Sweat beaded on Angela’s forehead. She could feel the droplets gathering, combining to make bigger droplets that trickled down her neck, tickling her skin.
Of course, still the bike went nowhere. But, up the stairs, along the corridor, in the lounge where the old folks waited, hopefully a lightbulb glowed.
The door at the top of the stairs opened with its familiar creak, and Mrs Tolliver’s quavering voice drifted down. “It’s flickering a bit, dear. Vera’s getting a headache. Could you put a bit more oomph into it?”
“Rightio, Mrs T!” Angela panted. “Will do!”
She rose up from the bike seat, leaned forwards over the handlebars, and pedalled faster.
She imagined an open road ahead of her, instead of the cracked and peeling paint of the basement wall. The flame of the candle in its glass housing on the floor sent shadows flickering in her peripheral vision and Angela pictured trees whizzing by. She tried to feel the air of her passage flowing over her flushed and puffy cheeks, cooling her as she sped on.
But the bike went nowhere.
Just a few more minutes. That was all she could give them. But an hour or so of proper electric light after dark made all the difference to the old folks as the nights started to draw in. Their eyes weren’t strong enough any more to be able to read or play checkers by candlelight, and it was just too depressing to give up on the day as soon as the sunlight faded. So Angela pedalled. Every night, for as long as she could manage.
She thought about the pure delight on everyone’s faces the first time the bicycle-powered dynamo lit the bulb in the lounge. She had been among those watching then, and she had jumped up and down and clapped with joy when the filament flickered into life.
Steve had been pedalling that day. He had taken the mountain bike Angela hadn’t had time to ride in years, whipped off the back wheel, cannibalised an old wheelchair to suspend the frame off the basement floor, and connected the gear chain up to the generator, and was proud to demonstrate how it worked. After that, he and Angela had set up a rota with any of the others who could pedal fast enough to get the light bulb going.
She’d only had to cycle twice a week back then, and only for half an hour each time. But then Steve had taken most of the others and gone in search of other settlements. He’d said they would only be gone a few days, leaving Angela and Derek to look after the old folks. They were going out in a spiral pattern, and would cut straight back to the homestead as soon as they found anyone else. Derek had chopped a tree down on himself three days later.
That had been nearly four months ago now, and the others never came back.
All the air in Angela’s lungs rushed out in a whoosh and she stopped pedalling, the muscles in her calves and thighs on fire. She heard muffled groans from above as the dynamo stuttered to a halt and the old folks were plunged into darkness. She told them every day to have the matches handy for lighting the candles when the bulb went out, but they never listened. Heaving herself off the bike, she picked up her candle lantern and trudged up the stairs.
As soon as she entered the lounge, the complaints started up.
“I only needed two more turns to win this game!” Ms Clarke, so competitive.
“I was about to get to the end of my chapter.” Mr Boyate, of course, always reading.
“Can’t we have just a few more minutes?” Mrs Harcourt, completely blind, but liked to feel the warmth of the bulb.
“That didn’t feel like a full hour to me. I think you’re short-changing us again!” And that, inevitably, was Mr Edward “Eddie” Tremain, determined to squeeze every penny from his son’s investment that he could, even now.
Angela went round the room, lighting each candle and smiling down at each face. “I’m afraid that’s all for tonight. You’ll just have to wait until tomorrow.”
But how many more tomorrows could she go on cycling to give them that little bit of light? And how many more tomorrows could she keep doing all the other chores required to maintain the homestead? Already, the list of maintenance tasks was growing faster than she could tick them off. The vegetable plot needed some urgent attention, the gutters were clogged, the stairs were getting dangerously rickety…
Angela packed all the old folks off to bed, then retreated to her own room. She was physically exhausted, but still lay staring into the darkness for a long time before she finally fell asleep.
“Is everything alright, dear?” The elderly woman’s rheumy eyes peered up at her in concern. “It’s just that Eddie’s asking about breakfast, and I don’t mind telling you that Cynthia really needs a bath.”
Angela pasted her habitual smile on her face, though she could feel it drooping at the edges, a bit like the wallpaper in Mr Armitage’s room. “Terribly sorry, Mrs T. I’ll be right with you!”
But, as it turned out, breakfast and bathtime would have to wait. As Angela was pulling a comb through her recalcitrant curls, she heard a noise that reverberated right through to the depths of her core, where memories of The Time Before lurked in shadow.
It was an engine.
She dropped her comb and ran from the bedroom, down the stairs and out onto the porch. Putting one hand up to shade her eyes, she peered out into the wilderness. Dust was rising at the furthest reaches of her vision, down the road that led out into the unknown.
As Angela watched, a vehicle came into view. It had outsized wheels and a bubble-shaped shell, with dark blue panels affixed all over it that reflected the beams of the sun. She stood right there until it trundled to a halt a few feet from the bottom of the porch steps and, as Angela stood frozen and open-mouthed, a figure climbed out.
It was a woman, younger than Angela by a few years, and shorter by several inches. She pushed her driving goggles up onto her forehead and waved at Angela with a wide grin.
“Hello! Someone told me there was a house out this way, but I wasn’t sure there’d be anyone still here. I figured there’d be no harm in coming to take a look, just in case.” The young woman bounded up the steps and stuck out her hand. “I’m Tilly.”
Angela gaped like a fish for a few seconds more, before part of her brain kicked into gear and she reached out to grasp Tilly’s hand. “Angela.”
“Hi, Angela. Pleased to meet you.”
“What are you—? Where did you—? Who are you?”
Tilly’s grin grew even wider. “That’s a common reaction. No worries. Any chance of some water? And I’ll tell you all about who I am and why I’m here.”
The prompt for refreshments broke Angela out of her confused haze. “Of course! Come on in.”
She led the newcomer into the house, past where the old folks were clustering in the lounge doorway and on into the kitchen. She gestured for Tilly to sit down at the table, then filled two glasses with water from the jug on the counter and joined her guest. Tilly downed her water in a few huge gulps and Angela silently pushed her own glass across the table to her.
Tilly nodded her thanks and took a few more sips. “Phew! That’s better. It’s thirsty work driving all day.”
“But where did you come from?” Angela asked. “And where did you get a working… car?”
“I’m from back east,” Tilly said. “And we’ve got quite a few things working again out there. So much so that we thought it was time to start trying to connect everyone back together again. There’s a whole team of us, travelling about, finding the survivors and helping them get back on their feet. I’m just the advance party.”
Angela felt a surge of emotion crawl up her throat and try to choke her. Tears threatened and she struggled to hold them back.
Tilly reached across the table and squeezed her hand. “I’m guessing you could use some help?” Angela just nodded, swallowing hard. “Okay, then! Do you have a generator?”
“Yes,” Angela managed. “It’s in the basement. But we ran out of gas ages ago.”
So Angela lit her candle lantern and took Tilly down to the basement, where the generator squatted in the corner. Angela always felt like it was mocking her while she cycled every night, nearly killing herself to produce a fraction of the power the generator could with only a flick of a switch. If only they had something to make it run.
Tilly whistled when she saw the bike on its stand, hooked up to the dynamo. “Nice set up! Bet it takes a lot of work to get anywhere, though.”
Angela huffed out an approximation of a laugh. “You have no idea.” And the bike, of course, actually went nowhere.
“Okay, then!” Tilly clapped her hands together. “I can definitely work with this. Can you help?”
Angela nodded vigorously. She had no idea what she was volunteering for, but she already knew she would do whatever this woman told her to do.
Tilly used the old generator for something to stand on so she could reach the ceiling.
All the while, the old folks milled about, shuffling their feet, staring and muttering amongst themselves. When Tilly declared the work finished, it was well after the old folks’ usual lunchtime and they were starting to grumble, Eddie in particular.
“We’ll have to wait a few hours for the cells to charge,” Tilly said.
Angela fixed everyone a meal, and they all gathered around the table in the dining room to listen to Tilly’s stories of the reconstruction of civilisation. The tales sounded outlandish and incredible to Angela’s ears, but they also spoke to that place deep in her heart that had been awoken by the sound of Tilly’s car. Could a return to how she dimly remembered things in The Time Before really be possible?
As the shadows started to lengthen, Angela felt her chest constrict at the thought of having to cycle after the morning’s labour. But Tilly bounced up out of her chair, pulled Angela to her feet and headed for the basement. “Time to test it out!” she called over her shoulder.
Angela held her breath as she lifted the candle lantern over their heads so Tilly could see what she was doing. With an impish grin, Tilly flipped the new generator’s switch, and it hummed to life. And then the bare bulb that had dangled uselessly from the ceiling for so long burst into glorious, glowing life. Angela squinted against the glare and met Tilly’s wide, shining eyes.
“It works,” was all Angela could find to say.
“It sure does!” Tilly replied.
They made their way back up the stairs and emerged into the kitchen, where another light bulb was now blazing brightly. Angela heard an unfamiliar whirr and realised it was the old refrigerator.
Mrs Tolliver’s voice sounded from the doorway. “Witchcraft…”
Tilly laughed. “Just the magic of solar energy.”
Angela ran through the whole house, switching on anything and everything that was connected to the generator. The building was soon ablaze with electric light, fans spun from every ceiling, music blared from the stereo in the lounge. Eddie twirled Cynthia round in an enthusiastic waltz, apparently not minding that she hadn’t yet had her bath. He was actually smiling.
“The charge won’t last forever,” Tilly warned. “But you’ll get a few hours out of it, and it’ll fill back up again once the sun comes up tomorrow.”
“We can have power every day?” Angela’s breath caught in her throat. “No more cycling?”
“No more cycling,” Tilly confirmed. “Once I get back on the road, I’ll send a message through to the central team and get some more people out here with additional supplies for you.”
“No more cycling,” Angela repeated in a breathless whisper.
Next stop, that prison they’d heard about where the abandoned inmates had apparently torn down the fences and turned the site into a working farm.
As Tilly reached the bottom of a hill a mile or so away from the homestead, she caught a movement in her rearview mirror. She pulled the car to a stop and craned out the window to look behind her.
Up on the slope, a figure on a bicycle freewheeled down the road, wind streaming through her hair, arms stretched up to the sky.
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