With a tightened throat and knotted stomach, Dooley sat astride his smoky black steed and gazed at the charred debris of the retirement home. He told himself he should have taken a different route home, but he came this way because it was most familiar to him, and he’d been distracted with unsettled thoughts.
Like many other buildings in town, the scorched rubble was piled among the jagged walls. Earlier that day, when he’d first ridden into the city limits, the acrid reek and shattered structures caused a chill to ripple through him. It wasn’t difficult to determine how their destruction must have come about, prompting him to offer invocatory pleas as he headed to this location earlier today.
A natural gas line ran through the town. Odds were the disaster that collapsed the electrical grid four days ago set off a power surge that ignited the fuel. And the retirement home was on that line.
He’d come here to get his dad and return home.
Taking a hard swallow and then a deep breath, Dooley swung his attention back to the road littered with defunct vehicles. Many of them were damaged by the explosions, and any pumps at surviving gas stations were inoperative anyway.
A second horse, an aging buckskin mare with an empty saddle and a lead rope secured to his back rigging, followed in close formation. His final companion was a black, mixed-mutt hound with a white striped face. She patrolled back and forth and around him according to what scent stirred her interest, but she also provided part of his security.
Before he left home a day and a half ago, Dooley and his wife discussed if he should make it obvious that he was armed while making this trek. Perhaps his tall frame, broad shoulders and two-day stubble might make him look more formidable than he considered himself, but he wouldn’t want to bet on it.
He decided against attempting to conceal the varmint rifle wedged in a scabbard near his knee. It might intimidate potential combatants and wouldn’t make any difference to snipers.
Yet despite all his planning, he was returning home with the goal unfulfilled. He didn’t dare mourn until he was settled in for the night, when vision blurred by tears wouldn’t be so large a handicap.
Earlier, when he asked around town about the welfare of the home’s residents in his hope against hope Dad had escaped that devastation, he could sense the simmering distrust from some of the locals. Leastways, he preferred it be wariness and not scheming. He made it a point not to divulge any travel details.
The dog wandered closer to the retirement home than he could tolerate. “Virgie! Come along!”
Before twilight he veered his entourage into a patch of forest where no fence barred the way nor was any house in sight from the road. But he still pushed beyond the crest of the hill and set up a cold camp in the hollow between it and the next ridge. A vacant pasture lay nearby, so Dooley hobbled the horses after removing their tack and allowed them to graze while he finished establishing his hobo estate.
As dusk approached he sat on a fallen log and rubbed the hound’s ears while he waited to see if the phenomenon that had been occurring since the disaster would make its appearance again.
Like an ethereal curtain, the shimmering glow of green and red materialized in the heavens. In over forty years he’d seen the northern lights twice. Both times it had been nothing more than a hazy, red glow in the sky, which was normal when it made an appearance in the Ozarks. Now the display was incredibly beautiful … and just as ominous.
For the aurora borealis to dazzle this far south, the solar eruption that collided with the Earth’s magnetic shield must have been a real humdinger. According to the news stories he heard before the electricity went out, the effects had been happening throughout the globe.
When the lights went out here also, he was glad to have warning the event was large enough that plans needed to be made accordingly. His wife agreed with him that he should go and get his father out of the retirement home to live with them on the farm. But the news also spooked plenty of people, which made his journey more dangerous than it would have otherwise been.
Virgie straightened and gazed toward the direction of the road. Dooley placed his hand on the rifle beside him.
The world had gotten scarier, not that it had been dripping with bunnies and butterflies to begin with. But other people were cognizant that more hard times were ahead, and some of them would use that knowledge to justify major violations.
Something moved at the crest of the hill, and he tightened his clasp on the gun. Virgie hopped to her feet, but he gripped her collar with his other hand. She whined with anticipation.
To his relief, he realized it was a raccoon. The intruder didn’t return the sentiment. It froze for a couple of seconds before springing away in the direction it had come. Virgie tugged against her collar with a yip, but he commanded her to sit.
The aurora’s brightness had enabled him to see their brief visitor, and Dooley pondered the irony of the situation. The day was ending and night was beginning, yet the dimming that usually descended at this time was restrained by the celestial lightshow. But he knew the incident causing that light would plunge this world into darkness beyond visual perception.
As he pulled the hound closer and crooked an arm around her neck, he drew a deep breath to quiet the persistent trembling in his stomach. Yes, deep gloom was in store for them, but as always it had to end when the sun rose and light returned.
He just had focus on making it through the night by remembering dawn would return one way or another. And when that happened, it would bring the promise that home always did lie ahead.
It wasn’t my intention to do this, but when I learned the prompt word for this month’s #BlogBattle was Dusk, it got me thinking about impending darkness and transitions. So a side story to my book Darkness upon the Land came to mind.
Don’t worry, I won’t write book-related stories every month!