They Come Again

A story for NaNoWriMo 2020. Thanks to /r/writingprompts for the idea.

Wood, solid wood. Off the map. There couldn’t be anything from the past decade, maybe even this century. Robin held back a smile as yesterday fell away, drifting among the clouds in the sky, a potential new future opening up. They had time to plan a shelter and explore the property, maybe even play cards.

Jake let his bag slip off his shoulder to the porch, arched his back, and let out a deep groan. “Think I can get a hot towel? If I miss anything from the last few years, it’s an abundance of hot towels.”

“Sure thing, right after I get a massage and face scrub.” Robin rolled her eyes, letting a smirk surface as she stepped back and admired the old farmhouse. She lightly stepped on the wooden slats of the porch, only a few creaking, a few more rotted, as she went up to the front door that somehow remained on its rusting hinges.

“Hey,” she called over her shoulder, “Got that can of forty?”

A beat-up can of blue metal with smudges of yellow and white was pulled from Jake’s bag. He handed it over. Robin lifted the long, thin bit of plastic coming out of the top and dripped some fluid over the door hinges. Before handing it back, she put a couple drops on the doorknob. “Not this time,” she whispered to herself.

Another stretch of the arms and Jake had the bag back on his shoulder, standing just behind Robin, waiting. Robin took a deep breath, readjusted her own small pack, and walked in. Small clouds of dust greeted the first few footfalls; she exhaled warmly and her breath mixed with the thickening air. She held back a cough as she looked around to get her bearings. Jake peeked over her shoulder.

A few coathooks hung empty on the wall immediately to the left, and just past was a small table layered with dust, a single drawer attached. Robin looked ahead where an entryway led to the kitchen; a stairwell to the second floor ran along the back wall, and on the right was a closed door. Dust and disuse coated it all, no sign of footprints, nothing in the air but must, decay, and age. She gave a slight nod, pointed to her right, and moved straight to the kitchen. Jake went to the door by the stairwell, dropped his pack, and repeated the lubrication procedure.

Robin entered the kitchen and checked behind each appliance. They were all unplugged. A bit paranoid, she thought, but at least they’re safe to inspect now.

A toaster on the counter had two slots, a dial from one to eight, and an unlabeled button; a microwave in the nook below was a veritable antique with a single-line screen akin to a digital clock, and no popcorn button, let alone the barista button common near the end; a gas oven and range of all things, analogue and mechanical, posed no threat or aid; and a refrigerator with an ice dispenser and a freezer on top was of similar vintage as the microwave. Robin headed to the entryway, bursting with the news for Jack. We can fight back.

Jack had opened the door and descended a steep staircase, leaving a gas lantern at the bottom. Robin could hear him rustling around. Conscious not to startle him, she whistled Be Our Guest on her way down. The mustiness of the air was slowly replaced by soil and salt.

She grabbed the lantern and Jake turned around, a huge grin taking over his face and a notebook in his hand.

“Finally more to write than two cans of soup and a bag of carrots. Fancy some jam, or dried pork and mushroom stew?” Jake spread his arms, moving them up and down the shelving, walking along the wall, displaying his wares for customers to admire.

“Let’s not go too crazy yet.” Robin smiled back, then ran the few steps to embrace Jake, a sob and a laugh escaping her as he squeezed.

Between gasps, Robin managed “So much… here… for us…”

“I couldn’t believe… it either… but…”

Robin stepped back. “What?”

“What could have happened to them? They were set up perfectly.”

“Probably bad luck, something just came across them and…” She got quieter and let her eyes drift to the floor.

“Yeah, just bad luck. It’s been a couple years based on the dust. They must have been… lost in the first swell. Maybe visiting family, and never made it back.”

Robin nodded, then forced a smile that slowly moved to her eyes, turning into something real as she looked at the shelves in front of them. “How much do you suppose there is?”

Jake scanned over his partial list, then folded it up and turned around. His head moved back and forth, up and down, scanning everything available to them. Each rack rose a foot above Jake’s head, and the shelves extended at least thirty feet across the cellar. Made of wood and braced with metal, they evaded the horrors of outside and held pounds upon pounds of food.

Jake headed to his left, pulling another small flashlight from his jacket. Robin walked over to the other corner, shining the flashlight across jars of pickles and beets, vacuum-sealed fruit and meats, and small bottles of dried herbs. It was disorganized, but not messy. Whoever had stockpiled this had simply added food as it was made available. No need for it to be tidy; if someone was stuck in a cellar, there’d be time enough to reorganize.

She heard Jake let out a small chuckle and raised her eyebrows; he sensed the look from across the room and illuminated a jar full of brown powder and a handwritten label: Irene’s Instant Chocolate, Just Add Powdered Milk.

They sang anything that came to mind, keeping the lyrics alive in their memory. Forgotten words were replaced. When a song ended they’d have another spoonful of the goopy chocolate sauce, or maybe nibble a dried berry.

“I think we nailed her recipe this time,” Robin said, giggling and wiping the bits of dried chocolate from around her lips, leaning on the counter. “We used to think stale Twinkies were a high point, remember?”

“We all thought we could ignore expiration dates. I guess my mom was right.” Jake stuck out his tongue and grimaced, remembering snacks they found in a warehouse. “The bread was still greasy, but the cream…” He gagged a little. Robin wasn’t convinced it was for show.

Jake suddenly stood back up and belted Wanted Dead or Alive, starting in the middle of the chorus, just the way Robin hated. She flung a spoonful of chocolate at Jake’s face. He dodged it, undeterred, and swung his body around the island playing air guitar while pretending to drive. Robin rolled her eyes and had a chocolate-dipped strawberry, but couldn’t help tapping her foot.

She followed with Beyond the Sea, her eyes glimmering and wet by the time Jake took over, loudly humming the jazz break. He knew what the song meant, and took a few more verses while Robin absentmindedly snapped her fingers, gazing out the window above the sink to the dormant fields.

She tasted the air, salt thick on her tongue, as she chased her parents into the sun. The prairie turned to sand, the horizon flowed with water as her mind rushed her back with the tide. Songs blaring on the speakers they brought to their picnics, towels spread on a stretch of beach only visible from a wooded hilltop.

Jake’s vamping of a single bar finally caught in her ear. She turned around, preparing to apologize again, but heeded his earnest look. After wiping her eyes and sniffling her nose, belted out the final chorus with Jake harmonizing.

“Thanks, as always.”

“Hey, that’s a big improvement over sorry.”

Robin smiled, grabbed her pack, and walked up the stairs to her bedroom.

Jake cussed at his clumsy fingers while trying to stuff them in his mouth, nursing the burnt skin. “Every damn microwave is too different on the inside, they all do the same thing”

“Hurt yourself again?” Robin smiled and leaned down next to him, noticing the small bit of smoke that had escaped a circuit. “I would’ve imagined that by the sixth time, you’d be more careful. Or just better.” She twirled the duct tape around her fingers, set it down next to the microwave and ate a bit of jerky, offering a piece to Jake.

“Cool it.” He grabbed the jerky with his free hand, replacing the taste of his fingers with salt and pepper and sugar. He wiped the sweat from his brow, frowned at the small generator next to him, and gingerly tested his if fingers could still hold the soldering iron. Satisfied, he nodded at Robin and centered himself on the number pad of the microwave, which was now dangling by only a few wires, revealing circuitry within.

Robin went back to the entryway, where small circuit boards and coils of wire lay along the base of the stairwell. Each board was labeled with pieces of tape: Fridge – Upper, Fridge – Lower, Toaster. An empty spot was labeled Microwave. She looked them over again, making sure everything was in order. The boards needed modification, but less than when they came across new appliances. I suppose that’s on purpose.

The mechanical dials and analogue buttons in the house kept her at ease. Most things rang by a bell, beeps could be traced to a small speaker at the end of a wire, and certainly nothing talked to her. The twists and turns of the circuits in these old pieces were no harder to trace than a set of gears, and simplicity was safety.

Robin took out her battered copy of The Martian Chronicles. She’d never traded it when they stopped: they never come across a copy of Asimov, which would be useful, or at least cathartic. So, she kept the Bradbury around. Ray wasn’t wrong about soft rains, but they didn’t come the way he expected. So many warnings from so many directions, yet they all went ahead anyway.

Robin sat up and ran down to the cellar to get another piece of fruit, sprinting on her way up. She needed to keep moving to stop spiraling. They were prepared this time. The warning boards should work even better on the old mechanisms.

Whether the retaliatory boards worked remained a mystery.

Jake hollered from the kitchen and Robin ran in, the duct tape still around her fingers. He was standing with his eyes fixed on the microwave now put together again. Robin glanced down and saw OKAY written on the small digital screen. Not moving his eyes, Jake said “Alright, we’re up and running! Let’s test it out.”

He took out a few sheets of paper from his pocket, and found one with a sketch of the house’s perimeter, some dots along the edges. He handed it to Robin. “Good luck hiding.”

Robin grabbed the paper and headed outside through the back, greeted by the sun now barely grazing the top of the fields. She welcomed the cool morning breeze and the soft glow of light; it would make wearing the foil blanket more enjoyable than the summer months did.

With the crinkly cape trailing down to her heels, she slowly walked around the house, one small step every five seconds. Between steps she held her breath, imitating what they would do, and waited for Jake to make sure she hadn’t found an undetected spot.

After a lap, she took a single step away from the house and went around again.

They took a break for lunch. On her way into the kitchen, Robin said “At least a quarter mile, and I bet the signal’s strong enough for twice that.”

Jake smiled and patted the top of the microwave. “Great, the opens pace helps.” He glanced at the refrigerator. “I couldn’t get much done with that during testing, so I’ll need the afternoon to get the other boards in.”

“Alright, let me know if I can help. I’ll check if there’s gas in the barn.”

Jake nodded and gathered his makeshift soldering station on the island. The boards had moved to the counter on either side of the refrigerator.

Robin went out the back door again, now heading south into the midday sun a few hundred feet to a blue-gray barn, still in good shape, the doors secured by a large piece of wood. She hefted it out of the metal supports, and set it softly on the ground, ignoring the few splinters that found their way through her callused hands.

A sense of darkness and foreboding crept through her mind moments before the smell reached her nose.

She covered her face with a small rag from her pocket and searched for resolve. You’ve seen it before, Robin. Hopefully you’ll live to see it again after this. Stay focused. Carefully, quietly, she pushed open one large door. She saw a bale of hay, some vehicles and hand tools, patio furniture, all revealed along the wall as the doorway widened. Then, she was in.

A pause. Her eyes fixed on a tractor. She stepped back outside, her movements automatic. Grab the hose. To the kitchen. Get containers.

Robin was back in front of the barn, her arms full. She blinked a few times and shook her head. They deserve someone to think of them.

Back in the barn, she looked straight ahead at the two people suspended by cables from the ceiling, dangling ten feet above the ground, rotting more than the barn had in their lifetime. Their clothes had holes where the cables attached, where the current had gone through them like an unceasing bolt of lightning, leaving dark patches of scorched fabric and skin. There was nothing but the smell of burnt and rotting flesh, no feeling but the desire to forget it all and escape what she and Jake had seen so many times in their constant escape. Robin wretched, the bits of dried food fighting up her throat. She held them down, and kept her gaze on the floating couple a few moments longer. She said a prayer. Then a curse.

She closed her eyes, let a deep breath escape into the rag she still held on her face, then went to siphon the gasoline.

Evening came, sunlight streaming through the windows of the entryway, a glow of orange light making its way to the kitchen where Jake and Robin sat at the table eating and playing poker.

Jake set the deck down between hands and reached for a bag on the table. “I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of jerky. If I ever complain, slap me.”

“Gladly.” Robin took a piece for herself. Rotting meat flashed in her mind. She pushed it away.

Jake dealt a hand of two cards to them both and tossed a few woodchips onto the middle of the table as Robin put hers in. She habitually grabbed her cards with a flourish and stared just over the top of them at Jake, her eyes sharp and fierce. A moment later, she felt them softening.

Seeing the luster fading, he set down his cards and reached for her hands. They sat for a long moment, the silence of the dead surrounding them.

Only flashlights illuminated the kitchen floor as they slouched against the island, sometimes glancing at the containers wired to the refrigerator, mostly staring at the microwave. It read OKAY and that’s as good as they felt: Jake had found some bottles of moonshine in the cellar. Robin knew she wasn’t quite drunk. Neither of them had been since the night they met. They drank just enough to be okay.

Jake took another sip.

“It’s not good… but it makes everything warm.”

Robin nodded, slowly, uncertain of her body. “Do you remember learning about prohibition in school?”

“I hardly remember school. But it rings a bell.”

“After the first world war, the country banned drinking. It was a whole thing. Lasted ten or fifteen years.”

Jake frowned, looking at the bottle between them. “People will either kill themselves, or invent something to do it for them. What a waste of a law.” He took another sip and passed it to Robin. She lifted the bottle up, looking through the walls at the barn. Jake nodded.

A noise. Robin sat up. A repeating alarm. She ran down the stairs. Jake was already at the door packing their bags. Robin went to the kitchen. She needed to confirm. The toaster was torn apart, their circuit board removed. The refrigerator was still whirring, and the screen dangling from wires in the ice dispenser said READY.

The microwave’s small display said RUN.

Illumination to the south, orange flames and billowing smoke, sparks of electricity between it all.

Jake stared straight ahead, letting the bags of food drop from his hands. Robin saw the flames reflected in his tears as they mixed with sweat. They both panted from the sprint.

“Retaliatory boards worked.”

Jake nodded.

“I wish we could’ve had one more night there.”

He nodded again. With a sip of moonshine and a bite of jerky, he walked back to the remains.

Robin caught up a moment after. She choked down a sob and started humming I Will Survive. Jake joined in.

At sunrise they were gone. The group of reclaimers coming that day would find no boards, only two graves dug in the ashes, headed by crosses of metal limbs.