Story: There is always tomorrow

Many ways to see the same picture, which was generated by AI.  One week to write the story.  Three author's versions. 


Take One: R's Rendition

          “Thomas! Run!” Mary yelled, her legs on fire, pumping, pushing her further, faster. A shotgun bounced on her shoulder with every step.

          The angry shouts of an unknown man chased her heels. Briefly looking over her shoulder, she scanned the forest around her to find her brother was missing. She realized the best she could hope was that he broke away and was finding safety of his own.

          A creek quickly came into view, and she desperately sought reprieve from the chase, her legs beginning to shake under the stress. The man had fallen behind, and for once she was thankful for the lack of food that likely caused his slower speed. Quickly, she broke left and dove towards a cave-live structure. Grabbing a stray rock, she used the remainder of her strength to throw it as hard as possible. The sudden sound of twigs snapping under its weight alerted the man and he changed course, charging after the fabricated rouse.  

          She held her heavy breath, ducking into the blanket of darkness the rock structure provided. Listening as his feet retreated, she emerged from her crouched position and began running in the opposite direction. 

          Days passed after escaping their attacker, but she had yet to find her brother. Returning to the area where they were separated, she found that all his tracks had been erased by nature.

          He carried the pack with their scraps of food, rope, hunting knives, and two buckshot’s. It was all they had as they left what was once their home in search of anything better than where they were.

          After what many suspected was an Electromagnetic Pulse event, Mary and her family waited for assistance they assumed would be coming. The fact that it wasn’t became apparent as the weeks dragged on. First, the looting began, then the dwindling of food. A few weeks later disease ran rampant without access to clean water; a disease which they watched take their elderly parents. Now their house was a shell of a home.

          At least she had the idea to load the shotgun, and now carried that with her. After stumbling through the remains of another camp raid, they decided to avoid the main road. If the loss of what minimal precious supplies they had wasn’t threatening enough, the lifeless bodies strewn about like discarded trash were.  It was then that she loaded the gun and Thomas insisted she be the one to carry it.

          They’d lost track of their location long ago, the occasional Appalachian Trail marker letting them know they at least weren’t too far from civilization if help ever did come. 

Silence was filled with singing birds as the sun began to rise over the wide expanse of woods. Thirst ignited primal instinct in her as she noted the make-shift cup she’d made of leaves and small twigs was now full of rainwater from the night before. 

The sound of her gulps was drowned out as shouting carried through the trees and the songbirds scattered. 

“Get back here!” a man shouted. “I let your little friend get away. No way will I let another meal escape.”

Thomas. Her stomach dropped at the thought. There’d been rumors of rouge groups who deviated when communities tried to ban together. While most were sharing resources and rationing small harvests of berries, a few others turned to more unconventional methods…stealing, murdering, and even cannibalism.

The shouting drew closer, and she moved the shotgun in a ready position, the butt resting on her shoulder. Watching her step, she moved quietly.

Thomas came into view, pausing to catch his breath. Her feet moved before her brain processed her actions and she began running towards him.

“Thomas!” she shouted with relief as he raised his head, his concern melting away. In a moment, she watched as he was tackled to the ground by the wild man. Still yards away, she screamed in fear and surprise.

Time stood still and ice filled her veins as she noticed the knife in the man’s hands. Her brother rolled to his back and began to fight, but it was futile against the crazed man who now held the knife above his head.  An ungodly noise released from her as he brought the steel down into her brother’s chest. 

He drew back to strike again, but before he could he disappeared in the blink of an eye. Without realizing it, she had lined up the shot just as her father had taught her and pulled the trigger. The man now laid lifeless, her brother her only concern.

“Thomas?” she rushed over, taking in the sight of his blood-soaked shirt. “Thomas, I’m here. Mary is here.” A sob ripped through her as she scrambled to lift his shirt. A large two-inch gash pierced his skin just under his ribs, blood spilling out.

“Hey Mare, Mare, I was looking for you.” He struggled to speak, but the use of her childhood nickname warmed her heart. 

“Thomas, no,” she whispered as she further studied the wound. Removing her jacket, she pressed against the gash and began to scream for help. She screamed until her voice became hoarse, only pausing to cry.

His eyes began to flutter shut and she laid her head on his chest listening to his heartbeat. She stayed there, clocking every beat, every breath, until pinks and purples began to paint the sky. 

"Over here!" a shout startled her awake and she squinted at the intrusion. 

Men coated in black, and armor came into view, guns drawn. She watched as they took in the bloating body next to her, and the bleeding body under her. 

“Drop all your weapons and raise your hands,” another man commanded.

Sluggishly she raised her head. “I can’t raise my hands; my brother is bleeding out. The gun was my only weapon, please help.” Her voice cracked at the last word. Had she not cried all day, she might have had tears left for her pleading. 

“This is Unit 739, we found a female, two males. One deceased, one in critical condition, bleeding from abdomen. Emergency medical assistance requested.” One of the uniformed men spoke into the radio strapped to his right shoulder. He turned to her and lowered his weapon. “Ma’am, we are soldiers of the New Age Republic. You’re safe now.”

Her brain swirled in confusion at the name. “New Age Republic?” she peeked around the man, finally taking in the entire group of seven men, all dressed in black uniforms adorning a red and blue patch. “Where are you from?”

At the sight of a team in white carrying a gurney, she was rushed with relief and fell unconscious.

She woke up in a tent, the change of scenery alerting her every sense. Sitting up in a panic, she frantically looked around the room and eased, once realizing her brother lay in the cot next to her, a bandage tightly wrapped around his midsection. 

“Oh good, you’re awake. Drink this please.” A woman with kind eyes and a no-nonsense expression held out a paper cup to her.

Desperation took over and she grabbed the cup, chugging the water without taking a breath. She spoke when the cup was empty. “Where are we?”

“You are in the infirmary of Zone B. You’ve been unconscious for two days.” The woman placed her cool hands around Mary’s face, examining her.

“Infirmary of Zone B?” she asked, more confused than before.

“Of the New Age Republic.” The nurse could see Mary’s question before she spoke a word and continued. “The EMP attack took everyone by surprise, apparently not even the White House knew it was coming. Since we didn’t know where the attack came from, the military mobilized in the country, but the EMP blew most of the computers in the planes, helicopters, tanks, and cars, so they’ve been slow moving. Coup this, coup that, and now this is what we have. Good-bye United States of America, hello New Age Republic.”

Gently resting her head back on her pillow, she took in this new information. Looking at her brother, his chest visibly rising and falling, she watched as the nurse checked his bandages. All that mattered to her was they were safe. For now, at least. 


Take Two: HK's  

"I miss you...." he says, taking a deep breath and straightening his back which hurts after so many hours of standing.  "I miss you... " he whispers again, looking into her pale blue eyes.  Shifting the paintbrush into his gnarly left hand, he reaches and tidies the whisps of hair framing her face, flecks of paint at the trailing edges. 
A bird calls far away in the forest, the last light of the day glinting on the leaves.
The blue eyed girl blinks and stares at the paint brush, now resting on the pallete smudged with blues and corals, and then at the paint stained ancient fingers frozen in front of her face.

"You... I know you..."  She glances up at the old man across from her, then shrugs her shoulders to adjust the straps of her overalls and turns around.   "This place... " placing her hands thoughtfully deep into the overall pockets, pulling down the straps she just hitched up  "... I know this place too, these rocks, this river... "

Hastily putting away the pallet and paint brush on the tiny wooden folding table which is perched precariously on the rocks, he wipes his hands first with a rag and then on his apron, squinting slightly from the arthritic pain in his fingers.

"The river" he says "the river moves so quickly and you love watching it"

Her back still turned towards him, her eyes drink in the dancing water jumping this way and that, to the beat of a barely audible tune.

"The river, it is unpredictable and violent yet soothing and sweet" she says.  She kneels down besides the river and cups the water in her hand.
The old man takes another deep breath. "Misha..." he says "Misha we don't have much time..."

The birds sing their evening song, and Misha enjoys the feeling of the water streaming through her fingers, like a never ending summer.  A pebble catches her attention and she picks it up.

"Misha!" says the old man urgently.

Misha slowly rises and turns toward the old man.  She holds up the wet pebble in her palm to show him.  "Look" she says "this pebble, ground smooth with time by the water!  So much time must have passed to make this rough stone into a precious beauty!"

The old man's eyes mist over.  "Misha... " he says softly.  "Misha, I miss you so much..."

A look of confusion crosses the girl's face.   "You... I know you..."  She pushes her hair back with her hand, still wet from the river.    

"Please"  says the old man "Please Misha, I need to know... when you went to the river the last time... what happened? "

Misha rolls the pebble around like a magician preparing for a trick.  It now seems less and less like a pebble, and more like a piece of mud which stains her hands as it slips through her fingers.   She studies her stained hands and looks at the old man intently.  

"If you hold your hands up, I can fix them"  says the old man "please, hold them up so I can fix them, I have the colour right here!"

"My hands are fine" says the girl "they are just wet and muddy; I mistook this bit of earth for a pebble".  She tosses the last bit of mud back into the river, dries her hands on her overalls and wipes her face.

"Please" says the old man desperately "please let me fix your face, we need more time"  He reaches for his paint brush.  

Misha looks back at the river, where the water is now tainted with the brown of the mud, the granite of the stones, the greens of the leaves.  In the light of the setting sun her hands seem to reflect the coral colour of her overalls.

The old man tries to dab at Misha's face to correct the smears of overall coral now covering her cheeks, but Misha bats the brush away indignantly.  "What are you doing, old man!"

"Buying time!" he says "Please Misha, please hurry and tell me what you remember from the last time you went to the river!  We found you washed up miles away and I need to know ... "  his voices trails off.  

Misha examines the old man's face.  "You look familiar... You look like someone I knew."  she says.  "We had a fight. We had a fight and he said I was weak, that I couldn't leave him, needed him.    He said that without him,  I was nothing, without him I would get carried away by the smallest current.  So I ran away, I ran to the river."  She pauses.

"You went to the river"  said the old man.

"I went to the river" says Misha, brushing her cheeks as the colours start to run even more.  "I went to the river.  I felt full of light.  And I stepped into the river.  It rushed fast and violently and pushed my overalls up against my legs.  I could feel the pull and the strength."

She turns around and starts walking towards the river.  

"I love you " whispers the old man "I will always love you just the way you were then, when you looked back one last time as you ran, the way I can see you still.  I will always see you as I saw you on that last day, I can see it as clear as day, i can trace every line and paint every colour of your face."

Misha turns around in the fading light, blue eyes in her young face resolutely locked to the future, the river splashing around her feet, the colours draining.   

Clenching his rugged old hands into tight fists, the old man says "Misha, It was not my fault!  I need to explain to you .... please don't go!"

In the painting, the setting sun reflects in the river with sparkles of blue and streaks of coral. 

The old painter slowly takes the frame off the easel and puts it on the stack of almost identical landscapes. 
"Maybe with a slight change... I need to capture her earlier... we just need a bit more time so she'll understand.... Touch more magenta.  Bit more contrast.  Don't put her so close to the river and the risk of water damage."

"Maybe tomorrow I'll get it right".


Take Three: SB Story 

He was 12 years old when it started. It was the family's first visit to the house after it became theirs. Left on his own to explore while his parents cleaned up the last mementos left behind by his Grandmother who had lived there until her passing earlier that year. It was a melancholy day and he drifted somewhat aimlessly through the house, remembering better times past when he had visited while she was still alive.

He paused when he reached her studio. He had been forbidden from even entering this room when he was younger and later only when specifically invited. His grandmother, Chloe was not a famous artist or anything, but an innate skill and the life-long pursuit of her hobby had allowed her to turn out some amazing watercolours that adorned many of the walls in both this and his family's home. A great many more were still stacked along the walls of the room.

He stepped inside, alone for the first time and slowly took in the space. Every time he had seen it in the past there had been several unfinished pieces of art, paints, glasses with brushes soaking in water and various other sundries of the trade balanced haphazardly about. By contrast, everything was now in it's place; covered, tidied up, put away... it made him sad.

He sat down on her stool and swiveled around looking in more detail at the room. That was the first time he saw the mirror. It stuck out to him because he had never seen it before.  From it's position, he knew why - Chloe's easel had always been positioned in such a way that would block it from view. But discovering the mirror was not what surprised him, it's what he saw that caught his eye.

As he rotated on the stool, the reflection of the room rotated oppositely past in the mirror as anyone would expect. Until one of Chloe's paintings came into view. The painting was a portrait of a young man, he had seen it many times. Never before however, had the portrait waved back at him.

He shot to his feet and turned to look behind him at the painting. It was as static a painting as ever, identical to his memory of it. He turned back to the mirror, positioning it carefully back into the reflection. The reflected painting waved back again, winking this time.

Now, not being a stereotypical fantasy story, I will assure you the reader that he did not run screaming from the room. Nor did he run to his parents to tell them what he had seen, only for them to come and look and see nothing unusual. No. Instead he set about initiating his own investigation. No way he was telling anyone anything, until he understood what exactly was happening.

Hand signals proved, surprisingly effective. The reflection could clearly respond to motions and signals even if there was no ability to speak. Similarly, the effect did not seem to be temporary or connected to his position in the room. He even tried leaving the room entirely but every time the reflection was correctly aligned in the mirror, the reflected man remained patient, curious, and certainly able to respond.

He was called away at this point as they were heading into town for dinner. He made the decision not to disclose his discovery even before he left the room, but he did wave goodbye to the reflection receiving a smile and wave back in reply.  

By the time they returned it was dark. While surprised by his request to skip watching TV and return upstairs instead, his parents certainly didn't mind being able to choose what to watch themselves.

He took the steps two at a time, a plan to use pen and paper to convey more complex messages already set firmly in his mind. Would the reflection respond? Could he respond? Into the room, on with the light, position just so, and... nothing. The reflection was static. No wink, no wave, nothing. He kept trying for almost 30 minutes before beginning to doubt himself. Was he loosing it? Had he imagined it all?

Eventually however, it was clear. No amount of angling his view was going to bring a painting to life. Whatever he had seen or thought he had seen was not happening and he was going to have to accept it. At least, he could find solace in the fact he hadn't said anything!

He avoided the room the next day, but there was little to do in the house and it was pouring rain outside. So despite his better judgement, by mid-afternoon, he found himself back in the room; Willing himself not to look, not to test it. But he couldn't resist and nearly shouted when he saw the reflection waving frantically back at him and pointing up.

He ran to get pen and paper. Checking as soon as he got back that the reflection was still  alive... was alive the right word, he wasn't sure. But first things first. He showed the pen and paper to the reflection and was rewarded with emphatic nodding. This boded well. He wrote 'what happened last night?' and held it up so the reflection could see.

The reflection smiled and bent forward. He was writing a message back, it had to be. The reflection then held up a notepad of his own. 'Daylight only' was carefully written in a hand that looked strangely like his grandmother's. He smiled, while none of this made sense, at least he could understand that this impossible thing had a rule. Fine, so it would only work by daylight. He could live with that.

His hand was already back scribbling on the next blank piece of paper. 'Are you alive?'

The reflection looked a bit frustrated by this but bent forward again and then held up the written response 'We don't know' with a somewhat helpless expression.

He stared at the message taking it in before scribbling quickly 'We?'

For some reason, this made the reflection smile again, holding up a finger of pause before the next message appeared 'Try a different portrait.' and again the reflection winked.

He looked back at the message, then across to the many canvases still leaning against the wall. Each with a different sampling of his grandmother's artwork. The reflection was nodding enthusiastically.

Flipping past the first three canvasses depicting landscapes he found a portrait of an old woman, all he needed was a person to test this. Feeling awkward about looking back, he swapped the picture on the wall from the man to this new portrait of the old woman. Only after he was finished did he turn to slowly return his gaze to the mirror.

She was clearly older and slower to move, but the glint in her eye when she smiled back at him almost made him cry from excitement.

He met at least ten more of his grandmother's people that day. They all seemed genuinely happy to see him and quickly acclimatized to the passing of written messages. He even confirmed that the landscape images would become animated but were devoid of anyone to converse with. He continued to ask the reflections about what was going on, were they alive, where were they, but none of them understood what was going on any more than he did.

Dinner was far more of a challenge this day. How could he explain this. Should he even try. In the end he didn't, fearing he would somehow be barred from learning more and spending more time with this new world he had discovered. Knowing that the loss of daylight would render it all passive again even meant he could watch his favorite TV shows without missing anything.

The next day his mom and dad needed to go into town and clear out gran's storage locker. It took some negotiation but in the end he was allowed to stay home, on his own. He was aware that his parents were becoming suspicious and he was going to need to deal with that soon, one way or another.

He had counted all the paintings the night before and had worked out that if he gave the landscapes only 1 minute each to experience their beauty; he could spend at least 30 minutes with each of the portraits, even accounting for breaks.

It was a magical day. He stopped wasting time asking the questions he knew they couldn't answer and instead asked who they were, what things they liked, what they did. Each portrait seemed to have a life all their own. They had likes, dislikes, and even memories. To every extent they were complete people. Some were hilariously funny, most were kind. Some sincerely wanted to try and get to the bottom of what was going on too. He found it all amazing. He therefore only realized he had skipped lunch and was famished, when he heard his parents come in and proclaim there was pizza.

He had to tell them now, had to share this amazing experience with them. But, as he came down the stairs he stopped short on the final step. Propped against the wall was another portrait. It was damaged, likely from water or some spill. The paint had got wet and there were stains on the cheeks. The portrait showed a young women, but she looked vaguely familiar to him.

His mom must have seen him looking.

"We think it's a self portrait. I never knew she did one. Obviously, she was much younger at the time. Pity it was damaged, the storage place had a leak."

He could feel his heart starting to beat faster.

"What is is?" She was looking at him a bit concerned.

His amazement turned slowly to a very warm smile.

"Pizza first, then I'll explain." It was getting dark anyway, and they were going to need time for this. "There is always tomorrow."


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