Friday, February 24, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 19 -- The bubble pops

Part 19, one away from 20.

If you are enjoying the story, would you tell others about it? I'd really appreciate it.

Sometime this week I'm going o put up two new versions of the cover. I'd appreciate your opinions on them. I'll post to Twitter when it's time to vote. Follow me there, if you aren't already: @JarrettRush

Welcome to the End//Part 19 -- The bubble pops

Caroline is still asleep, and I kneel next to her and rock her by the shoulder. Her eyes resist opening, but she slowly sits up.

“Yeah?” It’s a breathy response, one that it seems to take all of her energy to give.

“I need you awake,” I say. “Once this little bubble you’ve created pops we’re going to be in the same boat as we were before.”

“Yeah. OK.”

She takes in a couple of deep breaths then stands on wobbly legs and looks at me. She’s startled. I’m still in my goofy mask, and I’m sure I appear like some kind of odd monster in this outfit.

I raise my hand, sort of an “I come in peace” gesture. She looks away and starts surveying our position. I can see everything start to come back to her, the fog of confusion beginning to fade. She looks up to the top of the dome above us and sees the rain still coming down.

“How far does this go?”

“Couple blocks.”


“Still there. Waiting for us to come back out.”

Thunder crashes outside. We can hear it. Either it was an extra loud clap or the rain is slowing.

The thunder is followed by wailers crying out. It’s the rain. Hard to tell from here, but it must be slowing. I begin to gather the things from my pack that are still in a pile on top of our stack of rubble. I reload everything carefully, wanting to make sure that the backpack is balanced once we start walking back to camp. Just in case.

Caroline has already pulled her pack on her back. She’s holding the machete loose at her sides.

“The stove,” she asks, “where is it?”

I shake my head no. “Leave it,” I shout through my mask. I don’t know that she heard me, but she doesn’t move. So either she’s come to the same conclusion or this mask doesn’t impede conversation as much as I thought it did.

Caroline watches me climb down the pile and asks: “We have a plan?”

“Not yet,” I say. “But we need one.”

“Mine, right now, is pretty simple. Fight.”

“FIgure that one out while you were off dreaming?”

“Like this little hedge of protection? Then you’ll allow me to sleep a few minutes. This,” she rainbows both arms above her head, “takes a lot out of a girl.”

“And I’m forever grateful.”

We are approaching the edge of our dome and the mud rain has slowed dramatically. I am expecting a herd of wailers just outside the dome trying to claw their way through the light and energy, but they aren’t there. None of them.  The city looks wet and empty.

“Where …” Caroline starts but doesn’t finish.

“They were here earlier, just a few minutes ago. They were screaming at me. Crying out. Trying to get in. I don’t get it.”

“And just like that …” Caroline flares her fingers “Poof … they were gone.” She smiles and giggles.

“Glad this is funny.”

“Oh, lighten up old man.”

That’s when we see it, a body. Not a wailer. A human. It’s laying across the middle of the street about a block ahead, clearly beaten and broken. Clearly dead.

Friday, February 17, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 18 -- Scattered

Time for Part 18. I've been playing with the cover to this. I'm thinking I'll put some kind of poll next week to see what you all like best.

We got a good number of reads on last week's installment. Hoping to keep that traffic up, so, if you are enjoying this, I'd appreciate you letting others know. Send them a link. Retweet a tweet. Shout from a rooftop. Take an ad out in a newspaper. Whatever you can do is appreciated.

And if you are new to this series, here's all the posts in one place. Go catch up.


Welcome to the End//Part 18--Scattered

I scanned the crowd in front of me. That’s the first time it felt small. Not small exactly, but not as big as it should have. This part of Dallas was residential. There should have been more people. We all walked aimlessly.

I tried to form a plan, think of a place that I’d sleep that night. I came up with nothing. The best I could think was to follow the crowd, so I looked up toward the beginning of wherever this mass started. That’s when I saw her, my neighbor. Her blonde ponytail bouncing in a crowd of people who seemed to be leading the way. That’s when the sky screamed and everyone in front of me disappeared, crushed by a rock bigger than anything I’d ever seen.

It buried itself halfway into the earth and glowed red.

Terror filled the air, and the organized retreat that had existed a moment ago disappeared. People scattered like roaches, all directions. I ran north and west for no reason other than there was no one in my way.

I ran for blocks, over, around and through parts of Dallas that were still unfamiliar. I ran through downtown, across what was left of the park the city had built over the highway, and finally stopped near a creek that runs through a part of the city that Dallas calls Uptown for some reason unknown to me.

The water gurgled. That’s why I stopped. That and my legs couldn’t carry me any farther. Trees provided a canopy over the creek. A concrete path ran along the bank. Somehow this little spot of land hadn’t been hit by anything falling. It was still pristine, an oasis in a ruined city. I quit running and quickly collapsed to the ground. I laid in the grass and felt all the confusion and questions come on me. The adrenaline that had carried me this far was all gone. My tank was empty. I couldn’t have gotten up and walked if I’d wanted to.

I wasn’t alone. There were others who’d found this little patch of normal, and we were congregating in small groups. Conversation was everything you’d expect, variations on the same theme: What the …?

There was more speculation. The only other guy in my little group — just five of us, two guys and three women — was certain it was how God was going to destroy the Earth. One of the women lived close. She said she’d been watching TV and this all looked too coordinated to be God.

“Are you saying He’s disorganized?” The other guy was incensed. I chalked part of that up to the situation. “Because He created the world in just a week.”

She put a hand in his face. “Calm down, preacher. I’m just saying that what I saw wasn’t the world falling apart. It wasn’t military either. It’s something else.”

“What else is there?” One of the other women.

There was no response. Either the first woman didn’t want to say it, or she thought it was just that obvious.

“Aliens,” I said. “If it’s not military, and it’s not just the natural order of space pulling us apart, it’s something else. The only other thing is aliens.”

Everyone turned to listen to me, but I didn’t have anything else to say. I didn’t have anything else at all. I was done. My body was shutting down.

“He’s right. That’s what they were speculating on the TV.”

I turned from the group and found a spot that wasn’t too near anyone. I laid down and rested my head on an outstretched arm. I laid there and listened to a city in confusion. I didn’t last long. I was asleep in minutes.

I woke a few hours later. More people had found our little piece of land, and the noise from people talking and speculating made sleep impossible. Since I didn’t want to have another version of the what-just-happened conversation, I left. Truth was, I was still trying to process this whole thing for myself, and that’s something that I was going to do better on my own.

So after I woke, I walked. I kept going northish. I got to Lemmon Avenue, and that’s when the devastation, for the first time, became overwhelming. Everything north of Lemmon was gone. It was all just rubble and ash. I wanted to climb into it and explore just how far it went, because even in my hazy and tired state, I don’t believe that I thought it went north forever. At some point, if I had climbed in, I would have run into someone looking south into the pile and thinking the same things I was.

Instead of climbing in, I turned around. I headed back south toward my apartment and my stuff. All I had was my jacket, and that wasn’t going to be enough to survive.

Friday, February 10, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 17 -- The Start

Time for Part 17. We are about halfway through the story so far. Maybe more. I'm bad at estimations
like that.

I'm playing with covers and titles still, so that may change prior to publication. Not wholesale changes on the title. Just thinking about flipping the main title and subhead, Rubble and Ruin would become the series main title. That's probably a bit to inside baseball. All you want is the next installment, right? OK. Here you go.


Welcome to the End//Part 17--The Start

Everything fell apart on a Tuesday. A late Tuesday to be technical. I was a few months into my life in Dallas and I was watching a repeat of the 10 p.m. news. I’d had a date with a woman I met through an acquaintance. She was nice enough. The conversation was pleasant. I was thinking back to something she’d said and was considering whether or not I should call it a quirk or a red flag when the first rock hit.
I didn’t know it was a rock at the time. It was just a crushing and crashing sound that drew me to the window. I opened the blinds in time to see two more streaks stream low across the sky and then, a moment later, two more impacts. Then another. Then more until it was raining these things, whatever they were. I ran out the door and into the hall. My neighbor was already there.

“Meteors?” she asked. She was in some sort of loose-fitting pajamas, her blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

I didn’t know her beyond friendly hellos as we were coming or going, but she began following me out to the street. We could hear more of whatever these were tearing apart anything that got in their way. By the time we got to the ground floor, fires were already burning. The sky was filled with crashing rocks, and she began to cry.

“What’s happening?” She wasn’t asking me, just calling out in confusion. She repeated her questions to no one. I wanted to do the same thing.

“Come on.” I grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her back up stairs with me. She cried the whole time.

She followed me into my apartment and we both stood in silence as we watched the TV. The local stations had broken into programming. Some poor late-night worker was in front of the camera stammering and stuttering his way through an incoherent update that didn’t tell me anything I couldn’t learn by looking out my window.

I was angry. Why didn’t they know more? Then the picture went black. I flipped stations, and we watched there. A real anchor this time. The information was delivered smoothly, but still of little help. The news here didn’t know what was happening besides it seemed to be raining boulders.

I flipped again, this time to a national news channel. They were reporting this happening all over. Dallas, Kansas City, New York. It was everywhere, but no one seemed to know exactly what ‘it’ was. My neighbor was balled up on my couch. She was rocking back and forth. The world continued to explode outside the windows.

There was speculation of the apocalypse. That’s what one of the reporters was saying with a straight face. It was hard to argue that it wasn’t a plausible theory. We watched for a few more minutes. Five? Ten? More? Probably more. Then we heard it. A close-by explosion. The light in my window went a bright orange-white.

“We should go,” I said.


“I don’t know, but this doesn’t feel overly safe. At least if we’re moving then we’re not sitting ducks.”

She hesitated then began to nod. “Wait for me,” she said as she got up from the couch.

“I’ll try. But no promises.”

“I’m Mack,” I said as she passed out into the hall.

“Nice to meet you” I heard her shout. I never got her name.

I pulled my coat from the closet and began reaching for some of the camping gear I’d temporarily stored there a few months earlier. That’s when a deafening crash came from the back of my apartment. Half of my building was gone. Light from flames began to peek through cracks and holes that hadn’t been there just a moment before. I turned and ran for the door. I stopped for a moment in the hall, hoping to see my neighbor. Her door was open. I stuck my head in and shouted that I was going downstairs. I waited a beat, then two, for some kind of response, but I never got one. I couldn’t wait.

I got to the street and slipped into the streams of people. Even in the chaos we managed to organize our mad scramble for safety. Everyone on the right side of the road headed one direction. On the left we headed in another. The explosions continued, several of them in quick succession. Like firecrackers popping on a string but turned up to 11.

People were crying and talking. Some, you know the kind, were already speculating with unearned confidence about what had happened. Some thought it was some kind of war, an attack from a foreign adversary. I didn’t know. Maybe so. Others thought it was judgement. Push God far enough, they said, but never finished the thought.

I didn’t say anything. I just kept walking. To where, I didn’t know. Nothing seemed safe. I didn’t know it then, but nothing ever would seem safe again.

Friday, February 3, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 16 -- Once Human

Not a lot of wind up this week. Let's just dive into Part 16. Part 16? Wow. 


Welcome to the End//Part 16--Once Human

Her face is flush, all the color drained out of it. Her breath is slowing; she’s obviously spent. I don’t want to bother her, but I don’t have much of a choice. I don’t know how long this little bubble has before it pops.

I push her shoulder and tap at my wrist once she turns her head.

“What?” She’s not picking up on my homemade sign language.

“How long do we have?” I’m shouting inside my mask. Makes me feel like she can hear me better, I guess.

“I don’t know. A couple of hours probably, but that’s not a certainty.”

“Then sleep,” I shout. “I’ll wake you in a bit.”

Caroline rolls her head to the side and closes her eyes. She’s gone fast, her breath now a rhythmic in and out.

I listen to the rain batter against our little roof. It’s starting to slow, but only slightly. It’s still coming in waves. A torrent then something less. Then another torrent. It’s those moments of something less that are starting to get longer.

I can’t hear the wailers in here, and with the size of this little bubble -- a couple blocks diameter -- I can’t see them either. My curiosity is getting the better of me, though. I stand and climb down from the pile that Caroline and I ended up on and walk the couple of blocks to where our shelter terminates. It just disappears into the ground in a sizzling blue ring. I can see it before I come to the edge.

I can see the wailers too. They are still stalking out in the rain. They seem to be walking sloppy circles around us. One of them spies me as I approach the edge of the dome. It opens its mouth wide and cries a deep and guttural shriek that I can only barely hear.

These things look like something from a twisted cartoon, one of those underground bits of animation that would be part of some creepy cartoon tour that would hit college campuses. Hands and feet that looked human to some degree, but also not. Toes and fingers were now some kind of extended claws. The face had been stretched long, like someone had grabbed a tight hold of the chin and just pulled with everything they had. That made the mouth bigger, making room for jaws filled with sharp and pointed teeth.

The back had become stooped and their walk was awkward and crouched. The only thing that still looked mostly human were the eyes. They’d gone all black, but they still had the almond shape. Human, it’s hard to believe that’s what these things once were or what these people had to go through to become like this. Was it a living torture? Or had they died before turning to these things? Were these cries meant to terrify us, or were they seeing those of us remaining and crying out for help?

I continue to approach, and the thing swings a clawed arm at the dome. Its hand draws back in a violent motion. Whatever our shelter is made of, it isn’t so much as nicked. I move closer and the thing cries out. Two nearby wailers also approach, crying out the same. They want to get to me, but I’m safe. Or safe enough for now. I’m the animal in a cage. They are the kids at the zoo taunting me.

We need a plan, though. Once this little dome disappears we will be just as exposed as we were before. I have to wake Caroline. We need to be prepared.

Friday, January 27, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 15 -- Dome

A quick update before the next installment. The overall story is almost finished. A few more thousand words and I should be able to type "the end." This thing has been an easy write, and that always makes the process more fun. I've got ideas for the next story in the series, the next steps in the overall tale. I like it. Hope you will too.

So, again, if you've enjoyed the story up to now, tell others to check it out. Share it on social. Evangelize for our zombie aliens.

OK, enough rambling. On with the show.


Welcome to the End//Part 15--Dome

After a moment Caroline’s screaming stops. She shakes her wrist free from my grip and runs beside me. There are wailers all over, but not as many and I thought there would be. But even one wailer is too many. They all cry out, screaming to each other in a shrieking language that I can’t understand, but can tell that they are communicating. They seem to be converging on us in a slowly tightening circle. They come from behind. They approach from the front. We continue to run.

Caroline points at a pile of rubble a dozen feet high. I can barely see it through the rain, but we make it our target. We each take leaping steps up to the top, not worrying about a misstep or a footfall that will send us tumbling. It’s climbing with confident abandon. We reach the top, have the high ground. From up here we can see that the situation is worse than I imagined it could be. The wailers aren’t stopping. It’s like this rain has caused whatever dormant wailers there were to hatch. They are all out now.

Caroline is turning tight circles as we watch the wailers approach our pile from all directions. The first reach the base of our stack and begin to climb. They aren’t as confident as we were. Or maybe they aren’t as desperate. They climb slowly, carefully. That’s good for us. I pick off those that get halfway up the side I’m watching. Caroline fights off hers off with the machete. I help her if she needs it. She helps me if I need it.

But this tactic won’t be effective forever. This first wave of wailers is scattered, spread out. They are climbing the pile one at a time. But soon they will be coming up in pairs. Then threes and fours and fives. And eventually the pile will be overrun. We can’t hold them off forever, and I start to consider that this is the hill where I die. A pathetic little hill made up of spilled brick and concrete.

I fire a couple of shots into wailers that have just reached the base of our hill. I take aim at another and my gun just clicks.

“That’s it,” I say. “I’m out.”

Caroline swings at a wailer and asks if I still have my gas mask.

“My what?”

“That goofy thing you grabbed from the doctor’s office.”

She grunts through a slash across a wailer’s chest then plants a boot into the thing’s stomach. It tumbles down the rubble, taking two others with it. Other wailers have reached the bottom of the stack on my side. They climb over fallen brothers and begin the ascent up to us.

“It’s in my pack,” I tell Caroline about my mask.

“Put it on,” she says and lays down her machete.

I upend the pack and its content pile up at my feet. I push my hand into the pile and feel around until my fingers brush a cold, brass fitting. I pull the mask out and put it on.

Caroline begins chanting something in fast words that I don’t understand. Her hands begin to glow a bright blue and she speaks louder. Her voice climbs to a shout and at the crescendo she lets out a scream. It triggers some sort of blast from her hands. It’s a shockwave of blue light that runs along our pile of rubble and out to the streets. It cuts down every wailer it touches. They lie silent and still. I can’t tell if they are sleeping or dead, but it doesn’t matter. They are down.

The blast stretches out for a couple of blocks then begins to arch over us, coming together at a point just above Caroline. We are now inside of a blue glowing dome.

Caroline collapses onto the top of the pile. I reach to take off my mask and she grabs my wrist.

“No. Don’t,” she says.

A muffled why comes through the mask.

“It’ll kill you. You aren’t made to breath the air in here.”

“And you are?” Again, muffled.

“Apparently.” Caroline lays back. Her breathing is deep and quick. She’s exhausted, like she’s just run a sprint. And, in a way, I suppose she has.

Friday, January 20, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 14 -- Stampede

It's Friday. That means more story. We are getting to the middle of this thing, big moments coming. Hope you all like where it goes. I do. I really feel like this is one of the best things I've written. I like the plot. I like the characters. I like their backstories. I like their journeys. I'm want you all to like them too. If you are, let me know. If things aren't working for you, let me know that too.

Now, onto Part 14.

Need to catch up? Do it here.


Welcome to the End//Part14--Stampede

We both freeze. It’s habit. Hear the wailer. Try to figure out where it’s coming from. Triangulate. But, now, just as soon as the first wailer calls, dozens of others respond. Caroline and I both shrink a bit farther back into our little cave. She pulls the machete from her pack, and her knuckles go white around its hilt.

After the reponses die off, end their banging around the buildings and rubble of downtown, another wailer calls. Dozens more respond.

Another call. More responses.
These calls and responses are all coming from different locations. This isn’t a pack or clan or whatever wailers run in. We aren’t talking about a dozen or so staying in place and just making a game out of calling to each other through the rain. There are hundreds out there, and they’re moving.

Maybe they are looking for cover too. They were people once. Being stuck in a downpour like this, that’s your first thought: find shelter. Maybe those base instincts aren’t something that disappear so easily. I repeat that thought over and over, but I know it’s wrong. These aren’t wailers looking for cover.

I pull the gun and let it hang loose in my hand. We haven’t seen any wailers yet, but we haven’t seen much of anything with the rain, and that’s what has me anxious. There could be wailers walking the streets just in front of us, and we wouldn’t be able to tell. I don’t think they are there, but it’s possible.

A wailer calls again, this one close. A block away maybe. It doesn’t wait for the responses to finish before it calls again, even closer now. A choir of respondents scream into the storm. Thunder rolls overhead and even more wailers cry out. Hundreds now, and they all sound like they are on top of us.

“Wait here,” I tell Caroline.

“Wait? Where are you going? You aren’t leaving me here.”

“Just poking my head out. I’m not leaving.”

I take a cautious step out of our shelter. A wailer cries right into my ear. I drop to the ground and a jagged claw catches my cheek. My hand instinctively moves to cover the fresh wound. The gun in my other hand raises and fires two quick shots at an enemy I can’t see.

I fall onto my back and roll into the shelter. Caroline drops to look at me.

“You’re fine,” she says. “Or will be.” She stands back up.

The wailer that caught me has set off a series of calls from others. Their piercing shrieks are beginning to drown out the rain.

Wherever these wailers had been, they are in front of us now. It’s a horror show stampede.

Their foot falls are creating a low rumble. I hear and feel them bumping and rubbing against our shelter. It’s a fragile space that’s fine for keeping dry, but it’s not going to stand any kind of rough treatment. Wailers are anything but gentle. We have to move.

I grab Caroline’s arm. I turn and look to her. “Are you ready?”

“For what?” Her eyes narrow. She’s not understanding.

“We have to go.”

“Out there?” She gestures with her head to the space in front of us.

“Yes,” I say. “This place isn’t stable. The wailers will knock it down, and we’ll be trapped.”

“We aren’t trapped now?”

We don’t have time to debate this. I pull her with me. We’re running. She screams the moment that the stinging rain hits her face. I don’t have any specific destination in mind. I’m just moving.

Friday, January 13, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 13 -- Rain

Hi, everyone.

We'll get to the story in a minute, but first I need to tell you about something else. I'm part of a promotion that you might be interested in. Here are the highlights. Seventy books from 70 authors, each for less than a dollar. They are all scifi and fantasy, so if you're a speculative fiction fan (and if you're here I assume you are) then this is perfect for you. Restock your Kindle on the cheap. Honestly, some of these books look great, and, if I had the money in the budget, I'd go grab them all. So check it out here.

Now, onto Part 13 of our serial story. Part 13 being posted on Friday the 13th. Just a lucky coincidence. We are still getting decent readership, but I'd always love more. If you're enjoying the story then send others over here so they can enjoy it.


Welcome to the End//Part 13--Rain

The fat kind of rain patters against the window sounding like someone tapping the glass with their fingers. The drops get heavier and the rain falls harder as Caroline and I watch. The rain is a light tan because it’s not really rain. It’s mixing with the dust and dirt that’s been hanging in the air. It’s raining a mud puddle. Long brown streaks down the window obscure everything outside. We hear water start to drip through the broken cracks and smack the mirror in what was my bathroom.

Caroline turns from the window and looks back toward the closet.

“You don’t have a couple of umbrellas in there do you?”

The building groans and shifts. It may look solid, but it’s not as stable as we think.

“Unfortunately, no.” I grab the hood on the back of her coat and give it a shake. “But we do have these.”

The building groans again. The suddenly wet soil under the foundation has made the footing unstable. Everything shifts slightly, and I turn to Caroline.

“We should go.”

Her shoulders slump. “Ugh, fine.” She tucks her ponytail into the hood as she pulls it over her head.

“Where’s the stupid stove?” she asks and scans the room. I point to the red box leaning against the wall near the closet. She lets out a sigh.

I swing the now-loaded pack on my back and twist my shoulders to shift it to a spot that’s comfortable.

I open the door and Caroline heads out first, hugging the stove to her chest. The rain is roaring now, coming down in dark brown sheets.

I take one last look inside the apartment and see all of my stuff, my life. This is it. It’s literally closing the door on what life was. This is me saying that we can’t go back. Acknowledgement that life is basically a dystopian wasteland. I hesitate for a moment, taking all of it in, then pull the door tight behind me and lock it.


Mud rain stings. It’s falling harder and heavier than regular, clear rain, and every drop hitting you is like a tiny little fist. And with the rate this mud rain is falling we are getting pummeled.

Caroline pushes her shoulders up to her ears. She holds the stove above her head and, with the rain, it sounds like an out of tune steel drum.

I pull my pack up higher on my back. It’s bulging top keeps my neck protected, but I can feel the rain pelting my arms. I imagine them polka-dotted with bruises when we get back to camp.

After a block Caroline veers right and finds cover under a bit of wall that has fallen off an older building but hasn’t broken. It’s created a bit of a lean-to. And as long as the wind doesn’t pick up and start the rain blowing sideways, we’ll be covered.

“I’d had enough of that,” Caroline says as she puts the stove on the ground.

“Me too,” I say. “Smart call.”

We look out into the gloom. It’s getting hard to see across the intersection in front of us. Caroline sits down and leans against the bit of building that hasn’t fallen. At this rate, we will be here a while.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she says.

“No one has.”

“It’s weird, being in a world that’s new to everyone. I’m a kid. I’m supposed to have someone to look to for guidance, someone who has experience with all to this who can say ‘Here …” she pauses to hold out her hand. She looks to her palm, like she can see whatever imaginary object is sitting there. “... this was helpful for me when I was going through that.’ ”

She pulls her hand back and slips it into her jacket pocket. Along with the rain, the wind is starting to pick up. Coming from behind us, thankfully. Our bit of fallen brick should keep us mostly dry. It won’t keep us warm and whatever front that triggered this storm has brought cold air with it. I feel the wind lick at my ankles.

Caroline continues.

“Now …” She pauses again, staring once more at something that I can’t see. I’m sure it’s some mental picture of how her life was supposed to have unfolded. “Now, there’s no one who knows what to do. No one has been through this. We are all just making it up as we go. You, Mack. You I trust. I feel like you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, but even you don’t know what to do. You make your best guess. You use your experience …”

Caroline starts to cry. The tough girl is cracking. The rain is wearing away her hard candy shell, and what’s inside isn’t as sweet anymore. Someone who was ripe with confidence just a few minutes ago is starting to turn. I can’t let her core go rotten.

“Don’t say that,” I tell her. “It’s tough, sure. And it’s scary. But we’re smart. We’re adaptable. We’ll figure this out, and probably sooner rather than later.”

It’s not much of a pep talk. I recognize that as I say it. But it’s something. It’s an attempt. I just don’t need her thinking hopeless thoughts and giving up.

“I know you’re right,” she says. “It’s about determination. Are we going to let this beat us or aren’t we? But this rain. The dark skies that are quickly coming. The wailers …”

And as if on cue, one of them cries.