This story is by Philip Brent Harris and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Stumbling through soul-dark woods, Jack hears faint music, so soft he thinks he imagines it. Exhausted. Battered. Betrayed. His makeshift pack frame digs into his shoulders and lower back. He becomes aware of the music shortly before he arrives at the door of a curious cottage that cannot possibly be there. Completing the preposterous picture, as he reaches it, the door opens from the inside revealing a short, old woman with white hair. Absurd. Like falling into a fairy-tale.
“Heyerdahl,” the woman says.
Jack pulls up short, stares at her, mouth hanging open.
“The music you’ve been following. Heyerdahl is the composer.”
“Excuse me,” Jack says, shaking off his shock, aware how exposed his stupor makes him.
“Come in,” the woman says, taking him gently by the arm. “We really mustn’t let the light and the heat escape.” She emphasizes the word heat and Jack lets her lead him inside. She helps him slip off his pack, leaning it and his roughhewn walking stick by the door. Hand on his shoulder, she brings him to a round table, using gentle pressure to urge him to sit down. He sinks slowly until the broad wooden seat stops him. His hostess disappears, returning quickly with steaming mugs. She also carries a plate of scones, spread with melting butter, nestled around a jar Jack thinks must be lemon curd. He has no idea where lemons could have come from. He’s seen none in stores for ages.
“You should really drink your tea while it’s hot,” she says, sipping her own. Jack follows suit. My God, he thinks, it can’t be her.
“Who…,” he starts, but the woman continues right over him.
“I hope you don’t mind the honey I put in it. I thought you could use a boost in your energy. You’ve had a rough few days. Please, try a scone. The lemon curd is fresh.” He slowly sets down his cup, having nearly drained it. The warmth and sweet has revived him a bit.
“Who are you?” he finally squeezes in.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t I say? I’m R.W. Able. Most call me Granny Able, or just Granny.” She hands him a scone that she’s slathered with lemon curd.
“That’s not possible.”
“I assure you they do, though I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“No. No. You’re dead. You were killed by the RR.”
“The Righteous Rangers?” Granny Able snorts. “Please.”
“I saw it with my own eyes,” Jack says around a hastily swallowed bite of scone. The taste of the lemon curd makes him fight not to moan in pleasure.
“You saw it with the camera’s eye. There’s a big difference. As the phrase has been misquoted, reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Granny Able reaches out suddenly, snatches the scone from the air as it falls from Jack’s fingers. She sets it down gently on the plate as Jack’s eyes close and he slumps in his seat. She licks lemon curd from her fingers, stands and says to the air,
“Gather him up. Descend to covert level”
Jack awakes warm and dry. He examines his surroundings through slitted lashes. Seeing and sensing no immediate threat, he opens his eyes fully, but remains still. He lies in a queen-sized bed with a wooden footboard in an ordinary-looking room. The walls, painted off-white, boast pleasantly unremarkable landscape and still-life paintings. Reaching over his head he feels a headboard like what he sees. The Craftsman-style bed mirrors a bedside table in a honey-colored stain. The table supports an unlit oil lamp and a box of old-fashion wooden matches.
The mattress feels firm but not hard. The pale-yellow sheets look new or well maintained, with embroidered white Daisies along the top edge. At the foot of the bed stands a four-drawer dresser in a stain and style matching the other furniture. Between that and a closed door to the left leans his pack, on its lashed-together frame, and rustic walking stick. The left wall has two doors, one at either end. His boots sit in front of the far door, which he labels a closet. The near door stands partially open revealing white tile that suggests a bathroom. In between, sits an antique table and rocking chair. Why so elaborate? Why bother?
The chair sports a red cushion which makes him think of his aunt Pat. His mind drifts, his eyes start to close and he forces himself to focus. His perusal took about 40 seconds. He’s trained himself to be observant. What he notices most, however, utter silence. He’s never experienced such profound lack of sound. It spooks him, triggers the dream from which he awoke. Only a dream, he assures himself. Unless, this proves the dream and he wakes up lying cold and alone, trapped under the jumbled concrete remains of the Third Street overpass.
Dream or no, he needs to piss. He struggles from bed, realizing he’s naked, and lurches toward the bathroom. He winces when his bare feet hit the cold tile floor, but he doesn’t slow. He manages not to miss the toilet, barely, then staggers back to bed. He makes a hash of pulling the sheet up, but passes out before it becomes a problem.
Jack cowers under a stealth blanket beneath the jumbled remains of the Third Street overpass., He’s freezing. His black clothing, including balaclava and gloves, is sodden, He fights desperately not to shiver, not to move at all.
After he receives anonymous word all sector expendable seniors will be culled, he doesn’t trade on his loyalty, his years of service. He will not beg. Nor will he stand and fight. He hates that Evie was right.
He runs; his nightmare repeats, continues. He grabs his prepacked gear, his 38 Special and his Windham .308 Hunter rifle. His scope and 20-round magazines already in his pack…. He pushes his pack before him, worming his way through the torturous passage he found and enlarged in the shattered concrete and rebar, to hide in his so-called cave. Strangely, he both lies in darkness and watches the tanks and troop carriers rumble past his position. He feels the mumbling bass notes of their motors before seeing them. Their rotating spotlights create chiaroscuro patterns on the shattered concrete, a madman’s silhouette.
Jack waits, certain any moment he’ll hear, “We’ve got him. Close in.”
Hears instead, the whine of a two-man sting ship, its cross between buzz saw and mosquitoes on steroids, the wump of missile launches that spell his doom. A massive concussion at the top of the remaining structure rocks Jack as he consumes and is consumed by noise, dust, pain and. oblivion.
He regains consciousness, buried in shadow, jangled by staccato percussion, driving rain. His treasured Windham .308 smashed to flinders, twisted metal. His high-end pack frame fares little better. He spends the day patching his torn pack and crafting a frame from sticks and duct tape. He departs at dusk and walks into the nearby woods.
When Jack wakes, he knows Able sits in the rocking chair. He fights to control his expression; knows he’s failed when she speaks.
“You blame me for Evelyn’s death, Jack.”
Jack’s eyes snap open. He glares at her.
“Maybe you’re right,” she muses.
“You admit it?”
“Not the way you mean. She and I partnered to protest, but you should know better than anyone, no one changed Evie’s mind once she thought she understood the facts,” Able says.
“You’re right,” he replies after a pause, swinging his legs to the side to sit on the edge of the bed facing her; the sheet protects his modesty. “Without you, her precious rebellion would have died. I constantly heard, RW this and RW that. Why didn’t you die?”
“I don’t know. Others drove the rebellion, but without me, maybe Evie would be alive. “Able rocks her chair, looking away. Then turns to face Jack. “It should never have happened. I’m sorry.”
“If it shouldn’t have happened, why did it?” Jack asks.
“Evelyn chose to lead that march when Anne Corelli came down with that bug and lay in bed with a temperature of 102⁰.”
“So what.” Jack shouts.
“It was their virus. You supported them.”
“Don’t blame me. Evie left me for your cause. For you.”
“Who are you mad at, me, Evie, the folks you trusted would make our country better? The destruction of our democracy became easy to see in the late teens, but we never thought they’d shoot unarmed women in the street.”
“We both were.” She pauses. “We waited too long.”
“Too long for what?” Jack asks, moving to the edge of the bed.
“We knew the marches had stopped working. We waited too long to stop protesting and start creating,” she replies.
“You’ve lost me. He stands, unsure if his nudity shocks her.
“I hope not, though I have to go,” she says. “Other demands. If you want, get dressed and join me for a late breakfast. Your door isn’t locked. You’re safe here.”
His nemesis sits at the table, calmly eating. Jack walks to the counter, pours himself a cup of coffee, more comfortably dressed in his khaki cargo pants, lumberjack shirt and boots, his pistol in its holster at his waist, He starts to set his cup on the table, but nearly misses, his eye snagged by a large window. Outside, planted land stretches as far as he can see. Orchards, vineyards and root crops grow cheek by jowl. Closer, he sees a park, divided by a stream, where people jog, walk dogs, where families picnic on the grass.
“Nice fantasy,” Jack sneers. A loop, or a fancy AI construct?”
“Quite real,” she says, coming to stand beside him. Look up where it’s shadowed around the edges.” Jack follows her gaze and sees upper walkways parallel the lower area, fronting what looks like condominiums.
“What…? Where…? Not possible, he stammers. She goes to the counter and fixes a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, sets it down near Jack’s coffee. Sits opposite.
“Come, eat some breakfast,” she says.
After long moments, he joins her.
“Why are you here, Jack?” He looks up, angry.
“You kidnapped me.”
“You came to us.”
“We’ve given you some breathing room. You can choose.”
“I didn’t run to be a rebel. I just got old.”
“There’s no going back.”
“I’ll get by.”
“You could join us.”
“Evie did. Got herself killed.” He scowls. She returns his look openly, vulnerable.
“A sacrifice she made willingly; one you’ve never forgiven her, forgiven me. Can you?”
“What difference can it make, now?”
“More than you can imagine. We’re scheduled to leave tomorrow.”
“Leave? To go where?”
“The planet. To find a better place, a better way to live. We’ve recruited carefully the last four decades. We’re ready.
“You’ll fly your magic cottage into space? Please.”
“My ‘cottage’ is my Configurable Transport. Mine. They humor me. You being here is a favor to me. We’ve made incredible advances in science, Jack. Despite the dark age the world’s fallen into.” She points to the window. “Part of our ship. It’s thousands of miles away. We’re in route.”
“Thought I had a choice?
You want to stay? We’ll drop you somewhere safer.”
“How generous,” Jack snarls
“We didn’t usually agree, but you had an open mind once, Jack. I owe this to Evie.
“You owe me her life.”
“I can’t give you her life. I hope to save yours” She shakes her head sadly. “Think about it,” she says, walks out.
He takes a bite of bacon, chewing slowly, his gaze miles away. After a long time, he stands to stare out the window. I need to believe. For Evie, if not for myself.
“I’m in,” he finally says.
Able returns. “You’re sure?
“Ready and willing.”
“I’m glad. What changed your mind?” she asks.
“Sometimes you stop because you arrive where you were going.” He looks at her, a gleam in his eye, adds, “Granny Able.”