded annoyed but he couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. He was surprised. He’d never heard her get annoyed or upset about anything. Intense, yes; sad, certainly – but actually expressing annoyance at another person?
He closed his eyes. He felt like he’d known her forever already but it really had only been three months. The Prepper meetings were just the start. They became good friends – not romantic – not yet. She was lovely – but young. Only twenty and he was thirty five. He had grey in his beard – he was practically an old man. And her skin was so soft and supple she seemed to exude youthfulness. He was a fool, he thought. She just wanted help prepping.
She’d moved to New York City to pursue acting when she was eighteen, and her parents had been very supportive, emotionally and financially. But then Sarafina hit almost as soon as she had moved into her little East Village studio and sent her into the same whirlwind he was in. She was in bad shape financially – the money still hadn’t come from the insurance and the FEMA money ran out. She was a waitress at a small upscale Italian place on the Upper West Side, not far, in fact, from where he lived. She hadn’t gotten any acting jobs.
He’d taken his parent’s apartment. After losing Jennifer and the baby, they decided they’d had enough of New York and moved to Arizona. His parents bought this condo in the sixties and it was long since paid off. Then you could get a three bedroom condo for a decent price. Now the place was probably worth over a million, but they just signed it over to him. It was all coming to him in the end anyway, they said. They had their retirement money and they didn’t want him to use the life insurance from Jennifer on buying something overpriced. They hoped he’d meet someone and move on with his plan to have a baby. He was their only chance at getting a grandchild, although they’d never put it so bluntly.
He hadn’t thought about the life insurance for a long time but found he was happy he had it now. Although he was trying not to get his hopes up, he could see Melody moving in, maybe marrying him. When he and Jennifer decided to get pregnant, they’d each bought a million dollar life insurance policy. It seemed prudent. He always thought of Jennifer getting the money when he died. He was sure she’d out live him. She was in great shape – a runner – and she never held any stress in. She was a free spirit, a painter and graphic designer.
Jared was all stress. He’d been the manager of a hotel/casino in Atlantic City that was totally decimated by the storm. They rebuilt but he couldn’t go back. He hadn’t worked since the storm, in fact, although lately he was looking around at the many hotels in the city and thinking about getting back into it. Until TEOTWAWKI, anyway.
Being the manager of a large hotel and casino was what made him a great Prepper, in fact. He always thought ahead, always planned, always imagined contingencies. In the old days, he thought ahead about the rooms and the gaming floor and who was stealing and who was reliable and what deals they could offer to get the people in the door. It wasn’t the biggest place in AC by a long shot but he’d introduced a lot of creature comforts to draw in the middle aged crowd – free Wi-Fi, in room massages, a 24 hour gym and a conference room with wide leather chairs. He had the pool redone not long before the storm. People in their forties and fifties – they were the ones. They had the disposable income. He’d made a name for The Billinger Hotel and Casino and more than doubled profits in the ten years he’d worked there, right out of Cornell’s Hotel program.
Now he thought ahead about disaster. His backpack could sustain him – well, forever, assuming he could get to a food and water source. He imagined every contingency from another hurricane to nuclear war to alien invasion. Nothing seemed outlandish to him. And it wasn’t just the BOB and his Every Day Carry kit (in case he couldn’t get to his backpack) – he trained. He’d lost fifty pounds since Jennifer died, walking all over the city, getting his body in shape.
He took swimming lessons at the Y and became a certified lifeguard along with a bunch of seventeen year olds.
He attended Prepper workshops on survival skills. He’d never thought of owning a gun before but now he had two and he practiced with both once a week. One was a small caliber hand gun, easy to handle, for self-defense, and the other was a small rifle, perfect for hunting. And he’d learned how to hunt, how to clean the meat and dress it and cook it. The rifle was broken down in his BOB in the case he’d purchased with it and the hand gun in his EDC pack. Self-defense always came first.
He bought a small cabin Wisconsin for his BOL – bug out location. It was big enough for several people and packed with supplies.
And in the parking spot downstairs was his BOV – a black Hummer. But he knew there was every chance he’d have to walk off this island to Wisconsin. All contingencies were prepared for.
Melody came to the door and looked straight at him. He tried to speak, to tell her something was terribly wrong, but she must have thought he was still asleep because she just glanced at him and walked back out into the hallway.
“…I thought this would knock him out. His eyes were open,” he heard as her voice was drifting down the hallway.
He couldn’t make sense of the words. What would knock him out? Him? As in him, Jared Finkelstien? Or someone else? Her voice was muted again, like a radio station that is just tuned slightly too low in an irritatingly indecipherable way.
He tried to replay the day in his head, trying to stave off terrible thoughts.
Melody and he had lunch in the theater district. She’d had an audition. She seemed nervous and out of sorts when she showed up, so he didn’t ask how it had gone. She turned the conversation to him, as she always did. She didn’t like talking about herself. Today she wanted to know about the baby.
“When was she due?” She picked at her salad. He wished she’d eat more. She was so thin.
“October ninth. Of course the doctor prepared us that she could come late, being a first baby.”
“What were you going to name her?”
Jared looked out the window. He wondered why she was asking. Did she want to take over Jennifer’s role? He tried not to think about it. “Emma. It was Jennifer’s grandmother’s name. She had been very close with her grandmother.”
“What a beautiful name. Why did she never take your last name?”
He remembered being taken aback. He couldn’t remember having told her that Jennifer hadn’t changed her name. “She’d already established herself somewhat in the art world as Jennifer Carillo. Not that she was famous, but… well, you know about the gallery.” He had teared up and forgotten his surprise at her question.
She put her hand on his and rubbed it, gently. Her hand was cold. He took it in his own two to warm her up. He’d always done that with Jennifer. She’d called him the human heat generator. At first it felt normal with Melody but then he thought maybe he’d overstepped the bounds. He raised his eyebrows at her, as if to ask if it was okay. She smiled and left her hand in his.
Her bottom teeth were just the slightest bit crooked. Jared’s father had been an orthodontist and he had always talked about teeth, so Jared just always noticed. He liked it though – it made her different from Jennifer. He needed to stop thinking so much about Jennifer.
She’d asked to see how he’d fit the rifle and the inflatable boat and everything into his BOB so they’d gone back to his place. He was hoping it was a pretense and this was the prelude to a new chapter in their relationship. He remembered entering the building and talking to the doorman for a moment about the Mets and upcoming spring training. He remembered the elevator and feeling nervous. But that was it. His memory was totally blank until he opened his eyes a few minutes before.
He tried as hard as he could to move some part of his body. His thought his leg twitched and it made him feel exuberant but he couldn’t reproduce it.
He didn’t want to think what he was thinking.
He thought back to the first time she had come over. She’d been really impressed with his apartment. He had a bunch of Jennifer’s paintings up – the ones that had been in storage in Manhattan. The ones in the house were gone, along with everything in the house including Jennifer. She stood looking for a long time at a nude that he had in the hallway leading to the master bedroom.
“Wow, so… won’t her paintings be worth a lot more now?”
He’d been surprised by the question. “I don’t know. I haven’t tried to sell any.”
“But… I thought she had a lot in a gallery and…” She’d stopped talking. He didn’t remember telling her about that. Her paintings had suddenly gone up in price after a small piece in the New York Times Magazine about her death and the gallery where many had already been placed had made a small fortune. He’d made a small fortune. He’d used it to buy his BOL in Wisconsin. But he didn’t realize he told Melody about that. He rarely discussed money with her – they often discussed her financial situation, but he never discussed his. He felt a little embarrassed to be so well off when she struggled so much. But he rationalized that it was because he was older, established, and she was young. Hadn’t he struggled when first out of college? He didn’t start as the manager of the Billinger.
At the time it was disconcerting but now panic began to grip him. How had she known so much about him and about Jennifer? He tried frantically to think of why he might be lying on his bed but nothing made sense except that she’d somehow drugged him.
He had a flash of the two of them drinking wine near the sink. He was laughing. Was that today?
He rolled his eyes to the bedside table and could see just the corner of a wine glass.
Melody came back in the room and he closed his eyes. It was his only defense.
“Oh, good, it looks like it finally knocked him out. You sure he won’t remember anything?”
The voice on the phone mumbled but he couldn’t make out what was being said.
“Okay, I’m going to get onto his computer. Hold on, I’ll put you on speaker.” Jared heard a button press and a deep male voice came out, as though through a short tunnel.
“Can you hear me, babe?”
“Uh-huh. Okay, no password to get on.”
“What a fucking dumbass.”
“I told you, right?”
Jared felt crushing pressure in his chest.
“Let me get into the banking stuff. He uses Federal Trust – I think he has all his money there.”
“Really? Doesn’t he know the feds only cover a hundred grand if the bank collapses?”
“I told you. He’s really trusting. Plus he thinks the stupid end of the world shit will happen and then money won’t matter.” Jared heard the clicking of keys on the keyboard.
“Did you figure out the password?” he man asked.
“I have a few guesses. I think Federal Trust gives you five tries before it shuts you down on the sixth wrong one. But they don’t have a very good encryption protocol – just letters and numbers and it only has to be six digits. Remember that guy four years ago? I couldn’t break that one. Remind me to never pick a mark that uses Finance Daily again.”
“Never pick a mark that uses Finance Daily.”
“That’s why you love me.”
“Okay… first try.” Jared held his breath. Had she figured it out? “The baby. Emma10910… Nope.” Jared let out his breath softly.
“Try Emma100910. Didn’t you say he is a detail guy? I’d bet he used the 0.”
“That’s what I’m thinking. Let’s see… Jennifer071675. That’s her birthday. Ummm… nope. That’s three.”
“What about the storm?”
“I’m getting to that. Sarafina091810. Noooo… Jennifer091810? Wait… no. I just got a warning telling me that one more try and I’ll be shut out. Let me think…” Jared waited, terrified.
“Did you get their wedding date?”
“Yeah, it was in the public register in AC. Okay… Last shot. Jennifer070707 – hokey, right?” There was silence for a moment. “Fuck. I got locked out. Man I was so sure I had him.”
“What do you wanna do babe? I mean, you could stick around, like that guy two years ago. Let him think you’re going to marry him, move in, get things in your name. That was our best score yet.”
“I don’t know. It means I’d have to have sex with him. I mean, he’s not bad looking or gross or anything but… it’s this Prepper stuff. It’s so annoying. He’s going to want me go to the shooting range and all that…”
“You are a good shot.”
“Well, that’s the problem, right? I’d have to pretend not to be. Okay, well, let me set the scene before it wears off and I’ll call you later. Play it by ear.”
Jared heard the computer shutting down and the blue light faded out of the room and Melody – if that was her name – saying goodbye. He could hear her footsteps coming over to the bed. She began to undress him, roughly, dragging his pants and his boxers down. He could hear his jeans hit the floor with the heavy thunk of his belt and wallet. He felt the cool air on his legs. As she was unbuttoning his shirt, he realized he could move his arm. He tried to stay limp, so she wouldn’t realize his newfound mobility.
Fury built up inside him; fury and embarrassment. He was an easy mark.
She leaned over him and he could feel her large breasts pressing on his chest and her lips kissing his forehead.
His two years of training had made him strong and resilient despite whatever she’d used to drug him. In one movement, he had his left hand around her throat and he used his right to flip her over on the bed. He savored the look of fear and confusion on her face.
“It was Melody. Melody041392.”