From the author: Amid a plague-ravaged world, time stands still at Tidwell Manor for Miss Emma and her canid caretaker, Mattie.
The clock on the mantel had stopped the week before, but Mattie still found herself checking the time on it whenever she was in the front parlor. The time no longer mattered, but she missed its ticking. Without that steady sound, the room felt too quiet, too empty. Too dead.
She pushed the thought away and ran the dustrag over the mantel, picking up the porcelain figurines one by one: a lady, a lamb, an angel with gold-tipped wings. Miss Emma kept the house just as it had always been, refusing the feedscreens and quick-cookers and various conveniences that others artfully disguised with tapestries or clever cabinetry.
I'm the most modern thing in here, Mattie thought wryly.
She'd been sculpted as deliberately as the figurines-- domestic canine stock crafted into humanoid form. Her line was Papillon--dainty muzzle, large tufted ears, delicate build, and a plume of a tail. The key word, of course, was domestic, which was both origin and destiny. Envisioned as companions and helpmates, canids were created to serve, and canid women often wound up as nannies and maids.
Or nurses, now...
Mattie glanced at the shaft of sunlight angling through the lace curtains. Miss Emma would be awake soon, and then it would be time for tea. She'd need to bring more water in for the dishes, and for getting Miss Emma washed and dressed. These days, the manor's antiquated features were their salvation, from the cast iron cook stove to the hand pump at the old well.
As Mattie moved through room after grand, empty room, she remembered how awed she'd been by the manor when she first arrived. She'd been just a gangly girl then, awkward in the required dress and apron, fresh out of the GenFront dormitories and wide-eyed at all the finery.
Even back then, though, the rooms had smelled of dust and age, no matter how she aired them and swept and mopped and polished. Now the great house smelled of dust and age and sickness, but even her sensitive nose had long since grown used to all three.
A bell tinkled from the bedroom. Mattie pulled a smile up from somewhere deep and went inside.
"Did you have a good nap, Miss Emma?"
"Oh... yes, I think so." Miss Emma's watery blue eyes searched the room and at last focused on Mattie's. "I dreamt I was a girl again, in this very room. Only there were no walls, and it was autumn, and all the leaves were coming down... Isn't that silly?"
"Not for a dream," Mattie assured her, helping her out of bed and out of the nightclothes she insisted on, even for naps. She was still dry, which was a pleasant surprise. Mattie helped her to the bathroom and then into a clean dress, and they went carefully downstairs to the parlor. Halfway down the long staircase, one of Miss Emma's coughing spells started. Mattie gave her a clean handkerchief, whisking it out of sight as the spell passed, before Miss Emma could see the spots of blood.
She'd put the kettle on the woodstove earlier, and it was burbling its way into a whistle as Mattie set out the tea service, its thin white china painted with pale pink rosebuds. Thankfully there was still tea in the canister, and she'd stopped worrying about counting the remaining bags once the blood had shown up on the handkerchiefs.
She set the tea to steep and added a few more sugar cubes to the bowl. Miss Emma had always insisted on the details, and even now it gave her such pleasure to see everything just so.
Today was no exception. Miss Emma actually clapped her frail hands as Mattie brought in the tea, complete with the last of the jam cookies, two thin slices of fruitcake, and two small bowls of canned peaches. "Isn't this delightful, Mattie!"
This time the smile came on its own. "Yes, Miss Emma."
"My favorite time of day." Miss Emma added sugar to her tea. She never took milk--a good thing, since it was long gone anyway.
Mattie sipped at her own tea. She'd never quite acquired a taste for it, but Miss Emma liked the company. The woman seemed made of porcelain herself now, thin and translucent, with bones of china and skin of lace. Her white hair had thinned, and her cheeks were flushed to two matching dots of pink, as if they'd been painted.
Second stage, Mattie thought, and the tea was bitter on the back of her tongue.
After Miss Emma had finished nibbling at the food, Mattie cleared the service away, and they sat together in the parlor. Weak as Miss Emma had become, she still took out her knitting, though the needles moved in slow motion through each stitch.
"I hope I have this done in time for winter," Miss Emma said brightly. "It's a good strong color, don't you think, this blue? I'm making a scarf for Tommy, you know, my sister's boy." Miss Emma smiled. "Such a lively child. So full of mischief."
Mattie nodded. There was no use telling her that Tommy had long since been Tom, an insurance adjuster with two children of his own. There was also no point telling her that, thanks to C66, they were likely all dead by now.
"Perhaps some music," Miss Emma suggested as she started on a new row. "That Beethoven piece is so lovely."
Mattie went to the piano and settled into the opening chords of the Moonlight Sonata. While there'd still been electricity, they'd had a radio and old records to listen to, but now she was thankful for all the piano lessons she'd had to take--not just for Miss Emma's sake, but for her own. When she played, she could forget. She could pretend nothing had changed at Tidwell Manor. She could pretend the other servants were there, that the house was filled with guests, with family, lighting up the rooms. She could pretend the clock on the mantel still ticked. All of it could be true, all of it could be as it was, while the pads of her fingers pressed the keys and she worked the familiar chords and melody through her muscles and tendons, as everything relaxed, and everything, in that moment, was all right.
Miss Emma went to bed early, as her habit had been even when she was well. Once she was settled in and the candles and assorted lamps put out, the house lay dark and still and silent.
Mattie took off her dress and apron, hung them up for the next day, and lay down on her bed. She never bothered with a nightgown, though she kept a robe close by in case Miss Emma needed anything during the night. Even with the door closed, Mattie would hear her cry out, or hear the bell. Sometimes now she would wake with a start from a half-sleep, sure she'd heard something when she hadn't.
Mattie stared at the stained ceiling, lit by her bedside candle, trying to decide what to do. How long had it been since she'd last checked? A week? Two?
It won't be good, she reminded herself sternly.
At last she got up, opened her nightstand drawer, and took out the phone. At her touch, the screen glowed, and she squinted at the news feeds. She tried to keep her eyes on the text, sliding her gaze over the photos without looking too closely at any of them. Riots, quarantine, food shortages, tent hospitals, figures in biohazard suits and military uniforms. President assassinated; vice in an undisclosed location, rumored dead. Suit from the CDC behind a microphone. She didn't bother listening to the audio.
A splash of bright pink caught her eye--a photo--and before she could stop herself, she saw it. A canid girl, not much older than she'd been when she came to Tidwell, wearing a pink jumper with daisies embroidered on it. Golden retriever line, soft puppy fur.
Hanging from a lamppost.
She pressed a hand to her mouth, unsure if she was about to vomit or cry out. After a moment, both sensations passed.
They'd said it was a new form of distemper. Canids had always received immunizations shortly after birth, and those births, at first, were strictly regulated by GenFront. But eventually there were unregulated births, and hidden children who never got the shots.
No one thought it would jump to humans. No one understood why the vaccines wouldn't work for them.
Most didn't call it C66 anymore. They called it the Mark--because it was a quick leap from C66 to 666, because it was carried by people who were then viewed as beasts, and because after the virus started to spread, all hell broke loose.
Mattie glanced at the battery icon in the corner of the screen. Half a charge left. She tried to conserve it in case she needed to call for help, even though it was pretty clear by now there'd be no help coming.
Every time she turned it on, every time she checked the feeds, she still hoped. Stupid as it was, pointless as it was, she hoped to see something better. Safety. Calm. Orderly lines for food, water, vaccines. Someone, anyone, smiling.
Every time, it got worse.
She powered down the phone and tried to sleep, but her dreams were filled with the scent of human fear-sweat and the faint creaking of a rope in the wind.
"Do you know," Miss Emma said the next afternoon, "that dream I had the other night reminded me. We haven't made any plans for the fall festival yet. We shouldn't wait too long, you know, or there'll never be enough time to get all the invitations ready."
"Oh, Miss Emma..." They're all dead. "I thought maybe we should skip it this year, until you're a little more... rested."
"Nonsense! I'm perfectly fine."
"Maybe a holiday party instead, like we used to do. You remember--all the lights, and the pine wreaths, and the mistletoe in the front hall?"
"I remember that scoundrel from the mayor's office trying to kiss me under it!" Miss Emma tried to laugh but broke off into coughing. By the time the spell passed, her skin had a fine sheen of sweat, and her face was flushed.
"Perhaps..." Miss Emma fought for breath. "Perhaps you're right. I'll... have my strength back then."
Mattie slipped the crimson handkerchief into her apron pocket. "I'm sure you will."
She got Miss Emma an aspirin and a glass of water and managed to convince her to lie down on the sofa. Once Miss Emma was dozing, Mattie went upstairs, powered up the phone, and searched the symptom list again.
Fever, lethargy, respiratory symptoms, rapid decline after the start of hemoptysis. Check, check, check...
A loud bang from downstairs made her jump. She dropped the phone and raced to the parlor, but Miss Emma was still asleep.
Another bang. The back door, at the kitchen.
Mattie crept into the kitchen and glanced out the window. Two men, both young and lean, one dark-haired, one light, and close enough to see the mix of fear and resolve in their eyes.
She moved back from the window, to the cabinet where the mop and broom stood. Hands shaking, she took out the rifle. It was empty, but they wouldn't know that if she could help it.
She gripped the rifle, took a slow breath, and jerked the window open just far enough for the barrel to poke through. "Go away!"
The two put their hands up and squinted at the window. "Just looking for food, that's all," the light-haired one said. "Didn't know there was anybody here. Not looking for trouble. You got anything you can spare?"
"No. Go away."
The dark-haired one saw her then. "Oh, hey, it's a doggy. Nice doggy. Maybe we'll come in and play fetch, huh? Or maybe you like tug-of-war. Got some nice bones you could chew on."
Mattie bared her teeth. "Come on in, if you want to be dead in a week. They're all sick here, and the house has been shut up nice and tight. Plenty to go around."
The light-haired one looked nervous. "C'mon," he said quietly, "let's hit the next one."
The dark-haired man stared at her through the window, an odd lopsided smile on his face.
"You know it only takes one bite," Mattie said. It wasn't true, but the rumor ran rampant on the feeds.
The light-haired one grabbed the other man's arm, "C'mon." The wind shifted, and she could smell that fast, sharp sweat she knew so well.
Mattie growled low and shifted her finger on the trigger. The men ran off.
When she could breathe again, she shut the window, locked it tight, and put the rifle back. Her hands shook from holding it, all those muscles she'd never used.
"Mattie?" Miss Emma stood in the doorway. "Who was that?"
Mattie clenched her fists behind her back, willing the shaking to stop. "Nothing, Miss Emma. Just... some people. They were at the wrong house. That's all."
"Oh." Her gaze went unfocused for a moment, and then she glanced back at Mattie and smiled. "It's been so long since we had any visitors. Next time, do ask them in. They might stay for tea."
The next morning, Miss Emma didn't get out of bed. Mattie crushed aspirin and mixed it into a glass of water, but it didn't help. Miss Emma was too weak now to even cough, and each breath rasped and rattled in her chest.
"Mattie... The silver... needs polishing."
"I'll take care of it, Miss Emma."
"The sheets need airing, you know. The pink room, and the lookout. Rebecca will be here soon, with Tommy..."
Mattie pressed a wet washcloth against Miss Emma's burning skin. "Don't worry. I'll do it. You just lie back and get some rest."
Eventually Miss Emma fell into something resembling sleep. The sheets were soaked with urine and sweat, but changing them would mean moving her, so she left them there. It wouldn't be long, anyway.
Later, after sunset, Miss Emma stirred again. The candle on the bedside table sharpened the shadows of her cheeks. "Mattie..."
"I'm here. I'm right here."
"Why are you... still here?"
"Just here in case you need anything."
Miss Emma managed to shake her head. "Still here, when you... could be gone. You... can't get sick. Could get away."
"I'm not leaving you, Miss Emma."
"Don't owe me. Don't... own you."
Mattie wet the washcloth again, wiping Miss Emma's forehead, pressing the cool cloth to her cheeks. It was a fair question. Human and canid staff alike had fled early on. Why had she stayed?
Part of it, she knew, was her nature. Whether it was put there by GenFront or God or simply there on its own, she couldn't live with the thought of walking away from someone hurting without trying to help.
But part of it...
"Miss Emma," she said softly, wringing out the washcloth again, "do you remember when I first came here?"
"All... legs and ears." The corners of her mouth tugged into a weak smile.
"That cook we had then... I wasn't learning anything fast enough for her--and then that day I dropped the blue teapot and broke it, and she swatted me a good one--"
"Called you... a mutt."
Mattie grinned. "And I remember what you called her. And then you took me into the parlor and we had tea. With the good set."
"Peanut... butter cookies."
"You treated me like company. Or better. Like..."
Miss Emma lifted her hand, reaching for Mattie's. Mattie took it and held it gently.
"That's why," Mattie whispered.
Miss Emma drifted off again. Mattie blew out the candle and sat in the moonlit room, holding Miss Emma's hand.
It was sometime beyond midnight when Mattie woke from a doze to find Miss Emma had died. She changed the bedsheets then, tucking corners carefully, smoothing out the wrinkles. She washed Miss Emma, dressed her in black silk, and fastened an onyx pendant so it nestled in the hollow of her throat. They’d never talked about any of this, but Mattie chose what felt right.
She stood, then, when all was done, in the empty room, in the empty house. She closed her eyes and tried to bring it all back, to hear the polite laughter of guests and the music from the string quartet in the garden, but she couldn’t pretend for her own sake the way she had for Miss Emma.
Now there was only silence.
She didn’t remember going downstairs, and it was only when her fingers touched the keys that she realized she was at the piano. It was too dark to read the notes of the Moonlight Sonata, but she didn’t need them anyway. She knew it by heart, and she played it now, as she’d played it all those endless afternoons, to fill the emptiness, to push back the shadows, and when she reached the last chord she started over, until her hands ached, until she could breathe again, until at last, near dawn, she collapsed into dreamless sleep.
She buried Miss Emma in the garden. It was the only place where the soil was loose enough for her to dig easily, not to mention the safest place, being so close to the house. She kept her ears perked and stopped often to sniff the wind, but there was no one else around.
Afterward, she went to the phone. She'd forgotten to turn it off the day the men had come, and now the battery icon was red. She scrolled through the feeds anyway. Several of the news outlets had gone silent. The personal feeds ranged from heartbreaking to chilling: rumors of food, offers of help, countless people seeking lost family or friends, slogans of hate typed in all caps, fragments of Bible verses of all sorts.
AND THE SMOKE OF THEIR TORMENT ASCENDETH UP FOR EVER AND EVER: AND THEY HAVE NO REST DAY OR NIGHT, WHO WORSHIP THE BEAST AND HIS IMAGE, AND WHOSOEVER RECEIVETH THE MARK OF HIS--
The phone went dark.
She packed it into a knapsack she found in one of the spare room wardrobes. She packed cans of food and a can opener, a half-gallon milk jug filled with water. She packed Miss Emma's pearls and her diamond earrings, just in case, though she knew the cans of food were far more valuable now. She hung her apron on a hook in the kitchen and changed into a clean dress. She left the rifle where it was; she could only bluff for so long, and the oily metallic smell of it made her feel sick.
She wandered through the empty rooms one last time, checking the time on the stopped clock, touching the piano keys lightly, silently, remembering.
She got all the way to the front door, all the way to her hand on the doorknob, before she started shaking. Before she dropped the knapsack. Before she dropped to the floor herself, hugging her knees, sobbing through a clenched jaw, so hard she couldn't breathe, eyes shut tight against the golden retriever girl in the noose, the dark-haired man's eyes, Miss Emma's face edged in moonlight.
At last she got up, unpacked the knapsack, and tied her apron on. The silver needed polishing. The sheets needed airing. The doors were strong, the windows could be blocked, and there was still food in the pantry. Maybe someday soon the lights would come back on. Maybe they wouldn't.
Mattie put water on to heat and set out the pink rosebud service. Right now, all she wanted was a nice hot cup of tea.
This story originally appeared in Fragments of Life's Heart.