This story is by Stacey Brown and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“Okay love, see you soon.”
The familiar farewell ran over in Betty’s mind, echoing across the vastness of outback separating her from the place where they’d built their home.
It was two weeks since they’d spoken.
No, I love you. No, take care. Just… I’ll see you soon. The last shitty words I said to him, Betty thought. Desperation had rapidly consumed her.
She’d been distracted when Alfred called that day. The satellite phone had been playing up, she was sick of it dropping out. She wanted to prepare the veggies for dinner and had to finish the yard work before dusk. It was bloody hard doing the full day’s work when he was away. In a hurry to get off the phone, Betty just caught his final words.
“Okay baby, I love you. I’ll call when I land so you can come get me.”
Alfred never made that call. In fact, the plane never left. All forms of communication had died since then. And there was no way of knowing if he was even alive…
Who could’ve known how the world would react when the day came? No one imagined it was possible.
But Betty had a hunch it was coming. And no one listened.
Except for him.
Alfred always trusted Betty’s hunches. He’d let her transform their lives over ten years until they were completely self-reliant and independent of civilization. Her husband was her biggest fan. The sole supporter of her efforts to change how people lived. Everyone else thought she was some crackpot greenie peddling doomsday propaganda…
If only he didn’t fly to the city for an urgent meeting. If only we’d arranged a different way for him to get home… Betty couldn’t control the thoughts that ran unheeded as she peddled the bike forward. With muscles screaming in unison, the words drowned out her practiced optimism.
I hadn’t expected this chaos when we ran out of fossil fuels. But the fucking government obviously did.
The moment oil companies made the inevitable announcement, the men at the top pressed the go-button on a well-planned, callous and brutal regime of energy control.
Bloody insanity. She peddled harder, punishing herself for the unexpected events. The emotional pain of the last ten years manifesting in this final stretch of highway.
Betty was nearing the end of an almost 900 kilometer bike ride to go find her husband. She was on a search and rescue mission to bring Alfred back home. With no idea where he was or how to make contact, she felt he might still be alive. She just had to get to the last place he’d been. The airport.
But for Betty, it meant facing the city she’d avoided for years. Through opulent suburbs, enormous shopping malls, giant offices, and past the memories of a life she’d painfully left behind.
The ghosts might get her before she even had a chance of seeing Alfred again.
As the sun set, in the distance Betty could see the imposing figures of cement sky-rises, like soldiers marching ominously toward her. Cloaked in their own shadows, their size sent a shiver down her back.
She slowed down, coasting until it was safe to pull over. She was unwilling to reveal her location to the monsters in the dusk.
Although it would delay her mission, she decided to avoid the highway and go by foot the rest of the way. Having covered the bike in fallen trees, Betty made her way back to the road to get her bearings. She tore a strip of fabric from the bottom of her no-longer-white shirt and tied it to a nearby kangaroo warning sign.
Ironic, she thought. I’m sure if someone saw a kangaroo on this road they’d more likely crash into a tree from shock than because they’d hit the damn roo in the dark… Australia’s national animal had been extinct for two years now. For a fleeting moment she considered stealing the big yellow sign as a souvenir, but realized she can’t avoid it any longer. She had to go into the city or risk never finding him.
Betty adjusted the pack on her back, took a swig of water from the can on her waistband and headed into the bush. Following the road from a distance, she masked her presence in the shadows. The sun now completely below the Earth’s axis, the east coast of Australia plunged into darkness.
Walking discreetly along, the outer limits of the city came into view. Through the dim light of the moon, Betty could make out the edge of a fence across cleared land surrounding suburbia. A rooftop towering above in familiar terracotta glow. But it’s familiarity didn’t offer any comfort. Her breathing became rapid, panicked and a sense of apprehension crept up.
Oh fuck, I can’t do this. The aggressiveness of her mind took over her body’s will to keep going. What if someone sees me? What if I get arrested? What if he doesn’t want to come back?
She shamefully hesitates, and decides to spend one last night in the bush before facing the unknown. Betty’s fear wins the internal battle once again.
It’d been like this for years now. If she was honest with herself, it was why she couldn’t go to the city anymore.
The anxiety she felt in large crowds, the stress of living in a culture of thoughtless consumption and obsessive individualism, and the depression that overcame her when she couldn’t fit in… She’d retreated to an inner world, writing book after book of confronting environmental theories, expelling herself from society and offending those who were closest to them both.
But it wasn’t because Betty didn’t love people. It was because she felt completely unlovable. A failure in her fight to stop the destruction of Earth, their home. She just couldn’t face the world anymore.
She found a small clearing and rolled out her swag, a task done thousands of times. But never with hands shaking like this. Never with a heart beating this fast. The proximity of civilization invaded her every instinct. Reducing her usual confidence to a shivering nervousness and anxiety.
Betty’s thoughts raced. I just can’t comply with this ‘civilized’ world. I can’t come back here. She pulled herself into the swag, tucking her head under cover. The past rushed up to haunt her.
Every time I’d dress in a ‘pretty outfit’ to go to work. Every time I’d get on social media to ’stay up-dated’. Every time I’d catch myself looking in a shop window at designer goods. I’d see my reflection and think, “Who the hell are you?!”. I’m not good enough for this world. I don’t have a place here.
She wasn’t able to ignore the rapid demise of morals and ethics. She couldn’t be the zombie-soldier of a digital monster no one else saw. Betty had felt insatiably alone and wildly caged. Wanting desperately to be free of a society that encouraged blatant selfishness and unmonitored recklessness.
So she’d convinced Alfred to leave big-city-life and move to the country. They started again in the hope of being completely independent from civilization.
But things hadn’t been easy. Kept afloat only by the commissions of the company Alfred still owned, it was why he’d needed to be in the city that day. And now the reason Betty had to face her demons to find him.
She felt a suffocating sense of guilt come in waves of emotion. The weight of responsibility and the realization she’d been completely selfish making him live so remotely, so far from the business he loved, hit her to the core.
He could be dead because of me.
“Okay baby, I love you. I’ll call when I land so you can come get me.”
The memory of his last words tore through her like she’d been injected with poison, and for the first time since she’d heard the news of the revolt she surrendered to reality.
Hugging her backpack to her chest, she howled with grief and heartache, like an animal gone wild. The man she loved more than she ever loved herself, was gone. All the years spent together, all the memories of arguments, intimacy and uncontrollable laughter, all flooded through her like a tidal wave of energy sweeping her to the depths of hell dormant inside her mind.
It was a long, dark night…
By early morning, the remaining stars comforted Betty as she lay gazing upward. Every second the new day dawned, another star blinked off. The blue sky delivering the potential for hope.
“I love you”, she whispered to the moon as it disappeared in the sunlight. An undeniable passion for life had revealed itself to her in an overwhelming sense of completeness achieved at the darkest moment of last night.
She yearned to speak those words to the man whose love truly made her feel alive. With renewed strength Betty rose from the safety of her swag, collected her meager belongings and set forth to find him.