Authors: Greg Shows,Zachary Womack
Crisis Event: Gray Dawn
Greg Shows and Zachary Womack
Crisis Event: Gray Dawn
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Greg Shows and Zachary Womack
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Published in the United States.
Cover art by Tony Roberts.
We would like to thank the following people for their assistance, encouragement, advice, technical input, proofreading, and all around awesomeness: George Proctor, Alyssa Bond, Zinny and Jodie Pham, Kathryn Ehlers, Ophelia Abraham, Ivon Herrera, Lorna Simmons, and Cody Hughes.
Contact Sadie at:
A Note from the Authors:
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Sleeping in a burned out car has its advantages. The springs in the back seat are usually intact, and if you drop a flattened cardboard box on them and rest your head on a lumpy backpack, it’s almost like a real bed.
If you ignore the stink of stale rat pee wafting in from the trunk. Or the months-old smell of charred plastic, rubber, and carpet.
How long had it been since she’d slept in a real bed, in a real bedroom, secure from imminent death? Two months? Three? Sadie had lost track.
“Doesn’t matter,” she muttered, now fully awake.
She’d been saying that a lot lately, as all the things she’d lost in the Crisis—her job...her friends...her apartment with its cheap furniture and over-priced boyfriend—had begun to recede in her mind. Their importance had begun to fade like old paint in the sun.
When was the last time she’d seen the sun?
“Doesn’t matter,” she said, louder now, repeating the words as if they were a mantra. “Doesn’t matter.”
The horizon was whitening. The car’s cracked and sooty windshield framed the blurry dawn. Far off in the distance, forks of lightning streaked down, lashing the land with scorching white fire, seemingly intent on finishing off the night’s dying remains.
Another cold day, she guessed as she sat up, but better than the cold-as-hell night. She shivered despite her heavy parka, and rubbed her hands together to drive away the chill. A quick check of her watch showed her it was time to get moving, so she folded up her Mylar survival blanket and tucked it into her moss-and-tan camo backpack.
She opened the passenger door and shoved it open. It groaned on its hinges, all haunted house spooky, and then was silent—like everything else.
She was sick of the silence. When she cocked her head and listened, all she could hear was an occasional rustle of grass, moved by a puny wind.
After shaking the previous day’s dust out of her old MIT t-shirt and wrapping the gray cloth around her face so that only her eyes showed, she pulled herself out of the car.
“Gotta get a mask,” she said, and coughed as she scanned the landscape.
The open fields surrounding her weren’t as gloomy as they’d been when she’d climbed into the car the night before. But they weren’t exactly cheery either. Tall stalks of dead grass covered in fine gray dust stretched to the west as far as she could see. The field of dust was broken up here and there by fence rows, or the occasional farmhouse or dead stand of trees. It reminded her of pictures she’d once seen in a book—Dust Bowl photos immortalizing a horror from a different century. A different world.
She circled the car. It was a Corolla, she saw now in the dull dawn light. She saw her own tracks from the night before, stretching away to the north in a mostly straight line down the center of the road. But hers were not the only tracks.
Thirty yards away a set of animal tracks came out of what had once been a nice little forest to the west. The animal tracks crossed the shallow drainage ditch and climbed up to the road then turned and followed her own tracks right to the Corolla. The animal—a dog or a coyote—had circled the car and headed back into the dead forest.
And she’d slept right through it.
Sadie pulled open the passenger door, grabbed her rifle, and circled the car again, this time stopping at the driver’s door.
Her hopes were not high as she pulled the door open. The doors and fenders were dented and smashed in and peppered with bullet holes. All that was left of the charred car’s tires were four blackened blobs of partially burned rubber.
“That’s about right,” she said after she reached inside and found that the hood latch handle had melted away from the latch cable.
She put her rifle down and dug into her pack, bringing out her multitool. After wrapping the latch cable around one of the jaws of the pliers she clamped down hard and pulled. The familiar pop came from under the hood, and the hood lifted with a quiver. A plume of dust jumped weakly into the air.
At the front of the car she pushed the hood catch sideways and jerked up on the hood. It groaned as it rose up. Sadie propped the hood open.
The engine was in surprisingly good shape, with intact hoses and a fairly clean manifold and a battery that hadn’t yet corroded.
Not that the engine mattered much.
Even if there was gas in the tank, she wouldn’t get far on rims.
The windshield wiper reservoir was empty, as was the radiator overflow reservoir. But the search wasn’t a complete waste. Sadie cut the battery cables with her multi-tool, then fought the bracket bolts until they surrendered and she was able to heave the battery out. Once she’d cleared the front of the car with her heavy prize, she let it go. The battery made a dull thump against the dust-coated asphalt.
Sadie coughed into her t-shirt a few times, worried briefly about the way the dust sometimes irritated her lungs and made her cough blood, but then made herself forget about it as she pulled an empty disposable squeeze bottle out of her backpack and unscrewed the lid. As she pried the caps off the top of the battery she smiled a little, remembering Professor Willis and the way he’d yelled at her when she forgot to put on her eye shields.
“I’ll fail you, girlie, you ever do that again,” he’d shouted the first day in chemistry lab, the tenured old loon too set in his ways to stop calling his students “girlie” or “little boy.”
Sadie tipped the battery up and poured its contents into the plastic bottle, careful to keep her fingers away from the fluid.
In her mind, she could hear Professor Willis shouting, “No gloves? Are you kidding me, girlie? Get the hell out of my lab!”
Sadie filled the bottle, screwed the spout back on, then tipped it over. She scooped up dust and dribbled it over the bottle until it was completely covered. A low hiss came up as the sulfuric acid ate up the carbonates in the ashy dust, neutralizing the dangerous liquid so she could handle the bottle. When the hissing stopped she brushed away the dust and tucked the bottle into a side pocket of her backpack.
Sadie considered going after the radiator coolant too, but the look of the sky made her abandon the idea. Lightning was dancing across the horizon, promising yet another storm. The howl of a coyote off to the east reinforced the decision.
Survival took priority over scrounging. There would be no shortage of cars for her to cannibalize soon—lot after lot after lot of them parked on freeways and the sides of the roads, just like she’d seen in Boston, Amherst, and Pittsfield months ago, and in every small town and village she’d approached since then. She glanced at her watch again and pulled out her map. She was twelve or more miles out of Youngstown, Ohio, and if she wanted to get through it or around it before night came again she would have to hurry.
Sadie picked up her rifle and stalked around to the trunk, her boots thumping dully on the dusty asphalt. The lock was broken but the lid had warped so much in the fire it was stuck closed. She slung her rifle over her shoulder, turned around, and gave the trunk a mule kick. The lid came up half an inch. Another kick brought it up more. On the third try the lid swung open.
“Yow!” she said when she caught sight of what was inside.
Staring up with sightless eyes was a partially burned, partially mummified body. A kid, judging from the size.
A kid with a bullet hole in the middle of its forehead.
The body was on its back with its arms folded over its belly. Between its hands was something dull and gray. With her own hands shaking, she nudged aside the finger bones and picked up the object—a locket, she saw, as big as an old pocket watch. She pried it open and saw the blackened remains of a photo.
After taking a few breaths to fight off the dull ache in her chest, and blinking a few times to kill the tears, she snapped the locket closed and dropped it back into the trunk.
Sadie understood the car now.
She’d slept inside a funeral pyre with the remains of a kid killed out of mercy, probably back in the early days of the Crisis.
The thought made her shiver. Someone who’d cared about him had blown his brains out, put him in the car, and set it on fire. Or her. She hadn’t studied much anthropology so she couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl. But it had been a
The horror of it didn’t knock her to her knees like it would have nine months ago, but it made her queasy. And sad.
The saddest part was that there hadn’t been enough fuel to keep the pyre going. Sadie wondered if they had expected an explosion, like in the movies, or if they’d just hoped it would burn the body to ashes. Either way they’d have been disappointed. Now the car was a monument to their botched burial rite. The whole thing was pitiful and depressing.
Sadie slammed the trunk lid and stepped back.
“Sleeping with a dead body,” she said as her stomach gave a growl. “Looks like I can check that off my bucket list.”
Despite her urge to take off, Sadie carried her pack around to the passenger side front door. She jerked the door open. Then she slid partially onto the burned seat.
The glove box fell open when she pushed the latch button, and inside she found an unburned car insurance card no one would ever need. She also found an owner’s manual, which she tucked into her pack. She’d wipe with it later if she needed to.
Beneath the owner’s manual was the car’s cigarette lighter. She took it and moved on.
Today’s breakfast, she decided, would be one of the remaining Rice Krispie treats she’d found on the floor of a 7-Eleven three days before. The store had been looted, but somehow the looters had missed the five treats, which were lying in corner, hidden beneath a yellowing newspaper.
The headline read:
Eruption Fears Overblown, Pols Claim
Sadie still had some of the newspaper tucked into her pack, though most of it had already been left behind with her last few pitifully small bowel movements.
“For dessert,” Sadie thought in a bad French accent, “Boiled water. Et voila.”
As she nibbled the corner of a Rice Krispie treat, she had to fight the urge to devour the thing whole. After finding the treats she’d also found out you can’t just gobble up sugary food when all you’ve eaten for months is MREs, charred cat meat, roasted rat, or hardtack.
Not unless you wanted your guts squirting out of the fiery red hole in your bottom every ten minutes.
That would be no good, given the small supply of water and Imodium she had. Diarrhea was deadly these days.