Story: Gently Down the Stream

Part 1: The Departure

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This story features an early character death. Part 4 has a scene with a strong resemblance to suicide.
This is part 1 of 5 in the novelette Gently Down the Stream
Somewhere past Cherry’s ivy-laced window, the wights beckoned. She scanned the thick ferns and pale alder trunks out back, but the hillside held no vibrant colors or alluring shapes. The wind’s rustling didn’t carry bubbling laughter or a hint of melody. If only that meant the wights had left. She’d gone to ground weeks ago, but that hadn’t discouraged these ones from drifting about the neighborhood, knocking on doors and peeking through windows. No doubt they were waiting for someone to emerge and scavenge the old commercial streets or gather apples from abandoned gardens.

“We leave tomorrow,” Jackie said behind her.

Cherry stepped down from the basement window. Jackie had spread their remaining rations on the stained wooden table: about a cup and a half of uncooked rice, a few handfuls of oats, and a can of tuna. Cherry’s stomach rumbled. “We could squeeze two meals out of this, wait another day.”

“No, I told you.” The older woman shook her head. “We need something for the road.”

Cherry drew in a shaking breath. This was it. They’d run out of food, and with that, out of time to hide. All they could do now was flee the neighborhood, praying they weren’t snatched on the way.

Even if they made it, they were giving up the burrow they’d invested years in. Cherry had just managed to get rid of the mildew smell, a nearly impossible task in these times. She’d spent months scavenging for clean rugs to cover their concrete floors, and she’d found a hidden glen that would do for a garden. “I haven’t seen any wights out back in a few days. Not obvious ones, anyway. Maybe they left.”

“Cook the rice. I’ll scout.” Jackie headed for the door.

“Why yes, I do think that’s a good plan. Thanks for discussing it with me instead of just ordering me around.”

Jackie turned and glared. They’d always had trouble getting along, and being cooped up together for weeks hadn’t helped. Still, at least Cherry tried to be nice. Most of the time.

“Would you rather scout?” Jackie asked.

“No.” Cherry sighed. “I just want to come to conclusions together instead of arguing after you’ve made up your mind. And doesn’t leaving merit a conversation? We haven’t decided where to go.”

Jackie shrugged. “My old warren is just an hour or so north in Alderwood. If it’s still going, they’ll take us in.”

Cherry’s stomach sank. Once again, Jackie had already decided, and it was the opposite of what Cherry wanted. She let herself collapse onto the nearest chair. “You know that won’t work for me.”

Jackie frowned. “You’re still being stubborn about warrens?”

“Warrens are still being terrible places to live, so yes. But it’s more than that.”

“Not your pen pal?”

“His name is Leo.”

“Cherry.” Jackie pulled up a chair next to her. “I know you care about… Leo, but he’s too far away. You were damn lucky you made it up here in the first place. If I hadn’t found you… We’d never reach the Cut.”

“I wasn’t going to insist we go all the way down to his burrow, but we have to go south. If we go north, I won’t be able to get letters to him anymore.”

“It’s time to give that up anyway. Wights could be listening.”

Cherry threw her hands in the air. “We don’t even know they can read. And I’ve been careful, like you asked. We’ve spread the clues to our burrows over multiple letters, and they’re ridiculously cryptic.”

“You haven’t written him since these wights came around. By now, he’s already mourned you.”

Cherry drew in a breath and paused. Had he? Their letters hadn’t been that reliable in the past. She had to walk them to a drop point about a quarter hour away, so the people there could take them to the nearest warren, and so on. Sometimes they demanded payment in things she couldn’t find. Occasionally they swore they’d delivered her message, but Leo never got it. However, even considering those gaps, she hadn’t sent a letter in a long time. If Leo thought she’d departed… The world was cruel enough without false tragedies. “I can’t let him think I’m gone.”

Jackie stood and grabbed her jacket. “I have to go, or I’ll miss the light. We can hash this out when I get back.”

“We’d better. But go, I’ll cook the rice.”

Jackie opened the outer door, and it made a loud creak. “Dammit.”

“I’ve got it.” Cherry pulled up a chair to keep it in position. “I’ll grease it next thing.”

“Alright, don’t leave it open too long.” Jackie stepped out and paused, staring at Cherry. “If I don’t come back – ”

“You’ll come back.”

Jackie nodded. She slipped around the house, disappearing into the brush.

Cherry crept into the old backyard for some garlic mustard; it was the only fresh vegetable close enough to gather while they were hiding. What she would give for some choy sum, or even a few dandelions. Of course, since she wanted it so badly, any fresh food was now suspect. If she turned around to find a miraculous row of white radish, she’d have to run for the door. Thankfully, the garlic mustard was reassuringly speckled with brown.

Rain sprinkled over Cherry’s shoulders, slowly sinking into her polyester shirt. It had been raining often lately, but the days were still balmy. Was it September? They could be thankful for that at least. A month earlier, and their water would have run out much faster than their food. Plus, more than once she’d spotted wights that looked dry even as rain fell on them. Anything that made them stand out also made traveling a little safer.

After Cherry collected her small bounty of garlic mustard, she greased the door hinges – or tried to; Jackie always did that. Then she inched the door closed and locked it. Next came the rice. Building a fire was dangerous, but they still had a three-wick candle, and that was enough to boil a small pot of water. The candle had already burned low; she broke the glass rim to get the flame close enough to the pot. The wax’s faded scent still resembled cinnamon if she imagined hard enough.

Despite the hassle, Cherry liked making rice. Her grandmother had taught her during a childhood visit to Hong Kong, and Cherry could still hear Poh Poh’s voice, instructing her to touch the rice’s surface with her thumb and then pour the water until it reached the first knuckle. She wanted to believe her grandparents were still alive on the other side of the world, cooking and thinking of her. She’d never know if that was true.

Cherry had lost her parents, her brother, and all of her friends during the Great Departure. She’d joined a warren nearby, but when the residents weren’t eating her food, they were tracking dirt everywhere or insisting she toss salt and mount horseshoes as if that would keep the wights away. They bathed in their own filth and called her wasteful for wanting a clean stream of water to wash in. Cherry managed to find another warren, but it was just as awful. She was finally setting out on her own when she met Leo. She hadn’t expected him to return her letters, but he did. Leo made her feel like she might have a family again someday. How could she lose that?

The rice water boiled. To conserve what she could, Cherry blew out the candle. Jackie had been away for a while now. She must have ventured farther to see if she could spot the wights – a good sign. But the sun was below the hills, and Jackie knew better than to scout in the dark. She’d be back any moment. If she spotted wights nearby, they’d finish their talk. Cherry might have to admit that going north was a little safer, but that couldn’t be their only option.

Cherry set the oats to soak for the next day. Then she crushed the garlic mustard, mixed it with the cooked rice, and served it into two bowls. It was dark outside. Jackie must have found a hiding spot for the night. She’d be back at first light, no doubt. What had she been about to say when she left? If I don’t come back… Cherry would ask her, because Jackie was coming back. Cherry covered Jackie’s rice so it wouldn’t dry out. Then she finished her bowl and curled up in a hammock.

When she woke, the curtains glowed with the morning light. Cherry sat up and scanned the old basement, her stomach fluttering. Jackie’s hammock was empty. Her rice waited on the table, still covered.

She wasn’t coming back.

Cherry closed her eyes and inhaled slowly. If the wights found Jackie nearby, they might be closing in on the burrow. Cherry had to leave quickly.

She retrieved a pencil and her smoothest sheet of paper, sitting with it as she ate the remaining rice. Jackie deserved a big wake, but no one did that anymore, not for a whole decade now. With so many lost and no bodies to bury, writing a final letter to the departed was more practical. The letters were always written as though the taken might return any day, a tradition that was odd but comforting. Besides, since no one knew where they went, maybe they would return – billions of people walking back into the world with a beautiful wight hand in hand, just the way they left.

Jackie,

Sorry I missed you. You were late coming back, so I decided it was best to move on.

I know we didn’t always see eye to eye, but you were the best burrowmate an aimless girl could hope for. Without you knocking some sense into me, I think I would have been taken as soon as I came up here. You always knew what to do to stay one step ahead of the wights.

It’s not fair that I’m the one here, moving on without you. I guess there are no guarantees, no matter how careful we are. Might as well reach for our dreams.

I’m going south. I hope whatever you do next, it’s everything you’re looking for.

Cherry

She wiped her eyes. She’d written dozens of these after the Great Departure, saying goodbye to each beloved family member and all of her friends. After that she did it a couple times a year, whenever someone in her warren didn’t return from an outing. If the warren couldn’t prevent a rescue attempt, she’d end up composing two or three letters. Would a day come when she didn’t have to write them anymore? Or would humans continue to disappear one by one, leaving only rain-sogged photos in rotting homes to recall the people who once lit up the night?

Cherry pushed the letter aside. She couldn’t let herself get bogged down in grief right now. She had to concentrate on her next step: she was going to the Montlake Cut to be with Leo. They’d discussed sharing a burrow for over a year, since she told him about the fights with Jackie. He’d struggled with her Jackie-approved clues about her location, but she had enough to find him, or she probably did. He lived somewhere past the stadium and south of the canal, she was sure of that. A journey that long was dangerous, but now that she was forced to leave her home, she could at least go somewhere that was worth it.

Cherry grabbed her backpack. Food had to be her first priority. She put the soaking oats in a jar and packed a can opener with the tuna. She grabbed three candles, a lighter, a bottle of rainwater, a few clothes, and some feminine pads. She tucked Leo’s letters in a front pocket. For a gift to her future host, she settled on a fresh journal still preserved in its plastic wrapping. She tied her black hair into a ponytail and put on a cap and jacket to keep off the rain. Last, she clipped Jackie’s machete to her belt. It was worse than useless against wights, but blackberries were another matter.

She was ready. She put her hand on the doorknob and paused, her chest tightening. What if the wights had closed in around her block and were merely waiting for the sound of habitation to lead them to the right house? The door would probably squeak again, and the low brush on the hillside would leave her exposed. Cherry drew in a breath. None of that mattered now; her odds only got worse if she waited.

Go, she told herself. Get out before it’s too late.

Cherry opened the door and plunged outside. She fled from the noise of her own movement, running downhill through the crowd of pungent garlic mustard and vaulting over a tree felled by a thick sail of ivy. She stumbled once but made it to a tall patch of bamboo. There she dived in and crouched, listening to her heavy breaths as the leaves around her dipped and lifted with every raindrop. She spied for anything out of place on the hillside, but the wet leaves and crawling beetles weren’t particularly unusual or lovely. However, while the wights weren’t known for subtlety, they could technically look like anything. She had to hope they weren’t hidden somewhere, watching and biding their time.

She crept further downhill, avoiding fallen branches that might crack and give her away. Through the dense foliage ahead, she saw gentle shining waves and hills beyond them, now lightly sprinkled with yellow and red. Lake views were as lovely as they’d ever been, but if you had a clear view of the landscape, the wights in that landscape had a clear view of you. No one went over the water anymore.

Instead, Cherry’s route was one row of houses up from the shore. With a few more steps, a lake house loomed before her. The shingles were covered in clumping moss and decaying leaves. A strong sapling had taken root up there, puncturing the roof to let the rain rot out the interior. Squirrels crawled over the collapsed deck as sparrows flew in and out the broken windows.

Cherry was already in the home’s old backyard. Had she passed the Burke-Gilman Trail? She hadn’t checked it in the three years since she’d journeyed north from the central warrens. She’d assumed the pavement hadn’t been erased by probing roots. If that was wrong, what would she do? Using the streets would leave her exposed and vulnerable to the most dangerous wights. Going through the brush would be noisy and slow. She’d never make it.

A spot of intense blue caught her attention. She stepped back, but it wasn’t anything so alluring as a wight. It was something old, showing through a clump of foliage. She trudged closer and found a bike. Its gears were rusted red, and the wheels were tangled in a vine of morning glory, adorned with white trumpets. The bike was still chained to a towering cedar, faithfully waiting for its owner to free it for a ride. The trail had to be close.

Cherry took a step back uphill and plunged through the big leaves of a laurel. She slipped through the laurel’s dark interior, emerged out the other side, and she was there: a narrow band of open air that curved through the trees along the shoreline. Brush encroached on either side, but roots still hadn’t broken through the pavement to fill the gap. Instead, the path hid under a mat of crumbled leaves and a carpet of clover, dotted with purple blossoms. The trail left enough space for easy walking, but not enough for the largest of wights. Here, she might have a chance of resisting them.

The quiet squeaking of a door carried down the hill: Cherry’s door.

Was Jackie back? If the wights were gone, she might have spent extra time gathering a real meal for them. It was still early in the day; maybe she figured Cherry would be asleep. Was she up there, realizing Cherry was gone and reading her letter? Cherry could go back. If it really was Jackie, they could restock their home and celebrate their good fortune. Cherry wouldn’t have to risk her life on a journey to the Cut.

But a wight could have opened the door. Catching Jackie would have told them which blocks to search, and the creak as Cherry left would have brought them closer still. If the door hadn’t closed all the way, the burrow would be obvious to them. That meant the wights were just on the other side of these trees, hot on Cherry’s trail. If she went back, she’d fall right into their clutches.

She had no time to peek around. Even if she didn’t, the wights could be on her in a moment. Either Cherry risked her life to stay with Jackie, or she risked her life to get to Leo.

Leo, I’m coming. Cherry ran south down the trail, trying to keep her footfalls from pounding as hard as her heart.

 

Comments

  1. Danita Rambo

    More please! I ate that up quickly!

  2. mysterious ghost

    Very intriguing! And what a tough choice at the end there. Looking forward to seeing what happens with Cherry next!

  3. Dave L

    You added a download button

    Thank you

  4. Sharl

    And it’s set in Seattle! I’m always delighted to read post-apo stuff set where I live.

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