Writings: Curio Shoppe Prologue by Beth Bowser

This is a prequel (written from a writing prompt) for a short story I wrote for one of the competitions mentioned earlier. Hot & Bothered Click here for a printer friendly version of this page

“Next on Channel 5 Action news, everything you need to know about spontaneous combustions! Will it happen to you or your loved ones? What can you do minimize your chances of combusting with no notice! And the water shortages, why are they happening and what can you do about them? Stick around after this break to learn everything mentioned and more!”

The TV changed to a commercial expounding on the virtues of an auto insurance company and I stopped paying attention and looked elsewhere. My family still had their eyes glued to the TV. My mom, dad, and brother, younger by a decade, Andrew looked like mindless dogs with their mouths open panting in the heat. I couldn't help but notice how insanely overheated and sweaty I was and how ripe we all smelled.

“Mom, can't we turn the A/C down a degree or two from the at least 90 degrees we are baking in right now?”

“No dear. Your father and I haven't been able to go to work in months, but we still have bills to pay,” she responded without moving at all. The combustions started a couple months ago, around the same time as the heat wave hit us and never let go. It wasn't unheard of for the high to reach the hundreds in the height of summer in Maine, but it was unheard of for it to last a week, let alone multiple months! Originally, the news and the politicians were sweeping everything under the rug, ignoring it in the hope it would go away. It was an urban legend. Gossiped about, but most didn't believe it as there was no proof. Sure, videos of people catching on fire went viral but it was so odd, very few believed it was real and chalked it up to fancy video editing. When a local anchorman burst into flames on live TV, it could no longer be hidden.

“We have to do something to deal with this heat! We smell like roadkill left to bake in the sun for a week and everyone is only allowed a single 1 minute shower a day? That's not enough get even the slightest edge off the horrible stench. This is crazy!” I ranted. After that incident, our community devolved into panic. The usual avenue of holding marches and picketing the politicians to provide more information turned out deadly. The first group that collected to march on the Maine's politicians sadly combusted into flames in front of the state capitol building after demonstrating for a couple hours. Our local news stations, cowardly cretins, filmed it all from within their air-conditioned buildings and refused to let any of the protesters inside.

My mother waved her hand at me in annoyance so I looked back to the TV and noticed the news had returned. Reporting the same information we already knew. Massive heatwave. Blah blah blah. Fires happening everywhere. Blah blah blah. Do not leave your house. Blah blah blah. Worse water shortages. They wanted to tighten the water usage even more? We were going to be allowed only 30 second showers and 2 cups of water a day?!?

“Okay, I've had it! We are leaving for the mountains! Mom. Dad. Andrew.” I stood in front of her, a blond woman with a blank stare in her early-sixties, copious amounts of sweat dripping off her skin, and turned off the TV. It started as a daydream of mine, us moving to the nearest mountain, Sugarloaf, about an hour's drive away. It no longer had a snow-capped peak, but it had to be cooler than here at its elevation. I saved every bit of extra liquid I could in water bottles, even squeezing our houseplants dry. If they hadn't already, they were going to die anyway. “Pack up your and Dad's things. We are leaving tonight. Andrew! Same to you, pack up your things, the clothing you'd need for a week's summer vacation and no more as we're going to be hiking eventually, so make sure your luggage is not too heavy. Okay? This family will not have a member who spontaneously combusts!”

I dragged myself upstairs and had to sit at the landing to my room as, you know, heat rises and it had to be at least 100 degrees here now. I quickly threw all my underwear in my oversize soccer bag along with a few t-shirts and a few pairs of shorts. Mesh shorts and tops, the sports moisture wicking variety. Everything stunk, nothing was clean, we couldn't waste the water to do laundry. I added a pair of sweat pants and sweatshirt to the bag and zipped it closed. Wouldn't be good to escape the heat only to die of hypothermia! Done, I got up to leave and double-check on everyone's packing. One the way out the door, I caught my reflection in the mirror. I barely recognized myself anymore. I looked like a zombie from The Walking Dead without any evidence of how I died. My hair was a stringy, nasty dishwater blond sticking to my face, forehead and neck. It made me wish I had chopped all my hair clean off! My face was sunken in, especially around the eyes and my arms appeared stick-thin. I looked a 50 year old woman rather than the mid-thirties I was. No. Never going to look at my reflection again. Never ever.

I was alone at the front door, so drug myself back up to the 2nd floor and helped everyone finish packing. Andrew had to reminded how heavy heavy all his gaming stuff was. He didn't need a PSP, a Switch and his whole game library! I made him pick one game and the system that the game was for, telling him he may wish he hadn't packing either. Then I added a previously packed bag with a few necessary items to our luggage, and waited for everyone to make it down to the front door of the house. “Okay, now listen closely everyone.” I focused on Andrew. “We're all adults and we can handle a little nudity, right? Right. So, everyone strip down and leave your clothing on the floor except socks. Carry your bags and a pair of your best hiking shoes with socks inside them to the car. It's near 130 degrees outside now so we have to be quick quick quick about getting in the car. Yes, we have enough gas to make it to the mountain and hopefully enough to use A/C for maybe 10 minutes at the beginning of the drive, but we can't waste any time, any water, any effort. GO!” I waited to be the last to leave and lock up, not that I thought anyone would break in. Breaking in would take too much energy that no one had.

My Dad took the driver's seat as per usual and I was shotgun, the navigator, while Mom and Andrew took up the back seats. The first 10 minutes were very hard for all of us. I know I almost passed out from our rancid smells recirculating but the car's air conditioning eventually overtook the outside heat and left us in a glorious low-nineties temperature. I felt I could breathe without pain finally and started to relax.

Until we stopped moving. We were about 45 minutes into the drive and the road was impassable. Stationary cars were parked sideways on the road at least ten cars deep, blocking anyone from continuing forward. My stomach dropped. We were so close!

“No! Who did this? Who orchestrated this?” I can't.. no, I won't be denied! “Come on guys, it appears we need to start our hiking sooner than we planned, but I know we are strong enough to handle it. Consider it another part of the adventure, put your socks and shoes on, grab your packs and go! Let me know when your throat is so dry it's cracking and I'll get you a water bottle.”

I had to cajole more than I wanted to, but soon everyone was out of the car with their packs on their back and we started walking up the mountain road. It was hard enough to walk in the extreme heat but extraordinarily hard to go uphill in that same heat. The only saving grace, I found, was that the outside temperature was a little lower than our home as we had driven up the mountain a decent amount.

“Waaa... teer” Andrew whispered from behind me. “Of course,” I replied and handed him a water bottle. “Don't chug it. Just drink about 4 or 5 sips and give it back. We still have to ration the water until we find a lake or stream or something.”

Mom and Dad both touched me, begging for water too and in short order, two of the four water bottles I had meticulously scrimped and saved were empty. It was my own fault as I was carrying two bags. I didn't realized how much water I needed as well so I ended up finishing off those two bottles when the other's weren't looking. I tossed them behind me on the road. The important part was that we were all still alive and ambulatory. We continued up after the unplanned break until I heard some talking ahead of us and held out my arms out to stop everyone.

“Sssh,” I whispered. “Wait here, I'm going to go a little forward to see if I can hear better.” Mom and Dad did not look happy about it, but nodded. Andrew sat down heavily in the closest shade which was only wisps of dried, brittle branches, the trees had long since given up on useless things we used to call leaves.

“Otta keep the riff-raff out.” I crept close enough to a section of the road where there was a switchback ahead, with some small wonderful shade, to hear a snatch of a man's parched voice. “Is this really humane though? I think everyone who has the survival instinct should be welcomed here.” A feminine voice chimed in closer. “No. We gotta care fer ourselves first. Don't be knowing how long we gotta hold out eh? Can't be adding in extra slurpers, water fiends, to our community.” The first gruff male voice replied.

I stopped to think for a bit while listening. No other voices added to the conversation as the man and woman continued bickering. I liked her. Him, not so much. I decided to go back down and pull my family back to the partially shaded spot I found where we could all hear anything said.

“I want to wait for the first opportunity to speak with the woman,” I whispered to my family. “I think she'll listen to me and help us. Just hang tight a little longer,” I added as I handed them my third full water bottle. Only one left I thought as my stomach cramped in dismay.

The heat and lack of water played with my mind. I had no idea on the passage of time, and I kept seeing odd things in my vision. I could have sworn I saw an animal, like a cat or dog, run in my field of vision in this barren woods, but it was somehow able to hide in brush that disappeared when I tried to focused on it. That freaked me out and allowed me to hold steady, refusing to move from where I was. I may have even dosed off, but I heard footsteps coming nearer to us and that quickly put me back on the closest to high alert I could be at the moment. The person kept getting closer and closer and heard finally the slight swishing of fabric and a female voice groan from very near me.

“Hello, can you please help?” I called out tentatively. “Oh! You're naked... Wherever did you come from? ” A woman exclaimed, trying not to look at me as she burst from around the switchback in the road.

“My family and I are trying to escape to heat in the mountain. We have been hiking, naked, yes, since we hit the car roadblock down a mile or.. um however long that was. Felt like a year? I don't know, but can you help us?” I smiled to her. Trying to make friends when you need help is never a bad way to go!

“Wow, you already made it very far!” She replied, smiling back, still trying not to look at me. “Yes, I would love to help your family! Do you need clothing?”

“Thank you for asking, but no, we brought clothing. I requested we all strip, except for socks, for the journey here to be able to sweat more effectively.” She had to let us in now! I proved to her we would do whatever is necessary to survive!

She nodded to me. “Smart. You can't ruin your feet. Well, I need to relieve myself, but then please have yourself and your family get dressed and follow me up the road a little bit. We have a camp ahead. It's not anything fancy, but it is out of the sun and we have water.”

I panted back to Mom, Dad and Andrew, grabbing a shirt and shorts while telling them to dress. I then loudly told them to follow me back to our guardian angel, yes, maybe that was a little thick, but whatever may endear us to her is worth it! We trudged up the switchback to her camp. She didn't lie, it wasn't very far away but I didn't feel like I had it in me to take one more step and collapsed the moment I stepped inside the 'camp'. Before the collapse, I noticed the camp was actually a very large building, complete with a well and a lake on it's grounds.

I came to in a large cool room and sat up to take stock of myself. Andrew was passed out next to me and my mother was sitting near us both. I felt my arms and legs and realized it really was cool in here, the goose pimples told me so! Or it may only have been my brain playing tricks on me because the temperature change between where we had been and now was so shocking. In my excitement over feeling actually chilled, I stood up and heard my father talking to someone near me.

“We'll pull our weight. Give me a task, I'll do it.” Dad was standing in front of me and speaking with a man. The room was very tall and had to be at or near 15 feet tall, holding about twenty people of various ages and races. It had many ceiling fans, lazily spinning above us.

“We. Do. Not. Have. Space.” The man replied, punctuating every word by poking my father's sunken cheek. I recognized the voice from when I was ease-dropping near the switchback.

“You won't even notice we are here,” I croaked out. I felt a hand touch my shoulder and the feminine voice chimed in, “They are survivors, our kind of people. They hiked here naked from Farmington for God's sake! We cannot turn them back, it would be murder.” The woman who directed us here had our back, I knew I could count on her.

“Thank you...” I trailed off. “I don't even know your name, I'm Mindy and this is my mother, Donna, my father, Michael and my younger brother, Andrew.”

“Pleased to meet you Mindy, I'm Susan, this is Nate and...” Susan pointed to the angry wannabee murderer before continuing the introduction of the rest of the people standing around us. I didn't have the energy to listen further past Nate.

“What is the plan? Or do you even have one?” I asked Susan.

“The plan is to wait out the heat wave. We have a number of experts of different fields staying here and we figure the heat was caused by the excessive manufacturing which has slowed down and maybe even stopped now, due to multiple combustion deaths and workers refusing to continue to work.” I nodded for her to continue. “We expect that when winter rolls around, it will be a reasonable enough temperature that we'll check the cities again or maybe just start construction of homes here. There are a number options we have come up with, but for now, we have clean water from a well and nearby lake and mostly working solar generators.”

“We would love to help you, the whole community if you would be so good as to have us.” I looked around the group of people, trying to make eye contact with as many as I could. “I used to be employed by Ford Motor Co as an automotive engineer, I'm sure I could figure out solar. Donna was a nurse and everyone can use an extra nurse, right? Michael is an accountant, I'm sure he can help somehow. Andrew is a... a hard worker.” I turned to find Andrew who was sleeping or maybe just hadn't woken up from his knocked out state earlier. I should check on him soon.

“Wonderful! You sound like helpful sorts to add to our community. Everyone make your vote. Should we allow them to stay and assist us or commit manslaughter and force them to leave?” Susan spoke loudly so all could hear and cast their votes. We were quickly voted in to stay and each handed sippy cups of about 3oz of water. “Sorry for the sippy cup, but we have to restrict all potential water loss. Even though we have a well and lake, they aren't endless supplies.”

“I would drink from a puddle, dirty with oil, right now if that's all you had. I would never even come close turning my nose up at something of pure water, no matter the container!” I responded. Susan patted me on the back and I heard a few chuckles.

We were given instructions on how and where to clean up ourselves and our clothing and then daily tasks once we got clean. I checked on Andrew and he was okay, he had just overheated. The sippy cup of water turned out to be just what he needed. Lastly we were shown a section of the room that we could use as our living area. It wasn't perfect, it wasn't anywhere near the comfortable life I had been used to, but it was sustainable.

As I had vowed earlier, my family was not not going to spontaneously combust! I could live with this. We all could.