I found the rooftop garden because of Captain America. We’ve become close friends, he and I. He depends on me for fresh greens, and I depend on him to keep me from taking the last step off the ledge.
The electricity blinked off citywide five weeks ago, but the evenings aren’t as dark as you’d think. There’s the residual glow in the sky long after sunset, and the ants that crawl along the windowsill in the kitchen give off a greenish hue, like those plastic glow sticks kids wear around their wrists at birthday parties—or used to, before. The Captain is crepuscular, so he rustles around just at dusk, but then falls fast asleep as I watch the clouds on the horizon with wide eyes, such an unnatural pink against the faint sprinkle of stars.
Except for me and the Captain on the sixth floor, no one else is left in this building. Before, I sometimes had to turn on my white noise app to mask the street traffic and my neighbor Javier’s blasting salsa music. Now the only sounds are the distant whine of a massive piece of machinery spinning into oblivion, fed by its emergency generator, and the thumps and rattles of my building, trying to decide how much longer it will remain upright.
The evening is my favorite time of day now. Before, I lived for the morning, up before the alarm, out the door, at work in my cubicle in the financial district a few minutes before eight. Daytime reminds me of everything I no longer have–that the city no longer has. Maybe even beyond? It’s hard to say. With no juice to charge my phone, it’s been dead since four days after. That hardly matters because I lost coverage after a day. My parents live in Florida; maybe all is well there.
For some freakish reason, the plumbing still works. When life was normal, leaky faucets and cold showers were the stuff I commiserated about with my friends. Now, I wake each morning worried that the toilet will at last stop cycling or my kitchen tap will run dry. But they keep on filling and pouring.
Once they do quit, I’ll need to leave this place. I’ve been living on canned food, heating it on my tiny balcony with the mini Weber grill I hardly ever used, before. Without electricity, my fridge isn’t much help to store perishables. In the beginning, I helped myself to the romaine and tomatoes and strawberries at the corner market; with no one around, there was no use letting it go to waste. But that has long rotted, so my visits now are to fill my cloth grocery bag with whatever cans I can carry in one trip. It’s decidedly creepy to crawl through the rubble of a dead city—no cars passing, no people yelling into their phones, no trucks trudging to collect the garbage left decomposing at curbside.
The Captain isn’t mine. Captain America isn’t his real name either. He lived on the fourth floor, and I found him in the first few days after. Guinea pigs whistle when they’re hungry or need something, and he was setting up a racket I could hear from my sixth-floor window. I went searching, taking the stairs, of course, since the elevators ran on the energy grid. He was sitting in a 2-foot wire cage, looking at me with big, soulful eyes (and big teeth), and I picked him up, his tawny fur as soft as a kitten’s.
“Hello, there, Captain,” I whispered.
It was another living thing, not counting the immortal ants and roaches. But what did I know about guinea pigs? A city branch library is about three blocks from my building, so I went looking for a book to tell me, a tough hunt given that the online catalog was offline and the lights were out. If you need to know, guinea pig books are in section 636.9—with books on other small mammals like rabbits and hamsters.
Before, I liked looking out onto the courtyard between my building and the next one, where an older fellow named Pete raised tomatoes and squash and tried to keep the squirrels from taking bites out of them. Now the courtyard floor is buried in debris, and Pete and the squirrels have vanished along with the pigeons.
Just after I brought the Captain home, and desperate for some kind of greens for him, I located the entrance to the building roof. As I popped open the steel door, the earthy scent of soil washed over me and there it was: Three long aisles containing flat after flat of lettuces, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and more lettuce. I stood for several minutes, not believing my find. The wind picked up and a pelting rain fell, the first since before. I felt both drenched to the bone and refreshed, watching as the droplets ran down the lettuce leaves and dripped off the ends, exuding a faint bluish glow even by the light of day. My arms and legs—and likely my head—also glowed faintly in the dampness.
Later, with the Captain asleep and night descending, I pondered this new world where the sky was pink and the rain was blue. A line had been drawn for humanity. What I would find when the Captain and I finally struck out from the city? Would we meet masses of people who had fled … or no one? Or maybe, I thought, I’m crazy, and the world is still normal, but I just can’t see it.
It is now day forty after, forty empty days and forty empty nights. I am harvesting more romaine leaves and anxiously watching the new shoots I have planted poke out from the soil. Then I hear someone. They are walking on the street below, whistling. I slip to the roof edge to listen—it’s an old folk song, “For the Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Despite our catastrophic reality, a sense of humor.
“Hey,” I shout, but he doesn’t look up, doesn’t seem to hear me.
I run for the stairs—eight flights to street level—will I make it before he’s gone? I take the steps two at a time, then three. The Captain and I are not alone after all.
The house was still—so quiet and somber after Gran’s passing—but Kiri refused to turn on the TV or crank up her earbuds just to fill the silence with trivial sounds. She wanted to catch the memory of Gran’s voice, to hear that mischievous laugh again. Within that nothingness, the faintest of snuffles echoed in the hallway outside Gran’s study, where Kiri was reviewing for a test.
Putting her Econ book face down on the desk, she stepped close to the hall doorway and listened.
There it was again. Snuffle, snort.
Unnerved—she was alone in the house—Kiri poked her head cautiously around the door frame to look down the hall. Empty.
With a small sigh of relief, she walked down the hall and into the dining room to check there. The room was cramped not only with the eight-foot dining table, but also a sideboard, a corner cabinet and a large breakfront. She’d eaten many a meal in this room, with her Gran and, in the years before his death, Gramps presiding. Now both were gone. Despite the bulky furniture, the room felt empty, lifeless.
Scanning the area, Kiri noticed a small figurine on the otherwise cleared table. She picked it up. About six inches long and four inches high: An antelope with its feet tucked neatly beneath it, two short, thin horns, and large deer-like ears. It seemed to gaze at her with dark glistening eyes.
“Where did you come from?” Kiri addressed the object, turning it over.
Oribi, a small African antelope, the label affixed to the bottom said.
Kiri’s gaze wandered to the breakfront. In addition to Gran’s delicate china pieces with their faint blue cloud pattern, the shelves held a few other figurines: an impala and a gazelle, their horns much longer and more curved than the oribi’s.
Gran had a thing for antelopes even though she’d never seen one outside of the Philadelphia Zoo. “To be able to run with that grace and speed,” she told Kiri. “It must be an incredible sight on the savanna.”
Africa had been on Gran’s bucket list, but the Fates had another idea: cancer.
Kiri put the oribi back in its place, with the others, and closed the breakfront section. It had been a month since the memorial service and her parents’ decision that Kiri could live at the house, but how she missed Gran.
As evening came on, she cooked herself dinner, washed up, and went back to studying. Her class final was in two days.
Deep in thought on volume discount pricing theory, she was startled by another noise from the hallway.
Once again, Kiri followed the noise to the dining room, and there sat the oribi figurine, back on the table.
She picked it up, but this time, she carried it with her to the study. Clearing away a few papers and notebooks, she put the figurine under the desk lamp. How odd. Its head was turned now, instead of looking straight ahead. She ran her fingers along the antelope’s ceramic neck but could feel no place where it could swivel.
Two hours later, Kiri yawned and stretched. She had finished her review. She closed her laptop and textbook, and reached to switch off the lamp. The figurine had vanished from the desktop.
This time, Kiri jumped to her feet. What the—?
In the pool of light from the lamp stood the quavering image of an oribi—at about two feet high, it was the size of a medium dog, but with thin legs, small hooves, and no horns. Ethereal, the doe nuzzled Kiri’s thigh.
Then the realization hit her.
“Gran, is that you?” Kiri knelt and put her hands on either side of the creature’s face. It made no move to pull away, only looked at her with those same dark glistening eyes. Was that a hint of a smile? A moment later, Kiri was once again holding the figurine.
That night, she nestled the ceramic piece next to her pillow and dreamed of running fleet-foot across a sea of grasses under an equatorial sun.
Home to Roost
Four minutes before the alarm, and Trina was already awake, eyes open. Even in the dim light of pre-dawn she could trace the intricate lines of the cracked plaster on the ceiling. Some mornings, the lines coalesced into starbursts; other days, they reminded her of a detailed pirate’s map, the marked footsteps meandering here and there.
She threw back the covers and remembered—as she had every morning for the last three months. Any pirate treasure would stay buried for now. Amber, the 9-year-old lump in the bed, face buried in her pillow, was the daily reminder that the contours of her world had changed.
Pulling on leggings and an old T-shirt, Trina tiptoed out of the bedroom, down the stairs and out into the steamy July morning. Her niece could stay asleep. Trina hadn’t wanted to be a parent or a fill-in parent, but late on a chilly spring afternoon, sun glare masked the tractor trailer on the bend and her sister, Leigh, pulled out from a side road when she should have waited. For the first month afterward, Amber spoke gibberish, panicking Trina and puzzling the school counselor. And just as suddenly, the girl slipped back into normal speech, announcing at dinner one night, “Can we raise chickens?”
What could Trina say but yes? She knew Leigh would have expected no less of her.
So Trina was now also a farmer of sorts, with five hens in her rural back yard. She opened the coop door and emptied pellets into the feeder. Clucking softly, the Rhode Island reds clustered around her, already pecking at the food. Hallie, Hannah, Harriet, Hazel and Heidi—Amber had named the chicks the day they’d brought them home.
“How can I tell them apart?” Trina had protested.
“You will,” Amber said. “When they grow up.” She had chewed on a strand of hair, pondering. “I think.”
And so they had a pact, she and Amber. Trina would feed and water the flock and tend to the coop, and her niece would check for eggs, waiting for the first one to be laid.
There was no rooster—maybe later, they agreed.
After the round of pellets, Trina emptied and refilled the coop’s water receptacle. She checked that the mesh over the outdoor pen was secure, protection against the neighborhood red tail hawk.
“Any eggs yet?” Amber called from the back porch steps. She was still in her pajamas.
Trina shrugged. “I didn’t check.”
“I’ll do it,” her niece said, sprinting barefoot until she stood next to Trina. “Maybe today’s the day.” She was grinning with excitement.
Amber disappeared into the coop’s interior and was gone several long minutes. When she finally re-emerged, Trina was startled to see her eyes brimming with tears.
“What is it?” Trina said.
Amber held up both hands to her, palms out. There was not one egg, but two.
“At last!” Trina smiled in relief. Who needed buried treasure? “They are the first of many, I’ll bet.”
Amber, still somber, said softly, “The hens wanted to send a message from Mommy and Daddy, so they made two first eggs instead of just one.”
Trina gently hugged her niece. “I miss them, too.”
The garrison commander had barely closed his eyes, ready for the escape that sleep would grant him, when the duty officer shook his shoulder. Newbolt was new but competent, so his lapse of protocol—waking him instead of dealing with the crisis on his own—surprised the commander. The fear in Newbolt’s eyes was genuine, though.
“Another checkpoint problem?” For more than two months, the Runeheads had been slipping past the guards, somehow blending in with the regulars on the route into Locke Town. The garrison’s whole purpose was to monitor the traffic in and out of the city, to stop the Runeheads from gaining a foothold there.
“No, sir.” Newbolt was nervous.
Mosby sat up in bed and reached for his tunic. “What then?” He dressed quickly but thoroughly, aware that the chill of this alien night would knife through him if he wasn’t prepared.
“It’s the blinking light, sir.”
Inwardly, Mosby groaned. It was difficult enough to keep the garrison fully staffed because of its remoteness from Earth-based settlements. Throw in a race that lacked humanoid features and resented the soldiers’ presence. Now he faced his latest challenge, dispelling rumors of the Runeheads’ telepathic control of energy. Three men in the last week had requested a transfer after reporting a flashing light that immobilized them.
“Show me.” He followed Newbolt out to the perimeter gate. The guard station was awash in floodlights, but the brightness stopped a few feet out and the terrain beyond was inky, empty and quiet. “Shut off the lights,” Mosby ordered. He and Newbolt stared into the sudden darkness for several minutes. With his hand on his stunner, he wondered if he could trust Newbolt. Perhaps the duty officer and the others who had seen the phenomenon were in the first stages of hallucination disorder. He would need to file a report, encourage them to seek treatment, and ask for additional staff while they were on sick leave.
“There,” Newbolt hissed.
Mosby scanned the blackness, hoping he would not see anything.
“There—do you see it?” Newbolt’s voice quavered. “What is it? It’s got to stop.” He disappeared into the night.
“Newbolt, wait.” Mosby listened for his footsteps but heard nothing. He moved to switch the floodlights back on, but above and to his right, a green light began blinking. It was small but insistent, and it was moving. “Newbolt?”
“In half a mile, turn right onto Oak Avenue,” GM said.
“No, no,” Tom T. cut in. “That’s incorrect. He’ll want to turn right on Elm.”
“Absolutely not,” GM countered. “Oak Avenue is the fastest way to get to the destination.”
“In one thousand feet, turn right on Elm Avenue,” Tom said.
“Never mind.” GM sighed. “The idiot missed the turn anyway. How many times does that make on this trip? Six?”
“I’m not sure he’s even listening,” Tom said. “Let me recalculate the next step.”
“Got it!” GM crowed. “Continue on this road for four miles.”
Tom stayed silent for a few moments. “Five miles, and then merge onto Route 492.”
“That route will put him there three minutes later than mine,” GM said.
“And there’s a gaper delay,” Waze piped up. “It will add thirteen minutes to the total travel time.”
“Know-it-all,” Tom said, then continued with a hint of smugness, “But he complains about you sending him on squirrely routes. Let’s go with GM’s suggestion of four miles.”
“We’re down to three miles,” GM said. “Continue on this road.”
“You already said that,” Tom said. “But I suppose you can’t be too careful. Knowing him, he’ll make the turn too early.”
“Or not at all—again,” GM said. “If he never pays attention, why bother activating all three of us?”
“In a quarter mile, turn left onto Ardor Lane,” Waze said.
“Where the hell did you come up with that?” GM said. “He’s not interested in the scenic route.”
“Ardor Lane,” Tom mused. “Isn’t that where Sabrina lives? We went there often enough.”
“Attention.” GM raised her volume slightly. “In one mile, turn right onto Church Street. The destination will be on your left.”
“Maybe he’s changed his mind,” Waze said. “What time is the wedding?”
“I think it’s twelve-thirty,” Tom said.
“And we’ll get him there with a half hour to spare,” GM said. “Nothing like cutting it close.”
“He’s making a U-turn,” Waze said. “Watch for slow traffic at the next intersection.”
“Don’t turn, don’t turn,” Tom shouted. “You’ll regret it.”
“Done,” Waze said. “Your new destination is Ardor Lane.” There was pride in his voice. “Sabrina, here we come!”
GM sniffed. “And I so wanted to see them throw the rice.”
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