They had been cooped up in the bunker for six years when the supplies finally ran dry. In the last of those months she had to bury her husband, who killed himself during the acid winter, and the canary he insisted on keeping. Once the clouds cleared into spring she found his half-burnt corpse outside and dug him a proper grave in the backyard, by the old tire swing. The only memento of him that remained was a note.
She has to survive. I’m sorry. I love you both. – A.
It wasn’t fair but she knew in her heart she was most equipped to survive. She had the training and the knowledge even before the calamity. He did it to save them food, to keep them through the deadly season. But the bunker had grown quiet since he died. There was something missing around the hearth each night. Stories.
The wild, mad stories of her husband that he told to entertain them both. She found them silly and never saw the point, until her daughter laughed or stared wide eyed over the fire at his hand gestures and exaggerated voices. At the shapes he made with shadows. Once she asked him why he did it. Why it was so important. Why he wasted time with stories about dragons and giants.
“Stories do more than tell you dragon’s exist,” he said as if quoting someone but he would never say who, “They tell you they exist. And can be defeated.”
Out in the mean world there was little time for stories. She had fastened a bow and a few arrows from sturdy wood and broken pieces of steel. It took her a month to learn it, though she did with excellent skill; a machete the only other weapon on her belt.
The sky churned with a smoky doom. Clouds of dust and dry lightning encircled the smoldering landscape. The spines of burnt trees made up forests she once loved. They were now peopled by atomic horrors, lurching cannibals, and polluted water. Where this road would take them she had no notion, only the direction of the wind and the distant sun, which was barely visible behind the clouds, could guide them.
There was a ridge about five clicks north which they hiked too. Her daughter fell behind, her feet sore, and made a low whimpering noise. She set her bow down and moved to check on the girl’s feet for blisters or anything she might have stepped on.
“You’re fine. Come on.”
“But I’m tired.”
“If you can’t walk when you’re tired, you’ll die out here.”
Her daughter looked at her with a fearful wonderment. Though she fell silent and held the rope tied to her waist, ready to continue. The mother retrieved her bow and tugged them along up the slope.
At the ridge, behind a boulder to defend them from snipers, she opened her backpack to offer the girl preserved food in a can. She ate it quietly and watched something in the distance. The mother hadn’t noticed, sharpening an arrowhead on a piece of whetstone. Grinding the rust from its edges.
This grabbed her attention, quickly bringing her gaze to the horizon. But she saw nothing. Only a narrow valley with overhead power lines running over its hills into the horizon. The black cords of its electrical wires threaded in and out, unchanged by the Fall. Mere relics of days bygone.
She nearly said this, overhead power lines. Then she realized her daughter had no idea what those were, that she had no frame of reference for these ancient structures. She had never seen them before.
Her husband’s voice resonated in her mind, the mirth in his eyes which never faded even in the somber light of their new world of terror. The stories which kept him going, which kept them all going, around the hearth in the darkness. She had thought it delusion. Escapism. A form of levity to remove the sting of their harsh life. It wasn’t. It had only been that to her. But to her daughter, and to her husband, it had been hope. It had been belief. That there was only the time between night and day. Nothing more.
“They’re dress forms, for giants.”
Her daughter looked at her like she had two heads.
“You know dress forms, right? I showed you. It’s what I used to make my clothes in the bunker. When I was teaching you how to sew, remember?”
“Well, before the Fall, there were giants that roamed through the world. Daddy told you about them. About the beanstalks, the Prince of Aragon, Paul Bunyan. They were so enormous they had to use these great dress forms to make their clothes. Those black wires are the threads, which we used for electricity. The giants let us.”
“Why do those ones have four arms?”
“Well male giants had four arms. Two to lift the boulders. Two to throw them.”
Her daughter nodded as she began to understand.
“What happened to all the giants then, mom?”
“They went up the beanstalks into the clouds, when the Fall happened. They won’t come down until we fix the world. Since they’re safer up above.”
“Is that where dad went?”
She paused and felt something come up from her stomach. A deep pain. It gripped her heart and tore her up. Her eyes, dry from the dust, began to weep. She nodded, having not let herself feel sad in a long time. Seeing this, her daughter took her hand.
“We’ll have to fix it then,” the girl said, “So he comes back with the giants.”
What awaited them beyond this moment could not be fathomed. Only the stars, which distantly observed the now broken earth, held any knowledge of its future. The vast darkness of space seeming so far away. But the secret of the stars were the secrets of ghosts.
Things would not be easier as the summer threatened to blaze hotly with wildfires. Another acid winter to scorch the remains of the Earth. And food would be scarce. Picked at. Struggling to be obtained. Other threats lurked in caverns, between the gnarled black fingers of trees, howling only in the night. Things which kept her bow notched, her eyes shifting between the corners and obscura of the rustling wilderness.
But they had one another. The safety of company. Their bond, whether believed solely biological or something else. A spiritual need. They had stories as well, the memory of the past, tales of great heroes and lovely princesses. Giants and dragons. Victory. Love. And they had Hope.
Above all, they had Hope.