Earth changed the day the invaders attacked, and even though they’re gone now, departed for reasons unknown, our world will never be the same.
All I want for my son, David, is a chance at a normal life. We survive by scraping together a meagre existence in the Rocky Mountains, but we’re isolated. No friends or family to speak of. That might be living, but it’s a great distance from normal.
So when a woman contacts me on the shortwave radio and tells me there’s a place where David might have a chance to live a normal life, how can I resist?
The Road Is Three is a new story in M.G. Herron’s After The Invasion universe, which chronicles an apocalyptic world through the eyes of the survivors as they adjust to new realities and outsmart the dangers Earth’s mysterious invaders left behind.
Note: This is a rough draft. I apologize in advance if you find typos or other small errors. This story is for a collection I intend to publish soon, and will be professionally edited at that point.
The Road Is Three
“Dad,” David said, “Why is the road divided into three parts?”
I glanced down at my son, then up at the four-lane highway along which we had been walking for the last several days. David had never seen a highway before, and he gasped when we first came in sight of it.
He had barely been old enough to talk when the invaders came. David had spent the majority of his ten short years and most of his accessible memory in my grandfather’s cabin, where we eked out a living, foraging and hunting for food, surviving on the land, living day to day, season to season. The cabin was several days’ hike into the rockies and far removes from any paved roads.
“Three parts? What do you mean?”
His eyebrows knitted in confusion, like they always did when he was puzzling through something in his head. David was an introspective, quiet kid, with mousy brown hair and sharp green eyes that looked exactly like his mother’s.
If this were the world before, I think he would have loved video games, been a bookworm, gotten good grades in school…but it wasn’t. The hard life we’d been living in the mountains had forced him to grow up faster than I’d ever imagined, faster than I’d ever wanted him to. But what choice did we have? Whereas I was boisterous and selfish at his age, concerned only with taunting my sister, playing with my friends, and concerned only with things that led to my own pleasure, David thought long and hard before he spoke, had no friends except me, and never wasted food or water or anything that we might be able to use later. I was proud of how he’d turned out, but I don’t know that I can take full credit for his thoughtfulness. His was a thoughtfulness born out of necessity. This was a different kind of world, and a different world produced different kinds of people. His generation, the ones who survived the collapse of a global society and the return to a primitive existence, would know a much different life than the generations that came before.
I knew well enough not to interrupt him. We walked for another few seconds while David gathered his thoughts, gazing at the rusted-out corpses of vehicles scattered along the side of the road as he did so. Only a few of the cars, trucks, vans, and semi-trailers been pushed to the shoulder. Most had simply been abandoned in traffic, left where they were as people ran for their lives. The road was like a graveyard of vehicles, and apparently to David the road was three.
“Well, there’s this part,” he said, pointing to the cracked grey pavement along which we walked. A faded dotted line of white paint ran between us. “There’s that part,” he said, pointing to the eastbound lane on the opposite side. “And then there’s the grassy part in the middle.” He pointed to the depressed median between the lanes. “Three parts, right?”
I smiled. “I guess you’re right. Two lanes on either side and a median between them.”
“Median means middle.”
He nodded. “Okayyyy,” he said, drawing out the word as if he was talking to a simpleton. Me. The old man who knew how to navigate the strange ways of the world before. “That kind of makes sense. So what’s the median for? And why is it slanted down like that?”
I was used to him asking a lot of questions. In fact, I encouraged it from the time he could talk. I figured an inquisitive child who questioned everything he saw around him was more likely to survive this hard-scrabble new world. I’d taught him everything I knew about foraging, about hunting, about survival. Keeping your eyes peeled could go a long way. And I had not been wrong. David was as much responsible for our day to day life at the cabin as I was. He knew to boil water before you drank it, how to collect dry wood for the stove, how to build a game trap, how to clean and cook the rabbits we caught. But he didn’t know anything about the world before. I hoped he would fit in where we were going. He’d never met another child his age. I so wanted him to have a normal life. But nothing was normal now.
“It’s hard to imagine, but thousands of cars used to drive this road every day.”
“Thousands?” he said, his voice sharp and disbelieving.
“That’s right. Thousands. So the median is there to keep them from crossing between the east and westbound sides and causing traffic problems—cars are only allowed to change directions at an exit, like the one up there that the green sign is pointing to.”
“Couldn’t they just drive across it?”
“They could. And sometimes people did. But they weren’t supposed to. You could get in trouble for it.”
“Also, the median helps drain water away from the road. So the roads are safer to drive when it’s raining.”
He nodded slowly. Keeping things dry and directing the rain were things we had talked long about. We had barrels that caught water off the roof of the cabin, and I had spent many days showing him how it all worked, and how to maintain it.
“What keeps the roads safe in the rain if the roads are only one or two parts? Like the road we were walking on before we came to this road.”
“This one’s called a highway. The rural roads are usually only two lanes and a ditch on either side. So the ditches drain the water the same way the median does.”
“I see. What does rural mean?”
“Out in the country.”
“Rural.” He twisted his lips as he repeated it. “Rural is a funny word.”
I laughed. “It is.”
“So the ditch on either side drains the water on the two-lane, rural roads.”
He looked very serious as he contemplated these variegations in road and highway design and terminology. It must all seem very alien to him.
“The road is three,” he said. “But it is also one. The world before must have been a strange place, huh, Dad.”
“Did people walk on these roads before, like we’re doing?”
“No. Just the cars.”
“So where did people walk if they had to take a road trip?”
“They didn’t. They drove.”
“All the time?”
“Most of the time.”
He shook his head. “Do the cars work anymore?”
“Most of them don’t, no. No gas left to run them. No electricity to charge them up.”
We passed the green sign. David read it out loud. “Air Force Academy.”
“That’s where the lady told us to go, right?”
We took the exit. It circled around and dumped us out on a long road that led up to the academy grounds—another two lane road.
“I’m scared, Dad,” David said, taking two steps closer so he was right by my side. His head came up to my waist.
I put an arm around his shoulder. “It’s okay,” I said, though I felt far from certain that everything would be okay. I hoped none of the nervous fear that had bubbled up in my gut as we approached the end of this trip had bled through into my voice. I didn’t want David to think I was afraid.
But the fear was there all the same. What if the woman we spoke to on the shortwave radio, the so-called President of New Colorado, had been lying about how they had established a city here? What if it was a trap meant to lure us in and steal what supplies we had? These were desperate times, and despite contacting people on the radio before, we’d never given out our location or gone out of our way to find anyone. Sometimes, the guilt of my selfishness overwhelmed me. But then I’d look at David and be reminded about how he relied on me to be strong. We couldn’t afford the risk that other people brought…until I learned about New Colorado.
We’d hiked for days to get here. The dried meat and water we carried on our backs were enough to take us home if we were careful. If we were careful. If no one tricked us. I tightened the pack on my back.
A tree trunk several feet thick had been lain across the road like a kind of drop bar, presumably to keep unwanted vehicles from passing. Buildings loomed in the distance beyond—buildings that had withstood the invasion were an incredible sight, but I wasn’t about to let my guard down yet. We climbed over the logs and approached a closed and padlocked chainlink fence built across the road ahead of us.
There were people here all right. People who didn’t want other people to get in unless they were invited.
We had been invited. I stopped in front of the gate, and waited. Once we’d made contact, her instructions were simple. We waited here, just like the lady on the radio told us to.
As the minutes passed, my mind raced. I had no backup plan. If things went bad, I needed to make sure that David could get home. That he remembered what he was supposed to do to survive in a worst case scenario. I’d trained him for it. He was young, but he was thoughtful and strong and smart—nothing I could take credit for, but the inevitable result of fighting for your survival every day for your whole life.
We came here because I didn’t want that to be his whole existence. I wanted nothing more than a normal life for him. I wanted him to have friends his age. I wanted him to have an education. I wanted him to have opportunity. But coming here was a risk all the same. I scrambled to come up with something he’d remember—something that would help keep him safe if the worst happened.
“The road is three,” I said. “Remember that David, the road is three.”
“Isn’t that what I said?” His brow furrowed over his green eyes.
“The road is three. It’s where you were, where you are, and where you want to be. If anything happens to me, this road can take you home. Do you think you can get home on your own?” I turned and looked behind us, in the direction we had come.
He looked up at me with those beautiful green eyes that reminded me with a sudden, sharp pang in my gut of his mother. Clearly, I hadn’t managed to keep the fear out of my voice. But David he was a strong kid. I knew he could do this.
“I—I think so,” he said. He turned and looked long and hard down the road, then pointed—correctly—in the direction of our cabin in the mountains, several days’ hike and maybe forty miles distant. He met my gaze. I nodded. His hand dropped.
“The road is three,” he said. “It’s where you were, where you are, and where you want to be. But we want to be here, don’t we Dad?”
I turned back to the fence. Several people could be seen through the fence now, walking toward us. In the distance, I thought I heard the low sound of an engine rumble to life. Hope flared in my chest, impossible hope.
“I hope so,” I said. “But that could change, and I need to make sure you’re ready.”
David took a deep breath and let it out with a heavy sigh. “I’m ready.”
Together we waited to be welcomed—or turned away—from New Colorado.
Copyright © 2017 by M.G. Herron. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
If you liked this story, you might also enjoy The End of the World Is Better with Friends or Low Desert, High Mountain, Big Lizard. Both are in the same universe, and follow different young men as they face down deadly monsters the invaders left behind. Click the covers to buy the books on Amazon!