Speculative Drama Suspense

Two figures glimmer in the waves of heat rising from the dry lakebed. Stretched before them, the Bonneville Salt Flats, a vast expanse of white, blinding under the merciless Utah sun. No shelter or shade for miles. The only sound is the rhythmic crunching of their shoes on the crumbling surface, and the distant booms of rockets and guns and war.

The girl trudges glassy-eyed across the barren landscape. Her plump brown cheeks stained with dried tears. She wears jeans, a blue t-shirt, sneakers.

The man wipes his forehead, erasing one of the cakey-white contour lines that map the exhausted topography of his face. He glances at his fingers. The tips are covered in the salty residue of evaporated sweat. He wipes them on his expensive suit.

Extending for miles behind them, two sets of footprints, carved in the crusty layer of salt. Beyond those, columns of thick black smoke roil in the stagnant sky.

An explosion booms, the reverberations snake through earth and air. Behind them, another inky tower spirals upward.

The man and girl shamble in silence, not looking back, keeping their gaze on the horizon, towards the mountains.

The man stumbles and falls. He lands on all fours, then rolls to a sitting position. The girl keeps walking. He squints as she shimmers, shifts from a child to a blue bird, back to a blue girl. He stands unsteadily, and with a few long strides, catches up to her.

An engine whines in the distance. They turn to look at it, wary. A silver and blue bus emerges from a cloud of chalky dust. It skates across a pool of water toward them.

A mirage the man thinks. He remembers the last time he was here, when he witnessed the incredible feats of human engineering. A man broke the land speed record in a jet-fuelled car shaped like a rocket. And there was the diesel-powered truck, leaving a trail of thick black smoke…

The bus stops, an impossible oasis on wheels. Emblazoned across the side: SLC Salt Lake City International Airport and the SLC logo – an abstract purple mountain and bird flying over it. Several bullet holes pierce the bird.

The front doors swoosh open.

The man looks at the bus, then to the endless expanse before them. He steps inside, the girl follows.

A thirtyish woman sits in the driver’s seat. She’s wearing green hospital scrubs. Her nearly imperceptible nod acknowledges them. 

Propped against the cracked windshield is a cardboard sign: Welcome to SLC. Your driver is Javier Vega. Have a great journey! It’s accompanied by a smiling photo of Javier, a bald man in his sixties.

Four passengers are peppered across the moulded plastic seats. The door closes, the bus moves. The man and girl walk down the aisle trying to keep their balance.

An elderly woman in beige overalls smiles at them. She hugs a chicken. It clucks. Lounging on the other side of the aisle, a young black man sizes them up, are they a threat? He crosses his arms, returns to staring out the window.

At the back of the bus, two teenagers, conspiring. The one in a high-school cheerleading outfit whispers something to the other, a girl in a colourful hijab.

The man slides into the row ahead of them. The girl sits next to him. His eyebrows rise, momentarily creasing a salty contour line. 

“Hey, you want some water?” The cheerleader hands a small bottle to the girl.

The blue bird girl takes the bottle, opens it, gulps.

“I’m Ruby,” the cheerleader says, “that’s Nazima.”

Nazima smiles, offers a small wave, asks, “Where’d you come from?”

“I-eighty,” he says.

“What’s it like?”

A series of images flash in his mind before he can quash them.

He pounds the leather steering wheel of his BMW, swears at the stalled semi-truck blocking his view of the road ahead.

He storms away from his car to get a better view, farther into the scrub at the side of the road. As far as he can see, turtled traffic heading West on Interstate 80. Behind him, to the East, the distant rumble of rockets and explosions.

A girl in a blue t-shirt emerges from the scrubland, waves to someone in a beat-up pickup truck, skips towards them.

A high-pitched whistle. An eardrum-splitting explosion.

The twisted, blackened, blazing metal skeletons of trucks and cars and buses.

People running past him, screaming, on fire. 

The man blinks, shakes his head, replies, “It was a logjam, thought I’d walk.”

“I had to pee,” the girl says.

The man blows out a long breath, turns toward the girl. She gives him the water bottle. He drinks.

“We’re going to Wyoming,” Nazima says.

“Jackson Hole,” Ruby adds.

“You ever been to Wyoming?” Nazima asks.

The girl says, “I have to pee.”

“My brother works in Jackson Hole.”

From the front of the bus, the chicken squawks.

 “I have to pee.”

“Can you hold it?” the man asks.

The girl shakes her head. The girl and man stand, make their swaying way to the front of the bus.

“We need a comfort break,” the man says, gripping a pole next to driver to keep his balance.

The driver shakes her head. The girls hops from foot to foot.

“Stop the bus, man. She gotta go,” the young man says.

The driver grimaces, drives on.

“Yo driver. I gotta go too. Probably everybody do. Some of us been on here since Salt Lake City.”

The chicken squawks.

The driver shakes her head. But she slows down. The bus rolls to a stop.

She opens the doors, says, “I’m leaving if you’re not back in two minutes!”

The man and girl step out, followed by the young man and the elderly woman, and lastly the teenagers.

The driver watches as the passengers scatter in pairs. She closes the door and revs the gas pedal, looking at the intended path ahead.

“Shit!” she mutters, as she kills the engine. She gets out, walks past the front of the bus, heading North.

A loud, high-pitched whistle.

Racing across the sky toward the bus is a small missile. 

“Down! Get down!” the man screams.

The young man runs to the elderly woman, huddles her to the ground. The teens pancake themselves to the salty surface. The driver dives and lands with hard thud.

The man turns to protect the girl. She’s sitting cross-legged on the lakebed, gazing placidly to the North and the mountains beyond. He crouches over her.

A tremendous explosion rocks the earth. Flaming pieces of twisted metal shoot in the air, plummet to the ground.

A section lands next to the man and girl. It’s the SLC logo from the side of the bus: the purple mountain, the edges of the metal are charred, smoking.

The man scans the sky for more rockets. The only sound, the crackling of the bus as it burns.

The young man helps the elderly lady stand. He asks, “Everybody okay?”

People nod, brush the salt from their clothes.

The chicken pecks near the elderly lady's feet.

“Damn, that was close,” he mumbles.

The man and the girl watch flames lick the remains of the bus.

“I had to pee,” the girl says.

The man nods.

The passengers trek across the lakebed as the sky turns orange then pink with the setting sun. Behind them, a column of black smoke rises from the ruined vehicle.

They walk toward the far horizon, to the purple mountain.

August 20, 2022 11:02

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Keila Aartila
15:48 Aug 27, 2022

Excellent use of imagery written in to build this story. Easy to read and understand and visualize.


H L Mc Quaid
15:11 Aug 30, 2022

Thanks Keila! That was the task I gave myself for this story. Trying to use concrete words with no abstract ones (e.g., though 'merciless' did sneak in). Makes for a highly visual story. Maybe the next story, I'll forbid adverbs. ;)


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Zelda C. Thorne
19:53 Aug 23, 2022

Hiya! Enjoyed the imagery here. Fantastic sense of place. Left me feeling like there was potential for this to be a longer work. The characters felt real, and I want to know what happens to them next. Good work as usual 👍


H L Mc Quaid
08:01 Aug 24, 2022

Hello! Thanks for reading. :) Hmm, a longer piece of work you say....I am looking for ideas for a TV pilot, haha. Glad the sense of place shone through, it's vital to the story. I appreciate your feedback!


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Michał Przywara
14:20 Aug 21, 2022

Great story! Lots of implied world-building here, and I love the harried sense to everything. They're tired beyond shock. No doubt if they survive these will be wounds they carry for ever, but for now maybe it makes it easier to focus on getting to the next day. The "mobile oasis" is a neat take on the prompt, and there's something curious going on with the girl's peeing. Twice now, it seems, it's saved her life and even the lives of others. A sixth sense? A lucky coincidence? Maybe a deeper message about ignoring our natural impulses being...


H L Mc Quaid
08:37 Aug 22, 2022

Thanks, Michal! It's like you can read my mind. ;). Background: There's a civil war in the US, brought on by a climate catastrophe and extreme ideologies, where different factions are fighting for natural resources. The girl does have some incredibly strong intuition--I'd imagined she escaped the first missile strike coincidentally but adrenaline etc. have amped up her senses. And yes, there's a recurring theme of water (H2O, urine, sweat) which represents Nature and smoke which stands for Technology. The conflict, or result of the confl...


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Seán Mc Nicholl
22:47 Aug 20, 2022

Great story Heather, serious tension in this! I loved the diversity of the bus, all seeking refuge, as though a microcosm of the city left behind. Don’t know if these were typos or intentional: On the bus - “I had to pee,” the girl says. Ruby and Nazima look at her, perplexed. **was that meant to be ‘have’? It’s followed by two “I have to pee”. Or is her peeing in some way linked to the rockets?? And Yo driver. I gotta go too. Probably everybody do.” *** “everybody does”? Great story though, really enjoyed reading it!


H L Mc Quaid
08:57 Aug 21, 2022

Hi Sean! Thanks very much for reading. Glad you thought it was tense and enjoyed it. Quick answer to your questions. They were intentional. The "probably everybody do" is vernacular English, most often associated with Black culture in the US. The first one is more complicated. The girl says, "I had to pee" in response to the man talking about (the unspoken horror of) what happened on I-80. What I was intending to communicate is the reason she escaped from being killed by the missiles was that she was off in the bush, doing her business. ...


Seán Mc Nicholl
09:35 Aug 21, 2022

That says a lot more about me as a reader than it does about the story! Re-reading it it’s a lot clearer. Sorry!


H L Mc Quaid
09:47 Aug 21, 2022

Others had the same reaction, so I'm pretty sure it's the story, not the readers. :) I"m thinking of maybe adding, in his flashblack, that he sees the girl walking back to the road.


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H L Mc Quaid
15:05 Aug 30, 2022

Another experiment...Write a story using only concrete words. I got close. Makes for a different type of narrative, for sure.


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14:52 Aug 27, 2022

Uhhhh. Great story i guess? Because everyone else is saying it. IMO it was a little boring and bland. Lots of description and stuff but no plot and conflict. The climax left me a little underwhelmed, but great story?


H L Mc Quaid
16:00 Aug 27, 2022

Thanks for the great critique, I guess?


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