It’s been awhile, but “Emily’s Rain” by Peter Bradley Adams gave me a glimpse and I ran with it.
My free short stories are inspired by the post-apocalyptic world of “Survivors’ Club”, my science fiction novel, coming April 2018 from Not A Pipe Publishing.
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We found Emily along the road. Jen estimated she was sixteen, but I thought more like thirteen or fourteen.
“It’s her eyes,” Jen said. “She’s got old eyes.”
“We’ve all got old eyes,” I said.
We sit on the roof of the van and watch the ragged red sun slink away under the clouds. It’s only afternoon but night comes early under the ash clouds. Skeletal trees stretch their bare breaches towards the rain-less sky. The clouds hoard their moisture and the earth lies fallow, as barren as an unloved woman.
Emily stands in the field, the faded green of her sweatshirt the only relief from the straw yellow of the dead grass. A dust devil dances across the road and goes whirling away, a twisting funnel of ash and topsoil. Both Jen and I look over our shoulders towards the west where the dust storms come from. It’s already too dark to see much and we’re about to turn away when the lightning flashes.
“Mother-bitch.” Jen twists the end of her joint and stuffs it into her breast pocket.
I stand up and call Emily. She doesn’t respond, so I jump off the van and trot over the stubble to her. She holds a Zippo, the silvery case inlaid with a howling wolf’s head. Considering she barely had clothes when we found her, I don’t know how she kept the Zippo. I try not to think of the bruises and marks on her skinny, little body. We still don’t touch her much. She doesn’t like it. She doesn’t flinch or pull away, just stares off into space as if her soul’s flown free.
She turns her head. Her hair is growing out, strawberry blonde and curly like a baby doll.
“There’s a storm coming. We gotta scoot, kid.”
Half an hour later the wind has caught up with us, shaking the van as Jen guides it past the junked out shells of cars that line the road. We don’t know why people all pulled over here and left their vehicles. Maybe the Army evacuated them. Maybe the Infected attacked. Maybe aliens beamed them up. The world is too full of mysteries and we have few answers, so we make uncomfortable peace with ignorance.
An exit takes us off the highway and to the town of Castle. Most of the buildings on the edge of town have already been scavenged, windows smashed out, some burnt out, others framed in vining plants which grew in a flush of optimism when the humans vanished and died under the scorched skies the humans left behind.
“Over there.” I direct Jen to a Victorian sheltered by a windbreak of browning pines. It’s the kind of place where historical societies used to meet.
As we exit the van, the wind slashes us with needles of sand and powders our hair with ashy dust, soft as talc. It gets into everything, in your ears, in your mouth, collects as mud at the corners of your eyes.
Jen doesn’t want to break the locked front door, so we go around to the back, the wind so strong we have to push off the side of the house or be crushed. The backdoor isn’t locked.
The inside is cool and clean. The wind rattles the windows, demands to be let in under the doors and through the cracks in the foundation, screams down the chimney. Jen and I laugh as we shake the dust out of our hair, off our keffiyehs. Emily brushes a hand through her curls.
We jump at the man’s voice. Jen and I both draw. Emily has a knife, but we’ve never seen her even try to use it.
An elderly man steps into the kitchen doorway. He’s wearing a suit jacket over a white t-shirt and pinstriped slacks with pink silk knee patches. He holds his hands up.
“My name’s Jerome,” he says. “The boy and I have been here since, well,” he shrugs, “since they evaced the town. Said there was a collection point back east, but we were waiting for the boy’s folks to come back.”
Jen and I exchange looks. We know how this story ends.
“Will you stay for dinner?” Jerome asks and I can’t help but laugh. He smiles, too. His smile is quick and easy like he uses it a lot, not rusty like ours or missing like Emily’s.
“We’ve got peaches,” Jen says.
I can’t remember the last time we sat at a table with real plates and silverware. The water has the tang of iodine and the bone-dry finish of nascent ash, but it’s good none the less. Well water, Jerome tells us as the boy helps himself to seconds from our can of peaches in sugar syrup. It’s a special occasion and the can is past its ‘best by’ date by about three months, so we are happy for an excuse to eat the sweet, slippery merrygolden crescents.
The boy’s name is DeWalt. He wants to go out looking for his folks, he tells us. Jen and I make noncommittal noises and Jerome pats the boy’s dark, fuzzy curls.
After dinner DeWalt collects the dishes and stacks them in the kitchen sink while Jerome helps us spread our sleeping bags on the living room floor. We give Emily the couch. Jen insists on searching the house and I stay with Jerome and keep the boy in sight until she comes back.
Jerome doesn’t seem to mind our caution. He lights kerosene lanterns and gets out a book to read to the boy. They sit together on the couch and Emily leans against the arm. They read about the goddess Kali and her consort, Shiva. Kali brings destruction but also brings new life into the world after she’s calmed.
After Jerome and DeWalt go upstairs to bed, we lie in our bags and listen to the cacophony of the storm. Jen reaches over and slips her hand into mine, our fingers intertwined. She tugs my arm, guides my hand into her bag, into her lap, then reaches to return the favor.
With so much gone wrong in the world, we steal a moment of bliss, our own eye of the storm. Around us, the dark house groans and the wind sputters out the last of the storm’s fury in gasps and gusts.
I don’t know if it’s the light or the silence that wakes me. The storm is gone and there’s nothing but the ticking of Jerome’s grandfather clock from the hall. The ticking and a crackling.
I sit up. Light flares outside. Not the blue-white of lighting, but the red-orange of fire. Raiders! I shake Jen and scramble up. My pistol holster hangs from one of the couch’s armrests.
And that’s when I realize the couch is empty. Emily is gone.
I run. I don’t think. I’m in nothing but my shabby long johns, barefoot as I fly out the door. I don’t feel the gravel scrap my soles as I spin and spin in the drive, searching for any sigh of Emily, of the raiders.
The firelight flickers from the side of the house and I sprint that way. At the corner, I stop.
Emily and DeWalt stand hand in hand before the conflagration. The windbreak trees burn.
I’m drawn, moth-like, to the flame; the heat caresses my face. I stand behind the kids and we all watch the fire reach for the sky, the smoke and embers dancing up to join the clouds.
“We’re making an offering to Kali,” DeWalt says. His eyes glow like coals and he watches the destruction with hunger and curiosity.
“Why?” I hear the rustle of Jen’s footsteps and wave to let her know we’re all fine.
“To bring the rain.” Emily’s voice is soft.
“Oh, kid, listen-”
Thunder crashes. Something hits my face. It’s small and cold and hard, but when I reach to brush it away, there’s only moisture. I’m not crying, though.
We turn our faces to the heavens as the rain falls. Jen screams and dances in ecstasy and I join her. We run a twisting course among the blackened trees. We cup our hands and drink, anoint ourselves with water from the gods.
In the morning, Jerome and DeWalt pack their things and pile into the van with us. Emily hums as the miles fall away behind us. She puts her hand out the window and swoops it through the air and smiles.