Dystopian vision of post-apocalyptic America - Quills 2016 Honorable Mention
| Huddled beside the stove for warmth, Jenny tensed in dread of Beth's next words. She'd heard the same line a thousand times and wasn't optimistic her young daughter would buck the trend now.
Beth shuffled over, tears welling in her green eyes. “Mom, I'm hungry.”
Jenny flinched. She hated not being able to provide regular meals, but lately game had grown real scarce in Palm Springs.
She glared at her skinny husband, sitting cross legged on the other side of the stove. Why wasn't he paying attention? Mat didn't notice Jenny's silent plea or their daughter's louder complaints. He just carried on cleaning his rifle. The way he kept on rub, rub rubbing the thing with that greasy old rag irritated her. It wouldn't put meat on the table any sooner.
“A little help, hon?” she said.
He glanced up, his eyes wide. Perhaps he'd been elsewhere in his mind. Anywhere would be better than here in their basement hideout. “Sorry, dear. What did I miss?”
Jenny gestured to their daughter. “Can you tell Beth one of your stories? Take her mind off…”
“Sure.” He checked the safety on his M16, then placed it on the table alongside Jenny's shotgun and his Colt pistol. “Over here, sweetie. Daddy's going to tell you about Before.”
Beth's face lit up, and she clambered onto her father's lap. Jenny's chest tightened in envy. She could never kindle that light in her daughter's eyes; all Beth's love was reserved for Daddy. Oh, her daughter would come running to Mommy any time she fell and grazed her knee, but Jenny could never create pictures in the air like Mat did with his hypnotizing words and animated expressions. She guessed it was like watching one of those movings he'd talked about from Before, where the lectric magic used to make fake people walk around inside a box. Would such wonders ever be seen again?
“Let's see,” said Mat. “What do you want to know about, Pumpkin?”
“Tell me about the sun, Daddy. I wanna hear it again.”
Mat scratched his straggly beard. “Well, when I was a little boy, maybe a hand taller than you, you could look into a bright blue sky and see a big, yellow ball.”
Beth gazed up at the rough timber joists of the basement ceiling illuminated by the flickering light from the stove as if she could see that clear sky, and Jenny found herself mirroring her daughter. She couldn't remember the sun; she'd only been four when the rock hit. Her earliest memory was the tasty rat Mom roasted on her fifth birthday. She'd had that juicy rodent all to herself and savored every bite.
That was back when they still counted days. With little difference between night and day and no season other than winter, her parents had abandoned the count when she was six. They'd had some argument over whether Chris must Eve or Chris must Dave, whatever that meant. Perhaps Mat might know.
“But, why didn't the big fire in the sky burn people?” asked Beth, jerking Jenny's thoughts back to the present.
“Because it was a million miles away,” Mat answered.
Beth sucked on her thumb a moment while she ruminated on this. “Is a mile a long, long way?”
Mat grinned and ruffled Beth's dirty blonde mop. “Further than you've ever been in your life.”
Beth's eyes widened. “Further than the end of the street?”
Jenny shuffled closer to the stove, inhaling the sweet scent of wood smoke that always made her feel so homely. If it weren't for the constant gurgling of her stomach, she'd be perfectly content here with her charming man and beautiful girl.
“And,” continued Mat, “in those days you could walk down the street without furs or a hat.”
“Wouldn't you freeze?”
“No. It was warmer than our basement. Some people wandered around wearing hardly any clothes at all. Sometimes it even grew so hot that there wasn't enough water for everyone to drink.”
Beth's brows furrowed. “Why didn't they just melt snow like we do.”
Mat shook his head. “There wasn't any snow. Only sand and palm trees. Oh, and a lot more people.”
“Fifty on this street alone.”
Beth's mouth formed a perfect O as she digested this unbelievable fact.
“After the rock, everyone thought the winter would maybe last a year or two. 'Course, that was long before you were born, Pumpkin. Everybody knows better now.”
Beth scratched her head. “What's a year?”
Mat laughed. What else could he do? How do you explain a concept that has no meaning? Jenny had a vague understanding it was three hundred days or something, but she'd forgotten the details just as she'd forgotten how a flower smelled or what a buzzing bee sounded like, though her husband had described these things many times.
As Mat attempted an explanation, Beth gazed in adoration. Sometimes her daughter reminded Jenny of Scott—a cheeky boy with a gorgeous grin who had charmed her parents into taking him in after his own mom and dad died. He was her constant companion throughout her childhood, and she had many fond memories of the mischievous pranks they got up to together. She missed Scott, but he would have been no substitute for Mat. Would the winter end someday, as her parents had insisted it must? If that happened, maybe things would go back to how Mat described. Perhaps then Beth could even have a friend. It would be so strange, having other people in their life.
The tins hanging in the north west corner of their basement rattled. Mat's explanation cut off abruptly. Beth clamped her hand over her mouth as she'd been taught. Heart pounding, Jenny jumped to her feet and padded across the room to the cupboard under the stairs. As soon as she slid open the hidden door, Beth clambered inside. Mat came over and helped Jenny shove the old wardrobe into position, further disguising Beth's refuge.
“Let's go,” whispered Mat, tucking the Colt into the back of his belt and hefting his rifle.
Jenny donned her fur hat and earmuffs, grabbed her shotgun and ran up the stairs behind him into the ruins of her parent's house above. She couldn't recall what the place looked like Before, but her parents had claimed it was something special. Hard to believe now.
Exposed to the elements, she shivered and tugged her white, horse-skin coat tight to her chest, ensuring all the bone toggles were fastened, then touched the hilt of her hunting knife. She squeezed her eyes shut against the stinging snow that blasted into her face. It was a blizzard. Good. They could hide in a blizzard.
Shading her eyes, she glanced down at the many wires leading out the basement and into a clever series of pipes running in different directions that Mat had hidden under the snow. Each covered one of the possible approaches. A wire vibrated—the one linked to a trip wire in the Garcias' pool. Someone or something had touched the wire again.
Outside wasn't as dark as she'd expected, so maybe it was daytime, a vague concept to her. Through the flying snow, she could just make out the silhouette of the Castillos' house. She had no memory of the Castillos, but that's what her parents had always called the snow-covered mound of bricks across the street.
She glanced back to check their stove's chimney. In the gloom, nothing visible betrayed their happy home to strangers. Her parents had drilled into her the phrase “stranger danger”, and she'd taught the same to Beth as soon as she spoke her first words.
They jogged across the backyard toward the north west. At the fence, Mat nodded, then they split up. He sprinted left while she headed right. Speed was essential. She hoped it wouldn't come to a firefight; she had two shells for her shotgun, while Mat had five bullets in his rifle and only one in his pistol. Ammunition had grown almost as scarce as game.
She wound her way through the ruins of another home and cautiously ascended a ramp of snow-dusted rubble to a second floor window that overlooked the Garcias' pool. Jenny had never figured out what this rectangular hole was once used for. Her parents had referred to it as the pool, and she hadn't thought to ask before they passed. She ought to ask Mat if he knew. She edged toward the windowsill and peeked out.
Jenny grinned. The blizzard had abated, so she had a clear view of the three people standing in the deep snow at the bottom of the hole, all wearing such bright clothes they were visible even in the shadows. Those were Before clothes; they must be bunker folks. She liked bunker folks because they were soft and easy to deal with. Two were adults—one carrying a crossbow, the other an M4. Jenny licked her lips; did they have ammunition? The third person she dismissed—a child around Beth's age half swallowed by the snow and not armed.
Crossbow was nursing an injured leg. From the ground, the pool was invisible until you came real close, so Crossbow probably fell in. M4 was helping Crossbow limp to the nearby ladder. Bundled in thick clothes, it was impossible to tell if either was male or female, but the presence of a child implied a couple.
A shadow appeared atop a wall on the other side of the pool; Mat was in position. She signaled her readiness with her shotgun, then took aim at the injured form. They'd done this often enough that she knew Mat would target the more dangerous opponent.
A shot echoed across the yard. Jenny braced herself and squeezed the trigger. Even with earmuffs, the bang hurt her ears. The recoil battered her shoulder, and the acrid odor of gun smoke filled the air.
In the pool, Crossbow writhed in obvious agony, but M4 lay still in the snow. She frowned; Mat was much better at this than she.
She sprang down the ramp, throwing the shotgun across her shoulders by its strap, then jogged into the yard and swiftly descended the ladder into the pool. The child appeared to be yelling, crying maybe, but with the earmuffs and deafened by the gunshot, she couldn't tell.
She slid her knife from its sheath and approached cautiously, pushing through the accumulated snow. Mat's position was further away, and he had to maneuver around several obstacles to get here, so she couldn't rely on his backup.
Crossbow groaned and began to raise their weapon. Jenny's stomach lurched. She lumbered over as quickly as the snow allowed and stamped on their arm, causing a satisfying snap. Crossbow screamed, and Jenny discovered she was female. Jenny kicked the weapon out of reach. Crouching over the helpless woman, she plunged her knife into the soft spot at the base of her throat, twisting it until her victim stopped moving.
M4 had a hole through his head. Jenny turned her attention to the child. Up close, she saw he was a boy with dark skin. He gazed up, teeth chattering, tears pouring from his eyes, some frozen to his frostbitten cheeks. Maybe Beth would like a playmate. After all, Jenny had enjoyed Scott's company during her own childhood.
She shrugged, then ran her blade across the boy's throat, smiling as hot blood spurted out and drenched her bare hand. The boy's cheeks contained plenty of puppy fat, and children always tasted so much better than adults. Besides, Beth needed food more than she needed company. Jenny only hoped this boy tasted as wonderful to Beth as Scott had to her on that day so many years ago when Mat first walked into her life, killed everyone she knew, and then taught her the joys of eating human flesh.
Featured in:"Drama Newsletter (October 5, 2016)" , "Action/Adventure Newsletter (March 8, 2017)" & "Action/Adventure Newsletter (December 20, 2017)"
Word Count: 1995