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My pens have gotten me through some times–happy, sad, moody, angry. Through the years, keeping a diary or journal, as well as writing fiction, has kept me semi-sane.

Here on Penz-O-Paula you’ll find blog posts, short stories and such by me. You’ll also find writing by others that I want to share with you.

Not everything here is sunshine and roses, but I don’t know of anyplace that is, do you?

I hope you’ll visit often, leave comments and follow me!

Ticky Tacky Houses

They weren’t really houses. They were storage sheds-slash-garages. Garishly painted in pastel colors, they stood out like sore thumbs in the alleyway.

The first time I saw them, this silly song jumped into my head, that old tome “Little Boxes”. Of course, if you really listen to it, it isn’t silly at all. It shares a truth people might like to ignore.

But those sheds—the words “ticky tacky” just fit. They look like someone threw them together from scraps and tried to disguise their essential junk funk with pretty pastels.

They are not pretty. They’re hideous.

I think that’s what drew me to them, honestly. The tacky paint jobs, now seriously in need of fresh coats, made them singularly unappealing. You looked, and then you looked away, appalled.

It lent them an air of invisibility.

Invisibility was exactly what I needed.

I’d done my research and knew that they had been deserted a few years back. The owner had been renting them out to folks in a nearby projects housing development for cheap. The housing had been torn down and everyone collected their cars and their junk and moved on.

I hear tell that some folks left their stuff and the owner had a shed sale to get rid of it all. I don’t really know the whole story, and it doesn’t even matter.

What matters is I needed someplace to lay low while Barry was still on his rampage, hunting me down.

He always swore I would never have the nerve to leave him. “I take care of you, babe,” he said. “I pay the bills around here—you’re nothing but the freeloader I allowed to use me. So buckle up, Buttercup!”

I hate those words. “Buckle up, Buttercup” basically meant one of two things. Either I was going to spend an hour or so pretending he was making love to me, or I was going to spend about the same amount of time protecting my face so I could go out in public without anyone staring at me.

The worst part of it? He was right. I didn’t dare leave. I didn’t have a job, or any marketable skills. Where would I go? What would I do? I was nothing.

But that changed. The little plus-sign on the stick I peed on changed everything.

I had been nothing, but now I would be something. Now I would be a mother. And my baby was not going to grow up in that environment.

No way.

If I could get to Mallory, I would be fine. But she’d be the first person he checked with. And he’d keep checking.

So I didn’t call her.

I made a get-away plan. I had to do it quickly, before Barry realized what was happening inside my body. The last time I’d dared to get pregnant, he’d fixed that situation quick.

Bastard.

I wasn’t stupid enough to tell him this time.

I pulled money out of the checking account I wasn’t supposed to use for anything but grocery shopping. At first it was ten dollars here, twenty dollars there—it was easy to hit that cash-back button when I scanned the card, but I didn’t want amounts that would draw attention. Not right away.

I had a little stash of my own that I had been building on since…since the last pregnancy. “Change” from the washing machine. Barry notoriously refused to clean out his pockets before throwing them on the bathroom floor, and sometimes I was able to net as much as fifty bucks on laundry day.

If he asked if any money was there, I’d give it to him. I’m not crazy. “Oh, yeah, honey, it’s in the laundry room, let me run and get it for you.” But basically, it meant nothing to him. He usually returned his cash to his wallet, and the bills he occasionally stuffed in a front pocket generally amounted to only a dollar or two. But I did get lucky sometimes and found a ten or a twenty.

Hey, it adds up over a couple of years.

I walked one day to a used car lot to look around. I bought this little car that looks like it is being held together with toothpaste and duct tape and chicken wire, but runs like a dream. They guy who sold it to me said his son used it as a motor shop project at school, but he dropped out before doing the body work.

“Knocked up his girlfriend.” The guy looked disgusted and disappointed and proud all in one second—it was uncanny. “Got his GED, though. He’s working.”

He didn’t want to deal with the body work, and I didn’t care what it looked like as long as it would run, so we made a good deal.

Go, me!

I took some clothes and the few personal items I care about and I checked out of hotel Barry for good.

Fine, upstanding citizen Barry was not going to come looking for me on the far side of town where even the projects won’t live anymore. He would expect me to look for help among our moneyed friends and neighbors, and he’d have some wonderful stories to tell about how crazy and messed up I am.

That wouldn’t be a lie, exactly. I’m pretty messed up. But now I believe there were a lot of our friends who suspected the problem was not me.

I left my big house and my nice car. I left my books and my cell phone. I copied all the phone numbers I might want later into a tiny address book and kept that on me at all times.

I set my sights on the blue ticky-tacky box because the door looked big enough to drive the car inside.

It was nothing but a space, that shed. When the car was inside, I didn’t have much room. But I cleaned it up and made a home out of it. I got some old fruit pallets from the ship yard and put an air mattress on top and made myself a decent bed. I found an old card table at the dump and cleaned it up and got myself a folding chair. I spent some ill-gotten money on a hibachi so I could cook.  

I became queen of second-hand. The trunk of my car was my closet. I dressed in rags and went to the soup kitchens. I kept my head down.

I kept my eye on the news—Barry didn’t report me missing right away.

When he finally did call the police, the speculations started. People we knew started speaking out about how they suspected I was being abused.

It was so weird to hear an acquaintance of ours talking to news reporters about how she failed to reach out to me and find out if I was okay, and then starting to cry. I felt like I barely knew her. All the friends were Barry’s, you know?

I used a free clinic to keep tabs on my baby. I didn’t use my real name, and they specialized in “no ask, no tell”. But this morning my appointment went a bit off the rails.

“I know who you are,” Dr. Morgan said. “You don’t have to keep this up, you know.”

“If you know who I am,” I retorted, “they you must understand that I certainly do have to keep this up.” I started to cry—big, sloppy sobs, the kind people call “ugly crying”. What else could I do?

“There must be—”

“You don’t understand.” I pulled up my stupid paper hospital Johnny and used it to wipe my face. “This baby—I have to keep him safe.”

“Lila,” she said—using my false name, bless her heart. “Don’t you have someone you can call for help?” She rolled her little stool closer to where I sat on the cold metal examining table. “I know from the news that you were a foster child, so you don’t have family, but—”

“I sometimes think,” I whispered, “that it was one of the things that made me appealing to him.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it for an instant.” Dr. Morgan looked grim. “I’ve seen that sort of co-dependency before.”

“I have a friend. A good friend. But I don’t want…him…to bother her. I mean—he’s probably already been bothering her.” I shrugged. “That’s why I haven’t called her.”

“Where is this friend? Close?”

“No. She’s in Chicago.”

“Look. I’m not going to ask you where you’re staying, or how you’re getting around. I have to assume you’re somewhere close by. You’re certainly nowhere near your…um…neighborhood.”

I laughed at that. “No, I’m sure not,” I agreed.

“I can send you to someone who can help you get to Chicago,” she offered. “And get you a safe place to stay in the meantime.”

“I’m safe where I am,” I told her. “I just have some things to figure out.”

“But we could—”

“I don’t want to go to the shelter,” I cried. “They’ll be obligated to tell the police where I am, and then Ba—” I stopped, horrified that his name had almost slipped out of my mouth. “They’ll tell him. I know they will.”

Dr. Morgan shrugged. “Right now they think he killed you,” she stated flatly.

“They do?” That was interesting. I hadn’t heard that on the news.

“It’s in their demeanor. The things they say when they appeal to the public for information.”

“Oh?” I had a sudden thought. “And has…has he made any appeals?” I slammed my hands over my mouth. “No—don’t answer that. I’m not falling for any more of his shit.”

“It so happens that he has—big press conference and everything.” Dr. Morgan folded her arms. “I wasn’t all that impressed, frankly.”

“Who else here know?” I demanded. “Everyone?”

The doctor looked surprised. “Not that I know of,” she assured me.

I was not assured.

“Am I done here? I have to go.”

What had I been thinking? A short haircut and a change of color and oversized sunglasses apparently didn’t do enough to change my appearance.

“Lila, don’t. Don’t go. Let me help you get away.”

“Why?” I demanded. “Why would you do that?”

She looked uncomfortable. It made me suspicious.

“Well?”

“Let’s just say…I am paying it forward.”

“What?”

She took a deep breath and tightened her lips. “Okay,” she said. “I don’t talk about this—ever. But I have been where you are. Oh—” She held up her hands to stop my protests. “Not exactly where you are; but close enough.” She shrugged. “Someone helped me. Now I want to help you.”

And she did.

That would be a whole book worth of story, and I may tell it someday.

For now, I just want to tell you that no one ever looked in that ticky-tacky house. Mallory and Susan—Dr. Morgan, that is—came here with me today. I showed baby Mickey my beat up old heap of a car and my stash of throw-away furniture and my hibachi. He grinned and drooled and was absolutely unimpressed.

“You should show more consideration, Mickey,” I said. “Mommy got out of the box.”

We loaded the car onto a trailer and hauled it back to Chicago. I’m taking an auto shop class, and I’m going to give it the body it deserves.

It still runs like a dream.

No Ferry Today, Part 6

A group of islanders had gathered on the beach in front of The Beach Bar. They weren’t right up close to the water, out of experienced respect of the tide. They had dragged the abandoned beach chairs up closer to the front of the little restaurant/bar, added several others, and sat together, staring out to sea.

They were trying, in the waning light, to get a glimpse of the mainland.

Impossible.

As the day had moved inexorably toward dusk, they became more anxious, and now sat hoping for the return of Devin’s little skiff and a reunion with their companions.

“That’s not fog,” Vivian declared.

A few people jumped at the sound of her voice. They had been silent for quite some time—probably since the twins had drifted off to sleep on big beach towels in front of their parents’ feet.

“What do you—” Monique began.

“I can hardly see a lick, and even I know that’s not fog,” Vivian continued.

“It’s smoke.” Elvin said this with complete conviction.

“Yes,” Vivian agreed. “Something terrible has happened on the mainland.”

“Like what?” Monique demanded.

“Like…an explosion. A fire.”

“A bombing.” Elvin, emphatic once more; and yet, his voice was incredibly steady and calm.

“How do you—?”

“Know? I don’t. But…that’s smoke, okay? And it covers the whole horizon. We can’t see the mainland at all. What else would be that big? One fire? Or several?”

“Jesus,” Barnaby groaned.

Vivian’s face was a pale mask. Behind thick lenses, her eyes were red and puffy. She wasn’t crying—at least not yet. But it was a near thing.

Bill watched her with some concern—she was no spring chicken, and her light and love had sailed off in a skiff, headed for the mainland, hours ago.

Jessica slipped an arm around her. “What can we do?” she asked.

“I’d like to go to the docks,” Vivian replied. “Will you walk with me?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll go, too,” Bill offered.

Barnaby looked at Lou Ann and at Paul and Pam, sleeping at their feet. He couldn’t imagine how his wife would feel if he’d been one of the people who’d left the island.

~*~

When he and Elvin had returned to The Beach Bar earlier in the day, Lou Ann and Monique had joined Vivian, Bill and Jessica’s quest to check on the others who lived on the island.

They busied themselves hauling beach chairs and setting them up in front of the little building.

When everyone had made their way back, they sat staring out at the water. Lou Ann told them about speaking with her father.

“I asked Daddy if there had ever been a time when the ferry didn’t make the regular run. He said the only time he could remember was when Pearl Harbor was bombed.” Lou Ann raised a hand and bit her fingernail. “That was years before I was born, and Dad was just a little boy—I can’t believe he even remembers, but he said his father was upset so it stuck in his mind.”

“That’s all the way on the other side of the country!” Barnaby protested.

“Upset about the ferry, or about Pearl Harbor?” Vivian asked dryly.

Lou Ann gaped, then burst out laughing. “I would imagine Pearl Harbor,” she said, “but what do I know?”

Vivian turned to Barnaby. “As to where Pearl Harbor is in relation to us, I suppose all water-based vessels were told to stay put.”

Barnaby shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense,” he reasoned. “Look at the time difference.”

“Maybe it was the next day,” Lou Ann argued impatiently. “Dad wasn’t much older than the twins when it happened. It’s not like we can ask Grandpa.”

“Not without a medium.” Elvin spoke in an offhand manner. It was absolute truth, and silenced everyone for a while.

Finally, Monique turned to Lou Ann and said, “Your Dad’s that old? Aren’t you, like, my age? My Grandpa was barely old enough for World War II!”

Lou Ann shrugged. “I’m the only child of his second marriage, after his first wife died. Mom’s a lot younger—I think I was a big surprise, though.”

“Well, for a guy in his—what? Eighties?—he looks fantastic.”

Lou Ann grinned. “Yeah, he does.”

It spoke volumes that the last time anyone remembered the ferry missing its trip was the end of 1941.

Something terrible had happened.

~*~

Barnaby smiled at his wife. “You mind if I go along to the dock, too?”

“No, go ahead.” Lou Ann nodded her head at the twins. “You wore them out—they’ll sleep all night, if we let them.”

Elvin said, “I’ll be here with the ladies, kicking back with a beer. If you need me, holler. I’ll hear you.”

“You know,” Bill said, “I’m surprised more people haven’t come down here to the beach. Everyone we talked to this afternoon said they’d rather stay home.”

“I’m not surprised,” Monique replied. “I’d be home, too, if I hadn’t already been out when all this started.”

“Would you?”

She stared at the ground, thoughtful. Finally, she raised her eyes to meet his. “If Margo wasn’t out there—yeah. I’d be home.”

It wasn’t a long walk to the docks, but the sun was getting low in the west and they made their way slowly. Vivian’s vision wasn’t great in daylight; in low light it was terrible. They led her carefully.

As they got near, Bill snapped his fingers. “We need lights,” he said. “I’m going to run back and get some lanterns or flashlights or something.”

“What for?” Jessica demanded. “The power’s still on.”

“Just in case.” Bill shrugged. “I don’t feel good about this. I don’t want to be standing there in the dark.”

Barnaby muttered, “I’m not so sure I want to be putting myself in the spotlight.”

Vivian turned to Bill. “Go, Bill. Get your lights. Flashlights, so we can look out at the water. I think they’re coming. I feel it.”

Bill turned and sprinted back up the beach.

When he returned he had two large torches with lights as big as Barnaby’s twins’ heads.

The tide came in as the sun went down, and across the reach clouds had gathered in the sky above the smoke banks. Suddenly, there was a crackling flash, and then another, of lightning. It cut through the smoke and gave them a quick glimpse of the opposite shore.

There were no lights on over there.

Thunder crashed; crashed again. The storm was close enough to shake the dock under their feet.

The next flash of lightning lit the water in front of them. They could see the skiff moving toward them. Bill and Barnaby switched the torches on and shone them across the water.

“Oh, thank God! Thank God!”

It was Margo—Bill would know that voice anywhere.

“Melvin!” Vivian called.

“”We’re coming, honey!”

Boom! Thunder followed close on the heels of the last lighting flash.

“We’re in for it now,” Jessica said, and sure enough, the rain started pouring down.

“Jesus, that moved in fast!” Barnaby cried.

Now that they could see their goal, Melvin, Devin and Margo rowed faster, and soon enough Bill and Barnaby were hauling them in and tying the skiff to the dock.

They all hurried up the dock to the beach and made their way quickly back to The Beach Bar.

Monique and Lou Ann had gotten the toddlers inside just in time to stay dry. Everyone else was drenched.

Table cloths were fetched to use as towels, and the group sat down together after a few moments of chaotic cussing.

“Well?” Elvin asked, once everyone had settled down. “What happened?”

Margo, Melvin and Devin exchanged glances and Margo burst into tears.

“Oh, shit,” Bill sighed.

Melvin said. “Yup. You got that right.”

To be continued….

No Ferry Today (Part 5)

The little skiff bumped something, turned slightly to the left and bumped something else. Margo leaned over the side and looked down into the water. She screamed.

Bodies floated all around them.

Junior, who’d had very little to say since leaving the island, slipped easily into the seat next to Margo and covered her mouth with a large hand. “Shh, girl,” he whispered. “You keep still now. You keep quiet.”

Margo nodded vigorously. She’d felt the tension the minute she let loose with that wail—shut up, shut up, what if someone hears you?

“You good?” Junior asked.

Margo nodded again, and Junior removed his hand.

“We’re turning around,” Devin announced.

“But my—”

“Take a good look, Margo!” Melvin cried. “Your cat is not fine.”

Margo started to cry. “I wasn’t going to say anything about my cat! I was going to say ‘my mother’!”

Melvin’s mouth dropped open and his face flushed bright red. “Shit. I’m sorry, Margo. I didn’t think…”

Junior pulled her into an awkward hug.

The smoke was thick and cloying, and made it hard to either breathe or see. But what they could make out was not a sight that made them the least bit hopeful.

Boats were listing or sunken in the harbor around the dock. The dock itself was battered and broken.

There were more bodies in the water—no one dared to count.

“Oh, crap,” Devin cried. “Welp…there’s the damn ferry.” He pointed.

The ferry was listing to one side. Truly, it was closer to upside down, with very little left to leave its bottom completely exposed to the sky.

“Bet that’s where the bodies came from,” Junior mused.

“But…it’s not that far between the ferry and the dock,” Margo argued. “I could swim that far—why didn’t they swim?”

No one answered. There wasn’t any way they could know how the vessel had ended up in its current position.

“That thing’s gonna go down any time now.” Melvin said. His voice was flat, implacable. He was terrified, but no one could tell that from his voice.

Margo, though, could see it in his eyes.

“It’ll take us with it,” Devin added. His voice was shrill, more what Margo would expect from a frightened person. He swung the little skiff around and cranked up the speed of the outboard motor. He was headed for open water as fast as he could go.

“What do you mean, it’ll take us with it?” Margo asked, raising her voice to be heard.

“Suction,” Melvin stated flatly. “Ever watch water in the tub go down the drain? Seen how it pulls the soap bubbles and anything floating down toward it?”

Margo gasped, recalling how her little boats would drift rapidly toward the drain, spinning and capsizing, even when they were on the far side of the tub when she pulled the plug. “Oh, God. Hurry, Devin!”

“We’re not that close,” Junior told her soothingly. “But better safe than sorry.”

Once they’d put some distance between themselves and the harbor and dock, Devin swung the skiff around so they could watch.

Margo looked around, and saw people further up the beach, also watching. As a group, they suddenly lunged out of the water and headed away from the shoreline.

Devin remarked, “Someone must have mentioned the surge.”

“Surge?”

“Ayuh. Ferry’ll go down, and suck water and anything else close by with it. Then things will pop back to the surface and the water will gush out all over, and—”

“Are we far enough away?” Margo cried.

“Who knows?” Melvin grinned. “We’re likely to get wet, that’s certain.”

“Let’s get out of here!”

Devin obliged by moving further out and over in the direction of the people on the shoreline.

“Shit,” Junior muttered. “Fires.” He pointed inland.

Through thickening plumes of smoke, flames could be seen in several locations.

Margo, who had been leaking from the eyes for some time and telling herself it was the effects of the smoke in the air, finally let go and began to sob in earnest. She pointed in a generally northwest direction, where fire could be observed, massively high flames dancing in the breeze coming off the water. “My mother lives over there!”

Junior, struck stupid with shock, asked, “Where do you live?” He had visions of roasted kitty and felt like he might vomit at any time.

“Nowhere!”

The ferry groaned and screamed, and the suctioning water boiled around it as it upended and went under.

The back surge sent wild waves to crash into the skiff, soaking them all and the little boat skittered backward across the water.

“Not far enough,” Devin mused, working to keep them upright.

As the boat settled, still intact and surprisingly not as full of water as one might expect, Junior gave up his battle, leaned over the side and expelled his excellent lunch.

“Ah, shit,” Melvin muttered. He swallowed his rising gorge and just managed not to follow suit.

“Sorry.” Junior looked miserably embarrassed. Margo hugged him.

More bodies could be seen now, bobbing to the surface and floating on the water. Margo suppressed the screams that demanded to be released, but sobbed harder than before. She couldn’t stop watching as the waves drove the bodies to the shore.

Someone on shore screamed. The people began to run further away from the shoreline.

“Take us home, boy,” Melvin told Devin. “There’s nothing to see here.”

“There’s plenty to see,” Devin argued. “But I don’t want to see it.”

The little outboard engine had died when the waters surged over it. Junior moved to the back to help Devin tip it and attempt to get it dry enough to start again.

“Damn it!”

Putt-putt-cough!

“Damn it!”

Cough-sputter-putt-cough!

“God damn it!”

“Never mind,” Melvin said. He bent and fished oars from underneath the seats. “It’s not that far—”

“I don’t want to land here!” Margo squealed.

“No, no.” Melvin reached out and patted her leg reassuringly. “It’s not that far back to the island.”

Margo took an oar. “I’m not very good at this,” she warned.

“No matter,” Devin said. He and Junior took places on the seats and took oars in hand. “We’ll all do our best.”

Swinging the skiff around again, they put their backs to the mainland. Margo thought she couldn’t bear to look any longer. Even from here, the destruction was obvious. Her mother was probably dead; with that thought foremost in her musings, her cat was no longer on her mind at all.

As she worked to match the rhythm of the men, she wondered about the people on shore. She lifted the oar and slid it smoothly into the water again, and decided not to care about anything but getting back to the island.

No one said a word.

This is part of a continuing series. This episode was previously published on Vocal Media:

Part 6 is coming soon!

No Ferry Today Part 4

They were strangers, drawn together on the shore by a force they didn’t understand.

Although it was midday, the horizon had taken on the hues of sunset. They could smell the heavy scent of smoke in the air.

Further up the beach, close to the docks, many of the boats had been capsized or sunk. The ferry, which made daily runs between here and the scattering of islands offshore, lay on its side in the water.

“It’ll go down,” an old man remarked to no one in particular. “Just hasn’t taken on enough water to send it down yet.”

No one answered.

A couple of empty boats bobbed on the surface.

Karen stood knee-deep in the water, staring across the reach toward the nearest island–not that she could see it through all the residual smoke. She just couldn’t bear to look at the docks any longer. “God is punishing us,” she whispered.

“For what?” This came from an elderly woman who was also standing in the water.

“I–”

Karly, Karen’s sister, gave her a nudge. “Don’t be a Karen, Karen,” she whispered urgently. “This is bad enough.”

“T’ain’t God,” the old woman said. “People did this.”

“What people?” Karen asked.

“Is it a war?” The little boy who asked this was standing apart from a young woman who may or may not have been his mother. She was beckoning him to come to her, but he ignored that. “Do the so-jers come now?”

“Benny,” the young woman hissed, barely above a whisper. “Come here!”

“It’s a war, Billie,” he replied. “I think so-jers are coming.”

The young woman–Billie–shook her head. “Soldiers aren’t coming, Benny.”

The old woman spoke up again: “Someone is bound to come.”

“Who?” Karen asked.

The old man kept his eyes on the ferry. As it settled deeper in the water, a platoon of hissing bubbles arose around it, gurgling and sputtering. “We need to get out of the water, folks,” he announced, his voice oddly calm in the face of upcoming calamity.

“”Why?” Benny demanded.

“There’ll be suction when she goes down.” The old man turned and looked the boy in the eye. “It’ll knock us on our asses, maybe drag us in.”

“How do you–?”

“And then there will be a back-surge.”

“It’s not even deep–” Benny began, and then Billie had him by the arm. “Hey!”

Billie said, “For once, just do as you’re told!” She started dragging him to shore.

Karen and her sister didn’t hesitate. Karly took her hand and they pulled each other back up to the beach.

The old man waded to the elderly woman and offered his arm. She let him lead her out of the water.

The ferry started to groan in protest as water sucked it down.

Benny, finally realizing it wasn’t unlikely to send water rushing up the shoreline, started pulling Billie away from the shoreline, and the others followed.

“Who did this?” Karly asked.

No one answered.

Well away from the water, they stood together and watched to boat go under. It was surprisingly noisy, the sinking process. Groaning timbers, squealing steel, the slurp, slurp of suctioning waters and the roar of bursting bubbles were a cacophenous symphony, with background singers made up of screeching seagulls.

It went down with a mighty splash, and then the seas rose in an impressive succession of waves that battered the beach and soaked the onlookers in spite of the distance they’d backed up.

“Jesus Christ!” Benny cried.

“Who did this?” Karly repeated.

Karen screamed when the first body was slapped up out of the water and onto the beach. She and Karly turned and ran.

Benny yelled, “Jesus Christ!”

Billie slapped the back of his head. “Stop saying that!” she shouted.

“You bitch, Billie,” Benny growled, vigorously rubbing his injury.

“Oh God, oh God, oh God!”

“Never you mind, Ellen.” The old man patted his elderly companion’s hand.

“How many people were on that ferry?”

“Never mind, never mind.” He turned her away when the next body slammed into the sand. “We have to get back and check on the others.”

“Oh, Marty!” Ellen began to sob. “Everything’s burning!” Even so, when he began to walk, she went along with him.

“Come on, Benny,” Billie said. “We have to see if Mom’s okay.”

Benny stood staring, horrified fascination on his face. Suddenly, he thrust his face toward the sea. “Look, Billie!”

“What?”

“It’s a skiff! I think someone is coming!”

Billie grabbed his arm and started pulling. “Let’s get out of here!”

Benny used both hands to shade his eyes. “I think it’s someone from the island,” he argued.

“I don’t care! Let’s go!”

Reluctantly, Benny let himself be led off the sand and up to the parking area.

Karen and Karly were there. Marty and Ellen stood, arms wrapped around each other. Billie stared. Benny cried for the third time, “Jesus Christ!”

The cars in the lot were smashed flat and smoking.

Karen turned to the group and asked, “Are we alive?”

No one answered.

Keys and Cake

Dear Diary,

I’m far past the place where I can distinguish what is or is not a silly idea. I just want to say that there’s something distinctly comforting to me in carrying around this old-fashioned room key.

Is it silly? If so, I don’t give a damn. I like the key. I like the bold number of the room on the fob. It makes me think of times that were simple and peaceful.

It makes me think of kinder times, okay?

It has been years since anyone used keys like this. All the new, fancy hotels had key cards. So you know this place is old and probably it wasn’t all that popular. I’d venture that it was cheap, as well. But I don’t care. When I got here, I thought I’d have to sleep in the lobby, and instead, I found room keys, real keys that required no internet and no electricity.

It felt like a small miracle.

Even better–the water runs. Yeah, there’s no hot water, but I’m not complaining about a lukewarm shower. I’m just happy to be clean.

I went back to what remains of my mother’s house to see if I could get a sense of where she and Aaron may have gone. All I know for sure is, they are gone. The car is gone, and there were no bodies in the ruins of the house.

My heart is broken. I wanat my mother. I want my son!

You have no idea, Diary, of what it was like to finally reach the place and find them gone. I had such hopes that all the destruction would be centered on the city and the suburbs would be safe.

There I go, being silly again. Right?

No one was safe. God alone knows what has happened to the world.

Leave it to me to steal a car with no radio. I keep meaning to look for one, but I’m scared. Scared to hear news broadcasts. More scared I’ll hear nothing at all.

There’s a stereo system and a small collection of CDs in the car. A little weird–no one has CDs anymore, do they? But whoever owned the car before it was abandoned at least had decent musical taste.

I say I stole it, but…well, it feels like I did, even though there was no one left to claim it. I haven’t seen another living person in days.

I steal a lot now. No matter how I tell myself that no one owns a thing, it still feels like it to me.

First thing I did was get a lot of meat from the grocery store down the road. Then I took it to the gas station and put it in the ice locker with the dry ice. I also got dry ice to put in my little refrigerator here.

After a couple of days it finally occurred to me that I could get a small generator and run a few things here. So now I have lights and the fridge.

I went in the other rooms–there are twenty–and unplugged everything. Conservation is the key, right?

I’m scared, though. I don’t want anyone moving in on me, you know? Who can I trust? So I only turn on the light in my own room, and I keep the curtains closed tight so no one will see.

I got a small barbeque and charcoal, and I grill meat in the lobby. Weird, huh? I worry that someone might smell my dinner cooking and come here, but I’m more worried about cooking in my room. It’s pretty small.

Every day, I put gas in the car and I drive in different directions, just looking. Sometimes I don’t get far; the roads are so damaged in places that it would be crazy to try driving on them.

I’ve found that a rough drive through empty fields is a better plan sometimes. I keep looking for my mother’s car. I have looked in parking lots. I have looked at houses that still remain upright.

Mostly, I have been afraid to get out of the car when I’m out and about. Getting food and clothes and other supplies is pretty nerve wracking, if you want to know the truth. It’s like, I want to find people, but I’m afraid to find people. The only people I want to see are Mom and Aaron.

Why?

Because I don’t know who did this!

This country has been nuts for a while now, and for all I know, we did it to ourselves. That doesn’t leave me with a lot of options regarding trust, does it?

I mean, have you watched “The Walking Dead”?

Of course you haven’t; you’re a book full of empty pages waiting for me to fill you up.

Well, I have, and you better believe me when I say that there are more people out there not to trust than there are who are trustworthy.

If there are any people out there at all…

That’s a shitty thought.

Look: I crept and crawled my way out of a demolished parking garage. I walked almost all the way to Mom’s before I got the car. I have food and shelter.

I have a cool room key.

I can’t be the only one left alive–that’s ridiculous.

And—while I have no proof of it, I do not believe there are zombies out there, either.

But who the hell knows?

I didn’t believe anyone would actually drop bombs on us, either.

Anyway…

Today I drove out and around this corn field. I didn’t even know anyone grew corn around here! You’d think I’d know things like that. Still, if it keeps growing as well as it seems to have done so far, I will be eating corn-on-the-cob soon.

Anyway, from the place where I stopped driving today, I could see an old barn. It didn’t look like much, but there could be useful things inside. I might go and have a look tomorrow. I wasn’t about to do that today and risk it getting dark before I got here.

I never used to be afraid of the dark.

On the way back, I stopped at a small grocery store, and guess what I found? A chocolate cake! I am going to put you down in just a minute and eat my dinner—a grilled pork chop, potatoes and green beans and a big slice of chocolate cake.

Damn the apocalypse and damn my waistline. I’m going to eat while the eating is good, because I know things aren’t going to last.

Maybe I’ll have two slices.

Good-night, Dear Diary.

This story was inspired by a prompt from Writers Unite!

This story is part of a series. The first episode can be found here

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His Time Machine

Dan was never the sort of man who discarded items just because they were out of style. The radio worked fine, and so it stayed on the nightstand on his side of the bed throughout many years of our marriage.

It wasn’t the radio that finally gave out—it was the electrical cord. Dan took it to his electrician friend, Salvador, who laughed kindly and gave him a friendly pat on the back before recommending that he replace the old relic. “It would cost more for me to try to replace this—with no guarantee it would work—than it would for you to get a new radio.”

Dan came home with the radio, dejected. “I’ve had this since boot camp,” he told me. “The first time I danced with you, this was playing the music.”

My heart gave a little flutter at that—it was a sweet memory that I had tucked away myself and assumed he had forgotten. It was nice to know he hadn’t.

“It’s not like we don’t have the money,” I told him. “If you want to try…”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll put it on the bookcase with the other time machines.”

I smiled. There were items we’d accumulated over the years that were just, frankly, too pretty to throw away, even when they were no longer useful. Dan called them “time machines” because looking at them took us back to the days when they’d been working parts of our household.

The shelf in question was currently home to an old mixer that had belonged to my mother. It was a pastel blue shade popular in the 1940s, and was displayed with its blades and bowls. It, too, had fallen victim to the dreaded worn-out electrical cord.

Also featured was my old portable record player. It had belonged to my father, who gave it to me. My daughter used it for several years. Finally, it began to overheat and smell—to be honest—dangerous when in use; the turntable no longer spun quite fast enough, causing a dragging drone in the songs she was playing. Dan confiscated it, declaring it a fire hazard and relegating it to the “Time Machine” shelves.

She got a new one as a gift—I forget if it was a birthday or Christmas. That was a long time ago.

As I watched him make a space for his beloved player of music and news, I felt bad for Dan. I determined that I would find him a new radio, one that would be simultaneously serviceable, and nostalgic.

It was a bit of a search, but before Father’s Day I received a package containing a vintage-look AM/FM radio. The speakers resembled an old automobile grill. The volume and tuning knobs looked like tail lights. The dial display looked like an old-fashioned odometer.

Personally, I found the looks somewhat marred by the headphone jack—there were no radio headphones in 1955. But overall, I was satisfied with the purchase.

Dan was delighted with his Father’s Day gift. He gave it place-of-honor status by sitting it on the night table on his side of the bed. He plugged it in. “Let’s see how she sounds,” he said, and turned it on.

Hank Williams was singing, his slightly twang-y voice belting out “Hey, Good Lookin’”, much to our delight. There wasn’t much room between the foot of our bed and the chest of drawers, but we managed a dance, anyway.

After listening to a few oldies but goodies, Dan said, “I’ve never heard this station before. It must be new. It’s almost time for the news, though, so I guess I’ll tune in the local guys.”

He turned the dial. Elvis Presley’s rich voice crooned, “Love Me Tender”. Another turn of the dial, and Patsy Cline was walking after midnight.

Dan looked at me. I looked back at him. We looked at the radio. “That’s weird,” Dan said.

Every turn of the dial brought forth songs from the past. Jim Reeves, Eddie Arnold, Perry Como, Loretta Lynn.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.

“Well, honey,” Dan said, “I think you actually found me a real time machine!”

I don’t know about that—we never left the current world. But every night, before going to bed, we danced to the songs of our youth as they floated from the speakers of that radio.

Never once did a song recorded past 1970 play on any station of that radio. No matter the time of day or night, it played our songs.

Time passed, as it always had. Dan became ill and frail. But he loved listening to that radio. When he became mostly bedridden, it played softly, day and night.

Each song held a memory. We talked for hours. We remembered all the good things. Even the harder memories were discussed and let go.

The music played on.

We were listening together the night Dan drew his last breath.

The radio stopped when he did.

A few days later, I unplugged it, believing it was broken.

That was a year ago. Today I took it to Salvador, just to see if it was worth fixing.

He plugged it in.

Switched it on—static. He twisted the tuning dial.

Lady Gaga was belting out “Applause”. The tone was perfect.

“Julia, there’s nothing wrong with this radio,” Salvador told me, frowning.

“That’s what you think,” I replied sadly.

Maybe my daughter would like a new radio. I can’t bear to keep it now.

I’ll be content with the one from boot camp. The one we listened to the first time we danced together. The one on the “Time Machine” shelf.

It won’t play anything now—but I have great memories.

This story was inspired by a Writers Unite! prompt. I highly recommend a visit to this site, where you will find stories by many talented writers.

Empty Beaches (No Ferry Today Part 3)

Monique started cleaning up the dishes and the grill after Margo left the cafe with Devin, Melvin and Junior. She had resisted the urge to run down to the beach and see them off. It felt to her as if doing so would reinforce the feeling that she’d said goodbye to them forever.

That was ridiculous, of course. It wasn’t that far across the reach, and even with Devin’s little outboard motor it wouldn’t be long before the skiff landed at the docks on the mainland.

Barnaby and Elvin took the twins, Paul and Pam, and went down to the beach. Lou Ann stayed to help Monique. Jessica gathered up dishes before leaving with Bill and Vivian to go through the little island village and check on the other residents.

Lou Ann looked up from the tabletop she was washing. “How long do you think they’ll be gone?” she asked, voicing the very question going through Monique’s mind. “I mean, it’s not that far, but…well, I don’t think they’ll just turn around and come back, do you?”

“Margo wants to go home and get her cat,” Monique replied, trying desperately to sound nonchalant. She wondered if the delicious lunch she’d just eaten was going to stay down. Her stomach was in turmoil; she was that tense. “Her boyfriend is away.”

“I don’t know why this is upsetting me. It’s probably nothing.” She went to the sink to rinse her washcloth. “It’s just…it’s so odd, looking out at the beach and seeing…sand.”

That was an odd way of putting it, but it was also true. Summer days were not generally empty beach days. Normally, the sand was covered with blankets and umbrellas and people of all ages.

Monique started washing the plates and silverware by hand. There’d been so few people it wasn’t worth loading up an industrial sized dishwasher. She couldn’t remember ever washing dishes by hand at The Beach Bar, even in the off-season. The locals were good customers in the winter, and on the coldest days you could still expect the flatlanders to ferry over for a drink and a few laughs in the evenings.

Technically, Monique was herself a flatlander—she’d live on the island for a few years, but she wasn’t a native. “Has the ferry ever not come before, Lou Ann?”

“Not that I can remember.” Lou Ann pinched her lower lip, thinking. “Mama’s been here forever, of course. She might know; or Dad.” Lou Ann’s parents lived on the other side of the island. “I tried to call her, but my phone’s not working.”

“Try the landline.” Monique tapped her own forehead impatiently. “Why didn’t we think of that before?Lou Ann went to the end of the bar and lifted the receiver to her ear. Her eyebrows shot up. “Dial tone!” she exclaimed. She punched numbers and waited. Then: “Dad? It’s me. Hey, has there ever been a time when the ferry didn’t show up here?”

There was a pause as she listened to her father talk. Apparently, he had a lot to say.

Monique listened half-heartedly to a one-sided conversation that consisted mostly of “Uh huh,” and “Really?” and “Hmm.” It might have been an interesting monologue, but all she could do was wonder if she might be able to call Margo on her cell from the landline when Lou Ann finished talking. She wasn’t hopeful.

***

Bill and Jessica slowed their pace for Vivian, not so much because she was tiny and therefore short of stride, but because she obviously didn’t see well, and they didn’t want her to bump into or trip over anything. Jessica tuck the older woman’s hand into the crook of her arm, unconsciously leading her in much the same way Melvin Samples had done for his wife the last few years. “Aren’t you sweet,” Vivian said, reaching across her body to pat Jessica’s arm. “It’s the cataracts. I’m scheduled to have them taken care of next month…”

“Oh, that will be wonderful for you,” Bill said, his rumbling baritone alive with enthusiasm. “My mother had hers done, and she sees everything now.”

“Well, that’s the plan,” Vivian agreed. “But…”

“But…?” Jessica prompted.

Vivian sighed. The trio mounted steps to knock on the first of many doors, doing their neighborly wellness checks. “I have a bad feeling about this…situation.”

An elderly woman answered the door. The three visitors tried not to display their relief and failed.

***

Barnaby and Elvin stood ankle deep in the calm waters of the beach, keeping an eye on the rambunctious twins.

Walking down from the bar, they’d noticed a row of beach chairs someone had left unattended. Elvin looked back at them now, squinting. “One good gust of wind, and those are goners,” he declared.

Barnaby shrugged. “Don’t know who they belong to,” he said. “Guess we can take them back to the bar with us in a while.”

“You think they were there all night?”

“I suppose.” Barnaby didn’t care. All he cared about was that Lou Ann and the twins were with him, safe. “It was a quiet night.”

“Yuh.” He shielded his eyes with both hands and peered across the reach. “Can’t see the mainland,” he remarked. “Is that fog?”

“Maybe.” Barnaby frowned. “I don’t see the skiff anymore, either. Do you?”

“Nope.”

They gave each other uneasy looks. It didn’t seem like there had been enough time for the skiff to have gotten as far as the fog bank they believed they were seeing.

“Is Dev’s outboard that fast?” Elvin asked.

“Maybe that fog is closer than it looks.” Barnaby bent and splashed water on Paul and Pam. They squealed with delight and splashed him back.

Elvin kept quiet. Barnaby didn’t talk much, and appeared to be deep in thought—playing with his kids was just his way of taking a moment for reflection. Knowing this did nothing to ease the fear Elvin felt building in the pit of his stomach. He looked back at the empty beach chairs and wondered who had left them there. It was unsettling to see them there, absent the sunscreen-smeared bodies and towels and drinks.

After a few minutes of play with the toddlers, Barnaby straightened up. He flexed his neck and back and then took a good long look across the water.

“Yeah, I reckon the fog is closer than it looks, Devin’s outboard is stronger than we think and they’ve been gone longer than we realize. I haven’t been timing them, have you?”

Elvin thought there were a lot of “maybes” implied in Barnaby’s musings, and they all amounted to nothing more than wishful thinking. But when you came right down to it—what else did they have? “No, I haven’t looked at my watch all morning,” he replied. He grinned, but it felt false on his face. “Cuz I left it home,” he added.

Barnaby let out a laugh that sounded as false as the smile on Elvin’s face felt to him. “Me, too, buddy.”

“They’re probably docking as we speak.”

“I hope so.”

Elvin sighed and looked out across the reach again. “How long do we wait before we officially get scared?”

“Officially?” Barnaby made a few lunging splashes with his kids, avoiding the question for a few moments. Finally, he looked back at his friend. “Dude, I am already scared—officially.”

“Yeah.”

***

Devin adjusted the rudder slightly, frowning at Melvin, who was leaning over the bow of the skiff. “Mel, sit back,” he ordered. “You wanna flip this bitch?”

Melvin glared back over his shoulder. “I ain’t that heavy,” he growled. “We should be able to see the docks through the fog by now!”

“It’s not fog.” Margo spoke so quietly it was difficult to hear her. Melvin sat back, as ordered, and looked at her. “Can’t you smell it?” she asked. “It’s smoke.”

“Ayuh,” Devin agreed. “I been trying to ignore that. Thanks a boatload, Margo.”

“Think nothing of it,” Margo replied flippantly. She sighed deeply, and it was impossible not to notice the shakiness of her breath. “What could cause that much smoke? Do you think it was a dock fire?”

“Mebbe.” Devin and Melvin exchanged meaningful looks. “But we’d have heard the sirens, even across the reach…”

“That’s a lot of smoke.” Melvin stretched himself over the bow again, much to Devin’s dismay. “I think I see something.”

“The dock?”

“No it’s—oh, shit!”

“What? What?”

The little skiff bumped something, turned slightly to the left and bumped something else. Margo leaned over the side and looked down into the water. She screamed.

Bodies floated all around them.  

To Be Continued….

The Writers Unite! May prompt led to this 3rd installment. I wonder what will happen next?

Westerns: Who Doesn’t Love a Cowboy?

The Wild West books are here! Writers Unite! Anthologies Dimensions of The Wild West, presented by Writers Unite! and featuring contributions by several members of the group, including me! If westerns are your thing, you’re in for a real treat!

https://amzn.to/3sqPkfb Volume One ebook

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B093K8653R Paperback

https://amzn.to/3glB8l6 Volume Two

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B093KPZVFP Paperback

I have one story in Volume One, and while it is a western tale, it also features a little boy, Charlie, who can see and speak to ghosts.

I have two stories in Volume Two. One is a very short story about a slight misunderstanding, and the other features a character who readers of my novel, Emma: Ancestors’ Tales, were introduced to on a visit to New Mexico. Don’t worry, if you haven’t read the novel, this is a stand-alone story.

The book has stories by many other authors I’ve come to enjoy over the last couple of years. I hope you’ll check us all out!

Have a great evening!

Infected (Everything We Knew Part 2)

Mom had a hangnail once; it put her in the hospital.

I know that sounds dumb, but it’s true. She kept pestering it, picking at it and chewing on it before she managed to pull it out of the skin, wounding the crease along her nail bed and cuticle. She rinsed it off and forgot about it.

Until it got infected and swelled up like a balloon, that is.

You ever watch cartoons, where some guy bashes his thumb and it grows into a big, throbbing ball? Mom’s thumb reminded me of that: bulging, red and hot, like it had a fever even thought the rest of her didn’t.

It all happened in the middle of the night, so we had to get security to let us out. Trains didn’t run on our line between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. The underground was gated and locked up during those hours so the homeless people wouldn’t try to get in to loot the kiosks or sleep on the platform.

Joe and Holly’s mom let us out. She was on a night shift, which was weird. She wasn’t actually a security person, and usually works mornings, with my mother, monitoring the rails and trains. “I’ll be back soon, Rebecca,” Mom told her. “In time for work.”

Dad shook his head at Rebecca, and she said, “I’m pulling a double. Dan’s sick. I’ll let Megan know, just in case we need to cover for you.”

“I’ll be back in time.” Mom was nothing if not determined.

Of course, we weren’t back. Jake and I missed school, Dad called in to work for himself and Mom. We were at the emergency room for hours, because the infection cause blood poisoning and she was on an IV getting loaded up on antibiotics.

A doctor numbed her up and then made a big slice in her nail bed to drain the infection. Mom and I were smart—we looked away. There was this noise: “Squelllchhh!” Then there was a terrifically horrible smell.

Jake groaned, “Ook, urk…uuughh!” and threw up all over the floor.

Dad let out a, “Ohhh…”

The nurse said, “Easy, sir, head between—oh shit, there he goes!”

Dad thumped to the ground, passed out.

I looked at Mom. She was pale, and looked horrified.

I looked at the doctor. Her face was mostly hidden by her mask and a Plexiglas face shield, but her eyes were so crinkled up I knew she was laughing. “Men!” she said. “Why do they always think they need to watch?”

It was a long night, and Mom was sick for a couple of days.

Infections are nasty.

**********

At least when he’s sleeping, he isn’t so sad…

I mention this past story because I knew Dale was in big trouble.

We’d been in the high school gym for a few hours; I know, because Jake had had time to roll over and drool on my leg in his sleep. Any other time, and I would have shoved him away, grossed out. But, who cares? It’s a little drool; it’ll dry.

Anyway, Ted had taken Dale into the boy’s locker room and washed out the gash on her leg. He used some disinfectant and put on clean bandages, grateful that they had a first aid kit in the gym teacher’s office. But the wound was swelling, and it smelled bad—I could smell it from the corner where I had tucked myself, my brother and our friends Paul and Julie.

We were between the bleachers and the wall—I guess we felt more secure in the cramped space; I don’t know. Ted and Dale had elected to sit on the bleachers, and had stretched out on the seats to rest. So, it’s not like they were across the room from me, or anything, but still…the smell was strong, and terrifically horrible, just like Mom’s infected finger.

When I started to notice the smell, I got scared. Dale was a big woman, and stronger than anyone I had ever seen. She was brave, too. But even brave, strong people can get an infection, and they can get blood poisoning, too.

And it happened so fast!

My little group was still sleeping, and I didn’t want to disturb them, but I was compelled to get up and check on Dale. So I started inching myself away, out from under and through the bodies of my sleeping companions, careful not to let a head drop on the floor or anything, and careful not to disturb Paul’s dislocated shoulder. That would wake him, for sure.

I suppose by the time I extracated myself, sort of slithering out of the tangled arms and legs, I must have looked like a wriggling snake, scooting along on my back. Finally, I worked myself free, rolled over and carefully stood up.

Dale was still asleep, but she was moaning with misery. Ted was awake, and was sitting with her head in his lap. Her face was a blotchy mixture of ghostly pale, marred by bright red cheeks and chin. She was drenched in sweat. The black and pink striped lip art was gone, and her full lips were nearly colorless.

I inched closer, until Ted noticed me. “Is she asleep,” I asked, “or unconscious?”

Ted gave me an imposing frown. I mentioned that Dale is big, but Ted’s no slouch in the size department, either. I might have been intimidated by that frown once upon a time, but after the day we’d been through, I was over being intimidated by frowns, or size or just about anything.

“She’s infected, for sure,” I added. “I can smell it.”

Ted heaved a great sigh, and brushed hair from Dale’s forehead. “I haven’t tried to wake her up,” he told me. “So I can’t answer your question.”

I nodded.

“I guess I’m scared to find out. You know; if I can’t wake her up.”

I nodded again. I felt pretty useless; nodding wasn’t much help.

I looked around the gymnasium. There were mostly grownups here, but I thought the odds of anyone being a doctor were pretty slim. “Mr. Scott’s a teacher. What does he teach?” I asked.

Ted shrugged. “I have no idea.”

I studied the people, sitting in little groups of two or three on bleachers or at those lunch tables that pull out of the wall. The high school gym wasn’t any different than the gym at our K through eight. I guess school design is pretty much the same everywhere.

I don’t know why I’m going on about the gym. What I was thinking was it would be good—maybe—if one of those grownups was a science teacher. I looked back at Ted and told him so.

Ted nodded. “I’ll go ask,” I said. “And I guess you should try to wake her up. Just to know…you know, for sure.”

I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself, and I looked more closely at Dale’s leg. She was wearing biker shorts, and they were torn up on the leg she’d gashed. The area all around the bandages was red, and I’m sure if I had touched it, the heat would have been intense. If there were any red streaks moving up to her hips and belly, I couldn’t see them. Ted could look under her clothes; I wasn’t going to.

But I was really afraid that streaking was there, hidden by her shorts and shirt. I was afraid her wound got too dirty while we were making our way over all the broken-up soil and rubble in the park. I know they washed it up when we got here, but what if it was too little, too late?

That made me scared about the cut on Julie’s head. Grace cleaned that up really well before we retreated to our corner, but—

No, one thing at a time, Stella!

I made my way toward the other people and asked, “Is there, like, a doctor in the house?”

God, that sounded so stupid! Where did I think I was, in the middle of some dumb movie?

Faces turned toward me, but no one spoke up to announce that they had their own private practice in school. Then a woman did speak. She said, “I’m the school nurse. Are you…are you hurt?”

“Not me,” I replied. I studied her. She didn’t look old enough to be a nurse. She didn’t look old enough to be in high school, even. She wasn’t any taller than me, maybe five feet tall, and had huge warm brown eyes and an angelic baby face. “You’re a nurse?”

She smiled, revealing deep dimples in her cheeks. “Hard to believe, isn’t it? Who’s sick? One of your friends?”

I couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed Dale, lying up there on the bleachers with her head in Ted’s lap. They were a little hard to miss. But she had been sitting in a chair facing the opposite direction, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

Sort of.

It seemed rather selective to me that she’d turned her back. The thing was, I couldn’t remember if she’d been sitting like that when we came in. My impression was that she hadn’t moved at all in the time we’d been here. And there was a part of me that got it; if I didn’t have to, I would probably choose to sit and stare at the wall and not move anymore myself.

But I had Jake to think about. I might be all he has left in the world; the fates of our parents were unknown and might stay that way.

As it turned out, Mr. Scott taught English classes. Not much help there, in the way of advanced first aid knowledge. But he heard me talking to the nurse, and he got up and went to speak to another man.

The two came over and joined me as the nurse stood up. “Stella,” Mr. Scott said, “This is Mr. Fabio. He’s the anatomy teacher here.”

What luck! “That’s good,” I said. I led them all over to the bleachers where Ted still sat with Dale’s head in his lap.

She looked bad.

The nurse introduced herself to Ted. “I’m Denise,” she said. “I’m a licensed practical nurse—”

“An LPN,” Ted murmured absently, gently stroking Dale’s forehead and barely glancing up at Denise.

“Yes,” she agreed. “This is a little out of my league, but we’ll do the best we can. I would like to move her to my office, though. Can she walk at all?”

Ted did look up then, and said, “I can’t really get her to talk to me anymore.”

I swallowed hard, hearing him say that. She really was unconscious, then. This was bad, I knew.

Denise turned to Mr. Scott and said, “There’s a stretcher in my office. She really needs to be in there—I have all my supplies there.”

“I’ll go get it,” Mr. Scott turned and crossed the gymnasium to another door. He gestured at the two teenage boys as he went, and they joined him.

They returned with a stretcher and some blankets pretty quickly, although it felt like hours to me. I couldn’t stop looking at Dale’s face. It was hectic with red patches and covered in sweat. Her breathing didn’t sound good, either. I was scared.

Mr. Scott and Mr. Fabio unfolded the stretcher and put a clean sheet on the mattress. Then they, and the teenage boys whose names I still didn’t know carefully lifted Dale and they all moved her down the steps and placed her on the bed and covered her. Mr. Fabio used straps to secure her.

“Why is he tying her down?” I asked. “She’s unconscious.”

“She might wake up and try to move,” Mr. Scott explained, giving my shoulder a reassuring pat. “Better safe than sorry.”

I nodded. That was true.

When Denise and Mr. Fabio started to push the stretcher away, closely followed by Ted, I started after them. Mr. Scott reached out and pulled me back. “I’m sorry, Stella. You’re just going to have to wait.”

“But—”

“Safety first.”

I turned to the teen boys. They shrugged at me. “We can’t help,” one said.

“We’d be in the way,” the other added.

I sighed. I wanted to cry, but not in front of guys whose names I didn’t even know.

The first one reached out and patted my shoulder. “You’re Stella?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Patrick. This goon here is Bobo.”

“Bobo?”

“It’s Beau.” He slugged Patrick lightly on the shoulder. “Look, we work mornings in the cafeteria. That’s why we were here when everything—”

“Went to shhh—er. Went to hell.”

I giggled. “You can say ‘shit’.” I told Patrick. “I’m not a little kid.”

“Anyway…” Patrick looked embarrassed. “We’ve been here for hours, and no one has eaten. Maybe we should do something about that. Wanna help, Stella?”

“Okay. Good.”

Something to keep me occupied while we waited to see how Dale was doing would be good. I looked at Mr. Scott, who nodded in agreement.

Weird, how I had already found an adult to seek permission from. What the hell is wrong with me?

I guess I really am just a little kid.

I followed Patrick and Beau to the big kitchen so we could feed people.

My brother and our friends slept on. I kind of envied them.

Previously published on my Vocal Media page. You can find many other stories and articles here.