by Laura Duerr
It was a grim and drizzly morning in the Cascade foothills. The windows of the abandoned convenience store Priya called home were boarded up, but she could see the low gray clouds on her security feed screens. Rad counts were low, but even with radiation at relatively safe levels, no one would want to travel in these conditions. In better times, Before, this would be the perfect day for a good book and a cup of tea.
All things considered, Priya thought herself fortunate, because she could have just that.
The kettle was already beginning to sing. Priya snatched it off the burner. Isolated as she was, she could never shake the paranoia that some passerby–or mutated creature–might hear her inside her home. She’d done her best to make her residence look deserted but not worth the trouble of looting, with heavily boarded windows, concealed solar panels, and inconvenient concrete barricades towed into place around the parking lot. She did not listen to music, not that she could afford to waste energy on something as inessential as music anyway. And she kept cats: neat, efficient, useful when it came to pests, and, best of all, quiet.
She poured the hot water over the dried mint leaves that served as tea these days. It tasted fine, but it always made her miss real tea: earthy black, spicy chai, grassy green. Coffee substitutes were easy enough to come by even now, but tea, along with so much else, had vanished.
Still, a hot drink was a hot drink, and she tried to take pleasure in that. Thermos in hand, she rolled back the braided rug on the storage room floor to reveal a well-used trapdoor. Her cats, recognizing the sound of the trapdoor opening, came running.
“No, please, after you,” she said, laughing, as they darted down the rickety stairs into the basement. Priya followed more slowly, gripping the narrow banister, mindful of her left knee. She flipped a switch on the wall and a table lamp under an ivory shade blinked to life, accompanied by the soothing hum of an electric fireplace. The glow illuminated wall-to-wall metal shelving that had formerly held canisters of cooking oil, boxes of candy bars, and cheap toilet paper. Now they housed row after row of books, stacked three deep in some places.
The cats took their accustomed positions, Nutella atop the cat tree Priya had constructed out of salvaged plywood and carpet scraps, Meyer perched on the fraying arm of the wingback chair. Priya gave them each a bit of dehydrated tuna as she scanned the titles for inspiration.
She reached deep into the closely stacked paperbacks and picked a volume from against the wall. Her choice only seemed to be at random: Priya could tell a visitor exactly where any particular book sheltered. But it was rare that she had visitors; rarer still that visitors could be trusted to see her collection. Just because what remained of the government these days had more important things to do than enforce book bans, it didn’t mean her collection was safe.
She settled into her chair, stretching her left leg out on a crate-turned-ottoman. She wrapped a blanket around her legs and adjusted her glasses on her nose. Meyer leapt into her lap and curled into a compact orange ball. Nutella settled into her basket by the electric fireplace, her fluffy calico tail obscuring her face.
Priya glanced up at the silent alarm mounted in the ceiling overhead. It would flash brightly enough to catch her attention even engrossed in a book. She took a sip of her tea, pushed away the wistful memories of her mother that tea always summoned, and dove into her book.
After some time–she couldn’t have said how long, caught up as she was in the bittersweet alternate universe of her story–she became aware of her surroundings being different. Her tea was gone, and she was thirsty. Her stretched-out knee was stiff. Nutella was sitting up and staring at the ceiling. No, not at the ceiling: at the blinking alarm light.
Priya jumped up. Pain shot through both legs as her left knee jerked and Meyer tried and failed to maintain his place in her lap with his claws. She hobbled up the stairs as quickly as she could and went to the security monitors mounted above where the cash register had been.
At first, she couldn’t tell what had tripped the alarm. Maybe the heavy fog had confused a camera, or perhaps an animal had run across one of the trip wires.
Then she saw the person. They were wearing a vast, shapeless backpack and a tarp covered them head to toe. They stopped at the furthest of the concrete barriers and stared in the direction of the store. They looked back down the road, then went around the barrier.
“Crap,” Priya whispered. She freed her shotgun from the straps holding it under the countertop, then took up position by the boarded-up front door and listened. She’d left no gaps in the plywood covering the windows, not wanting to risk any light leaking out of her home, but it was times like this that she craved even a tiny sliver to peek through. She couldn’t hear as well as she used to. Maybe the intruder’s footsteps were near, maybe not. Maybe he was trying to sneak up on her.
“Hi, um…I heard you have a collection?” A man, tentative. “Tasha told me this was a safe place to bring, um, merchandise.”
Priya frowned. This was the first person to seek her out specifically because of the books. Her other visitors tended to be refugees who mistimed the radiation fronts or sustained injuries in the mountains. She patched them up and sent them on their way. They were always grateful, but she never trusted them enough to show them the collection.
Tasha, though…Priya remembered her. The younger woman stopped at Priya’s place last summer on her way north. Tasha hadn’t specified her destination, and Priya hadn’t asked, but Tasha had somehow heard of the collection and brought a contribution: feminist poetry, something that faced disapproval long before censorship laws had entered anyone’s worst nightmares. They’d spent a comfortable couple of days preserving the vegetables Tasha had brought in trade for lodging. Priya had gifted her a soul food cookbook because Tasha said the recipes reminded her of her grandma.
“Can I come in? I don’t know if you have a password or anything, but…I have stuff for you?” His inflection rose at the end of his sentences, and he shifted his bulky pack on his shoulders. “Tasha said you were cool. You canned vegetables and stuff? Look, I can be helpful, or I’ll stay out of your way, unless you want help…”
Priya left through the back door. The cold invigorated her, flowing into her lungs and through her limbs like an icy surge of adrenaline. She raised the shotgun and marched around the building, ignoring the twinge in her knee. She rounded the corner and cleared her throat loudly.
The intruder jumped. She noted that he did not reach for any weapon, instead only raising his hands.
“I gave Tasha a book when she left,” Priya said. “What was it?”
“Oh!” He nodded frantically. “Soul food. She made me the beans from one of those recipes. Damn, they were good.”
Priya hesitated, then lowered the gun with a sigh. “Come in. Quietly.”
“Thank you,” he whispered, and he hurried after her.
Inside, he set the tarp-wrapped backpack down on the floor. Its contents shifted and Priya realized he was carrying two packs: one ordinary backpack and one long, slender case. Her heart hammered. Was it a rifle?
The man hadn’t noticed her staring; he was fidgeting with the tarp, carefully unrolling it from the packs to keep any moisture from getting on them. The slender package was exposed: it was a guitar, or at least a guitar case. Priya had read enough spy thrillers to suspect that all kinds of weaponry could be hidden inside.
Satisfied that his belongings were safe and dry, the man stood up, smiling tentatively. He was younger than Priya had first assumed. Despite the threads of gray in his unkempt beard, he didn’t look much older than thirty. His green eyes were bright and unassuming.
“Hi. I’m Wyatt.”
“Priya.” She was still carrying the shotgun. She knew she came across as forbidding and unwelcoming, but at the moment, she didn’t mind. This was her home, her sanctuary, and he was the first stranger to enter it in months.
“Oh yeah, I have stuff for you.” He knelt and laid the guitar case on its back.
The shotgun twitched in Priya’s hands. “Slowly,” she said.
He glanced between her face and the gun. “Do you want to open it?”
“No, just–just move slowly and let me see inside.”
He spun the case so it would open towards her. He flipped one latch, then the other, then raised the lid.
Inside, to Priya’s relief, was a guitar–and wedged around the wooden body and in the lid’s pocket were books.
“I used to work for a guy who enforced the book bans. He kept some of them as trophies. When I left, I took his ammo, his solar charger, and as many books as I could carry.”
She laid the gun down and knelt next to him, wincing slightly as she put weight on her knee. Together they began to pull out the books.
They were indeed the kinds of books that a devotee of a book ban would be proud to display as trophies: religious texts and commentaries, landmark feminist works, and LGBTQ books ranging from medical and sociological texts to children’s stories. Priya was amazed at how much Wyatt had managed to fit in the case. He even produced books hidden in the lining under the guitar.
“Fifteen total,” he announced, laying the last one atop the stack. “I hope at least a few of them are new to you.”
“Oh, most of them are. These are very hard to find.” She looked him in the eye. “Thank you.”
“It’s good to know they’ll be safe here.”
The shotgun shifted on the floor and they both jumped. Meyer was sitting near the stock, looking up at them innocently, tail flicking.
“Meyer!” Priya snatched up the gun and got to her feet. “This is not a toy!”
“You have a cat?” Wyatt asked, grinning.
“Two. Well, there’s a third, but he won’t come inside so you won’t meet him. You aren’t allergic, are you?”
“Nope. I had cats growing up.” He scooped up the books and followed her into the main room, where she strapped the gun back in place under the counter. “So, uh…would it be okay if I saw the collection?”
“I think you’ve earned a visit. Are you hungry? Can I get you tea?”
“You have tea?”
“Well, I have mint leaves.”
“Hmm. Anything caffeinated?”
“I have some coffee substitute, but I’m not sure how old it is.” She turned the burner back on under the kettle. “I don’t drink it myself–I just keep it for trade.”
“Whatever you’ve got, I’ll drink it. Thank you.”
“The water will take a little while,” she said. “Want to see the books?”
He grinned and nodded. Priya led the way to the trapdoor, left exposed in her scramble to investigate Wyatt’s arrival. Nutella was still curled up in her basket by the electric fireplace. She opened one blue eye to glare at them, then went back to sleep. Meyer hopped onto one of the shelves, balancing at the very edge and watching Priya hopefully for more treats.
Priya spread her arms. “Well, this is it. Poetry on the top shelf there, then literature grouped by geographic region, then religion, history and politics, and other nonfiction; cookbooks down there–”
“When did they ban cookbooks?”
“They didn’t, I just like them. And that shelf is children’s fiction, and above it fantasy and science fiction.”
A shrill whistle began to crescendo upstairs. Priya whipped around, tweaking her knee and wincing. “Oh no–the kettle!”
He misread her dismay. “Don’t worry, I got it. Have a seat.”
He took the stairs two at a time, and within moments the kettle was silent. Priya sank into her chair and stretched out her throbbing leg on the ottoman. Wyatt was soon back, bringing the entire kettle with him. He wordlessly offered to top up her thermos, and she nodded in thanks.
“Knee injury?” he asked.
“No, it…well, yes, old age has gotten to my knee, but it’s the sound of the kettle that I worry about. It’s probably silly, but I’m terrified that someone will hear it and discover me.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. You seem pretty secure up here.”
“And the reason I’m so secure is because I worry so much,” she replied. “I’m not young and I’m not strong, so I need to be smart. I can’t take anything I have here for granted, and I won’t risk it over something as small and easily avoided as a kettle whistle.”
Wyatt nodded, acquiescing. “What brought you all the way out here, anyway? It’s pretty remote, even by Before standards.”
“I’ve always lived around here, sort of. I grew up in one of the Silicon Forest towns. I actually taught at a university for a while.”
“You’re very carefully not being specific.”
“Yes, and I didn’t ask you where you’re from–and I won’t.” Meyer leaped up onto the arm of Priya’s chair and Priya absently scratched under his chin. “We both know better, don’t we?”
“What’s the cat’s name?” He smiled over his thermos as he took a sip of his faux coffee. “That’s not too personal, is it?”
Priya laughed. “This is Meyer.”
“As in John? Fred? No, wait…” He grinned. “Oscar.”
She laughed again. Meyer, irritated, hopped back to the floor. “No, Meyer as in the lemons,” Priya said. “My mother kept a little lemon tree on our back deck. Her mother grew lemons in Mumbai and when my parents came to the US, my mother wanted to continue the tradition. I don’t know how she did it in our climate, but every winter, we had beautiful Meyer lemons and they went into all kinds of recipes.”
“That sounds awesome. Neither of my parents cooked much. And we lived in a part of town where if we tried to have a lemon tree, someone would steal it or set it on fire.” He raised his thermos as if to toast her mother. “You’re lucky you had a home like that, and a mom like that.”
He didn’t ask what had happened to her, and Priya did not say. The truth was that she didn’t know for sure what had become of her after Baba died and Aai returned to Mumbai. As the world began its mad downward spiral, she reached out to Priya more and more frequently, begging her to come to India to be with the rest of the family.
Priya kept putting it off. There were plenty of cousins in Mumbai to take care of Aai. Then, in quick succession, Priya found herself with no job, no money, and no passport. As a former academic and a woman of color, her every move was viewed with suspicion. Soon all she had left were her books and her cats. She despaired, at first, but when that didn’t accomplish anything, she found a way to act.
Now she was alive, she still had her cats and her books, and she was safe. Usually that was enough to keep the despair at bay, but every once in a while, often without warning, she was reminded of Aai and the despair welled up. Today, she locked it back down. In spite of his friendliness, Wyatt was still a stranger, and that meant he could not be trusted. Not yet.
Wyatt pointed at Nutella, who lay asleep in her basket, unfazed by their visitor. “That one looks like a cat I had growing up.”
He chuckled. “I can practically taste it. Jeez, I haven’t had Nutella in years.”
“She’s been with me since Before.” Priya smiled wistfully. “A friend’s cat had kittens. I didn’t want to take one since it was just me–I’d just lost my husband–and things at the university weren’t looking promising. Everything was so uncertain.”
“I’m sorry about your husband,” he said quietly. “Epidemic?”
Priya nodded. Losing a loved one in a pandemic seemed to be the one thing remaining to unify scattered strangers. “The second influenza wave.”
“Both my parents died in the first wave, then the second wave took out most of my…my workplace. I found different employment, but that got pretty dissatisfying pretty quick.” He looked up at her, a sad smile flashing under his beard. “I wish I’d had a cat to keep me company. You said you have two?”
“Yes, plus another feral one that lives outside. I leave him food and clean water, and he takes care of any rats. I named him Camper. You might see him: he’s black and missing an eye.”
“Great names. Makes me want to write a song about them.”
“A song?” Priya chuckled. “I suppose that’s one way to pass the time.”
“Oh, it’s more than that. You saw the guitar–that’s my livelihood.”
“You’d be surprised what works as currency out there these days,” he said with a wry grin. “I’ve gotten housing, meals, safe passage, even ammunition in exchange for songs. One time I even got my traveling party out of trouble with a random militia by playing the entire ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album.”
“I almost can’t believe it. Playing music just seems like a good way to announce yourself to anything dangerous.”
He scratched his head. “Sure, there’s a little risk, but no more than you going outside to collect water or trade. The whole world’s dangerous now. Anyway, I have other skills–I’m not just a wandering minstrel.” He grinned. “For example, I happened to notice your solar panels need to be cleaned. I’d be happy to do that in exchange for a place to sleep tonight.”
After losing her husband, Priya had taken a certain amount of pride in being able to look after herself. When the world fell apart and she had to look after herself anyway, pride became irrelevant. Now, though, the old reactions flared up: the instinct to refuse, to insist she was fine.
But she was not fine. She was well into her sixties, her knee grew worse by the day, and she didn’t know if she could still lift her ladder, let alone climb to the roof.
He noticed her hesitancy. “Consider it a thank-you for letting me see, and contribute to, your collection,” he added. “I’m sure you don’t let just anyone down here.”
“They do need to be cleaned,” she said finally. “I think we have a deal.”
She hardly saw Wyatt for the rest of the day. He scrubbed the solar panels and cleaned out the gutters, but after that, he patched a hole in the siding and replaced some wiring. He sprinkled the debris from the roof strategically around the parking lot, making it look even more deserted and forbidding than before.
Priya kept busy, too, patching a torn tarp she’d found in the road a few weeks earlier. She offered Wyatt lunch, but he politely declined, opting to eat from his own supplies while he worked.
At one point she found him near the front doors, staring at something near the ceiling.
“Something else to fix?” she asked.
He pointed up. “This place still has a PA system.”
“Yes, the controls are by the monitors.”
Wyatt beamed. “You could play music in here! You have music–I saw MP3 players and CDs down with the books.”
“No!” It came out more vehemently than she intended and Wyatt’s smile vanished. “I told you, I cannot risk making too much noise.”
“It wouldn’t have to be loud,” he protested. “You really never listen to any music?”
Priya clamped down on her temper. “I know it must be difficult for you to understand,” she said calmly, “since you clearly love music and make it your livelihood, but…well, it isn’t really something I’ve missed. Not enough to risk this place.”
He was shaking his head before she even finished speaking. “I can make it so the speakers outside are disabled,” he insisted. “Only you would be able to hear–”
“Thank you, but no,” she said sharply. “I appreciate the offer, but I must decline.”
Wyatt shrugged and made his way back outside. She soon spotted him on the monitors, checking on some wiring. Feeling a little ashamed for her outburst, Priya returned to her mending. Meyer, as usual, did not notice anything was wrong so long as he had her lap to curl up in.
Priya got up to prepare dinner as the sun began to sink, setting a pot of lentils to cook and taking a few potatoes out of storage. Wyatt came back inside, his face and hands pink from the cold. He seemed to have put their earlier disagreement behind him.
“I gotta say, you’ve really taken good care of this place,” he said.
Priya’s old pride basked in the compliment. “It’s all I have,” she said simply. “I have to protect it.”
“And your book collection! I don’t know if you’d take being called a badass as a compliment–and if not, I apologize–but it’s seriously badass of you to have saved all those.”
She could feel her cheeks warming. “I never thought of it as particularly ‘badass.’ I just knew the bans were wrong, and this was something I could do about them.”
“Well, there’s something I want to do about them.” He took out the guitar and slung it over his shoulder. Priya stopped slicing up the potatoes and watched him closely.
Wyatt strummed a chord and Priya flinched. It felt far too loud in the small room. Then he began to sing. A calmer part of Priya’s mind noted that he had a nice voice, but the rest of her was on the verge of panic, and the fear only grew as she heard the words:
In the ruthless woods, the words survive
When knowledge was hunted, she kept it alive
Hope might wither but it will not die
Because her library–
“Stop!” Priya’s fist clenched around the knife handle.
Wyatt grinned uncertainly. “It’s just a rough draft, but–”
“No music. No singing. Please.”
“Okay, I won’t sing here, but this place deserves commemorating!” He leaned the guitar against the wall. “If Tasha hadn’t told me about your collection, those books I brought would still be sitting on that general’s shelf for him to show off whenever his fellow boot-lickers came by–”
“You’re ex-militia?” she whispered, horrified.
“Yeah, key word, ‘ex!’ I left because I finally got sick of myself. Burning books is the least of what I did for them.” His eyes took on a haunted look. “I have to atone for that. This is something I can do to make it right.”
“What, exposing my secret? Endangering me?”
“Spreading hope!” His face flushed with anger. “You’re hiding out here alone with pieces of a civilization that most people think was wiped out. You symbolize resistance–rebirth–and you want to keep that quiet?”
“I can’t climb up and down those stairs without pain!” Her hands shook with fury and shame. “I ration my food not by how much I should eat, but by how many cans my arthritis will allow me to open in a day! How am I supposed to protect myself and the collection you claim you admire so much, if you spread your knowledge of it so indiscriminately?”
Wyatt’s gaze shifted and Priya realized she was holding up the knife, and it was pointed at his throat. She didn’t remember moving it, and she didn’t remember getting so close to him, but now that she was here, it seemed like the only right course of action.
“Priya,” he said slowly, hands raised, “put down the knife.”
“I can’t let you risk everything I have,” she whispered.
“This isn’t the solution–”
“I should have known.” Her voice broke and the knife trembled in her grip. “I should never have let anyone in. It was never going to stay safe for long.”
Wyatt’s gaze sharpened, focusing on something behind Priya. She resisted the urge to turn at look; if he was trying to distract her, she wouldn’t fall for it.
“Something’s outside,” he said.
Keeping the knife raised, Priya turned slowly, stepping sideways so she could keep an eye on Wyatt and see her monitors at the same time.
Something was indeed moving on the monitor. It was Camper, almost invisible in the growing dark, creeping up on something near the edge of the property.
“It’s just the cat,” she said tersely. “He’s hunting.”
Then, abruptly, Camper ran. He wasn’t pouncing on his prey. He was fleeing. Something else was moving in the darkness of the woods.
“What is it?” he whispered.
They watched the screens intently as five shapes emerged from the shadows, moving slowly towards the building. The silent alarm light mounted in the ceiling began to flash.
Now Priya recognized the unsteady gait and the patchy fur. She took a deep, shaky breath. “They used to be coyotes,” she answered.
“Those are coyotes?” His voice cracked on the first strained syllable.
Generations of radiation and starvation had transformed the animals into something bloodthirsty and monstrous. Priya had only seen a handful of them since she moved here.
“They always lose interest and leave.” She was still whispering, as if the things outside could hear them. “But I’ve never seen this many at once.”
He looked at her gravely. “I know I shook your trust, but give me a chance to make it up to you. I can take care of these things.”
“There’s five of them! Do you really think you can just go out there and kill them?”
“No,” he replied, “but I do need to use your security system.”
Priya immediately thought of the PA speakers he’d found earlier. “Noise?” she asked, dreading his answer–but the shapes on the monitors were drawing closer. If they caught Camper’s scent, or Wyatt’s, they might not leave for hours. They might tear into the walls and do irreparable damage–or they might attract something even more dangerous.
To her surprise, Wyatt shook his head. “If it goes the way I think it will, no.”
He gestured at the security screens, wordlessly asking permission to use the system. For a moment, Priya hesitated. She thought of Meyer, waiting obliviously by the kitchen table for scraps tossed his way. She thought of Nutella, who–like Priya– was too old to have to endure all this. She thought of the thousands of pages on her shelves, of the story she’d read earlier, about a woman who attended a convention of all her selves from parallel universes. It always made Priya wonder about who her other selves might be: a Priya who went to live with her mother while she had the chance, a Priya whose husband was still alive, a Priya who never lived to see Before become now.
Now she stood at the cusp of a new Priya’s creation: trust this stranger, or not.
She set the knife down on the counter and stepped aside.
Wyatt’s fingers flew across the ancient keyboard. Inputs appeared onscreen. He hit a key and the monitor screens turned a blinding white. Somewhere overhead, an electric hum crescendoed, then faded. At first she thought he had damaged the screens, but they slowly returned to normal, and Priya realized the outside lights were dimming back to black. She could hear the shrieks of the blinded creatures outside.
Wyatt looked at her anxiously. Priya, relieved, nodded her approval. He tapped the keyboard again. Once more the lights flared to oppressive brightness; the approaching creatures staggered, pawing at their faces.
“One more time,” Priya whispered.
When the screen image resolved again, the last of the creatures was fleeing back into the darkness. The light in the ceiling stopped blinking. Priya sighed with relief and sank into one of the kitchen chairs. Meyer wove between her legs and meowed loudly.
She and Wyatt laughed. “Yeah, buddy, we took care of them, all right,” Wyatt said. He dropped into the chair across from her, running a hand through his hair.
“I didn’t even know that function existed,” Priya said. She felt like she had just run a mile; her heart was hammering and every breath felt vital.
“It didn’t. I just set it up today.” Wyatt sat forward and fidgeted with a stray thread on his sleeve. “I hope you don’t mind. A lot of the old wiring needed to be replaced, so I swapped in some stuff that could handle a bigger load and produce a brighter light. I’ll show you how it all works before I leave.”
Priya stared at him. “I threatened you with a knife a few minutes ago,” she said finally. “And you still want to stay and help me?”
“Yeah, well.” He dragged a hand through his hair again. “I was kind of being an ass. I don’t think I necessarily deserved to be stabbed, but I definitely should have listened better to you. I just…When I left…”
He fell silent for a few moments, thoughtfully stroking Meyer. Priya realized he was holding back tears. “When I left the militia, I didn’t really have a destination in mind. I just wanted to screw over that general and then get as far away from him and his people as I could before I died. And that was pretty much my plan: just die. I didn’t think there was anything good left in the world, so why bother.”
He met her eyes. Tears spilled into his beard. “Then I met Tasha, and she told me about your collection, and I thought: if that’s real, then that’s something good and worth staying alive for. Then it turned out you were real, and…” He shrugged and wiped his eyes. “It felt so good to have something to believe in again. I wanted other people to know about it. I want them to believe in something, too; to feel hope again.”
“People need hope,” Priya agreed. She had to wipe her own eyes. “But Wyatt, it’s just me out here. I have twenty-eight rounds left for the shotgun. I’ve yet to use it on a human, and I hope to keep it that way, but if you go out there telling people about me…”
“I won’t.” He shook his head decisively. “At least, not directly. I’ll rework the song. I can make it vague. Now that I’ve seen this place–now that I understand better–I’ll do anything to protect it.”
Priya worried the inside of her lip with her teeth. Nutella joined them, hopping up into her lap and blinking placidly at her. Priya scratched under Nutella’s chin and pressed her forehead to hers. She had cradled Nutella as a tiny kitten, sobbing in the weeks after her husband’s death; as the kitten grew into a cat, she was always the one to sit in Priya’s lap when she cried. How many awful decisions had Priya wept over with this patient calico bearing the weight with her? Why did there have to be yet another awful decision tonight?
She managed to meet Wyatt’s eyes. “Write it before you go.” It almost felt like speaking to one her students again, gentle yet authoritative. “I want to see the final draft. I want to be sure.”
“I can do that.” He leaned across the table, reaching for her hand. “I promise I’ll keep this safe. I can protect it and still use its legacy to encourage people. I’ll write the whole thing tonight and you can critique to your heart’s content.”
Nutella hopped onto the table to nuzzle Wyatt’s outstretched hand. Priya felt herself smile.
“All right,” she said. She reached out to shake Wyatt’s hand. “I think we have a deal.”
Wyatt left midmorning, when the sun finally broke through the stubborn rain clouds. Priya sent him on his way with a canister of coffee substitute and refused everything he offered in trade. She tried to tell herself it was because he was the one going out into that relentless world, and he would need every resource he had, but the truth was she still felt guilty for the way she’d treated him.
She walked with him to the edge of the old road before saying goodbye. Once safely back inside, she watched on her monitors until he vanished around the bend. Priya had never had much inclination to pray, but she clasped her hands briefly and hoped that wherever he went, he would be all right, and that he would do right by his promise.
It was only then, when he was too far away for her to do anything about it, that Priya found the gifts he’d left for her. Sitting on her end table were two sealed bottles of painkillers, different types for different aches, probably taken from the militia he’d escaped.
She almost couldn’t identify his final gift. It had been so long since she’d seen something like it. She realized, though, that he’d left her something special: a portable speaker with a built-in solar panel. It was the kind of thing Priya’s students liked to take out on the university lawns to listen to while they studied.
This, more than anything, was confirmation that Wyatt would be true to his word. She picked the speaker up gently. Just as she was trusting him with her treasure, he’d left her with one of his.
Priya double-checked that the trapdoor was secure. She gave the cats each a bit of tuna and watched as they settled into their places. From a plastic box in the corner, she took out one of her old MP3 players and a cable. She triple-checked the volume. When she pressed play, no sound came out of the speaker. She held her breath and turned the volume knob up.
Increment by increment, music began to pour out. Very quietly, but very beautifully, soft piano music filled the warm basement.
Meyer climbed into her lap, purring. Priya stroked his back, closed her eyes, and listened.
About the Author
Laura Duerr is a speculative fiction writer and social media coordinator whose work has appeared in Metaphorosis, Escape Pod, and Shoreline of Infinity. A lifelong Pacific Northwest resident, she lives in Washougal, WA, with her husband. She can be found writing flash fiction at lauraduerr.wordpress.com and on Twitter @laura__duerr.
About the Narrator
Julie Hoverson is a woman of mystery. And fantasy. And occasional sci fi. In fact she writes and narrates stories, audio dramas and role-playing games in many different genres. Julie’s audio drama anthology series “19 Nocturne Boulevard” has been on hiatus but is returning in October with new episodes.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.