Originally published in Idle Ink
Richard carefully pulled into the dollar store’s parking lot. Like most places in town, it was deserted, yet littered with garbage. Crushed beer cans and broken bottles posed a danger to his tires, forcing him to park in a bare spot along the curb. He stepped out, sweating in the day’s heat, and did not bother to glance at the thing that loomed overhead.
The store’s windows were smashed, leaving holes big enough to fit several men. Richard used the door anyway. Inside, it was cleaner; the broken glass had been cleared away, and the shelves still stood in neat rows. They were almost empty, but he found most of what he was looking for amidst the odds and ends remaining. He located a dusty jar of sour cherries and some stale chocolates, then wandered to the cookware aisle.
There, Richard sifted through pie pans and tins until he found one that matched what he was looking for: exactly ten inches across and made from red ceramic. It was old and cracked, but it would do. After another half hour of searching for milk, he gave up and headed for the exit.
“Find everything you need?” asked a woman at the cash register. She was dressed in a bathrobe, with her gray hair pulled into a loose bun.
“Aah!” Richard stumbled as he turned abruptly towards the register. “I, uh, didn’t see you there.”
The woman had a wry smile. “Wondering what I’m doing here, on this beautiful day? I’ve worked this register since I was sixteen. Don’t see a reason to stop now.”
He fiddled with his wedding ring as she began bagging the groceries. A small TV had been carried into the store and set on the floor opposite the woman. It was playing an old news recording, showing a cluster of military drones taking off. Each one was branded with an American flag and carried a missile.
“Isn’t that the joint US-Russian mission from last week?” he asked. “The one to investigate the meteor’s path? I never heard what happened afterwards.”
“Hah! Sure is, but I’ve never heard of an investigative mission that needed that much firepower. If I remember right, the president said it was ‘inconclusive,’ but of course he’s disappeared with half the world’s leaders.” The woman snorted. “Nothing but radio silence from the top. If you ask me, their plan A failed, and we’ve been left out of plan B.”
Richard didn’t respond. What she said was true, but that didn’t mean he could do anything about it.
She pushed the last grocery bag towards him. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Do you have any milk?” he asked hopefully.
“Sorry, love. We’ve been cleaned out for weeks.”
“Ah. That’ll be it, then.” Richard reached for his wallet, but she waved him off.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m just here to help people find what they need, if we have it.”
He drove back. The shape in the sky was bigger now, casting a dark red haze over the roads. The heat was unbearable and permeated the air, turning every breath into a dusty taste in his mouth. On the side of the road a mother walked up and down with her wailing baby. She was thin; the child, even more so. Richard gave her the chocolates.
More wanderers milled around his neighborhood, and they turned to look with hollow eyes as Richard passed. Several had guns, and he was careful not to drive too slowly.
At last, he reached home.
Richard’s house was vast, far too large and lonely for one man, and he clutched the shopping bag tighter as he crossed the foyer to the kitchen. There, he spread his loot with the other supplies on the counter. A framed photograph hung on the wall, a Post-It note stuck to the glass, and Richard double-checked the recipe written upon the note before getting to work. The salt and sugar went into the flour, cut with butter until pea-sized clumps formed. He removed his wedding band before kneading water into the dough, forming it into disks to rest in the fridge as he made the filling.
Angry shouts broke out in the street, followed by shrieks of pain, a revving car engine, and a gunshot. Richard closed the curtains.
Sugar, salt, and cornstarch mixed with lemon juice, vanilla extract, and half the jar of sour cherries. He looked back at the picture on the wall. It showed a dinner table set for two, with an impressive spread of roast beef, baked potatoes, and buttered corn laid on the pale tablecloth. The diners were there, a man and woman seated at the table, but he forced himself to ignore their faces. Instead, he focused on the cherry pie featured in the center, baked golden brown in its red ceramic pan. Richard washed his own pan and layered a circle of dough over it. In went the filling, followed by a lattice of strips cut from the rest of the dough. He followed the pattern on the pie in the photo as he folded the bottom crust, crimping its edges to seal it closed. When he was done, the haze in the sky had brightened to a dirty orange.
A window shattered somewhere in the distance. He washed his hands and put the ring back on.
Richard went through his fridge. The milk jug was empty, though he already knew that. Still, it had its place next to the moldy bread and the carton holding a single egg. He liked it that way; at a glance, the fridge appeared normal, comfortably well stocked. It made him feel better. For now, though, he would have to borrow milk from a neighbor.
The noise in the streets had stopped, but he pulled his rifle from the closet before cracking the front door open. There was no sign of the earlier disturbance, but the house across the street had had its windows smashed in. That was where Mrs. Proust lived, a forgetful old widow who rarely locked up at night. Now a trail of blood trickled from the front door. It was ajar, like the lolling tongue of a decapitated head.
Richard decided to go through his back door. He crossed the yard to the McHenrys’ side, where Ralph McHenry was digging furiously. Ralph was a head taller than Richard, with limbs as thick as tree trunks. Sweat dripped off his bald scalp as he worked.
“Hey Ralph,” said Richard. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
The big man eyed him. “What do you want?”
“I was hoping to borrow some milk.” Richard held out his measuring cup.
“Milk is hard to come by these days, Rich. I’ve got my own family to take care of. Don’t know if we have much to spare.”
“Only need a little to finish my cherry pie, Ralph.” Richard shook the cup. “Just a tablespoon or two and I’ll be out of your hair.”
Ralph gripped his shovel tighter, but seemed to decide the trouble wasn’t worth it. He turned towards his cellar, the doors of which had been fortified with steel beams. “Julia!”
The cellar’s heavy doors swung open, and a girl with mousy brown hair poked her head out. “Yes, Father?”
“Fetch the milk carton, would you? Rich needs to borrow some.”
Richard watched Julia descend back into the cellar. The rest of the McHenrys’ backyard had been dug up, transformed into a barren field that had baked hard and brown in the heat. Next to Ralph was a pile of bricks, as well as a small wooden structure resembling a teepee frame.
“Nice little project you’ve got there,” Richard said, nodding at it. “What have you been up to?”
“Been digging a well,” Ralph grunted, and jerked his head towards the cellar. “We’re stocked up on bottled water in the bunker, but it’ll only last three months. Gonna need access to the groundwater after that.”
Richard raised his eyebrows. “You built a bunker? That must’ve been quite the undertaking.”
“Can’t be too careful these days. You heard the mob down the street, didn’t you?” Ralph gestured at the brick pile. “Got a good deal on cinder blocks right after they first found the meteor. Wife wasn’t happy, but it’ll be the best purchase we’ve ever made. Ain’t nothing or no one getting in our cellar now, not with all the fortifications I added.”
Richard nodded politely. He didn’t say anything about what he thought the meteor’s impact would do to the tiny well, or ask where the McHenrys would go once their supplies ran out.
“Here’s the milk,” said Julia, reappearing at her father’s side with a battered carton. She poured some into Richard’s cup, then retreated back to the cellar.
“Your daughter’s got a good head on her shoulders,” he said when she had left. “Calm in an emergency. That’ll keep you grounded when you most need it.”
“Aye,” Ralph agreed. “I’m counting my blessings.” He planted the shovel into the earth and squinted at the meteor in the sky. Richard followed his gaze. It looked twice as big as it had that morning.
“Well, I’ve got to get back to work,” said Ralph finally. “You take care, Rich.”
“Stay safe,” said Richard, as if they were talking about a snowstorm or a downed tree. Then he went back into his house.
Using the milk, he painted a glistening layer on the lattice crust, then sprinkled it with decorative sugar. He paid careful attention to the pie in the photo, adding or dusting off the colorful crystals until the two matched. At last, he slid the pie into the oven.
As it baked, he shaved and used the last of his hair wax to straighten his limp curls. His suit didn’t take long to find, hanging in the back of his scant closet. Once the pie had finished baking, Richard wrapped it in foil. After a moment’s thought, he pulled the photograph from its frame as well and pocketed it. Then he got into the car and set off.
The light of the burning meteor fell over the road in a brilliant glare. He was alone, his car the only one on the streets. No cyclists, wanderers, or even wildlife were visible. There was nothing but the asphalt and the orange sky, as if the fires of hell had already arrived and scorched everything clean.
He arrived at his destination, a derelict apartment building with dirty windows and paint peeling off the doors. Behind some of those windows, shadows danced; loud music blasted from somewhere, rattling the clouded panes. Others were deathly still, as if their inhabitants had already moved on. Richard, however, had his eyes set on one particular unit.
For a moment, he sat in the car and gazed at the sky, admiring the massive outline of the meteor that spanned the horizon. Then he checked his reflection in the mirror one last time, grabbed the pie, and walked up to unit #72. Richard steeled himself, staring at the faded gilt numbers. Then he knocked.
Nothing happened, but there was an odd stillness, as if someone on the other side was holding their breath. He knocked again and waited.
A shadow fell over the neighborhood. The meteor was close enough now that the craters and crags on its silhouette were prominent, like pimples on one’s face. Richard gave it a brief glance, then turned back and knocked patiently once more. This time, the door was flung open.
The woman in the doorway was unkempt, dressed in a torn white T-shirt and jeans with her hair tied in a sloppy bun. Her outfit and worry-lined face belied the look in her eyes, which were gray and hard as steel. She wore no makeup, but to Richard, she looked radiant as ever.
“What do you want?” Margaret snarled. She had a gun, and it was aimed at his chest.
He stared at her, feeling the rest of the world drop away. It was as if they were a young couple again, standing on the steps of their old apartment as they had the night he’d proposed. Time slowed to a crawl as he unwrapped the pie, letting its fresh-baked scent waft in the air.
“It’s been a while since you left,” he said. “I was thinking of you today.”
Margaret’s eyes widened as she recognized the pastry lattice that she had once taught him to make. She traced the pattern with her eyes and Richard knew she was remembering a time when it had been her hands guiding his along the crust, showing him how to shape the dough and seal the strips in. He could still see her thin fingers brushing the last coat of milk on, like an artist adding glaze to pottery.
Her face darkened and she began to close the door. “I can’t.”
“Come on!” Richard plastered the widest smile he could on his face. “Just a few minutes?”
“This isn’t the time. I’m not interested.”
He leaned forward, fighting to keep the desperation out of his voice. “Marge, you’re the love of my life. I just want to make things right between us.”
“Go home, Rich,” she said sadly, and began to close the door.
“Wait!” Richard pulled the photograph from his pocket. “I’m trying, Marge, I really am. Look, I recreated the pie exactly from the night you said yes. Down to the last detail.”
“That’s not-” Margaret began, then choked back the words. “This is the part you never got, okay? I don’t want you throwing insane amounts of effort into these over-the-top gestures. I never asked for them.”
“Then what do you want?” He gripped the pie pan so tightly that the chipped ceramic edges bit into his skin, drawing blood. “Tell me. Whatever it is, I’ll get it for you. I’ll make it with my own hands. Just tell me what to do!”
“Every time we fought, you’d do this,” she said, voice cracking. “You’d come up with all these flashy apologies, make yourself work and sweat and bleed, but why? You never really understood why I was hurting, you just went through the motions so I’d forgive you. Loving you is work, Richard. I’m tired of trying to explain myself, baring my entire soul out, to someone who’ll never get it. Just leave me alone.”
The door began to swing shut again, but Richard threw himself at her, blocking it with his body.
“No!” He was almost mad with anguish now. “Marge, give me another chance! I’ll do anything you want, I’d kill myself for you, just don’t shut me out again, please, please-”
“Shut the fuck up!” Margaret shoved him hard, and he landed painfully on the sidewalk. She was sobbing, tears streaming down her swollen face. “Can’t you take a goddamn hint?” she screamed. “I don’t want anything to do with you, how dare you show up and guilt me into facing you now of all times? Leave me alone!”
Richard staggered to his feet, knees scraped from where they’d fallen on the concrete. He opened his mouth to speak, but only wheezing croaks came out. “Marge, please…”
“Forget it. I don’t have the energy for this.” Margaret picked up the pie, which had landed a few feet away, then hurled it at him. It smashed against his chest, dripping down his shirt as she slammed the door.
He stood there for a moment, frozen. The pie’s innards continued to dribble, landing on the ground in a gory scarlet puddle. Mechanically, he forced his limbs to move, picking up the ruined pie tin and lurching to his car.
Richard sat in the front seat and stared at the sky. It looked alien, eclipsed by the meteor. The falling star blazed a furious white, but the aura around it bled from orange to gold, lighting up the heavens like a final sunset, or perhaps the dawning of a new age. From the apartment complex, screams of horror and excitement rose up, blending and cresting to a glorious crescendo.
It was beautiful, he thought.
Then it crashed.
RINA SONG is a writer and alternative rock lover based out of California. When not writing, she has a day job involving computers. She hopes to one day receive her own call to a heroic quest of epic proportions, and perhaps write a novel about it afterwards. Her writing has previously been published in Spank the Carp, Mythaxis Magazine, and Idle Ink.