by Krystal Claxton
The walls around the town of Bootstrap are mostly old cars stacked one on top of the other and welded together. Outside Bootstrap, market stalls made from patchwork tarps and rusty pipes lean on either side of the wide gate. They are temporary places for the people who live inside to trade goods with the people stuck outside who need in.
People like Pup.
He looks up at the guard by the gate, who is thicker, but not much older. Probably grew up inside the walls. He looks as if he’s been well-fed, even during bad years. His skin is sun-reddened and spotted along his cheeks and the high bridge of his nose.
Pup offers his frayed duffle bag to the guard. The man kneels to comb through it with one meaty hand. Inside is Pup’s winter scavenge–a length of rope, a glass vial with lighter fluid, and three almost-full rolls of duct tape.
If this is enough to buy Pup in, he can work for water until summer is over. As the guard measures Pup’s worth, the one good pocket of his cargo pants seems heavier. Inside is something he’s not supposed to trade. He’s not sure what it is. Some Before thing. Probably the guard wouldn’t know what it is either.
Pup can just make out Ghost waiting a long way off, gazing longingly into the dying grasslands and the stark, cloudless, afternoon sky. She is a violet shade at the edge of the crowd, a soft see-through specter that no one but Pup will notice. She’s uninterested in his business, has been distant all winter. Driving him farther, faster than normal, and not at all interested in foraging. Even now, she wants him to keep moving, but he needs to find a place to hole up. Summer is coming and it will be too hot and dry to survive on the plains.
The guard stands to his full height, presses his thin lips together, meets Pup’s gaze and returns the worn bag. “It’s not enough.”
Pup sighs. He’ll have to walk to the next town, Washing, but if they’re full, the fee will be no better. If Pup were a young woman, preferably pretty, the price would be cheaper. If his skin was lighter, the price would be cheaper. If he was heavier, more muscle and less sinew, the price would be cheaper.
But Pup is none of these things, so he shrugs into the strap and makes his way along the wall, past people swapping lentils for plastic fletchings, moonshine for unrusted screws, salt for bullets. The market is too loud for Pup. Though the crowd is small, trading is more urgent just before the season change. The air is thin and the scent of roasting peppers fights against a dry breeze coming off the plains.
He lingers at an open pit fire with a grill made from a bed’s link spring. A woman who would have already been old during the Before time is tending sticks skewered with carrots and onion slices. A few even have hunks of brown meat. He knows that he should get moving, but this may be his last chance for a hot meal. He glances toward Ghost to see if she’s tired of waiting for him, but she’s not paying him any attention.
“Have something to trade?” the old woman asks. Her fingers are thin and dry and singed at the tips like the skewers. Gray dreadlocks hang past her frayed shawl. She’s hunched, but Pup recognizes the sharp look in her eyes. There’s a reason she’s survived these many years.
Pup sits in the dirt at the edge of the fire to dig a loop of twine hanging around his neck from beneath his threadbare shirts, measures out two arm-lengths, and holds it up for her inspection. When she nods he pulls the small blade from his boot.
She passes him a skewer with a big enough chunk of meat at the same time he places the string in her palm. He should wait until it’s cool, but the scent of spiced meat fills his head and his mouth turns watery. It’s half gone, tender carrots and juicy meat–beef? lamb, maybe–settling warmly in his belly before he can stop long enough to savor the taste. He stares off to the southeast.
“Hope you’re not headed to Washing.”
Pup’s head tilts down as he studies her. She’s busy turning each skewer with a blackened, doubled-over length of stiff wire. He doesn’t answer, but waits to see what she’ll say.
“Heard they’re full up already.” She peers at him with one eye.
“Not much else around,” he says.
“Not unless you’re headed to Springfield.”
“Thought that was further off.” Pup’s never been this far east before. Ghost keeps him moving. But he’s careful to ask after where he’s headed and what’ll be waiting for him when he gets there.
“Couple hundred miles. . . . About a month walking– two if the weather’s bad.” She corrects herself, “That’s a full moon or two.”
“I know what a month is.” Pup sucks the juices out of the stick, careful not to let either charred end ruin the meaty flavor. He’ll wait until next winter to make that trip, may take him the winter after too, if there’s trouble along the way: raiders, flash floods, coyotes. Pup had planned to stop in Salem next year.
“Isn’t Salem closer?”
She’s talking to herself, and hasn’t heard him. “Unless you’re going over to Base.”
Pup tosses the stick in the fire. “What’s Base?”
She takes a breath that seems larger than her skinny frame. “Back in the day, the military commandeered a power plant a bit over the state border, east of here. They moved in, and they’re still there. More or less.”
Pup stands, brushes dirt from the seat of his pants. “They have summer work?”
She fights with her wire to turn a skewer that has burned to the grill. “Nope. They recruit every now and again, but you don’t leave in the winter if you sign on with them for the summer, if you get my meaning.”
“Then I guess I’m headed to Washing.”
She’s peering at him with one eye again. “Reckon so. Good luck.”
Pup stops at the edge of the shanty booths to stand beside Ghost, but doesn’t look straight at her. When he was very young, he learned that it’s better not to speak to her when other people can hear him. Since she doesn’t talk and no one else can see her, they tend to think he’s touched in the head.
Ghost is see-through in places and seems to glow without casting any light or shadow. She is a faint purple, like butterfly-bush blossoms, and her long hair floats about her as though she is always being caught in the beginning of a breeze. Her face is soft around the edges, and her feet don’t quite touch the ground.
A scrawny boy, no taller than Pup’s shoulder, too young to remember what it was like Before, veers around Pup and steps right through Ghost, unaware. She is not a hot or cold spot, like the old people tell him ghosts are supposed to be, and no one notices her unless it’s to wonder what Pup is looking at, who he’s speaking to.
Ghost tears her attention away from the plain to look up at him. When she smiles, her face glows a little brighter and he forgets that he shouldn’t look directly at her.
A dust devil swirls to life at the horizon, playing against the waves of heat already building on the plains. She points, insistent, to the east. Whatever it is that’s caught her interest will have to wait. Pup shakes his head and turns south. He’s only got a few days to get to Washing before it’ll be too hot to travel.
Dry grass pokes Pup through the wide weave of a blanket threaded together from strips of old fabric. The sky is a thick jumble of stars without a moon and the air is too brittle to hold daytime warmth, but he won’t risk a fire. Not while the plain is dead and yellowed.
On nights like this, when Ghost isn’t with him, Pup jerks awake often. He’s not sure what business a ghost has to attend to, but she’s gone more often than not these days. He wonders what she’s found that’s so remarkable, if one day it will keep her interest for good.
He drifts between awake and asleep, dreams of the world ending. The scorch, the grind of twisting metal, the pulse of his mother’s heart as she squeezed his face against her neck, running, her cottony hair tickling his nose. She must have died, but he’s never sure. She is there in some of his memories and gone from others.
When it was over, Pup was on his own. A boy on the plains.
That’s when he met Ghost.
Pup starts awake. The night is too still and he holds his breath, straining to hear. The crickets have all gone silent. Was it the dream of his mother that woke him, or trouble? Most big wolves have followed their food north for the season. It could be something small that won’t bother him if he doesn’t go looking for it. A fox maybe.
He unwinds from the ball he’d rolled into as he slept, lifts his head from the duffle bag to peer above the dry grass.
The bottom of a boot fills his vision and Pup rolls sideways, the kick grazing off his forehead.
He staggers to his feet but he’s already surrounded, one man to either side and a third–the one who’d tried to bash his skull in–before him.
He knows this man, even by dim starlight, recognizes the spotted face: the guard who turned him away.
The attackers descend like bobcats fighting over a scrap of meat. Tear at Pup from every angle. Grab his arms. Weigh down his legs.
Hot blood pumps in Pup’s ears over muted gasps and grunts. He’s swinging his arms and thrashing his legs, but they have him.
Even as he struggles, meaty hands paw over him. Search for anything worth stealing. Rip the twine from his neck. Shred his one good pocket.
Pup’s causing too much trouble and the guard untangles himself from the fray to rear back a thick fist. It lands soundly in Pup’s guts and Pup folds.
The other two men let him double over for an instant. He takes the opening to leverage one knee at an impossible angle and when they pull him upright, he jerks a leg free.
The guard pulls back to punch again and Pup braces himself against the two men holding him. He kicks off the ground with his free leg. And just as the guard is leaning in toward Pup, the other two pull him back down.
With the force of their help, he lands the thick part of his brow on the guard’s nose. Feels the other man’s face crack.
The guard reels, and on instinct, the man holding Pup’s right arm reaches out toward the guard.
Pup takes the opening, twists into the distracted man, pulls all his weight against the one still holding his left arm, and breaks free.
Without his scavenge, he isn’t worth the trouble to stalk and kill, but he keeps moving all the same.
When he no longer hears footfalls behind him, he drops low and keeps his breathing soft. Waits to see if they’ll search him out.
They have an electric light, crank or solar he can’t say, but he watches, belly to the ground, as it combs his small camp. They gather all of Pup’s belongings and start toward town. Pup keeps still and silent long after their light has become a pinprick in the distance.
At dawn Pup is already walking south again, toward Washing. He shouldn’t be. They won’t take him. Not without something to trade. Food at the least. But his heart is beating too fast, his jaw clenched too tightly, the muscles in his hands too strained for him to get any rest.
Ghost appears beside him, a bounce in her floaty step, a good-morning smile on her face. Until she sees that his forehead is oozing blood.
She steps in front of him so he’ll stop, and he does because she doesn’t like it when he ignores her. She reaches out her not-really-there fingers and traces the line of his wound across his brow, around his eye. Her fingertips dip into him, but he feels nothing. Her eyebrows are crinkled together, her eyes wide, her lips turned down.
He tilts his head away from her not-touch. “Where were you last night?”
Ghost’s arms fold over her chest and she seems to shrink.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’ve got a long way to walk and nothing to trade once I get there.” He side-steps her and starts forward, the plain ahead cast red by the morning glare.
She’s in front of him again, her legs back-pedaling even though she seems to float half a hand length off the ground. Ghost points east, forms a tense line with her arm, gesturing with her entire body catty-corner past him into the wasted grassland.
Pup crosses his arms over his chest. He doesn’t shout because Ghost is trying to help. She doesn’t eat or sleep or get heat sickness, so she doesn’t always understand him. “There are no towns in that direction. No wells, no food, no shelter.”
He should go back to Bootstrap and panhandle at the market while it’s still open, but he’s not small and cute anymore.
Ghost waves away the concern. Like water is a minor setback. Gestures again, takes ten steps in the direction she wishes him to follow, steeples her hands before her face, begging.
Pup unfolds his arms to let them hang limp at his sides. Forces his hands to unclench.
The first time he met Ghost she was a little girl, smaller even than Pup had been. She was crying, alone, and she was so happy to see him that she helped him find his way back to civilization, such as it was, After the world ended. Since then she’s grown with him, helped him find the best scavenge, warned him of danger, saved his life another dozen times.
I should follow her now, he thinks. Summer is upon him and he has no plan and no supplies to survive it. But something has changed. He doesn’t understand what and she can’t speak to explain it to him. She’s never around anymore and he knows he wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t pushed the pace over the winter. Ever since they scavenged . . .
“I don’t have it anymore,” he says.
Ghost quirks her head to one side.
Pup turns his palms up. “That Before box. You wanted me to keep it out of the scavenge.” He tugs at the scrap of fabric hanging from his pants that used to be a pocket. “It’s gone.”
She crosses the space between them, slowly. Studies his face in a way that reminds Pup of yesterday at the gate. Like she’s measuring his worth. Pup’s not sure what he’ll do if Ghost finds him lacking too.
She holds her thin hand palm-up between them. Beckons him forward. Turns and leads him east.
Pup follows, squinting into the morning glare.
Pup’s blood pumps thick and heavy through his temples. Sweat has soaked through his thinned, long-sleeved shirts and he’s glad he doesn’t have the heavy duffle bag to carry. His throat is dry and cracking, his mouth pasty, his vision wobbly around the edges.
The place where Ghost is leading him appears on the horizon as the last long rays of summer sunlight turn the edge of the plain golden. Pup can’t see all of its features but the column towering over the sprawling, multistory main building tells Pup it’s the power plant–the base–that the old woman in the market spoke about.
The field he’s walking through is made up of reaped stubs of corn and wheat in rows as far as he can see in any direction, a haul big enough to feed an army. The road leading up to the entrance is patched with asphalt, some bits still black against the sun-bleached surface, laid this very winter. A fence, part cinderblock, part chain-link, is punctuated by three guard posts. They are After structures, welded or stacked from scavenge, sturdy but sharp and ugly compared to the clean lines of the blocky building beyond.
The soldiers at the guard towers see Pup before he’s come within a stone’s throw of the entryway. A giant light, brighter than any solar light Pup’s seen, swivels at the top of the tower nearest the main gate. Fixes on him, blinding and inescapable.
Pup holds up a hand to spare his eyes, to cast a shadow over his face. “Now what?”
A few steps ahead Ghost turns toward him. Then she fades away.
The soldiers are nearly in uniform. Most have only sand-colored short-sleeved shirts and cargo pants, but a few have button-up shirts with badges and patches. They march, not quite in step. All have boots in good repair. And rifles.
It’s dark in large unused stretches and as they take Pup around the largest Before structure, he’s not sure which direction would be best to run if he has to bolt. The fading sunlight is improved along the way with islands of electric light, but there are more guard towers farther along the perimeter that might make running a bad plan.
They pass a pair of silos that are each a few stories tall and look like they were transplanted from somewhere else; drag marks gouge the pavement around them. There are other soldiers, men and women, moving about with purpose. Some are old enough to have been soldiers in the Before time, but most are not. A few are younger than Pup, kids still.
They round a corner and Pup misses a step. A long ways off, toward a cinderblock section of the gate, under a tent pole canopy, Pup sees a dozen sand-colored trucks. Each looks new, with huge undamaged tires, windows, headlights. Even the front grills are intact. They’re a fortune, sitting there. Even without gas, he could live on a scavenge like that for years.
Pup slows his pace to gawk and one of the soldiers pokes him hard in the back with the butt of a rifle.
There’s a metal stair with studded steps bolted into the brick sidewall of the main building. It ends in a single door with a window that lets off the bright glow of electric light. Soldiers behind take up spots at the bottom of the stairs. Soldiers ahead escort him inside.
The room is a collection of luxuries. Two overstuffed leather couches on top of a thick floor rug. Ceramic lamps with paper shades in each corner of the room and a fifth lamp with a green plastic shade craned over a heavy wooden desk near the far wall. A row of brightly painted clay pots house strawberry vines in bloom. Artwork in frames with unbroken glass decorate the freshly painted yellow walls.
There are two women in uniform in the room, but the one sitting at the desk draws Pup’s attention. Her hair is sun-lightened brown, straight, and cropped cleanly to her jaw line. Her sand-colored shirt buttons up in the front and has more badges and patches than any other soldier Pup has seen so far, though she’s too young to have been an adult soldier when the world ended. She appraises Pup from head-to-toe as though he is a scrap of too-old meat and she’s trying to decide if it’s worth the risk of food poisoning.
She asks, “This is him?”
The other woman is standing beside the desk and answers, “Yes, sir, that’s right.”
Pup forces himself to break eye contact with the woman behind the desk. Looks at his hands. To the woman standing.
Pup’s mouth hangs open. The blood drains from his guts in an unpleasant whoosh and his fingertips go numb. He feels the ground tilt beneath his feet, though he’s still upright.
The standing woman is Ghost.
Not see-through, or purple, or floating.
She has wavy, dark hair that rebels against the braid running like a spine on the back of her head. Her eyes are too small. There’s a mark peeking out from under the collar of her sand-colored short-sleeved shirt that looks as if tea stained the skin of her neck and never washed out. With her booted feet planted on the ground, she’s taller than him.
But it’s Ghost. There’s no mistaking her.
When she speaks again, this time under Pup’s stare, her voice seems misplaced. It reminds Pup of a puppet show he saw at a town two winters ago that’d had very bad actors and he’s too distracted to notice what she said.
“Does he speak?” It’s the woman behind the desk. Everyone in the room is staring at him. She speaks again, slowly, her voice raised like he’s standing farther away than he is, “What’s your name?”
He closes his mouth. Locks his eyes on the shiny brass arm of the lamp on the desk. “Pup.”
Her tone twists in annoyance. “That’s not a name, that’s supper. What’s your real name?”
Pup swallows the bile wetting the back of his mouth. He hasn’t had a drink since yesterday. He focuses only on the goal of getting some water from these people. He’ll deal with everything else after.
He returns the woman’s stare. “Pup’s good enough. Who’re you?”
The woman behind the desk sits up straighter, her eyes narrowed to look down her nose at Pup. He’s said the wrong thing. “I am General Nass–the highest ranking officer still operating in the United States Army–and you’ll show the proper respect.”
Pup bows his head, tries to make himself look small, lets the rasp that’s leaking into his voice come through. “I’m sorry, General. I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m not thinking clearly. I haven’t had any food or drink in two days.”
General Nass taps her fingers impatiently on the glossy desk. To the woman who is and is not Ghost, she says, “Are you wasting my time with this shit, Alice?”
Pup peers at his captors from under his brow. He does not look at the woman named Alice.
Nass sighs. Flicks her hand toward Pup.
A soldier passes Pup a half-full canteen. Pup takes his time. Drinks every drop inside, unsure of when he’ll get more.
While he’s sucking down the water, Alice says to Nass, “He’s a scavenger. One of my anchors. And I saw the power plant. He salvaged usable components. I wouldn’t have dragged him here for your inspection if I wasn’t certain he would be useful to you.”
Pup swipes the drizzle on his chin into his mouth with the heel of his hand. He can’t tell if the wobbly feeling in his guts is from the sudden rush of water or because of what Alice is saying about him. Anchor. He doesn’t like the sound of that.
Nass says, “You have some reactor component? Let’s see it.”
“Don’t have anything from a reactor.”
Her eyes shift to the soldier taking the canteen from Pup’s hands.
“Not a thing on him when we picked him up outside, sir.”
Nass makes a sound between a growl and sigh, then pinches the bridge of her nose. “So what is he good for?”
Alice hedges, “He’s a good scavenger. He could help you relocate the other reactor to power–”
“I’m not seeing the proof to back-up what you’re promising.”
“Perhaps if you let him stay over the summer–”
Nass pounds the desk with a fist and the lamp, the strawberry pots, and everyone in the room jumps. “You may have been a darling of the last command, but all I can see is that keeping you requires more and more maintenance. You need to make yourself useful. This,” she holds out an open hand toward Pup, “is not useful.”
“No.” To Pup, “I’m afraid Alice led you here for nothing. I decide who stays and goes.”
Alice tries again, “Please, General Nass–”
The general fixes her in a glare that silences her. To the soldier standing beside Pup she says, “Lock him up.”
Pup tries not to think, but he’s been so stupid it’s hard not to go over every mistake that led him here. Letting himself get robbed so close to summer. Traveling too far too fast to gather enough scavenge. Trusting the shadow of a girl when he knew something was off. But she was Ghost. His Ghost. How could she have led him here to this?
He pushes the image of the flesh-and-blood woman out of his mind. It’s harder to forget her voice, speaking about him as though he wasn’t standing before her.
It’s cold in the holding cell. The room is made of unpainted cement that still looks new and smells somewhere between dust and bleach. There are no windows, but long tubes overhead cast sickly light and buzz with electricity. Every so often they dim or flicker. One set of bunk beds is bolted to the wall, and Pup can see that it’s been torn away from somewhere else and remounted here. Scavenged.
Time passes strangely. The air doesn’t change, the lights don’t change, and Pup’s not sure if he’s hungry or if the hollow feeling wearing on his stomach is the fear that they won’t remember to feed him.
The false lights overhead go out and it’s beyond any blackness Pup’s ever known on the plains. Like he’s been buried alive. His breath comes fast and shallow. Sweat soaks the tattered collar of his shirts and the fabric sticks to his cold skin in clumpy wisps. No matter how wide he opens his eyes, he can’t see.
If it’s been minutes or hours, Pup can’t say, but he’s staring at the door when Ghost’s head pops through. The door doesn’t open–it’s not the girl from upstairs–it’s really Ghost: see-through and purple and glowing without giving off any light. Pup’s heart beats so loudly that the soldier on the other side of the door might hear it.
Ghost looks over Pup and vanishes.
End of Part One.
About the Author
Krystal Claxton (she/her) is a Systems Engineer I with unfortunate aspirations involving fiction, words, and publishing.
She was tragically born with a miscalibrated sense of humor, and lived in nine US states before the age of thirteen. The combination of the two has left her with an oscillating accent and a habit of laughing at things that aren’t funny. She currently lives in Georgia with her long-suffering spouse, a dog who thinks its a cat, and a number of children that is subject to change.
You can find her short fiction in Cast of Wonders, Daily Science Fiction, Factor Four Magazine, Fireside Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, Nature: Futures, Podcastle, and Unidentified Funny Objects 3.
She enjoys breaking Heinlein’s Rules, getting distracted by Dragon Con, and feverishly researching whichever random topic has just piqued her interest.
About the Narrator
Your narrator – Paul Cram – is a scrappy actor who’s character in movies always seems to be the one that dies. His latest role in Anniversary has him awake at night seeing things that no one wants to admit are happening. While Paul still considers his voice to be somewhat new to the world of audio books, he has a few full-length novels under his belt, including the love story Flirting With Death set against the beauty of Lake Michigan & the Zombie Apocalypse. When not acting, Paul can be found out in the woods of Minnesota, arguing pop-culture with his little brother.