Falling Star

I’m hungry, and the land is brown and sere.  It’s the only thing I’ve seen for two hundred miles through the Midwest.  Trees blasted of their leaves, the few stragglers hanging on dead and brittle, rattling like bones on the hot wind.  The earth is dried and cracked, parched, the asphalt of the roads tarry from the heat.  Above, the sky is brown like the land.  It’s unnatural, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

I come into town through Main Street, a green sign on a leaning post naming it Andersonville.  On the sign just under that is another, smaller sign that reads:

Home of the Badgers

Girl’s Class C Volleyball Champions

I take a moment to straighten the sign, though a part of me says let it go – the world’s moved on.

Andersonville looks like every other small town I’ve been to.  Windows blasted, weathered siding, torn shingles.  Dust covers every surface, and here and there at intersections, where the wind whips up, small dirt devils whirl into life and spin into vacant lots and front yards.  Papers roll across the street, and one fetches up against my leg.  I pick it up and read the headline.

Moloch Threatens, Dynamo Promises

I feel a deep pang of regret and tears threaten to come.  I swallow hard, and drop the paper, watching the wind pull it away and into a dirt devil.  It swirls like water in drain and disappears down a side street.  I take a moment and look around town.  Cars still sit in the intersection, skeletons in the driver’s seats.  I step under the long-dead traffic lights and take a breath.

“HELLO?  IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE?  I’M HERE TO HELP.”

I wait for the echoes of my voice to die away.  When there is no response, I brush the dust from the hood a car and take a seat.  My stomach rumbles.  Like every other town, I sit, and wait.

*

I’m lost in my thoughts when I hear the sound.  It’s a furtive scuffle, like an animal trapped in a corner.  I look to the side, toward the source, and catch sight of a flannel pattern disappearing back around the corner.  I stand, the car lifting when it’s relieved of my weight.  I step into full view of the house across the street, where I saw the movement.

“Hello?”  I say.  “I’m here to help.”

Silence.  Then more movement and a face peers out from around the corner of the house.  He is pale and slim, with a mousy head of brown hair and round-rimmed glasses over frightened-looking eyes.  An image flashes in my mind of the last survivor I’d found – Sam.  He didn’t make it.  I push the thought away, and try to smile at him.

“It’s okay,”  I say.  “I’ve been looking for survivors.”

He takes me in.  I can almost feel the uncertainty coming off him.  His eyes scan me, up and down, and then his posture relaxes.  He recognizes my uniform.

“Is that really you?”  He asks.  His voice is tremulous.

I smile wider.  “None other, citizen,”  I say.

He comes out from hiding.  In one hand, he clutches a pair of binoculars.  In the other, a small pistol, which he shoves in his waistband.  He comes over and adjusts his glasses, stopping a few feet away.  He looks me up and down again.

“Wow.  The Dynamo.  I thought Moloch got you.”

I shake my head.  “I’m tougher than you’d think.  What’s your name?”

“Dean.”

“Are there others, Dean?”

Dean shakes his head.  I point at the pistol.

“Why the hardware?”

He shrugs and looks sheepish.  “You never know.”

“Do you live around here?”

He nods, and jerks a thumb back at the house he’d been hiding behind.

“Just follow me.”  He looks at me again and shakes his head before he turns.  “Wow.  The actual Dynamo.”

I follow.

*

I’m sitting in a little living room decorated in brown flowers and cream fabric.  The plastic on the couch crinkles when I shift on it.  I try not to stare back at the gnomes on the shelves that flank the room.  It looks like Dean’s grandmother died and left the house to him.  I reach over and pick up a clock whose hands have stopped at the 1:00 mark.  1pm on a Tuesday.  That’s when the world ended.  I can hear him coming down the hall, and I put the clock back on the end table.

He comes around the couch and hands me a glass of water.  I haven’t seen water in weeks.  It’s cool and sweet and I drink it greedily while he watches me with curious eyes.  When I’m finished, I hand him the glass.

“Thanks.  It’s really good.”

“You want more?”  He asks.

I nod, and he disappears back into the house.  While I wait, I try to ignore the sound of my stomach.  The water has set it to growling, and I’m afraid he can hear it even from where he is.  After a moment, he returns and hands me the glass again.  I take my time with this one, sipping it.

“Where did you find this?”  I ask.

“My well is really deep.  My grandfather dug it back in the twenties.”

“You’re very fortunate.”

“I like to think so.”  He lets me have my way with the water for a bit, and we sit in silence.  After a few minutes, he screws up his courage.

“You’re amazing.”  He says.

I set the water down, and feel that pang of guilt.  “Was, I think you mean.”

He shakes his head.  “No.  I mean, even if you hadn’t saved all those people in the Seattle quake, or stopped the Halton meltdown, you’d still be amazing.  You survived Moloch’s bomb.  You’re out looking for survivors.  I’ll bet you haven’t had a decent meal in weeks.”

I shrug.  “There’s canned food.  Besides, I’m just doing what anyone would do.”

Dean shakes his head.  “You’re doing what you were born to do.  Anyone else would just hole up and wait.  Wait to die, or be rescued.  You – you can’t.  You have to save people.  You have to be the hero.  I mean, look at you.  You’re still wearing your uniform.”

I look down, at the dusty Lycra thing I’m wearing.  Red legs and body, white arms turned brown from the dust.  A dirt-stained D on the chest.  My stomach rumbles again, and I look at Dean, sure he’s heard it.

“Say, do you have a bathroom?”

He looks a little scandalized, and then recovers.  “Sure.  Down the hall and to the right.”

I stand, and walk down the hall.  The carpet is deep-pile old school shag.  It feels good through the thin soles of the uniform’s shoes.  The door to my right is ajar, and I step in and close it behind me and flick the light switch.  It’s a small room, with a toilet and a shower stall and a sink to the left.  I use the toilet, squeezing out what I can, and flush.  The toilet actually flushes, and I am in awe of the fact that water here works.  I wash my hands, and dry them.

On the way out, I notice a shelf to the side of the door.  A jar of seashells sits on it, iridescent and white and sandy.  I lift it to get a better look, and there is a click.  From underneath the floor, there is a hum, and then it begins to move with a soft jolt.  I stand in the center as it descends past walls of titanium and glass, the bathroom above dwindling and darkening as a false floor slides into place above me.

The elevator travels down for what feels like five minutes.  Finally, it slides to a stop, in front of polished steel doors that open on silent tracks.  I step off into a room filled with blinking lights and electronics that look like they were fashioned in a Hollywood effects house.  Against one wall is a bank of monitors, labeled with major city names.  London, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo.  They all show the same scene of a land burned dry and brown.  I see a camera trained on the city street I entered on.  I turn, and against another wall, see newspaper clippings.

DYNAMO SAVES CITY

DYNAMO SAVES BUS OF 20

DYNAMO AWARDED CITY KEY

MOLOCH STRIKES AGAIN

DYNAMO AT A LOSS

On the opposite wall is a simple panel, one button at the center, a stylized M in its center.  It’s already depressed.  I stare at the room while my mind makes the connections.  What are the odds?  What are the chances the man who I try to save, the one survivor, is Moloch?  I’d never seen him.  Maybe he moved in here, not knowing whose house this really was.  Maybe it was all just chance and randomness, and there was no connection.  Whatever it was, I had to find out.  I step back to the bathroom floor, and the doors close behind me.  The elevator takes me back to the room.  I replace the jar of shells, and walk back to the living room.

*

Dean is waiting, and looks up when I come in.  I sit on the couch, the plastic crinkling.

“Did you say your grandfather dug the well here?”

“Did I?  Oh well, maybe it was the workmen.  It’s an old house.”

I look at him closer.  He’s not showing signs of malnutrition.  I wonder if he also has greens and fruit somewhere.

“What are you eating these days?  Surviving okay?”

“Er, yeah.  You said you had canned food – that’s mostly what I live off of – the supermarket was never looted – there was never time for that.”

I decide to change tacks.  “What did they say – before the end?”

He looks surprised.  “You don’t know?”

I shake my head.  “Too busy fighting henchmen, trying to find that damned bomb.”

He nods as if that makes sense.  “They said you’d save us.  Right to the end.  They said there was no way you could fail.”

My turn to nod.  “And what do you think of them being wrong?”

“Well, you didn’t fail.  You just got outsmarted.”

That stings.  I’m not the brightest sun in the sky, but I’m not stupid.  He seems to notice my discomfort and pats me on the knee.  I resist the urge to snap my leg out and kick him through the wall.

“It happens.  We’re not perfect.  Even heroes.”

There it was.  The truth.  He was out to prove something.  He wanted the world to see me fail.  It was schadenfreude on a megalomaniacal scale.  I look at him and tense myself.  It has to be quick.

“I know,”  I say.

He blanches, and his hand snaps up from his side.  It’s fast, and for once, I’m not prepared for it.  I’m tired and hungry and slow, and he has the pistol out, and he pulls the trigger.  I feel the bullet hit me in the forehead and mushroom.  It makes a sound like a hammer hitting a melon, and then it falls into my lap.  He looks at me and pulls the trigger again, but the gun jams.  I stand and walk over to him, taking the pistol in my hand.  I bend it in two and snap all the small bones in his hand.  He cries out in pain and topples from the chair.  I stand over him, and think this is how it should be, justice and the American way.

I look down, and my stomach rumbles.  My vision blurs.  He’s clutching his hand and weeping, and I kneel next to him and place my palm on his head.

“Moloch.  Do you have any idea how much food it takes to power a body like mine?  To keep up with my metabolism?  To keep up my strength?  I would have to eat every can of food in your supermarket.  I need food high in protein.  High in creatine.  High in energy.  You should see what you’ve reduced me to.”

His eyes roll in their sockets, and he weeps louder.  I crush his skull – it snaps like an egg – and silence him.  After a moment, I rub my hand on the carpet to clean off the gore, the deep pile turning sticky and matted.  I stand and wander to his kitchen.  There is a nice big stove and several sharp knives.  I start the stove, pull a long boning knife from the block, and walk back to the living room.  My stomach rumbles again.

I’m so hungry.  I start with the legs.

*

The sign outside the town reads Barbertown, Pop 1200.  I step onto Main Street and walk to the nearest intersection.

“HELLO?  IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE?  I’M HERE TO HELP.”

I sit on a nearby car to wait.  My stomach rumbles.

 

 

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