“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
― Søren Kierkegaard ―
It was strange to have a road connecting their town to the rest of the world once again.
Katie heard the almost-forgotten growl of a car’s engine. It was distant, but definitely coming their way. She looked up and tried to see into the distance along the road, but the angle was wrong from here. Her friend Janice glanced up at her, but didn’t stop working.
They were out here with some guys from town, clearing out around the Millers’ place, dragging the debris away from what had been a home so that they could put in a vegetable garden closer to their safe houses. That way they wouldn’t have to rely on the one by the church. Problem was that Janet Miller had been one of Katie’s best friends all through school. She’d spent lots of afternoons here because the Millers had had the biggest yard and the best set up of any of them. The tire swing Mr. Miller had made had been better than the swings at school, and Katie had loved being on it with her friends and spinning and swinging…
“Do you hear that?” she asked Janice, because it was better than thinking about what had been.
Janice tossed the jagged piece of siding she’d picked up onto one of the growing piles. There was one for re-usable wood, one for garbage, and the one for funerals. The siding was stained wood, so it couldn’t be used for cooking, or anywhere in the house, but it was still okay for funeral pyres,
“It’s a car. Whatever.” Janice didn’t even straighten, just kept sorting through the wreckage.
It had been Janice’s idea to come out here and work with the guys. Probably because the only other thing going on today was carding and spinning the wool from the goats, but also because it was good to remind the men in town that, just because she was a woman, it didn’t make her helpless or good only for making babies. Janice had become a feminist back in eighth grade, and she’d taken it seriously, calling teachers and fellow students on their attitudes and behaviours. It had gotten Janice into trouble a couple times, but that hadn’t stopped her—which always made Katie cheer even if only internally.
Katie looked at her friend now, sorting pieces of wood into piles, and remembered when her friend had wanted to change the world. If the Storm hadn’t happened, Janice would’ve been at law school. In their last year of high school, Janice had been applying all over the country, so of course she got accepted. It had only been a matter of time before she left.
Katie had admired her friend’s drive, but hadn’t envied it. This was Katie’s home. Her family had founded this town and there was an importance to that, a history that she’d felt shouldn’t be ignored.
Of course, that was before the Storm and the Dust had broken history completely.
“Should we go see?” Katie asked, and forced her friend to look at her.
Janice pushed her glasses up her nose, even though the sweat had them sliding right back down. “Probably more feds. They said they were going to send a crew to put in a telegraph line,” she said dismissively.
“Maybe they’re bringing mail?” Katie suggested. “There could be a letters for us.” Not that she thought it likely. Postal service out here was the ‘rely on the kindness of strangers’ kind. Plus, who would be writing them letters?
“Letters! Unbelievable.” Janice laughed unhappily. “It’s 1989 and telegrams and letters are the big thing in communications. I feel like we’ve been shoved back into a John Wayne movie. I mean, I liked watching those movies, but I’d much rather sit on the beach with Tom Selleck. Remember Magnum, P.I.?”
“Of course I do.”
“We used to tape it on your dad’s VCR, so we could watch it whenever we wanted.” Janice sighed. “I miss TV.”
Katie didn’t respond, unwilling to be dragged into the same old discussion. What was the point of thinking about how it had been before? In fact, Katie tried not to remember, just as she tried not to look at the swings she’d played on, or the tree she’d climbed in, or the roller rink where she’d been kissed for the first time. Those things were gone, and unlikely to come back, at least not in her lifetime, not to this little town, but she’d stopped trying to convince her friend that the telegraph would probably be more entertaining than the occasional letter delivery or radio broadcasts they got now, since they’d get the gossip from every place along the line.
Right now mail only came when someone was passing by, which wasn’t often. The radio broadcasts only occasionally broke through the Dust in the atmosphere, and even then, they were an odd mix of songs, Latin lessons, plays like the ones in the 30s, and weird instructions on how to make Dust-repelling charms, followed by government guys assuring them that “they were working on a solution to the problem.” It was hardly the American Top 40 with Casey Kasim.
Still, the sound of the car and the feel of the sun brought back memories of walking out to Willow Lake with her sister and all their friends. They’d walked on the side of the road to avoid the cars and trucks roaring past. The sun would be hot on their backs and on their feet, but it was okay, because they’d stop at Sanderson’s and grab a float or two to share, and the lake would be cool once they’d reached it.
Willow Lake was out of reach now, like most of the places Katie had grown up with. Even if she could reach it, she wasn’t sure it would be a good idea to swim in it.
The engine noise rose abruptly then fell. It had probably reached the bump at the tracks. Cars that were speeding there always lifted off the ground a little.
“They’re moving awfully fast,” she said to her friend.
Again, Janice shrugged. “It’s not like they have to worry about anybody coming the other way,” she said, but this time she moved to stand next to Katie. They listened to the mechanical growl draw closer. A couple of the guys noticed they’d stopped working and came over to ask why.
“Katie can hear a car,” Janice said, as if it happened every day.
“I’m just wondering if it has mail for us,” Katie said defensively. Honestly, the way Janice pined for the past, she should’ve been jumping up and down at proof that something of it had survived. Just because there were no more working cars in town, didn’t mean the whole world was without automobiles.
Katie had asked her parents for a car, a used car like they’d given her brother, so that she and her friends could drive to the lake, or to the theatre in Ronsen, but they’d said no. They’d rather her brother drive her everywhere, so they wouldn’t worry. Before she could convince them she could be trusted with a car (way more than her brother who liked to race his friends out by the Binder farm), the Storm hit, and nobody was driving anywhere. The roads were covered with Dust and other dangerous things.
Same with most of the town. Pockets had remained Dust-free: the churches, Madame Charron’s hippie crystal shop, Lem Carson’s garage, and some other neighbourhoods stayed mostly clear. And the Dust didn’t always stick around, leaving the area for days at a time before the church bell would ring in alarm, and everyone would scurry back to the safe houses.
Though she hated to, Katie sometimes thought it had been a blessing the population had dropped as much as it had. Most everybody had died the night of the Storm. Then the Dust moved in and brought fevers and horrible diseases, and more people died. The roads were impassible, which meant no deliveries of food or anything else, from anywhere, so people had starved. When the Dust finally moved away for more than a couple hours, people had gone out and brought back whatever they could find mostly vegetables, but once even a cow.
Sometimes, what they’d brought back had looked weird, but they’d been so hungry they’d eaten it anyway. Turned out that eating food that Dust had corrupted… It changed people, slowly and painfully, into horror-movie monsters that needed to be killed, and that had been worse than watching them die of starvation or waste away from the fevers.
After that, the survivors put in gardens using seeds ‘cleansed’ by the church minister and Madame Charron just in case. They’d gone out and found healthy-looking chickens and goats—small animals that could be kept in small spaces.
She didn’t remember that part—she’d been sick with the same disease that took her sister and her mother—and she was glad she didn’t, but she remembered her brother’s death. Ben, had been killed the night of the Storm when half the town went crazy-violent. He’d died protecting her and her mother and sister. He’d died protecting them from his friends, boys that Katie had grown up with. He’d fought them off until they’d gone looking for easier prey, and then he’d stood guard until the sun came up and the Storm cleared, and all those crazy-violent people had just stopped, dead. Ben had fallen, too. Internal bleeding.
Ben, her awful, teasing brother who still gave her noogies, had died a hero.
“It would be nice to have a car,” Katie said thinking of her brother’s car, with his goofy dice hanging from the mirror and his hair-metal music in the tape deck. Ben had loved that car.
Janice looked at her, pushing her glasses up. “What the hell would you do with a car?”
Katie shrugged. “Drive it.” If she could find the gas, of course.
Back in 1984, Katie had wondered if the world beyond the Dust was more A Boy and His Dog or The Road Warrior: miles and miles of nothing, with roving gangs of amoral assholes and the occasional town like theirs—a small band of regular people clinging to the edges of what once was. It was hard to pick between who was cooler: Mel Gibson or Don Johnson.
Then little Jamie Barton had been killed by something that had once been one of them, and Katie stopped thinking there was anything romantic about the Storm. Nobody was going to rescue them, and the government wasn’t going to fix anything.
But they had, a little.
Six months ago, federal agents had come up the highway, using warding stones to force the Dust away from the road. The agents reached the town and had been surprised to find survivors. Whatever ‘rescue’ had ensued, was completely accidental on the government’s part, no matter what they claimed on the radio. Still, the agents had adjusted; they’d created a perimeter wall around the town’s safest areas, joining them all together, and they’d left the town a crate of warding stones, so they could expand the warding wall as needed. Then the agents had continued on up the road to the refinery, anxious to see if they could get the place working again. Not even the end of the world stopped the government’s need for oil, it seemed.
The town’s rescue had been accidental, but the road had travellers again. Not many, but enough to make Katie feel connected to the rest of the world. She hadn’t really cared before, content to stay in town and make her life here, just as her great-great-etc.-grandparents had done. Maybe, if Laura wanted to take over the store, she would’ve spent a couple years getting a nursing certificate, but she would’ve come back
She sighed, impatient with herself. Those thoughts were as bad as Janice’s moaning about old TV shows, which her friend seemed to be doing a lot. Or maybe Katie was just losing patience with it. Five and a half years since the Storm. Even if Tom Selleck was alive, which he probably wasn’t, he would’ve stopped making that stupid show years ago.
“I’m going to go check it out,” Katie said.
“What about this?” Janice asked. She waved her hands, taking in the wreckage that had once been the Millers’ house. They were clearing it out so that they could turn the Millers’ backyard into a squash garden.
Katie hated squash. And she’d played in the tree fort they’d tossed onto the pile.
“It’ll still be here tomorrow.”
She moved towards the road. The guys formed up around her, as if she needed bodyguards. Then Janice stepped through them. “You guys can stay here,” she said. “There’s still lots we have to do.”
“As if we’re going to let you girls meet a stranger by yourselves,” said Katie’s dad jogging to catch up. That brought the escort up to four guys. Katie ignored them—especially Tommy Gustafson—and kept walking.
Janice, walking in front of the guys, threw out her hands dramatically. “Why? In case the people driving in are some kind of kidnapping marauders out to steal the womenfolk? You know, it’s 1989, not 1889, and we’re not ‘the girls’,” she said with air quotes. “We’re people—intelligent people, and capable of looking after ourselves. I don’t know about Katie, but I’m really, totally, sick of the over-protective-slash-possessive BS you guys keep throwing at us.”
Predictably, Tommy ignored her. “You know you like it, Jan-Jan-Jan-Janice.”
Jake Hanson, a former teammate of Tommy’s, flicked his tongue out at her. Janice gave them both the finger.
Katie could’ve cheered on her friend,--Janice was always willing to call the men on their caveman crap—but she didn’t. Partially because protesting wouldn’t change their behaviour, but mostly because every post-Apocalyptic book and movie showed human beings acting like total assholes to each other, so maybe the car was filled with marauding kidnappers. Why take the chance?
The engine sound faded and came back, meaning whoever it was had passed over Tumble Creek. Not that it was a creek; water hadn’t flowed in it since the highway was built in the ‘50s. Still, there was no mistaking the way the dip in the road distorted sound.
Their little group reached the road just as the car came over the ridge. It was a big car, old and black. The way it was moving, it seemed like it was going to race right on through. Then it came over the rise and the driver must have seen them standing at the side of the road, because he slammed on the brakes. The back end started to slide, but the driver kept it under control, and the big machine stopped only a couple feet away. The driver’s door opened with a creak and a man climbed half-way out.
“You got an alarm system?” he asked, voice hard. “A bell or a siren?”
“Who’s asking?” Katie’s dad asked belligerently. After all, he was the mayor, though it didn’t mean much anymore.
The stranger ignored the question, and jerked his chin back the way he’d come. “The warding wall is failing, about three miles back.” Katie’s eyes looked down the road. It followed a long, slow dip over Tumble Creek then it went back up casual and easy. She’d walked that road lots of times.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” her father said. “They just put the warding stones down a few months ago.”
The stranger shook his head. “Ward walls need to be walked constantly—once a month at minimum. The stones shift too easily. You’ve got a weak spot, and the Dust is digging away at it.”
Katie’s father started to say the guy was being ridiculous. Mr. Gustafson, though, turned to his son. “Tommy, run to the church and get the bell ringing.” Tommy nodded and took off at a sprint. He hadn’t lost much speed since his days as a high school quarterback.
“Now, hang on!” Katie’s dad tried again. “We’re not gonna take his word for this, are we?”
Janice was standing on her tip-toes, shading her eyes and peering down the road to where the stranger said the Dust was attacking. Janice’s glasses were five years old, bought in their last year of high school, but they were the only ones she had, so she spent a lot of time peering and squinting. “Can we shore it up?” she asked. “They said something on the radio about that being possible, right?” She looked at Katie, but Katie was looking up the road, looking for the cloud…
“From that comment, I take it nobody here knows how to fix a warding wall,” the stranger commented dryly.
This time Katie interrupted. “I see it! Up at the turn-off to Willow Lake. By Sanderson’s.” Mrs. Sanderson was long gone, of course, and her little store that had served the best root beer floats was out of reach, but they all knew where it was.
“Got it,” Mr. Gustafson confirmed. “We need to get everyone into the safe areas.”
The stranger was looking at the container the feds had left behind. “You’ve got a box of warding stones?”
“Yeah,” Katie replied. “It’s practically full.”
He nodded. “Good. We can throw a line of them across the road, stop the Dust from getting into the town,” he said. “Then we can work on pushing it back to the hole so it can be fixed.”
“Now, hold on,” her father said. “You can’t just barge in here and start throwing out orders.”
“Have you ever faced a directed Dust attack from within an enclosed channel?” the stranger asked. “Because that’s what’s coming at you. You have to stand and hold the line, and you think it should be easy, because that’s all you have to do, but it’s about the most fucking scary thing you’ll ever face. And you may have to do it for hours.” He stared at her dad, and her dad backed down.
Her father moved to the back of the crowd, unwilling to go but unable to lead. Like Katie had noticed before, lots of things that had been important no longer were, like being the mayor of a town with hardly any people.
“Vietnam?” Mr. Gustafson asked, taking over like he often did now.
The stranger gave Tommy’s dad a short, but complete, inspection with one sweep of his eyes. “Marines,” he replied. “You?”
As if that were a secret password, the stranger stepped fully out of his car and walked over to shake Mr. Gustafson’s outstretched hand. “I’m John.”
“Gus.” Mr. Gustafson whistled for the rest of the guys to come out from the remains of the Miller house. They’d stopped working on it anyway. “Where do we put the warding stones?”
“Put them from wall to wall,” John replied. “Get your airheads to check them out, reinforce them, do what they do.”
Katie, who’d been heading over to the crate of warding stones, paused. “Our what?”
“Airheads,” John repeated. He stared at them, registering their lack of understanding. “The people who create spellwords?” Still nothing. “You don’t have anybody who can create spellwords? Sense the energy in the stones or the wall?”
“Madame Charron can sense stuff…” Janice said hesitantly, but Katie understood what the stranger meant.
“He means people like Mike. Remember what he could do?”
“Oh, yeah,” Gus said amid general nodding of heads. “The feds talked him into going with them.”
“Shit,” John said low and fierce. “Did they teach any of you the basics of defensive casting?”
A bunch of head-shaking was their reply.
John cursed again, even more virulently, before he strode back to the car and opened the back door.
“Boys!” he called. “I need you front and center.”
Two boys scrambled out, and stood quiet and watchful beside the car. The oldest was ten or a bit older, with green-eyes and dirty blonde hair that was just asking to be ruffled. The younger one, seven or so, was hazel-eyed, with a shock of dark blond curls that probably never stayed neat. They both stood and looked up at their father.
“What are we doing, Dad?” the older one asked.
“I need Sam to check the warding stones,” John said. “Make sure they’re the best these people got.”
“They’re just kids,” Janice said loudly in protest. “What are they going to do?”
John and his sons ignored him. “We also need to figure out if anybody here is an airhead—even a weak one would be better than none. You got me?” He’d placed a hand on the oldest one’s shoulder, bending slightly to emphasize his point.
“If you’re right,” Janice said even louder, “and the Dust is breaking through the wall, what are kids going to do?”
The older boy looked at Janice, unflinching. “Sammy’s an airhead,” he said. “Good one, too. He can already create defensive battle sigils.”
Katie had no idea what the kid was talking about, but he sounded fiercely proud of his little brother. “Um,” Katie said hesitantly. . “They left a book, and some of us have been studying it.”
“Katie was the only one who bothered to read it all the way through,” Janice said. “She always did like that sword and sorcery stuff.” John gave Katie a hard look. “Have any luck?”
Katie shrugged, “I don’t know. It doesn’t actually say what’s supposed to happen.”
“Freaking great,” John muttered. He turned to his youngest son. “Okay, Sam, you know what to do.”
The little boy grinned—oh my god, he was cute!—and nodded. “Make sure the stones feel good.”
“That’s right,” John confirmed. “Dean will be right beside you, so if you need anything…”
John ruffled his fingers through his son’s hair. “That’s my good boy.” He looked at his eldest. “My good boys.” He straightened from his half-crouch. His sons took off over to the crate. Mr. Gustafson already had the guys pulling the crate closer to the road. It was on an old dolly cart they’d pilfered from the Union 76 station. It hadn’t been built to roll across broken, weed-filled asphalt, but the six relatively husky guys surrounding it would make sure it got where it needed to go.
The church bell started ringing. Katie didn’t have to look to see the surviving townsfolk gathering up the few kids, and shutting up the windows. It had been an all too common occurrence before the feds had laid down the warding stones and created the wall.
Katie stood staring through the slight distortion caused by the warding wall, over acres of empty streets and abandoned farmland. Except for the slight fuzz caused by the wall, it all looked exactly the way it had when she was a kid, when she and her sisters would walk to Mrs. Sanderson’s little store on a summer afternoon. It wasn’t a blasted waste on the other side; it wasn’t burned or leveled, or even overgrown by evil man-eating vines. It was just… vacant, slightly overgrown, and kind of lonely, like any long-abandoned homestead. Most of the time there wasn’t even any Dust obscuring the view, so they could see out over the low hills just like they always could.
What Katie saw now was more Dust streaming over the countryside to join the attack. It didn’t look scary from this far away. It looked like someone had smudged a pencil over a painting of a prairie landscape. Except these smudges moved. On their own.
Katie wasn’t sure how Dust—inanimate floating particles of dirt—could be sentient, but she knew it was true. Her dad could deny it all he wanted, but Katie wasn’t willing to be blind like him. The world wasn’t like it had been before, and she would learn to deal with it, unlike Janice who, even now, was moaning about how much she hated this. As if everyone else loved being attacked.
Katie had enjoyed The Road Warrior when it came out. She’d gone to see it a few times with her school friends. She’d even bought it on videocassette so she could drool over Mel Gibson, and imagine what it would be like to live in his world. Her Mad Max poster had been the center-point on her bedroom wall. Then the Storm had hit and the world had changed, and she no longer wanted to imagine a post-apocalyptic world because she was living in one and it wasn’t romantic at all.
“What caused the Storm?” she asked, following John’s impromptu lesson in matching magic sigils to actual spell words “The feds said it was a Communist weapon, but the whole world’s like this now, right? Why would the Russians do this to themselves?”
John snorted. “It wasn’t the Russians.”
“Some of the people heading out to the refinery said it was a meteor,” Mr. Gustafson said. “It was big enough to crack the earth’s mantle and cause a whole lotta volcanic eruptions. Like the one that killed the dinosaurs.”
“That doesn’t explain why that Dust is down there attacking our wall,” Katie pointed out. “Volcanic ash would just float in the sky and block out the sun, like after Mount St. Helen’s. And if it was a nuclear attack, we’d all be losing our hair, and stuff.”
“Oh my god! Does it matter?” Janice demanded. “Can’t we just, like, put out the stones then get the hell out of here?”
Katie looked at Mr. Gustafson and shrugged. It was a tired discussion anyway. They’d had five and a half years to discuss all the possibilities, including Lem Carson’s theory that the Storm had been caused by the same secret group that had killed the Kennedys, and faked the moon landing. She was okay with letting the subject drop.
“We also heard it was freak sun-spot activity that melted the polar ice caps and released an ancient virus. An ancient alien virus,” Joe Barton said to be annoying. He didn’t like Janice much.
John laughed as he and Katie picked up one of the stones and carried it into position. “Aliens, huh? That’s almost as ridiculous the feds suggesting we passed through the tail of a comet.”
“That’s a stupid theory, I mean, somebody would’ve noticed if we were getting that close to a comet,” Katie pointed out.
“I didn’t say they believed it,” John replied. “Just that they’d suggested it.”
“You’re saying nobody knows,” Joe summarized. “That everybody’s guessing.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“That’s what everybody always says,” Janice said with a huff.
This time nobody revived the topic. Instead they concentrated on creating a good, strong defensive line.
Everybody lined up in front of the crate, letting John’s sons do whatever it was they were doing. It took two people to lift and carry each stone, but it didn’t take long for them to develop a rhythm, and the line moved fast. They laid the warding stones carefully on the cracked road, making sure the etched design on it lined up with the one beside it. It was the design that held the power, John said. It looked like a Celtic cross, all twisted around on itself, Katie realized. Mystical, rather than scientific. There was a small hiss, and a streak of white-blue ran up the wall. A curl of dark air poofed into visibility, shrieked, then flashed back out of existence—a small piece of Dust destroyed by the raised wall.
That wasn’t scientific, either.
“So what’s your guess?” she asked quietly as she and John walked quickly back to the crate. Janice was a couple places ahead of Katie. Her friend was lifting her hair off her neck, trying to dry the sweat. She’d been letting it grow out, which Katie didn’t understand since Janice had always considered long hair “a symbol of men’s unrealistic expectations of the feminine ideal.” Maybe this was part of the whole nostalgia thing her friend had going, Katie thought. Long hair equalled better days, maybe? Whatever Janice’s reasons, it was something else of Katie’s childhood that was gone
“C’mon,” she prodded when John didn’t answer. “You must have a theory.”
“You don’t like frozen alien virus? ‘Cause I’m kinda fond of that one.” He looked at her, a small smile quirking up one side of his mouth, revealing the dimples he’d passed onto his youngest son. Katie had the inappropriate thought that she’d toss her Mad Max poster for one of this guy.
“No, seriously. What do you think happened?”
John sighed, looking at the people in the line for the warding stones, and then looking sideways at her. She raised an eyebrow at him, demanding an answer.
“What I think—what a lot of us think—is that something opened a gate to Hell and let the demons out.”
That was not what Katie had been expecting.
Pete Barton, Joe Barton’s dad who was in line ahead of them, turned to look at John. “Demons?” he said loudly. “Like in The Exorcist?” Everybody turned to look.
John sighed in resignation. “Exactly like that.”
“You’re a religious freak,” Janice said and Katie couldn’t stop her eye roll. Fighting the “paternalistic, patronizing attitudes inherent in organized religion” was another cause Janice had never let go of. She’d been banned from their church when she was sixteen, because she’d stood up during the service and argued with the minister about his use of “mankind” and “brotherhood” in his sermons. The minister used “humans” and “survivors” now, but Janice still wouldn’t let it go.
Katie waved her hand toward the emptiness beyond the wall, hoping to cut-off a rant. “Well, it would explain how there are dead people out there, walking around,” she said. “The bodies are possessed.”
“Oh, come on!” Janice snorted. “Next he’ll be saying that it’s the End of the World.”
Katie looked out at the acres of abandoned city, abandoned farms, to the dark clouds roiling along the ground as if hunting. She thought of the Millers and all the people on the other side of the tracks who had torn each other apart on the night of the Storm. She thought of Ben, and then of her mother and her sister and her aunts who were all dead. Of Milly’s brother who should be dead, but maybe wasn’t.
“Does he have to say it?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” asked Mr. Gustafson. “Right at this moment, we’ve got a cloud of Dust looking to attack, and an unknown amount of time to prepare. So maybe we should stop jawing about ‘back then’ and worry more about ‘right now’.”
John laughed out loud. “Yessir, Sergeant,” he said.
They’d nearly reached the crate of warding stones again, and Katie could see the younger of John’s sons standing on the edge of the cart, hanging over the side. He was muttering what sounded like “videelikit,” and waving his hand in a pattern. Sparkly light fell from his fingers onto the stone causing the etched sigil to flash briefly but bright. The boy, Sam, nodded and Pete Barton and Jake Hanson grabbed the okayed stone. Sam leaned over the next one, and did that thing again.
John said hello to his oldest, Dean. “Just two?” he asked, and Katie noticed the two warding stones lying beside the cart.
“Yes, sir,” Dean answered. “They’re not really bad, though. Just not as good.”
“The feds are getting better,” John commented.
“It’s okay that I made them take them out, isn’t it, Dad?”
John smiled and ruffled Dean’s hair. “More than okay, kiddo.” The kid looked relieved.
“This one’s good,” Sam announced, so Katie grabbed one side and John the other, and they walked it over to the end of the line.
“It’s magic, isn’t it,” she said. “What your son is doing. The feds said the stones were ‘practical biophysics’, but it’s magic.”
“That’s right up there with demons,” Pete said from in front of them.
“Sparkly blue light fell from that kid’s hand onto a fancy Celtic cross, which lit up and sparkled back,” Katie argued. “Are you actually going to believe that’s science?”
“It also hummed a little,” Janice added, passing them on her way back to the crate.
John’s eyes cut sharply to Katie’s friend. “You felt that?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she replied. “A little bit.”
“You’re an airhead,” he said.
Janice frowned, obviously insulted, but before she could argue with John, Mr. Gustafson interrupted. “Less jawing, more carrying!”
Janice rolled her eyes, but obediently trotted over to the cart. They’d nearly made it across the road, nearly finished their defensive line. The warding stones were being placed with maybe a foot between them, even though they were designed to work when up to ten yards apart. Katie wasn’t sure if being closer together made the stones more effective, made the wall stronger, but with so many of them lined up and ‘activated’ she could practically feel that hum Janice had mentioned.
She looked down the road. Sanderson’s was completely obscured by the growing Dust cloud.
“It’s gonna be a hell of a storm,” John said quietly from beside her.
Katie swallowed. “The last time so much Dust got into the town, people spilled out of their houses and started killing each other.”
“Yeah, it likes to do that,” John said.
“When the Dust cleared, we could see outside. Poirier Street was the worst. There were bodies everywhere,” she continued, seeing it in her mind. Men, women, and children, scattered amongst the destroyed buildings and the cars. “The Dust came back again a day later. When it left, more than half the bodies were gone. Just disappeared. After that, we gathered up wood from the ruined houses, and gas from the wrecked cars, and we burned every body we found.” She paused, breathing steadily. “I never knew it stank like that. And then some of them sat up. It was like we were burning them alive.”
“The tendons contract under extreme heat,” John said.
“Yeah, that’s what Mr. Carlsberg said,” Katie replied. “He was our science teacher.”
They still cremated their dead, even though they now had the walls created by the warding stones.
“It happened everywhere,” John said. “All over the world. One day we’ve got nearly five billion people and governments are worried about overpopulation; the next, one in seven is dead. No warning and no explanation. In a couple months, the ratio is one in five.”
Ten thousand, down to two, Katie thought. That’s how much their population had dropped.
“We’re nearly done here, people!” Mr. Gustafson barked. “Let’s place the rest of these stones along the edges to reinforce the corners.”
John looked over at that, and shook his head. “No, we need to give ourselves a safe spot,” he said loudly striding back towards his fellow vet. “If they break through somewhere else around your town, we’re exposed.”
“We can retreat to Madame Charron’s,” Pete Barton said. “Her store’s always safe.”
Pete was right. Madame Charron’s odd little shop, and the building that housed it, had been virtually untouched by the Storm and the Dust, and it was the closest safe spot. However, it was also through the Browns’ yard, and up a block. Too far when the Dust travelled literally as fast as air.
No,” John disagreed. “We have to fight, so that we can get up to that hole and plug it.”
“Fight?” Janice asked incredulously. “You’re kidding?”
“Home team always has the advantage in a war of attrition.” John exchanged a knowing look with Mr. Gustafson. “In the end they have to stand because they’ve got nowhere else to retreat to.”
“Viet Cong,” Mr. Gustafson acknowledged.
“Battle of Britain,” John added.
With a sharp nod, Mr. Gustafson agreed to John’s plan and set the guys to creating a second line ten yards back from the first.
Janice’s plaintive, “What’re we supposed to fight with?” was ignored by the crowd. More men had joined them from where ever they’d been at, which meant that, in between arranging the stones, twice as many guys were trying to convince Katie and Janice that they should go to Madame Charron’s, or the church, or someplace safe. As if there was any real safety in a world like this, Katie snorted to herself. Besides, Janice wasn’t leaving, despite her complaints, and if Janice didn’t go, Katie wouldn’t go either.
Katie kept one eye on the Dust cloud as she carried the last stones into place. She could see more Dust streaking across the deserted farmlands, adding their streams to the cloud. It wasn’t any bigger than before, but it was denser. Reddish-purple light broke through the roiling cloud. It only served to make the rest of it seem darker, more malevolent.
John drove his car close to the newly created safe area opening the trunk and pulling out… salt?
Tommy and Pete set the final stone into place and Katie heard a ring, like the final quiet tone of a bell’s ring. It made her teeth ache.
“Who heard that?” John asked, passing canisters of salt to his kids. “Or felt it? Either of those.”
Katie raised her hand. So did Janice, of course, although she only lifted it half-way, as if she didn’t want it to be seen, but Katie saw it and smiled—at least they’d be doing this together. Then Pete raised his hand, followed by Jake Hanson and a couple of the other guys. And little Sam, of course. Mr. Gustafson just shrugged, even as her father and Tommy were asking “Felt what?”
“Okay, you guys: you’re airheads, so front and center,” John said. “We’re going to have a quick and dirty lesson in fighting Dust with spellwords.”
“What about the rest of us?” Mr. Gustafson asked. Dean was already passing out shakers of salt and little slips of paper.
“Dean’s giving you a shortened version of the Catholic exorcism spelled phonetically. It’s slow, but it works.” A couple places down, Janice snorted in disbelief. John shifted his gaze to her and frowned. “Even if you don’t believe in demons, it gets rid of the Dust one streamer at a time.”
“What about Katie and Janice? Shouldn’t they be sent to one of the safe area?” Tommy asked, as if he had the right to be worried.
John’s reply was clipped. “They’re airheads, and we need them.” John turned away from Tommy and focused his attention on their little group. “I’m gonna teach you some basic spellwords in Latin, because Latin casting always works on Dust. It’s faster than the exorcism everybody else will be using, but it requires more willpower on your part.”
“Hang on. You called us that before: ‘airhead’. What the hell?” Janice interrupted him. Katie could tell from her friend’s tone that Janice was getting ready to rant.
“It’s got nothing to do with intelligence, if that’s what you’re all fired up about,” John explained impatiently. “An airhead is someone who can make sigils and work magic—out of thin air.”
“Ohh. Cool. Like a wizard,” Katie said. She smiled at Janice, but her friend just rolled her eyes—Janice had never shared Katie’s enjoyment of Andre Norton and David Eddings. Even now, when monsters and magic were real, her friend still didn’t see the attraction.
John however, gave her a small smile. “You can call it magic. The feds prefer, ‘practical biophysics’.”
“What’s everybody else called, then?” Janice asked. “Since you’re so busy labelling people.”
“Well, if they’re any good with mechanical things, they’re called tinmen–”
“What if they’re girls?” Janice leaned forward belligerently.
“They’re still tinmen.”
“As long as they’re not Cowardly Lions, right?” Katie said, cutting off whatever else her friend would’ve said.
“Yeah.” John smirked. “Exactly.”
“And if they’re no good at anything?” Pete asked.
“Then we call them ‘people’. Now, can we get on with this?”
Everyone shrugged or muttered their agreement.
“Great, now the basic protective spellwords used in battle are saepimur, which means ‘faith surrounds us’, and protegimur. ‘We are protected’,” John said. “Both those spellwords will cover two people at the minimum. The stronger your will, the more people you can protect.”
It was Katie’s turn to interrupt. “What do you mean ‘the stronger your will’?”
John took a quick look behind him to see how close the Dust was to breaking through. Katie looked, too—it was still just a big cloud pressing up against that section of the wall. “Using spellwords and casting sigils is more about intent than ability,” John explained. “If you know what you want to happen, and believe that it will happen, then nine times out of ten, it’ll happen exactly that way. If you’re unclear or you doubt yourself, the results can be…”
“Unpredictable?” she said.
“Less than effective,” he qualified. “It’s important to remember this, because it can mean the difference between coming out alive and yourselves, and… not.” He didn’t need to explain the alternative. They all knew.
John quickly moved on to battle sigils: “They’re often the first letter of the main word, but they can also be other symbols.” Apparently, most people used a cross with the exorcism command (“exorcizamus te with a hard ‘c’”). Janice didn’t like the Christian symbology of the cross, but Katie thought it made a lot of sense considering they were, you know, fighting demons. Then John taught them two other phrases that were designed to send the Dust back to Hell.
“What if the Dust isn’t from Hell?” Janice asked, brow arched. “That’s what you believe, but demons on earth are about as unlikely as aliens.”
“The point is to send them back to wherever they came from—Hell, Mars, the centre of the earth, who cares,” John repeated. “As long as that’s what you intend, and you have the will to do it, then they will go back to–” He paused and stared at Janice.
“–where they came from,” Janice finished. “Got it.”
Katie wasn’t actually sure that Janice did get it. Her friend was so hung up on the religious overtones of demons and exorcisms that she’d forgotten they were essentially working magic. From the sounds of it, as long as she knew what she wanted to happen, Janice could wiggle her fingers and say ‘ala-kazam’, and it would be just as effective.
They had a couple minutes of practice, enough that itty-bitty sputters of blue light fell from their fingers, and then a ripple ran through the wall.
“Incoming!” Mr. Gustafson yelled as the Dust swarmed up the corridor formed by the wall. John quickly had the new airheads spread out across the road.
The Dust filled up the whole road, from stone to stone, outlining the shape as it pressed up against the barrier. Katie hadn’t realized that the warding wall was arched. The two sides gracefully bent towards each other until they met in a soft point maybe thirty yards above the road. If she hadn’t been terrified, she could have thought it was beautiful, but she was terrified. Her mouth was dry with fear, even though she’d stopped breathing. She made herself breathe, because breathing was good.
She could do this. She had to.
“Okay, let’s do these together,” John commanded voice strong and calm. “Faith surrounds us.”
Katie lifted her hand, thought about what it meant to be surrounded by faith, thought about what it meant to be surrounded by faith right here, in this moment. In this moment when it counted.
“Saepimur,” she said along with the others. She swirled her hand the same way they did, and then she felt it—a zing or a spark, running up from her feet to her toes. She imagined herself pushing the blue sparkles out from her hand, and toward the people next to her, and that’s what it did. The electricity touched them and lit them up, sparking bright then fading quickly into their shirts and their skin.
Holy crap! Katie thought. It worked!
“Good,” John said with a nod. “Now, ‘we are protected’.”
This time Katie’s hand was a fist as it swirled. The blue sparkles were stronger, brighter, and when she let them go, they reached farther.
She did it again to the people on her other side. Then she tried it with her left hand because it was always cool to be ambidextrous. She wasn’t surprised when her left-handed sparkles were pathetic. However, couldn’t be that hard to get better. She’d learned how to write with her left hand once, when she’d cracked a bone in her right wrist playing volleyball and had had to wear a cast for six weeks. Still, this wasn’t the best time for experimenting, so she went back to using her right. She kept practicing until the words and the motion were smooth.
By the time the Dust hit their hastily erected wall, Katie had settled on the longer incantation for ‘go back to Hell’ rather than ‘we exorcise you’ or ‘go back, demon’. She’d muttered them all, and vade retro ad infernum had a rhythm she thought she could use to distract herself from the fact that she was standing less than a foot away from a horde of Dust that wanted nothing more than to poison her, kill her, or possess her. Maybe all three.
It hit the dense wall with… It wasn’t a ‘thud’, but Katie felt it in her bones.
“Vade retro ad infernum,” she squeaked out. The sparks bobbled and jumped but they still passed through the wall. The Dust they touched shrieked and retreated.
Beside her, her dad tossed salt into the cloud. It had the same effect as Katie’s pathetic cast: the cloud shrieked and retreated, but there was so much Dust that a new stream of it was taking the old one’s place before it had stopped making noise.
“Vade retro ad infernum,” she chanted, and sparks flew from her hand. They hit the cloud of Dust and some of it writhed, screeching, before it flared red and disappeared.
Katie could feel the weight of the Dust, pushing, pushing, and its desire to reach them—fresh meat. The wall’s shimmer bent and warped as the Dust pushed against it. It pushed against the hastily-erected wall, hating her and envying her, and wanting her to suffer. The feeling was like a pressure on her chest, and Katie remembered it from the days before the feds came through, when the Dust was free to come through their town anytime.
Katie she pushed past the fear, more easily than she’d have believed possible just this morning, because she could do this! She was doing this!
“Vade retro ad infernum,” she said again and again, swirling her hand to symbolically gather up a stream or two of Dust. Then she pressed her hand toward the ground, and allowed herself to know that she was actually pushing the cloud through… dimensions, or the veil, or whatever separated death from life, back to wherever it had come from. The streams would dip, and when they flashed red inside their charcoal grey ‘bodies’, Katie could feel the sentience go. She knew when they stopped being Dust and returned to being floating dirt particles.
It felt great! It was great. The spellwords worked, which meant they could survive this.
“Vade retro ad infernum.”
John was beside her now, using his own spellwords—not Latin, something Asian, she thought. His sparks were white and thin, and they didn’t hit very much Dust at once, but everything they hit screamed and dissolved. John didn’t seem scared or uncertain, just kept saying the words and making the gestures. Even his kids were doing it, though they seemed to be sticking to protective spellwords. Jake Hanson was still standing, still casting, and Pete Barton had been joined by his son, Joe, both of them gesturing and chanting. Her father was still reading the exorcism from the slips of paper. So were Tommy and Mr. Gustafson. Janice was… standing a little back from the line, looking tight and small, and not like herself at all.
Katie frowned. Although she could understand Janice not liking to be too close to the Dust, it didn’t make sense for her to be so far away from the line. She was probably concentrating twice as hard to keep her casts effective. She was also probably going to have one hell of a headache when this was over.
It was that thought that kept Katie where she was, instead of going back to keep Janice company like a good friend would. This was already hard work, and she didn’t feel the need to make it any harder. Her throat was getting sore, and her arm was beyond tired. It was working though. Slowly, like glaciers, they were eliminating the Dust. Katie could almost see through it sometimes. She put everything and everybody else out of her mind. They were going to win this.
And they’d win the next time, too.
“Vade retro ad infernum,” she repeated until her voice was scratchy and she’d had to switch to her left hand, despite still being bad at it.
“Not much more, people!” someone shouted. It was probably Mr. Gustafson; he always called groups ‘people’.
The sun should be going down, she thought. In the movies, it always goes down when the battle’s nearly over. Or maybe the stereotype required the sun to come up? Dawn arriving like hope after the blackest night.
She almost snorted. This wasn’t a movie. It was just a life where her little town hung on to living with a desperation born of knowing what giving up would bring. Milly’s brother was out there, on the other side of the wall. Walking around, even though they knew he’d died during the Storm. He’d smiled at her like she was a meal he wanted to rip apart and devour. Milly had seen her adored older brother act like a serial killer. Milly never went near the wall anymore. Just in case.
Katie had never seen that in a movie.
“Vade retro ad infernum.”
The cloud of Dust was still pressing against the wall, but there wasn’t enough of it left for it bend the wall. What was left stayed close to the ground, maybe trying to get at the warding stones? She’d ask John later, but right now Katie didn’t care. She was just grateful she could hold her arm down, let the blood return to it. The pain of returning circulation was distracting and her sigil lost definition. She paused, shaking her arm, trying to get it back under control. They weren’t finished yet. There were new streamers racing up the road towards them, joining in the fight. It wouldn’t be over until they got to the crack in the wall by Sanderson’s and fixed it.
“Vade retro ad infernum.”
She swallowed to ease the burn on her throat, but her mouth was too dry and all it did was make it hurt more. Katie thought of ice cream and chocolate, Mom’s turkey dressing and her shortbread cookies. Her mouth watered even as her heart hurt. She swallowed the moisture down.
“Vade retro ad infernum.”
“Here. Water.” A hand appeared beside her holding a glass of water. “Drink.”
Katie took it in her left hand because her right was still tingly and weird.
Katie realized it was Miss Conroy giving out water when she gave the glass back. Miss Conroy hadn’t been there at the start of the attack, but she was here now. That meant they must have rung the ‘return with caution’ bell and she’d totally missed it. The townspeople could come out, but they were supposed to stay close to the safe houses not come to the road where they were fighting off a Dust attack.
“Okay,” Mr. Gustafson said loudly, bringing everybody’s attention to him. “The attack’s nearly done, but that hole is still out there.” He pointed up the road to the Sanderson’s. “The people who aren’t casting are going to take a warding stone from behind the line of airheads and slide them carefully in front. Not far,” he added. “Just a foot or two. We can’t risk having one of them flip and ruin the line.”
“I know it sounds simple, but it’s worth repeating,” Mr. Gustafson said. “We just survived one hell of a battle, and it’s the little things—the simple things—that often get forgotten in the aftermath.” It made sense, Katie realized. If Miss Conroy hadn’t shoved the glass of water into her face, Katie wouldn’t have known what to do with it.
Then it hit her: they’d survived!
She looked along the casting line for Janice, wanting to share the moment with her best friend. But Janice was gone. She was standing with Ms. Conroy and Katie’s father by the back line of warding stones. Even farther back than she had been before.
‘What happened?’ she mouthed at her friend. Janice’s eyes dipped and she shrugged.
Mr. Gustafson clapped his hands. “Okay, people. Take your positions.”
Katie turned back to the road, flexing her fingers and shaking out the last of the trembles. She was good to go.
“Vade retro ad infernum.”
This time, at least, there was a steady supply of water.
The townspeople crawled forward foot by foot, carrying and sliding the warding stones out to Mr. Gustafson’s count. They weren’t making the line as dense: four stones to cover the width of the road instead of as many as they could fit. Sometimes, a stone wouldn’t line up properly, and some Dust would slide through the crack, but Katie or one of the other airheads would chant their spellwords and etch their sigils in the air. Even little Sammy got rid of one: brow crunched in concentration, tongue stumbling over the words, but it didn’t matter. The kid wanted the Dust to be gone, so it went.
It worked well: the airheads destroyed the Dust while the guys on the ground aligned the sigils on the stones. John would let them know when the farther wall was up, and all the airheads would take a step forward. Then the townspeople would slide four more stones out to arms’ reach, and the process continued.
Slow, painstaking, backbreaking, and scary as hell, but working.
Janice stayed on the back line reinforcing the spells in the warding stones. When Katie tried to catch her eye, she was always looking at something else. Katie didn’t let it bother her, but she was surprised. Of anybody she’d grown up with, she would’ve thought Janice would be good at working on the frontline of any situation. Katie found it surprising that she was good at it. She’d even gotten pretty good at left-handed casting.
She tried out the other battle phrases John had taught them, grimacing as the sigils she drew felt distorted and not quite right despite her wanting the same result.
“Latin isn’t the most powerful language for spellcasting,” John said from beside her. “It’s just the most universal.” She hadn’t been paying attention to the world behind her, so Katie forgave herself for the way her heart sped up and her pulse raced.
“What do you mean?” she asked. She cheered silently when her voice came out relatively steady.
“Latin was the official language of the most powerful Christian church in the world—two, if you count Anglican,” he said. “That kind of history adds gravitas to what are, after all, just words.”
“Words can change the world,” Katie said. “JFK. Martin Luther King. Gandhi. ”
He smiled at her, soft brown eyes crinkled at the corner, dimples in his cheeks. “They can indeed. But what I mean is Latin isn’t necessarily your most powerful language to cast with. Some really good airheads I know are finding that they cast better, stronger, sigils when using a second language.”
“Second language?” she asked.
John nodded. “Whatever you didn’t learn at home, and whatever feels comfortable.”
“Huh, weird.” She exhaled thoughtfully.
He snorted. “What about this isn’t? I mean, we have sparks coming out of our fingers.”
She laughed. She actually laughed, because it was weird, and yet totally cool. She was like the Fairy Godmother in Disney’s Cinderella. Or maybe she was something better, like Obi-Wan Kenobi versus the Imperial Stormtroopers.
“What’s your second language then?” she asked, feeling bold. She was rewarded with his flickering smile. “Is it Spanish? Celtic?” The guy had the look of the dark Irish.
“Vietnamese, actually.” He was still smiling, but now it was only a slight lift to his lips. “A lot of us learned it when we were over there.”
Made sense, she thought, as John was called over to talk to Mr. Gustafson. She thought of what he’d said as she kept casting. What would her second language be?
She’d never travelled and never planned to, so she hadn’t taken any language courses in high school. Instead, she’d taken math and business courses, to be more help at the store, maybe even run it one day, since Ben hadn’t been interested and Laura had been much too young to even have an idea of her future. If Laura had become interested, great! Katie would’ve gone to school for her nursing degree, but she’d been willing to give up her dream if it meant having a Milligan working in Milligan’s Grocery and Drug Store.
Or, you know, that’s what she’d thought back before everything had changed.
The store was still there, where her great-whatever-grandfather had built it, but the shelves were empty of anything remotely useful, and even with the cleared roads, they had no way to order or pay for new stock. So she couldn’t run the grocery store, and she couldn’t get training to become a nurse, and she didn’t want to marry and have babies like her father expected her to…
She went back to thinking about her second language.
She’d picked up some French, watching those weird movies with Janice and helping her friend study for her tests, but she was pretty sure ‘go back to Hell’ hadn’t been in the text book. However, ‘go back’ was ‘return’ and ‘return’ was ‘retourner’.
“Are there many airheads out there?” she asked John the next time he came by.
“Not enough,” John answered. “Not when there are so many places cut off from everything.”
“Are the feds working on getting to them?” French was Latin-based and infernum was Latin for Hell, so… l’inferno? No, there was a ‘to’ in there. Retourner à l’inferno? It didn’t sound quite right. How did those other airheads figure this out?
“The feds only go to large cities,” he said, “or places of ‘strategic’ importance, like military bases, or the refinery up the road. Maybe they don’t have the resources to do it, or maybe they just don’t care. Either way it leaves a lot of clearances to us, and since they won’t share their toys, this is the way we do it: one step at a time.”
Katie understood. The feds had had a truck with a fan of spokes sticking out the front. At the end of each spoke, a warding stone was set. The spread was wide enough to reach the sides of a two-lane highway, steadily pushing the Dust away from in front of the vehicle. Then men on the truck handed stones down to men on the ground, who placed them in lines along the side of the road. It had been slow, but nothing like this. Here people had to take lots of breaks because all that crawling and pushing was killing their backs and their knees. On the other hand, there were even more people here now, so as one guy stepped back someone was there to take his place.
She wondered if they’d reach Sanderson’s store before dusk.
“And that’s what you do? Go from place to place? Clearing roads, fixing walls?”
“It’s a lot of what I do,” he agreed before falling silent. She looked at him, urging him to continue, but he kept his eyes on the road ahead of them, watching the Dust pushing its way through the hole and streaming its way toward them.
“The rest of what you do isn’t as nice, is it?” Again it wasn’t really a question. “Some of the stuff out there–” She jerked her chin at the world beyond the wall. “A lot of it wants to kill us, doesn’t it?”
He finally looked at her. All the humour was gone from his eyes. “Yeah. Most of the stuff behind the wall thinks it’s fun to kill humans, but sometimes all it wants to do is eat.” He shrugged. “The warding walls aren’t as good at keeping that stuff out since wanting to survive isn’t necessarily evil.”
Two years back, before the walls had pushed the Dust away from the main part of town, they’d had something break into one of the town’s safer spots. It had maybe been a dog once, or maybe a bear. Whatever. It had been big, and vicious. It had taken little Jamie Barton from his back yard, and Carl Toppins had lost his life trying to stop it, but it had disappeared back into the Dust with Jamie’s body before anybody even got a shot off.
Yes, Katie knew what was waiting for them outside the walls.
‘Retourner à l’infernne?’ she thought. That sounded about right.
“Retourner à l’infernne,” she said, knowing what she wanted to happen. She cast the sigil at the Dust that was banging at the wall, but it was pale and weak.
“L’enfer,” Miss Conroy said, carrying water for them to drink. “French for Hell is l’enfer. In Spanish, the phrase would be volver al infierno.”
Katie thanked her. She hadn’t known her old English teacher knew French, or Spanish. They’d been stuck together for over five years; why hadn’t she known that?
“Retourner à l'enfer,”she said, knowing what she wanted to happen, what should happen, but the words didn’t roll off her tongue right, and her sigil was still barely okay. The Spanish phrase was just as bad. John tried teaching her the spellwords in Vietnamese, but she couldn’t even wrap her lips around it. Pete Barton knew German, but Katie didn’t like the feel of that one on her tongue, either.
“It’s okay if you only cast in Latin,” John consoled her. “My partner uses only Latin, and he’s one of the most solid airheads working.”
Just then, John’s youngest ran up and tugged on his father’s pant leg. “Dad, Dad! There’s a bad stone over there!” He pointed off to the right of the road, to one of the stones laid six months ago. “I found it!”
John leaned down, giving Sam a serious look. “Did you get Dean to check it for you?” The kid nodded a big movement up then down. “And he agrees with your assessment?” Again with the big nod.
“I did good, right?” His big eyes were practically sparking, the kid was so excited.
John smiled softly. “Yeah, kid. You did great.” He straightened and held out his hand. “Now let’s go see what we can do to fix the ‘bad stone’.”
Katie watched them walk to the side of the road. She wanted to follow them, find out how you ‘fixed a bad stone’. John had said the walls had to be walked constantly, the stones checked for wear or shifting. She could probably do that now—the wall’s energy was a near-constant hum along her skin—but what was she supposed to do when she found a problem?
Tommy sidled in next to her. “This is all freaking weird, don’t you think?” he said. Katie stepped away, saying nothing. “Don’t you think it’s weird? I mean, he has his kids doing this stuff.”
“We should be teaching the kids here to do it, too,” she said. “They’ll have to defend this place one day.”
“The government will fix it,” he said confidently.
Katie turned to stare at him. “Fix it. How?”
Tommy didn’t have an answer. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders, showing off how broad they were. He’d finally taken off his letter jacket, she realized. He must’ve been worried that it would get damaged by all the hard work.
“You’re pretty good at this stuff,” he said, trying to be casual and failing. “I mean, you and Pete are the only two still casting. Everybody else had to take breaks.”
“They haven’t stopped putting out the stones.”
They were still moving steadily up the road. One team pushing four stones into place while a second team waited behind the existing line, ready to push the next set forward. Some of the people had tied pillows or pieces of doormat to their knees, protecting them from the rough asphalt. It was a rhythm now, smooth and practiced. The only hitch was when they had to slide the stone over a crack, and even then, she or Pete or Jake, or one of the other airheads were standing guard, clearing the Dust before it had the chance to take advantage. They were crossing Tumble Creek. They just might make it before dusk after all.
“That’s just pushing rocks along the ground,” Tommy said dismissively. Katie glanced down at Tommy’s knees; they were hardly dirty. If he’d helped at all, it hadn’t been for long.
“That guy—John—he said airheads were rare, so that means your job is more important, right?”
“No, it doesn’t.” Not even slightly. Not that Katie bothered to hope that Tommy would understand. He never liked it when people doubted his decisions; it just made him refuse to think even more.
“Sure, it does. Supply and demand, right?” He smiled at her. She didn’t smile back. She’d never liked Tommy. Not him and not the people he hung out with. They’d been judgemental, small-minded, and arrogant, believing that their sports trophies allowed them to be bullies.
“Vade retro ad infernum.”
The Dust screamed and disappeared in a slow, red flash.
“The thing is, I’ve been thinking–”
Katie couldn’t stop her disbelieving snort.
Tommy was oblivious. “I bet this airhead stuff is genetic; you know, passed down from parent to child?”
Yes, Katie did know what ‘genetic’ meant.
“Which means your kids will probably have the ability, too.”
Finally, Katie turned to face him directly. “Forget it, Tommy. I didn’t want to date you in high school. I don’t want to marry you now. And I don’t want to have kids with you because that would require we have sex, and that’s not going to happen.”
“Your dad thinks it would be a good idea.”
She sighed. “My dad still thinks that one day we’ll wake up and the world will be fixed.”
“It could happen!” Tommy protested.
“It’s not going to,” she said. “Even if all the Dust does disappear, the world’s not going to be the same. Too much has happened. Too much has changed.” She lifted her hand to stop whatever he was going to say. “And all this chauvinistic crap you and Dad and the rest of the guys are pulling? It’s stupid. I don’t feel honoured by it, or safe.” Actually, it made her feel trapped and herded. It had been one thing to be content to settle in town, working at her family’s grocery store, when it had been her choice. It was different when her options had been taken away.
Nearly ten men had survived the Storm and the diseases that followed for each woman. Once the initial shock had worn off, the guys had all started with the chest-thumping and posturing, each trying to prove he was the ‘better mate’.
To protect her, he said, her father had taken to refusing to let her out of the house anytime later than 5:00 pm, and refusing to let most of the guys in to visit. Sometimes she thought it wouldn’t be long until her dad built a chastity belt for her. Unless, of course, she agreed to marry Tommy. Tommy the quarterback. Tommy, the polite-to-his-elders, small-town hero.
Tommy, who’d helped beat the crap out of a kid from the other side of the tracks because the team had thought the boy might be gay.
“Who else are you going to choose?” he asked, chin pushed out belligerently.
“Why do I have to choose anyone?” she asked in return.
“Well, what else are you going to do? It’s not like you can run the grocery store, anymore, because, hey, there’s no groceries! So you need to find yourself a man and freaking settle down to make airhead babies.”
“Oh, go screw yourself,” she said impatiently. She’d heard this from her dad too many times to get truly upset. “I mean that, seriously. Just because you’re one of the few guys left my age? Doesn’t change the fact that I don’t like you, so just give it up!”
Katie stepped away from him, closer to where Pete and Joe Barton were waiting for Dust to get through a crack in the wall, or for one of the stones to be weakened by the constant scraping along the road. They didn’t say anything, just looked at her. Pete offered her some coffee from his Thermos, and Katie gratefully accepted. She wasn’t saying the incantation very loud anymore, but she still had to say it. After four hours her throat probably felt like Mr. Gustafson’s knees as he shuffled along the pavement pushing a warding stone ahead of him.
Katie looked at Mr. Barton and tried to see him as a stranger would. He was a nice guy, decent looking with dark hair and heavy eyebrows. He wasn’t quite her father’s age, maybe seven years between them. He used to work for her father, managing the coolers, and she’d grown up with him, like she had everyone who’d worked at the family store. He wasn’t like a second father or anything, but he still felt like family. Maybe an uncle. Yet, even thinking of Pete Barton as semi-family, she’d sleep with him before she’d ever sleep with Tommy.
Actually, when she thought about it, living close in with people over five-and-a-half years didn’t let anybody be a stranger. Most of the men here felt like cousins or uncles, or some kind of relation. It used to be comforting, the idea that she knew her neighbours, and her neighbours knew her. It wasn’t comforting anymore.
They crawled up the slow slope to Sanderson’s store. Katie worked beside Pete and Joe, and then Jake, but Jake’s leering reminded her of Tommy. Plus, his casting was sloppy—slurred words and blurred sigils, and barely enough power to do more than tickle the Dust trying to come through. He just laughed and shrugged, and Katie had to grit her teeth to stop herself from thinking up a spell to zap the stupid jerk.
When John moved in beside the arrogant ass, Katie moved next to Sammy who was at least trying to pronounce the words correctly. Accompanied by his brother, the little boy chattered on about the people that made up his world; a guy named Jim who worked with his dad—a lot about him. There was his brother Dean, a lady named Ellen and her husband, Bill. There were Bobby and Caleb, and then Andy and Eva who were airheads like him. The way Sammy told it, none of them lived in the same town.
Dean contributed, talking about their car. Then about cars in general, and how some of ‘the guys’ were thinking about how to make a converter so that cars could run on the same energy that was used in spellcasting, instead of gas.
“Dad won’t let them ‘speriment on the ‘Pala, though,” Sammy said seriously.
Dean snorted. “Course not. Not going to let them mess up the car.”
The car, she came to realize, was more their home than any building. They drove from place to place, staying with people they knew, but they didn’t call any of those places home.
Katie had always had a home: the six-bedroom Victorian that had been in her mother’s family since they settled here, down the street from the Church her ancestors had helped build. Her room was the same one her mother had had when she was a child. Her brother’s initials were carved into his closet beside their grandfather’s. She had roots here; ties, binding her to this place. The house would be hers when she married, big enough to hold the family that would carry on the name and the history.
Dad could have more kids, she thought, when they were halfway up the hill.
She stood frozen, letting them push the warding stone on without her, as she wondered about that thought.
Her father wasn’t old, not really. Twenty-four years older than her, actually, so that meant he was… forty-five. So he should be perfectly capable of having more children, which meant that, technically, she wasn’t needed to carry on the family name.
Her lungs clenched and she shuddered deep inside.
She thought about that: her father bringing some other woman home, them having kids. She’d be expected to look after them, she just knew it. She’d have to change their diapers, and feed them, give them baths and put them to bed. No way would her father do any of that stuff. Then there’d be the argument that if she was already looking after her father’s kids, it would be easy enough for her to look after some of her own.
On the other hand, she’d have siblings again.
Another shudder ran through her. She’d had siblings: Ben and Laura. She didn’t want replacements.
“Katie. Katie. Katie!” Sammy said, tugging at her shirt.
Katie snapped out of her weird thoughts and looked down at the cute kid, and he was cute. She could admit that. She was just glad he wasn’t her cute kid.
“What is it, Sammy?” she asked, rubbing her face to chase her thoughts away.
“Dad says you gotta learn how to fix a bad stone,” he answered enthusiastically. He was pulling on her hand now. “He says you learn quick and you’re tough. He says you’ll make a good walker one day!” The kid said it like it was a big compliment. Maybe it was, but Katie had no idea what a ‘walker’ was.
“What’s a walker?” she asked.
“An airhead who walks the walls,” he said surprised, like she should know this already.
She couldn’t help but think that maybe she should. This was the world they were living in. with evil Dust and other creatures from out of nightmares, and magical barriers and wizards, and everyday heroes who cleared roads to forgotten towns and walked walls looking for weaknesses. This wasn’t what she’d expected her life to be after graduation. She didn’t think anybody had expected this.
Kinda like the Spanish Inquisition. She laughed to herself grimly.
When they reached the edge of the road, Dean was holding out a wax paper bag filled with potato chips. “Here, Sammy,” he said holding the bag out to his brother. Sammy pulled out a handful.
“Sam,” his father said.
The kid looked up at Katie then down at his chips. He pulled the biggest one out of the pile and offered it to her.
“Thank you very much,” she said solemnly, and accepted the chip. She took a bite and the flavour—once so well known—filled her mouth. Salty crispness, slightly greasy with the tang of vinegar. It was stale, but who cared? She closed her eyes, and let the potato melt into mush before swallowing.
When she opened her eyes, Sammy, Dean and John were all staring at her. Sam and Dean were giggling; John wasn’t.
She blushed. “It’s been a while.”
John’s lips lifted slowly, while his eyelids slid half-closed. “Obviously.”
It was a gentle invitation, to flirt or something more. Katie didn’t know, couldn’t tell. It was completely different from the approach used by Tommy, Jake, and the rest. Whatever it was, it made her breath catch and her mouth dry. She didn’t know what to say, how to react. She licked her lips, but only realized it when John’s gaze followed the movement.
“Katie! A little help out here!” her father yelled from the road.
It made her jump. It certainly broke the spell. “Just a minute, Dad!” she yelled back.
John’s smile was understanding, supportive, and just as attractive as the previous version. “Okay, so this is how you detect a weak warding stone…”
With his guidance, Katie learned how to increase her awareness of the patterns of energy that made up the warding wall. How they linked together to form a cohesive, impenetrable whole. Once she had that fixed in her mind, it was easy to feel how this one section wasn’t as dense as the rest.
“Which stone is failing?” John asked her. His expression gave nothing away. She looked at the two boys; Dean’s face was almost as blank as his father’s. Sammy’s was filled with hopeful anticipation. It was obvious both John’s sons knew which stone was bad. She closed her eyes again, reaching out with her psyche or her aura or whatever nebulous ability she’d been using to cast sigils. First, she found the weakness in the wall. Then she ‘felt’ her way down along it.
It didn’t travel straight down, she realized, but shifted and curved. She followed it, keeping her eyes closed and stumbling over the rough ground by the side of the road. When she finally opened them, she was two stones over from where she’d begun.
“This one,” she announced, pointing down.
Sammy jumped up and down, Dean grinned, and John gave her another one of those slow smiles. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “Now, cast videlicet, meaning ‘it is clear’, and you’ll see just how worn the spell is, which will tell you whether you can fix it or if it’ll have to be replaced.”
John and Sammy demonstrated the spellword. The etching in the warding stone flared all over its design, but the light was pale and didn’t reach very high.
“What do you think?” John asked her.
“I think the stone is good?” she replied. “I mean, the design doesn’t look like it’s damaged.”
“That’s right,” he confirmed. “That’s exactly right, so we don’t need to take it out of the line.”
“But if we cast a spell on it here, won’t it interfere with the whole wall?” Katie asked.
“Well,” he said with a slow, bashful smile that made her heart pump harder. “That’s where airheads are better than tinmen. They’re more sensitive to the patterns, so they can weave them together better. Don’t get me wrong: most people can do this, but our fix-it jobs are like slapping a box of Band-Aids on something that needs stitches.”
“I was thinking about becoming a nurse,” Katie surprised herself by saying. “Before… you know.”
John’s smile widened, little crow’s feet appearing by his eyes. “There you go,” he said, as if she’d proven something for him.
Katie looked away and told herself that her heart was thumping only because this was different; she was learning something new and strange and important. There wasn’t any other reason. It wasn’t because this man was smart and knew a lot, or because he was good-looking and she hadn’t grown up with him. Was it?
“So how do I do this?” she asked, a little desperately.
John walked her through it. The incantation was too long to be called a ‘spellword’. It was almost a poem. John said each line, explained it then left it up to her to figure out her sigils. The Latin syllables rolled off Katie’s tongue, assuming the shape and purpose that she gave them, and what she wanted was for them to weave seamlessly into the existing wall.
“Renew the steadfast spirit,” John led.
“Renovabis spiritum firmum.” Katie’s sigil was like weaving air, one hand crossing over the other, then back. . It had no meaning, and yet it meant everything she needed. All she had to do was picture invisible strings running from her fingertips and into the existing pattern of the wall.
“From this time forth, for evermore.”
“Ex hoc nunc, et usque in sæculum.” Katie imagined that she was working in the new energy into the old, like carding two different batches of wool together, brushing and pulling until all the strands lay just right. She could feel her spellwords working into the existing energy, responding to her will. Her cast sigils joined with the existing energy, binding with it, becoming solid and secure.
She messed up the pronunciation a couple times—to be expected, John said—but it didn’t seem to ruin anything. The wall stayed up, her work didn’t disappear, and the Dust didn’t come crashing through. By the time Sammy had ‘examined’ her results, forehead crunched in concentration, and announced it good, the rest of the townsfolk were nearly at the top of the hill. They were ten yards from Sanderson’s, maybe less. Sammy dragged his father and brother over to another stone he said wasn’t right, leaving Katie alone to walk back to the others.
Dean gave her two thumbs up. “You’re gonna be a great airhead,” he said with a grin. Then he turned around and left with his family. Stupidly, the praise of a ten-year-old made Katie feel warm. It had been a long time since anybody had commented on anything but her lack of babies.
She thought about that as she walked uphill to where Mr. Gustafson was still directing the work. She looked at the crack in the wall, obvious now that she knew how to look for it. The Dust was right there, still pushing its way in only now it streamed away from them and towards the refinery. It stayed close to the sides of the road where a casual glance would assume that it was on the outside of the barrier.
“Shouldn’t we do something?” Miss Conroy asked.
Mr. Gustafson shrugged. “What? We can’t chase after it, and we got no way to call up to the refinery to warn them.”
“We could get a team together,” Katie said. “Go up there and… do this.” Katie waved her hand to encompass everything they’d done—clear the road, fight the Dust—and what they were about to do—rebuild the wall, go home safe.
Mr. Gustafson looked at her. He was always hard to read but Katie thought there was some sadness in his eyes. “Do you really see any of these guys heading up the road into danger?”
Katie looked: Miss Conroy would do it. Pete Barton might, but he had Joe to think of. Jake wouldn’t. Tommy wouldn’t unless it gave him an opportunity to get into her pants. Her father wouldn’t. Neither would the Schmidt brothers, or Lem Carson. Would Janice?
Janice was still on the back line, still working on keeping the spells in the warding stones strong, saying the same incantation that John had taught Katie. Except where Katie had had to weave her sigils into the existing barrier—making sure not to damage it any further—all Janice had to do was to let the magic drop into the stone. Katie couldn’t believe that her friend found it at all challenging. Hopefully, she’d be bored enough to agree to anything at this point.
“Hey, Janice,” she said with a smile. “Haven’t seen you for a while. That was intense, huh?”
Janice peered up at her. “Intense? It was fucking scary.”
It had been that, too. “Still, we did it: defeated the Dust. It’s kind of awesome, right?” Katie grinned because she knew Janice would get it.
Janice finally looked at her fully, but her expression wasn’t one of suppressed excitement. It was angry, and disbelieving, and scared, and somewhere in there was pity.
“What?” Katie asked, bewildered. Behind her, she could hear John and Sammy, Jake and Miss Conroy, chanting to protect the townspeople pushing the stones out in front of them.
“It wasn’t ‘awesome’,” Janice said. “How can you even think that? If the Dust had broken through, you know what it would have done to us!”
“Yeah, but… it didn’t,” Katie protested. “We won.”
“Yeah, this time,” Janice said. “What about next time?”
Katie blinked, not understanding the question. “We fight,” she said simply. “I mean, at least we can fight now, which is more that we had before.”
“You sound like you’re looking forward to it.” It was almost an accusation.
“I thought you’d be excited,” Katie said slowly. “You were always the one who wanted adventure–”
“Adventure? I didn’t want ‘adventure’,” Janice said with a bitter laugh. “I wanted to leave this crap town, and become a lawyer. I wanted to make a shit-load of money, and live in the penthouse of some swank apartment building in New York, or L.A. I’d get contacts, and plastic surgery, and then I’d travel to 4-star resorts and sleep with lots of good looking guys,” she continued. “That is what I wanted. That’s my dream adventure. It’s not this… this bullshit,” She waved at the stones and the wall, and the crowd of townspeople who were tired and dirty from a long day’s fight. “I feed the damn goats!” Janice cried.
“Janice, it’ll be okay,” Katie said in a soft voice. She stepped closer, wanting to comfort her best friend.
“It’s not okay!” Janice spat. “I don’t want this life. Unlike you, I don’t want to be here.”
Katie recoiled. Janice sounded really bitter, and it was directed at her. “I don’t want life to be like this, either,” she started.
“Oh, ha-ha. Of course you do,” Janice said. “You never wanted to leave here. You were the small-town princess, right? You were gonna get married and raise your family here, weren’t you? Just like your parents, and your grandparents. Work at the store, carry on the family business. That’s what you always said, right? And well, look! That’s the only option available to us now, so you should be as happy as a pig in shit, right?”
Katie took a step back. “Where is this coming from?”
“I feed the fucking goats!” Janice practically shouted. “I shovel stinking, rotting compost over vegetables I hate. I’m never going to become a lawyer. I’m always going to wear glasses. I’m one of only twenty-six fertile young women in this area of town, and the guys look at you first. They always look at you first, me second. Always. And I hate it!” Janice backed away. Katie watched her best friend—her only friend left—take deep breaths, watched Janice put back walls that Katie hadn’t even known were there.
“You know, you can still leave,” Katie suggested timidly. “The feds said that the coasts were mostly okay, so you could…”
“Oh, yeah. I’ll just hop on the next Greyhound that comes through– Oh, wait. That’s right. Greyhound doesn’t exist anymore,” Janice mocked. She held up her hand. “And don’t say ‘we could do it together’. You are not Jake, and I am not Elwood, and I don’t want to be your mission from God. Got it?”
Mutely, Katie nodded her head.
Janice nodded in return, a sharp, hard jerk of her head. “Now, go over to the wall and be your usual Barbie self.”
“Janice…” Katie had to try, but Janice glared at her.
“How can you like this? Knowing that this is gonna be the rest of our lives?” her friend asked. “That’s just sick.”
She was upset, Katie told herself as she walked away. Janice had gotten scared. Janice never got scared, so of course she’d reacted badly. Janice hadn’t meant it, Katie reassured herself. Except the way Janice had said those things, they’d been phrases, which meant that Janice had been thinking about them, rolling the complaint around in her head until they became phrases. Phrases that had spewed out when Janice’s control was down.
Why did Janice think that Katie liked the way the world was now? Because, unlike her, Katie didn’t whine and complain, and go on and on about how it used to be?
Whoa! Katie though. Maybe Janice wasn’t the only one who was bitter.
But it was true. Katie didn’t want to do what Janice did. She didn’t want to think of a time when she’d had a mother and a sister and a big brother who loved her. Katie didn’t want to think back to when life was easy, and she’d taken so much for granted.
Ice cream. Man! She missed ice cream, but moaning about it wouldn’t get her any. It would just make her resent what food she did have, that she was lucky to have.
And yes, okay, fighting the Dust had been exhilarating, and learning how to create spellwords and cast sigils had been completely awesome! Katie wasn’t going to apologize for feeling that way, because it had also been necessary. This was the world they lived in now. Dust and other monsters were out there. Not trying to kill them every minute of the day, but certainly willing to take advantage of any weakness. Ignoring it or wishing it away wouldn’t change it. So why was it wrong that she got a charge out of knowing she was good at handling it?
She was good at it.
She’d never actually been good—like, really good—at anything before. She hadn’t had to be super-smart like Janice, or super-pretty like Milly had been, in order to stand out: she was a Milligan.
Katie took a breath, clearing the fight with Janice from her mind. She could feel the warding wall on either side of her, like a static charge raising the hair on her arms. She could ‘walk the walls’, like John had talked about, and that was something she could do anywhere. Except maybe here, where her dad and the other guys would freak about her being so close to danger.
Janice could walk the walls with her, but Janice was afraid.
Katie wasn’t afraid.
Sure, she’d been scared enough to puke, but that wasn’t the same kind of fear. The Storm and the Dust had stripped everything from her: her family, her friends, her community, her future. She could stay here; squeeze out babies like everyone expected, safe from the Dust and the monsters. She could let this new world steal her will. It hadn’t happened yet, but it had only been five years—less actually, because her father and everyone hadn’t started with the nagging and the suggestions and the match-making until after all the flus and fevers and diseases had run their courses. Not until they’d realized how many women had died, and how many had been left infertile.
That had been just over two years ago. What would her father be like in another year? Another two?
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to maybe have babies, maybe, someday, but she didn’t want to have babies with any of these guys. Men she’d known all her life; boys she’d grown up with. If she stayed here, it would happen, because they’d have years and years to wear her down.
Or eventually, maybe, they wouldn’t wait for her to say yes.
She could see Jake not bothering to hear her say no. And even Tommy, because Tommy’d never understood how she could turn him down, and he had Dad’s blessing, for God’s sake!
They could make it a law: All fertile women were to make their bodies available for breeding. For the good of the community, of course.
Katie shuddered. It would still be rape.
She didn’t want to stay here.
It was a slow understanding that crept from the corners of her mind.
The Storm had forced her to stay, and just like the idea of becoming a breeder, Katie didn’t want to be forced to do anything.
Katie turned to look back over the remains of her home town. The wall shimmered a little, making the ruins on the other side look hazy, but she could still see enough. There was the school she’d attended, and the park she’d played in, which meant over there would be the pool in which she’d learned to swim. Cut off from her, like most of her past. Her past was gone.
Surprisingly, it didn’t make Katie feel adrift: it made her feel free.
Free to choose.
She looked at the Millers’ place, and the big, black car still parked close by, and wondered if John had room for one more.