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The Best Cozy Apocalypse Bundle

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Times of Trouble Series: Discover how two ladies in the small town of Silverdale, Washington serve justice after the collapse 🚜☕️🌻

“Andrew!” Hilda Jo tossed her red curls over her shoulder. She must’ve been freezing, Irene thought, not that anyone would notice with the amount of makeup she was wearing.

“Just the man.”

Andrew settled the armful of jars that he was carrying into the back of the pickup and went over to the fence. “Hilda Jo,” he said. “How can I help you?”

“It’s my bed.”

Irene almost dropped what she was carrying but quickly covered up her snort by pretending to trip over a rock on the driveway. 

“Your bed?” Andrew asked innocently.

“It’s developed a squeak and it’s keeping me awake at night. I wonder if something needs tightening.”

Irene rolled her eyes. Straightening, she glanced at them standing either side of the fence, Hilda Jo twisting the string of pearls she was wearing around her fingers. Any moment now, Irene thought, she’s going to wrap that string around his neck and drag him into her lair, and he’ll never be seen again. She mentally shook herself at the vivid images in her head. Maybe she should stop reading fantasy for a while and pick up some cozy mysteries next time she visited the library.

“I’ll pop in next time I’m passing by,” Andrew said. 

He went to walk back to Irene, as the other woman caught his hand and said, “Do you not have time right now? I left the bed unmade just in case...”

🔴 Read Chapter 1 - In the Meantime

Irene lowered the back of the pickup truck and caught one of the smaller pumpkins as it tried to roll over the edge. The whole load shifted slightly, as if the escapee had triggered a domino effect amongst the cargo of ripe, fleshy fruit, and, despite her petite frame, Irene spread her arms like a scarecrow ready to catch any others that threatened to fall.

“Will you be making your pumpkin pie again?” Sylvia asked. The younger woman hung back, rubbing her hands together and blowing into them to keep them warm.

“It wouldn’t be a feast without it.” When she was certain the load was stable, Irene gestured to Sylvia to help her start unloading the pumpkins into the barn. “We’ll can and pickle the rest to see us through the winter.”

Irene was unsure how it had happened—it had been a gradual evolution, she supposed, a role she’d gravitated towards as one of the older members of the community—but she secretly liked it when the younger folks looked to her for guidance or expected her to provide all the answers. 

When she was younger, if anyone had suggested that this might be where she ended up, in her hometown of Silverdale, Washington, harvesting fruit for the winter and discussing her famous pumpkin pie with the end-of-fall feast in mind, she’d have dismissed it without a second thought. Irene learned all her traditional skills from her grandma, who maybe envisaged more than she ever let on. Baking. Sewing. Knitting. Young Irene had the patience to learn such hobbies, because while she was sitting quietly with Grandma inside the cozy house, she didn’t have to worry about friendship groups that she was always too intimidated to wriggle her way into. Jigsaw puzzles: another pastime high on the older woman’s list of favorites. She loved to read too, and it scared the life out of her to think that once she exhausted the supply of books in the local library, she’d never again experience the joy of reading the first page of a new story.

Sylvia glanced at the Olympic Mountains with their snowy hats in the distance and shivered as she reached for one of the larger pumpkins. “There’s a bite in the air already,” she said, eyes lowered. “I don’t remember it being this cold this early last fall.”

“Well, I recall adding a little extra spice to the soup when I prepared the first batch.” Maybe this was why Irene was a natural matriarch—she didn’t pander to the whims and worries of the youngsters. “Whatever comes our way, we’ll deal with it together, same as we always do.”

She nudged open the barn door with the heel of her boot and inhaled deeply as she stepped inside. Irene loved it when the barn was filled with the food they’d cultivated during the summer. Even if she closed her eyes, the smell of earthy potatoes, bulbous rutabagas, crunchy carrots, and parsnips, and all the other vegetables and fruit they’d already stored in here ready for winter preparations, filled her with warmth and satisfaction. She’d felt the same way when her son David was a little boy and she watched him devour his favorite meal. Providing food for others was the most gratifying feeling ever.

“I remember mild winters from when I was a little girl. It confused the animals that were supposed to be hibernating, so they didn’t know whether to cozy up or stay awake. Nature has its seasons for a reason.” Irene lowered the pumpkins gently onto the barn floor beside a heap of fat sweet potatoes. “Why do you think all this food harvested in the summer is perfect for winter fare?”

“I guess.” Sylvia shrugged. “I look forward to winter food more. Pies. Soups. Broths.”

Irene straightened and smiled. “That’s just your body’s way of dealing with the lower temperatures. Comfort food. There’ll be plenty of that with this lot.”

They stepped back outside to collect more pumpkins from the truck. The truck’s paintwork was starting to rust in places she noticed, the red over the wheel arches corroding and turning mottled, fiery orange and dank green. Winter colors. 

It was peaceful. The sky was solid blue like a child’s painting, the fir trees tall and majestic, the water smooth as glass. Irene loved the peace, wore it around her shoulders like a fur-lined cloak, buried her head in it sometimes. Like now. She hadn’t been entirely honest with Sylvia. The winters were harsher now, last winter the coldest so far, and she sensed the chill in the air too. But it was all about perspective. They had a barn full of food—well they would have once they finished unloading the pumpkins—a couple of the men were out there now chopping logs for firewood, the whump-whump of their axes as comforting as the peace they were disturbing, so they’d have warmth too. What more could they possibly want?

Sylvia’s face was turned toward the sky. Her nose was pink. She wore a sweater beneath a flannel shirt, but Irene noticed the way her collarbones protruded above the neckline of the sweater, the way her bony fingers twitched in the cold. She couldn’t help herself. She felt responsible for keeping the younger members of the community happy. She still had wool. When she was done preparing food for the end-of-fall feast, she would start knitting a scarf for Sylvia and maybe some mittens. Her patterns were so old that she could barely read the words on some of the pages, or maybe that was because she needed new prescription spectacles, and she’d felt the first twinges of arthritis in her swollen thumbs last winter, but she’d take her time. She might even ask her next-door neighbor Hilda Jo if she could tease a few strands of glitter from some of the cocktail dresses she still clung to in the hopes that, one day, she’d be invited to another party where she could out-sparkle the other guests. Sylvia would appreciate that, she hoped anyway.

They worked up a sweat shifting the cargo from the back of the truck, Irene secretly squeezing the fattest pumpkins and setting some aside to make pie. 

“I remember carving faces out of pumpkins when I was a little girl,” Sylvia said. “Mom would put tealight candles inside and we’d place them all around the house. The scarier the faces, the better. We’d give them fangs and bat wings and everything.” The younger woman’s face lit up with the memories. “I remember she made special spooky suppers. She made me put my hand on a slice of bread so she could cut around it, and then she’d chop off the ends of the bread fingers and trail ketchup from them like blood.”

Irene laughed. “I remember adding red food coloring to soup and floating plastic eyeballs in the bowls to scare David. One time, he must’ve been around six or seven, he dressed up as a zombie to go trick-or-treating, and he refused to take that costume off for a week after.” 

Did that make her son sound precocious? She hoped not. At the time, she’d battled with him to get the tattered costume off and get him into some decent, clean clothes for school, but her memories were rose-tinted now, and all she could see was his chubby face and his perfect smile and how she’d pretended to be scared when he gave her his best zombie impression. 

Sylvia picked up on the older woman’s reminiscing. “My mom dressed me up like Wednesday Addams one time,” she said. “Bought a black wig with long black pigtails and dressed me all in black, then she made me promise not to speak or smile or react to anything. I just had to stand dead straight when I knocked on folks’ doors and stare them out until they got spooked and handed over some candy.”

Irene faced her, adding a tiny pumpkin to the pile in the other woman’s arms. “Did it work?”

“I think so. I remember my mom laughing all the way around town and telling me that I was destined for the stage.” Sylvia waited for Irene to gather a pile of pumpkins into the pouch that she’d made from her jacket, before heading back inside the barn.

Maybe that’s what they were missing, Irene thought. Why couldn’t they combine the feast with a Halloween celebration? They could spare some of the smallest pumpkins for decorations, and she was certain Hilda Jo would want to jump on the bandwagon and provide the costumes and makeup if it gave her a chance to shine. Sure, things had changed, but it didn’t mean they had to give up on whatever made them happy. Life was still for living, right? Or else, what was the point?

She didn’t say anything to Sylvia in case the others dismissed the idea without a debate, but she could picture it already, the feast alive with flickering candlelight, the table heavy with hot food, and flowers, and even some of the mayor’s wine. She might even carve hand shapes from toasted bread, like Sylvia said her mom used to do, just to put a smile on the young woman’s face.

Smiling to herself, she finished unloading the truck.

🔴 Read Chapter 2 - In the Meantime

With the truck emptied, the two women set about chopping up the pumpkins. Irene had brought a large basket from home, and it soon began to fill with large chunks of juicy flesh. Setting the seeds aside for replanting, they discarded the stringy parts of the flesh to leave out for the wild animals to feast on. Irene was a firm believer in making everything count, and the creatures were only trying to survive too, so why shouldn’t they get their own end-of-fall feast? She’d already prepared the jars for canning. They sat in a row on her kitchen counter, spanking clean, and waiting to be filled. 

She loved the sight of jars filled with preserved food. Was it human nature? The world was filled with all these wonderful fruits and vegetables, in glorious reds and oranges and yellows and mauves, and the hours she spent filling the glass containers with food that she knew would see them through the winter were some of her happiest. She felt like a squirrel admiring a stash of nuts, knowing that she’d still be happily full when the world outside turned white.

Sylvia, she noticed, was a little squeamish when it came to chopping the fruit, flicking the seeds from her jeans, and picking the stringy flesh up between thumb and forefinger like it was something toxic.

“Get stuck in,” Irene said. She gave the younger woman a demonstration in how to get the best of the firm flesh. “Don’t be afraid of it. It won’t bite.”

The barn gradually filled with the sweet pumpkin aroma. One thing she had to say for nature, it always came through when humans needed it most.

“Careful!” A voice reached them from the barn entrance. “Almost got me.” The woman pulled a pumpkin seed from the red bangs framing her immaculately made-up face.

“Sorry.” Sylvia smiled up at the new arrival and immediately set about picking stringy orange flesh from her clothes and rubbing away the damp patches.

Hilda Jo had that effect on people. Even now, after everything, Irene had never seen the woman leave the house without lipstick and mascara, and who knew how she kept her hair that precise shade of red-with-a-hint-of-gold. She liked to imagine her neighbor brewing a red potion in the dead of night, a veil of cloying, devilish mist floating around a heavy, black cauldron … but maybe she was doing Hilda Jo a disservice. Maybe she was a natural redhead as she claimed to be.

“You could always help instead of standing there making the place look untidy,” Irene said. She brought the cleaver down heavily on a chunk of pumpkin and took pleasure in making the other woman jump. 

“I’m looking for George,” Hilda Jo said.

Irene peered around the barn and lifted the largest pumpkin that remained to be cut up, gazing at the empty space underneath. “Nope. Not seen him anywhere.”

Hilda Jo rewarded her with a dazzling smile. Irene bet she’d been perfecting it in front of a mirror since she was old enough to talk. She could imagine the other woman as a child, stamping her dainty foot and demanding attention. Irene was born and bred in Silverdale, but Hilda Jo was raised on a farm in Kentucky, the only daughter of a horse breeder and an actress. She claimed to have six older brothers who taught her how to knock out a man with one punch by the time she was thirteen and milk a snake so that she could suck the poison from a deadly bite and cure it in the blink of an eye.

Irene didn’t believe the stories no more than she believed the hair color was natural, but others seemed to cling to Hilda Jo’s every word. Even now, Sylvia had abandoned the slimy knife she was holding and was watching the other woman, wide-eyed, taking in the clean, ivory pants, and the tasseled jacket that resembled an outfit from a glitzy, Vegas cabaret show.

“Very funny,” Hilda Jo said. “My, what is that smell?”

Irene instinctively tilted her face and sniffed. “What?” she said. “What is it?”

Hilda Jo wrinkled her nose, taking care not to reveal too much of her nostrils, and said, “Oh, silly me, it’s the pumpkins. I’ve never gotten used to that sickly stench. It’s quite overpowering, isn’t it? It’s a wonder you two can breathe in here.” She turned away so that she was facing the outside, leaned against the doorframe, and made an exaggerated gesture of sucking in great gulps of air. 

Irene rolled her eyes. Always the actress; it was a wonder everyone still fell for it. 

Sylvia laughed, her features coming alive. “What will you be making for the end-of-fall feast?” she asked.

“I’ll be making my sweet potato pie as usual.” The redhead’s smile was back. “You can’t beat ‘em. Everyone said so last year.”

“Everyone?” Irene’s eyes narrowed. 

That wasn’t how she remembered it from last fall. Same as it wasn’t how she remembered it all through the winter either; everyone loved Irene’s pumpkin soups. And her pickled squash chutneys. The pear chutney always went as a treat over the holiday season, but she’d deliberately saved the new recipe, the squash and plum chutney, for the Christmas meal the community came together for. She recalled the praise she’d received as they stuffed themselves on George’s mature cheese and Irene’s squash chutney along with Hilda Jo’s spicy biscuits. “Crisped to perfection,” was the comment most bandied about. She’d had several glasses of wine by this point, but she was almost a hundred percent certain they’d been talking about the chutney and not the biscuits.

“I think the cleared plates were the giveaway.” Hilda Jo examined her fingernails which were perfectly coordinated with her hair and lips as though she were headed for a night on the town and was waiting for a stretch limo to pull up outside. 

Irene shook her head. She shouldn’t bite; she promised herself each morning when she opened her curtains and saw Hilda Jo’s curtains still closed, that she wouldn’t bite again, that she’d allow the woman’s words to wash right over her and act like she hadn’t even heard them. Then Hilda Jo opened her mouth and somehow, she couldn’t stop herself being sucked right in. “The pumpkin pie plates were all cleared too.”

“The birds have to eat something, poor little dears.”

“I love both pies,” Sylvia said, her gaze flitting between the two older women. “I’ll take a slice of both with cream and brown sugar. Dad will too.”

“You’re a honey.” Hilda Jo blew her a kiss. “Maybe we should set ourselves a little competition. See whose pies get eaten the fastest.” She arched her perfectly tweezered eyebrows. “What do you say, Irene?”

“Bring it on.” Irene had heard the phrase used by the Perez kids; she wasn’t entirely sure if it was appropriate right now, but it seemed to fit the purpose, and the words were out before she could stop herself.

Sylvia chewed her bottom lip. “Will there be a prize for the winner?”

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll think of something,” Hilda Jo said.

“Perhaps I can make a crown for the winner.” Irene was thinking of a whimsical ring made from dried grasses and twigs, pretty daisies and tiny, blue cornflowers woven amongst them. The headdress conjured up childhood images of fairies and sprites, toadstools and wishing wells, and the magical cupboard that led the Pevensey children to Narnia.

“I have just the thing.” Hilda Jo smiled at them. She’d still not set foot inside the barn as if the pumpkin scent had created an invisible barrier preventing her from coming any closer. “It’s the cutest tiara once worn by Grace Kelly in an old 50s movie.”

Irene puffed up her cheeks and then, when she realized that Sylvia was watching her, tried to smooth the action into a smile. “How do you know it was worn by Grace Kelly?”

“My ma bought it from a vintage shop. It came with a written guarantee.”

“So do a lot of things,” Irene mumbled. 

“It sounds awesome.” Sylvia was still wide-eyed.

“You’ll be helping me make the pies?” Irene asked her now. 

If it meant the younger woman got to feel like Grace Kelly for a night, she supposed it would be worth allowing Hilda Jo her moment to gloat over the tiara. Come to think of it, Irene wasn’t even convinced that Hilda Jo made her own sweet potato pies. She claimed the recipe had been handed down to her by her grandma, but the woman claimed a whole lot of things that were equally as unbelievable; what did she do with all those rings and bracelets while she was elbow-deep in flour?

“Sure,” Sylvia said, sounding even less sure than she’d been when they first arrived at the barn. “I was going to ask if you’d teach me how to make corn husk dolls for the table too.”

Irene’s shoulders relaxed a little, and she smiled at the young sandy-haired woman. If her fingers weren’t covered in pumpkin pulp, she’d have hugged her right about now. “It would be my pleasure.”

Hilda Jo eyed up the basket and the remaining pumpkins scattered around the two women. “Here’s an idea,” she said. “Why don’t we combine the end-of-fall feast with a Halloween celebration? We could carve pumpkins—if you can spare some of course—and, Sylvia, you could help me make some lanterns to string around the picnic area. We could all dress up in costumes. I have the most authentic witch’s cloak you ever did see in a trunk in my attic. I once played a sexy witch in a stage production of—”

“I was going to suggest a Halloween celebration myself,” Irene interjected.

“Well, then, I’m glad I beat you to it. It’ll be so much fun.” Hilda Jo was still grinning as she left the two women in the barn and went to retrieve the promised costume from her attic.

🔴 Read Chapter 3 - In the Meantime

At home, Irene was in her kitchen preparing the pumpkin for the pies. She’d been replaying in her head, the conversation between her and Hilda Jo that occurred in the barn, still trying to figure out how the woman had manipulated yet another situation to make it seem that she was the creative one. Had she overheard Irene and Sylvia discussing Halloween? No, she couldn’t have because they were still carrying the pumpkins into the barn at that point, and there was no way Hilda Jo would’ve kept quiet for so long before she felt the need to interrupt them. She must’ve noticed that Irene had set some of the smaller fruits aside for Halloween decorations. That was it. Irene only had herself to blame for not speaking up sooner. It was the story of her life.

She opened the cabinet above her head and located a small glass jar, right at the back of the shelf. It was her secret ingredient. Cardamom. Unlike her neighbor’s fanciful stories about family recipes and tiaras worn by real-life princesses, this trick had been handed down to Irene by her mother-in-law. It would’ve worked a whole lot better if she could get hold of some fresh vanilla pods, but there was nothing she could do about that. Her only consolation was that, if she couldn’t get vanilla, neither could Hilda Jo. 

Irene’s husband Bill used to love her pumpkin pie. Maybe that’s why the recipe was so precious to her. She smiled to herself and inhaled the spicy aroma with the freshly added ingredient. Her husband would come home from work, walk into the kitchen, and close his eyes in anticipation when he realized that his wife had been baking. She closed her own eyes, remembering. 

They say that if you want to sell a house as a home to a prospective buyer, you should have coffee brewing and a pie baking in the oven when they arrive to look around. There had to be some truth in that, she thought. Even though she’d not yet put the pies in the oven, she could already smell the sweet aroma and was instantly transported back to when her son David was a growing lad. 

He was into his sports and athletics. He never stopped moving. Fidgeting, climbing, running, spinning around. When he was at kindergarten, Irene had worried that he might have an underlying condition, ADHD, or something similar; not that she wanted to put a label on it, but he simply found it impossible to keep still and his attention rarely lasted longer than a few minutes unless he was performing a physical activity. She’d gotten him into every sports club that she could afford to send him to, and he excelled at everything. 

She remembered how proud of himself he’d been when he won his first medal in gymnastics. “I’m going to compete in the Olympics when I’m older,” he’d said, his beautiful face already smiling at the image of him standing on a podium, receiving his gold medal. 

Tears welled in her eyes, and she sniffed loudly, dabbing her face with the hem of her apron. He was eleven when he was hit by a car. Too young. His left leg was shattered, and they’d had to pin it back together again with metal plates and steel pins. He always joked that his leg set off the alarms in the airport whenever he traveled; he even carried his medical records around with him to prove that he wasn’t trying to smuggle an illegal item onto the flight. It didn’t stop him though. He transferred his passion to sailing. 

Irene slid open the second drawer of the cabinet beneath the floury counter and pulled out a picture of David standing beside the two-person sailing dinghy he was traveling in when the apocalypse hit them. He was with Gabe, his best friend from middle school who’d remained his closest friend all through high school, and college, and beyond. They were traveling around the Bahamas. 

She traced her son’s face with her fingertip. She’d not even worried when he announced their plans for the summer. He’d been sailing competitively for around ten years at that point, since he was fourteen, and he’d traveled further than the Bahamas on his own, so when he told her that Gabe was going with him, she imagined a summer of island-hopping, one spectacular panorama to another. Beach parties spent chasing the sunsets. Snorkeling. Scuba diving. Swimming with sharks. She’d kissed them both goodbye without ever knowing that would be the last time she’d see them.

Would she have acted differently if she’d known? 

If someone had said to her “Irene, you’ll never see David again, so what do you want to say to him?” would she have begged him not to go?

She didn’t think so. But David was the reason why she’d never left Silverdale. What if he came back tomorrow and discovered she was gone? He’d have no way of tracing her, and she’d never be able to live with that. She had to live in hope—what else did they have?

Sometimes, she saw the way some of the others watched her, especially when they came together as a community and reminisced about the days before everything changed. She didn’t need anyone to spell it out. She knew the chances of David returning were slim, but they were not zero. Even if they were, she’d still be here, she thought, but her neighbors didn’t need to know that. 

The spores that killed most of the world’s population circulated around the planet from the ocean. She wasn’t in denial. She’d avidly followed the news her entire life, taken an interest in politics, in world affairs, in climate change. So, when ecologists announced that they’d developed a fungus to clean up the oceans of oil spillages and the tons of plastic that was killing marine life, she’d spent hours poring over articles baring the pros and cons of the procedure. Scientists declared that it was harmless to marine life and humans. Not entirely without risk, but was anything? They’d tested the fungus. The results were nothing short of miraculous, although they were vague about the figures, the different media outlets providing conflicting information aimed to confuse the general public. Until the miracle became something else. The new miracle, one that the scientists hadn’t predicted was that, out of a population of almost 350 million, only a couple of thousand people possessed a natural immunity to the spores that drifted inland from the ocean. Everyone else died from the subsequent respiratory infections. Her husband Bill was a casualty of the apocalypse. Same as Hilda Jo’s third husband Dirk. 

Yet Irene and her neighbor were both immune. They had no way of discovering what made them any different to the people who died, but Irene clung desperately to the hope that whatever she had was genetic and that she’d passed it onto David. He had his dad’s eyes, that was undeniable, but he’d inherited every other feature from his mom. Each morning, before she climbed out of bed, Irene kissed the framed photograph of David that sat on her bedside table and prayed that he’d inherited her immunity. “Please, God,” she whispered, “if I gave him anything, please let it be that.”

Most people had migrated away from the coastal areas, hoping to avoid the toxic spores inland. But Irene stayed. Hilda Jo stayed because she refused to leave her horses behind; the woman had a heart buried somewhere beneath the glitzy sweaters and the delusions of grandeur. The others stayed because … well, Irene guessed they all had their reasons. Some she could guess at; others were less obvious. Nonetheless, they’d all come together as a community in a way they never had before the end of the world as they knew it. 

Irene had read many dystopian books in her time, all predicting that, in the event of a catastrophic, global pandemic, humans would turn against one another in a final struggle for power. As if trying to survive would not be difficult enough. But in Silverdale, they’d gravitated together, joined forces to see this thing through, drawing on each other’s strengths and skills, and learning to get along with one another. It was all about gratitude. They were grateful to still be alive. Grateful for what they had. Some, more than others maybe, but she could ignore petty squabbles when she thought about her son. 

There was no one to man the power stations when the apocalypse wiped out the nation’s population, so they’d reverted to the old ways of cooking over wood-burning stoves and powering their homes with individual solar generators. Their cell phones had still worked until they’d not been able to charge the batteries.

So, she had no choice but to stay here and wait for David. Even if she was the last woman standing, she’d still walk down to the marina each evening before sunset and scan the horizon for a glimpse of a sailboat before whispering to the moon to bring him home safely.

Disasters in a Jar Series: Discover individual stories of disaster and recovery ☄️🌊🏚️

Disasters in a Jar Series: Individual Stories of Hope when Mother Nature, Murphy, or Mankind has other ideas.

John Hollie:
"I was devastated when the Wash Out hit. I had just purchased my dream house in a prestigious community, but I lost everything in a matter of days. The flooding was rampant, and the ocean had taken over the land. But it was a man-made disaster that left the world in ruins. And you'll never guess who the culprit is..."

🔴 Read Chapter 1 - John's New Place

“Okay, so I want to show the viewers again how the Earth works.” A diagram zoomed onto a black background and enlarged itself to cover the entire surface. It was simple and covered the four layers of the Earth’s crust.

A man’s voice spoke over the image. “The tectonic plates, when viewed together like this, form the lithosphere. They’re sixty-two miles thick, but are made up of two different crusts, as opposed to one solid crust as you might imagine. We have the continental crust and the oceanic crust. Two extremely different densities which is why they are sometimes caused to shift and which, in turn, causes friction between the plates.” The image on the screen panned back to the expert currently being interviewed by the reporter: a man in a scruffy gray suit, his hair tousled like he’d been dragged straight out of bed and into the studio. He aimed his hands at the camera, side-by-side, lowered his right hand a fraction and then made a sawing motion with them to demonstrate the movement. 

“So, this friction,” the news reader said, “is what’s called subduction?”

“Correct, Penny. Energy accumulates between the plates as they shift. Imagine a spring—what were those toys called that we used to play with when we were kids?”

The camera caught the spontaneous frown on Penny’s face, instantly replaced by the usual smile, and wide, innocent eyes. “Slinkies?”

“Slinkies, yes,” the expert continued, oblivious to the young woman’s reaction. 

John Hollie, watching the news report on his cellphone, smiled to himself as he stirred scrambled eggs in the tin pot on his camping stove. Studio dynamics generally intrigued him more than the report itself—he often wished he’d gone on to study psychology in college—but today’s interview was of particular interest to him, given the events of the past twenty-four hours.

The man pressed his hands firmly together. “Imagine a compressed spring. What happens when I remove my top hand?”

“It springs up?” Penny said.

“Exactly. It springs back into position. Now, when this happens in the ocean, the force of the movement creates a huge wave.”

“A tsunami.”

“A tsunami, correct. These waves can travel long distances. Generally, what happens before a tsunami hits land is that the shallower water slows the wave causing the height to increase. Scientists call this the trough. Water retreating from land is often a sign that a tsunami is approaching.”

Another diagram of the so-called ‘Ring of Fire’ appeared on the screen, the area off the coasts of Chile, Japan, and Indonesia, where earthquakes and tsunamis are most common. This was followed by video footage of a tsunami hitting a coastline. 

Hollie stopped stirring his eggs and watched, open-mouthed. The height of the wave, when you realized that this thing was real and not just a scene from a movie, was terrifying. Imagine that coming at you, he thought. You wouldn’t stand a chance. The footage immediately switched to scenes of mass destruction: buildings flattened, entire coastal resorts underwater, trees and debris being carried along on a torrent of dirty water. 

“There are three main forces behind the movement of the tectonic plates,” the expert continued. 

Penny glanced at the camera and fidgeted in her seat. 

“Let him speak,” Hollie said out loud, realizing that she was trying to hurry the scientist up and bring the interview to a close. “You got him in there for a reason.”

“Basically, it’s all down to gravity.”

Hollie sighed. He was expecting more.

“We all know that heat rises. The newly formed oceanic plates are warm, while the older plates are cooler, which makes them denser, which in turn causes them to sink, dragging the warmer plates down with them.”

“So, this is a natural occurrence is what you’re saying?” Penny asked.

“Climatologists have been warning us about this for years. Decades. We’ve been repeatedly warned that if we didn’t make serious attempts to reverse the damage already caused to the ozone layer, this would happen.” The man’s voice was rising, his words tumbling out as if he realized that the interview was being cut short. “Now, what we’re seeing is a direct result of—”

Hollie’s screen went blank.

He grabbed the phone from his foldaway camping chair and pressed the ON button. His battery must’ve died. A burning smell behind him caused him to drop the phone back onto the canvas seat where it promptly slid off and hit the grass underneath. His eggs were burnt. Hollie removed the pot from the low flame and stirred the lumpy mixture, black flakes getting caught up in the top layer, the part he should’ve been able to salvage. Oh well.

He sat down and ate breakfast straight out of the pan, blowing each spoonful first. Yesterday, he’d jumped in his boat and set off with no destination in mind; he simply wanted time to think, and the boat always helped. It was the reason he’d moved to his new home by Lake Erie in the first place—that, and the project that the universe had sent his way at the right time. He loved being close to the water. It was therapeutic. Relaxing. Some people had dogs—Hollie had his boat.

He’d tuned into the news report because he hoped it might shed some light on what was going on right now. The night before, he’d found a secluded area to moor the boat, read fifty pages of a thriller novel written by his favorite author in bed, his eyelids drooping with the gentle lap of water against the side of the boat, and slept on it, certain that an explanation would’ve at least begun to form in his mind. But he was still bewildered. The scientist hadn’t told him anything that he didn’t already know either.

Hollie’s seat gave him a perfect view of the lake and not a single soul staring back at him. Since relocating here, he’d realized that, in the city, with the relentless noise and traffic and long days spent at work, he’d never truly relaxed. He’d always been in fight or flight mode, shoulders tensed, eyes narrowed. Here, he felt the tension physically draining from him at the end of the day over a cold beer and a plate of nachos. Here, he didn’t have permanent grooves between his eyebrows. 

He hadn’t been out to the islands yet. Maybe in the summer. He closed his eyes, soaking up the sun’s gentle rays, feeling the warmth seeping through his skin. How did some people spend their entire lives in the city? They never got to experience peace of this magnitude, the water rippling onto the shore, the fish nipping to the surface, the birds singing. 

His eyes flew open. The birds had stopped singing. His Spidey senses were switched on, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up, the blood gushing in his ears. 

Then he saw it. The huge wave hitting the land east of where he was sitting, like this were nothing more than a sandcastle being flattened beneath a child’s bucket of water. The pan hit the floor, specks of scrambled egg mingling with the grass. Hollie stood, the camping seat tumbling backward. 

He froze. If he’d not just watched the news report about tsunamis and tectonic plates, he’d have squeezed his eyes shut and told himself that he was dreaming. Tsunamis didn’t happen here. He mentally shook himself. Even if tsunamis did happen here, they hit the coast, they didn’t travel inland before they came crashing down. His breath caught in his throat. If this was a tsunami…

Hollie covered the few steps between him and his boat in an instant, his feet barely touching the ground. The moment his feet touched the deck, he whipped the penknife from his pants pocket and began carving through the mooring rope; he didn’t have time to loosen the knot, and besides, his hands were shaking so badly, his fingers wouldn’t have cooperated. 

With the rope sliced, he started the engine, praying that it wouldn’t stall. It started first time. Hollie pointed the boat away from the wave and hit the gas. He could hear the water crashing behind him like a waterfall. The boat lurched, the prow rising into the air and forcing Hollie onto his back, then it was crashing back down again, mini tidal waves rising above the deck either side of the boat as it landed, saturating Hollie’s clothes.

He wiped water from his eyes with his wet sleeve and grabbed the wheel. A glance over his shoulder, and he could see the gigantic wave foaming into the lake, the domino effect of the force causing another series of waves to lunge his way, while the tsunami kept coming.

There was no time to think about it. An image flashed into his head of the damage this must’ve caused between here and the ocean, and he shut it down. He had to focus. Hollie sensed the wave growing behind him and, knowing there was no time to outrun it, killed the engine, hoping to ride it out like a surfer. He clung to the wheel his knuckles white. 

The wave seemed to dip beneath the boat’s stern and then raise its head like a serpent playing with its prey, knowing it was only a matter of time before it won. The boat was in the air, riding the crest of the wave. Hollie held his breath. Time stood still, and then it crashed down into the water, the entire prow sinking beneath the surface. Still clinging to the wheel, Hollie twisted his body around and dragged himself onto his knees on the flooded deck. He waited for the boat to right itself, water pouring over the windshield. Much more and the boat would go under. He couldn’t think about that. The seconds dragged by as the wave continued surging forward, sucking the boat along with it. It was heading toward the other side of the lake. From there, if it kept going, it would take out the residential areas closest to the water, the properties, the schools, the entire community. 

Hollie started the engine, the motor squealing beneath him, then he turned the wheel. He was facing the north bank; if he could make it across the lake, he could warn people to get away, get to higher ground until this whole thing—tsunami or whatever it was—subsided. 

But the roaring sound coming from the eastern side of the lake filled him with terror. Hollie looked around as another gigantic wave, taller than the first, loomed overhead, blotting out everything but the body of water that again reminded him of a serpent poised ready to strike. He had no time to react. The wave, reaching its highest point above him, suddenly dropped, the full force of the foamy water hitting Hollie’s boat. 

Instinctively, he let go of the wheel and crouched on the deck, arms covering his head. It was a futile move. He felt the boat splinter beneath the weight of the water, and he was plunging down, debris from the boat, planks of timber, the locked cabinet containing the first aid kit, all sinking with him. Something hit Hollie’s head, sending him spinning backward. Arms and legs flailing against the current sucking him deeper and deeper, he ignored the sharp pain in his left thigh, the throbbing in his skull. He had to reach the surface. Had to breathe.

His eyes were stinging. He could see nothing but the remains of the boat hurtling around him as the water dragged it down. Hollie crossed his arms in front of his face as the motor spun toward him, kicking out with his feet to push himself backward, the motor skimming past his chest. His lungs were on fire. He looked up. He needed to reach the surface, but all he could see was water. Debris. Bits of his boat spiraling around him. He tried to splash, his legs and arms numb, and stared up at the surface which was still so far away…

🔴 Read Chapter 2 - John's New Place

Hollie parked his car on the driveway of a large, brick-built house, with wide bay windows and a red tiled roof. He peered through the windshield at the frost clinging to the tiles and the low shrubs lining the drive that sparkled in the morning sunshine. Now that he was here, he realized that it was an image of the house sitting in a snowy garden than had sold it to him, even more than the fact that it was once owned by a famous natural historian. The realtor hadn’t even needed to hard-sell it. Vermilion was a quaint, cozy town bordering Lake Erie. Peaceful. He’d already moored his boat here weeks ago. This was going to be his life going forward: every waking moment of his spare time outside of work spent relaxing in a neighborhood where he wasn’t constantly listening for police sirens.

“Don’t forget to send me pictures once you’re settled. Hollie?” He’d almost forgotten that his PA was still on the phone. “I want to see these spectacular views from your couch that you’ve been raving about for the past few months.”

Hollie smiled at the house, his shoulders already loosening even though he’d be spending the rest of the day helping the movers unload his belongings. “Will do,” he said. 

“By the way, I’ve sent over the information for the new project,” Ann, his PA said, her efficient tone back. “Should be in your inbox now.”

Hollie was a civil engineer, specializing in city areas that were difficult to develop, where the land was unstable, saturated, or prone to movement. Fate had written in his stars that this would be his career path, so it was not a choice he’d ever questioned or regretted. Even as a child, he would spend hours figuring out how to build the tallest, narrowest towers with his Lego bricks. His bridges were always longer than those built by his friends. His fortresses were stronger. His mom always said that when she put his dinner in front of him, he’d try to build something with it first. 

This passion for his line of work was what had prompted him to buy a property in an area that had history, his only real stipulation that it should be close to water and transport links. The first time he drove through Vermilion—he was working on a project nearby at the time—and saw the properties with their naval themes, he felt like he’d come home. He’d done some research. He discovered that Crystal Beach Park was built by a guy named George Blanchat in the early 1900s and named accordingly because his wife thought the sandy beach was like crystals. He read about the beach houses built on the lagoons, the famous ballroom and yacht club, and the history of McGarvey’s restaurant. It was a prime real estate area, and the house was probably a stretch even for Hollie’s decent salary, but somehow, he knew this was where he was meant to be, the instant he saw the ‘FOR SALE’ sign outside the house. 

He was lured here, he told Ann, unsure how else to explain it. 

“Thanks, Ann,” he said now. “The movers are here, gotta go.” 

He ended the call and climbed out of the car. He hated lying to her, but she was one of those people who always seemed like they were starved of company, and if he let himself get drawn into a conversation about his new home, he’d still be talking while the men shifted furniture around him.

Turning his back to the house, he studied the views. The house was built on the street overlooking Linwood Park and beyond that the lake, and even if he could only imagine the lake shimmering in the distance, he’d still have been besotted with the view. The nautical-styled houses and quaint shops. The tree-lined avenues. The whole world moved at a different pace here.

He was still breathing in this new, clean air when the moving van pulled up onto the drive. For the next couple of hours, the two men and Hollie shifted furniture into the house, maneuvering the dog-leg staircase, and putting beds back together. He wasn’t a materialistic person, his love of architecture not extending to the stuff contained inside the buildings. What Hollie did possess though, had been bought with durability and comfort in mind. The squashy sofas. The solid pine closets. The artwork bought, not as an investment, but because he saw something in them that provoked an emotion deep within. 

After the movers had gone, and Hollie was alone in his new house, he spent some time rearranging the furniture to make it look like home, then, satisfied, took some photos on his cellphone to fire through to Ann. He sat in the armchair and peered out of the window. It was a strange feeling, like having one foot in two different worlds. He was sitting in his armchair, and this was his coffee table in the middle of the room with his book The Lost Works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel on top, but he’d only taken the first step of this new adventure and couldn’t even begin to imagine where it would lead him. 

As the sun drifted slowly toward the horizon, Hollie found a pizza delivery leaflet that the realtor had left on the kitchen counter with a hefty amount of junk mail intended for the previous owners. He ordered a pepperoni pizza with extra cheese and, when it arrived, sat at the breakfast bar in the kitchen and toasted himself and his new home with an ice-cold beer.

While he ate, Hollie read through the information that Ann had emailed across, studying diagrams, referring to the brief, checking and double-checking the land reports they’d been given. It was quiet—he’d barely counted half a dozen cars passing by his house, so he found a podcast on YouTube presented by his favorite comedian turned activist and campaigner, Jones Conrad, and switched it on just for some background noise. Besides, the guy talked more sense than most politicians and rather than losing fans with this change of direction, his followers had multiplied, drawn, Hollie supposed, by the comedy he still managed to inject into his podcasts.

Today’s conversation was about climate change. 

Hollie wasn’t paying attention. He heard Conrad introduce a government climatologist called Paul Weathers—no pun intended—smiled to himself and turned the volume down. Climate change had been a part of life since before Hollie was born. It wasn’t that he was desensitized to it, but until the world’s leaders took it seriously and became proactive rather than reactive in their efforts to reverse the hole in the ozone layer, there seemed little anyone else could do other than continue to employ the little changes that would collectively make a difference. There were solar panels fitted to the back of this house. When working away from home, Hollie arrived by public transport and then walked around the city, and he recycled everything that he possibly could. 

Immersed in the land registry documents he’d retrieved from his briefcase, checking that the initial planning application works had covered every eventuality, he didn’t glance at the laptop again until he heard the climatologist mention an event he called the Great Wash Out

“Not to be confused with the Great Wipe Out,” Conrad said.

Paul Weathers gave a half-smile. “Wipe Out would indicate a lack of energy,” he said, his tone deadpan, “or another pandemic. We’ve learned to live with these problems.”

“So have the pharmaceutical companies.” The comedian grinned at the camera.

Hollie shook his head and turned his attention back to the thick pile of documents in front of him. He couldn’t concentrate though. This was the first day in his new home, and it felt wrong to be working when he should be outside exploring his new surroundings. 

He went to the refrigerator and took another beer. It felt good. The last time Hollie had felt this excited was when he got his last promotion; it had been the result of several years’ hard slogging, and even though he knew he deserved it, he didn’t allow the buzz to take hold until he was physically holding the formal letter in his hand. It was the same with the house. The paperwork had been signed and completed weeks ago, but he’d kept his excitement on hold until today. He wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight.

The podcast was still going strong. The climatologist was talking about oceanic tectonic plates and how they were shifting with the effects of global warming.

Hollie swallowed a mouthful of beer and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. Sure, there’d been some coastal flooding around the States in recent years, but nothing to cause mass panic. He tried to recall the last tsunami he’d seen on the news reports, somewhere in Indonesia the previous fall. October, November maybe. He felt bad for the communities affected by these natural disasters, but again, it was out of his hands, and no one would ever understand the true horror of these events until it happened to them personally.

He peered out the window at the trees in his backyard. He’d never owned trees before, not that anyone could ‘own’ a tree in that sense, but until now he’d always lived in apartments. The higher above ground the better. Maybe he would even learn to grow his own vegetables—Ann would be impressed.

He heard the words Wash Out again and turned back to the podcast, leaning against the kitchen counter. Another expert had joined the conversation, a survivalist, who was obviously supplying basic survival guidelines for the listeners. “… make their way to higher ground.”

“What if that’s not an option?” Conrad’s expression was serious. “What about the folks who are a couple hundred miles from the nearest mountain? Should they get a boat? What do you suggest?”

“This is all hypothetical, remember,” the survivalist said. “Paul suggested that there’s been increased movement in the tectonic plates, but we’d have fair warning of any major disaster, right, Paul?”

“What do you think this is?” Paul Weathers had a habit of twisting his head to one side as if he had neck pain, Hollie noticed. Watching him, even from a distance across the kitchen, Hollie couldn’t help twisting his own head.

“No,” the survivalist continued, “I mean an official warning. The government has its own scientists, its own climatologists. You’re employed by the government yourself. So, when you know the tectonic plates beneath the ocean are about to cause a tsunami or, as you like to put it, a Great Wash Out—”

“I don’t like to put it that way,” Paul Weathers said. “That would imply that this is just some banter amongst friends.”

“Okay, so when the government knows the tsunami is coming, they’ll give the country a formal warning. They’ll tell us to get the hell up to those mountains and ride it out, right?”

When the climatologist spoke, his expression was unfathomable, his tone bland. “Get the hell up to those mountains and ride it out.”

Conrad laughed. “Hey, I’m supposed to be the comedian here.” Turning to the camera, he said, “That’s it, folks. Tune in next Friday to the next episode of the Great Wash Out. See you there.”

Smiling to himself, Hollie switched off his laptop, stacked the documents neatly on the counter, and went out to explore his new neighborhood.

🔴 Read Chapter 3 - John's New Place

John was in his kitchen drinking coffee and making pancakes for breakfast when there was a knock at his front door. It was another thing he had to get used to—not listening out for the buzzer to announce the arrival of guests. Smiling to himself, he turned off the heat and went to greet his first visitor.

“Hi, I’m Marsha Collins,” the young woman said. “I live just down the street.” She pointed to her left. She had a wide smile, the kind that got other folks smiling because it lit up her face reaching her eyes and ears and hairline. She was wearing sweatpants and a long-sleeved T-shirt with a smear down the front to which she seemed oblivious.

“Hello, Marsha Collins,” Hollie said, offering her his hand. “John Hollie. I’ve been Hollie since I was a kid, and it’s kinda stuck. Good to meet you, neighbor.”

Marsha wiped her hand on her sweatpants before shaking. “Sorry … kids. One wanted chocolate spread on his toast. One wanted peanut butter and banana. You get the picture.” She waved a hand to dismiss the subject.

“Wow. You’ve got two kids.” 

She didn’t look old enough, Hollie thought. Take away the stained T-shirt, she looked remarkably fresh and unscathed by the whole motherhood thing, not that Hollie was an expert in these matters. Her blonde hair was thick and wavy, the kind of hair some girls he’d dated in the past would pay a fortune for. But maybe Marsha’s was all natural. 

“Four. I know,” she quickly added, “I always get the same reaction. I’m one of those crazy women who had them all a year apart. I always wanted to be a mom, and it seemed the natural thing to do—have them close together so that they’d all grow up looking out for each other.” She grimaced. “That’s what I remind myself when the baby screams because she’s teething, and she wakes the boys up. You ever played with spaceships in the middle of the night? Don’t answer that.” She laughed out loud.

Hollie grinned. The laughter was infectious too. “I was a Lego kid.”

“Oh, we have Lego too. Maybe you should come over sometime and entertain the kids. Only joking. I wouldn’t inflict that on you.”

“I’d love to,” Hollie said before he could stop himself. “They might not like it though. I’m a civil engineer, which kinda makes me a bit controlling when it comes to building stuff.”

Marsha puffed up her cheeks. “Ooh, a civil engineer. You’ll get along with my husband, Jimmy. He loves taking things apart and building them back up again. He works in the boatyard, although sometimes I’m sure he wishes he worked further away.”

His neighbor was like Ann, a talker. Hollie had always been a thinker; even in school he was the quiet kid who only ever raised his hand in class when he was certain he had the correct answer, and by then he was usually too late. He didn’t really fit in with any of the cliques. He wasn’t a jock, which excluded him from the popular group. He wasn’t into science, so the geeky kids never considered inviting him into their group either. Not that it ever bothered him—when he made friends, he was loyal to them, and vice versa. Maybe it was this unobtrusiveness that attracted women who could fill the gaps.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I haven’t even invited you in.” He stepped back and opened the door wide, giving his neighbor space to come inside.

“Oh, no, it’s fine.” Marsha waved a hand in the air again, and Hollie noticed the perfect pink fingernails. “I’ve left Jimmy in control of breakfast, and it can get a bit messy, you know. He’s all right when he’s chasing them around the garden and burning off some energy, but he draws the line at getting peanut butter in his hair and oatmeal kisses.” She giggled again. Hollie guessed that having four kids in four years would make you look for the funny side in everything. 

“Another time then,” he said.

“For sure. I love looking around people’s homes. I bet you’ve got a Starbucks couch placed in exactly the right place for you to admire the view, and some decent artwork hanging over the fireplace.” She raised her eyebrows. “Am I right?”

“A Starbucks couch?” 

“You know, one of those big, squashy ones that you sink into. I can never get out of them unless someone gives me a hand.”

“Surprisingly accurate then,” Hollie admitted.

“I knew it! The couple who lived here before kept it quite traditional, you know. Floral furniture and matching curtains. Tasseled cushions. A gilt-edged mirror over the fireplace.”

Hollie smiled. “And there I was thinking that you were psychic or something.”

Marsha shook her head. “I just like people watching. Speaking of which, the reason I came here was to tell you about the barbecue tomorrow. Jimmy was going to come and speak to you, but I’ve been up half the night, and I just wanted a breather, so I beat him to it.”

“Barbecue?” Hollie prompted.

“The block association. We have a barbecue every couple of months, and always on a Sunday so that everyone can come. It’s a great way for you to meet the neighbors without having to go knocking on folks’ doors for a cup of sugar.” She laughed again. “We’re a nice bunch of people, and we don’t bite.”

Hollie smiled. “Sounds great. What do I bring?”

“A bottle of wine if that’s what you drink. We all chip in for the food, but I’m sure Paddy will find you and fill you in on how it works. Paddy’s the guy who set up the block association after his wife died. I think he needed something to focus on, and everyone was so cut up when Marie died, that we all agreed without even thinking about it. It’s been going strong ever since.”

“Great. I’ll speak to Paddy tomorrow then.”

“I’ll introduce you to Jimmy,” Marsha said. “A word of warning though. Susie from number seventeen will eat you for breakfast if you’re not careful.”

“O-kay. Should I be worried?”

“Depends on whether you like your women glamorous or not.” Marsha went to walk away and then stopped when she reached the edge of the porch. “Almost forgot. It’s in the park. You’ll smell the steak before you arrive.”

Hollie found Paddy overseeing the barbecue when he arrived. He was a giant of a man, broad-shouldered, with ruddy, weathered cheeks and a bushy, ginger beard. His handshake was strong. 

“John Hollie. I just moved to the area.”

“Good to meet you. Patrick McConnell, but most folks know me as Paddy. I swear if someone called me Patrick now, I’d be looking around to find the guy.” He smiled and offered Hollie a plastic cup. “Drink what you like, eat what you like, all we ask is that you pick up your trash.”

“Goes without saying,” Hollie said. 

The guy had a gentle aura—a gentle giant some might say—the kind who was friends with everyone, until someone did him dirty. 

“Make yourself at home. I know I’m biased,” Paddy said, “I’ve lived here all my life, but this is a great community. We’ll welcome you with open arms. Mi casa es su casa, and I genuinely mean that. Any time you got a problem, you come find me, and if I can help, I will.”

Hollie believed him. He liked to think that he was good at reading people, and everything about this guy said that he was genuine.

Paddy clapped him on the shoulder with his large, heavy hand. “Go mingle. Enjoy yourself. Eat. No one leaves Paddy’s barbecue hungry.”

Hollie glanced around. The only person he knew was Marsha, and he couldn’t spot her anywhere. She might be running late with the kids, he guessed. The park was pretty, the kind of place that conjured up images of bandstands and carousels with painted horses and women wearing wide skirts, shielding their faces from the sun with frilled parasols. He saw a group of people around his own age—three couples—the men drinking beer from plastic cups, their partners sipping white wine. He was about to go and introduce himself when a woman appeared in front of him.

“Hi, I’m Susie.” She didn’t wait for him to offer his hand in greeting but reached up and kissed both cheeks. Hollie inexplicably felt heat flooding his face; he wasn’t easily embarrassed, but she’d caught him off-guard. “I saw the movers shifting your furniture. I was going to knock to see how you were settling in, but I didn’t want you to think that I’m forward or anything.”

“Nice to meet you, Susie. I’m settling in just fine.”

“I see you brought red wine,” Susie said, eyeing up the bottle in his hand. “I’m a white wine kinda gal.” She raised her cup to show him. “What do you think of us so far?”

He assumed by ‘us’ she meant Vermilion in general. “Honestly, I love it here,” he said. “Coming from the city, the peace is going to take some getting used to, but it’s the reason I bought the property. Somewhere to unwind close to the lake.”

“City boy, huh?” 

If Hollie had met Susie on neutral territory, he’d have pegged her as a city lass herself. She was wearing tight jeans and a gold shirt unbuttoned to reveal her collarbones and the edge of a black lacy bra. He guessed she was in her early forties even though she looked younger; something about her body language radiated experience. Susie knew how to dress, and she knew what suited her; she was done following trends and trying to be twenty-one again. He liked that in her.

Hollie explained that he was a civil engineer working on city developments. “I’m planning on dividing my time between home and the city when I need to be on site.”

Susie shook her head. “I don’t know how people do that, working away from home. I like my creature comforts too much. Stick me in a hotel room, even an expensive one, and I guarantee I’ll get no sleep.”

The innuendo wasn’t lost on Hollie. He grinned at her. “I sleep like a baby. I guess you just get used to it.”

“Have you had a chance to explore yet?” Susie asked.

“Not yet. Got any suggestions?”

“You must visit the islands, and there are a few great restaurants that you should try if you don’t fancy cooking one night.”

He wondered if she was hinting at maybe going with him one evening. After Marsha’s comment, he’d half-expected to have to fend Susie off while she clawed at his shirt, but if he was honest, he liked her. “Sounds like a plan,” he said. “Let me know when you’re free.”

Susie’s eyes widened. “I will, Mr. Hollie. You just let me know the kind of food you like, and I can show you where to get it.” Her cheeks grew rosy, and she sipped her wine as if to cool them. Hollie wondered if her glamorous image had given her a reputation as a man-eater that she enjoyed perpetuating; he was quite intrigued to find out.

Marsha and Jimmy came over then with their children. The little girl was in a stroller—she wore a pink dress and sparkly trainers and had the biggest eyes Hollie had ever seen. She was the image of her mom. The three boys ran around the small group in circles.

“Jimmy Collins.” Marsha’s husband shook Hollie’s hand, oblivious to the whoops and laughter of his children. “I’m going to count to three,” he said firmly, “and then you’re all going to stop.”

Hollie couldn’t help laughing when he realized Jimmy was talking to the boys. Susie snickered behind her wine glass.

“Sorry. It’s impossible to have an uninterrupted conversation when you’ve got kids.”

“I manage just fine,” Marsha said. 

“That’s because you’ve learned to ignore them.”

“It’s the only way.” Susie winked at Marsha. “Wait till they’re teenagers.”

“Oh God.” Jimmy groaned. “You mean it gets worse?”

Hollie spent the afternoon getting to know Jimmy and Marsha a little better. Susie mingled with her friends, but several times Hollie glanced at her and caught her eye, and she flashed him a dazzling smile. Paddy came over to make sure that he was doing okay, and to explain how the block association worked. Hollie immediately signed up for it—this was home now. By the end of the afternoon, when Marsha and Jimmy had taken their exhausted children home to get them bathed and into bed, and the barbecue had stopped smoking, Hollie felt, for the first time in his life, like he belonged.

House of Light Series: Discover the journey of one stranded family 🏠💡⛈️

"My wife, Onnie, and I are on the run for weeks now. The city we once called home descended into chaos after the fall. We've had no choice but to flee with our son, Sirus, and hope to find refuge elsewhere.As we journey through abandoned towns and desolate landscapes, our hope begins to dwindle. But then, a miracle. We stumble upon a beautiful farm house sitting in the middle of a field, seemingly untouched by the chaos of the outside world. That's when we noticed the lights. It's strange, to say the least.We're soaked to the bone and desperate for shelter, so we take our chances and rush inside, grateful for shelter from the sudden storm that seems to have come out of nowhere.As we explore the house, the mystery surrounding the lights only grows. They seem to be on all the time, even though there's no power source we can see. But we're too tired to think about it too much, and we're just grateful for a roof over our heads. The only problem is, the lights are a beacon and they never turn off..."

🔴 Read Chapter 1 - See the Light

“Monty, I’m tired. I’m tired. I can’t take another step.” The words tumbled out of Onnie Newton’s dry mouth in a rush as she gazed down at her tennis shoes. The tongues lolled out in crumpled angles and the laces were gone, along with a few of the silver rivets. The shoes were once white but were now a shade of smudged dove grey. All of this she barely viewed from the edge of her swelling stomach. She knew there were holes along the edges of her insole, but the frayed ends were behind the toes, and she had not seen them for at least a month from a standing position. She wore a wispy cotton floral navy dress they’d found somewhere in the last town. Pants were no longer efficient; the bands rubbed too much along the line of her belly, creating itchy wide red marks by the end of their daily travels. They walked all day, all week, all month and into a few years since the catastrophe, never staying too long in one place or the next. But they would have to stay somewhere soon…at least for a little while, until the baby came, and that wasn’t far off. She wasn’t sure of the exact date the big event would take place but by the looks of things, in the next few months.

“It’s all right, baby. We need to take a break. Thank you for not pushing yourself this time.” Monty ran a hand over his nearly bald head. Sweat glistened against the dark curly strands. This was his figuring it out motion, a motion Onnie became used to long ago. She watched him scan the horizon, where old houses sprouted like dry wheat. Some held a promise. But promises were often a ploy to get you murdered, a hard lesson they’d so far evaded. 

“It’s midday and the sun is blinding,” Monty said. Then he glanced back and said, “Sirus, catch up, son. You know we don’t like you straggling that far back. It’s not safe.”

“Dad…you’re standing still. We’re not in a hurry. No one’s around. And it’s hot. Can we at least find shade?”

“Don’t. Yell.” Monty’s voice barely contained his ire.

Onnie took a step toward her husband. Her hand reached for his. “He’s just a boy, Monty. He’s doing the best he can for a five-year-old.”

His fingers weaved between hers on contact. He took in a breath and let it out, nodding as he closed his eyes for a moment. 

That’s when she kept hers open and scanned the horizon for any unusual movement. When Monty was off, she was on. They no longer needed to say the words, with a habit established long ago. 

When Sirus met up with them he leaned his head into her side, his slim arm coming up around her belly. 

Both her men at her side, she watched the amber grass waving in the dry wind. With the palm of her right hand, she shielded Sirus’ head from the sun’s harsh rays and beads of sweat formed almost immediately. She said absently, “You need your hat on your head.”

Then, without a response, a moment later she said, “Monty, there’s a house over there in that field by an old barn. There might be a chicken or two strayin’.”

He lifted his head and pulled away, swiping a spray of sweat to the dirt road.

She pointed her arm in the direction of the two-story home engulfed in an overgrown corn field.

His eyes lingered there a moment, then he looked around again at the other options and without a word he adjusted the pack on his back and picked her bag up from the dusty road. “Good a choice as any, I suppose. Come on, Sirus. Help your mom across the field.”

“Is it going to rain?” Sirus said, as he took hold of her sweaty hand.

Onnie looked again at the sky. “I sure wish it would. Even warm rain would cool things off a bit.”

“There’s a cloud over there.” Sirus pointed. “Right over that house we’re headed for.”

“I see that. I didn’t notice it before,” Onnie said, as she began to cross the ditch leading to the field. Monty held out his hand and eased her balance while she traversed the ravine. 

“There’s a deer trail through the field but watch your hands along those sharp, dry stalks. They’ll cut you up if you’re not careful.”

She’d heard this same warning nearly every single time they crossed a field and apparently so had her son, because when his eyes met hers, they rolled slightly. Who taught him to do that, she wondered? They rarely met other children his age and yet this reflex still existed. She couldn’t help but smile. 

“Take it easy here, Onnie. The ground’s uneven,” Monty said, and when she looked up, she saw that he’d stopped in his tracks and then, so did she, halting her son’s next step.

“What is it?” Sirus’ words came in a whisper, sensing something was wrong.

But she didn’t answer as she felt her son’s eyes first linger on her face for an answer, and then he looked to his father, farther down the trail.

She barely moved but her eyes darted from one direction to the other. Should she run, dragging her son with her? And if so, which direction? All she needed was a signal. A signal from her husband. But Monty stood silently twenty feet ahead with his back to her as he stared at something on the ground.

With a hush that dragged on, a dry breeze seethed and clattered thirsty cornstalks together like rushing bees in a funnel. The sound was so eerie that every whisp of hair along her arms stood in silent salute. Her grip on her son’s hand tightened and yet Monty still gave no signal. Ready to bolt, she lifted a handful of her thin cotton dress as a torrent of rain dumped from the sky. And in the sudden darkness, that’s when she noticed the lights brightening the windows of the house beyond the field.

Onnie’s mouth hung open. Wet drops pelted her head, clung to her eyelashes, and yet she could not tear her eyes away from the steady golden beams shining through the squares. There were no flickers from a fire flame. There were only steady lights, firm in their existence. An existence that neither she nor Monty had seen in years.

“What does it mean?” Her voice was full of surprise. 

She found Monty watching her, having lost interest in whatever transfixed him before. His face was dark and vacant, heedless of the rain drenching him. 

“Come on.” Monty’s voice raised over the din, then he nodded in the direction of the house.

Onnie, shook her head. “No,” she began to say but Monty came to her in a rush and grabbed her arm, urging her and Sirus down the path. 

“We need to get out of the rain.” 

“But Monty, we haven’t…” she began and as he tugged her farther, her steps fell onto something firm—not the earth, but something hard and rigid. She looked down but Monty kept her moving and in another two steps she again felt the familiar sponge of weeds beneath her feet and then a sharp sting along her arm where a razor-edged stalk caught her flesh. 

“Mom…what’s that light?” Sirus said.

But there was no time to explain as Monty hauled them both up and onto the steps of a wooden porch as if there was an enemy rushing behind them. Only there was no refuge from the rain there. Stinging darts came in sideways and pelted them from every corner, as if the sudden storm was trying to blind them and shove them through the folds of a knot.

That’s when Monty’s hand landed on the door’s knob. That’s when terror struck through her like a bolt of lightning. Don’t! Don’t open that door!

On the other side, Monty struggled to close the gap against the storm. Leaning all his weight, he dropped her bag to the tiled ground and shoved hard against the load as the entrance threatened to defy his effort.

In an instant, Onnie pushed her son away as she leaned her weight too against the burden. And then she watched as Sirus added his own effort, with both palms pressed against the wood between his parents. The lock finally hit purchase, and everything stopped. 

With the storm finally trapped on the other side, Onnie shut her eyes, shut her mind. Because what they’d just done was unthinkable. 

“Hello?” Sirus said.

Onnie’s eyes flashed open. “What are you doing? There might be someone here.”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out.” 

Monty pulled away and then pulled Onnie by outstretched arms until she stood straight and steady.

“What happened out there, Dad?” 

Monty shook his head. “I can’t say, son.”

But Onnie wasn’t sure what exactly that meant and remembered the hard thing she’d trodden over to get to the house. “What was…”

“Hello? Is there anyone here?” Monty took another step into the foyer on the puddled tile floor.

“It’s cold in here. What are those lights from?” Sirus said, pointing and following his father’s steps.

“No. Don’t.” Onnie reached for her son and pulled him back until his head touched her belly. “It is cold. Is that air conditioning?”

Monty’s hand reached out to still them in place. “I’m going to look around. You stay here.”

Shaking her head, “No. That’s not a good idea. Don’t leave us here.” Panic rose in her voice like a hawk riding the wind.

“It’s just a house, and there’s got to be a generator keeping those lights on.”

“I don’t hear a generator, Monty. There’s no sound. I mean, like no sound. Not an engine. No one’s answering. And the lights? This isn’t right…”

Then he did something she never expected. He turned to her, and he smiled. “Pretty cool though, huh?”

In a whisper, she asked, “Monty…what’s keeping the lights on?”

He looked up at the foyer’s chandelier. “I imagine,” he said as he noticed a lamp shining brightly on a table below a gilded mirror, “it’s some sort of generator. We just haven’t found the source yet.”

“Are we going to stay here, Mom?” Sirus whined.

“No baby. We are definitely not staying here,” she murmured back as Monty attempted to turn off the lamp’s switch.

With a click, he glanced under the shade, the light blinding him.

“Maybe you have to do it twice. I remember sometimes, we had to turn the knob more than once.” She held her fingers in the air as her thumb enclosed an imaginary handle as she turned her wrist.

“I know how to turn on a light, Onnie.”

“Can I try?” Sirus asked.

Onnie pulled him back by the end of his shirt. “No. You will not be touching that light. Sit right here by the door with me.”

By the time Onnie asked, “Are we sure there’s no one in the house?” Monty had rotated through twelve more clicks and still the light refused to even dim.

He stopped and looked at her. “I’m sure they would have introduced themselves by now.” He sat the lamp back down. “Well, I don’t know.”

“Maybe unplug it.”

Monty nodded. “Should have thought of that. Wait, there’s no cord attached to this thing. Why isn’t there a cord?” He looked at his wife as if she might have the answer. “Babe, just turn off the switch to that one,” he said, pointing to the overhead sconce above their heads.

She turned to the wall, ran her hands behind the entrance’s wispy curtain and pulled the fabric away from the wall, revealing no control switch for the light. “I would if I could find the switch plate. Monty, this is just too weird. I don’t like this place. The storm sounds like it’s over. I think we should leave.”

Monty looked at his family and nodded. “Okay. I guess you’re right. I liked the idea of sleeping indoors tonight. Sirus, pick up your mom’s bag. Maybe we can stay in the barn. It’s probably dry there, at least for the night.”

“I’d rather find another farmhouse,” she said as she tried the door handle. But as soon as she twisted the knob, the abated storm revived once again. 

Monty slapped his hands against the door above her head, sealing it to the jamb. “No way. I’m not taking you out in that.”

“I couldn’t hear it a second ago.”

“Probably good insulation. This place doesn’t look old. At least we can stay one night, Onnie. If there was someone here, they would have torn down those steps by now.”

“These lights didn’t turn on by themselves, Monty. Someone lives here and they’re going to be pretty upset when they find us in their house. Maybe they’re out scavenging.”

“You think maybe they’re away? And they just left their lights on in midday, when no one’s seen electric lights without a generator in over a decade?” Monty asked.

“I don’t know what’s going on, babe.”

“What I know is that we’re not going out there until that storm passes. Not in your condition. Let’s look at the rest of the house and make sure it’s empty and then we’ll camp out near the door if that makes you more comfortable.”

“Turning off these lights would make me more comfortable,” Onnie mumbled under her breath as she followed Monty and her son down the long, narrow hallway where another wedge of light beamed an angle across the hardwood floor. With her heart drumming above the child she carried, Onnie willed calm from her nerves by taking long, slow breaths and distracting herself from her rising fear by studying the oil paintings lining the walls. One was a long rectangle still life of creamy gold dahlias above a striped bowl of rusty grapes. Another was of cows lolling in a tawny field before a dilapidated barn. When she stopped, her family did as well. She braced the heels of her hands gently on either side of the cow painting while running her slender fingers behind the frame. She gave it a little lift and pulled the painting from the wall. Turning it over, she found an ordinary sawtooth hanger and on the wall, ordinary zinc nails. 

“What are you looking for, Momma?” Sirus said and Monty’s expression seemed to ask the same question.

She shook her head a little as she returned the art piece to its home. “I’m not sure. This place is strange. I almost expected it to be stuck to the wall.”

Monty patiently waited, as one does when humoring a loved one. 

On the left, a wide arched entrance gave way to a living room holding a large crushed red velvet couch on mahogany claw feet. 

“What is it, Momma?”

She took a few slow steps into the room, nearing the sofa. “Son, it’s not as if you haven’t seen the inside of a house before. It’s a couch.”

“It’s just, there’s no dust. No spiders spinning webs or trash lying around. Someone cleaned in here?”

“The boy’s right. No dust anywhere.” She turned to Monty then. “You sure there’s no one here? This house…”

“I’m not sure. Look…you stay here, and I’ll do a quick search. Sirus, stay close to your mother.”

And before she could object, say that they should stay together…he was gone. His boots quickly thudded up the small wooden staircase to the floor above. 

“Come stand by your mother.” Onnie reached for her son and knelt, finding herself suddenly sitting on the very edge of the velvet sofa with her son leaning into her embrace.

Monty’s steps pulled her attention to the ceiling, where the bulbs of a wide mini-chandelier softly beamed above their heads. The steps’ cadence deepened then retreated into the distance, and then a door slammed hard against a jamb.

Sirus jerked in her arms. “Momma?”

She pulled her son away and scanned the ceiling. 


Lifting from the seat, she called, “Monty?”  Her voice was a near-scream. Her grip tightened on her son’s thin wrist. Should she take him and flee into the storm? There was an unsteady feeling in her legs. She knew if something had her husband, it was unlikely they’d make it to the door in time. In her right hand she unknowingly squeezed the hilt of the knife handle she kept in her pocket. The sharp blade sprang out.


This can’t be happening. “Mon-ty!”

A thunder of tumbled steps. “What? What is it? Why are you screaming?” He stood there staring at her with wide eyes, scanning the room, his pistol in his hand. 

Their son sobbed, his eyes covered, his fists full of her navy dress. 

She was crying, too. “You didn’t answer!”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.” He neared them and circled his arms around them both, with the weapon pointed to the ground.

She felt the racing thrum of his heart through his damp shirt.

He kissed and soothed the top of her head. “Everything’s okay. Just like the storm outside, I think the upstairs is just as insulated. I just didn’t hear you.”

Her emotions barely contained, shoved down again into the silent box, but not trusting herself yet, she still managed to say, “It’s okay.”

He pulled away and replaced the unknowing expression with a smile. “There are clean and made beds upstairs, blankets and all. And there’s a small basement off the kitchen but nothing in it. Not even a utility room.”

“Lights?” Her eyebrows scrunched together like furry caterpillars greeting one another.  

“All on. No cords. No light switches. I don’t know what to make of it.”

“The kitchen?”

“Right this way, madam,” Monty said, his arm outstretched, and lifted his son up with a murmur. “It’s okay, buddy.” 

Monty’s hand swayed against their son’s back as the light from the small kitchen beckoned her like a dream of memories past. She was suddenly a little girl, remembering her mother standing by the stove in their Upper West Side condo. Gingersnaps with a warm chai latte in the winter. Lemony salmon orzo salad and iced tea in the summer. Of course, it wasn’t her mother’s modern city kitchen. All stainless appliances back then. Sleek and simple. This one was a soft ochre yellow and though the stove looked old fashioned, it also looked unused – as in never used. Not once. She glanced a question at her husband as she placed her hand on the refrigerator. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Don’t start crying again.”

“Does it work? Did you check?”

He shook his head no.

“Open it, Mom.”

She pulled the handle away from the seal. 

“Is there anything in there?”

She opened the door wider for her family to see the gleaming cavern. The glass shelves were sparkling and empty. The crisper drawer, void. But she smiled as a cool cloud lifted to her face, chilling her arms. The bulb in the back was bright and glowing.

Her husband, curious, sat his son down and angled his head around to the back of the adjoining cupboard where the appliance met the wall, and then slowly pulled away.

“No outlet, huh? Not one of those big ones?”

He shook his head. “Not even one of those.”

“I don’t hear a hum, either. Do you?”

“No hum.”

“Why would it hum?” Sirus asked.

She didn’t answer.

Monty began flinging open cupboards.

Sirus said, “Is there food? I’m hungry.” 

“No food. But there’re plates and silverware, pots, and pans. All looks brand new to me. Like they’ve never been used. And the stove’s electric and not gas. I’m sensing a pattern here.”

“Maybe there’s a logical explanation for all of this but at the moment my bladder will not hold much longer.”

Monty pointed to a small room across the hall. “You can’t miss it. The one with the light on.” Her husband, who never cracked jokes, was suddenly funny. 

“Don’t go anywhere,” she warned them with a raised eyebrow. Across the hall, she met herself in a well-lit mirror. The image staring back at her was her mother’s, not her own. And she needed to redo the worn halo braid since it now appeared more like a crown of thorns. I’ll deal with you later. 

It was hard not to stare right at the bulbs in the fixture above the sink. She turned to the wall behind her, looking for the switch, but found none. I bet there’s no plumbing. She lifted the lid to the toilet. A sight she had not witnessed in over a decade stared back at her. Ripples of clean water in a sparkling white ceramic commode. Not a smudge, not a hair, in sight. She couldn’t tear her eyes away. “Monty you’ve got to see this....”

“There’s one just like it upstairs.”

So that’s what took you so long. “It’s mesmerizing.”

“Will you just go and get back in here? I want us in the same room.”

“It actually works?”

He gave a cough and said, “Yes. I was going to tell you but the screaming sort of ruined the surprise.”

Sirus gave a laugh. A sound she longed to hear more of.

Hating to admit it...she watched as the funnel pulled the waste down the drain, unsure of where it was going but happy it disappeared so easily. Life after the apocalypse came with new rules about daily habits that man had long ago lost but learned again.

“There’s even fresh toilet paper on the roll and more under the sink. I did notice pipes…so there must be a water supply and maybe a septic tank?”

“That was my guess as well but I’m still at a loss as to where the power’s coming from. There’s got to be a logical explanation. I looked in the hall closet to see if there was a utility panel but nothing. There’s no garage or any dials of any sort on the walls. Only plumbing.”

“Has the storm settled down? Maybe we can take a look around the house.”

“That’s what I want to do but I’m not leaving you guys in here alone. Looks like it’s down to a trickle. We can handle that. There must be a generator or utility lines somewhere, right? Maybe underground.” 

She raised her shoulders and reached for her son’s hand. “Should we leave the bags here?”

“No way,” her husband said. “We can’t take any chances.”

She nodded. “I’d really love to see the rooms upstairs,” she said as they passed the wood staircase.

“You will…that’s if the house lets us back inside.”

“Oh stop. You’re giving me the creeps.”

“That’s all right. I’ve already got them. We can share.”

Sirus said, “I don’t want the creeps.”

“Nobody wants the creeps, son,” Monty said. “But when you feel them…you pay attention to them. Understand? That’s the animal part of you telling you something’s very wrong. Always trust that feeling.”

“Monty, you just took an innocent remark and made it heavy. Why’d you do that?”

Monty lowered his voice so that Sirus barely heard. “Because our son can’t afford his innocence. Not in this world. We must take every opportunity to teach him to survive. Even the sweet ones. I’m sorry if that’s hard but it’s the truth. We can’t let this house take us back to something that might get us killed. We’ve made it this far. Okay?”

His dark eyes beamed into hers. She swallowed and whispered, “I understand.”

He nodded and then opened the door to the farmhouse porch. They stepped out into the gray as the rain poured in sheets over the eaves. 

“That was some downpour. Looks like it’s clearing up.” Monty slung his backpack over his shoulder while Onnie closed the front door and Sirus manhandled her bag along with his own to keep it off the ground as they descended the steps. Monty stood in the rain and shielded his eyes as he surveyed the house. Then he pointed and said, “There’s a utility pole to the left. Y’all stay within sight while I check the connections. Remember what I said, son?”

“If you can’t see me…I can’t see you,” Sirus repeated the familiar phrase.

Onnie made her eyes wide for a split second. She knew the importance of security all too well. Her sister and her family were killed by raiders right in front of her eyes a few years ago, and that’s why they’d left Minneapolis and sought refuge west into North Dakota. Their plan was to keep moving. Never stay in one place too long, or let people know your name. It was safer that way. Nomads made few enemies as long as they kept to themselves. But when she found out she was pregnant again, their plans had to change and here they were looking to stay for longer than a few nights. A few months would give them time to heal and set out again. She hoped this was the place. Watching her husband inspect the utility pole, she glanced at the bedroom windows on the upper floor. There were made beds with clean sheets in there. She didn’t want to see them if they weren’t staying. That would be cruel. As it was, she couldn’t get the clean bathroom out of her mind. There was a clawfoot bathtub in there too…

Then a jerk of a hand caught her attention. Monty yanked at a few wires again. He pulled one up.

“What is it, Daddy?”

Monty stared at the stripped end. His face was cocked up on one end and not on the other. He dropped the wire and stood up. “I don’t know what to make of it. There’s no power going to the house. These wires were never hooked up.”

“It’s just for show?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I think so.” With his hands on his hips, he turned to see where the utility poles ran to the next farm. “I don’t know.”

“What about the water? There’s got to be a pump, right?”

“Yes, and apparently, it’s working well.”

“Is there hot water…no, there can’t be,” Onnie answered her own question. With the tub still on her mind, she could not imagine what it would be like to have a hot bath for the first time in years and her son…he’d bathed in frigid rivers and cold tubs of abandoned houses when they could find one, but he’d never experienced in all his young life the luxury of a warm bath.

He nodded. “I checked in the kitchen. There’s hot running water.”

“So there’s got to be a hot water heater somewhere in the house. That takes electricity or gas, right?”

“Yeah. Want to bet which one?”

“It’s starting to rain again, Mom.” Sirus held his hands out with his small palms up as if receiving a blessing from the turbulent sky above.

“I know it, honey. I can feel the drops pelting my head.”

With another scan of the horizon, Monty led them back into the house and at first when Onnie put her hand on the knob, she wasn’t sure if the door would open for them again. But it did and she smiled.

With her eyes lingering on the promise above the staircase, Monty closed the door with a click. “It’s getting late. Let’s clean up and have a bite to eat before bed.”

She shook her head. “We only have a can of sardines and a few rolls of crackers left, remember.” She looked at her bag in her son’s hands. “And I’m sure those crackers are crumbs by now.

“Then it’s smashed fish heads and crumbs for dinner,” Monty said with a flair that made her smile. She knew he was trying to be more upbeat in front of their son than before. It was always a fine edge, the warning way of life and surviving. One often forgot how the not dying was a gift.

“Are we sleeping upstairs?” Onnie asked as she took the bag from her son.

“I don’t think so. Let’s just camp here in the foyer for the night and see how things go. I don’t want us getting too comfortable. Whoever owns this house could still show up, even though it doesn’t appear that anyone lives here. It’s more like a model home. Maybe that’s it. Some kind of building spec?” Onnie spread a blanket down on the hard tile floor and carefully sat down while pulling their things out for a quick meal. 

“Son, go wash your hands in the bathroom,” Monty said and winked at Onnie.

She smiled.

“Why?” Sirus said.

“Because we’re about to eat and that’s what my momma always said when I was your age in a house like this. We scrubbed them under hot water with lots of soap and sang our birthday song twice, so we killed all the germs.”

“You said things are different now after the collapse. Why do I have to wash my hands like that now? Mom wipes them with her special gel.”

Monty looked over his son’s head. “See?” he said with a nod. “If we teach him one way…he’ll forget the other. The one that helps him survive.” Monty gave her a sad smile. 

She knew he was right. This place would make them soft if they let it.

To her surprise Monty stood and reached for his son’s hand. “Come on. I’ll show you how it’s done this time, but you do it Mom’s way all the time. Got me?”

Sirus nodded and jumped up to his feet, having caught the excitement from his father.

She watched them, father and son, quick-stepping as she did as a little girl when her mother would call her to a favorite dinner or the promise of a sweet treat, her little legs jumbling in a thrilling skip.

After wiping her own hands with the antiseptic gel, Onnie waved them for a few seconds, fingers splayed out, until they dried. Then she took out the last of their food supply and mixed the sardines in a bowl and then untwisted a half-eaten package of crackers and turned them into crumbs with the oily sardines. It wasn’t enough for the three of them and the smell suddenly made her stomach churn, but they had to eat. And she was eating for two, a fact her upset stomach often reminded her of.

“We’re done, Mom, look how clean. Do I have to use the gel now?”

“No honey. As long as you washed them well enough, which I know your daddy made sure of since he’s a doctor.” She spread near equal portions out on three small cups and handed them out with one silver spoon each.

As they ate Monty said, “You remember that thing we stumbled into before we made it to the house? It was metal of some sort. Only a few inches off the ground. I didn’t get a good look at it with all the wind and rain, but it had odd markings on it. I couldn’t make it out. I’ll take a better look tomorrow.”

“I stepped on it. I didn’t feel any vibration, but it was only for a second. Do you think it’s a generator?”

“Maybe, but the rain’s picked up again and it’s dark outside.” Monty finished his meal in a few bites and then took out the sanitizing wipes from their utility bag and cleaned his dish.

Sirus handed his to his father and said, “That’s because there are only lights on inside the house. There weren’t any lights on outside the house.”

Onnie looked to her husband with a question, but he gave her the same expression and got up suddenly and looked out the side window by the front door. “The boy’s right. I didn’t notice that there wasn’t a porch light. It’s pitch black out there. I can’t even see the barn from here.”

“Okay, this is getting weirder. Who takes the time to install lights inside a house and not outside?”

“That’s just it…they’re not exactly installed in the traditional sense. They’re just sitting there.” He aimed a hand at the table lamp.

“Well, it’s not magic,” Onnie said and put the clean dishes away. “Sirus, sit down and take off your shoes. Time for bed.”

“I’m taking first watch,” Monty said. “You sleep; you’re tired.”

She gave a sigh. “Monty, I know you won’t wake me up for my turn.”

“We’re not going to argue about this. I’ll wake you if I feel like it’s right. It’s our first night here. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll sleep a little in the morning if I feel it’s safe. Go on now. Settle down and close your eyes.”

She tried. She held her son close under her arm and pulled the blankets up under his chin. “Sleep, baby.”

Monty sat in a hard wood chair by the door with his back against the wall. She smiled at him and sent an imaginary kiss his way through the air. 

He mocked one back.

She lowered her lids and then turned to her side, her belly too heavy against her spin and the hard tile floor.

“Momma, stop moving.”

“Hush,” she said and snuggled him closer.

And after a few minutes, Sirus whipped the thin cover away from his face. “I can’t sleep with the light on. It’s too bright on my eyelids. How did you do it when you were a kid?”

Onnie began to laugh. “What a predicament. Baby, we turned off the lights when we went to bed as a child.”

“Why can’t we turn off these?” Sirus said.

Which gave Onnie an idea. “Can we unscrew the bulbs?”

Monty went to investigate the lamp. “Nope, it doesn’t budge.” He turned the lamp over. 

“Don’t break it,” Onnie said.

“It’s like it’s all one piece, just made to look separate.”

Onnie shook her head. “But you could put it in the kitchen, right?”

Monty rolled his eyes. “I should have thought of that but what about the chandelier?” he said as he walked the lamp down the hallway like he was assigning it a time out.

“I don’t have any answers for that one,” Onnie said. “Do you, son?”

“No,” Sirus said with a huff and pulled the covers up and over his head.

🔴 Read Chapter 2 - See the Light

In the pink-hued undercover ether of sleep, Onnie smelled something funny while her right palm lay warm against the bulge of her belly. As if floating in space, her little voyager’s probing appendage rolled past on its orbit to earth, at the same time the launched one lifted his knee into her back. Adjusting to her children’s whims was easy while lying on a pallet atop a hard tile doorway, but the whim of her near-bursting bladder was a matter she was not able to ignore.

What is that smell? She opened one eye without budging an inch to avoid waking the boy after a fitful night under his first artificial lights. In the back of her mouth, she salivated. Then she immediately pulled the blanket down from her face and took in a big whiff.

The overhead light remained exactly where it was every twenty minutes throughout the night, never wavering in its persistent glow. 

The chair nearby was empty. Where was her husband? “Monty?”

From somewhere within the house, he said sweetly, “Yes, darling?” 

She pushed up on an elbow despite the risk of waking her son, then struggled to her feet as she quickly found her husband in the kitchen with a frying pan over the stove. “Eggs? Where did you get eggs?”

“Shh…you’ll wake the boy.” He smiled at her without answering.

She eyed the pale yellow mounds. “You’ll overcook them. Here, let me.”

“No.” He held her off with a hand and then she noticed the kitchen table set with plates and forks…a sight that nearly brought tears to her eyes.

“Sit,” Monty said.

“I’ll be right back and then you can tell me where you got the eggs,” she said with wide eyes and when she returned, her son sat in one of the chairs at the table with a fork in one fist and with the other he rubbed at his tired eyes while Monty divided the scrambled eggs three ways onto the suspiciously never-used plates.

“Okay, ‘fess up. Where did you find the eggs? Are there more?” Onnie asked, sitting down.

Monty sat, too. “I found a dozen or more. The rest are in the refrigerator in a bowl. Only thing in there. A few hens scattered when I checked out the barn this morning. I didn’t catch them, but I think that would be a great job for Sirus while I investigate this place.”

She smiled at her son while he pushed a forkful of eggs into his mouth. “Sirus the chicken wrangler.” 

Sirus giggled with a mouthful of eggs.

“I’ll help you get them, and we can pen them up while we’re here and collect the eggs.”

“Are we staying for a while?” Sirus asked and held a glass of water to his mouth while Onnie noticed how long his dark eyelashes were. 

She looked at her husband for the answer. 

He eyed her back and lifted both shoulders.

“We’re not sure yet, baby. Eat your breakfast.”

Sirus let out a huff. “If we stay, can we at least cover the lights at night?”

Monty nodded. “Sure. We’ll figure something out.”

“You’re just not used to them, yet. In a week, you’ll wonder what you ever did without them.”

“Sleep better…I bet.” Sirus rolled his eyes.

When she took her first bite, she immediately made a face at Monty and moaned. “Was there salt in the cupboard?”

He shook his head. “I took our supply out of your bag. There’s no food in the house but there’s a lot of abandoned places nearby I can check and there’s fast food outside.” He grinned.

“Fast food?” Sirus asked.

“He means the chickens,” Onnie said.

Monty explained. “Fast food used to mean precooked food they handed you out a window. Now it means food that’s literally fast and you have to chase it down.”

“Why would they give you chicken out a window? Just as fast as going to the door…”

Onnie tried to explain. “Honey, they would make food in a building with a special window, and you would drive up in your car and tell them what you wanted through a microphone, and they would hand you your order. Like going to a restaurant.”

Sirus put his fork down and sat back in his chair. “You mean, you didn’t see them cook your food, but you still ate it?” He scrunched up his nose. “Did you see them use the gel before they touched your food?”

Onnie gave a quick glance to her husband. “No, but things were different back then. The viruses weren’t that bad yet.”

Poking at the last bits of eggs clinging to his plate, Sirus said under his breath, “Maybe that’s why…”

Monty snorted. “There were many reasons for the fall, and they’ve all been debated ad nauseum, but we live for today. And today, you and Mom will wrangle the chickens and I’m going to check out that structure we saw coming in. Stay in sight, please.”

Onnie said, “Sirus…go in the bathroom and clean up. I want to talk to your dad a second.”

Monty shot his eyebrows up and Onnie smiled as her son closed the bathroom door.

“What is it?” Monty said.

“I don’t know if it’s such a good idea to stay here. I mean, this place is weird. The lights? The owners are going to come back and find us here in their home. And not only will we become too complacent with the amenities but also, I mean look…” she lifted her palms and looked around. “The lights will attract others. We can’t turn them off. Do we really want that?”

Monty swallowed. “I hear you. I spent the whole night thinking about this, Onnie. Hear me out before you roll your eyes.” He leaned in closer and whispered, “I nearly lost you. I nearly lost you both when he was born five years ago. I’m not going through that again. And I’m a doctor. I need you in a sterile safe place when you give birth this time. I know we didn’t plan to bring another child into this world, but here we are, and too much can go wrong. We’re not going to find a better place.” He put a steady hand out to stall her next argument. “Just until you and the baby are ready to travel. Then we can move on. If owners show up…we’ll explain.”

The bathroom door began to creak open.

“And I’ll work on turning off the lights,” he added with one finger out as a promise. “I’ll do that today. There’s got to be a power source nearby. There’s got to be a way to turn the lights off at night.”

She cleared her throat, and he gave her a warning look. She just smiled and said, “Sometimes I wish you weren’t a doctor.”

His eyes widened a quick second and he nodded then. He folded his arms against his chest and looked up at her.

She took that to mean that he too wished he didn’t know of all the things that could go wrong. She knew that he meant they’d neared death too many times to skirt the reaper’s grip once more.

“Okay.” She patted his knee. “But at the first sign of danger, we leave.”


Onnie quickly amended before Sirus returned to them, “Oh, and we get to sleep in the beds upstairs.”

Monty smiled. “Don’t push it,” he murmured and then to Sirus he lightened his voice, “Hi, son. You ready to catch the chickens?”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Sirus asked.

“You’re smart. You’ll figure it out. I have my own problems,” Monty said and winked at Onnie as he cleared the table.

Onnie handed him a towel and said, “If you finish here, I’ll be ready in a minute.”

“Oh, I see how it is. I hunt, cook, and clean?” he joked as Onnie got ready for the day and folded up their pallet from the night before. “I wonder how long this place has been here?” she said as she replaced their blankets back into the bag she carried. “There’s not even scuff marks on the doorway from use or where people nicked the banister as they carried things inside. It’s all brand new but made to look like an old farmhouse.”

“I thought about that,” Monty said. “Maybe it was a model home like you said. Some kind of energy efficient house that they left abandoned.”

Onnie said, “That would explain some things…if we could figure out what powered it.”

“What about the barn? Someone used the barn. It’s old,” Sirus said pointing as they walked out on the porch. 

“Every lock has a key…except this door doesn’t appear to lock,” Monty said after handling the doorknob, and then he gave up and clomped down the porch steps, shaking his head. “Remember, stay within sight. I’ll be right over here. Good luck hunting, son.”

Onnie waved at Monty as if he was leaving them for his daily work commute and not only walking the distance of two blocks away through a summer dried field.

“This won’t be hard,” Sirus said.

“You’re sure that pillowcase will do the trick?” Onnie asked.

And as if he were a grown man and not a five-year-old little boy, he replied, “That’s my first attempt.”

“Remember, they might scatter if you scare them. Then the task will take all day.” Onnie rolled the sleeves up on her dark blue dress, noting that she needed to look for soap in any of the cupboards to clean their laundry. In fact, she wondered if a washer might be hidden somewhere in the house. Surely not a dryer? Monty never mentioned a set in the basement.

“How do you think we should do it?” Sirus asked as they came to a stop in front of the old barn, where both the big front door and the back door lay broken in pieces and parted. A chicken, the color of a French fry, pecked at the ground in the light at the end of the tunnel.

The low morning sun hid like a glistening yolk behind a fluffy blanket of rumpled white clouds. “What is this we stuff? I thought this was your job. I’m just the assistant. Look, it might rain again today. We should get this done quick.”

Sirus handed her the pillowcase. “Can you hold this? Why do you have a hanger in your hand?”

“It might come in handy,” she explained and bent the head to uncoil the wire until the cable was relatively straight. Then she took a quick glance over the field and spotted Monty about to bend down to something in the field. “You think you’re just going to walk up to the chicken and pick it up like a puppy?”

“Why not? Then I’ll put them in the pillowcase so they can’t get away.”

She smiled. “Look, there’s at least ten of them back there. I’ll stand over here in case they try to run this way. Let’s try to get three. Put your hands out and walk real slow so you don’t scare them off. Go real easy and low to the ground. Yes. Just like that.” Onnie watched as her son bent his knees and held his arms out like a giant slow-moving praying mantis as he neared French Fry. As he was ten feet from his prize, French Fry detected danger and began to make spasmatic steps in the wrong direction while protesting in gentle coos.


“Keep going, honey. Just try to slowly walk her into a corner. Try not to frighten her.”

Without diverting his attention, Sirus asked, “How do you know it’s a girl chicken?”

“That’s a story for another time. Let’s focus on this for now.”

But before Sirus could corner French Fry, she spread her wings and took a short flight up and over a broken piece of the barn gate.

The hunter expressed his dejection by lowering his arms quickly and letting them slap against his sides.

“You’re not quitting already, are you?”

“What am I supposed to do? She’s back there.” He pointed behind the torn-down gate.

Onnie took one end of the wire she held in her hands and began working it. “You like eggs, don’t you?”

“Yes. Especially scrambled,” Sirus said as he walked toward his mother, now interested in what she was creating. “Then take this. See the small loop I made at the end? All you have to do is get a little closer up behind her and loop this wire behind her ankle and then pull her up gently. Don’t yank hard. Then she’ll be upside down and she might flap a lot, but you can grab her by the feet and put her in the sack. Got it?”

The expression on his face told her he was skeptical of her plan, but he said, “I’ll give it a try.”

“Sirus, it might take many tries and if you fail, you must try again. And if this doesn’t work, we come up with a different plan until we succeed. But we’ll never succeed if we don’t learn from our failures first. Understand?”

She wasn’t sure if he did or not because he nodded quickly and took the wire and the deflated pillowcase with him.

Onnie stood at the entrance to the barn and took another glance at her husband, who by this time was walking back to the house. He waved and didn’t seem in a hurry, so she turned her attention back toward her son, who was now on the other side of the torn-down gate. “Be careful back there. Don’t step on anything sharp.” But she wasn’t sure if he heard her because there was a sudden explosion of squawking and feathers cascading through the air. And when the commotion ended, she couldn’t see him or the chicken behind the gate. After one beat too long she called out, “Sirus?”

“I got her, Mom!” he exclaimed and came around the corner with the French-fry colored hen looped over one arm and holding her legs together with his other fist.

Tears sprang to Onnie’s eyes. “Good job, son! Okay, put her in the bag before she gets away.”

Covered in small feathers, her son pushed the flapping chicken into the pillowcase as Onnie held it open for him.

“I got one, Dad!” Sirus yelled in excitement when he saw his father leaving the house. “Why does Dad have that lamp in his hands?”

Onnie clasped the ends of the pillowcase shut, trapping the bewildered chicken inside, and turned around to see her husband walking back to the field holding the lamp like a strangled glowing rabbit. “I have no idea.”

Monty spotted them and stopped and said, “I knew you could do it! Two more if you can catch them.” Then he continued his mission.

Sirus looked at her like he suspected his father had lost his mind.

“I’m sure there’s an explanation that we will find out later.” 

But just as her son turned to continue the hunt, it began to rain as if someone opened a warm spigot of water right over their heads. Onnie grabbed her son’s hand and the sack and ran for the porch just as she spotted her husband coming from the west with the beaming lamp still in his grasp and a look of relief on his face.

But when her eyes met his, she knew something else concerned him beyond the rain. “What happened over there?”

He shook his head and once inside, he set the lamp down on the table where it belonged with a hard thump and then changed his demeanor and said, “Hey, let me take that. We can put her in the closet until the weather clears and then I’ll make her a temporary pen.”

“But how do you know she’s a girl?” Sirus demanded.

Monty knelt to his son as if he was getting ready to explain life’s mysteries to a five-year-old while wiping rain from his face. “Because…because…”

And Onnie answered because she was concerned why Monty was suddenly acting funny, “Because roosters look different. They’re a little bigger and meaner.”

“Meaner?” Sirus asked with a tinge of fear.

Monty stood and put the chicken in the closet and closed the door, seemingly relieved. But he then stopped quickly and said to his son, “What’s that mark on your arm?”

“Oh, the chicken scratched me,” Sirus replied and began rubbing a long red line as it beaded with blood.

“Sirus,” Onnie said and pushed him into the bathroom.

With fear in his eyes, Monty whispered, “You were supposed to be careful.”

“Not. Now.” She instantly cut him off.

“I don’t have any cream. We lost everything near Fargo when they robbed us,” Monty seethed.

Onnie shut the bathroom door most of the way with Sirus inside and whispered, “I know you’re worried, Monty. Look, there’s soap and water in there. Let me clean him up while you look to see if there’s anything else in this house to stop an infection. Maybe there’s a first aid kit in a cupboard. Getting upset in front of him isn’t going to help.”

He nodded and she soon heard his boot falls land hard on the steps above.

The boy sucked air in through his teeth as she ran his arm under the water. “It stings, Mom.”

“Don’t bite your tongue,” she said and lathered his arm under warm water while massaging above the wound until a stream of red swirled around the sink bowl.

“Ouch, Mom, that hurts. You’re making it bleed more. Stop.” Sirus squirmed while she held him firmly.

“Honey…just in case. It’s better to push any bacteria out while we have the chance rather than let it linger in your body and multiply. Does that make sense? This could create an infection if we don’t clean it out right now. The best thing for you to do is make yourself a noodle and let me do the work.”

Instantly, she felt Sirus go limp in her arms even though he clenched his eyes shut. “I swear, I’m not trying to hurt you, baby.”

“I know, Mom. Just hurry.”

Onnie sniffed and said, “Good boy,” while she continued to run her thumb hard down the center vein of his arm until she thought he couldn’t take it anymore. Then she used more of the strange soap on the counter and washed the wound until it was foamy and clean. She turned off the tap and dried him with a white towel hanging nearby, hoping that was enough because it would be a small miracle if they found anything to treat the wound in the house.

“Don’t hide your face from me, baby. Sometimes a parent must do hard things because of love. You’ll find that out someday.” She pulled him to her and hoped he didn’t remember the pain past their evening meal.

“How’s it going in there? It’s already stopped raining and the sun’s out again.” Monty tapped on the door with the back of one knuckle.

Onnie smiled and opened the door. Sirus leaped through the opening and headed for the closet. “You leave that chicken alone for now.” 

Monty stood there with a smile and held a box in his hands.

“Did you find something?”

“No ointment. I’ll go scavenge what I can tomorrow. We need supplies, Onnie. Don’t argue with me. We need food and you need prenatals if I can find them. But look what I found.” He lifted the box up slightly like a prize. “Look, you guys can stay locked inside while I’m out tomorrow.”

Inside the box were rows of plastic cases, each containing a silver disc. “I don’t know about that…are those DVDs? What’s on them?”

“They’re all marked. Someone was a little anal with a labeling machine.”

“There must be a hundred discs here.”

“Onnie…a few of them are cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Winnie the Pooh.”

“What?” Onnie scrunched up her nose. “Those were shows my grandmother watched as a child. Well, it doesn’t do us any good if we don’t have something to play them on. It’s been over ten years since I’ve seen something on a screen.” She looked up at Monty and shook her head. “No. You’re smilin’. There’s one upstairs, isn’t there?” She flipped through the discs as Monty held the box in his arms.

“There’s also news recordings, Onnie. Some labeled The Fall.” 

She swallowed and whispered, “Well, I was there and have no interest in watching that again. We should set those aside. I’ll go through them while you make the chicken house. Are you sure we should let him watch them? He’s never seen a movie before.”

Monty glanced at his son squatting down and peeking through a crack in the closet at his captive. “Yeah, I think it’s all right. Just one at a time. Not all the time.” He smiled and handed her the box of DVDs. “Go ahead and put them upstairs in the big room on the bed. The screen’s set up in the armoire. Sirus and I’ll make the pen against the house for now.”

“There’s a few broken gates in the barn. You might use some of that,” Onnie said on her way up the stairs. With one hand on the banister and the box of discs under her arm, Onnie felt the smooth polished wood, excited to finally see the upper rooms for herself.

At the top of the stairs, there were four doors, with the closest on the left, a bedroom with a full-sized polished mahogany fourposter that took up the majority of the floor space. A dresser and mirror were tucked in at the end and a matching nightstand sat below a window. A multicolored braided rug lay over the hardwood floor but what seized her attention the most was the oversized down comforter the color of dried wheat atop the bed. Before she knew it, the box of disks nearly crashed to the floor and Onnie had to stoop to prevent the fall.

“That’s not the big room,” Monty said from the bottom of the stairs, knowing she’d be mesmerized by the rare accommodations.

“Go make your pen,” she said and heard him snicker as her hand caressed the clean, fluffy linens.

“Open a window and don’t get lost up there.”

Before she could talk back, the front door closed with a click. And inside the empty house, she heard the chatter of a father and a son on the front porch and then a faint tick, tick, tick coming from somewhere within.

She scanned the top of the dresser, the nightstands, and the walls for a clock but the surfaces were bare. Then she left the box on the bed and pulled back the long white linen curtains from the nearby window, unlatched the lock, and with both hands she lifted the pane. A fresh scent of rain carried on a light breeze that billowed the sheer curtains. She smiled at the sight below. Her son carried a bagged chicken over his shoulder like a hobo as her husband carried a piece of a gate and some coiled wire he’d found in the barn. 

When Monty spied her in the window, he lifted the wire in greeting and for a moment, Onnie felt as if they were in some sort of old Western movie because by the looks of things…they’d returned.


Onnie picked up the box again and left, finding the second door led to a full bathroom including a clawfoot tub and walk-in tiled shower. Two sinks sat below two mirrors and towel sets hung on a rack nearby. Out of curiosity, Onnie fingered the end seams of the towels for tags along the hem but found none. No brand labels or washing directions. No food staples but towels, toilet paper, and hand soap. It didn’t make sense, but she was grateful. Maybe Monty’s theory was right. Perhaps it was a model home, some throwback from before the fall. Some way to make life livable again before it was too late but then it was too late and a decade later…it was all gone, leaving man in desperation to survive like a drowning rat looking for high ground. 

Onnie took a deep breath and checked the next door to the left and found two twin beds on either side of a low dresser with navy blue blankets folded at the end. Perfect. 

Behind the last door, Onnie found a queen bed in the same style as the first room at the end of a long room. A tall armoire stood at the opposite wall and the doors were open, revealing a black screen and a small box below with a slit entry for a DVD. “There you go,” Onnie said and placed the box of discs back where her husband had taken them from. There was a sitting area with a small couch and chair opposite the screen and when Onnie sat down she rubbed her palms on the arms of the velvet sofa. “You are a mystery,” she said looking around the room. And then again, she heard the tick…tick…tick. 

Onnie stood and scanned the room to find a chunky square of white granite veined with gray and a clock face on one side sitting on the table beside her. There were no hands but a knob in the center of carvings around a circle. She traced the indentions with the tip of her index finger. “Those aren’t any kind of numbers I’ve ever seen. Not Roman numerals, either.” She picked up the piece in her hands and turned it over to find it felt solid and wasn’t surprised to see that no cords were attached, nor a winding mechanism, but the center of the clock pushed in and turned. She dialed it to the left and then to the right a little and then returned it to nearly the same position. “Hmmm.” She put the heavy object down and then retrieved the box of DVDs again while sitting in the plush chair. “Maybe there’s some answers in here.” She began thumbing through labels that read News and Movies, followed by either a date or a title and sometimes both.  Flipping through them, she found one news label also read, The Fall. She pulled it up for a second and noted a date that made her flash back to a time she’d rather forget. She pushed the disc back down in its place and flipped on, stopping only to read the movie titles. So many of them she couldn’t place and those she did, she often said to herself, “No, too violent. Too much skin. Too much language…” until she landed on a title of a movie she thought was perfect and sat the disc on the table by the ticking clock.

“That’ll hold her for now,” Monty said as the front door opened, and she heard her men stomp their feet on the mat. “You lost up there?” 

Onnie smiled and met them at the top of the stairs. “I’m right here. Did you catch more?”

“Yes.” Monty held up the chicken wrangler hook. “We’re now in possession of seven hens.”

It was hard not to worry with the smiles Onnie saw upon her family’s faces. Just as she’d screened the movies: Too happy. Too complacent. “Monty, what did you find over in the field?”

Monty cut his eyes at her and then at the ground. “I want you two to stay away from there. I’m not sure what it is. I need to investigate a little more.”

It was his tone that had her worried and the fact that he avoided eye contact when he did look at her. “Well, there’s a strange clock upstairs in the TV room with odd markings but I don’t think it’s working.”

“Markings?” Monty asked and then climbed the stairs past her in a hurry. “Where is it?”

She called out, “On the table by the chair.”

She knew he was fiddling with it. “I think it’s broken,” she yelled. “Doesn’t seem to do anything.”

He came down the steps at half the speed as before and looked even more confused. “I don’t have any answers yet but there’s a strange vibration coming from that thing outside. I think it has something to do with the power source. I don’t know if it poses any health risks is what I’m trying to say, so for now, please keep your distance.”

“Okay. We can do that. What about the clock?”

“The clock has the same weird markings around it. That thing out there looks like some kind of small sundial. It looks heavy and is a little over two feet across, five inches deep, but it hums, and I’ve never seen anything like it. And there’s no solar panels anywhere, no utility boxes, no generator of any kind.” He stood there thinking and then said, “Is it suddenly warmer in here than before?”

“I have no idea. It’s getting late, and it looks like it’s raining again. That’s it. Take off all your clothes.”

“What?” Monty said.

“You heard me. Strip down. All of it. I’m tired of smelling you. I’m going to soak and wash our clothes in that soap in the tub and hang them to dry for tomorrow. We can take baths and have more eggs and watch a movie once we’re clean.”

“I love it when you talk clean.” Monty smiled and kicked off his boots. 

And as if they’d forgotten, Sirus asked, “What about the lights, Daddy?”

Monty nodded and glanced at his adversary…the table lamp. “Oh, I’ll figure this out but for tonight, we’ll find a way to live with the light.”

🔴 Read Chapter 3 - See the Light

Monty swept his eyes along the dewy horizon line, settling on the spot in the field with the strange sundial he’d inspected the day before. There was an itch there that he could not scratch and if he told Onnie what he suspected, she wouldn’t believe him. There had to be an explanation. He was a newly graduated doctor when the world decided to tear itself apart, not an engineer. But he didn’t want to think about that now and shook his head a little. See…no rain. Not yet. Not that rain would stop him from searching for what he needed to find. He’d slept, if you could call it that, sitting upright in the chair by the door after Onnie and his son settled in the first room atop the stairs. At first, his boy thought he could sleep in the room with the twin beds but not an hour later, he watched Sirus pad down the hallway to his mother’s room and Monty blew a sigh of relief knowing they were together…the three of them, in one location. He mentally revised the fluid rescue plan in his mind. One room. One location. Three exits. Front door, back door, upstairs window if all else fails.

That was last night. He’d scarcely slept the night before and knew he’d only nodded off briefly in the last few hours, but the sun rose against his will, and he hated parting from them when one moment might be the last. He climbed the stairs. On the seventh, he bounced a little, hearing a squeak. He’d noticed it before and there it was again. His silent alarm system. At the top of the stairs, he adjusted the hidden holster on his back. Onnie knew it was there. Sirus, too. They’d survived only because of its presence a few times in the last few years and even though Onnie despised the thing, she’d come to terms with reality. The rough edge of the holster’s seared seam dug into his skin and had jostled past a well-worn callus. The sight of two legs hanging from the bathroom shower rod gave him an initial start, but then he remembered Onnie leaning over the tub against her belly, scrubbing their clothes the night before. Suds everywhere. A smile on her face. The fresh smell of her creamy brown skin. He swallowed and crept into the bedroom quietly and with the soft light of the sun’s first rise, he watched over his family in silence. His boy with his arm draped over his mother’s shoulder. Onnie with his t-shirt on, ridden up so that her belly lay bare on her side. Her hand splayed out, protective of the child within, around her navel. He hated to wake her. Hated to leave them.

“Have you slept at all?” 

He smiled at the sound of her voice and pushed tight curls away from her eyes. “I should have known you were awake.” 

She smiled with barely opened eyes and whispered, “No one sneaks up on me, baby.”

“You’re such a badass.” He kissed her forehead and then, he ran a hand over Sirus’ arm. 

“He’s not running a fever. I checked.”

Monty looked over the chicken’s scratch. The scab looked normal. No puss. No unexpected swelling. No running lines to the next muscle group. “Still, I’d feel better if we had more supplies. I’m going to leave in a few minutes. I want you to come down with me and pull the kitchen chair up under the front like I showed you. I checked and it fits perfectly under the handle. Don’t argue, please. I need you both safe inside while I’m gone. I’ll give the chickens some crackers to poke at on my way out.” 

Monty tucked his son’s arm atop the comforter and slowly helped Onnie out of bed so that they didn’t wake the boy, but Monty suspected he was playing possum and so did his mother.

“I’ll be right back, Sirus. Just stay there.”

Sirus gave a closed-eyed nod.

Monty let his eyes linger for just a moment on his sleeping son. Like a photograph, he always took a mental picture before a separation of any kind.

Touching the small of Onnie’s back, Monty tugged the t-shirt she wore down around her hips.

“You afraid someone’s going to see me?” Onnie smiled.

“I do it for me. It’s my excuse to touch you. Let me go first on the stairs.”

“I’m not that far along yet.”

“I know. I just don’t want you falling if I can help it.” He knew she was rolling her eyes behind him but didn’t say a thing. It was the game they played, and he loved his part.

By the door, she kissed him and then asked, “Got your phone? Got your keys?”

“You funay,” he said, smiling and happy they were parting with a tease, and pulled her in for a soft kiss. “Don’t you ever leave me.”

She softened her eyes. “Never,” she whispered and slid her hand over his bearded jaw. 

He pulled her back and forth a few times, landing kisses on her soft lips and then held her for a moment while taking in that mental picture until it exposed in his heart. That way if he needed them, he retrieved them there, forever stilled.

“I already braced the back door. I’ll wait on the porch until I know you’ve braced this one.”

“Okay. Try to hurry back.”

“Oh, I will,” he assured her and shut the door until it clicked and then he heard Onnie tilt and wedge the chair back up and underneath the knob.

“I won’t be gone long. A few hours. I love you!” 

“We love you, too! Hurry back.”

He didn’t remember taking the porch steps in a ramble but assumed he did because a half mile away, he turned and looked back and felt he’d only just left. That’s when he made himself turn away and not glance back until he got the supplies he’d set out for. Checking the sky, Monty kept a brisk pace. So far, he didn’t think it would rain but they’d been surprised in the last few days by sudden deluges. The road they’d found the house on also led into the next town and after referring to the map last night, he realized it was only a few miles farther on. And the first sign of a major town was up ahead, but then he stopped. What is that? Spotting movement up a grassy slope, Monty popped down and with his pistol already in his hand, he skirted over the water-filled ditch and then looked for footholds to grip up on the other side. When he managed to climb the embankment with his head on a swivel, he peered through the overgrown grass, trying to catch sight of what he’d detected earlier. And he was right. While his knee sank further in the mud, Monty spotted the Holstein cow switch her tail again and couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw a second and a third one standing within the field and then a calf by its mother. It couldn’t be. Were they living wild? Not someone’s farm animal? But then his knee was sliding further and his grasp on the tall weeds strained and what he didn’t see coming was another animal with similar black and white markings. And when the border collie came in low to the ground and growled a warning with bared teeth, Monty suddenly jerked back and lost his battle with gravity, landing him in the muddy ditch with water washing over him as he held up his gun. 

The dog burst through the brush and Monty aimed while scrambling backward but pointed away when the dog retreated. Then he hurried up and stood nearby, waiting to see if owners showed up but as he watched the dog dart back and forth, he realized how thin the guardian was. It likely had not eaten in a week, and very little if that. And if there were people about, they’d likely have sent a bullet his way by then and with cows in the field and a starving dog…he decided the animals were the lucky ones. Perhaps the owners were long gone, and these last few survivors were like him and his family…they’d somehow burst through restraints and found themselves on the other side of the fence.

“You’re hungry, aren’t you, buddy?”

Instead of barking, the dog whined and bolted back and forth, back and forth, tramping down the grass on his side of the ditch.

Monty let out a heavy breath, looking around, and slowly slid his backpack off his shoulders. Holstering his gun, he unzipped his pack and reached for the brown roll of crackers. “Onnie would kill me for this, but I hate to see an animal starving. Nope. I’m more comfortable if you just stay on that side. I’ll toss a few over but you have to promise me you’ll be a good boy and not try to eat me.” And Monty sailed crackers over the rushing water one by one like skipping river rocks. 

The dog sniffed them out or jumped and inhaled them in an instant wherever they landed and then Monty stopped and twisted the top, ending the gift. “That’s all I can spare, my friend. But when there’s extra, I’ll let you have them. We’re neighbors, you see. I’ll stop by on my way back.” And despite the dog sending out a few yelping barks, Monty walked on. Wary of a stationary car parked ahead on the side of the road but seeing strands of hair drifting on the wind out the driver’s side, he knew they were long gone and didn’t bother looking when he noticed the partial skeleton beneath.

Then farther up the road, Monty tried to imagine what once was, which store stood where. But what he encountered was a burned-out elementary school on the right leading into town. The roof was long gone, and soot-stained brick walls told the story too well. He didn’t stop long enough to read the giant words painted in white over the burned scar. The End, they read. But Monty’s eyes were transfixed ahead after long ago giving up on devastation for what was and what would never be again. Instead, he kept a steady pace and repeated, prenatals, food, medicine. And nothing more. Don’t bring home grief. Don’t bring home violence. Prenatals, food, medicine. And nothing more.

Then something gleaming on the side of the road caught his attention. He lifted the aluminum handle and straightened it out and stood the scooter on its solid wheels. The blue foam handles were shredded in spots but nothing a little duct tape wouldn’t take care of. He had a small roll in his backpack. The tires were good, and Monty put his weight on the center with one foot and it rolled without a hitch, so he released the hinge and folded the base up and put it in the side of his backpack. And when he continued walking, he mentally added to his list more duct tape if he could find it…when he realized his boots were crunching on more and more broken glass than before and then he spotted the scene they’d so many times run across on their way to a better life…more burned-out buildings, more abandoned cars, inches of broken glass and rubble in the streets…and bodies, only skeletons now, bleached by years of hot summer suns, lying scattered and disseminated as if hell itself came to Earth and doled out a biblical Judgment Day, but that’s not what had happened. It didn’t happen in one day. It took weeks. The smoke… 

Swallow. Redirect your mind. One foot in front of the other. We don’t live there anymore…

And instead of reliving the past, Monty listened as the soles of his boots shattered what lay beneath, and he pulled out his pistol as he neared the corner store at an intersection on the left, stepping over an abandoned, bent bicycle frame and edged over to what used to be the front door and peered inside the burned-out structure. A black void. He mentally tried to envision what the contents of such a store held. There was once a gas pump outside. The kind you find in small towns. Two pumps. Maybe four. And inside, all the single handheld snacks a sugar freak could wish for. A wall of chilled beverages. A shriveled week-old hotdog churning on a spit. Dingy bathrooms in the back. Ice, somewhere in a bin in the front. Perhaps an aisle with sundries like aspirin and Band-Aids, but not much else. Still…there might be something worth salvaging. Monty kicked a boot against the charred remains of the metal door, sending a cascade of glass fragments to the ground. When he thought it was safe, he stepped through and waded his way through debris more than a foot deep. All black. Mostly returned to a carbon state. He looked above through the burned rafters at the gray sky and checked back the way he came and mentally thought about a typical convenience store layout and where they might have kept the medical supplies. Somewhere on a rearmost row, most likely, before you reached the beverages on the back wall. Lots of glass. Instead of wading through the debris, Monty surfed on piles of grating glass fragments beneath his soles, making too much noise. He stopped and looked back again at the dim light from the front of the store and stilled himself. No movement. Nothing alarming. Then he kicked the metal cabinet with the side of his boot when he spotted a soaked and mold-ridden box of dryer sheets lying on its side. Medicine aisle must be here somewhere. And then he saw what was once prevalent in any kitchen cupboard, a clear bottle shaped kind of like a pyramid but with finger grips. He picked up the container and turned it upside down, pouring out the stagnant water inside. Tums, he remembered. Antacids. He tossed the bottle aside. He used his boots to wade deeper into the rubbish, kicking over anything that wasn’t totally burned out. When his foot rolled over something small and round, he reached down to pick it up. He wasn’t expecting to find vitamins in a quick mart but by the dim light, he discovered what he found was an unmolested bottle of softgel Diphenhydramine Hydrochloride. Apparently, there wasn’t a high demand for sleeping pills in the apocalypse. Anyone who survived was more concerned about staying awake. Monty snickered. He knew that was true for himself, but he pocketed them anyway. Then a rat squeaked past him, and then another rushed by. And knowing he was lucky to find even what he did, Monty waded through the trash more hurriedly than before and left what remained to the rodents to fight over. There was no reason to risk typhus in a place like that. 

When he emerged, he looked down the road, knowing there would be a ransacked grocery nearby, and when he spotted a building at the end of a large parking lot with a faded red apple near the sign, he figured it was once locally owned. After years of looting, he knew there was likely nothing left but it was worth a try. Inside, he didn’t bother covering his face anymore to stanch the stench of rotting meat. Instead, it appeared that Mother Nature had reclaimed what remained. Vines from the former floral department had taken over the rotted produce area. Then Monty stopped and stared at a peculiar sight. An avocado had achieved the impossible by rotting and then cannibalizing the rest of its lot by creating a tree for itself. You win the apocalypse, little tree. Walking on, he was wary of the bags of liquid mush that threatened to explode on shelves to the left. Monty wasn’t sure what godforsaken things they once held, but he wanted nothing to do with them now. Turning left at the end of the row, Monty again tried to imagine the most likely spot he’d find medical supplies in a country store and then he stopped in his tracks again. 

A deer, with a swollen belly, reached her long, pointed tongue at something on a shelf. She eyed him but kept licking.

He was close enough. Monty gripped the pistol tighter and though his heart began beating through his chest, he slowly raised the gun. A flash on Onnie that morning in his t-shirt, the fawn within the deer. They needed the meat. His finger tightened on the trigger and then the doe’s ear rotated just so slightly and then she scattered his way. 


All  too-thin legs and moving as fast as she could, and then Monty knew why as a coyote ran in fast from the other end of the aisle, low to the ground like a cat about to pounce its prey. And she wasn’t going to make it. A turned-over shopping cart limited her options of escape, so Monty raised the gun once more but this time he didn’t hesitate and sent a bullet through the predator. 

The deer vanished out the back from the sound of her hooves beating a retreat. And Monty stood over the coyote and watched the final breath leave its body. 

Disgusted with himself, Monty looked around and began walking the way the deer fled, knowing the loud commotion would attract at least curiosity if any two-legged creatures were around. In the back of the store, the large loading doors were wide open to the elements and when he looked through the entrance, he spotted the doe fleeing across the broken pavement and into the thicket. At least she made it. But Monty was thinking of the meat he’d lost to his own inaction. 

And when Monty was about to jump down from the dock his eye caught sight of a white butcher’s apron still hanging on a hook by the door, the kind they often wore while cutting meat. The best finds after the apocalypse were kept in pockets. And the pockets he saw were bulging. So Monty reversed his steps and instead went to investigate the contents. Rigid from seasons, the apron fibers threatened to disintegrate in his hands, but Monty used a finger to pry open one end and found what looked to be a mini-time capsule of the person who wore it last. He long ago learned to not stick his hands in dark places and instead, spilled the contents out on the floor: a rusty pocketknife, a small dented tube of something, a green plastic case, and a solid rectangular stone. Monty opened the knife and though it was rusty, it could be cleaned up for Sirus.  He opened the green case next and found a pair of reading glasses, and tucked inside were several wrapped bandages. Then he picked up the tube and read the faded lettering. Antibiotic ointment. And then he tried to come up with the owner’s scenario. “An older butcher who opened packages with the too-dull knife cut himself because he couldn’t see and planned to use the whetstone pinched from the kitchen to sharpen it later. And if that’s still here, there’s possibly more.” Monty added the small haul to his bag and began searching the other pockets on the rack and then spotted a small stack of staff lockers lining a wall behind him, with some of the doors opened and some with combination locks still attached. Monty quickly shrugged off his backpack and a fourteen-inch pair of folded bolt cutters emerged. He’d found them long ago in someone else’s forgotten pocket and used them for nefarious means ever since. The first combination lock almost melted to the floor, when in times past the work caused him aches and pains in his forearms and shoulders. That’s why the bolt cutters’ weight deserved a place in his stash and had remained ever since for such occasions. Except that when he opened the rusty door latch all he found inside was a useless cell phone and a key fob, two things that had absolutely no value after the apocalypse. Quickly he cut the next lock. “Come on. One pregnant lady. That’s all I ask.” But in that one he found a balled-up coat sitting on top of a folder full of papers. He didn’t bother looking at the papers, but they fell out and scattered the floor when he shook out the coat. Hearing a jingle he said, “Pockets?” and one pocket held a ring of metal keys but the other one…held a small, round white bottle. And when he pulled it out the label read ibuprofen. “Yes!” He shook them a little. Maybe ten tablets. “All right, what else you got?” and instead of going one by one, Monty started using the bolt cutters on every lock he saw at once and then opened the doors. In the end, he made two piles on the floor behind him and found several questionable food containers, old coffee cups, a box of sealed sanitary napkins, a couple of lighters, a similar bottle of acetaminophen, a bottle actually containing antacids, a flashlight with working batteries, a Starbucks gift card, a brush, more cell phones but the most useless thing of all…cash. In the end, he kept a fraction of the haul: sanitary napkins, lighters, meds, flashlight, and the brush. And he couldn’t help but look back at the larger piles of items he’d left behind and thought the end of mankind begets a lot of junk.

Already gone longer than he’d intended, Monty looked around at the torn-out remaining strip mall surrounding the store and decided to head back. Though there was no food, he wasn’t defeated. He’d found a few things, but the most intriguing discovery had been the cows in the field, and a plan began to formulate in his mind on his journey back. If only he could get Onnie on board. But when he passed the field, he didn’t see the dog. Nor did he see the cows. He stood there in the middle of the road and waited to see if the dog showed up. He waited to see if the hairs along his arms and his neck rose. He waited to see if any primordial signs of danger came to him while he contemplated walking the field to the farmhouse and barn. But nothing came. No reassurance of danger. No reassurance of peace. So he defaulted. He would wait and discuss the find with Onnie and make a plan. At least then, she would know where he had gone if he never returned again. 

It was only early afternoon when he walked through the field and stopped when he reached the sundial. It came gradually, the humming through the ground into the soles of his feet, a tickling he first felt at the tips of his toes that he didn’t like, and so he took a step back. He looked up at the cloudy sky. The sun had yet to poke through as he’d predicted and instead it threatened to rain again. Or was it just here? It seemed more promising in town. But as he looked at the house, and back at the sundial, he knew the lights were related to the thing on the ground. What he didn’t tell Onnie was that while they were busy in the barn catching chickens, he’d taken the lamp out for a walk around the sundial, feeling as if he’d lost his mind. Each orbit, he visually measured the decrease in light the farther away he went. And the pattern the orbit made wasn’t smooth like a circle or an oval. But he needed to measure it again at night to see if there was a real difference in brightness or if it was his imagination. And if that didn’t seem crazy enough, what happened next did. The light beamed brighter in his hands as he approached the sundial. When he placed the lamp directly over the structure, he accidentally kicked the side with the tip of his boot, and that’s when the clouds above let loose with a torrent of rain. He tried not to think they were related but he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Deciding it was a mystery for another day, Monty went up to the house and Onnie waved from the window above. He pulled the folded scooter from his backpack and set it up. When Sirus opened the door, Monty was zooming around on the gravel drive while avoiding the weeds. “Look what I found, buddy.”

“Is that for me?”

He stopped and held out the handle for him. “As long as you don’t go over the speed limit, it’s yours.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

Onnie smiled at him while she leaned against the door frame. “Almost normal,” she said.

He repeated the common phrase between them. “Almost normal.”

“What did you get me?” 

He knew she wasn’t expecting anything so it was a surprise when from his backpack, he pulled out the box of sanitary napkins.

She held her hands out. “Oh my gosh. Where did you find them?”

“Someone’s locker.”

Grabbing them, she said, “I love you, baby. It’s the little things.”

“They won’t last forever but at least you can use them right after the baby’s born.”

The scooter stopped suddenly, and little bits of gravel skidded. “What baby?” Sirus asked.

Monty looked at Onnie, her eyes as wide as his. 

It wasn’t as if they kept the growing stomach from him, but they hadn’t had the talk either. 

Monty pointed at Onnie. “Mommy’s having a baby.”

A rushed whisper. “We should talk about this.”

“Too late,” Monty said without looking at what he knew was an aggravated stare.

“A baby?” Sirus asked, his face screwed up on one side. “But....”

“It’s all right…” Onnie began.

“It’s gonna hurt,” Sirus said and dropped the handle of the scooter and rushed his mother.

Monty smiled, held his hand over his mouth, and then wrapped his arms around them and said, “It’s going to be okay. We’ll get through this together.”

What are Cozy Apocalypse Books?

  • No gratuitous violence or sex scenes
  • No foul language
  • No weaponry lists or zombie gore

Main Tropes

  • Survival After the Fall
  • Forming New Family Bonds
  • Thriving After the End
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