Fiction: What Tomorrow Will Bring

March 5, 2018 Fiction , Literature , POETRY / FICTION

pixabay photo

 

By

R.L.M. Cooper

 

 

 

Adam labored over his mother’s shallow grave, arranging small light-colored pebbles into letters that spelled her name across the black of the freshly turned earth. He tried to shut out the nagging fear slowly overtaking his grief now that she was gone. He tried to shut it out by remembering their conversations. He could still hear her soft, clear voice recounting stories of what life was like when there was order in the world, and before the power grids went down and the rivers and lakes became polluted from the backup and overflow of untended, untreated sewage. Her descriptions of the sparkling, clear waters were so vivid, and her accounts of how the houses along the road would be lit up with electric lights–even well into the night–were so enticing that when he closed his eyes he could almost see them. Her descriptions of cellphones and computers were like magic carpet tales. And the food! Oh, how he dreamed of the food! It was almost unbelievable to him that the huge, abandoned and decaying buildings in town had, at one time, hundreds of shelves laden with food shipped and trucked in from all over the world and all you had to do was choose among the ripe berries and melons and vegetables and load it all up into a rolling basket. How wonderful life must have been!

All that was before the Great Ruination, of course. Her stories of the Ruination, and the time that followed, were dark. Stories of lawlessness and desolation, hardship and want. Those were stories Adam preferred not to dwell upon at any length, though they were always with him–always there beneath the surface. He often wondered how she could maintain any hope in the face of it all, and yet her final words to him were, “You are my life, Adam. You are my hope.”

His mother was the last of his family and, though he was still young, he was pretty sure he would be joining her before too long. His father left when he was very small, searching for work–for food. He had never returned and they never learned his fate. It was a dangerous time in a dangerous world. His mother mourned silently for a long time before turning all her love and hope to Adam. He was alone now that she was gone, and he was afraid. Life was very hard.

He brushed aside his tears with his forearm and brought his soil-covered fingers to his face. He closed his eyes. It smelled…clean, somehow, and he was rather astonished at that realization. He reached down to again touch the fresh-turned earth he had mounded over the grave when a twig snapped somewhere not far behind him.

He froze.

“Whatever you want, I don’t have it! I don’t have anything!” He held his breath and waited.

“Adam, it’s me, Moses. Remember? From over in the next valley.” The deep voice floated gently over Adam’s shoulder. “Sorry if I scared you. I came to tell you I had a visitor. He says there’s water to the north.” Moses, his dark skin easily hidden in the thick of the trees, was visible now as he stepped into the clearing.

Adam relaxed, then, and turned to face him. “Do you believe him?”

“Don’t matter, does it? No water here anymore. Can’t drink from the river. Aquifers all dried up after those corporate bastards paid off politicians then sucked them all dry and sold what was rightly ours back to us a liter at a time. Anyway. Got to go somewhere, don’t we? He looked down at the grave and his voice softened. “I’m real sorry about your mom. Mine died, too. Back in May or June. I lose track of the time. Now my dad….”

Adam felt his gut gather itself into a tight ball. He looked away. What was there to say? I’m sorry? Instead, he asked what happened.

“I think he just got tired of it all,” Moses told him. “The life went out of him after mother died. For weeks he just sat and stared. I couldn’t get him to do anything. I was outside pickin’ the last of the beans when I heard the shot. One bullet.”

Adam nodded but remained quiet so Moses could get it all out.

“One little chunk of metal and it was all over. Would you believe that in that moment I was torn between grief and outrage?”

Adam said nothing so Moses continued. “I loved my dad, but I couldn’t believe he had used one of the bullets. All I could think about was those bullets and how now we only had seventeen left. Except it wasn’t we anymore. Now it was just me. Then I cried and buried him.”

Adam drew half-circles in the dirt with the toe of his shoe. Then he asked Moses, “When did the visitor come? The one who told you about the water?”

“About five days ago, now. Maybe six.”

“Was he traveling alone? No family or anybody?”

“Yeah. Alone. No family. I didn’t really ask because…well, you know.”

“Yeah.”

“He was not in the best of health, but he didn’t ask for anything. I gave him some food and my dad’s old jacket. His was pretty worn out and he looked like he needed one pretty bad, headin’ north and all…with winter comin’.”

“He tell you how he knew there was water up north?”

“Said he ran into a couple goin’ south to Mexico. He asked them why they were headin’ south if the water was to the north and they told him they wanted to go back to their own country. Said they didn’t want to die up there in a strange place.”

Adam considered all of this for a moment, then he asked, “You thinking to go north, Moses?”

“Yeah. I am. Nothin’ left for me here. I got everything I can carry in a wheelbarrow back in the trees there.” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “I was hopin’ you would come, too. You and your mom. But now, I guess, just you.” Moses waited a beat but Adam said nothing, so he added, “Safer to travel with someone, I think.”

Adam nodded and looked away, thinking. He looked down the road. From here he could see five houses, all empty and overgrown with weeds, the occupants either dead or long gone somewhere else, looking for a way to survive. Adam and his mom had decided to stay and try to make the best of it. He knew she didn’t want to leave in case his dad somehow managed to come home again, but she never said as much and he never asked. They had salvaged as much as they could of what was left behind when their neighbors left. He had marveled at the things people kept that were totally useless. Little glass statues of birds had been left behind in the Franklin’s house. And in some of the others they found colorful blue bottles with no caps, which rendered them completely useless in Adam’s estimation. In one house there were old phonograph records that had had no way to be played since the Great Ruination took down all the power grids. There were also many cloth animals stuffed with some kind of floofy filling. They were all ratty and stinky from exposure to weather through cracks in roofing and windows long broken and never repaired.

In town, almost everything in the abandoned buildings had been taken, but he and his mother had managed to find a few useful items: needles and thread, iodine, and a strange looking contraption that Adam’s mom finally decided was a hand-held can opener. They had celebrated that find. And clothes. They had found enough clothes to keep them going for a long time. Since no one could carry very much with them when they traveled on foot, many items got left behind. And, when you are thin and hungry most of the time, almost everything fits. Except shoes. Shoes needed to be just the right size and Adam had traded three bullets for a good pair of boots. But he felt it was worth it.

“When you plan on heading out?” Adam asked.

“Soon as possible, I guess. No point stayin’ here anymore. What do you think? Will you come?”

Adam thought about it for a minute. This would mean leaving his mother in the fresh grave. But he was going to need water. His supply was getting low. And he was alone. You are my life, Adam. You are my hope.

“Yeah, I guess I will. We can consolidate our things if that’s okay with you. I’ve got a wagon on the other side of the house. It’s plenty big enough. It’s about six by eight feet and has four wheels so it’ll be easier to manage than your wheelbarrow. I have some chain, too, so we can attach it to either side of the front and both pull it.”

The decision made, they began transferring Moses’ things from his wheelbarrow to Adam’s wagon. The most valuable things Adam had–seeds and a handful of flints–he put in a special container with the rifle bullets so it would all stay dry. Treasured books on mathematics, science, and carpentry were folded neatly inside an old, thin blanket and tucked into a corner for safekeeping. His knife, he sharpened upon a whetstone and then packed the stone away in a small box with the needles and thread, salve, iodine, and a half-bottle of alcohol he still had left.

He was slightly nervous knowing Moses had a working pistol and seventeen bullets. But then, he decided maybe Moses would be nervous of his own rifle and fifty-two rounds. If he had counted correctly. And he was certain he had. When everything fell apart during the ongoing Ruination, everyone who could managed to get a weapon of some kind. The problem now, of course, was obtaining ammunition. Bullets were traded like money. Like gold. Adam decided, finally, that there was nothing to fear from Moses. He was big like the football players his mother had told him about, but he was a gentle person in spite of his size. Anyway, life would not be worth living if it had to be lived alone and trusting no one. And Moses had always been a friend.

Next morning they ate some beans and late-growing tomatoes from the vines. Adam carefully saved the tomato seeds and then loaded up the wagon and attached the chains to each side of the front end. He attached a pair to each side of the back as well so they could maintain control of it going downhill.

“I guess we should go, then,” Moses said. He raised his eyebrows at Adam as though he had asked a question.

Adam looked out back toward his mother’s grave and then nodded. A last look at the house where he had lived since he was born, and he put it behind him. He had long ago given up hope of ever seeing his father again.

Adam and Moses each took up one of the chains and pulled the wagon out of the yard and down the road toward town. Neither looked back.

They made their way across the empty shell of the town and up an incline until they came to what was once called an Interstate Highway. His mother had told him it went in both the north and south directions. They looked at the sun and shadows and began their trek north. The highway was cracked and broken from long neglect. Grasses grew in much of it and, in some spots, trees had begun pushing their way through. Overgrown as it was, it was still easier than attempting the journey by other routes.

They walked, pulling the wagon behind them, for seven days, sleeping in the shrubbery and trees alongside the road at night. It rained once and they took shelter beneath the wagon. On the eighth day, as they rounded a curve in the pavement, they saw a figure in the distance coming toward them. It was too late to hide. They were plainly visible pulling the wagon down the center of the road. As the figure approached, they saw that it was a large man, walking alone.

Moses stopped and laid the bulk of his chain in the wagon. “What do you think?” he asked Adam.

“Dunno. You?”

“Better safe than sorry.” As the stranger approached, Moses went around his side to the rear of the wagon and laid his hand on the pistol beneath the blanket spread over the top of their belongings.

“Hey!” The stranger eyed Adam and Moses and the wagon between them as he approached. “What you doin’ out here? What you got in that there wagon?”

“Nothing.” Adam looked him over. He was dirty–ragged. But then, to be fair, everyone was dirty and ragged. But there was something else. A greed in his eyes. A recklessness that alarmed Adam. He did not trust this man and he felt the tiniest thrill of fear wash over him.

“You got sumpin’ in there. What’s it?” The man was insistent.

“Just clothes and some cooking pans, that’s all.” Adam swallowed his fear and decided to see what information he could get from the fellow. He asked, “Are there any people up there? Up north?” He nodded in the direction they were heading.

The man turned toward Adam and smiled showing rotted, brown teeth and empty spaces where teeth used to be. “Some,” he said. “They’s not nice, though.”

“How many people?”

“They live in old rickety houses. Maybe a dozen.”

“Why didn’t you stay with them?”

“What’s in the wagon?”

“I told you,” Adam said again, “just some clothes and cooking pans.”

“Lemme see.” The man started to lift the blanket covering their things.

“I think we will just be going now.” Adam turned his back to pick up his chain, indicating he was finished talking. With a surprising economy of movement for such a big man, the stranger reached beneath his jacket and withdrew a large knife. He glanced once toward Moses who had neither moved nor said anything and, apparently deciding he was no threat, reached out his free hand and spun Adam around by his shoulder. The knife’s blade flashed in the sunlight.

“I want what you got in the wagon, boy.”

“I told you,” Adam said as calmly as he could with a knife at his throat, “we don’t have anything of value. Just our clothes.” Adam had always heard it said that when you were about to die, your life passed before you, but he knew now that was not true. The only thing he saw was the silvery flash of the knife’s blade threatening his life.

The man’s breath stank and his body reeked. Adam recoiled involuntarily and as he drew away, gunshot ripped the air. The man’s eyes registered surprise. His grip on Adam’s shoulder slowly released. The knife fell from his hand and skidded across the asphalt and into the weeds as he collapsed onto the pavement. Bright red began to spread across the front of his shirt beneath the jacket. His eyes glazed as he stared up, unseeing, at Adam. He was still smiling his rotten smile.

Adam stepped away from him. He called out, “Moses!”

Moses had fallen to his knees and was rocking back and forth. Adam ran around the wagon and knelt beside him.

Moses was inconsolable. “I killed a man, Adam.” Tears were running down his face. “I killed a man! How can I live with that? Who lives like this? What kind of life is this?”

Adam took Moses by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “You did what you had to do, Moses. I would have done the same to save you. You had no choice.”

Moses looked down at the pistol still in his hand as though it were some alien thing, then threw it from him. It generated sparks as it slid beneath the wagon and came to rest beside one of the rusty front wheels.

“Where are we going, Adam? For what?”

“North. For water. Remember? And maybe there will be a settlement of people there. Maybe this guy was lying about them not being nice. Maybe they were just not nice to him. And probably for good reason. Maybe they will welcome us. Maybe they will be glad of the help.” Adam finally ran out of maybes so he left Moses momentarily and collected the man’s knife from the weeds. Then he crawled beneath the wagon, retrieved the pistol and returned it to its place Moses kept it beneath the blankets.  “Here. Come on. Let’s go.” He reached out his hand to help his friend up.

At last Moses looked up at him. “I can’t. I’m finished.” He began rocking on his knees once again.

“No, Moses! I need you! I will probably die, too, without you! Let’s just go on up there around the next bend and camp for the night, okay? Let’s just go that little distance. It’s not very far. We shouldn’t stay here. And we both need to rest.”

Moses stopped rocking of a sudden and stared at the dead man at the front of the wagon. “We can’t just leave a man out here in the road. It’s wrong, Adam. I’ve sinned enough, without that.”

At last Moses took Adam’s offered hand and together they moved the man to a shady spot beneath the trees. Adam watched quietly while Moses, shoulders slumped, said a few words over the body.

At last, Moses returned and silently took up his chain. When they had pulled the wagon another half mile they found a secluded spot out of sight for the night and then washed up in the river water they had collected for all non-drinking and non-cooking purposes. They made a dinner of beans and some blackberries growing wild along the road and drank from the bottles of potable water Adam had boiled and distilled only a few days before his mother died. When the stars began to pop out one by one, Adam tried talking to his friend.

“Do you remember that time you and your mom and dad came over to our place and my mom tried to make cornbread? Remember? She forgot to watch it because she was having such a good time talking to your mom and she burned it black on the bottom. We all teased her and ate it anyway.” Adam laughed and looked sideways at Moses. Moses didn’t laugh. He just stared at nothing.

“Moses? I need you. Look at me!”

Moses finally turned toward Adam and listened.

“If I try to go on without you–if we separate–we will both surely die.”

“How did we get to this place, Adam?” Moses said, at last.

Adam thought back to the stories told by his mother. “I don’t know, Moses. Bad decisions by government–by people who didn’t care about people like us. They were responsible for the Great Ruination. My mother said they knew what they were doing but they were blinded by greed and power. And when everything started to fall apart, they left the country and took their millions–our millions, really–with them, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves.”

Moses asked, “What’s the point of going on? Living like this? It just seems so hard and so futile. There’s no joy in life.”

Adam was quiet for a while. Then he said, “Do you know the last thing my mother said to me? She said, ‘You are my life, Adam. You are my hope.’ And I bet your mother felt the same way about you. If we don’t at least try, it will be like them dying all over again. Like they didn’t matter.”

Adam lay back with his arms folded beneath his head and looked up at the stars. With no artificial lights to interfere, the stars popped out in glorious brilliance across the milky way. After a while he said, “Moses? We do need to try. There may be good people up north who will welcome us. We’re still young and strong. There may be water just like your visitor told you. It could be a new life for us. We have to try because who knows what tomorrow will bring? Even if we can’t know for sure, there’s a chance that it will be all right. There’s at least a chance.” Adam stopped talking then and waited.

Moses was quiet for a very long time. Then he, too, looked up at the stars and, after a long while, Adam heard him whisper softly, “Who knows what tomorrow will bring?”

 

 

 

 

 

R.L.M. Cooper

RLM Cooper is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Her short stories have been published by several online magazines and reviews and she has recently completed a novel in the thriller genre and is working on a sequel. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and a very precocious Tonkinese cat. For links to her other work, please visit her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/rlmcooper or her blog: https://rlmcooper.wordpress.com

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2 Comments

  1. rlmcooper March 21, at 22:16

    I do hope someone is reading the fiction Tuck Magazine publishes. There are good stories and good poetry here. Thought-provoking. Just good. If you are reading, please leave a comment. Let me and the other authors know you gave them the great gift of your time. Thank you.

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