“Scorched” – Chapter 3 & 4
If you have not read the first two chapters, or can’t remember why I am posting these rough draft copies of my new novel project, then be sure to follow the link below.
If you liked the story so far (or even if you didn’t), I would love to hear why in the comments at the bottom of this page. These four chapters round off all the ‘point of view’ characters planned for the first novel in the series, so I would also really like to hear who is your favorite and least favorite character out of the intro chapters and why.
Without further ado, here are chapters three and four!
The battery-powered clock on the wall of the basement told Peter Bishop that the sun had finally went back to sleep for another night. It was safe to go up once again.
He rose from a legless pew with its stained red cushioning and stretched, then knelt beside his makeshift bed and began to pray aloud.
“Dear father, thank you for this new night. Please lord, if you so see it fit, send your children unto your house this night. Lead them and me to your will. Amen.”
The prayer had become increasingly shorter over the months. Peter tried not to lose hope. God had a plan, he knew that, what he didn’t know was what the hell that plan was. He silently asked for forgiveness at the thought. He had to be brave. He had to be obedient. If not for himself, then for her.
Peter struck a wooden match and lit a half melted candle. “Time to wake up again, little one,” he said, walking to another broken down pew. “Allison. Allison.”
A small blond child rose from beneath a thin sheet and rubbed her eyes. “What time is it?”
“Almost eight. Time to get up. We have work to do.”
“No one comes.”
She spoke the truth. A truth that he tried not let himself ever think. No one comes. No one is coming. Not a year ago. Not a month ago. Not last night, and certainly not tonight. This was the duty God had given him, though. He knew that, somehow.
“No one has come yet. But we don’t know about tonight yet, now do we?”
“I guess not. I’m hungry.”
Peter was hungry too. He walked to a small closet which was covered by a red sheet pinned at its top in place of a door. Inside he grabbed a box of stale matzo crackers and a near empty jar of peanut butter. He unscrewed the lid and pasted a large cracker with a smear of crunchy brown cream. “Here. Eat.”
“I don’t want peanut butter and crackers again.”
No, he figured not. They hadn’t made a run for food in months—not after what had happened—and they had now been eating boxes of crackers with peanut butter for several weeks.
“That’s all we have.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Allison, you’ve got to eat.”
Reluctantly, she slid off her bed and approached the robed man, taking the makeshift breakfast with a frown and biting into it. “Why do you wear that?”
She had asked a dozen times before, but whether she had forgotten the answer or continued asking to whittle at his patience, he did not know.
“Because this is what the Lord wants me to wear. I have to be ready for when the sheep return.”
“Sheep? What sheep? Aren’t all the sheep dead too? Like the people?”
He cringed as the dark words flowed naturally out of the mouth of a six year old girl. It was hard for anything in this new world to maintain its innocence. She shouldn’t have to think of death and destruction at this age. She should be out playing with other kids, swinging on the play-sets outside or engaged in a fun game of hide-and-seek. He wondered if she even remembered what other children were.
“There are sheep still, child, I assure you. Now eat up and put your shoes on, we’re going out.”
“Out?” Her eyes lit up at the thought, and another feeling of dread washed over Peter. Despite all the chaos out there, she still enjoyed to leave. As safe as the church was, she seemed to always view it as a cage. It brought back memories of when he was much younger, too, and had felt the same way.
“Yes. Out. We need to look for more food.”
“Back to the grocery store?”
“No!” He paused. He hadn’t meant to shout, but he couldn’t go back there. “No … not that one at least. There’s nothing else there for us. We’ll have to go further.”
“Yay!” There it was again. Hope and fascination from someone that didn’t truly understand the risks of leaving the safety of their house of God. And the further away from this hallowed place they went, the more risk there was of getting caught by the bad light. The light that scorched the world.
“This is serious, Allison, remember? We have to be back before the sun rises. And we don’t know what all is out there.”
“I’m ready. Let’s go now!”
“The bells, child. We have to stay for the bells first.”
“Why do we have to even ring the stupid bells?”
“It is the Lord’s will. And it is the sound that will bring the sheep back to the flock.”
“Urg!” She huffed. “Stupid sheep!”
He ignored her, as he knew it was only the frustrations of a child. He could still remember when he felt the same way. In fact, he sometimes had those doubts creep into his heart still, but he wouldn’t admit that to her, and definitely not to himself. Not entirely, anyway.
He lit another candle using the flame from his own and handed it to the girl, its bright flame flickered and reflected in her dark blue eyes. She quietly followed Peter to the stairway, then up to the wooden hatch. He pulled a small silver key from a pocket and undid the padlock, then pushed the door open. He climbed up and out, then turned to help Allison follow. He made sure he closed the hatch again and covered it with part of a red rug.
They walked together down a hall and into the main room. They passed beneath an arch and cross then headed down the center aisle squeezed between pews until they reached the wide, ornate double-doors. He unlocked both and pushed them open. He listened for any sound beyond the opening, but was greeted only by the wind. Peter could not say why, but this was the thing that seemed to frighten him the most—the lack of noise.
In the beginning he remembered hiding down the hatch and being terrified of the far off sounds of gun shots, screams and explosions. After two months, those sounds stopped. For nearly a year after he could hear animals beyond the walls, and he’d often catch glances of the now wild things stalking them as they looked for food and water. Eventually, that stopped too. Even after the animals had left the surroundings of his new home, bugs still chirped as they picked off the last remnants of what had once been a living, breathing town. Now they too were silent. Nothing scared him more than the absence of sound. The absence of life.
“Father? What are you doing?”
“N—nothing. Just enjoying the cool air. That’s all child … that’s all.” Father. She called him it again. He hadn’t bothered correcting her in a long time. It never seemed to help, anyway. He wasn’t a father in any sense. He never had been. He had had many fathers, of course, as all boys in the church had, including his biological one, but he had never fathered a child nor made it to those ranks of the church. He supposed that maybe Allison was his child now. She certainly had no one else, and she relied on him for everything. He hoped he could be better for her than his fathers had been to him … all of them.
“Come, let us ring the bells.”
Again they walked together, adult and then child, to a new room. This room was small and nestled behind the stage which had held so many services. A long, thick rope hung from far above, beyond the illumination of their small candles. He still didn’t understand why they had never put a true mechanism to automate this into the church. Tugging the scratchy rope was archaic and burned his fleshy palms, but he handed his candle to the young girl and dutifully took hold again.
He pulled once, putting his weight into it and dropping nearly to the floor. The loud chime of the three bells going off in unison bellowed through the shaft and into their ears. Alison dropped her candles and covered her ears, but quickly realized her fault and grabbed them from the floor.
“Now we say it?”
“Yes, just the verse. Do you remember still?” She nodded her head. They had been doing this for months, every single night, but sometimes she seemed to choose to forget. He figured that was just a quirk of adolescence.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinner, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
He pulled again; this time the child did not flinch. The bells rang through the church and out into the otherwise silent air, then they repeated their prayer.
Once more he pulled; a third and final time. As the hum ceased they finished their prayer, then exited the cramped room. Peter took back his candle and flinched as hot wax cascaded over his knuckle sin the exchange, crusting onto his skin instantly. With the sound of the bells gone, they approached the stage, then sat and waited.
After a short time, Allison began to fidget as she always did. She sat her candle down beside her in its holder and looked around at a room she had seen hundreds of times before. She kicked her legs in and out as they dangled from the stage and pursed her lips together, making small bubbles of saliva. Peter sat with his focus on the door.
The man in the dream had told him to ring the bells at night so the sheep could escape the wolf. He had said to watch the gate for the flock, but to be weary of those who entered from anywhere else.
“For the one who enters the sheep pen from the side is not welcome. Be weary of the wolf, Peter. Protect the flock.”
It seemed so long ago since he had dreamt of the strange, faceless man. For a time, he had the dream every night, but it had been over a year now since. At the time he had believed it a sign from God. He still hoped it was, but occasionally his faith would drift. What would his father say about that?
He looked down at his aging skin and once again wondered if it had just been a silly dream. They had been ringing the bell now for almost six-hundred nights, and nothing had come through the front doors aside wind and despair.
“I need to use the restroom. Will you be okay to stay and watch the door?”
“Fine. But nothing’s coming. Nothing ever comes. I need to potty too.”
She was right. No one would come. He didn’t even know if there was anyone else left to come. “Just stay, I will be right back and bring some water. If you see anyone or anything, you scream for me. You run and tell me. Don’t go to them. Don’t listen to them. Do you understand.”
She huffed. “Yes father.” There was that word again.
He retreated back below the floorboards and made his way to a small bathroom. The plumbing didn’t work anymore, of course, but there was some comfort in relieving himself into the bowl. Even if he knew he’d have to empty it again, it was somehow easier to go here than outside like an animal. Peter Bishop was not an animal.
As he emptied his bladder and the strong smell of dehydration filled the small room, he watched his reflection in the tiny mirror behind the sink, beside the toilet. Whether the trick of the flickering candle or of the past two years, he noted with distaste how old he had started to look. The girl called him father, and he was starting to look the part. It made him sick looking at a live image of himself and seeing traces of his dad. Grey hair had pushed out the last of the brown, wrinkles had become more predominant around his eyes and brow. He was at least glad the baldness his dad had been cursed with had not started yet.
It was strange remembering his father. There was never a time he could imagine that his father had not been grey and bald. He was gone now, though. And God forgive him, Peter was glad for that.
A loud scream sounded above, bringing Peter out of his memories and causing him to splash drops of piss onto his stolen robe. He ran as fast as he could to the stairs, ignoring the last jugs of water in the cupboard that he had intended to drink from. He met the wooden steps just as the hatch was flying open and Allison was crashing down. She lost her footing and tumbled, colliding with the only father she knew, sending him flying backwards.
Peter’s head connected to the corner of the pew that was his bed and before everything went dark, he could have sworn he heard the howl of a wolf.
“When you goina give it up, cuz?” James King asked as he spun circles in an old office chair.
“Don’t you reckon if somebody heard you they would’ve done come by now?”
He had a point, but what else was she supposed to do? Her adult life had always been about routines and what was supposed to be. This was her life now; this was her nine-to-five. “Maybe. I don’t know. The radio can be picked up from who knows how far away.”
James extended a booted foot against the desk to stop himself from another turn. “Who knows how far? Thought you were a scientist, cuz. That’s why I came to find you. Remember? Knew you’d survived. You were always smart growin’ up. Smart enough to get out of the hollow.”
“I … I am. But not that kind. I mean, I know a bit about them but I never studied them. I’m a biologist.” She stood up straight and proud when she said that, pushing her black-rimmed glasses back up her nose. She had been the first in either branch of her family to even attend college, let alone complete a Doctorate.
“Blah, blah. Yeah, plants or whatever.”
“Not just plants—”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ma go take a leak. You comin’.”
“No … I’m going to stay and keep trying.” In truth she had to go too, but she felt safer when her cousin was away than when she was with him. In nature there was almost always strength in numbers, she knew that maybe more than anyone else left alive, but there was something about him she didn’t trust. She didn’t trust most people, men and relatives doubly so.
“Suit yourself, blondie.” He picked up one of the kerosene lanterns and headed out the thin double-doors of the college radio station. Now she could concentrate.
She carefully adjusted the output frequency to a new number on the makeshift transmitter. As much as she thought of her cousin as a dumb redneck from back home, he was smarter than her in some ways. He was very mechanical, but he was also cunning and manipulative, she knew. She remembered events she had witnessed first hand growing up, and had heard many more over the years. There was a definite intelligence under that old holey cowboy hat he wore, and for a moment she wondered if he intentionally pretended to be dumber than he truly was.
With his help, they had found a way to hook a small transmitter radio to the school’s large antenna. It would have been far easier just to broadcast from the setup already there, but even if they could have found a generator, she knew, it wouldn’t have been powerful enough for that. She popped the power on and began to broadcast the same message she always did.
“This is Doctor Tara King. I am at the Knoxville College. Can anyone hear me? If so, then please come to the College. I repeat. Come to the Knoxville College if you can hear me. We have supplies. Food. Water.”
She paused for a few moments before repeating the message again and again. She had been broadcasting for over a year. She feared that James had the right of it. No one was coming. If there even was anyone else alive out there who was close enough for the waves to reach, they wouldn’t have a powered radio. She sighed.
“Still no visitors I see.” James said, bursting through the doors and causing Tara to startle.
“You know good and well it’d take time. No one’s going to hear that and be over right away.”
“Maybe. Don’t take too long to drive here though when there ain’t no traffic anymore.”
She shook her head, he had to be putting on a show, but why do that when she was the only audience? “I’ve been thinking about that, actually.”
“Yeah … maybe we should see if one of the cars works and leave.”
“Yeah. I mean, I was thinking.” She paused and scrambled items around on the thin desk looking for the map she had spent the daylight hours reading. “See, right here? We could go there and try to use the cell tower or something. I don’t know how … but I’m sure we could figure it out together. That would be able to send it a lot—”
“Hold up sugar-britches. You want us to go take a car we don’t know if works or not and go to some little nothing in the mountains up east? You have fun with that. I think I’ll just sit my happy little ass right where it’s at if you don’t mind.” He popped the cap off of a warm soda bottle and took a deep drink. “Damn that burns goin’ down.”
“We can’t just sit here forever! We have to find—”
“I don’t have to find nothin’. The way I see it, cuz, we’re all fucked. You and me got it good here. For all we know everybody else is done dead or dying. Hell, I bet you’re right though. There’s probably some people out there somewhere. But then so what? What’s the point? World’s over sunshine. Might as well sit back and enjoy what we got here ‘til it’s gone too.”
She prided herself on not getting angry easily, but he knew how to find hidden buttons and use just the right words to get under her skin. “Don’t call me that!” She felt ten again. She could have sworn she smelled her dad’s breath once more.
Come on sunshine. It won’t hurt this time.
Her eyes began to burn with tears and she felt sick to her stomach. She switched the radio off and ran out the doors furious. She pulled a small key-ring flashlight from her pocket and twisted it to life, not that she truly needed it anymore. She had walked these corridors so frequently now that navigating it in the dark would have been easy. She made her way to the cafeteria, then out into a courtyard and sat on the bricks and began to cry.
In a way, it felt good. It had been so long since she had let herself cry. She never wanted to feel vulnerable in front of him—she never wanted to feel vulnerable in front of herself—but there was a release there. The worst part wasn’t the memories or the name, she had overcome that incredible, dark hurdle in her life already, or so she thought, but that she knew he was right. Even if they contacted more people, then what? Why was it she felt a need to gather with others, her of all people? Before the blasts, she avoided people as if they were carrying a virus. And to her, they were. People brought instability. People brought the unknown. Animals, plants, microbes—those things she could trust—those wouldn’t betray her. Those would not hide their true nature.
Her fingers instinctively began to trace the locket she wore. It was a gift from her mom before she went off to college. She didn’t know why she cherished it so much. The woman knew what was happening all those years. She knew and didn’t stop it. She could have stopped it—she should have.
“Look cuz, I didn’t mean it, alright?” James’ voice came from behind, carried on the air and mingled with the sudden scent of tobacco and mint. “I just. You know what I mean? It’s just like, well hell, what’s the point? If you want to leave though I mean, well I’ll go with ya. You’re family, and daddy always told me blood comes before anything. You just got to know what it’ll mean ‘sall.”
She tried to inconspicuously wipe her face and clear her throat before turning towards him and opening her mouth.
“Here, brought you a Pibb. Know it’s your favorite.”
She took the can and feigned a smile. It really would be so much easier to stay. The college still had tons more supplies than they had found on their short voyages through the surrounding town. She guessed most people hadn’t thought to loot a school. Better than that though was the fact they still had water. She didn’t quite understand how that all still worked, and James had tried to explain it once, but it hadn’t helped.
“I know what it means.”
“Do ya now?”
She took a sip of the warm soda and swallowed. The action reminded her bladder it was full and she stood up. “Yeah.”
“Can’t trust there’ll be any food or water out there nowheres. Gotta take what we can if we do this. But that ain’t the worst of it.” He sat down on the bricks beside where Tara had just been, then laid back against the dead, brown grass and pushed the rim of his hat over his eyes. “Won’t be so hard to find somewhere dark to stay when we’re still in the city. Hell, there’ll be houses all over the outskirts too. But your tower there’s in the mountains. Won’t be much of nothing up there. May run across somethin’ if we’re lucky. But likely as not if we even make it up there in one night, sun’ll get us before.”
She felt stupid that she hadn’t really though about that. After a while it had all almost become normal—the being awake only at night—the absence of light aside from the flashlights and lanterns. She hadn’t so much forgotten as buried the cause of their new way of life down behind her routines. He was right again. He seemed to always be right. Maybe they should stay put.
“And besides all that, who says the people we attract going to be any good for us? You and me, we’ve been through hell for sure, but what has all the others been going through? Might be worse. All this shit can change a man real fast. You look at what you think people are like cuz, then throw out everything they know. And I ain’t just talkin’ about their fancy cars and their TV’s; I’m talkin’ ‘bout their lives, the people they knew, laws, rules, the basis of everything they are. End it. All at once. You say you’re a Biologist and I’m sure out there on some wall is a useless paper sayin’ the same, well I tell you that men are just as bad as an animal if you put ‘im in a corner. You best hope your faith in finding the good ones turns out true, ‘cause once it comes down to it, we might not just be fighting the morning.”
She hadn’t thought of that either. There had just been some internal need to find more people—to group the suffering. She didn’t trust anyone, and knew how animalistic humans could be—she knew it first hand—but there was still that tugging in her heart that this was what she had to do, regardless what her brain said. This was her purpose. It was what had been keeping her alive; it was what was keeping her sane. She couldn’t throw that away regardless the risk.
Tara grabbed the lantern James had sat down and started walking off toward one of the parking lots. James, alerted to her departure by the sound of crunching grass beneath her feet, jumped up from his scratchy bed.
“Hey. Hey! Where’re you goin’?”
“To find a car.”
“A car? Now? We don’t—”
“Just shut up and help me find one. You did say you’d go, right?”
He jogged up next to her as she continued on down the path. “Well yeah. I said that. Didn’t know yet if I meant it or not.”
“I’m going with or without you. Stay if you want.”
“And how the hell’d you figure out how to get the antenna workin’?”
“I’d figure it out.”
He laughed. “Yeah, you were doin’ a damn fine job of that when I found ya too.”
They walked in silence for what felt like a very long time to Tara, and her mind began to wonder. She wondered if they really could make the trip in time. If they left right as the sun went down, they’d have maybe nine, ten hours tops at this time of year to make it there, broadcast, and then make it somewhere safe. If they made it, it would be their best chance of putting out a signal wide enough for anyone to hear. Then they could come. She could begin suffering with others instead of alone with her cousin. Maybe then she could rest a little. There would be someone else to shoulder some of the responsibilities. She felt guilty thinking of something so selfish and strange in this new world, but she could use a vacation, even if it only meant not having to man the signal everyday.
Then she thought about the other type of people that could come. The ones that James seemed to be so certain that were all that were left. Animals. Not men. James had at least a few guns with him still, but that wouldn’t do much good if they were outnumbered. She hadn’t ever touched a gun, and wasn’t sure she wanted to, even if it came down to survival. Either way, if people came with the intent of stealing their supplies and killing them, it didn’t matter how many they took down before they were killed—or worse. How had she not thought about this all before? Maybe she shouldn’t go to the tower. Maybe she should stop all broadcasts, for that matter.
“Well, here we are.” James’ voice sounded through the chilly night air, bringing her out of her thoughts temporarily.
“Y … yeah.”
“You alright cuz?”
He squinted like he always did when he was trying to read her, but she wouldn’t let him this time. She turned towards the first car and tried to look through the window. She cupped her hand over her eyes and against the glass, but still couldn’t make out anything inside.
The sound of glass shattering made her scream. The sound of James’ laughter soon replaced it.
“Don’t do that! What the hell are you doing?”
“I don’t think anybody’s goina mind. And unless you learned how to pick a car lock in those fancy classes of yours, this is how it’s going to be.”
She tried to ignore the jab. Why should she be ashamed that she had escaped that hell-hole and made something better for herself. “I guess. Any luck?”
“Check under the visor.”
“Nope.” He opened and rummaged around a console between the seats. “Wait! What do we have here.”
“Oh my God you found a key?”
“Nah, better.” He came out of the car holding up a bag of barbecue chips, and shoved one into his smiling mouth. Tara slapped him on the arm.
“You shit. I thought you found keys.”
“Well, ya know, probably not a smart idea lookin’ through the parking lot. Not many cars left here, and I’m almost damn sure nobodies gonna have left keys in them.”
“Do you know how to hot-wire them?”
“Just what kind of guy you think I am cuz? A criminal?” He smiled. “Well, maybe a little.”
Tara watched as he popped the hatch open on the back of the SUV and opened a compartment. There was a jack, spare tire, and a small toolbox inside. He opened the toolbox and dug around for a few things then went back through the front door. She circled to the front and leaned back on the hood. The stars were so bright, and there were so many of them. She wondered if there was anyone else still out there looking up at the same ones. As she watched the heavens, the sound of banging, tearing, and the occasional curse came up muffled from the car’s interior. He was doing it. He was going to make it run. Her sweaty hands once again made their way to the locket. She lifted it and popped the little heart open, reading the inner inscription as she often had over the years.
She heard sparks and smelled a hint of burned plastic. It was really happening, and now she wasn’t sure if she wanted it to anymore. Was she listening to the right part of herself? It wouldn’t matter. He couldn’t start it. Even if he ended up proving he knew how, the vehicle had been sitting there motionless for almost two years. It wouldn’t work. The battery had to be dead, or the intenseness of their own star would have cooked something beyond usability. She would be safe. They would stay there at the school where she had already spent so much of her life. They had food there. They had water. And most of all, they didn’t have anyone else to not trust than themselves. As long as it didn’t work she would have an excuse to go back. She didn’t have to let James know he had been right.
The sound of sparks came again, then the rumbling of an engine coming back to life.
“Yeehaw! Damn straight. It works cuz. You’re welcome. Ya got what you wanted.”
As always, thanks so much for reading. If you choose to leave a comment about the story so far below, I would be eternally grateful.
See you soon with chapters five and six!