Saturday, April 30, 2016

Z is for Zig Zags

There is nothing new under the sun. Although the brief episode known as Mankind may have seemed like an aberration or an experiment, it was not unique. For two million years after the demise of humans, the world buzzed and hummed in a perpetual food chain, but no one species returned to dominance. Then it zig-zagged back again.

The climatic crisis of the 21st Century had been a mere blip in the rise and fall of the earth. It only took a few thousands of years for the carbon to retreat. In the overall history of the planet, it would pale into insignificance compared to the radiation explosions of the sun before its eventual demise that would boil the oceans and waste any flora and fauna that remained. That happy event was still hundreds of millions of years away. The next people to dominate the world were a species of lizard called the Karnika. On the face of it, they were unprepossessing. Their eyes were overlarge and oozed blue gunk night and day. They had four legs but, like man, later stood up. Even this was not a pretty sight because the Karnika had one scaly leg that was longer than the other, making it difficult to escape from their enemies. Due to their vulnerability, they used their cunning to make up for their lack of athleticism.

In a Karnika village on a land mass that was known as South America a long time ago, the return of Boubus, had caused quite a stir. Boubus was the child of the chief who had disappeared into the forest a year ago to 'find himself.' Everyone in the village assumed he would be killed by a big cat or one of the other nefarious creatures that inhabited the forest, but one day he returned.

He had a horse with him and was dragging a cage full of exotic monkeys. But the return of Boubus was less remarkable than the contraption that was carried behind the cart. Wooden slats had been put together in an outlandish spherical design. The contraption rolled behind the horse.

A group of womenfolk gathered in the village square. The return of Boubus made them emotional. There was enough eye oozing going on to create a mound of ooze in the square that Boubus tactfully pulled his cart around.

His family and the elders of the village embraced him and then turned to the contraption.

"Can you see the ease of movement?" he cried. "Imagine how this will revolutionize our village and make it easier to harvest the crops."

His father mounted a rock with his smaller leg on the surface and his other leg on the ground. That way he attained some stature and equilibrium. "I am so proud of my lost son," he told the gathering crowd. "He went away into the jungle and came back with something wonderful. This is progress."

He pushed the cart and it moved forward. The motion caused his lizard nostrils to puff up and emit little squeaks of delight. He pushed it again and giggled..

So that's the A-Z Challenge zipped up for another year. This one was hard due to time constraints. A few posts were late but it wasn't the end of the world...

Friday, April 29, 2016

Y is for Year 2500

Four hundred years after the demise of man, there were few indications that he, or she, had ever walked on the earth.

Modern humans had only been on the planet for just over 200,000 years, although their hairy ancestors had roamed around for six million. The planet was 4.5 billion years old. If the world were compared to a 24-hour clock, man would have arrived one minute before the start of the next day only to last just over 60 seconds. Even the dinosaurs with their vast bodies and tiny brains had hung around for half an hour.

It was an odd testimony to our ancestors that the monuments of the past endured more effectively than the inventions of the 'new age.' In the bleak wastes that bordered the River Nile, three hulking masses still rose from the sand, although dense new growth choked the temples of old Mexico and what was once South East Asia.

There were tropical lagoons today at the site of the metropolis that was once New York City. In the last death throes of man, all that could be burned was set ablaze to warm and provide food for rudimentary societies, In the oxygen depleted climate, the grandest of plants could no longer grow and only the stingiest of weeds and most hardy of parasites prospered. It was a world made mostly of carbon and angry storms invaded its surface, and the seas rose to swallow much of the land. When the last man suffocated as he climbed an Alpine peak in search of fresher air, the world sighed and quickly began to replenish itself.

It was as if the aberration of man had never existed. Free of maintenance, the great skyscrapers of New York City came crashing down in a matter of decades. Had he been alive in 2145, William Van Alen, the architect of the Chrysler Building, may have been amused to see one of the giant metal radiator caps that adorned a high ledge, forming a nest for a family of exotically plumed parrots. A few years earlier, a giant hurricane had ripped the top off of the Empire State building, ensuring its rival was the tallest building in the city for a while. One World Trade Center has been toppled over a decade earlier. Central Park was now a squawking tropical lagoon full of all manner of reptiles and birds.

Nature had not toppled many of the smaller buildings, but it had grown over them and clinging branches had pulled at their sides until New York was little more than a city of rubble under plants. The meticulously planned systems that had made the city run would have been a distant memory if anybody had been there to remember them. New York in the year 2500 was a gigantic food chain and no one species occupied the high places.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

X is for X Camp

Freddie had given up thinking about X Camp months ago. He was told it was better than Y Camp where a fire had broken out in one of the concrete blocks and wiped out half of the inmates, but that was as far as it went.

Every morning at 6 a.m. Freddie was woken up by the sirens and ushered to the mess room where he sat for hours on a hard wooden bench and watched the parade as President Jeb Jackson surveyed his military forces below him. Freddie had no idea how recent the footage was or whether any of the elements of government even existed anymore. All he felt was the burning from the hot soup and its thinness as he looked into its depths in vain for any substance.

Life in the camps was a bit like that. There was no point to the overlong days. Freddie felt he had less purpose than battery hens whose role was to lay eggs until the expiration of their sad lives. In the camps even the people who held them appeared to have little purpose. When there was such a thing as society, prisons served a role in keeping the bad guys away from the responsible members of society. Today the bad guys seemed to be the only ones that thrived and they didn't thrive for very long. The responsible people were all in camps.

In X Camp, Freddie had the occasional vivid dream but he usually dreamed in monochrome. Now and again, there would be an exception - his parents waving goodbye at the end of a dirt track with the skies laced with the heavy purple of the storm, the red of Diana's mouth as they kissed and the day she painted her nails every shade of the rainbow.

The only person Freddie encountered in the week who had a sense of purpose was Commander Krall, the senior official at the camp, who would preach to the masses every Friday. Freddie would be ushered into a large hall and made to stand with the other men. The women were segregated in another compound behind the stage. Krall would deliver a long oratory about how a new world order was underway and they represented the brave future of the republic. Freddie would look at the bedraggled men then as they stared at their feet, at the pale windows and in any direction other than Krall's. It was a hollow charade. The commander was either going through the motions or out of his mind.

When the winter came large swathes of snow settled between the holding blocks and on the skirts of the smoke stacks. The cold was more pronounced than in the past and men shivered and passed away before him. Many were removed to the hospital block. Nobody ever returned.

They moved him to a ground floor cell whose occupant had departed to the hospital. For the first time he was able to see the female residents walking around in a vast parade ground below him.

Freddie had lost his interest in details but one woman caught his attention. There was something familiar about the way she moved, an impulsiveness about her that bordered on anger and could not be tamed even in this place. He noticed her swarthy features under her mane of black hair caught by the wind. Suddenly color flooded into his cell. He thought of the ripples of sunlight through stained glass, the currents that moved warm under the skin.

He looked again. It was Diana. There could be no mistake, although she had lost much of her sturdiness. When he looked again she had a ball in her hand. She threw it in an arc and another figure caught it, a small girl who ran toward her. Freddie felt breathless now. He hadn't seen Melissa since the terrible day in the forest but there could be no doubt that it was the child. His mouth moved at the corners in an unfamiliar way. His coughing morphed into a laugh. He raised himself up to the bars and gave out a shrill shout: "Diana."

For a few seconds the woman held the ball and looked up into the sky full of snow flurries. He fancied she saw a look of recognition as she stared at the sky. Then she threw the ball to the child again in a long curving arc.

W is for Washington

When  Estavez Estralla finally saw the Cascades in the distance, he felt that odd sense of triumph mixed with disappointment. Washington State had assumed a life of its own as a promised land for so long, that his heart was weighed down with the certainty that the paradise would be lost.

He had travelled alone for many weeks. The faces of his wife and children and that parting image of them walking into the teeth of the tornado haunted him at night and fist thing in the morning. He tried to keep it at bay during the day by shouting at his feet. He was unrecognizable as the bright, young engineer of Mexico City. Very few people were recognizable as themselves these days.

In Oregon, he had come close to starvation. He had found a village before his legs gave way. For a few days, he had rested up with a widow before heading again into the wilderness. At Crater Lake, he viewed the top of a mountain pushing up from the waters where it had been blasted by a volcano. Today another disaster was going on as all the trees were pulled down and burned on the sides of the mountains. Crater Lake remained vast and impervious to the current troubles, dwarfing those who navigated its rim.

In Washington, Estralla found new lakes that had swallowed up great swathes of the land. The local people told him of the melting of the glaciers up in the Cascades and the night a town was swallowed up in the waters. The sounds of the inhabitants meeting a watery death haunted the hills around.

After trekking for two days, Estralla came across the Mexican camp he was searching for. Forbidding walls of wood, topped with spikes rose from the ground. There were watch towers, wire and men with guns. Within the huts were flimsy but at least the temperatures were cooler.

"We built the palisade after we were attacked under cover of nightfall," said Manuel, one of the members of the camp's council. "It was local people and feds and they wanted to drive the Mexicans out of the state." He played a guitar and sang mournful songs about the Nevado de Toluca, the mountains of his youth. 

"Did many people die?" asked Estralla.

Manuel just shrugged. "They die. It's normal now. Dying is the new living."

"You sound so matter-of-fact."

"Look around my friend. The lakes are swallowing up the land. The trees are going. The people are swallowing up each other. Literally, my friend - they are talking about cannibalism further west."

"So what can we do?"

Manuel paused strumming for a while and pointed up to the evening sky. Already the impressions of stars and the other planets were appearing in the dense atmosphere.

"Well, maybe you can get me up there. There must be another place where everything is plentiful, and people still know how to smile."

Estralla was suddenly overcome with the long road behind him. He wanted to sink into the ground and float off into the sky. He felt his features crack and the smile of an idiot appear on his face.

"See you can do it too my friend. Those facial muscles must hurt. Give in and stop fighting. I think I know just the song."

V is for Violence

For a few weeks, Freddie and Diana lost themselves. There was the sun that fell in long lines across their bodies, the sound of the birds out the opened windows, the supply of potatoes and herbs and the fires that they cooked over on the grassy area behind the cottage that overlooked the hills.

But there was always a sadness in their lovemaking, They felt like the last lighthouse keepers in the world when the lights had been snuffed out around them and the ships had been moored forever. Diana talked about Melissa, about wanting to go back to the forest to find her. Freddie said they would be captured again and sent to the front if they returned. The war had moved on from Beckley but when they walked into a nearby forest they caught a glimpse of the blackened city from afar. Sometimes the sound of guns beyond the escarpment would remind them that the battle went on.

The outside world occasionally intruded in other ways when wild-eyed men appeared in the lane outside the cottage and they warded them off with their guns and some scraps from an old meal.

When the crack appeared in paradise it was on a peerless blue day that reminded Freddie of the first days he came to the cottage. They were lying in bed when they heard a hard slam as if someone was trying to beat the door open. It was followed by a silence that was more eerie.

"Is the window open?" Freddie whispered to Diana.

She nodded.

Freddie crept out of the bedroom into the darkness of the hall. The door was still shut hard. He moved into the sun room and a blinding light seared him. He moved back from a sharp blow to the temples and was knocked to the floor. A heavy and muddied boot was on his neck. He saw the light slid down the barrel of a gun and saw a man with a heavy red beard towering over him.

The man spat and Freddie recognized the gesture from another time.

"Where is she?"

He saw now the long scars down Carson's arm but was alarmed to see how robust he seemed to be.

"I thought you were dead," he said involuntarily.

"Then who would be around to punish you and that slut? And where's my daughter."

Freddie could only moan under the boot that was crushing his windpipe and point back to the road.

"What have you done with her?" Carson said, his voice low and metallic like a grater.

Freddie didn't know if he meant Diana or Melissa and couldn't speak anyway.

Carson finally kicked him across the floor and left in search of Diana. Freddie heard shouting and a struggle and Carson was back in the room holding Diana's arms behind her neck with the shotgun pointed at her head.

"I should execute you now, but that's too easy and painless. Get up slowly and get out to my truck."

Carson kicked and punched at them as he pushed them down the hall. They were suddenly outside and the blueness was upon them. Freddie's head was ringing and he wanted to throw up.

They formed a ragged triangle outside the car. Freddie looked at Diana and the message she was giving him from her narrowed eyes. To get in the car was almost certain death.

"Get inside," yelled Carson.

Freddie moved a step towards him. "Look Carson. I know we may have got off on the wrong foot but there no need to be enemies. We have food. You look like you need it."

As he said it, Freddie felt the stupidity of his padded words. They were words from another world that weren't suited to this one. Carson had a pronounced limp and was riddled with scars but he had the look of a survivor. Freddie imagined a cave somewhere, a terrible hole where he did nameless things to his victims.

Carson was humming quietly. None of Freddie's words seemed to register. Then there was a sharp movement was Diana broke away. Freddie knew she was heading for the shed where some more guns were stored.

Carson grunted and let a couple of shots loose. Diana crumpled to the floor.

"Oh God," said Freddie.

Carson continued humming. Freddie saw Diana sit up, clutching her foot. He wanted to go over to her but knew he'd be gunned down.

Carson pushed him hard against the car. "Maybe I just need to deal with you now. I can take her with me."

He raised the gun. A shot rang out hard and angry in Freddie's ear. Then to his amazement, he saw Carson lying in the dirt, blood gushing from his chest. Freddie thought the rifle had misfired. Then he saw them. Two men in combat gear were standing in the drive. He saw the Humvee and the old insignia from a bygone time. In the days when there was a nation they used to be Feds.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

U is for Utopia

OK, I fell off the A to Z bandwagon. I had a good excuse, namely that of flying to Britain for a long weekend. I thought I could squeeze a few posts out late at night but I hadn't reckoned on my father's computer which needs a handle to crank it up and makes a whirring noise. Now I feel jetlagged and off the pace of my challenge narrative. U was maybe Monday. I'm going under...

Freddie felt the warmth of the sunshine. It embraced him through the strange oval, stained glass window that his father had built so many years ago. He had fallen hard and fast, he was being held deep in the embrace of the chaise longue. He recalled the old railroad now and the time he had joined Martin Bowls as they walked in front of the ornamental steam train and dived into the bushes, laughing hysterically as it almost ran them down. The strange and hypnotic translucence of those days washed through his dreams, like the tides on the big river in the gorge where they used to fish. The summer afternoons in West Virginia had been languid and endless. When his parents took him back from the holiday home it felt like a dream had been shattered.

And here now, with the world shattering around him, he was back at the holiday home and feeling whole. He had limped through fields of wounded men and heard the anger of the guns rumble on the hillsides where he played as a child. He had been amazed when  he had found the cottage, forgotten and unscathed down its antique lane. Glass panes had fallen in on the greenhouse when the storm had passed through, but the vegetables had continued to grow, riotous and defiant. There was no sign of disturbance or that that cottage had been pulled down as the world had disintegrated around it.

The electricity no longer worked but Freddie had lit candles. And he had collapsed into a long and fitful sleep, only to wake to the embrace of the morning sun.

Just when he was starting to believe all that had happened was a terrible dream, he heard a squealing as a nearby window was raised and the sound of a thud as if someone had thrown themselves in. He pulled himself from the couch but he was still heavy with sleep. He caught a glimpse of dark eyes, a wild mane of hair and hands were upon him. He moved back in fear of the mad creature that seemed to be assailing him. The focus returned and he made out the swarthy features of Diana. She was smeared with blood and mud and her blouse was ripped. He did not want to imagine what she had faced on the road.

"Freddie. Get me out of these," she cried. She was ripping and tearing up her clothes and the sun that slanted through the blues and greens of the stained glass, lit up her naked form like a water nymph on the bed of the pond. She grabbed his hands and pulled them roughly onto her naked form to cup and embrace. As they sunk into the chaise longue, Freddie said a silent prayer that time would stand still and preserve them in the morning sunlight, like ancient insects embedded in amber.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

T is for Tornado

Estavez Estralla remembered Navajo Joe fondly. He was the only one who appeared to care about his family. After their dangerous trek through Arizona, each subsequent guide seemed more ambivalent.

Jake made it clear he had seen enough Mexicans. “Look I’ve been doing this for two months. I’ve got people to the north east but I seen a lotta them die. Once you get to the north west, it’s just another form of death.”

Then one night as they huddled from a helicopter that had flown over the fly-blown town he told them they needed to go a long way east to go west.

“There is nothing east,” Estralla told him.

“Yew finally getting it,” Jake responded. “They don’t expect anyone to come from the dead lands. We head to Kansas and Wyoming and strike west. The way north is blocked.”

For days they jolted around dirt tracks in Jake’s jalopy, living close to the breadline. In Kansas they saw the crops that once formed the bread basket of America, scorched and dead under the relentless sun. Only then did the scale of the tragedy hit Estralla. If America could no longer feed itself who could? They bunked in the remains of houses and cowered in a cellar when a dust storm headed their way. Their diet made them break out in boils and hives but still the dirt road stretched ahead of them.

Estralla knew the breakdown was not far away. Maria was unrecognizable from the woman who had persuaded him to buy heels in Mexico City three years earlier that had cost him $900. It was perverse now to remember his anger and how he would gladly exchange the passive shadow of a woman before him for the firebrand of the past.

One night in remains of a once grand ranch house after eating a pale gruel, they approached him after Jake had retreated into a Bourbon-assisted sleep.

She was sitting on the floor, flanked by Emmanuel and Calista. Estralla’s daughter had been coughing now for days. The sound froze him inside.

Esta,” she said, shaking her head slowly. “This trip is becoming a nightmare. We are not living. It’s as if we are ….” And she struggled to find the words. “Corpses.”

“We are like the Living Dead from that old film. We exist but we cannot go on much longer.”

Estralla lit a cigarette and dragged hard. “You know Maria, there are few words I can use to comfort you. We are going forward because there is no way back but we don’t yet know if there is any way forward.”
“Have you seen your son’s ribs sticking out from his skin, Esta? I don’t trust this man Jake. I just don’t know.”

The conversation petered out. Estralla didn’t know if it was better or worse than the silence. None of the alternatives were good ones anymore.

The wind got up in the night. Estralla dreamed of arriving on the North West and finding it peopled by demons and cannibals. The howling got to him. Even when the dream moved on, the howling was going on in his head. When he woke he heard something clatter upstairs. There was a moaning and a howling that was horrible to experience. He pushed open the old hardwood door and sat on what was once a grand porch. Across the blasted fields he saw the up against the dawn sky. Three funnel clouds were moving slowly across the edge of the field by the road. They pulled from the sky, drawing down the blackness, devouring it and roaring on. Under their sharp teeth the remains of trees and debris and an outbuilding, were pulled up and ripped apart. Now they veered toward the house to move away east.

Estralla moved indoors and shouted for his family. There was no response, although he heard a mutter from upstairs from Jake. He moved outside to look again at the manic dance of the twisters at the edge of the field. Then he saw something that stopped his thoughts, heavy like the thud of a tombstone. In the center of the field, he saw a figure hunched but sprinting. Two smaller figures were joined to her hands. They were beating a path through the dead stubble toward the funnel clouds. Estralla was off the porch and moving after them. He looked again and they were gone into the darkening vortex as if they were an apparition.

Friday, April 22, 2016

S is for Saffron

For three weeks now Anna had donned her mask and fought her way through the smoke to see Saffron.

All around her cages lay shattered and open to the acrid sky but Saffron remained there on her branch, circling and curling around the stripped bark and staring with moist eyes beyond the zoo to the dim outlines of the hills where she had lived so many years ago.

Saffron was the last of the orangutans, small, scruffy and muted compared to those who had gone before her, but she had somehow clung to life as the provisions and visitors had dwindled at the zoo, as the storms, floods, and wildfires had waxed and waned.

As soon as she saw the last members of staff clearing out of the zoo, Anna broke in. Every day she hung by the bars and fed Saffron with all she could beg, borrow and steal.

One day she was startled by a voice behind her.

It was raspy now, but unmistakably French.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

Anna swing around to see Marcel.  It had been a year, but he was transformed from their previous meeting. His face had a gaunt, grey pallor and his eyes had retreated into his skull. Anna felt pity but also an odd sense of empowerment that they were equal again.

“Marcel. You look..”

“Ah yes. Terrible. Merde. I know. It’s respiratory…”

“Oh.” Anna felt like she had been angry with him for half a lifetime but now she was just bewildered.
“Well, we all have respiratory. To a lesser or greater extent,” she said, waving her arms like windmills against the stained sky.

“Well I have greater, I fear,” said Marcel. “I’m sorry about your house.”

“Oh you know about that do you? Were you involved? Just as well I was out at the time.”

Marcel shook his head slowly. “The fire was accidental Anna. They had lost interest in the highway. Nowhere to go, apart from somewhere else that’s in trouble. Travel used to be such fun, but that was another lifetime ago. Where are you living now anyway?”

“With a family in Balikpapan.  I was sleeping on the sofa but after the floods, they got out. They didn’t want to live anywhere by the coast anymore. I didn’t care. It was close to the zoo. She’s all I have now. I have a bed too.”

Marcel muttered and looked at his feet. “Anna. They are evacuating the town tomorrow, and you won’t be able to get to the zoo.”

“Oh crap Marcel. You are always full of it.”

“I know people Anna. I know this to be true.”

“And what will you do?”

“I know some people in a wild place in the hills. It’s a rough place, but it’s amazing what you can do with rat meat if you have the right spices. You have to weave your way through forest fires, but there’s a bit of foliage up there still. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to our old jungles. Maybe you can come.”

Anna’s jaw shut like a trap. “I’m leaving her over my dead body.”

“Try these,” said Marcel.

He went over to an outbuilding and grabbed some wire cutters. Together they cut a gaping hole in the mesh cage. Marcel was wheezing, but he was almost child-like and giddy in his excitement.

“We can play families. Just for a day or two,” he said.

“How about the rest of our lives,” said Anna.

“Like I said – a day or two.”

It had been a long time since any visitor had set foot in the zoo. The squeals of children were a distant memory, and the smoke drifted in relentless waves behind the broken aviaries. But had there been a visitor on that humid afternoon, he would have been treated to a rare sight, that of an elderly couple, walking slowly hand-in-hand through the wrecked precincts of the zoo, a shaggy ape bounding along at the old woman’s side.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

R is for Retreat

The light in the forest was a strange and stunted thing that crept under the door of the barn only to die in pools. They slept the sleep of the exhausted late into the morning, but were woken up by a large door swinging open and three burly characters blocking the light. One of them resembled Dave but all of his geniality of the night before was gone.

“Time to move out,” he growled, and yanked Diana by the arm.

She cried out and Freddie confronted Dave.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“There’s no such thing as a free meal. You’re moving out. The army doesn't pay us enough for you but we make do.”

A diesel engine was chugging away outside the barn and they saw an open truck. People were chained inside.

Dave and his accomplices dragged them into the truck and crashed the chains onto their legs.
Diana was raving, flailing her arms and crying out for the child. Dave formed an unmoving wall against the tide of her grief.

“She’ll be fine,” he growled.

Then a door was closed and darkness fell on them again.

As the truck pulled off, people started moaning and an elderly man threw up.

“Anyone know where we are going?” asked Freddie. He figured it wasn’t a sight-seeing excursion.
“To the front.”

“What front?”

There was no answer from the foul smelling mass of humanity in the truck. Just a low, dull moan. Then a voice, lower and calmer than the rest was heard from the back of the truck.

“We need to stop thinking of ourselves as people. We’re just commodities to be traded. I’ve been at the front and I escaped. You’ll see what I mean.” He jabbered on like a typewriter about disassociated limbs.

About an hour later the back of the truck opened up. Freddie noticed a sky streaked with smoke and  heard the booms from the distant hillside. They were pulled out at gun point and made to stand on the concrete of another compound. Men in fatigues were yelling at them but they had no idea whether they were regular army or vigilantes and who they represented. Finally, they were escorted into a low building with a corrugated iron roof.

Freddie feared Diana would buckle and crumple to the ground. He pulled her with him and seated her on a metal chair. A tall African American man wearing a uniform adorned with a series of stripes and hanging medals, addressed them. He was the first person since the morning who had spoken to them like human beings.

“Welcome to Beckley. I am Captain Ken Wooster of the Army of the East and I am here to give you some details of the campaign you will be waging. We still hold the downtown but there’s a fierce battle raging after an incursion yesterday morning by the Westerners. A retreat would be disastrous which is why we are drafting new blood to the fight. You will be given weapons soon but, from the outset, I feel obliged to warn you that your every movement is being watched. If you try to escape or turn your guns on us, you will be killed on the spot. Back in Philadelphia, I used to be a car salesman. It was a lot easier to sell cars than this war, but if you serve valiantly on the front lines, you will receive food and shelter. From the stories we have heard from communities that have been  overrun by the Westerners , you can expect little mercy if we lose.”

Wooster strutted up and down the ranks. He was soiled by the battle but his gait remained a proud one. “I will be asking all of you about your background. I know not all of you have fired a gun before in anger but once you are on the streets of Beckley it will focus your mind. First of all, are does anyone here have medical training?”

Diana was amazed to see Freddie raise his hand. “I’m a doctor sir, and my friend here is a nurse.”
“OK,” replied Wooster. ”Remain behind please.”
As the others were taken out, Freddie felt Diana’s grip tightening on his arm.
“What are you doing?”
“Better to lie than to die,” he hissed.
Two hours later at the field hospital, Freddie was wondering about the wisdom of what he was doing.  He could hear the constant pop, pop of rifle shots and louder explosions from what was left of the historic downtown.  The wounded and the dying were being brought in by the bus load. Freddie’s mind was racing. Even had he been an experienced doctor, he would have been overwhelmed. Nobody seemed to notice his ineffectiveness. As the afternoon wore on, a shell exploded at the edge of the field hospital, dragging a few wounded men into a bloody morass. A bewildered woman came into the hospital. Freddie could make out some stripes on her cut up uniform.

“They have taken the old town. We need to retreat,” she said. One of the head doctors started yelling at Freddie and giving instructions on getting the wounded out. Another shell crashed into the tent. Those who could move made for the door. All around the fighters were rushing past them, heading east to escape the onslaught.

Freddie caught sight of Diana in a bloody white coat and pulled on her arm.

“We need to run. The cottage is only five miles from here. God knows what we’ll find.”
Another shell landed nearby with a thump that made the ground heave. It wasn’t hard for Freddie and Diana to escape from the field hospital. Outside the street was teaming with the escaping army of the east who appeared to be no match for the locals.

“You have the address, right?” Freddie yelled above the guns.
“No. I gave it to Carson.”
“1420 Oak Lane in Diver. Go there if we are split up.”
They gripped each other’s hands tightly, but it was hard to stay together in the melee. A gaunt soldier aimed a punch at Freddie’s face as he impeded his flight. Freddie ducked but was knocked sideways. When he got to his feet, Diana had been carried by the weight of the retreat and was further down the highway, heading for the bridge over the deep gorge.
Half an hour later he was alone by a stream on the deeply wooded hill. He watched in disbelief as smoke rose from the bridge and its heavy iron sides crashed into the gorge, beam by beam.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Q is for Quail

At any other time Freddie, Diana, and the four-year-old child Melissa, would have looked like a strange family unit. They were trudging down a long, sunken lane, covered in thick red ditch mud and scratches from the foliage they had encountered. There was little let up in the humidity of the day that joined their clothes to their bodies and made them gasp for breath.

But these were not normal times. They encountered other ragged people on the road. Some were walking purposefully while others were drifting from side-to-side bereft of belongings and reason. These were the most dangerous people. They had nothing to lose and a desperate and far-off look in their eyes.

They avoided eye contact but made an exception with the wild-eyed woman who was sitting at the side of the road staring at the gathering cloud mass above.

“Where are you heading to? Where are you from?” Diana asked.

“I was in Danville,” the woman replied in a sing-song voice she could have used to tell her kids a nursery rhyme.

“It was terrible. The place was packed out. Nowhere to sleep. Nothing to eat. Then the soldiers came. They started taking people away.”

“Heck. Where to?” asked Freddie.

The woman shook her head wildly. Freddie put his hand on her arm to steady her. “It was a big truck, like a meat truck. We were packed it. Clawing and cutting each other. I caught the eye of a soldier. When we stopped, he pulled me out to have his way. Then it was as if…as if he lost all interest. I slipped away into the bushes, and now I’m. I’m not sure where I am.”

“West Virginia,” said Freddie.

The woman nodded and drifted back into her own world. Freddie gave her a chocolate bar, and they continued down the road. It became an effort to remain a cohesive unit. Freddie tugged at Diana; Diana grabbed on Freddie. They both pulled at the kid or took turns at carrying her. “We should have picked up the gun from the car,” Freddie said.

Diana pulled at her filthy blouse and let Freddie catch a glimpse of a sleek, black holster resting against her belly.

“Just in case,” she said. “Carson wasn’t totally good for nothing.”

After walking more than 10 miles in a westerly direction, the road plunged into a thick forest. They were wary about disappearing into the forest but there seemed no other way. A steep ravine rose to their right, and they did not want to backtrack. In the darkness, they moved closer. The child wailed at the sounds of heavy birds moving in the trees and other rustling creatures. At some point, they found a clearing off the road and napped. When they woke up, they were in blackness. Then a light flicked on. They gasped. It was a powerful arc light. There was a voice behind it, but they could see no face.

“Come with us please,” it said. There were other voices in the woods. Diana left her gun in her pants.
They were taken down a hard and well-defined path in the forest and into a compound. Figures were cooking something around a fire. A man with a large bushy beard came at them out of the crowd and stuck out a grubby bear claw.

“I’m Dave. Would you care for some quail?”

They were taken over by the fire where the birds were roasting. Dave explained they were on a quail farm where they hunted, gathered and grew all that they ate.

“We don’t need stores or deliveries. That’s why we have some high fences and some high caliber guns,” he chuckled. “We are mostly self-sufficient, but we also trade.”

In the shadows behind them, Freddie made out some long and rudimentary dorm huts and the trailers of a half a dozen trucks. The place wasn’t fancy, but it certainly seemed functional, and nobody would stumble on it.

Beyond the fire, a toothless woman was humming a tune as she stirred a big pot of beans. The words came scratchy across the night air that was as thick as the substance she was stirring.

“Oh, Dixie, the land of King Cotton,
The home of the brave and the free;
A nation by freedom begotten,
The terror of despots to be.”

Freddie had never heard of such a song. It felt antique but also apt for the times. After a meal that was the best thing Freddie had tasted for a long time, Dave picked up the child on his shoulders and led them to their sleeping quarters, a rough barn with wooden bunks. There were many other bunks but no sign of anyone else.

In the night, as he slept feverishly, he felt hands on his shirt and nails grasping at his buttons. Diana’s finger was on his lips, and she slipped it into his mouth. She shushed him as she ripped at her filthy blouse and pulled him to her. When he woke, he was shivering through a dream of armies that rose and fell and blood that stained the fields. He felt her breath on the side of his face and the tightness of her arms around him.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

P is For President

Jeb Jackson swept into the gallery room and raised his arms wide.

“Gentlemen. I welcome you to the panoramic view of the Battle of Beckley.”

The woman in the red cocktail dress on the table below him hollered like a wounded swine. “Gentleman and, of course, I would be remiss not to mention Melinda Moore, our honorable leader of the house.”

The House of Representatives didn’t represent anyone these days, but Jackson liked to think its spirit lived on in the formidable chest of Mrs. Moore, a locale where he had spent many a happy afternoon.
Jackson has shipped in some of the finest champagne from his shrinking vault. Getting politicians to willingly visit West Virginia had even been a challenge back in the days of the democracy when some of them had represented the place. Jackson was always amazed how, even in a dictatorship, it was difficult to get people to do things without an inducement.

Below the podium almost 40 members of his inner sanctum were gathered. His favorite sycophants were mixed with a few of the troublemakers. They kept him on his toes.

As the entrée was served, Jackson began his speech. “It is almost two hundred years now since the historic Battle of Bull Run when the people of Washington took their picnics and went out to watch the spectacle unfold,” he told them. “The day was somewhat spoiled by the sight of horribly wounded soldiers running back to the capital for fear of their lives,” he paused. “I am pleased to say this will not happen today. You can watch the battle from this bullet proof observation tower. What we are seeing gentlemen – and lady, of course is every bit as historic as the Civil War.”
They turned to watch two sides face off on a sodden hillside. Jackson explained how the westerners, who had lived in and around Beckley for decades had an advantage over the new arrivals, but the Easterners had desperation on their sides. He sounded like a man describing the rules of an arcade game.

“They have lost their homes. They have nothing left to lose.” He went on to get across the most important part of his message and the reason why he had flown his friends and associates in today.
“There are people, and you have heard the voices, that say why are we standing by and letting this happen. There are people who say we have the most sophisticated weaponry in the world, and yet we are letting our people kill each other with hunting rifles, mortars and, in some cases, their own hands. Although you may be intrigued by the spectacle, it’s not about sport. Some of the unfortunate climatic events that we have seen lately – and no I do not accept that any human hand is to blame – have decimated our food supply and led to the evacuation of our coastal areas. Starvation is a terrible way to die. Some of you may say war is too, but at least you have a fighting chance. At least you can show the bravado of the gladiator in the ring.” He paused and waited on the low smattering of applause.
“There are some of us who started to believe a lie that was perpetrated in the middle of the 20th Century that peace rather than war is a natural state of existence. It’s a view that flies in the face of history, I am afraid to say. Adam walked the earth 209,000 years ago. Cain killed Abel a few years later. In that time, man has been in a perpetual state of war. Peace was in the ascendancy 100 years out of 209,000. War is less an evil than a natural means of population reduction.
“Some people have asked me why we are not keeping the peace. We are not keeping the peace because the days of peace have passed. War, as strange as it may sound, is vital to our survival. Enough of the oratory. I urge you to look at the spectacle that is unfolding before you and to think not about what the disintegration of society but how a new Rome is rising up from the ashes of the old country.”
Those assembled in the room turned to the tinted windows of the tower to see two rival armies of stick figures shooting and hacking at each other on the hillside. Those further into the room, abandoned their meals to go over to the window.

President Jackson felt somewhat irked that the battle appeared to be so far away. “Hand out the binoculars,” he told an aide. “And let’s get one of those helicopter gunships out there to liven things up.”

Monday, April 18, 2016

O is for Outcast

As Freddie crashed the Jeep through the ruts of the driveway, he caught a glimpse of an elderly couple waving at him in the rearview mirror, holding their feeble hands up in the foggy air. At that point, a shiver went through his body. He wondered if it were the last time he would see his parents again. He felt like an outcast. On the long road ahead, the vision would haunt him. They may have been safer there than here but where was here and was anywhere safe anymore?

The highway was littered with signs of struggle; burned out cars and trash and here and there a baby stroller or a car seat lying in swollen ditches by the roadside. There were even some sinister, bloated shapes in the ditches. He thought he made out human limbs but kept on driving. Greta had sent some outward bands deep into the heart of the land, bringing torrential downpours. All was sodden and ruined. Later they drove through the charred remains of a small village that had been set on fire.

Whenever they saw other vehicles on the small rural roads, they avoided eye contact and the cars peeled off skittishly into little-known tracks. There was no sign of any law enforcement officers.
After five hours of negotiating these bleak roads they came upon a twisted sign that informed them they were in West Virginia. Above them on a hill, a highway buzzed with a convoy of military vehicles.

“The roads are even more difficult here, but we should be at the cottage in two hours. I think we should avoid the main road,” Freddie informed them. Dark shapes were crawling at the edge of his eyes from the exhausting drive.

The child was had kept up an incessant wail for the last three hours, and she became more incessant. Carson, wordless and brooding, got out of the car and lit a cigarette. His hunting rifle was slung over his shoulder.

They saw one of the figures up on the overpass in military fatigues swing around and raise a gun to shoulder level.

“Get back in,” yelled Diana.

Carson jumped into the Jeep,  the cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

The soldier continued to look in their direction. They braced themselves for the sound of metal piercing their car. Another soldier joined him on the bridge. They were pointing. Then suddenly they broke away, distracted by something else.

“God. That was stupid,” said Diana.

Carson swing around. “What bitch?”

“Who are you calling a bitch?” she retorted.

Freddie heard a struggle going on and Diana crying out as the cigarette was embedded in her arm.
“No, No,” he heard himself say as his fist made a jarring contact with Carson’s face.

Carson was stunned for a few seconds, but he rallied quickly. The safety catch came off the gun. Its hard metal was up against Freddie’s skull.

“I’m going to put a hole in you. You were a piece of shit from the outset.”

“And how are you ever going to get to the cottage?” Freddie said.

Carson laughed and it was a sound more sinister than any growl. It was a demented cackling. “We gonna grow roses and live on air Mister?”

Freddie realized he was going to die then. He had never felt so much like a commodity to be dispensed with. But just as he prepared for darkness to overwhelm him, he heard a yell. Diana’s hand was on the gun, and her teeth were on Carson’s hand. He yelped. There was a loud bang, and the tone of his cry became even more frenzied. Freddie slipped, and his face was covered with the blood that was gushing from Carson’s leg.

“Christ,” he moaned.

Suddenly they became aware of something else, a low deep rumble that shook the small lane and was getting ever louder.

Freddie turned and saw a dirty, low slung beast rumbling toward them. It was a heavy tank, and it was less than 100 yards away. Its tracks were thick with mud, and Freddie could see no human form on board.

He rushed out of the seat, tugged on the passenger door and almost pulled Diana’s arm out of her socket. She shrieked and dragged at the child, who moved away. She lunged again and picked up the child. They were in a waterlogged ditch just seconds before the tank rolled over the Jeep and shoved it up against a tree. They lay there for 10 minutes as the roar of the Behemoth subsided, and they started picking their way through thorn bushes, down the filthy ditch away from the mangled remains of the Jeep. They didn’t leave the ditch until they had travelled a mile west.

On a darkening road on the border, a figure cursed heavily as he pulled himself out of the wreck of a car, clutching his wounded leg.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

N is for Navajo

They called him Navajo Joe and he had been tasked with getting them safely through the Indian nation.

The fire lit up his dark eyes and his hooked nose, but much of Joe was cloaked in darkness. It was how he liked it.

“Rule 1. Don’t trust anyone,” he hissed. “The Indians get given food if they can capture a Mexican. They’ll offer you the earth but turn you in for a bag of rice,” he said.

“And why should we trust you then?” asked Estavez Estralla.

The erstwhile engineering genius had fallen on desperate times like the rest of his country, but his natural suspicion that had got him this far with his family was still intact.

Joe shrugged. “Because you have no choice. As Indians we are low but as outsiders, you are even lower. Believe me – I have seen some terrible things. When the animals are all gone what do you think they roast on the spit?”

Estavez moved to cover the ears of his children – Emmanuel and little Calista; kids who should be playing with dolls and superhero action figures who were living every day in the specter of death. Estavez himself feared the unknown as much as the known. He wondered if Oregon was really so much colder and if the whole of Mexico was heading to the Pacific North West after wrecking the wall, what sort of welcoming would await them?

Joe drank a strong local beer to fortify them. Once the sun went down, they would go out on the trail. The roads were guarded so they would take dark paths across the hills. It was too hot and dangerous to travel by day. Joe hoped to reach the cave before the sun came up again.

The family joined another group of Mexicans on a trek across the hills that gave off some of their bloody redness even in the dark. They held hands as Joe took them over high ridges overlooking the plains of the Navajo nation. The hills were teeming with crickets and more ominous sounds like the howling of wild dogs. Above them the stars opened up in a vast and incomprehensible, twinkling canopy, hinting of far off places that were cold and serene.

Their route through the Indian lands was at first wonderful and later exhausting as their legs became heavy and they slipped on rocks. The other family was from a poor agricultural region of Mexico. They had worked on the land until it burned up and came close to starvation on their route north. They seemed to accept their fate as pre-ordained and crossed themselves silently in the darkness at every obstacle on the trail.

They walked until a faint light appeared on the edges of the massive buttes in the distance. Joe stopped and solemnly dished out packets of Lays and bottles of water from his backpack.
He was apologetic about not having anything more nutritious. They sat on the smooth sandstone when suddenly a series of sharp blasts echoed around the canyon. Estralla instinctively grabbed Francesca, who, in turn, pulled the boys to her.
They huddled under a large rock until there was a silence for about two minutes. A ghastly grey light was opening up on the canyon.
“Come on. We need to go,” said Joe. “If we stick to the high ground we should be OK. The shots were in the canyon.”
Half an hour later, they came to a spot where the dense thorned bushes they had been navigating gave way to a view of the canyon road where a road snaked like a silver river. Below them, they saw a huddle of about 100 small figures, corralled by a smaller group.
“It’s the feds,” hissed Joe. They’ve captured a group of refugees. I can’t believe they were walking down the road.”
He was cut short by the sound of another barrage of gunfire. The tiny, dark figures were collapsing to the ground one by one. Estralla again pulled at his wife, covering her eyes. She removed his hand in an angry, snapping motion.
Then Joe was pulling at both of them. “Get out of here, before the helicopters arrive.”
Half an hour later, the morning was upon them. Joe pointed to the mouth of a cave a few hundreds of yards above them. This is where we stay for the day and snack on more Lays,” he said grimly.
Then he turned to the red earth and covered up his footprints. “My people would always say we should tread lightly on the earth and leave no trace,” he said mournfully.

Friday, April 15, 2016

M is for Marshall Islands

Mike used to have flashbacks to his former life, but it had been a long time ago. Mike also had memories of the beach when it used to be very different.

Sometimes Mike’s thoughts had drifted back to the Melbourne skies, and he had remembered those endless sunny afternoons watching cricket, hearing the soothing slap of ball on willow as he sipped on his third glass of champagne. They were probably not a lot different from skies anywhere else, but there had always been a sense of hopefulness and calmness in the benign clouds like those that hung over the clock tower of his university on graduation day.

He recalled how just after his speech when he had finished top of his class of 98 students, he had seen the vapor trail of an airplane, cutting through the blue. He didn’t need to look at the adoring crowds and down at his expensive suit to know he was going places.

Mike had certainly gone places. At the age of 22 he was the top earner at Sydney’s most prestigious bank. By the age of 24 he owned a house on Bondi Beach. At the age of 26 he had married into one of the richest families in New South Wales.

By the time he was 28, life had sped up, and bits started to go AWOL. He recalled a lot of late night rendezvous and the burning of white powder up his nose. By the time he was 30, he realized he didn’t like his wife much, and his kids were like a pair of odd aliens propped up from the couch to watch TV in the home he occasionally visited.

At the age of 32 he vanished.

Mike’s family made a considerable effort to find him but the newspaper ads didn’t reach as far as the Marshal Islands. Not much did. Mike had arrived at the odd coral atolls almost accidentally when he had missed a flight.

When he showed up 15 years ago, Mike had set up court in a bar and drank away his old life. The beach and its sweep into the turquoise waters fascinated him and he would often sleep on the beach. Later he found another, even more secluded beach. The idea of living as a beachcomber and erecting a makeshift home of bamboo and palm leaves took hold. Mike found the water proofing part hard to master and would get sodden on nights when storms came in. He just drank harder until the wetness became a pleasurable sensation.

Over the years Mike collected a group of outlandish friends who would spend days and sometimes nights drinking with him. They came and went like the tides. Sometimes women would spot him and end up in his makeshift bed after imbibing his potent cocktails. They seldom stayed long given his deteriorating personal hygiene.

At some point Mike’s money ran out but he had made so many friends he seldom went without food or alcohol. He’d sometimes do odd jobs to earn money so as he could complete the gleaming beer top rockery garden around his beach home.

It took him two years to get the rockery to his satisfaction but eventually it was a sight to behold. He crafted the beer tops into elaborate sculptures like birds and stunted trees looking out onto the sea. Local children would visit him and bring cup cakes and other gifts in exchange for a guided tour. Mike thought it was one of the most beautiful sculptures he had even seen. Sometimes, he would pull out a top and pleasant little vistas would form in his mind of foaming vats at a brewery.

Mike sometimes saw children squinting at him quizzically and their parents grabbing their hands to pull them away from the bearded maniac who was staring at them over a gleaming moat of bottle tops. But most of the locals knew the beachcomber was harmless and would stop by to admire the sculptures he whittled out of shells or driftwood. Sometimes he even earned beer money from his creations.

During the 2030s, Mike noticed a change on the beach. Although he spent much of his time living in a world in his own head, it was noticeable that the visitors came less and less and the Wild Oyster bar and café closed at the end of the 2033 season, never to open again. When he had arrived at the beach all those years ago it had been a wide swathe of sand but now it was looking skinny and the tide would inundate his home more often, pulling away half of his bottle tops.

He recalled a conversation in the hot summer of 2035 with Dan, a homeless man who spent most of the year sleeping on friends’ floors in the nearby town and had spent the occasionally night smoking pot at Mike’s place.

Dan said relatives had given him the air fare to move to Hawaii. “This place won’t be here soon. You should get out.”

Mike just shook his head and spat on the ground. “This is my beach. Where else would I go?”
In many respects it was true. Nobody else had been on the beach as long as Mike. He was as weather-beaten and established as the coral and the complacent old palms.

But over the next few years, life became harder. Mike came to realize how he survived on the kindness of strangers and they were seldom on the beach anymore, just a few hardy divers who moaned about how the color had gone from the water and there was little living anymore. His home was now washed out by the tides so often that one day after guzzling half a bottle of industrial strength Portuguese brandy given to him by a visitor, he started kicking at the bark walls and yelling at the palm fronds. 

He grabbed the bottle tops that remained and threw them on an elevated area of earth in the jungle off the beach. For the next few years he was eaten alive by insects and constantly teetering on the edge of starvation. One day he looked up at a faint and receding blue sky that seemed to be pulling out like everyone else on the island and realized he hadn’t seen a visitor for two weeks and maggots were crawling out of the sodden boxes of cereal he survived on. Water seemed to be everywhere – in the jungle behind him and in great dirty pools on what was no longer a beach.

It dawned on him then that he was entirely alone and, the islands were slipping into the sea. For the first time in a decade, Mike felt sober. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

L is for Leaving

They were at Keysville for two weeks. As the days wore on, the small pocket of normality they seemed to slowly shrink.

The wireless connection on their wrist watches died days ago. In their desperation, they even activated an old television set in the corner of the room, but no pictures or words appeared out of the cackling mist. However, a vintage radio yielded some sounds, strangulated voices here and there, reports of riots of disorder, and calls for arms, but nothing coherent.

Roger said the small village store had closed around the time of Freddie’s arrival and never reopened. Its windows were smashed and all of the meagre supplies within had been plundered. Roger had some supplies of meat in a freezer and a stockpile of potatoes and root vegetables locked in the basement, but they would be out of food by the end of the month.

Carson remained a brooding and peripheral presence at the margins of the group. When Diana or the kids joined in the conversation, he would glare at her, and she would fall quiet. One day he approached Freddie in the kitchen. Up close the planning officer could smell the Bourbon on his breath.

Carson’s rifle was strapped on his back. “Think you need to come out hunting,” he said. “There’s another rifle in the outhouse.”

On a grey day when squalls, the last remnants of the hurricane, rolled over the hills, they stalked the land. After four hours of tracking and waking, a female deer came into sight with its fawn. Carson coolly dispatched it with a single shot. They jogged to the bleeding deer. The fawn was hanging around on the edge of the woods, crisscrossing its tiny legs nervously. Carson felled it with two shots.
They dragged the deer back to the farmhouse where Carson skinned them. Despite his misgivings about the shooting, Freddie savored the gamy taste. Roger dusted off one of the few remaining bottles of wine left in the cellar. Freddie found his spirits rising after two glasses. The warm glow that spread over him even extended to Carson, who stomached some of the wine.

Toward the end of the evening, Freddie stood up and gave a toast to the future. He didn’t really know if there was one but it sounded good at the time. He announced it was time to head west to his holiday home in West Virginia. He hoped the excitement of the journey ahead would galvanize the party, but he received blank looks.

Later when Carson and Diana had gone to bed, his parents pulled him over to the table, looking mournful.

“Son we’ve heard some bad tales about what’s happening on the roads,” said his father.

“Dad. We’ve lost connection with the outside world. How could you hear?”

Still the intensity of his mother’s gray stare was disconcerting.

“There was a man here in the village on Sunday. He seemed a simple fellow, but he said his brother had been out on the highway and saw people killed in cold blood for their possessions. The world isn’t the same anymore son. How are you going to survive even if you reach West Virginia?”
“There are the greenhouses and…” Freddie could not think of anything beyond the greenhouses. Still, he clung to his idea tall sunflowers in the breeze and the soil sprouting with healthy lettuces and carrots.

His mother wrapped her claw-like hand over his.

“It’s not that we don’t want to go. Just that we are too old for all of this. I think we should stay here with Roger for a while.”

Freddie felt suddenly too weak to argue, but the thought of remaining in Keysville was not one he could bear.  The days were unbearably long, and they lived without purpose.
The next morning in the cold early light Carson helped him load to Jeep while Diana watched impassively holding the child. By the time they were heading west into the unknown the mist was slowly clearing and the light coming over the hills seems to herald a new episode in their adventure.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

K is for Keysville

Keysville was another ragged settlement on the road to nowhere, a place where a few wooden homes hugged the highway. But for Freddie, it was a significant milestone. It had taken more than two days to get here. Once they had escaped from Hampton Roads, Freddie had navigated his way down a route of bewildering country roads. When most teenagers experimented with girls and drugs, Freddie had built up an impressive mental map of the small roads of Virginia.

He had been amazed at the number of people who had followed official advice and remained on the Interstates that became increasingly impassable. At Richmond, the James River had risen and swallowed up part of the highway, dragging dozens of cars into its foaming jaws. Drivers had relayed news of the tragedy down the metal chain. Even then some people had remained on the Interstate. Freddie had hit the dirt roads and cross-crossed his way across Virginia to Keysville where his brother Roger lived.

Once they had left the Interstate he was able to slip more gas into his car from the can in the back, without the risk of being robbed. The interstates had disintegrated into dangerous and desperate places at night where gun shots were a common sound.

The passengers in the back remained an unnerving presence, and Freddie caught his parents’ anxious glances. Over and again when Carson wiped his firearm with his spit and threatened to murder vigilantes on the road, he reassessed the decision to pick them up. Still the sobs of the infant muffled his anxiety and made him feel better.

When the SUV finally turned into the mud choked drive of Roger’s house, Freddie allowed himself to smile and imagine a future beyond the relentless drive west.

Roger’s threw open the roughly hewn door, allowing a glimpse into the festering interior. Those memories of previous visits when his mother would find an excuse to pull out after finding a gigantic spider in the bath or a toilet seat caked in grime and other unpleasant substances, were erased. Now Roger’s place was the promised land and they rushed in to hurl themselves on the embrace of the dusty sofas.

Freddie slept for hours on end. When he woke it was the hours of the morning. The fields around held a  velvet blackness that made him think of the old world that he had left behind and even the tall trees had retreated. He stumbled out to the washroom, with the hesitancy of a stranger who is unaware of where the light switches are or hidden steps. Something brushed against him. Freddie resisted the urge to scream out. He felt an arm close on his and soft breath on his neck.

“It’s me Freddie,” he hissed.

He felt an arm tighten on him. It was the girl, Diana.

“Yes. I know.”

“So what are you doing?”

Her low voice was in his head and her breath made the small hairs on his neck rise.

“Be careful,” she whispered. “Watch out for him.”

He leaned toward the direction of the warmth and the voice, seeking clarification and reassurance. But there was a gap at the top of the stairwell that she had come from and the presence had vanished into the velvet darkness.

Lost by the Sea

 A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I nev...