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Harvest, Quietus #1

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Quietus

Harvest

Shauna King

Copyright Notice

Copyright © Shauna King 2015.

 

Quietus Part 1, Harvest

 

All Rights Reserved.

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Disclaimer: This novel is a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it, while at times based on real figures, are purely the work of the author’s imagination.

 

Thanks & Acknowledgements

Love and thanks to my family and friends, for believing in me and encouraging me.

 

 

PROLOGUE

Miami, Florida.

08.08.2018 05.30 a.m.

His phone rang, shocking him out of sleep. He looked at the caller and sighed. He knew exactly what she was calling about. And it wasn’t to wish him a good day. It was a good job his dad was on his side or else today’s special event wouldn’t be happening.

“Morning Mom. What’s up?” he said with false cheer.

“James darling, I know you won’t want to hear this, but I have a dreadful feeling about today. And have you seen the date? It’s one of those days… a number sign or something like that, anyway, it’s a bad omen… what with that and my daily horoscope, it says, I quote, to avoid risks where you can… you shouldn’t go.”

Annoyance rose inside him. He had to hand it to her, she’d go to any lengths to stop him, to spoil things.

He knew how special Evelyn was. She nearly died twice as a baby. But his mom was far too protective of her. She stifled her. He knew Evelyn felt imprisoned, like a princess in an ivory tower, and she needed some escape. He suspected his mom was the main reason why Evelyn had started to rebel so badly.

His mother was controlling and manipulative and always had to have things done her way. He understood exactly why his dad had left her eight years ago. It hadn’t been any kind of shock. James himself had escaped as soon as he could, moving away to Miami, to be rid of her overpowering, intefering presence in his life.

“The date and whatever else has nothing to do with it… and you know it. You’re just desperate for excuses. For crissakes, chill out, will you? I’m not doing anything I haven’t done dozens of times. I’ll be very careful, follow all safety procedures to the Nth degree, and I’m doing a real easy one… real easy… you have absolutely nothing to worry about. Evie will be safer than she is lying in her bed, I promise you.” He tried to reassure her as he had done many times over the last few months. Although it all fell on deaf ears. The risk levels they were undertaking were very low. Almost miniscule. At least his dad understood that.

“But Evelyn’s so young… far too young for this type of activity, what the hell are you thinking?” his mother persisted.

“Mom, I’m not doing this anymore.” His eyes strayed to his bedside clock. Jesus…five thirty? “Go back to sleep, and stop worrying about nothing.”

“Sleep? You think I can sleep when my baby is in danger. Can’t you take her surfing, to the movies, shopping… anything else… please…? James, I’m begging you… don’t do this. Today will end badly. I know it will… I know… listen to me…”

“Mother. That is quite enough. Stop it!” He barked down the phone. She sounded almost hysterical. It was ridiculous.

“Don’t you speak to me like that! You just don’t care, do you? You only ever think about yourself. You and that job and all your money and your goddamn car…”

Okay, okay!! I’m a selfish bastard. I’m turning my cell off now. Speak later. You have a nice day.” He ended the call before he blew his top.

This wasn’t the way he wanted his day to start. With another awful row with his mom.

He pushed his mother from his mind before guilt and paranoia started to sink into him, like she’d planned. He hated thinking it, but she really was a prize bitch at times. But she was right in some respects. He was selfish. He did worship money. He enjoyed buying himself expensive things.

He lay quietly, gazing at his clock, dozing on and off and watching the minutes turn over. At six thirty, the alarm sounded, and the radio came on, like usual. He stretched and took a deep breath. As the feeling ebbed back into his body, he threw back the duvet and rolled himself up.

After washing and dressing in loose, comfortable clothes, he entered the kitchen where he made both himself and his sister Evelyn some coffee and toast and honey. Then he carried her breakfast to his spare room, where she was still fast asleep. Her long mass of dark hair was everywhere and she looked so sweet and innocent. Although he wasn’t so sure she was so innocent.

At sixteen, Evelyn was at the age where she thought she knew everything and wanted to be all grown up, period. When he’d met her at the airport the night before, he’d been shocked at her appearance. Far too much makeup, heavy perfume, and very provocatively dressed.

He couldn’t imagine she’d left home like that. She wouldn’t have dared and he knew mom wouldn’t have allowed it. And to cap it off, to test him further, she’d whipped a cigarette out of her purse and lit up on the way back to the car. James had just quit smoking himself. He knew all about the addictive nature of it. That and drink and other things. He didn’t want her to get hooked on the little cancer sticks. He’d been really angry with her at that point, and they’d had words. A lot of words. But they’d smoothed it over since. He’d always got on so well with her before, and he wanted that to continue, through this stage she was going through. He wanted to be there for her to guide her away from some of the things things he’d done, and deeply regretted. He thought she actually might listen to him. They had a special relationship, one which began when he first held her in his arms when she was a tiny, premature little baby, and he was eleven years old. Her tiny eyes had opened and she stared at him and he stared back in wonder. Her effect on him had been profound. How tiny, helpless and dependent on others. He fell in love with her instantly. And when she’d hovered on the brink of death… her lungs failing… the whole experience had opened his eyes to the meaning of life. He’d never felt so scared.

Love.

How precious it was. Up till recently, it had scared him. He’d not dared to let himself love, because he feared the pain of losing it. But he was starting to reconsider that.

Seriously.

He was lonely. And he had to admit to feeling broody. He wanted to be a father. One by one all his friends and colleagues were settling down, getting married, having kids… and to his surprise he’d been getting more and more envious. He actually wanted some of that.

He placed the plate and mug on the bedside bookcase and then opened the blind slats a little, peering through them. It wasn’t light yet, and the sky was a mass of pre-dawn streaks. James was used to getting up early, as he had to be on the desk at 07.30 a.m, for work.

He touched her on the arm.“Up you get, kiddo. It’s time to go,” he said cheerfully.

She raised her head and gave him a dirty look. She wasn’t bright and chirpy like he was first thing in the morning. In fact, she was a rattler, ready to strike.

“Oh for God’s sake…” she snapped, well in character, and making him smile, “It’s still dark. Why do we have to get up so frickin’ early?”

“For a number of reasons.” Which he wasn’t going to explain while she was so grouchy and not really listening. “C’mon, move yourself, grumpy. Don’t go back to sleep.”

He chuckled as he slapped her lightly in the region of her backside.

“Go away, Jammy boy,” she said testily, and covered her head with her pillow.

In his younger years, her pet name for him used to grate on his nerves… it was not cool, and he was a cool guy. But now he had matured, and he just smiled, finding it sweet and amusing. “Your breakfast is sitting next to you, getting cold. And we’re leaving in half an hour. Move your ass, Evie girl.”

He returned to the kitchen to drink his coffee by the window, and gazed outside blindly, his mind wandering. He’d originally had misgivings about his sister’s visit, as she’d definitely cramp his style, but now, he was more than pleased she was here for the next seven days. She’d given him a great opportunity to break his unhealthy bad habits, to remove himself from that world and think, seriously, about his life plan.

He needed this break. His lifestyle had caught up with him. He shouldn’t be feeling so tired and jaded at twenty seven years of age, but all the socializing he had to do, burning the candle at both ends, was dragging him down. He couldn’t blame his job entirely, as a lot of it was self induced. He’d partied way too hard and far more than was necessary. And he’d enjoyed it in the beginning. Swanky restaurants and bars, heavy drinking, clubbing, loads of beautiful girls passing through his bed. But it had lost it’s appeal lately. It was beginning to feel like a shallow existence. He was tired of it, mentally, and it was time to tone things down, before his life and health went pear-shaped.

He knew he needed a girlfriend. Someone special to get close to. Someone to come home to. Someone to care for and love.

He heard Evelyn moan and groan to herself as she sat up in bed and he smiled. They’d have a real blast together. Morning’s aside.

Evelyn had bugged him for an age about the cave diving, but until she was sixteen, he agreed with his mom, that she was too young and hadn’t really had enough scuba experience. But his dad had helped with that, and now, they were all set, eight days after her sixteenth birthday. He was really buzzing for her.

She’d finally get to see what it was all about.

The power of the caves was addictive.

Being deep down, under the surface of the earth, submerged below tons of rock, in the cold, pitch black… it was another world.

And it blew his mind.

 

Chapter 1

Hernando County, Florida.

Nursery Sink.

08.08.08 13.30p.m.

I’m lost in my thoughts, churning my whole life over in my mind as I arrive at my destination.

What the hell?

I’m surprised as I draw up behind a black Land Rover Discovery. I didn’t expect anyone else to be here. This sinkhole is well hidden and little known. And that was one of the main reasons I’d chosen it.

“Dammit…” I say to myself. I’m not happy about sharing the sink space with others, although I do appreciate it’s not my personal property and there’s not much I can do about it.

I take a good look at the guy and young girl who are in the process of unloading their car. Their air tanks are already lying on the ground and they stop rummaging inside the trunk and turn to face me as I arrive behind them.

The guy is looking at me warily. A little guiltily, maybe? I wonder why…

I switch off the engine, and with a long sigh of irritation, I open the door.

I don’t want to converse—with anyone—but now it seems I’ve got to.

I know I’m a real misery guts, but I have good reason. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

As I swing my legs out of my battered Chevy Tahoe, I’m feeling especially anti-social today. It might be hormonally induced.

Well. Here goes. I shall try to be very brief and pleasant.

They both watch me as I approach, my footsteps crunching on the light gravel of the track.

“Hi there,” he says, smiling at me broadly. As I close in, I take in the brooding good looks instantly. But they have no positive effect on me. Not even a flutter of interest ruffles my female psyche. I’m immune. Inured. Deadened to every male of the species. Since Joe and I split, six months ago, I’ve not been interested in men. In truth it wasn’t just Joe, Ronnie, the boyfriend before him, was just as bad, and he hurt me badly…but Joe… he was the one who broke my heart.

Broken? No… smashed to pieces… Crushed and ruined… Scattered to the far reaches of the universe… that’s how betrayed, lost and alone I really felt.

I know I’m wallowing in self pity, but I just can’t stop myself from doing it. Over and over and over.

Shit…

His image flashes through my mind, yet again—despite everything. I’d loved him with every breath in my body…. he had the most gorgeous blue eyes I’ve ever seen… a voice like smooth velvet and looks that men would sell their soul for…

Goddammit girl, are you a masochist or what?

I stop myself thinking about him. He has absolutely no right to space in my thoughts anymore.

“Going down?” I ask, without a returning smile. It’s the best I can do in terms of gracious hellos.

“Yeah, we are,” he replies, staring with the usual curiosity at my face. I know what he’s thinking. Everyone does. I get double takes wherever I go. I usually wear glasses, not that I need them, but it helps hide the resemblance. I’m a dead ringer for Mila Kunis. Facially anyway. The rest of me is nothing like her. I’m not similarly endowed with her feminine curves. I’ve a very slim build. Way too skinny, “…a body like a starved whippet… ” so Lucy keeps telling me. But I can’t help it if I’ve got a fast metabolism. I certainly eat enough.

“D’you have permission to dive here? This is private land, you know?” I point out, trying not to sound too pompous and snappy, but failing dismally.

“Really?” he answers cautiously, obviously unsure as to who I am and my authority. He has every reason to be wary of me.

“Surely you must know that, I guess you’ve dived more than a few times before,” I say, tipping my head pointedly at the tanks and specialist scuba equipment in the trunk. Someone with that kind of gear has a lot of expertise in the caves. Whatever he’s saying, he knows this is a private sinkhole. “I was hoping to be alone,” I continue, “I’m videoing and cataloging the tertiary rock systems in this area. It’s a scientific, exploratory dive. ”

“Oh, I see… are you doing a thesis or dissertation?” he asks pleasantly, his face registering interest. But for some reason his question irks me.

I’m twenty six and a doctor of science, not a student for crissakes.

But of course, he wouldn’t know that. I am quite youthful looking and he was simply asking a logical question. I bite my tongue trying to sound pleasant in return.

“No, I’m a qualified geo-ecologist. I’m working.”

“Oh, well that’s a cool job, I guess.”

He doesn’t know what my job entails. And I wouldn’t expect him to. My role is a mixture of two disciplines. I primarily study Earth sciences and secondarily how the Earth influences and interacts, ecologically, with the living world. I tend to concentrate on the underwater parts of the Earth. That’s my niche. Or to be more precise, and truthful, my great love and obsession.

“It has its rewards,” I reply shortly.

“Done a lot of cave diving, have you?” he probes.

“A great deal. All round the world. My job takes me everywhere. But I’m concentrating on Florida this year.”

As I’ve now hinted, very strongly, I’m not the landowner, he decides to come clean with me.

“Look, it’s my sister’s first cave dive. I have a diving license but she doesn’t. We don’t have permission to dive here, but it’ll be brief and we’ll stay well out of your way…Miss….err?”

“It’s doctor,” I explain, folding my arms. I ran my Ph.D. concurrently with my masters and made it out of university at twenty three. “Dr. Johnson…and you are…?”

“James Richardson,” he replies. He doesn’t hold out his hand, but folds his arms in response to mine.

“So tell me, are you a professional diver, or just a weekend thrill seeker?”

He ignores my jibe, remaining calm and pleasant. I’m not sure why, he has no reason to be nice to me.

“I’m a hedge fund manager from Miami. Cave diving’s one of my hobbies. And although I do enjoy the thrill of the dive, I also find it very relaxing. I’m sure you can appreciate that.” He produces the most charming grin—which I’m sure would melt any woman’s heart on the spot. Except mine, because I have a lot of other things going on inside me, of a far more negative nature.

No way…? A goddamn hedge fund manager…!

Joe managed a hedge fund. They could possibly know each other…

I offer not a glimmer of a smile in return. My eyes narrow as I assess him coldly, in fact my gaze is bordering hostile. And I can’t help it. Not only do I not like men much, particularly the good looking ones, I really do not like what this one does for a living or the fact he’s a cave-diving, eco-disturbing tourist. He isn’t ticking any of my boxes.

I automatically huff a long drawn out sigh, which goes some way to releasing my pent up inner tension.

As a distraction, I move my focus to his sister. She looks nice enough. Sweet and pretty. Quite young, I’d place her at fifteen or sixteen years of age.

“I suppose it’s as good a place as any for a first dive.” I manage a barely perceptible smile at her, raising my frosty countenance from zero to one degree of warmth. “Make sure you tie your hair back, it’s a major diving hazard.”

“Yeah, James told me already,” she replies, producing a couple of hair bands from her wrist.”

“Did he really? Well… what d’you know?” I say with a distinctly sarcastic tone.

What’s got into me? That was so rude of me.

I guess it’s the ‘hedge fund’ antagonizing my brain.

“I know a lot of things, some of which may surprise you,” he replies with a sharp edge to his voice. The set of his features and the flare of anger in his eyes as he glares at me, tells me I’ve got to him. I feel mean and embarrassed by myself, as he’s done nothing to me personally. I really wish I could get over Joe. He shouldn’t be affecting my life like this. I used to be a pleasant and warm person to know, but now I’m bitter and snappy and very unapproachable. I don’t like who I’ve become. This isn’t the real me and I’m scared because I’ve no idea how to get the real me back.

My stomach churns and I don’t quite know how to handle the situation from here. My social skills have left me stranded. I respond in the best way I can think of, by running away as soon as possible.

“I’m sure they would. Look, I’d better get on. I have a long process ahead. Please excuse me,” I announce coolly and politely, ending our hard-going conversation.

I turn and march off, to the rear of my car, full of earthly righteousness and a good dose of self-importance. And in truth I do have an important job to do. The small eco-communities surviving in these isolated and self-sufficient caves are so precious, and dependent on minimal human intervention. And although I’m very aware I’m human and intervening, it is purely on the basis of research and conservation. Not for fun, or to be daring or taking pretty photographs to brag about and send to my friends

I hear the sister whisper something and she giggles, and he replies with a louder laugh. No doubt they’re making fun of me, but I guess I deserve it. And basically, it doesn’t matter what they think, they’re just passing through my day. I just wish they weren’t here this particular day.

The two of them busy themselves with transporting the equipment to the near side of the pond.

I carry my tanks round to the opposite beach side, studiously ignoring them. The air tanks weigh quite a lot, but I make light work of it. I might look so slender that I’d snap in a gentle wind, I muse humorously, but I’m strong as a ox and very fit.

As I stand on the beach, I notice he’s watching me, sneaking a few quick looks, out of the corner of his eye, as I strip down to my black speedo swimsuit and drag on my wet suit. I really don’t mind him looking, because there’s not much of me to see. I’m fast, suiting up with the speed of a surfing pro. Then I put on my fins, slip my arms into the tank pack and position my mask. Picking up my underwater camera, and switching on the mask lamp, I’m ready. Without a word or a look in their direction, I wade and then plough head first into the water, disappearing from their view beneath the algae covered surface of the sink. I’m guessing I have ten minutes until they join me and I’m making the most of my small window of solitude.

Kicking down, the rapidly increasing coolness of the water floods my mind with calm. As soon as I enter this world I start to chill and relax. I understand completely what James means, when he explained how he relaxed in the caves. Nothing can be done quickly, as the resistance and temperature of the water makes actions slow and precise. You have time to think about what you do. It is one of the things I like most about diving. The enforced slow pace. I swim down, to a depth of twenty feet or so, to the bottom of the pond and into the canyon like fissure spanning it. According to the cave statistics file I read earlier, this canyon is five feet wide and forty feet long. I pass short depths of a good seventy odd foot, looking down into clear water with a cobalt hue. I sweep my strong headlight from side to side, hoping to see living things. But very little appears to be living in the higher part of the descent. A tiny shrimp, and some micro organisms here and there, but no more. I know that this sink can often run dry, almost to the bottom, even in times of light drought, and this can affect dependent life forms which migrate to a lower depth permanently to avoid the changes in water level.

I look around for and find the pale orange guideline, as described in the guide file, lain down and left, by some unnamed exploratory diver in the past. It isn’t necessary for me to use a guideline, but the canyon is wider in some parts than others and the line lays in a straight line, down the middle, making the descent easier, quicker and smoother and I want to get down there, as fast as I can. I enter the center of the fissure and start the descent proper. Every so often I stop, to adjust the air mixture I’m breathing, with the increasing depth and pressure, and to allow a few moments for my body to acclimatize. My mind is open, ready to absorb the unknown in my exploration of this underwater world. I’ve never been here before and so far, even on the approach route to the cave chamber, its dark and hidden natural beauty has already captured my heart.

How I love the inky blackness surrounding me. It’s comforting despite the growing cold. The darkness hides this part of the world away, keeping it a wonderful secret from humanity. From most of humanity, anyway.

I follow the guideline down to a depth of one hundred and fifty feet to where it opens into the shallow side end of a very large chamber.

Oh how wonderful…

My face breaks into a wide smile, and my heart responds with pleasure. Actually it’s beyond beautiful. My headlamp is aimed up at the roof of the cave. I sweep it down through the gin-clear water into the pitch blackness below. It’s a deep cave, some parts are mapped at two hundred and fifty feet. But although deep, there are no human sized exits or lead off channels in here. No chance to get lost. That’s always a fear with divers. That they’ll become disorientated, in the channels and run-throughs, and get lost and run out of air. Most dive in pairs if they plan to explore beyond the usual boundaries. The sensible ones, anyway. And so do I, normally. But my dive partner, Lucy, is at a wedding in Vegas for a few days, and there are only three or four safe caves I can do solo.

I rub my arms, chilled by the intense icy cold of the water surrounding me. It’s bone chilling cold, even with my thick rubber wet suit on, and a shocking contrast to the warmth of the pond upside.

I press the button and switch my camera on, testing the viewfinder and adjusting the settings to their best quality, and move off toward the impressive strata breakdown in the side cave wall. It’s an amazing sight, and simply massive. I swim around excitedly, filming the ragged features and fissures of the rock. Shrimp and other cave dwellers pass me by. Scooting around and into the crevices and grooves of the limestone. Their sensory mechanisms are highly developed for searching out food and avoiding predators without the need for light. I gently touch a Remipedia with my finger tip and grin in delight as it writhes its way off in surprise, all its tiny little legs wriggling like crazy. I capture its hasty retreat on camera. I spot a small variety of shrimp and zoom in on it. These are native to many caves worldwide. I’ve seen a number in the blue holes, in the Bahamas where I’ve dived previously. This one I can name as a Speonebalia Cannoni, a pure white eyeless crustacean. Coloring and eyes are totally useless in this environment. It’s about a centimeter long and so very sweet to look at. Although small, some of these creatures are strange and frankly quite ugly, if I should dare to think such things about other life forms. But I don’t suppose I’d appear that attractive to them either. If they could see me.

Similar to the surface above, it’s a constantly developing world. Random adaptations occurring within the species enabling those with the stronger characteristics to survive and thrive. And these changes can occur behaviorally, morphologically or physiologically. One thing I do know, is that evolution has no directionality. Evolution is blind.

And this cave contains a prime example of blind evolution, I think, with a touch of humor.

It’s a stunning microcosm down here. A whole society and cross society of miniature creatures co-existing, evolving and adapting. And they are oblivious and completely separate from the wider world above them. This cave system is their whole world. I video as much as I can, gathering visual details of the life forms and their close habitats. Most organisms don’t stray too far from their food and comfort zone. They localize to the rock type and textures of their environment. Even their characteristics become localized over time.

I lose all track of time, completely absorbed, traveling around the perimeter of the cave slowly.

I’m suddenly aware that they’re nearby. James Richardson and his sister. Their torch lights flash across my path. I move off, to a lower level pointedly, hoping they won’t follow me down.

And they don’t, they’re respectful of my work and that’s very thoughtful.

A good while later, I ascend to the upper strata again, my videoing complete. I have a plenty of footage of three distinctly different parts of the cave with a clear difference of dependent life. I’m looking forward to examining it in detail on my laptop at home, and adding an audio transcript.

My home is a two bed apartment which I recently leased in Ocala, along with Lucy, my assistant. It’s central for visiting the caves in this area and we’ll be here for two years doing this leg of my research. We work for a company called Earth Moves. It’s a partly government funded research facility. We collate all the scientific information into an ever expanding visual and statistical database. I’m proud to be a part of such a wonderful project as this. I love my work. Every second of it.

I see the other two leaving, their lights sweeping up the canyon on the far side. I decide to hang around for fifteen minutes more, to ensure they’re gone when I emerge.

And I’m so pleased I did, because five minutes later, a beautiful ultra-thin blind white cave eel slithers past me. It’s long; two feet, I estimate. It reminds me of a length of silky white rope. I turn on my camera and capture its graceful winding movements, following its progress across the cave. It disappears into a small hole in the rock like a guided missile. It could be a way through to an adjoining cave or simply its home. I’ve no way of knowing as the aperture is too small to navigate with the special light probe I have on my camera. I’m disappointed the eel has left, but even so, what a fantastic finale to my dive.

A few minutes later I leave, for my ascent. I’m not sure I’ll ever see this cave again. I’m deeply touched by it. In love with the incredible size and beauty of this submerged, cone-like cavern—home to countless, amazing little beings.

Few people are lucky enough to see this part of the world, but neither do they have justifiable reason to disturb it.

My cave diving visits often provoke in me, a time of reflection. And my mind meanders off. How much of the world human beings will never inhabit or even know is there? And perhaps we have a similar blindness to other societies beyond ours. Something vast that we’re totally unaware of. Perhaps something hidden, but in plain sight?

Now I’m getting far too philosophical, my scientific head leaving me for a moment. But I suppose it needs to now and then, science needs a rest. I sigh contentedly to myself as I kick my way slowly upwards; rising, stopping and starting; as the air mixture I’m breathing is returned to normal levels en route.

I see the light above begin to form, the light of the sun on the pond surface. It’s a dull glow in the distance. I’m looking forward to getting back to the warmth now. I’ve had enough of the cold, my fingers are almost numb and I shiver involuntarily in response to my thoughts.

As I approach the surface an unusual pink glow tints the water around me.

How odd, I hadn’t realized it was that late. Surely the sun can’t be setting yet?

I’d have guessed it was about three o’clock or so.

As I breach the water and take off my mask in relief, inhaling a long breath of air, I immediately notice the heat. It hits the exposed skin of my face. Florida is always hot in the summer but this is a lot hotter than usual and notably hotter than when I left the pond and descended to the cave.

I stare upwards, to the sky, and I’m intrigued. I’ve never seen anything like it. Deep red on the horizon, streaked with vivid purple and edged with a yellow blur. But even more amazing is the fact that it’s purest azure blue where the sun hangs above me, in it’s expected three o’clock position. It’s like the sky is split in half somehow. And both are at a different time of the day.

“That is the goddamn weirdest thing ever,” I say to myself slowly. I’m not sure what to think about it.

And what is it with the roasting heat?

I need to get in the cool of my car. I turn round and notice the other two are still there sitting inside their Land Rover, ready to depart. The pool is actually steaming around me as I wade to the side and take off my fins, unstrapping the tanks, and dumping them on the beach.

Their car rolls past me and he lowers the window, raises his hand through the gap, in a goodbye gesture, and sets off down the track. I raise mine in return, albeit briefly. I can be pleasant now he’s going.

Quickly, I gather up my gear and take it back to the Chevvy, wiping the remaining drips dry with my towel and stowing it all away safely in the trunk. Then I strip off my wet suit and swimsuit. I’m dry almost instantly in the blistering heat surrounding me. I dress in denim shorts, a black t-shirt and my old, worn to death Birkenstocks. The heat is so wearisome and I quickly get inside the car, starting the engine and turning on the cooling system full blast. As the cool, fresh air begins to circulate the interior, I breathe a long sigh of relief as I start to feel comfortable and back to normal again. Leaning across to the back seat, I pluck my cell phone from my purse and have a quick flick through. No messages or missed calls, not that I expected any. But on second thoughts, actually I did. I was expecting Lucy to let me know how the wedding went. But perhaps she’s hungover. That wouldn’t surprise me. She likes a drink or ten, does Lucy.

I think of calling Mom, my usual daily afternoon call, but then think better of it. I’ll leave that until I’m back home. I can relax more there.

I’m so worried about her. Ever since David died, she’s been constantly hovering on the edge. Dad tries his best, but he’s the ‘pull-yourself-together’ type. He gets frustrated with her. They’ve both grieved in their own way, as have I, but she’s gone beyond that. She used to do things, have interests, and a full life. It’s like she’s given up, on everything. I guess I’ll drive home tomorrow morning. I spend most of my weekends at home since Joe and I parted. I like the company and I know it cheers Mom up and gives Dad the extra support he needs. And Lucy can have the place to herself and Andy. She feels uncomfortable bringing Andy home to stay when I’m there, although I don’t care in the slightest and I’ve told her often enough. I love her, and Andy’s one of the few men I really do like.

I retrieve an old and much loved Enya CD from the door pocket and slide it in the car music player to chill out with on the ride back. There’s nothing like listening to this at loud volume after a cave dive. My chill level hits the high heavens. What a fabulous voice she has, an unearthly clarity and pitch which makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

My stomach grumbles loudly with need of food, and a wave of empty nausea and light headedness rises inside me. “Breakfast seems a real long time ago,” I announce to myself. I can’t dive on a full stomach, so eating is a burning issue when I emerge from one. I grab a tube of fruity candy and pop one in my mouth to keep myself going. “Thank God for Lifesavers.” I’m always talking to myself lately. Perhaps I’m going mad? I know I drive Lucy mad with my constant rambling.

I perform a quick u-turn in the space ahead and move forward, finally setting off. I give Nursery Sink pond a respectful little nod of my head as I depart.

My chest rises and falls with a few deep breaths and my heart palpitates. I often feel like this after a dive. I’m not sure how much is due to the aftermath of the air mixtures affecting my breathing and the amazing experience I have in the caves. The romantic inside me likes to think it’s the latter, the scientist thinks it’s the air.

It’s a little overgrown along the dirt track, not very often accessed, and that’s a good thing, I conclude, as I proceed toward the state road 50, about five hundred yards ahead.

I press down on the gas and pick up a little speed, taking the narrow bends, curves and dips of the track expertly and smoothly, with the assistance of my SUV’s four wheel drive. It may be old and battered but my Chevvy drives like a magic carpet.

I finally reach the junction of the state road that leads to the main interstate about a quarter mile east. With a quick look, I turn left and pull out, accelerating along the blacktop grateful for the smooth surface to drive on. But I start in surprise. Straight up ahead of me, a few hundred yards, are two cars which seem to have been involved in a head on collision.

“Christ!” I say in shock.

Pulling up, a little way short of the crashed vehicles, I stop.

I sit there for a moment. There’s no one around. No police. Nobody. It must be a very recent event. I turn the engine off and jump out, into the heavy, surrounding heat. I don’t like the sight of blood and whatever else may be going on in there, but I manage to get past that. Lives may be at stake. Hesitantly I approach the first of the two cars. My feet are sticking to the tackiness of the blacktop, which seems to be melting in the heat. The sticky sounds from my feet are the only noise I can hear. I find the silence unnerving and disturbing. I arrive at the first car, which has heavily tinted windows.

I can’t see inside… and with a deep breath for courage, I open the door.

Surprisingly and thankfully, no one is inside. I look for signs of injury, or damage. It’s blood free and completely intact. A strange smell invades my nostrils. It’s not entirely unpleasant. Kind of sweet, but cloying. But stranger still, are the discarded clothes and shoes and the thick pile of gray dust, spread mainly on the seats. It concerns and intrigues me.

What the hell is it?

I poke my finger in it and rub the contents against my thumb.

It’s warm and grainy, but much finer than sand. It’s also a little bit greasy and sticks to my fingers. I brush it off on my shorts and a quick shiver of revulsion runs up my spine. I don’t like this situation, or anything about it. Pulling myself together a bit, I stand up on the car foot board and crane my neck, looking to the car in front, which is also unoccupied, and then further, over the top, into the distance. The road ahead is empty and eerily still. The weird sky worries me and the heat is humid and really oppressive. This is creeping me out more and more with each passing minute.

Why are there no other people on this route?

This is usually such a busy road. Maybe there’s another accident somewhere further up? I wonder where James Richardson and his sister are? And if they went this way? I expect they did. This incident must have happened in between our departures. I’m concerned about them. I might not like him much, but still… even so…and then there’s his young sister… I really wouldn’t want anything to have happened to them.

This is all so much more than strange.

Another longer shiver runs up and down my spine, involuntarily, despite the heat. A sense of something very, very wrong invades my whole being.

I shrug my shoulders, and sigh heavily, perplexed, then turn to walk back to my car.

I suppose I should call in the incident to the police, then I can get on the interstate and head for home.

At that second, I hear a low hum behind me and look over my shoulder, breathing a sigh of relief as I see another car, coming toward me in the distance, surrounded by a heavy heat haze.

Thank God. Other people…

As I climb inside the Chevvy, I turn on the engine and blast up the air con. I’m sticky with the cloying humidity and need to cool off

Then I look up and see who’s coming my way. I’m not sure if I’m pleased or disappointed that it’s their Land Rover approaching. It slows and edges close until we’re side by side, and he stops. We both open our windows to speak and the heat rushes in like a furnace.

His face is full of worry and confusion and I start to panic inside as he explains his findings.

“The road’s blocked on the I-75, in both directions…and there’s cars everywhere,” he gestures wildly with his hands, and shakes his head, seemingly at a loss. I sit quietly watching him and trying to listen, my panic levels rising fast. “…I just don’t get it…no people… just empty cars. Tons and tons of cars… I’m heading to Spring Hill via the minor routes across to the US 19, it’s the only way I’m gonna get through,” he informs me.

“Really,” I say with a calm voice, covering my true feelings, “Well I live in Ocala, so I’m going in the opposite direction, but I’ll keep off the interstate. Thanks for the tip. So you’ve no idea what the problem is?”

“No one to ask. I tried to call the police but there must be an issue with my network, there’s no signal. I’ll check local news later in Spring Hill. I’m guessing it’s a major problem though. I had a real good look from the top of the intersection. It’s the same story everywhere you look. No one around or anything to explain it. And whats really weird…some of the car engines are still running. Who’d leave their car running? It must have been a very hasty exit. Perhaps something dangerous has spilled up ahead?”

“You think?” Cold chills run up and down my spine in reaction. “Well I don’t like the sound of this at all. Look, here’s my number.” I hand him a card from the dashboard storage box. “Call me if you need to, okay?”

“Sure, I will do, and thanks.” He smiles, and for a brief moment I warm to him suddenly, but correct myself, my expression telling him otherwise.

“Purely in case of an emergency, that’s all,” I clarify.

He looks at the card.

“Okay, Wynter. Nice name by the way. Unusual.”

“Thank you.”

“We’re staying at the Holiday Inn, on the US 19 at Spring Hill. Let’s see if I can text you my details.” He sends me a text and my cell bleeps loudly.

“Well your network seems to be working again. Let’s stay in touch until we’re sure everything’s back to normal. Call me when you get to your hotel or I’ll call you. Hopefully it’s nothing to worry about. Some weird military maneuver perhaps.”

“Yeah, it’s all weird today. Like the sky and the raging volcano heat.”

“Mmm, very striking colors for mid afternoon. Maybe a freak weather system of some kind. A hot draft blown in from Mexico, at a guess. I know the weather has been horrendously hot down there this past week.” I try to sound unconcerned, not wishing to alarm them. Unfortunately, being a scientist has it’s downside. My mind has been running riot up to that point, connecting the road situation with the strange sky and the intense heat and coming up with all sorts of scenarios that were not good at all. I am now praying that it is all a matter of coincidental events.

“You really think this is all down to a weather system?” he asks curiously, his face registering disbelief.

“I’m not entirely sure, meteorology isn’t my forte,” I admit. “But it’s my best guess. Bright color spectra in the sky can indicate an excess of temperature…or a sudden change in atmospheric conditions…major weather fronts meeting, all kinds of reasons. And it may be very strange but it’s impressively beautiful,” I say, taking a deep breath, hanging on my steering wheel and gazing at the sky through my windscreen for a moment.

“Mmm, very beautiful.” He subtly flares his eyes at me.

Is he flirting… at a time like this?

I somehow find humor in the situation. I almost smile at him, but check myself in time.

I lean forward and look around him to speak to his sister. “How did it go, by the way? The virgin dive, I mean…”

“Fabulous thanks. I completely loved it.”

“Well that’s good, I was terrified on my first dive.”

“You were?” James asks in surprise. He must be taken back that I’d told them something so personal. Either that, or that I’m admitting I’m afraid of anything. I know I’m perceived to be such a confident woman, breezing through life without a worry on my horizon. In truth my hard personal wall is a charade. I’m often terrified, of lots of things, but I hide it well.

“I was seven years old,” I explain, “a little too young for it, in my opinion, but my dad believed in toughening us up at an early age, whether we liked it or not.”

He snorts out a laugh. “So that’s your secret, is it?”

She could see he instantly regretted the words which had slipped out of his thoughts.

“What secret?” I stare at him directly, my eyes holding his in a hard grip. I’m interested in what he thinks about my behavior. I know I appear to be tough, hard and cold, but I don’t expect he’s going to tell me that.

“You’re self assured and very capable, that’s all. I’m sure your dad helped you a great deal with your character development. He sounds quite a guy.”

He smiles briefly at me and I can’t help it, my expression changes, softening, and my eyebrows rise questioningly. I don’t know…maybe there’s more to James Richardson than meets the eye, not that I’m the slightest bit interested in finding out.

“Mmm, he’s a real character. Anyway, I’d better be off, got a lot of video footage to add audio to, and render up. Take care, and don’t forget to send me an update on your progress, call me, we need to keep in contact, just in case, okay?”

“I’m in full agreement with that. Very close contact. Just in case, as you say,” he grins at me in a manner I find very appealing, much to my disgust. He’s far too good looking for his own good, and mine.

His expression takes me over and before I know it, a wide smile creeps up on my face. His eyes widen and his lips part in surprise. It’s all very amusing and making me smile all the more. I know my smile is quite stunning… and captivating. I’m not big headed about it, but it’s been said many times. I try not too smile too often just in case I stun or captivate the wrong people.

“Yeah, ‘bye then Wynter, it’s been nice meeting you,” he replies in a low whisper. It’s a tone of voice which I’m very familiar with. Sexy undertones. Proportionally, much too sexy and not so undertoned.

Yeah, you too,” I say pleasantly. That’s not entirely true, but who gives a damn.

I close the window, my captivating smile still plastered across my face as I leave. I may as well let it have an airing now he’s seen it.

Chapter 2

My smile disappears pretty damn fast. I don’t very get far at all. After a few stops and starts and encountering blocked routes at every turn, I give up trying to drive to Ocala. It’s at least twenty if not thirty miles away, on the minor routes, and I’m so hungry I can’t think straight. The nearest town is two miles away from my current position. I get as far as I can by car, and have to walk in the rest.

I call my mom as I walk, but she seems to be permanently engaged. So I send her a text to call when she’s finished whatever is so important that she is saying. Then I try James. It annoyingly sends me to answerphone. I text him an update on my situation and position.

– Left car outside Floral City. Walking in for food and water and to see if anyone is there. How are you doing? Please call me :( – Wynter.

It’s so hot and I’m dying for a Coke. I think I’m hallucinating, seeing one hovering in front of me, covered in lovely cool condensation drips.

The thought of a large Coke full of ice makes my mouth water like crazy and my brain fry even more…I’m getting desperate for a drink. The small bottle of water I’d brought with me, has long ago been consumed.

I enter the town limits, exhausted by the walk in the heat. Floral City might have been a nice place to stop under different circumstances.

On first sight, it doesn’t look promising. I am met with the same things I’ve been seeing for a couple of hours. The same abandoned cars. No people whatsoever. Anywhere. I arrive at a gas station and enter the small provisions kiosk. The bell on the door rings loudly causing me to jump. It is overwhelmingly hot inside.

“Hello, anyone home?” I call out. But my words hang in the heavy, humid silence. I huff a long drawn out sigh, which I seem to be doing a lot today. “God, please…what have you done with all your people?” The sentence sounds ridiculous as it leaves my lips, but at that moment the whole situation is ridiculous.

Wearily, I open the cooler and retrieve a few bottles of water, and finding no cans of my desired Coke, I opt for Dr Pepper instead. The drinks don’t feel as cold as I expected. But I really don’t care all that much. A drink is a drink when you’re thirsty. I find a bag behind the counter and put the water bottles in that, then I open my can of soda. It hisses, spraying my hand with a light mist and enticing me to glug it down in one big gulp. I try to hold out a little, to five long and gloriously satisfying fizzy slurps.

”That was just so…mmm,” I say to myself.

I take a deep breath, getting another from the cooler.

I’m thinking I’ll sit a while and call mom before I look for food. I’m tired with walking this far. I need a rest.

It appears the whole area is affected, by this mysterious event, and has been evacuated. I’m hoping mom can find some information for me from her side.

Then I think of something, and why the hell I didn’t think of it before, I have no idea. Google. News channels…

I flick around on my cell and get the Internet up. The signal is weak and it’s slow, but I get there eventually. I check the major news channels websites for Florida news, weather channels, just about everything I can think of, but no luck, with anything.

For a few seconds I look at my cell phone, praying it would somehow magically give me the answers. But it’s a useless weight lying in my hand. I call my mom, but she’s still engaged. I really do not understand this at all. Who the heck is she speaking with? I suppose it could be my gran? I try my dad, my friend Lucy and James again and it’s all answerphone or no reply at all. I’m getting frustrated and anxious now.

I can’t help it, as I look out, and down the road outside, I have a very worrying thought cross my mind. Maybe I’m paranoid and have seen too many sci-fi movies, but what if I am discovered here, by some government agency? How will I be treated, being in what appears to be an exclusion zone? I could well be infected with something. Anthrax. Plague. Something even worse than I could possibly imagine. My heart begins to pound alarmingly.

I rub the worn black leather seat I’m sitting on, to get comfort from somewhere. But it doesn’t do me a lot of good. It’s sticky and hot.

My head is swimming.

I need to find some food, more than the confectionery and packets of potato chips, which are all that are on offer here. There’s bound to be a grocery store up ahead, or a restaurant somewhere nearby. Even if no one’s here, I can feed myself and keep trying to call someone.

After I’ve eaten, I’ll find a motorbike and get going. The thought had crossed my mind before, as I passed a motorcycle lying on the road, but after David, I couldn’t begin to go there. But now, I’m reconsidering. I need to get over it, and fast. It may well be the only way I’m going to get anywhere.

“I’m going to steal a motorbike…and go joyriding.”

I force a smile on my face. Actually, I’m borrowing it in an emergency situation, having no other choice, but I need humor at the moment. I’m getting desperately worried.

I spot something useful and stand up.

A house phone. Shall I dare to try it?

I walk over and pick it up, pressing the buttons.

But it’s dead. Maybe there’s no electric? That wouldn’t surprise me. The drink cooler isn’t cooling anymore. I try the lights and they don’t work. I stop wasting time in the kiosk. I’d better get on with food and finding a bike. I don’t want to leave it too late. It’ll be dark soon. Maybe completely dark.

I leave the stifling hot kiosk and after a quick visit to the bathroom, I walk across the forecourt and out to the road.

I decide to keep a low profile. Who knows what’s gone on or who’s around. I keep to the shadows, where possible, appreciating all might not be that great in my current lonesome situation. There could be risks and dangers. But what those may be I have no idea.

The bright colors of the sky are still blazing on the horizon although the blue parts are now getting noticeably deeper blue. And the heat seems more intense than ever. Sweat is pouring from me and my energy is waning fast, the life being sucked from me like a soft fruit baking in an oven. After five boiling minutes, which seem a lot longer, I reach the center of town. The street is full of crashed cars, but I barely notice them anymore, it’s becoming such a normal part of the scenery. The food store is of course empty of customers, and it’s very evident, from the heat inside, that the freezers and coolers are no longer functioning. It’s also very dark. Definitely no electric flowing in here for sure. I gather a basket full of essential provisions. A couple more drinks, cookies, cereal bars, and some bananas. Then I cross over the street and enter the little diner I’d spotted earlier. Four burger meals lay untouched, by the kitchen hatch, ready to be delivered to the tables. My mouth produces a rush of saliva.

“Thank you God.” I say with a sigh, rushing over to grab a plate and stuffing a burger into my mouth greedily. I’m more than grateful as I sit down and eat it, and even though the food is greasy and cold, I actually think that nothing could taste better. And I don’t even like burgers much. I laugh at myself as I close my eyes in bliss.

Cold burger and cold fries…mm mm.

I finish my meal fast, following it down with an orange juice which I help myself to from the glazed-doored cooler sitting on the counter. “Right. Let’s find us a bike shall we?” I tell myself. Definitely a sign of madness. I’m now, referring to myself as us and we. Maybe it’s the heat.

I hope so. Although this situation is enough to give anyone the crazies.

Chapter 3

I strain my eyes into the distance from my vantage point on the roof of an abandoned truck. I’m drinking the bottle of Pepsi I’ve found at the gas station I’ve just stopped at. Although the bike had a half tank, I planned to fill her up with fuel. But all the pumps were dead. The absence of a current the cause, I assume. I stare for quite a while, looking for any sign of movement along the interstate as I sip slowly, enjoying my drink like I’ve never had one before. I look first in one direction and then the other. Not only is the main road a nonnegotiable mess, the minor routes are proving to be more of a hazard than I imagined. Even on a bike. In fact every route I’ve tried is a nightmare. And it would take me a while to get anywhere, weaving my way around all that.

Shit, this is just so, so bad…

I’m beginning to feel very alarmed at my predicament. I should have stayed with James and his sister. There was comfort and safety in numbers; three minds were better than one. Normally I love my own company, when I choose it, but now that it has been forced upon me in such a forbidding situation as this, I want someone to talk to. Even him.

But despite all the vitriol that I hold inside for Joe and his type, I’d really like to hear James’s voice at the moment. And, I reconsider, maybe he wasn’t all that bad. He had a pleasant manner of speaking that suggested a good upbringing and education, and he seemed to be very caring and protective toward his sister. That was a sweet and very positive attribute. I generally like to associate with people who have a deeper, caring side to their nature. And perhaps he has other hobbies, besides cave diving, that are character redeeming.

I drag my thoughts back to my situation. Basically I just want some company, that’s all, whoever it is. And the only whoever roundabout these parts, is him.

I wonder how they’re both coping at the moment. I guess his sister must be really freaked out by all this. But at least she has her big brother to look after her. I’m all alone.

I have to admit, right now, I’d find a big manly hug very comforting.

The intensely radiant heat rising up from the truck roof suddenly overwhelms me and I take a long drink from my bottle, quenching my raging thirst.

Hell, I seem to be dehydrating faster than I can drink!

I wonder why he hasn’t he called me back? I was very specific about stressing my point. That we need to keep in contact. And he’d agreed. In a flirty style, granted, but he understood the gravity of the situation, surely? Well he must do by now, if his situation is anything like mine. I’m torn between hoping it was and hoping it wasn’t. If he’d found people, civilization and normality, that was great for him, but he may not think I’m in need of a call. And on the other hand, if he’s still alone, he’ll be more likely to keep in contact, but being alone isn’t so great for him. Either way, I’m getting so damn lonely here.

I’ve called and text him three times in the last hour. I try to reason with myself. His cell phone could be dead. Maybe he’s in a bad area for reception? Atmospheric interference, perhaps? There are a number of reasons why he might not be able to reach me.

At this moment, I’m standing at a crossroads, either I head back to Ocala, all alone, and possibly find myself all alone there too, or I go where I know they’ll be heading; The Holiday Inn at Spring Hill. I make a quick decision. I’ll go to them. I’m sure I can find them. If he’s not around, I can leave a message under his door or somewhere he’ll be likely to see it. I can stay there. There’s nothing I need but clothes and my laptop at Ocala. I can do without those for a few days. This is an emergency. I don’t like my situation one little bit. The whole thing is odd and quite frankly it’s really scaring me.

I’ve noticed more oddities in the last hour. There are no birds in the sky. Not one. No people, not a body anywhere. No police. No troop vehicles patrolling or any sign of life. It isn’t right. People and animals have simply been erased from this part of the world. I’ve already discounted military maneuvers, and am starting to think along other lines. Technical terrorism targeting personnel; weapons of living destruction; sub particle nuclear research gone badly wrong. Not that I know anything at all about any of that kind of developmental science, but it fits the current situation very well.

What the hell went down when I was diving in that cave?

Whatever it is or was, it was fast, powerful, and probably massive, based on the evidence I’ve seen so far. And my location, deep in the cave, protected me from it. And protected James and his sister too. Likely there are a lot of other people in similar underground places who had been protected.

I climb off the roof of the truck, jumping to the ground and slip my leg over the bike. I call him again and then send another text message. Then I try my mom and dad again, but still, no reply. After that I try every single one of my contacts, one after the other with no response. These people are spread all over the US, so either my cell phone network is down, or theirs is. And as they are probably on several different networks, it is more likely that mine is to blame, or else it could be something farther reaching than network issues.

I cannot stop my questioning and curious mind going where it shouldn’t, and dare to wonder if they are there any more? Any of the people I know? Nothing could be that massive, could it? The whole of the United States? Or even worse still…

No, not possible.

My mind quickly discounts that ridiculous notion. But my heart pounds fast with fear. My parents and my gran and grandpa…Lucy, Andy and Anna my friend, could they all be gone? My parents live just a hundred and fifty miles away. It’s so close to all this, whatever all this is…

My eyes fill with hot tears, as another wave of fear, distress and loneliness rolls through me.

No. It couldn’t be. Not my whole family. Gone. Just like that?

Then I tick myself off sternly. I mustn’t think that way. I’m a scientist and I need to think logically, not jump to conclusions without any of the facts at my disposal. I take a deep breath and wipe my wet eyes with my wrist. Then I set the GPS app on my phone, which seems to be functioning just fine, and I’m thankful for that small mercy, at least. Kicking the bike stand up, I set off down the interstate, weaving my way around the maze of cars. From time to time I gaze up at the sky, which is darkening rapidly. Hopefully I’ll get there before nightfall.

*

I continue on the bike through the center of town and to the other side, through the suburbs of Spring Hill. I trail through eerily silent, empty roads, stopping here and there and looking around, mentally begging for a sign of life. My heart grows heavier and heavier with every moment that passes.

Before, I was unsure. I was conjecturing and assuming, but now I am positive that what I’m seeing, and what I’m experiencing is a major catastrophe. I can’t explain it or understand it. It’s beyond all comprehension. But somehow people have been taken away. Removed from the surface of the earth. The timing of my dive meant I was spared, and not only me, I know there are at least two others spared too. Being underground, beneath tons of rock and water, at a depth of two hundred feet meant we were unreachable.

I am so grateful for that, but also very scared. I’m only twenty six years old, and not ready to face this. But then again…who the hell would be…ever?

I’m swamped with fear. Petrified inside at what the present situation means and what the future holds. I’m beginning to realize, that this is a very, very big deal.

As I look around me, at the dark rows of houses I’m passing by, I’m raging with inner helplessness. What I feel like doing, is venting my anger; screaming until I am hoarse and can’t scream another word; sinking to the ground and thumping the earth, until my angry frustration is assuaged, and my fists are bloodied and numb. Anything to take away the sense of acute anxiety that’s building so fast and hard inside.

But I need to be strong, whatever happens. I’m a survivor and I’m going to cope, whatever comes my way. I have to.

I stop and hug myself comfortingly, looking at the skyline. The pulsating, reddest of after-sunsets I’ve ever seen, is blazing above the buildings ahead. It’s not natural. Nothing about this seems natural. This freak event that has wiped people out. This horrendous thing that has happened. Maybe it is still happening? A worldwide Armageddon? And it could well be that I am at the very epicenter of this event; this strange disappearance of humanity. I have no idea what it was or is or how widespread, and that worries me most of all.

It seems so unbelievable, like a weird dream.

If only it was. But I know I’m very much awake and this is only too real.

My shorts and t-shirt are soaked through to the skin with the overwhelming humidity. I can almost see the steam hanging in the air around me. As well as that, an unusual smell has arisen and it stings my nostrils and affects the taste buds in my mouth, assaulting them with a strong metallic flavor.

I’ve had more than enough of being outside.

I ride the bike to the hotel, my mind far away. I’m worrying myself sick, thinking about my family and my friends…

The hot breeze whips around me as I dodge in and out of the cars, mindlessly, and finally park up outside the hotel. I notice another bike parked nearby and I hope and pray it’s his.

I trudge inside, mentally and physically overloaded, exhausted by events.

Oh God, which room?

It seems like a monumental task to solve. I don’t know what to do. Do I run around the corridors screaming? Then I have an idea. I go outside and sit on the bike and press the horn. I press it again and again and again.

“James…it’s me. Wynter. Are you in there?” I call out in a tearful voice. “James…James…” I shout loudly. I press the horn like a mad woman.”Oh please…” I feel myself start to break down, panic arising in my stomach and chest. I’m about to go nuclear fallout here.

And suddenly he’s there, in front of me. His sister at his side.

I get off the bike and fall into his arms with a wild sob.

“Wynter…thank God! Are you okay?” he asks, hugging me tightly. He smells lovely. So clean and fresh. And it feels so good being held close to another person. I’ve gone from being an uptight, broken woman who keeps men at two arms length to a man-craving softie who wants to be cuddled. And it only took the end of the world to manage my smooth transit.

Is is the end of the world? Could it really be?

I can’t think straight. In fact my brain is shutting down, going into hibernation. Tears roll down my face in a massive flow; a surging waterfall. I look up at his face and try to speak, but nothing comes out but loud sobs. I’m aware of his sister, talking to me…of shushing noises and the two of them leading me inside and through the dark corridor to their room. He tries to sit me down, on the bed, next to him but I collapse against him, bringing him down alongside me.

“Don’t… leave… me,” I say, in heaving breaths, desperately trying to calm myself down. But it seems I can’t. I don’t know if it’s the heat and exhaustion, my lonely fretful hours, worry about my loved ones, the dreadful situation that humanity has been issued, or just plain old relief he’s here—I cry my eyes out like a child—and he holds me close, sensing that’s all I need right now.

After a while I start to calm. My eyes are closed and I’m relaxing.

I’m about to fall asleep.

“What d’you think happened to her?” his sister asks in a concerned tone of voice.

“I don’t know. We’ll talk about it tomorrow, okay, kiddo?”

“Yeah. Tomorrow’s another day. Hopefully a nicer one. I’m having my shower now.”

“You do that…Be careful in there, though, it’s dark…I’m going to sleep…dog tired.” he says in a slur of words and yawns. “‘Night sweetheart.”

“‘Night…” she says. “I’m so looking forward to my Big Breakfast in the morning, with two extra hash browns and a huge coffee.”

“Oh ha ha…don’t count on McD being open for business as usual.”

That’s so touching. Despite everything, she still manages to make a light hearted joke with him.

I hear a door opening and closing and the shower being turned on.

I move my hand to wipe my damp face, which is drying of its salty tears and feels itchy. Then I open my eyes to find his staring into mine, just a few inches away. His face is bathed in the reddish glow from the window.

“Feeling better?” he asks.

“There’s nothing like a good cry to release the tension.”

I should feel embarrassed about my crying outburst, but I don’t. Our present situation has changed all my rules.

He rubs my arm up and down, and it’s comforting.

“Come on, you can sleep in Evelyn’s room tonight. We all need some rest and then we’ll talk, tomorrow.”

As I follow him, through the reddened light, to the connecting room, I’m hoping, that come tomorrow, things will become clearer. Today has been full of highs and lows, a very confusing and highly stressful day, but we’ve forged our way through it somehow. And at least we’ve ended the day together. That means a lot more than I ever thought it could. I feel so much better being here with the two of them. It’s not just me anymore. I can share my thoughts and ideas. We can plan and make decisions together.

Tiredness overwhelms me again. And thirst.

“I need a drink.” He hands me a bottle of water from the side table.

“There you go, there’s plenty of bottles here, take whatever you need.”

“Thanks.”

I sit on one of the beds and drink long, refreshing mouthfuls of it.

“We only got back thirty minutes before you arrived.”

“By bike, I guess?”

“No choice really, was there?”

I smile at him and he smiles back as he leans against the door frame, with folded arms.

There’s just one thing I need to say before I go to sleep. Then I can rest better.

“I’m sorry I was so cranky earlier.”

“Forget it…it’s a new start.”

“Yeah, a new start.” Well, that was painless.

“I’ll say goodnight then.”

“Sweet dreams.” I say, tongue in cheek, my sense of humor returning for a moment.

“I could do with sweet something.”

He laughs and so do I.

He closes the door, leaving it open a few inches

Stripping off my sweaty clothes completely, I slide under the bed-sheet. Instinctively, I roll sideways, the way I always sleep, and move my upper leg into its usual comfortable, bent position. Hugging the pillow, I instantly relax into a deep and dreamless and completely exhausted sleep.

 

*

 

I wake to the sound of rain. Heavy rain. Quietly, I get up, put on my clothes and stand at the window for a while, watching the rain sheeting down in the early morning light. The reddish glow in the sky is still very much in evidence but I can’t see a lot of detail through the driving rain. Florida rainfall can be heavy and prolonged at times, but I wonder if this is the aftermath of the heat and what had happened the day before; weather fronts meeting, or whatever has happened. Rain may be a pain, but I’m so glad the temperature is notably cooler, at least.

Leaving the window I check on Evelyn, who is still sound asleep and then I poke my head through the interconnecting door. He’s still asleep as well. I slip my shoes on and picking up my cell, I collect his key card and leave the room. I’m going to check out the hotel for food and supplies.

As I descend the stairs, I check my phone. No answers. No missed calls. I try my mom and dad and Lucy. Still no reply.

I’m not going to think too hard what that could mean right now. I’ll keep trying, and keep hopeful. The Internet is a no-go this morning. Not that it was much help yesterday.

There are well stocked kitchens but everything in the coolers and freezers is no longer cold, and will soon spoil, if it hasn’t already. I throw it all away in the trash cans, outside the back door. I’m not risking eating something which might make me sick and this is going to rot and stink the place out soon. The storage cupboards hold a lot of dried and tinned foods, which will come in useful. And there is a ton of pasta, rice and beans. I try the gas controls on the large stainless steel stove. The gas hisses and the smell rises fast. The ignition isn’t working, but I guess a match will sort that problem out. So, we have the means to cook something. I continue to poke around the cupboards and find a large store of candles, which prompts me to consider visiting the camping store for some real lights, battery operated ones, and other essential items.

I really don’t know what to expect of our current situation or how long it will take before we manage to find some other people. But in any case, it’s important that we are prepared for a longer term than a few days. We need to think worst case scenario. If we could get some information about the extent of this emergency from somewhere, that would help a whole damn lot. I gather together some food for breakfast. Some wheat crackers, chocolate spread, a packet of coconut cookies, salted peanuts, a handful of dried fruit and a carton of orange juice, and then look around for some glasses. Returning to his room, with a full tray, I find James is up and I can hear the shower running in the bathroom. I put the tray on his bed and knock on the bathroom door.

“Morning,” I call out. “Gonna be long?”

I’m letting him know I’m here, purely for decency’s sake. Don’t want any kind of embarrassing moments to go down.

“A few minutes,” he replies.

“Okay. Got some food here.”

“Great, I’m starving.”

I hope he’s not expecting a feast.

I sit in his room to wait, on the bed, with a pen and the hotel notepad, and start to make a list. Everything I can imagine we might need; medical supplies, fuel, water purification tablets, various types of clothing…the list grows and grows. My mind starts to tick over. We could stock up and keep everything here at the hotel. Use it as a base. Spring Hill is a good sized town, with plenty of supplies. More than we could ever use. We might have to travel around a little to pick up food. I’m already aware that the lack of cooling facilities means everything has to be fresh, dried or pre-prepared, in tins, bottles and packets.

The shower turns off and at the same moment Evelyn appears, through the door, yawning sleepily. She stretches and comes toward me.

“Okay?” I ask.

“Yeah, and you?”

“I guess. If I don’t think too much about things. I can just about hold it together.”

I feel for her so badly, how hard must this be?

She spies the food sitting on the tray and sits at my side picking at it hungrily.

“Well… I never thought raisins and salted peanuts could taste so good together,” she says with a brittle little laugh.

“Dive in, it may be a bit basic but there’s plenty of it. Have a salt and sugar overdose on me.”

I laugh too. And that seems strange. Could I find something of humor here, in this dire situation? Really? There is absolutely nothing funny about the whole of the human population disappearing off the face of the earth. Is there? I have no right to laugh again. About anything. Ever.

She giggles in a sweet, childlike manner, filling her mouth with food, and I laugh again in nervous reaction, wanting to respond to her. To reassure her in some way perhaps, that we should maintain a measure of normality in our crisis.

No, it’s actually far more likely, that madness has finally overwhelmed me. And I haven’t the faintest idea how to handle any of this.

The door swings open and he walks out of the bathroom, towel slung low around his bottom half, confidence oozing from every squeaky clean pore. I can’t help it. I have a good look. And my mouth waters. He has a lot of appeal. Well, he’s appealing to me, but then again, I’m emotionally, and probably mentally, unbalanced. And no one could blame me for going a bit man-crazy just now, could they? He could be the last one left… anywhere.

“Alright, Jammy boy?” Evelyn says, in between chewing, with her mouth over full.

I snort quietly to myself at her name for him.

He’s definitely not jammy at the moment or any kind of boy… he’s fit and smoking hot…

I indulge myself with another long, appreciative look.

“Yeah, I’m fine…But Gracie, save some of that for me, I’m actually goddamn starving,” and he smiles, very sexily, and very obviously, at me.

Strangely, his hot smile snaps me out of my wayward thoughts and back to our grim reality.

“There’s enough to feed the whole of the US marine corp. No worries,” I reply as he grabs his clothes from his chair and takes them next door to dress.

We sit picking at our food, silently, lost in our thoughts until he returns.

And there he is, standing before me, hands on hips, looking very large and totally in command of the situation. Although, from his expression, I’m not sure he really feels that way.

He leans down toward me and takes some food and a glass of drink. The OJ disappears pretty fast and he shoves a whole handful of nuts in his mouth, crunching them, open mouthed, noisily.

I raise my eyebrows. There’s no need for bad manners.

“Right girls… listen up… it’s like this… my plan… of sorts is….”

“Oh good. You have a plan? We’re safe then. What would we do without you?”

The words are out before I can stop them.

He laughs at me as I blush beetroot red with embarrassment.

My mouth is my worst enemy at times.

“Wynter, lighten up, sweetheart. We need to get along, okay? I was merely saying, we need to discuss our next steps… make plans together… we’re a team, aren’t we?”

“Sorry. Old habits… but I’ve got a fair few ideas what we can do, anyway.”

“Well thank God for that. ‘Cos although we are a team, in my opinion, I was praying you weren’t both relying on me to come up with a miracle and the answer to everything that’s gone wrong, just because I’m a guy,” he sighs, genuinely relieved, “to be honest, I don’t even have the basics down in survival techniques. And I guess, that’s what we need right now. Who knows what’s happened out there and what we have to face.” I really warm to him admitting his fear and possible inadequacy. But that is quickly followed by a chill running down my spine.

A dreadful fear invades my body, clutching at my heart.

I’m so scared. and I can see, as we all gaze at each other, we all are.

How can the three of us possibly fend for ourselves. What do we really know of that.

Not a lot. Zero facts, actually. And I think that’s what we’re all thinking to ourselves.

I try to rise to the occasion. To be strong. And I find a little strength in reserve… way down deep inside.

“Okay. This is our mindset, and I’d like us to be on the same level. We’re united. No matter what happens, we look after each other. We’re gonna be completely loyal, right to the end if necessary, agreed?” I say.

“Absolutely. United and loyal,” Evelyn repeats, tearfully, with a little smile, and holds out her arms. James and I instinctively move toward her, protectively. At this moment she looks little more than a child wanting her mom.

“United and loyal, whatever,” James whispers, kissing her head.

As we hold each other close, linking arms and heads in a huddle, I say a silent prayer.

Please God. Please, keep us safe.

 

 

 

About the Author

 

I’m a bookaholic, and I love and drama. My reading interests are spread across several genres. Romance, Paranormal, Sci fi, Fantasy, Horror.

I read constantly, developing my craft and pushing myself to improve and to be a better writer. I love to create real people. People you may find in everyday life. But these people have secrets, hidden depths, torture, and a wealth of other hidden characteristics to their personality and in their lives. I love to create passion in my work, to weave a spell, to captivate and entrance you with my words. To take you to another place in your life, where you can escape for a few hours with me.

 

I’m a mother of four, and worked for many years in a bank, monitoring trading room activities and risk control. Many years commuting by train to London gave me ample opportunity to read many, many books and I appreciate a good story. I hope I can continue to create them for you.

 

 

Shauna King

***

 

Find Shauna on

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/shaunakingnovels

http://shaunaking.blogspot.co.uk/

I’m a new author.

If you enjoyed this book I’d appreciate it if you could take a few seconds to leave me a review on Shakespir.

 

Thanks so much :)

 

*****


Harvest, Quietus #1

When everyone else on earth has vanished, for no apparent reason, what what you think... and feel... alone... scared... lost? When Wynter sets off on a normal day diving expedition, she has no idea what is about to befall the population of the earth on the surface above. At the start of her dive, she meets James and Evelyn, a brother and sister whose presence she resents. But after surfacing from her dive, she soon realizes she is very glad of their company. Of any company? Because where is everyone else? GONE. Harvest is the first of a new series, Quietus.

  • ISBN: 9781310036668
  • Author: Katrina Liss
  • Published: 2015-12-28 00:05:11
  • Words: 14168
Harvest, Quietus  #1 Harvest, Quietus  #1