Sand swirled like a plague of locusts across the plain, spitting against Travis’s goggles. A line of fenceposts and an abandoned bunker contentedly slept while the world died around them.
Travis looked over his shoulder. The wind had already erased his footprints from the road, as if urging him to keep walking. Maybe he would, if he didn’t have a reason to stay. He bowed his head against a vicious gust and stumbled through the graveyard gate. Stop pushing me around. I know what I’m doing. Sliding his thumbs under the sweaty straps on his dust mask, he tugged it straight. Hello, Samantha. Beautiful evening, isn’t it?
He squinted up at the polluted sky. I think it’s evening, anyway. We don’t reckon time like you were used to anymore. The metallic sheen of the sun, glancing off his tinted goggles, burned his skin. The light would reach maximum toxicity in thirty minutes. He’d better be home by then. Slinging his pack off his shoulder, he squatted in front of her headstone.
Samantha Morrison. 4052 to 4078. He brushed grit from the inscription. Wife and mother. That ought to be on there too. Sorry I wasn’t here to order that, sweetheart. He exhaled and sank from his heels to his knees.
Hiss. Clunk. The mask’s filters seized, sucking air from Travis’s lungs. He yanked on the leather contraption. Fine particles trickled into his hands and the air stuttered back in, pushing out the cramped walls of his chest. He raised his face, breathing deep as poisonous sunlight baked through his heavy jacket.
Beyond the broken fence at the edge of the cemetery, the terrain was as brown as stale piecrust. The road stretched north, the tracks of all the crazy hopefuls who followed it washed away each morning by a new layer of sand. Why do they go? Even if they find their precious haven, trouble will soon catch up. Why run from it?
A lone cicada rasped in the stand of scorched pines looming over the cemetery.
Travis sighed and swiped the dust and memories from the lenses of his goggles. You’d probably chew me out for sitting here in the sun. But you’re all I’ve got, besides her. And since you’re gone… I guess you’re the one person who can’t really be taken from me. His leathery cheeks crinkled into the faintest smile. Do you have any idea how comforting that is? When I’m with you, I remember our love like it never went away.
The mask sputtered again. Travis jerked it.
More sputtering. His mouth dried out. Twisting the filter off the end, he clapped one hand over the empty snout and dove into his backpack with the other. He rummaged through wrenches, cans, knives, and old nails until he caught hold of his scavenger’s sack.
One filter tumbled onto the ground.
His lungs burned. I’ve survived without it this long. He stuffed the unused filter back into the sack and screwed the old one on again with shaky fingers. His inhale pumped the taste of fear up his throat and tossed it out on the next breath.
He closed his eyes, then exhaled again. It was a beautiful thing to be alive. Sure, the sun was slowly killing him. But as long as he could breathe, he would survive it. Longer than some.
A white snake slithered by, darting scorn from its eyes and venom from its flicking tongue. Idiot, he imagined it sneering. Go ahead and use it. She won’t need it much longer.
Travis lurched to his feet and hurled a rock at it. “A lot you know!”
The reptile dodged, hissed, and slithered into the undergrowth.
Swallowing, Travis hefted his backpack onto one shoulder and turned to the headstone. “I’ll bring her to see you,” he said. “One day real soon. You’d be proud, Sam. She’s just as pretty as you.”
Wind rattled in the pines and tickled a protesting creak from the weathervane atop the little church. He ambled to the broken gate and kicked it open. As the blowing sand engulfed him, he pulled his hat lower and glanced back. See you tomorrow, Sam.
Travis skidded to his knees beside a lump in the desert with a rusty antenna poking out. He cranked up the trapdoor and dropped inside, stifling a grunt as his worn boots hit concrete. Glass slits in the bunker roof let in triangles of filtered sunlight.
“I’m coming!” He removed his hat, knocked off the dust, and ducked into the tunnel leading down. Faint footsteps scampered to meet him.
He rounded the corner, where Ella danced from one foot to the other. Flaxen hair flopped in two skimpy braids against her shoulders. Sharp shoulders that stuck out like the blades of a windmill.
Travis twisted his mouth into a grin. “Hey. Miss me?”
Her eyes sparkled, sunk so deep in her thin face that they were the color of darkness. “What happens to Cinderella?”
Travis clutched his hair and groaned. “Hello, Daddy. It’s great to see you, Daddy. I’m glad the outdoors didn’t kill you this time, Daddy.”
Ella’s pale lips broke into a gap-toothed grin. “But Daddy, what happens to Cinderella?” She tagged after him as he brushed past and tossed his hat and pack on the floor by the main doorway.
“She turns into a mouse, marries the coachman, and they have dozens of babies.” He crossed their dim living space, peeling off the mask and depositing it on a shelf beside the water distiller. Tank a quarter full. Need to refill that soon.
“But if the fairy godmother went to all that trouble to make Cinderella pretty, why couldn’t she tell the prince who Cinderella actually was? Was she just dramatic? Like Mom?”
Travis opened the supply closet. Squeak! Two mice scampered between his feet and off into the shadows. “Oh great. Cinderella moved in.”
A small bag of grain slumped in the back, trailing seeds from a nibbled corner. Cinderella needs to move out. He shut the door and turned to Ella’s smiling, starving face. It isn’t a disease. It would be easier if it were. Just plain malnourishment that food can’t fix. She’s hungry for things we don’t have anymore. Like oxygen. Pure water. Sunlight full of vitamins instead of toxins. You’re not the only one facing this, Travis. Get a grip. The knot in his stomach tightened.
Travis propped his hands on his hips. “Did you make me stone soup, slave?”
Ella shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Ohhh, I see how it is.” He lowered the bed from the wall, kicked the supports into place, and sat.
Ella clambered up beside him, coughed, and wiggled her bare toes.
Travis, for once, smiled without trying. “Cinderella, huh?”
Her white braids bobbed.
He scraped a hand across his chin. “If I tell you about Cinderella, will you promise to lie down while I get dinner?”
“Stone soup,” she corrected. “And I got rest this morning, Daddy.”
He tweaked her braid, dry and wispy between his fingers. “Princesses need lots of rest.”
“What about prince charmings?”
Travis stretched, grimacing as muscles twinged in his back and several joints popped. “Prince charmings nap when the princesses aren’t looking.”
She eyed him. “Pinky promise?”
“Pinky promise.” He stifled a yawn, then cleared his throat. “Cinderella forgot the fairy godmother had warned her that happy moments don’t last forever, and for her, the dream would end at midnight. She and Prince Charming were dancing on the porch, with the fireflies coming out of the tomato plants all around, when—”
“What’s tomato plants?”
“Uh…” Travis gnawed his lip. “Well, a tomato is something you eat. It’s round and red and squashy. Plants make them.”
“Like how the distiller gives us water?”
“Kind of like that, yeah.” He fumbled for the lost thread of his story. “Your mom and I grew tomatoes for a few years when I was convincing her to marry me. Had a whole field. I’d bring them in and she’d mash them up and boil them—”
“Exactly like soup.”
“Do tomatoes still grow up there?” Ella jabbed her finger toward the roof.
“Maybe,” Travis lied. “Who knows?” He ran one hand down his dingy pants and shifted his attention to the opposite wall. “So they were dancing in the garden when a biiiiig wind roared in—”
“What’s a wind? Didn’t Mom like those?”
Travis nearly choked on the laugh he forced through his lips. “Ella, I never told you that.” She would hate the wind now. She’s not part of this. Don’t drag her into it.
“Yes, you did! You said that when you were first married—”
“Ella!” His voice cracked. “Do you want me to finish the story or not?”
Her lips parted, and she ducked her head.
Travis, you idiot. He touched her hair, his rough fingers like a curse against the soft wisps. “Hey… I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She rubbed her arm across her nose and released a rattling cough. “I’ll get dinner. I know the story anyway.” With hunched shoulders, she scooted off the bed.
Travis reached for her, but she padded across the room to the electric heaters embedded in one wall. “It’s just stone soup again.” She opened a compartment and the glare of coiled elements burnished her spidery hair flame red.
Travis stood. “Let me do that, sweetie.”
“I can do it.” Her voice was tight. “It’s just soup.”
“Princesses don’t live in bunkers.” She grabbed two sheets of rubber and wrapped them around her hands, lugging the iron pot from the oven. She set it with a clank on a shelf. Soup sloshed over the rim.
“And princesses aren’t dying.”
Travis’s heart spiked up his throat, yanking his stomach with it. “Dying?” His voice rose. “Who said anything about dying?”
“Definitely not you.” She slammed two metal bowls beside the pot. “But I figured it out.”
The dark room spun. Travis clutched the wall. “You are not—”
Ella threw her bony arms out as if inviting him to inspect her wasted frame beneath the baggy tank top and frayed khaki shorts.
Dear God, I can’t tell her. I can’t.
“See, I know already. I’m big now. I take care of the bunker all by myself while you’re gone. I cook the soup. I sweep the floor. I shake the blankets. I want to come with you, but since you won’t let me, I do the best I can. I’m living, Daddy.” The glitter in her eyes vanished under a sheen of tears. “You just…have to let me.”
Travis swayed as he stepped toward her. “Isabella. Please… Try to understand. I…”
She lifted her white face, all shadows and sharp edges in the furnace’s glow. “I understand, Daddy,” she said in a sweet, flat voice.
He closed his mouth. Your mama, Ella. He wanted to say it. His tongue refused. I loved her so bad. You’re all I have of her. I must protect you. I can’t let you leave me like she did…
Ella began scooping the soup into the bowls. No words. No smile. Just the back of her pale head and the rigid, scrawny muscles in her neck.
Travis balled his hands into fists. The discussion was over? Just like that? You deserve that too. He jerked at his own voice, like a lance in his head, and glanced away.
Tiny gray shadows skittered along the wall. A grain of wheat gleamed in the scuffed dust outside the pantry. One shadow swerved, but Travis swerved quicker. Snatching a bucket, he slammed it on top of the mouse the instant it reached the grain.
Frantic squeaks reverberated inside the bucket. Travis unsheathed his hunting knife. This is the last time you steal my baby’s food.
A bowl clattered to the floor. “Daddy! Don’t!”
Orange soup splattered Ella’s legs like blood. Her eyes were so wide the color showed, as murky green as the depths of a lake. “Don’t, please don’t.”
“Ella!” Travis snapped. “They’re vermin! They’ll eat us out of house and home!”
“They’re my friends, Daddy, please!”
“Friends? Ella—they’re competitors. And look what you did! That was the last of our red fungus!” She’ll starve…
Ella stumbled, smearing her hair back with soupy hands. “Please, please! They can have mine when I don’t need it anymore!”
Travis sucked in a breath that burned to his heart. Over my dead body. He tipped the bucket and pinned the mouse with one stab.
Dust settled. Blood oozed out, absorbing in slow silence.
Travis straightened. Wiped his knife. Forced himself to turn.
Ella’s eyes met him, blank as broken headlights. She fled, her bare feet slapping up the tunnel to the trapdoor.
His face flamed. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. She was supposed to cry. I was supposed to forgive her.
Maybe he should have done that anyway. He splashed through the soup puddle and gripped the doorframe. She couldn’t get out; she wasn’t tall or strong enough to lift the trapdoor. But the passage was cold and hard and full of dust. It could get into her lungs, infecting her even further. “Ella!” he called.
The windup clock above the bed rattled 16:00.
Travis trudged across the bunker to fetch a towel from the cupboard. God, you really have it in for me today. The cold concrete was a penance on his knees as he crouched and mopped up the soup, then rinsed the towel with a quart of precious water. Last of the fungus. Who cares.
Once he’d scraped the mouse up, he dragged a chair beside the furnace and dropped into it with a groan. She’d sleep in the tunnel all night if he didn’t do something. She was proud. Like her daddy.
She was dying.
Her rag doll, floppy and faded, would no longer sit on the bed. He would roll over in the night and reach across their shared blanket, but the other side would be empty.
He bent forward, cradling his aching head. “Bobby was right.”
Bobby. An old, grizzled face for an old, grizzled memory. How many years had it been since he puttered away in the remnants of a rusty Ford? Heading north. A last stronghold of civilization and resources, sustained by ancient glaciers or something. Some end-times madness. A dreamer’s El Dorado, and the treasure was life. If you made it that far.
Pah. Travis could afford to scoff at such foolishness then. She’s safe here. I’ll protect her. We can’t run from it, but we can survive it…
He winced. We can deny it. That’s what you meant. You’re an expert at that, Travis. Aren’t you?
He got up and dug through his backpack for his scavenging sack. It clunked against his hand. One filter. Never used. He’d spotted it in the basement of an old warehouse. Who knew that Prince Charming could find the key to the princess’s heart in a moldy basement?
He squeezed his eyes shut. Samantha’s face floated behind his eyelids. Blurred. Overtaken by a dust storm. He reached out, but his hand closed on nothing, sands of memory slipping through his fingers. With a laugh, Samantha disappeared.
Ella replaced her. Her hair danced in the wind, and her sunken eyes shone like the sun.
“Ella. Ella, princess. Wake up.”
Ella groaned. Why do I hurt? She shook her head. It was as heavy as sand. “Daddy?” she mumbled.
Strong arms slid between her and the concrete and lifted her away. The chill stayed with her, aching in her joints as she curled against his chest.
“You can go back to sleep in a minute.” Daddy’s voice rumbled against her ear. “But first I want you to put this on.”
Her weighted eyelids staggered open. A lantern glowed somewhere, warm and yellow. She blinked up at Daddy’s pale, scruffy face and the roof above him. He smiled, though the wrinkles in his forehead didn’t smooth. “It’s kind of bulky, but it won’t be too bad.”
A leather mask dangled from his hand. A new filter glinted on the end of it.
Ella tangled her trembling fingers in his collar. “For me?” she rasped. “We’re going…”
“Shh. Let’s finish the story.” He slipped the mask over her head, the soapy, leathery smell of it tickling her throat. It bumped down her nose and settled as he gently fastened the straps. “After the search of a lifetime, Prince Charming found his Cinderella.”
Ella clung to him as he pushed himself up, cradling her close. “Daddy—”
“Shh. He found her in an old, dirty bunker, slaving away for a grouchy ogre. But the prince knew of a distant kingdom where he and his princess could live in eternal bliss.”
Ella roved her hand over his chest. Thick straps cut into him, rusted buckles tight under the weight of his pack.
He tugged his own mask in place and picked up the lantern. “The journey was long and dangerous. They would have to face storms and monsters and travel thousands of miles to reach the fabled kingdom of eternity. But the princess would live forever there, and for her prince, that was enough.”
Ella’s eyes prickled. She sniffled. It echoed in her mask.
Daddy’s footsteps clunked on the stair leading out. She nestled closer, gripping his straps with all the strength left in her hands. “But Daddy,” she whispered with her face hidden in his shoulder, “the dream ends at midnight.”
Click. Hisssssss. The trapdoor swung open, and silver light shimmered down.
Daddy gave her a squeeze as he mounted the rest of the way into the sickly morning. “Then let’s make it a good one.”
Kate Lamb is a writer, dreamer, poet, singer, psychologist, color enthusiast, and a child of God. She gravitates to anything sparkly and is a firm believer in the power of color-coding your closet. (Just your closet. Nothing else is worth that level of organization.) Newly married to the love of her life, Daeus Lamb, she spends her days writing, tutoring, designing, and trying her hand (with limited success and unmitigated enthusiasm) at baking all kinds of bread. Baking and drawing are her sensory therapies, singing and poetry are her emotional outlets, and beautifying the world one story at a time is her consuming passion. Also answers to “the MBTI geek” and “that color girl.” Will definitely convince you to revamp your closet and spill all of your darkest emotional secrets within a year of becoming your friend. She’s been writing from the age of 14 and aspires to spin stories with the soul of Tolkien, the simplicity of C. S. Lewis, the creative genius of Ray Bradbury, and the raw emotional truth of Markus Zusak and Patrick Ness. She obviously has no problems with dreaming big. She shares a platform with her (much more organized) other half, and they can usually be found up to something new and ambitious at DaeusLamb.com.