What am I working on Wednesday is a new bi-monthly meme of snippets and excerpts that should keep you updated on my current projects. To listen to a recording, please click on the application below.
Today: After Life Lessons, by L.C. Spoering and Laila Blake
an NA/mainstream post-apoc novel
Excerpt of Chapter 1:
Something was dying in the flurries of snow.
Emily couldn’t see five feet of road in front of them, but the desperate howl pierced the wind. A dog maybe, or something altogether wilder. It seemed to harden every muscle along her spine, forcing her body into a more awkward pace, one hand firmly around Song’s, dragging the boy along. Just a little more, just a little further. She coaxed and prodded him, bargained and begged—but his legs were short and his strength running on empty.
The map had promised an old campsite somewhere along that road, and it was that hope that kept her going, one step at a time—coughing and forcing her eyes to stay open. She vividly remembered a time before all this snow, a time when they’d had bikes and tiny trailer. Now they were on foot, heavy loads on her back.
The dog howled again, and Emily forced her legs to quicken the pace.
When they did stumble onto an old camper van, she pulled the small crowbar from the side-pocket of her backpack. The frozen iron stuck to her gloves but once she found the proper angle, the door gave way with minimal force. The place smelled. It was poorly insulated and tiny, but it had a roof, and a half-rotted mattress. Instructing Song to get out of his wet clothes and into marginally drier ones, she managed to close the door again, with brute force and curses and a long stretch of rope she kept around for exactly that purpose. She couldn’t take chances with something dying so vocally out there.
The two of them huddled together on the bed, under a pile of blankets with a can of beans she’d found under the counter. It wasn’t much, but more than they’d had in days, and they each ladled spoonfuls into their mouths, slowly, ignoring the metallic taste for the comfort of their stomachs settling, their toes prickling back to life. With food, the memory of the last meal faded: a few cracker crumbs and one withered potato. She’d dug out the eyes that had sprouted, threw them out, with some old and vague knowledge that they were poisonous, and fed it to Song, bit by bit, between weak and pointless protests.
Emily held back; she always did. It was more important to keep Song fed than herself, and watching him cry with hunger took far more out of her than a missed meal, even now. She rubbed her face and pulled a blanket over her mouth before she yawned, fearing the cold air. It still made her break out into a short, hacking cough. She pushed the can into Song’s hands to make sure they didn’t spill anything.
“Are you okay, duck? Getting warmer?” she asked, voice still rough even when she had her breath back.
Song nodded, watching her with wide eyes; something about her being sick made him even graver. It was why she usually did her best to hide her coughs as well as any other sign of weakness.
“Are we gonna stay here?” Clearly, he was about as impressed by the place as she was; it was a far cry from the beautiful lake houses they’d ransacked over the past weeks—before Emily had decided to try and take them further south.
Emily sniffed and rubbed at her nose—she could still feel the hardened little channel where a piercing had been, but she hadn’t worn a ring in there in months. Somehow she managed a smile before she leaned in to kiss his temple. It never failed to make her face look terribly young, especially now, freckled cheeks and nose still bright red from the cold.
“We’ll see okay? We’ve got to warm up at least and I don’t wanna be caught out in the snow.”
“We already are.” Was he really only seven? He talked just like his father, with that unflinching sort of honesty that made it difficult to lie to him, to recall he was a little boy. “You mean more snow.”
Emily scrunched up her nose and gave him wry smile. More snow, indeed.
“Well, it’s not entirely impossible that it’ll clear up in the next hour or so… and it’s better to be caught in here than out there.”
She tried to smile, tried to infuse a little bit of hope into her words but she knew that Song’s cold was coming back now that they didn’t have anywhere warm to stay and even after months of practice, she still had a hard time quelling the worries from her voice.
“We could sleep for a while?”
He nodded; what else was there to do? In that kind of cold, after trudging for miles in deep snow, with little in their stomachs, sleep was about the most inviting activity either of them could think of. If he remembered snowy days in New York, of curling up under covers with hot cocoa and books and music, it didn’t show on his face.
“I don’t like beans,” he mentioned, sucking in a wheezing breath, head wavering on his skinny neck like on a bobblehead-doll. Still, he ate several more, scattered over the bowl of his spoon in a dark formation.
Emily watched him, feeling the pressure of tears behind her eyes.
“I know,” she said quietly, the only way not to trigger another cough. “We’ll find somewhere better soon, I promise, with like… pasta and spices and… and canned pineapple.”
“Peaches?” he suggested, dubious, but he knew the drill: he put more beans in his mouth, most of them sliding down without chewing. Song had never been an easy child to feed, to get to eat, and Emily had never been good at being strict about his diet. That he was eating beans, even at the end of the fucking world, was a little like winning the parenting jackpot. Still, Emily’s sense of victory was short-lived: they were, after all, stuck in the snow with no dry clothes to change into, she only had cold beans to feed him and couldn’t even remember the last time they’d had anything fresh. That was important for growth, wasn’t it? So Song would probably end up a petite little thing like her, not the near giant his father had been. Nurture over nature. Even his wet and greasy curls looked far more like Emily’s dark brown now than the honey tone she remembered from happier times.
“Yes, peaches,” she whispered, stifling a yawn. “And cherries, and we’ll fish them out of the can and it’ll stain our fingers red.” She sniffed again and when she heard the spoon scrape against the bottom of the can she gave him a bracing smile. “Thank you,” she told him gently and pulled him into her arms.
He gave a serious little nod, still clutching the can; they’d both turned into strange little packrats, afraid to let go of anything, lest it be useful someday, sometime, in some strange fashion. Who knew what you could do with a tin can that they’d not discovered yet?
“I’m tired of it being cold,” he announced, as though she could do anything about winter still lying over the region. “I hate my hat.”
“I know, ducky,” she whispered, exhaustion keeping her calm. “You know I love you right? I love you so much and I’m so proud of you because you keep going anyway.”
His breath caught into a little hiccup in his throat and he nodded, biting rather viciously at his lip. He’d needed her from the beginning, ever since his mother had dropped him off at Sullivan’s place those years before, and she’d been the one he’d clung to when he was scared, long before the world ended.
“It’s okay to be angry and sad. I’m angry and sad, too. But soon spring will come, and we’ll be further south and we’ll find more stuff to eat outside and it’ll be warmer…” And why in the world had she not started to move them south weeks ago just like they had planned, pouring over maps in the old New York apartment? The lake had been like fixed mark, a place on the map where she knew exactly where she was—a dark, deep, hypnotizing fixture.
“When are we gonna be close?” He’d stopped asking so much, but, like every child that came before him, likely back to the cavemen, he was compelled to cough it up, that variation on the eternal question: are we there yet?
Emily swallowed the I don’t know. Instead she smiled, liberated the can from his hand, put it on the ground and then tucked the blanket closer around him.
“Soon,” she lied.
“When’s Daddy coming?”
“He… I don’t know, baby.” She drew a sharp, wet breath in through her nose. His question burned in her gut and behind her eyes, the guilt of a dozen half-truths and avoidance tactics. And yet, she would have given the world for that glimmer of his hope; to be able, just for a few minutes at a time, to believe Sullivan was just on their tail.
“He needs to hurry up,” Song sniffled. “We’re supposta be together. And I miss him.”
He buried his head against her neck and shoulder. Just like when he was a little kid, his cheek rested on her clavicle, so close to the colorful bird tattoo that his nose touched the little tail feather, and his fingers had just enough room to draw along the outlines of its wings. Emily squeezed him again.
“I know… I miss him too.” Emily had long lost the ability to sound anything but empty when this topic came around. But Song was used to it; he nodded his knowing and ancient face, curling closely to her for a long time, fingers winding in her hair until they were both breathing mostly normally and he patted her chest. He was feverish, again, and she felt no small amount of shame for enjoying the warmth, her own personal hot water bottle. She could easily remember the days that he’d crawl into bed with her, when he was tiny, sick, and it had felt like some kind of special torture to have his steaming body against hers, and, certainly, that irony was not lost on her now.
Drifting off was easy, frighteningly so, even sitting up, even supporting his dead weight when Song sunk under in slumber. Hours passed like water flowing, and she was floating in some groggy world between waking and sleeping when she became aware that they weren’t alone.
It was one of those things that was more instinct than knowledge, and she froze, arms protectively tight around Song without waking him. Holding her breath, she checked on her rope contraption but the door was still tightly shut. Then she turned her head, slowly, so slowly, to look out the window.
Five. Five of them. Something was dying out there and so they came, like vultures.