Somewhere in the predawn haze an Artic Tern chirped. The upbeat notes slipped through the woods like a warm spring breeze, and yet failed to crack our grim demeanor. Since strapping on the skis, neither of us had spoken a word and the scraping of fiberglass over hard-packed snow served as the only reply to our feathered friend.
At the crest of a small rise, James, the former used car salesman from Vegas, abruptly held up, and I slid to a stop. Using only his elbows to balance on his poles––a skill he would never have mastered in the Nevada desert––the big man carefully opened the black plastic case that hung around his neck and raised a pair of binoculars.
I waited silently and watched the swirls of morning fog dissipate between stunted trees. The Yukon was still a primitive land. A rising sun peeled back the darkness like a curtain being raised, revealing a bleak and forbidding coastline. Our last stand.
The hill sat two miles south of our cabin and provided a full view of the western approaches, the only way onto the peninsula that poked out into the Beaufort Sea. After two months, the daily trek had taken on religious overtones.
“It’s not just cloud.” His matter of fact tone carried an ominous edge, and confirmed my worst fear.
“Are you sure?”
He turned and showered me with a look of distain. Even after all these months, those cold blue eyes gave me the shivers. Having ridden roughshod over frailer humans his entire life, James despised weakness. It was a mistake to appear vulnerable in his eyes.
He shoved the glasses at me. “See for yourself.”
My hands trembled as I took the binoculars.
Gray clouds rolled across the sky in an endless procession, propelled eastward by screaming arctic winds. But what caused my stomach to lurch had nothing to do with the cruel and inhospitable weather. Rather it was the faint silhouettes of figures framed within those vast cumulous clouds. They looked the same as I remembered; hazy and contorted, advancing relentlessly forward.
Nightmarish memories surged out of my subconscious. “Bastards,” I whispered.
Two years ago they appeared off the coasts of every continent. Scientists and pundits stared into the sky and declared the legions of marching figures the beginning of a new age. Experts affirmed them to be enlightened aliens making first contact or, at the very least, telepathic greetings sent from across the cosmos. Religious leaders proclaimed the second coming and people stayed glued to their TV’s, or made a beeline for the water to watch the revelation firsthand.
“Like bloodhounds,” James said. “Sons-of-Bitches found us.”
I didn’t reply. In truth, there was nothing to be said.
The BBC described them as ‘rows of crude marionettes marching forward in coordinated, spasmodic steps, the actions a parody of human movement.’
The coverage was 24/7 and we watched for three days as the minions advanced robotic-like toward the coast, their outlines growing larger, and yet fuzzy in the pale Californian sky. The faces, surrounded by a soft, reddish hue, remained blank and expressionless. Finally, after hours of intense anticipation, their long shadows touched land.
And people began to die.
They fell by the thousands. Anyone touched by the shadows succumbed in seconds. Like an expanding fireball from a nuclear detonation, the marionettes left entire communities barren. Nothing could stop the advance.
Most victims passed quietly, slipping peacefully to the ground as if settling into bed. Others vanished into nothingness in the blink of an eye. But what riveted everyone’s attention was what happened to select individuals. Those unfortunate ones, scattered across different lands, became engulfed in flame or saw their skin slowly peel off their torsos in a slow motion death sequence. Before the last television station faded into static, survivors got a good look at the charred and flayed corpses twitching in the middle of downtown streets. Their screams may have lasted only a few seconds, but the death cries reverberated around the planet.
Our civilization, in the making for thousands of years, descended into chaos. Throngs of terrified people surged inland. Cities burned. But the legions of marching marionettes, oblivious to the carnage, trudged relentlessly forward, sowing death and destruction with every clumsy step.
Inside the cloudbank I could discern the familiar voluminous shapes, the same jerky movements. I suddenly found it hard to breathe.
“We’d better get back,” James mumbled, sounding both angry and frustrated. “The others would want to know.”
He waited until I swiveled my skis before following me down the hill. My thoughts had seized up, my mind a blank sheet as I retraced the path to the cabin.
“Christ!” I exclaimed. “I haven’t seen this much food since we broke into that school cafeteria in Regina.” The wooden table overflowed with steaming pots of soup, and plates of pasta and vegetables.
Maggie wiped her hands on her apron but frowned in my direction. “I’ll thank you for noticing the work, young Calvin, but there’s no need for swearing with young ears around. You will mind your words in my kitchen.”
Offering her a chagrinned smile, I slid into the seat next to the woodpile. Maggie’s daughter Rachel made a show of rolling her eyes.
“I’ve heard swear words before, mother.”
“Not in my house.” Maggie tucked a lock of greying blonde hair behind her ear before taking another bubbling pot off the cast iron stove.
I winked at Rachel. “That’s what mothers are for,” I whispered. “They act like word police.”
She smiled back. The thirteen year old had a crush on me ever since James and I pulled her and Maggie out of a burning car on the outskirts of Juneau nine months ago.
Maggie was initially apprehensive about her daughter’s infatuation until she saw where my values lay. I may have only been six years older but Rachel and I were separated by a lifetime of experience.
The corollary was that Maggie treated me like a long lost nephew and even though she was nearly forty, it was hard to think of her as anything but family.
I marveled at the irony. The end of the world and I’m living with two unattached females, one entering puberty and one acting like my mother.
The chair jostled next to me, interrupting my musings. Wilbur and his ever-present smartphone took his seat at the table. If he noticed the feast over the beeps and whistles of his game he gave no indication.
We picked him up several weeks after finding the girls, the last surviving member of a group that made a stand just north of Fairbanks. Botulism corrupted their canned food, and Wilbur got to witness his family’s final hours of poisoned agony.
He told us his name but not much else. Even after six months he rarely uttered a word. He managed to hook his up game to a warped solar panel on the roof so he could play practically nonstop. Needless to say he didn’t interact with the rest of us much, choosing instead to cloister himself with the handheld in whatever corner of the cabin happened to be free.
“Everyone sleep well?” Maggie tossed the question over one shoulder as she shifted pots on the stove’s only burner. Everyone understood the unspoken question; did anyone actually get any sleep, or did we pace the confines of our small rooms like convicts the night before the scheduled executions?
A chorus of ‘ayes’ answered her.
She smiled and shoved a log into the side of the stove.
“Can’t be much left in the storeroom,” I said. “Considering what we’ve been eating the last couple of days.”
Her pleasant expression never wavered as she carried a steaming bowl to the table. I swear that women could smile through a root canal.
“Getting pretty empty,” she admitted and then winked at her daughter. “Don’t worry, I’ve saved the last chocolate bar for us.”
I realized at that moment none of us would be making another run into the village for food.
Maggie squeezed Rachel’s cheek and exchanged a meaningful look with me. I didn’t say another word.
Three days had passed since James and I returned to the cabin with the news. Oddly enough, the group took the report calmly. No hysterics. No crying. I wondered if, after two years, we were simply tired of running.
To her credit Maggie fed us like kings. Wilbur remained occupied with his game and I watched the marionettes grow larger in the sky. Like a well-heeled army, they were advancing on our humble abode in a grim and determined fashion.
The screen door screeched open and the large, familiar frame of the car salesman filled the archway. He carried a melancholy mood at the best of times, but the unsavory look he brandished about the room was harsh even for him.
“Shadows have reached the village,” he announced brusquely. “Road’s cut off.”
His face hidden by the handheld, Wilbur snorted. “As if there was somewhere to go. We’re at the edge of the world for God’s sake.”
The tips of James’s ears turned red. I knew when it was time to interrupt. “Wilbur’s got a point. Short of swimming across the Arctic Ocean, this is as far north as we can get.”
The big man turned his glare on me. The amount of vehemence in that look required a lifetime of practice. “So what now, college boy? You going to just sit back and accept it? Or spend the last few hours talking about the good times and our last road trip?”
He was intimidating but I learned long ago not to back down. His kind dominates the meek and mild. Still, I had to talk around the lump that formed in my throat. “You asked me the same questions in Colorado after the nuclear plant went critical and the fallout almost got us. And in those hick towns in Montana and Alberta . . . you remember the discussion we had at the church when we arrived the morning after the fire.” I shivered at the memory. James tensed even more, like a lion about to spring.
“Not to mention Juneau, Whitehorse and, damn, how many other ghost towns? Each time we picked up and, unlike the corpses festering in the streets, moved on. All the way from California . . .” I took a deep breath. The parade of memories created a tremor in my voice and the girls stared at me wide-eyed.
“James, dammit, there’s nowhere to run! The sea is at our back and now the road is blocked. Even you can’t outrun those demons across the tundra. Unless you’re Moses in disguise and plan to separate the seas.”
“Bah!” He threw off his parka and stomped across the kitchen. “I should never have saved your sorry ass in the first place.” His voice trailed into whisper. “Silver spooned college boy . . . ” He used a napkin to wipe the sheen of sweat off his forehead. “Freaking weather is unnatural,” he declared.
I hid a smile, recognizing his familiar ploy of changing topics when he felt cornered. “Look at me; I’m sweating in the bloody arctic,” he said. “It’s sunny for the four thousandth day in a row.”
Wilbur snorted again, this time in obvious agreement. Then again, they both had a point. Since the initial sightings it had been nothing but sun and cloud. No rain. No snow. Nothing. It was if someone housed a giant weather machine in their attic and pressed the pause button before stepping out. Two years ago.
The bluster went out of the big fella and he slumped into the chair at the head of the table. His eyes seemed distant for a few moments before he noticed the feast. His gaze flicked to Maggie before coming to rest on me.
Maggie found space in the center to lay down a final plate of rolls. She removed her apron and invited everyone to dig in.
Wilbur paused his game and grabbed his utensils.
It was Rachel who asked the obvious question. “Are they are getting closer, Mr. Kennedy? The shadows I mean, are they’re coming this way?”
James was ready to spit back a caustic remark when Maggie’s sudden throat clearing made him hesitate. “Er, yeah . . . well a little. There are questions about direction––”
“Now, Rachel.” Maggie leaned in to ladle some split pea soup into her daughter’s bowl. “Let’s remember our manners. Mr. Kennedy just got in and needs a few minutes to catch his breath. There will be plenty of time to talk about shadows later.”
“Yes, Mother,” Rachel murmured.
We ate in silence until Wilbur’s game started beeping.
“Battery’s low,” he mumbled, pulling away from the table and hustling out of the room.
“Where’s he going?” Rachel asked.
James grabbed a roll. “Haven’t you been paying attention, missy? He’s climbing up the roof to reconnect his do-dad to the solar panel he’s got taped to the smoke stack.”
“How’d he know how to do that anyway?” I asked. “He’s got about ten different wires connected to that . . . phone.”
“Easy,” Maggie said. “He was in university like you, Calvin. Third year electrical at MIT. Must have been doing well too because he mentioned something about an internship at NASA.”
“How’d you know that?”
“How else? I asked him.”
I blinked. “Well I’m glad he talks to someone around here.”
“Why does he keep playing that game all day?” Rachel asked.
James snickered. “Because he’s acting like an ostrich burying his head in the sand. He’s hiding from––”
“Carrots, James?” Maggie thrust the bowl under the man’s nose. “You look like you could use some fiber.”
“Huh? Uh, thanks. I was just speculating . . . ”
By the confused look on Rachel’s face, she had no idea what he was getting at.
“Maybe Wilbur’s still in shock,” I said. “We did pull him out of a tight predicament.”
James sneered. “You show me anyone here who hasn’t survived a bad situation. We’ve all lost family and friends, and that’s not the worst of it.”
His voice trailed off but I could tell he wanted to say more.
An awkward silence followed as the four of us made an effort to keep eating. But without an actual appetite it was hard to do.
Side by side, Maggie and I leaned over the deck rail and stared silently into the sky. Legions of fluffy white clouds swept across another pale blue morning, beautiful sirens of death. High above them, the indistinct forms of shuffling mannequins marched inexorably forward.
The wooden rail under my arms felt cool and rough, but the sight of those marionettes had me sweating. It was a relief to drop my gaze and stare at the weathered decking.
Maggie rocked slowly on the balls of her feet, using her elbows to pivot against the wood. “Mr. Kennedy says the shadows will reach the cabin tomorrow,” she said quietly.
I caught her eye and nodded. “He told me.”
She started to tremble. I wanted to comfort her, like a real friend would do. But I was too young. “How’s Rachel?”
She forced a smile. “I found an old cryptogram book in the closest. She’s busy working on the puzzles.”
Like a normal thirteen year old.
“That’s good.” I wasn’t sure about the next question but I sensed she needed to talk. “What are you going to do?”
A sudden sob escaped her lips and she hurriedly put a hand to her mouth. I started toward her but she waved me back. She took a moment to regain her composure.
“I’m okay.” She inhaled a deep breath. “I knew this day would come. We couldn’t hide forever. I tried to prepare but,” She wiped a tear away. “It’s not something one can practice.”
She smiled at me and her eyes twinkled. “Calvin, you’ve been a real gentleman these last months. I wanted to tell you that. In fact, you’ve been the only sane person around. Wilbur has been a deaf mute twenty-three hours a day and Mr. Kennedy has been, well, himself. I’m glad Rachel took a liking to you.” She paused and her expression darkened. “That by itself saved me some of the worry . . . some of the pain.” She turned to stare at the apparitions in the sky.
“Tomorrow I’m going to take my little girl to that hill just west of here, the one with the pretty blue flowers poking through the snow. I’m going to sit her down with her back to those . . . things. Then I’m going to tell her about the day she was born and how excited her daddy was. I’m going to describe how she learned to ride her bike and what she wore on the first day of kindergarten.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks. She made no attempt to wipe them away.
“We’re going to have a mother daughter day, for as long as it lasts.”
A lump of fear formed in my gut. I had to ask. “Maggie, aren’t you scared? The way some people died––”
She shook her head. “I believe they were the evil ones, Calvin, those who lived outside His Blessing. The vast majority passed on quietly. We have nothing to fear.”
“Are you sure?”
She took my hand in hers. “After forty years you learn a few things. I’ve led a boring life, some would call a safe life. And Rachel, well, she’s just a kid. We’ll be alright.”
We stood there for a long time, hand in hand, staring into the abyss.
When I walked back inside the only thing that had changed was Wilbur. The computer nerd had moved from one side of the room to the other, the game clicking and beeping happily in his grasp.
I shook my head.
Hours later the sun drifted down the western sky as afternoon gave way to evening. The snow crunched under my boots as I wondered aimlessly among the trees. My teenage body seemed full of useless energy. I patted together a snowball and threw it at the nearest tree. If I were ten years older they’d call it anxiety. I called it fear.
I bent down to grab another handful of snow when a sudden cry rang out. I dropped the snow and bolted toward the sound. In seconds I entered a small clearing and spied James carrying Rachel in his arms.
Eyes wide, he looked just as shocked to see me.
“You bastard!” Through a red haze I picked up a broken tree branch. As I stepped forward, the car salesman carefully put the girl down. She looked flushed and shaken.
He held up one hand. “Wait, Calvin.”
He was half a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier but I didn’t care. I hefted the thick branch in both hands.
Without warning, Rachel turned and hugged him. “Thank you, Mr. Kennedy.” Then she waved at me and ran back toward of the cabin.
I stopped in my tracks. What the hell?
James cleared his throat and fiddled with the sleeve of his jacket before meeting my glare. “I, uh, I was out walking when I heard her call for help,” he explained, pointing. “I found her up that tree. Apparently she was trying to catch a squirrel when she got stuck. It took me ten minutes to convince her to jump. That’s when you decided to show up.” He swallowed. “Calvin, I swear I would never . . . I know what you people think of me. Hell, I brought it on myself. I always have. But, honestly, I only wanted to keep you guys safe. Even acting the way I did, being an asshole, I just wanted to protect . . . ” His shoulders slumped as the words fell away.
The moment felt surreal. After traveling with this guy for two years, through cities and towns spun from Dante’s Inferno, I was seeing him in a new light. I finally understood why the big man from Nevada was running so hard. He was terrified. Terrified of suffering the fate of so many undesirables.
But I could see straight into his soul. Though deeply scarred, it retained a golden core. There was honor there.
I grasped his hand. “You’re going to do fine tomorrow, James.”
He looked at me, eyes wide, hopeful. He wanted to believe. Needed to.
“Don’t worry,” I repeated. “It’ll be okay.”
Our hands dropped and I turned back to the cabin. As I trudged through the snow, I knew he was staring at my back, and counting down the minutes.
Sunlight filled the room when I woke up.
A spasm of panic shot through me. How long did I sleep?
I hustled into my clothes and, still buttoning my shirt, barged into the kitchen.
On the kitchen table, cleared and clean, sat a small glass of flowers.
I smiled. Mother and daughter were on their way to scale a certain hill and Maggie had left a parting gift.
“Bye, guys,” I whispered. “See you soon.”
I withdrew the last container of OJ from the icebox and drained it.
“James, Wilbur,” I called.
Only the soft rustle of branches outside the window answered.
I tucked in my shirt and stepped outside.
To my surprise Wilbur sat in the old rocking chair, feet perched on the railing. The game was nowhere in sight.
“Mr. Kennedy left for town about two hours ago.” The bespeckled young man didn’t take his eyes off the clouds. “He said he couldn’t wait for lazy college kids.”
“He went into town?” I stepped closer and he looked up. Wide, dilated eyes betrayed his inner thoughts.
“He left a message for you.”
“Yes?” James had headed into town?
“He said he’d be waiting on the other side, and if you were wrong he was going to kick your ass.”
I couldn’t help it, I laughed. The big man had decided to face his fears head on.
Wilbur stared at me, his eyebrows knotted in confusion.
“I see you’re not playing anymore,” I said.
He shook his head. “Finished twenty minutes ago.”
“Finished, or decided enough was enough?”
“Finished. All twenty-seven levels, all on the impossible setting.” When I didn’t look impressed, he continued. “Nobody here knew it, but back at school a few friends and I actually designed the game. It was cutting edge, incredible graphics, humorous, challenging, customizable . . . Apple bought the distribution rights. It was going to revolutionize the gaming world.”
I didn’t follow. “So you wanted to play it till the end?”
“We engineered the settings so anyone could play, from three to ninety-three, from kindergarten to genius. Impossible was the ultimate. We put it there as a joke knowing it couldn’t be beat. No human could defeat our computer. The math was perfect.” His gaze turned inward. “After watching my family die, I knew I needed more to keep on living. The only way I could do that was by playing this stupid game, and beating it. I wanted, no, I needed to prove that science is not always the answer. Sometimes there’s faith.”
In my mind, the fog lifted and I suddenly understood. “And now?”
The old wood creaked as leaned back in the chair. “Now I’d like to sit here for a while and watch the clouds.”
I smiled and descended the steps leading off the porch. Above us, the figures loomed like mountains, moving limbs fantastically huge. My knees began to shake. “Wilbur, I’m going for a walk.”
“Good bye, Calvin.”
I walked away from the cabin. My destination was a foregone conclusion.
“Calvin!” Wilbur leaned over the railing.
I looked back.
“Thank you,” he said. “For taking me in.”
I waved and he disappeared into the shadow of the porch.
My legs took me north. I wasn’t quite in a hurry and yet I dared not stop. Something terrifying nipped at my heels and the fear of the unknown swept across the snow. The trail to the sea was fairly straight but it still took the better part of an hour to reach the rocky coastline. The winds picked up and I realized I should have brought a jacket.
Turning around to gaze at the advancing marionettes was in itself a test of courage. I had not created any separation. They towered over me, omniscient and threatening.
I noticed something else. Instead of numbering in the thousands, as they did on that very first day, there were but four figures left in the pale blue sky.
My brain drudged up the analogy. Four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
I traced a path along the shoreline before coming to an extended point that stabbed deep into the bay. Our small canoe lay on its side in the wild grass as whitecaps and icebergs dotted the green sea. Strange how the sky remained clear, the air warm, and yet the snow refused to melt.
I noticed it immediately. Only two figures remained in the sky.
“Maggie, Rachel,” I groaned and fought back tears. My last true friends. “Be safe.”
At the tip of the point, the wind rustled my hair and pelted me with frigid spray. I watched a large iceberg drift close to the shoreline.
On impulse, I pulled the canoe into the water and paddled for several minutes. Then, putting down the paddle, I watched the land drift away.
The breath caught in my throat when I realized there was but one apparition remaining. Wilbur was gone. Only one human left on the planet. Mankind’s reign was ending.
Waves battered the side of the canoe. My hands trembled. Shivering, I watched the last shadow draw closer. We had hidden for two years, but it was relentless.
It had a job to do.
As the sun began its final descent in the west, and the golden hue of vermillion clouds faded from the sky, the winds were stilled as by an unseen hand.
The waters of the Arctic Ocean settled into an unnatural calm.
The apparition bent towards the water, its descent making it appear even larger. Soon it blocked out the entire sky. A dark stain, like a consuming plague, drew swiftly across the stillness. Heart pounding, I watched it close on me.
A fraction of a second before I became one with the darkness, I saw the eyes of the marionette twinkle and sprinkle the sea with beams of golden light. Somewhere in the distance, trumpets sounded and a voice whispered, “The time of waiting is over. The Gates have been opened . . .”
updated by @americymru: 11/22/16 12:09:07AM