SciFi/Fantasy Romance author Vivien Jackson joins the Halloween Flash Fiction event this afternoon with her creepy cool story based on this image…
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“The Way It Never Was” by Vivien Jackson
“You shouldn’t go down this road if you ever wanna come back,” the Pop-Tarts girl says as I hand over two flattened bags of corn-chip crumbs in trade. Her next words are muffled by the wrap she wears over her face, but I don’t ask her to repeat. Not like I haven’t heard a variation on the same theme from literally everyone since I started walking.
Don’t go south. The ocean is a myth. The water’s poison. Everything beautiful is gone.
Only the dead walk there.
All things folks say to keep droughters starving and scared in our heat-blasted caves. Well, to hell with them. I’m walking. Not for fun, not for food, not for spite, and surely not because I’m fond of the killer sun…but because of you. I keep walking to find you, my love.
It’s been twenty-two days since you climbed up out of our bunker and didn’t return. We’d been staring at the empty larder and dry well for too long, you said, and then the garden radishes and pole beans went tits-up. Which, honestly wasn’t unexpected. We who’d been raised on video games and social media seriously sucked as gardeners. Still, you had hope. You were gonna head out and scavenge down south, where they still had water. Quick kiss for luck, you wouldn’t be long.
And then you went.
I wish I could reverse time, go back to that day, and beg you to stay underground, safe and with me. But I know what you’d say: Oh, Carmencita, if wishes were dishes, we’d all get to eat. And then you would cackle at your own bad joke and go on up the ladder and out into the hot oven of a Texas summer.
Took me a while to follow. You know all the climbing and walking has been hell on my bad knees, but I keep on.
You said south to the water, so that’s where I’m headed. To the poisoned sea. And if you aren’t there, I’m gonna sit on the sand and drink that motherfucker dry.
I can hear her running to keep up, and then she’s at my side, the Pop-Tarts girl, breathing so hard her face-wrap makes little tents with each exhalation. “No seriously, lady. Come on back to the market. I’ll give you back these chips, even. No charge.”
I shoot her a side-eye and keep walking. “Those things are too salty to eat without a whole lotta water anyhow. You made your trade, now skedaddle.”
She falls into step beside me. “Why you wanna go down there anyway?”
“You know what they say about my business?”
“That it’s mine.”
Truth is I want nothing more than to stop. Sit awhile. Pretend that my world isn’t a nightmare and that some hope lies ahead of me. But hope as a commodity no longer has value. I keep on walking.
“I bet you’ve been listening to those Baptists,” she says. “I heard ‘em too, claiming that God has gathered all His chosen in a big white house beside a lake with fruit trees and air conditioning and every easy thing, and they dance at all hours and just live it up so much it’s like heaven.”
The wistfulness in her words sets its claws in my chest and pulls, but I just say, “S’what you get for listening to Baptists.”
She might have laughed, but she’s so wrapped up it’s hard to tell. “Well, a whole group of ‘em went this way about a month ago and never came back. What if they did find their heaven?”
“Yeah, but what if—”
I interrupt her before she can wax too hopeful. “Anybody else come this way, other than the Baptists?”
“Just one guy, about your age. You know, pre-droughter. Old.”
Her words tangle like wires in my throat. “How long ago?”
She shrugs inside her oversized hoodie. “Dunno. Maybe a week? He didn’t have anything to trade, so the market closed up and wouldn’t let him in. For safety, they said. Can’t be too safe against raiders. They have guns. You want me to go back and steal one for you?”
Lord. Our world’s gotten rougher than I thought. “No, please don’t.”
“Anyhow, that guy, I followed him,” the Pop-Tarts girl says, “just like I come after you.”
“Came,” I correct her.
“Whatever. We walked a long while, shared some mustang-grape wine. You ever had that? Tastes like tree bark and battery acid, but it’s wet at least. He had like three bottles. Three!”
I don’t want to know how this little wisp of a thing came to know the taste of battery acid.
In my mind, I can see you walking on this same road, parched and slower than a man your age should be. We grew those mustang grapes, bottled the wine, and stowed it deep underground where the sun couldn’t get it. We were going to make a toast on our anniversary and get so smashed we’d forget all we’d lost over the years and instead just see each other.
“You ever licked a battery?”
How is she still there, walking and talking?
“Kid, don’t you need to get back to your market?”
“Bet your mama’s wondering where you are,” I say. “She’s gonna be pretty mad at you if you don’t get home soon.”
“No home, no mama. I like this road. See after this next rise here, there’s gonna be trees. Just wait for it.” Her hands make a blooming shape when she says the word trees, like her skinny fingers are branches or leaves or something. Like the world that was is going to magically erupt from her palms.
There are still desert scrubs all over Texas, but real trees, lush and green and slathering the ground with cool shade, are a thing of the past. I miss them. I miss them like next-day delivery and mangoes and music plugged straight into my ears.
“So you live in the market or what?” She should go back.
She shrugs again and uses her teeth to rip the corner off a bag of corn chips. Tilting chin up and making a slit in her face-wrap, she shakes some crumbs into what is presumably her mouth. After crunching a couple of mouthfuls, she offers me the bag. I shake my head, but after a while, I can’t stand it anymore.
I reach around into my pack and detach a water bottle. It’s near empty, but I offer it to her. “Told you those things were too salty.”
She reaches for the bottle, tips it back, and drains it. I stop mourning my last sip when she carefully replaces the top and hands it back to me.
“I knew it,” she says.
“That you’re kind. Just like him. Those Baptists never shared nothing but their preaching.”
“Way I see it,” I tell her, “that’s how we got into this mess: not sharing, not caring for each other. If human beings had come together back when the droughts and fires started, back when storms first poisoned the sea, maybe we’d all have enough now.”
We walk a little way in silence. The dusty brown-gray landscape looks flat, but my bad knees tell me we’ve been climbing.
When we top the softest of rises, the road before us fans out, edged in gold.
No, not gold. Trees clad in their full autumn coats, red and pink and golden leaves. They look like metal art more than living things, but maybe that’s just because I haven’t seen real trees in so long. For the first time in a while, I stop walking and just take it all in. It’s beautiful.
At my side, the Pop-Tarts girl whispers, “You see them?”
I nod, swallowing unexpected tears.
Did you see this, too? Oh, I wish you were here to see it with me. Missing you is a physical ache in my body, centered right in my chest. How did you ever think I’d stay down there in that hole and wait? Ridiculous man. You should have known I would need to be where you are.
My knees complained a little on the way up, but it’s really the downhill motion that’s tough on them. I can’t trust them not to keep bending until I face-plant or something, so I have to really concentrate when I’m walking down a slope. Staring at my feet, focusing, I can feel the trees encircle us as we continue. The road is paved here, not dirt. No cars have been down this road in years, but I imagine I can smell gasoline and new-tire rubber.
Do you remember that road trip we took out to Marfa, where we saw the desert lights and made jokes about aliens?
“Careful…” says the Pop-Tarts girl, and I feel something on my elbow, like she’s trying to catch me from falling, but she’s too late.
My damn, unreliable knee buckles, and I go down hard, crack, on the pavement. Probably my kneecap. The pain is bright and focused and superheated, but I can’t give into it. I bite it into my molars, steady myself with both hands on the asphalt, and squeeze my eyelids shut.
“Lady! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I…” I don’t know what I was going to say, because right at that moment, open my eyes, and reality shifts. The warm, golden-red leaf canopy and solid pavement beneath my palms wavers like a mirage, and I see instead the skeletal shapes of long-dead trees reaching up through parched, cracked ground as far as the eye can see and close, close enough that I could touch it, another thing long-dead.
About a month-ago dead, if I had to guess, and baked in the searing heat until its meat is just strips of leather pulled taut over bone, a skull.
It isn’t the only one either. Maybe a dozen bodies, still dressed in their Sunday finest, scattered like paper trash on a roadside.
We’ve found the Baptists.
I blink again, slowly this time, steadying my breaths, and when my eyes open, the autumn-gold trees are back. Night is coming, and with it a blanket of Fall crickets, filling the evening with sounds of conscience. I sniff. It smells like rain.
She helps me back to my feet. Her fingers are sharp, even through my clothes.
The house sneaks up on me. Well, I mean, it doesn’t literally sneak up—houses don’t move, as a rule—but I swear I didn’t see it from the top of the rise and now it looms bright against the oncoming twilight. It’s the kind of house folks used to live in, above ground, where the sun and fires and storms can all get you. Vulnerable. But somehow this house still stands, its curved bay windows and colonnaded porch spinning fantasies of comfort and plenty.
Light and music spill out into the evening.
And there you are, lounging on the porch, your feet up on the railing and a cocktail in one hand. You’re still maybe twenty yards away, but I can hear your sweet voice clearly when you heft the glass and say, “Took you long enough, Carmen. I made you a double.”
I have found the south, the poisoned sea—heaven if you will—a place where only the dead walk. I have found you.
“How did you know this was a one-way trip for me?” I ask the girl beside me.
She unwinds her wrap, showing me her true face, and smiles her toothless dead-girl grin. “I mean, you traded for an empty Pop-Tarts box, lady. You basically told me flat out that all your best treasures were memories.”
And so they are.
I climb the stairs to meet you, and my knees don’t even hurt. You fold me in your arms. The dead around us sigh.
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