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Friday Fiction: The Exchange (Kraugh – Star Wars: Age of Rebellion)

Gaming 150This is a short short story featuring a character I’ll be playing for a friend’s Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game. He is a Togorian (a tall, feline-like alien species with a really interesting sexual dichotomy) who eschews the typical nomadic lifestyle of his species by choice — he views traveling throughout the galaxy as merely an extension of that lifestyle, where he gets to meet all manner of different sapient beings and find interesting technology for his wife. I like playing big guys who are more interested in the intellectual, spiritual or social, what can I say?

Kraugh slouched low in his chair, made sure his hands were under the table, kept his voice low and didn’t display his teeth. He knew that his size and teeth and claws had the potential to put his trading partner on alert, and he really didn’t want that. If he could manage to pull of this score, it’d be a huge boon for the crew.

His ears flicked around the bar as he scanned the riot of people stuffed into close quarters, shouting over each other to be heard. No sign of his partner, but it was early yet. He wouldn’t start to feel nervous about being stood up for another few minutes.

For now, he simply watched people. There were a pack of Bothans sitting in one corner booth, drinking something brightly colored out of a glass as long as their forearms. They were speaking quietly, their big ears turned towards each other, fur rippling in ways that meant something only to them. Kraugh briefly thought about heading over there, buying them a drink and striking up a conversation. He’d bet at least a thousand credits that they had something intensely interesting going down. Bothans tended not to gather in one place otherwise. He shifted in his seat and drained half of his drink in one long draught. The evening would pick up soon enough, he told himself. No need to go chasing excitement when it was coming to him.

A Wookiee and a Twilek sat at another table, speaking animatedly. He could pick up a few of the growls and muted roars of Shyriiwook, but couldn’t make much sense out of the conversation. They were worried about…either a person or a box that had gone missing either three days or three hundred years before. Either way, that sounded intriguing too. Maybe if he listened closer, he could find a way into–

A Rodian slipped up to the table, holding a satchel close against its chest. A shock of reddish-brown hair leapt between its antennae and presumably continued down the back of its skull. Kraugh would have guessed it to be female, but it was difficult to tell with reptilian races. He shifted his weight to stand, thought the better of it, and simply nodded to the empty chair across the table.

<<Thank you.>> It spoke in Rodese; thankfully it was one of the few phrases Kraugh knew.

“Basic, please,” he purred. “I’m sure you don’t want to hear me butchering your language any more than I’d want to mangle it.”

The Rodian sat down with a nod. “Fine. It’s enough of a surprise to see a Togorian away from his homeworld. I guess it’s too much to expect one to speak other languages.”

Kraugh flicked an ear, taking his partner’s measure. Clearly, she was nervous — the smart play here would be to put her at ease. “I’ve picked up a few here and there. You can’t be a Galactic citizen for very long without learning a few things.”

“True.” The Rodian clutched the satchel even now. “Like being brief when you’re making a deal.”

Kraugh smiled, remembered his fangs, and stopped. “I won’t keep you.” He nodded towards the bag. “Is that it?”

The Rodian nodded, shrugging the satchel’s strap from around her shoulder and pushing the package across the table. “Open the bag and inspect quickly. If you need a closer look, you can take it into the refresher.”

Kraugh perked a brow. “You’d trust me alone with the package?”
“You wouldn’t be. There’s a Gamorrean there who’ll be glad to escort you back to the table.”

This time Kraugh couldn’t suppress a grin. “Smart.”

“You have to be to do what I do for very long.”

“I’m glad you are.” He opened the satchel with the flick of a claw and lifted the flap to peek inside.

The gun looked like the standard issue SE-14r given to stormtroopers with a few modifications. The sight was missing, the barrel was slightly shorter and the overall form factor was a bit sleeker. The pack was notably smaller, presumably to make room for a slightly rounded bulge near the safety mechanism. That could mean only one thing.

“They did it.” Kraugh purred as he closed the satchel and shoved it back towards the Rodian. “They got the gyroscopic sight to work.”

The Rodian simply nodded. “You can fire as many shots with a smaller battery, too. Small, efficient, accurate. It’s a big improvement.”

“But this is only a prototype, right? So what’s the problem?”

“The laser battery is right up against the gyroscopic sight. So if you auto-fire or shoot off a few too many rounds in too short a time, you start to warp the scope.”

Kraugh blinked. “So the more you shoot, the less accurate you get.”

“That’s right. But you don’t want a functional weapon anyway, do you?” It was possible that the Rodian smiled. Kraugh would really have to become more familiar with the finer points of their physiology.

“No, I don’t. Let’s just say it’ll be neat to see how this thing works.”

The Rodian clicked once. “A Togorian interested in technology? Now I’ve seen everything.”

Kraugh shook his head. “Oh, it’s not for me. Give me a good sc’rath any day. This is a present for my wife.”

“A romantic Togorian is even more surprising. Who’s your wife? I might have had dealings with her.”

“Give me your name and I’ll see if she knows you. She doesn’t meet many off-worlders, but that could change once her position improves.” Kraugh grinned, showing teeth this time.

The Rodian waved off the comment good-naturedly. “Perhaps another time, then. Once we’ve learned to trust each other.”

“Once you’ve learned to trust me, you mean.” Kraugh dug into the pack at his hip and fished out a number of credit sticks. They were easily hidden in his hand, and he placed them under the satchel. “You’ll find it all there, plus a little extra for making this run so smoothly. Hopefully, that’ll help.”

He leaned back while the Rodian counted the credits and slipped them into her pocket. “It does, a little. It’s been a pleasure, Togorian, but I’m sure you have other places to be.”

Kraugh lifted a brow. “Other business here?” He drained his drink and stood, grabbing the satchel in one big hand. “If you have anything else for me, just pass a word along to Talik. He’ll make sure it gets to me.”

“I sure will,” the Rodian said. “Until then.”

Kraugh nodded and stalked towards the entrance of the bar. It only occurred to him when he ducked out into the heat of the day that this could be some sort of sting operation, but he quietly dismissed it. Just because they were engaged in a number of under-the-table activities doesn’t mean they couldn’t trust one another? There had to be such a thing as honor among thieves, after all.
The Rodian looked to make sure the Togorian was gone before speaking into her comm. “The mark has taken the bait. Repeat, the mark has taken the bait.”

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2015 in Furries, RPGs, Writing

 

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Short Fiction: No Man’s Land

Writing 150(This is what I came up with for a Thursday prompt two weeks ago, boundaries. I wanted to return to Matthew from my previous story and see how he was doing after the transformation was complete. This story doesn’t end so much as stop, and I’ll need to take a couple more stories to focus specifically on endings. But for now, here’s the story.)

“There it is. That’s the edge of the reservation.” Kikkitik gestured with one long forearm towards the unassuming low fence they were walking towards. Matthew was surprised by its modesty; it was a simple wooden post fence, lined with wires that may or may not be electric. It stretched over the plain that served as the outside edge of the chimeral reservation, as far as he could see to the north and south. It couldn’t have been higher than three feet. He could have stepped over it easily, and Kikkitik could simply crawl over it herself. There was a dirt road just beyond it, and beyond that a slope that lead to more grassland. They stopped thirty feet before they reached the boundary. Matthew knew Kikkitik wanted no part of it, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to flirt with it, either.

He had been on the reservation for nearly a month now, but this was the first time he had taken the tour. There were a number of reasons he didn’t want to leave the confines of the small compound that served as their home, but one by one Kikkitik had resolved them. She was patient and steady with him, and it was the least he could do to reward that effort with the walk around the ground she had been pushing for. That didn’t mean he was ready to face the world beyond the reservation just yet, though. Expanding the world he was in was adventurous enough.

He had changed and lost everything he knew. Right now, he was a hulk of a creature, nine feet tall with the solid and shaggy build of a bear. His head was a mixture of bear and beaver, oversized incisors and prominent canine teeth in a boxy, short muzzle. His ears were broad and long, his nose was large and sensitive, his eyes were dark and small. It took him several weeks to navigate the vast gulf between his old body and his new one, and even now he was unsure of how things worked. He shouldn’t be able to talk with the strange shape of his mouth, or the teeth that were too large or small and in all the wrong places. But he spoke anyway.

“I was expecting something more.” He heard his voice, deep and rich and rolling. He sounded like the noble warrior from a fantasy movie. It didn’t suit him.

Kikkitik’s mandibles clacked together several times, making a thick and heavy knock-knock-knock-knock sound that he had learned was laughter. “Most people do. But it doesn’t take much to keep us in here, or the rest of the world out there. Both groups decided they’d rather stick to their own kind a long time ago.”

“Mmm.” Matthew turned to look at her. She was something out of most people’s nightmares, the unholy cross of a praying mantis and a millipede blown up to vehicular-sized proportions. Out of all the chimera on the reservation, she was easily the most unnerving. But she was quiet and thoughtful, patient and pragmatic. She had carried him through his transition to reservation life, kicking and screaming. He now considered her his best friend. “I’m not sure that’s such a good thing. It’s only a matter of time before one of us gets tired of tolerant isolation.”

She looked down at him, her antennae waving consideringly. “That may be. But for now, this works. We have time and space to consider who and what we are.”

“And it gives them time to figure out that they don’t want us around, whatever it is we decide we are.”

Kikkitik knocked once. “So untrusting.” She was practicing her vocal inflection, he could tell. It didn’t quite convey the amusement she had been aiming for, but it carried across enough that he knew what she was trying to do.

He grinned at her in the way he learned, opening his jaws, sticking his tongue out over his lower incisors. It was his best approximation, but it still didn’t look quite right. The instinctive reaction made it look like he was snarling far too much. “Have you watched the news? Chimera aren’t exactly being embraced out there.”

“I don’t watch television anymore, no. It makes me feel too weird. I guess I haven’t seen anyone hating us yet. I’ve only seen them.” She nodded, and stretched out a forearm as far as it would go. Matthew followed her gaze, over the fence and down into the small valley to the east.

His eyesight had gotten a lot worse, but his hearing and smell had gotten a lot better. He lifted his nose to the wind and sniffed, then swiveled his ears in the direction she pointed. He caught the scent of gasoline, sun-baked metal, and people. He heard the hum of generators and idle chatter too distant to make out clearly. He could barely make out the speck of sunlight glinting off a metallic surface, too, but that didn’t tell him nearly as much as his nose and ears did.

“Who are they?” he rumbled.

“They’re people who’ve gone out of their way to contact us. When they see us near the boundaries of the reservation, they hold up signs telling us we’re welcome and still thought of as people.” Kikkitik chittered. Matthew had no idea what that meant.

Matthew had no idea what to think about those people at the bottom of that shallow hill, either. Immediately his mind conjured images of those kooks outside of Roswell or Area 51, welcoming aliens and asking to be lifted to higher states of consciousness. Did those people think of him as something more than human? Did they think his transformation had given him any answers to life’s questions? He wanted to run down there, just to tell him that he was as scared and confused as the next man. He didn’t have any answers. He barely had any friends.

“That’s kind of nice,” was all he said.

Kikkitik chittered, then turned away from the fence to begin the long walk back to the compound. “Give it time,” she said. “People are always freaked out by the things they’ve never encountered before. And right now, we’re just on the edge of what they know. They just need time to absorb that.”

Matthew was silent, but he fell into step beside her. Whenever he had to jog, he had to fight the urge to fall to his hands and run on all fours. He had his doubts about her optimistic view, but he hoped she was right. That small fence made an effective boundary between their worlds right now, but it wouldn’t hold forever. Sooner or later, human and chimera would need to deal with each other.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2012 in Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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Short Fiction: Matthew Prepares for His Birth

Writing 150(The Thursday Prompt last week was “forever”. That got me thinking about what forever means to us, and how we would never really want something to last forever. People were made to exist in a changing universe, and the drive to adapt is coded in our genetics. That lead me down a rabbit trail and into this story, which is undoubtedly influenced by “The Homecoming“, a wonderful Hugo-nominated short story from Mike Resnick. I think it conjures a good idea of what ‘forever’ really means to us, a vague state of affairs that will exist long into the future after we will. Anyway, here’s the story, 1344 words.)

“Forever? What do you mean forever?” Matthew shifted in his bed, his ears scraping against the headboards. They felt so strange, higher than they should have been, long and fragile and immense. They were flaps of skin, really, perfectly shaped for catching sound. He had no need for them. He didn’t want them. He felt the developing muscles at their bases fold them downward, and he knew immediately that it was a signal of his mood to the people in the room. It made his stomach roll. He was already getting used to them.

Dr. Patel stood to the left of him, a mask over his face, a clipboard in his hands. The man looked tired, but that was to be expected. Counting Matthew, there were 14 other cases that broke out in the immediate area and chances are they had all come here. How many times had he had this conversation? How many times did he have to look at a misshapen face in mid-transformation and try to sound sympathetic?

“What I’m saying is, there is no known cure for your condition.” Dr. Patel’s accent and low voice made him difficult to hear under his mask. Matthew’s left ear flicked up, scraping the thick mane of hair he was growing and the wall. It was like turning up the volume on the TV. Suddenly he was as clear as a bell. “We have no idea how it works, why it does what it does. For now, the best that we can do is make you comfortable through your change and prepare you for what your life will be like…after.”

Matthew’s mother began sobbing at the foot of his bed. He watched his father go to her, standing behind her chair to grab her shoulders. He looked like he was about to cry, too. It struck him that they were grieving for him. Right then and there, while he was still in the room. His heartbeat quickened, and he felt a flash of anger. His parents. His own parents. To them, he was as good as dead.

Yet in so many ways, he was. The transformation phase was the contagious phase, at least as far as the CDC had told the public. But that wouldn’t stop him from being fired, from people crossing the street when they saw him approaching. It wouldn’t keep his landlord from finding a reason to evict him, and it wouldn’t protect him from the gangs of anti-chimeral activists popping up all over the world. He would either need to seek sanctuary at the CDC in Atlanta and submit himself to biological testing, or he would have to find one of those reservations out west and live off the grid as much as he could. Either way, his life was over.

He felt his breath quicken. His jaw hadn’t broken yet, but he could feel the pain along stress points as he spoke. His eyes were wide, he knew it. He could only imagine how he looked. “I…I got out of the water as soon as I could. As soon as…I….I knew…”

Dr. Patel put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down on the bed. Matthew hadn’t even realized how far he had sat up. “I know. You were only exposed for a very brief amount of time, but the agent was very aggressive. By the time anyone knew what was happening, it had taken hold for most of the people on the beach. I’m sorry. I truly am.”

Matthew remembered being in the water, the coolness and moisture and salt in the air as he splashed with Amy. The sun was sinking low over the buildings behind the boardwalk, and night approached from the ocean. There were ribbons of brightness in the waves as they crested closer to shore, but everyone thought that was just the sunlight reflecting on the water. No one had any idea something was wrong until a little boy started to scream and slap at his skin as if he was trying to put himself out.

Then Matthew felt it, the water starting to burn on his skin. It was like someone had slipped enough acid into the entire ocean for it to start scouring things. He grabbed Amy and waded back to shore in a panic, and he practically had to drag her on the beach those last few feet. Ten minutes later and the boardwalk was lined with black vans, grabbing people, pulling bags over their head, carrying them away. He saw a man in fatigues grab Amy and lift her over his shoulder, kicking and screaming. He was on the southern edge of the beach by now. He turned and fled.

That was the last time he saw her. That night he drank himself to sleep, chased by a pounding headache. The next morning he woke up with long, rabbit-like ears covered in fuzz that matched the shade of chestnut-brown his hair had become. His parents recoiled when he stumbled downstairs, and they immediately called the hospital. Three days later, and they’re still quarantined. His mom and dad will likely go home, eventually. But he’ll simply disappear.

Dr. Patel told him what he could expect in the coming days — there’ll be pain as his body’s changes grow more and more severe, and they’ll come in waves that will last anywhere from hours to days. Bones will stress until they break, and then re-set themselves. His body will be flooded with adrenaline most of the time, and the stress on his heart will be tremendous. They have painkillers and tranquilizers ready to counteract it, though. At some point, maybe in a month, maybe three, he’ll be something new, unmistakably and irrevocably, and he’ll be released into his parents’ care.

His mother had to leave the room halfway through the doctor’s speech. His father left a moment or two after that, and the doctor left as soon as he knew there would be no other questions. The silence descended around Matthew’s bed, thick and total.

Matthew knew that this would be one of the last times he’d ever see his parents. His mother wouldn’t be able to handle the sight of his body mangling itself to become something alien, and his father always retreated from the things he didn’t understand. They might tell all of his friends that he died with Amy, and even have a funeral. Of course there would be no body. It would have decomposed long ago to make room for whatever form he’d be walking around with by then.

He flattened his ears and closed his eyes. His life was over. The death would be painful, and at the end of it he would have a brand-new, more difficult life that he would need to learn to live. He knew he wasn’t ready, but whoever was? No matter how much time you had to prepare for it, death was always sudden. You could never know how to deal with it when it comes.

His mind spun. He thought of Amy, Mom and Dad. He thought of his coworkers at the office, his drinking buddies, the college friends he always looked up when they came home for the holidays. He would need to say goodbye to each and every one of them. He would have to let them go, forever.

Abruptly, he grabbed the remote and flipped on the television. He watched the news reports of the giant rising out of the Atlantic Ocean and devastating the boardwalk just hours after he ran. The military managed to kill it before it contaminated the entire city, but the loss of life and property was immense. That alien was still stretched across the length of the beach, he knew, covered over with plastic and being slowly dissected by the CDC. The creature had been the death of him, he thought.

But it had also birthed him.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2012 in Writing

 

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Sleepwalkers Fiction: The Gateway

(Here is a short bit of Sleepwalkers fiction that I’ve written. I wanted to establish the voices of some members of The Trio (the more problematic ones), and get a bit of a feel for the magical aspects of the setting.)

“This is my grandmother’s house,” the rabbit with the trenchcoat said. He placed one big ear on the door while he picked the lock with his tools. “It’s been in my family for generations.”

Brendan rolled his eyes and looked around. He was in a stranger’s backyard, somewhere in Towson. There weren’t a lot of neighborhoods like this left, with the plot of grass, a couple of trees, the white picket fences. Those that managed to hang on were typically lived in by the very rich, those that could afford neighborhood watches and security systems. On nights like this, when the moon was full and the sky was cloudless, he really didn’t want to be out with a pooka who could simply disappear at the first whiff of trouble. He’d be caught with locksmith’s tools that he couldn’t explain, for reasons he didn’t even know. It’d make a great story in the papers, and a bad end to his career.

And yet here he was, with Prescott the rabbit. He trusted the pooka with his life, but he would never ever believe him. It was the curse of his kind to speak in lies and riddles, and it made work out of finding the most simple truths. Dealing with him for very long was nothing short of exasperating, and in a situation like this it could be dangerous. But if what he thought Prescott was telling him was correct, then it was a danger that had to be faced.

“Right, you told me this before.” Brendan tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice. “And you’re sure that your grandmother is asleep? There’s no chance anyone will catch us?” He looked around again. There was no one in the neighboring yards, nothing but a few cats in the alley beyond. He still felt incredibly exposed in the shallow stairwell that lead from the lawn to the basement door. All it took was one person looking out of the window right now…

“The lady of the house is bound to come into her dark, quiet basement to cure her insomnia sometime soon.” Prescott shrugged. “And the neighborhood watch makes door-to-door checks on nights just like tonight to make sure there aren’t a couple of weirdos in her house for no reason.”

Brendan sighed. “All right then. Let’s just…get this done. Show me what you’ve found and we’ll get out of here.”

The lock clicked and the door swung open a few inches. Prescott gestured him forward with a grin. “I’ll be glad to, as soon as I can get these lockpicks to work.”

He stepped in to the dark room as quickly as he could and stood to the side. He heard Prescott hop in after him. The door creaked when the rabbit closed it, and it felt like the sound echoed off the empty stone walls. He took a deep breath, tried to still the beating of his heart inside his ears, and let his eyes adjust to the weak light.

A human’s eyes would have never been able to resolve the shadows in front of him, but Brendan’s kind had been around when there were only stars to light the way through ancient forests, before men had figured how to harness fire to light their dwellings. Though he didn’t have every ability known to his elven ancestors, he at least had this. It took a few moments, but boxes and old furniture soon crept out of the shadows in his vision. He could see the stairs leading up to the main part of the house forward and to his left, a boarded-up window across the room that clearly offered a view of the street, and the detritus of a long life sprawled out before him.

Prescott brushed his arm as he made his way past. His eyes flashed as he turned to look at him. “You’ll want to stand right there while I show you the door. Really, far away is the best way to see it.”

He followed the rabbit to the far corner of the room, picking his way past boxes and stacks of magazines, chairs and tables and oil lamps. Various scents leapt out of the dust at him as his passage disturbed the air. There was old wood and polish, glass and metal that had been heated and cooled dozens of time. As he made his way to the corner, he smelled something else as well. The long-settled call of dreamstuff suddenly tickled his senses, and it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Prescott got down on one knee and planted his hands on the brick. His luminescent eyes closed and darkened the room just a hair; Brendan found himself shuddering in response. He leaned in to see exactly what the rabbit was doing.

“Do you–”

“Shut up!” The rabbit hissed at him. “You’ll wake the old lady.” He turned back to face the wall. His face deepened in concentration.

Brendan straightened and frowned. That tone was unacceptable, he thought. The varmint needed to learn his place again, obviously. Then he blinked and stepped back, surprised at himself. That…thought was unacceptable. Where did it come from?

A door that wasn’t there a moment before clicked and opened. The air in the room changed, and a small breeze ruffled the nearest stack of papers, pulling the stale basement dust towards it. Prescott’s face was bathed in a milky glow. The rabbit opened his eyes again and looked towards Brendan, his whiskers twitching. He was obviously pleased with himself.

It was a door about four feet high by four feet wide. Through it, there was a winding road made of moonlight that cut through a forest of blasted, gnarled trees. Brendan could hear voices, quiet and insistent, whispering foul things to him. He saw a set of red eyes glowing in the periphery of his vision, but they would disappear when he looked directly at them. It took him only a moment to realize what this was, what Prescott had found.

“You found a Silver Trod. To Nightmare. How did you…?” Brendan backed away from the door. He had seen what he needed to, and he wanted the voices to just stop.

“Ancient Chinese secret,” Prescott said, and obligingly shut the door. The portal disappeared as soon as he did, sinking back into the wall. “I’m sure it was attracted by all the sweet dreams this family has had over generations and generations. Once you know what to look for, it’s easy to connect the dots.”

Brendan thought about how scarce Prescott had been lately. Suddenly, it all made sense. He felt his annoyance with the pooka melting away. “And no one else knows about this?”

Prescott grinned. “Oh, I Instagrammed it as soon as I discovered it. The Ominous filter was a bit of a disappointment, though.”

Brandan laughed, despite himself. Prescott swatted his arm and put a fuzzy finger to his lips. He quieted immediately. The rabbit’s ears flicked and they both looked up, listening. No sound came from the floor above.

Outside, he clapped the pooka on the shoulder and smiled at him. “Tremendous work, Pres. Really. Trods are getting increasingly rare, especially obscure ones. This will be a huge help to us.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.” The rabbit batted his eyelashes, reached into his trenchcoat and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “Tell me more.”

Brendan swallowed the snappy comment he would have made and pinched his eyes instead. Maybe he could get Vitaly to join them at the diner. He always felt better when there was a buffer between them. “I will over coffee and pie. Come on, let’s go. My treat. It’s the least I could do.”

The elf and the rabbit snuck out of the old lady’s yard and darted between shadows in the alley. When they departed, it looked like any other suburban street, a dwindling pocket of Americana special only in its blandness.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2012 in Writing

 

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Short Fiction: My Father’s Last Best Memory

We had been in the bunker for two weeks, well past the time we should have all been dead. We had no idea why the world hadn’t ended by now, or if it actually had and the screams we were hearing through the windows were just extremely long death throes. We knew that nothing worked, so we couldn’t get any information where we were. The radio was dead, and so was the TV, and even if they were working there probably wasn’t anyone left reporting the news.

Our rations were holding, and would be good for ten more weeks. Mom wanted to wait it out for at least another month before we even thought about leaving. There was no telling what was out there, she reasoned. Even if everything was OK, there was no law and order to protect them. Just because the world had kept going didn’t mean society had.

That’s precisely why Dad wanted to go. Society was simply a collection of people, he said. There needed to be someone willing to help pick up the pieces and put them back together. All it took was someone willing to work towards it, and people would follow suit. Besides, there was no question that something happened two weeks ago, and he might be able to figure out what it was better than anyone.

I love my father. I wish I shared his idealism, but I don’t. Mom is right — it’s dangerous and frightening out there. The thought of him walking out the door, full of optimism and excitement, and then disappearing is too much for me to think about. I was expecting my life to be over by now, and in so many ways this is much worse. We’re alone together with our thoughts and no information. There’s just the distant noise of chaos outside.

That was, until yesterday. We heard the man before we saw him. He had been screaming for so long his voice was hoarse and raw, and he was still going as long and as loudly as he could. We could hear him somewhere in the woods around our house for an hour, and then when my mother looked out of the window she screamed for a second before covering her mouth.

He was stumbling around out there, his clothes in tatters, his skin darkened with what could have been blood, or dirt, or anything. It was hard to tell. The window only afforded a ground-level view of him, and the closer he got the less we could see.

The man’s voice was high and panicked. He had been clearly making his way to the house. He yelled and yelled and yelled for help until he was twenty feet away. Then he collapsed. He sobbed there in the dirt for a while, and then he yelled. This kept going for another hour.

Mom had turned away from the window and put her hands over her ears. It was like the man’s madness was contagious and she was trying her best not to catch it. Dad stood at the window and stared, transfixed. Then he got up and got his gear, went to the stairs leading up to the house.

“What are you doing?” Mom’s attempt to innoculate herself from the man’s hysteria hadn’t worked. “You can’t go out there!”

She was up in a flash. She crossed the room and grabbed Dad’s coat, trying to physically pull him back from the stairs. He grabbed her wrists until she let go. She broke down crying worse than I had ever seen her. Worse than even grandma’s funeral.

“I…I can’t just leave him out there,” Dad said. “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t help him?”

Mom didn’t say anything. She was crying too hard. Dad hugged her for a long time, and when he saw me hovering at the edge of his reach he called me over and hugged me too. I didn’t know what to say to him. I had no idea how to feel. It felt like I was waking up from a dream, like any minute I would be sitting up in my bed relieved that the past two weeks hadn’t happened.

“Take care of your mother, Lowe. She’s going to need you to be strong for her while I’m gone.” He looked at me, and I looked back. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Was he afraid? Excited? It felt like he was just thinking of us, here, now. The way he looked at me, it didn’t feel like he was about to go out into a world that wasn’t known to us any more.

“I will.” I heard myself saying it without understanding what it was I had agreed to. My voice sounded flat, automatic.

Somehow, he had removed himself from us. I was hugging Mom, who was still crying on my shoulder. My dad was a tall man with brown hair and kind eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses. He favored sweaters in earth tones and puffy jackets that made him look less skinny than he was. He wore a hat and goggles, had a backpack slung over his shoulder. It looked like he was going on a ski trip.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can. When I knock on the door three times, then once more after a pause, you’ll know it’s me.” He rapped on the staircase railing three times, then hovered over it with his fist, then knocked out the last blow. “Got it?”

I nodded. If I opened my mouth I was going to cry, though I had no idea why.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and then he smiled. “I love you.”

He climbed the stairs and opened the door to the passage behind the walls of our house that lead to this bunker. He turned awkwardly in the narrow space, then shut the door softly. I heard his footsteps grow fainter. My mother sobbed louder.

That was the last time I saw him. It took us four more weeks before we got desperate enough to search for him.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2012 in Writing

 

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