I stood by the empty riverbed, watching and waiting, trying not to fall asleep standing up. Birds screeched overhead, swooping in circles, as if they knew something I didn’t.
“You all right, Devad?” the man to my right asked. Nain, his name was. A scout of sorts. He was short and stout with a thick northern accent.
“She’ll be here soon. I hope you’re ready.”
I shivered in response – my badly patched trousers and woollen top were no match for the morning chill. Still, waiting for whatever came next was better than tending to the animals. At fourteen, and as the second son, I was supposed to embrace our hardworking life. Much to Mother’s disappointment, I had not yet done so.
* Winner of the 2020 Story of the Year Award *
It was easier than I thought to teach Albert to run up the grandfather clock on command but much harder to get him to come down again at a decent speed.
“Don’t overthink it,” I coaxed, as the mouse scurried along the split pediment at the top and peered over the edge to the almost straight drop to the floor. “Just run. There will be cheese for you at the end of this.”
The mouse stood up on his haunches and wrinkled his nose, whiskers twitching with dismay. “I don’t care for cheese,” he said. “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times.”
“And I don’t care for this attitude. When I send you out the window with my message for help, I need to know you’ll be able to get down before any alarms go off. If you’re captured and poisoned, I’ll be trapped, and you’ll be just another dead rodent. I’ve spent months on your training …”
Albert’s cheek pouches bulged with anger. “Is that what I am? Just another pest to kick away once I’ve served my purpose?”
Bree lay on the ground, head aching, as they talked over her. She hated those pious cows. Why had they brought her outside? She wanted another bottle of vodka, not rescuing.
“I’m still not sure why you’re doing it,” said Denna Kinjiun, the resident elderly busy-body, talking to someone Bree couldn’t see.
“I know,” that someone replied. Ann Teranu, cast in much in the same mould as her friend Denna. “But what else have we got but work and hoping the sun still rises?”
Their voices were like thunder in Bree’s head. “Don’t want the sun to rise,” she mumbled. If the sun didn’t rise so much, they wouldn’t be living under a dome in one of the new deserts, for God’s sake.
Ann bent down and glared at her. “We made you coffee. It might improve your mood.” She placed a mug on the ground, just out of Bree’s reach.
Screw fake instant coffee. She didn’t want anything.
“It’s a good start, I suppose,” Denna said.
The coastal road between Southport and Ainsdale is edged by sand dunes, covered in long rough grasses that look like hair. Cars rush past at sixty miles an hour, headlights glaring, stereos blaring.
I walk home on the seaward side of the road, traversing the dunes as clocks tick past midnight. It feels like I am walking on the spine of a massive sleeping dog that’s waiting out the years until humanity disappears.
The journey is long, and I’m wearing a short black dress and denim jacket – more suitable for dancing than walking in below-zero temperatures. I really should’ve waited for a cab instead of thinking I could get home on foot. This route was not meant for pedestrians. I blame the wine I drank and the water I didn’t. At least I chose flat shoes over heels.
Aside from the cold, I like walking under this black-gold sky. I get caught up watching the stars instead of where I’m going. I’ve never seen anyone on this side of the coast road before, and I begin to wonder why.
Then the ground starts moving.
My daughter’s imaginary friend most likely came about because of loneliness, I surmised. It was all my fault. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to matter too much as she played under the slide on the eighth level of Kastak Island. She laughed and chattered away. So what if her friend wasn’t really there?
We’d been living on Kastak for two months. It was a research lab for robotics and analytics that towered above the sea off the coast of England, where it had been purpose-built away from all the overcrowding. Construction was not quite finished, but I’d pleaded for the chance to start my new data job early, along with some others who were more involved in the setup side of things. My daughter and I were among the first families to arrive, though I’d been told that many more were to follow.
The balcony Dana played on was half-way up the tower. Gardens were spread across the levels, but this was the only outside space aimed at the employees’ children. It was nothing special, with only a swing, slide and climbing frame, but we treasured being alone out there – no one else seemed to enjoy the brisk outdoors so early in the mornings. Dana played, while I leaned against the balcony wall, relishing the sea breeze.
The entire complex was a refuge as much as a home. Until the note came.