Here’s to the twilight / Here’s to the memories
These are my souvenirs / My mental pictures of everything
Here’s to the late nights / Here’s to the firelight
These are my souvenirs / My souvenirs
—“Souvenirs” by Switchfoot
* * *
December 24, 2079
Fifteen days after Ground Zero
A faint mist in the air and a gentle hissing in the background were the only hints that a slushy drizzle had struck Fresno, California.
Or, rather, what was left of it.
It had lost the right to be called a “city” altogether: Former skyscrapers, now derelict ruins that could have been abandoned millennia ago, lay on the slopes of a massive crater; debris stretched out like winding, rocky roads; the air was bitter with the rancorous odor of ash. Dark clouds, flying low as if trying to engulf the wreckage themselves, blotted out the stars and the moon. Perhaps the moon had been destroyed in Ground Zero, too. It was impossible to tell.
Fresno was destroyed. Life, however, was not.
A lone rat scampered over a large pile of rubble. It stopped, rubbing its nose in its ash-covered gray-brown fur, and then continued, slipping through gaps between debris like a snake.
And then stepped into a halo of rainbow-colored light. A lit plastic Christmas tree stood in the center of the clearing as if the ruins around meant nothing to it.
The rat started, but the shock was only momentary. A pair of dull brown eyes followed its progress till it disappeared behind the lonely foundations of a collapsed building.
Those eyes belonged to a man who had seen more than his twenty-eight years would suggest. His face was covered with a dusting of dark soot; his clothes were tattered, his hair ruffled as if by a hurricane; his back was propped against a lonely pillar in the middle of a bumpy stretch of concrete ruins that had once been a parking garage, a half-destroyed portion of roof protecting him from the rain. Meters away rested his only connections to his past life: a woman with beautiful green eyes and loose sandy bangs, and a young, five-year-old girl who clung to her mother with surprising fervor, both in clothes as dirty and ripped as his own.
Fate has a cruel sense of humor. In the joke of Ground Zero, the rifts between China and the United States were the premise; the bombers sent across the sea to hit the West Coast were the opening; Yellowstone’s eruption due to stray bombing was the climax; and the Canting family’s survival was the punch-line. Why had they been chosen to live? Only God knew how many others had been worthier.
Or maybe they hadn’t been meant to live, but had somehow slipped through some higher power’s fingers and could not be disposed of sans pleasantries. Michael didn’t know which prospect scared him more.
Teresa’s big brown eyes met Michael’s duller gaze. Michael moved to sit closer to his wife and daughter, reaching out with his right hand to brush Teresa’s dusty brown hair. New spots of ash discolored the young girl’s head, but she still stared into Michael’s face like nothing else existed.
“Daddy, can I ask something?”
“Go ahead, sweetie.”
“Well...” Her coyness, so utterly normal for a five-year-old, seemed alien in the unnaturalness of this whole situation. How one thing could exist unchanged after all else had collapsed was beyond any mortal’s reasoning, slaves of change as they were. “If everyone is... is dead—”
“Honey, we don’t know that,” said Kylee, glancing sharply to her husband.
Her husband seemed to not notice. “Teresa, you have to understand. Human lives are fragile. We’ve always been... out on the wire, I guess, and a little tip is all we need to fall over.”
Teresa Kylee Canting mentally digested that.
“Death — it’s a part of life. A sad part, but a part nonetheless. Nothing lasts forever.”
Those innocent eyes moved away from Michael’s face to something in front of her. Michael followed her gaze to the plastic Christmas tree and its bright lights, sparkling through the gloom. That a Christmas tree and a power generator were still in existence was another miracle Michael was at a loss to explain.
“What about Santa Claus?”
In any other situation, Michael would have laughed at the question and the earnest innocence behind it. But in the wake of so much destruction, the most he could manage was a sick-looking smile.
“Is Christmas going to be cancelled?”
Michael opened his mouth. His vision blurred with sudden warmth, and he realized his eyes were moist.
“Honey,” Kylee said to their daughter, interrupting her husband’s hesitation, “Christmas isn’t all about presents.”
“No,” said Kylee, and despite her firm tone, Michael saw her eyes were moist, too. “Christmas is about faith and hope.”
“And family,” added Michael, wrapping his arm around his wife and drawing her and Terersa closer. “All the gifts we need are in here” — and he tapped Teresa on the forehead; she smiled, but it was a weak smile. “Memories. Just remember all the happiness we’ve had together. Those are your greatest gifts: your own little souvenirs.”
The faint hissing in the background had given way to silence. No motors or car horns echoed in from the distance; no background chatter filled the sidewalks like rivers; no music wafted from radios on front porches. Everything that made Fresno, Fresno was gone.
Everything except the Cantings. Against all odds, they were alive; against all odds, they were huddled together in front of a Christmas tree, in their own little piece of heaven.
In short, they had a chance.
Maybe Michael didn’t resent Fate so much, after all.
* * * * *
Souvenirs has travelled a long, rocky road. At no point during my endless planning and rewriting was it ever meant to be more than the miracle of Christmas after destruction. The most interesting part of writing this story was how every time I rethought my approach, the plot became shorter: At first it had been the survival of a few families after a nuclear apocalypse, but I kept trimming excess plot until I was left with the image of a single family sitting around a Christmas tree in the middle of ruins. That singular image was enough for this nine hundred fifty-eight word effort to take shape.
Not long before my repeated efforts to write a suitable introduction ended, I decided to use Switchfoot's song "Souvenirs" as writing music. It's a touching song about a man looking back at his childhood and knowing his memories -- his souvenirs -- will be with him forever, and one of the best songs (in my opinion) on the album Vice Verses. I had never intended to name my story after the song. But this night, January 6, 2012, with my story half-finished and only three hours remaining till the entry period closed, I succumbed and wrote all the rest of this story whilst replaying "Souvenirs" on Windows Media Player.
I tried editing to increase the size of the text without making it too big (all edits within the thirty-minute edit period, of course) but failed. Perpetua is definitely a good font for this story, though, so I'm not changing it.
I hope all readers, including the judges for COT Short Story Contest 2: The Christmas Connection, enjoy this story.
Edited by Legolover-361, Jan 06 2012 - 10:29 PM.