The Most Beautiful Thing

Through the window of a diner, the sunlight was not a stream but a submersion, where, in a time far removed from the present, patrons soaked up the warmth and light. Comforting as it could have been, for Frida it was simply the familiar precursor to a half-baked afternoon. This was the feeling before the work began. Heat on the skin. Bright in the eyes. Smoke in the lungs as she leaned against the old gray pickup. That truck was wearing out, but something about the sight of it sitting in the dusty old desert gave her a fantastic chill.

                “There you are,” said Davis as he swung the door open and stepped hurriedly outside, a toothpick sticking out from between his teeth. “I been lookin’ all around for you. Didn’t you hear me callin’? I just about thought you left me.”

                “Thought about it.”

                “Look,” he began, then paused. “I think we should talk about—”

                “I don’t want to talk. About anything.”

                “But what happened—”

                “I said I don’t want to talk,” she insisted. Frida looked out at the lowering ball of fire setting off explosions of mirages across the endless miles of rocks, sand, and brush. She took a long drag of her last cigarette before offering it. “I’m just tired, Davis. I’m just really fucking tired.”

                “I’m not gonna say anything. No one’s gonna hear about it from me.”

               “Better not.”

               “We ain’t got much further to go,” Davis sighed. “Maybe fifty miles, and that’s assumin’ no quakes hold us up or make us circle ‘round. But I wouldn’t count on that.”

                “I wouldn’t either.” Frida looked at him. “Anything on the radio from the outpost?”

               “Nah. Nothin’.”

               Silently, Davis removed the stained and weathered Stetson from his head before whipping his fingers through his hair. Frida remembered when it was hardly more than a buzz cut. He’d always liked his hair short. Now it was a good five or six inches. Maybe more. It suited him though, and the beard.

               “I guess we’ll just have to hope that they’re okay. If not, this whole mission is nothing but a waste of time and resources.” Frida flicked the ashes from the end of her cigarette and took two consecutive puffs. Davis squinted at her.

               “You okay?”

               “What do you mean? I’m fine.” She tossed the cigarette and pushed herself off the truck to open the passenger door.

               “You seem off,” he said. “Like you got somethin’ eatin’ at you.”

               “I told you, I’m tired.”

               “Yeah, me too. But that’s not what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.”

               “Davis!” Frida whirled around to face him. “I’m fucking fine, okay? Just knock it off with the questions!” They looked at each other for a long moment, and Frida took a breath. “I’m sorry. I’m not feeling great.”

                “We should hit the road,” Davis said after a quiet stare at the dirt. “Need to make this light count. You check the cargo straps?” He walked around the front of the truck to the driver’s side.

                “Yeah. It’s all secure.”

                Minutes later, Frida leaned back in the passenger seat, her two naked feet propped in front of the side view mirror with the wind stealing between her toes. She’d always loved that feeling since she was young, closing her eyes, imagining she was walking on the breeze.  Frida closed her eyes again, and for a moment, she almost felt that it was her father behind the wheel, and that she was a little girl, and everything would always be all right.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                Four. Blow out the candle.

                “You asleep?” asked Davis.

                Frida remained silent, listening to the strained hum of the engine. The odometer was coming up on 370,000 miles with parts stolen, rigged and repurposed from other disabled vehicles. Who knew how many miles that added up to collectively? Miles upon miles with nothing to show for it. Then again, this was a different time. Before the reckoning, miles meant something. It was a measurement between places that existed and had people and things happening. Now, miles were simply invisible points somewhere in the distance. Close or far, it didn’t matter if there was nothing at the end. It was all a globe of empty and infinite directions now.

                “Fri, I need you to navigate. The road’s disappeared.” Davis was squinting at the ground before them as she sat up, slipped her boots back on, and retrieved the map from the glove box.

                “When was the last mile marker?”

                “About ten miles ago, I’d say.”

                “Then we should be seeing it soon.” Frida scanned the skyline. “There,” she said, pointing to a distant rock formation carved by prehistoric waters.

                “Perty.”

                “Yeah. Less than an hour, Davis,” she smiled. “That’s all.”

                “You thought about what we’ll do if we get there an’…well, y’know? We keep hearin’ ‘bout these stampedes comin’ through—”

                “There’s no way that’s a real thing, Davis. Give me a break.”

                “How can you be so sure? Did you ever think ten or fifteen years ago that the world would look like it does now?”

                “Just drive,” Frida said.

                “What’s your problem?” Davis looked at her. “You’re scared.”

                “I’m not fucking scared.”

                “Yeah, you are,” he laughed. “Why the hell you always gotta act like Little Miss Badass? Nobody buys that shit, y’know.”

                “I don’t act like anything. And you’re one to talk considering you have to keep a bottle of that jet fuel by your side all the time.”

                “It’s moonshine that I made myself. It’s a goddamn art, an’ it keeps me centered.”

                “Just keep telling yourself that.”

                They each glared out into the desert. When the two-week mission had started, neither of them had anticipated hating each other by the end of it, despite cutting down the time by almost three days. It was supposed to be a simple resupply like all their others. But somehow, time had proven them to be less formidable a team as anyone had thought. Frida was done with him, and Davis was done with her. Once they got to Outpost 42 and delivered the cargo, she’d find another way back to the base. Or he could. Why should she have to give up the truck?

                “Why are you going so fast? You’re going to waste fuel.”

“It’s gettin’ dark. We can’t defend ourselves out here.”

                Giving no response to his concern, Frida took an expired oatmeal bar from her backpack on the floor and cracked it into halves. She handed one half to Davis who frowned at it.

                “I can’t wait to eat something that won’t break my teeth,” he said, accepting it. “What d’you think Bill and Jenny are cookin’ up for supper back at the base?”

                “I just want some protein,” said Frida.

                “A steak dinner sounds all right to me.”

                “I was thinking more like salmon…with a white wine sauce and steamed spears of fresh asparagus.”

                Davis leaned in with an enthralled smile. “Fried chicken.”

                “Shut up, Davis,” Frida said shaking her head. “There are just some things you shouldn’t joke—”

                “Oh, shit.” Davis’s eyes widened as he looked towards the right. The darkness had been descending upon the desert like a wave, and with it, a cloud of dust was rising.

                “What is that?”

                “We should’ve stayed at the fuckin’ diner,” Davis said, the panic in his voice elevating.

                “Just keep going. Turn the brights on.” The headlights pierced ahead into the darkening shadows before them, the ground beneath the tires throwing up dirt behind. The rumbling the two had thought was the truck riding over the unpaved land was growing in intensity, and it soon became apparent that it was originating elsewhere.

                “Is that an earthquake?” asked Frida.

                “No kind of quake I ever felt before.”

                “Maybe far away?”

                “It’s comin’ from the dark, Frida. That’s no earthquake.” The darkness and the cloud suddenly swallowed up all the world before them, the rock formation disappearing from sight. Davis cursed and suddenly cut the wheel. “We’re goin’ back.”

                “We can’t go back!” Frida yelled. “We have to make our delivery! We’re running out of time!”

                “If we don’t get away from whatever that is, there won’t be anythin’ to deliver!”

                Davis kept speaking, but Frida could hear none of it as the rumbling which was now behind them grew deafening, rattling their lungs and spines. Frida turned around in her seat and screamed a curse that could not be heard as the vibration cracked then shattered the front and rear windshields. She gritted her teeth from the pain, and Davis shielded his eyes with his arm as little glass shards embedded themselves into their skin.

                About thirty yards behind them, dozens of eyes reflected the little glimmers of light that hadn’t yet disappeared over the western horizon. There had been rumors about herds of the shadowlings having formed in the open plains and in the desert, but that had all been dismissed because no one had ever actually seen it, at least, no one still living. How it was possible, Frida didn’t know, and, in the moment, it didn’t matter. She reached behind their seats for the M16. There were only eighteen rounds remaining in the magazine, so if she wanted to make her shots count, she’d have to take them while she could still see.

                Frida aimed the rifle through the broken rear windshield, the eyes now only twenty feet behind. She watched as one by one, the pursuing eyes flickered away. The day was sending out its final feeble throws of light. Frida aimed between the last pair of eyes that remained visible, and just as they too disappeared, she pulled the trigger. The muzzle flash illuminated the space surrounding them, and a sea of pale contorted faces appeared with frothing hungry mouths and gnashing teeth. But, what was that? Frida saw something she’d never have expected or imagined in a hundred, even a thousand years. Before she could take the moment to process the information, however, she felt a sudden weightlessness lift her body from the seat.

                The ground before them had suddenly opened up with a thunderous groan, and the nose of the truck was tipping over the edge. With equal ferocity, a floor of solid rock charged up from the depths, catching them midfall. Both Frida and Davis were slung around the cab of the truck like dead rats in a flooded sewer. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the earth became still again, followed by the sounds of small rocks and pebbles settling until even the rumbling of the herd had become silent. Frida looked up at the edge, the taillights of the truck revealing what she’d thought couldn’t be real. They looked back at her, hungry and milling about in agitation, bathed in red brake lights.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the…

                Some unknown time later, Frida could see the glow of day through her closed lids. Every piece of her body ached as she sputtered a dusty cough. Her face was somehow against the floorboard of the cab, and the sickly-sweet odor of antifreeze filled her nostrils. She coughed again before reaching a blind hand to grab the shifter and wriggle herself up. A dirty tarp covered her body, and she pushed it off.

                “Davis.”

                Relaxing her body for a moment, she looked ahead and found the truck to be vertical, standing on its grill with its rear tires leaning against the cliff face. A river of pale blue sky was visible between the walls of the chasm that had been formed by the apparent earthquake. Her vision blurred, and Frida clenched her eyes shut and open again several times.

                “Davis.”

                Frida was finally able to turn her head to see that the driver’s seat was empty, and she momentarily forgot her pain. She tried to yell his name, but she couldn’t get a full breath while folded in her current position, legs on the seat, back against the glovebox. Using her elbows, she pushed harder until she was upright.

                “Davis!” Why wasn’t he answering?

               She estimated that they’d fallen fifty to a hundred feet, the lack of dimension the sky possessed making it nearly impossible to accurately discern any distance upward. The ravine stretched right and left, far and wide, until both directions made sharp turns. Frida looked herself over, finding only a few cuts and bruises, relieved that, to her best guess, she had no broken bones. She wondered how long she’d been unconscious. Long enough for the sun to be high again. Perhaps six hours? No more than eight or it would be dark again, unless she’d been out for twelve or more hours. There was no way to tell for sure.

               And where the hell was Davis?

               A thought suddenly overwhelmed Frida’s mind, and frantically, she scooted herself up and out of the truck, lied on the ground for a moment, then stood to view the truck bed. Her blood tingled, and her stomach knotted as she found the cargo gone, the straps that had been holding it into place unhooked. Swiveling her neck, she looked all around for the steel container. There was nothing on the ground but leaking fluids from the mangled engine. Frida began searching in widening circles around the truck until she found herself several meters from where they’d landed. No container. No Davis.

                “He must have it,” she thought. “He has to have it.”

                The only logical explanation to Frida was that he’d come to much sooner than she had, thought she was dead, and taken the cargo with him to find a way out. There was no way to tell which direction he might have gone, however, as there were no tracks to be left behind on the solid rock.

                “He would’ve tried to head northeast towards the outpost,” Frida said aloud. Realization striking, she reached for the radio. If she could reach them…No. A piece of metal was lodged in the center of it. She’d have to make her own way. A few moments later, she was holding her compass open in front of her but watched in dismay as the arrow spun around once, then twice, then ticked from north to south in slow repetition. She would have to guess. The position of the sun was unclear, but the direction of the truck suggested that the ravine ran east to west. She would have to hope that Davis had made the same deduction.

               Frida returned to the truck to retrieve her backpack and found their last five-gallon water can to have leaked at least half its contents through a crack in its side. This left her with an inventory of her compass, two water bottles, her father’s combat knife, three oatmeal bars, a small medical kit with two sterile bandages and five alcohol swabs, ten feet of paracord, a roll of duct tape, a tactical light for the rifle, the tarp, a sack of dried lavender seeds and leaves, one signaling mirror, a book of matches, four torch rags, one flare, and two five-gallon cans of gasoline. Unable to take both the water and the gasoline, she taped up the side of the water can and attached one of the cargo straps to work as a shoulder sling. She then emptied her two water bottles and filled them with fuel. The M16 she would carry at the alert, muzzle towards the dirt, the way her father had instructed her to do when patrolling on foot.

                Frida began walking, trying to stay within what little shade the depths of the chasm provided. The bedrock that had risen was jagged in places, the prehistoric lines formed under pressure and heat running across the walls and through the rock. She considered what kind of odds there were that she would be the first human to see what the earth had been mixing and mashing together in its belly. Of all the people that ever lived, she was the one to see it. Except for Davis.

                Her hopes that Davis had come that way were keeping her vigilant for signs of confirmation. Perhaps he had left some signal behind for her, though that was unlikely if he’d thought she was dead. Why wouldn’t he have checked? He had been a medic years ago. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know how to check for a pulse. Frida felt a splinter of anger poking through her concern for Davis’s welfare. If roles had been reversed, she would have never left him behind unless she knew with complete certainty that he was dead.

                The sun was well on its way to setting now, and a hot breeze was flowing through the chasm. Her breathing felt thick and heavy as the heat filled her nose and lungs. It was excruciating at times as her heart would not permit her to breath slower. Frida had to continue. If something were to happen to Davis and she did not press on, the delivery would be a failure. Outpost 42 would know by now that something had happened to them. Perhaps they would send out a search party. Perhaps they already had. Perhaps they’d found Davis and had gone back when he told them she was dead. Davis pissed her off sometimes, and she’d never restrained herself from pissing him off right back. Maybe this was his way of getting rid of her. Maybe he’d never liked her in the first place.

               “No,” she thought. “He wouldn’t do that to you. Not after all this time.”

               Frida and Davis had never been late on a resupply run in the year and a half they’d been running routes together, a fact they prided themselves on. After a while, the whole thing had become almost easy, and she wondered if this was all the product of their own complacency. They’d taken their time, searched and scavenged longer than was necessary. They could’ve made it to the outpost well before dark if they’d just kept going. Whose idea was it to stop, anyway?

               “I gotta go,” Davis had said.

               “Huh?”

               “You know…I gotta go.”

               “The world is a man’s pisser, isn’t it?” she’d asked. “Pick a place. Any place.”

                “I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout pissin’.” He’d raised his eyebrows to help convey his meaning, and Frida had grimaced.

                He’d had to take a shit. That’s why they stopped. Fucking grown man couldn’t wait.

               Frida thought of the herd, of the perplexing thing she’d scene. It was a terrifyingly incredible thing, and the vision of the hundred or more shadowlings stampeding toward the truck would be forever imprinted into her mind. However, what would haunt her until the day that she died was the sight of mounted riders. They had been masked, wearing dark trench coats with white bands around their left arms. How something of that nature had happened, the taming of shadowlings, was a jigsaw of a mystery. Shadowlings were an inhuman breed of four-legged beasts, terrorizing the world by night, haunting the mind by day. They had come what seemed out of nowhere except the shadows. There was no explanation of their evolution other than the drastic change of the environment, but even that was a weak conjecture.

               Four years earlier, Lee Howard Hamilton had been the first person to ever survive a shadowling’s attack. They usually hunted in small packs, rarely alone. In Hamilton’s case, it had been a lone shadowling. Hamilton had managed to shoot it in the head, but not before it had bitten a chunk of meat from his leg. The wound itself wasn’t mortal, but the bite was festering. Within ten minutes, a human would usually be paralyzed, and their blood vessels would begin to petrify. To find a person that had died of a shadowling bite was the stuff of nightmares. Hamilton survived by chewing on lavender seeds, or so the story goes. Why he decided to chew on them or even had them at all was anyone’s guess. Either way, it worked, and the lavender flower suddenly became more precious than gold, while Hamilton became a legend who disappeared into obscurity. But the memory of the riders made her shudder, and Frida considered that there perhaps was something to fear greater than the monsters.

                The blue sky above was turning purple and gray, the chasm becoming dark much faster than she’d expected. Who knew how far Davis might have gotten? She wondered if the whole idea of catching up to him was foolish and cursed for being stuck in a hole in the goddamn ground. Frida began searching the rock wall for any large crevices that she could wedge herself into until it was light again. As the sun was nearly gone, she found one and quickly hung the tarp over it as a curtain and sprinkled a handful of lavender leaves on the surrounding ground, crumbling them between her fingers. It was a large enough opening to keep her pack by her stomach and the rifle pointed out. With the light mounted on it, she would be able to illuminate any threats and get her shots off quickly. Hidden in the wall, she was safe enough and had to only hope not to get buried alive by another earthquake.

                The ravine was eerily silent, the darkness so thick that she could hardly discern between her eyes being open and being closed. Every sound of the smallest rocks settling kept her at constant alarm. Frida breathed, resting her face against the rock. It was cool to the touch, the way it had been when she had gone rock climbing with her father as a girl. She’d been flat against the wall then, too, but only to listen. He’d rested the side of his face against the rock next to her, his steel eyes meeting hers, and he’d smiled.

               “What do you hear?” her father had asked.

               “I don’t know.”

               “Listen closer.”

               Frida had closed her eyes and focused all her thoughts on the sound. It was a hush, like the flow of water, and a rhythm like the heartbeat of the earth. She listened again now, eyes closed, and she smiled.

               One. Smell the rain.

               Two. Blow out the candle.

               Three. Smell the rain.

               Four—

               Small rocks ground together beyond the tarp, then again, and a third time. Frida’s eyes shot open, and she halted her breath. Footsteps were slowly drawing closer, and she pressed back into the crevice, one hand on the light, the other on the pistol grip. Silently, she flipped the safety off, and prepared to squeeze the trigger.

               Four. Blow out the candle.

               “Frida?” a voice whispered.

               She froze.

               “Frida, are you there?”

               “Davis?” she finally replied breathlessly. “Is that you?”

               “Yeah! It’s me! Are you in the wall?”

               Frida reached out and turned back the tarp. Unable to see, she simply felt his hand on hers, and despite her anger, she couldn’t help but to inwardly acknowledge the relief that his touch gave her. Davis knelt beside the crevice inside the tarp.

               “What the fuck happened to you?!” Frida whispered a yell. “Why the hell did you leave me?!”

               “I didn’t leave you, Fri. Not really, anyway. I just went to look for a way out. I was comin’ back, but I guess you woke up and started walkin’ before I did. I knew you must’ve come this way since we didn’t run into each other.”

               “But why did you take the cargo?”

               “It just seemed like the smart thing to do since you were passed out. Whatever’s in there isn’t as heavy as you’d think, actually.

               “Wait…How are you walking around right now? It’s pitch black.”

               “Still got my night vision goggles from a couple years ago when we moved into that military base. You didn’t get a pair?”

               “No. I didn’t.”

               “Well, you need to when we get back.”

               “Who says we’re getting back?” Frida asked, and Davis said nothing. “Look…What happened up there, I don’t know if I can believe it all.”

               “I know. I thought the herd thing was far-fetched myself, but I guess it’s true. Wild ain’t it? At least we know we’re safe during the day. Out here, shadowlings are the only thing to worry about, and we can outsmart those things easy.”

               “Davis, I don’t think—”

               “We should probably stop talkin’ for now,” he said. “Let’s wait ‘til it’s light.”

               Despite her desire to share what she’d seen, she couldn’t disagree with him and remained silent.

               A few hours later, the sun had returned enough to emerge from behind the tarp, and they both took turns relieving themselves behind a boulder.

               “Nice work gettin’ the water,” said Davis. “I brought the gasoline. We can swap carryin’ them every once in a while, if you want.”

               “Sure.” Frida looked up and around the rock walls. “We just need to get out of here. You know earthquakes come in threes, right?”

               “So they say.”

               “It’s true.”

               “Earthquakes happen so often you could divide them any which way, and that’s how it’ll look. Threes, fours, tens, whatever.”

                “Do you have to argue about everything?” Frida asked, folding her arms.

                “I wasn’t arguin’,” he said.

                “Yes, you were. What the hell is your problem?”

                “What the hell’s your problem?” he demanded. “I walked ‘round this ravine in the middle of the goddamn night lookin’ for you, and I didn’t have to.”

                “No one asked you to,” Frida said.

                “No one needed to ask me to. I want us to both get out of here. We’re a team, Fri.”

                “Goddamn it! Stop calling me Fri!” She clenched and shook her fists.

                “But I’ve always called you Fri,” he said, puzzled.

                “And I’ve always hated it! So fucking stop it!”

                Davis shifted his weight, his hat cocked back on his head. He took out an old handkerchief and wiped the sweat from around his neck, then folded and returned it to his back pocket. Frida went to her backpack and began zipping everything up.

                “Are we gonna talk about what happened yesterday yet?”

                “Nothing happened,” she said without looking at him.

                “No?”

                “I’m walking now.”

                Frida stepped off once again toward the east, and Davis shook his head with an exasperated chuckle. She began to wish he’d just kept going the other direction, that he hadn’t been so gung-ho about teamwork and leaving no one behind. She was fine without him. Saner, anyway. There was no denying her relief when he appeared last night, however. But there was no admitting this to Davis.

                The two of them walked slowly along the floor of the chasm, the intermittent wind gusts beating the heat into their bones. Davis led the way for a short distance, then moved back behind Frida to avoid outpacing her. All the while, they remained silent except to warn each other of dips in the rocks or loose stones. Frida tried to think of a way to describe the riders on the shadowlings the night before, but was already struggling to maintain a calm, steady breathing pattern. Speaking would only worsen it.

                “Let’s take a rest,” said Davis.

                Without protest, Frida leaned against the rock wall, her forehead and cheeks streaked with dirty sweat. Though they both felt as though their throats were coated in sand, two sips of water each was all they would afford themselves. There seemed a fair amount of water at the moment, but if they weren’t careful, it could easily be gone by the end of the day, and there was no telling how long it would be until they reached a drinkable water source.

                “Here. Have a piece of gum.” Davis held out half a stick, and she accepted with quiet thanks. “You doin’ all right?”

                “Yeah,” she nodded. “I guess. How far do you think we’ve been walking? Four or five miles?

                “At least.”

                “We’ve got to get out of this ravine, Davis,” Frida sighed. “There’s going to be another quake soon. We both know it.”

                “Yes, ma’am, there certainly is.” A stranger’s words echoed down to them from the clifftop, startling them as they each pressed against the wall.

                “Hello, down there.” A man’s voice, deep and full called down. “I see you folks are in a bit of a predicament.” Frida and Davis looked up to see a heavyset man with a graying beard smiling down at them, a cowboy hat shadowing his eyes. The hem of his trench coat flirted with the edge of the cliff.

                “Who are you?” Davis asked.

                “I might ask you two the same question,” he responded. “After all, you are trespassing on my land.” Frida and Davis looked at each other.

               “We’re stuck in a ravine in the middle of the desert,” said Davis. “How are we trespassing?”

               “This is my desert which makes this my ravine,” he said. “So, I’ll ask you one more time. Who are you?” The man sighted in on them with a large, scoped rifle. Frida moved to aim the M16. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that, little missy.”

               “Look, we’re just travelling from Santa Fe to get to Deming,” said Frida. “We’re nobody.”

               “Quite a ways from the beaten path to be nobody.”

               “We got lost.”

               “Sure, you did.” He chuckled. “What’s in the box?”

               “What box?” asked Davis.

               “The metal box you’re trying to hide. What’s in it?” Davis said nothing. “I said, what’s in the damn box?” The man’s voice growled.

               “We don’t know.”

               “Where’s it going? And don’t tell me Deming.”

               “We’re trying to get to Outpost 42,” Frida said. Davis inhaled sharply and shook his head at her.

               “Outpost 42,” the man repeated. “I know the place.”

               “We’re on official government business, and we can’t afford any more lost time. Can you help us out of here?”

               “Government business? What government?” he laughed.

               “The United States government,” she said. Davis put his head down.

               “The United States government doesn’t exist.”

               “Yes, it does.”

               “Not out here!” The man yelled down angrily. “This is Shadowrider Territory, and we are the government!”

               “We?” Davis asked, “Who is we?”

               He smiled from behind his rifle before lowering it. Without a word, the cliff quickly became fully lined with masked figures in dark trench coats, white bands around their arms. Each held a weapon of some kind from swords and knives to pistols and submachine guns.

               “Shit,” Davis said under his breath.

                “We’ve got eyes and ears everywhere,” the man continued. “We knew you were coming. That’s why we sent the welcoming party last night.”

                “What’s he talkin’ ‘bout?” asked Davis.

                “I should’ve told you,” said Frida. “Last night when we were being chased…they were riding the shadowlings.”

                “Ridin’ them?! And you didn’t tell me?!”

                “We’re only interested in the cargo,” the man said. “Just hand it over, and we’ll let you be on your way.”

                “We’re federally mandated couriers,” Davis answered. “We won’t be handin’ over anythin’.”

                “Suit yourselves,” the man shrugged, handing his rifle to the masked man beside him. “Let me ask you though, how long will that water last you? A couple of days? How much food do you have? Starving to death is more painful than it sounds, you know. I’ve seen plenty of it out here. Who knows? An earthquake might close this whole ravine back up. They’re very unpredictable. Of course, that may actually be better than starving to death. Quicker, at least.”

                “If we did give it to you,” said Frida, “how would you open it? It’s locked.”

                “A lock is a lock is a lock,” he answered. “Anything can be broken into.”

                “This is a militarized cargo box,” she continued. “It’s rigged to blow if its tampered with.”

                “That even smells like bullshit.”

                “It’s not.”

                The man above crossed his arms and began to pace back and forth in a small limping line. “Do you know what’s in that container?”

                “It ain’t our job to know,” said Davis.

                “Of course, it isn’t. Well, let me enlighten you,” he said. “Inside that box is the greatest scientific breakthrough of any importance in the modern world. It will improve everything for everyone, everywhere.”

                “You don’t strike me as the type to care about the wellbeing of other people.”

                “I’m a part of this world just like you, aren’t I?”

                “A different part,” Frida said.

                “We don’t even know who you are,” said Davis. The man nodded.

                “Yes, you’ve got a point,” he said. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lee Howard Hamilton. You may have heard of me.”

                “We’ve heard rumors.”

                “Most of them true. Where is the credit I deserve for finding a natural antivenom for a shadowling bite? Oh, well. I don’t care about fame anyway. Fame doesn’t mean anything in a world like this. My only interest is what’s good for all of us. What you have in that box is the key to a new dawn of civilization.”

                “Unless it’s another moon, I don’t know how that’s possible,” Davis said.

                “No, not a moon. There was only ever one of those, and the government’s destruction of it cost the world everything.”

“It was accidentally destroyed while conducting lunar nuclear tests.”

“That’s what they told us, but we know the truth.”

“Conspiracy theories,” said Davis. “There’s no proof of that.”

“At this point, does it really matter what you believe?” Hamilton asked. “We can’t replace it. It’s too late. That’s why what you have in that box is so important.” He ran his fingers through his beard.

                “What is it then?” asked Frida.

                “It’s a seedling, the first of a new genetically engineered species of grain that can grow in any soil, in any climate, with varying amounts of water and light. It doesn’t grow according to any seasons, but all year round. Simply put, it’s the answer to the world’s food shortage.”

                “Then why are you trying to steal it if it’s such a good thing?”

                “Do you know what’s at Outpost 42?” he asked. “It’s the entrance to an underground facility where biological experiments are conducted on all types of species of animals. They develop viruses and the vaccines and the viruses to kill the vaccines

                “But why? What for?” Frida asked.

                “Control. Control of you. Control of me. Control of us all.”

                “You got no proof!” Davis yelled.

                “No? Where do you think the shadowlings come from? Not out of the shadows like people say, I can assure you of that.” The man laughed until he sputtered into a cough. “You don’t know which side you’re really on.”

                “We’re mandated couriers for the U.S. government,” said Davis, “and we’re not goin’ to—”

                A deafening gunshot reverberated through the chasm, and Davis’ entire body bounced against the wall behind him then onto the ground, an exit wound gaping in the back of his skull.

                Blood and bone were splattered onto Frida’s face, and in a sudden panic, she screamed, pressing her body against the wall. She began to cry tears of hate and fury. There wasn’t a modicum of cooperation left within her, but what was she to do?
                “I didn’t want to have to do that,” said Hamilton with a frown. “It’s always important to get a good understanding of one’s situation for just such a reason. I hope you understand yours.”   

               She couldn’t allow herself to feel it. She couldn’t allow herself to be the victim he wanted her to be. There was more to this than the cargo or her life or Davis’s dead body. There was no more room in the world for weakness. She turned her head against the stone wall.

               “Listen closer,” she thought, her eyes closed. “What do you hear? What do you hear?

               One. Smell the rain.

               “I hear them.

               “No, Frida. What do you hear beyond them?

               Two. Blow out the candle.

               “I hear…the wind.

               “And?

               “The earth…it’s unsettled…

               Three. Smell the rain.

               “Yes.

               “The earth is shaking…

               “Yes.

               Four. Blow out the candle.

               “The earth is—”

               Frida’s eyes snapped open to see a small pebble trembling at her feet, then another and a third.

               “It’s a quake!” someone yelled from above. “Get back! Get back!”

               Frida looked up at the river of sky again, appearing almost like a flowing stream between the swaying cliffs. Hamilton and his band of shadowriders had disappeared from the rim of the chasm. She was about to die, and all for nothing. There was no way to change it, and in this knowledge, Frida forced herself to be still. Her final moments wouldn’t be wasted panicking. What was the point? She was about to be swallowed up into the earth. And all because Davis had to take a shit.

                “Look there,” Davis had said. “An old diner. Who knows? Maybe someone left some toilet paper behind.”

                “Just don’t take forever, okay? We’ve got to get to the outpost before dark.”

                “I know that, Fri. It’ll only take a second. Or two.”

                They’d pulled up slowly to the single cubed building with chrome and aluminum edging around the windows and roof. The sun had reflected off the diner and into their eyes giving it the appearance of a giant, dumpy gem. There’d been a dry layer of pale dust on everything, and their hands had left prints on anything they’d touched.

                “Holy shit. There’s power here.” The lights inside flickered on.

                “How is that even possible?” asked Frida. “Even if there was a generator, wouldn’t it have rusted or something?”

                “I don’t hear a generator,” said Davis.

                “This is fucking weird. I don’t know about this place.”

                They’d walked around cautiously from the front to the back, Frida carrying the rifle and Davis with his pistol drawn. The place had been stripped long ago, even of silverware, cups, and cooking equipment. Davis, who had searched down a short hallway, suddenly cried out.

                “Davis! What’s wrong?” Frida rushed to him, only to find him grinning.

                “They’ve got toilet paper.”

                After taking another look for supplies and finding nothing, Frida went back outside. She’d walked slowly around the truck, checking it for any leaks or damage that might cause any upcoming problems. Jumping up onto the bed of the pickup, Frida had begun checking each of the four straps holding the metal container in place. That was when the lid of the box had caught her eye. It was slightly ajar, unevenly locked. She’d knelt down, examined the gap, and after failing to press it closed, determined the only way to fix it would be to unlock and relock it. She’d typed in the one-time-use, seven-digit code into the electronic pad. It had beeped and lit up green. She’d opened the lid.

                What Frida saw was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen in her life. Simple and perfect and lovely.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                Frida closed the lid and hated the world.

                Davis had never seen what she had seen, and now he was dead for protecting something he could have never fathomed. A decade ago, the thought would have brought her to tears. However, a decade ago there were no shadowlings, no Hamilton, no worldwide quakes, and the moon was still illuminating the night sky. The moon had been Mother Nature’s way of comforting the little humans that flourished on Earth when the sun was gone. But the little humans had killed her, and the moon had been soon to follow. Death had become nothing but an occasion as remarkable as a hiccup. Hold your breath, and it goes away without another thought until the next one.

               As though there actually existed a thing called fate or destiny, Frida survived the second quake. She didn’t bother reasoning why or how. The ravine had narrowed by several feet, but there was still room to walk through. As the walls had shifted, large pieces had crumbled, and as though a stairway to heaven, a steep grade was formed that could be climbed back up to the surface.

               Frida stood slowly to her feet, her knees unsteady, but she continued walking upwards with the locked metal box in her arms.  The sun was beginning another descent, casting fingers of color and light through a few distant clouds. She had seen it before when she was young, and her memory replayed the sound of her father’s voice as he’d read aloud from his poetry collection on the front stairs of their home. There was a particular poem that he was always sure to read no matter what. This poem by Longfellow was perhaps his favorite of them all.

               Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

               Life is but an empty dream!

               For the soul is dead that slumbers,

               And things are not what they seem.

               Life is real! Life is earnest!

               And the grave is not its goal;

               Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

               Was not…

               “Was not…Was not what?” Frida stopped walking.

               If there had ever been a question in her mind about how the worst things happen to regular people, it was answered now. She had been born in reasonable comfort. She’d gone to a good school, had a loving father who loved her more than any two parents could, played softball and field hockey, made up tunes on an old guitar, dreamed on a porch swing during midsummer nights about the wonderful future. Now, twenty years later, she was ascending from what had been a certain grave into a barren desert. The world had changed, and so her life had changed. She wanted to say it wasn’t fair. She wanted to say that there was something about it all that shouldn’t be happening to her. It was a life that belonged to someone else. Now, she realized that she had been that someone else all along.

                Frida continued until she reached the top and looked around. The stone formation that had served as a landmark was almost invisible in the distance. In the opposite direction, the diner glimmered, murky and fluid behind the rising heat. Frida sighed in relief and started up a quick pace with the newfound hope in sight, and she imagined quite clearly how refreshing and cool it would be inside with running water and electricity. She could hide there for a while, hide the box until it was safe again, until she could decide what to do with it. Hamilton might have been a murderer, the ringleader of a gang of evil shadowriders, but it didn’t mean that everything he’d said was wrong. She’d seen inside the box herself, and it had killed her trust in anyone.

                Frida had closed the lid and hated the world. It was a feeling she’d not ever experienced before, and she was torn between the beauty of what she’d seen and what she was surrounded by. All that she’d become accustomed to around her was now sickening. There was and would never be anything more wondrous than what she’d beheld in the box, and when she had returned inside the diner, she couldn’t contain her disgust and rage any longer. She’d smashed the mirrors with the buttstock of her rifle, smashed chairs and broken shelves. Davis had run out to her, wrapped his arms around her as she wept malicious tears. And he hadn’t asked her why, as though he’d already understood.

                The distance between Frida and the diner was closing more slowly than she’d anticipated. A familiar sound began to drone quietly, and she looked over her shoulder. In the distance, a large mob of shadowlings were bearing down on her with the creeping darkness. Frida began running awkwardly with her hands full, panting as the winds picked up again. The dust and dirt were forming clouds around her, and to her dismay, the visibility of the diner began to decrease. Her heart felt as though it might burst as each breath was accompanied with sand. Her legs were aching and trembling with exhaustion, and she begged them to continue, almost tripping over herself at times. Still quite a distance away, the diner disappeared completely. The dust storm had darkened the sky, and Frida’s eyes burned with tears. There was no shelter. There was no hope. She continued to run for a few moments more, then halted, realizing that she had completely lost any sense of direction. Without the diner as a reference, she might very well have begun to run in a circle.

                Frida dropped to her knees, a destitute at the mercy of an unforgiving universe. She stopped expecting. She stopped planning. There was only to wait. She sat down on the ground, eyes closed, as the wind swirled around her. There was nothing more to listen for.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                As quickly as it had begun, the winds died, blanketing an eerie silence over the desert. Frida looked up, the remnants of a flaming sky still visible in the distance, and the diner far away. She could here the shadowlings behind her, footsteps approaching slowly.

                “No more running,” said Hamilton, approaching from behind. He walked around to face her, and she looked up at him. “Open the box.”

                “Why?” asked Frida.

                “Because, despite what you might think, I don’t like killing women.”

                “But you do like killing.”

                “It depends.” He took a knee beside her. “I didn’t like killing your friend. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t enjoy it.” Frida folded her hands in her lap. “Open the box.”

                “You don’t want to see what’s inside,” she warned.

                “Yes, I do.”

                Hamilton waited several seconds before pulling a pistol from inside his trench coat. Frida looked around her as the shadowriders surrounded the two of them, mounted on their shadowlings whose snouts were muzzled with iron and chains.

                Frida reached out to the box and entered the one-time-use, seven-digit code into the digital pad, and the light turned green. She presented it to him silently, turning the box to face him. He holstered his pistol and reached down.

               As she watched Hamilton, the remainder of the poem sprang suddenly into her memory, and she smiled.

                Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

                Was not spoken of the soul.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                “This means a new beginning for all of us,” said Hamilton, brushing the dust off the lid.

                Four. Blow out the candle.

                The final etchings of twilight stretched out from the horizon.

                Five. Smell the rain.

                Hamilton opened the lid and looked down at the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. Simple and perfect and lovely.

                Six. Blow out the candle.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

1 Comment

  1. “Bravo”
    I thoroughly enjoyed this writing. Left me wanting it not to end.
    After reading the Longfellow stanza I wanted to read the entire poem. I love poetry and this one spoke. I look forward to future writings, and hopefully, a compilation of your writings.
    Thank you for sharing your writing.
    H

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