I knocked on the front door. No answer.
A note stuck out under the door: UNLOCKED — UPSTAIRS — MASTER BATH. And then the final word, written twice as large and more jagged: HURRY!
I tried the handle. As the note claimed: unlocked. Inside was unlit, but the moonlight showed the hardwood floors and soft-focus furniture typical of these McMansions. To the left of the door my hand found the light switches, but nothing turned on when I flicked them. This house, like so many others I’d delivered to since the fires, was dead, but a strange bass note buzzed through the walls.
I returned to my truck and lifted four of the twelve insulated bags from the bed, carrying two on each shoulder. The houses on the block were all dark, except for one at the corner with faint candlelight yellowing the windows.
In my flashlight beam the first floor looked lived in, messy in that way that kids make everything messy, but not chaotic from flight or ransacked and looted. Dishes sat in the drying rack beside the sink. I rubbed my finger across a glass and trailed a clean line in the dust.
There was a bad smell, which I followed into a pantry off the kitchen. A plastic dog pen as tall as my knees. Dried blood splatter ringed outside the pen’s front grate. Bits of dried flesh stuck to the grate. Two dog claws, like busted moons, had fallen out of the pen. Inside it sat a still darkness, stinking of rot. I didn’t shine my light inside the pen.
Something thumped upstairs, then some noise that sounded like a human voice.
The house was warm and damp, but as I climbed the stairs I felt the cold. I felt it first on my ankles as it slipped liquid down the steps. The buzzing grew louder. It rose through my legs, the marrow seeming to quiver.
I followed the cold and the buzz, both coming from the same side of the house. I tried the door at the end of the hall. It opened a little, but then resisted. I set the four bags down and put my shoulder into it. Multiple rugs bunched back as the door opened further and a wave of frozen air coursed out. The buzz transformed into a thick and constant growl. The hair along my arms rose. My face tightened in the cold.
The windows had been covered with what looked like plastic trash bags, held down with silver duct tapes. In the beam of my flashlight the black mass covering the floor slowly revealed itself to be the remains of humans.
The bodies had been ripped open, torn into pieces, the flesh ground into the carpet and left to cake and dry into one thick, blackened mess. I saw at least two heads, one adult-sized with long curly hair in a mass beside it, one smaller. In the corner there could have been another head, but I didn’t investigate.
I wanted to run, to escape, but I couldn’t leave. I am the deliveryman.
I wedged the rugs back further and retrieved my bags, stepping awkwardly sideways to fit through the door.
The growling, now shaking my chest, came from the door on the far side of the bed. I had to walk over the caked blood and flesh to reach it. My footsteps crunched through the dried stuff. Parts of it felt like newly laid asphalt.
I held the handle of the bathroom door for a moment. Considered the feel of my steps breaking through the carpet crust. The cold metal vibrated like an engine against my palm. I closed my eyes and turned the handle.
The cold pressed against me, bringing tears from my eyes as I opened them. Two generators, pushed far back into a deep linen closet, were the source of the crushing buzz. This close they made my cheeks tremble, chattering my teeth. From the generators, orange electrical cords wove out to air conditioners wedged into the four windows, held in with towels and duct tape, the edges taped off in thick haphazard layers.
From the tub, full to the lip with murky water, a man emerged, naked and bright with cold. His blue fingers, his genitals tight and cringing inside him, his eyes sunken and ringed in black.
The man exclaimed wildly, holding his hands up in celebratory fists. The grind of the generators was so loud I could not hear what words he was shouting.
I set the four bags down and slipped on my gloves. Unzipping one bag I pulled out the chunk of dry ice, lifting with my legs. The man leaned close to it, the haze rising off it reaching his skin. I could sense him restraining from rubbing his face against the block. Bathwater dripped off his nose onto the dry ice, dancing and popping into fog, its squeal barely audible beneath the roar of the generators.
His cold hands circled my arms. Fingers trembling and twitching. I could smell it then – the musk, that stink of my father. My father leaning over me in the garage to grab a tool from the rack. My father’s arm reflexively pushing me back as he hit the brakes hard in his Ford truck.
The man leaned close, His breath was shockingly hot against my ear.
“We lived on flowers,” the man said. “No rain.”
He smiled. His teeth so white against the blue lips. The cold of his fingers stung my skin. I pulled my arm out of his grip. There was a residue of pink where his hands had held me.
The man stared at the residue, while the water in the bathtub continued its slow slosh. Water dripped off him, his elbows, his nose. Then I realized that as the cold water dripped off his fingers it splashed red on the white tile floor.
He watched his fingers drip away onto the tiles for a slow few seconds. His palm, where he had held my arm, was runny as an undercooked egg. Then I realized that what I took for bathwater on his face was the arrested motion of his skin melting away. I could feel the cold then, like a body pressed against me.
The man lifted the smoking hunk of dry ice, the slopped skin of his hand firmed against it, the tips of his fingers wedged flat. He moved to drop the ice into the bath and for a single hesitation the block of ice did not fall, adhered to the frozen drippings of the man’s fingers. Then, like a decision, it ripped the tips of his fingers off and plopped into the tub.
Fog immediately coursed up from the bubbling howling of the sublimating ice, exploding into gas. As the milky carbon dioxide filled the room I unzipped the three remaining insulated bags, removed the ice and left it on the tile floor.
The fog was so thick I couldn’t see anything. It felt like paper towels in my throat. I knew the man could not live long in this fog. But what could I do? I am the deliveryman.
I exited the bathroom and as I closed the door the grind of the generators diminished, though I could still feel the vibration through my feet. My steps again broke through the blackened crust of bodies. As I descended the stairs I scanned my flashlight across a series of framed family photos. Three children, apparently.
I closed the front door. The handle clicked. I had one more delivery to make and already it was growing darker. The smoke from the fires lighting yet another stupendous sunset, shrill with pinks and reds. I had to get home before night fell. My wife knew not to unlock the door after dark, even for me.