After The Storm
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After The Storm

MURDER MYSTERY

Chapter Two: Rowan Looks Back

“How could this have happened? Why on Gaia’s green Earth had life done this to her?”

Photo by Shane Hauser on Unsplash

She had just seen their son a day ago. Rowan remembered squeezing her son’s hand tightly, not wanting to let go. Halden was all packed for his voyage to the Bangalore Collective. His certificate of approval was in hand. They were standing on McMillian pier — a giant, pre-Fall construction made of treated wood and concrete. The ocean had risen significantly since then, and so the relatively nearby Neo Boston Techno Collective had had to jack up the pillars and extend the pier past the flooded boardwalk ruins into the hills.

“Love you,” Rowan said, placing a wet kiss on his cheek.

“Be sure to ping me when you land,” her wife, Úna, instructed.

“Of course, moms. Love you too,” he said matter-of-factly, squeezing Rowan’s hand back before letting it go.

Rowan did her best to commit to memory every detail of his face before he turned away. His cute button nose. His long hair. His splendid dark skin. He was so much like Úna in every way — stubborn, strong, beautiful — that she sometimes wondered what he had of hers. She still thought of him as a little boy, and yet here he was, standing before her, fully grown and ready to leave.

Halden walked down the nano-alloy walkway to the ferry. He waved goodbye from the bow of the ship and then took his seat amongst the other initiatives bound for collectives up and down the eastern coast. Rowan and Úna watched the ship depart as it hovered above the waters. Within fifteen minutes, it was gone, zooming away from them until not even the black dot of its outline remained. Less than an hour from now, Haldan would be 300 miles away in Maine, though to Rowan, it felt much farther.

They initially didn’t say anything on their way back to the herd. The wind was surprisingly cold for the height of summer, and she couldn’t help but think how cold Halden must be on the deck of the ferry. Rowan had not wanted Halden to go. Herd Salem would not make their way to Maine for some time, and it might be years before he returned to walk their path — if he decided to return at all. It was not typical, but some stayed at collectives their entire lives, and many more moved on to other herds.

“We will see him again,” Úna reassured Rowan. She tried to touch Rowan’s shoulder, but her wife moved it just out of her reach. There was silence between them. Rowan hated how perfect her wife seemed. Úna hadn’t even expressed the smallest hint of regret at Halden going to study Physics in Bangalore. All she had done these past few days was work. She had thrown herself into her position as Chief Shepherd, micro-managing their preparations to relocate to another camp more intensely than normal. Úna had hardly let herself grieve, and Rowan felt like she was taking on the burden of losing their son alone.

“Let’s go to the overlook one last time,” Úna suggested after a tense minute of silence.

Rowan said nothing, but she followed her wife all the same through the recent footpath that weaved through the scraggly pines. They collected the few missed pieces of Fallen garbage along the way, placing the refuse in green knapsacks they hung on their shoulders.

When they reached the end of the path, they settled on a flat rock that slanted slightly vertically so that they had a direct view of the bay. Hundreds of years ago, this bay had been a flat stretch of land. It had been a sprawling set of land dotted with a variety of trees, bushes, and most importantly, concrete, that substance Fallen humans seemed to love so much. Yet decades of extreme storms had rather violently whittled away at the stone until all that remained was a sheer cliff. They sat there for a half-hour, saying nothing, listening to the whistling of the wind.

“It’s beautiful,” Úna remarked of the brilliant expanse of blue sky and ocean before them. “We really did clean this place up in no time.”

“Yeah,” Rowan said simply. She was stubbornly willing herself to be upset. Her son was gone, and she did not want to be happy about it.

“We will see him again,” Úna assuaged as if reading her thoughts. After three decades of marriage, if anyone could, it was probably her.

“You can’t know that,” said Rowan after an icy pause. “He might never walk with us again, Úna. Neither of us returned to our herds after our first departure. When was the last time you walked with London?”

“That doesn’t mean we won’t see him again. People do travel to other herds, you know,” Úna chided lightly. Her defensiveness seemed to build.

“It’s like you don’t even care,” Rowan shouted, trying to antagonize her wife into a fight.

“Hey, that’s not fair,” Úna huffed.

“It doesn’t seem like you do.” Rowan reiterated, digging deeper.

Úna took in a deep breath. Rowan could see her Shepherd training starting to kick in. She handled people every day and would need far more than her petulance to lose control. “I do care,” Úna said firmly. “I just haven’t wanted to admit it,” she said, coming to the realization as she said it. “Sorry.”

An apology. Nothing was worse when you wanted a fight. There was nothing left to do but take it. “Thank you,” Rowan responded aggressively. “Perhaps, it was unfair of me to say that you don’t care. I’m just stressed and…” Her stomach growled. “Hungry,” she continued.

Úna hugged Rowan and then kissed her on the forehead. “There, there, my sweet. Why don’t we get you something to eat?”

They made their way back to camp, depositing the Fallen garbage in recycling carts positioned at the campground entrance. A hectic buzz of activity was happening as people deconstructed their tents and rolled up their packs. Today they would continue their trek northward to another campsite. Halden had waited until the last possible day to go to the collective, so he could have more time with his family and herd. Salem had had a huge party for him and all the other collective-bound last night — though you would not know it by how thoroughly everything had been packed away. The only remnants of last night’s festivities were the gray ash in the center of massive fire pits, surrounded by rings of stones.

The two of them had already packed their belongings this morning, but as Chief Shepherd, Úna had to check in with various people to make sure everyone was on task. There was always a last-minute dilemma that needed smoothing over, and they were on a tight schedule. She had told Rowan last night that the campsite permit Salem had negotiated with the regional herds and the Confederacy required that they claim the new site in less than three weeks. It was not a lot of time, and to make matters more stressful, herd El Paso would be arriving here in a matter of days. She watched Úna’s muscular body bustle from tent to tent and cart to cart, ensuring that nothing was left behind.

Rowan spent her time by the food cart, which was slowly being disassembled, eating the leftovers from breakfast. She loudly slurped the broth of a soup made from mushrooms scavenged from the surrounding woodlands and some handmade tofu diced in. She watched people back up their large-nanofiber tents and stuff them into small bags a fraction of their size.

They lived their lives based on what they could carry. It amazed her sometimes how invisible their tech had become. Even Rowan’s suit could cool or heat her body, so it was always at the optimal temperature. Most of her electronics were integrated into it, and what wasn’t could be compressed into miniature sizes.

She wondered how her ancestors had lived in a world where things took up so much space. She had seen pictures. You could find fragments of pre-Fall buildings on the Common Archives, but she had trouble wrapping her head around staying in one place for her entire life. It sounded like it would get dull very quickly. She had gone up and down the Americas three times in her life, and every excursion had made her want to see more.

And yet, there was an odd pleasure in imagining a stationary life. She missed all the places she had visited — the swamps of the Floridian nub, the Catskills beaches. She remembered wading in the water, touching the cattails, picking up fallen ones, and turning them into stick figures for Halden to play with. She had never been able to return to these places because herds were always moving on to the next remediation site, cleaning the messes of people hundreds of years dead, and now Halden had left her to go to some place stationary. The one thing she couldn’t give him.

“Uh oh, you must be thinking something big,” said Úna. She was taking a break from her shepherding duties to check in on her.

Rowan rolled her eyes. “Nothing much. Just about what it would be like to stay in one place.” There was a hint of melancholy in her voice as if she wanted to be transported back to that world of large houses and static routines, traversing the same landscape over and over again.

“Sounds dull,” Úna remarked. There was an edge of disapproval in her voice, but she tried not to show it too much.

“How goes the herd?” Rowan asked, changing the subject.

“Good. Well, no, there are some problems. One of the 3D printer carts has broken down. We will need to send Chi and Ava to the High Rock collective to get it repaired. And we are behind on our biodiversity mitigation quota. But besides that. Fine.”

Rowan smirked. She loved hearing her wife complain. “Always the worrier,” she said.

“Comes with the position, Grumpy Bear. Besides, I thought you liked how attentive I could be.” Úna moved behind Rowan and hugged her from behind, placing a tender nibble on her neck.

“You’re terrible,” Rowan giggled, pushing her wife into her.

They were being playful and energetic, part of their ritual to ease the tension after a big fight. She was so happy, and then she wasn’t again.

When she saw it, Rowan started shivering intensely. She screamed — a deep guttural cry reminiscent of a wounded animal on the trail. How could this have happened? Why on Gaia’s green Earth had life done this to her?

Úna looked at her, confused. She might have even thought they were still fighting, but then she saw it too. There, standing in the middle of the campsite, was a dead body.

It was their son, Halden.

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