Friday flash fiction – A Conversation on Waking

Francesca Kincaid’s first words upon waking from nearly two years asleep were, “Where’s Alison?” Another six months have passed between hearing the answer and this moment, when Francesca sets a foot on a creaky Florida porch step just as Alison Trent emerges from a flaking front door. They look at each other for a long moment, studying each other’s faces.

“You took your time,” says Alison, breaking the silence to slap an insect biting her arm. She gestures to a rocking chair and a side table with a cracked glass pitcher. “Want some lemonade?”

Francesca’s glance falls to the creature at her side, which spreads its furred stub-wings to catch the long orange rays of the dying afternoon sun. It raises its face and clicks glistening black mandibles at the sky. “Don’t look at me, Killer,” it says. “This is your rodeo.”

“Don’t call me that,” Francesca sighs.

The creature snorts in response, then snuffles away to inspect the rusting corpse of a lawn mower buried in a clump of long grass near the front gate. Francesca turns away wearing a look of disgust when they starts licking the rust off the mower’s exposed blades.

Francesca can’t meet Alison’s eye. She takes the offered seat, then immediately tilts back. She grabs the arm rests with both hands and stomps her walking boots down on the rough porch floor. Something splinters underfoot.

“Sorry,” she says as she stabilises herself. “I haven’t sat in one of these in a long time.”

Alison purses her lips as she pours two glasses of the cloudy beverage. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, handing one to Francesca. “There’s a community work crew hereabouts. I’ll cash in some favours when its my turn in the schedule.”

“Mm.” Francesca sips the warm lemonade, surprised at the sweetness. She’d heard from the ship’s crew that Orlando was already exporting sugar cane by the ton. It’s not the first sign she’s seen of the new world making the same mistakes as the old.

Alison tries again, smiling tightly over her glass. “I thought maybe you wouldn’t come.”

“And miss all this?” Francesca tilts her glass at the remains of the suburban street, where the handful of houses still standing are weather-beaten and overgrown.

The one sign of life is a small group struggling to push battered shopping trolleys down a street more cracked and potholed than intact. Each trolley carries two large bunches of bananas and one of the batlike alien creatures. Even over the stultifying insect drone, the women on the porch hear the Yau Phyters chattering to their life-bonded human partners. Francesca’s companion, who calls themself Bink, turns their back on the passers-by. The conversations pause as they catch sight of Bink; when the group is almost a block away, their talk resumes with an angrier tone.

“Friendly neighbourhood.”

Alison’s voice catches, then breaks. “Can you blame them? They don’t trust me. Not the humans, not the Yau. And why should they? I killed my own Yau protector when you…when I woke up.”

Francesca sighs. “I know. I’m sorry. You didn’t mean it.”

“No, but it happened anyway. I was scared, I lashed out, and…”

“You can’t get absolution from me, Ali,” said Francesca. She sets down her empty glass, staring at Bink as they stretch across the pitted hood of a decaying Toyota and looks up at the gathering stars. “I killed hundreds of them. So many I lost track a long time before I stopped killing. It doesn’t matter that I thought I was doing the right thing. Since the Yau came to Earth, I’m the second-worst mass murderer in the world.”

“At least you killed the worst one.”

“We did that together.”

Alison laughs, trying not to sound bitter. “Yeah we did. We should get that on a T-shirt. ‘I saved two species from extinction and all I got was this lousy social ostracism and crippling fatalism.’”

“I’ll drink to that,” Francesca smiles. “Assuming you have something harder than lemonade.”

“It so happens I raided a liquor store up in Winter Park just last week. The bright side of civilisational collapse is there’s more than enough booze to go around.” Alison opens a bottle and throws away the cork. “I hope Kentucky bourbon doesn’t offend your cultured British palate.”

“Ack! It’s like someone melted a log fire in boiling acid.” Francesca risks another sip, then shrugs and tosses the whole glass back. “Rotgut worthy of an Atlantic crossing.”

“How bad was it? The ocean, I mean.”

Francesca’s eyes are closed when she answers. “It was a nightmare. Every night I remembered being chased in my dreams on a fishing boat. I was terrified because the Stalker stole the control and safety I believed I’d won. Every night I thought about just stepping overboard.”

“What stopped you from going through with it? Your Yau Phyter?”

“Bink? No, they’re done with me. They agreed to get me across the ocean, then they’re cutting me off. They’d rather spend a year going through separation detox than stay hooked on a Killer.”

“Then what?”

“I looked up.” Francesca pointed at the darkening sky. “Light and air pollution is almost back to pre-industrial levels. The night sky is so vivid. The stars are endless.”

“So the stars make you feel alive?”

“No,” says Francesca, helping herself to another glass. “They make me feel small. Vulnerable. We came so close to being snuffed out, Ali. The Stalker came. What might come for us next?”

“You sound paranoid but I can’t argue with your logic.” Alison leans back in her rocker, steady as the bourbon drains tension from her limbs. “I’ve had a spare bed made up for a month. It’s there for as long as you want to stay.”

Francesca sips her liquor. It burns less fiercely this time. “I might stay awake a while longer. Keep an eye on things up there.”

“Then I’ll join you,” says Alison. “In case the world needs saving again.”

I’ve known almost since the beginning that this sequence of stories would end with a face to face conversation on a porch in Florida. What I was not certain about was who the conversationalists would be.

This wraps up the Dream War stories. If you want to read something from before the melancholy denouement, go back to the beginning and read through:

Works Like A Dream, Any Dream Will Do, Alison’s Awake, The Nightmare Bargain, Everyone Dreams, Nobody Quits  and Both Ends of the Lifeline

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