The following was a story I originally wrote for the Flash Doom contest hosted by The Molotov Cocktail. Great fiction gets published there, by the way–definitely check out thee winners of Flash Doom and the other pieces on the site! I didn’t place anywhere in the contest, but I had a lot of fun writing this one and wanted share it here.
by Emily Livingstone
Sonia stepped out of the climate-controlled room and onto the balcony of the gleaming white tower. Heat enveloped her. Leaning over the rail, she saw a congregation of alligators lumbering out of the river to sun themselves out of the jungle’s shade. Mother said that once there weren’t so many alligators, but now, Earth had cycled back to the beginning, and alligators ruled.
She squinted. Mother said she shouldn’t come outside—the sun would bake sickness into her skin—but she was eighteen now, and felt free out here with nothing to bar her from the world except distance.
Movement. A scraggly dark line wove through the trees. Penitents. They carried signs above their heads. She always wondered if the signs were for her, yet they never looked toward her—was she invisible, this high up?
WE HAVE BROUGHT THE END, said one sign.
THIS IS HELL.
Peering through the telescope, she saw that there was one among them without penitent robes. His tanned, muscled chest showed through his ragged shirt, and a different heat rose in Sonia.
A young woman pulled back her hood.
Sonia tensed, knowing what was coming.
The woman strode toward the alligators, hands rising up, palms open.
The alligators let her get close. Then, the largest sprang, taking her leg in its jaws. Another leapt at her hip. She screamed. There was blood.
The spectacle ended, and then Sonia’s skin prickled. The strange man was staring at her. She felt suddenly naked. He raised a hand in the air.
The bells jangled, and she ran to the other side of the balcony. Looking down, she saw Mother waving the red handkerchief. Sonia opened the trapdoor and flung the rope ladder down.
While Mother climbed, Sonia glanced back, but the man was gone.
“What happened?” Sonia asked, helping Mother up.
“Helicopter went down.”
Normally, Mother landed safely on the roof. Sonia’s stomach flipped at the thought of Mother unprotected.
“Did you see the penitent girl?” Sonia asked.
“I heard her. You were on the balcony again?”
“What else can I do but watch the alligators and the penitents?”
Mother snorted. “Read. Practice your music. Paint.”
“I do, but—”
“None of it’s real. Outside is real. The penitents, today, there was—“
“Idiots! Acting out their guilt for global warming by martyring themselves, feeding the big lizards. All that’s out there—”
“—are desperate people, ready to kill or be killed,” Sonia finished.
Her mother blinked. “Exactly.”
Usually, Sonia was happiest with Mother home, but that night, over and over, she felt the thrill of that man’s eyes meeting hers.
The next day, Mother left on foot to salvage supplies from the helicopter.
Sonia played her harp. She read. She watched the jungle through the telescope, trying to spot snakes in the trees.
The bells clanged and she jumped. Looking down, she saw the red handkerchief. She’d already dropped the ladder when she realized the figure at the bottom wasn’t Mother, but that man. He grinned and climbed. She thought about getting a knife to cut the rope. Instead, she waited.
Finally, he came through the trapdoor. Rising and panting, he extended his hand. “Jim.”
His hand grasped hers.
She led him into the air-conditioned tower. Jim took in everything.
“Are you a penitent? I saw you with them…”
“I saw you, too.”
“They speak of you—defying the planet’s fate and the rule of Earth’s Chosen, the Cold-Blooded Ones. All this—air conditioning, refrigeration, generators—destroyed the world.”
“But you’re not a penitent.”
“No,” he said. “I think you should share resources with us, live among the people.”
“Mother says—” Mother says people are desperate. She says there isn’t enough for them. She says they are dangerous and deranged.
“Your mother’s out, right?” Jim grabbed her hand and tugged her toward the balcony. “Let me show you what it’s like down there. We’ll be back before she knows you’re gone.”
Sonia felt faint. “Another time.”
“Come on. There’s life beyond penitence. There’s fellowship, community—love.”
She compared this to love scenes in her books. Where were the flowers, kisses, vows?
“The people need help,” he said, pulling a little too hard.
“I’ll go,” she said. “Just wait a minute.”
Mother was right. He was dangerous. Sonia went to her bedroom, loaded her pistol, and returned with the gun at her side, shrouded in her skirts.
“I’ve changed my mind,” she said. “You need to go now.”
“I’m not leaving without you.” He stepped forward.
She raised the pistol. “Go.”
He hesitated, and his eyes hardened. But he left.
Sonia lay in bed afterward, wracked with guilt, both for letting Jim up and for making him leave.
The next morning, she woke to a roar of sound.
Jim was back, at the head of a mob of people, none in penitent robes.
He yelled, “Let down the ladder.”
Sonia gripped the railing. “I can’t.”
A woman said, “If you don’t, we’ll kill her.”
The crowd parted, and there was Mother, bound and gagged.
“How do I know you won’t hurt me if I let you up?”
The people howled, but Jim shouted above them. “I swear you’ll be fine. We’re not monsters. We’re just trying to survive.”
Mother shook her head. They’re lying, Mother was saying. Sonia’s mind crept toward nightmarish possibilities understood vaguely from books, things worse than death.
The people were getting louder. Suddenly, Mother was on the ground in a pool of blood. She didn’t see what happened. Jim was shouting. Sonia sank to her knees and the crowd left.
She wanted to retrieve Mother’s body, but it was impossible.
Night fell. When the sun returned, so did the mob, carrying a great ladder. Sonia felt numb. She opened the trapdoor and climbed down. The crowd yanked her from the ladder. Hands pulled her hair and skin, scratched at her eyes. She couldn’t see Mother or Jim. Let it be over soon, she thought.