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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Barbed Wire Fence (excerpt from a work in progress)

Below is the first bit of my work-in-progress, a post-apocalyptic novel tentatively titled Barbed Wire Fence.  I would love comments/feedback!

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Hannah Sundgren was only a mile from the encampment when she knew she’d never make it back.

She’d slipped away from the others early; the eastern horizon was just beginning to glow, birds to sing. She got up quietly, padding barefoot across the big main hall, and closed the front door gently, holding the handle to avoid the echoing click that would alert someone to her escape. Only once outside did she stop to pull on her shoes and lace them, and then she walked off quickly, quietly, more afraid of being seen from one of the many windows than she was of the diffuse, pervasive threat that all of them lived under.

She had been only thirteen years old when the epidemics came, taking both of her parents, her older brother and younger sister, and leaving behind only a handful of stunned survivors in the little upstate New York village where she’d lived all her life. The following winter claimed three of those survivors, from a combination of hunger, cold, and despair. When the spring thaw came, and she and two others ventured out of the house they’d chosen for their home because of the presence of a wood stove and a huge supply of firewood, they came across others. Within a year there was a group of nearly a hundred, who’d joined up in ones and twos from nearby villages and farms, many of whom had spent the winter wondering if they were the only people left alive in the world. Several had wept uncontrollably when they found the encampment. Their little group was still growing ten years later, albeit more slowly now; the most recent addition, a woman who had walked all the way from the shores of Lake Ontario in search of other survivors, had only arrived the previous week.

The walk down to the lake was quiet, the sweet June breeze brushing her hair, and most of all, she was alone. Blissfully, wonderfully, and completely alone. A small smile played about her lips as she walked, and she felt the tension drain from her body.

The old, broken-surfaced road turned and dipped, and ahead of her she saw Carlisle Lake, its surface smooth under the orange sun. She broke into a run, glorying in the feeling of the air in her face, the warm light on her skin – and no one there to watch her.

She zigzagged through the trees at the lake’s edge, and then stopped only long enough to strip off her clothes, and dove into the cold, clear water. Afterwards she let the air dry her on a large, flat rock, feeling the tickle as the water droplets diminished to nothing, her muscles warming through as the sun rose higher in the sky.

It was probably an hour later that she got up, dressed, and started the long, uphill walk back to the encampment. She knew she’d have some explaining to do – might even face public censure – but it was worth it, just to get away for a little, to have some privacy.

They’d been doing so well, considering; banding together after the epidemic roared through, a little intrepid group of survivors, held together despite differences in background and attitude by a common desire to survive. Hannah had spent the first year mired in grief over the loss of her family, friends, and way of life, but when spring came, and the first anniversary of the horrific month of the plague, she felt that far from reliving it, she was ready to move on, ready to try to rebuild a future in this strange new world.

But then, the disappearances began, and the landscape shifted again, into a new and darker geometry.

Hannah was about halfway back to the encampment when she felt the first flutter of fear up her back. Had it really been this silent on the way down? She remembered birds calling – the buzzing of insects in the grass – all of the natural noises that are so ubiquitous that they are barely acknowledged. Now, all she heard was the breeze, rustling the leaves on the trees.

Hannah sped up her walking a little, looking around her. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It looked like she remembered it from other trips to the lake, always taken in groups of three or more. It was the encampment’s strictest rule. And, perhaps because of it, they hadn’t lost anyone in six years. No one, for any reason, is ever to be out of sight of at least two others – never, not to go to the bathroom, not to make love, never.

And now here Hannah was, walking back toward the encampment all alone, her hair still damp from her morning’s swim, a stitch beginning in her side as she ignored the sense of panic rising in her belly.

It’ll be okay, she thought. It’s broad daylight. There’s nothing around that’s dangerous. Nothing…

And that was just it; there was nothing. The silence was becoming oppressive. A dead leaf, blown on the breeze, tumbled across the ruined road, and she jumped, her heart skittering unevenly for several minutes afterwards. An abandoned house – one of hundreds of thousands of empty houses in this lonely, depopulated world – seemed to glare at her, its broken-windowed gaze full of malign intent. She forced herself not to look.

The road gave a sweeping curve to the left and began to level out; only an easy mile to go. Over the top of the hill, past the rock outcropping, and through an open glade of maple trees, and she’d see the long, low buildings that had once been Guildford High School spreading out in front of her. Her home for the past ten years, her home for the foreseeable future.

She sped up a little, panting with the exertion, all of the coolness and sweetness of her swim lost in a sheen of sweat. She crested the hill; the rock outcropping was right in front of her. It was…

Hannah stopped, staring. Like an optical illusion suddenly resolving, the scene in front of her shifted, but made less sense than it had before. Because the rock outcropping hadn’t been there on the way down. Her conscious mind shouted at her, That’s impossible, it must have been there, you just didn’t notice it, but at the same time she knew. Where the low lump of gray stone stood had before been an expanse of grassy field.

And that was when she knew she would never get back to the encampment.

It was curious how little that realization affected her emotions. A spinning ribbon of thoughts slid through her mind; It was my turn to cook tonight, and now someone else will have to fill in. I should have taken Vince up on it when he asked me if I wanted to sleep with him last week; now I’ll never get to. I wonder what they’ll do with my things? I wonder…

She started to walk again, slowly, keeping her eyes on the rock the whole time. It looked like slate, angling its way up out of the ground, one edge encrusted with lichen and moss. Bits of it had crumbled away and lay in fragments among the tufts of grass at its base. It looked ordinary, solid, real.

But it wasn’t. She was certain of that.

“Whatever you are,” she said to the rock, “I know you’re not a rock. And I know you’re probably going to kill me. But what I want to know is, why? We’ve been through enough, we humans. Why are you doing this?”

It didn’t answer.

She was twenty feet from it, then fifteen, then ten. Tears were running down her face, but she was unaware of them.

“I won’t run. I know it won’t do any good. But before you kill me, just tell me why.”

Hannah was right before the rock outcropping. She reached out one hand, her fingertips brushed its cool, rough surface, and she had to stop a relieved laugh from bubbling up in her. It’s just a rock! It’s just a rock after all!

She turned away from it, her heart beating a little staccato rhythm as the adrenaline poured into her blood – and that was when the rock tilted upward, its shape changing with the suddenness of a trap springing.

Hannah did not have a chance to scream.

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