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From the Ashes

Beth Cato is the author of The Clockwork Dagger, a steampunk fantasy novel from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Nature. She's a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Her website is BethCato.com.

"I don't like to come here." Grace's words echoed against the gray shells of brick and stucco.
"I don't really, either," said Ryan, his voice soft and husky all at once. Their boots crunched through ash as if it were snow.
I trailed them by about half a block, anxiety increasing with each step. The kids shouldn't be here in our old neighborhood, but that wasn't what worried me. I'd had the talk with Grace again just a few weeks back. I wasn't stupid. I saw how she and Ryan had started looking at each either. It was a new stage for them, one we adults had joked about since their first mock wedding at age six. We had shared a back fence with the Luises, back before.
Grace and Ryan had only grown closer over the past two years. Not like there were many other kids their age in camp.
The footsteps stopped. "How many times do you think we walked down this street?" Grace asked.
"I don't know. A lot. The 7-11 was right there."
"It's almost Slurpee season." Their steps continued.
That had been our summer break tradition. We'd stop off a few times a week on the way back from the YMCA pool. Grace and Ryan would sit in the back of the van, giggling and slurping their drinks, their lips and tongues dyed cherry-red like psychotic clowns. They'd talk about their kids' club at the library and how much zits sucked and that homework was so unfair.
Now they checked dosimeters and crop yields.
"Did you hear something?" Grace asked.
"There are some birds up there, I think."
I walked with more care, leaning on a staff to keep my footing. My ankle never healed right after we were caught in the blast, the door buckled inward as if punched by a titan. It was a fluke that we'd been driving through the tunnel when it happened, tucked around a perfect bend. The mathematical odds of being at that exact place, at that exact moment, are beyond that of any lottery ticket I'd stupidly bought over the years.
Sometimes in my empty bed at night, I still wondered, why us? Why not my Carl? My little Jakey in kindergarten? Why not Ryan's grandparents?
Ryan looked more like his grandfather now--lean, bronzed. He had grown almost a foot taller in the past six months. He hadn't quite adapted. He walked with a slouch, as if he was trying to stay his old height. I loved that boy like my own, but now I watched him and I was scared. Back before everything happened, when I had talked with Grace, I told her to wait for sex, don't rush it, but it was okay to ask for contraceptives. Better to be safe than sorry. Now--God. There had been a few pregnancies in the camp, and we had great doctors, but nothing was like it used to be. No electronics, no fetal monitors, no ultrasounds. The EMPs took care of all that.
What future did a baby have, growing up here and now? There was no place to completely avoid the radiation or the gangs or the lurking risk of starvation and disease.
What could I do, stalk them constantly? Actually smack Ryan with my wooden stick? I would, if it helped to control their hormones. I tightened my grip on the staff. "I'm their contraceptive," I whispered to myself. I didn't laugh.
"Oh God. I hardly recognized the playground." Grace's voice wavered. With a start, I realized where we were, too. This couldn't be a romantic rendezvous, not here. "Ryan, no. We came here, right after, but..."
The branch library. One of our favorite places. They used to listen spellbound during preschool story-time sessions, and by junior high, they had taken over the program themselves. They had painted a rainbow mural in handprints by the front entry. Carl was so proud. "Maybe my girl's going to be a librarian, too," he had said. If he leaned over the circulation desk, he could see their handiwork.
I leaned on a blackened brick wall. I didn't want to see this place. Those wonderful books, rendered to ash and nothingness. The books and Carl, together. Seemed fitting.
"I know," said Ryan. "But I came through here yesterday, following a deer. I needed to show you something."
Grace gasped.
I worked my way around the ruins, trying to keep out of sight. Ryan held Grace against his chest as she sobbed. I crouched down and squinted to see at a distance. It took me a moment to notice the carpet of green over the ashy mounds.
"After Christmas, after that rain, I came here with one of those flower seed packets. You know, the junked ones. I thought, maybe here was a good place. I scattered them."
"It's beautiful. My mom, she needs to..."
"I wanted to show you first so we could go to Mrs. H together."
Grace laughed through her tears as she looked up at him. "You know how she couldn't stand those awful, overpriced flower bouquets?"
"Yeah. Your dad always brought her wildflowers. 'Makes her happy and it's cheap,' he'd say."
I limped away, blinking, leaving the kids to their moment in the library.
That festering worry in my chest diminished. It didn't go away completely--it would have been there, even in a better world--but I saw a different kind of future. One that was hard, not doomed.
I breathed in. Past the ash, I swear I could already smell the blooms.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Author Comments

As I read a book set after an apocalypse, I got to thinking about parents, teenagers, and hormones. Most of all, I thought about hope.

- Beth Cato
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