Two Wheels to the Coast

Submitted for Contest #6 in response to: Write a story about a family road trip.... view prompt

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1

“I miss cars,” complained my daughter.

Silence. Well, silence except for…

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

“Moooom,” she whined.

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

The heat was thick and tangible. It felt as if you could take a knife and slice the air before your very eyes. It was heavy, and horribly oppressive.

“Mom!”

“What is it, Honey?” responded Sandra, a tad testily. It was understandable. We were all irritable.

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

“I miss cars.”

An exasperated sigh. “Me too, Honey.”

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

God, it was hot. Carefully, I armed sweat out of my face, wary not to lose my balance. My breathing was harsh and laboured.

“Mom?”

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

“Mom!”

What?” And then, realising her tone: “What is it, Honey?” I could tell she was speaking through gritted teeth.

“Why can’t we drive in a car?”

“Because cars don’t work anymore, Honey.”

“That’s not what Dad says. Dad says that the cars work fine, for the most part, so—”

“Why ask if you know the answer, Samantha Harborne?”

Uh oh, I thought, someone’s getting full named!

“But I don’t know the answer, Mom!”

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

And then, after a brief respite: “So… why can’t we drive in a car?”

Sandra sighed again. “Barry, could you…?”

“Sure,” I said, a bit too cheerfully. My wife turned away in disgust. “You see, Sam, when—”

“Don’t call me that, Dad.”

“Hm? Call you what?”

That.”

“I—Oh, right,” I said, stumbling over my own words. I struggled to keep up with whatever abbreviation my daughter was going by, from week to week. “You see, Sammy, when petrol sits still for a long time, a really long time, it goes off. Just like food. And without anyone to make new petrol, we… well, we don’t have any petrol. Not any petrol that would actually work, at any rate.”

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

A thoughtful silence from my daughter.

“But we used a car back…” she waved a hand behind her and I tensed myself as she wobbled, coming dangerously close to crashing. She caught her balance, “Back a few months ago.”

“Yes, but—”

“Oh my God, you two are going to give me a headache!” said Sandra, quite dramatically.

“Sorry, Sweetie,” I said.

“Sorry, Mom,” Sam said. Wait, no, Sammy said.

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

I knew what Sandra meant. The sun was flaring in the sky, burning and rotating intensely. We couldn’t get away from it. As soon as we found some shade, we’d take a much-needed rest.

“So, why could we use a car back then, Dad?” asked Sammy, in a hushed tone that Sandra could almost definitely still hear.

I glanced over at my wife, who waved me away. I raised my eyebrows and pulled a face. Whoops, I thought, a bit guiltily.

“Well,” I said, in a similar talk-whisper, “not all petrol has gone bad. It depends on where it’s stored, what it’s stored in, that sort of thing.”

“So, we could drive by car, then?”

“Well… sort of, but not really. You’d have to be really lucky to find some petrol that was still good. Like I said, most of it has gone bad.”

Sammy made a thoughtful noise. “Hmm.”

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

“And even if you did find some—”

“Urgh!” said Sandra, irritably.

I lowered my voice, conspiratorially. “And even if you did find some, chances are, you wouldn’t find enough to go the whole distance. So even then, we’d still have to go by bike at some point,” I said, and then, without thinking, I jovially rang my bell, to bring home my meaning.

“Oh, for God’s sake!” snapped Sandra. “Will you two pack it in? My head is killing me!”

We cycled on in silence, under the blazing sun. Well, silence except for…

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

 

2

“I miss home,” complained my daughter.

There were no sounds. There wasn’t even wind. There was never a breeze anymore. It was either nothingness, or—

But best not to think of that.

We sat in the shade of what had once been a tree. It was very clearly long dead. It had no leaves, for a start. And most of the smaller branches had fallen away; they were pooled at the thing’s dried out base. Only the strongest of the plant’s limbs remained, and those were gnarled husks.

“Dad? Dad, I miss—”

“Yes, Honey, I heard you,” I said, as kindly as possible.

“I miss home,” she said quietly.

We sat in the shade in silence for a few minutes, idly passing the water bottle back and forth, taking a few sips here and there.

“Why do we have to go?” Sammy said, eventually. I think she could tell that even I had my limits, hence why she gave me a moment.

Sandra sighed melodramatically next to me. She had her eyes closed and was fervently rubbing her temples.

“Because it’s our best bet.”

“Says who?”

“Well… your mother and I discussed it, and—”

“This was your idea, Barry, not mine,” Sandra said, sharply.

I nodded. “Right…”

A moment’s silence again. I wasn’t sure if I preferred the calm to the constant barrage of questions.

“So, why is it our best bet?”

I cleared my throat. “Well…” I shuffled my feet. “You see…”

“Because of fish, wasn’t it, Barry?”

That made it sound stupid. Well, more stupid, anyway.

Partially,” I allowed, “partially.”

“Fish?” asked Sammy, bewildered. “Fish?”

“Yes, fish. You see, there’s limited food resources, and—”

“But… fish?” I couldn’t bear the look on her face, so I stared at the ground.

“There’s limited food resources,” I pressed on. “Tins. Cans. All of the stuff that’ll last, well, there just isn’t an infinite supply of it. But if we get to the coast, we can fish. We can survive off the ocean.” It sounded better in my head.

“But what if they’re all dead?”

“Pardon?”

Sammy looked at me levelly. “The fish. What if they’re all dead? Dead like everything else?”

“I—”

“They’re not all dead, Honey,” said Sandra. I sent her a telepathic thank you.

Quietness again.

And then: “How do you know?”

“Because I just know! Okay?”

“Because there’s a good chance it hasn’t affected the waters, Honey,” I said, trying to put out the fire before it began.

“But how do you know?”

I looked at my watch, distractedly. “Guys, we should get going. We don’t want to be outside during nightfall, right?”

“Right,” sighed Sandra.

Sammy didn’t say anything, she just looked at me. Looked at me as if she were looking right through me.

We picked our well-worn bikes up and sat down on the familiar seats. Our muscles groaned as we reassumed the cycling position. From the base of our feet to our thighs, from our buttocks to our abs, from our hands to our shoulders, our bodies ached. But still we cycled on; it was all that was left to do.

I could hardly tell my family that we were cycling to the coast because there was no hope anywhere else. What was I to say?

My thoughts gnawed away at me. What if Sammy was right? What if even the fish were dead? Dead along with the rest of this burnt-out shell of a planet?

 

3

We cycled on for days. Weeks. Months. I don’t know. Who keeps track of days anymore? Seasons don’t exist, any longer. There’s no winter. There’s no spring. There’s no autumn. I suppose you could say there’s no summer, either – but that’s the closest description to what we have… but it’s also all wrong.

To say, “We live in a perpetual summer,” well, that sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Yeah, that’s not what we have. What we have are constant desert-like conditions. No water. Oppressive sun. Baking heat. Occasional sandstorms that shred and graze the skin. Have you ever tried to clean sand from a wound? It’s awful. It grates.

Anyway, I’m getting side-tracked. My point is, that without the quarterly seasons to give meaning to days, what’s the point of counting how many have passed? One, ten, a hundred or a thousand. It’s all the same.

 

4

As with most things, Sammy was the first to notice.

We were passing what might have once been a farmhouse but had long fallen into disrepair. The fields around it were overgrown. Some of the glass windows of the building had been broken, and a crack ran through the house, diagonally upwards, from the left to the right.

“Dad,” she began, and I readied myself for a new barrage of inquiries. She hadn’t asked questions in a while. Too long, in fact. As a father, I had begun worrying that Sammy was dealing with a depressive episode. The recent days (weeks?) we had spent cycling in (squeak-squeak-squeak) silence. I was secretly glad that she was about to begin a new assault on my intellect. And my ears. But then she didn’t. “Dad, do you smell that?” she asked.

“I—what?”

“That smell… what is it?”

“It’s the sea air,” said my wife. There was a quality in her voice that took me far too long to place. I glanced over at her – I had gotten better on the bike and could now do this without swaying – only to see a strange sight. Sandra was smiling. She took in a deep breath. “That’s the sea air, Honey,” she said, without dropping her newfound grin. She met my eye. “Don’t you smell it, Bear?”

It’s been years since she called me that, I thought, giddily. The last time was… And then I realised: the last time she called me that was before.

I breathed in completely, sure that I wouldn’t be able to taste it, that it either wasn’t there and the other two were imagining it, or that my sense of smell had been seared away from the constant aroma of death. But as I took in my lungful, my senses were delighted with the perfume of the coast. I could smell it! It was delicious.

I grinned back at Sandra. We cycled on like that for a while; exchanging grins. Just how long had it been since we had even smiled at each other? In our wedding vows, we had said in happiness as well as in sadness, but for as long as I could remember, we had only shared the latter.

The mood had lifted among our trio, if only for a moment. I savoured it. It felt like stepping outside and breathing the fresh air, after a lifetime indoors. We cycled on, up the incline of the hill before us. Despite the added effort required, we felt our hearts rising as we progressed up that knoll.

And then, before any of us knew it was coming, the sky tore in half.

 

5

The bear-like growling of the storm startled us all from our reverie, as we feasted upon the scents on offer.

First, there was a rumbling that vibrated in the very cores of our bodies. “You guys hear that?” I began. And then lightning ripped through the sky, like the flashing crack from the rifle of a sniper. The whole sky turned white. It wasn’t just a flash – it was as if God himself had turned on the lights for a couple of seconds, before plunging us back into our well-deserved darkness. “I think we should seek—” But the rest of my words were lost in the ear-splitting boom that followed.

I think Sammy screamed. Or it might have been Sandra. It was hard to tell; my eardrums were ringing from the explosion in the sky. I opened my mouth to speak once more, but then my voice was whipped away by the sudden wind that had snuck up on us. For a second, I found it hard to breathe as the gale struck me in the face. I turned and gasped for air. “Let’s go!” I shouted at my wife and daughter, just as the heavens opened up.

We were all stunned. The water fell from the sky with such eagerness. And then we were drenched. “Oh—” was all I could manage, before another flash of blinding light and a belch of thunder assaulted us.

And then we were laughing. Laughing in the rain. I had almost forgotten what it felt like; the sensation of laughter and the sensation of being rained upon. In the back of my mind, a voice was whispering away about what that rain contained, but I pushed it away. Who cared? In this new world, who cared? We could all be dead tomorrow or in a week. So, what did it matter? We may as well enjoy the fleeting moment while it lasted.

The coppery smell was everywhere. It was lovely. The rain on our skin was somehow smooth. The coarse sand was washed away, along with a year’s worth of sweat and grime. I gasped and held my face upwards, towards the deluge, feeling the cleansing coolness. Then I opened my mouth and let the water land on my tongue. It tasted pure and metallic; the way that rainwater had tasted when I was a child.

Eventually, Sandra shouted through the storm: “Bear, shall we get to shelter?”

“Yes!”

“Alright! Sammy, Honey, let’s go!”

Sammy was grinning. The sight warmed my world-weary soul. “Okay, Mom,” she said, in a half-laugh. “But call me Samantha!”

“Where to, Bear?”

“The farm we passed back there!” I screamed through the rising wind. I couldn’t help the smile on my face.

We got off our bikes and pushed them the rest of the way, ready to drop them at the next sign of thunder and lightning – but none came. At least, not until we had made it back to the farmhouse.

 

6

The next morning was beautiful. Well, as beautiful as a post-storm morning in the aftermath of the collapse of civilisation can be. The coppery smell still lingered in the air. The temperature also felt more bearable. I could also sense the purifying touch of the rain in every breath I swallowed.

As we carried our bicycles back out to the road, I could’ve sworn I heard a bird call. I didn’t say anything to the others, but they must’ve heard it. Either that, or I was starting to lose my marbles. I suppose worse things could happen, in this new life which we found ourselves in.

We cycled up to the top of the hill. At one point, Samantha stopped and turned, and waved goodbye to the farmhouse. I didn’t ask her why she did it, I just tussled her hair, lovingly. Let her keep her secrets.

As we mounted the rise, Samantha was the first to see it. Kids, hm?

“Dad…” she managed, but then her voice went all quiet. I felt the same way; legs suddenly like jelly, breath suddenly escaping my lungs.

It sparkled in the distance. My first thought was: It’s a mirage, it’s got to be a mirage. We can’t be there already; we’ve only just started. But as we descended the knoll, it remained – glittering and shimmering.

None of us spoke; I don’t think we could have if we tried. We just cycled on, towards the ocean.

As I squinted at it, I thought I saw seagulls drifting above the waves, letting their wings catch the updrafts of air. Whether it was a creation of my crumbling mind or not, it was a wondrous sight. The birds rose and fell, and the water rippled. It was an almost religious experience, although I had long given up on the notion of a benevolent God, in the wake of catastrophe and disaster.

We cycled, my wife, my daughter and me, towards the welcoming sea. We pressed on; two wheels towards the coast.

 

7

“Dad,” said my daughter, “I love the taste of fish.”


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