Saturday, April 20, 2013

Chapter Two

(Note: This chapter is set quite a bit of time after the events of chapter one. The story will bounce back and forth like this)


The days are gray and cold, the sun nothing more than a hazy disk hiding behind a veil of clouds. Wind howls through broken windows and abandoned buildings and bangs rusty signs against brick walls. At night, I sometimes think I hear people whispering and sobbing, phantom voices that flee deeper into the ruins upon investigation. I try to ignore these ghosts. I toss and turn on a mattress I hauled through the shattered window of a department store, willing sleep to come yet dreading the nightmares it brings.

Home is now a derelict library, row after row of kindling sorted by Dewey Decimal.  I keep the truly useful books, the ones which give me a slight advantage in a world no longer under our control.  First Aid. Field guides. Survival training manuals.  I rip, crumple, and burn all the others, destroying the very things I once treasured almost as much as life itself.

I don’t cry anymore, being too numb.  Numb from the cold, numb from wave after wave of atrocities and grief. Numb from exhaustion and hunger and the pit that sucks emotion into a swirling vortex deep within the remnants of my soul.  I scavenge.   I write in this journal.  I shuffle through another day lacking meaning or depth.  I survive, but I don’t truly live.

The dogs have been getting bolder lately. They pace outside the doors with teeth bared and heads lowered, their backs spiny with bristled fur. I pretend not to hear the growls and sniffs as I go about my business and try to ignore paws scratching at the glass. Eventually they turn on each other, yips and barks and guttural snarls as they tumble through the snow and snap their jaws. The victor drags its fallen enemy off into the shadows, defending the meal from the string of curs that follow.  But they come back. They always come back.

Earlier today, I carried in the carcass of a Doberman, its body draped limply across my arms. Starvation had shrinkwrapped its skin around the skeleton and it ribs stood in sharp relief, the curved bones growing progressively shorter, drawing the eye to the hollow arch where a stomach once had been. It weighed less than a stack of books. I didn’t even get winded as I carried it up the flight of stairs leading to the mezzanine.

A rope and pulley looted from a hardware store lifted its rear haunches off the ground, just high enough for me to pull the blade across its gangly throat. The blood steamed as it streamed into the bucket below, pattering like the memory of rain before splashing wetly as it filled. When no more drips plinked down, I left the carcass swinging above a sheet of plastic and hauled the bucket to the little office which serves as my work area.

I keep the door closed and the window open.  The floor is always dusted with dingy snow and my breath escapes in plumes.  Swaddled in so many layers of clothing that I can barely bend my arms, I begin the process. It’s slow and tedious, but I’ve managed to turn it into an assembly line of death, minimizing the amount of time I have to spend in the frigid room.

Along one wall, I store my supplies.  There’s a pile of bayonets liberated from a military surplus store down the street , sawed off broom handles, and plastic recycling bins pulled off sidewalks. 

Some of the pails already have broom handles jutting out of them, held upright from melted snow that I allowed to freeze.  With the bucket of blood on the floor, I took one of the bayonets and plunged its blade into the thick liquid before carefully setting it aside. Then I moved on to ones I’d previously done this to, adding layer after layer of frozen blood until the red ice is so thick that the double-edged blades can no longer be seen. 

At this point, I lash the bayonet to the top of the broom handle and lug the contraption back downstairs. I stand in the doorway until I’ve mentally counted to five hundred, watching for the slightest sign of movement.  When I feel it’s safe, I open the door and shuffle out into the snow, plant the bucket in a drift, and hurry back inside, my skin already cold and tingly despite the amount of clothes swaddling me.

These things litter the outside of the library, a garden of bloodcicles blooming red in a world that seems stripped of color. When the dogs return, some will catch the scent of blood, the tang indicative of food.  Their pink tongues lap the frozen blood, growing more numb with each lick. Anesthetized by the cold, they don’t so much as yelp when they finally reach the secret center and the razor-sharp blade shreds their tongues to ribbons. Eventually, the dogs topple over, panting shallowly until they bleed out and breathe no more.

The smart ones, however, don’t fall for this little trick.  They’re the ones I need to watch, the ones who return day after day as I try to pick them off from a second-story window, wasting precious ammunition.  The one-eyed husky seems to have a sixth sense about this, prancing out of danger as my bullet harmlessly kicks up a little cloud of snow.  It’s become personal between me and him, a dance that can only end with one of us still alive. Of this I’m certain.

What I do to these dogs… it would have broken Paige’s heart.

But I don’t think about Paige anymore. I don’t think about April.

It’s easier.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Chapter One

Sometimes when I look at the night sky, I see them as clearly as if it were still happening.  Streaks of light shooting through the darkness as far as the eye could see, trailing gray smoke which spiraled into contrails destined to dissipate in the moonlight.  Even though they moved so quickly I’d caught nothing more than a glimpse, the closest ones were so low the details were seared into memory. The chunks of space rock at their core burned like giant cigarette embers, pulsing orange and red between coral-like patterns of black as spark peeled away, reminding me of my grandfather sharpening a lawnmower blade against his electric grindstone. Cigarettes, coral, and grindstones: once, my editor would have had my head for using so many similes in close proximity.  But when witnessing something completely foreign, the mind scrambles for the familiar, for something to help put it into perspective.

Are the stars falling, Daddy?

Go back to the tent, princess. Everything’s going to be all right.

In a distant valley, the lights of a small town twinkled.  I’m still not sure whether I actually heard a faint air raid siren crying out or if it was simply my imagination; before I could listen more closely, my wife was at my side. She held my hand so tightly the little bones in my fingers ached and tremors passed from her body into mine. For a moment, we stood in complete silence, listening to the chirps and peeps of all the little insects hidden within the dewy grass. Something rustled in the undergrowth, probably a raccoon or possum waddling toward the creek that burbled close by. Neither of us spoke. We didn’t have to.

There was a flash of light in the valley so brilliant it seemed as if a sun had briefly popped into existence before erupting in a geyser of flames. The boom echoed off the hills, sounding like a distant clap of thunder, and the twinkling lights of that nameless town were gone, drowned in a lake of fire whose shores rapidly spread. Close to the epicenter, entire trees were silhouetted in the flickering glow. Surrounded by fiery halos, their trunks shriveled and charred, like matches that had been allowed to burn down to the quick.

Further out, pines and oaks toppled like dominoes  uprooted by the same shock waves that trembled the earth beneath our feet.  Soon after, we were buffeted by a hot gust of wind that smelled like ash and the tent flaps fluttered as the first of my little girl’s sobs cut through my paralyzing haze.

As she ran to us, the horizon was peppered with pillars of flame mushrooming into the sky. 

Mommy!  Daddy!

Meteor strikes engulfed the landscape in all directions, raining down in biblical proportions and creating constellations of fire. We scooped Paige into our arms and huddled as a family, each of us trembling and crying.

I wanna go home, Daddy, I don’t like this anymore,  I wanna go home…

I expected to feel the heat of an approaching fireball at any moment.  My imagination tortured me with a trio of charred skeletons, embracing one another upon a bed of cinders and ash. I tried to blink it away, to drive it out with a mental chant of no, no, no. But the worst fears are tenacious and not so quick to release their hold.

Jim… Jim, what are those? What the hell are they? April’s voice was shrill, the words staccato bursts tinged with hysteria.  

Her index finger jabbed the air, punctuating every other word, and my gaze followed it down into the valleys below. Pinpoints of fire zigged and zagged erratically through sections of forest not yet engulfed by the inferno, winking in and out of existence as trees momentarily blocked them from sight.

What the fuck are those, Jim?

I told April I thought they were animals.  Deer and bear, wolves and rabbits,  each desperately trying to outrun the fire engulfing their backs and haunches.

I wanna go home….

So did I. But something told me we didn’t have a home anymore.

That none of us did.

Welcome to Hell, I thought. Welcome to Hell.