Featured June 7, 2019 Fantasy Literary Fiction dark fantasy canadian post-apocalyptic

Matthew, Waiting

By A.C. Wise
Jun 6, 2019 · 3,395 words · 13 minutes

Taken in December 2014.  I arrived at Lake Tekapo shortly before sunset.  This was taken just after the sun had set behind me.

Photo by Peter Hammer via Unsplash.

From the editor:

The world after The Change isn't the way Matthew remembers it, but then, his memory isn't what it used to be these days. All he knows now is that the makeshift orphanage he presides over has many Annes, but he's looking for the right one. Enjoy this post-apocalyptic tale inspired by an unusual source: Anne of Green Gables.

Author A.C. Wise's work has appeared in Tor.com, Apex Magazine, and the Year's Best Horror and Science Fiction anthologies. She has two collections published with Lethe Press, and a novella forthcoming from Broken Eye Books.

From the author: A post-apocalyptic story inspired by Anne of Green Gables.

He watches the Annes down by the shore. He hasn’t sorted the latest batch yet, hasn’t determined whether she is among them, the one he’s been waiting for. At the moment, they’re all Anne, because they all have the potential to be. An eternal optimist, he is.

Laughter drifts to him on a salt breeze. The Annes dart into the surf, holding their skirts up, but getting their hems wet nonetheless. Their bare feet turn red with the sand and, forgetting their skirts, they plunge their hands into the waves, as if anything good to eat remains since the Change. They won’t find anything. Not that they really try. Not like the Dianas, who are off gathering lupins by the armful. At least parts of the lupin are edible, and might help them survive another year. The Annes are all full of hope, when they stop to think, which these ones rarely do. Mostly the Annes splash each other and laugh. Mostly they push each other into the surf, one pretending to be indignant, one pretending to scold, one pretending to drown.

It’s all a game with the Annes, it always is, but not enough of a game. Not yet. The right level of imagination hasn’t yet been displayed, and he hasn’t yet found The One. She hasn’t returned, but one day, she will.

He sighs. Soon, it will be time to call the Annes home. Gather them back to the house where they will all do the best they can, cooking what greens and weeds the Dianas have scavenged, adding it to whatever the Gilberts have managed to hunt. They’ll light candles – they have those still – and when they run out, they’ll burn driftwood, filling the house with the scent of old salt and the faint odour of ruin, washed in on the tide.

From the dunes and the long grasses gone wild above the red sand he waves. “Time to come home now, girls, I guess.”

He doesn’t wait to see if they’ll follow, but trudges back toward the house. His breath is shorter these days. It’s harder to wade through the long grass no one tends. He doesn’t need to call the Dianas or the Gilberts; he trusts them to find their way back. Besides – they don’t matter as much anyway.

It’s the Annes. Always the Annes.

When he finds her, the Anne, the right Anne, he can rest.

She’ll come again. He knows she will. She always has before.

The orphanage called it a mistake, but he knows. She was meant to be in his life. She saved him before, and she will again. Even though this time the story has turned out wrong. He’s lived longer than he should. He remembers too much.

(Hold on. It’s okay, hold on, we’ll get you help. It’s… Of course there are still ambulances, there have to be. What do you think we pay taxes for? Just…just hold on. Not for me. That little girl needs us. What will she do if you go?)

He climbs the stairs, his old bones aching. How did he ever manage to live this long? Salt breeze is in his veins, red soil replacing his blood. It leaves him stiff. Every day it’s harder.

His heart is bad the doctors say. Or said, before everything Changed. And now? He hasn’t seen a doctor in years. He hasn’t seen anyone but the Gilberts and the Dianas and the Annes. The occasional Miss Stacy, doing her best to hold onto the knowledge of the old world. Sometimes a Josie, trying to turn every situation to her advantage. And every now and then an Allan, alone or in pairs, preaching the word of the lost God and declaring the difference between Now and Then to be God’s judgment for the world’s sins.

He doesn’t believe a word, not from any of them. The only important thing is finding her, his Anne.

Below, in the kitchen and the parlour, in the much abused rooms never meant to be a functional hold-out against the end of the world, he hears a riot of movement and voices. Annes and Dianas and Gilberts colliding, bickering about the best way to cook the day’s salvage on the tiny stove meant for tourist-show, not every day work.

Everything they cook on it now smells of the rotten tide anyway. Or the mouldering furniture salvaged from neighbouring houses, fallen to ruin while they mysteriously remain. Or the trees, gone sickly, gone dark and wrong and riddled with beetles and worms, but still good enough for burning when nothing else remains.

He fingers The Book, one of only a few remaining copies. The rest have disappeared, lost to age, or perhaps resentful Annes setting out on their own, taking a remnant of his heart as a souvenir. Or perhaps it’s the Dianas, ever practical, burning them for fuel. He’s certain he’s seen words in the ashes, fragments holy enough to weep over, to gather in time-gnarled hands and press to his wrinkled cheeks.

This copy is foxed, the pages worn and water-stained. Mould has begun to creep in, and there are chunks of text missing. He fills the gaps with memory. For instance: Marilla was always the practical one, the sensible one. Why did she have to leave him? He was never supposed to outlive her. What will he do without her?

(Hang on. You have to hang on. Just a little longer. And of course he knew she wasn’t really his sister, but it was easier when he had to keep her talking, trying to keep her awake just a little bit longer, waiting for the ambulance that wouldn’t come. It was easier, fighting the Sickness, to tell her shared stories of a childhood that never was. Remember when…? And when he ran out of those stories, when his imagination failed, there were stories any and every book he could call to mind. He told them over and over again. As long as he could. Until the memories ran out. Until his voice grew hoarse. Until the words were too thick with tears.)

He runs his thumb over the pages, taking comfort in the rustle of ivory turning to old bone. It doesn’t matter that they’re not all there. The important ones are – the ice cream, the raspberry cordial, the Lady of Shallot, the puffed sleeves. And most importantly, Anne holding him in her arms as he dies.

This is what he’s been waiting for. This is what he needs. It’s been a long road, and he wants to lie down, but can’t. Not until he sees her again.

(I never wanted a boy. I only wanted you from the first day. Don't ever change. I love my little girl. I'm so proud of my little girl.)

His throat hurts. It’s hard to breathe. He wipes his eyes and turns from The Book, from the window, where he can see the last of the Annes and the Dianas and the Gilberts coming home.

He makes his way slowly down the stairs. The kitchen is crowded. Now, instead of raucous noise, he sees only a fullness he is fond of, something that makes him feel less alone. He watches, unobtrusive, as the tumble of boys and girls move about the space – all elbows, all feet – crashing into each other when they don’t mean to and whenever they can.

He pays particular attention to the Annes. For all he knows, one of them could be her.

“Cordelia?” he whispers, whenever one passes close, a whirlwind, orbiting him briefly for half a turn before spinning away again.

None of them answer. The first test failed. He leaves out a dress with puffy sleeves most nights, but none of them gravitate toward it. He watches for the way they do or do not braid their hair.

“Are you okay?” A hand touches his arm.

He looks up, realizing he’s leaning against the wall, sliding down it really, while his breath wheezes. He wipes his eyes – they are rheumy these days, always weepy whether he’s sad or not.

“Fine.” He straightens, trying to see the young woman in front of him. Is she a Diana or an Anne?

“Are you sure? Maybe you better sit down.” She pulls a chair for him. In a moment, she brings him tea.

It tastes like salt. Who knows how it was brewed. He doesn’t ask, only wraps his fingers around the cup, breathes and swallows deep.

She continues to watch him, concerned, chewing her bottom lip. She’s quieter than most. Is that right? Sometimes the memories get muddled and some days he can’t remember what Anne – his Anne - should be.

Amidst the bustle of the kitchen, the flurry of who knows what cooking on the over-worked stove in the too-small space, she pulls up another chair beside him and takes his hand. Her fingers squeeze his. They are cold. Or perhaps it is his skin that is cold, the chill transferred to her. She glances around, looking to see whether the others are listening, then whispers conspiratorially to him – her words the only thing he can hear in the din despite their hush.

“You know, I can almost remember the world before the Change,” she says. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you, the things you’ve seen.”

She squeezes his fingers again, flicker-bright. And oh, his heart aches.

“I can almost remember my parents. Cindy and Marlene Bransford. Maybe you knew them?” She pauses a beat, eyes full of hope. He can only swallow around the thickness in his throat. Only shake his head, overwhelmed by… Overwhelmed.

“No, I didn’t think so. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to say thank you.” She grips his hand hard now, and he can’t bear to look up to see that she’s sincere. “Thank you. I wouldn’t have had a home if you hadn’t taken me in.”

He doesn’t feel her leave, whirl away in a new orbit, swept away by a fresh tide. When he looks up again, he can’t find her. She’s fallen into the mass of Dianas and Annes and Gilberts, and to him they all look the same.

Shouldn’t he recognize her? Shouldn’t he know her anywhere, no matter what her face or name? They’re kindred spirits after all. Why has she waited so long to take him home?

(The little girl struggles to breathe. Her freckles are so dark against her skin, which has gone so pale, her red hair bright as fire in the sun. He cradles her head, trying to hold it up, as if holding her head above the tide. It killed them, but not by drowning. In slow, insidious ways, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. He’s only a simple farmer, here on vacation. Now he’s trapped, the bridge collapsed under the weight of evacuees – or bombed by the military some say. There are no ferries running from the island to the mainland, not anymore. Private boats all gone already or scuttled, trying to contain a thing that can’t be contained. There’s nowhere to go.

The supplies promised, the medical helicopters come to resupply struggling hospitals or evacuate survivors, he knows they’ll never come. But he can’t tell her this, the girl dying in his arms. She can’t be more than sixteen. And she reminds him of someone he knew once, a daughter or a niece, he can’t remember, won’t remember, because they’re gone and it hurts too much. He can’t think of anything to say to the girl, anything to comfort her as she gasps for breath, as her lungs collapse, as her body goes into shock, fighting against the sickness in its blood. So he says the first thing that comes to mind, a story he used to read to his niece or his daughter, the girl he can’t bear to remember, when she was a child: Ms. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place…)

One of the Gilberts brings him something to drink. It is like the tea, but thicker, and smells far worse.

“It’s for your joints,” the Gilbert says. “So they’ll hurt less. You shouldn’t push yourself so hard, walking to the shore every day. You know there are enough of us to take care of the food and there hasn’t been a raid in months. You’ve done so much for us, let us take care of you.”

He drinks the tea in silence, drawing what warmth he can from the cup. He always seems to be cold these days. Wasn’t it always summer on the island before the Change? Or perhaps it’s only the summers he remembers – sun bright in the lupins and on the waves, and Anne toddling on chubby legs, holding Marilla’s hand and laughing as the water drew near her toes.

No. He knows the memory is wrong, confused. Anne wasn’t a toddler when he first met her. She didn’t have dark hair like the girl he almost remembers, dark hair like the woman holding her hand and smiling back over her shoulder at him. It must be another story, one someone else told. He never lived that life. Never.

He squeezes his eyes closed. Maybe the Gilbert touches his shoulder and says something else before walking away. He doesn’t hear. There are low voices, a murmured conversation. He is the subject. They are worried about him. If he keeps his eyes closed, maybe they’ll think he’s asleep and leave him alone.

It’s not for them, not anymore. At first he stayed for them, the Annes, the Dianas, even the Gilberts. Someone had to take care of them, someone who remembered enough of the way things were Before to get them somewhere safe, keep them fed, keep them warm. Now it’s only her he’s waiting for, so he can sleep.

The voices move off, grow a bit louder. They’re telling stories now. Not the stories he remembers, not the stories from the old days. They’re stories of the future; they’re so full of hope it breaks his heart. They all start, “When things get better I’ll…”

He drifts off to the murmur of those voices, the fanciful tales of impossible future. So like his Anne, he thinks. Head always full of dreams. Don’t ever change.

He wakes in the silent kitchen by the cold fire. They’ve forgotten to stoke it again, now it’s only ash. It takes him three tries to push out of his chair, his old bones complaining the whole way. His fingers tremble and slip on the poker only meant for decoration. He stirs the ashes, but nothing. There’s no spark.

A scouting trip to gather more wood; the very thought of it sends a spike of pain through his lower back. His pulse thumps double time. How long does he stand that way, hand pressed to his back before one of the Gilberts – the same Gilbert? – comes through the door with an armload of firewood? He can smell the rot even from here, the dark, mossy scent. The wood is bug-riddled, but it will still burn.

“Let me take care of that.” The Gilbert takes the poker from his hand, urges him back into a chair. The fire is going soon enough and, soon after that, the kitchen fills with Dianas and Annes again.

By listening to the swirl of talk throughout the room, he learns two of the Annes left during the night. Not Annes then, something else he doesn’t have a name for. He doesn’t see the Anne that spoke to him yesterday, the one who was kind. She must have been one of the two who left, or maybe she was never here and he only imagined her.

There are only two Annes left now, and they are both quiet this morning, subdued with their heads bowed, speaking in low whispers. Perhaps they are thinking about running away, too. He watches them. Their features are drawn, pale. There are bruise-coloured shadows under their eyes. They’re afraid.

His bones settle and creak. He wills the joints to loosen. Come on, old bones, he thinks, just one more trip. I need you.

While the Annes and Gilberts and Dianas are busy, not paying him any mind, he slips out. The sun is bright and the air is fresh. It stirs the long grasses that try to tangle around his legs and for a moment he can almost pretend it’s Before, and nothing has Changed.

There’s a long, straight piece of wood beside the door, smoothed by time and his hands. It looks almost clean; he’s saved it and kept it this way, protected it. He takes it to lean on and it makes the walk a little easier. Once upon a time he would have done this in a cart. He had a good horse, didn’t he? Running to and fro to the station where the Gilberts and Dianas and Annes washed up. He gathered them in and brought them here, protected them. He even asked once, how they knew where to go so he would find them.

“Stories,” an Anne told him. “You’re a legend.”

On foot, it’s much longer. He can barely see the road through the tall grass, because who is there to travel the road anymore and keep it smooth? But it’s there, faint, a ghost of itself, and he walks it like a ghost – driving the stick in firm, buried in the red dust, using it as an anchor to pull himself along. It feels slow, unbearably slow, but he’ll get there. He can’t leave the Annes waiting. That would never do.

The sun is almost white in its brightness. He raises a hand to shield his eyes. Through his fingers, the road disappears to a vanishing point, a trick of the light and the red dust stirred up by the wind. Is that the station there already? Or is it a mirage? It wavers in the heat; he blinks stinging eyes, but it does nothing to clear his vision.

“Come on, old bones,” he says aloud. “Just a little further.”

He ignores the ache in his joints as best he can. Ignores the erratic beating of his heart, the tightness in his chest. He ignores the sensation of falling, his knees striking the ground and the long grasses whispering over him, hushing against his cheeks and ears like voices telling an old tale. It’s only an illusion, like the pain. He’s still walking, and that is the station ahead of him.

And there, through the haze, he can just make out the girl sitting on the platform. She’s clutching a battered case in both hands, straining her eyes to look either way. There’s hope on her face, so much hope; it’s fragile, almost-but-not-quite gone. She should know better than to give up on him. He always comes for her, like he’s come for her again now. Her hair hangs in two red plaits, one on either side of her face, framing the pale skin and the freckles. Not the boy they asked for, but something better. A girl. His girl. His Anne.

He ignores the way his left arm tingles, the tiny pains shooting from wrist to shoulder. They’re nothing. He ignores the scent of dust, thick and right next to his nose. He isn’t lying down. The world isn’t fading, crumbling, shrinking to a tunnel of grey surrounding the too-bright whiteness of the sun.

No, he’s walking up to the station platform now, suddenly shy, his heart beating too hard only from excitement and barely contained joy. Then she catches sight of him, and he knows. Her smile – all that tentative, fragile hope, all the big, impossible love no one has ever given her a chance to show before, all the moments to come, the poetry and the slate broken over Gilbert’s head, all of it. It’s all there in her smile. And he knows. She’s come home and he can rest. He’s finally found her. His Anne.




This story originally appeared in Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Apocalypse.