Yesterday at the salon I had the pleasure of meeting a middle school English teacher. She told me that she spent most of her time reading books that were written for her students age group, but she found it difficult to find something that would enthrall them, yet every parent would find appropriate for their children.
I told her about my first YA short story, which coincidentally was my first take on sci-fi. I did remove a curse word, and a line about hookers before I sent it to her, but you can read the unaltered story in the anthology Eclectically Vegas, Baby from Inklings Publishing which you can find along with my other works here.
The email to the teacher, with some amazing blonde highlights, was just sent out. But, if you don’t happen to be in her class you can read my story below.
By Melissa Algood
I was ten when most of the human race was wiped from the planet. For a while it was just Dad and me. Then winter came, and never went away. We shared the last can of beef stew on my eleventh birthday, then left the southern shores of Washington.
The frozen rain pounded our frail bodies, until we found an abandoned rust covered 2020 Chevy on the feeder of the highway. Dad said it would be good luck since it was made the same year I was born. He had me watch as he pulled some wires from under the steering wheel, twisted the red and yellow wires, and the truck started to roar. Dad smiled at me and headed south. My voice turned into a howl as it was ravaged by the wind. Our powerful enemy, sleet, poured in through the window Dad broke.
“How much farther?”
Dad turned to me. Ice coated his auburn beard. “We’re heading to Mexico.”
“Yeah, but how far is that?”
“Didn’t you learn that in school?”
I recalled school. My buddies and I would sit in the back of class shooting spit balls at the teacher and have pizza eating contests at lunch. I didn’t remember what potato chips tasted like, much less what a map of Mexico looked like before everyone died. “Maybe?”
“Well, we’re in Oregon. So…” His gloved hands gripped the steering wheel of the truck we’d stolen. Maybe it wasn’t really stealing, since the owner had died. Dad cast his dark irises on the lonely road ahead of us. It was a look I’d never seen until it was only the two of us. I didn’t have a word to define his expression. The endless search for a way to describe the sadness in his eyes made me wish I’d paid more attention in language arts class.
A few weeks after the Chevy ran out of gas and we couldn’t find any more we started walking. According to Dad, we were atop Summer Lake when we met John who looked as haggard and worn as Dad’s cough. I couldn’t remember when Dad’s lungs started to expel a thick yellow substance with black dots intermingled with the phlem, but it had kept him from sleeping by the time we added to our family. As time went on I found out how important grown-ups jobs were before everything went away. John promised to get us across the mountains. After all he was a sports medicine major and avid rock climber. We should’ve made sure he meant both of us to Nevada alive.
Dad’s face had turned white as flour when we were halfway down. “How much longer, John?”
Our guide stopped and looked over his shoulder. “We’ll be there by nightfall, Hank.” His light eyes scanned Dad, “You need to take a break?”
“No. I can’t spend another night on this rock.”
John nodded and headed South East, but I held back with Dad. “You okay?”
“Don’t worry about me. It’ll all be over soon.”
The few beams of light that came from the sky were extinguished, and we still had a few more hours. “We gotta make camp,” John said.
“No, keep going.”
“But you can’t…”
Dad’s voice turned into a growl. “You have to keep going.” He turned to me. “Take this.” He unzipped his coat.
“No way, you need it.”
“No. I don’t.” He pulled what was once a bright yellow down coat over my own. “These too.” He opened up the knapsack that hung over his boney shoulder, and handed me three hardback novels that had been tied together with twine. They were all by George Orwell, my namesake. I could recall faintly my mother’s sing-song voice as she told me that only an English professor would name all his children after authors. I didn’t know what she meant. Maybe it’s because I never had the chance to read Ray Bradbury and Emily Brontë.
“Dad, you don’t have to…”
His index finger glided along the side of my face. It is still the coldest thing I’ve ever felt. A gust of wind filled the space between us and he clung to a rock on the side of the mountain. He buried his face in his hands. “George…”
“What?” I bent my knees so our faces were level. His empty eyes were glassy and half closed. “Dad?” I shook him by his shoulders. “Dad!” A thin line of red dripped from his nose.
“We need to go,” John said.
I shook my head. My brain shattered like glass. “We’ll go when he wakes up.”
John pulled me up by my arm, dark hair stuck to his forehead. “It’s what he wanted. You have to live, kid.”
Dad’s face was blue, or at least the color of the Pacific Ocean that I remembered as a kid. Maybe he could still hear me? I knew I’d never get to speak to him again, so I should take advantage of our last moments. I’d already said ‘goodbye’ to everyone I ever loved, I couldn’t do it again. My eyes were dry when I took the rope from my Dad’s hand. John unhooked him, and intertwined the rope with mine. John and I continued to repel down the mountain. We all knew it was the end.
John and I made it to Vegas three years later, shortly after I’d turned sixteen. At least, I thought I was sixteen. It had been impossible to gauge time since the sun had been blocked out by an endless haze all these years. Apparently Vegas used to be a pretty lively place. Now it was only the two of us.
John extended his left arm. His black leather-gloved hand pointed at a structure covered in snow, ice, and sludge. It had a square base and shot up into the gray sky like an arrow. “See that?”
“Yeah,” I muttered, not finding it entirely impressive.
He looked over at me and steam rushed out of his mouth with his words. “That’s as close as you’ll ever come to the Eiffel Tower.”
He threw his head back and laughed. “Seriously? You don’t know what that is, kid?”
“I was in the fourth grade…when it all…you know.”
More to the wind then to me, John said, “Forgot about that.”
“I didn’t get to graduate college like you.”
“Technically I was eighteen credits shy, but who’s counting anymore?”
“So, what was it anyway? The tower?”
“I don’t really know what it did, if anything, but that’s not even the real one. That’s a replica.”
I racked my limited vocabulary attempting to pinpoint the meaning of this new word. “What’s a replica?”
“It’s a copy of something. See the real Eiffel Tower is in Paris, but they built another one here. I guess it’s because only rich people come to Vegas or Paris.”
“Did you ever come here? Before?”
“When I was your age, with my parents, so I couldn’t have any fun.” He punched me in the arm which made me feel ten again. For a moment I was back with my friends, and I could feel the sun on my skin. “Maybe I was younger, I didn’t have a full beard like you, kid.”
I rubbed my own chin. My cotton gloves pulled on the coarse hairs that grew along my jaw. I wondered if it was the same color as my Dad’s. I had yet to find a mirror void of a thick film of ash and ice. It would be awkward to ask John. Besides Dad was pretty much dead already when they met, how could I ask him to compare us? “What do you mean you couldn’t have any fun?”
“It used to be a city built for adults, and all their vices.”
He stopped in the middle of the road and rested his hands on my shoulders. “It’s like this, kid. We’re walking on something they called the strip. It had a bunch of casinos, and whatever else you wanted to help forget about the life you were living.”
My eyes crisscrossed the buildings blanketed in snow that had turned the same eerie color as the sky. They were so tall I didn’t know if we were still walking on the Earth, or if we were really dead, and walking in the atmosphere. My older sister once told me that hell was hot, but maybe she was wrong, and it was so cold that the blood in your body turned into icicles. If there was ever a time for escape, it was now. I would have given anything just to have another minute of life: belly full, showers in hot water, my parents kissing me goodnight. I couldn’t think of an instance when I would have chosen to avoid what I had, when all I could do now was hold on to the few memories left in my brain.
I’d do anything to see leaves rustling in the summer breeze above me. Instead I found myself surrounded by desolate gray, haunted by everything I’d never know, like love. All I’d ever know was death.
“Tell me what your girlfriend was like again.”
“Jessica….” He sighed and looked down at the ground before he turned his light eyes back to mine. “She was hilarious, and an amazing cook. She made like lasagna.” He licked his lips. “I promise you, right here, right now, I will find you a cute teenage girl if it’s the last thing I do.”
He’d made comments like this before. Yet in the years we’d traveled as a pair, we’d
never come across another soul. I’d lost hope that I’d never get another kiss from a girl like Jenna who snuck behind the gym with me. Her lips tasted better than strawberry ice cream and made my body feel like I was on a roller coaster. For some reason the lack of girls made me think of something my brother always said, ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ My gaze turned back to the buildings surrounding us. “Right now I’d be happy if I could get something to eat.”
John tilted his head to the nearest building with the least amount of ice covering the front. We each took the pick axes that hung from the sides of our packs and hammered the sheet of frozen water that encased our shelter. I don’t know if it took minutes, hours, or years; but I was exhausted once we broke through and hobbled inside.
The inside looked like every other building I’d broken into. Torn up. As I gazed about the still space I recalled when Mom would ask ‘Another tornado run through your room, George?’. I didn’t find it funny then- although it always made Dad laugh- I still didn’t. The only tornado I’d ever seen was the one in The Wizard of Oz. That had been so long ago I couldn’t tell you why she was walking down that yellow brick road, even if you offered me a bacon cheeseburger with French fries. But there was something in the room that made me forget all about Mom’s smile and fried food.
John nudged me with his elbow and held up the kerosene lamp to cast more light above us. “Pretty cool, huh, kid?”
People covered the dome that my eyes scanned the ceiling above us. I assumed it was paint since I couldn’t touch it, but it had every color I remembered from before the sky clouded over forever. And more. Babies with rosy cheeks, wings, and harps. Women in pastel flowing robes, their long wavy hair floating behind them. Men with long beards that reminded me of Dad. The robins egg blue was a beautiful contrast against the puffy white clouds that resembled whip cream.
“It’s…it’s…” Again I couldn’t find the appropriate word, and just for a moment I felt a loosening in my chest. As if I’d been holding my breath ever since my family, along with everyone else I ever knew, had died.
John’s face sagged. It was like he’d aged twenty years since I’d met him. “It’s nice to see, but I don’t even know if there’s a point anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, that’s not gonna feed us.” He nodded his head up at the mural. “Or start a fire. I don’t even know who they’re supposed to be. Maybe they were once really famous people, but no one knows who they are anymore. So, what’s the point of even seeing it?”
I thought about the fact that John might die before me, and then I’d really be alone. As a kid I dreamed that I was the only person left and had the opportunity to eat all the candy I wanted, drive any car throughout the streets, and of course no school. Once John was gone I’d be living a nightmare. He never talked about his time alone before he met Dad and me, which made me believe that it wasn’t great. “We don’t know who they are, but it is still important. I’m glad I saw it.”
“It means we’re still alive.”
John shot a smile at me. “You know the girls aren’t gonna come to life when you’re asleep, kid.”
Maybe I blushed. I used to do that whenever I was embarrassed, but I hadn’t thawed yet. “I’ll take anything that will keep my mind off…all this.” I gazed about the wreckage of the hotel lobby.
“You know the drill, kid.”
I nodded. He started pulling all the wooden furniture to the center of the lobby and broke it down with his axe. I filled the pot that I retrieved from my backpack with snow, then took out my own axe, and helped John. The hotel bar took up a whole wall, to the left of a reception desk, which held a half dozen useless computers. Several dozen match books, which were akin to diamonds in the apocalypse, filled up a fishbowl atop the bar. But not a drop of alcohol.
“Agh!” John slammed his hand against a lever that once dispensed beer. “I guess he figured if he was going out, he’d go out wasted.” His boot kicked the lone skeleton with frayed rags clingling to its bones. They must have been the last person alive since it hadn’t been dragged to the edge of town and burned with the rest of the charred bodies.
“Maybe there’s some in one of those little fridges.”
“You know, the ones that are in each room, with all the really good candy in them?” Whenever my family went to a hotel us kids were expressly forbidden to open them, much less consume its contents. But the idea of dying without ever having a beer depressed me. I’d already missed so much of what many teenagers experienced; didn’t want to miss out on what adults did too.
“You’re smarter than you look, kid. Let’s eat first, though.”
After the snow came to a boil I held a cloth over our thermoses. John slowly poured the liquid, over the cloth, as we both attempted to keep our faces free from the steam. It felt great letting it surround your whole face, but steam could burn worse than boiling water. At least according to John. He took the thinnest rabbit in existence out of his pack, and I skinned it. We each took our share and let it cook in our thermos before we indulged in rabbit stew.
In my sixteen years it was the best thing I’d ever cooked.
After John gulped his last bit of rabbit he said, “You wanna check out the rooms now, kid?”
I nodded and threw my bag over my shoulders. I never left it alone. Not only because I might find something that I’d want to take with me, like food, but because it held the books Dad gave to me before he died. I had yet to untie them from the twine Dad had wrapped around them, but they never left my side.
“Where should we start, kid?”
“The bottom floors are probably already cleaned out.”
“Wanna try 27? Since that’s how old I am. I think.”
I nodded. Happy to know that I wasn’t the only man left on Earth who didn’t know what year it was anymore. “Then we gotta try 16 too.”
“Anything you want. Just stick by my side.”
“Yeah,” I laughed. At least that’s what it felt like even though the sound was deep and raw. “Don’t want to lose your only friend in the world.”
John’s large sea glass colored eyes faltered. He gazed at me, but then again his eyes were blank. It was as if he saw everyone that he’d lost in me, just like I saw everyone who died in him. “I’ll never lose you, George. Never.”
He’d only ever called me my real name a few times. When he said ‘George’ it took away all my pain and replaced it with something else I couldn’t name. I didn’t know how to answer, so I just nodded.
After tearing our lungs apart climbing up all those stairs, we were both pretty pissed when there wasn’t anything to drink on the twenty seventh floor. The sixteenth floor held more luck. The third room we came to had the wine.
John handed me a bottle the length of my hand. “Would have preferred vodka, but you know what they say about beggars, kid?”
I twisted it open, sniffed it, and threw my head back. It tasted thick, like syrup, but it didn’t taste sweet at all.
“Whoa, kid. Take it slow. You’re not used to the stuff.”
I swallowed the last drop from my bottle and shrugged.
“Want another?” I nodded and he handed me a bottle. “Let’s save the last couple, you think?”
“I bet we can find more.”
“I’ll take that bet.”
It was four more rooms before we cheered with joy again.
We returned downstairs to the lobby because we could build another fire, and we knew where the exit was. I leaned against my backpack and finished off another tiny bottle of wine. Head spun. Body numb. Like when I would go on a roller coaster with my brother. “I feel…weird…”
John laughed. “That’s called drunk, kid.”
“Feels pretty good.”
“Try and remember that tomorrow morning.”
“What happens tomorrow?”
The light from the fire brought a lively glow to John’s face. “You’ll see.”
It wasn’t long after that my eyelids became heavier than stone. With my backpack as a pillow I curled up and fell asleep. But I didn’t dream. I saw nothing but endless darkness whenever I closed my eyes.
That night I felt something on my hand though. It was warm and wet. The sensation made me slowly open my eyes. Its coat was jet black and shone against the light behind it. The light was bright, almost like the sun, and it nearly blinded me. When my eyes came into focus and saw the creature next to me I screamed. The animal’s eyes were black as coal, tongue pink like my sister’s ballet costume, and a tail that wagged quickly. I didn’t scream because it was scary, but because it had been so long since I’d seen one.
John bolted upright. He pulled me up off the floor with him as I screamed. He pulled me back against the reception desk we’d dismembered earlier, my leg caught on my bag, and scattered the contents in front of the dog. John stood in front of me and raised the kerosene lamp when he called out, “Are you alone?”
A woman’s voice came from one of the flashlight beams. “Are you?”
“Asked you first.”
I could hear the girl breathing. It was quick and harsh as if she’d just ran a mile. “Yes.”
“How long?” John asked.
“Few years. What about you?”
John’s hand gripped tighter around my shoulder before he said. “Been the two of us, for a while now.”
“What did you do with our dog?”
“Nothing, he’s here,” John said.
“I heard a scream.”
“Your dog woke us up. Call him if you don’t believe me.”
Another softer voice sang out from another flashlight, “Lucky!” The black lab turned back toward the girls and darted off toward them.
A few moments passed filled with girl-whispers before John asked. “How’d you get here?”
“Walked. Hoping it would be warmer. You?”
“Same, from Seattle.”
“We’re from Detroit.”
“So what’s your name?”
The older girl lowered her flashlight from our faces and cast the light on her own. Her dark hair hung past her shoulders. She wore a scarf and hat tucked into her parka and hood. Her lips were pale and matched the rest of her face, as if she’d been drained of life. When they parted she said, “Anne.”
He lowered the kerosene lamp to the side and said, “John.”
“Who’s your friend?”
John looked over at me and nodded. I turned to the first girl I’d seen in five years, “George.”
Anne had already maneuvered around the remains of our fire with Lucky on her heel. “This is my sister Brenda.”
Her long brown hair was in a single braid that lay on her right shoulder. The coat she wore was once red, it’s crimson glow still obvious underneath ash. She wasn’t close enough for me to be sure, but Brenda was just a few inches shorter than me. “How old are you, George?”
On our side John and Anne asked questions and answered in rapid succession. That’s how I found out that they were in a group, but their group had starved to death. Anne had just rushed a sorority when the Earth died along with the rest of her dreams. Lucky moved in circles around the four of us sniffing, and digging randomly at the floor.
Brenda’s gaze followed Lucky and stopped at my backpack. “Are those books?”
“Can you read them to me?” She gazed at me with eyes brighter than the Moon. “It’s been so long since anyone has.”
I turned to John who was telling Anne about his time in college. I figured if he felt safe, then I should too; I leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. Brenda handed the books to me. I took a deep breath and unwrapped the twine. “Which one did you want to read?”
“Which one is your favorite?”
I looked at the titles and not a single memory came forward. “I don’t…”
“How about this one?” She sat, legs crossed, on the other side of Lucky. “I always wanted to see a farm.”
I ran my finger along the skinny battered spine. “I’m pretty sure it doesn’t end happy. It’s just like everything else that’s left.”
“Well,” Brenda leaned in closer to me. “Let’s hope it does this time.”
The books weight in my hands calmed me. It reminded me of when Dad would read to me before I fell asleep. Brenda rested her head on my shoulder as I flipped past the title page and started from the beginning.