Chapter Two, Part One
"Warning. Warning. Shield capacity at five percent. Please seek shelter immediately. Thank you."
Well, at least the robotic voice was courteous, I thought as I scrambled over the collapsed remains of dilapidated houses. So far during our journey from Black Tongue Caverns, the cool voice had announced the remaining power of my shield periodically with no set pattern to the reminders. Once it had reached ten percent, the warnings became more frequent to the point of annoyance.
"Five percent!" I relayed anxiously to my father.
"Nearly there," Dad responded calmly, leading me past a crooked mailbox and up a sand-covered driveway.
Miraculously, a single house, roughly the size of a small mansion, stood mostly intact directly ahead of us. All around this miracle home, other houses lay in smoldering ruins like scattered Jenga blocks set ablaze by an angry, pyromaniac child. Sand partly concealed the skeletons of several parked cars, and broken fences littered what used to be freshly mown lawns. Overturned furniture covered in bed sheets loomed like specters nearby, surrounding us with their eerie presence. I was shocked that the Forsaken had not looted this area yet. Maybe they weren't fans of chesterfield sofas and drop-leaf tables.
The remaining house had naturally fallen into ill repair. Wind and dust had violently snatched away tiles from the roof and deposited them all across the sand-infested yard. Concentrated sunlight had stained the exterior so much that it was impossible to make out the original color. To add to the discoloration, lashing rain had chipped away the paint while brown moss scuttled along the front of the building, reaching out with herbaceous tentacles that concealed several windows and parts of the roof. Wooden planks covered some of the shattered windows haphazardly and most of the porch had been stripped away during a storm. The house looked deserted and dead, a corpse among a graveyard of a neighborhood and the perfect temporary home for us.
My father stormed up the small flight of steps leading up to the broken porch and the front door. He gave the door handle a couple of tugs, but of course, it didn't budge. I quickly discovered a shattered window that wasn't completely boarded up next to a dangling shutter. I squeezed into a gap just wide enough for me to fit, avoiding broken glass shards and splintered wood. I stood up in a cramped room leading to a larger trapezoid shaped room. Stained glass windows in the front door reflected the sunlight in an array of colors, ranging from scarlet red to periwinkle blue. I retrieved my flashlight, clicked it on, and proceeded forward slowly. My father trailed after me, discharger pistol in hand, after struggling to make his way inside due to his bulk. He had created a larger gap in the window by knocking out more of the glass.
Our shoes echoed loudly in the empty, dark hall. A mixture of urine and something stale, like mold, reached my nostrils. We moved into darkness and out of the reach of the sun's fatal grasp. I powered off my shield immediately, and my father did the same. I watched as an aura of shimmering purple light, humming with crackles of electricity, faded to oblivion.
Three rooms twisted away from the entrance hall. My father and I performed a quick sweep of all of them, ensuring that we were alone here. One of the rooms had caved in, and we had to be careful to avoid areas outside of the barrier that darkness provided us.
The house was humid and stiflingly warm. My every breath felt like I was inhaling fire. With one hand, I unwrapped the scarf from around my face and neck. A thicket of blond-brown curls emerged and dropped to my shoulders as sweat bubbled up along my forehead. I ran my hand through my mane after stowing my scarf in my pack, and my hand got stuck, trapped among brambles of hair strands coated with grime. I felt gross, having not showered in days. Baths were a luxury out here in the wilds that we usually could not afford.
A drawing room held furniture covered in cobwebs. Antique chairs, lamps, and end tables resembled specters in the dull glow of my flashlight. Several sweeps around the drawing room and we didn't find anything of interest except for a half-smashed window looking out into the golden sunlight that used to look so inviting. There was also a fireplace with an intricate mirror hanging above it. The fireplace was boarded up, and the mirror was coated with many layers of dust.
We found nothing in the dining room except for a long oak table that could seat twenty people comfortably and a cracked chandelier dangling dangerously above the table. The kitchen was also uninteresting other than containing a dumbwaiter that I wanted to ride, but my father insisted that I didn't.
"No food," my father grumbled, tearing open the cabinets to find nothing but dust.
"We have enough rations to last for a few more weeks," I reminded him, unable to tear my eyes away from the dumbwaiter. It was funny how the small things fascinated me sometimes. When you had been away from civilization as long as we had, stupid stuff like dumbwaiters had a strange way of reminding you that you had a home once upon a time, a home where your father would allow you to ride a dumbwaiter up and down like a seesaw for fun.
"This is weird," my father muttered mostly to himself.
"What?" I asked. He had finally perked up my interest enough to cause me turn away from the dumbwaiter.
"If the Forsaken raided this place, why did they leave so much junk behind?" Dad wondered. He was always wondering about things. "They could've used this wood for fuel or something. This doesn't make sense."
"We can never know how a bandit thinks, if they think at all," I told him. "They seem driven purely by instincts and not logic to me. They're not like us at all."
"But they used to be." It was my father's turn to remind me of something. "Don't you ever forget that, Tesla. And for all we know, they could still be like us. The world has changed, and they have changed with it."
We exited the kitchen and moved back into the main hall, heading up the stairs to finish our sweep. We emerged into a second floor corridor that was as humid and warm as the lower level. Moorish arches created a circular hallway and closed doors leading to various rooms were spaced at uneven intervals. Hideous mayonnaise-colored wallpaper concealed the walls, and a narrow stairway part way down the corridor guided visitors up to an attic.
We checked every bedroom, bathroom, and closet thoroughly. In the third bedroom, we found a possible answer to the mystery that had troubled my father downstairs in the kitchen.
My father entered the room first, his pistol leading the way. Immediately, he froze and then quickly tried to back out of the room. But I had already pushed past him, flashlight held high in case we needed light. The golden beam fell upon a bed in the middle of the room, and a harrowing sight met my eyes.
My father wrapped his arms around me and steered me back into the hallway. But he had reacted too late, and the image had burned a semi-permanent imprint into my mind. I would certainly be haunted by the image occasionally because a person could not unsee something so terrible.
A couple had lain in a bed, their mummified bodies fused together in places. How long had they been dead? In the few seconds inside the room, I had noticed stacks of empty canned goods and other trash thrown all over the floor. The stench had melted my nose hairs. Urine, feces, rotten food, and decayed flesh were a toxic combination.
I shoved the rising vomit back down my throat with one huge gulping swallow. My father continued to guide me away from the chamber of despair. He didn't release me until we had reached another closed door. Leaving me in the corridor this time and motioning for me not to follow him, he opened the door and stepped inside. When he returned, I told him, "I'm okay."
"I know, but I don't-"
"Do you think they had lived in that bedroom until their food stocks had run out?"
My father hesitated, staring down at the floor. He=is face sported a pained expression. "I suppose so."
"They didn't look like bandits."
"Not everyone outside of Bubbles are bandits," Dad reminded me.
"I know that, but I had always thought that bad people had been left behind when the Bubbles were created. They seemed like good people."
Again, my father hesitated. I knew my father wanted to protect me as much as possible from the horrors of life, but that was a daunting task nowadays. It was easy to ignore bad things when you lived a good life inside the Bubble.
"Not everyone managed to travel to a Bubble settlement," my father explained. "You have to understand that when the sun changed on us, we didn't understand its weaknesses at first. It took days to learn that traveling at night was a safer alternative, albeit with a completely different adversary. Most people were afraid to leave their homes, fearing the lingering effects of the sun even after it had set. It took even longer to develop personal shields manipulated from Bubble technology. We searched for survivors who had not joined the Forsaken clans, but by then most of them had already died."
"You told me that there were invitations." I was at it again, attacking my father for something beyond his control. "What about the invitations? You all had suspected that the sun had turned on us. That was why the Bubbles had been created in the first place. You knew, and it doesn't seem like you exhausted everything in your power to help people."
"We did, Tesla. I promise you, we did, but some people didn't heed our warnings. They were trapped out here after it was too late, and we couldn't help them."
"One of them was a child. They didn't deserve to die."
"I know that, but we had people - good people - who risked their lives to save those who were lost. We saved some of them, but we couldn't save them all. We couldn't . . . ."
His voice trailed off. For a long while, we stood there in complete silence. I don't know why I felt sorry for people I had never met.
"You remind me so much of your mother."
I was beyond stunned. My father had chosen the most inappropriate moment to mention my mother.
"She would have reacted the same way," he quickly added.
I was unsure if I should accept my father's compliment or hate him for his poor timing.
He swept me up into a sudden embrace, and I allowed it. Head pressed tightly against his chest, I blinked away tears that wanted to fall freely from my glistening eyes. His fingers stroked my hair, and even in the midst of breaking down, I hoped his hand did not get stuck. "You even have your mother's hair," my father said quietly, as if reminiscing about time spent with my mother. "Sadly, it has to go. You know that, right?"
I tore myself away from him like ripping off a band-aid. "What do you mean?" I demanded. Sure, my hair was filthy, but that did not mean that my father had to get rid of it.
"We need to cut it very short," he told me simply. I tried to find humor in his voice, but he was not joking. "If we're ever discovered by the Forsaken, and we definitely came very close to that happening tonight, I would lose you. I can't allow that to happen. We need to get rid of your hair."