Anglers on Cannon Ridge

by Jiksun Cheung

He considered waking his daughter, asleep beside him in the passenger seat, but decided not to. It had been days since they had eaten anything more than a bit of boiled root and precious shavings of salted fish. They were almost at the top of the ridge; it was better to let her sleep.

He drove hard, forgetting for a while the extinction beyond the flood of the headlights and seeing only the crumbling road in front.

The last mile was steep, so he stepped on the clutch and shifted into low gear. The headlights on the old diesel truck faltered and he felt weightless for a breath.

Do the Shroud things feel weightless up there in the clouds?

The truck lurched forward again and he was pushed back into his seat.

He found the pillbox at the top of the ridge, a squat concrete block with narrow loopholes angled toward the sky where the cannons must have protruded from. The pillbox was deserted, the war of attrition lost years ago.

He pulled over and killed the engine.

His daughter was still fast asleep. In the dark, he could almost imagine that her skin was not sickly pale; that it was not the jaundiced complexion of children born after the Shroud, never having felt the warmth of the sun on their backs. He pulled the quilt over her shoulders and brushed a lock of hair from her face.

*

Outside, the wind barreled past, carrying with it that sour, ungodly stench that reminded him of smoldering tires and rotten fish. Ash swirled around in little eddies as he closed the door behind him, careful not to wake her.

Up here on the ridge, the Shroud, those roiling gargantuan thunderheads that blanketed the four corners of the earth, looked close enough to touch.

He saw a lusterless smear above; it wasn’t light, he thought, merely a lessening of the dark. It was the noonday sun.

He flipped on the flashlight and climbed onto the back of the truck. The front was taken up by a row of gas tanks. The rest was occupied by a large coil of graphene cable and an equally massive electric winch bolted to the truck bed.

A door creaked and then thumped shut.

“Baba, what are you doing up there?”

“Morning, sleepyhead. Climb up, I’ll show you.”

He bent over the edge and lifted her as she scrambled up the side.

He showed her how to prep the winch, how to feed the graphene into the rotating spool. He showed her the large fishing hooks in the duffel, pretending to prick himself on one of the points, eliciting from her a flash of concern and then a knowing giggle. He showed her how to thread the graphene through the eye, how to do the loops and secure it with a double overhand knot. She watched, fascinated, as he tied off another two dozen hooks onto the line.

From another bag, he produced a long skin-like material as if he was a magician pulling a handkerchief from a hat.

“What is that, Baba?”

“You’ll see.”

The idea had come to him a few days after his wife had passed, when the Shroud had already crept across the sky but had not yet suffocated the land. He had spied a ragged kite, untethered, swept into the air by an updraft, taken higher and higher until he could no longer make out its shape. He’d wondered then what the things in the Shroud would think if they saw it.

“Watch this—“ he said. He twisted the valve on one of the tanks and the skin began to fill. It expanded limply at first, but grew and grew until he half expected it to burst.

“It’s a balloon!” she shouted, hands muffling her ears.

“A weather balloon.”

He rigged it to the end of the line just above the hooks.

“Wanna do the next one?”

By the time they were finished, there were a dozen balloons jostling in the air just above their heads like a bouquet of monstrous white eggs.

“You ready?”

She nodded.

They released it together, his hand over hers. Instantly, the balloons launched skyward, pulling the hooks and the line into the air. The spool spun and jittered frenetically as the white circles climbed toward the Shroud buffeted by the winds in a mad, swirling dance.

They followed as far as their eyes could see.

“Come on.”

They shut the doors and fastened their seat belts. He turned the key and the engine roared to life.

He looked back at the winch. The line was taut and had drifted to one side. He traced it all the way up and imagined the bouquet of monster eggs bursting through the Shroud, beckoning at the things that lurked within.

Lightning radiated across the sky, and with each flash he saw dark shapes behind the clouds, circling.

The winch groaned, slow and solitary like the creaking of a boat on a lake.

The truck swayed.

They looked at each other.

He wanted to say something but could only mouth the words: “—be okay.” She gave him a tight-lipped smile and found his hand.

The truck listed, harder this time. He heard a zipping and saw that the spool was spinning again, letting out the line.

He put his arm in front of her as if he was braking at a red light. The other hand hovered on the winch control, waiting for the moment.

He craned against the windshield and through the faintest of gaps in the Shroud, he caught a glimpse of rippling, glistening skin not of this world.

“Hold on,” he whispered. “Just hold on tight.”

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