“Is he gone?” Ava asked, her voice barely audible above the falling rain and the rush and splash of the tide.
Danny scanned the network of docks and the rainy gray ocean beyond as he lifted the last crab pot onto the pier. He nodded.
Neither of them mentioned what had just happened as they finished unloading the skiff, but the image of the Village Public Safety Officer pulling his weapon and pointing it at her remained frozen in Ava’s mind. All because she’d been hungry and picked the wrong moment to pull a meal bar out of her pocket.
In hindsight, Ava couldn’t remember if she’d dropped the bar and startled the officer into pulling his gun, or if she’d dropped it because he’d pulled his gun on her. Her recollection of the encounter was a confusing jumble: the VPSO boarding their boat and interrogating Danny. Needling Cam about his criminal record, as if he hadn’t been the same officer who’d put together the flimsy case and pushed the District Attorney for the heaviest sentence possible. Aiming his weapon at her, demanding to see all of their IDs, asking about the dead visitor.
The dead visitor whose body they’d just stumbled across. They hadn’t told the VPSO that, knowing it would make all of them suspects.
Danny tapped her on the shoulder and pressed the plastic-wrapped meal bar into her hand. “Go up to the fish shed where it’s dry and have something to eat,” he said kindly, nudging her toward the dock.
“It’s okay,” Ava said, pocketing the meal bar. “I’m not hungry anyway.”
“Go have something to eat. You’re as pale as one of the visitors. I’ll carry the rest of this up to the shed.”
Ava managed a weak chuckle at his joke; no one out here was as pale as the white visitors from various state and federal agencies who spent most of their lives indoors. Stepping out of the boat, she hoisted a crab pot in each hand and trudged up the dock toward Danny’s family’s fish shed.
The air inside was marginally drier than the rainy afternoon outside, tinged with the odor of crab bait, fish slime, and the lingering scent of wood smoke. It wasn’t particularly appealing, but it smelled like home. Ava sat down on a bench fashioned from a piece of driftwood and munched on her meal bar. It had all the flavor of sawdust.
Danny came and went, hauling the last of their gear up from the boat and tucking it away in the shed. The moment the officer turned and raised his gun replayed in Ava’s head over and over, her heart thudding in her chest. She had been certain she was going to die. She’d wished she’d hugged her mom and aunties more often, wished Cam and Danny didn’t have to see it.
Danny sat down beside her, and by that she guessed that everything had been hauled up from the boat. He was meticulous about taking care of his family’s fishing gear.
“Don’t feel too bad,” he said after a few moments of companionable silence. “It happens to all of us.”
Ava just nodded. Sometimes Cam talked about his arrest and the things that had happened to him in state custody. Sometimes, when it was late and it was just the two of them, he dropped the tough act and told her what had really happened. Sometimes he cried. Although it had only been a few years ago, he’d still been a kid when they’d picked him up for allegedly stealing from Old Man Morris. They’d beaten him so badly he’d spent three days in ICU in Anchorage, handcuffed to his hospital bed.
Ava wanted to ask what had happened to Danny, but the words wouldn’t come out. She didn’t want to imagine someone treating him like that. He was the most honest, upstanding person she knew aside from the ‘Ammas, a future village leader or fishing captain.
“I know it seems like a big deal right now,” Danny said slowly, fiddling with a worn spot on the sleeve of his rain coat. “But it won’t seem so bad in the morning. You didn’t do anything wrong. Go home, have some dinner, and get some rest.” He handed her the bucket holding the group’s meager haul from the tide pools: a small rock crab and a handful of mussels.
“What about Cam?”
“When he comes back from checking out the airport, I’ll send him your way. I know he sleeps on your couch most nights anyway.”
Ava ducked her head and mumbled a thank-you; people weren’t supposed to know that Cam was living with her. People would talk, her mother said. Her mom knew all about how that worked.
The smell of baked goods and caribou stew filled the little three-room house. Her aunties, Kathy and Lucy, had taken over the kitchen with their contributions to the ‘Ammas potluck. Ava left the bucket of seawater with its cargo of marine life outside the back door. Her mother didn’t seem to be around.
She had a sudden urge to sit down at the table and tell her aunties everything that had happened, from their discovery of the dead visitor in the sodden blue parka to the VPSO pulling his gun on her. Auntie Kathy was wise and Auntie Lucy was kind, and together they would surely know what to do.
She sat down at the table and fidgeted nervously, trying to decide where to start.
“Ava Marie! There you are!” Auntie Kathy exclaimed. “We need eggs and more flour.” She pressed a twenty into Ava’s hand and pushed her toward the door.
“Go! Hurry! Lucy can’t make her cake without them.”
Next thing she knew, Ava was standing outside in the pouring rain. She trudged down the muddy street toward the junction of the Old Village and the new one, where Old Man Morris’s Grocery Mart presided as the community’s only grocery store.
Rectangular prefab three-room houses lined the unpaved avenue, their siding faded and peeling, the remnants of a push to move the indigenous population into standardized housing. Up on stilts to keep their heat from thawing the permafrost bellow, the homes were damp and drafty. Some sat abandoned, their roof shingles and siding slowly sloughing off in the salty rain.
Ava picked her way around crater-sized puddles, some of which she knew to be nearly a foot deep. On the far side of the pockmarked dirt lot the Grocery Mart loomed, its wood-sided exterior dark and crooked. A weathered neon sign above the door advertised the owner’s name in foot high florescent green letters.
Ages ago, before Ava was born, it had been the village trading post. Then Old Man Morris came to town with a pocket full of mine money and pressured the local owners into selling. He’d lorded it up ever since, raising prices until no one from the Old Village could afford to buy their groceries there. Now the locals only visited in an emergency, and the store catered mainly to miners from the Conlin operation and the occasional group of tourists.
Ava took a deep breath and squared her shoulders as the glass doors slid open. The smell of preservative-laced food, aftershave, and cleaning chemicals assaulted her nose as she stepped inside.
Cam had done chores and run errands for Old Man Morris, although he wasn’t old enough to legally work there. In exchange, Morris had given him the expired food that didn’t sell and couldn’t be left in the mark-down bin any longer. Cam loved it.
When a state regulator passing through town made a surprise inspection, he discovered Cam in the stockroom, unpacking a shipment. Rather than admit to what he was doing, Old Man Morris accused Cam of trespassing and theft. Ava still remembered the look of bewilderment on Cam’s face when the VPSO told him the charges.
To her relief, Morris wasn’t behind the counter. In fact, no one was. Ava made her way down the gleaming isles, squinting against the glaring white light, searching for eggs and flour. When she returned, the register was still unstaffed.
“Hello?” she called.
Leaving her purchases on the counter, she slipped through the gray rubber flaps that separated the front from the office and store rooms. A sharp chime announced her presence in the employees-only area.
“Hello? Is anyone here? I need to pay for some groceries.” Only the buzz of the ceiling lights answered her.
The light was on the office, the door ajar. When Ava knocked it swung open. A rusty safe hunkered in the corner across from her. A pair of dusty wooden chairs were positioned in front of the desk, huddled together as if nervously awaiting an audience with the owner. The desktop itself was cluttered with paperwork, dirty coffee cups, and food wrappers. A glossy black laptop case lay atop the pile, something inscribed on the side in bright blue embroidery.
“What are you doing?!” Ava flinched as Old Man Morris grabbed her shoulder and hauled her away from the door. “Get out!” he screamed, pointing toward the front of the store with his free hand as he shoved her toward the exit with the other.
Ava needed no further encouragement. She grabbed the bread and eggs, slapped the twenty down on the counter, and fled into the storm.
Between A Rock & A Storm is a serialized murder mystery set in the same dystopian near future as Hel’s Fury, the preview of which you can read here. Hel’s Fury is featured in the charity collection Trumpland: An Alternative History of the Future, along with dystopian, horror, and science fiction stories from other talented authors.
Looking for something a little less Alaskan and a lot more cyberpunk? Check out Necrotic City, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, and other fine booksellers in paperback and ebook.