Thanksgiving week saw one of my post-apocalyptic stories published. It appears in Ruined Cities, an anthology by Deepwood Publishing based on the theme you would guess from the title. I am very much looking forward to reading the other stories included. Here is part of the intro from the editor, James Tallett:
It is an iconic image, the empty city street, run down and overgrown as Nature reclaims what once belonged to it. But that is only one possible take on what a city can be. Here, we have sixteen visions of a future gone wrong, of lands that have seen their glory days collapse into the distant past, of decrepit space stations, lost islands, and failed countries.
At the core of each of these stories is the human element, that singular character who brings to the surface all of the trials and travails that civilization has suffered, the light and the culture lost in the collapse. Some are kind, working for the betterment of those around them. Others are cruel, cowardly, and greedy, out for themselves and no one else. But each has a story to tell…
My contribution is a story called Son of Bones, which is probably the most disturbing of anything I have written thus far. So be warned–it is not for the faint of heart. Here is a preview:
Son of Bones
Joel V. Kela
The prophet who called himself Enoch limped through the ruins of the dead city, following his spirits as they flitted ahead of him. He crossed from shadow to shadow, trying to avoid the worst of the rubble. Beyond the broken spines of skyscrapers and crooked utility poles the sun bore down out of a pale cream sky, and heat shimmered along fractured pavement. Wind hissed through the steel-and-glass canyons, setting his rags to boil around him like black seaweed.
He was thirsty.
He stopped in the shadow of a bus flipped against a bridge and drank from the old milk carton dangling from a string around his shoulder. He wiped his beard and lifted the jug to eye level. Only a line of water sloshed at the bottom. No matter. He let the jug fall back. What had his old rabbi said? HaShem will provide. Enoch looked up at the sky and squinted for the sight of black birds–like Elijah of old.
Enoch’s son had loved that story, and Enoch had told it at many a bedtime, back before the world broke. Yet even now Enoch knew it was true. HaShem always cared for His prophets. Behold, I am going to rain bread from heaven for you.
Enoch whispered, and Rua appeared.
The spirit rose in the shadows like a filament coming to life, and the radiance of her face choked at his breath, even after so many years. “My love,” he said, and she smiled as only an angel could.
Rua was his oldest spirit, sent to him by HaShem even before the earth’s doom. Rua served the anointed prophet, and to her was given prescience, insight, and secret knowledge. She was a true Watcher, as was Arakiel. Yet only Rua remained with Enoch at all times. Enoch had no true claim on Arakiel–but even that great prince came when the need grew most dire.
This was not such a time.
Enoch passed his hand through Rua’s cheek, and his flesh tingled. “Water, my love. And with speed.”
The spirit bowed her head and dissolved before his eyes.
He felt her moving, out and away from him. To the west.
When he ducked beneath the bus he saw a plastic shopping cart with sides bleached like bone. Beneath it lay a twisted blanket, with flowers on it. Some still pink.
He nodded and sat down. A boot protected his left foot, but he’d not been so lucky for his right. He’d bound it with rags and string, but the glass and the gravel had worn away at it over the last couple days. He tore strips from the flower blanket and wrapped his foot, tying it off with the last of his string.
As he climbed over the bridge and down the culvert on the other side, his mind filled with thoughts of the Colony. The faces of the rebels danced before his eyes, how they had mocked and spat. Cast him out. His own adopted children–fed by his hand and guided by his revelation. Him. Stripped and beaten and driven away–all at the word of that flaccid priest.
Enoch’s anger coiled like a snake within him. The holy power rose, pressing against his tongue. He scrambled up the far side of the culvert and onto a pile of rubble, summoning Ugly as he went. The spirit resisted him as always, a cloud of black ink that bucked and twisted against Enoch’s leash. But by the time Enoch stood atop the rubble, he had Ugly bound–trembling and spitting–but bound nonetheless.
Ugly was one of Enoch’s rephaim, spirits of the dead, and this one hated Enoch with all the fury of its black existence. And why not? The man it once had been was caught trying to steal the colony’s power generator. Enoch had commanded the thief be tortured to death, and as Enoch had served him justice in life, so now the man’s spirit served Enoch in death.
Enoch grinned and twisted Ugly tighter, facing east and raising his hands. He let the power rush forth like a flood, praying in Hebrew and binding the spirit to his words. In his mind he drew up a picture of Sarah, pretty backstabbing Sarah, who had spat as they dragged him out through the gates–past the fat priest who mumbled nonsense and sprinkled water.
When Enoch finished chanting, Ugly snaked away to the horizon like lightning. Enoch’s curse went with him.
Enoch slumped back against the rubble, his mind dizzy and heart singing. Let them account for that. Let them deny the truth when it kills her. The Colony would see its mistake in rejecting him. They would beg for their prophet to return–him, to whom was given even mastery of unclean spirits in service to HaShem. He would drive out the rebels and their priest, and shepherd the righteous into the age to come.
Once Enoch’s strength came back, he turned to descend the rubble. And froze.
Down on the pavement stood a boy, maybe eight or nine years old, clothed in rags. His face bore a mass of blisters, and the bones of his shoulders protruded like baseballs. His face showed only awe, and a shiv of steel and tape lay dropped and forgotten at his feet.
Goosebumps ran up and down Enoch’s arms. The boy bore the look of Enoch’s own son, who had died so many years before. Enoch’s boy would even have been about the same age–if his damn mother hadn’t gotten them both killed.
Enoch stared at the boy. He had long waited for a disciple, his own Elisha to receive the mantle. He’d imagined someone older. But this could be even better. Guide my hand, O Adonai.
The boy stared up at Enoch like he understood.
Tall Man strode up behind the boy. While also one of Enoch’s rephaim, Tall Man was cleaner and more cordial–in life he’d been a Christian preacher. The spirit bent down and peered at the boy. Finally he looked up to Enoch and nodded.
Enoch smiled and extended his arms. “Come with me,” he said. “And you shall eat.”
As they picked their way into the outlying neighborhoods, the boy only grew in Enoch’s estimation. The boy kept his eyes low, and when Enoch tested him with hours of silence and unreasoned commands, he scrambled to obey.
It was not just for the hope of food and water, either. The boy clearly sensed Enoch’s power. The call of HaShem lay heavy upon him, and Enoch wondered to see it.
Rua led them from water to water, and they made good time.
“What is your name?” Enoch finally asked, as he used a plastic butter knife to sever the neck of a pigeon Tall Man had driven down. They had taken shelter from a dust storm inside a ruined gas station, and the yellow light from outside washed over them.
The boy didn’t answer. He sat beside their fire and stared at the pigeon, unblinking and hungry.
“I am Enoch. But you will call me Navi.” Enoch wrung the pigeon like a dishrag, squeezing the blood out of it. “That means prophet.”
The boy finally lifted his eyes. “I’m Rail.”
The boy shrugged and looked into the flames.
Enoch turned his gaze to Rua, and the spirit slid over. Her fingers brushed the boy’s head, and Enoch’s mind swelled with vision. He saw a pale woman in a bikini pushing a stroller at the beach, coaching a soccer team, tucking a boy into bed. “Johnny,” she whispered. “My Johnny.” He saw other things too. Hiding under a bed when the earthquakes came. Running hand-in-hand through alleys filled with fire-shadows. Goodbyes. Screams. A teddy bear lying in the corner of a basement. Men. Being tied down to a picnic table. An old banister, sharpened and slick with motor oil.
Why they called him Rail.
Enoch dropped the pigeon and reached out to cup the boy’s cheek.
The boy flinched away from his hand, and the fear in those young eyes filled Enoch with sorrow. He tugged at Rua and she spoke through him, mimicking the woman’s voice. “My Johnny,” they whispered together.
The boy’s jaw dropped open, and his eyes filled with tears.
Enoch nodded and gathered him into his arms.
As the boy sobbed, Enoch rocked him back and forth. “Shalom, ben katan, shalom beni. Shalom shalom.” Enoch slid one hand to the back of the boy’s neck. With a finger still slick from the pigeon’s blood he traced a mark. “Shalom.” The boy sighed and dropped into a deep sleep.
The light from outside flickered as a shadow swelled at the door.
Ugly had returned.
Enoch frowned and demanded an accounting. Ugly swirled tighter and Enoch saw the colony lawn and playground. Blood and screaming.
Enoch laughed and nodded. “Good. Well done.” He flicked his hand at the spirit. “Go. Seek some arid place.” He laughed again.
Ugly dove outside, and after a moment Tall Man rose from the shadows and loped after him.
Rua read Enoch’s mind and tilted her head.
He nodded. “Yes.” He stroked the boy’s forehead. “Find whoever did this.”
Rua bowed and faded away.
Enoch set the boy down beside the fire and covered him in old trash bags for blankets.
He stood up and thought about possibilities. To cleanse the Colony he would need an army. Killing the rebels one by one would never serve. The innocent must see his power over the unrighteous. And this, this poor boy.
He thought about the kind of men who would do such evil to a child. Men corrupt as old bones. Men dead even while they lived.
Enoch needed men. As many as he could get.
And who better than those already dead?
Here’s the link at amazon.com: Ruined Cities