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Cold Comfort

By day, Evan Dicken battles economic entropy for the Department of Commerce and studies old Japanese maps at Ohio State University. By night, he does neither of these things. His stories have most recently appeared in: Shock Totem, Escape Pod, and Stupefying Stories, and he has work forthcoming from publishers such as: Analog and Chaosium. Feel free to visit him at evandicken.com.

Hello, and welcome to LifeVault, the world's only remaining digital preservation site. Now, you can access your documents and photos from anywhere without fear of identity theft or summoning the Stained Ear. Our patent-pending Nostalgorithms are tailored to recognize only you and your loved ones, keeping your treasured memories safe, even from Echoes!
>Please enter your username: MeghanLin1993
>Please enter your password: ●●●●●●●●●●●
We're sorry, LifeVault cannot accept that password. Samantha hasn't loved you since the day next to the gingko trees at Harding Arboretum when she told you she was pregnant.
>To reset your password, please answer the following security question. (You have three attempts remaining)
>What did you call her on that day?: ●●●●●●●●●●●
Sorry, that is incorrect. You called her a "little whore," which incidentally, is the same thing your mother called you when you told her you were pregnant with Samantha. It might have been the dried-vomit smell of the gingkoes that put you in mind of the old couch in the room with the blinds that were always closed, or the three glasses of chardonnay you drank at the Harding café to stop your hands from shaking, but the words just seemed to slip out. You would've taken it back if Sam hadn't slapped you.
She should've known better, should've remembered about your mother.
We, at LifeVault, understand that regret gnaws at you during the quiet hours when the Ear slips along the horizon, and there's nothing to do but watch it bleed mildewed silence into a sky the color of wet concrete. We know how lonely you've been since Echoes carried off the others, how hard it is not to speak Samantha's name into the expectant hush. She's probably dead, after all, there'd be no harm, no memories for her Echo to devour. It would almost be worth it to see her face again, even twisted by hateful longing.
Often, you wonder why Sam never said your name.
>Please answer the following security question. (You have two attempts remaining)
>Why didn't you ever look for her?: ●●●●●●●●●●●●●●●●●●
Sorry, that is incorrect. You had plenty of chances. Two weeks passed between the first algal blooms creeping onto land and when the Ear ripped open the sky. You knew Samantha was still in Cleveland because she forgot to take you off her emergency contact list, and the hospital called when there were complications with the birth. That was back before they realized there were going to be complications with every birth. You told yourself Sam wouldn't want to see you, especially after all those things you said about her and the baby. She had friends, certainly, people to look out for her. It was better to stay away, easier to think she hated you rather than believe there was anything worth salvaging.
You even saw her once. Yes, that was her running down St. Clair Avenue just ahead of the rising damp. She was dragging a man along with her--about her age, glasses, messy brown hair, jeans and a ripped flannel shirt. One of his shoes had come off, and he was limping, his bare foot already black with mold. He had a kind face, though, and Sam really seemed to like him.
The horizon was clear. She would've heard you call out.
It made you proud to see her still fighting when so many others had simply lain down and let the damp cover them. Sometimes, you stumble across their bodies--little mummy mounds soft with lichen, sporting huge, pale mushrooms and fungal cockscombs like some wonderland nightmare. Knowing Sam isn't among them makes you smile.
You're right, you probably would've just slowed her down. It was better for her to think you were dead.
>Please answer the following security question. (You have one attempt remaining)
>Why are you still alive?: ●●●●●●●●●●●●
Sorry, that is incorrect. None of it means anything, although we can see how you would believe otherwise. Humans are skilled at finding patterns in random events. It was only by chance the Ear passed above you so many times without taking your voice, and that the Echoes always came for others. That time when the floor gave way just as the mold was seeping through the walls, and that time when the pack of looters was chasing you and you found that station wagon with a full tank and keys in the ignition, those were both happy accidents.
Even now, you wonder at the luck of discovering a charged tablet and Internet access in the stairwell of the hi-rise you hid in to escape the rising damp. Unfortunately, it's just another coincidence.
If Samantha survives, she may find the apology you plan to write once you access your LifeVault account. She may look at the pictures of you and her at Geauga Lake, or standing in line for Twilight tickets, or gutting jack-o-lanterns on the kitchen table. She may even forgive you. But that depends on her.
We understand how necessary it is to think there's a reason behind all this, that you'll see Sam again, that your continued survival is indicative of some greater plan instead of just one of the many lies you tell yourself.
Go on believing, there's no harm in it.
>Please answer the following security question. (This is your last attempt)
>How much time do you have left?: ●●●●●●●
Sorry, that is incorrect. You are out of time.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, December 15th, 2014

Author Comments

The office in which I work occupies a small corner of an otherwise empty shoe factory. Normally, the doors to the warehouse are kept locked, but one day, while heading home I found them open. So I figured I'd look around. I've been in large buildings before, but never one so vacant. The warehouse was windowless, and all but one of the lights were off. I couldn't see the walls, and the whole place had a dusty, oppressive feel, almost like the emptiness was crowding in all around me.

The single light was one of those jaundiced sodium orange bulbs, like on a highway overpass. It was maybe fifty yards away, shining down on an old, three-legged card table--the only piece of furniture I could see. There was something on the table that I first thought was a hardcover book, but as I approached I realized was a closed laptop. Although the floor and table were covered with dust, I didn't notice any footprints other than my own. The laptop was in sleep mode, so I flicked it open.

The damn thing booted right to someone's Pinterest page.

Normally I have to wrestle with stories, bending and crushing ideas until they resemble a cohesive narrative. I've never had one drop right into my brain fully formed. I shut the laptop, went home, and started writing. The next day the doors to the warehouse were closed again, but it didn't matter.

I'd take what I could get.

- Evan Dicken
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