THE SANDSTORM HOVERED AT THE EDGE OF THE CITY, an impenetrable wall that blacked out the otherwise crystal-clear stretch of blue sky. The woman watched from the edge of the desert with a strong sense of foreboding. Black hair hung heavily around her shoulders as water dripped down her legs to her blood-stained feet. Cactus needles clung to her shift, the coarse fabric frayed and torn along the edges. The sky churned brown, and she trembled.
She followed the line of grey asphalt that bisected an endless sea of cholla and brittlebush before disappearing inside the city. Towers loomed overhead in an eclectic mix of Spanish revival and industrial architecture, their windows gaping at her like millions of little black eyes; watching, waiting. Thunder rumbled, the air alive with electricity. The wall of dust advanced like a predator, and hot wind whipped at her hair and clothes.
There wasn’t much time.
Bulbous, white vehicles dotted the streets, their tires flattened and windows smashed. Weeds pushed through cracks in the asphalt, finding life in even the most resistant places. A brightly colored mural covered the side of a dilapidated brick building on the north side of the street. Even with the faded paint, she could make out the message that greeted every newcomer to the city, the letters outlining shades of green, purple, orange, and red to depict a thick cluster of cactus against a setting sun.
Welcome to Tucson.
Figures emerged from around the building, their shoulders hunched forward against the wind. They crossed the street and onto the sidewalk, then ducked inside a Circle K convenience store located just behind her on the southern edge of the intersection. Its red and white-striped roof had long faded with age, and its sign swung precariously above the entrance. Most of the windows were covered with plywood. The glass doors slowly swung shut behind them, but not before she spotted a dozen faces staring back at her.
A place of refuge, she realized.
She looked back. The storm was upon the city now. There wasn’t a spot of blue left in the sky. An upended stop sign slid down the road, its metal frame scraping against the crumbling asphalt.
She was out of time. He was here.
“The heat never ends.”
The words were a liturgy among desert dwellers, who all shared the same sweat-streaked and sun-baked skin as they stared at the approaching wall of sand. As the words faded into silence, the wind howled and pressed against the building. The doors opened, and the crowd shuffled to make room. The sky darkened. No one bothered to turn on the lights. They wouldn’t work, anyway.
Marley didn’t join the growing crowd at the door. Instead, the burly shopkeeper waited patiently as his pimply-faced customer dug desperately through their pockets, a tote bag sitting between them on the counter that overflowed with onions, carrots, and lettuce. The boy produced a hard-shelled case from his pocket and opened it carefully. He pulled out a pair of thin eyeglasses, the crystal clear lenses carefully polished, and the lightweight silver frame gleaming in the darkened store. The letter ‘G’ sparkled at the top left corner of the temple, matching the same logo that adorned the cars on the street and every battery, appliance, and gadget in the city.
The boy’s hands lingered before leaving it on the counter, his once-prized connection to the rest of the world.
Marley grunted. “Those don’t have value anymore.”
GridGlasses. Grid Cars. Grid Houses. None of it mattered anymore, because the most powerful technological advancement in the history of human society- the omnipresent Grid that powered the entire world with energy harnessed from the air- went offline two years ago and plunged society into the second dark ages- or how they knew it: the New Wild West. It took awhile for people to come to terms with what they’d lost, but now everyone tried to barter their useless technology in hopes of scraping a meal.
The Circle K looked like a typical convenience store from the outside despite its faded paint and boarded windows, but the interior had been cleared out ages ago to make space for merchant tables. Surrounding farmers diverted the water supply from the unresponsive Grid systems to pull directly from canals, and soon they were stocking the shelves with fruits and vegetables. Marley ran transactions, both monetary and in-kind.
“I have a stocking job later,” he offered. “This storm isn’t going to last long, they never do.”
The boy shook his head, his features gaunt from prolonged hunger. “I have to get home. I’ll trade this.”
He pulled something from his back pocket. Marley recognized the elongated shape of the metal canister, slightly dented with age.
Wind whistled through unseen crevices in the rooftop.
Marley plucked the flashlight from the boy’s fingers and studied it closely. It was an older design, early twenty-first century. He tested the button, and the bulb emitted a strong incandescent glow. “Where did you get this?”
Old technology wasn’t easy to come by. Most had been trashed to make way for the Grid, but Tucson had a habit of holding on to old things. The boy tried to shrug indifferently. “Found it.”
Marley turned off the flashlight. “I’ll take it.”
Relief washed over the boy’s face, and his shoulders loosened. He slung the tote straps over his shoulder. “Thank you.”
Marley grunted and tucked the flashlight on the shelf behind him next to a small pile of lighters and a box of candles. Thunder cracked sharply overhead and verberated across the sky. He sighed and bent under the counter to retrieve a stack of empty buckets he’d stored there after the last rainfall. They were covered in a thin layer of dust.
“Francisco! Robert!” he called out. A thin boy no older than thirteen emerged from the back room, wiping bread crumbs from his fingers onto his apron. “Ayúdame a sacar los cubos.” Marley pointed around the room. “Aquí y allá.” Last time they forgot the buckets, the rain flooded the store.
“Si,” Francisco replied.
“Robert, help him,” Marley said as his second stock boy stuck his head out of the back room. He slid the buckets across the floor and stood up.
A young woman stared at him from across his counter. Coarse fabric covered her body, tied at the shoulder to make a shift dress. Her lips trembled, but no words came out.
He raised an eyebrow. “Can I help you?”
“Help...you,” she furrowed her brow.
He bent closer. “What?”
She looked over her shoulder and out the glass doors. He followed her gaze and saw a marked trail of pink footprints on the cracked linoleum through the entrance.
“Where are your shoes?” he asked.
The woman’s fingers clenched tightly into fists. Something sparked in her eyes, and the smell of rain suddenly filled his nostrils, of wet pavement and creosote bushes. He held up his hands.
She opened her mouth, but he never got to hear her. The storm hit them with a deafening roar. The building groaned beneath the surprising weight of the sand and wind, and the view through the glass turned solid brown. Screams pierced the air. The wood panels ripped from the walls and sand began filling the building.
The crowd scattered.
“Block it! Block it!”
Marley leapt over the counter to get to the wooden panels, and sand filled his eyes and mouth. The woman grabbed his shirt as he passed her, her hands alarmingly strong as she pulled him back.
“Get under the counter!” he shouted. A terrible groan filled the air and the front doors blew off their hinges and flew inward, narrowly missing them before smashing against the back wall. Glass shattered. His face burned. The other people in the store huddled against the walls and behind produce counters, their skin peppered in blood. His ears rang.
Tears streamed down the woman’s face. Words flowed from her mouth- a warning- but he couldn’t understand. She wasn’t speaking any language he knew.
Then the store crumpled around them.
Marley had survived The Fall. The exodus. The riots. The sickness. The gangs. After two years of defying the odds while trying to restore a sense of normalcy in a dying city, he now realized he couldn’t avoid his fate in the end. Death would take him anyway.
For a split second, Marley couldn’t see or hear. But then the world stopped spinning and he felt the ground beneath him. The wind roared. He rubbed sand from his face and tried to peer through the dust. Dark shapes scattered through the store. The walls were gone. The ceiling-
The ceiling floated twenty feet overhead.
The woman stood over him with one arm stretched upward as if her will alone kept the roof from dropping on their heads. Marley was not a religious man, but as he looked up at the woman, the ceiling rotating slowly above them, he crossed himself.
She shook from the strain. They had to get out. He crawled on his hands and knees until he reached the nearest group of people still left in the store. He recognized the teenage boy, now huddled with a girl behind the produce stand. The boy clutched his tote tightly against his chest, his free arm wrapped tightly around the girl’s shoulders.
“Go!” Marley shouted at them. “Move now!”
They couldn’t hear. Marley grabbed them both by the arms and yanked them forward. They scrambled to their feet and were gone, disappearing into the storm. Marley kept moving, staying low to the ground as he found more people huddled throughout the rubble. He pushed them as hard as he could, stumbling over upended concrete and debris until he was sure there was no one else left. He glanced back at the woman. She watched him, her hair whipping around her face. There was nothing else he could do for her.
His feet touched on cracked asphalt. He was clear of the building, but he didn’t see the piece of rubble until it was too late. The last thing he saw was a fragment of the building flying at his face. Then nothing.
She felt him coming.
Lightning cracked overhead, menacing with intention, but she was too tired to move. Under the weight of the roof, she felt the memories flood back. Centuries of running away, a cat-and-mouse game with no end. The sand had become a slowly revolving brown wall, twisting around her like a tornado. Lightning flashed high in the sky, its light quickly swallowed by the clouds.
A man stepped out of the dust into the clearing. He moved like in a dream, every motion slow and deliberate as the wind whipped violently around him, yet hardly rustling his clothes and hair. He wore a crisp, tan suit, his eyes concealed behind golden aviator sunglasses. He approached slowly, arms casually swinging at his sides. He cocked his head curiously and stopped ten feet away.
“I have to admit, I did not know what to expect,” he said. He removed his sunglasses and placed them in his coat pocket. He looked ageless. Beautiful. Tall and strong. He had black hair and dark eyes, just like her own. His eyes raked her body, taking in her face and hair, the curve of her shoulders, her tattered clothes. He stepped forward and she shouted a warning.
He held open his arms and laughed. “I know we look different, but after all these millennia I would be hurt if you don’t recognize me.”
She felt a chill as her blood ran cold and goosebumps dotted her skin.
He smiled. “I understand this may be a big change from what you’re used to. I didn’t expect it either, but here we are.”
The ceiling revolved slowly overhead, chunks of wood and insulation crumbling and falling to the ground. Her words came out sharp and guttural, full of anger.
“Ah, the ancient language,” his smile faded. “Are you really so old-fashioned?”
She turned to run, but he was faster. He grabbed her by the neck and slammed her into the ground. The ceiling rotated slowly behind his head. “The rules have changed,” he panted over her. “Here I am, more powerful than ever. And you?” he bent over to look her closer in the face. “Now you’re just a girl.”
Lightning crackled overhead. He held on to her firmly and punched her hard. Pain exploded across her face. The roof fell out of the sky, breaking apart and crumbling into pieces before it could touch them. The ground shook.
Spots dancing across her vision. He pulled her back up and held her close against his chest. Debris and dust coated their bodies. For a split second, any observer would mistake them for being in a loving embrace. Then his face hardened and he pushed her away, fingers gripped tightly around the front of her shift. He raised his other fist.
A loud crack split the air, louder and closer than lightning. The man jerked back, surprised. Blood trickled down the front of his shirt. He loosened his grip and she fell back into the wet mess of debris and spoiled produce.
A figure stood in the clearing, smoke curling from the muzzle of his gun. “Don’t move!”
The man touched his wound and smeared blood across his fingers. His clothes clung to his chest. He looked at her and smiled, red spilling between his teeth. He bent down to grab her. Three more shots rang out. He tumbled backward, and more blood soaked through his shirt. She saw the fear in his eyes now. He stepped back.
Then he turned and slipped away, a shadow in the storm.
Only when she didn’t see any other movement in the swirling wall of brown dust did the woman feel her energy go out completely. The darkness closed in as she struggled to stay conscious. She heard the sound of rocks and debris slipping under heavy footsteps as the figure approached her. A voice spoke to her.
As the sandstorm died down, she felt raindrops on her skin. A soft, steady rain. Life-giving rain. A reprieve from the long summer. She closed her eyes.