The horses died first, then the donkey. Well technically, the neighbors died first, followed by their dog. Then the horses and the donkey.
Mike, digging a trench with the backhoe, tried to make himself laugh so he wouldn’t cry. Should have called that stupid donkey ‘Dug’ instead of ‘Doug’, he thought, L – O – fucking – L.
He scooped a fresh bucket of dirt, backhoe lurching as the track caught the edge of the pit. Through the dusty windshield, he could see his wife stagger across the yard. His laugh crumpled up and died in his throat.
“Stop crying,” his father would have told him. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
When Mike was a kid he had filled a notebook with reminders to his future self, of things to do and others to avoid when he was old enough to be a dad, when he was under his own roof, because, as Mike’s first entry had referenced, his father always said, “As long as you’re under my roof, you’ll abide by my rules.” The Flu had rendered his father powerless, had changed the rules. It had given the whole World something to cry about.
Mike remembered writing the title inside the front cover of an untouched teal blue exercise book. He could see his 10-year-old fist, knuckles skinned from arriving at boxing practice without his wraps, writing as neatly as possible. “Don’t Count the Days; Make the Days Count?” No, his favorite Muhammad Ali quote had been included in his log, but not as the title… What had he called it?
The first cases had been diagnosed a few months ago, back when Trump’s tweets were still leading the headlines, before the stores sold out of canned goods, when people still cared enough about politics to don a pink hat and make a cardboard protest sign. “Keep your tiny hands off my human rights!” the signs read; “#NotMyPresident”; or “Free Melania.”
Mike watched his wife leave the shadow of the barn, her red hair catching the afternoon sun. Soon she would be within reach of the backhoe’s bucket which lay, curled up like a gorilla’s fist, resting in dirt up to its knuckles. He could see The Flu’s calling card: deep blackish crimson streaks of burst blood vessels leaching along each side of her jaw and down her neck.
Reports of The Flu had appeared on the news and social media the way corn pops in sizzling oil, a couple little news bits here, a few social media posts over there, until there were so many reports that it covered all else.
Talking heads had dominated the airwaves as political leaders, health care experts and World Health Organization representatives offered news, reports and advice. Each agreed: once those red streaks showed up, The Flu’s virulent strain of meningitis had destroyed all brain activity, leaving nothing but 100% rates of transmissibility and mortality.
Gurus instructed people to positive-think it away; pharmacies and liquor stores sold out; President Trump blamed it on the Wall not being finished earlier.
Mike watched Sarah approach, trying not to see her as his wife, his bride, his girl. It would be easier if he could only concentrate on the threat she carried and what must be done to contain it.
“This’ll hurt me more than it hurts you,” he muttered, understanding those words for the first time. He remembered adding that phrase to his workbook, remembered tracing the letters over and over again, his Bic ballpoint denting the paper before it tore right through and sealed three pages together as though cauterizing them.‘Best I can Be?’ No. Something to do with ‘best’, though…
Stores sold out of water, then water purifying tablets. Canned goods, disposable masks, can openers. Camping supplies, shot gun shells. Gardening tools with longest handles went first; their reach was better for food production. Not to mention self-protection. But the stubby ones were looted too, of course, because, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”
Mike and Sarah hadn’t had to go the city to stock up, they had their farm. Mike’s book ‘Best of the Best’? No… channeled Abraham Lincoln, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
They had put their hours in, preparing for the arrival of their babies. By the time the Flu had shown up in Washington County, the nursery was complete, the freezers and pantry full, the twins were home. From sleepers to shotguns, they had two of everything, plus another one for good luck. “Be prepared.”
Mike picked up the baby monitor, clicked it on and off again, refreshing the video feed. Mike had brought it into the backhoe’s cab earlier, and now it showed dual cribs in quiet gray tones, inert. There was a strip of lights beneath the twilight image, to register and display noise, but Mike was not concerned with those. It’s not like he could stop what he was about to do, if the twins started to cry. He had brought the monitor out so he could ensure that they were the only occupants of their room. He didn’t know what he would have done if he had found Sarah on that dusky little screen instead of wandering outside.
What WAS the name of that book? Mike wondered again, desperate for something to focus on besides wishing he didn’t have to do the thing that would come next.
His father would have said, “Wish in one hand, Mike, and shit in the other; see which one fills up first.”
Mike checked the baby monitor for activity; the boys were still sleeping. He had a couple of minutes yet.
He leaned his head against the battered headrest, let the backhoe’s idling motor roughly rock him. If he looked out the other window, he couldn’t even see Sarah. He could see the corner of their house, the wood shed, the fields of grain bowing in the wind to the mountains beyond. He wondered how he would bring that crop in by himself.
Mike looked back at the barn to measure his wife’s lurching progress. Almost there.
A fight with his father had been the catalyst for his notes. Mike had yelled something about hating him, and his father had said, “Yeah? Think you know everything, like you’re better than me? Fucking write it down, then, everything you hate about me, how you’ll grow up so fucking perfect… you fucking little shit.”
One of the boys must have stirred in their room, sending a red cascade of warning lights across the monitor’s chubby plastic face. They would be awake and needing him soon. Mike remembered his best-loved quote, “Any asshole can be a father, it takes someone special to be a Dad.”
Sarah was right on the edge of her grave, now, wobbling in the breeze, hair dancing around her vacant eyes. Mike gunned the motor.
Now he could remember the name of his notebook, it had been, “Best. Dad. Ever.”
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.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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