I’ve recently had the pleasure of being asked by John Birmingham to participate in a new apocalypse series. The writing started immediately. Here is a context and spoiler-free sample; all I’ll say is that this is a world where everything has gone wrong.
A world where a life isn’t worth a dozen eggs.
Sample, Jason Lambright
Cathy Elliot looked at the mud in her chicken pen with loathing. The sorry so-and-so had been in her pen again, another one of her prized Australorps was gone. The black hen she called Happy. All that remained was a few feathers and those damn size eleven sneaker prints in the chicken shit and mud. At this rate she wouldn’t have a damn chicken left at the end of the month.
Her lips set in a thin, colorless line as she collected eggs from the remaining hens. Her rooster, Wyoming, scratched and strutted obliviously at her feet. She addressed him.
“Where the hell were you when that so-and-so took Happy, you stupid little rascal?”
He cocked his head and looked up at her. Then he pecked at the ground. Her remaining hens clucked and pecked, one of them shat upon the ground. Cathy shook her head. She felt herself grow nauseous and hot, she wanted to scream.
She didn’t, because no-one would hear. Cathy lived all by herself at the end of a country lane. The nearest village held a few hundred souls, from time to time she would sell eggs to friends. Two dollars per dozen. Even with the emergency, the Crud, she hadn’t raised her rates. Her customers were her friends, she wouldn’t dream of cheating them.
Lately though, she had felt uneasy walking to town with her bag. People were shut up indoors with fear, she had felt the eyes on her as she walked by. Dogs barking made her jump, and she knew her eggs were growing more valuable by the day. The local stores hadn’t had any for a week, her real organic and free range eggs weren’t a luxury anymore. They were a necessity.
And some sorry fellow, no woman had a size eleven shoe, was stealing and probably killing her friends. Her lovely fat hens. She was down to twelve, plus Wyoming the rooster. She had the black Australorps. There were Easter Eggers, too, they were her green and blue egg layers. A few Red Stars pecked about, and a Rock was the boss lady. Finally there were the meek Orpingtons, her best mamas when she felt like allowing them to brood. She loved the little peeps that would emerge from the shells, it was always a surprise what sort of mutt chicken would grow from the pairing of Wyoming with some random hen.
Her chickens were her work and her companions.
And now some jerk was taking them, one by one.
She had dealt with a lot in her day. A faithless, drunken husband who met an early end. Her late mother’s Alzheimer’s. Foxes and weasels, human and otherwise. Hawks. Disease. Cathy had faced them all, and here she stood. She closed the gate of the pen and walked into her tumbledown old Victorian, eggs in the basket. She ascended the porch steps and opened the door, a brilliant ray of sunlight shone through the tall windows onto the hardwood floor. Her cat Meows stood to greet her and rubbed against her legs. She shuffled to the kitchen; she placed the precious eggs on the chipped and stained countertop. She reached into a bag of kibble, grabbed a handful and put it into Mr. Meows’ bowl.
He purred and nudged her hand aside.
“Well, you’d think I’d never’a fed you, Mr. Meows.”
As usual, he said nothing.
She reached up and brushed a gray lock from her face. She jutted her jaw forward and thought. That son of a gun, she thought. I’ll fix him.
Cathy opened the door to the basement with a creak. She reached into the maw of the staircase and put her hand in the tricky spot where the switch was. She flipped it on. An ancient incandescent light bulb flared to life. She walked down the steps and turned to the left, toward her father’s old workspace.
Even after all these years, she still missed him. The smell of wood dust on his clothes, mixed in with cigarette smoke. The cigarettes that had killed him, when the Germans couldn’t. She hummed a little tune as she took the keys from her pocket and selected a small brass one for the metal cabinet in the corner.
She stuck the key in the lock and turned it, she smelled sweet and sharp 3-and-1 oil. Another of her father’s smells. Her eyes watered. Was it because she missed Happy, or because of her father’s ghost? She didn’t know. She reached in the cabinet and selected a long rifle with a dark walnut stock.
Cathy pulled the string hanging above the workbench, another light came on. She opened the rifle’s bolt by turning it counter-clockwise and to the rear. She laid it in the vise on the bench. She heard her father’s voice.
He crinkled his eyes, but he didn’t smile. “Cathy, there is no such thing as an unloaded gun. Always check.”
In the present, Cathy ran her finger along the open receiver and looked in the magazine and at the breech. No bullets.
Her father held up his finger. “Your rifle is a tool. If you don’t take care of it, it will fail you when you need it most.”
Cathy got an oily rag, she squirted some machine oil on it and rubbed the exposed metal parts down. She noted the words SPRINGFIELD ARMORY and 169117 on the receiver, and RIA 06-19 on the barrel. It was an old, old rifle. Her father had used it for deer, she didn’t know where he had gotten it. When she was done she reached into the cabinet and grabbed a brown cardboard box, it was falling apart.
The box was labeled .30 M1 BALL. Above, in her father’s handwriting was “.30/06.” Cathy read it and pronounced it like her dad. “Thirty-aught-six.” She selected five dull yellow bullets, they were not moldy, she checked. One by one she inserted them into the magazine. She thumbed them in with a series of clicks.
“Five should do it,” she murmured. She ran the bolt forward, flipped the lever on the back of the bolt to safe, and carried the doughboy’s old weapon upstairs. She propped it in a corner and made some dandelion tea.
And then she waited. The day lengthened, she sat by an open window, rising only to empty her bladder. As twilight approached, she fetched the Springfield. She grabbed a rolled-up mat and placed it on the dining room table, then she laid the dark rifle upon it. She peed one more time. Then she sat behind the rifle, got comfortable, and began her vigil.
She could see the coop very well as the evening shadows lengthened. She waited. It grew pitch black, but her eyes adjusted and she could see a bit. Her bladder began to fill again, but she stayed still. If you twitch, she told herself, the rabbits will see you. And she wanted this rabbit very, very much.
The hours passed. She really needed to pee, and she fought to keep hers eyes open. Would he come again tonight, or would he wait a week, his belly fat with poor Happy? The thought gave her a small surge of energy as the fury burned in her core. And then she saw it.
Movement. It was so dark she thought she imagined it at first, a shifting of shadows and a faint rustle. The distinct creek of her pen’s gate. The silhouette of a man who had no business in her chicken pen. The man who lined up with her rifle’s sights as it rested upon the mat.
She breathed in, moved the sights just so, and squeezed the trigger.
BAM. She cried out. Her thumb, laid over the comb of the stock, had smashed into her nose with the recoil. The .30/06 wasn’t a rabbit bullet. The noise was much louder than she expected, she hadn’t fired the old Springfield in decades. And finally, she wasn’t the only one making noise.
She was blinded by a bloom in her night vision, the rifle’s flash had lit up everything for a split second. Cathy’s aim was true.
She heard a choking out in the yard. Gagging. Flailing about, like a gutted steer. She put her hand to her mouth and bit it. I am my father’s daughter she thought, unbidden. She stifled a scream. The gurgling out in the grass continued.
Her father spoke to her once more, and then he was silent. “Can’t leave him to suffer, Cath.”
The smell of the ancient cordite burned her nose. She picked up the Springfield and racked the bolt back. The empty casing flew out of the chamber, she racked a fresh bullet in. Her vision had recovered somewhat, she saw a struggling form in front of the coop. He moaned and croaked.
Cathy shot him again.
This time he was quiet.
And that, readers, was it for now. Stay tuned for the latest news and developments, and I hope to get the entire work to you soon!