Southern Falls

The city of Southern Falls was once a bustling metropolis plopped down in the middle of small, idyllic farming communities. People flocked to it from all over the world, to take pictures of the South River and the stunning waterfall that gave the town its name.

But that was before the flood. Three years ago, the river swelled beyond imagination and reduced a flourishing city to a crumbling ruin, splattered with mildew and regrets. The people fled, and the ones who didn’t got sick and died. As if a flood wasn’t enough, it brought with it a mysterious illness—the hydrofluenza, or “River Flu.”

Aina is trying to survive in a world flipped on its head, and was managing until her closest friend falls in and she is stuck caring for an enigmatic boy with a bullet hole in his shoulder.

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1. Chapter 1

Chapter 1

AINA


 

    The sky was a dull shade of silver that evening, gauzy at the edges and stained brilliant shades of scarlet by the setting sun. It bled out into the clouds in wisps of pink, orange and pale lavender, giving the sky the appearance of a sloppily done watercolour painting where all the colours have become muddled together. It was beautiful, and for the slimmest of moments the world below collectively held its breath, a sense of tranquility momentarily descending on the town of Southern Falls.

    Despite the promise of darkness, Aina enjoyed roaming the streets at this time, when they were nearly deserted. She enjoyed being alone with her thoughts, alone to marvel the colours sweeping over the sky. Besides, Southern Falls had become a ghost town in the past few years, the majority of its once plentiful residents having relocated after the flood.

    Everywhere she looked, Aina caught glimpses of the carnage caused by the flood, even if three years have passed and the South River has once again shrunk to fit within its banks. Crumbling houses, splotched with black mildew. Trees uprooted and discarded alongside the streets, roadsides and ditches cracked and crumbling. When faced with disaster, the people chose to flee and once it was over they chose to stay away rather than rebuild their fallen city. In the weeks after the initial flood, Southern Falls shrunk from a bustling city with tens of thousands of citizens to a rural town with a population of one thousand, five hundred and eighty seven. Since then, the population has dropped to a hairsbreadth over seven hundred.

In an alder tree—one of the few trees quick enough to regrow in three years—a jay cried. Its piercing wail fractured through the stillness, and Aina snapped out of her mindless reminiscing to realize a thin film of darkness had begun to descend.

She turned, increasing her pace so as not to be stranded once night falls. Once the sun sets, the dangers grow and spread until Southern Falls is no longer the quiet, idyllic town Aina thought of it as. The sky has transitioned from silver to a smudgy charcoal, a gloom settling in the form of a heavy veil of shadows. The friendly breeze picked up into a firm gust, stroking icy fingers against Aina’s flushed cheeks.

A dull glow the colour of blood wound its way through the rapidly encroaching darkness, emanating from the floodlights mounted atop the Barricade. Red, meaning there’d been an attempt to leave Southern Falls within the last two hours.

The flood brought with it an unexpected side-effect, an epidemic dubbed by the media and the locals as the River Flu and by scientists as hydrofluenza. It was in the South River all along, with a few documented cases in the past where it was referred to as an “Unknown Illness’ and promptly forgot about it. It was caught by ingesting the water, even the most miniscule amounts. The falls and the river were typically avoided by residents and tourists alike when it came to activities on the water, the reason being the river’s dangerous current, frothing white rapids and unexpected riptides. It was teaming with danger, even before the virus was discovered.

Turning away from the Barricade and its crimson glow, Aina wandered her way along the deserted streets. She reached the rundown apartment building she called home just as the sky was turning the sallow shade attributed to dusk and old bruises. Rather unceremoniously she tossed the mildew-speckled door open, rusty hinges groaning, and stumbled inside.

As she’d been expecting, Winona—Winni—and Rion were waiting for her. Winni had her arms crossed and caramel dreadlocks pulled into a ponytail, away from her face. That paired with the stern set to her thin lips, and she appeared like a mother angry at her delinquent daughter for staying out past curfew. Rion wasn’t glowering quite so hard, but his hazelnut-hued curls were dishevelled and unkempt and his grey eyes were tired and shadowed by plum-coloured circles.

Aina blushed scarlet right to the roots of her hair, studying her reflection in the broken mirror hanging askew on the wall, mentally piecing together the fractured image to realize she is equally rundown and exhausted in appearance as Rion and Winni—and that her hair was due for a fresh dye. Blond roots had grown out to about an inch while the red had faded into a rusty orange. She also needed it cut, washed and brushed, none of which she would be doing anytime soon. She sighed, reassigning her gaze to Winni’s ratty and mud-splattered tennis shoes.

“Where have you been?” Winni snaps tersely, her tone sharp as knives, slicing through the uncomfortable silence that had descended over them. Despite the fact she was exactly a year and two months older than Aina, she always acted haughty and superior. “Shift and Deisy have already passed out on the couch, trying to stay up and wait for you.”

“I’m back before curfew,” Aina protested, her words punctuated by a wailing siren. Barely. According to the clock on the wall, it was barely past nine o’clock. On a normal day, the seven hundred remaining residents of Southern Falls were expected to be in their homes with the doors bolted shut by ten, well after the sun sunk below the horizon and the world was washed in blackness. The lights were required to be out by half-past ten, while the Security arrived between quarter to and quarter after eleven. The attempt to escape must have been worse than Aina had previously assumed.

“I have had enough of your irresponsibility.” Winni scowled, shaking her head. Aina sighed, glancing pleadingly towards Rion who responded by avoiding her gaze. Her heart sank, and she once again planted her eyes on the floor.

“I’m going to bed,” she muttered, trudging across the lobby and up the stairs. The apartment building was abandoned three days after the initial flood, quickly claimed by a handful of teenagers who’d lost their homes--and parents--to the water. It was a small building, only six floors with the ground floor functioning as a lobby and a lounge area. At one point there’d even been a restaurant, which had shut down years before the flood. Now it was in a state of disrepair, the couches ripped and mouldy, the front desk in a state of disrepair, the walls warped and the ancient wallpaper peeling away. No one really cared about the ruined decor, it was ugly anyways and wildly outdated.

Before the flood, Bellevista Apartments were equipped with a fully functioning elevator, running water and electricity. After the water swept through and the owners and all the tenants ran and never looked back, the elevator broke the water came in fitful bursts and the only lights were the solar powered ones Shift had ‘stolen’ from an equally abandoned gardening store. She had ripped them from the metal begs used to drive them into the ground and carried them up to the roof every morning to charge. There was also candles and flashlights for emergencies, kept in a broom closet on the top floor.

Each of the new residents had their own apartment, roughly the size of Aina’s kitchen before the flood and each spanning an entire floor. Of course, Winni had stationed herself on the sixth floor where all their goods just happened to be stored.

Deisy had claimed the second floor, Shift on the third, herself on the fourth and Rion on the fifth. Out of all her fellow inhabitants, Aina was probably closest with Shift. They had known each other before the flood, and though they rarely discussed it, they had both been abandoned by their parents the day the water broke through their previously unbreakable walls and washed away all their previous notions of safety and family. Shift had lost her younger brother to the River Flu shortly after, Aina had lost her closest friend.

When she finally hauled herself up to the fourth level, she shoved open the heavy door and allowed it to fall shut behind her with a thud and a click. It was all she could do to drag herself over to the ancient chesterfield before she collapsed with a squeal and groan from the ancient springs. The lights was quickly being sucked out of the window, the single square meter of her apartment that Aina bothered to clean. Not only clean, but keep meticulously polished.

Aina rolled over on the couch, much to its protest, so that she could gaze out the window as she drifted off to sleep and mulled over the events of the previous day. She could barely pick out the shadowed tips of the evergreen trees that bordered Southern Falls along its west side, and if she listened hard enough, she imagined hearing the roar of the South River.

She hated that river. Hated it with a searing passion for how it had ripped her idyllic little life to shreds and left her alone with only a handful of cohorts she was still unsure if she could trust. She had been the last to join the ragtag group of thieves and beggars who called Bellevista home, and had no previous connection with anyone other than Shift, whom she only knew from fleeting hellos and good-days when they passed each other in the hallways at Falls Intermediate School. Deisy, Winni and Rion had all been students at a fancy private school on the opposite side of the city, and Rion had known Shift from when they dated the summer before the flood.

Her limbs ached from a day of fruitless walking. Most of the stores in the neighbourhood had been cleaned out in the three years following the flood, and Aina found herself having to venture farther and farther to find food and other essentials. There were few cars left undamaged by the water, fewer still with fuel in their tanks. Very few bicycles remained, most rusted beyond repair, scavenged for parts or swept out of town when the water levels returned to normal. That left only walking, which left Aina exhausted and famished.

Despite the hunger clawing at her guy and the base of her throat, Aina remained sprawled across her ancient sofa, trying to divert her thoughts to how ugly the teal colour was--it reminded her of the river--and not the way sparks flutter in front of her eyes and her head swam with dizziness. All food was divided equally between the Bellevista residents, with Winni always taking a slightly larger cut while the others pretended not to notice. Aina did have an emergency stash of off-brand granola bars--the kind without chocolate that no one wanted--but they were hidden beneath the sink in the kitchenette and she was too worn out to drag herself up off the couch.

Eventually, she managed to drift off into a restless sleep, shallow as every time she drifted deeper her dreams were flooded by frothing white rapids, causing her to jerk awake. The night passed in a blur of black sleep and gut-clenching terror until a echoing knock at the door slowly pulled her out of the semi-conscious state she’d settled into. Quite gracelessly, she rolled off the couch, forced herself to stand on legs of jelly and stumbled over to the door, desperately attempting to rub the sleep from her eyes.

When she swung open the door, grunting softly at the effort required to move the heavy steel mounted on stiff hinges, she was greeted by Shift. Pretending she was not startled, she swallowed a yawn and waited for the other girl to explain her sudden, unexpected appearance. Shift only glanced around, the first rays of sunlight spilling across the small room and highlighting a glint of gold around her throat.

“Can I come in?” She murmure hoarsely, and Aina realized her chocolate-hued eyes were rimmed in red and her face was flushed. She had been crying. It took Aina a moment to connect the locket around her throats with her damp cheeks. When the realization crawled over her, Aina nodded mutley and stepped aside, allowing Shift to enter. She steps inside, Aina’s eyes glued to the locket dangling from her throat, the gold glittering against her chestnut skin, nestling at the nape of her neck and tickling the edge of her emerald tank top. Attempting to smooth out the tangled mass of her hair, Aina gestured for Shift to have a seat on the sofa. Elegantly, Shift sank into the cushions, prompting a screech from the rickety frame. Aina joined her after a slim moment of hesitation.

“What’s wrong?” Aina murmured, deep lines of confusion creasing her delicate features. Shift thumbed the locket, eventually flicking it open to reveal an image of a young boy, maybe eight or nine, bearing remarkable similarity to Shift. They had the same straight, spiky, obsidian black hair, the same unblemished skin, though his was several shades paler, and their eyes had the same thick, sweeping lashes and upward lift. It does not take Aina long to deduce the boy must be Shift’s brother.

“He would have been twelve,” she whispered, staring at what Aina hoped was a coffee stain on the sofa cushion near where she sits. “Today was his birthday.”

Aina says nothing, reaching for her friend’s locket and running a gentle finger over the metal surface, engraved with a pattern of flowers and the words for Shiftensa. Aina smiles slightly at Shift’s full name, rarely ever used. She diverts her attention to the boy within the locket, tears burning in her eyes as a massive sorrow settles over her heart. He was beaming with a youthful joy not yet snuffed out by the strife caused by the flood.

“His name was Quensud. This picture was taken the day of his ninth birthday, a few months before the flood.” Shift’s voice was low, wobbling. Aina reached for her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

They drift off into a silence rife melancholy, reflecting on the flood, the River Flu, and each nursing their own burning anger for what was taken from them.

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