One of the pleasures I had in putting together the final issue of Into the Ruins was the opportunity to include a story of my own. I had not contributed fiction to the magazine since publishing “An Expected Chill” in the fourth issue, despite intentions to write more stories for it. Still, I managed one for that final issue, and I’m pretty pleased with how it came out. I think it’s a stronger story than “An Expected Chill,” if I’m being honest, and there are elements of atmosphere and setting that came together well. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who follow me, it’s set in the world of farming, this time on a diversified ranch in eastern Washington State, set a few decades in the future.
Standards of living have taken a steep step down, at least for those out in the hinterlands. The country remains somewhat intact, cities still exist, and while I did not trace it out in detail, no doubt there are still plenty of comforts and luxuries available for the well-to-do. But the latter are becoming a somewhat rarer species as political and economic troubles mount in the United States and domestic insurgencies sprout up across the country’s urban centers.
That’s the backdrop for the story. The meat of it is on the ranch, tracing the fall out from a sudden and unexpected murder. It’s a story of community and connection, of how best to make our way through a troubled world in decline. It’s rooted in characters–Luce and Trent being my favorites. It has a bit more action than some of my other stories and perhaps is more genre-oriented in its mood. I’m happy with it, and I hope you will be, too.
Interested in more? I’ve included the opening scene of the story below for those who would like a preview. The only way to read the full story currently is to grab a copy of Into the Ruins: Summer 2020, which you can purchase in print for $12 with free U.S. shipping via this PayPal link, or in digital PDF format at Payhip. I have to say, you’re in luck if you purchase the issue, because there are four other great stories in it, not to mention other editorial content. So go ahead and grab it if you don’t already have it.
With that, here is the opening to “Almost Home.”
by Joel Caris
The September sun burned intense in the sky. Mercifully, it hung behind Luce rather than before her, pressing hot against the sweat-dampened back of her shirt and frothing the flanks of her pack horse, Sal, and riding horse, Penny, the Missouri Fox Trotter who served her so well on her trips into the outskirts of Spokane. The heat urged them on toward the scattered and familiar buildings rising on the horizon and promising the relief of water, shade, and rest—the relief of home. Almost there, Luce thought to herself as she imagined making her way down to the creek skirting the edge of her ranch, stripping and entering the cool water. She would slip beneath the surface, setting aside the harsh late summer sun for at least a few minutes before acquiescing to whatever work awaited her return. It was a typical ritual for her after summertime supply runs and she had been looking forward to it throughout much of the five-hour ride back from the city.
Luce swayed along with the horse’s gait as she clopped down the narrow dirt road leading into the ranch’s center. The road was just barely wide enough for the small farm truck they ran into town once a month for markets, packed with whatever food and goods they had on hand: salted and cured meats; occasional fresh quarters of beef or pork, goat and lamb; freshly butchered and plucked chicken and duck and guinea hen; dozens of eggs packed in wooden crates; potatoes and onions, squash, turnips, and other storage crops; dried fruits and jars of jam, pickles, and preserves; hand-knit gloves, hats, socks, and scarves. Each month the crew and she would manage to butcher, harvest, collect, and make a wide enough array of enticing items to keep them busy throughout the day-long market, dealing and bartering with the locals, shop owners, and chefs. She always enjoyed the dance and craft of it—the negotiations and conversations, catching up with friends and customers, convincing everyone anew that her food was both what they wanted to eat and worth the price she was asking, or at least worth a price she was willing to negotiate to—but it did still leave her exhausted by the time she returned late to the ranch, the pickup packed then with the food, homemade biodiesel, and other supplies they bartered and paid for during and after the market. Without fail, she dragged during the unloading and collapsed in bed once it was done, dead to the world until sunrise.
These semi-regular horseback supply runs she made into town, on the other hand, invigorated her as often as not. It wasn’t that they weren’t physically challenging, as well; if anything, the ride into town and back was far worse on her body than the bumpy but much quicker ride by truck. However, not having to sell product and keeping her interactions limited to a small circle of well-known friends and dealers kept the mental burdens of the trip minimal and manageable. She liked the more leisurely pace, too, both in the errands she ran while in town and in the ride there and back with Penny, which she typically stretched over two days.
Lost in thoughts of the previous night, Luce at first missed the figure walking slow out toward the edge of the ranch, a few hundred yards off in the distance. She instead looked off at the horizon: the clustered dwellings and outbuildings that comprised the ranch’s infrastructure and the fields beyond, brown in the dry, late summer heat and dotted with a few stray oaks. The sky was a deep blue, cloudless, and for a moment she lost herself in the expanse of horizon, until her eyes strayed low and finally recognized the person walking toward her in the distance. It was Trent, her ranch partner. He stopped as she noticed him and raised his right hand high in a half wave before dropping it back down. Luce felt her vision of a leisurely swim in the creek slipping away. There wouldn’t be time for that. Something was wrong.
Trent was a young man, in his late twenties, with black hair and dark skin, a handsome and genial face, short but with a strong build. He wore a faded baseball cap, jeans and a t-shirt both well worn with farm work, and a thin button down shirt to help keep the sun off his skin. He walked with the vaguest limp, an injury from his brief time in the insurgency, and she could see that limp now as he started moving toward her again. Even from this distance, she could see that his eyes never left her face as he walked. It unnerved her.
Neither of them said a word as Luce pulled the horses up in front of him and dismounted Penny, wanting her feet firm on the ground. Then Trent said, simply enough, “We have a problem.”
“I can sense that,” she said, wiping at her sweaty forehead. She wanted nothing more than to strip off her shirt and not ask what she asked anyway: “What is it?”
He hesitated only a moment; glanced down for even less. “Andre is dead.”
She was surprised at how even his voice was. Trent and Andre were good friends, despite the fact Andre had only been with them about six months. Still, he was a good worker, friendly and optimistic more often than not, and he had well become part of their community. Trent mentored the boy, even younger than him, and quickly taught him how to work with the animals, how to repair boots and clothing, how to milk, trim hooves, castrate, and much more. Andre had come to them awfully green, though he was a fantastic gardener. She had been hesitant about him at first but Trent hadn’t been; he saw right off the bat what the kid would be able to do and Luce had to admit he turned out right.
“How?” she asked now, trying to understand that all that was nothing now—that all that training and work and come along was now just a waiting burial.
Trent paused longer this time, rubbing his eyes, gathering himself. His voice still came out strong, though, and he held her eye as he told her.
“Ellis killed him.”
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