Authors: Daniel Powell
© 2014 by
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© 2014 by Distillations Press
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where permitted by law.
This book is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the
author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual
events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Kindle First Edition
man with a terrible secret buried deep in his chest staggers through what remains
of the American South. The destruction is total—the landscape scrubbed bare by
the fires of the Reset. The sun rarely penetrates the daily ash storms, and the
last of the Earth’s plants and animals are slowly dying out.
survivors. Benjamin Stone is one of them, and he’s
searching for the only person who can share his pain, another who was
biologically altered at birth to become a weapon capable of bringing the world
to its knees. He has nothing, save the few supplies that sustain him in his
search for a new life.
but a will to survive and the desire to find someplace safe—someplace
is a story
of perseverance. It examines a future in which fragmentation and devolution
have decimated society, and in which terrorism represents the final desperate
attempt at shuffling the deck.
With thematic elements similar to Stephen King’s
and Cormac McCarthy’s
, it’s a post-apocalyptic story
about the survivors of humanity’s cruelest intentions, and their essential impulse
secret of all triumphs.
~ Victor Hugo
he whispered, adjusting his pack as he trudged through the dust and ash.
It hadn’t yet become a mantra, but it
was getting damned close. The idea of finding a place—
its way into his thoughts often as he trudged from structure to structure and
town to town.
It had been that way for months.
He saw the house in the early afternoon—a
tiny dot on a distant horizon. He focused on it, time passing slowly as he made
his way down the dusty road. His strength (and most of the afternoon’s light) was
nearly gone when he finally stopped outside the front gate.
He shifted the pack on his shoulders as
he studied the structure rising from the Georgia clay before him. Instinct told
him to keep moving, but he simply couldn’t help himself.
“I’ll be damned,” he muttered. He
coughed and spat, ignoring the crimson flecks there.
The road had taken him through acres of barren,
ash-clogged farmland. A cold wind rustled the spindly poplars framing the front
porch, their blighted leaves fluttering in the current.
He was debating whether to open the gate
when the sound of a hammer being cocked on a pistol carried across the front yard.
There was a moment of silence, an instant of perfect clarity in which he
understood that his life was not his own to keep, and then a gruff voice called
out from somewhere inside.
“What’s yer business?”
The wanderer scanned the empty windows. Slowly,
he showed the house palms that were cracked and calloused from all that time in
“I’m just passing through,” he rasped
in reply, another consequence of the stubborn illness that had seemed to become
a part of him. “I don’t mean any harm, I swear. It’s just that…well, it’s been
a long time since I saw such a place.”
Silence spun out between them, the only
sound the rustling of those tenuous poplar leaves. After a time, movement
echoed inside the house. Thunks and scratches—chains and deadbolts.
The door squeaked open and a bandy-legged
old man ventured out onto the porch. He had a shotgun levered casually beneath
his right armpit and a pistol in his left hand. The pistol he aimed at his
visitor’s chest—the barrel shaking a bit in his unsteady hand.
“Oh, I know it. This here house is kind
of a spectacle, or so I’ve been told. Not many like it still standing in these
, I’d wager. Yes indeed, I’ve kept the ol’ place up. People…well,
how it used to be.”
The traveler nodded. “I can see why they
stop. There’s hope in what you’ve done here; it shows that some folks still
The old man took a cautious step forward.
“So tell me again, son, so I have it on yer honor—do ye’ mean an old man harm?”
“No sir. I’m just going north and I…well,
I happened across your place here. Pure blind luck is all it was. I probably
couldn’t find it again if I had to, truth to tell. It…it caught me off guard,
and I had to stop a minute. I’ll pass right on through if you’ll let me go.”
The old man licked his lips as he considered
the reply. He had a shock of bushy silver hair combed into a part, cheekbones
like ruddy crabapples and thin, burgundy lips. He might be in his sixties, and
maybe even older than that, though age didn’t mean much anymore.
Life wasn’t any better for the young
than for the old, truth be told. Race, age, money—none of it meant a thing.
Death, in keeping with its nature, had leveled the playing field.
“North, eh? That’s a hard direction,
young man. That’s surely a hard way to go. If it suits ye’, then ye’ can rest a
moment here, I suppose. Or not—it makes no difference to me. But travelers are
sparse up the ol’ Orchard Road there,” he motioned with the pistol at the pair
of dirt troughs the man had followed, “and I might have a bit of supper to
share with you. That is, if you enter my home without malice in your heart.”
The man smiled in gratitude; he lowered
his hands. “Thank you. May I…may I open the gate?”
The old man slipped his finger outside
of the trigger guard and stepped down into the yard. “Okay. Come on in with ye’,
The traveler shrugged out of his pack
and let it fall at the foot of the steps.
“My name is Bert,” the old man said;
they shook hands. “Bertram Winston. This here’s my place. Always has been—ever since
I was a young’un.”
“I’m Ben. It’s nice to meet you, Mr.
Winston. I’m in your debt.”
He hesitated. “Benjamin James Stone. My folks—I
lost them when I was a child, long before any of the rest of this mess.”
“So sorry to hear it, Benjamin Stone.
Although I suppose it’s a comfort knowing they didn’t have to live through the Reset.”
Ben merely nodded. He placed his hand on
the recently painted railing as they climbed the steps. The grounds were trim
and well maintained. The exterior of the house was clean—no small feat with the
daily ash storms. The windows gleamed and the porch had been swept.
Winston opened the door. They crossed
the threshold and stepped back in time. There was a tidy parlor with a fan of faded
magazines on a little table beside an overstuffed recliner. An antique sofa had
a hand-knitted afghan spanning the length of its spine. The mantle over the
fireplace was home to dozens of porcelain knick knacks and a fancy clock in a
There was a
house—not a monument to decay, as had been the case in almost every other building
he’d summoned the courage to investigate throughout his years of drifting.
“Oh, I’ve managed to hold things
together,” Winston conceded, recognizing his guest’s naked wonderment with obvious
pride. He tucked the pistol into the waistband of his work pants, which were held
in place with faded red suspenders. After ejecting the shells, he propped the
shotgun in the corner by the front door and refastened the locks.
Ben marveled at the sight of the man. His
boots were old, but they’d been recently shined. His shirt was clean. He looked
frail, but healthy enough overall.
His wasn’t a life of transience and
filth, of hunger and despair.
“Yes sir,” Winston reiterated. “I’ve
managed to keep the old place going, despite all the rest of it.”
Ben studied his own shabby clothes and
his cheeks burned with shame. He wore layers of soiled rags and his shoes were held
together with knotted strips of plastic and bands of grimy tape. He sported a
thick layer of ash anywhere his skin was exposed; it coated him like finely
“We’ll eat in the kitchen. This way,”
the man said. “You can wash up at the sink there.”
The smell of cooking food was almost
unbearable. Hunger pangs tore through Ben’s gut as he noticed the stew
simmering atop a cast-iron stove in the corner. How long had it been since he’d
eaten a proper meal?
Two months? Three? It had probably been the
squirrel he’d shared with the stranger on the blistered road outside of
An electric stove and a dishwasher and a
refrigerator conspicuously maintained their positions in the room—useless monuments
to a way of life that had perished in a series of shimmering explosions so many
Ben went to the sink; he locked eyes
with his host.
“Go ahead! Give it a try,” Winston urged.
He wore a bemused smile. “It’s rigged to yonder well. Runs on a rechargeable
battery. I can actually power this whole place up, truth be told. I do it from
time to time, ye’ know. Right around the anniversary of the end of the whole durned
mess. Heck, I even
it sometimes. I got me a television set in the back
parlor, and a recording of the minute that the world fell into ruin.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed. “A recording? What
do you mean?”
“I mean the
, son. I got the
whole durned wickedness on the DVR! The moment when the world went bright for
an instant and plunged down into darkness!”
Ben nodded, turning back to the sink,
his heart racing. Could Winston be telling the truth? Ben thought he probably was.
It was as though the wildfires had simply cut a detour right around the place.
Here was a link to the past, a
link to what had happened. It was
a connection beyond the rumors and lies he’d listened to around campfires for
the last ten years.
He worked the faucet and cold, clean
water trickled into the basin. He put his hands beneath the stream and the dirt
and ash slid away in filthy torrents.
He grinned at Winston. “God, I’d forgotten
how it felt! The clean water, I mean. It feels—I don’t know how else to say it,
but it feels sort of slimy!”
“Oh, I know, son. I know.” Winston said.
He pointed to a ball of crude soap and Ben laughed heartily as pale flesh
emerged from beneath the ashen crust. He scrubbed his hands and wrists until
they were pink and turned his attention to the window. There was a large yard out
back and a clothesline laden with garments, flapping in the cool fall wind. A
barn stood in the distance.
The light was fading, but enough
remained for a tour. Ben felt certain there were other surprises, and he was
overcome with excitement and curiosity.
“Can I have a look around before we eat,
Mr. Winston? Before it gets too dark to see?”
“Ye’ can call me Bert. And sure, son, we
can take the two-cent tour. I rarely have any company, and dinner’ll keep a
while yet. Let me fetch my coat.”
They stepped out into the crisp evening,
Ben inhaling with pleasure. It was the same air he’d breathed, not an hour
before, with malaise. Seeing the old ways—even a
glimpse into a
life filled with order and dignity—had energized him.
They crunched across a gravel lot. “It’s
just you out here?”
Winston nodded. “Ayuh. Just me.”
They strolled the length of a wooden
fence. Beyond it, a pair of swaybacked ponies nibbled at tufts of grass beneath
a productive apple orchard. There was fruit on the trees. Ben’s mouth fell open.
“How on Earth..?”
Winston laughed. “Amazin’, eh? Got the
green thumb, ye’ could say. And I’m a faithful person. The good Lord looks out
Ben studied him. There was something
about the eyes—about the way they shined in the dusky light—that gave him
pause. “It really is something, Bert. It truly is. May I?” He pointed to the
“Be my guest. I’ve plenty to share.”
Ben bit into an apple, the rush of tangy
acids triggering sensations in the corners of his mouth he hadn’t felt in years.
Sweet liquid trickled down his throat, and he tore into the fruit. He wolfed it
down—the seeds, the core—every bit of it, and grinned at his host.
“It’s good,” he said, swiping a trickle
of juice from the whiskers on his chin.
Winston cackled. “Have another then, but
don’t spoil your appetite. A man can get sick on apples, and it’d be a shame to
waste ‘em on the way back out.”
Ben took another and ate it slowly,
savoring it. Jesus—fresh fruit!
“Can I see the barn? Maybe get a look at
Winston stared at him for a long moment
and then sighed. “Oh, I suppose so. No harm in it. Anymore, I really only run
the tractor and the tiller. Gasoline—well, it’s the most precious thing that’s left
in the world, to my thinking. I still manage to salvage a little from time to
time when I take my jaunts into Hazelhurst or Pine Grove, but it’s hit or miss.
Most of what I find is no better than horse piss anyway after all these years. I
been rationing, though. Still got a little put aside for another harvest or
Winston unfastened the padlock on the
door with a key he kept on a string around his neck. Five empty stalls lined
the far wall. Beyond them, a half dozen pieces of heavy machinery sat beneath a
rectangle of dusky light filtering through a hatch in the roof: tractor,
tiller, thresher—some others Ben couldn’t place.
He hadn’t seen anything like it since
his time on the ranch—all those lifetimes ago, when he had been a child in
Oregon. When all of them were together, and he still had Coraline.
Ben went to the tractor and touched the
engine housing. “You…you actually make a go of the land out here, Bert? Other
than the apples, I mean?”
Winston’s eyes narrowed. “Why do ye’
care, son? What business is that to a traveler passing through?”
“It’s just remarkable. I’m…well I’m
It’s a lot for me to process all at once. I’ve wandered these parts for
Florida up through Georgia and out as far west as Texas. This is the first
place, and I mean the
place, where I’ve seen fresh food. What
you’ve done here, Bert…well, you were right in what you said back there about
God looking out for you. This farm—it’s a genuine miracle.”
Winston blushed. “Oh, I don’t know that
it’s all that. Place has always been productive. All these years. Good Georgia
clay. It’s like—it’s like the things that blighted the world passed over us
here, because…” his eyes went vacant as he lost himself in memory. “Because I’ve
been here…well, I’ve been here since I was a boy. Little Bert Winston, ayuh,
that was me. This was
place. Always has been.”