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Natural Energy

by Sunny Franson

From her book Reflections: A Modest Collection of Short Stories

Available on Amazon

He walked along the dirt road in long strides because he was very tall, kicking up dust clouds with worn boots that had laces with numerous knots in them, where he had fixed them when they'd broken. His last ride, a trucker, had let him off at an intersection about half a mile back. The trucker was headed toward an interstate, and he didn't want to go in that direction.

Most of all he was thirsty, but he was hungry too and spotted a small group of stunted oaks about a quarter of a mile down the road. Otherwise there was only an occasional small tree here and there in the landscape, sometimes two trees. Dried grass and star thistle covered bare, hard soil that backed up to a few low, rolling hills that shimmered in the midday heat.

He knew he had to find something to drink and strode on toward the clump of trees, noting some low buildings with rusted metal roofs, clustered in and around the trees.

As he drew closer, he felt a heavy stillness in the air. Nothing moved, not even tall stalks of dried grasses and weeds. He wondered who would live way out here and why. There were no power lines going to the buildings and no vehicles parked around them, not even a bike, and no evidence of transportation of any kind.

He had a sinking feeling that the buildings were abandoned and there would be no water or food to be found here, but the closer he came, the more he thought that they didn't look so abandoned, because although the roofs were rusted metal, they were straight and tacked down. The sides of the buildings looked like they were made of some kind of composite material, but no parts of them looked to be sagging or out of square, like you'd expect to see with abandoned buildings. The whole place seemed vaguely like a contradiction in terms.

He walked over to the largest building. The front of it was mostly windows that extended down to about two feet above the foundation. Frames and sashes were straight and well positioned with no loose trim but were curiously weathered with flaking paint. There was no broken glass in the windows, and the lower halves were sparkling clean, but the upper halves appeared smudged and grimy. Faded curtains were hanging over each window, and bright flowers in colorful vases sat on each table by the windows. A washed out sign that said "Café" hung over the entrance.

He went to the front door, unsure of entering, but he was thirsty and hungry and at least needed water. He went inside.

At first the shelter away from the sun outside felt wonderful, but he also had trouble seeing around the room in which he found himself. It seemed so dark inside. His eyes quickly adjusted to the absence of the sun's glare, and he looked around to find someone to ask for water.

As he surveyed the room, he saw that it was long and narrow with tables and chairs lining the windows in front and a counter with stools drawn up to it running the entire length of the back wall. Behind the counter, along the back wall, was a cooking area including grill, stove top, oven and microwave. There was a pair of older refrigerators in one corner. Coffee pots, silverware, napkins and condiments were neatly arranged on the countertop behind which there was a workspace that ran the length of the counter. The place looked like a café straight out of the 1950's. He remembered the lack of power lines and figured they must have a generator.

As he blinked and looked around, he thought he spotted fleeting movement in one back corner. He blinked again and noticed someone quietly standing behind the counter toward the middle of the room. This was the only person he saw, so he walked over to the counter and said, "Do you think you could spare a glass of water?"

The woman behind the counter said, "Sure. How about some ice cubes in it?"

"Thanks," he said, "that would be great."

She got a glass from somewhere behind the counter, he heard clinking sounds, he heard water running, and she handed him a tall glass of water with several ice cubes in it.

"Thanks," he said. "I was hoping there'd be someone here. The place looked pretty quiet from the outside."

He drank most of the water, set the glass down, and she refilled it for him.

"Not really," she said. "There's always someone here," she added in a matter-of-fact manner.

As he looked over at her, he realized that she didn't seem to be much past her teens. She was slender with long, dark hair pulled back with a clasp, her eyes were large, dark and expressive but he couldn't tell what color they were, and her voice was quiet and melodious though tired. She had on a light blue uniform that did nothing for her, he thought, and she wore a white apron over it.

"You hungry?" she asked.

"Sure am," he replied. "I haven't eaten since early this morning. What do you have that's good?"

"Lunch special," she said, "Soup and sandwich. Potato soup and ham sandwich. If you want you can have some fruit and the sandwich."

"Thanks, I'll take the soup. It sounds good with the ham sandwich."

He sat down at the counter and was a little surprised, since the place was so quiet, when she ladled out a large bowl of steaming hot, thick potato soup and set the bowl and some silverware in front of him. Then she brought out some fresh bread and made a large sandwich with thick slices of what looked like honey baked ham, fresh lettuce, mayonnaise and mustard. She sliced it diagonally, put it on a plate and set it beside the soup. Then she began to wash glasses.

"Where you headed?" she asked conversationally.

"Nowhere in particular," he answered. "Just thought I'd enjoy traveling around for a little."

"Not running from anything?" She chuckled.

"No, nothing like that. I just needed some time, that's all," he said.

"Sounds nice," she said, glancing over at him.

He felt obliged to say a little more. "I lost my wife some months back and wanted to be on the move for awhile and sort things out."

"Sorry to hear that." She spoke gently. "Your family must want to know how you are."

"No family," he spoke quietly, almost to himself. He had been eating hungrily and was beginning to slow down, and he was feeling tired now.

"Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to pry, " she said.

"Just need a little time to myself, I guess. Feels better to be on the road," he said. "And that sandwich sure hit the spot. A lunch like that keeps you going."

"Thanks." She nodded toward an oven that was beneath the stove top." "We like to bake the ham ourselves."

He peered at her. "How'd you come to be in a place like this?"

She was quiet for a moment.

"My turn to be sorry," he said. "It's none of my business."

"It's ok", she said. "A couple of years ago, I was traveling past, on my way to the interstate nearby, during semester break. My car broke down. Seems I just stayed on."

"Ever thought about leaving and going back to school?"

"Oh sure, but I just don't seem to have the energy for it any more," she replied. "Oh well, it's a nice, quiet life after all. No one comes by much, but that's fine. Nice and peaceful."

"Peace and quiet is nice. I wouldn't mind it for a while. I sort of need to figure out some things. You don't know of any place around here where I could stay just to take a little time for a few days or so, do you?"

"Well, if you want, there are a couple of rooms in two of those buildings over there." She pointed to two small, low buildings maybe a few hundred feet away, near some trees. "Twenty-five dollars a night."

"Guess I want to be somewhere with air conditioning," he said. "With maybe a few things to do, if I want."

"There's air conditioning. We have natural power. And you can eat here. Food's good and it doesn't cost too much. Only thing is it gets quiet around sundown. Just want to let you know that."

"So you have a generator?" he asked.

"Something like that," she murmured. "By the way, my name's Katherine, but most folks call me Katie."

"I'm Brian," he said. He was nearly finished with his lunch by now.

Brian thought about staying, but he didn't give much thought to the place itself. He was exhausted physically and emotionally, and all he really wanted was to be still and to rest before he moved on, if not here, then somewhere not too far ahead. But he was here already, where it was obviously quiet and where there was good food. He was tired with the kind of numb feeling that comes with stress and sorrow. He decided to stay overnight, anyway. He'd get an afternoon's rest, spend a quiet night, and leave in the morning.

"Ok," he said. "I'll take a room for the night."

He pulled out his wallet and paid for lunch and the room. Katie gave him a key, pointed to a building, and told him it was the room on the right. He thanked her, picked up his knapsack, and made his way out of the café and across the open yard to the room.

When he unlocked the door, he found a spare but clean and tidy room, with curtains that didn't quite fit over the lower windows. He really didn't care about the room. He turned on the air conditioner to cool the heat that had become trapped in the room. He was exhausted and fell asleep almost as soon as he stretched out on the bed.

When he awoke the afternoon had faded, and the outside temperature seemed to have dropped, if only a few degrees. That stifling feeling was still there, but he had the impression that it wasn't related to the heat of the day although he couldn't quite put his finger on why that was. He felt groggy from sleep and decided a shower and clean clothes would help.

When he emerged from his shower about twenty minutes later, his head still seemed to feel a little fuzzy even though he felt better overall. It was time for something to eat, he thought, and he remembered that Katie had mentioned that the place became very quiet after dusk. Outside there was no sound or movement anywhere in the immediate vicinity. He headed out the door and made his way to the café.

As he walked outside, he realized that he hadn't even heard any birds or insects, not earlier and not now either. That was odd, because insects usually began to emerge toward the end of the day if they hadn't been about in the hot sun, and birds were usually out to find food before nightfall when they went to roost. He had the impression that signs of life had faded.

Nothing had changed in the café. No one except Katie was there. She was standing in just about the same place as she had been earlier, almost as though she hadn't moved at all. He walked toward the counter and sat down on a stool.

"Hi," she said. "Did you get some rest? You looked completely exhausted earlier."

"Thanks," said Brian. "Yes, I do feel a little more rested, although I can't shake a feeling of being a little dazed or something. Maybe I was out in the heat for too long today. I'm already looking forward to a good night's sleep. And you were right about how quiet it is here. I didn't hear anything at all."

He looked more closely at Katie. She seemed to be more alert, and her eyes were bright and wide open. She seemed to have more energy than earlier in the day. He supposed that as the day cooled off, she felt better. He knew that he did.

He settled himself more comfortably on the counter stool and asked Katie what the dinner special was. She beamed and described the delicious meatloaf, thick homemade gravy and freshly mashed potatoes that were on today's menu. Fresh garden salad and creamy homemade thousand island dressing, fresh baked tiny sourdough loaves and good creamery butter went with the meal. She said that she made the meatloaf with chopped onion and garlic sautéed in a light white wine, and she roasted vegetables in a large, flat roasting pan until they were past tender and had broken down, so she could use the savory result to make a rue for the gravy, for which she used fresh, whole milk.

Brian couldn't believe his good fortune. Who would have imagined that this place would have food like that, he thought. Dinner would keep him going for quite a while. He was beginning to noticeably perk up. He was already feeling hungry and was delighted to see Katie pick up a large oval plate and head to the oven.

She opened the oven door and pulled out a huge, rounded meatloaf, seared and crisp on the outside, and sitting in golden gravy. She used a large metal spatula to slice off an entire end of the loaf and place it on the plate. From a saucepan on the stove she heaped a mound of mashed potatoes on the plate beside the meatloaf, she ladled gravy over all of it, spooned a large serving of buttered peas on the side of the plate, and set the food on the counter in front of Brian. To this she added a smaller plate of fresh, crisp green salad topped with the creamy dressing and croutons and another dish with two small, warm sourdough loaves along with a couple of heaping tablespoons of fresh, golden speckled butter.

Brian sighed happily. He breathed deeply, savoring the delectable aroma that hung in the air around him and that rose in the steam from his dinner. It was quiet, he was hungry, there was good food in front of him, and life seemed to relax for a heartbeat.

"Thanks, thanks for everything, Katie," he said. "Say, have you eaten?"

"Not yet," she said.

"Why not fix a plate for yourself and join me? There isn't anyone else here right now, company would be nice, and you do need to eat."

She giggled a little and helping herself to a plate, she headed to the oven and stove where she prepared smaller portions of the same food. She pulled a stool around the edge of the corner from Brian, arranged silverware and a napkin and perched herself on the stool.

They ate in silence for a while. Then Brian asked, "What do you do for fun around here? Listen to the crickets, look at the stars, take walks?"

She looked just a little wary, he thought. She didn't say anything at first, continuing to eat but more slowly.

Then she looked over at him and shrugging her shoulders, replied, "There really isn't much to do here. Like I said, everything winds down about dusk. Here, let me get more bread."

She went part way down the counter and brought back two more small sourdough loaves and butter for them. She sat down on the stool again and took a loaf.

"At night you can see lots of stars around here," she finally said. "Skies are generally clear, but you have to hike over to that first small hill and climb it. Then you can see the whole sky. It just glows."

"Maybe I'll walk out that way then," he said. "Want to come along?"

"Oh, no thanks" she said. "I have too much to do after dinner."

He thought that probably wasn't true but said nothing.

He was still very much wrapped in his own feelings. He'd just thought he was being social. When he thought about it, he realized that he hadn't been social for some months and had almost forgotten how.

He asked Katie if he could help her clean up, since no one else was there and it was growing dark outside now. He thought he'd help and then take that walk over to the low hill and climb it, enjoying the night air and the sky. If he got there in time he might even see what was left of the sunset.

Katie smiled cheerfully at him and thanked him for his offer but declined his help, suggesting that if he were going on his walk, he'd better go. After all, she said, he still looked tired and after the large meal, he might be drowsy.

As she began to clear the dishes, he thanked her for a great dinner, left money on the counter, wished her good night and walked outside. He walked slowly across the open yard toward his room but made his way around the building, heading for the small hill. It was too dark to see dust rise where he had walked, but he knew the dust was there. He could smell it.

Funny, he thought to himself, that he could smell the dust around here, but he hadn't seen or heard birds, and he didn't hear crickets. The absence of sound was loud. His senses felt almost prickly because some of them weren't being used.

The walk to the top of the hill didn't take long at all, and there they were, glistening and glinting in the night sky, stars by the millions or trillions, and constellations stretching far away, across the heavens. He recognized the Big and Little Dippers, Orion's Belt, Ursa Major, and a few others, but he didn't know that many of them. He wished he knew more and vowed to himself that in the future he would take time to enjoy the night sky and to learn more about it.

As he gazed at the horizons while slowly turning around, he didn't see any color to the west. The sun was well and truly gone for the day. He sat down and breathed in the night air.

He simply breathed. Then he realized that he had just had a fleeting thought about something he wanted to do in the future. For what seemed like a very long time he hadn't considered the future in any way that was not completely practical, like when he should do his laundry for instance, pay the phone bill, or water the lawn. Maybe the concept of a future was coming back into his life.

He stood there for fifteen minutes or so, completely relaxed, and then he began to make his way back to the enclave of buildings and to his room. Katie was right. He was feeling drowsy, and he also felt the beginning of giving in to the feeling of loss and grief, but in a sweet and sad way. It felt a little like he might have turned a corner of some kind.

When he reached the bottom of the hill, he could still easily find his way in the starlight. When he was fairly close to the grouping of trees and buildings, the air seemed to become thicker, and he felt as though he were almost swimming through it rather than walking. It seemed darker too. It was then that he thought to himself that his senses and feelings had been much sharper on the hill than they were here. He didn't especially care for that but by now he was sleepy and wanted to go on to bed. He made his way to his room by starlight that seemed to be fading too.

There were no lights in any of the buildings, except for the café. A small light glowed softly through a few windows. It looked like it was in the back, and it was not coming from the ceiling, shining down, but instead seemed to be coming from just below the height of the windows and was shining up. That was odd, but he was really quite tired, didn't want to investigate, and headed to his room. Only a few minutes later, he was drifting into slumber.

Suddenly he sat up straight, heart pounding and chest heaving. Why? What happened?

He looked out through the bottom of the windows. It was pitch black outside and there was no sound. No stars shone in the sky. Every nerve in his body was tingling, but he didn't understand why.

Then, there was a huge muffled sound like an enormous implosion somewhere very close, and light was everywhere. It was bright white light, almost glowing and phosphorescent, and it illuminated all the buildings, trees, and nearby hills with its power. It was so strong it lit up building interiors, so that Brian's room was full of white light. It was so intense, it actually pulsed, ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. Brian jumped up.

Then just as suddenly the light was gone, and complete darkness enveloped every corner and outside as well. Brian was wide awake and very alert. He quickly dressed and opened the door, peering around outside.

Silence. Nothing stirred, and there were no indications of life anywhere. He could barely see that dim light coming from the café, because the rest of the area was covered by what seemed like a thick, black fog. The darkness was so intense, he thought he could reach out and touch it.

He walked carefully and quietly toward the café, and when he got to within ten feet of the front door, he crouched and moved over to a window. He wanted to look inside but didn't want anyone to see him. He was still alert and wary.

He focused on the dim glow toward the back of the café and saw a small light that was about half way up the back wall and behind the counter. Katie was there. He thought he saw other movement, or had the impression of movement that was just below and behind the counter. All he could see was what might have been the top of something, less than an inch of it, and its owner seemed to be scurrying back and forth behind the counter.

Katie sat in front of the counter, on a stool near the back corner. She was in full view, and her head and shoulders were in silhouette from the soft light on the wall behind her. She was wearing what appeared to be a small cap made of a large mesh of some kind. Wires came from several places on it, running over the top of the counter apparently to something behind it, toward the floor.

When they were eating dinner, Katie had appeared vibrant, with luminous eyes, but now she looked completely exhausted. She had to brace herself with her hands. As she was doing that, she was staring at the wall sconce that Brian now noticed seemed to be almost throbbing, first softer, then a bit brighter. The pulsing didn't seem to follow a pattern of any kind, but it didn't seem to be random, either. Katie was staring at it, unblinking. She almost looked like she was in a trance. Brian looked carefully at the light but couldn't seem to figure it out, and for a moment there he wasn't sure of what he was seeing.

After what seemed like about twenty minutes, the light began to fade, and as it was slowly vanishing, Katie mechanically reached up and pulled off the small cap. It was pulled by its wires toward a spot out of sight behind the counter.

Katie stood up and began to make her way to the front door. Brian crouched down and backed up against the outer wall, making himself as invisible as he could. Illumination from the little light was nearly gone, but as Katie opened the door and went through it, she was again in profile from its very low light and from clean, clear, bright starlight now appearing overhead. He stared and had to force himself not to gasp. She looked horrible. He couldn't see her color in this light but she looked washed out, and the circles under her eyes were huge and black.

An owl called softly, and he saw its pale form as it silently flew over the clearing. He heard crickets chirping from the myriads of shadows created by the starlit sky.

Katie walked heavily and turned toward a building across the open yard. Brian watched her go and then when he thought it was safe, he crept, stooping, back to his room.

He didn't know how long he'd slept but was surprised that he'd slept at all. However the sun was already up when he awoke the next morning. He'd planned to make an early start and continue on his way.

Several weeks had passed, because around the clearing the stunted oaks were beginning to change color and the ground had a reddish grey tinge to it from angled sunlight. She made her way over the open yard, across the hard ground, to the long, low building with the faded sign that said "Café" over the entrance. She was irritable, because her car was a rental and it shouldn't have broken down. When she went inside, she blinked and after a few moments made out a tall male figure standing behind the counter, toward the middle. She asked for a phone because her cell wasn't working out here.