Dr. Robert B. Marcus Jr. - Author




Last House Cover


Copyright (C) 2014 by Robert B. Marcus Jr.  and Ryan B. Marcus. All Rights Reserved.

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.

—Groucho Marx


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 Wednesdays.

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 well.

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 common bath.

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 store.

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 worries.

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 head.

“Why?” he muttered. “I’m several times stronger than you.”

With that he bounded up the steps faster than I ever could, leaving me to shrug at Mrs. Lafferty in the foyer.

“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 it.


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 finances.

“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 observant.

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 mumbled.

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, too.”

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 two weeks.”

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 the world.

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 whatsoever.

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 voice.

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 tip.

Later, I seriously regretted leaving all that money. And not eating.


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 degree.

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 mathematics building.

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.”

“Then …?”

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?”

“Not exactly.”

“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.

“Then, I—”

“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 looking back.

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 shirt.

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.

—Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky


 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 Denver.

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 animal.

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 belly.

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. And stared.

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 forest.

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 the wind.

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 the stairs.

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 danger.

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 time.

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 than climbing.

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 over me.

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 feet thick.

There was no sign of life, not even a crumb on the floor.

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 deduction.

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 installed.

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 Earth.

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.

—Ashleigh Brilliant


 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 garbage.

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 rapidly.

“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 the sun.

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 leash.

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 automatically?

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 lane.

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?

There was.

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. And disappeared.

I stumbled after him, afraid I would lose the gate, or it would close, or something else would go wrong.

Nothing did.

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.



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Copyright © 2013 by Robert B. Marcus Jr. All Rights Reserved.