Today being one of her Duty days, Matilde Fassett had risen early. The sky was already solid blue and even at this early hour the heat outside was rising uncomfortably. Inside, it was bordering on chilly, Adam probably doing his usual trick, dutifully clicking the air-con down an extra couple of degrees.
She found him in the kitchen when she slumped in, drinking coffee in his uniform and reading the morning paper. They kissed absently and, quite unnecessarily, he pointed to the stove. “I made a pot, hon.”
She yawned, pulled her robe tighter, and poured herself a coffee, turning to see her husband fish his keys from the bowl on the breakfast bar, hitting the button.
Outside, the big V8 rumbled into life, more vibration than noise, felt through the soles of her feet. Adam smiled at her, a tall dark-haired man, looking suddenly like a little boy. “I never get tired of doing that. You gotta love that sound!”
He hit another button and the tone changed slightly, the Hummer’s air-con kicking in. By the time Adam got behind the wheel, she knew, he would need his padded jacket. They ate breakfast in companionable silence, Adam knowing that she didn’t approve of chat before at least her second cup.
Finally, though, he asked, “This one of your Eye-Spy days?”
“Yea. I’m still covering London.”
He smiled, and broadened his already broad shoulders, proud of his air force insignia. “See if you can find something for us to hit.”
Sometimes, Matilde wondered what he imagined it felt like for her, when he said things like that. An overgrown boy, wanting to play with his big toys. She thought about asking him, but, as usual, ducked it.
“Captain Collier says the Brits have pretty much given it up. Does it have to be quite this cold, Adam? I’m freezing.”
Adam rolled his eyes, but picked up the remote, showily good natured about it. He even winked, and whispered, “Ok, but don’t tell anybody.”
Then he said, “Yea, we haven’t had anything serious to strike at in the UK for more than a year. I guess they’ve gotten themselves round to doing the right thing, apart from the odd pirate ship. Our main problems are still in Europe, they just won’t take a telling! Selfish SOB’s.”
She put down her cup with a click, thinking even he had to know what he was doing, talking like that to her. Playing the big, bluff soldier card just a bit too hard. She saw his eyes widen slightly, as he caught her expression. He put his hands up, placating.
“Sorry, honey. I’m not talking about the Frogs, so much. It’s the Krauts, mainly. Think they’re something special, those guys.”
Irritated, Matilde slid from her stool and walked into the utility room, pulling open the machine to take out a wash she had set to finish earlier. Adam followed with his cup and leaned in the doorway for a moment, watching her put the damp clothes into the basket.
“What does it look like?”
He waited a few beats before saying, “Looks like you’re thinking of hanging that to dry. Outside.”
She didn’t respond until everything was folded. Then she turned to where he still stood. “So? I hang this out, it will be dry way faster than the machine can do it. And zero wrinkles. Works a dream for Jenny’s school uniform.”
“This is Dallas, Matilde, not Paris.”
“Yea, Paris is colder, and wetter. And the air’s full of dirt.”
“Was full of dirt.” He held his hands up, but didn’t say sorry this time. “You know what I mean. We just don’t hang stuff out here.”
“Why not? It’s better than the damned dryer.”
Adam’s hand tapped against his thigh, a sure sign of irritation. Tap-tap-tap. “You know perfectly well what people will think.”
Matilde didn’t answer, because of course she knew what people would think. They would think she was a snowflake, avoiding using energy, when it was the goddamned God given right of every American to use as much energy as they goddamn pleased. Pretty much a goddamned duty.
She glared. “I’m hanging it out. When I come back from Eye-Spy, I can just fold them and put them away. Even Jenny’s skirts.”
Adam sighed. “You can’t hon, and that’s that.”
When Matilde was angry, her accent was stronger, what Adam called her Bardot voice. She had her Bardot voice on now. “You’re going to, what? Physically stop me?”
He shook his head. “I physically threw the line in the garbage a couple of nights ago.” Then he hardened his tone. “I’m a frickin’ Lieutenant Colonel, Matilde. You can’t be embarrassing me like this.”
They glared at each other for a few seconds, then a bump behind him announced their daughter coming into the kitchen and Matilde turned away, throwing the clothes into the dryer, slapping them in there hard. Behind her, Adam moved around, kissing Jenny and getting himself ready to go.
He called out, “I’ve already put the air-con on, in the Ford, Matilde. It’s going to be a hot one today.”
She didn’t look round. “When is it anything else?”
He stepped towards her then and, despite herself, she raised her cheek to be kissed.
Walking away, he called back, “In us, God trusts.”
Of course, she replied. “In us, God trusts.”
Then Jenny was there in the doorway, ten years old, blonde and fine featured, like a miniature version of her mother; still three quarters asleep and outraged about something.
“What’s wrong, Jen?”
Jenny rubbed her bare arms. “I’m freezing! Can we have the heating on?”
“Heating and air-con on at the same time. Your Father would love it.”
Matilde joined the stream of civilians riding the travellator into the Eye-Spy centre, their quick laugher and breathless excitement as usual making her feel depressed and isolated, even more so after the unsettling conversation she’d had with her daughter, on the drive to school. Still, she forced a smile when a small grey-haired woman caught her eye to say, “I so look forward to doing my duty! Do it every dang day, if I was allowed.”
Matilde pushed her grin wider, looking down at this woman, so like her own Mother, with those crab-apple cheeks and crinkly eyes. When she spoke, it was to mouth a well-worn homily in a version of Adam’s mid-west twang. “Many hands make light work, when the Mother Earth needs tending!”
“Amen to that! The good Lord gave us the job of looking out for her. Where’s your little eye spyin’ on today, dear?”
“I heard them Limeys saw the light, couple years back. Still.” She shook a warning finger, but with a smile in there. “It’s our job to make sure there aint no back slidin’!”
Matilde nodded. “We do.” Then, because she couldn’t help herself, “There’s hardly enough of them left to slide much of anywhere.”
The woman’s expression slipped, a look of doubt creeping into her crinkly eyes. The tone of her voice dropped a notch. “They only got themselves to blame, hon.”
Knowing she had made a mistake, Matilde lifted the cross from her chest and parroted the woman. “Amen to that, Ma’am!”
The grey-hair smiled again, a kindly grandmother once more. Matilde never asked anybody who they spied on, not wanting to know if someone was looking at Paris, but people would usually offer it up, and now this woman said, “I’ve been watching Oz, but got moved onto France, only just this month. Those Europeans!” The woman shook her head and rolled her eyes.
Despite herself, and careful to hide her accent, she had to ask, “What about ‘em?”
“House of cards aint in it, the way they used to live! Didn’t ask themselves once about what they were doin’, burning up the world like that.”
“Thought they were so-o-o smart, but…” she leaned in, “…they weren’t smart one bit. Nature was telling ‘em right left and centre that they were wrecking the only world we got, but did that stop them?”
Matilde felt herself flush. “I don’t guess it did.”
Wanting to get the conversation away from the place where her mother and brother might just be alive, despite what Jenny thought, Matilde told her, “I’m on London.”
“They used to have that Queen didn’t they? Just as well we had the cojones to step up, save their own country from them. One day, they’ll thank us.”
They had come to the grey hair’s stop, and she smiled a last time and patted Matilde’s arm as she got off. “Spot some burners, hon! In us, God trusts.”
Matilde found she couldn’t meet the woman’s eye. “In us, God trusts.”
It was solid dark in London but that didn’t matter to a drone. Matilde sat in a seat still warm from the previous user and logged into her console, sitting back while her profile booted up. She was on the end of a line of ten, in the middle row of five. Fifty eye-spies keeping their beadies on Southern England.
Captain Collins was walking back and forward, giving his usual pep talk. Saying that the thing with London was that it was just so damned big, and it all needed watched. It was hotter than hell, these days, but we couldn’t let our guard drop, no siree. And all that countryside around it, the outback.
Matilde wanted to say she’d be fine flying her drone over the shimmery outback. No chance of seeing bodies, or people starving to death.
Of course, she would never say that.
At the front of the room, the National Motto glowed in foot high letters. ‘In US God Trusts’. The ‘US’ was emblazoned with the stars and stripes. On the right was a portrait of the President, the one where he was sitting astride a Harley, looking handsome in his Levi’s and cowboy boots. To the left was the 45th President, smiling wide, the guy who thought the unthinkable. Adam had the very same portrait on the wall in his study, and would tell you that nobody realized what a visionary the guy was, in his time. Asking, aint that always the way?
Matilde raised her drone high above the Thames, heading to the seafront, a shorter journey every day. The waves, as always, were colossal and mesmerizing, scouring ever deeper into the ruined city, laying those sky scraping buildings low.
Matilde watched the pounding violence of the scene for bare seconds before turning to fly the familiar route, out towards Richmond. A few years ago, far enough from the gigantic, grinding waves, she would oft-times find signs of life , even in the early hours. Sometimes, she would even spot people moving about, Police or army vehicles patrolling the streets, a curfew on back then, when the place still had a working Government. She might focus in on a house with lights, battery powered lamps or maybe candles, seeing a family in there doing normal stuff. It tugged her heart strings, but she had to look. One time, she’d flown in beside the high school, seeing glimmers of light at several windows, a whole line of vehicles hidden under trees. Something unusual going on.
She had dropped the drone closer and only caught sight of the guy with the shotgun, she thought it was a shotgun, at the last moment. She had sat there for several shocked seconds after the screen went blank, her hands trembling, just as though she had been at physical risk herself.
By the time she looked up, Collins was already striding towards her, concern mixing with excitement on his face. What the guy with the gun didn’t know; if she could have ignored him, pretended she had seen nothing, that’s what she would have done. His shooting of the drone took of any chance of that.
Now, Matilde ignored the charred site of that old high school, passing the crater without even a glance and dropping to just below roof level to patrol the empty streets. No candles now, not for a long time. She glimpsed the empty interiors of house after house, much like her own, and was about to rise again when she caught sight of someone, a pale woman, looking like a ghost as she sat right there in a window, staring out.
Matilde circled back and dropped slowly in front of the house. It was pitch dark, but the clever little camera showed the woman just as if it was full daylight. A blonde of about her own age, probably pretty once, but now she was skeletal. The hands resting on the arms of the chair were like bunches of twigs and in her lap was a bundle that Matilde didn’t want to see.
Matilde had thought the woman was dead, until she flinched and her eyes widened, suddenly focusing on the drone that floated in darkness, only feet from the glass. As Matilde watched, the woman leaned forward, those painful hands tightening on the arms of the chair as she bared her teeth. She toggled quickly, high into the air, needing to get away from the madness in those eyes.
Back at high level, Matilde crisscrossed her patch, adroitly avoiding the ever present flocks of bats. She hoped to see nothing, as usual.
It was close to her coffee break when she caught sight of a faint glimmer of red, like a brake light, only masked. She automatically stalled her drone, letting it hover as she focused its powerful lens.
Frowning, she flew over what was once a large retail park, one she had overflown many times before, recognizing now that something was different. She let the drone drop slowly, easing to the left, and caught her breath.
The whole site had been cleverly camouflaged, she realized now, something like canvas rigged up over a scaffold, to mimic the surface of a car park. As she dropped below it, the whole scene suddenly opened up, maybe twenty lorries in there, tankers, and other static tanks. Men with assault rifles at the perimeter, peering into the darkness, probably searching for a drone.
She froze, her heart beating high and painful in her throat. Everything the drone was looking at, she knew, was being recorded, and even the fact that she was not already hitting her button, shouting out, “I got a burner!” was putting her and her family in danger.
She looked quickly around at her fellow eye-spies, then raised the drone twenty feet, back to where everything looked normal, giving herself a chance to think. Despite the air-con, she felt a line of sweat running down her back. That hidden depot was as flagrant a breach of the Global Fuel Act as could be imagined, and failure to report was treason. A mandatory death sentence, for her, imprisonment for Jenny and Adam.
Matilde thought about the starved woman in the window, the terrible bundle in her lap, and inevitably got around to the unsettling school-run conversation she’d had with Jenny.
Jenny had started it saying, “Miss Sampras says, you must count it such a blessing that you met Daddy.”
Matilde had caught her breath. Had to take a few moments before she could turn to look at her daughter, who was staring vacantly out the side window of the big Ford. Watching the lawn sprinklers, it looked like, their spray shimmering rainbows in the hard sunlight. Jenny, just like her father, oblivious of the impact of anything she said.
Matilde’s voice, when she spoke, was only slightly higher than normal. “Of course I do. Otherwise there would be no you, Jen.”
Jenny rolled her eyes at her Mother’s stupidity. “No. You woulda got trapped in France.”
What to say to that? The near melted asphalt rolled under the car as she wondered about it. Someone she had only met once before, her child’s teacher for God’s sake, coming, effortlessly to her great shame. All she could come up with- “France is still a beautiful place.”
Then, rallying, “Your grandma is there! Your uncle.”
Jenny twisted in her seat to see a particularly complicated sprinkler soaking an improbably lush lawn. “They’ll be dead, Mom. You would be too, if you hadn’t met Daddy.”
Matilde couldn’t speak, for the moment. When she had met the handsome American pilot, she’d taken the chance of escaping to the US, grabbed it with both hands. Leaving her mother to take her chances in a world sliding out of control.
Jenny, the girl who had never met her French relatives, was talking again, still not noticing the shake in her Mom’s breath.
“It serves em out, Miss Sampras says, for what they done to Mother Earth.”
Matilde wiped the tears quickly from her face and gritted her teeth at her own cowardice. The one time she had raised it with Adam, asking couldn’t he do anything to help her family, was the one time he had slapped her. All he had said, “Don’t you ever say that to me again.”
No, that wasn’t all he had said. That evening, he had tossed a photograph onto the table in front of her, the famous one of Manhattan during the flood. He jabbed it with a blunt finger, and when he spoke his voice was thick with anger.
“You know how many people died in that flood, Matilde? Good, God fearing Americans.”
She didn’t lift her head, look at him. “I know.”
“That’s what your Mom did, right there. I hate all those self-indulgent bastards. So, never ask again, ok? They don’t deserve a thing from us.”
Coming up on the school, Jenny had tapped her mother’s arm. “Mom?”
Matilde shook her head, clearing it. “Sorry, Jen, I was gathering wool. What were you saying?”
“Miss Sampras says none of them were proper wicked, not really, not on their own. There were just too many of them, billions, slurping up food, burning all the gas.”
Jenny turned then to ask her mother the question, the same one that had baffled Adam. “How could they have been so selfish, Mom?”
Just like what would happen later that morning, on the travellator, Matilde couldn’t help herself. “You mean, doing exactly what we’re doing?”
Jenny looked shocked. “That’s not the same!”
“Because we’re God’s own Country?”
Jenny smiled, relieved. “Yea! God’s own Country.”
Then they were slowing, just one of dozens of large engined cars gleaming hard outside the school. Jenny said, “Miss Sampras says, before POTUS 45, we were too snowflake to take up our rightful place.”
“You could look at it that way.”
“Too busy helping other folks, even in India.”
Matilde looked away as she parked, not wanting her daughter to see her face. Then she said, “He didn’t believe in climate change, you know. That Trump guy.”
Jenny blew out a breath, hearing such nonsense coming from her Mother. Matilde went on, “Your Dad says he was a visionary, you know what that is?”
When Jenny nodded, but looked uncertain, Matilde pressed on, wanting to get it out. “His vision was simple – only America mattered. Released us from the burden of responsibility to anyone else. The strongest nation, we could finally use that strength in any way we pleased.”
When Jenny looked lost, Matilde pressed her hand and managed a smile, of sorts. “We’re God’s own country, right? So, Jen, what happened when the world started to burn?”
Now Jenny was on firmer ground, and back to rolling her eyes. “I got this in first grade, Mom. We had to stop living like that.”
Matilde hit the button to open the passenger door, letting a burst of fierce heat into the car. “That’s it. We had to stop living like that. Unless of course…” She managed another brittle smile. “We were the only ones permitted to do it.”
Jenny fist pumped. “Yay! In us, God trusts.”
She waved her daughter goodbye, “In us, God trusts, Jen.”
Now, sitting before her console, Matilde took a long breath and closed her eyes. Then she held her hand, high in the air. “Sir! I got a burner.”
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
Guests are gifted a Shallow Creek visitor pack consisting of a map of Shallow Creek, a character profile, a specific location, and an item of interest.
These items shall act as a source of inspiration as Mallum Colt guides his guests through Shallow Creek and reveals the secrets and stories of a town bereft of sleep.
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Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
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