Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

Things Crumble, Things Break

Sitting at the minefield’s edge, I held Dana’s hand and tried hard not to break it as we waited for the sunrise. Despite the barbed wire crossing back and forth in front of us, we kept a good view of the horizon. Another five, maybe ten minutes, the sky would turn purple and then red and then orange before gold washed over the trees and grass.

Dana wrapped a hand around my bicep, squeezing as much as she dared, and rested her head on my shoulder. “Thanks for meeting me.”

“Sure,” I said. “There’s nowhere else I want to be.”

“Liar.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

I kissed her forehead. “Pretty please, believe me.”

“Fine, but only because I like you.” She waved a hand at the wall of trees waiting on the other side of the field. “Do you think there are soldiers there now?”

“There always are.”

I felt her nod against my arm. “I know, but it’s been years.”

“Yeah. I wish they’d get tired, leave us alone.”

“Maybe they have.” Dana pulled away then, looked to the field and then back to me. Half a smile pulled her mouth at a funny angle. Mischief tinted her eyes. She looked so beautiful it hurt, a deep ache in my chest I enjoyed a lot more than the pain I felt in every other part of me. Maybe I just liked that she could still smile.

“Should we test our luck?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“You know. Head for the woods, see what happens.”

I eyed the trees, the field that separated us from them. Ten years had passed since someone last tried to cross it, and grass had grown over the crater left behind. Back then, the town’s population had been almost double, the quarantine less than a decade old. Our hopes that we might be allowed to leave one day had already crumbled. The soldiers guarding the town’s border had shifted from protecting us to protecting the rest of the country. Realization does terrible things, sometimes.

“Maybe tomorrow,” I said. “I’m not feeling very risky today.”

“You never feel risky.”

“Give me a hug. How’s that for risk?”

She chuckled a little, but, sure enough, she wrapped both arms around me and squeezed. For a second, I breathed deep and held it, searching for the sharp feeling that told me a bone had snapped, but I finally relaxed into her embrace.

“How’s that feel?” she asked.

“Feels good.”

“Told you you were a liar.”

“Got me there.”

Dana kept her arms around me as the sky brightened one shade at a time. I lifted my right arm to stroke her finger with my thumb. The cast grew heavy after a few moments, but I didn’t want to stop touching her. Sitting behind the fence, the sky erupting orange over the trees, I wanted to think we’d grow old together. I wanted desperately to believe we’d eventually marry and have kids and then grandchildren and we’d watch them grow. There’d be holidays and family reunions. A lifetime together.

Sadness crept in, and I fought to push it back. I was supposed to want those things because I was in love, not because they no longer happened in our town.

The sun crested the trees, its light washing over us. Dana smiled and held her arms wide. “It feels great,” she said. “Doesn’t it feel great?”

“Yeah,” I said. I closed my eyes and tried to relish its warmth, let it push away the bad feelings that had wormed their way inside. Twenty-two without a job and nothing to do but sit with my girlfriend and enjoy the sunshine. Shouldn’t that be a good thing?

When I opened my eyes, still feeling down, I saw Dana watching me. That half-smile had returned. “I love you,” she said.

“And I love you.”

She leaned in and kissed me. We were gentle. Nowadays, everything needed to remain gentle, careful. Same way the rest of the country treated us, except they were afraid we’d break them. A fragile hammer ready to smash an entire continent into dust.

“I should get you home,” I said. “Your mom’s gonna freak.”

“If she hasn’t already.”

“Shall we?”

“We shall.”

We climbed to our feet without helping each other. Too risky, otherwise. My bones creaked, sent little spikes of pain through my system. I gave my cast a frown, hoped I could at least go long enough without breaking something to have the plaster removed. How long had it been since I hadn’t worn some kind of cast or splint? Some numbers were too big to count, some memories just a little too far out of reach.

Hand-in-hand, we walked back to my car. The rustbucket wasn’t much, but it still ran, living off a steady supply of government-funded gasoline, stuff so bad it was probably closer to lighter fluid. I’d heard they’d considered banning motor vehicles, making us ride bikes everywhere, but they wanted to pretend we weren’t being treated inhumanely. Besides, a kid named Zack Meyers had spilled off his bike and powdered his ribs, pelvis, and a portion of his skull shortly after The Event. Folks had quickly decided automobiles weren’t any more dangerous than bicycles.

We climbed into the car and strapped ourselves in. Before pulling away from the shoulder, I checked each way half a dozen times. Fragility breeds caution.

“Tell your mom I’m sorry,” I said. I turned onto Main Street, passed the gas station where a pair of hazmatted soldiers were refilling the tanks while a third waited nearby with a machine gun. Who they suspected might try to attack, I have no idea. No one in town had guns anymore, and it wasn’t as though any of us could throw an effective punch. Who’s afraid of being hit by chalk?

“She’ll deal,” Dana said.

“Maybe still tell her? Please?”

“You know I will.”

“Thanks. I don’t want her mad at me.” I made the turn off Main to Pecan Junction. The road wound through the hills surrounding the town, and I caught myself looking upward, gazing at the top of the place now known as Blast Hill. Years later, the hill’s cap remained bare soil and wreckage. I could see some of the rubble from the research station, the morning sun glinting off a piece of unscorched steel.

For the millionth time, I stared at that hilltop too long and wondered if anyone had thought the research station was a bad idea. Had anyone in the seventies raised an eyebrow, let alone their voice, or had they decided the huge influx of money from the government was enough to buy their approval? I wondered if there had been meetings, debates with the city council or something. Not that I thought the government had been honest for a minute. Even if they’d known something terrible could happen, something that would slowly kill the town and make everyone in it so fragile we had to be careful when we shook hands, they wouldn’t have told anyone. They wanted their facility, and they got it. Now, they had a catastrophe and a border and a quarantine. And all we got out of the deal was a slow death sentence.

Dana’s hand appeared on my knee. When I turned, taking a second to make sure I had the car under twenty miles per, she gave me an understanding smile, the kind that said she knew what I was thinking and that I shouldn’t torture myself with those kind of questions. I nodded and gave her hand a careful squeeze. How I’d been lucky enough to deserve her, I had no idea.

A few more minutes of creeping through the hills and trees, and I made the left onto the gravel drive that led to Dana’s house. I slowed the car to a crawl. A series of rains and runoffs had turned the driveway into a rough and rutted mess. Even at a speed that would make a slug impatient, the car took the first bump like a rollercoaster. When I looked to Dana again, she was rolling her shoulder.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Yeah. Just achey.”

“Good.” Her mom was going to be pissed enough without me breaking Dana’s collar bone.

Sure enough, her mother stood in the doorway of their trailer. She held onto one of the foam padded handrails that ran along the trio of equally padded steps. An old athletic mat sat at the bottom, a little cushion, but not enough that I didn’t constantly fear Dana falling down those stairs.

I saw the tiniest bit of relief on her face as I pulled the car to a stop. Against my better judgment, I killed the engine and opened the door, stood behind it. “I’m sorry. We were . . . the sunrise.”

“You’re pushing it, Michael.”

“I know. Like I said, I’m sorry.”

“Mom, give him a break,” Dana said as she shut the car’s door and started toward the trailer. “I’m an adult, right?”

“A break is what I’m scared of,” her mother said.

Neither of us had an answer for that. Not a lot of rebuttals for the truth, right?

“I’ll give you a call later,” Dana said. She jogged toward the trailer, and her mother screamed. Dana held up both hands in surrender as she slipped into a careful walk, rolling heel-to-toe in a way that was almost funny. I knew better than to laugh, though.

• • • •

No one greeted me at the door when I got home. There were no disapproving looks or scolding. The house was quiet. I looked to the dining room, where my father usually waited when he wanted to tell me how disappointed he was in me, but instead of a glowering expression I found an empty chair, a shaft of sunlight where motes of dust danced their way from ceiling to table and back again.

I felt nervous, not because I expected some shoe to drop but because silence could mean a lot of different things. With the door shut behind me, I walked through the living room and entered the hallway.

“Dad?” No answer came, and I told myself I hadn’t spoken that loud. Maybe he hadn’t heard me. Everybody was probably fine. As fine as possible, at least.

My parents’ bedroom door hung open. The dim light I saw told me the curtains were drawn.

I stuck my head in the door. “Dad? You in here?”

He sat in a chair by my mother’s bed. An open hardback rested in his lap, his cane propped against one armrest. I saw the splints on two of his fingers twitch along with the rest of his hand, and then he snorted as he woke. He wiped a hand over his face, squinted his eyes hard and then shook his head. “Hey. You just get home?”

I considered lying, but I didn’t have the heart. Not in front of Mom.

She lay in her bed. One leg in traction, her newest set of screws and pins connected the metal brace to her shin. A cast covered her hips, stretching down to mid-thigh. The halo collar kept her face aimed at the ceiling, even as her eyes shifted toward me and she gave me the weakest of smiles. A fall in the kitchen, slipping on spilled coffee. More than a month had passed, and I still wasn’t sure if the fact that she’d survived was a blessing or a curse. I remembered when the EMTs had arrived in their hazmat suits, hearing words they thought were whispered but that their masks had distorted and amplified.

Again?

Goddamn mess.

Like glass.

We should smother her.

Better off.

Trying to give my mother a smile, I wondered how much she’d heard, if she agreed with it or if she still had some fight left. Wasn’t that the big question for all of us? Sooner or later, we’d all run out of fight, get broken too many times and just want it all to stop. Or would the government give up first, just come in with rifles and put us out of our misery? Then again, they didn’t need to waste bullets. Send in four men with baseball bats, and they’d be done in an hour.

“I was with Dana,” I said. “We watched the sunrise.”

“Her mother didn’t try to kill you?”

“I don’t think she’s happy. I got Dana home okay, though. It’s cool.”

Dad nodded. He reached out and gingerly stroked his fingers down Mom’s arm. If anyone understood that desperate need to be together in the face of all the awful things swirling around life, my parents did. Mom’s eyes shifted from me to Dad, and her smile grew. I should have looked at my parents and seen nothing but love and determination to be together through everything, but I just felt sad. Instead of growing old together, they’d decided to fall apart as a single unit. Not exactly a fairy tale. Then again, how were Dana and I any different? We didn’t have a happy ending to look forward to—no kids, no lazy Sundays on the front porch with a pitcher of sun tea between us—just bones turning into powder one mundane accident at a time.

As my father touched her arm, I noticed the plastic tube running from the crook of her elbow to an IV stand, an addition that hadn’t been there the previous day. I considered asking about it, but decided the time wasn’t right.

“Anybody want breakfast?” I asked. A little hunger stirred in my belly, but mostly I wanted an excuse to leave the room. Seeing the two of them there—when had I last seen my father leave my mother’s bedside?—exhausted me in a way I didn’t think was still possible.

Dad gave me a little nod. Like an idiot, I looked to my mother for the same thing, remembering the halo collar a few seconds later. “I’ll get some bacon and eggs going.”

“Be careful,” my father said.

“Will do.”

I left them to their room full of shadows and silence and walked down the creaking hall to the kitchen. A piece of paneling hung from the dining room wall like a scab near the end of its duties. I tried to push it back into place, but it refused to stay. Considering the hole in the kitchen floor, a single piece of plywood keeping anyone from falling in, the paneling shouldn’t have concerned me. Really, none of it should have bugged me. Just like our bodies, the entire town spent its time inching toward certain death. If you’re the government, you don’t tell a community they still have to work for a living even though they’re forbidden from commuting. A FEMA stipend only goes so far, though. Food and gas, sure, but they weren’t going to repair our homes.

Dad shuffled into the kitchen as I pulled the bacon from the fridge. Pain creased his face. Sleeping in the chair couldn’t have been good for him, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. I knew he wouldn’t listen.

“How’s Mom?” I asked. “She say anything yet?”

“No.” he grabbed the coffee pot and filled it with water. “Doctors paid her a visit last night.”

“Yeah?”

“Might be an infection. They put her on antibiotics.”

So that explained the IV. “How bad is it?”

His shoulders lifted and dropped a little as he pulled the coffee from the cupboard. “I dunno. They said it could get bad if it’s not treated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t bad already. Then again, bad is only bad if everything else is good.”

I got it. We all measured our happiness in small, cautious moments. Sometimes luck won out and the small moments added up enough to outweigh everything else. Most of the time, however, they simply acted as tiny islands in the middle of a terrible sea. You took a moment to breathe and dry yourself off before diving back in and swimming like mad.

I tried to think of something else to say but failed. Instead, we worked in silence, me cooking while Dad watched coffee drip into the pot. We sat at the breakfast table, eating without looking at each other. Once we finished, he blasted a small plate of bacon and eggs in the microwave for a few seconds and took it to Mom. I considered asking if he wanted any help, but exhaustion had seeped into my bones, twining with the constant ache. I craved sleep.

Crawling into bed, I thought about Dad keeping watch over Mom, of the way she still looked at him even though she couldn’t talk or even move. I thought about Dana’s smile and her hand in mine and how I could never hold her as closely as I wanted. Mostly, I wondered how mine and Dana’s story would end. How much longer could the story even last?

I tried to banish the bad thoughts from my brain, but they stayed. When sleep finally came, it was troubled, and I awoke more tired than before.

• • • •

Four days passed in the quiet boredom we’d grown accustomed to, creeping along in cautious steps and fleeting moments of bliss. I saw Dana when I could, her mother forgiving me for keeping her out all night but keeping a close eye on us. Annoying, yeah, but I accepted the probation willingly. My time with Dana made everything worth it.

On the fifth day, I awoke to the sound of quiet sobbing. It jolted me from sleep quicker than any alarm. I jerked upright, throwing my covers to the floor, and climbed from the bed as quickly as I dared. The sound came from across the hall, and I sensed the terrible truth of things before I left my room to see what had happened. My father’s sobs told me everything I needed to know. Still, I went. It wasn’t as though I could ignore it and just go about my day.

He gripped her hand in both of his, squeezing much harder than most would dare. I watched the muscles and tendons in his forearms tighten. Mom’s hand must have been a sack of pebbles.

Dad’s body heaved. When he saw me, he cut loose, no longer determined to cap his sadness. Peals of sorrow filled the room.

My eyes drifted to Mom. She looked peaceful, no hint of agony on her face. I felt thankful for that. None of us expected a painless death, not when our daily lives were a patchwork of aching and injury. I’d never really believed in mercy until that moment.

Once I tore my eyes from my mother, I walked around the bed and placed a hand on Dad’s shoulder. He felt stick thin and fragile, his back spasming beneath my palm. One of his hands left my mother, clasped mine. I tried not to be afraid, but grief could make somebody careless. I didn’t want to spend Mom’s funeral in a new cast.

“I woke up,” he said. “I just . . . I woke up, and . . . and . . .”

Another sob swallowed the rest of his words, but I understood. She’d passed while he was asleep. I couldn’t decide if that was good or not. Did saying goodbye trump those brutal final seconds? How was I supposed to know?

I stood behind my father for hours, my entire body a single thread of pain. Tears filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks, but, for the most part, I held things together. Dad let it all go, wailing and shrieking until he had nothing left. I didn’t realize my father was done until the man leaned back in his chair, heaved a pair of quivering sighs, and then passed out, snoring softly as his chin touched his chest.

I finally let go of him and attended to Mom. I tucked her hands under the blankets and then pulled everything over her head. The collar held the covers up in a ridiculous way, and I kept bitter laughter behind my teeth. I refused to be disrespectful.

A few phone calls set things in motion. The necessary numbers were posted by the phone, one of the law’s many requirements. At least we never had to worry about funeral arrangements. The government had streamlined death to the point of science.

• • • •

Burial was a luxury the government had taken from us. The potential for contamination or infection meant bodies had to be destroyed. Like any caring government, they allowed families twenty-four hours with the body. Supervised, of course. Embalming remained forbidden, but at least we were allowed to grieve in the same room as the deceased. What few people remained in town could come by to view the body. If you ignored the smell and the hazmatted men with guns, it could almost feel like a real funeral.

Dana came with her mother. A few others from around town did, as well, but mostly it was me and Dad. I kept an arm around his shoulders, feeling him tremble against me. He said a few words, the start of a eulogy that soon collapsed into pained wails. My eyes flicked to one of the guards. Behind the plastic screen of his hood, he looked bored.

I held Dad again when they wheeled my mother into the backyard, doused her with gasoline, and set her on fire. My free hand found Dana’s, and her fingers carefully laced with mine.

Watching black smoke curl into the sky, I wondered if whatever was destroying the town might be airborne. Over the years, we’d been told they didn’t want it leeching into the soil, but wouldn’t it getting into the air be worse? Could they really risk something as simple as gasoline and a match destroying it? Maybe the government just wanted to pull one over on all of us. Why couldn’t they? They’d already fed us a research station that had doomed us. Why not keep the entire, terrible joke rolling?

I attempted to take Dad inside once the fire started to die, but he wouldn’t budge. When I tried to say something, he shook his head. His eyes never left the flames. Even when the fire collapsed into ashes and our government attendants started raking out the remains, I couldn’t move him.

“Dad, let’s go,” I said. “Please.”

“Not yet.”

His eyes looked glassy and unfocused, like something inside him had broken. When I spoke again, his lips trembled, but he didn’t say a word. Dana nuzzled my arm, and when I turned to her she gave me a sad smile, an expression both brave and defeated.

Dana left shortly after the attendants finished with Mom’s remains. I tried again to get Dad inside the house, but I couldn’t budge him. The sun set, and cold settled over the house. I wondered if I could wrestle him out of the yard without breaking something, and eventually decided to just go to bed. My eyelids felt heavy, and I’d started swaying on my sore feet.

I stumbled past my father and into the house, not even turning on the lights as I carefully made my way to my room. With each step, I tried to shed another portion of the day. Too much heartache and stress and required strength. I felt drained, hollow. If I slept for days, it probably wouldn’t be enough. A month, maybe. Give me a month of good sleep, and maybe I could go back to life like it was something close to normal. Not that I remembered what a normal life meant.

My bed all but swallowed me. Aching limbs sank into the mattress, and I moaned at the sudden relief. I tried not to think of my mother’s ashes being raked into the backyard, but the image stuck in my mind, and I fell asleep thinking of my father trembling in my arm, my mother nothing but a memory sewn into the grass.

• • • •

I heard something. Footsteps maybe, a creaking floorboard. It pulled me from sleep like a jagged hook. My eyes snapped open, and blackness flooded in. I felt the presence of someone in the room, but I couldn’t see. The sound of breathing filled my ears.

“Hello?” I said. “Dad?”

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw my father over me. At first, he was just an outline, the barest hint of a person standing beside my bed. Something about his posture seemed strange, and it took another few seconds to realize he was holding something over his head. I squinted, trying to make out the details, but before I could tell what he was holding I saw the tears streaming down his face.

“Dad? What are you doing?”

His breath hitched. Shaking his head, he spoke. “This . . . this is better. I’m sorry.”

“What are you talking about?”

Then, I saw the book. I’d last seen it in his lap as he slept beside my mother, thick and hardbound. He held it with shaking hands, high above his head and ready to descend with all the strength he could muster. I watched his arms tremble and tried to tell myself I was imagining things. He wouldn’t. I was his son, and he was my dad, and he couldn’t even think about doing what it looked like he was about to do. His eyes, brimming with tears, told a different story, though.

“It won’t even . . . hurt,” he said. “It’ll just . . . hold still, okay? Close your eyes.”

“Dad, no.”

“I have to.”

“You don’t. Seriously.”

“Your mother is dead!”

I lifted myself onto my elbows, the motion making both my arms scream. “I know, Dad. I know.”

“It’s not worth it anymore. None of this is worth it.”

I started to slide out of bed, but Dad’s voice stopped me.

“Don’t move!”

One of my legs had wriggled free of the blankets. Cold air kissed my skin. Eyes on my father, I tried to believe I was imagining thing. Or maybe it was a terrible joke. He couldn’t mean this. He was my dad. Could he really kill me?

He roared, and it answered all my questions. I saw the book start swinging, his arms flexing in a way I’d never seen, and I dove from my bed. The solid sound of the heavy book slamming into my vacant pillow filled my ears an instant before I hit the floor. My left arm snapped in at least three places, and I screamed as burning agony shot through me. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought one of my legs might have broken, as well.

Adrenaline flooded my system as I heard my father shout something. I climbed to my feet as he lifted the book again.

“Dad, don’t!”

I saw him snarl, a strange expression full of both anger and despair. He cocked back his arms, and I shoved him before I could think of anything else. My arm flared as both my palms hit his chest and pushed, and another scream ripped free of my chest. Dad staggered back, his eyes widening, and then he lost his balance and fell.

I don’t know what I expected, what I wanted. Maybe I thought he’d step back and think about what he was doing, see he was wrong. Perhaps I’d hoped he would come to his senses, wail and scream and grieve my dead mother until he was too tired to do anything but apologize. Mostly, I just think I saw death coming at me and fought back. A dumb survival instinct. Lashing out of terror and desperation, nothing more. I didn’t expect him to fall, for his head to snap back and for his skull to slam against the floor with a sound like an egg dropped on kitchen tile. I didn’t expect to stand there screaming as my dad’s body spasmed as though he’d grabbed hold of a live wire. The thrashing of his limbs against the floor filled the room, louder than a rockslide, and I didn’t do a thing, just stood there, arm cradled against my chest, and shrieked until he fell still.

When he finally stopped moving, his eyes stared at the ceiling. His mouth hung open at a strange angle, tongue lolling. He made no sound, didn’t move again, but there was no peace in his death. Where my mother had looked like she might have been sleeping, my dad was a study in terrible suffering. The shock and pain of his death covered his face like a roadmap. Even in the dark, I could see it.

Jesus. I sat on the edge of my bed, staring at his body as the pain from my arm subsided to a steady burning. Save the hissing of my breath, the house remained silent. I realized it would always be that way. My parents were dead, and I was the only member of our family left. Did I care if I was still alive? Not really.

When the sunrise began seeping through my bedroom window, I got up and covered Dad’s body with my blankets. It seemed like the right thing to do. I’d made other decisions since his death, weighed options and searched my heart and all that kind of thing. Mostly, I’d thought about anchors. They kept you stuck in a place, but what if all your anchors disappeared? What was really keeping you there?

Using a shirt, I made a sling for my arm. I knew I wasn’t going to the medical center. Not this time. I’d grown far too tired of casts and pins, and with my right arm already plastered, I didn’t want a matching set. My arm would either heal or it wouldn’t. Time would tell.

As I pulled a backpack from my closet and stuffed it with clothes, I fought to ignore my dad’s body. I could smell the metallic tang of his blood, and when I glimpsed his way I saw the blanket hugging his features almost too well. Like he was an art project, a strange tribute left in the town square for all to see.

The sunlight felt especially harsh as I tossed my backpack in the passenger seat and left the house. I knew I should make the necessary calls, tell them my dad was dead. There would be no investigation or trial. Those didn’t happen in our town. I refused to watch another parent burn, though. I didn’t want to smell gasoline and charring flesh, see black smoke climb into the sky. I sure as hell didn’t want to watch a bored man in a hazmat suit rake my dad’s ashes into the backyard.

First, I drove to Dana’s place, the cast on my arm making the effort a special ordeal. Even after making my decision, I had to see if I could pull up that last anchor. If she refused to budge, I’d cut the line. Why not? I hated the idea, but staying in the town I somehow hated more.

I knocked on the door and waited. My arm had started throbbing, but I was fairly sure I hadn’t broken my leg. Small mercy, that. When Dana answered, she looked at my face for an instant before her eyes darted to the sling supporting my arm. Her mouth made a little O-shape of concern.

“Are you . . . ?”

“I broke it,” I said.

“Is everything okay?”

“My dad’s dead.”

“What?”

“He . . .” Instead of telling her at the front door, where her mother might hear, I motioned for her to follow me to the car. Sitting on the hood, the warm engine still ticking, I told her everything: Dad and the book, our struggle, his death, my plan.

“Wait here,” she finally said. “Start the car and keep it running. I’ll be right back.”

As the engine idled, I felt my nerves buzz. What if her mother came out instead? What if Dana told her everything? Would she call the authorities? And what would they do if they caught me?

Maybe the same thing they’d do if I went through with my plan. Probably.

Still, when I saw Dana exit the trailer, carefully shutting the door behind her, I felt the first twinge of apprehension. Excitement burned in her expression, and the bag slung over her shoulder was full almost to bursting. She smiled as she rounded the car’s hood, and it almost broke my heart.

“Let’s go,” she said.

I gently took her hand. “You know the odds . . .”

“I don’t care. I’m not dying in this town.”

“Okay.” I gave the car some gas and turned around.

An odd quiet surrounded us as I drove down the muddy path. When I dared, I gave Dana a smile. She returned it each time, but there was a strange sort of inertia to it. Like we’d been set on our path and couldn’t stop. Whatever happened would happen.

Once we turned onto the paved roads, I accelerated just a little. I couldn’t pretend I was in a real hurry to reach our destination. We approached the center of town, and I felt Dana’s hand on my knee.

“Stop here,” she said.

“Huh?” I did as she asked, though.

Looking out her window, she pointed to the top of Blast Hill. I followed her finger to the scorched earth and shattered trees. The research station’s wreckage looked the same as ever.

“I want to see it.”

“Seriously?”

“We’re leaving, right? I want to look at it before we go. I never have. Have you?”

“No. Nobody has.”

“So we’ll be the first.” She threw open her door and climbed onto the gravel shoulder. I killed the engine and followed.

“Be careful,” I said as we started up the hillside. The slope was steep, covered in dead pine needles and soft dirt. We made it barely ten yards before we found ourselves bent forward, clawing at the ground as we climbed. I wished I had both hands available. More than once, I slid back several feet, panic jolting my chest as I dug in and fought to keep from plummeting backwards to die against a maple.

By the time we cleared the trees, sweat stuck out shirts to our backs. The sudden breeze chilled my face, and I looked to Dana as she stood, hands on her hips, and smiled at what we’d accomplished.

“I’ve never looked down on the whole town,” she said.

I followed her gaze. From our vantage point, everything looked so small. I could see the town just beginning to wake up. No one had to go to work, but I could hear the soft drone of the occasional car or truck traveling the roads. It occurred to me that, if we could see the town, the town could see us.

“We should get a move on,” I said. “We don’t want anybody spotting us up here.”

Dana nodded. “Good point. Let’s go see what all the fuss is about.”

The slope grew less severe as we drew closer to the hill’s crest, but the ground continued to soften. I had the strange idea we were walking through something like silk. As we passed the first hunk of scarred and sun-bleached wreckage, my feet sank ankle-deep into the soil.

“Do you remember the explosion?” Dana asked.

“Barely,” I said. “What I remember was I was in the living room, sitting on the floor. I think I’d made this drum set out of my Mom’s Tupperware. I was banging on it when everything started vibrating. This purple light came through the bay window. Not, like, a light with a purple tint to it. It was purple, thick and strong enough to fill the entire living room. And when I say everything was vibrating, I mean that was the sound, like this violent thrumming. A giant cricket or something. It got louder and louder, and I could feel it at the back of my head. I screamed for my mom, but I couldn’t hear my own voice.

“There was this flash, and suddenly I couldn’t hear at all. The light was gone, though. The vibrating had stopped, too. I guess the flash was the actual explosion. My mom came and got me. She took us to the bathroom, and we hid in the tub until Dad got home an hour later. They talked a lot but wouldn’t let me listen. I broke my arm the first time about two weeks later.”

Dana stood, hands on her hips, surveilling the damage. The dirt was black as coal in places, a color that was almost butterscotch elsewhere. The shades swirled together, creating patterns that probably meant something to someone, but just confused me. Shouldn’t the explosion have blasted everything outward in straight lines?

We crept through what rubble remained. Aside from some scrap metal and a single concrete column that had broken apart the way our bones did again and again, there was little left. I didn’t see any computer parts or shattered beakers, no skeletons or tattered remains of lab coats. Most of the facility had simply disappeared, claimed by whatever experiments the government had decided to call research.

I’d heard rumors. Everybody had. Strange new weapons, chemical warfare, new forms of energy. Really, no one knew. The station’s workers never interacted with the locals. They arrived on busses in the morning and left in them at night. If any of them had survived the accident, someone in town might have questioned them, maybe even beat the crap out of them a little for their trouble, but no one had. Sometimes, I wondered if they had died quickly. Had they realized they’d screwed up an instant before the explosion, or had they spent several minutes in panicked terror, knowing they were about to die. Mostly, I hoped they suffered. It was only fair.

“I . . .” Dana shook her head. “This isn’t what I expected.”

“Me neither. I don’t know what we’d find, this just—“

“Look!”

She pointed, and I followed. Near the center of the site, the two soils whirled together, the center of a whirlpool. At first, I didn’t know what had startled her, but then I saw it. The ground in that spot pulsed, expanding and contracting like breathing lungs, like a heartbeat. As I watched, cold filling my body, I saw something move under the soil, a quick, whipping motion like a snake in tall grass.

“Do you . . . ?”

“I see it,” I said.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.” I didn’t feel stupid enough to look closer. Already, I felt far too aware of my feet sunk in the dirt. If something was moving around underneath . . .

“Let’s go,” I said. “Seriously. Now.”

Our descent took far too long for my liking. With each careful step, I was afraid our feet would slip out from under us, send us tumbling to a shattered death. Each time I touched the ground to keep my balance, I felt sure I’d feel something glide over my fingers, curl around my wrist. I grit my teeth and fought to ignore the sweat stinging my eyes. With each breath, I struggled for calm, hoped Dana would do the same. When the ground beneath us grew more solid, I felt only a little better. Not until we were in the car, doors shut and windows up, did I feel something close to safe.

Dana looked at her fingernails, half-moons of dirt marked each one. “Do you think it’s always been there?”

“Maybe.” I tried to dig the grit out from under my nails. “No one’s gone up that I know of. Maybe it’s been there since the explosion.”

“Or maybe it’s new.”

“Do you still want to . . . ?”

“Yes,” she said. “More than ever.”

I started the engine and pulled onto the road. If anyone had seen my car there, they didn’t make themselves known.

• • • •

Ten minutes passed in awkward silence, and then we found ourselves at the barbed wire fence. Only a few days prior, we’d watched the sun rise from behind the metal strands. Now, I couldn’t decide if the field beyond—if the trees past that—looked ominous or promising. Either. Both.

“Are you sure?” I asked Dana.

She nodded. Her hand squeezed mine. “What about you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “There’s nothing left here. If we . . . at least we tried.”

“Right.”

I pressed my lips to hers. “I love you, Dana.”

“I love you, too.”

I thought of my mother one last time, then my dad. Looking to the trees, I wondered if there really were soldiers positioned there, and I wondered if it would matter, if we’d hear a click as we crossed the field and then just vanish in a violent rush of heat and pain. We wouldn’t know until we tried.

Mouthing a silent prayer, I reached out and lifted the barbed wire.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Nate Southard

Nate Southard

Nate Southard is the author of the novels Down, Pale Horses, Just Like Hell, and several others. His latest collection, Will the Sun Ever Come Out Again?, is available now from Broken River Books. His work has appeared in such venues as Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and Thuglit. A finalist for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction, Nate lives in Austin, Texas with his best friend and two cats. Learn more at natesouthard.com.