Chapter 1. Literally decimated

It was a bright fall Sunday with a crisp fresh taste of cool decadence in the air when the first head literally exploded. Spots of overnight frost marked the capybara-coloured leaves that lay on the pavement now misted with a bright aerosol of blood. Dogs rushed to inspect the fallen body and the stoplight-red pool that it was making. A screaming came across the parkette.

This is all very unpleasant, though. And Cathryn was nowhere near it at the time. Let’s move on.

It was, as it happens, two days after Cathryn’s birthday. Her headache was gone now and her gifts were almost all opened. You get some good things when you turn 30 if you have the right friends and family: wine, books, music, books, a dress or two, books, a few kitchen gadgets, cookbooks. Henry paid for most of the party itself (vegetable platters, cold cut platters, fruit platters, pastry platters, wine and beer) on account of his having the sort of job that pours numbers into your bank account in return for sucking your soul out through the obligatory necktie. Cathryn, who from a very young age had been acutely conscious of spelling, was earning her wages as an administrative assistant in the nearest Faculty of Architecture, and she was thinking of trying some freelance editorial work, because that was the sort of fixing-up everyone around her bounced onto her desk, so she must be acceptably good at it.

At the moment that other horrible thing happened that I won’t keep talking about, Cathryn was picking a little piece of clear tape off one of her fingernails. It was stuck on the slightly flaked black polish, its point just touching the tip of one of the three little painted flames that matched the red dye in her hair. Yes, of course she had three flames on each of her nails. I’ve already told you she just turned 30. And yes, as she blew on them after painting them on, she made plenty of wishes. But that was two days ago. Now she was trimming the wrapping paper from her gifts and folding it and putting it into a bag that she stored in their bedroom closet, not too far from the only fitted bedsheet you have ever seen folded neatly.

Henry walked into the dining room wearing a free Corona T-shirt someone gave him once and the only pair of flannel pajama bottoms you will ever have seen that you would immediately describe as not just wrinkly but barely uncrumpled. He last shaved on Friday at 7:08 a.m. and his next shave was projected to occur in 18 hours and 42 minutes. He was holding a cup of coffee that was fresh if you count coffee that was made 111 minutes ago as fresh. It was black.

Cathryn looked up. “You found the coffee.” She smiled easily.

“I think we’re out of cream.”

“I think we’re out of a lot of things,” Cathryn said, and balled the little piece of tape between her thumb and index finger.

“We kinda decimated our supplies.”

Here comes the part where Cathryn does something without which we probably wouldn’t have a story, or at least not this one.

“I think we rather more than decimated them,” she said.

“How do you more than decimate?” Henry knew he had to ask and he knew he was going to get an answer. In fact, he had expected it from the moment he spoke. He sipped his cold unfattened coffee out of habit and pulled the smallest of faces at the taste.

Birthday girl held up a three-flamed finger, got up and went over to her computer in the corner by the reference bookcase. Humming the tune of “Happy birthday,” she heaved a very large and new book from it, flipped open its front cover, pulled out a not-too-large slip of paper, set that on the desk, and hefted the book back onto the shelf. She typed in a URL, then – in consultation with the slip of paper – typed in a 37-digit license key. As Henry moseyed over, the home page of Worcester’s Universal Dictionary unfolded itself before her in its coruscating magnificence.

She typed “decimate” in the search field.

Henry leaned forward like the good – if insouciant and mischievous – student he was.

“Decimate,” she said. “To reduce by a tenth. If we decimated our supplies, we still have 90 percent of them.”

If, instead of going to the website, she had opened the print edition and scanned its 8-point type with her still-good eyes, she would have seen an additional definition, “To destroy a large portion of” (with examples and so on). But that definition was no longer to be seen in the web version. You’ll find out about that soon enough.

“Well.” Henry straightened back up. “I guess we annihilated them, then.” He looked at his coffee and decided not to drink any of it just then. From the kitchen, not audible over the sound of passing sirens on the street, came a creak as of shelves that had been 90 percent full suddenly becoming zero percent full.

“That’s the second set of sirens in the last hour,” Cathryn said. “I wonder what’s up.”

“I dunno, but I’m hungry.”

Cathryn went over to the window. They had a second-storey view of their street – well, in the winter they did; in the summer they had a view of a lot of leaves. At the moment it was half leaves and half view. But there was nothing unusual to be seen, just century-old houses and small low-rise apartment buildings, trees, parked cars, and no children playing. She turned and walked to the kitchen.

Henry headed back towards the bedroom. “I’ll get dressed and we can go out.”

“I’d rather make something at home if we have anything,” Cathryn said. “I can’t deal with the brunch crowds. Why do people line up for half an hour so they can wait forty minutes for French toast that a competent marmoset could make at home…” She opened a cupboard. “Holy shi—”

“Well, we gotta eat,” Henry half-shouted from the hallway. “I’m literally dying of starvation.”

Cathryn was about to shout to Henry that the cupboards were, in fact, utterly empty, emptier than they had been on move-in day, not even a five-year-old spice jar to be seen, but she heard a sound as of a coffee mug being dropped and breaking and another sound as of her husband abruptly finding gravity a much greater challenge than it had been. She rushed around the corner and saw Henry at floor level, his eyes and cheeks sunken, his lips cracked, his shirt and pants shadowing little more than bones. He looked dazed.

“Help,” he said quietly.

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