Short Straw

Mr. Gage sat the three boys down on the stone floor as their mother continued the preparation. He mixed the toothpicks in his palms and then carefully spread them out between his thumb and index finger so each one appeared to be the same length. Donavan picked first. At fourteen, he was the oldest. He drew out a complete pick and breathed easy.

Adam was twelve and was only one year older than Michael. He looked at his younger brother and then back at their father's hand. He shook his head.

"I can't do it, Michael. You pick."

Mr. Gage held the two remaining sticks closer to Adam's face. "Come now, son. This is how we decide. I need to be alive for the farming once the world has healed or I would do it myself. I might not live long enough to do the job. It falls to one of you and this is how we decide fairly."

Adam's eyes widened. "I can't. This is too big."

Donavan crossed his arms. "You have to. I picked."

Michael reached up and snagged the pick on the left. The concealed end slid out from his father's thumb. It was splintered and it was half the length of the one Donavan picked. There was no need for Adam to pick. He covered his mouth as he stared at Michael's hand.

Michael cussed and threw the broken piece of wood onto the stone floor.

Mr. Gage stuck the remaining, intact pick into his teeth. "Boys, leave me alone with Michael for a time."

The other two boys hesitated as their youngest brother glared at the floor. They stood up and walked over to assist their mother across the room in silence. Michael heard his mother let out a sob. He closed his eyes.

Mr. Gage placed his hand on his son's shoulder. "I'm glad it was you."

Michael lifted his head and stared at his father with reddened eyes.

The toothpick bobbed in the man's teeth as he moved his lips. "I don't mean that I wish this on you, but you are up for it. You may not think you are, but you are. I know you are mad and upset, but you had the courage to act and that's why it is best for you. You will save our family and probably the entire planet."

Michael looked down at the short pick on the floor.

"Son, we have but a few days remaining. I'll need to explain how things work here, so you can do it on your own. I've been writing furiously for weeks knowing this moment was coming for one of you. I've left detailed diagrams and instructions, but we need to walk through the processes, so you know them in your bones. Everything must be done exactly right and different decisions have to be made at critical moments. I'm also going to write some personal thoughts just for you. I have things I want you to know to carry you through the coming years. There are also things I think you should do to keep your mind sharp and to continue to grow through the unusual life you have ahead of you. Do you understand what I mean?"

Michael dropped his head down on his arms.

"Michael, I would give you time to absorb all this, but time is something we don't have right now."

• • •

I hope this finds you well, Father. My love to mom, Donavan, and Adam. Tell Adam that it wasn't his fault that I was picked. He was only a boy and that guilt is too much for someone his age to carry. Tell the same to Donavan. Let mom know that everything was fine. Waking up is always confusing. I wonder if it is harder after so much time, but I think you have it easier than I ever did. There are things you need to know about the world.

• • •

Michael sat on the padding inside his open sleep chamber. He stared at the floor in the darkness of the basement. He had figured out where he was and that a year had passed, but there was a thickness to his thoughts and a bad taste in his mouth.

Shallow lights flickered on the bar along the wall near the ceiling in response to his motion.

He thought about being twelve, but he supposed he was really the same age as when he lay down with the rest of his family in stasis a year before. Eleven plus a few confused minutes.

He stepped out onto the floor and stumbled. He tried to stand again, but then toppled to his hands and knees. Something stuck in his palm. He pulled at it and saw a broken piece of toothpick between his fingers. He breathed out all his air in a sudden rush of sorrow. It took him several seconds to regain his breath and then cry for a while longer.

Michael pulled himself up onto the side of the stasis chamber next to him and looked down through the plastic canopy into the colorless face of his father. Michael's lips quivered. He pounded his fist against the plastic once. The sound was deep and vibrated through the chamber. His father did not move. He beat both fists against the plastic over and over.

"Look at me. Open your eyes and look at me. Wake up and look at me."

Michael heaved for air and dropped back to his knees on the stone floor. He shivered against the cold in the stone and in the air. He crawled over to the supply cabinet and pulled out a synthetic blanket.

As he wrapped up in it, he stood without holding onto the cabinet. He stared at the metal door at the end of the bunker. There was a suit and breathing hood hanging next to it. Michael thought about his soft blanket on the bed two flights of stairs above him. His father had told him the natural fibers would decay over time and possibly carry disease. Everything in the bunker was built for time and health.

"You snooze you lose."

Michael coughed on the taste of his breath. He filled a cup with cycled water and drank. He coughed again. He pulled the silver package off the top of the stack in the cabinet. He set it on the plastic table and pulled the cord that activated the chemical cooker.

As the package sizzled and expanded behind him, he went to each of the chambers besides his own and pressed the reset buttons.

"Keep sleeping, dummies."

He picked up the notebook his father had written a year ago and looked through the instructions.

"This is going to be a long couple of days."

• • •

Time has a way of destroying in subtle and bold ways. It has a potential to heal, but that requires a little more care, I've discovered. Life is fragile, but it holds on and takes root. You could have taken the short straw shift and we could have learned farming without you. I've discovered this in my strange life also.

• • •

Michael sat up on the edge of his open chamber. He waited patiently for the fog to clear in his awakened mind. He ignored the taste. He stood up before the lights flickered on. He walked down the line and punched the reset buttons on his family's chambers.

He looked at the supply cabinets and then at the metal door with the plastic suit at the end of the bunker. Michael picked up the notebook his father had written ten years earlier. At two to three days per shift, he had only been awake about two weeks total in that time.

He set the notebook on the table. "That's not long enough for things to get better."

He felt along the walls and found the stress cracks he had been instructed to locate. Michael used paste sparingly to seal the possible breaches and maintain the integrity of the bunker.

He put the paste away and took a meal pack off the top of the stack. As he sipped water and set the package on the table, he stared at the door again.

"I'm going."

Michael pulled on the filter suit for the first time in ten awakenings. He pulled down the hood and checked the seals twice.

"There hasn't been enough time to change anything." His voice sounded strange to him inside the mask.

He placed his hand on the handle to the metal door. He listened to his breathing through the respirator without opening the door. He turned and looked at the stasis chambers: four closed and one open. If he didn't come back, the resets would automatically wake his family in two years.

He picked up the broken piece of toothpick from the edge of a shelf near the door. It wasn't easy with the thick, rubbery gloves of the suit.

He turned the knob and stepped out into the barren basement. There was some clutter along the walls, but the room was sealed floor to ceiling. He should have brought a flashlight. There was some light coming from the tiny window in the door across the room.

Michael walked slowly through the outer basement. His toe kicked something on the dark floor. It moved away and came back to his foot again. He could hear his breathing become harsh in his own ears. He kicked it again and tried to look down. He could only see a flash of motion, but he heard the metal clatter across the room.

He forced himself to cross the room and pawed at the second door until he found the handle. He was too short to see out the window. It was thick and at his angle he only saw a twisted, swirled image of the ceiling outside.

Michael pushed down the handle and listened to the seal crack. It was muffled through the mask, but he heard the air rush. He couldn't tell if air was rushing in or rushing out. After a pause, he pulled the door open and stepped through to the base of the stairs.

He lost his grip on the door as he stared. The door latch reconnected loudly behind him, but he did not react.

"It has changed … I should be … twenty-one."

Michael stared up at the sky through the decayed boards of the second floor and a section of collapsed roof. Pink insulation spilled over from what used to be the attic into what used to be his house. It was daytime, but the sky was sick and brown. Water dripped over the boards and onto the blackened stairs.

He held the stone on both sides and walked up the stairs to the main floor. The boards were soft and threatening under his feet. He emerged on the peeling linoleum and curled ends of the floorboards. The only sign of life was what grew around the edges of the refrigerator.

He walked through the house listening to the glass from the empty window frames crunching under his feet. The front door was standing open and the frame was warped into a shape Michael didn't recognize. The dirt outside was a flat gray with no plants in sight. Poison clouds rolled across the brown sky.

"That's why we locked ourselves in the basement … and drew straws."

Michael went upstairs to his room. He felt something crack in the floor under him and he reached for the bubbling drywall. He kept walking. Fiberglass insulation covered most of the furniture in his room. He swept the pink wads off the chair and then the rotten pillows.

Underneath was his blue, fuzzy blanket. He picked it up slowly, letting it unfurl. He looked around for black mold, but didn't find any. He picked a couple pieces of insulation out of the material. Michael started to rub it against his mask, but stopped. He looped it over his shoulder.

The floor was spongy and weak under him. He walked over to his desk and placed the tiny piece of toothpick on top. It rolled into the arm of an M he had carved into the surface. He had gotten spanked for that when he was seven. Now the desk was peeling from acidic rain spilling out of the open ceiling. He looked up at the sky through the broken roof and insulation.

"Who are you going to spank now, Dad?"

There was a crackle under his feet. Michael picked his way back across his room. A board snapped completely under him. He lifted his foot back out slowly and then continued to the doorway.

He looked back at the desk. He could see the M, but not the toothpick.

"You rot just like the rest of this place."

Michael went back down the stairs and stopped at the shelves in the living room. They were pulling away from the walls under the weight of the books. His father had downloaded what he considered important into the reader.

Michael ran his fingers inside the gloves over the spines and covers. A few of them came apart in wet clumps. Others did not and he picked up a few from the dry survivors.

Back down at the door to the outer basement, Michael reached for the handle, but found a keypad instead. He dropped all the books and his hands shook.

"I don't remember the code … I don't know the numbers."

He put his hand over the pad and stopped. "I'm stuck out here forever."

After a moment, he punched in four numbers from muscle memory and heard the latch give. He pushed the door open and retrieved his books.

• • •

I had to figure out how to solve problems myself, and you will too. Things fall apart if you ignore them. That goes for buildings, gardens, and family. If you are not watching, someone else or something else has to.

• • •

Michael blinked awake and pushed open the hatch. He swung his legs over the side and waited. When the lights came on, he was fine. He walked to the counter and lifted the soft, blue blanket he got from the previous year's awakening. He smelled it, and it had a musty odor he didn't remember from when he had gone into stasis again, which only felt like a moment ago. He considered putting it in the chamber with him, but thought better of it.

He wrapped the blanket around himself and pushed the resets on the other four chambers. He followed the instructions in his father's notebook again. The pages were starting to yellow. Michael thought about typing them into the reader his father had loaded books to.

After he ate, Michael suited up and walked into the outer basement. This time he remembered the flashlight. He looked down at the casing of the light as he swept the beam from side to side.

"How long will you last?"

He spotted the bucket he had kicked a year ago. He kicked it again and let it bound out of the field of the light. He heard the scuttling as he continued for the door. When the sound didn't stop, he did.

Michael turned the light through the decayed paper and neglected debris along the walls. Something moved through the shadows. He brought the beam back, but the creature was gone. He turned the light onto the bunker door. It was sealed, but if rodents got into the outer basement, it might be a matter of time. That could be disastrous in terms of food and equipment.

What should have been a two- or three-day shift turned into a two-week adventure trying to figure out where the rats had entered the basement.

Michael finally settled for digging out traps from the cabinets in the garage. The vehicles had been broken down for parts, scrap metal, and petty cash years before the family entered the bunker. The oil stains were still on the concrete below the sagging ceiling.

He sacrificed a few scraps of his food and caught a couple. He sealed off their holes with a mix a little stronger than the paste. After some deliberation, he used wood from the house upstairs to cook the rat for fresh meat. He could tell it didn't taste like chicken, but his body craved it.

He returned to the bunker after another day, making sure he hadn't missed any holes. He pulled the cord on one more chem-cook meal. As it expanded and sizzled, he calculated that his extra days of rat hunts had used up six years worth of shift supplies.

"I need to learn how to farm," his voice echoed back from the walls in a way that scared him.

Wrapped in the blue blanket, he waited for the food to digest before going back under. The blanket smelled like sweat instead of musty age. It itched his neck in a way that made him suspect that there was still insulation on it.

He took the time to count the meal packs. The number of potential years was mind boggling. He opened the seed cases and looked at what would be planted after the Earth had healed itself and his family woke up.

He dug a package out from the side that wasn't labeled. The seeds looked like small acorns. He only knew them from pictures his parents had shown him. He decided to take one out and suited up again.

Upstairs, Michael walked out the front door under the brown sky. He walked about fifty steps into the dirt. Part of the road was still visible through the erosion and mudslides.

He clawed at the gray ground with the gloved fingers of his protective suit. He dropped the acorn in the shallow hole and scraped the dirt back over it. Michael stood a while longer staring at the disturbed earth. He looked around for something to mark the spot for when rain smoothed it back down over the next year. There were corners of trash peeking out of the dirt.

Michael listened to his breathing in the respirator as he thought about it.

"If it doesn't grow, then it doesn't matter where the seed is planted."

He turned around and took three steps back toward the house. Something moved back around the corner behind the garage. He froze. His breathing became more rapid as he waited.

"You're just seeing things."

He waited for another few seconds, and then he ran for the front door.

• • •

We should have been fixing things all along together. This did not have to take as long as it did.

• • •

Michael sat up on his open stasis bed, but kept his eyes closed. He saw the lights come on through his lids, but he still didn't open his eyes. He licked at his teeth until he couldn't taste them any longer. He wrapped up in the synthetic blanket and hit the resets on the other pods. He set the foam roll back out to have it ready for his mattress over the next couple of nights.

He made another scratch on the wall with a ceramic shard he had brought in from the outer basement years ago. He counted them by fives twice.

He nodded. "I'm twelve today … sort of."

He began to suspect that he was aging faster from the wear of going in and out of stasis every year. He ran through his chores and then suited up. The first trip outside each shift had become his favorite part of waking.

He crossed the outer basement in the dark. He had swept it clean several shifts ago so there was nothing to kick. He opened the second door on darkness again. He felt in front of him until he found the flat footholds cut into the dirt where the stairs used to be. Michael climbed slowly and then pushed open the trapdoor he had built using scrap wood, torn plastic, and clay.

He stepped outside and then closed the cover to camouflage the hole and slope leading down to the bunker. One corner of the old house still stood a story and a half tall off to the left. Most of it was crumbled away and partially buried.

Michael turned and walked out to the tall oak. The trunk had been too thick for him to wrap his arms all the way around for years, but he hugged it anyway.

His fingers felt something odd and he walked around the tree to check. The scars in the bark ran in sets of four, parallel lines. As he followed them up the trunk, he found a section higher on the tree where the bark had been torn away completely.

"It's not rats … a bear? Or a lion?"

Michael stood back from the tree and stared for a while. He looked around the ground, but it was hard-packed and left no prints. He looked from the tree up to the brown sky. It had not changed. He tried to remember the shift number.

"One hundred and … four years? It hasn't changed yet."

He looked at the claw marks in the bark of the oak he had planted from a tiny acorn over ninety shifts ago. He looked at the ground again and knelt down. There was a tiny, green sapling sprouting just a few inches out of the ground. He looked from the new growth to the sick sky again.

Michael kept staring up as he pulled off the hood to his suit and smelled the dusty air without a filter. "If whatever clawed this tree can breathe, then I can too."

He imagined a giant rat with superhuman intelligence, but then erased the thought.

"One hundred four years is not long enough to evolve."

He walked back to the trap door and went down below to find something on the reader pad that he hadn't read yet.

• • •

You did not think this through. What good is a couple that is beyond child-bearing and their three sons going to do with the world anyway? We were so careful to stay quiet about our plans. We scrounged and gathered. We plotted and conspired, but to what end? We should have been in contact with others trying to do the same as us. We should have pooled our efforts with others. There is no honor in building a life for ourselves beyond the twilight of man where we grow old and die with no future.

You should have thought this through.

• • •

Michael could hear his voice through the respirator as he descended the stone stairs. Bits of smoldering fuel dropped away from his torch as he approached the door.

The door was hanging on one hinge and was twisted back out into the floor. The concrete block was broken away and crushed into powder like someone had remodeled the wall with a sledgehammer. Wires that connected to some other equipment between the door and wall were exposed from the cracked frame.

He whispered into his respirator hood. "This can't be good."

Michael stepped over the door and the concrete block. He swept the torch out in front of him. There were eleven chambers in the bunker.

"You all were a little smarter … sort of."

He checked each one. In some cases the hatches to the stasis chambers were broken off the pods. The bodies inside were still in place. A couple were twisted up on their sides, but most were still stretched out like they never woke up. They had the same four, parallel claw marks through their clothes and torn chests. Some of them were skeletons. Others were mummified.

He found one empty chamber hanging open and unscratched. "Did you escape?"

Michael searched through the cabinets and containers. The food packs were torn open. The seed packs were missing from the plastic.

On one wall, he found chalk marks faded into the stone in sets of five like he had scratched with his shard. "Were you counting days like me or years for the Earth?"

Water marks from cracks at the top of the wall had washed away both sides, so there was no way to count the marks.

He turned to leave and then saw it in the corner. The little body was curled into a ball and there wasn't much left. Michael dropped to one knee in his protective suit in front of the remains.

"I guess you drew the short straw … at this point, your whole family drew the short straw. I've been alone for five hundred shifts. I'm about sixteen years old and one month if the days out of the chamber count. My suit doesn't even fit me anymore. I'm wearing my dad's clothes and suit from the supplies. I don't even wear it outside usually, but I didn't know what I might find on this journey. I'm sorry I waited five hundred years to come looking for you. I'm not sure what I could have done, but you wouldn't have been alone at least."

Michael stood up and started to go. He stopped with his back to the body in the corner. He didn't look back once he started speaking again.

"This isn't your fault. I don't know what … creature the four clawed monster is. I don't think it is a bear or lion. I don't think anything new has had time to evolve, but who knows in this nasty world. I guess you know now, and it was the last thing you saw."

Michael looked over to the far wall again and decided to search through the personal items before he left. Most had not survived five hundred years. He loaded the synthetic blankets and respirator suits into his heavy packs.

"I'm not sure what I'll use these for, but who knows? Maybe I'll build a fort. You weren't the only ones. I found three others over the last few months. This is the fourth bunker I've found. One was attacked like this one. Another was destroyed by a fire or explosion. There was one that was abandoned. The chambers were open. The cabinets were empty. The door to the bunker was just hanging open. There was this weird note or poem on the wall. It …"

Michael stopped talking as he lifted a book out of a container. It was still wrapped in plastic. The plastic was yellowed and stiff. The book inside was intact. There was a black-and-white picture on the cover. It showed people planting trees. The title read, Reclaiming the Desert: The Power of Planting Trees in Israel.

"I haven't read this one. I guess you haven't, either."

Michael stuck it in his pack. He looked for a reader or any other electronics that might have survived, but again there were none.

Michael walked back out through the broken door. "I'm sorry this happened to you. I'm sorry your family slept while you suffered."

He held the torch out as he climbed back up the stone steps toward the yellow sky.

• • •

There is something out here with us. I don't even know how to explain it. I understand it little better than the first time I saw it. The world is pushing back against us. I'm not sure if it blames us, but they sure do not like us. I discovered that over and over again in year five hundred and in the years since. I searched out nearly a hundred miles in every direction for months. We should have done something about it centuries earlier.

They planted trees in Israel. They used tourists to do it. They actually changed the climate by planting enough of them. They changed the rate of rainfall. In ancient times, that land was full of trees they used to build temples. It became a desert and they actually began to reverse the process.

Our air was breathable the whole time. I read much of our oxygen comes from ocean algae even before we killed off most of everything else. We just needed to clean up our mess.

• • •

Michael jumped up off the stasis bed before the lights came on. He wavered with dizziness, but he fought through it. The lights flickered on as he finished resetting the other chambers.

He changed into work clothes he had cut and sewn out of the extra synthetic blankets. They itched a little, but they did keep the sweat away from his body. The other materials weren't holding up well once they were removed from storage. The blankets looked the same as they had almost six hundred years ago.

He grabbed the tools and pack he needed. He left the bunker and climbed up and out of the entrance to the cave.

The grove of oaks greeted him at the entrance with shade. He took a deep breath. The unfiltered air was still dusty, but it was easier to imagine freshness in the grove of trees.

He walked out and leaned on the grow boxes he had cut out of the first oak when it had finally fallen. There were fresh scratch marks on the outside of the boxes. The small plants and saplings inside weren't touched.

"This doesn't make sense. Are you a meat eater? You just come looking for little piggies sleeping in bunkers? You haven't figured your way through my cave and camouflage? I find that hard to swallow, Four Claw."

Michael checked the cabin he used when he was out on the surface. The scratches there were the same ones from the previous year. The bunk was still standing. He rolled the foam from the bunker out on it.

"You stood for another year. Good work."

He went out to a fresh patch of gray dirt and began cutting out a curved trench. About mid-afternoon, he went and sat with his back to the outside wall of the cabin. He took a meal out of his pack and pulled the cook cord. He waited while it expanded on the grass next to him.

"Pecan trees need more water. We have to set them up for success."

He heard the rumble like an approaching truck. He ignored it at first, but then his mind kicked him up and out of his half consciousness. He opened his eyes and stood up next to the cabin.

Dust was billowing up in the distance. Michael didn't know whether to run, hide, or prepare to fight, so he just stood staring. As it got closer, he saw a mound of dirt traveling like a trail toward the grove.

"Burrowing … why haven't I seen those trails before? What are you?"

He picked up the trudging tool still caked with gray dirt and braced himself. The claws emerged first. They locked onto the surface and began to pull loose from the ground.

Michael turned and ran before he saw what it was.

• • •

It should have been you. You should have manned up and done this job yourself. We should have all taken the short straw and done the work together. If I had a son, I would not have made him do what you placed on me. Most of my life was lived in lonely bursts. I aged in scattered days. The unnatural sleeping and waking was hard on me mentally and physically. Your choice was not brave. I hope you do better by my brothers once you are awake again. You owe me that after what you put on me.

I've provided a life for you to spend out your days as a family. It took more than waiting. Enjoy the labor of my hands and live your life worthy of this gift. Hopefully, this is not the final whimper.

There are more things you need to know. I've written the rest of it in the cabin outside. Obviously, you don't need the protective suits. I cut them up and used them for other things years ago.

I'll see you outside,

Michael

• • •

He sat up on the edge of his stasis bed and blinked. The light wasn't right. He felt hot like he had a fever.

"Dad, there's a note tied to your bed." Donavan pulled it loose and handed it to his father.

He felt it between his fingers. Dad was printed on the outside. It wasn't paper. It felt like leather or parchment. He unrolled it and began to read it from the light coming from his left.

Adam said, "My mouth tastes like poop."

"Don't talk like that," their mother scolded.

"What happened?" Donavan walked through Mr. Gage's light briefly. "Was there an explosion?"

Mrs. Gage said. "The counter says we've been under for … oh, my God, that can't be right."

Mr. Gage started to read the letter over again. A breeze blew past his face and he panicked.

"Don't open the door. We don't know what's out there."

Donavan laughed. "Dad, there is no door."

Mr. Gage stood up on his wobbly legs and stared out through the open space where the front wall used to be. He was staring through a cavern with a wide mouth opening to the bright outside.

"What the … what happened?"

He went around to the end of this stasis pod to check the counter. It wasn't there. The wires were pulled out and reconfigured in a way he didn't recognize. There was corrosion from the elements over the wires and the outside of the pod.

"What did you do, Michael?"

Donavan said, "I'm going outside."

"Wait," Mr. Gage shouted, "We'll all go. Follow behind me."

They left the stone of the bunker and walked along the packed dirt toward the entrance of the cavern. The light was blinding.

Mr. Gage whispered. "How long?"

"What?"

"How long did your counter say we were under?"

She cleared her throat. "It said … thousands … thousands of years."

They stepped outside and shielded their eyes from the sun.

The boys ran out ahead, laughing.

"Wait … stay together."

They ignored their father as they ran through the tall grass.

One of them shouted. "Blue sky … can you believe it?"

Mrs. Gage laughed, but then stopped. "Where's Michael?"

Mr. Gage held up and waved the parchment crumpled in his hand. "He said there was a cabin out here we needed to find."

Mrs. Gage tried to take the letter, but he pulled it away and started walking. She followed behind him through the trees as the boys ran in the field. He was distracted by the insects rising up from the grass as the boys ran.

"I didn't know there were any left. Where were they hiding?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Bugs … never mind. Help me find this …"

They stared. They were standing on the hard ground of a dirt path. There were wheel ruts cut into the ground on the path that ran beside the trees. There was a two-story cabin that reminded Mr. Gage strangely of a smaller version of the house he had left upstairs a moment before closing his eyes. There was even a shed on the side that looked like the garage.

There were two wells he could see, and windmills. Crops behind fences stretched along the fields behind the cabin and even up the slope to more woods in the distance. Orchards stretched out in rows in the other direction out of sight.

The farm comprised hundreds of acres at least.

Mrs. Gage whispered. "There's even a barn out past the fields."

Mr. Gage looked back at her. The boys had seen the crops and were walking slowly to the far end of the fences. He turned away from them and walked toward the cabin. He heard the ground crunch under his wife's shoes as she ran after him.

He stopped short of the front porch and stared at the ground. His wife stopped beside him and covered her mouth. She backed away and breathed through her fingers.

The ground looked freshly dug. The stone at the head of the plot read, Mrs. Michael Donald Gage – "Mama Lana" – Age in dispute.

There was a rumbling in the distance. Mrs. Gage stopped crying. He looked away from the tombstone and out at the dust flying up in the distance. Something growled and it echoed out toward them. The boys stood between them and what was approaching. They turned and ran toward their parents. Mrs. Gage began screaming and ran toward the boys.

Mr. Gage started to walk too, but then stopped. He turned and looked back at the tombstone. After a moment, he looked up at the cabin.

"Who buried you?"

Something moved past one of the windows inside. Mr. Gage waited, but the door didn't open and he didn't see the movement again.

He turned and saw his wife holding his two boys. Something large and gray was charging across the field. Dirt was falling from its massive hide as it bounded through the grass. Its black claws dug in as it ran.

Mr. Gage stood staring.

The door to the cabin cracked open behind him. He startled, but did not move or turn.

A man's voice spoke quietly. "It won't hurt them. It just likes to remind us who is in charge from time to time."

Mr. Gage shivered as the beast reared up over his cowering family and roared. More dirt fell from its head. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

"Mr. Gage … Dad, I'm sorry to meet you like this. I didn't want to meet you again at all actually. My wife insisted. In the end … even after I wrote the letters I intended for you to find them when my grave was dug out in front of this cabin … I asked her to keep pushing the buttons, but … she passed first and this little meeting was her last request. I was going to be there when you came around, but … after staring at your face … I tied the first letter to your chamber without rewriting it. I decided to let the reset clock wind down on its own. Not pushing your button was the best I could bring myself to do. I did it for Lana … not you."

The monster dropped back to all fours and ran back across the field away from the cabin. Mr. Gage's wife and two sons stayed on the ground holding each other. Mr. Gage just stood in place.

He stammered. "I don't understand."

Michael said. "I couldn't bring myself to forgive you … for the straws. We have two daughters … I had two daughters … and grandchildren. They live farther down the road closer to town. They still work the farm here … now that I'm feeling my unnatural version of old … and they work their own fields too."

Mr. Gage cleared his throat. "Michael … I … did you grow them out of the ground?"

He laughed quietly. "She was a short straw too. She was a few hundred miles away. The creatures grabbed her and brought her to me when I started building all this. We called it our arranged monster marriage. I rigged my chamber to house both of us. We went back for her family once we decided to stop sleeping years ago. Then … the creatures brought others. They don't hurt us as long as we stay in our territory and we follow the rules."

The silence drew out after he stopped talking.

"I don't understand. I don't understand."

"How about you turn around and face me, Dad?"

Mr. Gage's muscles tensed across his back. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He did not turn around.

Michael's elderly voice muttered. "It's disrespectful to disobey your elders, Dad. Perhaps you'd rather I put you back in the chamber, if you aren't up to this?"

"Michael … I …" the man's voice cracked. "I have no words … son. I'm … I'm just so …"

The creature had long departed from the field as Michael stood on the porch and waited for his father to either finish his sentence or to turn around. Neither occurred. Michael's mother stayed on her knees with her head down, still clutching his brothers in the distance.

"Mr. Gage, go to your family. Bring them inside and we'll talk."

He stood in place, just staring out at them in the dusty field.

"Mr. Gage … Dad?"

He didn't move.


Jay Wilburn lives in Conway, South Carolina with his wife and two sons. He taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full-time writer. He has work in Best Horror of the Year volume 5 and Shadows Over Main Street volume 1. His novels include Time Eaters, The Enemy Held Near, and the Dead Song Legend series. Follow his many musings at JayWilburn.com, on his Facebook author page, or @AmongTheZombies on Twitter, Periscope, and other platforms.