Hey there everyone. It’s me, Elise. I’m still here. I’ve survived the dumpster fire of 2020, the smaller dumpster fire of 2021, and I’m still writing. No new book yet but I do have a short story to share with y’all. Because it’s an Award Winning story. Yeah, that’s right. I can now call myself an award winning writer.
That’s right. 1st Place. For suspense story of all things. The story has also been published in an anthology collection that you can pick up on Amazon. But I don’t want to make you buy the book just to read my story. So here y’all go…
I stopped at the crest of the hill and stared down the red dirt road. My own shadow laid before, black on the red, the setting sun stretching the shadow, making it look alien and wrong.
As always, there was a lone tree beside the road, halfway to the horizon. It cast its own shadow beside the weed-filled track. Skeletal. Trees didn’t grow leaves this close to a bomb site.
As always there was a falling down barbed wire fence on the east side. I was surprised the wire was still there. Barbed wire was scavenged now, used to keep settlements and campsites safe.
As always the road was empty. Calling it a road was a stretch, it was little more than a vague idea of a road filled with grass and weeds. But I saw it through a child’s eyes. Through a haze of my own past. It was the road home. A memory of walking it as a child flashed through my head. Bare feet and sweaty legs stained red. Shoes knotted together and tossed over my shoulder. My sisters on either side of me. My partners. As always.
I stopped and pulled off my shoes and socks and shoved them into my pack. One last time down the red dirt road on bare feet. One last trip down the road to Bomb City.
It had taken me a year to walk back to Texas. There was no United States anymore. No borders were recognized. But a Texan knew Texas soil. I’d crossed the state line a week ago and my heart had skipped a beat then settled, slowed. Home did that to you. Made you feel better, even if for only a moment. I’d walked from what had been Canada along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Following roads I’d once driven when I’d set out on my own at eighteen. Gone to Montana and to learn about ranching and cattle and horses. I’d sworn to come back wealthy. Buy all the land along the red dirt road and build the family ranch my dad and I had always dreamed about.
I’d never made it back. The world fell apart so quickly. The tensions I’d been able to forget about in the empty, lonesome country of Montana had sparked a fire. While I’d been learning, the fire had been building until the world exploded into war. I’d spoken to my family a few times once I’d fled across the border to Canada. Then the bombs started to fall and the world we all had known died in fire and ash.
For a decade I’d thought only of coming home. Home to Bomb City. My home town had been called that long before the first bomb dropped. In better days there had been a plant outside of the city that dismantled bombs. My parents had both worked there before my sisters and I came along. After that Mom stayed home and only Dad drove the dusty road to the highway that led to town and the plant on the other side.
When I reached the lone tree I stopped to rest beside it, wishing for shade and leafy branches overhead. Someone had left a cast iron bathtub at the base of the tree. Turned over. Waiting for weary road walkers. That’s what we all were now. Walking the roads. Searching for lost loved ones. Hoping to find familiar faces in the bombed-out cities. Looking for something to make hanging in there worth it.
Sitting, I wiped the dust off my feet and put on my socks and shoes. It had been nice to feel normal again but it wasn’t smart to be barefoot. If I had to run, I needed to be ready. I waited, sitting still and silent, listening. It was a habit I gave into dozens of times each day. I wanted to be alone. Up north I’d had a safe place. A settlement that was thriving. On the road the only thing thriving was cruelty. Solitude was safety so I checked, over and over, listening for footsteps and voices and sounds that shouldn’t be there. Making sure I was alone. I’d made a mistake, when I first headed south, and approached a group of strangers. They’d tried to rob me but I’d been able to outrun them. I’d learned my lesson and stayed away from other travelers since.
I resumed walking, allowing myself to look across the fields for the first time. Empty. No cattle or horses. No tractors. All the familiar things my child-eyes wanted to see were gone. Locked in my memories. As I reached the next slight rise I paused and looked for familiar landmarks. There should have been a house on the right. A neighbor whose name I’d forgotten. I finally saw the blackened ruin of the home in the waist-high grasses. I shook my head. That didn’t bode well for my own home. I remembered that they’d had a storm cellar behind the house and detoured, crossing the field carefully. I paused and pulled a staff from the side of my pack and started using it to sweep the grass before me with each step. Snakes had survived the war and anti-venom was non-existent.
The cellar was hidden by the grass and the rubble of the house. Only someone who knew it would have found it. Another memory came. Playing in the icy shade of the cellar on a hot summer day. Laughing with my sisters and kids who called this square of land home. I could smell the cold damp of the dirt floor. It mixed with the hot, dry wind that blew in the open door. It smelled of summer. From the cellar I could hear voices in the house. The click of glass on wood. The sweet smell of apricots. Our mother and theirs making jam. Where had the fruit come from? My memory failed me. I wished for that smell again. For that taste again. To step back into time, into that moment, and stay there, forever frozen.
I cleared the cellar door carefully, watching for snakes and then pausing to listen one more time before I forced it open. Rusted hinges screamed in protest and I was a statue, heart pounding, praying no one was close enough to hear. The smell hit me next, the musty damp from my memory plus a newly familiar scent – the smell of the long dead. I stepped inside, scanning the once full shelves but they were empty. In the corner, far from the door were four bodies. The skin dry as parchment over the bones. They’d probably taken shelter here during the fighting and slowly starved, waiting and hoping for a better ending than we had gotten. I turned away, returning to the outside then closing up the cellar and hiding it once again. It was the best I could do for them. I had no way to dig their graves.
I returned to the road and walked on. The road started to climb again and I quickened my steps. At the top of this last rise I would see home. Our little house was on the downhill side of the road. It would be before me in a moment. As would the city beyond it.
As I’d gotten closer to Texas I’d picked up some stories from other Road Walkers. Sometimes I would cross paths with people heading north and they’d speak of Bomb City. They’d say the city was gone. That only a few homes to the north of the city had been spared by the blast of the bomb aimed at the plant. I’d clung to those three words – a few homes. Maybe, just maybe our home had been lucky.
From the hill I could see the ruin of my house. The barn was gone too. Only the big cottonwood tree behind the house was still standing. I forced myself to look away, down the road again. I could see more houses, black with soot and surrounded by weeds and tall grass. In the distance the ruins of the city were visible. Piles of concrete and metal stained black. No movement. No life. No one was here. No one had been here in a long time.
I walked on, hopefulness gone from my steps, and turned down the driveway. It was broken and overgrown in a way it never had been in my childhood. Dad wouldn’t have allowed it. After each rain he borrowed the neighbor’s tractor and graded our drive so it would be as smooth as a tabletop. The house could have been standing, untouched, and I would have known they were gone by the condition of the driveway. Even in this ruined world, Dad would have kept it nice.
As I circled the house I looked in the burnt shell, searching for a sign that they’d left before it burned. Or for a sign that they hadn’t. There was only ash. Ash and the grasses growing in what had once been our bedrooms. It looked just like the hundreds of other houses I’d passed. A ruin nature was slowly reclaiming. There was nothing left behind. No momentos. No pictures. Only ash.
I checked where the barn had been. Only the skeleton of a pig was there, resting in a space that had once been home to the cow my youngest sister had named Judy after her first-grade teacher. Only piles of sooty wood marked the outline of the barn and the stalls. I kicked a pile of lumber and it crumpled, revealing the spade of a shovel, the handle long since gone.
I sighed and lifted my eyes toward Heaven, wondering, as always, if there was a God still there somewhere. I sent up a silent request, begging for help finding my family.
I spent the night under the big cottonwood tree. Once it had held a tree house, the huge branches hiding the little playhouse and shading the ground below. Grass had never grown under the tree, so heavy was the shade. That night I was on a mattress of grass and had a perfect view of the stars above. I wondered if the tree would recover, grow leaves again, cast shade again. It had been over 10 winters since the bombs started falling. Since the world had shattered. The world was recovering. Nature was taking back the land, the roads, the cities. This tree might never cast shade again but others would. Maybe, if I was lucky, I’d lay in the shade of one of those trees with my sisters on either side of me.
The prairie was quiet that night. Quiet in a way it never was when I was a kid. Back then you’d hear night sounds. Owls. Coyotes. Cattle and horses. Sometimes even a fox. You’d hear distant traffic and trains. Now there was nothing. No animal noises. No human noises. Just silence.
When the sunrise woke me, I laid still under my blanket, listening, as always for any nearby presence. There was only quiet so I relaxed and looked up to the orange and pink sky. It was in the sunrise that I saw what I’d missed in the sunset. A word carved into the trunk of the tree.
Capulin. My heart stopped hard and my hands went numb. A quick breath got my heart beating again, a faster rhythm now than before.
Just one word but I knew what it meant. Capulin, New Mexico. It hadn’t even been a town. On the maps it was listed as a “census designated place” which I always thought was cool sounding. We’d camped there a lot, in the shade of a long dormant volcano. Middle of Nowhere New Mexico, Dad always called it.
I hoped they’d gotten there safely. I hoped they were still there, waiting for me to find them.
I packed up and returned to the road, turning back the way I’d come. I’d branch off and head west the first road I hit. I knew the way. Hopefulness returned to my steps. I stopped on the rise and looked back toward home, saying goodbye. Then I looked up, up to Heaven, thanking God for the message left on the tree. Thanking God for showing me that He was still there. As always.