Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig’s blog; this one was another mash-up challenge, and I wound up rolling for a combo of Mad Max and The Martian. Not sure there’s enough sciencing-the-shit-out-of-anything to get me close enough to the latter here, but here it is in any case:
Safe Places, Far Away
Halfway down the hill out of Pacific Heights, Elena hears the screams from the Marina District.
The rain muffles the sounds. She has to stop and listen for a moment to convince herself it’s real. Through the stifling fog, the shattered windows of Pacific Heights look down on her. The blackened facades are grim after the firestorm that tore through during last year’s earthquake. Not yet, she begs the gray clouds overhead. It’s not ready yet. I’m not ready yet!
The gray clouds don’t care about Elena anymore than the wreckage of Pacific Heights does. Another scream rips through the rain.
Elena’s rubber flip-flops slap the cement. She’s getting too old to run this way, can feel every blow in her knees. Her ankles scream as she tries to keep purchase on the wet asphalt. She’ll have to find better shoes soon, but she’s had other scavenging priorities. Those priorities are currently banging against her ribs with every step. She pulls her threadbare jacket closed around the canvas bag, and puts her head down against the rain.
Under her arms and on her back, sweat stings, distinct from the hot rain trickling down the back of her neck and dripping from her chin. She stops to scale a gnarled but sturdy-looking tree. The pirates are in the algae fields at the fringes of the Marina District. They must be hungry; algae is a far cry from their usual loot of gasoline and functional electronics. Might be that the islanders have made fishing the bay a more difficult prospect for the pirates these days? In any case, no point in trying to go home the usual way. That would put her right in the pirates’ line of view as they cut their way through the aquaculture storehouses. Especially if they hit the freshwater tanks too. And if they head farther upcity …
Elena drops to the ground and cuts between two sets of shuttered rowhouses.
Maybe it was stupid not to bring the whole array with her, instead of leaving it in the safe place to await her return. But the pieces she’s already collected are heavy, and carting all that junk around the city makes her slow. Vulnerable. Pirates aren’t the only ones to watch out for in San Francisco these days. Elena should carry a weapon when she goes out, but her fingers curl into a fist at the thought of touching a gun. Even a knife. Some things aren’t worth the price.
It’s a tight squeeze through the broken gate on the other end of the alley, but Elena makes it. She has to reach back through to grab the rubber flip-flop caught on the chain-links, and as soon as she crams it back on her foot she’s moving again through quiet, watchful streets.
When Elena was a kid, her mom told her that a million people had lived in the city once, back in the Old World. A million! Million is a number for fish in the sea, for stars in the sky. Elena can count the number of people she spots during a trip out into the city on one hand. The closest thing to a crowd to be had is whatever shift crew is currently working in the algae fields. Elena spares a throb of pity for the unlucky crew down there today. That could have been her, easily enough, another day. Everyone who stays in the city takes their turns at the algae field. If they want to feed their families.
There are other ways of life out there, but Elena doesn’t know of many. She’s heard stories of fishing rafts out there on the ocean, new homes hollowed out of the husks of old aircraft carriers. But the open-sea pirates are far worse than the ragtag crew that haunts San Francisco Bay.
There’s farming, if you go far enough north. Up in southern Canada it’s warm enough in the winter and cool enough in the summer to grow wheat and corn and enough other things to fill a belly. Not here, though. Only brown grass grows in the cracks in the city’s cement, and if you go out of town the dirt blows dry across the highway.
And of course, there are the islanders. You can see Alcatraz from the hill, from the roof of Elena’s safe place too. It didn’t take much to convert that place into a fortress, and the islanders armed it with the torpedoes and ships from Yerba Buena. Once, hard at work in the algae field, Elena looked up just in time to catch a seaplane’s arc through the sky overhead. That was just the one time, though — too much precious fuel for a flight like that. Still, the islanders had the munitions to keep their home and their fishing boats safe from pirates.
Now Elena hope they’ll do the same for the city.
She cradles the bag inside her jacket. In there, she holds the last parts she needed to turn the metal husk in her safe place into a working radio. “There are things a girl should know besides how to rake algae,” her mother had always said. Elena doesn’t know if she was an engineer or a mechanic in the Old World, or if she was just a hobbyist. But she knows that there are ways to solve problems that don’t require violence and bloodshed. And she knows there are still people out there in the New World who would see the value in the old ways too, if they could be shown. Some of the old ways. Or maybe the islanders would be interested in someone who could do so much with so little? Elena tries to picture life behind the high walls of Alcatraz, but comes up empty-handed.
She shakes herself. If she hurries, she can alert the islanders today — tell them the pirates were away from their boats, raiding in the city. If they were raiding for food, they might yet come deep into the city. More time for the islanders to close in. More time to clean up the scourge of the bay for good. Or at least until someone else comes in to fill that vacuum. Elena will take what she can get.
She ducks her head out into a wide street. Her heart thunders in her chest, and her legs shake underneath her. She doesn’t see anyone, but she can spy a plume of smoke down close to the water. She hears shouting again, and the occasional crackle of gunfire. The pirates coming upcity also means that the safe places, the ones far away from the fuel tanks, might not be as safe as usual. Elena wipes rain out of her eyes, suck down a deep shuddering breath, and takes off across the empty street.
The impact knocks her sideways.
All the breath crashes out of her. She curls around herself, whooping for breath. No. No time for that. She pushes up to one elbow to see what struck her. If it had been a raider, she would be dead by now.
The kid can’t be more than twenty, all mismatched angles from his thatch of orange hair to his flat thin-lipped mouth to his long skinny arms and legs. Only the barrel of the gun in his shaking hands traces a perfect curve. “Gimme the stuff,” he says.
“I don’t have anything valuable on me,” Elena says. Only half a lie. The last parts of her radio won’t be of any worth to this boy, only to her. “Just calm down.”
“I can see the bag under your jacket!” His voice leaps in volume and cracks under the strain. Elena rolls her eyes toward the bay. Mustn’t attract notice now. So close–
Her attention is misplaced. He lunges toward her and grabs the bag. The strap is looped around her neck, inside the jacket. She screams in pain as much as anger as he yanks on the bag and pulls her head. Her arm slashes wildly at his face. He grunts, staggers back. A clatter of metal on pavement.
The strap breaks.
Elena’s head falls backward, or the pavement leaps up to meet her. Stars dance in front of her. On her knees she struggles after the boy, but he regains his balance and darts off. A broken window swallows him up, and Elena will never find him now.
Her hand falls on something on the sidewalk. Something metal.
A flash of hope. Her fingers close convulsively around it, and then she realizes what it is she’s holding. Not radio parts: a gun.
No! Never that. She raises it to fling it as far from herself as she can, then realizes: not just any gun. What she’s holding is a flare gun.
She laughs, hysterically and much too loudly, rocking back and forth in the street. When she can, she drags herself to her knees, then to her feet. She still has a ways to go.
It used to be a school once, or so Elena’s mother said, once upon a time, the way all stories go. Now it’s Elena’s home. A few other families have laid their claims here too. Bill Clapton throws down the ladder when Elena signals, and pulls it up quickly behind him. The rain has cleared up, so the ladder isn’t as slippery as it can be. “Raiders in the city,” he says, and she nods curtly.
The lower staircases have all been removed, but Elena’s burning legs pump their way up the maintenance staircase from the second story to the third, and then up onto the roof. She draws the gun from inside her jacket.
She turns, sees Sebastian kneeling just against the edge of the roof. He’s always up here, or lurking in the empty rooms on the third floor. The other children, they play in the long echoing hallways, but not Sebastian. He’s alone so much.
And he’s not looking at her, but at what’s in her hands. And he’s not seeing this gun, but another one.
“Oh, baby,” she says. “No, sweetheart, it’s not like Papa. I’m not going to–” She can’t say it. He’s already covering his eyes. Beneath his t-shirt, his shoulders shake. “No, mijito, not your eyes this time, my heart. Cover your ears.”
He obeys, but he still can’t look at her. She wonders if he will ever be able to look at anyone else again, or if he will always haunt the upstairs corridors like a brown little ghost, like the ghost of his father. She looks out across the bay, at the silent walls of the island, and points the flare skyward. On the trigger, her finger spasms, and the flare paints a pink wound across the sky, curving outward toward Alcatraz.
To Elena, it looks like a question mark.