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True North

 

  • TRUE NORTH*

DAVID HAYWOOD YOUNG

CABIN FEVER PRESS

Copyright © 2014 David Haywood Young

All Rights Reserved

 

Table of Contents

Title Page

[* *]

True North

[* *]

What’s Next?

[* *]

What’s The Secret?

[* *]

Excerpt: Chapter One

[* *]

Thanks for Reading!

Josh Brandenhoer, July 2026. In search of the Albino.

 

Sweating, groaning, I shove my pack over my head into what I hope is a safe spot at the top of a cliff, then look about for handholds and footholds. I’m nearly to the top, climbing without ropes, and this is when I need to be most careful. The rock here in the Chugach Range is mostly shale, known as “Chugach crud” to local climbers, and tends to crumble or split at the slightest provocation.

But I’ve been doing this my whole life. I find a crevice for my left foot, grab an outcropping with my left hand, shove my right hand against the rock wall for a moment—it won’t hold, but if I do this right it won’t have to—and I reach up with my right leg to place my toes on a ledge. Shoving with right hand and leg, I lift myself…and wish I’d given my pack a bit more of a push, but I hadn’t had the leverage…I grab for rock at the top and lever myself to safety all at once, overshooting the spot I’d aimed for and bouncing the back of my neck on a rock that is sharper than I’d have liked.

I lie there for a few moments, breathing heavily, then sit up. I was right: this really is the top of the cliff. I could’ve gone around it instead of making a direct assault, but it would have taken much longer to get up here. Besides, the climb was fun. From here it’ll be easy walking for a while.

Now that I’m sure I won’t scrape them against a rock, I dig in my pack for my iGlasses and let them anchor themselves to my ears. Which means, yes, it’s true—I’m not quite the purist I represent myself to be on my blog. You caught me. But the blog itself is real: all images shot with handheld cameras, all filtering and focusing done by hand, no software gimmicks allowed other than cropping. I do love my work, and conspicuously doing things the hard way is my schtick.

Today I’m trying to track down an albino grizzly (initial reports said “polar bear” but she’s supposedly been spotted by a hunter who knew the difference). Which sounds as if it should be really easy, but up here things are different. In a more normal place, where there are lots of people…you’d just ask a search engine, right? A few parameters, a quick run through public surveillance images, maybe some satellite pics if it gets really tough, narrow it down via a drone hunt for a few bucks, and Bob’s your uncle. Or the griz is ready for capture, anyway.

But in most of Alaska it’s not like that yet. Not many people around, not many folks wearing iGlasses with public upload. The government doesn’t allow civilian drones over most of the state, and the Native corporations shoot ‘em down no matter who owns them. So the obvious methods won’t work. Not that my fans would be interested in the result if they did.

For the record…ha…I’m only wearing the iGlasses to make sure I get a record of the day. Because, while the grizzly hunt is fun, I’m hunting something else entirely.

I saw it once, a long time ago. I think I did, anyway.

 

  • * *

Josh. June 1996.

 

Last week we met a stranger at the fishing hole. I guess there’s no reason we should expect privacy—it’s a couple of miles out in the woods, and there’s not much of a trail in the summertime, but if anybody owns the spot it’s sure not us.

I figure it’s probably on Native land. Or maybe it’s some kind of state or federal thing. Out in the bush, even if you’re only a little way from the road system, it doesn’t matter much what the papers say in some courthouse. Anyway, Dad showed the place to me a couple of years ago and we kids make the trek when we get a chance.

 

  • * *

Today I’m heading over to Patrick’s house to see if he wants to fish. I’m schlepping an ancient canvas backpack—it was my grandfather’s, and my most prized possession—and its seams strain as I move along, jumping on and off the sidewalk, pretending halfheartedly that I’m dodging sniper fire.

Muddy trots along with me. He’s part Husky, part Shepherd, and all mine. A mutt, yeah, but loyal.

“C’mon, pup!” I yell, diving and rolling on some moss, trying not to land too hard on my pack. “Nobody lives forever!”

He sits and waits for me. Unimpressed with my theatrics.

I give him a hug and we leave the main road for a gravel driveway.

I go around the house, open the back door, and poke my head into the kitchen. “Don’t shoot! It’s just me!”

Patrick’s mom rolls her eyes. “Hungry?” she asks.

“You know it, Mrs. T!” Not to say anything about my mom, but Patrick’s mother cooks all day long. And it’s really good stuff! She sells cakes and pies and cheese straws—if you have to ask what they are, words won’t help you—to everybody in town.

Patrick’s dad works up on the Slope, doing something for Chevron, so he’s gone for a couple of weeks. If he’d been in town, I’d have knocked on the door. Mr. Taylor is a good guy, I think, but tense.

“Put your bag down,” she tells me, “and I’ll cook up something for you if you’ll go get Pat out of bed. He was up all night again, but it’s daytime out there!”

I give her a grin for the old joke, then head upstairs. Here in Wasilla in June we get a couple of hours of twilight, at most. It’s pretty much always daytime.

Patrick doesn’t want to get up, so I grab a leg and pull. He spills on the floor, then tackles me. Unfortunately he’s bigger than I am, so I cheat and fall shoulder-first onto his back.

He wakes up. But he says fishing is lame, and besides his ribs hurt. Wah.

 

 

  • * *

“You kids going fishing?” Patrick’s mom asks when we go downstairs.

I am for sure, Mrs. Taylor,” I tell her. “But Patrick here says he’d rather help you around the house today.”

 

  • * *

We get our stuff together, including sandwiches and bottled water Mrs. T gives us, and head out. Since there’s no trail in the summertime we have to push our way through the ferns. Most of the forest floor is covered with green and brown moss that makes walking a slow process. You pick your foot up and put it down, but you never know for sure whether it’ll sink an inch or maybe break through entirely to plunge under a rotting tree branch that’ll grab your ankle. So you have to relax and go with it, and keep your balance. But we’ve got the knack of it, and we make good progress.

There’s also Devil’s Club, with thorns that poke right through our jeans when we get careless, and its lookalike cow parsnip—which is no big deal for me but Patrick has to be really careful because if it touches his skin it’ll burn something fierce in the sunlight. It bothers a lot of people that way. Me, though? I can smear it on my face if I want. Might even be able to eat it. I figure it just means what I already knew: I was born to live in Alaska.

Just as I think that I try to slap a mosquito on the back of my neck and trip over something. Muddy has been half-jumping and half-running around but comes closer, so I reach out to pet him. But he sits down and seems to laugh at me. Stupid dog.

“At least Jerry and his bunch won’t be here,” Patrick says as he adjusts his shoulder strap and reaches down to give me a hand.

I check out my fly rod—probably undamaged—and nod. Jerry’s crowd is a little older than us, and they use ATV’s. There are places they can go, but this isn’t one of them. Also we’d hear ‘em coming for miles. But Patrick’s a little sensitive ‘cause they beat him up a few days ago for riding his bike on a trail they figure belongs to them.

We continue.

 

  • * *

July 2026

 

It’s a hot day, somewhere north of 70 degrees Fahrenheit even above the treeline. Not a cloud in sight. I can see for miles, but I don’t see the grizzly.

The problem here is that there are lots of sheep in these mountains, and they’re white. So are the patches of snow on the peaks around me. So I look around, trying to memorize the patterns of white flecks so I can tell when one of them has moved. It works, too, but I could spend hours reaching any of them. And then say hello to the sheep. Probably.

I grin and fill my water bottle from a creek. No filtering or any of that nonsense—I just drink it, same as I’ve always done. Tastes great.

It’s not just the water that’s wonderful today. I can wander around for hours and it’s theoretically my job. With almost no chance of success. Just…perfect. This is exactly the life I want to live.

I pick out a white speck and move toward it.

 

  • * *

June 1996

 

We’re almost to the fishing hole when we hear branches breaking ahead and to the right of our goal. Muddy has been alternating between loping along and picking his way, but now stops and growls.

“Stupid dog,” Patrick says. “Come on, boy. It’s probably just a moose.”

I figure he’s right. Nothing moves silently through this stuff. The sound has the casual quality of a moose, too. No scrambling, no sudden increase in the frequency of breakage. Just part of walking in the bush. Even if it’s a bear, though, it’ll hear us coming and move away. Could also be a porcupine, or a wandering dog—which might explain Muddy’s growl.

Patrick and I keep going. Muddy gives up on the growling but is now walking behind us. I scowl at Patrick’s laugh.

 

  • * *

July 2026

 

I see a mama grizzly, with two cubs, just as they disappear into a stand of trees. I’d been planning to walk down a gentle slope to check out the valley ahead, and have some lunch while theoretically looking for my albino. But getting close to the cubs is a bad idea. So is eating anywhere near a bear.

Besides, Mama probably wouldn’t go that way if the albino were nearby, so I’ve lost my excuse to go down below the treeline. I sit on a handy rock and dig in my pack for food.

 

  • * *

June 1996

 

Patrick and I are staring at a trap. It’s huge, and steel, and baited with what looks like hamburger. Muddy is sniffing the air and I grab him around the neck, suddenly wishing he had a collar.

“What the hell, man?” Patrick asks, moving closer. “You think that guy we saw last week set it?”

I shrug. He’d been…odd. Short-haired and ex-military, but that’s fairly normal for the area. His gray eyes had moved too quickly, though. Something furtive there. Lots of people in Alaska have something to hide, but this guy didn’t strike me as the type to settle down. He was looking for something.

“I dunno,” I say. “Never seen traps around here before, though.”

I reach out with a stick and trigger the thing. Patrick and I both jump at the loud snap. After a moment I let Muddy go, but I don’t let him eat the hamburger. For all I know it’s been poisoned.

 

  • * *

July 2026

 

I hear a roar behind me. Back in the valley? It sounds like Mama has found something she doesn’t like. Or something that doesn’t like her. There aren’t many things that can upset a grizzly.

I’ve been walking for twenty minutes but turn around and head back at a trot. I don’t plan to get too close, but what if…?

 

  • * *

June 1996

 

We’re fishing. The spruce and birch trees don’t leave me much room to use the fly rod, but I make do with roll-casts and cussing. Patrick has a spinner rig that works pretty well.

Though “fishing” isn’t quite the right word. The Youngwater creek eventually empties into the Little Su river, and today there are salmon swimming upstream. They’re not really hungry; they’re just hoping to spawn and die. So we’re basically trying to irritate them into biting. The fishing hole is a wide, deep section of the creek—but we’re just upstream of it, where we can see them run through a narrow and fast section.

Truthfully we’d be just as happy to snag one of these suckers by the tail. Which is illegal, but nobody’s looking and besides, accidents happen.

“Wish we had dynamite,” Patrick says. I nod. We believe some of the Natives toss a stick into the water and wade in to pick up the fish they want. We’ve never seen it happen ourselves, but there are lots of stories. Fish & Game people supposedly frown on the practice, but Natives can get funny about sovereignty so it all seems plausible.

I see a big one, flashing silver in the sunlight, heading straight for my fly. I get ready to jerk…

“Whoa!” Patrick yells.

I miss my fish and turn. Something’s bent his rod double. “What the hell?” Patrick yells.

I look closer and see what he means. Whatever took his lure has somehow swum under the bank of the creek. It looks like it’s directly beneath me. I grin. “Have fun getting that back out,” I say.

Patrick scowls and lets out some line. It lies slack on the bank. Whatever he’s hooked has stopped moving. Or maybe it’s wrapped the line around a rock or a root and broken it off. Patrick reels in the slack, frowns, and holds his rod straight while he backs up to break the line.

I stare at the ground under my feet, wondering what’s down there. The whole Matanuska-Susitna valley is a glacial moraine. Which means it’s all gravel, with rocks the size of houses or bigger interspersed. The water table’s pretty high, too, so there could be a whole bunch of fish swimming under the bank for all I know. It probably wouldn’t be stable, but I doubt the fish use surveyors. I start to grin at the thought, and then…

Josh!

I look up and see a shaggy arm knock a screaming Patrick into the creek. Grizzly!

 

  • * *

July 2026

 

I get closer to the little valley but I don’t hear anything. I slow down, taking out my camera, and move into the trees.

 

  • * *

June 1996

 

I piss my pants and want to run away, but Patrick is lying face-down in the creek, and I can’t seem to move my legs anyway. Muddy is insane: growling and barking and trying to scare off a grizzly.

I see that the bear has torn open Patrick’s pack, probably found something good to eat in there, but I don’t care—suddenly I can make my legs work and I dive into the shallow water.

I scrape my face and bang my right knee on a rock, but I get hold of Patrick and turn him over.

Then I turn back to the grizzly—where is Muddy? I don’t hear him anymore—and freeze. At first I think I’m seeing another dog, maybe a black Chow, because that’s what I always think of first when I see a black bear. Some of them aren’t very big. But this one is huge, standing tall.

And poking the grizzly with a stick.

 

  • * *

July 2026

 

I’ve found one of the cubs. It’s hiding behind a stand of alders, just hunkered down and waiting to be rescued. I don’t see the other one, or Mama, which is a problem: very bad to see a cub but not the mother, because that means you might be between them.

I press on, and find Mama lying on her side. And on her entrails. Something has ripped open her belly. Her eyes are open and blinking, and I know better than to get close. But I hate to see her this way.

I carry a .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol for emergencies and probably should have drawn it earlier. I draw it now, wanting to end Mama’s pain. But I hesitate—I don’t want to scare off whatever did this.

I start to turn around…and the ground rushes toward my face.

 

  • * *

June 1996

 

I pull Patrick out of the water. He wakes up—the back of his head is bloody, and there are more wounds on his back, but he seems basically okay.

“Did you see that?” I ask him.

“What? The bear?”

I stare at my friend, then back into the woods. The grizzly has left. So has…the other thing. The hairy thing with hands that could hold a spear.

Later, while Patrick rests, I check the area for footprints. But it’s all either moss or rocks. No evidence, nothing I could use to convince anybody.

Muddy comes scrambling out of the woods as if nothing happened, though he has some gashes on his left side.

There’s no point in talking about what happened. So I keep my mouth shut.

 

  • * *

July 2026

 

I wake up in twilight. So it’s been a few hours. The back of my head is sore, and I vomit, but I seem to be basically sound afterward.

Mama is dead, and something has torn hunks of flesh from her body. Without disturbing me, though. And my camera has been destroyed—crushed by a rock, apparently. My iGlasses, too, are gone.

Lots to think about. I drink some water and drift off to sleep.

In the morning I find a bloody-ended stick. It’s not very long, and I think the piece I’m looking at broke off a larger spear recently. It appears to have been fire-hardened. Interesting.

I press on into the trees. No sign of the creature, though.

Then I find my iGlasses, smashed beyond repair, in a muddy area next to a creek leading out of the valley.

They’re lying next to a trail of footprints. The prints look human—if humans walked around mountains barefoot in Alaska. And if their feet were 18 inches long.

I suspect the prints were left deliberately. To taunt me.

 

  • * *

August 2026

 

My new camera works well as I snap pics of the albino grizzly. She’s led me a merry chase, but I’ve found her. Actually I found her cubs first—one of them was yellow-white like its mama. She’s in a clump of wild strawberries, and all appears well in her world.

I have better tech now. There are hidden cameras in my clothes and my pack, and they record everything that happens around me. The video is supposed to upload to a satellite, though I can’t always get line of sight in the mountains and my battery power is limited.

Still. If I’d had this gear last time, I’d have a record of the beast.

Bigfoot. Yeti. Sasquatch. Whatever. I don’t know what it is, exactly. But I think it saved my life once, and it is merciful, and also it likes to hunt grizzlies with a sharp stick. Plus I strongly suspect a sense of humor. Further, I suspect it’s a kind of person. Just…not the human kind. But still, it seems to understand about cameras. It may even understand me.

If I can get proof it exists—I won’t show anybody. This is a private thing.

Here’s the truth: I got punked. But I’m a hunter too, in my way. We’ll see who wins, next time.

 

 

What’s Next?

 

Up to you, really!

 

1. Turn the page to preview The Secret (September 2015), a near-future post-apocalyptic dystopian supernatural thriller.

 

2. Click here to skip that, and see some final words from the author.

 

3. Do something else.

 

 

What’s The Secret?

 

 

Henge, West Virginia

 

Hidden in the Appalachian Mountains is a quiet little town where nothing ever happens. Until one fine day in the spring, when the world ends.

 

A Flash in the Sky

 

There is a storm…but this isn’t lightning. You’re not terrified yet. It’s coming.

 

The Prison

 

The town’s non-inmate population doubled when it went in. Nice people, these newcomers. Every one of them. Just now? Something’s happening out there. Some say riots. Others say it’s a medical problem. And the National Guard is on the way.

 

A Naked Hairy Guy

 

Staring through a bedroom window. At your daughter. This guy jumps onto rooftops, from the street. There are lots more like him. There are others who are worse.

 

Nobody Escapes

 

Nothing is left unchanged.

 

If you leave town…

 

You can’t do that. Your family needs you. And if you tried, you’d die.

 

Stay where you are, if you can

 

But don’t ever think you’ll escape. Because it’s inside you too. Right now.

 

The Secret

 

It’s here.

 

 

 

Turn the page for Chapter One!

Excerpt: Chapter One

 

If you’re reading this, I’m almost certainly dead. But I imagine you know that already. I don’t see how it could be a surprise.

Worse, from my point of view, is that everyone I ever knew or loved likely died with me. Or before. I’m not talking about aging and the inevitable march of time here. I doubt any part of the end was pretty or peaceful. And even if I’d known what was coming, from the beginning? I don’t know what I could have done to save any of us.

Still. Maybe you’ll find something in this that will help you. Before it’s too late. I hope so.

I might as well start with the first day I noticed anything unusual. Nothing before that matters anyway.

 

The lumpy road was smooth butter under my bare feet, the clean green air stained with warm flavors of asphalt filled and caressed my pumping lungs, the March sun lightly toasted the morning and then retreated to think of other things…days like this were what I had missed about running. Except it had never been so good, before these last few months. Too many injuries along the way. Barefoot running sounded so ridiculous—until I’d tried it. Now I could barely stand shoes at all. Foot-splints, earplugs for the feet. Never again!

“What is he—a hobo?”

I’d spotted throngs of urchins ahead, cavorting in hydrant-spray heaven, but hadn’t seen the three boys lounging in a pickup bed until I came abreast of them. I grinned, and thought about answering the twerp as my feet carried me past, but life is sometimes good: I heard a loud [_smack! _]

“He ain’t no hobo! That’s Mister Ash!”

Sudden coughing. Then: “Dangit,” came the reply as I left them behind me. “You almost made me swallow my cigarette!”

I lost my grin. The kids were downwind of me, so I hadn’t noticed what they were doing…but the tow-headed smoker couldn’t have been more than nine years old. About my daughter’s age. She probably knew him.

Up ahead, water coursed down the curb on my side of the street. I moved left to avoid it, noting the slightly worse-than-usual yellow-brown tinge as our local drinking supply fountained into the air. I suspected Henge’s city fathers opened our hydrants periodically in an attempt to clean out the lines just prior to some sort of mandated testing—because otherwise they’d never bother. But it was fun for the children.

Just after I ducked and wove my way through the soaked and shrieking mob I came upon an old gray tomcat crouched in a stand of unmowed grass about three feet from the pavement. Back when he was a kitten he’d been friendly, and I’d stopped to pet him while walking by. Then as a young adult he started running away. Today, fat and certain, he bared his fangs in my general direction and hissed without bothering to so much as twitch his tail.

I hissed back, surprising him not at all, then padded onto Old Center Avenue. At the same time the breeze shifted. The smell of rain hit the back of my throat…I looked up and saw dark gray clouds moving in…for the kill, an inner voice cackled. I grinned again. I loved a good storm.

Old Center cut through what used to be my great-grandfather’s farm. Both sides of the road had gone to scrub, just four blocks from downtown. Coming here always struck me as if I’d suddenly left the town behind and entered the countryside. Except that our actual country roads were better-maintained. This one didn’t go anywhere in particular, and was slowly fading away. Which might have pleased Great-Granddad, since the land for it had been taken from him by the town council sixty years ago—right after he’d lost an election for mayor. For commerce, they’d said, citing eminent domain. There had been some sort of plan, but it had fallen through. And according to family legend they’d never quite gotten around to paying him anything for the land either.

The scrub was still in my family’s possession, though. Last I heard there were no current plans to sell or develop any of it. A good grudge can outlast a lifetime. Or several lifetimes. Most of my family died young.

Didn’t matter; I loved running here. As the sky darkened and the sounds of town—such as they were—faded away, I found myself peering into twisty recesses of black walnut, hemlock and prehistoric fern. What if, I wondered as I laughed shallowly and let my mind spin through its exercise-induced oxygen deprivation, an ancient and malevolent spirit lived in these woods? An Elf, maybe, brought across time and ocean from its native habitat, slowly losing its mind to the tedium of modern life. Would it spot a passing runner, and ensorcell his mind? What if the runner had aspirations—had always wanted to run farther, run faster, never stop—and the Elf smiled as it twisted the threads of thought and sinew, causing the runner to move faster than he ever had, to become a blur among the trees and gravel and aging broken shoals of dark and brooding chipseal? What if this scrub wood connected to another Wood, and the trail became eternal? Would the runner forever flash along the trail? Or would his mortal body expire, his heart exploding in his breast?

I imagined being that runner, and picked up my pace just for fun. It was easier than I’d expected, and the approaching storm’s ozone-laden air seemed to carry power I could use. I leapt and laughed along my track through the woods.

But not forever, or even until my body failed dramatically. I didn’t time myself, but it was only about a mile to the end of the road, and obviously the same coming back (though it generally felt a bit longer). Call it twelve minutes, maybe—after which I’d re-entered, as I thought of it, my town.

Still. A good run. I’d needed the break; work wasn’t going well lately.

 

  • * *

 

“Honey? Can you stop by the store and get some milk? And a few other things?”

I sighed. Then: “Text me a list,” I called back to her from our home’s entryway. I’d stop by, all right. After my shower, and before I got back to work…both of which would happen right there in the house. “You do know the grocery store’s not exactly on the way to anywhere I was going, right?”

Sometimes a silence can pierce your skull. Fortunately this one was interrupted by a buzz from my phone: she’d sent the list already.

I loved my wife. But not so much for her efficiency.

 

  • * *

 

[*I *]checked before I pulled out of our driveway. We apparently needed tomatoes. Plus basil, celery, and carrots. I detected soup in our near future. Worryingly, there was no meat listed. Rebecca had been making vegan noises for the last few months, and they’d stepped up in frequency lately. Though I hadn’t checked the fridge; maybe she already had animal flesh handy?

She also wanted aluminum foil and Diet Coke. So Walmart it was—the only other choice we had left in town was the Latino Market. They were cheaper, since most of their inventory came from Mexico, but they didn’t carry Coke products.

Outside the store, I reluctantly donned my homemade sandals. No raised heel, no arch support, and good luck finding anything like that in a store. Especially in Henge, West Virginia. But I wasn’t going to ruin my feet—again—for fashion’s sake.

 

  • * *

 

I added a pound of Italian sausage to my cart and began searching for a bucket of lard—just on principle; truthfully I didn’t cook and had no idea how to use it—but I spotted Mike Eisler, our chief of police, in front of me. He’d been a friend of my older brother, and I’d never liked him, so I swung into the soda aisle.

Where I ran into Rose Epley. When I was a kid, as far as I could tell everybody nearby was a relative, or nearly—so I’d never tried to figure out exactly how I was connected to Rose. By now it would be too embarrassing to ask. Something on my father’s side, I suspected. Maybe my mom’s too. Small-town West Virginia, you know?

“Jacob Ashton!” she exclaimed. “As I live and breathe. When are you bringing the little ones over for pizza? I know you wouldn’t be avoiding me this year.”

Rose organized a sort of founding-family reunion every year, on the first day of spring. It was coming up in a couple of weeks, and in fact avoiding her was exactly what I’d been doing. The whole thing was a little strange. Not Deliverance-strange…quite. But nearly. It involved dressing up as our ancestors, telling stories, and hiking in the woods. Oh, and some hunting. And when I was a kid some of the men would take us boys aside for a bit of communal blood-drinking. In theory it meant we were all hunters together, and we would keep our old ways—which included not telling the women.

Eventually I grew up a little and figured out that “don’t tell the women!” wasn’t so much because it was an ancient and noble secret ritual but more out of fear the women would ban it. As they would have, in a heartbeat. So to speak.

I guess, given the stuff that happened later, I should tell you it wasn’t human blood. They used deer if they could get it…but my first time had been squirrel.

Which I still felt had been a little bit of a cheat. Hear me roar, said the mighty rodent hunter’s pimple-faced nephew? Not a high point in my life. Though I think it was supposed to be. I guess I was never a dutiful son of Henge. Or of my parents either. They’d had Fred for that, until Iraq.

Anyway, as far as I knew that stuff hadn’t happened in at least ten years—not since Mom and Dad died and Rose took over organizing the reunion. And I’d always kind of enjoyed the whole event otherwise, but Rebecca…well, she didn’t. Resentment because her own family had never been invited to participate before our marriage, probably, though she denied it. Last year we’d caused a minor stir by taking our kids to Hawaii for a week instead.

I smiled down at Rose. At just over four feet tall, with bright red hair, she’d been my favorite babysitter. For myself, years ago. She’d wanted to do the same for my kids, but Rebecca wouldn’t go for that either. Rose smoked like a chimney, and her most-recent husband worked for the prison the town fathers had foolishly—in my opinion—invited to settle just past the city limits.

In four years the non-inmate population of our county had doubled. And what nice people they were, too. Our land of opportunity.

“How’s Hank?” I asked Rose, trying to move the conversation away from dangerous topics.

She pursed her lips. “You know, today was supposed to be his day off. But something was goin’ on over at the prison, and he lit out this morning like his tail was on fire. That man gets on my nerves, with all his running around when a body ought to still be in bed.”

“Huh.” I kind of liked Hank. A lot more than her last couple of husbands. But if I was reading the signs correctly, his days were numbered. If Rose was criticizing him in public…I tried to put in a good word: “Well, the overtime will probably help.”

“Oh, you.” She poked my side. “What do you know about overtime? You went off to MIT, you have your own business you run from your house. You don’t have the same problems we locals do.”

I blinked. I wasn’t a local? My family had almost two hundred years of history here, and…well, I’d come back from college, hadn’t I? Ten years ago. Though it was true I didn’t have much to do with most of my relatives anymore.

A voice from behind startled me. “She’s got a point, Ash.”

I turned. Eisler, two feet away. I’d have preferred a few miles between us. “Hey, Mike. How’s the law business?”

He eyed me. “Poor. Like everything in this town. How’s the internet treating you? Spying on people’s a good way to pay the bills these days?”

I sighed. I hadn’t realized he knew that much about my company. “I guess. If that’s what you want to call it.”

He glanced at my sandals and sneered. “Stock up on staples while you can, Ash. You too, Rose. I shouldn’t ought to tell you folks—but there’s a riot at the prison. They’re calling in the National Guard. It’s not goin’ to be pretty out there.”

I winced, and nearly pulled a muscle holding off an I told you so! about the prison. Still…“Why should we stock up?” I asked him.

“Some prisoners might have escaped. Word is, we’ll have to put the whole town on lockdown pretty soon.”

He spun his cart—full of fuel alcohol, rice, beans, and bottled water—and wheeled off with it. Rose and I stared at each other, then separated. Later at the checkout counter I saw she’d loaded her cart like Eisler’s.

I did too, only I included batteries and a couple of oil lamps. Along with the lard and the stuff Rebecca had wanted.

Lockdown? In what fantasy world was that legal?

And did Eisler seriously just decide to buy supplies for himself before letting the town know what was going to happen?

 

  • * *

 

[*I *]finished paying for my haul and saw Rose waiting for me by the door under a sign warning people to stay away from Henge Lake because it was—once again—infested by blue-green algae. Supposedly. I grinned, wondering how much truth there was to it this time. Jim Donovan, who owned Henge’s only steakhouse (overcooked sirloin and fries a specialty), had put up fake warnings at least once to keep people away from his ex-wife Joan’s marina. Theoretically this espionage might have impacted our two bait shops in town, too, only they both sold beer and a lot of locals could be counted on to spend any extra cash they had on another six-pack. So no harm, no foul—according to Jim.

Anyway. Rose probably wanted to extort some sort of commitment from me for the Founders’ Festival. But what the heck; I’d been at least a little sorry to miss it last year. Rebecca could stay home if she wanted to.

Besides, the rain was coming down pretty hard out in the parking lot. Might as well hang around inside and talk for a bit, I figured.

Lightning struck somewhere close as I got to her, and the lights flickered. “Wowie!” she said with a big grin. “Remember how we used to go out and dance in the rain, Ash? When you were shorter’n me?”

“I do, in fact. Look, about the—”

A bright flash, brighter than I’d ever seen, whited out my vision. I felt the thundering crash in my teeth.

Walmart’s lights went out. Somebody laughed. I blinked rapidly, shaking my head…and just outside the door, I saw two uniformed police officers walking toward us with empty carts. Heads lowered, moving with purpose. I didn’t like the look of it.

I glanced at Rose, then tilted my head toward them. “Do they really think people won’t notice? We should probably get out of here.”

She gave me her trademark frown, sized for a body a foot taller than her own, and nodded. As we left, the store manager was telling people they wouldn’t be able to purchase anything until the power came back on.

I waved goodbye to Rose, then kicked off my sandals and headed for the far reaches of the parking lot. Luckily the rain had eased up a bit.

Just past my truck sat Tim Sullivan’s Forerunner. Not quite pulled into a parking space—I guessed he’d stalled it somehow. Tim stood in front of it, his hood up, looking perplexed.

“Hey, Doc!” I yelled, then grinned at him. “See what happens when you don’t buy American?”

He flipped me off. Then: “I don’t get it,” he told me when I got closer. “I was driving along, the lightning hit, and my damned car died. Won’t start.”

I nodded, distracted, scanning the lot. “Tim? Look around.”

As he did, his eyes widened. At least four other cars were in similar straits. And out on the road, there were two separate accidents. Fender-benders, it looked like. “What the hell?” he asked.

The whole thing struck me as impossibly cool. “Did you see the lightning hit? That last big flash?” I asked. “Because I don’t think…”

Another bright bolt strobed the sky, and thunder followed soon after. I stood, wondering. What I was thinking made no sense at all. But on the other hand…

“Hey, Tim. Let me help you push that out of the way. Did you get your groceries yet?”

“No. Guess I can do that while I wait for Triple-A. Or—damn. I guess they’ll be a while, won’t they?”

I laughed. “Be my guess. Besides, Doc, around here they’ll just have to call Bernie’s Garage. You’d do better calling him directly. But he’s only got the one truck.”

He grinned at me. “Guess I’m still not used to your small-town ways.”

Sure, since he’d only been my neighbor for a decade. “Ain’t no groceries you can buy right now—the power’s out inside,” I told him in an exaggerated local-boy accent. “Let me help you push your un-American junk out of the way. Susie and the kids at home?”

“I think so. Why?”

“Hold on a sec.” I raised a finger, then climbed into my beat-up F-250. Holding my breath, and feeling ridiculous about it, I turned the key. With no drama whatsoever, the engine started. I climbed back down, leaving it running, and walked over to Tim. “Figure it out yet?”

He gave me a puzzled look, and the rain started coming down harder.

“Let’s push that thing!” I yelled over the noise. He nodded, and between us we got it moving. Fortunately the parking lot was fairly level.

Afterward we hurried into the cab of my truck. Before I said anything I pulled out my cell phone and checked its display. “Ha,” I told Tim. “I was right.”

Tim turned to me. “About what? What do you know?”

I shrugged. “It’s not that I know anything…but is your cell working?”

He took it out, looked at the display, tried pushing a couple of buttons, and showed it to me: Blank screen.

I showed him mine. Same thing. “Okay,” I said. “I don’t know about yours, but mine was charged. So…I’ve never heard of lightning doing this before, but I think what we got was a little bit of EMP.”

Short for electromagnetic pulse. Tim was one of maybe five guys in town I wouldn’t have to explain that to, so I sat back and waited to see what he’d come up with. He’d been fairly good-humored about all this so far…but the gaze he gave me now was bleak. “Ash. Maybe it wasn’t lightning.”

I mulled that. “Then…what?”

“Can you take us home? I’ve got a few beers we could drink while we talk about it. And I think we ought to check on our families. With the power being out and all.”

My gut clenched. I wouldn’t have believed the lightning could simultaneously knock out cars, phones, and city power either, but the alternatives were…“You seriously think someone did this deliberately? In Henge?” I thought about that, then glanced back toward Walmart—where I’d seen police officers coming in to stock up on emergency supplies. “Chief Eisler told me there was a prison riot.”

Tim frowned at me, then shook his head. “I don’t see the connection. But this is the first I’ve heard of a riot. And I’m on the list to call if they need help. Last time I spoke to anyone out there was—two days ago?—yeah, Thursday afternoon, when they wanted me to look at a couple of patients. But for what it’s worth, that was completely weird. Both guys were comatose for no apparent reason. And one of them had grabbed hold of a Bible and squeezed hard enough to break three of his fingers.”

“Jesus,” I said—then wondered if Tim would think I was trying to make a joke.

But he didn’t seem to notice. “This kid’s grip was still so tight I couldn’t get the thing out of his hands. I gave him a muscle relaxant, but some other doc showed up to take over, so I went home.” He shook himself. “I just got a strange feeling about it. It was as if…as if there there were something larger going on, like maybe they had a lot more cases. But—anyway. That was the day before yesterday and nobody’s said boo to me.” He looked at his phone again, then shrugged and put it back in his pocket. “Though I guess if they’re calling right now I wouldn’t know.” His brow furrowed. “Come to think of it, Ash, I need to check messages from my landline. People might be hurt out there. If whatever happened here affected the whole town, I mean.”

I wanted a better explanation, but Tim didn’t seem to have one and we probably weren’t going to figure this out sitting in Walmart’s parking lot. After a moment I backed the truck out of its spot, looking around the lot and trying to figure the best way to navigate past the various stalled vehicles. Then I glanced at Tim as we started rolling forward. “You know none of this makes any sense, right? A prison riot, a couple of comatose inmates, town clowns stocking up on supplies, either weird lightning or a possible EMP bomb…I mean, what the hell?”

Tim shook his head, then leaned back and settled into his seat. “Let’s just get home. Check on our families. Go from there.”

 

 

Interested?

View this title’s page on the author’s website, or turn the page for some final words from David Haywood Young.

 

Thanks for Reading!

 

Hi, I’m David Haywood Young. Did you enjoy my story? I sure hope so. The whole point of being a writer is, well, entertaining readers. Like you.

Please consider this your official invitation to drop by davidhaywoodyoung.com and say hello. I’d love to hear from you. My site’s also the best place to check out other titles I have available (although you can also sign up for a new-release-only mailing list that includes information about freebies and special offers when it comes out, and you’ll get a free story for doing so) and generally hang out with me and the crowd. It’s all in fun.

The second thing? This story’s also available, with twelve of its friends, in my The Challenge collection (the link goes to my site, which should have the most recent info about availability). If you liked this one…why not check out the others?

Is there a third thing? Well, yes: if you have the time, I’d very much appreciate it if you would post an honest review of this story. Most readers won’t—and I only do it sometimes myself—and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all have lives to lead.

On the other hand, if you do happen to be in the mood for it? It does matter.

But seriously: Thank you.

And have fun out there!

 

 

 


True North

Even in the Alaskan bush, there are limits. Just not where you'd think...until the day you see for yourself. Josh Brandenhoer has an interesting job: he takes pictures and writes about them. In his world of 2026, that sort of thing is generally automated. But not for him—his readers and viewers know him to be a purist. He's currently searching for a reported polar bear he believes is probably an albino grizzly. What he encounters is something entirely different. And it's not the first time for him, either... This story is included in the author's The Challenge: A Story Collection, published in October 2015. The Secret (September 2015), the author's third novel, is a near-future post-apocalyptic supernatural thriller.

  • Author: David Haywood Young
  • Published: 2016-01-08 21:05:09
  • Words: 7671
True North True North