The Wait
by Gayla Chaney
forum: The Wait
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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The Wait


Editor's note: "The Wait" by Gayla Chaney was chosen as the winner of the ST Get Your War On contest. For more information, please visit this thread.



        The night after the searchers failed to return from Salado, Krista awoke before dawn to listen for any sounds of wagon wheels or the rustle of brambles. But there was nothing. Salado was seventeen miles away. It was possible they were delayed by having to lie low while a marauding troop passed by. Maybe they had located some gasoline to siphon and that had taken extra time.

        The group had been gone three full days. Tomorrow, would make four. Perhaps they had found so much bounty that it took longer than normal to transport. The wagon was old and pulling it on foot took a great deal of effort, particularly if it was overloaded. They were running low on everything, so Krista hoped desperately that was the case. Yet, she feared something else had happened. Had she somehow sensed or dreamed the capture of their scouting party? Had Dan sent her some desperate mind-missive? A farewell? A plea to watch after his children? Krista tried to shake those thoughts, but she couldn’t free herself from the nagging feeling that they had been gone too long.

        Aside from Dan, who was Krista’s main concern, Pete, Michelle, Farris, Albert, William and the three obnoxious adolescents that Dan referred to as “William’s shadows” were also missing.

        “Why do I always have to stay behind?” Krista had asked Dan, knowing the answer but resenting the situation enough to push the issue. “You’ve said yourself that William’s shadows irritate the hell out of you. Why take them along?”

        “I wouldn’t want to leave them in charge of my kids, for one thing. Besides, they have proven themselves valuable when pilfering,” Dan reminded her.

        “Years of practice, I imagine,” Krista said, annoyed to be left again with the recently acquired elderly couple and Dan’s two small children. She hated the waiting. But for Dan, she would agree to almost anything.

        The question of what would happen to them was being replaced by when it would happen… today, tomorrow, next week? Without armed foragers, the inevitable moved up a notch. During the day, the cities could be seen smoldering in the distance. The foreign fighters were more efficient in their destruction, killing in mass, but the homeless, hungry, and deranged wandering the streets presented their own form of terror. Krista did not like to think what she and Dan had done to escape the throngs of people the day they fled the city. It was not malicious; she consoled herself with that assurance. But it was not kind, either, as they drove right past those pleading, frightened faces pressed up against the car windows.

        They had met up with Farris and Albert shortly after their car ran out of gas, not far from their destination. Farris, a tall silvered-hair man with skin that resembled cracked leather and eyes that missed nothing, approached their car from seemingly nowhere. He surveyed its contents and the children before motioning toward a thicket of shrubs from where Albert suddenly appeared pulling a wagon half-filled with supplies and draped with blankets. A short, wiry type, in his early forties, Albert claimed to be a preacher. His smile and repeated phrases of “Praise the Lord” and “Amen, Brother” seemed genuine, but he made Krista uncomfortable, nevertheless.

        It was Albert who offered the children a ride on the wagon. Krista had been hesitant, but Dan noted the rifles and the Bibles visibly poking out from the edge of a blanket. “There’s safety in numbers, Krista, and we have no weapons, other than the kitchen knives we brought from home. If they want to join us at your grandparents’ place, it might be the best thing.” Reluctantly, she had agreed. They were very close to her grandparents’ property, and they could have walked on without Albert and Farris’s help. “But the rifles,” Dan whispered in her ear, “could save our lives.” In a few short weeks, Dan’s words proved tragically true.

        The idea of killing another human would have been unthinkable a year ago. Abhorrent. But what a difference a year made. Krista had come to understand that the deranged and aggressive could not be tolerated. Survival of the group sometimes depended on the death of outsiders. “It was unavoidable,” Farris explained after shooting a wild-eyed man that lunged at him with a knife in an alley where they had stopped to sift through a dumpster. “Amen, Brother,” Albert had added, and that seemed to absolve all guilt about the matter.

        But not all strangers were deemed enemies. Albert took a liking to Pete and Michelle and brought them back from a raid. William and his urchin band had somehow wormed their way into Farris’s goodwill, which was not an easy thing to do. They were resourceful and daring, and Farris might have been more calculating than kind in allowing them to join the group. Krista couldn’t stand the sight of them. But the country cottage was no longer solely her property, and she had little say over what happened there. It belonged to the group.

        Soon, it would all be over if no one with a rifle or ammo escaped from Salado. Krista did not register fear or despair. She might… when the time came and she was staring into the eyes of some soulless raider that was as much an enemy to her as any foreign enemy was. But tonight, she felt very little as she pondered, almost mechanically, how long the canned milk supply would last. The pond had yielded no fish in the past week. She listened vaguely to the sounds drifting through the screen of the opened window, none of them human noises.

        Some small, scavenging creature, a squirrel or a rat, scurried along the ledge of the stone wall that wrapped around the courtyard of the small cottage that had once been her grandparents’ cherished retreat. They had called it the Haverman Hacienda, placing two large H’s on the gate that opened to a gravel road leading to the cottage. The gate had long since been concealed behind junipers and brush cedars. The gravel driveway had disappeared beneath the bluestem grass and cacti, camouflaging it from the main road.

        Krista and her brothers had spent many holidays here. Back then, it bore little resemblance to the overgrown sanctuary it had become for this tawdry little army. Only Krista could conjure up an image of the place that was anything other than a collapsing hovel. Its present state of disrepair sometimes grieved her, but Farris and Albert, the de facto leaders, considered the cottage’s deteriorated condition an asset. It appeared abandoned, and that was beneficial should some unfriendly wanderers stumble upon it.

        The flapping of heavy wings could be heard in the dark and, though Krista couldn’t see it, she knew an owl had swooped down from some cloistered perch and captured the rodent. The four others sleeping in the room beside her heard nothing. The open window let in the slightest stir of air. Maybe the brief breeze was from the owl’s wings. Krista thought about that. A bird of prey stirring the hot air like a ceiling fan. Oh, to have a fan! Electricity. Ice! Frozen pizzas stacked high in a freezer! She stopped herself. This was an old game, and it offered only a few seconds of distraction.

        She turned toward the sleeping forms stretched out on the Saltillo tile floor. Andy and Tiffany, the children of Dan Wexler, might be orphaned, and Krista would be left to decide what would become of them. It was so unfair. Maybe Dan survived. Maybe he was making his way back now.

        Before the world turned upside down, Dan had been Krista’s neighbor. Dan was a single parent with two children, friendly, attractive, and someone Krista had hoped she might get to know better. After the first six airliners went down over the Atlantic and bombs were determined to be the cause, Krista had spent evenings at Dan’s place watching the newscasts with him, trying to understand the why behind these latest acts of terror.

        The simultaneous assassinations of fourteen governors shocked the nation, but it was followed quickly by a series of bombs set off in Washington D.C., decimating the federal government, destroying much of the Capitol Building and most of the members of Congress with it. London had suffered similar devastation. Attacks were launched in Amsterdam and Brussels, while riots broke out in Rome and Lisbon.

        Though filled with anxiety and horror, those days were actually hopeful, in comparison. Back then, Krista and Dan and others had believed the government would recover and organize counterattacks against those who orchestrated the violence. But that didn’t happen. Major cities around the country were hit by both organized attacks and panicked citizens turning into looters and, in some cases, murderers. The National Guard was sent into the worst areas only to be ambushed repeatedly. Terrorist cells erupted around the country. Neither the president nor the vice-president appeared on any broadcast. Dan suspected they were both dead or injured. The secretary of defense spoke for the nation, vowing swift retaliation. Then, the networks went down. News was scarce and often hard to distinguish from rumors. The trucking industry was halted by roadside bombs and fuel shortages. Store shelves emptied quickly. Hunger became another enemy, more frightening in its consequences than a bomb on a subway.

        When Dan said they had to leave the city, Krista felt grateful that he included her in his evacuation plan. “My grandparents had a place,” Krista volunteered. “I haven’t been there in years, but my brothers hunt there occasionally. Or they did.” She paused at the thought of her brothers from whom she had heard nothing in weeks. “I don’t know if we can make it all the way on the gasoline we have.”

        “We have no other choice.” Dan came back, packing each child’s backpack with fruit bars and juice boxes, some clothing, filling them up, but keeping them light enough for the kids to carry if walking was determined to be necessary.

        “Maybe things are different in the country,” Krista suggested. “There were always roadside vegetables stands and dewberries and blackberries and—”

        “Okay.” Dan’s tone told Krista to stop. She had thought offering some hopeful ideas would be appreciated, but she saw that Dan wasn’t concerned with what grew in the wild; he was focused on escaping what was churning in the city. The noises at night were terrifying. Horns honking, glass shattering, and gunshots interrupted their sleep. It was only a matter of time before they, too, became victims.

        Now, the sounds of the night were terrifying in a totally different way. The owl was silent; only the sound of insects broke the silence. Krista longed for Dan’s safe return. She didn’t feel capable of caring for herself, much less two children. Inez and Carlos were sleeping on the other side of the children. For a moment, Krista thought she could leave the children with them.

        Inez and Carlos Compuzano were the elderly couple that Farris and Albert had rescued from near starvation over a month ago as the group was returning from a successful raid. The group had found a hoard of canned goods and peanuts and crackers in a boarded up gas station and upon making their way back to the hacienda, they had stumbled upon the Compuzanos, dehydrated, abandoned, and hopeless.

        Albert determined to bring them along. He was a religious man; he quoted the Bible a lot, and he held sway over Farris and the others. “Let not the beggar put up his petition to you in vain,” he quoted as they loaded the ailing couple onto their wagon.

        Dan told Krista privately that he was not in favor of taking on any more dependents, but what could he say against Albert and Farris? “Pete and Michelle practically worship Albert, and William and his followers all line up behind Farris. So,” Dan whispered, “what could I do? I heaved the old man in the back of the wagon and hoped we didn’t see any other pitiful souls before we returned. I’m not trying to fill an ark. I’m just trying to raise my kids until the government takes control again.”

        Krista hoped Dan’s vision of the future was accurate. The government. Control again. When? These questions formed in her mind, but she didn’t dare speak them. She nodded as Dan confided his thoughts to her because, like Pete and Michelle with Albert, and William and his group with Farris, she had her own allegiance, and it was to Dan.

        But what if the searchers were captured? Or killed? What if some made it through, but Dan didn’t? What if none of them made it through? What if, Krista shuddered at the idea in her head, what if she were the most capable member of the remaining group? Carlos hardly spoke a word of English, and he walked slowly with a cane. Inez, bent and feeble, spent most of her energy caring for her husband. Although she was kind and grateful and had shared her knowledge of edible plants that grew around the area, pointing out the prickly pear cactus pads, the wild garlic and burdicki, she was too old to do much other than stir the simmering, shredded, black mustard leaves or gather dandelions for the morning tea. Krista glanced over once again to the sleeping forms on the floor and thought: This is not the life I was born to live.

        Surely, when morning came, someone would return… someone more capable than she to manage the situation. The situation. What did that mean? Oh, god, she thought, holding back a whimper. Albert’s God… where was He? If Albert made it back, maybe he could be in charge… but then what? Krista found Albert annoying and, at times, revolting. But she had kept quiet because he had the ability to calm the others with his platitudes, and that helped them focus on the two most important priorities: finding food and avoiding detection.

        But without Dan, Krista wasn’t sure she wanted to go on. Why submit herself to enduring Albert’s religion or Farris’s orders or William’s gang and their surly looks and barely contained aggression? Pete and Michelle were okay, but they had each other and without Dan, Krista had no one.

        The first light of dawn caught her eye. This would be beautiful, she thought, if the world was still the old world, and I could grind some coffee beans and turn on the television and watch CNN before going to work. Work! A librarian in a post apocalyptic world… how useless she felt. But perhaps libraries were intact somewhere. Despite the burning of nearly every local or state building in her city, it was possible that books and buildings survived elsewhere, and someday she would find them. And if the shelves were turned over and biographies mixed with mysteries, or reference materials were being used as doorstops, Krista could fix all that. She had a degree in library science, and given enough time, she could restore any library to a proper home for books. Given enough time…

        Krista stopped her fantasy. The future, if there was one, would offer what it offered, and dreaming of a library was silly, similar to dreaming about frozen pizzas in the non-existent freezer. Or recalling her small house with its azaleas blooming and Dan next door, washing his car in the driveway, his children playing with the hose, the mail truck slowly making its way to her house while she sipped a cup of freshly brewed, hot coffee.

        She had a knife if she needed it. Defense or offense? Well, she would think about that later. For now, she would wait. She would wait for the sound of someone returning. She would believe in Dan’s survival until proven wrong. She would watch the sun cut its way through the darkness. And then, before the heat became too intense, she would gather black mustard leaves, and she would pump water from the cistern her grandfather had installed so many years ago. It had been more a relic from his own childhood than a practical device. Her grandmother had smiled and shaken her head. “Well water tastes like iron. I’m not going to drink it and neither are the children. Not when they can have Kool-Aid or Dr. Pepper,” she had said with the refrigerator stocked full of sodas and bottled water. Her grandmother could never have envisioned the future miracle the ridiculed water pump would provide.

        Each time Krista pressed down the arm of the cistern, she was gripped by an attitude of gratitude. Thank you, Grandpa, for this marvelous device, which we laughed about at the time, but has been more valuable than any inherited fortune! Krista considered her gratitude a form of prayer. It was as close to thanking Albert’s God as she could come.

        In the morning, she would prepare some dandelion tea. She would proceed through the day as though nothing had changed. And she would continue to behave just that way until she was certain she was the one in charge. If she was correct, and there was no one returning, if her night terror proved real, Krista paused. She stared out at the brilliant sunbursts seraphically spreading across the sky, vanquishing the owl and the darkness. If no one returned, she would ask Inez to keep foraging for the limited edible plants that grew near the hacienda, she would ask the children to help her gather pecans that collected around the trees near the creek, and she would plant the half-crippled Carlos near the water’s edge where the crawfish burrowed into the mud and hope the old man could dig some of them out with his cane.



copyright 2007 Gayla Chaney.

Gayla Chaney lives and writes in central Texas. Her fiction has appeared online and in print journals, including Potomac Review, Natural Bridge, Sojourner, Thema, Cicada, Concho River Review, and The Literary Bone.

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