Well, this is the final installment of this story. Thanks for reading thus far. Please forgive the length of this one; I decided to just post it instead of breaking it into yet another installment. This last part is much darker, but after all, this is not the end of the story: it is the beginning. I will pick up with Edward “the Squid” Morrison again on the other side.
There was a storm brewing. For days now, they could see clouds seething in the south, thunder rumbling distantly, like a monster that was slowly wakening. It seemed to be growing, creeping ever so slowly towards them.
Harlow had become an unfriendly place for Edward. The other residents barely spoke to him now and the men worked together on the other cisterns, leaving Edward’s half finished.
Edward did not worry about this—he did not need their approval—but what did worry him was Sean. The boy was spending more and more time outside, staring off in the distance. Edward knew he was watching for his parents. He was becoming paler and had developed a cough.
Several days after Edward had gone to his last committee meeting, he was walking along route B180, back towards his old house. The afterglow of sunset was fading to black when a car drove down the road towards him, headlights glaring. It was the first working car he had seen in almost a month. It stopped and the window went down, revealing a woman wearing a diagnostics headset and stylish clothes.
“Evening, crackerjack,” she said. “I thought this whole space was blitzoid. You the only one around here?”
“There’s a whole town of us, back there in Harlow,” Edward said. “You come from Cambridge?”
“Yeah, that much you know.” She took her silk-gloved hands off the wheel. “You do know about the storm coming? The gee-sees all show the radiation as being right up there. A regular slam-bang.”
“Is it any safer in Cambridge?” Edward asked.
“We have some deep cellars, but we’re probably all well snuffed together, you and us. Once it gets into the drinking water and we’re all swilling fallout cocktails, well…” She shrugged—what-are-you-gonna-do? “I came down on a scouting mission, looking for clues of its trajectory.”
A thought flashed through Edward’s head. This was his one chance. “Can you do me a favor? I have children at my house—orphans. Take some of them with you, if you can. I don’t want to, but I can’t take care of them all.”
The woman frowned, as if thinking. “Let me see them,” she said finally. “Hop in.”
The woman introduced herself as Hestia Wolfe. As they drove back to town, she showed him her e-device, with news and images from around the world, including pictures of the devastation of London. There was already a remnant of the UN that was trying to stagger back. The US capital had been moved to Denver. Wales had been untouched by the missiles, but decimated by fallout. The list of tragedies and triumphs went on and on, weighted heavily on the side of tragedy.
“We’re fortune-kissed to be in this area,” Hestia said. “The winds didn’t bring much our way—until now, it seems.”
Hestia met the children and they had dinner together. The kids had made a concoction of corn and pinto beans, with jellied cranberries on the side. Hestia complimented them on their skill and even had seconds. After the meal, she took Edward out onto the porch.
“I can take the four youngest ones,” she said. “Let me see: Ernesto, Kaveh, Cala, and Lalasa. Two boys and two girls. I’ll be able to find them good homes. They’re all relatively healthy and I know of a few families who will welcome them.”
“Will you sell them?” Edward asked.
“I will find them good homes,” Hestia repeated. “Money—or goods, I should say—will change hands, but that’s how the world works, you know? I’m not a human trafficker, if that’s what you mean.”
“I’d ask you to take Sean, but I don’t think he’d go. I’m worried about him.”
“I wouldn’t take him anyway,” Hestia said. “He looks pretty hacked up—sick, that is. I can’t take the risk.”
They went back in and Edward told the kids what was going to happen. They took it much better than Edward had expected. None of them clamored to go or begged to stay behind. Life had hit them with so much pain and uncertainty that the possible positives and negatives of going to Cambridge cancelled out into a dull neutral. Cala sat on Edward’s lap and cried a little, but when he told her to go get packed, she went upstairs with Lalasa without complaining. Hestia left with the four chosen kids thirty minutes later. Edward watched them go but no one waved good bye.
It was not until the next day that the house felt emptier. Hugo began to fight more with Meredith. Portia and Hazel retreated into their room and would not come out all day. Sean stood on the porch, looking flushed. Edward found him there in the evening, his legs curled against his chest, eyes glazed. His skin was on fire.
No, not him too. All Edward could think of was the shock of Ramya’s cold cheek against his hand. It couldn’t happen again. Edward put Sean to bed, got his gun, and went to the Crawfords’ house.
Nikola opened the door a crack when he knocked. She immediately tried to slam it shut again, but Edward stuck the butt of the rifle in the gap and forced the door open.
“For God’s sake, Edward, what do you want now?” Her voice was dull, but her eyes flashed with hate.
“Sean’s sick. I need you to come treat him, or at least give me some medicine. Please,” he added.
Nikola looked at him and then stepped forward and very deliberately spat on his shirt. “I wouldn’t treat you or any of your mud-grubbing pack of rat bastards to save my life,” she said. She spoke slowly, enunciating every word.
Eight-year-old Trav Crawford appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. Before Nikola could react, Edward strode towards him and pointed the rifle at his head. “Not to save your life, eh? How about his life? Is his life worth a bit of medicine to save my boy?”
Trav gave a small shriek and started to run towards his mother, but Edward pushed him back. Nikola was staring at him, frozen and pale. “Don’t hurt him,” she said softly. “Tell me the symptoms. I’ll tell you how to treat him, if you can.”
Edward described Sean’s condition to her. She went upstairs and came back with several small boxes of pills. Edward stayed behind with Trav.
“I can’t guarantee this will work,” she said, after she had told him how to give it to Sean. “Please, if he dies, don’t come take it out on us.”
“We’ll see,” Edward said. “Come on, Trav; you’re walking me to the door.”
Edward started to walk backwards towards the front door, holding Trav in front of him. Nikola gave a cry and leapt towards her son. Edward pointed the gun at her. At that moment, something hit him in the back. He slammed the butt of the rifle backwards, feeling it strike something solid. The gun went off and Nikola fell back, an expanding red hole in her blouse. Behind him, Noah Crawford lay on the floor, next to the piece of wood he had used to hit Edward. Edward left, quickly.
He ran all the way home, intent on getting back to Sean and unable to process what had happened. He had just killed someone—a mother, in front of her son. It had been an accident, of course, but it had still happened. He couldn’t think of it now.
He gave Sean the medicine as Nikola had instructed him. Then he set Portia and Hazel to watch him. He was just going downstairs when he heard a shot and a bullet ripped through the front door.
“Squid! Get out here, Squid!” He peeked out the side of the front window. Noah was standing in the street, holding Kaine Bowlery’s rifle. Kaine, Heston and few of the other men were standing nearby.
Edward opened the front door and stood to one side. “Go home, Noah. It was an accident. Just get out of here.”
“You killed my wife, you bastard!” Noah screamed and fired another shot through the doorway. “I’ll kill you. I’ll rip your guts out.”
Edward looked around. Where were Hugo and Meredith? The others were upstairs, but if a stray shot hit one of them…
“This is your last chance, Noah. I didn’t mean to shoot Nikola. It was an accident and I’m sorry, but don’t you dare fire that when my kids are around.”
“Your kids? You pointed a gun at my son’s head. You shot my wife!”
Edward stepped into the doorway and raised the rifle. He felt a bullet whiz by him and he fired. Noah fell to the ground.
Before anyone could react, Edward rushed out and grabbed the other rifle. Noah was not moving—the bullet had gone through his neck. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said.
Kaine Bowlery held out his hands and when he spoke, his voice shook. “Please, Eddie. We don’t want any trouble. Just go. Leave us in peace.”
“I can’t,” Edward said. “I have to stay here, for Sean. Take him and bury him. Then, go home.” They picked up the body and left without a word.
Over the next week, Sean was slowly restored to health. One evening, he and Edward were looking out the south window. Far away, the storm clouds still rolled and boiled, but they had not come any closer
“Aren’t they moving?” Sean asked. “I’ve never heard of a storm that didn’t move. Does that mean we’re safe?”
“No,” Edward said. “There’s no such thing as safe anymore. I don’t know what will happen, but that’s the world we live in now.”
They continued to watch the storm, as around them the darkness grew.
Time passed and they struggled on, against hunger, sickness, against the other residents of the town that gradually became known as Free Frall. Sickness ravaged the survivors, eating away at their numbers. The town began to decay and decline, as did its residents, until they were little more than ghosts, creeping forth at dusk to scrape out a miserable existence from the blighted earth.
Hugo died the first winter and a year later, Hazel. Edward buried them away from the house and with each death, he became more and more the Squid. Portia left four years later to join a group of wanderers and returned a year later to take Meredith with her, who was only eleven. Edward let them go. Then, it was only he and Sean.
One night, close to dawn, Edward returned home to find Sean gone. It took a week of searching for Edward to finally accept that he was not coming back and his transformation to the Squid was complete. He went out and stabbed the first person he met. He buried the body and tried to forget he had ever known anyone named Sean, or Portia, or Meredith, or even Ramya. The memories brought too much pain.
And so, Edward Morrison lived as the unofficial king of the decaying residential area known as Free Frall. They called him the Squid, and he liked it.
(continued in the story Saturday 4am)