Just before dawn, Matthew wakes abruptly from a nightmare. Shivering, he looks at the boy huddled beside him for fleeting warmth. His son’s hair is matted with sweat. The fever’s broken, then. Matthew breathes a thank you; of all the things they lost After, medicine is what he misses most.
He abandons the paltry warmth of the blankets and dresses in the layers required by an Iowa winter. He stokes the fire, sets a pot of water to boil. The pot of rabbit stew Holly brought sits empty on the stove; he never washed it up last night. He never brought the wood in, either. With Karl sick, he’d forgotten everything else.
Matthew slips out the door, the cold whisking his breath away. He thinks wistfully of central heat, and debates again making the long trek southward. But he knows they’ll weather this winter as they’ve weathered each one since the lights went out for the last time. They aren’t leaving, because Madeline and Eve are buried in the church yard under an oak tree.
A sliver of white clings to the eastern horizon. Wood smoke tangs the air from the cluster of cobbled-together buildings. By the time Matthew stacks the day’s wood beside the door, every window is flickering. He tucks his hands into his armpits and glances toward the two-story farmhouse where Holly lives. A shadow moves across the light.
Matthew grabs the last handful of wood and hurries inside, where Karl’s awake. “What was it like, Dad?” he asks. “Before. When I was a baby. Tell me about the pictures that moved, and how you could talk to anyone, anywhere, any time.”
Matthew hesitates. He used to tell stories about Before like fairy tales. But now that his son is a man–and there’s no doubt Karl is a man these days, even at fourteen–fairy tales seem like a recipe for discontent. Sooner or later, Karl will hear the rumors about places where lights still gleam and water still flows. Matthew knows, as Karl cannot, the cost of that fairy tale.
He sighs, looking out the window. The horizon glowers brown.
“Life was easier Before, wasn’t it?” Karl persists.
Before, Madeline and Evie wouldn’t have died from influenza. “It was convenient,” he says. “You could grab a hot meal any time. As long as you could pay for it.” But the distance between them–Maddie’s job, his job, Evie’s dance and music and Brownie meetings–had been tearing them apart from the inside. After, there is only survival. Survival, and community, because there is no survival without community. Holly was the one who taught him that.
Karl touches his arm; he starts. “You’re thinking of her, aren’t you?”
“Who? Your mother?”
Karl rolls his eyes. “Holly. Your face changes when she comes around. I’m not stupid, you know. You should tell her you like her.”
A man, indeed. Matthew puts an arm around his son and finds the words at last. “In many ways, it was easier Before. But much more complicated. We were never happy. We were always scrabbling for more. Never satisfied with what we had. We have to work much harder now, but…we’re happier. We’ve learned to depend on each other. To take care of each other.”
Across the distance, the farmhouse door opens, and a slight figure hurries through the semi-darkness toward their cabin.
I love how you’ve made this post-apocalyptic scene comforting and homey; that’s something you don’t often see. You set the scene really well; great details throughout made it a really enjoyable read.
Wow, I really like this story 🙂 You painted a really vivid sketch of ‘after’, and that sense of community and people helping each other is great. Interesting, the things that tie him to such a cold place. Also very intriguing, the price that people who still have lights have to pay for that.
Great take on one of my favorite scenarios: the post-apocalyptic. Every word here is necessary and paints a scene that actually glowed in my mind.
I’m so glad you thought all the words were necessary, b/c it’s over the word count specified. I cut mercilessly but this was as trim as I could make it.
I was so hooked I didn’t even notice. But I always find it difficult to stay in the word count, too.
Wow! I like the feeling of hope at the end.
From a sense of desperation at the beginning to the promise of hope at the end, this piece is full of powerful details. And yet … there is an entire history waiting to told. Well done.
Kate, you need to write a novel around this…great job!
Thanks, Ellen–I think it’s at least worthy of an expansion to a full short story. I’ve had this rattling around for a couple of weeks and finally decided just to feel it out as a place to get started.
You’ve woven a lovely scene, and I like the message about the different types of difficult and way in which convenience can divide us from people. Something about the opening paragraph makes me immediately think Karl is a younger child until you describe him later, but that might just be because I HAVE younger children and that’s my personal frame of reference.
Hmmm, that bears thinking about. Thanks.
Like Angela, I thought Karl was far younger than fourteen, and so the idea of him being a man, albeit a young one, was jarring. That said, this was a great read, stark and graceful, but full of very human warmth.
When two people say the same thing, it’s a sign that something needs to be addressed. Thank you both–not sure I’d have caught that on my own.
The only thing I didn’t like about this was that there was no more of it. I was immediately hooked and ready to turn the pages. But there were no pages to turn! I especially love the cozy atmosphere you’ve brought to life. In a novel, I love to have a sense of a “nest” from which to venture forth and deal with the trials ahead. I like post-apocalyptic tales, and would love to see this one day as a novel or short story. Oh, and I initially pictured Karl as younger also, but was not jarred by realizing he was 14.