Poetry-Thing Thursday: The Cracking Spade

The rumble of a diesel idle,
sounds through a still,
and dead-quiet night.
Elsewhere,
its echoes are drowned,
in the crack of an earth-splitting spade.

Day-old death,
lingers long after diesel leaves.
Still the spade cracks,
forming the shallow grave,
meant to entomb a truth,
no-one will know exists.

Somewhere, close-by,
scavengers have awoken.
Called by promise of decay,
they follow their noses to the sound.

In the shadows they linger.
Unbidden. Unseen.
E’er circling, e’er waiting,
to strike.
More and more,
accustomed to the spade.

Going unheard,
as they chance closer looks,
hidden by the moonless sky,
they are, as if, non-existent.

When at last the spade pauses,
it has long been too late.
The wretches are in place,
breath stinging the air.

The spade rises,
but cracks no more.
Rises in place.

Then falls,
bearing witness,
to yet another,
fading cry.

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Short Story: The Best in Us

The horizon was a war-zone post-loss. That the war had never touched it mattered less with each day it crumbled further into ruin. Despite that, it had a sort of serene beauty, as if a post-card to the ages warning of man’s follies. Charles Murray could almost see the block-lettered words of caution hanging mid-air. Murray’d been there when it all went to shit. He was a kid then. In some ways, still was. Such a designation didn’t feel particularly apt given all he’d seen and done. It was even less appropriate when considering all he might yet see or do. Even at only twenty, he’d seen war waged on such grand a scale it left the world in literal tatters.

Like the skyline, the land had been subjected to more bombs and bullets than man had a right to construct. Scenery was reformed into post-apocalyptic wasteland. Location made no difference: big cities, small towns, rural homesteads, anywhere one enemy could’ve pushed another to, struck from, or trained at, became as decimated as the next or last.

They’d called World War I the “Great War,” but even the mustard-gassed trenches hadn’t seen such depravity. Murray’d half-expected the world to implode, swallow what few remained. It hadn’t yet, and as Murray knew, the war had never even be waged here. Not the war that had been waged everywhere else, anyhow.

This one was a civil war, a conflict of internal forces that had taken up arms for one reason or another. When one side failed to compromise, the other took aim and fired. Who cared which one did what? This was the end result. Now, day in and day out, Murray was forced to comb the wreckage for scraps of living.

Presently, he was forced to dig through a mound of rubble. His sharpened stick scratched at the rubble and gravel as he fondly recalled a one-time discovery: a bunker of fallout-supplies. It was one of those things constructed at the height of the cold war, then re-purposed when bombs fell again. The people living there had died from a bad air filter before realizing their peril. He remembered breaking the main-seals, still untouched from the bombs, and his chem sniffer going mad from C-O toxicity.

The main room had been an old-style parlor of countless bookshelves and a television inlaid in one wall. They even had an old computer hooked up with multiple hard-drives and an isolated data-server routed in from a separate room. They’d been well-off before things went to hell. Too bad it didn’t keep them from being asphyxiated in their sleep.

Murray still saw them sometimes when he closed his eyes: in a room just off the main one. Two men in bed. Peaceful child mere paces away. Sometimes he wished he could’ve been that child– gone as peacefully as anyone could hope to in the piss-hole of a place the world had become. After raiding the food stores, and before leaving, he’d marked the family’s room with a white X; a new-world symbol of no entry. The X was used to warn of contamination in some way, to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes though, it was used only to keep the dead undisturbed.

Sweat dripped off his brow and face. He scraped out the last of the piled gravel. The doorway was another old place– not a bomb-shelter, but an old church cellar. The kind of place people ran to during tornadoes before basements were common-place. Judging from the collapsed building above it, Murray guessed there was no access from the inside. The place had been untouched since the National Guard laid down the sand and gravel to fortify it. With any luck, there’d still be canned goods inside. Otherwise, just more bodies… it was always more bodies.

The door’s reveal all but confirmed his suspicions of the separation above and below. A few, concrete steps led down into a short, right-angle pit, a full-size, steel door at its terminus. Murray caught his breath on the rocky steps, then heaved himself to his feet. He grasped the door knob, shouldered the door. It failed to open– wasn’t the first time, wouldn’t be the last. He gathered up his remaining strength, took a step back, then hurled himself at the door.

It failed to give.

Too much had been done, too much energy expended, not to complete the task. He repeated the act. The door burst in off its hinges. He landed atop it in a plume of dust. It glinted in the beam of external light now shining in. A shotgun cocked. His reflexes engaged. He flipped, swept his legs, toppled the armed figure. Before he could stop himself, he laid his weight laterally against the shotgun on the throat of a white-haired, bearded man.

“No! Stop!” A young woman shouted.

Murray’s eyes widened. The room sharpened. He’d expected bodies. It was always bodies. Men. Women. Children. It didn’t matter. It was only ever bodies.

“You’re killing him!”

Murray was up. He cast the shotgun aside, stepped back in a hunched, defensive stance. His eyes flitted between the man, now propped on an elbow, and a young blonde with sapphire eyes. Murray took a step back, staggered by reality rushing in on him. The woman didn’t hesitate. She was instantly at the old man’s side, helping him up.

“Thank you,” she said backward at Murray. “Dad, are you alright?”

He grunted something Murray didn’t hear as she helped him to his feet. Murray took another half-step back. The old man approached, hand extended. “You look like hell, son. How long you been out there?”

Murray eased from his stance, his eyes on the man’s hand, “Since the beginning.”

The old man’s squinted, “That’d be, what, four years now?” Murray gave a small nod. “Well, that’s as long as we’ve been trapped here. If it weren’t for the hydroponics we rigged up from the well, we’d’ve been dead years ago. Guess we’re free now, with you to thank.”

Murray was hesitant, on-guard, “You have food?”

“As much as we can eat and more. All fresh vegetables,” the woman said.

“And shelter, here? Safety?”

“Mhmm,” the old man nodded.

“You can stay if you want,” the young woman added confidently.

They noticed Murray’s eyes begin to tear up.

The old man smiled, “C’mon, son, we’ll get ‘ya cleaned up, treat ‘ya to a meal. Hailey, show our guest to his room?”

She brightened with a nod, took a careful steps toward him before linking her arm in his. Moments later, they were standing before an open bedroom: a bed, dresser, night stand and filled bookcase were inside. Everything was pristine, a time-capsule of pre-war life only now unearthed. In a way, he guessed, it was– save the inexplicable women’s clothing peeking from a dresser drawer.

Hailey led him to the bed, sat him down, “We haven’t seen anyone in years.” She swept the room with a glance, “It’s not much, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

There was a momentary silence Murray had to break, “Wh-why?” Her brow furrowed. “Why do this for me?”

She shrugged, “I guess the world ending’s brought out the best in us.” He squinted at her; a sort of innocent naivete to her tone said she knew nothing of the world he’d come from. Paradoxically, her look said she knew its horrors all too well. She smiled, “Go ahead. Clean up. Lunch’ll be ready soon.”

Murray’s head swam: whatever he’d done to earn this, he must have forgotten. Then again, maybe the end of the world brought out the best in some people. Whatever the explanation, the fresh meat in his lunch was his biggest surprise.

Short Story: Not a Bad Day

The earth heaved with a frightful shudder. Laura’s feet felt the earth-shattering tear. Her teeth rattled. Cement split, cracked. She thought to leap for the sidewalk, but it lurched upward by the quake. A moment of inertia preceded a terrible rumble. It growled to a roar. Car alarms began screaming across the city. All was chaos. Skyscraper-chunks dislodged, tumbled through the air. A car was suddenly flattened. Laura tried to pretend she hadn’t seen the people there, couldn’t.

She’d been running through the park when it began. Her new, daily ritual had put her there. She’d only just found out her weight problem was going to become diabetes. If she didn’t get fit now, she might lose a foot– or worse. The future would only get more difficult. Fortunately, something had woken her up this time. Even though her breath was perpetually ragged that first week, she’d lost ten pounds. Now, breathing was much easier all ‘round.

Somehow those things so present in her mind dissolved when all hell broke loose. Moments ago, she was content, joyous. She should’ve known. She’d feared those emotions from the years of terrible happenings usually succeeding them. Her luck had been bad since childhood: when she first the wonder of life, her parents divorced. Her childhood home was sold off as community property. When she finally recovered, she got her first period. When that was over, the skies cleared just long enough for adolescence to become teenage angst. Cliques excluded her. Her grades fell. She was altogether depressed until college. The first rays of sunshine once more appeared when college dissolved the cliques gone. Even a few boyfriends came around, despite her “unattractive” physique.

Then the clouds parted, and a downpour flushed her hopes. A car accident forced her into traction, worsened her weight problem. Her then-fiancee stuck around long enough for her to walk again. Since then, her life was one series of disappointments after another and preceding more. Now, when the sun’s rays seemed most likely to shine again, the asinine happened.

She could’ve lived with a broken leg, getting hit by a car, or somehow gaining weight when she meant to lose it, but an earthquake? Really? This was absolutely the most unlikely thing to happen. Sure, the west coast got quakes, but here? In the middle of the park? At the peak of Seattle’s dormant period? And just when she was feeling alright? Seattle hadn’t had a major quake in almost twenty years. They weren’t “due for one,” either. This was a fluke. Of all the times… If she’d believed in God, he was laughing and pointing right now. Asshole.

Her body engaged. She leaped to the sidewalk. It shuddered, lurched. The ground split. A chasm appeared, widened. She bolted at a break-neck speed, raced splitting earth. Her feet bucked and trembled, bounced and skipped against the upheaval of concrete. She felt as if levitating, rather than running, feet never touching ground. Asphalt cracked. Car windows shattered. Something exploded far-off.

All the while the hot sun beat through a cloudless sky as if in a reality all its own of peace and serenity. Bastard.

She sprinted past falling debris, flocked with crowds rampaging the city. They were stampeding in every direction. Fleeing for nowhere in particular. Fleeing just to flee. They were no longer people: scared animals, directed and steered by crashes, cracks. The cluster around Laura grew larger each second. It became a gathering, an assembly, a stadium, so on until everyone in Seattle had joined them.

They fled together. Some manifested only panting terror, fueled by adrenaline. Normally Laura would’ve joined them– panting, wheezing, stumbling and eventually falling back to accept the inevitable. Being heavy and learning to run meant learning to breathe again though. If the quake had hit even a week earlier, she’d have fallen miles ago. She’d have been trampled to death by the crowd surging around her.

Now, she ran.

Her muscles ached. Joints burned. Her heart was a metronome set to insanity. Until now, she hadn’t liked the aches, the pains. Now, it meant she was still alive, intact, still running. She needed that. She managed to pass a few people, push nearer the mob’s front. She could jealous hatred around her:a fat girl outpacing them? Well they never! Jackasses.

Near an intersection, someone fell. People trampled him, unaware of his cracking bones in their terror-flight. He screamed, bellowed for help. Laura pushed her legs toward him, threw her weight around to shoulder and elbow people away. One strong arm pulled him up. His eyes and face were red, wet. He bawled “thank yous.” People tried to shove her away, force her along the current of bodies. Between her new muscles and still-heavy build, she was a boulder in the rapid.

Something exploded, forced them into a half hunch. A half demolished car careened out of control. It ramped off un-level asphalt, arced nearby. Its rear-end caught a fire-hydrant, tore it free. A geyser erupted the persistent swoosh of pure, liquid fury. The car punched through the front of a coffee shop, pinned a few people down inside. The man half-pulled, half followed her toward the still-running car. Its roof was dented from an impact of debris, driver dead. Laura’s adrenaline suppressed vomit and fear. They scrambled over shattered glass, angled nearer the pinned screams.

The man managed to kill the engine, the Earth’s trembling lessening each moment. Laura’s tone– “bitch” as it was often called by, at last count, everyone she met– rallied the people still standing in the shop. Together twenty-five people helped turn the car onto its side. The people still able to walk fled for their lives. Others merely moaned in pain. A few people helped to set bones over screams, a couple ending as their producers passed out. Jerry-rigged splints were fashioned from broke tables and various miscellanea. Someone even managed to loot crutches and from a drugstore nearby.

Laura turned to eye the man she’d saved. A doctor tended to him, an off-duty ER doc in from the street to check the injured. The rest were being carted off for nearby hospitals. The doctor assured the man he had a few broken ribs, some bumps and cuts, but otherwise was fine. The man stepped over to Laura, and as best he could, hugged her with thanks.

Then came a moment of almost total silence. Reality was still. The world had stopped. Laura swiveled: the entire coffee shop eyed her with gratitude. Someone said “thank you.” Someone else clapped. Another person whistled. Laura reddened. A line formed of people wanting to shake her hand or take pictures with her– even though her face was beet-red from exertion and bashfulness, her skin slick with sweat, and her hair wild.

The moment passed and the man pulled his savior aside to slip his phone number over sheepishly. “For, you know, if you wanna’ actually have coffee some time.”

Laura giggled. Then together, they laughed full on. Maybe her luck had changed. Maybe, it wasn’t such a bad day after all…