Opening chapter of Apparent Magnitude

The vines choked street lights, the skeletons like litter after a festival. Daria peered up through the windshield and slowed the car to a crawl.

“We need a place to sleep for the night.  Maybe two more hours of light,” she said.

“Dog alert?” asked Abby.

Daria’s dark eyes scanned for the signs, then honked the horn.

“We’ll find out.”

They sat and watched for movement.

“Looks good,” said Daria.

The car continued its spluttering down the street. They passed through a street with big ornate gates to triple story homes — one with Roman columns for the entrance — another with a glass swimming pool running the length of the driveway. Two skeletons were sprawled on the front lawn, weeds entangled through their rib-cages. Their jewellery glinted in the setting sun.

“God this would have been a posh place to live,” said Abby.

“Yeah but full of greedy bastards,” said Daria.

Abby paused and sniffed.

“Are we, ya know, driving with a plan?”

“No. I’m aimlessly driving in circles taking in the sights.”

“Just asking.” Abby held her hands up in mock surrender. “What’s wrong?”

“Funny feeling in my gut. Or I ate something bad,” said Daria.

“What’s the feeling?”

“Some of these homes, they look lived in.”

“Really?” Abby scanned the street. “They look pretty shabby to me.”

“But not shabby enough.”

“Right, like someone is trying to keep the appearance of the end of the world, but …”

“The world didn’t end,” Daria interrupted. “The world is doing great. Look, see those autumn leaves, they don’t look as scattered as they should do. Those skeletons in the front garden back there, they should be completely overgrown.  And look at that house.” Daria pointed. “The ivy, it’s wild, it’s devoured the place, but the front door looks exposed.”

“Are you sure?” asked Abby, who tried to hide her smile.

“No. Just a feeling. And I know what you’re thinking, I’m not being paranoid, just careful.”

“Careful? That is not a word I’d use to describe you,” Abby laughed.

“Wow, how strange would it be to meet new people? How long has it been, four, maybe five years?”

“You are too sweet Abby. Let’s not make this another Greg incident,” said Daria.

“Everyone else worked out good, didn’t they? Did you?

“But I was there early on. Anyone living out here now, they might be crazy.”

“Cannibals!” Abby mocked her and pretended to bite her shoulder.

“Fine, you believe what you want, and when someone is spit-roasting your leg over an open fire, I’ll laugh.  It’s all about the psychology of surviv —”

“Are you going to lecture me?” Abby interrupted.

“No. I’m going to laugh as your leg is seasoned and marinated.”

“Oh shit!  Stop the car!” said Abby.

Daria reached for her knife. “What? What is it?”

Abby grinned. “Follow me.”

They left the car. Daria fastened her knife belt to her hip. Abby had forgotten hers, so Daria rolled her eyes and grabbed that too. Abby had already jogged ahead to the garden gate, the wooden slats broken in several places. She kicked it until she created a hole big enough to get through and scrambled inside. Daria followed, scanning for signs of danger.

“Yes!” Abby punched the air in victory.

Before them was a tennis court, its red floor faded like a well-loved t-shirt.

Abby kicked the first fall of autumn leaves aside and ran her hand along the length of the net. Daria surveyed the ageing court against the huge modern house. Surrounding her were wall to wall windows three stories high. A tree had fallen through the third story window, impaling the glass like a spear.

“Let’s go inside. They must have rackets and a ball somewhere.”

Abby sprinted up the path to the back door, threw a rock through the glass and opened it.  Daria shook her head. She strolled to the nearby shed and found several rackets and a bucket of balls. She pulled out two rackets and a ball and tossed them onto the court, then followed Abby inside.

“Okay,” said Abby, almost hyperventilating with excitement. She put her hands on her temple and rubbed like a medium channelling a dead spirit.

“I’m a rich horrible person in the old world.”

“What kinda rich person?” asked Daria.

“The kind with a tennis court in my garden. I never donate to charity, I’m probably a banker, and I’ve got some Z-list celeb friends. I think I’m more important than I am. I have a tennis coach once a week, but I’m only good enough to beat my friends — I don’t ask anyone to play me unless I know I can beat them.”

“You sound like a total cunt.”

“So where would I store my tennis gear?”

“You tell me, you’re the one communicating with spirits.”

“Bedroom, next to some plastic trophy for some random tennis competition.”

Abby turned and ran upstairs before Daria could speak. Daria scanned the kitchen for anything useful. She shifted through the cooking knives in the metal rack, each one worth hundreds of dollars in the old world. They were worthless now. None of them had the weight to kill a dog quickly. She guessed the people here never cooked and would insist on ridiculous food like smashed eggs on sourdough toast and soy, half-strength, extra hot coffees. Daria couldn’t remember what milk tasted like. The choices she used to have danced around her like whirling dervishes.

She walked into the living area, a leather couch the length of her hut cut across the middle of the room. The wall-mounted TV screen looked like a black hole. She would have killed someone in the old world for a TV like that. Instead, she pulled out her knife, cut the cords, and stored them in a bag at the kitchen door. Cords made for good rope.

She stared out the window as Abby crashed about upstairs. Leaves had begun to collect at the borders of the paths.  Winter was Daria’s favourite time of the year.  A fire kept her warm. In the summer, there was nothing to cool her down. She narrowed her eyes. It seemed as though the path had been swept recently. A little too organised for this time of the year. She sighed. Sometimes the old world seeped into the new.

Abby tapped her on the shoulder.

“Daydreaming?”

“Yes. Actually, I was.”

“No luck with the rackets,” Abby said, as she shrugged her shoulders.

Daria pointed to the rackets she’d thrown on the court earlier.

“Where did you find those?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Well come on then!” Abby squealed.

“Okay Abby, but I’ve never played tennis, so don’t humiliate me.”

“I’ve played like twice in my life. I loved watching it though.” Abby ran to the service line. “And it’s Abby Williams to serve the first ball in the opening grand slam of the season!”

“Your name isn’t Williams!” Daria called back.

“It’s in honour of Serena Williams.” Abby tossed the ball into the air, swung and missed.  She tried and missed again.

“It’s so much harder than it looks.”

“Okay, new rule for the new world. All grand slam serves are to be served underarm.”

She hit the ball to Daria. Daria intercepted, swung and hit the ball so hard it flew past Abby and into the metal netting at the edge of the court.

They both burst into laughter.

Apparent Magnitude Episode one only 99 cents

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