My first fiction for the blog. Written in response to Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge: The Who, The Where, The Uh-Oh.
Gavotte beneath a Wasteland Willow
Seven years after nuclear armageddon, Cal finally chased down Jerry Smitt. She caught him sleeping in the mini-mart of some eastern Oregon ghost town, kicked him till he woke, shoved a gun in his face and marched him out to an old willow tree with a noose hanging down above a rotting three-legged stool. They stopped a dozen paces short of this tableau: makeshift gallows lit by early morning sun, rope swaying in the autumn breeze. “Get up on that stool,” Cal said. “Put the noose around your neck.”
Smitt stood still, back to Cal, hands clasped above his head. “Let’s talk,” he said.
“You wanna talk? Get up on that stool and put that noose around your fat fucking neck. You can talk from there.”
“Last chance. Get moving before I put a bullet in your brain.” And then, calculated: “Don’t think I’ll waste any lead on a warning shot.”
“Alright.” Smitt started walking. “So you’re a cold-hearted bitch, I get that. You tracked me down. You caught me. Congratulations. But you followed me far into the dead lands, and in doing so you made a mistake.”
“Yeah, well at least I’m on the right side of the gun.”
“I’ve come this way before. I have supply caches hidden all along Route 30.”
“After I kill you, I’ll take whatever you have at your camp.”
“It will not be enough to get you back.” Smitt reached the stool and paused. “If I get up there, do you promise to hear me out?”
“Won’t change a thing, but sure. I promise.”
“Alright, then.” Smitt got on the stool, balanced for a moment as it creaked under his weight. The noose was rough and barely large enough to admit his head. He struggled to force it past his ears. Finished, he turned to Cal, looked her straight in the eye. “I suppose you were with that tribe up in Wasco?”
Cal shook her head. “Nope.”
“Perhaps that New Salem settlement?”
“Nope. But I passed through after you did what you did. Doubt they’ll last the winter now.”
“Well, whatever has given you cause to hunt me down, I’m not going to apologize for it.”
“Didn’t ask for an apology.”
“I did what it took to survive. You've lived through the apocalypse as long as I have. You should understand this.”
“Aw. And here I was thinking you had nothing but good intentions and a heart of gold.”
“I do not apologize so that perhaps you will believe me when I say that I do not hold a grudge. If you let me go, I will take you to a supply cache. And then I will leave. If you continue to chase me, I will kill you, but otherwise there is no need to continue–“ he gestured, hands encompassing the scene “–this. Revenge was for before the bombs. You cannot hold on to those goals if you want to survive.”
“Nice speech,” Cal said. She lowered her voice, parodied his matter-of-fact tone. “I’m not gonna apologize. I did what I had to do and you would’a done the same. I’m Jerry fucking Smitt, and I may be a heartless bastard now, but before the bombs fell, why I was a stand-up guy.”
Smitt’s eyes went cold. “And how did you know that name.”
“San Antonio. Late April. Two years before the bombs. I was on the run from some pissed-off border smugglers, so I went to the cops, where I met you.”
“And what did I do?”
“You drove me out into the desert, shot me in the head, and buried me you psychotic fuck!”
“Ah. I remember. You’re Ann Sherit.”
“It’s Cal, now. Short for Calamity, if you were wondering.”
“I suppose that, for some people, things were no different before the apocalypse. You did whatever you had to do to–“
“To survive. Yeah, bullshit. You were crooked then, and you’re crooked now. You know why I been following you all these years? What kept me going? Not revenge. Well, not just revenge.” Cal stopped and for a while stared off into the rising sun, ordering her thoughts. “The thing is, Jerry. . . I can’t sleep.”
“I see things, Jerry. I see things in my dreams. Ever since you put that bullet in my head–“
“Ever since you put that fucking bullet my fucking head!” Cal took a deep breath, let it out slow. “I see violence. I see all the violent things people are gonna do in the future. Murders. Beatings. Torture. It’s fucking brutal. The months before the bombs fell–“ she shakes her head “–let’s just say it was a relief when it finally happened.
“For a while I thought maybe that was it. That the dreams were just the prelude to mankind’s self-immolation in its biggest motherfucking act of violence. But the dreams went on. That’s how I knew you were still alive and killing, by the way. Two days after, I saw you strangle some poor old lady for a bottle of water. Yeah, it was chaos after the war. Eventually most people realized they needed to work together, but then there were people like you who just kept stabbing ‘em in the back.
“So I have a new theory. The dreams started when you put a bullet in my head; they end when I put a bullet in yours. And if they don’t, well at least that’s one less sick fucker for the rest of us to worry about.”
“Learn to live with your dreams; the violence of the world won’t end with me. And it doesn’t change the fact that my supplies–“
“I don’t want your shit, Jerry. You want a bargain? Well, I was going to shoot a leg off that stool and let you do a little danse macabre, but reckon that if you jump high enough, gravity and your fat ass will collaborate to break your fucking neck. So go on. Save me a bullet and die with some dignity.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Smitt temporized, “this little gallows you’ve set up, you must’ve gone through a lot of trouble. You could’ve just shot me, if you had the bullets to shoot me with.”
“Maybe I wanted to see you suffer. Maybe I figured you’d jump and save me a bullet. Maybe I remembered how a bit of lead in the head and a nap in a shallow grave weren’t enough to keep even me dead.”
“Maybe, maybe, maybe.” Smitt closed his eyes, breathed in and exhaled, then darted his hands up towards his neck. Cal shot him in the knee. Smitt slipped, the stool tipped; he fell, howl choked by the noose. Desperate hands grasped the rope and he flopped around in silence, wild gavotte splattering blood on the dirt below. A couple of times he kicked his way to the willow, but he couldn’t get any purchase with one good leg.
Eventually, he stilled. Cal let him hang there while she dug a deep, deep grave. Perhaps the dreams would stop now. Probably they wouldn’t. Either way, there was a good chance she would die out there in the dead lands. She didn’t have a plan, but if she got lucky. . . well, it wouldn’t be the first time, if she did.
So for the record, I rolled up (1) psychic (2) seeking revenge after being shot and left for dead (3) by a dirty cop (4) in a nuclear wasteland. I’m not sure if approx. 1200 words of dialogue was the best way to tell this story, but it was an interesting exercise. At least there was a lot of interaction between the principal characters?