The Machine

I shared my campsite that night with an older woman. She was in her mid-50s, her hair completely gray, and tanned by the sun. Her eyes were light green and seemed to be even lighter against all the black she wore. She had crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes and a warmer smile than the artificial heater we defrosted by. She had been walking on the road at night when I pulled up behind her.

“Thank God you stopped.” She said. “I’m always very worried when I’m by myself at night. I’m sure I look like a very easy target.” The large hunter’s knife in her pocket proved her to be just the opposite.

She clearly knew how to use it too – the rabbit I caught in the woods before she found me was skinned, gutted and roasting on a spit before I even had time to think.

It wasn’t long before we were talking about the days before. Usually the people her age called them the ‘good old days’, for obvious reasons – sure, nuclear destruction was hanging over their heads every day, the economy was so horrible that it was almost impossible to live, and weather around the world started to go haywire. Of course, there was so much more than that, but compared to the lives many of the older generation lived now…it was still better. There was clean, running water most of the time. They had a warm place to sleep. Food that was actually nutritious. Generation Z had it all.

But this lady didn’t refer to that time as the ‘good old days’. This, to her, was her good old days. The golden age of her life. She wasn’t struggling for food, she said, because she always knew where to go to find it. Fresh water. Safer places to sleep.

So I asked her why she was so miserable in the time before. And how she came to be so free in this time, now. And well, I’m sure you know the drill by now.

– – – – –

I was late. Again.

It wasn’t unusual. The trains were shit. Complete and utter shit. I was stuck on my schedule from when I had my car. But when the tires blew, and the engine blew, and basically everything else blew, I had to bring my car into the shop. Despite me not having any money to pay for it. But, you know, life finds a way.

The office building I worked in was gray. Gray brick outside, white and gray offices inside. It was your generic office scenario. I sold some athletic shit for a company whose name I don’t remember. It was twenty years ago. As long as the pants we sold made your ass look really good, we stayed in the black.

My boss found me in my office typing away. And his face wasn’t happy. But what was I supposed to do? I lived two hours away. That was where I could find affordable housing, decent produce, and a relatively safe neighborhood. But what did it matter to him? I was part of the generation that didn’t matter.

He couldn’t fire me. He knew he couldn’t. And so he bit his tongue, and kept quiet. And waited for me to make a misstep – to make an overly sexual comment, to spread too much office gossip, to toe out of line and give him a reason to report me to HR or a higher up. But I saw him, and his eagle eyes, and I knew. This office wasn’t about making the best sales, or employee of the month. It was about navigating the waters of office politics. Be the best cog in the machine. Just like the office on the floor above us. And the office on the floor below us.

And this monotony wasn’t anything new. Assembly lines had been around for over a hundred years. As soon as we realized that we could just hire a person to put one cog in a Ford car for their entire life, then we realized that we could just make the person that cog.

Of course I was going to say I longed for something different. Who doesn’t? You always long to have that corner office. Be the CEO. Rise above that ‘cog in the machine’ mentality. But see, the thing is, we aren’t. We never are. That mentality is just an extension of the society we live in. And that idea is just an extension of the world around us. See, the world sees us the same way. We’re just another part of the ecosystem. The reason why there was a global food shortage was because bees went extinct. They were the main pollinator for most of the world’s food. That was the ecological niche they filled. Not even robotic bees were able to take over the ecological niche they fulfilled.

I think it was on that day that I asked, “What niche do we fulfill, then?”

It’s kind of easy to see where evolution went with us. We weren’t meant to be a top predator. We were meant to be in the middle. We lived in packs. Used some tools. We could take down large herbivores, but then carnivores could take us down.

But then we grew up. We got smarter. And we hunted smarter.

So I think that’s where we went wrong – we became more than just the cogs in the machine. We became a machine. All of us. I was chuckling to myself in my office. Too poor to pay the repair costs on my car. Too poor to buy food. Unable to get to work on time. Thank God the whole office was soundproof, because I don’t know if I could have done anything else in that situation. Apart from jumping out the 34th story, which I strongly considered.

I was still high as shit from the night before. I was so fucking high. That was probably the last time I would be that high.

In any case. That realization was about two hours before the first nuke hit in our country. It was on New York City. And, well, that was pretty far away from us. But we were a major city as well, and a pretty important one at that. So it was only a matter of time that it would happen to us too.

I remember the mass panic. The screaming. The fires. The jumping out of windows. I wasn’t sure how, but I was certain that we weren’t going to be hit that day. And so I walked out of that building at 10:47 A.M., surrounded by the stench of fear. I walked down all 34 flights of stairs to the ground floor, and out the door. And I walked all the way home.

The next one hit our city the day after. Not that it mattered to me. I was already out of there, in the back of my neighbor’s SUV with what I thought was all my important possessions in my backpack. Just some clothes, my birth certificate, stuff like that. Turns out, some of the stuff wasn’t as important as I thought. The first time I used the birth certificate was to get into a refugee camp. The second time was when I left. And the last time I used it as kindling in a fire.

It wasn’t long before the United States was lighting up like metal in a microwave. Little pops here and there. Every time you ran into someone you’d hear about another nuke. I’m sure you didn’t though – you were young enough that your parents protected you from that, I’m sure. But I was your age when all this was happening. And I was scared, and I wasn’t as good with a knife then as I am now. I didn’t know how to skin anything, I didn’t know how to kill an animal, I didn’t even know how to start a fire.

That is, until I met Evan. Evan was the macaroni to my cheese. He was the sun to my sky. He took me under his wing – he was in a gang, you see, they lost a lot of people when the cities were destroyed, both in the rioting and in the nukes – and they needed members. So I joined. I learned how to use a knife, I learned how to rob people, I learned how to resell our loot. Became the master of the black market. Drugs, mythical artifacts, people. We never killed anyone. But we did some serious damage. I learned a lot from Evan. Don’t get me wrong – he learned from me too, we had this ‘equivalent exchange’ thing going on. It wasn’t long before I was leading robberies, creating monopolies, a lot of bad shit. But I loved it. I didn’t have to worry about paying bills, I was fucking my boss, I wasn’t a cog in the machine. I was free to leave.

I did leave, after a while. Evan slipped up during one of our missions and got himself killed. I felt like my life was ending. But I’m still here. And to be honest, I became a machine. Every morning I get up, take a drink of water, and begin to walk. I walk until I’ve gone somewhere or my feet become tired. I stop, I eat, I go to sleep.

I see you there, and I see your face. You probably think I’ve done some really bad things. And I have. How much does that make me a bad person, though? How much do I regret it? And does my being a good person hinge on my regretting my actions?

I don’t think I’m a bad person necessarily. I told you of some of the things that I’ve done, but that’s not my entire life choices. The gang took orphaned kids in, we gave them a chance. In my time I’ve set up solar energy and water purification systems in small towns across Appalachia. The fact of the matter is that it’s not up to you to judge me. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Judgment’s not important when survival of the fittest is what matters most.

Evan wasn’t fit. He was stupid. I was smart, and I was fit. And if it matters, I think you’re fit too.

Maybe that’s what I was after all along. Apathy? A release from the need to be a part of something bigger? Or perhaps it was the fear that the cog I was would never fit in the society that I was born into?

I don’t think it matters. Machines think. Cogs don’t.

– – – – –

I was up for a long time after she told me her story. She was a chaotic thing, like a tornado, her story jumping from place to place so I had a hard time sorting through it all. I was writing in my beaten leather notebook by the dim light of the electric heater. Even when I finished I couldn’t help but think of Evan. She loved him, I think. But she was angry at him, even years after his death.

She didn’t seem like a horrible person, but I definitely did not like her. Sure, she did some good things. But doing good things does not a good person make. And vice versa. I didn’t believe all of the things she told me – I figured she was exaggerating, or covering something up out of shame. Whether she was a sociopath, or just simply lost, was unknown to me. But like she said – it didn’t matter.

The next morning when I woke up the woman was gone. So were her sleeping bag, my heater, and my solar-powered bike. All I had left was the contents of my backpack (my computer, some clothes, three notebooks), my sleeping bag, and a sense of emptiness.


My time in Montana

The isolated communities of Montana were relatively undamaged by nuclear fallout. The soil was pure, the water potable, and the ecosystem of fauna and flora remained intact. The people were few, but hardy and hospitable. The entire state of Montana was the best-kept secret in North America. My visit there lasted for over half a year. I lived in a small compound with three families – one a refugee family from Idaho, the others had lived there their whole lives. There were seven children between three and seventeen, and a couple’s grown daughter still living there.

One of the parent’s mothers was the matriarch of the place. Her name was Jen, and she was a white-haired, thin-lipped piece of work. She was by far the funniest and the toughest person I had ever met on my travels and was the most interesting person to talk to. She told me about where she was when the bombs first hit, and when they hit near her, and how she acclimated to a completely different lifestyle. Growing up in Montana, she said, had been a death sentence to her. She feared as a child that she would never leave, and dreamt of moving to Seattle or L.A. As she grew up and had 2 children, a white picket fence, and a golden retriever, she accepted the fact that she would never leave. When the bombs hit and destroyed Seattle and L.A., her prison became her paradise. Her son was presumably killed in the blast over Seattle. Her daughter, a botanist, stayed in the area and set up the farm the compound uses to this day. Sometimes Jen woke up crying, thinking about her son. Sometimes she thought about her husband, who passed five years ago from an illness. Jen never thought, “Why me?” because she knew that was a road she would never walk away from. Instead, she cared for the children. Told them stories of the time before. Taught them how to read and write.

It was Jen who told me this story I am sharing with you today. You know, the one that I should have had ready for you from my travels. But as you know, of course, I am traveling to Florida as you read this. It is not an enjoyable trip to say the least.

Dark, heavy clouds loomed overhead. We took shelter on the patio of the big house. The children begged Grandma Jen for a story. I sat on the bench next to her while she spun wool on a small device.

“Fine.” She said, like she did every time. “But only because you asked.”

“Yay!” They cheered.

Jen waited for them to settle before she started. They knew the routine.

“Before many of you were born,” she said, “there was a town a forty minute walk away. They had horses there. The town was a hub because of them – they were faster and cheaper than having a scooter or a bike. They had a caretaker too. She was beautiful, and gracious, and resourceful. She was kind to everyone in the town. She was an excellent rider, too. But she did have one flaw.”

“What was that?” Ava asked in her tiny voice.

“She grew up knowing that it was vital we take care of our environment. But she simply…didn’t care. She figured that it wasn’t necessary for her to help since everyone else did it. She thought, ‘Well, I am one person, and this world is big, so it will not matter.’ She was complacent. She wasted water and electricity, and rode her horses through brush that would be destroyed by their hooves. She killed bugs if they were in her house and did not let mice or birds roost in the stables. They were small things, but over time, they added up. She wasted many gallons of water that the river had pumped out for her, electricity from the sun that took weeks to collect, and ruined whole populations of growing plants. She remembered the time before and lived as if she was back in it.”

“Yeah but we don’t do that.” John spoke up. “We have to live like we only have a bit of it. We have to share with everyone else.”

Jen nodded, pleased. “Before the world changed, we ran out of resources faster than we realized. So now, we must be careful. The land is still healing. And the horse’s caretaker thought the land belonged to her and it was fine. But she was wrong.

“One day, on a day just like this, the clouds were threatening thunder, lightning, and pouring rain. The caretaker was itching to ride. So she hitched her favorite horse, grabbed her trusty pocketknife, and rode out. Come nighttime, only the horse returned.”

There was a sharp intake of breath as Jen paused for dramatic effect.

“No one knew what happened to her until they sent search parties out to find her. But Grandma Jen knows what happened.”

“Were you there, Grandma Jen?”

“Was I there?” Jen chuckled. “Here’s what happened dear.

“She raced over hills and crags, riding as if she had been born in the saddle. Her hair whipped madly around her face in the furious wind. Soon the hills broke and she was faced with a near-endless plain. In the distance was a mountain she had never seen before. She raced to it, despite the thunderclouds gathering around it, the air electric with lightning.

“It took hours for her to get to the mountain’s range. It was almost as if it didn’t want her to approach. Rain poured down in sheets around her, soaking her and her horse.

“Suddenly she heard someone speak. ‘You.’” Jen deepened her voice.

“It’s a mountain troll!” Ava cried. Tyler shushed her.

Jen shifted. “The caretaker looked up. Suddenly she was on the mountainside, on a freezing cold cliff. Her horse, her favorite horse, was gone. She should have run after it. But instead, she looked up at the looming mountaintop. And that was her greatest mistake.”

It had begun to pour all of a sudden outside. Thunder boomed.

“It was almost too bright to see. Lightning crackled into the mountain. Three giant vultures were perched at the top, hunched and gaunt. They were black but for their red faces and white ruffs. Their beaks were white underneath dried blood. When they turned their heads, the caretaker could see through their nostrils. They glared at her with large brown eyes.

“‘Who are you?’ She stuttered.

“One of them spoke without moving his beak. ‘It matters not.’

“‘Why did you bring me here?’ She said faintly, toying with the pocketknife she carried.

“One of the birds spread his sixteen-foot wingspan and landed in front of her. He analyzed her with one brown eye. ‘You are the caretaker of the horses.’ It said. Averting her eyes, the caretaker nodded.

“‘You are the one who is disrespectful of your land.’ It said. ‘You are wasteful and unkind. You misunderstand the notion of a healing ecosystem.’

“‘What do you mean?’ The caretaker asked. ‘I bury the horses’ feces. I grow the straw they use to sleep on. I lead a quiet life.’

“‘And yet you let your animals go everywhere, eat everything. You waste water and light that others gather for you.’

“‘What do you want from me?’ The caretaker retorted. She stared at each of the birds in turn with anger. The caretaker did not like being accused, and she did not like being accused of such rude notions. Part of her knew she was in the wrong, but most of her didn’t want to.

“‘We want a sacrifice.’ The bird in front of her hissed.

“The caretaker sighed. ‘Fine. Tell me what you want. I’ll give it up. I’ll stop being wasteful.’

“‘You don’t understand.’ The birds in the back spread their wings. ‘We need a sacrifice to help heal the land. We need your ultimate sacrifice.’

“And just like that, the thunderers swept down over her, their spiny feet tucked back and their mouths open. Their white beaks cut into her flesh as thunder boomed. Lightning flashed, and everything went white.”

Grandma Jen paused to let everything sink in. The smaller children looked vaguely bored, and soon ran off into the house. The wind had begun to blow through the patio, forcing the kids to huddle underneath a woolen blanket.

“What happened to her?” Tyler asked, bemused. “Did she die?”

“She did.” Jen said gravely. “Her horse returned back to the town later that night, after the storm had ceased, in full riding gear. The town sent out a search party in the morning to find her. One man got close to the thunderers’ mountain, with the caretaker’s horse in hand. It shied away and reared as soon as they got close. The man found a scorch mark at the base of the mountain, in the shape of a triangle with an eagle’s face. The caretaker’s pocketknife was just a few feet away. They figured out what happened.”

“That’s it?” John asked.

“That’s it.” Jen said.

“So…just respect the planet? That’s all?”

Jen raised her eyebrows. “Of course, that’s not all. Don’t mess with beings that are not of this world. Just don’t.”

John pursed his lips and Tyler scratched his hand with an unsatisfied look on his face. Jen told the children to go inside and soon, it was just the two of us. We wrapped the woolen blanket around us and watched the storm completely open up.

“It was on a day just like this one.” Jen said wistfully. “The thunderers will be flying tonight.”

“Was it true?” I asked.

“Of course it was.” Jen said. “I was actually there.”

Strangely, I believed her. “How did you watch it?”

“I have my ways.” Grandma Jen said. She lifted her right hand to scratch the side of her head. Her sleeve fell down and I saw it – a small tattoo on her wrist, a triangular, eagle-like bird.


The two of them were beautiful, and looked so, so tired. They were around my age, yet as we all gathered around the electric warmers they looked even older. The dark circles under their eyes were expected though. The other travelers ooh’d and aah’d over the tiny squirming child in his arms. They were asking the couple if he was healthy, if he was learning normally, if he was eating enough. The couple was grimacing, like they had heard it all before and they were too tired to respond.

I rose quietly and began to compose my tent and yawned loudly. Others began to follow suit, until the last ones left were the most inquisitive and talkative of folks.

Silently, I approached the small group near the heaters. The boy had fallen asleep in his father’s lap. The two of them looked overwhelmed.

“It would be best if we all get to bed.” I said to the group, focusing on the other travelers. “We must all rise early if we are all to get on the road. Plus this child here is tuckered out.”

The father sighed with relief.

I smiled at them as the others left. “I’m certain you two will be getting up earlier than the rest of us will, anyhow.”

The woman chuckled. She was slim and dark, with light brown eyes. “Yeah. We’re always up early with this little guy. He’s quiet though. He won’t wake you up.”

I flapped my hand. “I don’t mind. I’m up early anyway. Have a long way to go.”

“Us too.” The man said. He had straight black hair, and the beginnings of a beard. “We’re going back to the place her ancestors lived.”

“Why?” I asked.

The couple looked at each other reproachfully. “It’s a long story.” The woman explained cautiously.

“If you don’t mind, I’d love to hear it. If you’re not too tired, of course. I’m a writer.”

The woman pursed her lips. “You’re going to think I’m a really bad mom.”

“Trust me, I’ve known worse. I’ve met a lot of people.”

The woman smiled at her partner. “Put Devin to bed. I’ll tell her.”

– – – – –

Devin was born in a small town in rural what-used-to-be Florida. He was born amidst the late summer heat that caused me to sweat like nobody’s business. I felt like I was shitting myself the entire time – but instead of a massive poop in the outhouse I got a baby enfolded in blankets. He was loud and red, with the smallest fingers and toes that I had ever seen.

Not for the first time, I fell in love instantly.

We had thought we were both infertile. Like most people who had been near a blast site and had grown up scurrying around on irradiated soil and drinking treacherous water. But when I realized I skipped three periods in a row, my heart began to race. Kai was breathless, stumbling over his words through his excitement. I was the worried one. There were many nights that I stayed up for hours, just wondering what would happen. Would our child be healthy? How could we raise them in a trailer with no running water, a poorly running solar battery, and a leaking roof? In the middle of the swamp, no less.

But Kai was ready. And when Devin was born, he was sobbing from joy and I was sobbing in pain.

He was an amazing baby, and Kai was an astounding father. He was a master cloth diaper washer, carrier and boiler of bucket after bucket of water from the well, and proactive every time Devin began to cry. I was okay. Sometimes if I held Devin, he would stop crying. If he could smile I swear he was. His brown eyes were filled with so much emotion.

But I felt nothing. That surge of love at the beginning was gone.

It just wasn’t working. When I woke up in the morning I always thought…how could I be a mother? This child’s mother? Kai was such a better parent than I was. All of this felt so, so wrong. Surreal. I started fetching the water from the well as soon as I was able to so I had time to sneak away and cry by myself.

How could I not love this child? How could I be such a terrible mother? I couldn’t help worrying about what my family would think. We were a strong tribe, hardy, stubborn. The family always survived. How could I want to give up so easily on mine?

I didn’t tell Kai any of this. But he knew me. He could always read me. I don’t think he understood though.

“Ash.” He said. Devin was six months old. His hair had begun to grow in, black and straight. “Can you take the baby when you go to the market today? I need a nap.”


“I was up half the night with him. Please.”

“Okay.” I wrapped him up so he was in a sling in front of me and grabbed the woven basket to take to market. It was filled with sweet potatoes, okra, and lima beans.

“I love you, Ashley.” He said.

“I love you too, Kai.” I said, and shut the door, wishing I felt it.

The market was about a two-hour journey away. I kept a jug of water and two diapers in my backpack because I knew I would get thirsty.

The Florida heat was nothing short of dreadful. When I tried to wipe the sweat off my face, another droplet would immediately form. Even though I walked on a flat path through the forest to the marketplace, I was exhausted. I was dreading the walk back already.

The trees faded away into a grassy swamp. It became even hotter with the rising sun.

Located at a highway stop on a Florida highway, the marketplace emerged out of the tall reeds. Vendors were stationed in old RVs with missing tires and out of the backs of rusted trucks. The hum of the crowd was almost too much. My heart began to pound. It was even hotter in the crowd without any shade. I gulped down some of my water. As I traded some of my goods, I could see people staring at me out of the corner of my eye. Finally, the moment I was dreading came – an elderly woman approached me, leaning on a cane made of wood.

“Is that your child?” She asked through her six remaining teeth.

I was trading some of the sweet potatoes for eggs. “Yes.” I said.

“When was she born?”

“He’s about six months old.”

“Oh.” The woman said. She stood there, smiling serenely at Devin. A man came over and grabbed her hand, apologized to me, and walked off. Behind them, a woman stared at us. She was so short I could have mistaken her for a child, but her eyes gave her away. They were old, and brown. She had high cheekbones and long, straight brown hair that went past her hips. The hair stood up at the back of my neck. The urge to run was overpowering at that point.

The crowd folded in, and she disappeared. I continued my shopping – a few yards of cloth, more food, a new whetstone, soap. I was approached time after time asking me if my daughter was mine, oh he’s a boy, how old was he, was he a good baby, what’s his name? One woman even told me about how good her daughter was as a baby, until she ran away with her oldest. She walked away silently.

I tried to finish my shopping as quickly as possible. I was unsure how to answer any of the questions I was posed. He was a good baby – quiet, not much fuss, loved everyone, but to me he weighed heavily against my chest. He had a white name, the name he would be called throughout his life, but he was Cayuga. (How was he Cayuga? Right. He was mine). He needed his real name, too. Standing in that marketplace, surrounded by sweaty strangers and the sun beating down on my head, I felt like I was falling. All around me were people who would love to have the child. If I just handed him off…?

I choked on my last gulp of water. Disgusting human garbage that I was.

As soon as I departed from the market I felt as if I could breathe again. Devin was fussing, so I fed him and tried to calm my racing thoughts.

When he was done, I put him back in the sling and he fell asleep. Nap time. I stroked the hair on his head absentmindedly while we made our way back. My basket was laden with food, oil, soap, and yards of cloth. The sun was so hot that I couldn’t walk on the asphalt, despite my hardened feet. Waves of heat radiated off it.

Soon the swamp faded into the bog, then the forest. The trees were far apart, but with the long grasses it offered enough shade. The warm, sandy soil of the old hiking paths felt good beneath my feet. I swept left and right with my knife, trying to clear some of the overgrown grass from the paths.

What were we doing in Florida? How did I end up here? A baby sleeping against my chest, wielding a knife to clear a path to get to my remote, boggy, trailer home.

I didn’t even have a name for him. What would my family think?

My water jug was empty.

No matter. There was a creek coming up in the bog, cool and clear and fresh. Soon I began to hear its pitter-patter, the only sound in the forest. I crossed over the small, lichen-covered bridge and crouched down to the edge. A spray of water skipped over a rock and I filled up my jug.

I felt a prickle on the back of my neck, like someone had poured a trickle of cold water down my spine. I looked up and saw the woman from the market looking at me. She wore a light green-brown shift so she could have blended into the reeds. But her face was so pale and her cheeks so rosy that she stood out.

“Hi.” I said, standing up.

“Hello.” She replied.

“I saw you in the market earlier.” I said.

She nodded. A breeze passed through the trees above us. The woman crossed over the creek on flat rocks I swore weren’t there before. I stepped back when she leapt onto the bank next to me.

“Your child is beautiful.” She spoke.

“Right.” I took another step back. “Who are you?”

“I am Xana.” She said. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

“It’s nice to meet you Xana,” I said carefully, “but I need to be going now.”

“Home?” She asked. “I will accompany you.”

“No need.” I said. She continued to follow as I backed away.

“I can feel you. I can feel your emotions.” She said quietly. Her feet didn’t make prints in the mud. My ears started ringing. “You are scared that child isn’t yours. That you aren’t his real mother. That none of this is real.” As soon as she spoke, those fears bloomed to the surface. They hadn’t been hiding anywhere before she spoke, but rather, they rose out of the blue without warning.

“That’s stupid.” I said.

“You’re a bad mom. You don’t see any way to improve on your situation. You’d be better off if you just left Devin. He’d be better off if you left him. Don’t be stupid, Ashley. You’re incredibly smart. You know the best thing to do to survive.”

The woman walked forward, her hands outstretched. “What if I told you this child was one of ours?”

“Where’s mine?” I whispered. “Where’s my child?”

Xana smirked. “He’s with us. He’s safe.”

I knew it. This boy didn’t have Cayuga blood in him. He was fae. He was fae this whole time. I was watching this woman as I undid the swaddling cloth around the sleeping child. I lifted him up out of the sling. He woke up and stared at me. His eyes were lighter than Kai and mine’s, and his hair was as black as could be.

The wind blew through the treetops, making his hair flutter. What was the wind saying? My ears were still ringing. I tried to listen. To lend my ears to the sound.

And I heard it. And it was perfect.

I put him back in the sling and fixed his straight black hair, just like Kai’s.

“He’s not safe with someone like you.” I said.

“He would be. We’d take good care of them.” Xana cooed. I backed up to the path.

“Sure. But he’s best with his mother.” I tied the sling off, and turned my back to Xana. The path ahead was long and winding, but it led to Kai. To our home.

I said the name over and over in my head. It fit perfectly. It was his. And maybe I wasn’t perfect, but he was mine.

– – – – –

“A water nymph.” I said. “A faerie.”

Ashley nodded. “Pretty sure. Not long after we began to get cat-tails growing around our site. The leaks after it rained grew worse. Vines grew thick and heavy and tried to imprison us. We stayed for over a year. But after a while we knew it was time to leave.”

“You said you were heading back to your ancestral home?”

She nodded again. “I’m from the Cayuga nation. We’re heading back north. We should be safe from fae there – they’re European mythos, after all. They have no power there.”

The cogs in my head were turning. I knew what was there. And I knew who was there. Florida. Florida. Florida.


It was a sound I had not heard in a very long time. The car appeared in my scooter’s mirror as it came over the crest of a hill, just after I heard those distinctive harsh sounds. I immediately parked my scooter on the side of the road and stuck my thumb out excitedly. The car shuddered to a stop next to me. It was a pickup with chipped red paint with a small R.V. attached, the front of it sitting just over the pickup bed. The driver opened the passenger’s door. “Got tired of scooterin’ everywhere?” He asked in a faint Carolina accent.

“It died.” I said plainly. “Where can I put this?”

“Stick it on the bed. Right there.”

As I clambered into the passenger’s seat, I noticed that the man already had another passenger. A small, white cat with ginger tabby spots and two tails, both with a brown tabby cap on the end. Her overly large, green eyes stared at me with slit pupils. She sniffed my hand as I entered and went back to her slumber.

The man driving wore red plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves and an old, faded baseball cap. He was clean-shaven with horn-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses. “Where you heading?” I asked the man.

– – – – –

The mountain roads were treacherous this late at night, and with the tiny camper I had trailing just behind my pickup, I made sure to drive as slowly as possible. I parked right outside the tiny little village nestled into the mountainside. The bonfire was going in the center, and the people were congregated around, smiling and laughing. Musicians were playing the fiddle and guitar and singing. A thin, longhaired woman turned and saw me and called out. I couldn’t hear her, but I knew what she said.

“Yeah yeah yeah, you too.” I replied. She covered her mouth and smiled, beckoning me over. I gave her a side hug.

“How are you doing, Damien?” She asked. “Haven’t been back in a while.”

“I’m good, Birdie.” Arthur came by and clapped me on my back, handing me a pork rib. The fire was warm, and bright, and the village was happy. The flyaway embers and crackles snaked high up into the sky, like little stars. “Thought I’d visit again before I head out Midwest.”

“What’s in the Midwest?” Arthur asked in his gravelly voice, taking a bite of his own pork rib.

Birdie snorted. “Nothing.” She joked.

They knew what was out in the Midwest. I’m sure the entire village knew, to be honest. Word got around fast.

“What’s new here?” I asked.

“Mona finally had her kid.” Birdie said. “A cute little boy.”

Arthur took another bite of his pork rib. “He’s got a growth.”

“I’m sure he’s pretty okay otherwise.” Birdie replied.

“We’ve been having other trouble.” Arthur said.

“We said we wouldn’t trouble him.” Birdie said quietly.

I looked at Arthur. He shrugged.

Birdie began to explain. “We’ve been having issues with a spirit. Figured it was a local being or deity, but it’s not. It comes in from time to time, messing with our electrical system, freeing the pigs and the sheep, or screwing with the plumbing system. We’ve tried everything, but it hasn’t worked.”

“Maybe I can help. Since I’m not local.” Birdie pursed her lips, but she agreed.

The next morning the entire village was covered in fog. The bonfire had gone out hours ago. The entire village was hushed and tired, the dancing and singing having finally ceased. I walked through the village to the small mountain trail hidden by the ramshackle schoolhouse. I climbed the rotten wooden stairs to ascend the mountain. The deciduous trees swallowed me up.

I walked in silence for a long time. The fog began to dissipate, and the creaking wooden boards turned into just a faint, curved incline up the mountainside. The trail itself was covered in damp brown leaves and fallen twigs.

A cat raced across my path into the bushes. It was heading down the mountain, into the village.

“Stop!” I yelled, and I raced in pursuit through the bushes. The branches ripped into my cargo pants, but I kept going. I saw a tail raised high in the air, but through the brush it was difficult to just quite perceive it. Just as it faded from view it reappeared, only to evaporate into the brush yet again. For a few moments there I thought there were two cats, each with the same tail, tearing through the underbrush. But there was just one. I saw the cat leap into a tree and stare at me with large, green eyes, its tails lashing back and forth, and I knew for certain this wasn’t a local spirit.

“Stop!” I said, yet again – but this time the spirit froze.

“You speak Japanese?” She asked me cautiously.

I nodded. “I do.”

The cat lowered itself from the tree and approached me. “You’re not from here.” She said. Her voice was high and wispy. “You smell different. You’re not a villager.”

“I’m not a villager.” I said. “I’m a traveler. I’m looking to find the answers to my questions. And the villagers are my friends. They don’t know why a spirit is bothering them. I’m trying to find them an answer.”

The cat’s tail twitched. “Why are you here?” She grumbled.

“I want to know why you are messing with them.” I said. “But now that I know what you are, I’m not surprised.”

The cat hissed. “So you think we’re all alike?”

“Uh.” I shifted uncomfortably. “No.”

“So then why do you think I am causing mayhem in this town?”

“Are you causing mayhem in this town?” I asked.

“I am.” The cat said, her tail lashing.

“Well I would like to know why.” I asked.

“They throw parties.” She snapped. “And when they are throwing a party, many of the cats and the dogs on the outskirts, we ask for food, we ask for warmth. The dogs herd their sheep, the cats hunt their mice. I used to hunt their mice too, before my tail split. But they don’t include us.”

“So you want to be included.”

“Yes. I want the animals to be warm. But the human villagers do not speak Japanese.”

I nodded. “I will tell them.”

“I will come.” She leapt onto my shoulders, and I felt her claws through my jacket.

Together, we rejoined the path and followed it down to the village. The fog had finally dissipated fully and I was spotted Birdie and Arthur at the bottom. They were sitting on the top of their house, watching the sunrise. Arthur saw me first.

The situation was readily fixable. All I had to do was explain the predicament and discuss the issue with the village leader, Umber. No muss, no fuss. When I said my goodbyes to Birdie and Arthur, I found that I had a small shadow following me to my car.

“Are you coming with me?” I asked her.

“Do you know why my tail split?” She asked me.

“I don’t.” I replied.

“You said you search for the answers to questions. Will you help me answer mine?” She asked.

“Sure.” I opened the car door, and she leapt in, settling on the bench next to the driver’s seat.

“What’s your name?” I asked, joining her on the seat.


“Ah.” I said, starting the car and closing the door. “Mine is Damien.”

– – – – –

“Why did you tell me that story?” I asked him.

The sun had risen as high as it could go. It illuminated Minori’s eyes, turning them into vivid emeralds. The shadow she cast was awkwardly large against the seat.

“Well, you asked me to tell you a pivotal story. I told you about how I met my best friend.” He paused. “It’s more important than that, of course. My mom told me that nekomata were ordinarily thought of as mischievous or hostile spirits. I told you Minori’s story because it’s just not that simple. Life isn’t that simple.” He said. “She just wants what I want. The truth.”

“The truth?”

“Of what happened. How did humanity fall so far, so fast? Why was the spiritual world introduced so soon after? Why did Minori’s tail split?” The man shifted and his brow furrowed. For a second, he looked lost. “It just doesn’t add up.”

It was then that I realized how alike we were.

“Have you ever visited the fae?” I asked.

The Smell of Oranges and Fire

The reason why I stopped at the stand where the boy was selling fruit was not because he had managed to procure so many types of fruit, nor was it because his stand remained completed untouched by criminals, and it was not because his stand seemed fairly popular either. I stopped at this stand because he was so young. The boy selling fruit was about seventeen, eighteen years old. His skin was browned by the sun, his hair streaked with red, his eyes like chips of green ice. He was stocky and still a little awkward, a teenager who had suddenly filled out and was unsure where he should put his weight.

There were not many people his age. It was in the years that he was born that the world was collapsing.

The orange I bought from him took time to peel, but was delicious, sweet and juicy. I asked him where his parents were. He shrugged. I asked him how he came to have this sort of roadside fruit stand; his face became apologetic as he explained that the story was lengthy. I informed him I had time, and a lot of it. He could talk about whatever he wanted with me and I would listen, provided he was fine should I choose to write about him. I talked to him for over three hours. By the time I left he had begun to pack up his stand for the day. The story I have for you this week is not the story of how he came across his fruit stand. It is much different.

– – – – –

Someone opened the door to the hut, and I shut my eyes really really tight. The light hurt my eyes bad.

There was a big shadow sitting in the doorway, bigger than Marcie and even bigger than Ebby. The shadow was an adult, then. Marcie grabbed my hand and we all followed the shadow out into the sunlight. As soon as we got out, I wretched my hand away from hers. I was a big boy now, eight, and I would be leaving the kids’ tent soon. I was too old for hand-holding. I would be joining the adults soon.

The man who had come to get us was James’ dad. You weren’t supposed to be able to tell, but they looked the same.

Radko jumped on top of a rock. He was only four, new to the hut, and still a baby. Ebby dragged him off the rock to stand next to him. I kicked a rock forlornly. These days sucked. We would be in prayer all day, into the night. I was always so tired and hungry at the end. I got so tired that I couldn’t even stand on my feet, but they got really mad when I fell asleep, or if one of the babies started crying. I wasn’t a baby though, so I did my best not to fall asleep.

“I wanted to play today.” Cara whined. James shushed her, and looked at the man nervously (nervous is a new word I learned. It means that you think something’s about to happen, but you don’t want it to happen). He wouldn’t care though, because he didn’t talk to us. The only adult that could was the scribe-man, and he didn’t like talking much at all. He sent us letters, sometimes, and Marcie taught me how to read them like her older sister taught her. They weren’t really sisters, at least they thought. We were all ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ here, but there were some brothers and sisters I liked more than others. I liked Marcie. I liked James. I didn’t like Cara, or Radko, because they were babies. Ebby was too bossy and didn’t like to play ball that much, but he was almost an adult and as tall as them too so he was very serious.

The trail to the pit was kind of dry, and dusty. There wasn’t much water here now, but the adults knew when it was going to come. We would get water when we deserved it, and then we would have more vegetables, and wheat, and more food. A lot more food.

I found my hand slipping into Marcie’s. It was to make sure she wasn’t scared. I wasn’t. At all.

They were stocking logs on the fire pit when we arrived. The adult we were following announced us with a shout. Everyone stopped and stared at us. I had to let go of Marcie’s hand, because we got down on our knees and crawled into the clearing. We couldn’t put our feet on the ground in the pit.

Mats were set up closest to the fire, where we had to sit until the scribe-man arrived. Radko climbed into my lap. They gave us water to drink, but we weren’t allowed to eat. I wish I were home, outside the hut. I wanted to eat, to cook cream wheat with Penna and Ebby and scoop it up with our hands and eat spicy eggs.

I saw the woman. She was on the other side of the pit. I was with her until I was four, when I wasn’t a baby anymore and went to the hut. I didn’t remember much about her but I knew she was the woman who gave me birth. She could see me too.

There was a shout, and Radko moved. “Stop it.” I whispered. “Cover your eyes.” I covered them with a hand and shut mine too. I could hear the adults hum as the scribe-man entered, trying to cover his footsteps with their noise.

I heard someone start the fire with a piece of flint. When I opened my eyes all the adults were gathered in front of it, holding hands. The scribe crouched in front of us, blowing on the small embers until they began to grow. He rose and stepped back, a little bit. I think it was because he had really long robes, and they could probably catch on fire. That’s why James’ leg had a lot of burn scars all over it.

“We gather,” the scribe-man began, “to thank the great ones high up in the clouds above, watching down on us from on high, for keeping us alive. They have given us water, and shelter, and food, and many children. One day they shall take us all, and allow us to accompany them to the clouds beyond the mountains. We are the blessed ones. We survived the Horror Wars. We are immune to the false chemicals and the radioactivity. We are alive today. Our lineage is blessed by their benevolence, and when the true Scribe returns to purge the earth and usher the gods into their Final Retribution, then we shall all ascend to the clouds beyond the mountains.”

I didn’t really get what most of it meant, but as boring as it could be sometimes I liked kind of how the scribe-man talked. He spoke really quietly, like a whisper but not, but when the fire grew louder he did too. He talked a lot about the place beyond the mountains, the cloud place where we would live when the true Scribe was reborn. The scribe-man said the true Scribe was his descendent, and we were all descendants of the gods. I didn’t know what that word meant, but I liked it. The clouds beyond the mountains were the best place, better than here. They were made of water, and none of it was bad water. (We drank the bad water, since the gods said we could, but it still made me feel yucky).

The scribe-man kept talking. He could talk for a long time, and mostly talked through the entire fire pit day but had some breaks for others to start to pray or lead a hymn.

He went through all the usual stories and the songs. I sang with Radko and tried to teach him the words (he wasn’t really good, and I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t because Marcie said I used to be as bad as him). I listened to all the stories he told us. He told us about the Horror Wars, and how he lived through him thanks to the gods. He sang a song about cleaning the children I think, and keeping them away from the bad guys, which were the adults, who weren’t clean. I guess they didn’t bathe much.

The sun started to set, but it was still light here in the fire pit. “Despite our imminent purification, we are still corrupt. And so we toil in order to care for our children and our souls, and save our people. And with that,” he turned to face us, “Ebby. Please stand forward.”

I turned to look at Ebby. In the fire his face was almost orange, and his eyes were huge. Marcie looked at him and then at me, smiling and giving me a thumbs-up. I smiled back at her. Ebby stood up and walked across the mat, and stepped onto the ground of the pit with bare feet. The scribe-man drew tear tracks on his face with ash and said,

“Your adult name will be Emmanuel.” Ebby-now-Emmanuel nodded. I could feel Radko shaking. I looked and he was crying, so I hugged him really close.

The scribe-man bent down towards the fire pit again. Now the fire was really roaring, with younger adults constantly stocking it. Ebby I mean Emmanuel turned towards us and lifted his shirt. The scribe-man picked up a long metal rod with a huge shape on the end that kind of looked like a mountain. It was bright red. Ebby no Emmanuel bit his bottom lip and when the scribe-man pressed it into his back he began to scream. I could hear a sizzle like when we fry something in a pan. I covered Radko’s mouth because he began to sob.

When it was over, Ebby-not-Ebby, Emmanuel, left and joined the circle. They gave him aloe and let him sit shirtless. His face looked bad and he was shaking. The adults were whispering to each other. They prayed a bit really quietly before the scribe-man raised his hands. They went silent.

“Another event shall take place tonight.” He said, just loud enough to be heard over the fire. “As you know, I have gone many years without an heir. I have tried to procure one at many a ritual for the church to have a leader when I am gone.” No one spoke. I turned to look back at Marcie. She shook her head. She’d tell me what he meant later, in the tent. But I figured it probably had something to do with what the adults did at the firepit sometimes. “And so, I have spokes to the gods above and what I have written through them is to utilize the Abrahamic tradition we have employed for these purposes for our non-scribal recruits. They reassured me that my heir would still be blessed as a scribe.”

He looked around at all the adults. I wondered who would be the maid. That meant the woman who would give birth to the heir. I looked over at the woman who gave birth to me, and I thought about how cool it would be if the heir were my real brother.

“Marcie.” The scribe-man said. The adults began to hum.

“No!” Radko screamed. I pinched him to shut him up. But I wanted to cry too. Marcie was the maid. She was going to be an adult, and she was going to leave me. I looked back at her, and she looked really scared. My face got really hot and my eyes started prickling, and I was crying but I didn’t even care.

She rose and walked on the mat towards the scribe-man. She was shaking. I pushed Radko off me and crawled toward her, trying to grab her hand. When I did she looked back at me, and her eyes were so scary that I let go.

When she reached the scribe-man he pulled her shift off carefully. The women were singing and the men began to move in, and they were chanting. Someone was screaming, “No! No! No!” but it wasn’t heard at all over the chanting. The men removed the scribe-man’s clothes and he began to perform the ritual with her. She was trying to say the prayer but when you cry too hard it becomes impossible to talk. The other men all started to remove their clothes too, but I closed my eyes tight and covered my ears so I didn’t see or hear anything.

– – – – –

When he finished telling me his story I stared at him, aghast.

“How did you get out?” I asked him eventually. His fruit stand had been collapsed and loaded onto the back of his scooter.

He shrugged. “It was surprisingly easy. I realized I wanted out about a year ago. I was still in the kids’ tent. So I ran, and kept running.”

“And Marcie?” I asked quietly.

He pursed his lips. “It wasn’t good. The first time she gave the scribe two girls. They don’t like girls.”

I was silent. For a time we both watched the sky change colors from orange, to pink, to purple, to a muted blue.

“They lived.” He said, looking back at me. “I took them when I left. They’re nine now. We’re living in this little town where there’s a teacher. They know how to read. They play with other kids.”

“Why did you take them?”

He folded his arms. “I couldn’t save Marcie.” He murmured. His eyes had a thousand-yard stare.

I whispered to him, “You were a child. You’re still a child.”

“Like that makes a difference.”

“I think you did. You gave those girls a better life. One day Marcie will get out too.”

He closed his eyes. He looked like he was ten years older than his eighteen years. I think he realized then that she would never escape. “Thanks,” he said, “for listening.”

The Bard’s Lesson

I wish I had someone’s story for you this week, but I don’t. I only have mine. I apologize. And this isn’t a story that someone told me, that I had to fill in the holes for. It’s completely, one hundred percent true. I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.

After almost twenty years, everything was in that state of chaos that was still scrambling to understand everything that happened. The supernatural beings that inhabited this world were…well, not commonplace, but they were here. For those who remembered the world before, it was difficult to accept, but what choice was there? They exist. That man and his children only served to prove it. I knew what the children’s mother was, and what they were. Her species was elusive and rare, but seeing the things that man’s daughter was capable of – it was impossible to say they did not exist.

This expedition here had confirmed that I knew little and less about the world around me.

There were too many warehouses in Jersey. There were a lot of farms here too, in between the cities of warehouses, covering the entirety of the state. Perhaps there was just too much humanity, in general. Too much humanity left over. It was like a faded tattoo, stretching across the ends of the earth and marring everything in its wake. And the warehouses only seemed to reinforce that. They were all pretty much ransacked, or empty and left to rot, or filled to the brim with stuff that would never be used.

Although the warehouse was locked on the outside, I could hear the sound of the party inside. I checked the description of the adjacent administration building in my notes. A red Pegasus spray-painted on the garage door. I knocked once, three times in quick succession, and then once, again. A panel slid open to reveal a set of closely set eyes. The person blinked once, twice at me.

“You’re new.”

“Yeah. I’ll pay extra.”

The bar slid closed, and the man opened up the rusted steel door. Inside, it was dark apart from the LED strips taped to the trim of the walls of the room. I could only see the silhouettes of metal shelves and dancing people.

“Cash.” The man said, holding his hand out. I dug into my pocket and pulled out what I had left of my money and handed it to him. He seemed satisfied, so I continued on.

It amazed me how much richer people seemed to be near the old cities. Even after they had been nuked, the surrounding wealth remained. The wall between the warehouse and its admin building had been destroyed, and a bar was built up across the far wall. A man nearby was slouched on a stool, scrolling through a music device that illuminated his face, connected to the speaker system. The floor was covered in plush couches, beanbag chairs, and tables covered in so many things that I don’t wish to include. No one was dancing in a way that could be qualified in dancing. Some people were swaying together, only held up by each other’s strength, some were locked together in fervent, graphic embraces, and others were just spinning in slow circles by themselves, unaware of anything else. I entered the arena, and took a seat hesitantly on one of the stain-covered red couches.

I couldn’t read my notes in the dim light. What did they say the girl look like again? Emaciated. Dirty. Haggard. Basically like every single person in this place. Her name was Dani, they said.

A man sauntered over to me, sat down next to me on the couch and snuck a hand around my waist. “You’re new.” He said, looking me up and down. “Never been with a brown girl before. You interested in making a deal? I got some left, put you on cloud nine. If you know what I’m sayin’.”

I leaned in close. “Sure. Let’s make a deal. How about you tell me where Dani is, and I don’t rip your dick off.”

He removed his hand and shifted away from me uncomfortably. “Jeez.” He huffed. “I mean, if you didn’t want cloud you could have just said so.” He scanned the warehouse and yelled something in Spanish. A girl replied to him in turn, her voice managing to be heard over the din. He replied, and stood up. I followed suit.

“For the record,” I muttered to him, “with your people skills I would’ve been the first girl you’d ever screwed.”

I walked past him without looking at him, and outstretched my hand towards the girl striding over. While she was not tall, her legs were incredibly long and she swallowed half the floor in just eight strides. Her hair was bouncing down past her shoulders in soft ringlets, incredibly dark against her sallow, pale skin. Her eyes were dark as well, large and commanding. She stumbled somewhat in her four-inch heels, but she held her head high and seemed to take up the entire room. The eyes of other partiers followed her.

“Hey.” She said, ignoring my hand completely and walking right by me to collapse on the couch. She crossed her long legs, one over the other. “I’m Dani. C’mon, sit.”

I sat next to her on the same red seat. She scratched the back of her hand and gave me a confused glance.

“Is something wrong?” I asked her.

“Uh, no. Just thought…” She drifted off, before throwing her hands in the air suddenly. “I don’t know. Never mind.”

I stared at her while she readjusted in her seat. “You don’t talk much, do you?” She asked me.

“I prefer listening.” I replied. She crossed her legs.

“What do you listen to?” She asked.

I shrugged. “People, mostly. Stories.” Dani nodded, her foot jiggling.

“Rumor had it you had a story for me.” I said.

Her foot started to jiggle faster. She scratched again at the back of her hand. “Why do you want to know?”

“Call it a morbid curiosity.” Her face changed. I feared for a moment I lost her. I could see it in her face: she thought me too aloof, too closed-off. She was paranoid, her eyes wide and even in the dim light I could see how dilated her pupils were. I should have felt guilty. Here I was, a stranger, approaching her and on the verge of asking incredibly intimate questions. I could be a hunter, or a murderer, or just dangerous. Perhaps I was the latter. I’ll admit that much.

“I just want to know.” I said to her. “I’ve heard rumors, and I’ve been investigating the disappearance of a child that…well, he wasn’t entirely human. I’m looking into some of our supernatural friends out there, and I’ve heard about yours. Would you be kind enough to introduce us?”

Dani didn’t respond for a while. Her gaze drifted up to the ceiling, high above us, and for a second I thought her mind had gone elsewhere. When I looked over her eyes were closed.

“Are you alright?” I asked her.

Dani pursed her lips and shook her head. She shuddered, and opened her eyes to look at me. They were large inside of her thin, sullen face. She scratched once more at the back of her hand. “It’s nothing.” She said. “So you wanted to meet my…friend.”


She looked up and down at me – looking at my faded clothes, the small bag I clutched with all my supplies. “Why should I trust you?” She asked.

I raised my eyebrows. “Think that I’d try to kill him?”

“That you’d try anything.” Dani replied.

I leaned in close. She looked around at the rest of the warehouse, and leaned in as well. “Look. I can’t prove who I am. I can’t prove that I travel and write about people’s stories. I can’t prove much about my life or myself in general. But between us…I know you’ve been selling yourself just to get the next rock. You can’t even prove that you, well, know this friend.” Her face darkened. I handed her my bag. She nodded, took it, and began to rummage through it; my notebooks, my pencils, the hunting knife in its sheath.

“You can’t hurt him with this.” She said, pulling the knife out.

“I know.” I said. “I don’t plan to.”

“You’re not going to try and steal from him?”

“No.” I said.

She handed me my bag, sans knife, and stood up. She gestured me to do the same. I rose and followed her as she walked out of the building. She patted me down, feeling the pockets in my pants and in my jacket before stumbling backwards. “Alright. Let’s get walking.”

“I have a bike.” We walked down the street with her flipping the knife in the air. Even in her state, she could still catch the handle every single time.

The bike I had purchased when I first started my wanderings was old, and battered, and covered in chipped paint, but its solar battery held a good charge, the suspension was okay, and, most importantly, it didn’t die.

When Dani wrapped her arms around my waist, I could practically feel her nervous energy radiating outwards. She sniffed.

“Where are we going?” I asked her.

“Far.” She placed her chin on my shoulder, digging in painfully. “It’s not gonna be fun.”

I snorted. “I’m not the one who’s going to go through withdrawal.”

We drove for a long, long time. We took frequent breaks for Dani to stretch and occasionally vomit. Each time, I handed her my water bottle and stood by her while she took little sips sitting on the edge of the cracked asphalt. We didn’t pass a single person on the road. Once or twice, she told me to take a left, or get off at an exit. When the moon sunk below the horizon it grew so dark that even in the weak beam of the bike’s headlight it was impossible to see ten feet ahead. And then, the sky began to lighten. Eventually it became light enough to see the grass around us, the forests that suddenly break into fields, and then turn into forests yet again. It was just before the sun rose when Dani said, “Stop.”

I hit the breaks. To the left was the biggest field I had ever seen, overgrown with old and wild wheat. I hid my bike in the field and Dani led me through the dead, seven-foot-tall grass. She wiped her forehead with a shaky hand and tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear. In the light, it was easier to see her face. She had dark eyes and brittle hair, and skin that was pale and haggard from malnutrition. She was around twenty or twenty-one, but she looked as if she could be older than me. Her purple sequined dress was missing a few sequins and was crookedly hemmed.

Suddenly, we reached the center of the field. The wheat broke away into a giant ragged circle. The grass was short and green, and smelled of spring.

“Stay here.” Dani said. She kicked off her pumps and walked into the center of the circle. She drove the knife into the ground at her feet, stuck two fingers into her mouth and gave three quick, sharp whistles. In the center of the field, she was shivering, stiff, and so, so small.

“I’m not sure if he’s going to come.” She said. Dani ran her hands through her hair and bounced on her toes. She looked back at me nervously. “I feel sober enough.”

“He doesn’t like it when you’re high?”

She shook her head. “He can tell. Haven’t seen him in a while.”

It took forever, but when he came the air around us shifted. Dani’s whole demeanor changed as well. She seemed taller, more confident. Her face broke out into a grin and she spread her arms out wide. The wind made her hair fly everywhere. A massive shadow passed over us just before the griffin landed in front of her.

Her head was at his shoulder. He looked to be made of solid gold, with a massive lion-like face made of golden feathers. Two ear tufts stood straight up as he nuzzled her with his nose. At the neck his feathers morphed into long, golden fur and then into two, massive wings. His tail was almost as long as the rest of his body, thin and tufted at the tip. On each paw were four massive, silver claws. When he opened his mouth, silver teeth shone inside. His eyes were like molten lava, boring into me.

“I missed you, Oro.” She said, taking his face into her hands.

He radiated heat and energy. Like her, he knocked the air out of my lungs.

“I know so little about this world.” I breathed.

The Little Bird

I watched Mera toddle after her brother on chubby little legs, a little blonde doll clutched in her hand. Her brother was small and lean for a seven year old, energetic and wily, and he turned back time and time again to make sure his little sister was following. He leapt over a massive root and stopped, waiting for her to catch up, and bent down to be face-to-face with her, and kissed her forehead. For a moment, they both disappeared underneath his mop of hair. She squealed in delight and brushed his hair off. Her hair was as thick as his was – unmanageable, as curly as it was wavy, something they both seemed to get from me. They raced ahead and the near-invisible trail started to rise.

The end of the trail was the top of a boulder where it was possible to see rolling hills and valleys in the distance. I knew the village was there, somewhere. It was invisible, lost in the trees. Old, abandoned towns could be seen, if you looked close enough.

I stepped over a pile of old rubbish – plastic bottles, napkins, and empty chip bags that were in the midst of being reclaimed by the soil. Mera and Gray were perched on the top of the boulder, a faint wind playing at their hair. Gray was playing with a leaf he had found, one that was bigger than his head. When I climbed up the rock, he grinned at me with gaps in his teeth and held it up.

“Dad, look how big it is!” He exclaimed. It was light green, flecks of red and yellow starting to grow on it. Mera tried to grab it, but Gray moved it out of her trajectory.

“It’s huge.” I said to him. To the east, the sun was starting to climb above the trees. Mera ran up to me and slipped a tiny hand into mine. I squeezed her hand once, twice, three times. I. Love. You.

Gray held the leaf up against the light of the sun, observing the veins that streaked through it. Slowly, I lowered myself down onto the face of the boulder, and Mera settled into my lap. The boy, meanwhile, was busy running over the boulder, searching for more leaves to claim. Eventually, Mera grew bored of sitting and went to join him, leaving her doll to me.

“Dad?” Gray called, staring at something tucked in a hole in the boulder.

“What is it, bud?” I asked.

“There’s a bird over here. It’s dead.”

The girl ran over to investigate, and reached down to grab it. I leapt up immediately. “Mera, stop. Don’t touch it.”

Gray looked up at me, eyes full of grief. His eyes, and Mera’s, were huge, almond-shaped, and light brown, so light they were almost gold, and flecked with green. It was strange to see their mother’s eyes, the woman who had put us through so much, on their faces, a piece of her that still lived and still existed in our lives. “Why not?” He asked in a whisper.

I looked down. Inside the little nook in the boulder, a small, brown sparrow lay. Gray put a hand over it. “It wasn’t sick. It swallowed a piece of plastic and its insides burst.” Gray said.

His words sent a shiver down my spine. I hated it when he did that.

“Still. Don’t touch it. Birds carry sicknesses that people can get.” I grabbed Mera’s hand again. It was a feeble answer, I knew. The kids never got sick. Their scrapes and bruises healed quickly. Most of the other kids in the village couldn’t run around outside because they got out of breath too quickly. Or they would get sick every other week. Or they would be born with a heart that had already given up. Or they would start to pee blood and die shortly thereafter. It had become a normal part of life so quickly. But both of my kids were born healthy; full heads of hair, chubby and screaming. They didn’t have any allergies, or any deformities. They were perfect.

No, that’s wrong. They weren’t perfect.

As a dad, I should probably say that my children were, in fact, perfect. Her kind, she told me, wasn’t the least bit fertile, and getting two was nothing more than a miracle. And the two of them were beautiful, and special, and the best things that ever happened to me. They were all of that and more. So, so much more.

“Leave it alone, Mera.” I said, handing her the doll. “Go play.” She toddled off, but Gray looked up at me, pouting. I raised my eyebrows, and he ran off to chase after his sister.

The day was finally emerging, serene and beautiful, just like the forested mountains that surrounded us. The village was set far, far away from everything else in the world. It wasn’t safe from people, nor was it safe from the repercussions of radioactive fallout. But the most important part was that the only thing the villagers could do was talk. No one would care about a pair of cute kids with green eyes playing hopscotch and jump-rope outside.

Mera was going to look exactly like her mother. I could see it in her face. And Gray was already like her in other ways. Compassionate, soft-spoken, careful, graceful. He hated being inside. He tried to be outside as much as possible, and he’d already begun to explore away from the village. I’ve already been up late at night twice with half the village, searching for him through the forest. She had left for a reason.

“I’m hungry, Daddy.” Mera said, running up to me. She sat next to me while I peeling an orange and handed half to her. Gray came over eventually for the other half. He climbed over the boulder pretending to be a king, while Mera followed behind being the queen.

“You’d be a princess.” Gray complained. “You’re my sister.”

Mera huffed. “I want to be queen.”

“But then I won’t be a king.”

“Too bad.” Mera said.

I listened to their squabbles for a bit, feeling the new heat of the sun on my face. I let them have their debate over who was ruler-on-the-rock until I heard the thudding sound of a fist on flesh. When I turned around, I saw Mera pummeling her brother.

“Hey, hey, hey, quit that.” I leapt to my feet and picked her up.
“No! I’m the queen! I don’t want to!” She whined, and dropped her doll.

“Okay. We’re heading back.” I said, hurriedly picking up up the doll and beckoned Gray over. He was staring at the horizon, eyes unfocused.

“Gray.” He didn’t budge. I put Mera down and she grabbed the doll. I placed a hand on his shoulder. Finally, his eyes refocused and he saw me. His hand crept into mine. We made the descent down the boulder and onto the trail back to the village.

Mera was still on the boulder, standing over one of the crevasses, holding something in her hands. The doll was abandoned on the ground next to her. “Mera.” I called.

“Coming.” She called. She opened her hands and a tiny sparrow flew out, chirping merrily. I outstretched my hand as she picked up the doll to catch up.

– – – – –

I don’t know what to make of this one. I was certain this man was on something, but when we spoke his daughter appeared, bright-eyed, clutching a doll, and bringing with her an air of total peace. Why would he tell me this story if he was worried for his children’s livelihoods? I didn’t meet the boy. I talked to his neighbor about the story of his hike and she said that was the day his son disappeared. She presumed he ran off again.

I have absolutely no idea what is happening. I must look into this.

Until next time.

~The Baleful Bard

I’m not sure what to say about this one. I see her face when I close my eyes, staring up at me. My memory of her face will fade over time, like it does with so many other people I meet in this world, but I don’t want to forget her story. I’ve filled in what I could in between the two times I met her and talked to her.

– – – – –

The woman knocked on my door, the same time as usual. Without looking at me, she handed me a pill and moved on to the next room. I swallowed the pill dutifully, and it raced down my dry throat. I returned to the coloring book I had found in the dumpster – the pages faded and yellow, water damaged, the characters in it from the time before. I had found colored pencils, as well. I sharpened them with the knife my mother gave me.

I fingered the blade of the knife. When was the last time I had sharpened it? My whetstone was under one of the floorboards a previous resident had pulled up, in a small, rusty safe with a couple of old coins and a picture of my mother and me, the words written on the backside in a language I couldn’t recognize or read.

I propped open the door as the floorboards began to creak again under the weight of other women leaving their rooms. No one visited while I sharpened my hunting knife along the stone. Once I was finished, I left in search of Meggy.

She was much shorter than I was, with black hair and brown eyes, and so much prettier than I was. More people came to her, in search of a woman with big breasts and hips. I was what they came for when they wanted something more slender and boyish. Meggy was much more flirtatious and open, and much more popular. And she was my best friend.

When I entered her room Meggy was clad in nothing but a pair of baggy pants, doing her hair in her small mirror. When she spotted me, she grinned, and I helped her tie her hair into a braided bun, with a cascade of raven-black hair spilling down her back. “Walk?” She asked.

“Sure.” I replied. “Let’s go down to the creek, so we can be back before lunchtime.”

Meggy slipped a silk shirt over her bra. “Let’s skip lunch and go to the river.”


We waved to the guards outside the door as we passed by. Meggy lifted her leg to show them the ankle bracelet she wore. The nodded to her, and nodded at the one around my ankle as well.

We descended down the riparian to the nearby creek and began to walk over the step stones, trying to avoid touching the water. It was a little game we played, though the punishment if we skimmed the water was deadly.

“So you have to tell them soon.” Meggy said. “You can’t exactly hide it forever.”

“I know.” I said.

“You only have one choice.”

I shook my head. “I have two choices.”

Meggy gave me a look, her face so expressive. That’s why she was my best friend. This wasn’t a game. “They won’t let you. They don’t let you leave until you can pay.”

I couldn’t. I was nowhere near what I needed. “I can run.”

“You’ve seen what happens when someone runs. And I’m not helping you, Jacie. I love you, but I can’t.”

I skipped over a rock in the center of the creek, only to land on the other side. I could see the trees begin the clear as the creek widened. “I wouldn’t ask that of you. But I want to raise my child right, like my mom did.”

“Your mother sold you to a brothel.” Meggy said quietly.

“She wanted to keep me safe. She loved me. We’re safe and fed and warm here.”

Meggy stopped. She was standing in front of me, on a log in the center. In the faint wind, her pants billowed out. She didn’t say anything, only gave me a look full of pity. Her eyes were big, and dark in the sunlight, shielded by black lashes. I didn’t hate her for her pity. Maybe a little. But not enough for me to feel angry. Instead, I looked down, and we kept walking. I dipped my big toe a bit into the cool, brown water.

“What the hell are you doing, Jacie?” Meggy gasped.

My toe didn’t feel anything. It was not hurt, it was not feeling raw or aching. It was just wet.

“It’s just water.” I said to her.

Meggy was stiff, looking at my foot warily. When she saw no expression of pain on my face, she gave a sigh and continued.

We reached the river proper and spent a while along its shore. We bunched cattails beneath our fingers and pulled up the reeds, weaving them together into shields. With mud beneath our feet, we searched for sticks strong enough to play with. We pretended we were knights, holding the reed-shields to block each others’ blows. Eventually Meggy’s shield fell apart, and we dissolved into fits of giggles too intense to be able to continue playing. When the sun was just past noon, we headed back.

The walk upstream went slightly slower than going down. We looked for some of those translucent pink stones, my favorite, and some flat, dark gray ones to skip along the water. It was impossible to find anything below the brown depths. No animals lived in this water, and only some sorts of plants lived on its banks, overgrown and dry. Mother used to tell me about the dragonflies of all colors that flitted just above the surface, looking for microscopic food, and of fish, that wove happily along the creek and who preyed on those dragonflies. And then there were the birds, small and light, who hunted the fish. And the humans, who hunted them all.

Something with huge wings flew overhead. It was large, larger than any eagle, and had four legs.

Once we reached the big, gray rock, we turned to the left and began to climb up the bank. The trees swallowed us in and soon the giant house emerged. We walked up the cobblestones and past the gate. The guards, different this time, nodded at us as we walked by them.

The interior of the mansion had fallen into disrepair after the first and second sackings, and the marble floors were chipped and blackened.

However, the place still had electricity and a pump, so it wasn’t all bad. The windows were all open, welcoming in any breeze, and the marble was cool beneath our feet. In the drawing room, a couple of girls had pulled back the rug and were lying on the floor, doing their hair or their nails.
Meggy and I walked through the house and out to the back patio, pumping water into the basin to scrub our feet until they were spotless.

When the sun crept below the trees, the bell sounded and called us to dinner. All the girls gathered around in the kitchen, grabbing plates and slices of bread, cheese, spoonfuls of jam, and cooked vegetables from today’s harvest. We all sat quietly in the dining room with our heads bent, waiting for the owner and his women. They were older, their faces lined and hair streaked with gray, and their bodies no longer served them like ours did. We followed their orders, but behind their backs we pitied them.

The owner came in eventually, a man a little older the women who worked for him. His face was creased with lines of dislike, and his gray hair was close-cropped, beard nonexistent. His eyes were green and icy, his lips almost always pursed in disapproval. When he sat, he was presented with a plate of food. When he snapped his fingers, we all began to eat in silence.

“Jacie.” The man said when everyone was finished supping. “See me before we open.”

“Yessir.” I bent my head. He cleared off, and we all began to clean up.
It was not my turn to clean the dishes tonight, and so I handed my plate off and climbed the two flights of stairs to reach the man’s office. He was situated in what used to be the attic, though now it was refurbished and bright, with carpets, big windows, a desk, and even books. He was sitting there, at his desk, his hands folded. His women sat as well, on either side of the desk. I sank down into the chair in the middle.

“Jacie.” The man said, his voice gravelly and deep. The light outside was fading, so the warm light of the lamp on his desk illuminated his face. I bowed my head. “My assistants have informed me that as of late you have been…filling out. Are you pregnant?”

My heart was fluttering in my chest. All I could see was the slight swell of my stomach underneath my baggy shirt.

“Tell him.” The woman on the left snapped.

“Yessir.” I said quietly.

“Louder, girl.” She snapped again.

I looked up at him. “I am, sir.”

The man nodded and rifled through a stack of folders on his desk. “Then we must make arrangements.”

“Sir.” I said, breathlessly. I took a deep breath in, and said it again, louder this time. “Sir.”

He looked up from his papers, an eyebrow cocked.

“I want to keep it, sir.”

His lips pursed. “And what are you going to do with it? If it’s a girl, wait until she’s grown to slap a bracelet on her ankle just like your mother did to you? What if it’s a boy? Only women live here. Don’t be foolish.” The man snapped at me.

“I…I can buy my freedom, sir.”

“You cannot, and you know that. You do not have enough credits saved up.”
“Please, sir. I can do better.” I said. “Just…just wait. Please. I can’t kill her, sir, I can’t do that.”

The man gazed at me for a long while. The women looked at me just the same. “We will talk of this tomorrow, then.” The man said. “Night has fallen. You may go.”

I rose, bowed, and left. By the time I returned, a man was already waiting in my room. He was a usual, old and fat and very, very rich. I shrugged out of my clothes, and while he did his business my mind wandered.

I was still young. I could still take multiple men a night, ration myself, and I could be out of here before she was born. I could see her face. I knew she was a girl, I just knew it. She could grow up a free girl, no bracelet around her ankle. She could grow up on a field, or a farm, somewhere away from here, away from the dead, brown creek. Somewhere alive.

After a time, the man rolled off me and began to snore. But I didn’t even notice. I could only think about her.

– – – – –

I took a walk two days after I met her, along the lifeless creek. And I found her there too, equally as lifeless. A trail of her blood trickling down into the creek, her body torn by a sword of some sort from shoulder to groin. She looked as if her belly had been kicked and stomped on, and her hips were bent in an awkward position. Her black eyes stared up at me blankly, and her hair had been cut and thrown off to the side and scattered. A coloring book and a box of broken pencils were also scattered around her and into the creek. Her bloated hand was half-submerged in the water. I closed her eyes and fetched a shovel from the local market, and set to work.

Until next time.
~ The Baleful Bard

The Letter

I had been staying in a village for a while this summer. I had gained some reputation as the bard, perhaps, and while the villagers did not exactly look up to me, they surely enjoyed my stories. During my last week at this village, a hooded woman had passed me this note. It was not addressed to me, but it was for me all the same. I had assumed the names were changed, since there was no Silvia in this town. But as a sister myself, I felt obligated to post this. And so, here is her story.

– – – – –

Dear Oliver,

With love, Silvia


Dear Oliver,

I’m sorry, I can’t do it. Not now.

With love, Silvia


Dear Oliver,

Why couldn’t I stop you from going? I ask myself every day. I told you, they weren’t good ne


Dear Oliver,

Revenge is never a good idea, Oliver, I told you that and Mom told you that. She knew best. I don’t know where you are now, or if you’re even still around. The riots stopped and


Dear Oliver,

I know you were angry, and I know you had been wronged, Oliver. I’m so sorry that it happened the way it did. But I hope that you can come ho


Dear Oliver,

Do you remember when the sun shone on your hair? I remember when it used to shine almost blonde. And your eyelashes were blonde. God it was so pretty, I could have stared at it forever. You were so young, so much tinier? smaller than I was, I felt like a second mom to you. You were so beautiful and so kind Your hair, I can remember how it smelled. It darkened, I remember. I don’t remember much of your face anymore. It hurts, Oliver. It hurts so bad. I can’t stop that like I couldn’t stop you. Oh god there was too much Ollie, oh god you were being dumb, so stupid. I love you, Ollie, always have always will. Remember we used to say that? But then we got older and we got angry, we filled with the toxins of the world and it split us, when we were together with the others we were still apart. I don’t want to be apart anymore, I’m so tired Ollie. I’m so tired of it all. You took the last gun and I’m scared, we’re all scared around here. It’s wrong without you. There’s no normal anymore, I’m not normal I feel like I’m something wrong, cause I told Mom and Dad that I would watch over you, like your angel, but are you watching over me now? If you are, that’s okay, I forgive you as long as you forgive me. When I drink I think that when I close my eyes I can remember your face. Your age would change each time but I can still remember that. Before when we were okay. I put aside your feelings. How could I do that? How could a sister do that?

I was puffing by the time I reached the top of the stairs. I consider myself to be in shape, but this man led quite a secluded life so high up at such an old age. And, to be frank, I needed his story. He was a big subject of gossip in the bazaar below, both for his warm blankets and his odd behavior. He had chased away many a friend, and my curiosity got the best of me. This is the first of many I will post here, I assume. It’s the stories of the many who had survived over the past twenty years of horror. Perhaps they weren’t the fittest, or the luckiest. But they survived. And, at least I thought, they deserved to have their stories here, for you to read.

 – – – – –

The train roared to life, gathering energy in my ears and died suddenly when my eyes fluttered open.

In the early morning, the number 2 subway car was cool and dim, dyed with the light blues and pinks of the sun rising over the Bronx skyline. The battery had long since died, meaning that a newcomer would not be able to tell what subway line it was, or where it was going, or what time it was, but I remembered. I remembered sitting inside a stuffy 1 or 3 train, the air conditioning long since defunct, and feeling the lack of air like a compress on my lungs. I remembered seeing the lights flicker past, faster and faster until the train seemed to break the light barrier itself, until coming to rest inside the next station.

It was not like that now. Now, slender vines grew on the outside of the subway cars, quite literally rooting them to the spot. They fed on the glaring sun, the frequent deluge of rain that occurred at this time of year, and the dust and dirt that were borne on the wind. Now, the subway car remained silent, detached from its brothers who it had travelled with so faithfully over the years. Some still remained close, but not all.

I rose from the floor and rolled my blankets up, placing them gingerly on one of the benches. Quietly, I tapped the bench I slept next to three times with my middle finger. I didn’t bother waking Barbara up. She would be in a crabby mood today, as she always was.

What to make for breakfast today? There were still two fresh eggs left, from one of the chickens clucking happily in the next car. Perhaps some oats, that might do, watered down as there weren’t many left. But the harvest was soon, and we would stock up.

A breeze flew through the open windows of the car. I breathed in the smell of it. Decay and shit wafted up from the city, as per usual. Perhaps we were mad to stay here, I thought.

But we were outside of the island itself. No one stepped foot there. The likelihood of the ones remaining outside picking up the invisible, poisonous waves was over one-hundred-percent chance (especially with the water we drank), but we held onto the slim hope that it would not hurt us. We were New Yorkers, and we were home.

And we were invincible.

My dice were in my pocket where I left them last night. I pulled them out and counted them, all six, all different colors. Except for the two white ones, but one was different because one of the dots on the six was red. I rolled them and let them scatter on a mat. Odd for eggs, even for oats.

The blue die was three. The red die said four. Yellow said one, pink said two, and the first white said six. The last said one.

None of them said five. There were six of them, six dice, and none with the decency to have a complete set of numbers.

The two eggs were undergoing a vigorous scramble when Barbara stirred. I watched her rise from the car we cooked in. She was always quicker to wake than I was, always ready for the day, whether it be good or bad. She immediately rose out of her blankets and rolled them up before joining me in the second car of the row. It used to be the second car, technically, but now with the disappearance of the first subway car it was officially now the first. But it used to be second, and this is why I call it the second car.

“Glad you’re cooking those.” She said. “They were gonna go bad soon.” When they were done, I handed her a fork and we ate in silence. I rinsed the pan with water and emptied it out of a cracked window while Barbara took inventory. I felt the crag of the glass once, then back again, then twice more, just in case.
“We need to go down today.” She said. “Refill water. And we need to sell some of the mats you’ve made recently.”

“I haven’t rolled the dice on that yet today.” I said to her.

She didn’t reply, but I knew what she was thinking. Her lips pressed together. She started to gather the mats up as I rolled the dice, writing down the selections on a piece of paper.

Leaving the subway car – Odd, yes.

Gathering water at the pump – Even, also a yes. (Odds weren’t always yes, even wasn’t always no. Like life, I switched it around. It was important to take the guiding force that caused decision-making unawares at all times. Unless, of course, it expected minor trickery and used it like a chef would use a spice. I didn’t know if it expected me to do it, but I put it out of mind for the sake of my sanity.)

Hawking wares for money – Odd, no.

Hawking wares for goods – Odd, no.

“I will get water today.” I announced.

Barbara huffed. “Listen, Rich, I need your help carrying these mats to the bazaar. I can’t sell them all by myself and be on the lookout for thieves . And you can’t carry all that water up by yourself. We need to do it all together.”
“I can’t. The dice said – ”

“Who gives a shit. We need food today.”

“We have oats. We’ll be fine until tomorrow.”

Barbara folded her arms. “We only have enough oats to last us for a meal. We need actual food.”

By now, my palms were starting to sweat. We couldn’t break the dice. If we did that…I couldn’t. Bad things would happen, unspeakable. We would get robbed at knifepoint by a young man. Barbara might trip and fall down the stairs, careening into me and sending me down to the same fate. I didn’t want to think about it. And then, I imagined her, saw her, watched as they grabbed her by the arms and ripped off her dress. I saw them rape her and leave her in the gutter with her face bruised and smashed in. I imagined what would have happened had I rolled the dice wrong, and it would have been me like that.

And I looked up and saw Barbara, a different her, staring down at me still, waiting for my response.

“I’ll help you take the mats to market. But nothing more.” Even the thought of it sent a chill down my spine. My fingers tapped nervously against my thumb. We rolled up as many of the new mats as possible, all woven from old material. They were differently colored and the fabrics mismatched, but they were pretty, and most of all, warm. With the days growing shorter, the sun growing fainter, and with it, life growing harder, the mats we sold provided protection.

I followed Barbara with the mats tied to my back and toting two overly large jugs, devoid of water. We followed the train tracks to the nearest station, high up above all. I could see a bit of Manhattan past the glare off the water, the ruins majestic and horrible. The sun had already risen, and pigeons were still fluttering and flapping about, ignoring all that swam below them in the hustle and bustle of a God-forsaken world.

Down below was a different story. It was as if God had never forgotten us at all, and the Bronx pushed to remain how it was beforehand. Where there was a pump, there was human traffic. Around the local pump a small bazaar had set up shop. Stalls sold many different things – one sold chickens, eggs, even cheese, while another sold tomatoes, basil, strawberries, a rare apple or two. There were men who sold the basics– grains, like oats and wheat. There were people who made soap, and people who sold bandages and first aid, even after the many years since the collapse. One stand sold clothes – old, makeshift, or repurposed, you had to be careful combing through its racks to make sure you didn’t get the ones that were won by blood. It was not difficult to discern which ones those were.
I followed Barbara as she weaved through the hustle and bustle of the shop until we returned to our previous stall space. As we set up, people began to eye our mats. It was easy to tell those who were interested in trading for them, and those that were interested in simply taking them. When the mats were set up, Barbara settled down in front of the wares.

“So you’re sure you’re of no help?” She asked.

“The dice did not allow me to work the stand today. I must fetch water.”
“Please make more mats as well. Fall is soon and it was a hot summer. We will be having a cold winter.”

“You do not know that. The winters are still erratic. But I will make the mats if the dice let me.”

Barbara did not reply.

I looked up as I walked back to the station, my arms laden by jugs filled to the brim with rusty brown water. The day became blustery and hot, chasing the morning’s clouds away. People retreated into their dens to fend off the heat. I walked under the train tracks, hearing the shudders and screeches of trains that used to pass overhead. What times were those.

The tooth inside my mouth had begun to wiggle more violently, and I was sure it would come out soon. Perhaps I would ask Barbara to take it out for me. My mouth was sore all the time, aching and making it difficult to talk much.

By the time I reached the subway station I was breathing heavily. The water jugs took nearly half an hour to bring everything up. My torso hurt for the side stitches.

I boiled the water throughout the day. The dice told me that Barbara would come back a little after sunset, when the stands at the bazaar were busy getting rid of their last moldy fruits, or their youngest cheeses. That’s when others began to fill the streets – those that preferred the company of white powders and fires to keep them alive.

The sun gave its last efforts as it began to set, sending out pulses of exhausted heat so unlike its sharp rays from earlier. The last of the water was boiled and cooling in its jugs. I had not had much to eat today. I wondered if Barbara had got some.

I thought I heard someone on the tracks and went to the back window. “Barbara?” I called. No response.

The sun sank below the old, soot-stained buildings of the Bronx and of the nearby island. It grew dark as the LEDs flickered to life, their power charged from the day. “Barbara?” I called at the window. There was no response.
I busied myself with making dinner. Some oats in water, half of a tomato grown in the second car, roasted on a spit. The juices ran down my chin as I bit into it, still warm.

The heat that had taken the breath out of me not two hours before had now become bearable. With the absence of the sun, the cold had begun to sneak in again, crisp and friendly.


Barbara did not come. The outside was dark, and cool. Some small LEDs could be seen in the distance, like stars. I clutched my dice in my right hand, and rolled. Odd, yes, even, no.

Do I go find her? I asked.

The blue one said one, the red one said four, the yellow said four, the pink five, the white said two, and the second white showed its tiny red dot, poking out amongst the other five on that side. Even.

I stayed where I was, listening to the chickens in the other car, the people below as the chatter turned to singing, roaring, and fighting. The people below were dirty, and rowdy, but they were New Yorkers through and through. Just like me, high up above in the subway car. The dark descended around me, but when I clutched my dice I was safe. I tapped on the bench in the car, three times, with my middle finger. Perhaps we were made to stay here, I thought.

– – – – –

Until next time.
The Baleful Bard.