When the Ash Settles

Submitted into Contest #55 in response to: Write a story about a meeting of a secret society.... view prompt



Years ago, Edmund was told, passersby would nod to police in the streets. Sometimes wave, or smile. Sometimes, the police would even wave back.

Now, uniformed men, carrying heavy automatic weapons and strapped to the teeth in bullet-proof armor, don't even look at Edmund as he shuffles past. Instinct had him tucking his chin into the upturned collar of his jacket long before they got close, and he’s suddenly glad for the unforgiving chill of winter for relinquishing him from suspicion.

Winter falls brisker than it did before the Shutdown, the cold air biting with stronger conviction, snow falling heavier as if to tuck in the sorrow of the widowed wives hollowed in their homes. The war was inescapably devastating, the scar left on the nation uglier than any of the last. Superstitious fools would say the earth is bearing their pain, but Edmund is neither superstitious nor a fool. He listens respectfully when the elderly speak of biblical doom and the cycle of energy in the world, and when the time comes for respondence, he holds his tongue. It would do no service to their withering minds to hear what he has to say.

The streets are empty, as they always are, save for the homeless that sit against the old brick-and-mortar buildings. They're everywhere, shivering something awful as the sun begins to set and the shadows cast off the buildings begin to grow. Luckily, it hasn’t snowed in a few days, and there are few clouds in the sky. The next few nights may be easier for them.

Guilt, Edmund thinks, is the reason no one leaves their homes this close to sun-down. Especially in the winter, with the cold air harsher in the dark, the guilt of walking past so many suffering people with nothing at all to offer them is just too great.

Edmund knows most of these people by name, by now. Countless stragglers nod or wave at him as his passes—like the old passersby to their police—and he returns every gesture.

"Mornin', Ed," Loretta chirps at him from her place below the window of the bakery, one of the few businesses that survived the Crash. Grime cakes her face and hands, the rest of her bundled away in a few layers of ragged clothing. Her blue eyes, despite the grayscale of the new world, are as bright as ever.

"It's almost dark," Edmund replies, slowing down to acknowledge her. He doesn't have much time for conversation, but he always has a moment or two to spare for Loretta. All his life, he's known her, even before she was a street woman when she sold stitching services to the neighborhood. During the war, most business functions ran obsolete and people stopped worrying so much about the tidiness of their clothes—and the money it took to repair them—so Loretta ended up having to sell her machine to keep herself afloat. A few months later, she had a spot picked out right in front of the bakery, and she hasn't moved since. Here, with the baker giving her whatever he can at the end of the workday, Edmund doesn't have to worry about her so much.

"Yeah, but 'Evenin', Ed' sounded too uppity for my taste," says Loretta with a noncommittal wave of her hand. She pulls the blanket tighter around her shoulders as the wind picks up. “Got anything for me today?”

“Actually,” Edmund starts, reaching into his coat pocket. He pulls out a pair of wool gloves with a tear in the palm of one of them and holds them out to the woman. Her eyes light up at the sight of them, and she immediately moves to take them. “Think you can do something about that tear?” he asks.

“You bet your life. Ain’t a rip or hole in the world I can’t patch up, kid,” she answers, examining the pair.

Edmund grins. “Well, how about this: you fix that tear, you can keep the whole pair.”

“You’re too good to me,” says Loretta. Edmund shrugs it off. When the woman looks up, there’s a knowing glint in her eyes. “Headed to work?”

Edmund glances around, the wind knocking his hair into his eyes. The patrol he passed has made it to the end of the street, by now. "Everyone's got a job to do," he parrots back with a wink.

She grins at him. "That they do."

Edmund continues on down the street, counting the buildings as he goes. At the ninth building from his own, he cuts to the right. The alley is long, the dark walls elongated with the growing shadows. He counts his steps, glancing over his shoulder once, twice. Twenty-six steps down the alleyway, he goes right again down a short, covered hallway with doors nestled on either side.

He stops at the second one on the left, glancing around before knocking twice, then three times, then once more.

Seconds pass. Then, the door opens a crack.

Georgie, a man with facial hair as curly and red as that on his head, sighs when he recognizes Edmund, pulling the door open all the way and setting the pistol he had leveled against the back of it on the end table to his right. “Your brother was beginnin’ to worry,” he says, waving Edmund inside. Edmund doesn’t waste any time, stepping inside and shedding his heavy coat while the man peeks outside.

“Sorry,” Edmund says, hanging his coat with the rest of them on the rack beside the end table. “Passed Loretta on the way here. You know how that is.”

Georgie grins and claps him on the back. “Sure do. ‘S good to see you, bud.”

“You, too, Georgie.”

After closing up all four locks on the door, Georgie grabs the pistol and stuffs it in the inner pocket of his jacket. It’s leather, with fur lining the inside and the collar. It’s warm in the old condo, a luxury that not many people can afford anymore; with winter swirling unrelentingly outside, that’s why they decided to meet here. Edmund knows it can feel like a furnace in that thing, but Georgie says he can’t sit down with a gun sticking out of his pants.

“They’re too tight as it is,” he would say, giving his gut a pat. In the midst of economic depression and nationwide distress, when everyone seems to be drowning in despair, Edmund can hardly believe Georgie’s constant good spirits, but he’s grateful for them. They keep everyone going, keep hope burning, and the one thing they need more than anything is hope.

“Am I the last one here?” Edmund asks as Georgie leads him down the hall. The wallpaper is the color of old mustard, adorned with blood-red designs that, at one point, seemed like a morbid reminder of the carnage of the war. Now, they serve as a symbol, a mural for what was lost and what’s now at stake.

“Yep. Gang’s gathered downstairs. I was up here with Miss Josephine, waitin’ for you.”

Edmund nods at Josephine, the lady stationed on the upstairs, who has an apron tied around her neck as she bakes what smells like banana nut bread. Last week, it was cookies. Edmund knows there’s a gun strapped to the underside of the kitchen table in case someone else decides to come knocking.

Georgie leads him to one of the rooms near the back of the condo, a simple bedroom with nothing more than a dresser, a bed, and an area rug underneath it. The rug is heavy and ugly, but Georgie lifts it with ease, hooking the end on one of the bedposts. Beneath it is an old wood hatch, leading to a basement that no one but Edmund, Georgie, and the others know exists. Georgie unhooks the latch, lifting it open for Edmund. The stairs are long and made of iron, the space barely big enough for someone of Georgie’s size to fit.

The air smells more and more of gunpowder as Edmund descends. Georgie follows him down, closing the hatch as he goes and casting the tunnel in darkness. There’s light at the bottom, however little, and Edmund can hear the quiet murmuring of conversation from below.

The light grows brighter as he reaches the bottom, battery-powered lanterns illuminating the space. Edmund steps off the ladder and faces the room. There are about twenty people seated around a big, metal table, a handful of others flanking the walls where they’re funneling gunpowder into bullet casings. All eyes turn to him, but Edmund’s find his brother’s.

“Finally,” Eliot sighs in relief, moving away from the head of the table in the center of the room and toward Edmund.

Edmund accepts the embrace when it comes, patting Eliot’s back and fighting back the wave of sorrow that hits him. Not all that long ago, it was their father that headed the table, their mother at his side. He can see it in the eyes of everyone at the table that they’re thinking the same thing as him. The war took something from everyone, but his parents were an exceptional loss, incredible people with even greater shoes to fill.

When Eliot pulls back, he looks into Edmund’s eyes. There are shadows under his own, and Edmund can’t tell if it’s exhaustion or the faint light playing tricks. Perhaps both.

“We were starting to worry,” he says, his lips pulled into a frown.

Edmund laughs. “That’s what Georgie said.”

Eliot frowns harder, turning away to go back to his spot at the table. “Try to be on time next time, yeah? Was afraid you were discovered.”

Edmund takes his own place at the other end of the table in between Georgie and Jome, who gives him a respectful nod.

“No one’s looking for us anymore, El,” Edmund says, trying to sound hopeful.

“For us, maybe not,” says Sasha, a middle-aged woman with short, red hair. She sits, leaned back in her chair, an AR-15 resting in her lap. “The war may be over, but people are still angry. Police still patrol the streets. If the wrong person were to find out that both sons of Emmett and Millie Miles were here right now, much less leading the remaining rebel force—”

“No one knows,” Edmund insists. “We’ve all been careful. The only people that know are the ones in this room and our eyes and ears out on the streets.”

“Yeah, and what are we doing with that?” Garret pipes up from where he sits beside Eliot. He’s near fifty, the hair on the sides of his head going silver—a right-hand-man of sorts. Unofficially, just like everything else. The only thing that’s official is their common ground.

“What do you mean?” Eliot asks, and when he sits like that, with all the ponderance of a natural-born leader, he almost looks like his father.

“No offense, boss, but we’ve been sitting on our asses for months now, talking about what was and what could be and not about what we could be doing right now.”

Eliot looks thoughtful. After a moment, he says, “What do you suggest we do?”

Garret, given the floor, straightens in his seat and turns his attention to the group. “Fight back. It’s been almost a year since the rebels lost; they think the rebellion is dead. Let’s prove them wrong.”

“What, the twenty-three of us?” scoffs Lily from one of the bullet stations. She holds up a case of .40 caliber ammunition. “Sure, we’ve got ammo, but that’s about all we got. Weapons, bodies to back us up? Forget about it.”

Garret shakes his head. “Six years ago, the war was started by a handful of people that hated how things were, and the cause grew almost exponentially in number once the fighting actually started. People stood up and fought because others did it first.”

“And they lost,” Sasha rebukes. “We lost.”

“The people got scared. Losing Emmett and Millie turned a lot of them away from the fight.”

The mention of Edmund’s parents sends a shockwave down Edmund’s spine. He casts his eyes to the table, feeling less than inspired to participate. He feels Georgie look to him, but he stays silent, too.

“Look around, Garret,” Jome cuts in. “People are still scared, now more than ever. The war went so long that the entire economy crashed. The government shut the country down. Soldiers walk the streets with rifles; every day is Martial Law. People are barely willing to leave their homes, yet you expect them to be willing to pick up a gun and militarize?”

“That’s exactly the point!” Garret exclaims. Someone lights a cigarette at the edge of the room. Smoke fills the air, choking the discussion. “Things are worse now than they were before. When the rebellion started with that tiny little group, just like this one, it was with the shared idea of change. A dream to make things better for everyone. People wanted things to change, and they were willing to fight for it. I can guaran-damn-tee we’re not the only ones that still share that dream. We’re just the ones that are brave enough to keep it alive.”

“And at what cost?” Eliot speaks up, previously silent as he observed. “You can’t expect the few of us to pack what we have and show up, guns blazing, against the entire nation.”

“No, he can’t.” Everyone turns to look at Edmund, who hadn’t said another word up until now. He glances up, meeting his brother’s eyes. There’s curiosity there, a desire for the younger brother to play a bigger role. Edmund takes a steady breath and continues. “Not the few of us, at least. We need numbers.”

“We established that,” Lily retorts.

“We established that we can’t do much without them,” Edmund corrects her. “Now, we need to decide on it. More people means more power; more power means better odds.”

This time, he’s answered by Georgie, whose silence so far had been calculating. “Even if we could scrounge up the numbers, and the added firepower, it’d be a damn long way to the capital, which is where we’d need to be in order to do any real damage. And it’s not like we could just load up in our cars and road trip it. They’ve got roadblocks every mile from here to the coast.”

Edmund takes a moment to think. Georgie’s right; they’re a good five hundred miles from the capital, and if they tried to make it on the roads, they would certainly be intercepted. Then, an idea hits him. He looks to Eliot again, silently asking for permission. To continue, to take the lead.

Eliot nods.

“The railroads,” Edmund suggests. “One thing they couldn’t shut down was the transport system. Just one of those trains could carry a hundred of us, maybe even more.”

An array of murmurs in varying degrees of anxiety and excitement meet his words. Eliot’s hazel eyes glow with pride.

“But how do we know the police don’t check the trains after they’ve stationed?” asks Georgie.

“They do,” Edmund answers, leaning forward in his seat and crossing his arms atop the table. “I’ve got a friend who works the yard, but from what he tells me, it’s just one patrol, checking the cars one by one. As long as those trains are, there’d be plenty of time to get on or off without being spotted.”

Around the table is a sea of uncertain faces. Garret and Eliot share a look that they then share with Edmund, a look of encouragement, of loyalty. Edmund looks to Georgie, who’s been like a second father to him for as long as he can remember, and sees that same look in his eyes. There’s hesitance there, too, a stark contrast to the normal jolly glitter, but Edmund knows he would follow in an instant if one of them asked.

“Look,” he continues in a softer voice. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy. Nothing that’s worth it ever is. But we can pull it off. Years ago, there was a man who led countless protests because of one dream, a dream for a better world that thousands of people shared. That same dream runs through us now. It united them, and it will unite us, too.”

Like a switch, the mood has shifted. Those that listened before with doubt in their hearts now sit tall, gazes poised and interest peaked. The belief is flowing, Edmund can feel it.

Again, Eliot says, “What do you suggest we do?”

Adrenaline and excitement set Edmund’s blood on fire. When he speaks, it’s with even more conviction. “We take to the trains. I can talk to my friend at the yard, find out the routes. We can take it one city at a time on the way to the capital, get the word out, grow our ranks. There’s five hundred miles between here and there. We could have a whole army by the time we get close. Then, when we get there, we'll storm the capital with a lot more guns blazing, and when the ash settles, we’ll have taken back our great nation and returned it to what it was when people were actually proud to be here. We’ll be heroes, and we won’t lose again.”

A chorus of agreement fills the small, stone basement. A few people cock their guns and shout their approval. Others nod along with grins on their faces. Georgie grips his shoulder with admiration in his eyes.

When the noise settles into a murmur, Eliot is grinning. At his brother, at his cause. For the first time since the war ended, there’s real hope in the air. It’s so thick, everyone can feel it.

“You heard the man,” Eliot says, and his voice is an anthem. “We’ve got work to do.”

August 16, 2020 05:38

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Jonathan Blaauw
15:00 Aug 28, 2020

Hello, owner of Garfield 😊 I can’t believe it took me so long to get back to one of your stories because here again, you show your 20+ years of experience. It’s writing like yours that makes normal people think it’s easy because you make it seem effortless. I have days when I feel like Hemmingway himself, and others when I forget how to use prepositions and construct sentences. If you’re the same, then this must have been written on a Hemmingway day. I really love the way you introduce the character before revealing his purpose. You get th...


Taylor Arbuckle
18:22 Aug 28, 2020

You know, the funniest thing about you calling me that is that I always used to tell people I have the same last name as Garfield's owner. I can't believe you made that connection; thank you for that. It's so unfortunate that you struggle with that, too, but then, I'm pretty sure every writer experiences this to some extent. I am absolutely the same way. There are days where I can stare at my computer screen for fours (and sometimes even days on end) and not a single thing will pop into my head. I can try and force it, but it always comes...


Jonathan Blaauw
13:08 Aug 31, 2020

Always a pleasure with writing like yours. I can't believe you haven't been plagued by the Garfield connection your whole life! But, then again, Garfield is more nineties than noughties, isn't he? I just wish more people would read your stories. A newbie on this site would think more likes and comments = better stories, but the reality is some of the best, best stories I read on here get only a handful of likes. Oh well, I don't mind - it's like discovering an amazing coffee shop that no one else knows about. Hopefully ideas flow this week...


Taylor Arbuckle
19:47 Aug 31, 2020

I've actually been called Taylor Swift more times than I've been connected to Garfield 😔✊ but it's okay because both are valid. I've noticed that most of the most interacted with authors follow a massive amount of people, which is good in terms of marketing, but I've never believed in following people I don't know or genuinely want to be associated with. Maybe that'll hinder my ability to get noticed, but I feel like people like you make up for that. Thank you so much for your kind words. I'm glad you get the recognition you deserve, and ...


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Amber Lambda
21:46 Aug 23, 2020

I really liked the world-building and character details you created here! Some of the dialogue felt a little unnatural and info dump-ish but otherwise, this was well written--great job!


Taylor Arbuckle
04:27 Aug 24, 2020

Thank you for the feedback!


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