by Judah Morse
The story of five people trying to survive after a solar flare causes an emp blast.
|Winter, Year Zero
The air sat still around him.
Nathan lay awake that night as he often did, unable to sleep. Thoughts racing. He had been that way since he was a young child. He closed his eyes and rolled over to his left side. A warm body stopped him shy of rolling off the bed and onto the floor. Jessica. He focused on her breathing to rest himself, perhaps finally let sleep wash over him. Stroked her arm gently. Ten years of marriage, with a small town and bad economy working against them. They made it, so far, despite what their peers had to say. Despite what Nathan's parents actions had betrayed.
Two children down the hall, breathing normally just as Jessica was, beautiful in a peaceful way. Darkness had a strange way of doing that to people, Nathan always found. Barely illuminated, one could only see the good qualities in his loved ones. And only imagine their demons.
There was no doubt in Nathan Wade's mind he loved this woman, the only doubts he held near-religiously were of her love for him. Not that she had ever done anything to warrant such an opinion. It was more a customary exercise of Nathan's prodigious self-loathing than anything else. Yet he could not help see signs, and couldn't help spend most of his sleepless nights trying to ignore them. After all, when one is willing to betray one's love to embrace another's, what is to keep this from becoming a pattern?
He felt a stirring. Not Jessica, he felt nothing from her as he held her close. He bristled. Perhaps Rivers was sleepless tonight as well? He looked up and saw the head of another man looking back at him, cold eyes piercing him. This man was holding Jessica close as Nathan was, if not more so. Nathan felt Jessica's breathing suddenly turn heavy, her heart beating faster. The man's cold stare froze into an icy grin. Nathan lay petrified, unable to move anything more than his eyes, or to say anything. This specter's face was oddly familiar, not in a reassuring way. Haunting. In an instant, Jessica was gone, the man was on top of him, pinning him down still grinning. It was only then that Nathan recognized this man by his white priest's collar around his neck. He tried to scream, but only air escaped, If that. Darkness enveloped him as a shroud over a corpse...
Nathan opened his eyes, shot up out of bed still screaming. The room was quiet, as it had been, always been. His gaze fell upon the empty place next to him, the sheets and blankets cold as they had laid for the last seven years. Jessica was not there. And this night, as with most nights, Nathan found himself wondering if she ever really had been there to begin with. Or if her heart had been there, beside him, and not just her body.
“Dad, you're screaming again.”
Nathan looked over to the near side of the room. In the doorway stood his ten year old son, Rivers, a blanket covering his head and shoulders. He didn't look frightened at all. Just concerned. Nathan wiped the sweat off his face and nodded his head.
“Yeah, I just, uh, had a bad dream is all. Go back to bed Rivers.”
Rivers just trotted off. He passed by his sister Morgan in the hallway as she was in the bathroom, washing her hands.
“What's with dad?” She sounded concerned.
Rivers shrugged. “He had a nightmare again.”
She scrunched up her face.
“I can't see you, where's my contacts?”
Rivers didn't look at her. “I think dad had the same dream again, the one where he's with mom in the bed, before she left us.”
Morgan stopped and looked at Rivers, who still refused to meet her gaze.
“Since when did dad make you his personal dream secretary?”
Rivers walked off, whispering.
“He never talks about the monsters in his bed.”
. . .
Nathan woke that morning, shaking. Just dreams, just bad dreams. Again. He forced himself to think of something else. Were it left up to Nathan to decide his schedule for that day, it would have included a rigorous routine of eating and sleeping in between college football games. But old lady Hemming's broken Cd drive simply could not wait until Monday, she had her great-grandchildren coming in who couldn't stand to visit her without heavy dosages of computer games. So at seven o'clock in the morning Nathan rolled out of bed and into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Rivers was standing over the stove, spatula in hand.
“Are you trying to burn down the house?” Nathan sidled his son to see what smelled so good. Pancakes swimming in oil, syrup in a hot pan being warmed. “When did you learn to make all this stuff?”
“Internet,” was one word Rivers bothered to say. He flipped the pancake, oil crackling out of the pan and nearly onto his skin.
“Okay,” Nathan began, then paused, frustrated that the boy still refused to face him. He grabbed him gently by the shoulders and twisted him around. “You're going to burn yourself. I'll finish these, you go wake your sister.” Rivers moseyed down the hallway. Yes, the boy is strange, Nathan thought to himself.
Morgan came through the hallway and plopped down into her customary chair at the dinner table, moaning all the way, followed by Rivers, who also sat at the table.
“Morning,” Nathan said.
She grunted, put her head in her hands. Needless to say she was unused to being up at this hour on Saturdays.
“I said good morning, if you still speak English.”
She pulled her head up and stared at him. “Why the hell am I awake right now? It is Saturday, right?”
“Because I have to leave for work and you have to watch Rivers while I'm gone. Grandpa Freddie will be here in two hours to pick Rivers up for the fishing trip. After that you can do whatever you want.”
She sighed and put her hands back in her head.
“Kid can make breakfast for three but can't be left alone for a few hours. I guess there's no getting out of this?”
Nathan shook his head no. The three sat at the table and ate River's pancakes, undoubtedly delicious. Nathan pushed his plate away, stood and grabbed his heavy coat. He went over to Rivers and gave him a hug.
“Be safe, Okay?” The boy nodded.
He walked out the door and the children looked at each-other.
“I'm going to my room,” Morgan announced, and did just so. Rivers finished eating, cleaned up and retired to his own room with a book of drawings. One of his favorite hobbies, Rivers loved to draw pictures. He always felt that it helped him see the world better, helped him to understand his own view of the world rather than just in his head. So he sat alone drawing for hours, when he noticed the time and began packing. Clothes, a toothbrush, normal things for a sleep over. His grandfather lived in a cabin a few miles down river road, right on the banks of the Snake river. This was River's second time fishing with Grandpa Freddie. He was an expert fisherman, Frederick was, and knew the country like the back of his hand. Rivers smiled. If this was anything like the last trip, it would be an eventful vacation.
A knock at the door. Rivers came to open it, and in the doorway was his Grandfather Frederick. Frederick smiled.
“Hey, how are you, kiddo?”
Rivers loved his grandfather, but it was only a few years ago that he realized how much Frederick tried to act like a normal Grandpa, like one might see on T.V. Rivers always found this interesting, to see how differently people act when surrounded by different combinations of other people. Peculiar.
“I'm good Poppy,” A little placation never hurt anyone, Rivers mused as he hugged his grandfather.
“Are you ready to go?” Frederick was dressed in a typical fisherman's outfit, with a vest that had all kinds of different pockets for carrying bait, hooks and the like. He wore a baseball cap with the words, WORLD'S NUMBER 1 GRANDPA on it. His pickup truck was laden with fishing equipment of all sorts.
“Yeah I'm ready. Let me go tell Morgan I'm leaving.”
“Well, tell her to come see me, then!”
A few moments later a still not yet fully awake Morgan came up to the door leading outside from the dining room. She made the effort of smiling.
“Hey, kiddo! Give your grandpa a hug!”
Freddie didn't quit. Morgan gave him a stiff hug and pulled back as soon as he would let go.
“How are you?” He asked. “Fine,” she replied. She loved her grandfather as much as Rivers did, but he laid it on very thick when it came to his grandchildren.
“Well I'd love to stay and chat, but we've got to get going. Big, big day tomorrow, Rivers. We're getting up at four in the morning to go out on the Snake. See what we can catch. I'll have him back in a week.”
She nodded, and the two boys walked out the door. She let out a heavy sigh and watched the pickup truck pull away. To be blunt, It was awkward for her, to be around grandpa Freddie. He was her mother's father, and for the first few years after Morgan's mother left, her father and grandfather had had a falling out. Only over the last few years had they reconciled, Freddie desperate to love his grandchildren and Nathan willing to move on. Rivers knew less than Morgan did of the situation; he was only three when his Mother left. It was easier for him to reconnect. Morgan couldn't. She didn't even want to think about her mother. The town whore who ran off with the preacher. That bit of information, she kept to herself. It impacted her father, too. More so than anyone. He stopped attending church, his best friend turned worst enemy. His own confidant turned to his wife's lover. Morgan could only imagine.
She pulled herself away. Nothing good could ever come from dwelling on the past; she had to move on, like everyone else. Music helped. She slipped her earphones in and retreated to her room again, hoping to let sleep come.