The arrow missed him by only a fraction of an inch.

     Ian whirled, unslinging his rifle, ready to fire, and found himself facing the stranger.

     “You're on my territory,” growled the stranger, “Unless you're ready use that thing, you'd better get back to where you came from.”

     Ian looked down at his rifle and a wave of fear swept through him. The safety catch was still on. He looked up, and licked his lips nervously.

     Ian was suddenly afraid he was dreaming, and at any moment, the man in front of him would remove his facemask and grin at Ian from a horribly burned and mutilated face. The impression faded as he stared disbelievingly at the fully loaded crossbow aimed at his chest. How the hell did he reload so quickly?

     “You're on my turf fella,” said the stranger menacingly, “You got thirty seconds to get back across that stream or I use this thing.”

     “But-”

     “Twenty-five seconds!”

     “Listen,” Ian said hopefully, carefully slipping the rifle safety catch off, “There's no need for us to-”

     “Twenty seconds!”

     “There's no need for us to-”

     “Fifteen seconds!”

     “There's no need for us to be enemies. I-”

     He glanced toward the stream and looked back at the stranger. Why the Hell won't he listen?

     “Ten!”

     Keeping his rifle pointed at the stranger, Ian walked carefully sideways toward the stream where a huge fallen tree formed a natural bridge across the water.

     “Smarter than you look,” the stranger told Ian, “As long as you stay the hell away from me, we'll get along fine.”

     “But-”

     “Just shut up and keep moving!” snapped the stranger angrily. Ian reached the fallen tree and his feet splashed in the water at the stream's edge. He stood beside the tree unsure of himself and wished he had more control of the situation. The fact that the stranger hadn't fired the second arrow gave him hope that perhaps the stranger wasn't as terrible as he appeared, but he knew he couldn't lower the rifle. Stalemated, with the both of them pointing their weapons at each other, Ian couldn't afford to drop his guard. His guts ached, and Ian felt his death in his bones.

     “Maybe we could team up,” he suggested hopefully.

     “Not a chance!” the stranger laughed, “I got everything I need! I don't need a partner!”

     “How do I know you won't follow me?” Ian asked feebly.

     “You don't,” the stranger sneered.

     Ian wanted to turn tail and run. But he couldn't.

     He climbed onto the tree and knew he would have to walk along it backwards because he didn't want his back facing the stranger as he crossed the stream. Holding the rifle in one hand and keeping it pointed towards the stranger, Ian grabbed a branch to steady himself, feeling his way with his feet.

     Suddenly Ian lost his footing, and as his reflexes snapped to stabilize his center of gravity, the gun went off. He fell, hitting the trunk heavily. An arrow ripped through his oilskin and stuck into the tree. Ian hugged the trunk and heard the stranger swear, but when he glanced at where his adversary had been standing, the stranger had vanished. Ian pulled himself quickly to his knees and fired the rifle several times as rapidly as he could into the brush around the spot where he had last seen the stranger, then scuttled across the tree to the other side of the stream. He began a mad dash back through the trees.

     Great! he thought, Just fuckin' great! If there's a way to screw something up, I'll find the quickest way to do it!

     He careened noisily through the underbrush, his lungs burning from the effort, and his mind frozen with panic. He developed a cramp in his side, but pushed himself to keep going despite the pain.

     Finally, Ian dropped exhausted to the ground. His mouth was dry and his throat was sore. I should have stood my ground against him. Why did I back down? He was angry at himself, at the stranger, and at the world he was forced to live in.

     Finally, he stood up and walked stiffly toward the lakeshore and realized that he had dropped the plastic water jug during his flight through the forest. He needed it because the canteen didn't hold enough water to make his trip worthwhile, but he was afraid to go back and retrieve it.

     Cautiously, Ian left the cover of the woods and walked slowly across the small narrow beach along the lakeshore. He crouched down, unslung his canteen and filled it, and stared across the lake

     The truck!

     The truck was on the other side of the lake- on the stranger's territory. How would he reach it? Ian stood up and stared at it, feeling lost: a forlorn little boy who had his prized possession taken away from him by the neighborhood bully. Sooner or later, Ian knew he was going to cross the stream. The truck was his only way out of the valley and to reach it, he would have to face the stranger again.

     As if he had been called into view by Ian's thoughts and fears, the stranger stepped from the woods near the truck. The man stopped and looked back at Ian, and they stood staring at each other across the water. Ian knew he was safe for the time being, but he knew the man had tried to kill him and would probably try again.

     He wasn't the stranger anymore...

     He was the Enemy.

     Ian screwed the cap back on the canteen. He turned away and walked into the woods, deciding he'd go back and search for the water jug now that he knew where the stranger was.

     And now I'm back in the cave, still alone.

     The incident between me and the Stranger has shot my hopes of his being able to help me. I don't know how I can link myself to this world if I fall into the Dream. I was hoping that the stranger could be an anchor, but it doesn't look like it.

     I need his help.

     But I don't have any help coming.

     It's almost the end of the movie and I've circled all my wagons; I'm out of ammunition, and there's no cavalry to save me...

     Ian slowly closed the book, and looked around the living room. The layout of the room matched the cave almost exactly. Where the camouflage screen should have been was the living room window. Boxes surrounded him, and his sleeping bag was stretched out on the carpet. He tried to will the cave back into existence, but his efforts were futile. The Dream was becoming stronger.

     How do I get back?

     Ian approached his problem with a detached calmness. He was faced with several possibilities. He stared down at the notebook. It was his only hope. As long as he recorded his thoughts in it, he wouldn't have to depend upon his memory. The book passed through the barrier of the Otherlife into the War World. Perhaps from one of the two realities recorded on its pages, he would see a solution that he couldn't see from the other.

     He picked up a pen and opened the book, hoping that his sleeping body was still imitating his Dream actions...

     I hope this works.

     I'm writing in the Dream, and I can't find my way out, but I'm writing hoping that if you wake up, you will know what has happened here in the Dream. I have a feeling that I've been here for a long time. I know that I've been here all day, or at least since I woke up this morning in the apartment. The Dream is very good - it has recreated the Otherlife almost perfectly.

     With one exception...

     The date.

     It's four days before the War.

     So what does that mean?

     Think about it.

     I have thought of one possibility, but it almost seems too far-fetched, but we have to consider it. I think that maybe by some mystic process, I really am in the Otherlife. Remember that night after the soldiers were in the valley, and we were floating in the lake and thought we had a destiny? Well, supposing that I was somehow transported through time to the day of the War so that I could witness it to experience the horror and the pain and the suffering.

     Why?

     So that we could stop it.

     To warn the world that it was coming.

     As crazy as it sounds, it may be true.

     Another possibility is that we have retreated into a make-believe world because we can't face the awful reality of the post-war world. So our mind has spawned a version of the Otherlife that I can return to. Complete with Linda, the apartment, and the city- all intact.

     This dream about Linda worries me. The Dream has changed direction and it's trying to destroy us. When the Dream traps me in the Otherlife, the Dream lasts far longer than if I dream about the Warworld.

     Long enough to miss a meal...

     Long enough to miss taking the antibiotics...

     In the Otherlife, we're never quite aware of the Warworld and can't seem to reach our body the way we could before.

     I remember looking in the mirror and the Dream People came for me! For my reflection! But I've got it backwards- the reflection is me. Us in the cave. The Otherlife is the illusion.

     But how can I stop it?

     When I'm in the Otherlife, I don't always remember the Dream, or that I'm really here in the cave, so how can I fight it?

     I have to find a link that will tie me permanently to the cave, but I don't know what I can use.

     But I have to!

     There's got to be a way!

     There's got to!

     I'm losing my battle with the Dream. I've split into two different people with no way for me to reach you. We have to reach for someone else. Only two people, worlds apart, can help us...

     One is the stranger.

     If you could find him and talk to him, we would know which world was which. The Dream always slips up somewhere...

     Like the pear with no taste; if the stranger isn't real, there will be a flaw in him somewhere, a detail that isn't quite right. And if he's real...

     If he's real, it will give us a foothold against the Dream. But first you have to find him.

     And when you find him, then what?

     If only I could remember what Linda and I had argued about the day that she had walked out. I need that memory to help me destroy the Dream. Without it, I have no proof that the version that the Dream has produced is false.

     I have been thinking about the little white card that she left on the night stand. It has the name of a doctor on it.

     A psychiatrist...

     A neat little hook that the Dream has thrown in. That gives us two possibilities...

     One is that this world around me is real, and the Warworld is a figment of my imagination, and that I'm crazy. And that the anomalies in this version of the Otherlife are due to the hallucinations of a warped mind. Very neat and very tidy.

     And the other?

     The other is that the Dream has offered me a happy life with Linda as long as I accept this world as being reality. Also very neat...

     It has taken Linda away from me with the promise that if I accept the Dream as my reality, it will give her back to me. If I decide to reject the War, I can call up this psychiatrist and go and see her.

     But to do that, I will have to give up my memories of the War and call it fantasy. Tell myself it doesn't exist until I finally believe that it was all a bad dream.

     But if I do that and it's not true, you will die, and the Dream will have won...

     I don't know what to believe, so we must test each version very carefully and decide which world to accept.

     Which do you think is the right one?

     I'll give you an example. The boxes around me are a good enough case in point. Where did they come from? I know, or I think I know.

     From Sam's store.

     Nestled amongst a small oasis of trees at the junction of the main highway and the lake road and attended by a rundown group of tiny outbuildings, the store was so much a part of the scenery that Ian didn't see it until after he had passed by it. It was the kind of general store that fits in anywhere, neatly kept, but a little worse for wear. Two aging rusted gas pumps sat patiently in the gravel drive in front of the building. As Ian slowly backed the truck into the gravel driveway, he noticed a pile of oil drums stacked against the side of the building.

     He stopped by the pumps and shut the truck off. A flash of color in the side mirror caught his eye as he opened the door. Peering into the mirror, Ian pulled the door slowly back in towards him. When the patch of color appeared in the mirror, Ian looked over his shoulder toward the source of the reflection. Two bodies lay in the tall grass beside the driveway.

     Ian slid out of the truck and walked toward the bodies. Until he was closer to them, he wasn't entirely certain they were dead. But they weren't just dead; they had been blown apart. Flies crawled over them, concentrated in a buzzing black mass on the open wounds. The two had once been boys barely out of high school.

     Ian felt for a pulse on the body whose face was still intact, but couldn't feel one either in the neck or wrist. He hadn't really expected that he would.

     It appeared that the bodies had been dragged from the pumps to the grass verge. A trail of blood led back to the pumps, and Ian followed it to the blood-smeared unleaded pump. The pump had been peppered by shotgun pellets. As he looked back at the bodies, Ian noticed a deep gouge in the ground running at a right angle across the drive. The furrow led directly to a car hidden in the grove of trees standing by the side of the store. The car sat at an odd angle and was attached to a small yellow tractor by a twisted cable. The windshield had a head-sized hole in it.

     Ian approached the car slowly, and as he reached the driver's door, he could see a body of a longhaired blonde girl about the same age as the two boys lying on the front seat. Ian didn't have to walk any closer to know she was dead, and he glanced nervously at the store.

     The sign in the doorway said OPEN. A dark red spot stained the gravel about halfway between the pumps and the doorway, and several bloody handprints marked the door jam.

     Somebody was in there...

     Dead or alive? Armed or not? Ian walked back to the pumps and traced his fingers over the tiny pellet holes in the pumps.

     Trying to appear as unconcerned as he could, Ian walked back to the open truck door. The revolver was on the seat, its magazine empty. Ian hadn't reloaded it since he had last used it, and the box of shells was still in the doctor's bag. The bag was in the back of the truck. Ian slipped the gun inside his jacket and checking to make sure that he couldn't be seen from the store, buttoned it up. He walked to the rear of the truck, keeping the gun hidden, opened the tailgate and crawled inside the box. He sat with his back against the side of the truck facing the storefront, hoping that the truck cap would hide what he was doing from whoever was in the store.

     He opened the doctor's bag and pulled out a handful of chrome and rubber medical instruments, which he laid on the floor beside him. The box of shells had split open and the bullets lay scattered amongst the instruments and pill bottles at the bottom of the bag. He picked out five or six bullets and began sliding them into the revolver. He was still loading the gun when he heard the click.

     Ian froze.

     The huge open mouth of a shotgun pushed firmly against his neck and wedged under his jaw. The steel barrel was cold against his skin and Ian wanted desperately to look up.

     “Put it down real slow,” drawled an unseen gravel voice. Ian laid the revolver gently on the floor and slowly raised his hands away from his body.

     “I... I got money,” Ian stammered weakly, “... in my back pocket-”

     Ian wanted the gun out of his neck. He felt so close to death it left a bitter taste in his mouth, a metallic taste.

     “Don't need no money,” the voice drawled, “Not anymore.”

     An older person, Ian thought, The storekeeper?

     “Now son, I don't want to shoot you, but I will if you don't do exactly what I tell you. Y'understand?”

     Ian's voice caught in his throat but he managed a hoarse “Yes.”

     “Okay. When I tell you, I want you t'climb slowly outa there and lay face down on the ground. You do it real slow, an' keep your hands out where I can see 'em an' you won't have your head blowed off. Okay?”

     “Yeah.”

     “Okay, move!” The shotgun pushed harder against his neck for emphasis.

     Trembling, Ian moved out onto the tailgate keeping his hands out, using the palms of his hand to pull himself along. He hung one foot over the edge of the tailgate, but he was in an awkward position. All he could think about was the shotgun barrel jammed into his neck.

     As Ian tried to pull the other leg from underneath him, it became caught and he lost his balance.

     He fell in slow motion.

     The shotgun pulled at his skin as he fell, then let go. The sound of the blast echoed inside Ian's skull as though the biggest cannon in the world had just been fired at him, and a momentary flash of heat and pain cut into the back of his neck and head.

     Not this way, Ian cried silently to God, Please not this way! As he fell, Ian thought of how short his life had been. As if it had all taken place in a matter of a few seconds, a fraction of a second. It was all over. As he fell he thought, So this is what it's like to die..

     That's it. No fear, just curiosity. He didn't feel any pain as he hit the ground, but he tasted dirt in his mouth as he slid along the gravel. He put his hand up to the back of his head...

     He couldn't believe it!

     He was still alive!

     As if a slow strobe light was lighting up fragmented images in front of him, Ian stared at the blood on his hands, and at an old man whispering “Jesus” over and over again. He wondered why he wasn't dead...

     His strongest impression was of the old man, the look on his face, the fear that showed in the old gray eyes...

     “It was an accident!”

     The old man said that more than once.

     Then everything went dark. He must have passed out. The next moment, the musty smell of stale tobacco and ancient dust drifted through the darkness, and he half-opened his eyes. He was lying face down on a dark red corduroy couch. His head hurt. Ian groaned as he tried to lift himself up. He was dizzy and a sharp pain stabbed into the back of his head. He closed his eyes and passed out again.

     He could smell coffee, and the familiar tangy aroma dragged his eyes open. He was confused, and the memory of the last few days was buried somewhere out of reach. For several seconds he thought he was in his apartment and that Linda was in the kitchen making breakfast coffee, and he closed his eyes, trying to shake his hangover. He couldn't remember the night before. I really must have tied one on, he thought groggily. Ian sat up, and after resting his head in his hands to clear the sludge from his brain, and opened his eyes.

     Only it wasn't Linda standing in front of him, it was the old man holding a brown mug out to him. Ian took the cup automatically and the memory of the last two days flooded back. He experienced a mild dizziness, and it took his brain a couple of seconds to stabilize.

     “I hope you like it,” said the old man gently, “I never made coffee while Annie was alive, and I ain't sure I got it right.”

     Ian took a sip.

     “It's good,” he said and the old man gave him a pleased smile, then hesitated, as if he wasn't sure of what to say but felt he should say something.

     Ian didn't know what he could say to the old man either and covered the embarrassed silence by taking another sip of coffee.

     “I... I ain't much good at apologizin'” the old man said hesitantly, “I... I never meant to shoot you. I... I never meant to shoot anybody...”

     Ian didn't say anything.

     “I... I had the gun around 'cause me an' Annie was safer havin' it...” The old man was having trouble getting out what he wanted to say, and stuttered nervously as he spoke. “...In case we was robbed or somethin'. Havin' a store an' all, we just figured we was safer... I... I never meant to use it... Never had to. Not till now... All that time me an' the missus had that dang thing, we never had to use it.

     “But you read the papers an' all you see is armed robbery an' murder, an' all the criminals usin' guns... Well, I... I just figured it'd even up the odds...

     “I... I'm sorry about shootin' you, but when you slipped, the gun pulled away from my hands... and it went off... It... it was an accident.”

     “It's okay,” Ian told the old man. “Good coffee,” he added, hoping that the old man would stop apologizing.

     But the old man had something to get off his chest and continued. “Annie didn't like the gun. She was afraid of it. Wouldn't touch it... I tried to show her how to use it, but she wouldn't have none of it. She wanted me to get rid of it.

     “'Only askin' for trouble, Sam,' she said,'ain't nobody gonna shoot me. I'm just an old lady. Anybody robs me, they can take whatever they want. You won't catch me tryin' to stop 'em.'"

     “She never wanted any trouble an' we never had any... not till now.”

     “Where is your wife?”

     “Dead.”

     Ian realized that he should have known by the way the old man had talked about her, and he cursed himself for making such a stupid blunder.

     “Oh, I'm sorry,” he said quickly, trying to cover his mistake, “It's just that well, the way you talked about her, I... I wasn't sure.”

     “It's for sure,” whispered the old man, “Oh God! Jesus!” Sam wiped away a tear, the pain behind his eyes surfacing for a brief second, then hidden as Sam looked straight at him.

     “It was them punks!” Sam said spitefully, “Did you see 'em outside? It was them what gunned her down! They killed her! Just an old woman!”

     Sam broke into tears, trying to fight it, trying to maintain his composure, but the hurting was too much for him.

     Sam's grief made Ian uncomfortable. He stood up and placed his hand on Sam's shoulder, but Ian had never been any good at coping with emotional situations.

     “Hey,” he whispered softly, “Hey.”

     Sam looked up at Ian, his lined face betraying his agony, his eyes pleading, asking for help that Ian couldn't give him.

     Ian felt he should have been a priest. Sam was asking for forgiveness and wanted absolution from Ian. He was sorry for Sam, but had no idea of what to say to make the old man feel better. He was afraid to say anything in case he inadvertently made Sam angry. He'd already come too close to suffering the same fate as the three bodies outside the store to risk saying the wrong thing.

     Ian sat down and sipped at his coffee.

     “I guess it was one of them things,” Sam was saying, “I don't know if they meant us no harm or anythin'.

     “They pulled in here last night. Busted the lock on the front door. Me an' Annie was down in the basement. Them civil defense people was always sayin' to go down in the cellar in an atomic war. So that was where we was.

     “We could hear 'em rummagin' around in the store, talkin' to each other an' laughin'. Annie said we should just sit tight. I didn't like to, but I figured maybe she's right, so I stayed where I was an' put my arm around her, an' she huddled close to me. It wasn't too hard to take until they started bustin' things upstairs.

     “It... it's just that sittin' there holdin' my wife like that an' them ransackin' my place, I figured I should do somethin'

     “Ornery old pride, I guess. But it didn't seem right hidin' like a scared rabbit in the cellar while strangers was destroyin' my home. I had to protect my property!

     “Our home was bein' violated an' it was my duty to protect it. You can see that, can't you?”

     “I guess I'd feel the same,” Ian said sympathetically, and his comment seemed to reassure the old man. The old man didn't want forgiveness; Sam wanted someone to tell him that the circumstances that had shaped his decisions would have forced anyone into the same choices that he had made. Sam needed a mirror in which he could examine himself. The reflection that Ian cast was the image that Sam had been looking for, and the old man continued his narration without hesitation.

     “The steps from the cellar lead right up to the back of the counter. I figured I could sneak up them stairs an' get the shotgun without them punks seein' me. I always kept it loaded.”

     Sam gave a little smile, “No sense in keepin' a gun with no shells in it.”

     Ian smiled back at the old man, aware that he was manipulating Sam, but he was beginning to feel surer of Sam and how the old man would react. Ian was confident that he could handle any situation that might develop between them, and he relaxed a little.

     “Annie didn't want me to do it,” Sam continued, “but I told her not to worry, even though I knew she would. She was a great worrier was Annie.”

     Sam paused for a second, lost in some pleasant memory of Annie. “Well,” Sam continued, “I made it up them stairs without makin' a sound. I know every creak in them old stairs,” he said with a flash of pride. “I could see 'em in the moonlight, loadin' up with stuff. Two of 'em.

     “I crouched down real low, an' snuck to where I hid the gun. They was makin' a hell of a racket, an' never heard me at all. I picked the gun up real careful-like, an' got myself ready.

     “Then I jumped up an' pumped the gun, an' swung it around all at the same time. I yelled <96>Freeze!' like them cops on T.V...

     “Well, they never froze! No, sir! They dropped the stuff they was stealin' an' the one nearest the door hit the dirt an' the other one whipped out a handgun!

     “There wasn't no time to think! I pulled the trigger an the shotgun kicked off! I was aimin' at the kid's middle, but with the kickback an' all, I hit him full in the face!”

     He could see the memory flooding the old man's face, and, trance-like, Sam relived the events of the previous night.

     “I ain't never killed nobody before,” he confessed, “I never knew what it was like.

     “The kid's face just disappeared! He flew backwards an' his gun went off at the same time. It broke one of them glass jars on the shelf!

     “Well, I just stood there starin' at where he'd been standin'. Then the other kid fired at me from down on the floor! Gave me one hell of a start! I'd forgotten all about him. Missed me!”

     The old man's excitement in telling the story was infectious. Ian leaned over and set his coffee mug beside Sam's on the coffee table.

     “I shot at him! Hit him in the leg and he screamed... It all happened so fast after that...

     “That was when Annie come up the stairs. She was yellin' my name. <96>Sam!' she screamed as she come into the store. The kid fired again! Hit her in the head before I could warn her!”

     Sam's manner softened, and a deathly stillness enveloped them.

     “She turned to look at me... like she couldn't believe she was shot... she... she collapsed. I... I caught her as she fell, but she was dead before she hit the floor.

     “Annie was dead!” Sam was on the verge of tears. “I held her tight... I hugged her... but Annie was dead!” Sam looked at Ian, steeled himself, and continued grim-faced. “Then I heard the car starter outside. I was mad! The thought of Annie bein' dead an' that punk bein' alive was too much for me! I grabbed the gun an' ran out after him!

     “He was sittin' in his car and it wasn't startin'. He stared at me an' kept that old starter whinin'. I figured he flooded it. He must've figured it wasn't gonna start in time for him to get away, 'cause he jumped out an' took a couple a pot shots at me.

     “I fired back but just blew out his front tire. The car give a jump an settled down, an' the kid ducked behind it.

     “It was real quiet for a while. I couldn't see too good. Then the kid jumped up an' started blazin' away at me! I dived back into the doorway... Smacked my face good on the floor an' just lay there hopin' to God he wouldn't hit me.

     “He stopped firin' an' I figured he was outa ammunition. I got up real slow an' snuck back to the counter. Grabbed me a handful of shells outa the box I kept 'em in an' reloaded the shotgun, an' put a bunch of 'em in my shirt so's I wouldn't have to go back for any.

     “I couldn't hear nothin', couldn't see nothin', so I figured the kid couldn't hear nor see me neither. I snuck back to the doorway, an' could hardly make out the car in the driveway. So I kneeled down in the doorway an' held the gun ready.

     “Well, as I was sittin' there, I began to think about Annie... She was dead. It was like it hit me for the first time. I forgot about the kid, the store- everything.

     “Annie was dead!”

     Sam pushed his hair back and sat holding his head, his eyes closed. As they sat in the darkened silence of the living room, the image of the old man tore at Ian's insides.

     He reached for his mug, and holding it in both hands, sipped at the coffee, wondering at the incredible speed of death when it strikes.

     It takes place in a fraction of a second...

     In the infinitesimally small space of time between now and eternity. One moment you're alive and laughing, and-

     And the next...

     Another life is over.

     Gone.

     As if it had never existed in the first place... And to those who are left, death has come too quickly... There was always so much time that you had planned on sharing with that person. So many things to do... and the life you had shared in passes out of existence, and you're left with a feeling of emptiness and nothing but the present because the past and the future no longer exists...

     “Then the whole goddamned sky lit up!” After the silence, Sam's outburst startled Ian.

     “Like daylight!” Sam said, “The kid was crossing in front of the pumps. I fired an' hit 'im! Knocked him right up against the pumps! He bounced away from 'em an' I fired two more shots into him before he hit the ground!

     “All my feelings about Annie went into them three shots! I hit him three outa three!

     “Revenge! That's what I wanted! I wanted him to pay for what he done to Annie! I coulda pumped a thousand shots into him! A million! An' I still woulda wanted to kill the son of a bitch!

     Sam's hands were clenched as he spat out the words. “There's no way I could live with myself if'n I'd a-never shot down Annie's killer when I had the chance! I couldn't let him get away! He had to pay for what he did!”

     Sam fell quiet again for a moment.

     “I was reloadin' the shotgun before I noticed that there was bombs goin' off all around... Everywhere! An' I didn't care! I didn't care if the whole world blew up! “

     “That was when I heard the car startin' up! I didn't even think about what I was doin', I just whirled around and pulled the trigger!

     “Reflex. I guess...”

     Sam looked at him.

     “I never knew it was that young girl in there... I never knew until after I fired who it was...”

     The intensity of Sam's stare was too much for Ian and he looked down into his cup.

     It was empty.

     Ian set it down on the coffee table and stared at it for a while, then glanced quickly over at Sam. The old man was sitting back in his chair, his eyes closed. Ian didn't want to disturb Sam but he felt the urge to leave. He had to get to the lake to find Bill and Pete.

     He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He rifled through the bills with his thumb, absently counting the money. Ian counted it out several times before pulling the bills and throwing the money on the table.

     “I got two hundred and twenty-seven-”

     “Don't worry about money, son,” said Sam, his eyes still closed, “It ain't gonna do either of us any good no more. You just help yourself to whatever you need. It ain't no use to me anymore.”

     “But I won't feel right if I don't pay you for what I get,” Ian protested.

     “Goddammit!” The force of the old man's shout made Ian jump. “I told you I don't need it!”

     Sam pushed himself from his chair and grabbed the money from the table.

     “Listen!” Sam shouted, reaching over and stuffing the bills into his visitor's shirt pocket, “You just help yourself to whatever you need, you hear me? If'n you don't take it, somebody else will whether I want 'em to or not!”

     Sam calmed down a little.

     “You don't seem like a bad sort,” Sam said quietly, “I'd rather you emptied the store than someone I don't like. You got me?”

     “Yeah. Only you'd better keep some for yourself...”

     “Don't worry about me, son,” Sam said quietly, “I got other plans. I got to do some things upstairs, so you just back your truck up to the front door and load up what you need, an' don't you give me no second thought.”

     “Okay,” Ian agreed and stood up. He felt a real affection for the old man. Sam seemed like a gruff, but kindly old uncle. “Thanks.”

     Sam didn't answer him, but steered Ian to the store, his hand on the younger man's back.

     “You take care of yourself, son,” Sam said softly. The concern Sam showed took Ian off guard for a second.

     Sam pushed him gently into the store and walked back across his living room to a hallway that led to a flight of stairs. The old man seemed so tired, so lost and frail, that Ian wanted to call Sam back and talk to him, but he didn't know what he could say to the old man.

     So he said nothing.

     And Sam trudged heavily and slowly up the creaking stairs without once looking back.

     Ian turned his attention to the store. It was a shambles from the battle that had been waged there the night before. A dark red patch of blood marked the spot where the first intruder had fallen. Tins and boxes were strewn everywhere. As he wandered amongst the shelves, his mood improved. Sam had stocked his store with everything he would need - matches, candles, canned meat, canned fruits and vegetables, dehydrated soups, insect repellant,... a shovel! The more Ian searched, the more excited he became. There was enough there to last for months!

     Unopened cases of food stood stacked behind the freezer counter: beans, corned beef, luncheon meat,... and to think he almost drove past the store!

     After Ian had formed an idea of what he would take, he walked out to the truck. As he opened the door of the truck, Ian glanced up at the storefront. Sam was standing motionless at a second story window watching him. He waved at the old man, but Sam didn't wave back.

     Ian backed the truck up to the front door. He glanced up at the window again as he climbed from the truck, but the window was dark and empty.

     He stood in the open doorway with his hands on his hips, not sure of where to start and his thoughts wandered back to Sam. I should ask Sam to come with me, Ian thought, but somehow, he couldn't picture Sam without his store. The store was a part of Sam. Or was Sam a part of the store? He couldn't separate one from the other. What does a storekeeper become without his store?

     Just another human being...

     Ian could hear Sam walking around upstairs. The creaking of the floorboards comforted him. It reminded him of summers spent at his grandfather's home. He remembered playing on the living room carpet. Deep and soft, like the back of a huge furry animal, to his child's mind and his toy animals, it was a vast white jungle. They lived out imaginary lives downstairs as his grandfather puttered around upstairs, and the floorboards would creak softly as the old man moved around.

     It always remained a mystery as to what his grandfather did upstairs. Ian wasn't allowed in his grandfather's bedroom, and would have to knock on the bedroom door if he wanted something.

     His grandfather would call, “Just a minute!”. Ian would have to wait until his grandfather opened the door, stepped into the hallway, and closed the bedroom door behind him. Only then, would his grandfather ask Ian what he wanted.

     Occasionally his grandfather went out, leaving Ian alone in the house, after telling Ian to be good as he left. As soon as his grandfather walked out the door, Ian would run upstairs into the bathroom and climb up on the toilet seat so he could watch his grandfather walk down the road and out of sight.

     Once Ian was sure that his grandfather was really gone and he was alone in the house, he'd run to his grandfather's door, and after taking a deep breath, slowly turn the doorknob...

     It was always locked.

     Ian had hunted all over the house looking for a key and found several, but none of them ever fit the lock.

     The Secret Room...

     He shook his head to clear his mind of the memory, realizing he was wasting time and that he should get the truck loaded as quickly as possible.

     Once he started, Ian became totally absorbed by his task, and hummed to himself as he cleared out entire lengths of shelves. Ian was constantly amazed when he discovered items he had missed earlier that would come in handy: string, tin-foil, garbage bags,... A can opener! Ian stuffed the opener into a box, then remembered he already had one.

     He put it back.

     Suddenly, Ian realized that the floorboards upstairs had stopped creaking. They had been silent for some time, but Ian hadn't noticed because he had been so wrapped up in stashing supplies into the truck.

     Ian stood unmoving, listening...

     Not a sound came from upstairs and it worried Ian. He went to the back of the store and peered into the living room.

     “Sam?”

     He stepped into the living room and cautiously crossed the floor to the hallway. He stuck his head through the entranceway and listened.

     Nothing.

     The hallway was silent and dark. Ian walked to the foot of the stairs.

     “Sam?” Ian called again. He placed a foot on the first step and it creaked. He called the old man again.

     Still no answer.

     Ian was worried, but was afraid of calling Sam too loudly; the store had the same atmosphere as a church or a library and Ian felt obligated to talk in a whisper, that talking too loudly would be sacrilege.

     He stepped carefully, trying not to make any noise. Every time the stairs creaked beneath his feet, Ian stopped to listen for Sam. But the hallway was ominously silent. He was filled with a fearful premonition that something was wrong.

     By the time that he reached the top of the stairs, Ian was sweating from the tension that had built up within him. The door to the bedroom was ajar, and he could see an old woman lying on the bed. A reddish-brown splotch of blood about the size of a saucer stained the pillow under her head and an ugly purple bruise marked her temple, a black hole - a bullet hole - in the center of it.

     Annie...

     Sam knelt motionless beside the bed, holding her lifeless hand in both of his, his head buried in his arms.

     “Sam?” Ian asked softly. There was no reaction and he moved forward a step. “Sam, are you okay?”

     Sam raised his head and stared dully at Ian, his eyes red and his wrinkled cheeks stained with tears.

     “I... I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” Ian mumbled, “I couldn't hear you moving around and I thought maybe something was wrong...”

     Sam didn't answer. After staring blankly at Ian for a few seconds, Sam lowered his head and buried his face in his arms again.

     The pain that emanated from Sam was unbearable and Ian backed away, embarrassed by his foolishness, and the unnecessary intrusion into the old man's privacy. Ian knew there was nothing he could do or say to Sam to ease his grief, so he turned and went back down the stairs.

     The living room was dark and gloomy, filled with the souvenirs of a lifetime. Old pictures stained and yellowed with age...

     A wedding portrait, Sam and Annie, young, full of hope and happiness, young newlyweds from a distant time and place...

     And baby pictures!

     A son!

     The mementos told Ian the son's story. There he was as a little baby - fat, happy, bubbling with life... Bronzed baby shoes on a plaque inscribed with a date and the name Isaac... a snapshot of a shy prepubescent boy embarrassed at having his picture taken... a graduation picture - Isaac, proud and happy at his accomplishment, ready to take on the world.

     Another picture: “To Mom and Pop- Love, Zap.” He stood at attention smiling into the sunshine, dressed in a military uniform. Long rows of barracks stretched out behind him for as far as the camera could see.

     Then a final photograph.

     A simple gravestone with Isaac's name, rank, and serial number engraved upon it. Underneath, the words, killed In Action and the date of his death. Ian subtracted the date engraved on the bronzed baby shoes from the date on the gravestone...

     He had died for his country at the age of eighteen, eight days short of his nineteenth birthday.

     Ian touched the corner of the photograph, a gesture of understanding and sympathy, a hand reaching for someone who no longer existed.

     It was all so senseless - his gesture, Isaac's death, the War...

     No more hopes...

     No more dreams...

     He turned and walked back into the store.

     Ian continued loading the truck, but his earlier enthusiasm had drained away. He wondered if perhaps Isaac had done the same thing, loading groceries into a customer's truck. He could feel Isaac's presence here. Ian could see Zap stocking the shelves that he was clearing, and he could hear the ring of the cash register as Isaac totaled up the customer's bill.

     Echoes of the Otherlife...

     Ian cleaned out most of the cigarettes that hadn't been damaged regardless of the brand. Tobacco, rolling papers, cigars, all went into the truck. The truck was almost full, packed to the roof.

     Still a little room left...

     Then Ian remembered the oil drums he had seen beside the store. Just enough room for one. He removed a couple of boxes of canned drinks from the truck. They could be squeezed in on top of the oil drum after he'd filled it with gasoline.

     Ian climbed into the truck and drove away from the front door and then backed toward the side of the building. A neat little garden ran along the side of the store. He couldn't bring himself to drive through Sam's garden. No, it was Annie's garden. Ian could feel her touch here.

     He climbed out of the truck and walked through the garden to the pile of drums. They stood upright in a tight little group, except for one that had fallen over and lay sideways. After knocking on a few to test if they were empty, Ian picked one out. He wrestled with it, trying to lift it, but the drum was too large and awkward, so he rolled it back to the truck.

     It took a fair while. The barrel wouldn't roll the way that he wanted it to, and by the time Ian pushed it to the rear of the truck, he was hot and covered in a layer of sweat and dust. He let the drum roll to a stop beside the truck, and rested before he hoisted it up onto the tailgate.

     He sat down on the tailgate, short of breath, not thinking about anything in particular except for the aching in his muscles. After a half a minute or so, he lit a cigarette. The first drag made him dizzy, and the outer edges of his field of vision darkened and all he could see was the deep red spot of dried blood on the gravel. His whole body relaxed as the nicotine hit his system.

     Ian smoked the cigarette lazily. It seemed as if he had been constantly moving since the Bombs had begun to fall...

     Twenty-four hours ago...

     He hadn't slept since, but felt he had just woken up from a bad dream and there never had been a War. It didn't seem possible. There never had been a War...

     He tilted his head back and rested it against the truck. The sky was blanketed with the dark, boiling clouds that had already become familiar, a constant reminder that there had been a War, and that there was no going back. Brooding and oppressive, they swirled, always changing, yet always somehow remaining the same. Whenever Ian began to wonder if it had all been a dream, the sky was always there, letting him know that the Otherlife had vanished forever.

     Reminding him that nothing lasts forever...

     Is this the end?

     Has life been growing and maturing on our planet for billions of years, only to be wiped out in a split second of stupidity?

     Or is the War a part of the natural order of things? Will a new form of life spring from the mutants generated from the radioactive wasteland? Perhaps a new form of bacteria will develop, and billions of years in the future, another sentient race that will discover how to release the Binding Force of the Universe...

     And how will they use the new power they've stumbled upon? Will they turn the awesome power of the atom upon themselves as we have done?

     Perhaps...

     Perhaps not.

     All in the flip of a coin. Heads we win, tails we lose. There has to be more to it than that. There must be

     He put down his pen and sat and listened, but finally decided that he had imagined it. He picked up the pen to write, but Ian couldn't remember what he had been writing when he had stopped in mid-sentence.

     And he thought he heard the sound again.

     But it wasn't a sound. It was a vibration. In the Earth. He put his book down, and picked up the rifle and walked curiously to the mouth of the cave. Perhaps the helicopters were coming back. Ian gazed out at the hills. He wasn't quite sure what he was looking for, but he sensed an indefinable change in the valley. It looked the same, but it definitely felt different.

     He wandered outside the cave and sat down on a rock. He raised the rifle to his eye and began scanning the hills across the valley through the scope. Ian thought he had caught a flash of movement in amongst the trees. He slowly backtracked, and there, hidden behind a grove of dying evergreens, the stranger was sitting with his back toward him.

     The dark green figure stood up and walked towards a makeshift framework of branches covered in clear plastic. The stranger pulled the plastic to one side. Brown strips of something were hanging from the framework of the tent. The strips were pieces of deer meat.

     The stranger pulled a strip from the frame, examined it, and hung it back on the frame. As he turned, the stranger stared out across the valley. Ian thought the stranger had seen him, but the stranger looked away almost immediately, tilting his head as if he was listening for something.

     Ian pulled his head up and tried to pick out the stranger's camp amongst the trees without the scope. He couldn't see it, but he recognized the group of evergreens where the camp was hidden, off to his left, a fair hike from the truck. Ian wondered if the stranger had a pair of binoculars. Probably.

     Did the stranger know where he was?

     Probably.

     Ian looked down at his yellow oilskin. He felt exposed. The stranger must know where he lived. He peered into the scope again, but the stranger had disappeared.

     Must've gone into his tent... thought Ian idly.

     It wasn't a tent exactly. Just a canvas tarp laid over a framework of branches and covered with clear plastic sheeting. The stranger had piled dirt over the sides of the construction, leaving only a small hole for him to crawl through. The doorway appeared to be made of black plastic, but Ian couldn't be sure from that distance.

     As Ian debated whether he should go back into the cave and open a can of soup, the whole ridge across the valley slowly came away from the rest of the hill! It happened so slowly it seemed that the law of gravity had momentarily been suspended.

     The ground slowly slid down the valley in one huge piece, trees and all! Ian's heart leapt as he realized that the stranger's camp had been standing on the edge of the area that was collapsing. He jammed the rifle to his shoulder and peered through the telescopic sights and saw the tent and the framework holding the meat collapse; then a momentary flash of something metal as the whole area around the camp rolled over on itself and the grove of evergreens fell in a jumbled mass and disappeared under tons of loose rock. The mountainside across the valley broke up rapidly, and the slide gathered momentum. Rocks and trees rolled under the ground. Large chunks of broken rock the size of houses and bigger fell end over end towards the lake.

     A thunderous groan echoed from the Earth and the ground beneath him began to tremble. The vibration seemed to be everywhere, and he heard small stones dropping and turned to look at the mountain behind him. The quaking was shaking loose bits of earth, dust, and stones, and they bounced down the hillside toward him.

     I'm next, he thought fearfully.

     A pebble fell from the slope above the cave mouth and rolled to his feet and Ian stared down at it. It seemed lost and alone and without friends.

     Or enemies...

     Ian bent down and picked it up. We'll survive, little rock, he told it silently, clutching it in his hand. If we stay together, we'll survive!

     And the vibration stopped.

     He turned to look out across the valley. The landslide had ripped a huge gash along the ridge. Where there had once been a forest, stood a huge cliff. The dislodged material stretched from the cliff, across the lake road, right into the lake itself, forming a huge peninsula that reached halfway across the water.

     A mass of waves were sweeping the shoreline, and the turbulent water toppled trees and swept them towards both ends of the lake, now spread twice as wide as it had once been. The lake had swollen to twice its original size, and Ian saw the sparkle of water amongst the trees.

     Ian put the rifle up to his shoulder and pointed it at the far side of the lake. Almost directly opposite him, was a new island, and a few feet off to the right of the island, with water halfway up its sides, sat the truck. The water had moved it several feet from where Ian had parked it. His heart leapt as the adrenaline hit his system. Without thinking, Ian ran down the hill toward the lake. He had to make sure the truck hadn't been damaged. The truck was his only way out of the valley.

     As he was running, a sudden wave of nausea overwhelmed him. He grew dizzy and lost his balance. He fell, ripping the wounds on his right arm open again on a loose branch. His head hit a rock and Ian lost consciousness.

     He stared at the small white card in his hand, knowing that if there was a flaw in the Dream, the card would point him toward it. He had already decided where the flaw was to be found, but he was afraid that he could be wrong. There might not be any flaw. Ian glanced at the telephone beside the bed, and a knot of unreasoning fear twisted his stomach.

     It's now or never, he thought. His hand reached for the telephone, and trembling of its own accord, hovered hesitantly over the receiver. In one fast decisive movement, Ian grabbed the receiver and brought it to his ear.

     The buzz of the dial tone droned at him impatiently. Ian looked down at the card. The knot in his gut tightened. No, I can't, he thought, I can't...

     Ian didn't dial the number on the card. He punched out Lisa's number instead. The phone clicked and buzzed at him, hesitated, then rang. Please be there, Ian pleaded silently into the telephone.

     “Hello?”

     It was Lisa.

     “Hi,” he said weakly, forcing down a rising panic, and hoping the tone of his voice sounded normal. “Is Linda there?” His voice cracked on the last word and he bit his lip.

     “No, I'm sorry, she isn't,” said Lisa, not recognizing Ian's voice. “Can I take a message?”

     Ian glanced at his watch. 2:03 AM...

     Where was she?

     “No,” he said, “That's okay...”

     He hung up. A painful heart-wrenching knot twisted his stomach. Where was she? He didn't want to know, but he couldn't stop himself from wondering.

     What to do? What to do?

     He was restless. Forget about Linda. Get out for a while. Go for a drive...

     Ian patted his pockets. His keys were in his jeans. He pulled them out and dangled them in the air.

     The truck.

     Ian jumped excitedly from the bed, rushing into the hallway. He pulled his jacket from the closet. As he walked past the living room, he noticed it was empty. The boxes and the sleeping bag were gone. The Dream is tightening it's grip, Ian thought grimly. Scratch the anomalies. He was trapped.

     Ian had to get to the truck. It had carried him to safety once, and he hoped it could help him again. He stepped out of the apartment and walked down the corridor to the elevator.

     He pushed the button with the down arrow and stuck his hands in his pockets, impatiently watching the numbers above the elevator doorway lighting up one by one as the elevator hummed its way towards him.

     The doors opened and Ian stepped into the empty elevator. He punched the button that told the elevator to drop to the underground parking lot. His thoughts bubbled chaotically through his brain. To the lake, he thought. He knew he was going back to the cave. It was the only way he could convince himself he wasn't insane. He knew the cave would be as he left it.

     Suppose it was empty? Would that prove he was going mad? It won't be empty, he thought grimly. If I took Linda with me, she'd know. She'd know this was all a dream.

     The elevator clicked, hummed, and came to a stop. Ian's heart gave a jolt as the door opened. Standing on the other side of the door was a man dressed in a military uniform. Air Force, Ian noted, and an officer at that. Well, well. What a coincidence.

     Carrying a black attaché case, the officer stepped silently into the elevator. Grudgingly acknowledging Ian's presence with a quick glance, the officer turned and stood facing the door. The look the officer had given Ian had been furtive, almost guilty, and Ian sensed disapproval in the man's silence.

     Fuck you, too, Ian thought at the cleanly pressed back presented to him. “How's the War going, General?” Ian asked the airman loudly. “The General” didn't answer him, but Ian sensed he had hit a sore point, and he realized that this could be the flaw he was looking for. He decided to test it.

     “Going on Red Alert pretty soon, are we?” Ian asked pleasantly. The man turned, staring at Ian in annoyance. Ian smiled back at the officer, confident he had found the flaw in the Dream.

     “I thought I should let you know that the first wave will be...” Ian looked at his watch, “...in just over sixty hours from now. You'll have time for a retaliatory strike, of course, but the second wave will-”

     “Why don't you shut the fuck up?” growled the officer.

     “Why should I shut the fuck up when you assholes are about to blow the shit out of the planet?” Ian asked belligerently, “What gives you the right to-”

     The airman grabbed Ian by the jacket and shoved him against the back wall of the elevator and banged Ian's head against the imitation woodgrain panelling.

     “Shut up!” the officer shouted at him, “Shut your fucking mouth or I'll shut it for you!”

     Ian was about to reply, when the elevator dutifully opened its doors as it reached the parkade level, revealing an old lady waiting for its arrival.

     “Oh my!” she declared as she saw the two men in the elevator. The airman turned at the sound of her voice, then shoved Ian roughly into the corner and pushed past the woman into the parkade.

     “Oh my!” gasped the old woman again.

     Oblivious of the woman's consternation, Ian stood in the doorway shouting after the officer.

     “It's not going to be the way everyone thinks! You're all going to be killed! Fuck you and your fucking scenarios! You think you're going to be safe but you're not! You're going to die with the rest of us! You hear me? You fucking hear me?”

     The airman climbed into his car with a last annoyed glance in Ian's direction and slammed his car door shut.

     “You hear me? Ian shouted as the car backed quickly out of its stall.

     “You hear me?”

     The car tires squealed on the concrete and the car disappeared up the exit ramp.

     “Oh my!”

     Ian's anger melted as he glanced at the old woman beside him. Her look made him want to laugh, but he decided laughter would be inappropriate. They stared at one another and Ian could feel her dismay at being exposed to such uncivilized behavior.

     He smiled at her and walked away, leaving her standing open- mouthed beside the elevator, which due to its preprogrammed instructions had closed its doors and returned to the lobby, oblivious to the lives of the human beings it served.

     The truck sat patiently in its stall, its sides sleek and shiny. He ran his fingers along the paintwork, admiring the satin finish.

     Ian pulled out his keys and unlocked the door. With a last affectionate glance at the truck, he opened the door and climbed into the cab. Sitting behind the wheel, he ran his hands over the dashboard and patted the seat.

     “How you doin' old girl?” he whispered, “Ready to go for a ride?” He slid the key into the ignition. The motor sprang to life instantly and Ian placed both hands on the steering wheel, absorbing the gentle vibrations from the engine. He smiled, smoothly working the gear lever into reverse. It's good to be back, he thought, and eased the truck out of the parking stall, marveling at the beauty of the efficient interface of man and machine.

     He wheeled the truck around and they glided up the exit ramp. The automatic garage doors opened as if by magic as they approached, and they drove out into the night.

     Despite a nagging subconscious awareness of the Dream, Ian was contented, and as the lights lining the deserted streets slid past him, Ian lost himself in the sheer joy of being mobile. He relaxed and gave no thought to direction, and let the truck carry him wherever she wanted as he absorbed the sensory delights of cruising through the neon machine of the sleeping city. The truck carried him past the brightly lit display windows of the downtown department stores, past the sprawling shopping centers and countless drive-in-take-out-fast-food restaurants, beyond the last line of streetlights and truck stops that marked the edge of the city, accelerating into the netherworld of the endless highway. She had become a starship, he was her captain, and they were flying to the edge of the Universe and beyond.

     He climbed out and stretched his legs, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it. He wandered to the back of the truck and pulled the tailgate down so that he could sit on it and wait.

     He took a drag on his cigarette and his world sideslipped and re-gelled, dawn mutating to afternoon, darkened sky to a moody brown cloud covered mass, and the watch on his wrist faded and disappeared, but he was unaware of the change, knowing only that the world was falling apart around him. He felt now what Sam must have felt. Sam's world had collapsed. And it had collapsed quickly...

     A sweet sadness turned the world back into a different but orderly perspective. It was meant to happen. Events were balancing out the wrongs of the Otherlife.

     He shook off his thoughts as the workings of an overloaded mind, and slid off the tailgate. It was easier than he had expected to lift the oil drum onto the tailgate, and Ian's mood improved. He hummed to himself as he jockeyed the truck alongside the pumps. He dug a pipe wrench out from behind the seat, and walked to the back of the truck.

     He pulled himself up onto the tailgate and fitted the wrench to the oil drum cap. It slipped off the nut on the first couple of turns, but finally the rusted cap turned freely in its socket. After removing the cap, he set it on top of the oil drum and jumped from the tailgate. He pulled the gas nozzle from its cradle on the pump, flicked the meter switch, and the numbers on the pump dial flipped back to zeros. He flicked the “ON” lever down.

     Nothing happened.

     He tried throwing the lever on and off.

     Still nothing.

     He hit the pump with the palm of his hand in frustration. Of course it wouldn't work! No electricity. He turned and looked towards the store. Maybe Sam-

     The silence was shattered by the sound of a shotgun blast. Sam!

     Ian dropped the nozzle on the ground and raced into the store, through the opening to the living room, leaping over the coffee table and into the hallway. He caught his shirtsleeve on something, but pulled it free, ripping the cloth. He dashed up the stairs and rushed into Sam's bedroom. He flung the door open so forcefully it slammed against the bedroom wall.

     Sam was dead.

     His eyes still half-open, Sam lay on the bed beside Annie, his left hand clasped over her right hand, his other wrapped around the barrel of the shotgun which had brought him so much grief. Tied to the trigger of the shotgun was a piece of string that was wrapped several times around the ornate brass scrollwork at the foot of the bed. The line looped down to the floor and was attached to a roll of string that lay at an odd angle to the ordered symmetry of the tidy little bedroom. Sam had wedged the end of the barrel under his ribs, and simply pulled the barrel upwards to set the gun off. The blast had punched a hole under Sam's ribcage, opening up his stomach and ripping through his heart.

     Ian knew he should have expected that Sam would do this, but after the false alarm earlier, had ignored the premonition. How many hints had he had? What was it that Sam had said when he talked about money? “It ain't any use to me anymore?”

     Ian had known it was going to happen and had let it happen anyway. Sam couldn't live without Annie. Or his guilt. If Sam had never acquired the gun, none of the deaths that haunted him would have occurred. A gun to protect his property was Sam's idea, not Annie's. She hadn't wanted the gun, but Sam had insisted, saying they needed it for their mutual protection.

     And their means of protection became the instrument that produced a chain of events that caused their eventual destruction.

     It had to be...

     Ian looked down at Sam and Annie. They were no longer separated by the darkness of Death, but joined together in an eternal peace that would never be touched by the passing of time or disturbed by the intrusion of strangers.

     He gently slipped the gun from Sam's hand and the blood on the barrel smeared Sam's shirt, a long black-red streak that led from the blackened purplish spot where the pellets had entered his chest. Ian slipped the string from the trigger and leaned the gun against the side of the dresser, wound the string onto the roll and tucked it into his back pocket. It might come in handy.

     Ian searched the dresser drawers and found a white bedsheet in the bottom drawer. He unfolded the cloth and threw it over the dead couple so it would cover their faces.

     It looked obscene, like a dust cover. He rearranged the sheet so that at first glance, it appeared that Sam and Annie were only sleeping and made several adjustments to their positions and the sheet to make them appear more natural. He closed Sam's eyes. Annie's lids were only open a slit, but after a few tries, Ian gave up trying to close them completely. Then Sam's arm fell out of position and dangled over the bed. Ian put it up on Sam's chest, and wedged it against the bed so that it wouldn't fall again.

     There! Perfect. No, not quite...

     He moved a wisp of Annie's hair back off her face and stepped back to admire his handiwork. As he stood staring at the dead couple, a muffled droning noise surfaced on the edge of his consciousness, as though it were coming from deep underground. It was so faint that at first he dismissed it as only his imagination. But it wasn't. He could hear it - a kind of a regular throbbing hum...

     He reached as silently as he could for the shotgun. He eased the magazine out of the breach as quietly as he could.

     There was only the spent shell that Sam had used in the breach. Without any more thought as to how the old man should be arranged, Ian reached over and dug into Sam's breast pocket. He found three shells, and carefully loaded them into the clip he was holding, then slid the magazine back into the gun.

     It clicked softly.

     He took a deep breath and quickly pumped the gun to load the first shell into the breach. Standing motionless, he could still hear the faint hum emanating from below.

     Someone was down there.

     He tiptoed to the top of the stairs.

     The hallway and living room were brightly lit. He noticed a switch off to his right and flicked it. The hallway light went off. Ian decided he would have a slight advantage if the intruder was looking into the darkened hallway. Ian would be able to see the shadow if whoever was down there crossed the living room.

     He crept slowly down the stairs, tiptoed across the hallway and stood with his back to the wall beside the entranceway. He crouched down and rolled quickly into the opening. Instead of ending up in a firing position as he had expected, he banged his head against the doorframe and accidentally pulled the trigger.

     The blast dug a hole in the ceiling plaster, and shattered the crystal chandelier which had been hanging overhead. The broken pieces of plaster fell noisily onto the coffee table and the room was filled with plaster dust.

     So much for the element of surprise, Ian thought. He had never used a gun before and he had been acting as though he were in a war movie because he didn't have anything else to go by. His ears were ringing from the explosion of the gun and the kickback had bruised his shoulder when the gun went off. His head hurt from the knock he had given it. Well done, he thought to himself, You've just let everyone within five miles of here know that there's someone in the store.

     One bulb still lit on the chandelier cast dancing shadows on the walls as it swung crazily from its wires. The living room was empty. There was a double switch on the wall behind him and he flicked one without looking.

     The lights went out.

     And the humming stopped.

     Ian listened for a few seconds, but couldn't hear the hum. He turned the switch back on and both the humming and the lights returned.

     A generator!

     Then he remembered catching his shirtsleeve as he had run through to reach Sam. I must have hit the generator switch, he thought, If I hadn't hit the switch by accident, I probably never would have found it! Great! Now the gas pumps will work!

     Ian needed something to drink. Coffee. The kitchen was off to his left. He lay the shotgun against the couch, and walked into the kitchen. The kitchen was small but tidy. A glass coffeepot sat on a gas stove. He put his hand to the glass. It was lukewarm. He turned on the gas not really expecting it to work, but the smell of propane reached his nostrils. A match. I need a match... As he patted his pockets for his lighter, he remembered he had left it sitting on the tailgate. He walked back into the living room and as he reached the door to the store, he could smell gasoline.

     He'd left the pump on!

     All this time it had been pumping gasoline onto the driveway. Ian ran to the front door. The nozzle was lying on the ground where he had dropped it, and a steady stream of gasoline was running towards the store. Where the liquid had reached the outside wall, it had turned and run into the garden.

     He cursed and ran to the pumps. He flipped off the lever and the fountain of gasoline from the nozzle spluttered to a stop.

     “You dumb son of a bitch,” Ian muttered to himself as he picked up the nozzle and flipped off the trigger on the handle. He reset the pump and stuck the nozzle into the truck's gas tank. He stood drumming his fingers on the truck cap.

     The nozzle clicked itself off and Ian topped up the tank. He quickly put the gas cap back on and hopped onto the tailgate with the nozzle in his hand to fill the oil drum. He stared at the dark stain of the gasoline that covered the driveway. He wanted a cigarette, but was afraid the gasoline evaporating into the air would ignite if he lit one.

     After making sure the nozzle was securely wedged into the hole in the top of the oil drum, Ian jumped off the tailgate and walked back into the store. He walked quickly through the living room, picking up Sam's shotgun and slinging it over his shoulder. As he walked into the kitchen, he spied a box of matches on the kitchen table, and pulled a cigarette from the package in his shirt pocket. Before he could strike a match to light his cigarette, he heard a dripping noise. He headed back into the store and the sound grew louder. A tap was dripping downstairs. He squeezed behind the counter and climbed halfway down the cellar stairs, he peered in to the gloom. There, behind the furnace sat a little red generator merrily chugging away, blissfully unaware of the dark stain creeping along the floor towards it.

     “Holy shit!” Ian whispered and bounded back up the stairs. He grabbed the box of shotgun shells that sat on the counter and ran for the door. He glanced back to make certain that he hadn't forgotten anything and the cash register caught his eye.

     It's not right, he thought, I can't leave it like this... He walked slowly back to the till. He pulled all of his money from his shirt pocket and counted it out. He punched CASH SALE and the numbers “Two hundred and twenty- seven” and the cash drawer popped open. He carefully put each denomination into the appropriate section of the drawer and closed it gently, walking back to the front door.

     A yellow oilskin hat and coat hung from a hook on the wall beside the door. He took them down and wrapped the box of shells into the hat and stuffed them both into the pocket of the coat and slung the coat over his arm.

     The sign on the door was still turned to read OPEN. He flipped it to CLOSED and pulled the water-stained shade down over it. He turned the handle on the lock so the door would lock itself when he closed it from the outside. He glanced quickly around the empty shelves in case he had forgotten anything, and with a feeling of both loss and gratitude, he pulled the door shut behind him. The screen door didn't quite fit the frame, but after a little jiggling and shoving, Ian managed to push it firmly shut.

     He hurried across the driveway to the truck. The pump had shut itself off. He jumped onto the tailgate and removed the nozzle, tossing it to the ground and quickly screwed the cap back on by hand. He threw the shotgun and the oilskin into the back of the truck and closed the tailgate.

     He glanced briefly at the store, then walked quickly to the cab and climbed in. He started the truck and slipped it into first gear.

     He stopped at the road, looked both ways, and pulled out. As he changed into second gear, the store exploded. Ian stopped the truck and stepped out onto the road. A fireball had engulfed Sam's store and was rising like a miniature version of the cloud which had reared above the city the night before.

     Suddenly, with a terrific roar that shook the ground, the underground tank beneath the gas pumps exploded. The force of the blast knocked him off his feet.

     Momentarily stunned, he gingerly shook his head and groggily pulled himself to his feet. The ground for a hundred feet or more around the store was a mass of flame. Large clouds of black smoke billowed skyward from the inferno and Ian could feel the heat of the fire on his bare skin. The walls of the store that had been left standing collapsed inward, and he climbed back into the truck, thinking about the shotgun and Sam and Annie and the way that they had died.

     No one would ever violate their property again.