The Town the Present Forgot

The Town the Present Forgot

A Story by CMBryan

A weary traveler comes across a town doing something unexpected, celebrating.


            The Sky lights up suddenly with a loud bang.   Instinctively the traveler drops to knees and checks the ammunition in his weapon while crouching behind the husk of a burned out minivan, he prepares for the inevitable attack.  Loud cheers are heard in the distance.  He peers out from behind his cover and stares down the road.  In the distance he hears a hollow thump then a brief silence.  Again a loud bang and once again the night sky bursts with light.  The traveler looks up in time to see the most gorgeous fiery flower of red and blue bloom in the sky then dissipate back down to the earth in a shower of amber and gold embers. 


            It is something he has not seen in a very long time, almost now to the point where he has all but forgotten this phenomenon, those are fireworks.  Slowly the gears in his brain begin to whir and click back to life as he stood there in awe of what he was witnessing.  All at once his eyes flood with memories of distant happier times, his nostrils fill with phantom smells of burnt sulfur, roasting charcoal briquettes, and the freshly cut grass, all hallmarks of summer celebrations long since past.  A long moment passes and two more glorious explosions as he stands there shocked down to his soul. 


            Slowly he steps down the cracked and broken road drawn to the sights and sounds of jubilation.  As he approaches the makeshift city walls shambled together from rusted down vehicles and various other rubble, he is greeted by an excited old man with a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder.


“Ah what have we here?  A road weary traveler I believe!”  The old man comes down from his roost at the top of the barricade to welcome the traveler with a warm toothy smile, open arms, and the faint twinge of fine whiskey lingering on his breath.

The dumfounded traveler could not respond, his senses were overwhelmed with nostalgic sights, sounds, and smells coming from inside these make shift walls.  Somewhere inside he even heard the magical music of a live bluegrass band.  He thought of how long it had been since he last even heard music.  Large tears begin to well up in the traveler’s eyes.  He blinks several times trying desperately to regain his composure. 


            Seeing the tears the kindly old man gently places his hand on the traveler’s shoulder. “Come in and join us my friend, you have the look of someone who has spent far too long out there in the ugliness of the wreckage.”  With those words the old man guides the traveler into the settlement and into the celebration.  All around them children run about playing together, men and women dancing and drinking together, lovers young and old alike walkabout taking in the night, and everyone about them all displays a carefree demeanor the traveler has not seen on anyone’s face in a very long time. All the while the band plays on despite the frequent blasts from the fireworks.


            The old man leads the traveler to a large tent, its insides lit up like a carnival with kerosene lamps covered with multicolored glass cases.  In the center of the tent stands a bar tended by an enchantingly beautiful young girl with fiery red hair and a bright welcoming smile.  Without a word but with a flirtatious grin she pours each of them a half glass of warm whiskey before turning her attention to the other revelers.  Immediately the traveler takes a gulp of whiskey and his face contorts as the sour liquid blazes and burns down his throat, it is his first drink of liquor in three years.  The traveler slaps his knee as the burning continues down into his guts then turns to face his elderly host.

“What is going on here?”


The elderly man gives a toothy smile, “Why it’s a celebration of course.  You do remember celebrations, don’t you?”


The traveler shakes his head, “Just barely. I haven’t met anyone with a reason to celebrate in a very long time.”


With a sigh the old man smiles again, “That’s because you’re spending too much time out there young wanderer.”


Again the traveler shakes his head in confusion, “What exactly are you celebrating?”


“Life, love, a young couple in the settlement gave birth to twins last night. Most importantly it’s the fourth of July, of course.” 


Again it takes a moment for the gears and cogs of the traveler’s mind to process what he is hearing.


“It’s independence day?” Is the only question traveler manages to ask as his brain continues to deal with the overwhelming air of this place.


The old man grins and takes a sip of his whiskey then goes into his pocket and fetches two yellowed stale cigarettes, handing one to the traveler and popping the other between his lips.  “Yes sir, if that’s not cause for celebration I don’t know what is.”


“Aren’t you worried the fireworks with attract raiders?”  The traveler asks recovering a rusty Zippo lighter from his coat pocket.


The old man shrugs casually lighting the cigarette with a match.


“You have children in this village.”  The traveler states coldly staring straight ahead into his host’s eyes.


Again the old man shrugs, “Sure but we also have men and guns.  We also have walls.  Sure they might come, but we’ve fought them off before.”


Finally beginning to regain all of his senses the traveler slugs back the rest of his whiskey, “You’re not afraid for the children?”


The old man scratches at his oily gray hair, “I’m more scared of them growing up out there or filling them with a constant fear of what could happen.  What we have here is freedom.  Sure maybe raiders come and sure maybe they kill some of us, but my friend, the people here aren’t living their lives cowering in fear, we aren't just scraping by.  Here people are decent to each other and they’re really living their lives.  Hell, just look around you.  How many settlements have you visited where the people are actually happy?  These people might not be the safest, but at least they’re actually living life.”


The traveler says nothing. All he can do is look down at the ground.


The old man stands up and pats the weary traveler on the back, “Stay here as long as you like friend.  You seem to have a good head on your shoulders, the world out there has been harsh to you, I can tell.  The food and drinks are free and we have shelter for you.  I’m going back to the watch towers.”  He grins as the pretty young waitress refills his drink, then without another word he walks out of the tent leaving the traveler in this alien yet familiar setting. 


“Do you want to see the band?” a young feminine voice calls to the traveler from behind him. 


He turns around to face the young redhead bartender standing behind him, “Excuse me?”


She gives a shy little shrug, “Well I just thought you seemed lonely and maybe you wanted to go see the band.  I’d reckon it’s probably been some time since you’ve seen a live band.”


He thought for a moment and nods, “I’d reckon it’s been a long time since I’ve heard any music at all.”


She gives him a gentle smile and her bright blue eyes lock with his sad brown eyes for a moment and the traveler’s heart flutters a bit.


“Well I’ll tell you what, I get relieved of duty here in about 20 minutes.  You stay here and I’ll refill your glass while you wait for me.” Their eyes lock again as she wipes down the bar with a dirty cloth. 


Shyly the traveler looks down and turns around and looks out the front of the tent searching for a distraction.  Outside a young mother walks by the front of the tent holding the hand of her child who is clutching a string attached to a bright red balloon.  Again tears well up in the traveler’s eyes.  In the last 10 years since the collapse he could not recall ever seeing a sight like that.  All the children he has met in his travels all had the hallow eyes of an innocent soul exposed to too much brutality while being all too young.  He stands up and moves to the front of the tent and gazes up at the night sky in time to see a grand explosion followed by a waterfall of golden sparkles trickling down the night sky slowly disappearing as the embers burn themselves out on their decent to the ground.

The 20 minutes pass by quickly and the young bartender bounds up to the dirt covered traveler.  He looks down on her grinning face so full of life and for the first time in a long time he gives a genuine smile.  She takes him by the arm and leads him outside toward the bandstand.  Atop a rusty 18 wheeler’s flat bed trailer a four man acoustic band plays a slow sad tune.  The traveler recalls the song from a Neil Young album from long before the war.


A heavy set brunette sings the back up vocals and as the instrumental begins she recovers a harmonica from her front pocket and joins in with a performance the traveler was sure Neil himself would have been proud of.   The young redhead pulls the traveler’s ear down to next to her face, “Can I tell you a secret?”


The Traveler simply nods his head.


“I think Neil Young songs are the only songs they know how to play.” She whispers into his ear.


“I think it’s beautiful.” The traveler’s eyes are affixed to the band, held there by some unknown force as if he was experiencing all these sights for the first time again.  The young girl gazes up at his face with a grin as she recognizes his child like fascination.


She wraps her self up closer to him putting her arm around the small of his back, “Come on, I’ve got something I want to show you.”

He looks down at her suspiciously as his survival instincts started pulling him back from the wonderment of this place.  She can see the change in his expression and already knows what caused the shift.  “You’ll be okay, I’ve got something I want you to see that’s all.”  She looks deep into his eyes as she said this and gives him a gentle friendly smile.  The traveler scans her eyes for any of the tall tale signs for liar and finds none as he silently curses himself for not being able to let his guard down for even a moment for this angelic young woman just showing him kindness.  He finally nods to her and her eyes light up with a smile.  Taking him by the hand the young girl leads him through the settlement and weaves through the ruins of the town that once stood here. 


            The building she leads him to is the half collapsed wreckage of what looked like a bowling alley.  Still leading him by the hand she guides him into the ruins and past the rubble filled lanes, the charred barroom, and the pillaged kitchen.  They move into what was once the manager’s office and ascend a rickety spiral staircase into a musky attic whose only light came from a hole blast in the wall long ago.  She smiles wide and moves over to damaged wall and waves him over.  “You’re going to love this.” She beams.  The traveler moves over to her side cautiously watching his step for bad spots in the floor.  He gazes out the hole in the wall and his mouth drops as he gasps in awe.  She slides her arm around the small of his back and rests her head on his shoulder as she shares the view with him.

Through the hole they can see the entire celebration, the fireworks shooting, the children playing, the band playing, and the people of the settlement mingle and dance about.


“I haven’t seen anything so wonderful in a long, long time.”  The traveler says with another tear welling in his eye.


The young angel smiles with a content sigh, “When my family first showed up here about two years ago this settlement was a lot like the other ones out there.  The people were all scared and just struggling everyday to get through life.”  She pauses and searches her mind for the right words, “Everyone seemed damaged and it was like the world had really ended for them.”


“It didn’t?” the traveler asks with a raised brow.


“Nope, it didn’t.  We’re still here aren’t we?  I mean sure society collapsed and a lot of folks are just going nuts out there, but it doesn’t have to be the end.”


“It doesn’t?”


“Not all, why just look around here.” She motions her hand across the hole in the wall, “This place is like a real town before the collapse, just don’t look at the wrecked buildings and what do you see?  People down there are enjoying life. People down there are being decent to each other. Those children you see are actually happy. In all your years out in that mess when was the last time you saw a happy child being a child?”


The traveler remains silent just listening to her impassioned words.


“Grandfather says if people can just start being decent to each other again we can get out of this, people just have to realize we’re all still alive.  So we all choose not to live like that here anymore, we couldn’t because cowering and just scrapping by isn’t living.”


“You’re not worried the celebration won’t draw raiders?”  He asks turning to face her.


She shakes her head and brushes dirt away from his cheek with the soft touch of her fingers, “Well if it does and we can’t hold them off, then at least I’ll know I’ve really lived.”  With those words she moves into kiss him and the two embrace and for that evening alone they took sanctuary within each other.  For the traveler, for those few hours in the loft above the ruins of a bowling alley the fiery haired angel relieves him of the fear and suspicion that have come to haunt his life.


Sunrise was still a few hours away when the traveler awoke and sets to dressing himself, preparing to head out to the wastes again.  As he dresses the young girl rolls over to pull him closer and found he was not there.  She sat up a bit sleepily, “You’re going?” She asks with no sadness in her voice, just understanding.


“I wish I could stay here, I wish I could just stay here with you for the rest of my life really.  I wish I could stay here with everyone here, it’s like a paradise out of the wastes.”  He sighed as he tightens his belt, “But I’m just not ready to live like this.  It’s like right now I’m too acclimated to what’s out there.  I’m just not ready to believe we can all just start living like before again.”  His words are heavy with complete honesty, he knew as he was he could not stay here.  These people’s lifestyle, while he was envious of it, was built on values that were naïve in the world he had existed for so long.


The girl stands up and walks over to him, offering him one last embrace and a kiss on the cheek.  “Just while you’re out there just be try and be decent to people, and maybe if people are treated well by you maybe they’ll be decent to someone else.”


He hugs her tightly and returns the kiss, “Yeah, I think I could start with that.”


She smiles warmly, “Good, and maybe just maybe when you come back this way again you’ll be ready to stay.”


He smiles warmly and kisses her tenderly one last time, “I pray I will be.”


With that he left the angelic young girl and the settlement heading north and as he walks down the cracked pavement into the unknown of the wastes he hums Neil Young’s Heart of Gold to himself, off key.

© 2010 CMBryan

Author's Note

This is an older story of mine I decided to share.

This is another of the works in our Anthrax in the Pantry setting.

As always constructive comments are helpful and much appreciated.

My Review

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Featured Review

This is a really lovely piece. I think however, it might be more powerful in past tense. It might just be me. but I tend to read a third person narrative a lot better in past tense.

your descriptions are brilliant! I loved the fireworks, and the way you describe the van as being a husk, fantastic.

the romance bit seemed a little bit forced though. it could just be the third person present tense that is throwing me off though.

also the end seemed rushed and anti climactic, so maybe re-work that.

over all it was a great piece, these are mostly just the constructive details.

Posted 10 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.


It all felt very honest with the portrayal of your main character weighing heavily over it all. It was well described and brought the reader completely into your world and setting. The focus all seemed good to me, with the details being given to the suprising beauty he didn't expect to see again. Good pace and slow, all in all a well written piece with a great message behind it.

Posted 10 Years Ago

This is a really lovely piece. I think however, it might be more powerful in past tense. It might just be me. but I tend to read a third person narrative a lot better in past tense.

your descriptions are brilliant! I loved the fireworks, and the way you describe the van as being a husk, fantastic.

the romance bit seemed a little bit forced though. it could just be the third person present tense that is throwing me off though.

also the end seemed rushed and anti climactic, so maybe re-work that.

over all it was a great piece, these are mostly just the constructive details.

Posted 10 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

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2 Reviews
Added on December 12, 2010
Last Updated on December 14, 2010
Tags: Fiction, Short Story, Post-Apocolyptic



Kalamazoo, MI

Writing has been a passion of mine ever since I was a little kid. At the moment I'm focused on writing short stories and possibly a novella. I currently live with my wife and son in Michigan. more..