For Pendula

For Pendula

A Story by C.E.M.

A post-nuclear Kansas, where a boy and his father live with tension, regret, and a lonely secret, rotting in a cage on the first floor.


For Pendula

C.E. Mongon

May 2018




  The front door banged open, dust flying up from the hardwood, as Pa dragged three grocery bags and a dead body off the porch. Al had been sitting at the table, in the candle-lit kitchen, eating old, dry cereal. The sunlight shocked him a bit, and Pa looked, at first, like a monster’s silhouette against the harsh white of day. But he dragged the man by his feet into the living room, banging his head against the bottom of the doorframe, and slammed it shut, immersing them both in a comfortable, shadowy darkness.

  “Hey.” Pa said.

   Al said nothing back.

  The man on the floor was someone Al knew. It was always someone Al knew. Even with a gunshot wound to the head, or dirt covering their thin figures, he could recognize who they had been. Once his eyes had time to adjust, he was faced with an awful game of guess-who.

 That day, his dad had shot Billy. His godfather. His mother’s closest friend. The man who taught him to tie his shoes.

  He must’ve been looking at his face too long, because Pa dropped the other bags on the floor with a big thud, blowing up little clouds of dust and dirt.

 “Don’t stare,” He grabbed the thin man, still in his grocer’s uniform, still in his once-shiny cashier shoes, and slung him over his shoulders. “It’s disrespectful.”

  Al should’ve looked down then, into his expired cornflakes, like his father told him to. He didn’t. He couldn’t.  

 Pa sighed, and walked to the room on the right, opening the door slightly, letting some of the only natural light in the entire boarded-up house seep through the crack. “You know I wouldn’t have, buddy,” He grunted, tightening his grip, and stepping through the lopsided doorway “It’s Billy. I know what he meant to you.”

 A low, sorry moan spilled from the room behind him.

 “But I found him first.”

 The door creaked shut, and the sliver of light vanished.

 Al stared at the flawed wood, and whispered, “You could’ve kept looking.”

 But he knew no one could hear him. Not even the rats. They had starved to death the year before last.

 His voice crumbled in his mouth like fine dust. His tongue tasted dry, like the cracked bottom of an empty lake that had been baking in the sun. He hadn’t spoken a word all day, not a single utterance, from the moment his Pa woke him up to say goodbye, to the moment he returned, ten hours later, with the body of his godfather and whatever he could salvage from his store. And all he could think of, in that thirst, was Billy’s freezer-section popsicles. Grape, and strawberry, and pineapple, in glossy plastic wrappings, the ice sticking to the sides, melting in tiny, flavored drops of dew. Those popsicles, in the summer of 2054. The ones he had shared with Pendula.

 She banged a dull limb against her steel cage, the sound reverberating from the other room.

  Pendula. That was what haunted him about being alone here, what made the corners a little darker, the daylight harsher, the nights colder with the knowledge of what never slept beneath him. It was the reason he always had his radio on, even though he only got one channel. The Universal Language Channel reported on events from all over the world, in the established global language (English) of 2022. Sometimes, the happy things, the advancements in society or technology, the weddings, the records, the ending of dictatorships, made him cry. There was no word to describe the feeling of being left behind, or more so, left to rot, in the now-wasteland that was Kansas. He may as well have been dead. There was no music played on the Universal Language Channel. It was just talking, updates, on a world he would never see again.

 The ULC stopped reporting on America the day after the bombs dropped. No one ever sat down sober, and somber, and miserable with guilt, and thought, “at what cost?” There was no funeral for America. It died without acknowledgment. It crumbled, only three days after the toxic mushroom clouds infected the female population, and left the biological men to their mercy. When the first man was eaten by his wife, it didn’t make the news, because by that morning, all working American offices and buildings were shut down, run out, or looted. No one in the business thought fast enough to survive an apocalypse, especially not when it came in the form of their daughters chewing off their legs in the middle of the night. Al and his Pa were different. They had the radio, they had the farm, and they had a plan, one they formed as their sisters and wives writhed in pain on the living room, fighting both the urge to die, and to bite. The ULC played now, as loud as Al could make it, over the sounds of Pendula eating his godfather.

 7 pm, on a hot Tuesday night. This is when twelve-year old Al realized he would never escape. Because while Pa would wither and waste, she would remain small all his life. If he let her, she would kill him without trying. She would haunt him without dying.

 After he fed Pendula, Pa would come out to the kitchen, and, hands still bloody, fix himself dinner. Normally, he’d discuss that day’s hunt, or describe the town to Al. But tonight, he was oddly silent. The only sound between the two boys was of Pa rustling in the pantry for something, and it made Al tense his fist around his spoon, and grit his teeth, expecting to be hit, or yelled at in drunken, misplaced fury. But none of those things happened. Instead, from behind the canned beans, Pa pulled out a small, ancient-looking handgun, a revolver his father had owned, and set it down on the table between him and Al.

 “It’s time.”

  Pa spoke with a pointed vagueness that terrified Al, because he had both no idea and an exact picture of what he was talking about at all times. It was a guessing game, really, that he was scared to win. But tonight, he was victor, because he knew what tomorrow was. Tomorrow was his 13th birthday. And on his 13th birthday, Pa promised he would make Al kill a man.

 He used the words, “teach you to shoot.” But Al knew what he meant.

 The only other room in the house Pa let natural sunlight into was his bedroom. Al wasn’t allowed in there, but only because of the dangers of an open window and Pa’s own conviction that Al would crawl out. He had, as Al had observed in the several times he snuck peeks through the cracks in the door, a grotesque shrine on his mothers side of the bed. An outfit laid out, the one she wore to church on Sundays, displayed proud on the bed where an indentation of her sleeping body was the only other reminder that he came from something other than dust and darkness. The rectangle of light shone on it now, the cotton shawl he once wrapped himself in, the green hat that once got stuck on the roof in the wind, as he entered the room for the first time in two years.

 The window furthest from Pa’s bed was half unboarded, the glass shattered long ago, metal frame rusted, wood molding. The sun set orange, and washed the dead, withered fields of greying corn with a glowing light. Pa took Al to the window, which faced the corn fields, and the lone, giant oak. Leftover wood from an abandoned tree house hung loosely, nailed to the trunk, a ladder to nowhere. The tire swing he fell from and broke his arm under remained, swinging in an absent breeze, it’s rope fraying dangerously thin near the branch. But the twinkling of glass on glass is what had Al’s attention. The bottles Pendula had hung from the tree, her technicolored collection of soda and beer and lemonade, yellow and purple and olive and blue, dozens and dozens, hanging from every branch by a child’s knotted twine, the knot he taught her to tie. The sun shone through them, casting dazzling rays of warm, colored light. All these things, all these memories, golden in a sunset Al had forgotten.

 And there it was; the sun. Blazing behind the tree, bathing Al in warmth, seeping through to his bones. He stared at it, mesmerized, almost in tears, trying to memorize the way it felt on his skin.

 A loud bang, and suddenly a glass bottle, the lonely purple one, shattered, falling from the tree like indigo rain.

 The shot rang in Al’s ear, and he jumped, staring at his Pa and his shotgun. The sun gave the boy bright vision, and he saw his father clearly, not by candlelight or in near darkness. He was a balding man, with pores as big as craters, and eyes that were blue and deep and unreadable, like a lake someone had drowned in. He had thick, greying eyebrows that were permanently furrowed, a weak chin, and the sagging, defeated shoulders of a man who had done all he could. His chest was wide but bony, and his skin was pale, harrowing, covered in ragged clothing and scars. Al thought back to the time when Pa was his hero. He could barely remember.

 Al’s father lowered his barrel, and stared at the empty string, still swinging the purple neck around, what was left of its body jagged and sharp. “When you shoot at something,” he sighed, and lowered his gun as if even holding it were hell on his stamina, “You do not miss.”

 He took the revolver out of the pocket of his jeans and pressed it into Al’s hands.

 “Are you going to miss?” He asked him, but knew the answer. Al shook his head anyways.

 He looked out unto the oak tree, breathing in deeply the radioactive summer heat, and coughing. “I want you to shoot the green one. The old beer bottle, on the closest branch.”

 Al was not listening. He was staring, instead, on what was engraved on the old metal. It was Abraham. His middle name, but more importantly, the name of his grandfather, who lived in the city. He was dead. He died in the initial blast. It was all the major cities, really, that got the privilege of dying first. In every state, the major metropolises, the centers of life. The outer suburbs were those to at once die of radiation poisoning, or wounds. And those in the country, the only ones saved by the solitude of rural life, were left to deal with the consequences. The slow, yet short lives of survivors left to die. Most had cancer, deep and irreversible, and would die within the year. Some starved to death, the radiation killing their only source of food. Some killed their own, to survive, or out of mercy. Some killed others. Like he was preparing himself to do.

 A slap to the head dragged him out of his hole, one that reverberated his skull, and made his eyes water and his head pound.

 “Al,” His father said, angry but distant, “What do you think happens to young men who get distracted out there? In the field, in the real world? You think they come home at night? You think they bring their kids dinner?”

 Al shook his head vigorously, knowing another pause in response would earn him another slap, but kept his eyes trained on the bottle, on the green light filtered through.

 “You keep your eyes open down there. You keep your eyes on the bottle. You don’t look at the sun, you don’t daydream as you please, you barely even think. It’s a warzone, buddy. You will not be victim, you will not be caught. Focus is everything. Do I make myself clear?”

 Al kept staring ahead, at the dancing sunlight, bathed in green. He didn’t emote, but he knew he had to respond, or be hit again. “Clear,” he whispered, “Clear as glass.”

 “C**k the gun. It’s loaded. 6 rounds. You have 6 tries to shoot the bottle.”

 Al held up the gun, in the way he had watched his dad shoot birds from the field and held his thumb to the hammer. He brought it down, his hand trembling, his small palms sweating, skinny knees weak.

 “Ready,” His father said, “Aim,”

 Al was neither of those things; ready or aiming.


Al shot his first bullet anyways. He hit nothing, not even a twig.

 Pa kicked the wall next to the window, cursed under his breath and turned away to calm himself down. “I meant, aim for the damn bottle.” He sighed, his aggressiveness just making Al shakier.

 He raised his gun again, his hands still shaking, trying to steady themselves and prepare for the kickback. Squinting his eye did not help; he missed once more, not hitting the green bottle, but instead a part of the tree branch, only an inch away from the place he and Pendula had carved their names.

 His father raised his hand to his face and Al flinched, nodding frantically at the nonsense his dad had just said. But he didn’t strike, as Al thought he would; he stroked his cheek. And, with great effort, he crouched to one knee, and held the boy against his chest. Al didn’t know how to respond. He just breathed in the smell of his father. Must, and blood, and the last hint of who he was before the bombs. His body trembled, and felt limp, and useless. It had been years since his father had held him.

 It took everything within him not to cry. Pa stroked the boy’s hair, and Al realized how weak and shaky his fathers touch was. Al could do nothing but stand in rigid shock, revolver still in hand, staring out at the tree and the bottle he had sworn not to miss and the sunset.

 “You’re a boy,” Pa said, “I know that.” He spoke into his hair, gently and sadly, “I know.

  I was eighteen when I shot a gun, and I was eighteen when I aimed it at a man for the first time. I remember how hard it was to press that trigger. But buddy, I had a duty to our country, to kill those men. And when I met your mother, and had children, I had a duty to my family to provide. Now, both are on my shoulders. Our shoulders. And we need to carry the weight like men, okay? Like strong men. For your sister.”

  Al let his eyes drift from the sun, into his fathers. He held him at arm’s length, both hands on his shoulders, expecting an answer. And Al, in the watery blue, saw not the man he once revered, who told him stories of wartime hero’s and would hold him on his shoulders, high above the corn fields, high above the rest of the world; he saw a sick man, a man no longer present in reality. A man who lived, in his mind, with a daughter who wasn’t dead, stuck between her cradle, and a foxhole, shooting whatever spooked him, killing whatever could bring back what he had lost. He recognized, then, that his father was just like Pendula. Banging his limbs against a steel cage, crying out for something to feed his delusions, his fantasy, his notion that by keeping himself, and Al, and Pendula alive, he was in any way less trapped than she.

 His eyes fell to the revolver in his hand.

 “For Pendula.” He said, and shot the green bottle clean off the tree. It splintered and shattered, the sun sparkling off the olive remains.

 It was well past midnight, when Pa had locked himself in and went to bed, when Al crept out of his room and snuck down the creaking stairs towards the kitchen. He had been laying in his mothball-ridden bed, his eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, since he watched his father put the gun back in the cupboard. In that time, he had been thinking about what he wanted to do with the three bullets left.

 There was something deep within him missing that a soldier needed. That DNA, that code that said to kill another for your own survival, if that was what it took. Maybe it was because he knew he didn’t have to kill the men of Tallgrass, Kansas to live. Maybe it was because he didn’t feel much like living. All he knew was, he couldn’t leave the dusty darkness tomorrow, and step into the sunlight with a gun in his hand to kill innocent men for no sensible reason. He knew Pendula, and himself, and his father, were all as good as dead. He knew just how unfair it felt inside, to keep Pendula locked up, incoherent, inhuman, barely alive. And when his Pa found this out, when the deficiency revealed itself, how would he react? When he got sick enough, and Pendula got hungry enough, who would be the first to go? Al may not have the survivor instinct, but Pa sure as hell did. It would be his turn, then, and his bones would join Billy’s in the corner of a cage.

 He stood on his tiptoes to reach behind the cereal, and found the dusty revolver, pulling it from its hiding spot and feeling its weight in his hands. Three bullets. It’d be like shooting the bottle, he told himself. Just like shooting the bottle off the tree.

 Pendula’s door had never been touched by Al. He refused to go in there, and now, facing it, it looked larger than it ever had. He had laid outside this door, with a blanket and a pillow, stomach growling because he hadn’t been fed, more nights than he could count the past two years. He sat beside it, listening through the door to Pa’s one-sided conversations with Pendula. It was always when he drank, mostly entire bottles from the wine collection in the cellar, that he would sit a foot from her cage and just speak. He’d talk about how much he missed mother. About how pretty she was, about how Pendula looked just like her and how similar their voices sounded. He’d speak sometimes about the war, and he’d just say, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” over and over again, but Al had no idea who or what for. One heartbreaking night, he told Pendula how disappointed he was in Al. How he wasn’t a fighter, like her, or himself. How excited he was to have a boy, but how little of that initial joy he had ever felt watching him grow. Al cried. He was only ten then. A sensitive soul, who preferred colored pencils to a catcher’s mitt. It broke the boys heart. And that conversation, though he never spoke of it, he never forgot.

There he stood; The fightless heart, with a gun in his hand. About to face everything he had feared for the final two years of his life. And with a deep breath in, and a click of the hammer, he pushed open the door with a gentle creak.

 Pendula had been, before the bombs, his best friend. It was hard to make other playmates when you lived on acres of land in the middle of nowhere. Though she had been younger, three years to be exact, and tiny as anything, she was quick, and full of energy and laughter. She could climb trees as well, run just as fast, and even catch fish in the stream with him. They shared everything. Even a bedroom. But now, looking at what used to be his sister, he felt sick with the realization he didn’t even recognize her.

 In her cage, she swayed back and forth to some unheard tune, staring with blank, sunken, white eyes, right through Al. The skin on her face sagged, melting against the skull, yellow, peeling like old wallpaper near the mouth and eyes so that little bits of oozing decay hung from the edges. Her playsuit, the one mother had stitched her two summers ago, originally green and dotted with flowers, was now torn to rags and covered in other people’s blood. Her hair - what was left of it - lay strung and damp down her nearly-bare skull, exposing where she had scratched and picked at until bleeding and raw. Behind her, in the corner of her cage, were two years’ worth of bleach-white bones, picked clean of fat and muscle and skin.

 He swallowed the acidic vomit that rose as a greeting in his throat, and bit back the urge to scream.

 This was still his sister. He just had to remember that. This was not a monster. This was Pendula.

 He took a step in, hiding the revolver behind his back, and quietly closed the door so only an inch or so stood open.

 “Hey.” He said to her.

 She said nothing back, but a low, gurgling moan sounded from deep in her throat. He took this as a hello.

 He shifted back and forth, one foot to the other, the revolver getting heavier and heavier behind his hand the longer he stood.

 “I don’t think you can hear me. Or you can hear me, you just don’t understand. But I think, if you were really here, if the real you were next to me… you’d understand. Why I have to-“ He stopped himself, unable to finish that sentence. Pendula just stared, blankly, right through him.

 “I tried to finish your painting. The one you hid under your bed. But when I found your paints, they were all dry, Penny, and I tried to use my crayons but one broke and I got frustrated and sad and I just… I missed you so much. I miss you.

 Pendula, a lot has happened since I saw you last. Pa is crazy now. He’s got you locked up in here, and me locked up in this house, and himself locked up in his own head. And as much as I love you, as much as I want you to be here… this isn’t a life. This isn’t okay. He’s just keeping your body here, like a snowglobe, like a pet, when your soul and mind and everything that made you, you, has moved on. I never wanted to do this. I swear to god, I tried every other way in my head but… it doesn’t matter anymore. You’re not even alive. Pa will die within the year, he’s been coughing up blood. And me… I can’t even picture a life beyond these walls, Penny. That’s how long I’ve been kept here, inside. Sometimes, I forget what clouds are. What the sun looks like. And that’s… that’s no way to live. But I’m scared. As scared as anyone. So the only way to do this… to end this thing, for good, for all of us to be together and be free…”

 He pulled the gun from behind his back, shaky, brought down the hammer, and pointed it right between her rotting white eyes.

“Forgive me, Pendula. I’m doing this for you.”

 BANG. And BANG. The door flung open behind him, and in instinctive shock, Al pulled the trigger while jumping, grazing Pendula’s rotting ear with a bullet and sending decaying flesh flying across the cage floor. He whipped around, and there was his father, with a shotgun propped up, the tip almost touching Al’s sweat-stained forehead.

 “Pa, I..."

 “No need to explain, boy,” He said, his breathing labored, his teeth grit in fury. “It’s pretty damn obvious what was going on here.”

 Al felt his throat close, and the words he wanted to say clogged in the back of his mouth like smoke.

 “Your own sister. Only a sick son-of-a-b***h would kill his own sister, you know that? Only someone really, really sick in the head. And with her grandfathers gun. I had my doubts about training you, I had my doubts about letting you hunt with me, but never, in all my years, would I have thought you’d resort to this. That’s your flesh and blood, Al. That’s your sister.”

 Al was suddenly, irreversibly, undeniably enraged. His face grew hot, and his throat unclogged a stream of words close to a shout came pouring out. “SHE IS NOT. MY SISTER. Pa, that is not Pendula. That has never been Pendula, from the moment you put her in that filthy f*****g cage, she’s been rotting in there alone for no reason. It’s just her body, Pa. You talk to her body, she never responds, you have to realize that! You have to know that! You kill innocent men, men who had families just like ours, just to feed to an animate shrine. Just because you can’t. Let. Go.”

 “You take that back.”

 “She’s dead, Pa.”

 “You take that back, you dirty f*****g dog, before I shoot you like the animal ya just proved you are,” Pa was seething, clenching his shotgun with white fists, pressing the barrel deep into the boys forehead so the cold steel left indentations of red.

 “No. She’s dead. She’s dead and you refuse to accept it because you’re sick, you’re sick and you’re living for the past. I’m not the animal in this, Pa.”

 Al slowly, without his father noticing, brought up his own gun so the barrel faced his fathers knee.

 “I’m not the one in a cage.”

 Pa’s eyes bulged, his sad ponds popping, dripping out of his skull, his skin beet-red and what was left of his hair sticking to his head in pools of  hot, angry sweat. He pulled the hammer down on his gun, smiling manically in his sons eyes.

 “We don’t need you anyways,” Pa laughed, breathing fast and hard, “Me and Pendula. We never did. In fact, we’ll be better off without-“

 And with that, Al fired, the bullet entering Pa’s knee at point blank range, crumbling him down to the floor as Al grabbed the shotgun by the barrel and twisted it out of his hand.

 Pa screamed, a blood-curdling, bone-chilling scream, and cursed every god above and Al himself until he regained control of his breathing. With no weapon, and no way to stand, he was powerless, laid before Al and his daughters cage like a man on an alter.

 He looked up at his son.

 “It was empty. The shotgun is empty, and you’ll never find the bullet stash, so what now, boy?” He seethed, knowing his end was near. “You’ve got one bullet left. You can’t shoot yourself, and your sister. You have to choose now, you stupid c**t, you have to choose. You wanted to be a man so bad. Who gets to die. Who gets to be free?”

 Al, all this time, had been looking down at his helpless father, the man who raised him on violence and discipline and disappointment, who had held him in his arms hours before, who had locked them all up and thrown away the key. He looked between him, and his gun, and the cage where whatever was left of his sister swayed, back and forth, like a grandfather clock, or a rotting pendulum.

 And he fought the urge to cry, as he knew, then, what must be done.

 He walked up to the cage, and took her in one last time. He would meet her soul again someday. His partner in crime, his eternal playmate. He knew that.

 “Do something, damnit.” His father shouted, half in pain, half in unaltered fury.

 Al breathed in deeply. He felt very much a child. But in this instance, he was very much a man. It was time to leave. To leave the oak tree and the cereal and the gun and his mothers clothing and his father and his sister, to leave the memories that haunted him like scars made with broken glass. So, he stepped over his fathers writhing body, too weak to reach out and grab him, and turned to, with a marksman’s precision, with the attention and fury he hit the bottle with, shoot the lock off of Pendula’s cage. BANG. It clattered to the ground, and Al’s father, realizing what was about to happen, what his ultimate, gruesome fate was to be, started to scream.

 Pendula’s cages creaked open, and she found she could finally leave, that dinner was being served bleeding, sobbing, fresh for her not four feet away. Al slammed open the front door, and ran into the nuclear Kansas night, into the cornfield and the stars, finally free.

© 2018 C.E.M.

Author's Note

So... I wrote a zombie story.
I know, it's weird, and I know, it's kind of far-fetched. It's also extremely unedited (sorry emipoemi but I don't do things the right way), but bear with me.
I feel better about this one than I did about Nosebleed. Especially because they're both in that strange no-man's land of experimental horror/tragic fiction that isn't really scary so much as it is sad.
I have shit to work on. Don't we all.
It would mean the world to me, if you're here already, if you left a review letting me know what you thought, or what I could do to improve the story/writing (without completely changing the narrative, because ngl I'm a little attached to Al and Pendula).

My Review

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Great story line, great description and gruesome read!!! I agree with Augustus that slowing the pace down just a hair might give this some more legs and may help to flesh out the characters just a bit while also bolstering what it feels like in post apocalyptic Kansas without getting too detailed. I can see why you are attached to the characters, they are awesome. You have great natural writing style and very good imagination and grasp on the details that make things real. I really enjoyed reading this, great job!!!

Posted 2 Years Ago


2 Years Ago

Thank you! I really appreciate this advice actually because I was terrified I was going too slow, an.. read more
You certainly let rip! A few breathing spaces would help! But keep going.........

Posted 2 Years Ago


2 Years Ago

I totally agree, now that I go back and reread it. Thank you! :)
You did very well. A well written and entertaining story. I liked the story line. I liked the world you create and the struggle to find freedom. You kept my attention till the last words. Thank you for sharing the amazing story.

Posted 2 Years Ago


2 Years Ago

Ah thank you Coyote! Much love from me for taking the time to read and review.
Coyote Poetry

2 Years Ago

You are welcome my friend.

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3 Reviews
Added on June 20, 2018
Last Updated on June 22, 2018
Tags: death, child, play, experimental, birthday, coming of age, short story, love, tragedy, loss, mature, blood, accident, zombies, apocalypse, post-apocalyptic, killing




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