Copyright (C) 2014 by Robert B. Marcus Jr. and Ryan
B. Marcus. All Rights
House of the Last Man on Earth
Don’t look now, but there’s one too many in this
room, and I think it’s you.
I’ve had better Wednesdays.
On Wednesdays, I’m supposed to awaken with the blaring
of my alarm clock at seven. I get up, dress quickly,
dash to campus, stare at Mrs. Jacklyn in set theory
class, fall asleep in Mechanics 1, eat lunch, and study
in the afternoon, before ending the day at band
practice. For me, that was enough excitement on
On the seventh Wednesday of the fall term my alarm clock
didn’t go off, probably because I had thrown it across
the room the day before in a fit of anger.
I was late to my first class. Ordinarily, being late to
set theory would not have posed much of a problem, but
when I arrived Mrs. Jacklyn was collecting a pop quiz. I
hadn’t done very well on her last quiz and I wasn’t
likely to do much better on this one.
I slunk into the class. With nothing important to do for
a few seconds after finishing the quiz, everyone had
time to turn and gawk at me. I wanted to whirl and run,
but somehow I found the courage to shrivel into a seat
in the back row. What continually cycled through my mind
as I tried to disappear was how embarrassing it would be
to flunk math, since it was the class in which I wanted
to do well. Not because I liked set theory. I hated it,
and it wasn’t even required for my major. No, I was in
the class for one reason: I was mesmerized by Mrs.
Jacklyn, and I had no trouble explaining why. Since
reaching puberty, I had always adored tall women, and
Mrs. Jacklyn was tall; she’d played volleyball in
college, according to rumor, and was an expert in
martial arts and weapons. Her slender body, lithe and
graceful as a pine tree, was at least an inch taller
than my six feet two inches. Her hair was black, as were
her eyes, and every time she looked at me with those
bottomless eyes I was captured. All she had to do was
ask and I would give her anything. Unfortunately, the
only thing she ever asked for were my tests, and I was
too intimidated to ever speak to her.
Most of the students in the class were afraid of her,
but I was both afraid of and in love with her, at least
in a theoretical way. After all, I did have a
girlfriend, so my dreams of love were tempered by that
and Mrs. Jacklyn’s attitude toward me. She was remote
and unapproachable, as difficult a goal to achieve as
the set theory she was trying to teach me. The look she
gave me when I slid into my seat late was cold enough to
freeze fire. The look she gave me when I darted out of
the class at the end of the period was even colder.
I had an hour between classes, so I rode my bike home to
retrieve my Mechanics 1 textbook, which I had forgotten
in my rush to find a clean pair of socks that morning.
In times like these I was glad I didn’t have a car,
since parking on campus was impossible, and I lived too
far away to walk home and back even with an hour off. My
bike was an old Schwinn five-speed, but it served me
Home was a slightly renovated old house a couple of
blocks south of Arapahoe and a few blocks west of
Broadway, close to a mile from the University of
Colorado campus in Boulder. My landlady, Mrs. Lafferty,
who was over ninety, had turned her family home into
eight apartments. Only two of the apartments had
bathrooms; the rest were just bedrooms that shared a
Two sizes smaller than the other apartments was my
closet of a room. Mrs. Lafferty kept telling me it had
been her children’s playroom sixty years before, but I
wasn’t convinced. It was too small to be anything but a
closet. But it was cheap, and with the discount I
received for walking Genghis Khan each day, I could
almost afford it.
The mail had already come as I panted by; I snatched it
off the foyer table, tripped over Khan, regained my
footing, and glanced behind me with some anxiety.
Khan had not moved even one drooping lip. I was
grateful. The last thing I needed right now was a
spoiled brat of a bulldog wanting his walk. Technically,
I was supposed to walk him twice a day. Mrs. Lafferty’s
right knee had been replaced the month before, and she
was still too sore to walk him herself. Even though in
general we didn’t get along too well, Khan and I had
quickly come to an understanding—most of the time: I
would only walk him in the afternoons and he wouldn’t
complain about it to his owner. Not that he wanted to;
Khan was a fat, ugly registered purebred bulldog who was
over seventeen years old. Mrs. Lafferty’s family tree
had primarily grown in Hungary and she’d named him after
one of her heroes: Genghis Khan, the invader of Hungary.
Khan’s belly bounced along the floor as he waddled (he
no longer ran) and his lower lip often dragged the
ground as he went. It seemed as though I was always
pulling a sandspur out of that lip after one of our
walks. Because of cataracts he could barely see where he
was going, but there was nothing wrong with his nose: he
could smell dead food eight blocks away. The deader the
better. Four-day-old-squirrel roadkill (still stuck to
the road, of course) was his idea of gourmet dining. It
was almost impossible for me to pull him away from it
even when a truck was rumbling straight at us. Once I
had to scrape the squirrel off the road with my fingers
and throw it onto the sidewalk to save our lives.
Still, unless Khan smelled some particularly ripe, tasty
feast lying somewhere in the neighborhood, he was no
more enthusiastic about his walks than I was. Our
unspoken arrangement suited both of us just fine.
I examined my mail. The only mail not an ad was a notice
from the campus credit union that the check I had
written to The Food Market had bounced, and loudly, I
presumed. That was my second bouncing to The Food
Market. From now on it would be cash only for me at that
No money in the account! I couldn’t believe it! I should
have had twenty dollars left over after that
check. Now, with the bounced-check fee, I apparently was
overdrawn thirty dollars and twenty cents. How could I
have fouled up my checkbook so badly? It wasn’t as
though I wrote a lot of checks to keep up with. It
didn’t make sense.
Food was definitely going to be a problem for the next
few days, until my GI Bill check came in. And worst of
all, I had a date for lunch with Rosalyn. Sometimes she
paid for our lunch; hopefully this would be one of those
times. Otherwise I was going to be in trouble.
As it turned out, my money problem was the least of my
Depressed, staring at the ground, afraid to wonder what
else could possibly go wrong on this day that had hardly
begun, I ran right into the Ghoul from the End of the
Hall. It was like hitting a steel I-beam, and I went
careening across the hall into the wall. The Ghoul just
glared at me and left.
Dreamy Isle Apartments was a three-story building. Mrs.
Lafferty lived on the first floor with Genghis Khan;
there were four apartments on the second floor and four
more on the third, five if you counted mine. While mine
was certainly the smallest, the Ghoul’s was the largest,
with a sitting room as well as a bedroom and a private
bath. I had no proper excuse for knowing this except
that I’d been in it chasing Khan. This was one thing
Khan and I agreed on. Neither of us liked the Ghoul. If
anything, Khan disliked him more than I did. I had no
idea why, but whenever the Ghoul was around, Khan
continually emitted a low-pitched growl and stayed as
far away from him as possible. But when the Ghoul was
out of the building, Khan often spent hours trying to
break into his apartment. At least one time he was
successful and I found him staring into the bathroom,
his head slightly cocked to the right, lip and stomach
rubbing the floor, a puddle of drool in front of him.
Pulling him away from that bathroom was harder than
dragging him away from one of his favorite dead
squirrels, but I finally extracted him from the Ghoul’s
apartment. My first inclination was to leave Khan in the
hallway while I wiped up the trail of drool, but
ultimately I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Let
the Ghoul puzzle over the river of spit.
Of course, he really wasn’t a Ghoul, not that I was
aware of, anyway. His name was Thaddeus K. Rumpkin. I
had some difficulty prying this from Mrs. Lafferty, but
kept asking her day after day until it slipped out of
her sometimes addled mind. I don’t know why it was so
important for me to find this out, but it was.
All the tenants called him the Ghoul because in some
indescribable way he reminded us of one. It was hard to
say why. He was thick and stubby, at least four inches
shorter than me. His face was entirely without wrinkles,
yet gave the appearance of being old. His expression was
always neutral, never laughing, smiling, frowning, or
looking puzzled. Yet a feeling of hostility always
emanated from him. And his eyes … they were ancient,
deep in knowledge … frightening … inhuman. I couldn’t
look at them without a cold sweat breaking out on my
back and my knees wobbling.
Once I had tried to be friendly. I offered to help him
carry a load of groceries to his apartment since he was
struggling with four obviously heavy bags, two in each
arm. He stared at me, almost through me, and shook his
“Why?” he muttered. “I’m several times stronger than
With that he bounded up the steps faster than I ever
could, leaving me to shrug at Mrs. Lafferty in the
“Strange bird,” she said, staring up at him. “Pays good
money, though. Never late with his rent.” With that, she
turned and hobbled into her kitchen. It was the only
unsolicited comment about him I ever heard from her.
I often asked her what he did for a living. She shook
her head. I asked her why he didn’t come to the weekend
breakfasts she fixed for all her tenants. She shook her
head. I asked her if she knew why we didn’t see him for
days at a time. Was he gone or in his apartment? She
shook her head. She didn’t know, of course. No more than
the rest of us.
As I now staggered around the hallway watching the
Ghoul’s back disappear down the stairs I thought about
the one time I had followed Khan into the Ghoul’s
apartment. My mind couldn’t remember all the details,
but what still struck me was that it was virtually bare.
There was a desk or table in the sitting room, with a
computer on it—at least something that was square and
metallic—but the rest of the room was empty, and there
was only a pad on the floor in the bedroom. I couldn’t
remember anything about the bathroom except for Khan
drooling in the doorway, but there was a strange
presence coming from the room; perhaps that was the
reason I needed so much strength to pull him away. It
took me several days to admit it, but I was scared in
that apartment. Terrified, actually.
Rushing away from the Ghoul, I made it back to campus
for my Mechanics I class. The day had been going so
badly that I had temporarily buried deep in my mind the
fact that I was facing a midterm here. I had studied at
least thirty hours for this test, and felt that I knew
the material backwards and forwards, but the moment the
test was placed in front of me, my mind went blank. The
test questions appeared to be written in Sanskrit. Not
one of them made any sense whatsoever.
When I finished the midterm, I was sure I had flunked
At lunch, Rosalyn Jennifer Rosencrantz dumped me. She
had been avoiding me for two weeks, studying, she told
me, so I should have been expecting something like this,
but at times I’m oblivious to the emotions radiating
from people around me.
Lunch started out fine. Perfect, in fact, considering my
“Order whatever you want, it’s my treat,” she told me.
“Daddy gave me some extra allowance.” Extra allowance
for Rosalyn was usually enough to buy a Corvette.
Daddy—Robert A. Rosencrantz, Jr.—had moved south thirty
years before with his inherited New England fortune and
developed acre after acre of beachfront condos in South
Florida and square mile after square mile of mobile home
parks in Central Florida, thus multiplying his already
hefty fortune by several times. Having filled Florida,
he then moved to Colorado to develop cheap ski areas.
The lift tickets and condo prices weren’t cheap, of
course, just the construction.
I was not too proud to take advantage of this
opportunity for a free meal and ordered a double
cheeseburger and fries, with cheese nachos as an
appetizer. My goal for the moment was quantity and food
with lasting power, not health.
Rosalyn ordered a small Diet Coke. That also should have
tipped me off, but as I said, at times I’m not very
She was quiet until the nachos came, then as I grabbed a
chip and dipped my first glob of cheese with my right
hand, she reached over and took my left.
“Richard, you know we’ve been dating for a long time.”
Warning signal number three. I ignored it.
I nodded, my mouth full. “Since we were freshmen,” I
She continued to hold my hand, but looked down at the
table, avoiding my eyes. I was at last beginning to
sense a problem and started to take interest in
something other than food. But I found it hard to
concentrate. Instead of blue eyes and an oval face,
tanned to the color of dark sand and framed by short
blonde hair, I saw the dark eyes of Mrs. Jacklyn.
“Our relationship isn’t going anywhere,” she went on,
and my vision of Mrs. Jacklyn shattered, its pieces
fluttering away to the far corners of my mind. “I think
it’s time we both moved on and dated other people.”
She must have felt my hand flinch in shock, because she
said, “It’s not just your fault—some of it is mine,
I hadn’t even considered that it might be my
fault. “Is there something I can do?” I asked.
“Anything?” More a plea than a question. I looked at
her, studied her face. She fiddled with the ends of her
blonde hair nervously. Her eyes darted around, avoiding
me, furtive blue orbs seeking a hiding place.
Then she withdrew her hand. “No, the thing is … well,
actually … I’ve already found someone else.”
“John Rogers. You don’t know him. He’s a law student.”
I didn’t like the implications of her sentence. “I’m
willing to share you,” I said meekly.
“Well … actually … I’ve been living with him for about
That finally did it. The facade of impenetrable concrete
around my head crumbled away and awareness rushed in.
She was living with him! That meant … I didn’t
really want to picture in my mind exactly what that
meant. There was suddenly an ache deep inside and I
wasn’t sure if it was in my heart or lower down.
She frowned. “Richard, you’re sweet, but so
naive. John is much more a man of the world than you
are. And he’s finished college and is in law school,
even though he’s two years younger than you.”
I didn’t know what to say. My tongue wouldn’t move. I
couldn’t breathe well. I was naive. I wasn’t
a man of the world. Of course, with more cooperation
from Rosalyn I could have qualified as more of a man of
She stood up. Her Diet Coke was still full.
“I’m sorry, Richard,” she said. But her blue eyes were
suddenly lacking in sympathy, or any kind of feeling
I was still too stunned to say much. She threw a
twenty-dollar bill on the table. “Here, this should
cover lunch, since I did invite you.” Now my senses were
fully alert and I could detect the trace of scorn in her
I was still staring at the door when my lunch arrived. I
kept picturing her and this John Rogers—a vague,
faceless man in a double-breasted three-piece suit (or
maybe without the suit)—and it made me too nauseated to
eat a thing. My head reeling, I staggered out of the
restaurant, leaving the twenty-dollar bill on the table
to pay for lunch. The waitress ended up with a generous
Later, I seriously regretted leaving all that money. And
At twenty-four, I should have completed college;
instead, I was just a junior—by my criteria. By the
University’s, I was officially only a sophomore, since I
still had one required English course to take.
I had spent three years in the Marines prior to college.
When I graduated from high school, I didn’t have the
faintest idea about what I wanted to do with my life,
so, thinking I was one of the “few good men,” I joined
up. In boot camp I quickly discovered that I had no real
talent for war. I never could quite catch on to
hand-to-hand combat; using a gun or knife was usually
more dangerous to me than to my opponent, and there was
no way in the world I could focus my eyes on anything
before nine o’clock in the morning. The Marines had this
bad habit of trying to awaken me hours before that. They
didn’t send me home, but my sergeant, feeling pity for
either me or the Marines, managed to get me a tryout for
the Marine band. I made it with ease. I could play a
trumpet then and I still could play one now.
I stayed in the band during my entire tour of duty.
My late arrival to college life was not the only reason
I was still here. There were at least two other reasons.
For one thing, I liked college life. I liked the
parties, the football games, even the classes, most of
them anyway. Unfortunately, I didn’t like any of
the classes enough. That was the second reason. I still
couldn’t decide what I wanted to do when I finished this
thing called a formal education. I had taken enough
courses to graduate, but not the right ones, and only
this semester had I declared a major of aerospace
engineering, but that was because I had to, not because
it was the unwavering ambition of my life. The truth
was, if you could get me to admit it, there were two
goals far stronger than my desire to pursue aerospace
engineering. My first was to shack up with Mrs. Jacklyn,
which tells you two more things: one, I was an
unrealistic pie-in-the-sky dreamer (she never even said
hello to me outside class, and besides, she apparently
was married), and secondly, maybe I wasn’t as crushed at
being dumped an hour before, as I first thought. Angry,
yes. Embarrassed, sure. Hurt, of course. But not crushed
because I’d lost the love of my life. I would have
dumped Rosalyn in a second for a chance at Mrs. Jacklyn.
My other goal was to play the trumpet. I did, of course,
play in the University of Colorado band, but that was
for fun, not for money. Given a choice, playing a
trumpet for money would be my choice for a profession,
not engineering, but I didn’t have the confidence, nor
did I have the courage to go against my father’s wishes
that I graduate from college with some kind of useful
I had to admit that my father had been extremely
understanding throughout this school process. He was
becoming a bit frustrated, but still sent a little money
each month. I was wondering whether to call and ask for
it early when I noticed that my feet had taken me to the
What did I have to lose? I was afraid that the answer to
that question was “my manhood,” but I went in anyhow.
Mrs. Jacklyn was in her office on the third floor. Since
she was a graduate student, it was no more of an office
than my room was an apartment. A small metal desk, a
metal chair, and a bookcase, all crammed into a
six-foot-by-six-foot space. She was leaning back in that
metal chair, a fancy new electronic pad on her lap, her
long legs propped up on the desk, where her laptop was
open. Her short skirt was above her knees, and I had
trouble remembering why I had come.
She looked up and my heart stopped. In the dim light of
her cubicle, her pale face framed by black hair looked
like a wraith.
“Can I help you?” she asked. She was probably younger
than I was, but the difference in our achievement levels
was immense. She was a graduate assistant working on her
Ph.D. in theoretical mathematics, with a thesis having
something to do with topography. She was also married. I
was a junior (at best), and I was … well, you know.
“I-I’m Richard Johnson.”
“Yes, I know. I hope you have a more worthwhile purpose
for your visit than telling me your name.”
“I-I wanted to f-find out if there’s any way for m-me to
make up the pop quiz you gave this morning.”
“No.” The answer I feared. And expected.
“My alarm was broken—it didn’t go off.”
“I wake up every morning without an alarm.”
“I don’t need a zero on that quiz.”
“You certainly don’t.”
She lowered her feet to the floor, staring at me
scornfully with her luminous black eyes that perfectly
matched her long hair. I didn’t know how she could
manage to convey a look of utter disgust and seduction
at the same time—though I suspected that the latter was
only in my imagination.
“Mr. Johnson,” she said slowly. “Class starts at 8:30,
does it not?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“How long has it started at 8:30?”
“Well … I guess since the semester began.”
“Then it hardly was a surprise to you that it started at
8:30 this morning?”
“Everyone else was there at 8:30. What was I supposed to
do—ask them to sit and read the newspaper until you
blessed us with your presence?”
At this point, my only wish was to be somewhere else.
Anywhere else. I would rather be trapped in a room with
Thaddeus Rumpkin than be here with Mrs. Jacklyn.
“I suggest you buy a new alarm clock so that you’re not
late for the next test.”
I took that as a dismissal and left. Rapidly. Without
My bike had been parked right outside the math building,
chained to the bike rack with a lock worth three times
the bike itself. It evidently wasn’t strong enough,
though why anyone would bother with my old heap in a sea
of glistening new fifteen-speeds is a question without
an obvious answer. But someone did. It was gone, the
lock cut in half and lying on the ground.
The way the day had gone, I knew it was time to give up.
There wasn’t any point in reporting the loss to the
cops. Bicycle thefts were hard to solve. In fact, I had
never heard of a stolen bike being recovered in usable
condition, though I’m sure it had happened somewhere in
the world at some time in history.
I walked home slowly. My mind was busy as I walked, none
of the thoughts happy ones. This morning I had missed a
math quiz, flunked my Mechanics I midterm, and bounced
my grocery check. At lunch I was dumped. A few minutes
before, I had been thrown out of Mrs. Jacklyn’s office,
and now my bike was gone. And the thirty-dollar lock was
worthless. I threw it in a trash can at the corner of
University Avenue and Bernard Street. What had
the thief used to cut my lock? A giant metal cutter from
the hardware store? Not an easy thing to hide under your
I was tired, sweaty, and irritable when I reached the
Dreamy Isle Apartments. My only dream was to start the
day over. Instead, what I had to look forward to was
walking Genghis Khan. I couldn’t avoid it this time. I
had to stay on Mrs. Lafferty’s good side.
As I walked into the foyer, Khan was bobbing up the
stairs toward the second floor. It could only mean one
thing. He was heading for the Ghoul’s room. I dropped my
books on the foyer table and gave chase.
He appeared to be moving slowly, but appearances are
often deceiving. I was no match for the old bulldog in
stair climbing. He reached the second floor before I was
halfway up, then made the turn and headed for the stairs
to the third floor. Here, on a level surface, I almost
caught him, but he found a burst of energy from
somewhere and left me behind. Given how the rest of the
day had gone, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Khan
hit the door of the Ghoul’s apartment with his head and
it bounced open. Mrs. Lafferty had not spent a great
deal of money on door latches and locks when she
renovated; they were all from the late eighteen
hundreds, when the house was built. Most were rusted and
barely latched. The Ghoul’s was no exception.
When I finally staggered to the open door, panting
heavily, I found Khan staring into the bathroom again.
I caught up with him and grabbed for his collar. He
bolted straight ahead … for the shower. I leaped after
him, realizing subconsciously that there was something
wrong with it; it was shimmering, out of focus, the back
wall just a blur.
Khan jumped into the shower … and vanished.
A second later, before my mind could cope with that
fact, I lost my balance and tumbled after him.
The day had died in the endless spaces, and it was
impossible to tell whether time was passing.
Maybe I was no longer on Earth.
Or … maybe I was. After a mere blink of disorientation,
a feeling of great speed, and a strange sense of what I
can only describe as dissolution, I found myself
outside, falling to the ground. But not the ground I
knew. And not the world I knew.
The house was gone—I was lying on thick grass. The sky
was blue and cloudless. It was deeper, bluer, cleaner
than the sky I knew, as if all pollution had been
banished, all impurities purged.
To my left were mountains, mountains like those I had
always known, the same shape, the same size, the Rockies
… unchanged. They burst abruptly out of the ground as
they always did, clutching at the sky.
My eyes focused back on the grass. It was a lush green
carpet, with thick blades that had a texture like
plastic. The tangle of roots beneath the blades
convinced me the grass was alive, but it almost looked
like an advanced version of artificial turf. The carpet
stretched to the mountains without a weed to mar its
surface. North and south, the grass stretched parallel
to the mountains as far as I could see in both
directions. The only interruption in this carpet was a
thin line that appeared to be Boulder Creek about half a
mile north of me, in the same location it occupied in
the Boulder I knew. To my right was a forest. Not an
ordinary forest but one full of giants: trees that rose
hundreds of feet toward the sky, trees thirty or forty
feet in diameter, taller than most of the skyscrapers in
Though the terrain resembled that around Boulder, there
was no city. No Boulder, no Denver in the distance, no
road, no house, no sign of man anywhere. Wherever this
was, there was not even a bug, much less a larger
Maybe I should say whenever this was.
I had come to the conclusion that I was still on Earth,
where at some point in time an old apartment house named
the Dreamy Isle once stood. Or would stand. What
kind of Earth had no evidence of man? Was I a million
years before the development of civilization? That
didn’t seem right; the weather and vegetation were
wrong. At least I thought they were wrong. But if I
wasn’t prior to mankind’s arrival, then I had to
be after his departure. If so, where had he gone?
Amazingly, I pondered all this without screaming.
I didn’t have much time to think about it, though,
because Genghis Khan had arrived ahead of me, and
recovered quickly from the journey. He was even now
racing toward the mountains at what was for him a full
gallop—that is, about as fast as a runaway centipede.
But by the time I gathered enough of my wits to stand
up, he had a large head start, in spite of his dragging
I went after him.
As I ran, I noticed the quiet of my surroundings. I was
reminded of a great park, tended and nourished by
unknown gardeners. It was surreal, yet very real. The
grass crunched beneath my feet as I ran, gusts of soft
hot wind brushed me, and the smell of the grass was
ubiquitous. It was significantly warmer here. The
Colorado I knew was cool at this time of the fall; here
the temperature was more than eighty degrees, perhaps as
high as ninety. I was beginning to sweat. Great drops
were forming on my forehead, oozing into my eyes,
stinging them and interfering with my vision. My T-shirt
was completely drenched, and I felt as though I were
carrying an extra fifty pounds.
I was barely able to match Khan’s pace. I ran each day,
perhaps a mile, or at least half of one. Not anything
impressive, but enough to prevent me from wheezing and
panting when I rode my bike to class. It did not seem to
be helping me at the moment. I was rapidly losing my
energy in this sauna. I glanced up at the sky and
noticed that several clouds had begun to form in the
previously clear heavens.
When my head dropped back down, I noticed something else
as well. All signs of human habitation were not gone. In
my day the region ahead was Boulder Mountain Park, and
it looked very much the same now except for one thing.
There was a house on the side of the mountain in front
of me, looking over the grass prairie. In spite of the
fact that Khan was already leaving me behind, I stopped.
The house was perched on a small ridge about five
hundred feet above the ground. It appeared to be made
entirely of wood, painted white. It was a large house,
two stories in the middle, with single-story extensions
jutting out from both sides. On the second floor I could
see the unblinking eyes of its windows staring out over
the grassy plain and the giant trees beyond. I wondered
briefly what those windows saw on the far side of the
The house looked empty. Lifeless, like this world. I
glanced back across the way I’d come, then back ahead.
The only sign of life besides me was the hurtling form
of Khan about to reach the base of the mountain. Where
in the world was he going? He would soon be out of room.
The mountain below the house was sheer cliff. He would
need very sticky paws to climb that rock.
I wondered about the Ghoul. Had he passed through the
portal before Khan and I did? If so, where had he gone?
Was Khan chasing him? In spite of the heat, my
body was now covered in a cold sweat.
I took in a deep breath of sweltering air, almost
choking on its thickness, then staggered after Khan, who
had now reached the base of the cliff. For a few moments
he stood there, staring up at the house.
Maybe I could catch him. I tried to add a burst of
speed, but my legs refused to acknowledge the new
command—instead of increasing their pace, they collided
at knee level and I went sprawling into the thick grass.
When I raised my head, Khan was climbing the raw face of
the mountain, walking diagonally up the cliff. I lurched
to my feet as the sun went behind a cloud. The sky was
rapidly darkening, the soft clouds coalescing into rough
thunderheads stretching over the forest. I had only
minutes until my body would be covered by a lot more
water than my own sweat.
Ahead of me, plodding steadily on, seemingly climbing
the rock itself, Khan had covered at least a quarter of
the way to the house. I lurched on, racing against my
increasing fatigue and the storm clouds behind me.
The storm clouds won. Within minutes the entire eastern
sky was black and the rain had begun, rushing at me like
a dark curtain, its front edge rippling and waving in
But now I was close enough to see that Khan was neither
levitating nor playing Spider-Dog. Carved into the rock
itself was a stairway extending all the way to the
house. One paw after another, each step likely to be his
last, Khan was dragging his drooling lip and belly up
I reached the stairs only seconds after the rain reached
me. With gusts of wind hard enough to knock me off
balance, a maelstrom of water flooded over me. I was
instantly drenched, and through my foggy eyes I could
barely see the mountain an arm’s length ahead. Khan was
far beyond my vision, lost in a whirling hurricane of
water. I didn’t see how he would be able to keep his
footing, the way the water was rushing down the steps.
How could I follow him? Could I possibly stay on the
steps? I peered through the rain and examined them
closely. They were about eight inches deep, eight inches
high, and two feet wide. That calculated out to about
seven hundred fifty steps to reach the house, if my
estimation of its elevation as correct. And the minute I
put a foot on the first step, my life would be in
I was freezing, but a sudden thought made me even
colder. Maybe my life was already in danger. Floods
certainly happened occasionally in Boulder. What would
keep a flood from developing during this storm?
The answer was obvious as I looked down at the foot of
water obscuring my Reeboks: Absolutely nothing. If I
stayed here, I might have to tread water for a very long
Far from letting up, the rain was increasing. The
stairway was beginning to look less impossible. If Khan
could make it, I could too. Of course I didn’t really
know if Khan had made it or had plummeted off the cliff
to his wet, furry death. I still couldn’t see ten feet
ahead of me, nor could I hear anything over the roar of
the water and wind.
I started the climb upright, but two steps later
realized that was suicide. Khan’s four-footed approach
was my only hope. With my hands on one slippery tread
and my feet three steps below, I was able to cling to
the stairway in spite of the torrent of water trying to
sweep me away. How could Khan possibly survive this? A
strange feeling was occupying the spot in my chest where
my heart was. I hated that dog, but I discovered that I
certainly didn’t want him to be dead. How would I
explain to Mrs. Lafferty that her old dog had jumped
through some kind of timegate in Thaddeus Rumpkin’s
bathroom and then died mountain climbing?
I laughed to myself. It was unlikely I would survive to
ever face Mrs. Lafferty again.
I needed all my concentration to stay alive on the
stairway. Within fifty steps my legs were in agony and
spears were sticking through both shoulders. But I had
only two choices: slide down to the flood or climb up to
the house; clinging to the stairway was more difficult
My concentration was not cooperative. It was difficult
for my mind not to wander and allow itself to be
overwhelmed with questions. What had happened to me?
Where was I? Was this place real or was I in the middle
of some awful nightmare? If it was real, and the utterly
miserable conditions of my current situation made me
think that it was, then who—or what—was the
Ghoul? Was this a different time, or was it a parallel
universe, one without mankind’s presence? Those were
impossible concepts to accept, yet what other
possibilities were there? I wasn’t in Boulder as I knew
it. If I hadn’t slipped through a hole in time to
another era or another universe, then what had happened?
I wasn’t sure my mind was working at full efficiency,
considering my present circumstances, but I couldn’t
even conceive of any other possibility.
My left arm suddenly slipped and I lost my balance and
fell toward the space where my hand had been. Then I
fell toward more space, empty space, wet but otherwise
insubstantial, a hundred or more feet off the ground.
Somehow my right hand found a rough spot on the
otherwise smooth rock of the step, and clung to it. That
saved my life. I hung there for a minute or so, half my
chest hanging over nothingness, my left arm flailing.
When the panic ebbed a little and I could breathe again,
I managed to inch back over the steps and lie there face
and belly down until I had the courage to move again.
For the first time, the futility of my plight struck me.
What was the purpose of this climb? To find a dog that
was probably already dead? What if I did find Khan? I
couldn’t possibly drag him down the steps in this
torrent. I wasn’t sure I could get him down the steps
even if they were perfectly dry. And if I did, what
then? Could I go through the time gate in reverse? Could
I even find the gate? My mind had been so
confused after my arrival that I had only a vague idea
of where I had landed. A feeling of desperation swept
I was too old to cry, but I was almost glad it was
raining because I couldn’t really tell the source of all
the water in my eyes. I pretended it was all external
and began to move on.
Before the rain started, I had seen from the ground that
halfway to the top the stairway reversed its direction.
I kept telling myself that when I took one step beyond
that point I was over the hump. This was a psychological
ploy I often used when doing a long paper or other
assignment. It usually worked well for me, and now it
was of some help. I reached the switchback and knew it
would be ridiculous to turn back at this point. Besides,
I wasn’t sure I could traverse the steps in reverse. I
would have to ease down in the same position I had
climbed up in, because walking upright was still not an
option and the thought of going down headfirst on my
stomach was not remotely appealing.
I climbed forever. My arms and legs went from pain to
agony, then after several escalations of agony, to
complete numbness. I was only vaguely aware that they
were still attached to me. One hand after another, one
foot after another, I climbed. I counted steps in groups
of fifty, making each fifty a goal, then starting over.
Forever finally came. One last step and my lead hand
grasped nothing. I dragged myself over the top and lay
on my stomach in the pouring rain. It was still rock;
any dirt had long before washed away. I was too tired to
move, yet I knew I must. I had the presence of mind to
check for the edge of the cliff before I moved, found it
to my right, then slunk away to my left. At some point I
lifted my head and saw a large blur about fifty feet in
front of me. The house. The Promised Land.
Crawling, afraid to stand up, I took probably fifteen
minutes to reach it. I stood up, and the overhang from
the roof sheltered me a little. I tried to rub my eyes
clear of the blur from the rain, with no success. A
large double door was just a few feet to my right, and I
slid along the house to it.
There was no knob, merely a flat plate in the middle of
each door. I placed my hand on one of them and the door
slowly swung open.
I needed no further invitation.
At once I was standing in a great room, perhaps forty
feet square. It was decorated with massive wooden
furniture. In front of a giant stone fireplace was a
round rug in an Indian motif, the myriad of bright
colors dominated by reds and yellows. In a semicircle
around the rug facing the fireplace huddled a cluster of
sofas and rocking chairs. Near the far wall lurked an
oval wooden table perhaps fifteen feet long. Twelve
chairs, all of them looking strong enough to support a
stegosaurus, were placed around it. All the furniture
was reddish, as were the wooden walls of the room, and
the color appeared natural, like redwood. There were
solid brown cushions on the sofas and chairs, including
those at the table. I looked up to see huge beams
spanning the entire room and supporting the ceiling. The
beams appeared to be at least ten inches wide and two
There was no sign of life, not even a crumb on the
As I stepped away from the front door, it slammed shut.
At the sound, I snapped around. I was torn between just
collapsing on the floor and exploring the rest of the
house. My curiosity won, though I suspected I would find
little. I hoped the wood floor was water resistant
because I left a puddle with each step I took.
The first floor consisted of the living room, a kitchen,
a bathroom, and a large bedroom. There was only a
minimum of furniture in the bedroom: a large four-poster
bed and a desk along the east wall looking out through a
large window. The bathroom and kitchen were a matter of
The kitchen was empty. The walls and floor were of
polished wood, perhaps oak; they weren’t red, like the
wood in the great room. There was a small fireplace in
the wall opposite the windows looking out across the
grass prairie. A number of metal panels were present in
the walls and floor. If the panels gave access to
kitchen appliances, I had no idea how they might be made
to work. I put my hand on one of them, but when nothing
happened I moved on.
Adjoining the bedroom was a small room, only ten by
eight feet, with a floor of a rubbery material I could
not identify. In one wall was a silver panel the height
and width of a man; in an adjacent corner was a similar
metal square in the floor, about five by five feet. I
decided that this small room was the bathroom. I didn’t
know whether these were standard bathroom fixtures
utilizing an unknown technology, or whether the room
awaited completion, the metal panels merely temporary
place holders to be removed when the real utilities were
The second and third floors were almost devoid of
furniture, though the occasional metal panel appeared.
The only exception was a small room on the third floor
overlooking the prairie. There, a single wooden rocking
chair sat facing the window. The cushion on it looked as
though it might crumble into dust if I sat on it, so I
refrained. But I could imagine a solitary man sitting
here, staring out toward the eastern horizon. The last
man on Earth? That made the assumption that this was
Earth, in the far future, an assumption I certainly
couldn’t prove yet.
I stood behind the chair for probably half an hour
staring in the direction of the forest, just watching
the rain. It continued until darkness fell, a mighty
waterfall from the skies of a kind I had never seen in
Colorado. In contrast with outside, the inside of the
house was dry and cool, its climate apparently
controlled by technology.
Where was I? Where had Khan gone? I hadn’t seen him
anywhere in the house. I suspected he had fallen to his
death climbing the steps. Some part of me was
extraordinarily surprised that I had survived the trek.
For a while I still thought that Khan would somehow turn
up, that I would hear him pattering across the floor
downstairs or scratching at the door.
But I never did, and my hope finally died.
As I stood there, I began to wish that I had ignored my
wounded heart at lunch and devoured that cheeseburger,
for I soon realized I was ravenous. In spite of my
regret for Khan and my abject loneliness, I was hungry.
My body was overpowering my mind. When the darkness
outside deepened, absorbing all vestiges of light so
that my visual senses were of absolutely no value, I
turned away from the window. Still the rain continued,
rushing down in a loud cascade of noise, a constant
breaking of waves, a wet demon trying to wash away the
At last, cold, wet, exhausted, and hungry, I curled up
in a corner of the room with the rocking chair on the
hard wood of the third floor and went to sleep.
We’ve been through so much together, and most of it
was your fault.
Sometime during the night a furry body curled up next
to me and kept me warm. I was vaguely aware that this
body stank like wet fur, dead squirrels, and old
No matter. After it came, I slept much better.
I awoke to Khan’s drool splattering my face, and opened
my eyes to the blinding light of the morning sun coming
through the curtainless window. I was never so glad to
see anyone or anything as I was to see this old rank dog
that I hated. I almost hugged him. But as I started to
reach for him, he cocked his head and met my eyes with a
glare. His meaning was clear: just because he’d slept
with me didn’t mean we were friends.
“Where in the world did you come from?” I asked him. He
didn’t answer, of course, but he did shake himself,
flinging drool all over me.
“Maybe I should ask where in what world did you
come from?” I went on. “And how did you get into the
house?” If only he could talk.
I gently wobbled to my feet, my muscles feeling as
though they were embedded with small knives. The pain
made me groan, and Khan looked up at me. I almost
thought I caught a glimpse of sympathy, but it faded
“What do we do now, man’s best friend?”
I surveyed the room. It was just as empty as the night
before. Little had changed, except for the rain outside.
Outside! I went to the window, gazing out into the
glaring sunlight. The day was clear and certainly
bright. The sky was again blue and cloudless, but I
wouldn’t be fooled again.
Between the mountains and the forest was the strip of
prairie where I had arrived. It was probably a mile and
a half across. Then came the immense forest, immense for
both its overall size and the size of its individual
trees. It stretched parallel to the Rockies as far north
and south as I could see. It also extended eastward as
far as I could see, though it was difficult to see into
Khan evidently reached the conclusion that we had wasted
enough time sightseeing. He abruptly turned from the
window and padded over to the stairway and began to
wobble down the steps. This time I moved more quickly. I
couldn’t let him out of my sight again. I wished I had a
He made good time to the first floor, then, instead of
heading for the door, padded straight to the small
‘bathroom’ beside the bedroom, where he stared at the
silver panel in the far wall. As he stared, I noticed a
glimmer hovering in front of the panel, and through the
glimmer I thought I could see something. A room?
With a window? And through the window a large, familiar
oak tree, like the one I walked by often on the way to
campus. What was going on? Another portal of some sort?
I walked toward the shimmer to investigate, and suddenly
a man walked in front of the window, his back to me. As
I continued to stare, he slowly turned around, but
before I could see his face, the shimmer flickered and
vanished. Khan had seen enough, turning abruptly and
waddling off toward the front door. It opened
automatically when he reached it. I probably was
surprised, but my mind was so numb from the happenings
of the past day that I ignored it. By now I was just a
few feet behind Khan. That was the important thing to
me, not another mystery I didn’t know how to solve.
Khan was relentless. He waddled on, traversing the fifty
feet of hard rock between the house and the stone
stairway. Naturally he didn’t stop there.
The descent was almost more difficult than the climb had
been. True, the stairway was relatively dry and the air
clear, so that I could see my feet, but that was also
the problem. One look down the stairway and I didn’t
want to see my feet. Nausea swept over me, my vision
clouded, and had I not clutched the inside wall of the
cliff, I would have tumbled over the edge. After a few
minutes, my nausea cleared, my eyes refocused, and I was
able to start down after Khan.
I huddled against the stone cliff all the way down,
clinging to it like lichen, trying not to stare at the
precipice less than three feet away. Luckily Khan was
also slow, perhaps tired from his sojourn the day
before. Where had he gone? And how on earth had he
gotten into the house? Had the doors opened
When I made the turn halfway down, I was only twenty
feet or so behind Khan. For me, a triumph in courage.
Hell, it was a triumph in survival as well.
Now, far below the tops of the trees, the ground did not
seem so far away and I could almost look over the edge.
Here Khan’s age began to show, for his descent slowed
and I was able to catch up with him. When I finally
stepped onto the carpet, I was only one step behind and
I could have been ahead of him had there been a passing
But when I stopped to catch my breath, Khan did not. He
changed gears into a slow lope: fast enough to startle
me but not fast enough to get away. I went after him,
heading for the trees across the grass.
For some reason, my energy level this morning was high.
I felt much better than I had the day before, even after
climbing down more than seven hundred steps. It was easy
to keep up with Khan, who was determined but certainly
not very fast. Determined to find what? Where was the
old guy going? Did he even know? Was there a purpose to
his crazy charge?
I saw the shimmer far before I reached it, perhaps two
hundred feet before the trees. It wasn’t difficult to
notice if you knew where to look; there was a haziness
of the trees behind it, a twisting of their trunks and
branches, a blunting of their color.
Khan was heading for the timegate.
I don’t know how he managed to find it. I can’t imagine
how he even knew what it was, or how that old canine
mind even remembered its existence. But he did, and I
was glad. No, I was ecstatic. We might even get home! I
had been too much of a dolt when I came through the gate
to pay any attention to where it was before chasing off
after Khan like a greyhound after a mechanical rabbit. I
would almost certainly never have found the way back by
myself. But Khan, bless his ancient heart, was unerring
in his accuracy, never wavering, plodding slowly on.
He went through the shimmering gate without hesitation.
I stumbled after him, afraid I would lose the gate, or
it would close, or something else would go wrong.
I fell through it, tumbling in a heap on Thaddeus
Rumpkin’s bathroom floor. I hit my head on the toilet
and smashed my knee on the cabinet below the sink. I
didn’t care. I felt like kissing the floor, but
refrained. I was happy but not that happy.
The Ghoul wasn’t in his apartment. Neither was Khan by
the time I got there.
The door was open and I staggered through it, closed it
behind me, then wove down the hall to my room.
When I flopped down on my bed, I glanced at my clock. It
was ten a.m. I had missed my set theory class again.
THIS IS THE END OF THE EXCERPT. THE BOOK SHOULD SOON BE
AVAILABLE ON AMAZON AND BARNES AND NOBLE, IN BOTH
PAPERBACK AND ELECTRONIC FORMATS.
Barnes and Noble