Before the blackout, all Cynthia had to worry about was finishing high school and working on her college applications. Then everything changed and all the things she took for granted, like food, shelter and common decency, became scarce if not extinct. She left her home in San Antonio with her parents as they made their way in this dark new world they found themselves in.
Two years later, her mom contracted pneumonia and Cynthia had to watch helplessly as her mom slowly faded away. "This is not a good world for women," her mom warned her during the early days, when she could still talk without going into a coughing fit. "Only the strong survive these days and if you're not strong, you got to be smart. If something happens to your father, you need to hitch your horse to someone who'll protect you. Find yourself a strong man or a group that will keep you safe, ya hear?"
"I will, I promise," Cynthia said with tears in her eyes. "You just focus on getting better, ok?"
Her mom died a week later, but her words stayed with Cynthia for years. Three years later her dad died- he was killed by bandits while he was hunting for food. Cynthia heard the shot ring out and rushed over, but hid the minute she saw the men. She watched as they robbed his body and later their camp site. She kept herself hidden, shaking in fear, long after they left.
She traveled alone for two weeks, jumping at shadows, sleeping in fits, hiding at any human sighting. She saw what looked like a town up ahead and debated whether she should investigate and take the risk, or continue travelling alone. The smart thing to do would be to keep travelling and keep to herself, but Cynthia was hungry and tired of being scared all the time, so she took a chance and went in.
The risk paid off. While the people of Willoughby were suspicious towards strangers, having bad experiences with fighting off gangs and bandits, they let her stay. She started working at the school- she was shocked there were still schools these days, that there were good people out there who gave her shelter and food, until she could stand on her own two feet and repay their hospitality. Five years later, she was one of them and felt like she truly found a place to belong. Marla retired, deciding to spend her days with her grandkids and tending to her garden, so Cynthia took on the administrator duties, making sure everything ran smoothly.
Carl was an outsider, like her and he made her laugh. He was always energetic, always had a story to tell and Cynthia loved spending time with him. They dated for two months, before they got married in a small ceremony run by Pastor Carlos. They were happy at first, Cynthia was sure they were- he'd make her dinner if she came in late from school, or rub her throbbing feet if they hurt from standing most of the day. But things changed, Cynthia couldn't put her finger on when, it must have been gradual. They talked less, laughed less and started arguing over little things.
Carl changed, or maybe she was the one who changed; maybe they were who they always were, they just wore down their masks and pretenses. It started with the small things- not making dinner on time, or his clothes not being ready for work. He'd yell and she'd apologize, then he'd apologize for yelling and things would be fine until the next round. The first time he slapped her, he was just as shocked as she was and hugged her tightly, begging for her forgiveness and promising it would never happen again.
It did. He didn't do it regularly and he seemed to regret it immediately, but it happened. People in town were talking about them, giving her pitying looks whenever they thought she wasn't looking. Sheriff Mason approached her one day, tentatively asking if everything was alright with them. Cynthia lied, said that everything was fine and Mason left it alone, asking her to tell him if she needed help. Cynthia couldn't admit that she needed help, not even to herself. She kept thinking that it was her fault, that she wasn't a good enough wife and that if she did better, then Carl wouldn't have a reason to get angry and things could go back to the way they were.
She dreaded going home after work, so she would wonder around town for a bit, trying to waste time until she had no choice but to return. One day she went into Pastor Carlos' church and sat down at an empty pew. It was so quiet, so peaceful that it immediately made her feel more at ease. For the first time in years, she prayed to God for help, for answers, for a sign that He was there. She kept coming back to the church, sitting quietly for an hour and praying for a miracle.
One day Pastor Carlos came and sat by her. He told her she looked like she was searching for something and asked her if he could help. She told him about Carl, knowing her secret was safe with him and he listened without judgment. It felt liberating, talking to someone about it, as Pastor Carlos helped her realize Carl's anger issues were his own and that she shouldn't take responsibility for his actions. He tried to convince her that Carl needed help, that she should confront him or bring him in for consoling. She said it would take a miracle and jokingly asked him if he could talk to God for her and arrange for one.
The Pastor told her a story of a devout man who was on a sinking ship. He prayed to God: 'Oh Lord, I am a devout and righteous man, please grant me a miracle and save me!' A piece of wood drifted by, but the man didn't swim towards it, because he was waiting for God to save him. Then a life buoy floated by, but the man did not grab it, because he was waiting for a miracle. Then a life raft with other survivors passed by and they called to him, telling him to get on board; but the man told them that God would save him. Eventually the man drowned and when he arrived at the Pearly Gates of Heaven, he asked God: "All my life, I've done nothing but serve you- why did you not save me?" To which God replied: "What do you mean? I sent you a plank of wood, a buoy and a raft- what more could you ask of me?"
The story stayed with her and made her realize she was praying for the wrong thing. Instead of praying for God to help her, she started praying for God to grant her the strength to help herself. After weeks of building up her resolve, she finally confronted Carl in the kitchen before dinner and told him she wouldn't suffer his abuse anymore and she would leave him if he didn't seek help. Her voice was cracking, her entire body shaking from adrenalin or from fear, but she also felt an inner strength she never knew existed.
Carl was furious and in his blind rage, he grabbed a paring knife and lunged at her. She raised her arms to protect herself and felt the searing pain of the blade carving into her skin. She grabbed the water pitcher from the table and smashed it on his head, distracting him long enough for her to run out the front door. She ran without knowing where and found herself at Sheriff Mason's front door.
Mason took one look at her bleeding arm and quickly took her to Dr. Porter. "Stay here, I'll take care of it." She sat there, completely numb, as Gene cleaned and stitched up her arm. She did it, she finally did it. God gave her the strength she needed to leave and no matter what, she was never going back. Cynthia was grinning uncontrollably and Gene must have thought she was in shock, because he offered her a place to stay for the night, talking to her in slow, gentle tones. She accepted his offer gratefully and at night as she sunk into the mattress in the spare room and closed her eyes, she felt serenity and for the first time in many years, she felt safe.
It was only the next day that she founded out what Mason did. He got his Deputy Riley and the two of them ran Carl out of town, though the official story was that Carl left voluntarily. "He won't come back and he won't ever hurt you again," Mason promised her, his eyes straying guiltily towards her wound. Cynthia knew it would scar horribly, but she didn't care. It wasn't just a reminder of what she's been through, of what she's never let herself experience again- it was also a reminder that she was strong and capable of shaping her own life.
When Aaron Pittman came in, interviewing for the teaching job, Cynthia wanted to turn him down on the spot. It wasn't even afternoon and he smelt like alcohol- drunks were unstable and unpredictable and she'd never leave her kids alone with someone like that. He didn't smile and apparently didn't even want to teach, so she wasn't quite sure why he was even there. But then he pleaded with her, telling her he needed to do something and she knew that he was lost, just like she once was. For her, the answer was her faith, but maybe for him it was teaching and feeling useful.
She spent quite a bit of time with Aaron. At first, she was subtly supervising him, making sure he wasn't drunk or hung-over, observing him with the kids. Then it developed into going over curriculum and lesson plans, making sure he taught them more than just the Mythology of Star Wars. Truth be told, he was almost like a personal project for her- the "make Aaron smile" mission. She knew what it was like to feel useless and lost, to forget how to smile and she wanted to help him the way Pastor Carlos and God helped her.
She didn't expect to fall in love with him, but she did. The more time she spent with him, the more layers she peeled back and discovered the sensitive, funny, caring person underneath the sarcasm and self-deprecation. They were dating for about four months when the Andover Clan attacked and Aaron died protecting her. She prayed to God, asking for him to bring Aaron back to her, to grant her this one miracle.
And he did. Aaron came back to life two and a half hours later and his wound healed up, like it never happened. She couldn't stop crying that first night, relief and gratitude coursing through her like torrents. She never broached the subject of religion with Aaron before, because she knew he wasn't a believer and she was secure enough in her faith to not need to impose it on others. But Aaron coming back changed everything and she tried to open the subject, even going so far as asking Pastor Carlos to talk to him as well. But Aaron refused to believe it was a miracle, wouldn't even entertain the idea. But if it wasn't a miracle, what could it be?
Nanotech, apparently. Tiny machines all around us that caused the blackout and could bring people back from the dead. She didn't let that deter her, remembering the story Pastor Carlos told her about the devout man and theorized that just because it wasn't God himself, it didn't mean God's hand wasn't involved. Machines followed orders, after all, so who gave them the order to save Aaron? But Aaron still didn't see it that way.
She was surprised when his demeanor began to change. He seemed calmer, he smiled again and seemed… Happy. It was a pleasant change, to say the least. Now that the US Government saved them from the Andover Clan, things were starting to settle down again.
"Cynthia, wake up," Aaron woke her up in the middle of the night, nearly bouncing on the bed with frantic energy.
"Aaron," Cynthia mumbled, rubbing at her tired eyes. "Go back to sleep."
"I can't, I need to show you something."
"Now?" Cynthia whined, flinging her arm over her face. "Can't it wait till tomorrow?"
"No, you need to see it at night to truly appreciate it," Aaron explained.
"You'll see," he promised with an excited grin.
Cynthia threw on some clothes, as Aaron headed towards the door. "Wait, let me get a lantern."
"You won't need one," Aaron said, grabbing her hand. "Come on!" She shuffled after him blindly, towards the outskirts of the town. They were walking through vegetation that lightly slapped at her sleeves, leaving a feeling of wetness in their wake.
"We're here," he said, as he stopped and turned to her. "Watch." Cynthia waited and after a moment a swarm of fireflies lit a trail in the sky, descending towards them.
"What-?" She asked in shock.
"You were right, Cyn," Aaron told her, smiling up at the sky. "I didn't realize it before, but I was chosen."
The fireflies circled around her and she flinched, trying to avoid touching them. It took her eyes a moment to get used to their bright light, but when she did, she gasped in shock. The bushes around her were drenched in red.
"Aaron, what's going on- is that blood?" Her sleeves were streaked red and she tried to rub it off.
"It's the beginning," Aaron told her, as the fireflies drifted towards him and around him, making him seem to glow with a halo.
"The beginning of what? Aaron did you do this?" Cynthia asked, backing away in fear. Oh God, something was very wrong with him. "Aaron, you're scaring me."
"I was scared too, but now I understand why I was brought back, what my purpose is," he walked towards her and she kept backing away, not yet willing to turn her back on him.
Aaron was sick and he needed help. Maybe those tiny machines malfunctioned- she needed to get to Rachel, Rachel would be able to figure this out. She prayed to God to give her strength once more, to help Aaron find his way back from wherever he was lost. Once she sufficiently backed away from him, she turned around and started running.
"You shouldn't run from your destiny, Cyn, you should embrace it," Aaron said to her back, as she quickly made her way in the dark, the buzzing of the fireflies and his footsteps coming closer and closer. "They've got a plan for you too, Cyn. We're going to do great things together."