The endless barrage of rain crashed down to Earth. It poured out of a dark sky smothered in thick, bloated clouds that hung low over the once-thriving metropolis.
The man who rode on horseback down 42nd Street didn’t seem to mind the rain. Not judging by the contented, almost serene glow in his eyes. There was a smile on his face too. The soft clip-clop of the horse’s hooves on the wet road was the sound of a leisurely stroll in progress; it was a gentle, even soothing noise, and in stark contrast to the angry weather.
There were over a hundred women lined up on either side of the street, waiting for the man to pass by. They watched him – all of them, a silent and tentative welcoming committee with their heads buried under a sea of brightly colored umbrellas.
Every now and then, an anxious face would peer out from the rim of an umbrella, eager for a glimpse of the latest visitor to their community.
There was a man in town.
Eda Becker stood in line too, but unlike the majority of the other women, she didn’t bother to shield herself from the deluge with an umbrella. Eda had always liked the feel of the rain – even the icy cold variety – on her head. The books had a word for that – they said she was a pluviophile – a lover of rain and it was a good thing too, considering the nature of the weather these days. The older women in the Complex liked to say that Mother Nature was overworked, that she was still trying to clean the last traces of blood off the streets from the war. Eda couldn’t see any blood on the streets, no matter how hard she looked. The others would be quick to remind her that just because she couldn’t see the blood, that didn’t mean it wasn’t still there.
Eda wasn’t sure what they meant by that.
The rainfall grew more intense. By now it sounded like there were a hundred horses on the road, their heavy hooves stamping off the hard surface, all of them galloping at full speed.
At last, Eda was forced to pop up the hood on her maroon rain cloak.
She watched the man on horseback pass her by and decided to follow him as discreetly as she could. Quietly, the sound of her footsteps lost in the downpour, Eda took a step backwards, removing herself from the long and rigid line of women that had gathered outside to greet the grinning man.
She walked behind the line, keeping her head down. Her eyes stayed alert however, tracking the man’s path as he made his way towards the entrance to Grand Central.
Eda wasn’t doing anything wrong or expressly forbidden. But nobody else had stepped out of line to get a better view. Their loss – it wasn’t every day a man showed up in New York. As she walked parallel to the visitor, she could hear the horse’s hooves still clicking on the ground. It was a strangely satisfying sound, completely new to her. Eda glanced over and saw the permanent grin on the man’s leathery and red grizzled face – it was a gargoyle smile that stretched far and wide. His gray trenchcoat dripped endless streams of water. So did the cowboy hat, tilted back on his skull at a slight angle to allow a better view of the surroundings.
The women broke into a sudden round of applause. It was a muted but joyful gesture of appreciation. They clapped one hand against the knuckles of the other – the one that still gripped the handle of their umbrellas. Although the end result was somewhat muffled, it was at least enthusiastic.
The grinning man waved to the women standing on both sides of the street. There was something regal about the gesture. At that moment, he was like a beloved hero coming home after a long, painful absence. As he smiled, the deep lines and grooves on his old face got deeper.
At last, the horse was brought to a stop close to the entrance of Grand Central. The man dropped the reins, dismounted and as he stretched his stiff limbs, he took a long look around at his surroundings.
The women’s applause began to fade and soon there was only the sound of the rain again.
Eda crept forward, still intent on getting as close to the action as possible. Fortunately nobody was paying much attention to what she was doing. As she approached the end of the line, not far from the station entrance, she watched the grinning man as his eyes scoured the bruised and battered surroundings of Manhattan.
His grin slowly faded and Eda wondered if he was remembering the past.
The area he was looking at had been a major crosstown street in the borough of Manhattan and housed some of the city’s most recognizable buildings. Some of them were still intact but many were gone now. The New York Public Library was a pile of rubble, as was the former Headquarters of the United Nations. Times Square looked more or less like a crater, but Grand Central Terminal had remained untouched – a minor miracle considering its importance during the war when it had performed a crucial role in supply transportation.
A tall woman with an umbrella stepped out of the station entrance. She walked onto the street and approached the man at a steady pace. Like Eda, this woman appeared to be undisturbed by the intense rainfall that had besieged the city. She wore a bright red rain cloak – the sort of garment that was worn by all the women in the Complex. These were essentially old raincoats with large hoods and long cloak-like tails that trailed down the back, stretching almost to the heels. These had been stitched together from a variety of different items scavenged across the city. The rain cloaks weren’t pretty by any means, but they were warm and bulky, so much so that it looked like the wearer had a tent wrapped around them.
Long strands of greyish-brown hair poked out of the edges of the woman’s hood.
Upon seeing the woman in the red cloak, Eda stepped back into the end of the line. Mission accomplished – she was now only a short distance away from the grinning man and his horse. She lowered her hood and tried to act like she’d been standing there all along. Despite this, Eda could feel some of the women in the opposite line staring at her, or maybe she was just imagining it. It didn’t matter. With any luck she’d be able to listen in on the upcoming conversation with ease.
“Welcome to New York,” the woman said.
She raised her umbrella, positioning it over the grinning man’s soaking head.
“Welcome to the Complex,” she said, offering an outstretched hand. “My name is Shay and I’m very pleased to meet you.”
The man didn’t say anything at first.
He patted his horse on the side and a long time seemed to pass before he accepted the offer of a handshake.
Shay turned around and gestured to someone standing behind her. Almost immediately, a middle-aged woman in a brown rain cloak came up behind them. The woman pointed to the horse, then said something to the man that Eda couldn’t hear. The man nodded and a moment later, the woman took the lead rope in hand and led the horse away from the station.
“This is the Complex?” the grinning man said.
“Yes it is,” Shay said with a nod. “Have you traveled far?”
The man nodded. For a second, he looked old and exhausted in the face. His body sagged a little too. Eda guessed he was probably in his early sixties but it was hard to tell with people of that generation – the war had put so many years on them that most were older than their appearance would suggest. No matter how much they smiled, the past would show up sooner or later in their eyes, that little trace of leftover heartache that always wore them down gradually.
He was a big man. He literally towered over Shay, which was quite a feat considering that Shay herself was at least six feet tall without her boots on. As she stood beside him, she had to work to keep the umbrella over his head.
“Well I met your ambassador,” the grinning man said, wiping the damp hair off his face. “She was quite a gal.”
“Which ambassador?” Shay asked. There was a curious glint in her eyes.
The man shrugged like he didn’t really care. Eda saw him glance towards the tip of the Chrysler Building, its distinctive presence still towering above the city skyline. The grinning man’s eyes lingered there for a few seconds before he turned his attention back to Shay.
“Oh I’m not sure,” he said. “Deborah? Deirdre? Any of those ring a bell? It was definitely a ‘D’ name – of that much I’m sure. She was about fifty years old, maybe a little older. Real skinny bag of bones type. She looked hungry as hell but a real determined gal you know? It looked like she’d crawled through Hell and swum across the Lake of Fire before she found me.”
“Denise,” Shay said. “So you came up from the south?”
“Yeah,” the grinning man said. “Been in Pennsylvania for a while but I wandered up from Virginia originally.”
“Virginia?” Shay said. “What’s it like down there?”
“Dead,” the man said, shaking his head.
“You saw no one?” Shay asked.
“Virginia’s a ghost state,” the man said. “There’s no one there anymore. I bumped into a couple of old-timers living out of a bus in Pennsylvania but that was it. I’m telling you, America’s gone – it’s really gone. You gotta see it to really appreciate that fact. This here’s the biggest crowd I’ve seen in a very long time. What have you got here anyway? One hundred, two hundred people? And all ladies too – guess that makes me kind of special, right?”
Shay’s lips curled into a half-smile.
“And what did Denise tell you?” she asked.
“She told me what I needed to know,” the grinning man said. “Told me you little ladies got a special project going on right here in New York. What a story that was – fascinating.”
He raised his eyebrows. The grin on his face was devilish.
“Project with a capital ‘P’,” he said. “Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” Shay said.
The man looked over his shoulder at the women who’d welcomed him to the city. They were still standing in two neat lines on either side of the street.
“I know what you need,” he said, turning back to Shay. “So where is she? Is she standing over there with the rest of them? Where’s the girl with the face that launched a thousand ships?”
“You don’t waste any time do you?” Shay said, with a soft laugh. “I thought you’d be exhausted after such a long…”
“Helen of Troy,” the man said, butting in abruptly. “I’ve had a long journey and it was all to meet her. To do what we have to do. So where is she?”
“She’s not here,” Shay said.
The grinning man frowned.
“I hope she’s somewhere close,” he said.
Shay nodded. “Of course she is,” she said. “Didn’t Denise tell you? Helen is kept separate from the rest of the women in the Complex for many reasons. She resides in the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue and right now she’s getting ready to greet you.”
The man laughed loudly, a spluttering noise that sounded like something was clogged up in his throat.
At the same time, Eda caught Shay looking over at her. There was a strange look on the older woman’s face – something that Eda couldn’t quite pin down.
“Eda,” Shay said. “You weren’t standing there earlier.”
Eda felt like all the eyes in New York had turned towards her. Her skin was burning. She opened her mouth to say something to Shay but the words were stuck on the tip of her tongue.
“If you’re going to take such an interest in our conversation,” she said, “why don’t you come over and offer to carry this gentleman’s bag while I show him around? Make yourself useful, yes?”
Now it was the grinning man’s turn to have a look at Eda. As he glanced over his shoulder, his eyes narrowed. It was as if he was looking at a rare and peculiar species of animal – some form of life that he didn’t quite understand.
He licked the rainwater off his lips.
“Cute,” he said.
Eda’s body stiffened.
“Eda?” Shay said, beckoning the young woman over with a curled finger. “Get the gentleman’s bag please.”
Eda nodded and crept forward. Despite the discomfort she felt at being singled out, she would at least get to follow Shay and the stranger around for a while longer and listen in further on their conversation.
“You don’t need to show me around,” the grinning man said, looking at Shay. “Truly ma’am. I’d prefer to get right down to work if you don’t mind. Or isn’t she fertile right now?”
“As a matter of fact she is,” Shay said. “Usually men show up at the wrong time and so we’ll put them in a hotel until Helen’s body is ready to receive. As far as I can recall, you’re the only one who’s ever arrived at the perfect time. It’s almost like it’s a sign, wouldn’t you say?”
The man nodded. “Lucky me.”
“Yes indeed,” Shay said. “Nonetheless, Helen isn’t quite ready for you yet. She won’t be long and in the meantime, why don’t you let me show you around? I can tell you a little about what’s happening here in the Complex. After that, you can go straight to work. I promise.”
The man looked too tired to argue with Shay.
“Sure thing,” he said.
“Eda!” Shay said. “Come on. Get the gentleman’s bag please.”
Eda nodded and hurried over to where Shay and the grinning man were waiting. She heard some of the women sniggering at her back but she didn’t care. Let them stand there in the rain and get soaked.
“Can I take your bag?” Eda asked the man. She kept her distance from the newcomer but couldn’t fail to miss the peculiar smell of aged leather that drifted off either his clothes or skin.
There was a withered backpack at the man’s boots.
“I can carry my own bag,” he said. “There’s not much in there.”
“Nevertheless,” Shay said, stepping forward. “You’re our very special guest and if we treat our beloved Helen like a queen then you must let us treat you like a king. It’s only fair.”
The man smirked and scratched at the jagged stubble sprouting up off his chin. With a nod, he picked up the small bag and thrust it into Eda’s hands.
“Whatever makes you ladies happy,” he said. “There you go sweetheart. You’ll take good care of that for me, won’t you?”
“Thank you,” Eda said. “I mean, yes I will.”
Eda slung the bag over her shoulder and it weighed next to nothing, almost like it was empty. She imagined that the long hunting knife strapped to the grinning man’s waist was the most important possession he carried around with him. He must have been quite the skilled hunter to survive out there with just his wits and a sharp blade.
The three of them walked towards the entrance of the station. Eda kept a few paces behind the others, hoping that they’d forget she was there.
“Why this place?” the grinning man asked. “Why Grand Central?”
“It’s intact for a start,” Shay said. “But we don’t live or sleep here – it’s more of a gathering point for the women. It’s the heart of our community.”
“So where do you sleep?” the man asked.
“Nearby,” Shay said. “The women help themselves to whatever accommodation they can find. Hotels, abandoned apartments or stores – it’s entirely their choice when it comes to where they spend the night.”
“And where do you live Shay?” he asked.
“In the Waldorf Astoria, close to Helen.”
“The Waldorf Astoria,” the man said, chuckling quietly. “How lavish you are. It’s still in good condition then?”
“It’s in perfect condition,” Shay said. “The looters never got anywhere near it, thank God. It’s a piece of history as far as I’m concerned.”
The man pointed to the station as they approached the door.
“This one’s a piece of history too,” he said. “Grand Central, I’ll be damned. I remember this place from back in the day – it’s classic New York.”
“For me it’s a symbol,” Shay said, looking up towards the roof with a proud eye. “This place, it changes with the times – this was actually the third station to occupy the site here. Back in the early twentieth century this building embodied the ascent of New York. It expanded in harmony with the city’s growth, a constant symbol of change, going back to when they razed the old building to construct a new station, replacing the steam locomotives with electric trains.”
“You know your history,” the man said. “Well done.”
“I’m a proud New Yorker,” Shay said. “Born and bred. And I’m sure this building survived for a reason. It represented regrowth in the past and that’s what we’re all about now. What this is about. The Complex. The Project. That’s why we sent out the ambassadors and it’s why you’re here today. This building will oversee the preservation of the human race. And not a moment too soon – we’re running out of time.”
“Yeah,” the grinning man said.
“Let me show you inside,” Shay said.
As they walked towards the door, Shay pointed at a row of long, rectangular flowerbeds outside the building’s exterior. Short stretches of awning leaned over the flowerbeds, offering at least some shelter from the strong winds that often accompanied the rain.
“We call them the gardens,” she said, lowering the umbrella and closing it before walking inside. “But really it’s just a small collection of plant foods that we grow – they’re our lifeline. We keep mostly, low-maintenance crops – potatoes, beetroot, carrots, kale, onions – and some others. A quick weed, water and little fuss.”
She pointed a finger towards the sky.
“The water comes easy – that’s one good thing about all the rain. It’s low-input, high-output in terms of the food we grow here, and that’s good because we have over a hundred and fifty mouths to feed. We have some wonderful gardeners and chefs here at the Complex. And you help out too sometimes, don’t you Eda?”
Eda was still lagging a few paces behind.
“A little gardening sometimes,” she said with a shrug. “Nothing much.”
“How do you store the water?” the grinning man asked.
“We have large barrels to collect the rainwater,” Shay said. “There’s plenty of water kept in storage. It’s a crude system overall but it works extremely well. It’s amazing how much water we can accumulate from just one large rainfall. There’s no excuse for dying of thirst anymore.”
The man glanced over his shoulder at Eda.
“That your kid?” he asked Shay.
“Eda?” Shay said. “No. Eda never knew her mother, not really. She was orphaned at a very young age during the war.”
“What is she?” the man said. “Thirty? Thirty-five? I haven’t seen anyone that young in a long time.”
Shay nodded. “Considering how things are, I’d wager she’s one of the youngest people left in the country. Most of us in the Complex are in our fifties, sixties or older.”
“Yeah I noticed,” the man said. “And what about Helen?”
“She’s roughly around Eda’s age,” Shay said.
“Thank Christ for that,” the grinning man said.
As they walked further into Grand Central, he whistled his appreciation.
“This place is gorgeous,” he said.
“Yes it is,” Shay said.
The main concourse in Grand Central was almost three hundred feet in length. A massive celestial ceiling, twelve stories high, adorned the concourse, painted with two and a half thousand stars and zodiac constellations. The information booth and the ticket vending machines gave the impression that the station was still operational. Eda’s favorite feature however, was the four clock faces located on top of the information booth, all made from opal.
“So this is where you girls hang out?” the grinning man said.
“This is where we gather,” Shay said. “This is where we grow, think and plan for the future of our species. The Project – the dream of reconstruction was first born here.”
The man made a loud snorting noise.
“You’re sure as hell clinging on to the past,” he said, shaking his head. “Who says we even deserve a second chance? After everything that happened.”
“We’re clinging onto life,” Shay said. “And it’s not the past we’re interested in, it’s the future.” She pointed to a variety of large and small pot plants on the outskirts of the concourse. “Life goes on, inside and outside this building. It will continue to do so with the right amount of love and care. Life surrounds us. It’s stubborn and has an inherent will to survive, and yet the one form of life that we seek to prolong most of all eludes us.”
“Guess that’s why I’m here,” the man said. “Right? You need somebody to water that special plant you’re keeping in the Waldorf.”
There was a grim look on Shay’s face. Her skin looked pallid and thin.
“If only it were so simple,” she said in a quiet voice.
The grinning man frowned. Eda imagined that he’d been quite a physical specimen many years ago. He was still a force now but age, along with life’s wear and tear, had manifested on his giant body in the form of gray hair, wrinkles and a slightly protruding gut.
“It’s simple enough,” he said to Shay. “I move into the Waldorf and put a baby inside your queen. Look, I might be sixty-something years old but I’m probably the most fertile man you ever saw in your life. I had four young boys before the war and…”
He stopped all of sudden. It was as if he was unable or unwilling to continue down that line of thought.
“Never mind,” he said.
“You’re very confident,” Shay said. “I can see that. But so were all the other men who came through here before you. Just like you, they said all the right things before they went to see Helen. Tell me something if you please. Why don’t you fear the curse?”
The Curse (After the End Trilogy #1) is now available on Amazon. Click here for more info.