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Loaf of Bread (4 AF)

When anyone can be a covert pyromancer, or thought stealing psionic, who do you trust?

A new class of citizen is arising in the post apocalypse, and as the mancers and magic users spread, the unpowered civilians are pushing back. Lines of right and wrong have blurred: Not all who are powered are evil, and not all who are not are good.   


    Force, unimaginable for such a small frame, accompanied the sound, and jolted Alex from sleep. Lani’s knees impacted his spine by way of his stomach, and vague consciousness of daylight filtered through drawn curtains, came to sharp, stabbing attention along with the need to pee.

    “Good morning daddy. Morning. Morning. Morning. Mooooorning.”

    He cracked open both eyes crusted with sleep and peaked out from under plaid covers.  Tiny fingers fiddled with threads sticking up out of the blankets entertaining herself after he didn’t answer. Inching at first, and then with acceleration, he reached out and grabbed her sides and tickled her ferociously, raising decibels with the sound of laughter. Another thirty seconds of morning rough housing finished before he freed her.

    “Go find mommy, you need to get breakfast in you.”

    “Mommy found you both,” Linda said. Her short, slightly stocky figure loomed over the edge of the couch, and her tumble of red hair nearly brushed his face. She nudged their daughter out of the way, then bent low over the back of the couch and kissed him on the lips. “Go to the kitchen, baby, breakfast is on the table.”

    Alex considered pulling her down over the edge for an embrace but urgency in his bladder dictated haste and he swung his legs down to the floor.

    “Did you sleep better propped up?” she asked.

    “Mostly. I never thought I would miss cough drops. Hated them as kid but I’d fight a wild hound for a few now. I’m sorry I kept you up half the night.”

    “When did you sneak out here?”

    “When I coughed so hard, I left my lung on the floor. Around midnight I think.”

    “When you’re done stuffing your lung back in and done getting dressed for work, there is some tea on the table for you, super-strong the way you like it.”

    “Too good to me,” he called as she strode away in her old-world fuzzy monster slippers, to make sure Lani ate breakfast instead of playing with it. 

    Having relieved his bladder and gotten dressed in his cargo pants and ratty but presentable work shirt, he ran a comb through thinning brown hair, and considered shaving the stubble off his chin. He looked the wrong side of thirty-five since it had turned predominantly gray. A wind-up clock on the dresser in the bedroom, informed him he didn’t have time. He would barely make it to work already.

    He strode to the kitchen, where his family waited, scooped up the tea which Linda had already thoughtfully put into a travel mug, and kissed them both on the top of their seated heads. Lani giggled and his wife hugged his waist.

    “Be good back and remember to buy bread on the way home!”

    Her voice followed him out the door of their home in western Wilmington. Salt air and ozone filled his nose. Real life must have inspired the thunderstorms of his dreamland. People walked in pairs and triplets toward the center of the city, and he scurried to join them. Wilmington had thrived the last few years; the proximity to the ocean and the relative stability of the Southern States allowing citizens to recover. Thankful he had been blessed with a skill that survived the Fall, and he never turned his nose up at a day’s honest labor. Wood working mounted in importance with each passing year, demand far in excess of skilled workers to meet it. Programmers and business managers, suddenly without immediate vocations at the End, still worked to pick up the pieces years later.

    A small crowd ahead of him formed a circle in the middle of the street where cars had once sped along. Those on the periphery filtered toward the middle, and those near the center slowly drifted away.

    “… set fire to the wagon. Two Abnormals, one Hulk, and one Pyromancer were seen fleeing the scene, having left behind graffiti on the road demanding equal rights and equal pay for equal work. The mayor says that the officers of the Southern States are working to apprehend the two arsonists, and that the public at large should report any suspected or confirmed Abnormals to the local police for questioning.”

    The young man drew in a breath and prepared to repeat his message to drum up business for the stack of locally printed papers at his feet. Alex strode away having never quite reached the circle. Abnormals committing arson hardly constituted news these days. He lengthened his stride and pushed slightly through the crowds, apologizing as he went.

    They demanded land, demanded to be allowed to work alongside honest normal people, demanded to be allowed into schools with normal kids. What made them think they had the same rights as the rest? One uncontrolled moment of anger and a hulk could snap a man in half. One angry little pyro girl in school could kill his baby, Lani, without effort over nothing. Abnormals weren’t known for their brains. Sure, a biomancer could heal you, but they could stop the blood flow to your brain and nobody would be any the wiser for how you died or who did it, too. It wasn’t right to have them around.

    Why’d they fight so hard anyway? The Kritarchy up north begged for Abnormals to come live with them, like God had blessed them or something. Insane what the Catholic Church would dream up. He didn’t know what they saw in them anyway. Maybe the theocracy needed a magical work force to keep pace with the Southern States.

    “Just leave and go where you are wanted,” Alex muttered. He moved past and hurried the rest of the way to work. 

    “You’re late, Walker.”

    “Nah, you’re just too early, Joe,” Alex shot back.

    His boss was a good-natured guy and understood life with a family was hectic sometimes. They had worked together for three years and Alex slipped down to his chair, picking up where he left off the night before, detailing a carving along the scrolled edges of a disassembled dresser.

    “Feeling better?”

    “Cough won’t go away, but I’ll live.”

    “Good. Let’s try to get this done by week’s end, the client is coming back and the gross on this one is big.”

    The feel of the wood and the smooth finish under his rough and calloused hands felt familiar. He knew the piece, remembered knots of wood and special whorls of detail he had used to avoid cutting through the hardest portions. His hands worked almost without accompaniment by his mind.

    The pair of men didn’t need to speak much in the shop to get things done, and hours passed in relatively uninterrupted quiet except when a customer came in occasionally to inquire on pieces or rates, bartering services, or if they could pay in the new Southern States’ dollars. Alex’s creative hands gave birth to all of Joe’s custom-made wood workings in the shop, and all of those carvings. Joe ran the business side and the large-scale assembly. Owners picked them up within days of manufacture, leaving little space or need for a showroom floor.

    “You hear about the fire?” Joe said when he came back from one of the most recent walk-ins.

    “Yeah. Crier this morning was shouting about it.”


    “Well, what,” Alex answered without looking up. “Someone should be rounding up and tagging them like dogs.”

    Joe walked around behind him and Alex felt the heat of his presence. He had always had something of a soft spot for the Abnormals but the recent violence seemed to be setting him to change.

    “What about Lani?”

    “What about her?”

    “What if she was an Abnormal?”

Alex finished the stroke of the finest grain sandpaper he had, brushed a hand over the surface to make sure he liked the finish. “She’s not.”

    “They manifest at puberty, sometimes.”

    “She just isn’t,” Alex said.

    Joe muttered something, grumbled and went back to his side of the shop. Relief washed over Alex. He liked Joe but despised when unrelated politics came up at lunch or breaks. He already spent the better part of the day dwelling on what-ifs and in annoyance about the state of the world in his own mind. He didn’t want the added worry of thinking on his baby girl growing up to be some kind of abomination.

    Alex ruminated for hours.

    He checked that each clamp fastened and mated wood pieces as he wanted them a last time. “Ok, it’s all I can do tonight,” Alex said at last. “The glue needs to dry and cure for twenty-four hours but we can finish assembly tomorrow.”

    They parted company slightly ahead of his normal knock-off time. Alex strode down the road ahead of most of the evening crowd, enjoying the brisk walk and empty lanes when he heard his wife’s voice in his head and stopped. He doubled back toward the bakery near the shop, wishing he’d remembered to stop on the way to work, when the bread would have been guaranteed fresh. Leftovers no doubt, possibly even from yesterday, belonged to those who shopped so late. He could always bargain down the price and make proverbial lemonade at least.

    Chimes rang out over the door that slid along the old-world linoleum floor of the local market turned bakery.

    “Hey Nell.” Alex greeted the owner with a wave.

    He received a silent bob of the head in return. Nelson stood behind the counter, leaning against the wall of old glass and plastic, opposite a modern wooden till with a key lock.

“Got anything left fresh today? Linda is making eggs tonight, over easy, and wanted something to go with.”

    Nelson shook his head and pointed down the way toward the back of the shop. “Freshest stuff. Late yesterday’s last bake. Some in the oven now if you wait thirty.”

    “No time. I’ll grab the older stuff.”

    Nel waited at the front register, not bothering to accompany Alex to the shadowy rear of the store. Alex recalled his last few trips here, and Nel’s predilection to talk with customers, ask about their day, their families, and direct them to their favorite bread or point out the freshest loaf. Alex grabbed a quick glance back over his shoulder as he walked the short distance away. Nel chewed on his fingernails, something Alex had never seen him do before. The proprietor furtively glanced left to the kitchen door which swung both ways then back to the front door twice before Alex looked away.

    Memory of the crier and the general on-edge nature of the town struck him and he wondered what exactly Nel worried about. Abnormals coming in, or Abnormals in the walls?

    Alex glanced around and tried to remember the outside of the building. No stacks of wood like the other bakers always stacked in cords for the ovens. Nel called himself the baker, but always lingered in the front, no matter when someone arrived. When did he find time to bake or tend the fires?

    Maybe he should report the old baker for investigation the next few days, let the law sort everything out. If he wasn’t an Abnormal and wasn’t harboring one, no harm no foul.

He grabbed the freshest looking loaf, which happened to be one of the biggest, round and bulbous in the middle. A lot of middle improved the bread to crust ratio, which made it seem fresher. Beside it on the old wireframe shelves of the market, dried sausages, still in their casing, hung from the wires. There was dried cheese, small balls, still in their rinds, suggesting a full package for a meal.

    Linda had been working extra hard lately at making dinners, and he had worked late three times the last six days. Maybe a picnic tomorrow was in order? She always did so much more for him than he did for her. He didn’t mean that to be the case.

The bell at the front rang again as he picked up the cheese.

    Autonomic response took over before his brain registered the reason he hit the floor, dropping bread, sausage, and the cheese. Alex’s hands went up over his head and his legs pushed him behind the back of the shelving where he wouldn’t be seen as a second gunshot went off, and the sound of dust and debris hitting the floor followed.

    Who would be foolish enough to use a gun? Who understood the chemistry enough to even consider trying it? They backfired as often as they worked, and could take off a wielder’s hand!

    “All the fucking money old man, now!”

    A stick up? How was this happening? Robbery at gun point died with the Fall! Nobody wielded guns. His mind raced back to the Abnormals; a pyromancer might control a gun’s backfire. His heart pounded in his chest at twice its normal rhythm, and he thought of Linda and little Lani, and the picnic he intended for them.

    “I’m sorry I’m going as fast as I can…” Nelson’s voice quivered and the jingle of a small key ring fumbling about in his hands filled the shop.

    I was going to report him? He is terrified of the Abnormal, Alex thought. Steeling his heart, Alex peaked around the corner of the shelf with just one eye and saw the man waving the gun around at the baker, paying no attention to the rest of the shop.

    “You got to three then I blow your face apart and just take the key ring off your body.”

    “Please, I have a little girl!”

    Fear, guilt, and anger mixed in equal proportion in Alex’s breast, and he knew what he wanted someone else to do if someone threatened him, as father of his little Lani.

    “I love you, Linda,” he whispered under his breath.

    He didn’t pray often, though he went to church. He didn’t find much need for it. His life was good, and he didn’t want for anything. Yet, somehow it felt right to let the universe, or God or whoever might hear that little prayer, know he was thankful for his wife and daughter.

    Feet beneath him, starting from the crouching position, he sprinted fifteen feet across the room. Soft, old rubber soled shoes drew a loud squeak with each step that turned the assailant ninety degrees to face him, and drew the gun off of Nel. Alex tucked low and barreled his shoulder into the thief’s chest while both his hand grasped for the hand holding the gun. He felt a hard stop against the counter where momentum carried them both, and then all sound faded out to a sharp ringing as one, two, then three gunshots went off in rapid succession. He and the burglar screamed incoherently.

    Two, three, and four times he hip-checked the man, trying to find some leverage to throw him but Alex stood with the top of his head just below the burglar’s eyes, and it had been a lifetime since his last judo class. He couldn’t reach the gun, and made due with grasping at the thief’s wrist and forearm. The arm swung around in a loop, they tugged back and forth, and the gun barked out twice more.

    Alex staggered back from the attacker, and the gun hit the floor with a thud. He made a fist to strike the man, and found that his fingers slipped across one another. Looking down at his hand, he looked at someone else’s arm though a lens of a half-remembered dream. Red dripped down his fingers and his shirt stuck to his forearm. The gun had only gone off a moment ago. Had the attacker been hit that badly?

    Nothing hurt, it had to be the burglar.

    He squeezed his fist to swing and found his feet suddenly no longer supported him.

The thief conjured fire right there in the air in front of Alex, and thrust his arm at him, only for flames to be stopped by a shield of glowing blue light which emanated from the air around him, like ripples of water on a clear pond. Behind the counter, Nelson wove his hands again in a complex pattern and a second wall of lightly-shimmering air slammed into the burglar with the force of a dozen charging men, sending him into the wall of old-world glass, which cracked down its length.

    The robber must have hoped for a quick score, not protracted resistance, and slipped out the door as Alex found himself on his knees and then listing to his back to sprawl on the floor.

    “What’s happening?”

Nelson lifted the swinging counter to come into the store front, waddling with his bad knees over to Alex, where he dropped to the floor beside him.

    “Amanda!” Nelson called over his shoulder. “Amanda out here now!” He faced the front door, still ajar, and called out to the street with a bellow, “Doctor!” 

    “You’re an… Abnormal?” Alex’s voice felt detached from his body. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. “You… could... have... defended yourself?”

    Nelson nodded weakly.

    “I thought you would report me, my daughter.” He faced the side door again. “Amanda, now!”

    A girl appeared beside Nelson, and Alex didn’t see her arrive. He couldn’t see much of anything. His vision tunneled down to just Nelson.

    “Why?” Alex mouthed at them, but the noise didn’t come out. Why was the floor so wet?

    “If you don’t heal him, now, he will die,” Nelson demanded.

    “I don’t know how to stop that much blood!”

    Alex recognized panic in her voice. Why?

    “We have …”

    Their voices faded with the light to the end of the tunnel.

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