Authors: Chad A. Clark
Chad A. Clark
For A & P
My fellow scribblers.
You know who you are.
The absurd, almost alien thought came to Sophie as she looked into the tiny, crimson hole, centered perfectly between her mother's eyes. If she tried, she could probably work a dime into that little hole. And as she thought this, the misting of blood in the air still wafted down around them. The heavy, coppery taste in her mouth
The blood in her mouth.
Her mother's blood.
For the rest of her life, Sophie would look back on those moments following the sound of the gunshot and would only see still images, a memorialized recording of her worst moments. She saw the bullet hole in the glass, the simple hole with the spiderweb of cracks running off in all directions. She saw the limp body of her sister on the seat where she had passed out, while Adam tried to wake her up. She saw the gaping yaw of her father's mouth, frozen open in a scream that likely sounded earth shattering to him, but to the rest of them was nothing but a mute expression of pain. She saw Rowen, stepping out of the car and producing a gun that she wasn't even aware he had.
These images flashed and swirled around her, so rapidly that it almost tricked her into thinking that she saw movement instead of flashes. If she put her mind back, she could still feel the sharp pain in her arm as Rowen grabbed it, pulling her out of the car. She could still see the explosion of stars as the side of her head impacted against the frame. She felt it, but whenever she searched back, there was no playback of the event actually happening. It was as if she had simply left herself behind. Her mother's body was slumped against the passenger side window, frozen forever with the look of obliviousness to the near proximity of her own death.
Sophie didn't know how they got away from the troops, since Rowen seemed to be the only one who had kept it together. Somehow he managed to lead them all to safety, while returning fire at the same time.
But the taste of blood lingered.
Her mother's face hovered in front of her, a black and white image, cloudy and distorted as if the features themselves were already departing from her conscious mind. She had lost one of the anchors that kept her tethered for her entire life, gone in the blink of an eye. A short, high-pitched sound like someone dropping a test tube on the floor. The sound of glass breaking, and an explosion inside the car. All of it marked her mother's end in this world.
When she blinked, she saw that they were still lying on the side of the road, Rowen looking into her eyes and shouting as he shook her. Sweat dripped off of him, his exhaustion clear. The thought came into her mind that he must have carried each and every one of them to the side of the road. She frowned at the sound of his voice and the words that she could only partially understand.
Normally her mother would be the clear headed one, the one who gave them direction and held everything together. Now this man in the green army jacket, who they had just picked up on the side of the road not two days ago, he was the one telling them what to do. Her mother couldn't do it anymore.
The reality of the death crept in, and Sophie finally identified the hysterical sobbing she heard as her own. Tremors ran up and down her back as the force of the crying took hold, denying her any conscious control of her muscles.
She cried out at sudden pain in her shoulders, a burning agony of large hands gripping her tightly. She could feel the fingers, probably leaving indentations on her skin and looked up into the sound of his voice.
Now she felt the crispness in the air, the moan of the wind, and the sporadic barking of gunfire. She didn't know why they were taking so long, but it was only a matter of time before the troops advanced and found them. They had to get out, and quickly.
The forest loomed behind them, darkness clawing out in an ominous warning but in the end, it remained their only option. Adam carried Corrine, evidently coming back to reality at least a little. Her father leaned against Rowen for support as he walked. The arm that wasn't pinned up against Rowen swung lazily, as if he no longer had control over it, drifting back and forth like some kind of untethered pendulum.
She saw hopelessness in that arm.
As they made their way deeper into the forest, the sound of the gunfire diminished behind them. Either the soldiers hadn't seen them pass between the trees or it wasn't worth the effort to chase them.
But despite the victory, she knew how short lived it would all be. This would not be the last time there would be danger in their road and likely not the last time they saw death. It flourished all around her now, in the air and on the ground. It loomed in the trees overhead and oozed from the ground below.
It was in the taste of her mother's blood, which from that day forward would always be lingering in her mouth.
SIX MONTHS LATER
Sophie rubbed her arms and pulled the blanket tighter around her. Even with the five of them crowded into the back room of the tiny gas station, there was still very little body heat to share. What little comfort there was only came from being out of the wind. Rowen huddled up against a shelving unit of cleaning supplies but seemed lost in his own mental fog. James, Corrine and Adam were all asleep, leaning up against the wall across from her. Outside, she could hear wind whipping over the building. With the windows painted over, it wasn't hard to imagine an alien landscape out there, no longer hospitable to them. Occasionally there would be the sounds of a car or motorcycle but the weather turned consistently bad enough that few people were out on the roads.
They found it in early December, a little station off of Route 66, a place that might have thrived once if you still lived in the Nat King Cole song. It now stood as a stubborn shade of days long gone, not too different from themselves anymore. Sophie hadn't wanted to stop, but eventually Rowen convinced her that it was better to err on the side of caution. They wouldn't want to be caught out in the open when the weather hit, with nowhere to go. It was as safe as they were going to find. Rowen found enough raw materials in the surrounding buildings to be able to block off both the doors and entrance. They had to make do with what was on hand.
Her life had become a daily assault on multiple fronts. She struggled to keep her father's spirits up as he seemed to spiral downward even farther into his own private hell. She fought in vain against the growing resentment from Corrine who seemed to have chosen her as a scapegoat. Adam seemed to be resentful of her on a daily basis, mostly out of support for Corrine. And with the three of them departing into the orbits of their own issues, she and Rowen had been left with the responsibility of keeping them safe. Sophie shivered, and scooted closer to Rowan. They couldn't start a fire, for fear of tipping off anyone outside. Rowen wouldn't even let them light a candle during the nighttime unless it was in the back room, with the door closed to eliminate the possibility of the flame being seen. Laying low had been working for them in the sense of their physical safety, but it was also tedious and made their lives extremely difficult. Still, she had to trust him. It was the only way they were going to get through this.
But get through to what? It was the question that she kept coming back to and the one which she kept consciously ignoring. Was there anything that existed on the other side of this? Was there any chance of them getting back to any kind of a life, other than this horrible nightmare? She wanted to say yes, that society had to be able to find a way to bring things back, but the fear in her said no, it wasn't possible.
Maybe they would spend the rest of their lives in this gas station.
For their short-term needs, it functioned pretty well. She and Rowan had gone to a nearby grocery store and brought back as many cases of canned food as they could carry. She was getting tired of cold ravioli and soup, and every time they cracked open one of the cans she caught herself wondering if she was going to make herself sick by eating it unheated. It wasn't something she ever gave thought to when she was younger but again, that was a time when such a thing as doctors and hospitals still existed.
At least finding water wasn't a problem. The snow had been falling heavily and they were able to collect it and melt it inside. They only drank when they needed it, and so far everybody seemed healthy. As healthy as could be expected anyway.
Rowen stirred beside her, and she realized that he had finally made the return trip from his zombie-like state.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "Do you need another blanket?"
She thought it was funny that he still referred to them as blankets, as if they had bought them at the box store on their way to their bungalow to wait out the winter. The "blankets" had come from a stock of car emergency kits that had been on hand, but it was almost like he willfully refused to acknowledge their worthlessness. She had simply come to accept that there was a certain chill in the bones that would always be present.
"How much longer do you think we'll need to stay here?" she asked.
"You're not going to like the answer," Rowen said, glancing over at the others to make sure they were still asleep.
He shifted into a sitting position and rubbed his hands together, blowing on them to try and get his circulation going. "I know this is awful. I hate it probably more than you do, it's been a long time since I've slept on a floor."
"But we're as safe here as we could possibly be anywhere else. We're out of the elements and we stashed up enough food before the weather turned that as long as we're careful about the rationing, we can make it until spring."
She shook her head and tried hugging her knees to her chest. "It's February."
"I know. Spring is a long way off but we need to make sure the weather doesn't end up stranding us somewhere even worse. You've lived in this part of the country long enough to know what it's like in the winter. Out of nowhere, it'll start getting nice and you think it's done and all of a sudden there's a blizzard."