Zeke-Chapter 1

Zeke left their cavern home earlier than usual that day, early enough that the air was still chilly and the bay covered with thick fog. He skipped breakfast so he could start out while the day was new and Da looked at him quizzically, an eyebrow raised. But he asked no questions. If Zeke didn’t want to eat, then that just meant that they would have food for another day.

Alice was eating some soupy mush straight from the can, her eyes hollow. Every once in a while, her eyes would dart to where Ma lay in bed, then she would return her gaze to the cavern walls. Zeke gave one glance then looked away. He hated seeing his ma with sunken cheeks, a gaping mouth, bones of her skull apparent through skin that was sallow and weak, her hair thin and ragged. She was dying, the radiation finally eating right through her, and there wasn’t a damn thing any of the rest of them could do.

The cave they’d made home was well hidden, its mouth almost entirely covered by a screen of brush. It came out in a narrow valley that was choked by reddish brown porous rocks and yellowed weeds and trees. To the southeast stretched the bay, though it couldn’t really be seen through the sheen of vapor. There was also the corpse of a town, though Zeke could only see the rooftops from this lofty perch. It had once been called Sausalito, though he only knew that because of the road signs.

That was where he was supposed to be going, to search for whatever little bits of machinery or food he could pull together. But he’d made enough time that he’d make his way down to Sausalito later on, after the day had worn on a little. For now, he moved south, hiking up a steep hill. At the crest, he ducked down and moved low through the bare covering of brush and trees. There were other scavengers about, ones that weren’t like his family. The others burned and pillaged and killed for their supplies. They’d much sooner kill him than leave him be, and he wasn’t looking for a shootout. Even still, he paused at the crest of the ridge and felt his messenger bag, just to make sure he still had his revolver and a box of ammo. He did have them, thankfully, as well a bottle of ruddy water he’d gotten during the last rain and a single paperback book.

As he descended the other side of the hill, he caught his first sight of it. The city rose out of the cloying fog, its broken skyscrapers watching over the land like the turrets and spires of some mystical castle. Zeke had never been there, but he’d heard stories. New Frisco was the rebirth of a nation, the last place in the whole world that stood for safety, for order. Others had told him it was man’s pride taken form, that it was the past and would lead them all to their collective dooms.

But Zeke new better than all of them. It wasn’t America, a land that had burned away almost a century ago in atomic fire, and it wasn’t the coming sign of a new holocaust. It was Camelot, a land of fantasies, right out of the stories. When he found a secluded spot where he could look out over the city, he pulled out the paperback from his bag. It was The Once and Future King, By T. H. White. He’d been taught to read by his da—taught, in fact, to treasure books. And The Once and Future King was Zeke’s favorite.

He read for a little while, looking out over the foggy city every few pages. As time passed, the vapors began to burn in the rising heat of day and the air lost its chill. Down below, he could see the ragged outline of the skyscrapers, their gaping, glassless windows and twisted metal frames, the most prominent being the strange jagged obelisk near the western shore of New Frisco.

Just down the hill was a shifting highway. It had once led across the Golden Gate Bridge. Now it ended in a crumbling cliff. All that remained of the bridge were the two support towers that had once held aloft the massive suspension wires, one of which still dangled in a massive fray of metallic thread. Both of the towers were mottled with rust.

Da told him stories about the Golden Gate Bridge, and how it had stood firm for eighty years after the war. Twenty years ago, it finally gave out. “I remember when it came down,” Da had told him. “I didn’t see it, but I heard it. It was like the loudest gunshot I’d ever heard, echoing through the hills. Just a few seconds later, there was another shot, just the same, then another. Found out later, it was the vertical suspension wires. They were all worn down, so it only took one finally breaking like a thread pulled too tight and the rest started popping. Next, I heard a sound like wrenching metal, the sound of it scraping and squealing. I guess that was the road surface finally pulling free of the metal struts, and the whole damn bridge fell right into the mouth of the bay.”

That had been in the days when Sausalito had been a town in its own right with the Golden Gate the main way to get to New Frisco. When the bridge went down, a whole caravan of traders had gone down with it, and who knew how many travelers. Without the bridge, Sausalito had died a slow death of emaciation. No bridge meant no caravans. No caravans meant no town. And no town meant no protection from the swarms of scavengers and raiders. Further past the bridge towers, even past the skyscrapers and the hills of the city, Zeke could see the other bridge that connected New Frisco to the world: the Bay Bridge.

Zeke guessed that if someone wanted over bad enough, he might try swimming the mouth of the bay, but three things always rang in his head when this thought came to him. The first was how bitterly cold it would be. The second was the riptide. Da said that it would be bad enough down there to sweep a man out to the ocean like he was little more than a piece of cordwood. Finally, there was the radiation. It might not be too bad here, where the ocean water met bay water and mixed together, but the whole area was mildly radioactive since the war and the water was the worst of it. He heard the words of his father, clear as the sky above. “Don’t go in the Bay Zeke. Not ever. Not unless you’d be fine with coming out with a third arm or a tumor the size of a stone.”

He realized with a start that he’d stayed later than he should. The book was open in his hands, but he hadn’t been reading it for some time. He gathered himself and took only one final look back over his shoulder, at the city that seemed to shimmer across the infinite gap of the bay, the city that would always be Camelot in his mind.

It was only as he neared the top of the hill—the place where he invariably ducked low to avoid detection—that he caught the errant smell of burning tinged with something…sickly sweet. Then he saw it, the rising of black smoke in the valley where his family made their home.

Without thought, he rose and bounded down the hillside. He saw it at once, a black smear of smoke rising from the dry screen of brush that had always hidden their place of refuge. The flames were catching elsewhere in the valley, spreading amidst the dry scraggly weeds with a measure of ferocity. But it was obvious from the intensity of the flame that their home had been the start of it.

As a hollow numbness spread through his stomach, he wondered first if his family had gotten out. “Da! Ma! Alice!” he called towards the flaming cavern. There was no reply. That sickly smell tugged at his memory and he fought against the way it turned his stomach and made him have to take a hard swallow. How could it have happened, Zeke wondered. They only started a fire at night and only in the very furthest corner, where the smoke would be driven up into the porous rocks and where the fire couldn’t possibly reach the screen.

Then he saw white pages fluttering against the face of the stone hill. There were books there, in the flames, though he only recognized them now because of the few pages that had escaped. They’d been torn up and used for kindling. Even now, he could see blackened pages curling into themselves, gone forever.

The smell clicked into place and suddenly his nausea was too much for him. It was the smell of burning flesh.

He doubled over and retched into the brush. A maddening thought filled his head, Thank God I didn’t eat this morning. He kept retching for a moment, his stomach spasming violently. He just couldn’t get that alien smell out of his nose, the one that made him think of cooking dog meat over an open flame. He scrambled across the valley floor, avoiding places where the fire was spreading, his eyes streaming and his nose running.

He’d gotten maybe thirty feet from the cave which had been his home when a voice shouted from behind, “We got a live one!” There was raucous laughter and the echoing sound of a gunshot. The dirt a few feet ahead of him suddenly plumed up.

Zeke pulled himself to his feet, even though his legs felt watery and he couldn’t see a thing. All he felt was the animal urge to run, to flee. And he did. He ran as fast and hard as his legs would carry him, his messenger bag with its meager contents slapping madly against his leg.

By the time he stopped, he was on the craggy surface of what had once been a road. And before him, just to the northeast, was a sign for Alexander Avenue. Further down the road would be Sausalito. Where his father would have been scavenging.

He wiped at his face, trying to calm his racing heart. He’d find his da there, searching through the rubble of the abandoned town. Like always. And Alice would be with him. And ma would be too, feeling fine enough to want to see the city like she did before she got sick. They were all there, all fine. He started down the road, toward Sausalito. Toward his family.

But no matter how he tried to see it in his mind, he simply couldn’t bring himself to believe it.

To continue to chapter 2, click here.


  1. Nice, love that you screwed your main character right away :-)

  2. Started a little slow then built to something that sustained my interest and aroused my curiosity.