The pale streaks of red and orange intensify above the horizon as I watch the sun peek over the horizon on Mr. Gray’s farm. It’s the first sunrise I’ve seen in weeks. The cool morning air dissipates as warmth and light wash over me on the moist ground. August has been unseasonably cool this year, even for Minnesota. I soak up the ascending sun for a few moments and clear my head of every disturbing thought. I am at peace for five minutes before the memory of my mother’s lifeless eyes invades my mind.
A rooster crows in the distance as I reach into my leather backpack and pull out my father’s journal. Before he died, my father wrote an entry in the spiral-bound notebook every morning. The entries were short and easily take up a page. He always began with something he was thankful for and a short prayer afterward. I often wonder if the days he wrote simple things— Emily’s cooking, silence, and Dex’s smile—were days he had nothing else to thank God for. Today is not like that for me.
With pen in hand, I flip through dozens of entries and find a blank page. Another rooster crow fills the air as I scrawl “sunrise” in the notebook. A short prayer eludes me, but that’s not surprising. My father loved to write praises and prayers for every trivial thing. In the last year since he and my mother died, I can’t think of anything beyond “please help me, God.” So that’s what I write. Then close the notebook and toss it inside my pack.
A cool breeze sweeps my shaggy hair from my forehead as I walk to the dilapidated barn where Edith, our dairy cow , sleeps. Inside, the drone worker that use to do the milking sits in the corner collecting rust. His name was Del. Edith never cared for him. Like most farm mechs, he was too hurried and distressed the poor cow during milking. I’m glad we do it the old fashioned way now. Mr. Gray always milks Edith and rarely lets Mrs. Gray or his son, Zechariah, outside the house. I’ve convinced him to allow me do the chore on occasion, but most times he refuses. I pleaded with him about it last night. He grew tired of my whining and caved. But I have a suspicion that deep down, he lets me do it because he feels sorry for me and knows I’ve been through hell in the past year. But I guess everyone lost loved ones on IlluMonday.
Few people take in their neighbors’ orphaned kid, but the Grays did. My family and the Grays were always close, so I can understand the obligation they felt to take care of me. But they could have left me to fend for myself since that’s so commonplace now , especially in rural cities like Forest Lake. The pungent smell of dung and hay fills the air of the barn. Edith’s head pokes up from behind her stall and she lows when I unhook an empty milk can hanging on the wall. I stroke her head before placing the can beneath her udders. The rhythmic chore of milking the cow is soothing and I lose myself in it. My thoughts linger on my parents for a moment, but then Cassidy Stokes, my best friend from youth group, enters my head. We used to communicate over a CB radio last winter before the world figured out the Mindless were using electricity to track the uninfected.
Over a year ago, Dronis Biotech released a software update to their brand of popular cyber implants and inadvertently spread a nanotech virus called Navitas. The virus infected anyone with an Illumen implant and turned them into savage drones, capable of killing anyone in their path. Cassidy’s mom had an implant and Navitas deleted any semblance of the woman she once was. Her dad, Garrett, had to shoot his wife with a shotgun to stop her from killing him and infecting Cassidy. My parents’ deaths were tragic, but they don’t compare to what Cassidy and Garrett have been through. I miss my conversations with her over the radio. Despite the chaos the Mindless started around the world, Cassidy and I still laughed at stupid jokes we’d share over our own channel. I guess that’s how we coped.
The sudden creak of the barn door causes me to jump. I rise from the ground and face the entrance. In the doorway stands Mr. Gray, a muscled black man with a focused gaze capable of cutting a diamond. His imposing stature and rugged clothing mask the compassionate person underneath.
“What’s taking so long, Dex?” Mr. Gray asks.
My full name is Declan Finnegan, but everyone who knows me and is still alive calls me Dex. Every so often Cassidy annoys me by calling me “Finny”.
“It’s only been twenty minutes, I haven’t even filled half the can,” I say, gesturing at the milk beneath Edith.
“It’s been thirty. You were watching the sunrise weren’t you?” Mr. Gray prods. He shuts the door and approaches me, giving me the same stern look he uses on Zechariah when he’s in trouble.
“It’s been months since I’ve seen it. And I wanted to write—” I stop myself. Mr. Gray doesn’t know about my father’s journal.
“Write what?” Mr. Gray questions, crossing his arms.
“Nevermind, I’ll finish milking Edith.”
“Dex, I consider you to be a son because your family and my family were—”
“Close. I know ,” I say while I turn to face Edith.
“Right. I’m trying to protect you because that’s what they’d want me to do. So be careful out here. There are Mindless and sparkhounds still roaming outside the Cities.”
Sparkhounds. Dogs infected by Navitas and used by the Mindless to track survivors. Some genius at Dronis thought it’d be a good idea to offer implants for dogs, allowing owners to connect with their pets and entertain them with canine apps. On IlluMonday, when the Navitas update released for Illumen. dogs became infected too. Now they’re programmed to sniff out electrical currents to find survivors. Their bites are rumored to spread the virus, but I haven’t met anyone who’s survived a sparkhound encounter.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Gray. I just needed a moment to myself today. Out of the house for once,” I say.
Mr. Gray purses his lips and nods. “I understand. Finish up here and I’ll wait for you by the vegetable garden.”
The door creaks open behind me and I’m alone with Edith again. I love the Gray family and owe them more than I can ever repay. But I hate being locked up in a house with little to do besides surviving. Edith lows as if in agreement and I smile.
Before I resume milking, the barn door swings open and Mr. Gray steps inside—eyes wide and nostrils flared.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Get in the house now!” Mr. Gray growls. “There are dog tracks outside.”