Vanishing Echoes

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Chapter 6

July 3, 2024

I dreamed often of Allie and Heather. It was always the same scenario of their abduction that replayed ad nauseam to insanity: I’m on the stairs as their cries, wailing angels thrust into the Underworld, echo from all sides, not just above as how reality had unfolded that dreadful night. Chase isn’t in the dream; no guilt lay on his soul. The walls ooze black-green sludge, a visualization of their torment. I strain to race upstairs; my feet stick in the hot tar quicksand of each riser. Looking up with panic squeezing my heart, Heather’s bedroom door seems so distant, like peering through binoculars from the wrong end. A pale square is the only differentiation in the gloom. My legs cramp at my exertion, aching as if I’d run a thousand miles. The white outline up top reveals itself as a piece of paper with a circle, but I’m too far away. Up and up, muscles burning, breath laboring. Only after years of arduous climbing do I reach the landing to absorb the picture on my daughter’s door: a full moon with pock-marked craters, a mechanical insect that may have been a rover, and an American Flag. Deep howling from beyond that wood panel ignited an inferno inside my breast, but with each step I take, the door recedes farther and farther, compressing smaller and smaller. I was out of breath, but never out of hope of reaching them. My sore lungs freeze. Pressure builds to an uncompromising level behind the fracturing dam of my eye sockets. My heart aches with bottomless emptiness, as if after painful crying. I scream their names, but my arid throat issues little more than a pathetic croak that even I can barely hear in the vacuum of my dreamscape. But my legs keep pumping and churning, pistons for an engine that remains idle.

My eyes opened and as I lay unmoving, blinking several times to gain my bearings, the empty ache in my chest manifested from my dream. Rolling over, I found silvery tear streaks I’d wept while I dreamed and felt like I had cried ardently. I wiped my face on pillowcases stained by the faded cream of ancient skin.

Downstairs, I wished for coffee and settled for water. The bronze hue of sunrise and chirping birds serenaded me outside. At the far end of the property, a tranquil family of deer—a mother and two yearlings—grazed at the tree line. Mother’s tail flicked, perhaps from the annoyance of insistent, buzzing gnats, and her laser sight scanned the distance while her nose twitched, searching for deleterious scents. The fawns’ black eyes absorbed the beautiful world without question or compromise, much as I remembered the bear cubs less than two weeks prior.

Again, I marveled at just how life on Earth didn’t require us to thrive. If one thought superficially deep enough, humanity was a parasite to the treasure of a habitable planet. We were expendable, significant only as far as our own arrogance disillusioned us. If humans wiped each other out, grass would grow luscious, flowers would bloom in rainbow brilliance, and animals would procreate and prance, no longer fearing some cowardly hominid stalking through the woods with a curious dark staff that spits thunder and fire, curdling their blood and blasting half of their skulls off for the sheer thrill of it.

“Hello?” A breezy voice called from the side of the house.

My search for the source of that mellifluous sound led me toward the front where a young, grimy woman limped, favoring her right ankle. A pained, exhausted scowl twisted her intrinsically beautiful face into an ugly and unapproachable disguise. She halted when I appeared around the shingles. Self-consciously and innately feeling insulted rather than understanding her experiences dictated her reaction, I pushed those negative feelings down below my knees.

“Oh, thank God.”

I approached her slowly, as one would any injured and skeptical creature, curious to learn what ailed her beyond her sprained or fractured ankle. “Are you okay?”

She pointed to the house. Inside.

I took her elbow and assisted her to a kitchen chair. Closing the door to prevent uninvited guests from sauntering in as the experience with Mama Bear continually reminded me, I fetched water and insisted she accept it by nudging it against her fisted hand until the fingers opened and she clasped it. “I’m Gus.”

“Faith.” She smiled up at me, her lively blue eyes thanking my persistence. She uncapped and upended the bottle, plainly dehydrated.

I marveled at her youthful beauty, but lowered my gaze down at the floor shamefully for my healthy attraction to Faith’s involuntary femininity, but which my wife didn’t arouse.

“Mommy?”

Faith turned to the soft voice at the kitchen threshold; her face’s miserable despair softened into resurrected jubilation. “Oh, baby.” She plucked Vicky up, hugging, kissing, and squeezing her daughter against her body.

I noticed Chase frowning as he approached, crossing the living room.

“Where did you find her?”

“A convenience store. What happened?”

Faith closed her eyes and cradled Vicky’s head with a hand full of lacerations and bruises, swaying to a tuneless serenade where her physical pain dissipated by the flood of natural endorphins from relief, the reality of an answered prayer at a second chance, and the reversal of a certain tragedy. A flare of grief surfaced so fast in a sedimentary frown, then disappeared, and I wondered if I’d only imagined it. I considered that maybe in order to exorcise the despair of never seeing her child again permanently, that feeling needed to breach her surface.

I envied their reunion as the hope of reuniting with Allie and Heather depleted a little more each day, and felt so ashamed at the intense hatred I felt for Faith’s good fortune and witnessing her most glorious moment that my fists curled up like threatened pill bugs.

“A truck pulled over while we were walking on the side of the road and three men jumped out and took me in the back. They drove away and just left Vicky alone. I was kicking and screaming, but I couldn’t . . .” she closed her eyes and shook her head, her voice shattering like fine crystal as the tangible memory refreshed the horrors psychologically and her body responded physiologically. Tears streamed down her cheeks, stuttering down to her jawline like an indecisive rodent darting across a highway.

“Mommy?”

“Yeah, baby?”

“I’m hungry.”

“Okay.”

I quickly prepared a stingy meal comprising peanut butter jelly sandwiches. Chase entered, stood at the threshold with his arms folded.

“Hi, Chase. This is Vicky’s mother, Faith.”

“Hi, Chase,” Faith said, bouncing Vicky on her lap.

“Hi.”

“Mommy, I can’t eat on your lap.”

“I know, baby. Just let Mommy hold you a little longer.”

Staring at Vicky, I thought about children’s resiliency. An obvious defense mechanism from primitive times when kids would witness wild beasts eviscerating their parents and other tribal members and must move forward in life rather than allow grief to paralyze them, but knowing the psychology behind the phenomenon didn’t diminish its amazement.

I detected a queer smell. “Smell that? Like something’s burning?”

Chase looked baffled. “What kind of truck was it?”

“Pickup.”

“Where’d they take you?”

Faith shrugged. “Some barn, but they blindfolded me.”

Chase asked, “How long were you held captive?”

“Don’t grill the poor woman, son. I’m sure she’s been through enough as it is.”

Shrugging, “It’s okay, Gus. I dunno . . . maybe a week or two. It was awful. They kept me locked in a cage. The barn reeked of dung and filthy hay. Oh, baby, I was so worried, I’d never see you again.” She clung tighter.

My ears perked when my name sprang from her lips.

“Mom-my. Can’t breathe.

“I’m sorry. I’m just so happy, sweetie.” Faith set Vicky on a chair diagonal to her own.

My head bowed when she mentioned they’d kept her in a cage. She must’ve detected a change in my demeanor. “What?”

I shook my head.

Chase said, “People took my mom and sister weeks ago.”

“Oh, no.” She tilted her head empathetically.

“At least you got away,” Chase said, crossing the kitchen and opening a bottle of water while leaning against the sink.

“By the grace of God. Some creep was always watching me. They were so gross and reeked of BO. Missing teeth, red splotches on their shirts. I hope the stains were just ketchup.” Her eyes went glassy, shuddering at the memory. “Apparently, hygiene faded with the fall of civilization.”

I smirked.

“But this morning, I woke, and no one was guarding me. They never left me alone. The barn didn’t have any windows, so I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. I expected someone to come to watch me, but after, I’m not sure how long, I thought about escaping. I don’t even know what gave me the courage to try. If they saw me trying to escape . . . anyway, the square gaps in the wire cage were too strong to separate. But I slipped my hands through the wire and jiggled the lever this way and that, pushing and pulling, and it clacked so loud I froze, assuming they’d heard it.”

“That must’ve been quite a moment,” Chase said.

Faith nodded. “I was so shocked; paralyzed, really. I’d read somewhere that abused people can lose all confidence and self-esteem that sometimes they won’t try to escape even if there’s no chance of their captors catching them. I felt like that, as if afraid of the outside world. And I wasn’t a captive that long.” She shook her head, and I realized she didn’t understand that feeling. She continued, “After a minute when no one came running in, a voice inside yelled at me to run. It’s weird because I obeyed that order without thinking, and if I hadn’t heard that voice, I probably would’ve just sat in the cage, staring at the open gate. I peeked out the barn door and saw the soft blue light of early morning. The farmhouse was all dark, about twenty yards away, and as I ran toward the front, hunched at the waist. The entire time I expected to hear one of them shout at me or feel a bullet hit me in the back. I just kept running and when I twisted my ankle in a depression in the ground, I kept going. It hurt so bad, too, I don’t know who I continued running.”

“Wow,” I said dumbly and looked around self-consciously.

I caught Chase smirking and I laughed. “Shut up.”

Faith giggled at our laughter and met my eyes where I saw her confusion.

“You need to eat something too, Faith. We all should. PB and J good?” 

 “Snails sound delicious right now.”

 “Ew, Mommy.”

 We all laughed again.

—————————————

The Fourth of July was blistering. I remembered all the carefree, relaxing celebrations of previous Fourths with family and friends, enjoying barbeques, listening to ballgames, and drinking beers. We accepted the adjustment to tuna sandwiches and water.

Thunderous blasts and cracks punctuated the humid evening, making us all curious if we were hearing fireworks or gunshots. Probably both. I wondered if July Fourth would ever be the same. Perhaps we’d experience a new Independence Day sooner than we expected.

We lounged on Adirondack chairs beneath a purple velvet firmament flecked with icy chips that may harbor of distant worlds as bombs exploded with intermittent rainbow flares. All that remained of the exiled day was a pink-orange band at the farthest reaches of the western horizon, seen through the black shadowed pine boughs. Inhaling the faintest scents of gunpowder from gunfire or firecrackers, Faith, Chase, and I drank Southern Comfort and Vicky sipped apple juice filled a Disney sippy cup that belonged to the young girl who’d lived here before the pandemic. Boring days led me to snoop around and feeling like Columbo, I discovered the family that had lived here were the Weingartens—Bryan and Phyllis and their three children: nine-year-old twins Nicholas and Thomas, and five-year-old Alexis.

I realized this was the second consecutive day Chase drank, but given his response to my liquor store romping, I didn’t fear he’d develop an addiction. He was a disciplined kid, but I worried more about him missing out on life’s most precious experiences: his first car, high school graduation, college life, his first love, perhaps (his first, I thought facetiously and equally somberly) marriage and children. Who knew what his life would be like in ten years if things devolved further?

Many detonations continued echoing in the distance, sans colorful blooms lighting the heavens. I rose onto wobbly legs to satisfy a natural urge and required the help of an imaginary porter to direct my staggered gait into the house before face planting onto the lawn. I realized I’d reached my threshold for my alcohol intake for the rest of the night. Duplicitous linoleum tiles mocked every step through the kitchen, and I felt myself swaying like a demonic pendulum over a bed of spikes.

Later in the night, Chase experienced his first alcohol-induced regurgitation session where he fertilized the grass and then, when it was safe to transfer him inside, clung to the frosty commode, vowing to the moonshine gods never to drink again. The tide of my inebriation ebbed by then, and Faith and I patted and rubbed his back with compassion. Afterward, we laughed and welcomed him into the Ignorant Adolescent’s Club.

“Ugh. Never drinking again,” He said, returning outside, spitting out tart bile that stretched to his lip.

Faith handed him water from the pile of bottles she suggested we set out to keep us hydrated and an alternative to liquor. “See?”

I put my hands up in a surrendering gesture. In response to Chase’s statement, I asked, “Now, where have I heard that before?”

“Heard what? Heard what?” Vicky asked, bouncing with overfatigued enthusiasm.

Faith and I laughed. The night wound down shortly thereafter. It’s amazing how a lack of technology and electricity readjusts one’s circadian rhythm back to a healthier, more natural schedule.

When Vicky’s head dipped onto her chest, Faith made to carry her inside. I took her in my arms—once more reminded of Heather as a toddler—and Faith trailed me upstairs, carrying the stuffed tiger Vicky had named Kitty. Together we tucked Vicky in Alexis’s bed, snuggling Kitty within her soporific embrace. Faith tucked the blanket up to her chin.

Closing the door to just a crack, Faith whispered, “Thank you for taking care of my baby. I died inside when I thought I’d never see her face again and stopped carrying what happened to me.” Her voice cracked.

I empathized completely and embraced her, more out of my own mourning than simply offering her emotional support, which I was doing, too. I believe more than anything that it was that shared grief that guided us to my bed and not simple lust, even though her grief had been relieved. But how could I deny that our natural animal instincts held some complicity in the matter?

Outside the adjacent room that I’d been sleeping in, I whispered, “You need to sleep, too. I’m going to sleep downstairs.”

Faith kissed me and pulled me into the room and onto the bed. It would be a lie if I said I didn’t want it, but I honestly wasn’t expecting to sleep with her. Nor did I fight her when she began undressing me. I saw Allie’s face in my mind before we started making love, though I was present in the moment with Faith until my shuddering climax. Afterward, we talked about our lives before the pandemic obliterated much of the world. Or so it seemed before all news platforms went off the air.

“How long will we be safe here?”

I shrugged in the darkness. “Dunno, but eventually someone will stumble upon this house, seeking food or shelter or supplies. Our best defense is those trees blocking the house. But the driveway entrance is the biggest announcement of the house’s presence.”

“But where would we go? I mean, are we going to just wander the Earth forever?”

“No. I don’t think so. But is any house going to be safe? Probably not. Gangs of bandits are normal now. There’s safety in numbers and people will erect communities, and civilization will start anew. Maybe the government will reassert itself, emerge from the silence like bears after hibernation. Or the military will establish some order, as scary as the worst-case scenario under a military regime would be. But the longer people defend themselves, the harder they’ll resist the formation of another government. Just amazes me how fast and how much one virus destroyed. Until you think about how countries experiment with viruses in government labs all the time, testing to see the limits of the strength of strains. But accidents happen and voila: deadly pandemic that brings humanity to its knees.”

“It didn’t help that people allowed others to divide them, for whatever reasons. Chaos feeds of division. Divide and conquer, right? Made us all vulnerable.”

“That’s true. And it’s not worth passing blame in hindsight. We’ll get back on our feet and hopefully learn something from this. Probably not, but I think we always must hold out some hope. Otherwise, why care about anything? If the president is alive, he’s probably holed up in some bunker, communicating with foreign governments—if he still has that capability—to get things back on track. At best, this will be a relatively temporary dismantling of society, and the survivors will positively change from it.”

“And at worst?”

“The end of modern times, a restart back to before the Industrial Revolution, where communities will farm to sustain themselves, and society and technology will take some time getting back up. Not that long, but we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, it seems people are loving this Old West survival.”

“I wonder what happened to the super-rich.”

“I dunno, but I have a feeling they’re doing just fine. This could’ve been the crisis they were waiting for, the infamous New World Order everyone was so afraid of if such a thing was ever truly a goal of the elites, beyond just a paranoid, projectionist conspiracy theory. Economists speculated for years that a handful of the richest billionaires devised a plan to depopulate the planet, and a pandemic performed beautifully as an example of our vulnerability. And the quality of healthcare is always worse for the poorest. I’m sure many people presumed a nefarious group that the elite funded manufactured the Aria Virus.”

“Is that what you really think?”

I considered Faith’s question for a moment. “No. I think a biological crisis occurred, and society messed up their response. But if there is a tiny group of elites who want to depopulate the world for their own means, they paid close attention to how the public handled this one. No. I think the entire world was just too complacent, assuming we were too advanced for anything to usurp us, especially a microscopic enemy.”

“Why? Do you think?”

I sighed. “Truthfully, I think it’s because our advanced tech spoiled us, made us all entitled, feeling superior to all previous civilizations. If things return to the way they were before, or we reestablish a new one eventually, people will get just as complacent and in denial, if not worse. For a while we’ll remember and teach our kids how bad this was, maybe for several generations before the impact erodes, softens our emotions when thinking about it, and the darkest rivers of our hearts flow unencumbered as they had to get us into this mess.”

“I hope not, but I won’t be here to see it. Now, didn’t you mention something about erecting communities?” She kissed my chest and seduced me with some nifty handiwork.

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