By Joel Arnold
Even over the acrid odor of an old school bus’s burning tires, a woman dressed in rags smelled coffee. Her mouth watered. Coffee. How long had it been? She stepped from behind the twisted metal that had been the bus.
“Care for a cup?” A young man sat by a small fire of burning detritus, a dented tin pail resting on the glowing coals.
“Is it real?” The woman stepped carefully over a path of broken glass and sharp stones. A smile fluttered across her lips.
The man held a cup out to her. Steam danced off the top. Her hand trembled as she took the cup and drank. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply through her nose, savoring the bitter taste.
The woman dressed in rags nodded.
“You’ve got family left?”
She didn’t answer, taking another quick sip.
“It’s okay. I’d love the company,” the man said.
The woman handed back the cup. She looked back over her shoulder and whistled; two sharp blasts, followed by a long, high trill.
Two men emerged from behind the twisted bus, followed by another woman. They held makeshift weapons; a charred two-by-four, a piece of twisted rebar, a sharp-edged rock.
The young man bowed. “Welcome.” He stood and handed the single cup to one of the men, who took it and sipped slowly.
“Beautiful day,” the young man said.
“Yep.” The man holding the coffee swished the liquid around in his mouth and handed the cup to the other woman.
Their host looked at the sky. He smiled widely.
The smile grew. His head tilted back further, as if searching for the sky’s zenith.
His mouth opened. His jaw unhinged like a snake’s.
One of the men yelled, “Shiner!”
The woman holding the coffee threw it at the young man, but his jaw opened wider.
The four ran in separate directions, while the young man remained. His skin glowed and pulsed with an unnatural light, until a thick beam of it shot skyward. It was met by another beam of light that shot down from the roiling clouds above. The two men, two women and their host were all caught in the blinding explosion that followed.
Two miles away on the side of a talus-strewn hill, Gibson winced as the beams of light connected, a bright golden beam from the shiner on the ground, and the Hubal’s brilliant red beam that raced down from above to meet it.
Gibson rubbed his eyes after the explosion that followed. Damn it. What had lured them this time? Chocolate? Fresh fruit? Coca Cola?
They kept falling for it – the promise of something long thought gone, ever since the sky had come alive. Ever since the Hubal came.
How many had been caught this time?
Gibson carefully picked his way down the slope, the explosion a ghost on his retinas.
At first it was the large gatherings, but lately it had been groups of six, seven, eight – sometimes as few as four. The Hubal were afraid of groups. An individual couldn’t do much against them, but if enough got together, if they had time to think and plan and devise – that’s what they were afraid of. That’s what they destroyed.
Gibson finished descending the hill and started toward the freshly burned area. The surrounding landscape was a patchwork of flora and ash – rough circles where the Hubal had attacked scattered amidst rich farmland gone fallow. Stands of trees stood here and there to mark what used to be property lines and windbreaks. The cities in the distance were no more.
Gibson spotted the girl lying on her stomach drinking from a languid creek. Her clothes were too large, and a pair of men’s shoes hung ridiculously loose on her feet. Gibson cleared his throat. The girl froze. “You should boil it first,” Gibson said.
The girl pushed herself up, turned and sat to face him, crossing her legs in front of her. “It’s good water here,” she said.
“There’s no such thing.”
She wiped the back of her sleeve across her mouth.
“You alone?” Gibson noticed that her hand hid something on the ground next to her. “Hey, I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Go away,” the girl said, picking up the thing beneath her hand and clutching it in front of her; a stainless steel butter knife. “Please?”
Gibson held up his hands. “Okay. Just passing through.” He started to circle, giving her a wide berth.
The fear on the girl’s face turned to a frown. “Wait.” She stood, brushing dead grass and dirt off her clothes and reached into her shirt. She pulled out a small square and held it out.
Gibson stopped and regarded her carefully. Finally, he took the square – a photograph.
“Mom and Dad,” the girl said. “You seen ‘em?”
Gibson studied it. A thirty-something couple smiled at the camera, the sun glimmering off a small lake behind them.
“Nope,” Gibson said. “Sorry.”
“Probably dead,” the girl said.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” He handed her back the picture. “But probably.”
She tucked the photo back into her shirt and put a hand on her belly.
Now Gibson saw how it protruded, despite the oversized clothes. “How far along?” he asked.
She looked to be only fourteen or fifteen. Sixteen at most. She didn’t answer.
“There are shiners around here,” Gibson said.
The girl said, “I saw the lights.”
Gibson’s own daughter would’ve been fourteen by now. “Why not tag along with me for a bit?” he said. “Just the two of us should be okay.”
She patted her belly and smiled shyly. “There’s three of us, though, aren’t there?”
“What’s your name?” Gibson asked.
“Like the Beatles’ song.”
Julia shrugged. “Mom said I was named after an aunt. Didn’t mention any song.”
“I’m Gibson. Named after the guitar.”
“Why would someone name a kid after a guitar?”
Gibson chuckled. “I like the name.”
“Better than my boyfriend’s name; Tabor.”
Gibson nodded at her belly. “The father?”
“What happened to him?”
“The first wave took him out.”
“Sorry to hear.”
She shrugged. “He wasn’t all that great.”
He led Julia through the fresh burn. They stepped carefully around the charred bones and tree stumps rising stubbornly from the smoldering ash. The frame of an old school bus, burned and twisted almost beyond recognition except for the letters ISTRI on a miraculously untouched orange spot of painted metal, smoked with heat. Maybe a year ago, Gibson would have avoided the area, protect the girl from the horror strewn about. But now he figured she should see this. Smell the burned flesh and bone, experience the dead silence within the rough ashen circle.
He asked again, “When are you due?”
She stopped. A gentle dusting of ash rose from the ground and danced around her. “It’s not like I can see a doctor.” She looked hopefully at Gibson. “You’re not a doctor, are you?”
“An accountant,” he said.
Julia looked down. “You go on,” she said. “I shouldn’t be with you.” She put a hand to her chest and coughed. She dropped to her knees, retching, producing only a thin line of pink drool.
“Ouch,” she moaned.
Gibson held out his hand. After a moment, she took it and stood, brushing the ash off her knees. She nodded at the ground. “It’s still hot. But it’ll make good soil someday.”
“Come on,” Gibson said.
“We shouldn’t be together.”
“Just the two of us. That’s okay. They won’t bother just the two of us.”
“Promise you’re not a shiner?”
“What kind of alien would name themselves after a guitar?” He winked. “We need to trust each other. At least for a while. Can you do that?”
She rubbed her hand lightly over her belly. “I’ll try.” Then she smiled. “She likes your voice. Whenever you talk, she kicks.”
“You know it’s a girl?”
“I just want a girl, that’s all. Wishful thinking.”
They walked. Gibson wanted to keep her moving, keep her mind and legs busy while the rest of her body prepared for the delivery. But on the second day, Gibson realized she was the one leading him somewhere – the way she nonchalantly walked slightly ahead, but with a definite purpose and in a definite direction.
“Wait a second,” Gibson said. “Where, exactly, are we headed?”
She cleared her throat. “I know where there are some caves,” she said. “They were on my parents’ land.” She turned away from him. “I was in one of the caves when the first attack came, in a small alcove about thirty feet in. I don’t think anyone had been in there before me for a long time. I found pieces of flint, some broken arrowheads. I used to sit in there with a flashlight and journal. I was going to bring John in there – he was my boyfriend – but…” Her voice trailed off.
“How far away is it?” Gibson asked.
Julia looked up and brightened. “Another day or two and we should be there.”
That night, Gibson and Julia slept on a small hill thick with pine trees, the fallen needles soft beneath their bodies. Occasionally, they saw flashes of lights in the distance, where the Hubal attacked more people gathered dangerously, plotting against them, perhaps, but more likely seeking simple companionship.
They walked slowly most of the next day, taking frequent breaks so that Julia could rest. At one point, Gibson caught a crippled rabbit, a small dirty stump were a forepaw had been, and roasted it on a coat hanger spit over hot coals. He boiled enough water for the rest of that day, letting it cool before they continued on. They arrived at Julia’s farm, the place she’d grown up, shortly before sunset.
There was nothing left, save for misshapen hunks of metal that had once been tractors and pick-ups, and the jagged cement bases of a silo, house and barn.
Julia stepped carefully through the area. “There’s nothing here,” she said. “Nothing.”
Gibson put his arm around her as she cried. When she was done, she looked up at him. “Something’s happening,” she said, beads of sweat springing to her forehead. “Something’s going on with the baby.” She wrapped her arms around her abdomen. “Jesus, it hurts.”
Gibson looked around for something – anything – that might help. “Get up,” he said, helping her to her feet. “We need to get out of this ash. Where’s the cave you mentioned?”
She lifted her hand weakly and pointed to the rough limestone surface of a nearby bluff. Dusk threw long shadows across it. They took a few steps and Julia gasped, clutching her stomach. “Oh, geez.”
Remain calm. “Just a little further,” he said. He looked toward the rocky surface of the bluff, trying to figure out which of the shadows hid the cave’s entrance. Something flickered within. Gibson froze. “Wait.”
Julia looked up as a woman emerged from the rock, carrying a torch in one hand, a stone in the other.
“Stay away,” the woman said.
“She needs a place to lie down,” Gibson said. “She’s giving birth.”
The woman squinted, raising her torch. “Oh, my.” She dropped the stone. “Beth! Get out here. Someone’s about to have a baby right here in front of me.”
Julie fell to her knees. The woman rushed toward her, shoving the end of the torch into the dirt. “Beth!”
She was older – fiftyish, Gibson thought. A younger woman appeared next to her, eyeing Gibson with fear.
The older one smiled as she carefully slid down Julia’s too-large pants. “What’s your name?”
“Julia,” she gasped.
“I’m Nancy. This here’s my daughter, Beth. I’ve delivered before, so don’t you worry.” She nodded at Gibson, eyes remaining on Julia. “He ain’t a shiner, is he?”
Gibson stepped forward into the torchlight. “Gibson,” he said. “Named after the guitar.”
“Guitar?” Nancy said.
Julia said, “He’s okay.”
Nancy asked, “You the father?”
“No,” Gibson said.
“Well, give us some privacy, then.”
“Can’t I help?”
“Help by getting out of my light.”
While Nancy gave Beth instructions, Gibson backed away. Above, clouds darted back and forth across the moon. A black mass of them edged closer, obliterating the stars, sparks of light dancing within. Gibson rocked back and forth on his heels, watching. He felt Beth staring at him.
“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” she asked, slowly standing.
Nancy looked up at her daughter. “Get down here. I need you.”
“He’s one of them,” Beth said, pointing at Gibson. “He’s a shiner. Look at the sky!”
“No,” Gibson said, stepping back.
“Beth, I need you. The baby’s coming.”
Julia screamed. Beth squatted next to her head, wiping the sweat away with her shirtsleeve.
“That’s right,” Nancy said. “Push, honey. Push.”
“It hurts,” Julia cried.
“Scream, then. Get it out,” Nancy said. Then, “Push!” Then, “Here she comes!”
“A girl?” Julia panted.
“A beautiful girl,” Nancy said.
Something sparked and flashed above.
Gibson took a step closer to the women.
“Stay away!” Beth shouted.
Gibson realized the baby wasn’t crying.
Static played with the ends of his hair.
“Is the baby okay?” he asked.
“Is she?” Julia asked.
Beth’s attention turned to the baby in Nancy’s arm. Nancy rubbed the baby’s skin with her thumb.
Gibson stepped closer.
“Let me see my baby,” Julia said, her face flush, hair soaked with sweat.
“She needs attending to, first,” Nancy said.
Gibson looked down at the baby. A beautiful girl.
But she was gulping at the air, fighting to inhale.
Nancy and Beth tended frantically to the child, Beth wiping away amniotic fluid and blood, Nancy swiping a finger into the child’s mouth.
“What’s happening?” Julia asked.
Gibson kneeled next to Julia’s head, caressing her cheek. “Shhh. She’s in good hands.”
Then Nancy said, “Oh, dear God.”
Julia struggled to push herself up on her elbows, tried to look between her upraised knees. “Jesus, what’s happening?”
Gibson heard a cry. The baby.
“Run!” Nancy said. “Run, Beth!”
The baby cried again.
“Let me see her!” Julia demanded.
Nancy shook as she slowly rose with the baby. The torchlight flickered off the woman’s face.
And another light, as well.
She bent over and carefully placed the baby in Julia’s arms. “She’s beautiful,” she whispered. Then she rose. “I’m sorry.” She turned and jogged toward the face of the bluff and disappeared within the dark folds.
Again, the baby cried. As the glow intensified within her and seeped from her widening mouth toward the waiting clouds, Gibson said, “She has your eyes.”
Julia nodded, sobbing, holding her child tightly. “Stay with me,” she said.
Gibson stayed and stroked Julia’s forehead, even as the light within the baby intensified and shot skyward. Even as the clouds above answered with a light of their own, and the world around them turned explosively from night to blinding day.