Authors: Jonathan Maas
F L A R E
BY JONATHAN MAAS
This is a novel by Jonathan Maas based on a story by Jonathan Maas and David C. Keith. WGA Reg #1771831 and Library of Congress Reg # pending.
Copyright © 2015 Jonathan Maas
All rights reserved.
This is dedicated to James Maas Sr. You taught
us to dream big, and to keep thinking of ways
to make those dreams happen.
Too many to thank, but you know who you are
Zeke saw two eyes gleaming at him in the moonlight, and they looked like they belonged to a coyote, or maybe a feral dog. The creature was in the distance, perhaps a hundred feet away, backlit by the moon and sitting behind its own shadow. The moon was so bright now that the shadows it cast were long and distinct, and from the pointy-eared silhouette, Zeke could tell that the animal was some sort of canine.
Zeke looked up at the white-hot moon and guessed that he had two hours of dark left. He glanced back at the creature and it was on the move, too small to be a coyote and too slinky to be a feral dog. The animal was too big to be a cat, but cats had been on Zeke’s mind quite a bit lately and they stayed on his mind after the creature had disappeared from view.
Zeke saw five cats another hundred feet from where the creature had stood. They weren’t hiding in the shadows but sitting with an arrogant calm in the street, as if the night would continue forever. Cats had found a way to survive this thing, and they always found a place to hide before the sun came up, always. Zeke had made the mistake of gauging nightfall from cats once before, and was never going to do it again. Two weeks ago, he had assumed the time was somewhere around midnight because a group of cats were out drinking freely from a sewage drain, and there was no place in their vicinity to hide. Yet on that night it had actually been sometime around twenty minutes to sunrise; ten minutes later the cats had disappeared, and Zeke had felt the first burning rays of the morning sun. He had panicked and looked around desperately for shelter, but finding none he tried to find a way to
. He had to come up with a solution quickly, and he had to do it without looking towards the sunrise for fear that he would be blinded, so he had taken a hammer from his tool belt and pried open a sewer grate and crawled inside.
That was a tough day,
he thought with a smile.
He laughed at his close call in retrospect but did so with a bit of fear, because he had come within inches of dying in that sewer pipe, staying just a strip of light away from being burnt. If the sun’s angle had been just a bit deeper, if his shelter had been just a bit more shallow, that sewer pipe would have been his coffin. It would have held his melted body forever.
But it didn’t, and Zeke had survived the daylight, though just barely. The sun had come close to him, just missing his toes in the morning and then once again at noon, sneaking in through the cracks in the ceiling that let in light from above. He had stayed up the entire day, sleepless for fear that he’d be cooked.
I survived, though by the smallest of margins. But what happened to the cats? Where did they go that day
Where do they go every day?
Zeke laughed to himself, because he knew he had more important things to figure out. He needed to find shelter before the sun came, shelter big enough to accommodate his oversized frame, and the mystery of the cats would have to wait.
Some things have survived the flare.
You don’t know how, and you may never know. The creatures sense the sunrise and then crawl into a space that you can’t, so don’t pay any attention to them, and don’t depend on any more housecats to predict the dawn.
Zeke’s sense of time wasn’t as good as the animals’, but it was getting pretty sharp, and he was confident that he still had two hours before the sun rose. Still, he kept himself to a set of rules when he traveled. When he felt there was three hours of darkness to go, he’d start looking for shelter. Once he found it, he’d look for a secondary option in case the first one failed. Another hour and he’d find a good dark place to squat, and lock himself in if he could. He didn’t fear anyone coming in once the sun came up, because that was impossible, but he did fear the wind blowing the door open and bringing in the light to kill him in his sleep.
He chided himself for thinking about cats and not finding shelter already, so he began his search in earnest. He heard some human noises just up ahead and went to inspect them.
He saw that there was a storm drain under the ground, and a few people were living there, laughing and joking around a fire. They were safe and their underground shelter would protect them from the sun, but Zeke thought twice about going down to join them. There were safe places all around but they were always taken, then stolen, and then stolen again. He knew that these people had to be rough to inhabit such a perfect storm drain, and he knew that they wouldn’t hesitate to take everything he owned and kick him out naked into the world. He might be able to stow himself away in their shelter if he really needed to, but he knew that could be dangerous. He could hide, but if they found him, they would not be kind.
I’m away from the city, but that doesn’t mean I can take chances. This is a small town whose name was forgotten long ago, washed away by squatters like these, coming and going, fighting and then claiming their own space. I don’t know who lives here now, and I can’t take the risk.
Zeke hated passing up a good spot like this but knew the potential for disaster was all too real, and he moved on. As he walked away he looked up at the white-hot moon and knew that in a few hours it would be replaced by something that was stronger than the people in the storm drain, and fiercer than the people he had left in the city.
And yet … the sun is a singular threat, and it’s predictable.
Every morning it rises and every evening it disappears. People aren’t always as lethal, but they’re unpredictable. They might be kind, but they can also steal your clothes in your sleep and leave you to burn in the sun.
Zeke still took note of the storm drain, though. He didn’t trust these people but he knew that in these times options were always necessary, even if they entailed stowing away amongst people who wanted you dead.
Ten minutes later Zeke found a body, a man still in his business suit, and Zeke figured that he had probably perished on the first day of the flare. The man’s body and face were unrecognizable, but the bulk of his corpse still held weight.
The flare burns off your outer layer,
then preserves the rest for eternity.
Zeke knelt by the man and said a quick prayer, and decided to give him a proper send off. Nightfall was running short, but he knew that he wouldn’t pass this way again and that it would be undignified to leave this man in the street, unmourned and splayed out like roadkill.
He searched the man’s body for anything that could identify him, and finding nothing, dragged him to a dried-out tree by the side of the road. Zeke took a few branches from the tree and laid them over the man, and then gathered branches from a tree twenty feet away and added them on top of the body until there was a decent pyre. The flare had put a lot of dry kindling on the ground, and a wildfire was the last thing the world needed, so Zeke gathered rocks to help control the flames. He piled the stones tightly around the pyre so the fire wouldn’t spread, even if he let it burn unattended.
Zeke looked at the man’s face.
This man was once a child, probably fell in love, got into fights, and experienced suffering and joy.
His life was something, and it needs to be celebrated.
Zeke thought of how the man’s life should have ended, with a funeral thirty years hence, attended by descendants, friends and loved ones. This man would never get to have that funeral, and his descendants, friends and loved ones had most likely perished along with him. Zeke decided to mourn the man by concentrating on the sadness of a life and identity stolen from him by the flare, of the tragedy of the man’s life now gone and wasted, and then of the man’s loved ones who might still be alive. He reasoned there had to be at least one person out there who had somehow survived and now missed this man. Zeke thought of that individual and felt sympathy for them, wherever they were.
Zeke allowed himself to feel sad for a few moments longer, then took a lighter from his pocket and lit the kindling, which caught fire immediately. With dried muscle and sinew snapping and popping through the flames, Zeke left the fire behind him.
While walking away from the pyre he saw a small bit of movement and noticed it was the creature he had seen earlier. It wasn’t a coyote, and it wasn’t a cat either. It looked like a coyote the
of a cat, and it seemed to be waiting for Zeke and beckoning him to follow.
Zeke decided to follow it, though he swore to himself that he wouldn’t end up in a sewer pipe this time.
The creature stayed just on the periphery of his vision, and it was headed towards a large house on the corner. The house had thick walls and its windows were boarded up perfectly, and this gave Zeke pause. He knew that this house was built to withstand the flare, but it might hold the same type of people he had encountered in the subway.
He still wanted to check it out though, because houses weren’t like sewer pipes and they definitely weren’t like storm drains. You could always hide in a house, even with twenty people living in it. As long as it had a closet, Zeke could hide in it, and even if the twenty people found him, they’d always let him stay until night came again. Squatters were hesitant to piss a housemate off, even one they didn’t like. An intruder in a house could always punch through a wall or tear down a window covering and kill everyone inside. Guys in storm drains were bold, but squatters in houses always had a lot to lose, and if they found you they’d usually let you stay as long as you behaved, and then kick you out after nightfall.
Zeke followed the creature to the house and saw it crawl under the floor boards, through a space too small for Zeke to even think about getting through. He was a big man, and his heavy clothes and bulky backpack made him even bigger.
Zeke wanted to enter but decided against breaking into the house. He still had an hour and a half before sunrise and didn’t want to punish whoever lived in there by breaking their doors open. Even if it was abandoned, he knew better than to smash a window, even a single one.
Just a bit of sun will do bad things.
Even a shaft of light can kill, and one broken window could make the whole house useless. And if I’m in there and accidentally open my eyes …
Zeke found an unlocked door in the back, entered, and closed the door tightly behind him, noticing its handle was loose. There would be a few shafts of light shining through the cracks of this door, but Zeke could hide around the corner and he’d be fine.
No one boards up their house this well and then leaves a door handle loose.
Someone must have broken in here at one point.
The house was immaculate,
but immaculate, and Zeke deduced that the original owner still lived here. Squatters never kept a clean house.
Zeke didn’t want to find a squatter, or even the owner. He was tired and wanted to go to sleep early so he could wake up before the next sunset, and then perhaps eat a meal in peace. He found a large walk-in closet in a boarded-up room far from the back door, and within the walk-in closet was a shelving unit covered with rolls of carpet. Zeke liked this. The carpet wouldn’t protect him from the sun, but he could hide under there in case anyone came in.
Zeke took the rolls of carpet and spread them over his body and backpack, with the rough edge of the carpet facing outwards. The inside was soft against his skin and he knew he would fall asleep easily. He loved closets like this, and guessed that he could stay here a week before anyone would notice.
He dreamt murkily of his time in the city, right after the flare had begun. He didn’t know where in the city he was, only that it was dark, and that the sun was far away. He felt danger all around him however, and heard voices from the distance, some that were angry and some that appeared to be in pain. He wanted to help but couldn’t move; he was trapped by both the darkness and the arbitrary rules of dreams. There were sounds of a fight, and then …
. Terrible screaming.
He awoke to find himself still in the closet, in a place just as dark but without the screaming, and without the danger. He thought back to his dream and wondered how he could be in a place so devoid of light after the flare had begun—
I was dreaming of my time in the subway. I was sheltered there with thousands of others, perhaps millions. It was protected from the sun, but dangerous in every other way.
Zeke scratched his beard, sat up and thought back to that time, remembering how the subways had no electricity, light or facilities of any kind because the flare had burned out the city’s circuitry.
The danger arose during my second night there. The masses that huddled on the platforms turned into a mob when the food from a kiosk ran out, and in the day’s darkness they assembled themselves into groups. I remember the first fight, the first murder, and the first realization that there would be no repercussions for the perpetrators of either
Zeke remembered the fights getting worse, with the sounds of violence soon echoing through the darkness at all times. He tried to help, but couldn’t because it was too dark. He escaped through the subway tunnels, but gangs were lurking there too, preying upon whomever they sensed was in their way, and when he did reach another station, the situation was just as dire.