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Second Place Fiction Contest - "After the Rush," by Roberta J. Barmore


     The dry cornstalks rustled in the breeze so loudly he could barely hear her. "I said I'd had enough rice and beans already."  He turned and spat dust. "What's so terrible about that?"

     She met his eyes square-on, squinting.  "It's what we're having for dinner.  I told you this morning. And just now."  She hugged the lunch pail like it was a kitten.

     He looked over her shoulder and down the row, swaying stalks converging into a solid mass of yellow-gold, the color her hair had been when they first met.  "I didn't ask at breakfast. I'm just all riced out."  How long ago had it been now, ten years?  Before everything started falling apart.  Before the smash-flat storms of black rain with months of drought between.

     She interrupted his memories, flat-voiced.  "Too bad. It keeps longer than anything else. Market day was three weeks ago and there's another week to go."  Daring him to make something of it.  She was better at planning and making the best use of what they could get.  He couldn't deny it.

     He shrugged.  "If it keeps, let it keep. Make something else."

     "No."  She had her jaw set; he could hear it even without focusing on her face.  “The beans been soaking since last night. They have to be cooked."  

     She was thinner these days.  Hell, he was, too.  There was always too much to do and not enough to eat.  His stomach rumbled as he thought about it.  He looked at her, cradling that lunch pail to herself, her face a scribbled sketch of irritation.  "Oh, whatever. No damn rice for lunch."  He'd spent the whole morning trying to dig the tractor out from where it had crumbled through the hard-dried mud over a deep hole and dropped the back wheels in before he could get clear.  More of the everlasting mess.

     She nodded, held the pail out to him.  "Made bread this morning.  I'd think you'd've noticed the smell of it rising.  There's a couple more bottles of water, too."

     He took the offered food, precious glass jars of water, said, "Ate already yourself?"  Might as well be polite.  Looked at the field again, the heirloom corn Pop was proud of keeping going, stalks faded as yellow as butter.  When was the last time he'd had butter?

     Butter.  What he wouldn't give. He bit into a rough-cut slice of fresh bread. He'd never run cattle, wouldn't know where to start.  Didn’t have the land for it anyhow.  Hogs were easier and theirs had been producing well.  Weird-looking piglets with the new boar this year, growing fast.  They had lard, lots of work to render. Butter-- 

     He’d never thought to store butter. Two weeks of supplies on the shelf, he'd grown up with that and expanded to a couple months worth as long ago as the Oughties.  But who kept butter? It froze okay, didn't it?  He'd been happy after it all started that she'd insisted on having dried spices and canned meat.  He'd been happy they hadn't tried to bug out, after news of what was happening on the interstates started coming back.  Those idiots run out from the city, with their shiny nylon bags full of pre-packed junk already dissolving -- he'd sent plenty of them packing.  They'd started calling it The Rush.  Rush to escape, rush to shelter, rush to the government food trucks--

     She had been, he realized, saying something while he chewed and stared over the field.  The cornstalks were in motion behind her, the wind rippling across them.  He glanced at her.  "What?"

     She gave him that look.  "I said, there's a little ham left. And some cornmeal.  I'll do ham and beans tonight, some cornbread, but it's rice tomorrow.  Friday, too."

     The cornstalks were really whipping around now, the scritching as loud as barely-remembered surf, clouds climbing way out on the horizon like a breaking wave. He was annoyed with her, loved her -- well, he was used to her, and she to him.  Hadn't all the survival guides said the ability to get along with your fellow survivors was at least as important as stocking tools and supplies?  He shrugged.

     She said, "You'll miss that rice when it's gone.  Keeps a long time, the way you got it in those five-gallon cans, but it doesn't last forever.  No telling if or when there will be any more."

     He finished the last of the bread she'd brought out.  "Leave the water bottles. I'll fetch 'em back."  The wind was picking up, carrying a smell like the ocean, like electricity.  And a black wall of cloud boiling up fast like they did these days.  Lighting flashed in it like the headlights of a hearse taking a corner. "Maybe you better get over here--"

     A gust of wind nearly knocked her over.  She turned the stumble into a step, ended up beside him and they hunkered down next to the tractor in a spattering of raindrops, black with dust.
    He turned, looked up to judge the storm, and saw it: skinny little pig, tumbling through the sky, ragged-looking skin flapping at its back. A gust of wind popped the loose skin out full, bat-like.  Wings.

     He blinked, nudged her as another winged shoat pinwheeled up in the wind, a black-and-white piglet just like--  Their hogs.  Those were their damn hogs.

     The black rain swept towards them like a wall, six more bat-winged shoats tumbling ahead of it, no, five, now; as he watched, one slammed down into the cornfield and thunder roared.

     The rain hit them, ugly, loud and cold, soaking through their clothes.  He leaned close to her, hugging them both against the scant shelter of the tractor and said into her ear, "Save that ham for later. You're right, I can eat rice."

     Damn tired of rice and beans. Maybe he could borrow the neighbor's boar and try for another litter yet this year.


Roberta J. Barmore was born after Zeppelins but before seatbelts.  She has been reading since as soon as she realized what those wonderful marks were.  She began writing fiction in grade school, usually instead of doing homework.  She shares her Indianapolis home with one lodger and two very large tomcats, and works doing arcane technical things for a TV station.