Arising

It’s been a while since I participated in one of Chuck Wendig‘s Friday Flash Fiction Challenges–but Mr. Urban Spaceman himself encouraged me to give this one a shot. It’s not at all what I was thinking during my original brainstorming, but fun nonetheless. I went over a little on word count, but I’ll let it slide if you will. The prompt for this was: phoenix (as in the mythological creature) with as loose a connection as we wanted to make.

         It started with the fires, but no one made the connection until it was too late. Uncle John was the first person I knew to figure it out. He was Grandpop’s little brother and the uncontested eccentric of the family. You name a conspiracy, he had a theory. Hell, he had theories about conspiracies you’d never heard of. The first fire was bad—an entire hotel burned down in Baton Rouge. There was no stopping it; they finally pulled the firefighters out after six of them had to be hospitalized. It burned right through the water hoses, vaporizing the life-saving water into boiling steam. The second one was a theater in downtown San Francisco that went up in the middle of a midnight premiere. The firefighters said they’d never seen anything like it—that like the fire had a mind of its own, fighting against them like a living beast. Fires popped up all over the country. New York and Houston and Miami. The firefighters and emergency crews all said the same—these fires were different.
         I was sitting on the couch in my parents’ house, watching the coverage of the latest fire when Uncle John shambled in. Nothing was left of Michigan Central Station but smoldering embers. The reporters had a panel of experts discussing how a building with a thick marble façade could burn like paper. John was Grandpop’s brother but he was twelve years younger and seemed more like he belonged to my father’s generation.
         “It’s a cleansing,” he said, cracking open a Budweiser.
Dad rolled his eyes, gaze fixed on the television. I decided to humor John, if only to take my mind off the fact that my big brother Jace was at the fire station this week. In a town this small, most of the department were volunteers. The only blaze in Kearney, TX worth noting was when Miz Kay lit her yard on fire trying to fry a turkey—but these days it seemed like everything was combustible.
         “What do you mean?” I asked.
         John wiped his grizzled chin and looked at me. “That hotel in Baton Rouge was known for its hookers. Not only that, but half the city council was seen going in and out at night, which’s why no one did anything about it. And that theater? Their late-late night showings would make the Marquis de Sade blush.”
         I resisted laughing at his pronunciation—Mar-keese day Sad.
         “Same thing in New York, Miami, and Houston—dens of iniquity, Momma would’ve called ‘em.” He half raised his beer to heaven and took a swig.
         From what I knew of my great-grandmother, I didn’t think she’d appreciate the gesture.
         “Coincidence,” Dad said.
         “Who’s doing it, then?” I asked Uncle John before the two started arguing.
         Uncle John looked at me fondly. I always asked questions—even if I thought it was all bullshit. “Well, Lynnie, if I knew that, I’d be claiming the reward money they’re all starting to offer.”
         Only Uncle John and Jace called me Lynnie. “Okay, who do you think did it?”
         He traced the top of his beer with a pinkie, going around the rim until I almost repeated my question. Glancing at my dad, he leaned towards me. “I have no idea.”
         His answer chilled me. Uncle John always had a theory. He enjoyed coming up with answers to questions—even knowing they were ridiculous. Like people who watch Trivial Pursuit every night even though they always guess wrong. The chill tingled at the base of my skull and I reached for my cellphone before it rang. I knew it was Jace before I picked it up.
         “What’s wrong?” I asked.
         “Are you home?” He asked, out of breath.
         “Yeah—with Dad and Uncle John. What’s wrong?” I repeated.
         “Get them and Mom and Grandpop and get out—drive as far as you can.”
         I heard it now, over his breathing—the crackling roar, like the bonfires we used to build out back where we burned more marshmallows than we ate trying to make s’mores. I tasted metal and realized I’d bitten the inside of my cheek.
         “What about you?” I asked.
         “I’ll be fine–just get everyone and go.” There was shouting in the background. “I love y’all, okay? Let me know when you’re safe.” He hung up.
         Dad packed some supplies from the kitchen, the box of photo albums Mom kept beside the bed, their framed wedding certificate. John grabbed the rest of his six pack and his duffle bag—already packed for his visit with us. The retirement community where Grandpop lived was on the way out of town and Mom was there with him. I grabbed my own small suitcase—my things were home in Austin, safe for now.
         “I have to get Cooper,” I said. Jace would never forgive me if we left his dog.
         I threw my things in the back of Jace’s truck, glad he left it here when he went to the firehouse, and peeled out of the driveway, narrowly missing the Harris’ mailbox. I would get Cooper, I told myself, and then do what Jace said—get everyone out. But I saw the oily black clouds that slicked the sky. I drove towards the outskirts, barely glancing at stoplights or aware of angry honks and shouts. The warehouses were out there—places everyone told us not to go, where the few murders and assaults our little town saw always seemed to occur. If Uncle John was right—I couldn’t find any humor in that thought—then that’s exactly where the fire would be. The smoke was so thick that the engine started whining and, for the first time, I was afraid for myself. Emergency lights flashed through the haze, like neon strobes in a laser tag course. I pulled the truck over, bracing myself as I opened the door. The smoke stung my eyes like the time I ate too many stuffed jalapenos on a dare from Jace. Hot wind buffeted me from all sides, lashing grit against my arms and legs. The fire crackled, punctuated by shouting and sprays of water as the firemen tried to tackle the monstrous blaze. I knew which heavy-suited figure was him. He turned before I could yell, a faceless, masked stranger and ran towards me. I doubled over, coughing, the heat on my skin like a sunburn. The whole row of warehouses was blanketed in flames, not the friendly tongues of fire I knew; it looked like lava, so bright it seared my vision.
         “Lynne! You have to get out, you have to get away from here!” Jace pulled his mask free and pressed it against my face, giving me a few moments of clean air.
         “Come with me!” I yelled. The asphalt bubbled beneath our feet, sticking to my shoes.
         He didn’t have time to answer, because we were knocked to the pavement as the whole row of warehouses collapsed, sending the flames shooting out, like a pair of giant wings.

Cerulean Rider

It’s been a while since a “normal” Chuck Wendig Friday Flash Fiction Challenge. In the previous weeks, it was a collaborative story. While a lot of fun, it’s nice to be able to write a piece all the way through. This week it was back to the whim of the dice–2 columns of 20 words. Roll the dice and one word from each column becomes your title. Thanks to Sufjan Stevens and this song, as well as a Lord of the Rings poster, for some much needed inspiration

         Ostan stood atop the tower, feeling the marble ledge bite into his hands. The winds whipped the black clouds into a writhing, lightning-veined morass. They smelled dry with the barest hint of decay. Like cracked bones spewing marrow into the seething air. He shuddered as the fingers of charged air caressed his cheek. It did not matter that he was right. That the masters who called him charlatan and liar even now cowered in the depths of Durra’dûn’s deepest, dankest cellars. He clutched the stone battlement tightly as a bolt of lightning clawed its way through the clouds and gouged the earth. He heard the terrified whinnies of one of the many herds of wild horses that wheeled across the burning, windswept plains around Durra’dûn.
         “Ostan! What madness holds you? Come down from there, boy!”
         Ostan turned and saw that the doorway to the top of the tower was open. He could faintly see a grave-pale face in the gloom. Rilog, his former mentor and Master of the Book. Ostan felt the hair rise on his arms and neck as lightning opened another gaping wound in the earth, barely missing the tower.
         “No madness, Rilog. Or perhaps the same madness that foretold this time would come.” Ostan didn’t know if Rilog could hear him over the howling wind. The wind and the other things now howling in the gathering darkness.
         “The hour is late for pride, boy,” Rilog shouted back. “Come down, Ostan.”
         “The hour is long past for anything but death, Rilog. Go back to your Book, to your cowering greybeards, to your wealth of precious knowledge. Go back to where it is safe.”
         As if waiting for his words, the heavens opened and rain began to fall, soaking Ostan’s clothes within moments and plastering his dark, shoulder-length hair to his face. The rain felt especially cold on his bare cheeks. The beard he had begun to grow in anticipation of his anointing as a Master of Durra’dûn was newly shorn.
         “We did not bring this darkness down, boy,” Rilog’s voice wavered as he clambered up the steps and stood shivering in the doorway, seeking shelter from the whipping rain.
         “You did nothing to stop it, Rilog.” Once Ostan would have suffered the lash or even the hot brand for referring to his mentor without the honorary title of Master. He smiled grimly at the thought.
         “There may still be time. Ostan, please,” Rilog’s tone grew desperate. “They will listen to you now. They must.”
         Ostan turned fully to face Rilog for the first time. The older man was hunched against the wall, his cheeks sagging above his straggling beard. The rain had soaked his thinning white hair to his head and his baldness glinted in the unnatural, charged light. Ostan began to laugh, leaning back against the black marble ledge for support. He could see the whites of Rilog’s eyes show as he cowered back into the doorway. Perhaps I have gone mad, Ostan thought. The world has, why not I?
         “They did not listen when they had the chance and now that the world crumbles you say they will listen? No, Rilog, the time of the Masters is at an end. Perhaps the time for this entire land has reached its final doom. Go back with the other rodents and cower, Rilog. If these are to be my last breaths I do not wish to waste any more upon you.” Ostan did not wait to hear Rilog’s retreating footsteps as he turned back to the landscape before him.
         The Tower of Durra’dûr was the tallest structure in the Plains of Wildemar, the masters said it was the mightiest edifice created by man, dwarfed only by the ancient, jagged peaks of the Mordir mountains. Perhaps they were right. In any case, it gave Ostan an unobstructed view of the desecration of the land as far as his eyes could see. Fires still burned along the plain despite the icy rain and lit the horizon with a false dawn. He looked up again to the roiling clouds. His last night on earth and the stars were forever hidden from his vision. He would have liked a last glimpse of those silver lights. The study of the stars was what lured him into the cadre of the masters. Since the age of seven, he toiled, enduring torment and testing. Eighteen years of rising steadily through the ranks. He would have been one of the youngest in the history of the Order to receive his ring and cowl.
         He had studied the portents in the stars, had seen the minor shifts, the smallest deviations, and knew what they foretold. Doom for men and their Age of Light. But he was still an apprentice and the Masters dismissed his knowledge and his fears. They did not see what was so obvious to his eyes. The day he was to receive his ring and cowl, he demanded again that they heed his words as time was drawing short. They did not listen; they threatened to keep him an apprentice for another year, for five years, for ten. He drew his silver belt knife, the mark of an apprentice’s final year, and shaved the beard from his chin in defiance, casting away the ring and the hood.
         A horrendous crack tore his mind from his memories and he recoiled, half expecting Durra’dûr to split beneath his feet and swallow him in its black marbled maw. Instead, a brilliant light flashed down from the heavens. Cerulean shot through with silver. It blinded him and there was a noise like the wailing of a thousand mourners. He squinted up at the sky. Wheeling above him was his favorite constellation as a boy, a gathering of stars that resembled a man a-horse. The Rider, it was called. The brightest star in the constellation was pulsing blue and sterling.
         Ostan closed his eyes as the light washed over him. It was the last light before all went dark.

Riders and Fire

This week’s Friday Flash Fiction Challenge from Chuck Wendig led us to a “random story title generator.” Out of the five titles presented, I chose “Riders and Fire.”

         “You’ve all heard of it—the apocalypse, the end times, the tribulation—whatever name you prefer to call it,” the tall, dark skinned man leaned forward at the podium. “But do you really have what it takes to be part of it?”
         Del rolled his eyes, hoping the Elder Partner couldn’t see all the way to the back corner. He should have known the apocalypse would come up at today’s meeting. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about the end times—that one of the reasons the Firm existed. He stifled a yawn, tugging his tie loose. Elsa shot him a glare as he inadvertently knocked her elbow off the armrest. He grinned back and winked. Del wasn’t afraid of Elsa Obrecht—oh, he knew what she was capable of—but she didn’t scare him. Not much did. He shifted in his seat again. The higher the price tag on the suit, the more uncomfortable it seemed. Del didn’t know why and it irked him. Maybe he could sue his suit-maker…
         “Delancey St. Martin,” the man at the podium stared into the darkness.
         Every head in the auditorium turned towards Del. He could almost feel Elsa smirking. He quickly straightened his tie and stood.
         “Yes, sir?”
         “Perhaps you’d like to share your opinions with us?” Colubra Maximus smiled toothily at him, teeth flashing white against his dark skin.
         I’d rather rot in hell, he thought; the joke was funny only to him and he kept the smile from his face. “Of course, sir.”
         Del gathered his papers and made his way towards the podium, taking special care to jostle Elsa as he squeezed past her. He shook Colubra’s hand, feeling the thin, papery flesh slide along his fingers with the usual internal shudder. He ran a hand through his dark hair—worn a little bit longer than some might consider professional and flashed the audience a smile. There were no responding smiles. But, in a crowd of lawyers, it wasn’t surprising. He leafed through his papers—most of which had nothing to do with the topic at hand and tried to remember where Colubra left off. He mentally shrugged. One thing he learned in law school and confirmed in subsequent years with the Firm was that he had a certain flair for bullshit.
         “As our illustrious Partner said, the First Stage is for the elite—the dedicated. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will be the harbinger of what is to come. For the al’Uttarak to succeed, we have to make sure the details are all perfect. Now, in the ancient texts, the Four Horses—white, red, black, and pale—symbolize in turn Victory or Conquest, War, Famine, and finally, Death,” he looked up from his nonexistent notes.
         The blinding lights shining on the stage sent sweat trickling down his forehead; he narrowed his eyes. The gathered attorneys were still awake, so he continued.
         “Of course, each horse must have a rider. The first rider will be the Antichrist, also called the al’Uttarak. ” Let’s hope they found the right one this time, he thought. Aloud, he continued, “He brings the first stage of the End. The other riders are uncertain from the ancient text,” he allowed himself a small smile. Funny how worked up everyone at the Firm got if you said the word “bible.”
         Colubra nodded at him from the side of the stage and he gave the man an obsequious smile, mentally imagining several ways he would like to kill the bastard.
         “Our esteemed Counselor noted that the First Stage is for the elite—the honor of being one of the Four to usher in the Apocalypse and wreak havoc is not for the faint hearted, not for those with uncertain loyalty,” Del’s eyes pierced the shadowy crowd; he was rewarded to see a few people flinch. He filed the information mentally—there were uses for faint hearts and wavering loyalty.
         “Thank you, Delancey,” Colubra clapped a dry hand on Del’s shoulder; he resolved to take the suit to the drycleaner’s in the morning.
         Del smiled again and bowed very slightly, gathering his papers and preparing to descend the platform.
         “One moment, please,” Colubra’s teeth glinted in the parody of a smile.
         Del ignored the chill that ran down his back and stood to the side where Colubra indicated.
         “Our Delancey—bright young man—said it better than I could have. These Four will usher in a new era for the Firm along with many changes. The Partners are proud of all you have done over the years—over the centuries,” he laughed drily. “I know you all have work to do, important things waiting back at your desks, but all of it can wait.”
         A rustle ran through the audience, Colubra always made you feel like he could read your mind. Maybe he can, Del thought.
         “You see, I did not invite you here for a history lesson on ancient texts—fascinating as Mr. St. Martin’s speech was. Our Foresight and Oversight Committee has discovered that the time is nigh for another of the horsemen to be revealed,” he stilled the murmur almost immediately with a wave of his hand. “We all know the al’Uttarak will ride the first horse, the white horse—that much is obvious. The al’Uttarak is devastatingly important, of course, as the figurehead of our movement, but the next horse—the Red horse of War—is almost equally crucial to our cause.”
         Del heard a strange sound behind the curtains and turned, straining to make out the noise. The curtains parted in a sweep of liquid, black fabric. A young man dressed incongruously in an expensive suit held the bridle of a blood bay stallion. The hubbub from the crowd took several moments to quiet. Del’s palms were beginning to sweat. He knew nothing about this demonstration. His sources said it was just an informational meeting, to bring them up to speed on the progress.
         The horse turned its head toward Del and whinnied.

This story should stand on its own, but is related to Another Brick in the Wall, A Cog in the Machine, Just Add Vermouth, and Pieces of the Puzzle.

Purge

Another Flash Fiction Challenge from Chuck Wendig, this time the story must contain psychic powers selected randomly from a list.*

         The ground shuddered again, harder. Some massive beast twitching in slumber, on the verge of waking. Kotah could feel the tremors run up the callused soles of his feet and join his drumming heart. The blue tattoos that patterned his chest and shoulders were interrupted by gashes that oozed blood. He could barely feel them. The venom was beginning to set in, he thought. It wouldn’t be long now. Animals fled past him on either side, predator and prey together. Above it all, birds rose like columns of black smoke over the shaking trees. He looked at the bow in his hand, carved and painted so carefully by his love, Caia. The wood was cracked and he could feel splinters prick his palm. The bowstring hung slack. Kotah let it fall, as she had fallen. He could not bear to look again at her sightless eyes, her copper skin that already seemed gray, the inky feathers of her hair he once tangled around his fingers. His bare chest heaved as a spasm of pain shot through the deepest cut.
         The shamans said a great evil would come and destroy the whole world. He and the other warriors had scoffed. The shamans always saw darkness in the smoke and ill omens in the entrails of the beasts they gutted for their rituals. Caia had believed them, he thought. He saw the fear in her tawny eyes when they spoke. But he soothed her, as he always did. The Kitsenye had never been defeated. The legends of their victory spanned ages, beyond the memory of even the oldest shaman. Kotah was marked as a warrior of the Kitsenye at thirteen, over twelve years ago. He rose among the men until he stood second only to the chief and the shamans. With each kill and each new line added to the maze of blue across his chest and back, he grew proud. Proud to be a warrior of the Kitsenye.
         “The Kitsenye are second only to the gods,” he told his men before each battle.
         Who were the gods really? He often asked himself. Their stone and wood images never spoke to him and he never heard their voices over the noise of the shamans’ chanting and wailing. As men fell beneath his arrows and his knives, he knew there were no gods. There were only the shamans with their superstitions and stories and the warrior, bathed in the blood of victory.
         Kotah realized he was on his knees on the rocky ground, hands gripping his skull, shaved except for the ridge of thick black hair that ran down it, ending in a tail that was braided with blue beads, one for every ten kills. This was the wrath of the gods. He had scoffed at them, scorned their power, and now a force such as the Kitsenye had never seen had come to the island. Their strange craft that flew through the air as the pirogues did through water, creating a wind that shook the tops of the trees. They set beasts loose on the island, beasts with too many legs and too many eyes, whose foul breath could stun and whose venom tipped claws could kill.
         The thunder of the enemy’s skyboats died away after only a few days, then earthquakes began. The shamans had sent the old and the sick, the children and the unwed women in the pirogues when the strange beasts first appeared. But it was too late now. The island had been lifted—by magic, by the hand of the gods, by the attackers with their machines, Kotah did not know. He had stood at the brink of what had once been the shore and gazed down at the ocean that roiled far below, as though the island was a strange flower that suddenly sprouted. As the tremors worsened, Kotah knew that the island was teetering on its weak stem of earth and whatever sorcery their attackers had used. He knew it would not be long now before the waves battered away at the base and the island of the Kitsenye and all those left alive toppled into the ocean.
         He was still on his knees, and the quivers were so violent that they almost threw him flat. He struggled to stand, the ground bucking beneath his feet and began to run. He could almost hear the core of the island beginning to crack under the strain. He knew chunks of land had been plummeting into the sea for days, crumbling off the shoreline. He did not look back. Caia was no longer there, just the shell that once held all he loved. He set his gaze on the great white stone that stood at the center of the island, a spike of glistening rock that the shaman’s claimed was a way to speak to the gods. He did not have to cut his palm to smear blood on the pristine surface—his lifeblood already mingled with the sweat that poured over his body.
         As soon as his crimsoned fingers touched the stone he felt a strange force run through him, as if lightning struck nearby. He still felt the rough surface beneath his fingers and the island shaking beneath his feet, but suddenly he was blinking in a dim room, staring at a group of men. They stared back at him, mouths hanging open like pink caverns in their fleshy white faces. They sat around a large wooden table, covered with the remains of a feast.
         “The Kitsenye…have fallen…all….lost,” Kotah struggled to speak, feeling as though a great weight was pressing on his chest.
         The men simply stared and the weight pressed harder and harder until Kotah, gasping, found himself back on the heaving island. He slumped to the ground, blood watering his crumbling land.
         “Well, looks like that little problem’s been taken care of,” the general said, brushing crumbs off his lapel. “Phone the Prime Minister and let him know the first phase is complete.”

* I received bilocation. And I may have cheated. Sue me

The City

This is the beginning of a piece of fiction on which I am working. It started as an assignment for a creative writing course in which we had to write a short piece set in a future we feared.

The City

She sat on the north side of the steps of the New York Public Library, as she often did, next to the one great stone lion still standing. He had been named Fortitude in the 1930s but she had dubbed him Vincent before she knew that and thought of him that way still. A herd of deer crept on delicate hooves around the wreckage of a car that was so rusted you could barely make out the BMW logo on the hood. She sat very still, watching the deer, heart pounding.

He peered through the sight on his rifle, adjusting it once he found a doe grazing on the edge of the herd, next to the rusted hull of a car. The winter sunlight glinted off the proud head of the remaining lion next on the steps of the Library and flashed in the shards of glass that edged the window. He inhaled slowly, hoping his stomach wouldn’t growl in the silence. He tightened his finger on the trigger and focused on his doe.

A shot rang out from a nearby building—what was left of a glass-walled skyscraper—and the deer fled in terror, leaving one behind on the ground. The doe twitched in her death throes and Elaina sighed. She slid down a few steps to peer beyond the protection of Vincent’s shadow.

A young man was trotting towards the corpse, his rifle slung across his shoulder. His jeans were dirty and ragged, tucked into tall black boots that looked at least a size too big. One was laced with bright orange twine. His navy hoodie had the Yankees logo displayed prominently across the chest, marred only by the belt of ammo that crossed it. He squatted to examine his kill. Elaina scooted back into the shadow of the lion, but accidentally dislodged an empty coke can with her worn tennis shoe and the clatter of aluminum rang out deafeningly in the silence. The boy’s shaggy blonde head jerked upward as he leveled the rifle in her direction.

“Don’t shoot,” she said, her voice echoing off the stone steps. She checked the 9mm Glock 19 that was tucked into the top of her black jeans at her lower back before pulling her baggy khaki vest over it. The boy had straightened from his crouch but his gun was still at the ready. Elaina lifted her hands and held them at her sides as she stood and stepped out from behind the lion.

He relaxed slightly, and quickly looked her up and down. Unlike him, her jeans were faded but clean and her shoes fit, even if her toes almost poked through the fabric in the left sneaker. Her long sleeved sweater was black like her jeans and hung loosely on her small frame. The vest hung well past her hips and was thick and warm. She kept her hands spread wide as she picked her way through the refuse and trash in the streets.

“What do you want?” he asked, standing possessively over the dead doe.

“Just for you to not shoot me,” she said. “I’m not after your deer, so chill out.”

“You from here?” he asked, his eyes flicking around the square.

“Here being the City? Or here being this square?” she couldn’t keep the mockery out of her tone.

“The City. I heard what it was like but…I didn’t expect this,” he finally lowered the gun, looking around with a furrowed brow.

“How old are you?” Elaina asked, not hiding her perusal of him. He looked older closer up; beneath the dirt on his face was a thin layer of scruff a few shades darker than his hair.

“Twenty. You?” he glared at her, bridling under her scrutiny.

“Eighteen. And in answer to your question: yeah, I’m from the City,” Elaina crossed her arms across her thin chest. “Nothing like the pictures, right?”

He shook his head, finally setting his rifle down and kneeling next to the deer. He pulled more orange twine from a pocket and began to hog-tie the doe’s legs together. He kept his eyes on his task, his fingers moving deftly.

“I saw the Statue of Liberty on my way up. I thought there’d be more left.”

Elaina scuffed the toe of her shoe against the concrete as he finished tying the deer. He looked up at her, his blue eyes were bright and weary. Ancient eyes.

“It’s all gone. The Empire State building, Ellis Island, even where the World Trade Center Memorial was built,” he hefted the deer and stood, slinging its body over his shoulders, bowing under the weight.

“The terrorists took out the Memorial first, then the hurricane took the island, and rebels blew up the Empire State Building,” she shrugged, brushing her blonde bangs out of her eyes. “I’m Elaina.”

“Jacob,” he nodded warily. It might not be his real name. She sized him up again. He didn’t look like a rebel.

“You got somewhere to stay?” she asked.

He gestured toward the shells of buildings in the background. Elaina laughed drily, shaking her head. She eyed him again, and then nodded to herself.

“Follow me,” she turned back toward the library.

“What?”

“Just come on,” she threaded her way through patches of broken pavement where dying grass shot through the cement and around piles of rotting garbage. She came to the edge of the library and turned around the corner, where half of the building had been reduced to rubble. She heard Jacob’s footsteps stop and turned to chivvy him on. She was surprised by the look of grief on his face as he stared at the ruins.

“All those books, all of that history…” he trailed off, flushing pink suddenly.

“Come on,” she tried to make her voice gentle. “It’ll be dark soon.”

At last they came to a spot where a flight of stone steps seemed to lead into the ground. Jacob watched as Elaina peered around furtively before hurrying down them and yanking aside a large sheet of metal that groaned on makeshift hinges. He warily followed her into the blackness, blinking when she picked up a lantern and turned it on.

“Solar powered,” she said in explanation, gesturing at the panel on the top. “We still have some batteries stockpiled but we’re saving them for…” she trailed off suddenly.

“I’m not a rebel,” he said, as if reading her thoughts.

“You’d say that though, wouldn’t you?” she held the lantern high in the dim interior and Jacob followed, the deer’s head scraping against the walls when he got too close. His neck was beginning to ache under the animal’s weight and he grunted.

“Almost there,” the girl laughed, turning off the lantern as the passage dead-ended into another doorway. She rapped sharply on the door in what sounded like a pattern. Nothing happened for a few moments, but then Jacob heard scraping noises behind the door and soon it opened a few inches.

“Who is this?” a man’s voice asked.

“Jacob. I found him wandering out front. He’s not from around here. If he’s a rebel he’s alone,” her tone sounded ominous and Jacob wondered how quickly he could drop the deer and get to his gun. The door opened inward to reveal the basement of the Library. Cots were lined along one wall and people sat on them playing cards or talking in low voices. He counted six or so varying in age before he stepped in and was confronted by a gray haired man with a gun.

“Jacob, is it?” his voice was deep and his gray eyes were hard.

“Yeah,” Jacob said defiantly as he fought the urge to say ‘yes sir,’ and shifted the deer slightly, ready to reach for his rifle.

“Where are you from?” the man asked.

“Kenneth, let him put that thing down before you start interrogating him, will you?” Elaina said sharply, surprising Jacob.

The older man glared at her for a moment before nodding and gesturing to a long table along one wall. Jacob gratefully set the deer down and rolled his shoulders to loosen the knot that had formed. He casually adjusted the rifle so that it was easier to reach while his back was turned. Elaina gestured to a few mismatched chairs that sat in a corner around another table that held three more flickering lanterns. Jacob sat and Kenneth sat facing him. Elaina curled herself into a dingy green armchair, pulling the gun from her waistband and resting it next to her knee. Jacob eyed it once, but she was looking at him expectantly.

“So, boy, what’s your story?” Kenneth asked.

Jacob figured he owed it to them; He set his rifle on the ground near his foot.

“I’m from Princeton, New Jersey. My dad and I heard that there’s a place on the border up in Maine where you can get through to Canada and after my mom died we decided to try for it. She was sick, she would have never made it,” he picked at a hangnail on his thumb as he spoke. “We were following along the Jersey Turnpike, and we got separated near Newark when a caravan of rebels came through and we had to run. He said if we got separated to meet up in the City. I went to the place where we were supposed to meet but,” he shrugged expressively, “he wasn’t there.”

“How long did you wait?” Elaina asked.

“Three days. Then I started getting pretty low on supplies, and I figured maybe he got there before me and waited and when I didn’t show he might have gone on,” he looked up at Kenneth, whose bushy black brows were furrowed low over his eyes. “Look, I’m not a rebel. Those bastards are the reason my mom got sick and died. They wouldn’t let us into the hospital because we’re not Party members. It was just the flu, but she couldn’t beat it,” the room fell silent and he realized his voice was raised. Gradually the talking started back up, quietly, and he glared at Kenneth until the man nodded at last. Elaina suppressed an exasperated sigh.

“I believe you,” she said firmly. “You can stay with us, but we won’t be here much longer. We’re heading for the border, too.”

“All of you, together?” Jacob looked around, eyebrows raised.

“Yes,” Elaina said, cutting Kenneth off as he opened his mouth to speak. “We have a few cars hidden around the City that we’ve repaired. We’ve been stockpiling gasoline—getting it out of broken down cars, generators—for months now, and we finally have enough ammo. We’re not taking any chances with rebels or anyone else.”

“Elaina organized everything,” Kenneth said gruffly and Jacob eyed her skeptically. She noticed the look and twitched her fingers towards the Glock with a glare. Jacob tried to make his expression bland.

“We can’t stay here. As much as it’s become home,” she eyed the room fondly before her expression hardened. “Things will only get worse. The rebel patrols have gotten closer and closer to catching us and if someone gets sick…We have to look out for ourselves, cause no one else is going to.”

“Can I come with you?” he blurted.

“Elaina, the cars are full enough as is,” Kenneth muttered, as though Jacob couldn’t hear. She simply looked at the older man for a long moment, biting her bottom lip.

“What about your dad?” She asked at last, skewering Jacob with her gaze. He met her eyes levelly before answering.

“I don’t know if I’ll find him even if I keep waiting. I don’t know if he’s even alive. Like you said, we have to look out for ourselves,” Jacob said. It was harsh, but so was everything else these days

“You can come. We could use a shot like you. But you have to pull your own weight, and get used to the fact that everything belongs to everyone. If you endanger us, you’re gone. Stupidity can get us all killed,” she waited until he nodded with agreement.

Then again, maybe his father was already on his way to Canada and would be there, waiting for him.