Welcome back to Abby the Hero.
I had originally intended to end the story here – four parts, that seemed to be more than enough time to share Abby’s story. The thing is, stories often have minds of their own, and protagonists minds of their own. Combine the two and you encounter a scenario that you never quite counted on. It’s a pleasant occurrence when it does happen, but you never really know how to plan for it.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So here we are. Obviously, this is something of a flashback-via-video-recording. I think flashbacks in short stories can be a fine line to tread – you’re already trying to only fit the relevant information in, so you’d better make damn sure that the information you’re sharing is relevant. Thankfully, this time the trail of breadcrumbs for this particular story leads here, and the trail continues on past the flashback and into the present, where Abby gets her last revelation in Part 5.
Apologies for the length on this one; believe it or not, this is a slightly abbreviated version. There’s just too much to tell in this flashback, and I’ve sliced it as thin to the bone as I dare without compromising the vision. As usual, the full version will be presented sometime in the near future.
On with the tale…
Abby had not been a child of the Cold War; in fact, the concept had been dead for close to a decade by the time she joined the world, but she had read enough books and seen enough videos to understand what rocketed into the sky before her. One movie in particular jumped out at her now. She had stumbled across it late one night on YouTube and hadn’t been able to click away, fascinated by people going about their lives right at the end of the world. The people in that movie had seen missiles fly into the air just like the ones that rose into the sky before her (okay, not exactly like this, she thought, the effects had been really cheesy). They’d said it could only mean one thing: the Russians would fire back.
Abby racked her brain. This couldn’t be the Russians, would it? She wished she had paid more attention to the news videos online; she had seen something about a crisis in the Middle East, but ignored it. Didn’t they always have some sort of crisis going on?
So, no, maybe not the Russians, but she sure as hell didn’t count on those missiles going out without something coming back. Something very, very nasty.
Daniel spoke up in her ear, and she came back to the moment. “Abby, you still there? You shouldn’t ought to talk like that – “
Abby seized the camera from its position on the fallen log and lifted it toward the sky, following the missiles’ arc. “You see that?”
“I see it. What is it, though?”
She tucked the camera under her arm and ran for her scooter. “It’s the end of the world, Daniel. You run and tell mom and dad, tell them what you saw, tell them that they fired the missiles and you all need to get into the cellar as soon as you can.”
Daniel went quiet for a few seconds, and when he spoke again, his voice cracked. It couldn’t be easy for the 11-year-old. “What about you?”
She stowed the camera in a leather bag on the back of the scooter and pulled the helmet off of the handlebars. “I’ve got my scooter. I’ll worry about me, you worry about the family, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Scrabbling sounds came from the other end of the phone; no doubt Daniel getting up from the computer and heading for the cellar door. “I wanna keep you on the phone, is that all right?” he said.
She turned the ignition key. “You know I can’t talk and ride. You just go on ahead and get everybody. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Isn’t more than a five-minute drive.”
“Okay,” Daniel said, panic and terror palpable in his voice.
She wished she could be there to comfort him. “It’ll be okay.”
“Okay,” he repeated, and the line went dead.
She stowed the phone in her pocket, kicking out the kickstand. She leaned forward and squeezed the throttle, willing her little red scooter to pull from its reserves, going as fast as it possibly could. The machine topped out around 30 MPH, and she knew she’d need every bit of it to get back home as quickly as she could.
The dirt road that took her out of the countryside jolted the scooter, nearly throwing her a few times, but she held as steady as she could, relying on the skills that she’d honed over years of driving her father’s ATV over these same back roads.
The road wound downward toward the valley between this ridge and the one where her family lived, the curves adding an extra layer of difficulty to her flight. On a normal day she wouldn’t exceed 15 MPH on these roads, but the imminent threat of destruction pushed her forward, commanded her to go faster, to keep it steady and handle it as well as she could.
After what seemed an eternity, she reached the bottom of the dirt road, the scooter jolting as it hit the pavement that intersected the dirt road. She eased off of the speed, allowing her just enough time to wrench the scooter to the left, onto the open paved road. Once she’d straightened, she opened the throttle up again, her eyes trained on the dissipating vapor trails in the sky.
She felt the phone vibrating in her pocket. She tried to ignore it – desperately wanted to ignore it. She lowered her head and focused only on the road, counting off the moments in her head, but each vibration against her hip shook her soul. What if Daniel hadn’t gotten the family down below? What if he’d frozen up?
Sighing, she took her right hand from the handlebar, sliding the phone from her pocket.
The number belonged to her father’s cell. She felt a pang of guilt seeing it, but she also knew that they had gotten the news, one way or another. More than anything she wanted to answer and tell him that she was okay, but she couldn’t answer with the helmet on anyway. She thumbed the phone off and stowed it once again. She’d be there in less than a minute, anyway; she now saw their house outlined in the distance, their driveway within yards of the scooter.
Then she spotted something else: a small form that emerged from the bushes at the side of the road, waving its thin little arms at her.
Daniel. What was he doing out here? She ground her teeth and squeezed the brake, slowing to a stop just before him.
The pale, dark-haired boy rushed toward the scooter, his blue eyes wide with terror.
She straightened up, flipping up the visor on her helmet. “What are you doing? I told you to get everybody in the cellar.”
He gasped, out of breath. He must have run full-tilt from the house down to the road. “I did just like you told me, I promise, but I couldn’t leave you out here.”
Oh, God. She knew her brother worshipped the ground she walked on, but this was too far. “You can’t do that. You need to be down there with them.” She scanned the sky, though she knew she’d never see the missiles before they struck. “Why didn’t Mom and Dad come after you?”
He produced a brass key from his pocket. “Because I closed the cellar and locked it so they couldn’t get out.”
Abby felt nauseated. “Give me that key right now.”
He hung his head and handed it over. “I just wanted all of you to be safe.”
“Christ almighty,” she said, and shook her head. “All right, get on. It isn’t safe, but I don’t guess anything is safe right now.”
Daniel smiled despite the circumstances. Any other time and this would have made his day. To ride with Abby on the scooter? Well, it just didn’t get any finer.
She slid forward, out of the seat, and half-squatted. It was uncomfortable, but it would have to do. Her brother climbed up behind her, wrapping his hands around her stomach.
She lowered the visor. “Now hold on,” she said, and goosed the accelerator once, making sure that he really had a solid grip. Satisfied, she pulled off, turning onto the long drive that led up to their house.
They rode in silence; she felt Daniel’s heavy breathing behind her, the tension in his body just on the edge of panic. At last they reached the top of the ridge and she brought them to a halt where the drive stopped, right before the front door. Daniel hopped off and she followed, grabbing her leather bag. She didn’t even bother with the kickstand, running for the back yard as the scooter crashed to the hard surface.
Daniel raced ahead of her, rounding the corner of the house. He had just passed the first ground-floor window when he lurched, his foot disappearing into a hole in the ground. He screamed and fell forward, seemingly in slow motion. Abby’s stomach wrenched as a sickening snap, like a cracking branch, filled the air. She cried out and ran for him, kneeling down next to him, unable to tear her eyes from the place where his ankle jutted out at a strange angle.
She winced, tears springing up in the corner of her eyes.
He moaned. “Sis, I can’t…”
“Shh. It’s going to be all right,” she said, and paused, raising her head, her ears zeroing in on a peculiar sound from the back yard: a heavy, metallic thumping sound. She realized it would be Mom, Dad, and Paula trying to get out of the cellar. “Stay here. I’m going to be right back, okay?”
He nodded, but didn’t say a word.
She ran for the back yard, fishing the brass key from her pocket. Once she reached the cellar door she bent down, jamming the key in and twisting it around as quickly as she could. As soon as it had come unlocked, her father, mother, and sister exploded up out of the cellar, their eyes nearly as wild as Daniel’s had appeared on the road.
Her father reached the top of the stairs, his large body towering over, equal parts anger and fear written on his leathery red face. “Where the hell is your brother?”
She motioned toward the side of the house. “I tried to get him here, but he twisted his ankle up in one of those gopher holes. I think he broke it.”
“Oh, god, Mose, I told you…” her mother said, one hand to her mouth.
He held up one hand. “Not a word.” He had always been able to move fast for a big man, and he did doubly so here, disappearing around the side of the house before she had even registered him moving.
The family; as they did, Paula met her gaze. “Is it true? The end of the world, I mean,” she said, her cheekbones sunken, her eyes dark.
“I wouldn’t lie about something like this.” It was all she would say, and it would have to do for now. Daniel deserved their focus right now; if he didn’t make it, none of this mattered.
They found her father bent over Daniel, examining the ankle. He nodded, lowering his head. “It’s broken, all right.” He put a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “Son, I’m going to have to pick you up.”
Daniel didn’t say anything; Abby guessed he might be in too much pain. At least she knew he wouldn’t fight.
The big man knelt down and slid his arms under Daniel’s body, one under his back and the other under his thighs, and picked him up, lifting him crosswise and laying him against his left side. His head lolled over their father’s left shoulder, coming to rest against his cheek.
Their father turned. “Come on, let’s get down there. Can’t be much longer now.”
They didn’t need to hear another word. Her father’s word was law, and in this case the law was good to them. Paula led them, sprinting ahead and racing down the stairs without so much as a glance backward. Their mother came next, walking backwards, fussing with Daniel.
“For God’s sake, leave him alone, woman,” her father said at last.
“He’s my baby, I can worry if I want.”
“Just get down those stairs,” he said.
She obeyed, taking the stairs slowly and glancing backwards as she did so, leaving just the three of them outside.
Abby and her father gazed at each other for a moment as they paused at the lip of the door. At last, he spoke. “You saved our lives, pumpkin. I love you.”
She didn’t know what to say. She would have hugged him, but she didn’t want to hurt Daniel. Instead, she just stepped to one side, letting her father – and Daniel – go first down the stairs. Daniel opened his eyes for a moment, looking over their shoulders toward the horizon.
The flash of light went off behind her back, casting their shadows in relief on the back side of the house. Daniel cried out, squeezing his eyes shut moments before he – and their father – descended the stairs, two at a time.
Abby recovered from her momentary shock and began to follow them, but only moments too late. The ground rumbled and quaked, slamming the cellar door shut.
“No,” she cried out, but it was lost in a roar louder than anything she had heard in her life. She dropped to her knees, reaching for the door handle, but she knew she had no hope. Only moments later a hot, powerful wind picked her up, scorching her skin as it lifted her into the air, threw her toward the side of the house. She pinwheeled her burning arms in a futile effort to grab hold of anything that might slow her progress.
Failing that, she closed her eyes and steadied herself, readying for the pain when she hit the house. God, it seemed, had some mercy for her, as everything went dark moments before contact.
Tears. Abby realized she hadn’t felt tears in so long, but they streamed down her face now. She dabbed at her cheeks, pulling away her hand and looking at the moisture on them. When had she last been able to cry? Her memory didn’t offer any clues.
As she stared at her skin, she realized that she could better see her hands, an orange glow touching her flesh. She raised her head, looking in the direction of the light’s source, unsure what to think.
As she looked toward the opposite corner of the basement, toward where the shelves stood silent vigil and now a candle burned, Daniel spoke.
Read the conclusion here.