Sifting Through the End

Mae and Ash don’t come with us to the city anymore. I guess I can’t blame them. Neither of them remember much of what it used to be. They’re younger than we are, and we were pretty young ourselves when the city was a real place.

Well…I suppose I must admit it is still real enough. Maybe too real. What it isn’t, now, is a city. For me, that word implies “filled with people”, and that is no longer the case.

Let me elaborate. It is no longer filled with living people.

Sid and I have come here many times, salvaging. It is not fun, but it is necessary. It is never boring–the things that have survived are many and varied and sometimes–but not always–important.

When I made it my mission to salvage as much as possible from the surviving libraries, there were those in the settlements who thought I was crazy and wasting my time. Thankfully, these were a minority. Most of the people who managed to survive this mess did so because they were intelligent people searching for ways to make a difference that would insure the continuation of the human race.

There have been plenty of salvagers focused on finding food and fuel. Sid and I have devoted countless hours and tons of elbow grease to that cause, so when we discovered the library, I insisted on being allowed to do something I wanted to do–save the books.

Even the naysayers ended up grateful for it. The “Do It Yourself” section alone was worth all the effort.

The periodical section of that building was destroyed, though. It figures; we wanted to know what led to this state of being, but it seems that even the weather has thwarted our efforts to find magazines and newspapers from the days just before the bombs fell.

We were underground by then. We were children then, too.

I try not to think of the days before the camp, the days when we had a mothers to care for us and love us. They were taken, cruelly, but we survived and we’ve gone on in ways we hope will honor them.

I don’t know how I would have survived it all without Mae by my side. She was invaluable to me in caring for our baby sister, Dawn. Once we were rescued and taken to the camp, she became quite the little mother figure. Dawn, so traumatized she didn’t make a sound for months, blossomed under her care.

Sid and Ash had been through much the same as we sisters, and they became our constant companions growing up. Then they became our husbands. Mae and Ash usually tend the home fires, though, while Sid and I explore and salvage.

We persuaded them to join us a couple of times, but it didn’t go well. A wall collapsed right next to Mae one time, while we were taking canned goods out of an Asian market. She was covered in chalky dust, unhurt but shaken.

The next visit was the one that has left her reluctant to come again, though.

We had come in with a group in panel trucks, hoping to make our way a little deeper into the downtown area. There had been clusters of upper scale restaurants there, and we were hoping for some good cooking utensils and pans, and possibly some canned and dried foods.

It sounds simple enough, but a lot of what happens on these trips is dragging debris out of the roads.

Often, some of that debris turns out to be human remains.

I don’t care how often you’ve done it, you don’t ever get used to it. You come to expect it on some level, and yet it is always a surprise–the turn of a shovel that reveals a femur, rotted flesh and denim still clinging to the bone. The jawbone. The skull with a mummified ear still embellished with a dazzling diamond earring.

No. You never get used to it.

One might think that the smell would reveal it before the shovel hit, but the truth is, the whole city stinks of death. We wear masks, always. So, there it is, that element of surprise, even in the face of expectation.

On this particular day, Grandpa had driven in a pickup with a front end plow, and spent a good deal of time trying to push and plow enough garbage out of the way so the panel trucks could get through the intersection. As always, remains were piled separately and would be burnt when we’d finished our searches.

Mae was sick with grief and disgust within minutes, so I made her climb over a smaller hillock of rubble and join me in a relatively clear space up the street from where the rest of the group was working to clear the road.

Wonder of wonders, we found an old bus stop bench that was clear of any garbage. It was in front of the remains of the Tres Hermana’s Mexican Restaurant, which still had an intact doorway. The big window, however, was demolished, and tiny shards of glass sparkled on the sidewalk.

Making sure there was no glass on the bench, we sat down. “I hate this place,” Mae sighed.

“I hate what it is now,” I agreed. My nose itched under my mask, and I fought off the impulse to lift it off and scratch. After wrinkling and twitching a few times, to no avail, I leaned back in my seat and looked up at the sky.

It was an odd sight: looking skyward, the buildings appeared whole and untouched by the ruin on the ground. Some even had intact windows; I could see the glint of sun on the glass. “Wow,” I breathed.

Mae leaned back, too, and together we stared at the shifting clouds above us. “You can’t even tell from here,” Mae whispered. “It all looks…normal. What was it like, Penny? Do you remember?”

“I don’t know if I was ever here,” I admitted. “Nothing looks familiar. But, why would it?”

“I remember a Christmas parade and lighting the lights,” Mae said. “But that wasn’t here. Was it?”

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “We rode the train to that. The train station is further northwest.” I didn’t add that I couldn’t remember if we’d gotten a bus from the train depot and come further downtown from there. It didn’t really matter. There would be no more parades, and no more Christmas tree lightings.

“I don’t get it,” Mae said. “Daddy said there were bombs. Don’t bombs come from planes?”

I shrugged, indifferent. “I guess.”

“Then why aren’t the windows broken up there? Everything down here is a mess.”

I don’t claim any expertise about bombs, but I speculated that they didn’t detonate until they hit the ground. That made no sense, either, though. If a bomb was dropped from directly above us, everything down here would be gone. Obliterated. Dust.

Many parts of the city were exactly that: Obliterated. Nothing left at all except piles of concrete and glass and decomposing bodies. We’ve never even tried to get into places like that; it would be useless.

Finally, I said, “I suppose it was like an earthquake, and the impact tremors spread out.” I wished she hadn’t brought it up; my mind began concocting all sorts of scenarios.

“Maybe the bombs didn’t come from the air.”

I stared at the sky. Mae stared, too. “No,” she whispered. “I can see it.”

“What?” I saw clouds, which were beginning to move faster and were turning grey as we watched.

“The plane.”

I turned my head and stared at my sister. Her eyes were wide and shocked. “What is it, Mae?”

“I can see it, Penny. I know it’s not there, but I can see it anyway. It’s a big, silver plane, full of regular people just trying to get away.”

I looked up again. I could see it, too. Grandpa said people would try to escape the city by air. After it was over, we didn’t see planes in the sky anymore. No one believes anyone got away; if they had, where were they? Wouldn’t someone have come back by now?

We stared. The plane was there. Sunlight glinted off the bottom, and it appeared to be glowing. It hovered.

It wasn’t there, of course. Planes never hovered. A helicopter, sure, but not planes. I blinked hard, and felt tears escape the outer corners of my eyes, rolling toward my ears but halted by my mask.

No plane. Just sky, now mostly grey clouds with a hint of blue beyond them.

Rain would be a bitch. I sat up, distressed.

Mae heaved a shaky sigh and sat up, too.  Then she stood, turned and faced the broken window of the restaurant and squared her shoulders determinedly. “We might as well go see what we can find,” she said.

“Penny!”

I turned and saw Sid and Ash coming toward us, pulling wagons. “Are we hauling, then?” I asked.

“There’s a huge hole under all that crap,” Ash explained. “Mort says they’re not driving through.”

They lined the four wagons up behind the bus stop bench and we climbed through the window to search. All around us, other teams were moving on foot down the street and into other businesses, some with wagons, most with backpacks.

As we moved further into the restaurant, Mae begged, “Please, God, no people. No bodies.”

“Amen,” Ash added.

God didn’t listen. In my experience, He never has.

We found plenty of bodies that day.

We also found plenty to salvage: cooking supplies, cutlery, dishes. Canned goods, too.

It doesn’t matter. Mae has had enough of the city, and I doubt she’ll ever come back. If she doesn’t, neither will Ash. They will stay in camp and keep things in order; there’s more than enough to do.

Like I said: I don’t blame them.

Today we found more bodies than salvage items, and as Sid lights the funeral pyre, I wonder how much longer I will be able to handle coming myself. How many more times can I sift through the end of things that once were?

“God grant you peace,” Grandpa says, his head bowed.

Sid and I turn away from the fire and start walking away. He takes my hand and squeezes.

I think about saying a prayer for the babe kicking in my belly, and decide not to bother.

God doesn’t listen.

***A side note: Penny and her sisters are first seen in my novella, Starting in the Middle of the End. 

Somehow, that broken world stays in my mind, and I keep coming back to it.

Let Down Your Hair

Laurel stood in front of the mirror, staring. Who was this woman?

The image stared back at her, unrecognizable. Shiny bald head, blackened eyes, swollen lips and an earlobe hanging in two shredded halves, the diamond stud torn away.

Her hand relaxed and the razor dropped to the floor with a sharp “clack!”

In a purely reflexive motion, she removed the remaining earring and dropped it into the sink, where it disappeared into masses of thick blond hair.

Her hands raised to touch the newly bald pate, tentatively at first, and then firmly stroking. So smooth! She took a deep breath, then another, and on the last exhale, exclaimed, “He’s gonna kill me!”

He’d come close enough, already. Laurel leaned closer to the mirror and lifted her puffy eyelids enough to more thoroughly examine her eyes. Damn him! The sclera of the left one was dotted with petechia , which meant her whole eye would soon be red with blood.

“Ugh!” Laurel grimaced. “That’s going to take weeks to clear up.”

This was not her first rodeo.

He generally avoided her face–too many questions if things ended with a trip to the emergency room. But it had happened a few times.

This was the worst, though. Both eyes were blackened and swollen, the left impossible to open without using her fingers. Her neck was screaming out: “Whiplash!” The throb each time she tried to turn her head was excruciating.

It was all about the hair.

Twelve years ago, she had come home with a cute cut, shoulder length and fashionable. Gilbert had thrown a fit the likes of which she had never even dreamed. “A Godly woman never shears her crown of glory! Never! How dare you cut your hair!”

He’d pushed her around, and even hit her a few times before that day. This was the first time he’d blackened an eye, though.

He’d also broken her arm. First trip to the emergency room, and Laurel lied through her teeth about taking a bad fall.

Her hair had been growing since then. Twelve long years, and if that’s not a lot of hair–well, Laurel didn’t know what was.

It was Gilbert’s pride. “My wife has such beautiful hair!” He bragged about it–the length, the softness, the strength of it. During times of calm, he would sit next to her and stroke it, and sometimes he’s spend an hour brushing it for her.

It was also his weapon. He’d grab great fistfuls of it to yank her toward him. He’d shake her by the hair. He’d wind it around her neck and choke her.

If she tried to run, he would grab an end of it and reel her in like a fish. Oddly enough, whenever this happened, Laurel would hear the crackling voice of a witch croaking, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”

Laurel didn’t believe Gilbert would be able to climb a tower using her hair, but it certainly worked fine for him to reel her in and begin the shake, rattle and roll.

Let him try that now, Laurel thought, considering the piles of hair in the sink and on the floor.

Stupid fairy tales. Her trailing masses of hair certainly hadn’t gained her a prince or a happy ending.

She turned her head and winced at the pain in her neck. She went to the locked door and pressed her ear against it, praying that it wouldn’t suddenly be slammed into her head from the other side. 

Nothing. The house was silent.

He was still gone. If not, he’d most likely be pounding on the door right now, demanding her exit so he could go to town on her some more.

Carefully, she cracked the door open and looked out. Then she slipped through it and darted into the kitchen for garbage bags.

In the bathroom, she stuffed pile after pile of hair into two bags and tied them shut. All the while, one hand or the other would dart up to push back hair that was no longer there, and she would marvel anew at the smoothness of her scalp.

Her mind was screaming at her:

Oh, God, oh, God, if I’m still here when he gets back, I’m dead.

I should donate this hair.

Are you crazy? Get a move on!

She ran outside and threw the bags of hair into the trunk of her car. Back in the house, she raced to the closet, and pulled down the one thing she could never bear to leave behind. It would ride on the front seat with her.

At the back of the closet was a small suitcase, already pre-packed. She had planned for an escape–someday. She had always been too scared to go, but now she was much more frightened to stay. She tucked her battered old purse under her arm, and took her life with her out the door and into the car. She didn’t bother to lock the door behind her. Nothing inside ever mattered much, and it meant nothing to her at all now.

Please, God, don’t let him come home now!

The car started, and although it ran a little ragged, as always, it didn’t let her down. She was off!

“Now what?” Laurel asked the stranger in the rear view mirror.

There was hardly any traffic. People were hiding away in their homes. She supposed the enforced isolation and the loss of his job had contributed to Gilbert’s extreme outburst today, but that hardly mattered now. What did was wondering if there was any safe place she could go.

She gassed the car–self service with a credit card. She waved at the lone person she could see inside the convenience store, and didn’t bother going inside. Her good eye was swelling more, and it was getting difficult to see. She drove around, looking for a hotel that didn’t have its “No Vacancy” sign unlit.

Finally, she admitted to herself that there was only one place to go. Thank goodness she still had the key.

The place was closed–had been for weeks now. But the power was still on, and the dressing rooms had showers. She’d been there only yesterday, the lone player on an empty stage.

She used her key card to access the underground parking lot, and parked in the darkest corner. She used the elevator and went up to the backstage area, and then to her personal dressing room.

Gilbert had never been here. Her job was unimportant to him; music wasn’t his thing, unless it was the wailing of a country singer, bemoaning his sorry drunken state and the loss of his girl.

How in hell had she landed with him in the first place?

She had maintained her own bank account, all unknown to him, and simply deposited some of her earnings into their joint account. He had no idea about the savings she had socked away. He thought her “little income” was what resulted from choosing such an a trivial career, and it served her right if she needed to ask him for money now and then.

She did ask, although she didn’t need it. It made him feel like a big man, and that in turn kept him in a calmer state. She’d “come up short” for a utility or phone bill and ask him for an extra fifty dollars near the end of the month. He’d fuss about it, and tell her she should really look for a “real job”. Then he’d hand over some crumpled bills and stroke her hair and remind them both that a real man took care of his woman.

She saved the smaller bills until she had enough to exchange them for one hundred dollar bills, and then she stashed them in the lining of her old purse. She had plenty of cash to get by on for a while if she couldn’t use her bank card.

There was nothing but formal wear in her dressing room. Clean underclothing, too, but no jeans or sweats. Those were things she had in her little escape bag.

She went to the showers and doffed the clothing she’d escaped in. They were covered with hair and blood. She threw them away, vowing to get out to a dumpster as soon as possible.

With no hair to wash, her shower was quick and easy. She let hot water run over her aching neck for several minutes longer than she probably should have. Then she closed her eyes and rinsed her aching face and eyes with cold water.

It was eerie in the empty building, but she felt so free walking naked back to her dressing room that it hardly mattered to her. She went to the rack and selected a stunning sapphire blue gown.

She walked barefoot to the stage, which was dimly lit by only a few footlights. She sat, the case in her lap. She unlatched it, and opened it.

The violin. It pulled her by the heartstrings, that instrument! She lifted it reverently, and carefully cradled it as she set the case aside.

It lay in her lap as she rosined the bow. When she lifted it to tuck it under her chin, she still paused to push away hair that no longer existed. It made her giggle.

When was the last time I giggled?

Her eyes were so swollen now she could barely see, but she didn’t need sheet music. She didn’t need the other orchestra members; the music was all in her head as she began to coax out the notes from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Her bald head gleamed in the low light. Tears flowed down her cheeks, pink with blood on the left side of her face. As she played, she wondered idly if she was injured enough to go to the emergency room, and concluded that she probably was. Every note was painful; her head, her eyes and her neck throbbed and sobbed, but she couldn’t stop playing.

Let down your hair. Let down your hair. That voice was Gilbert’s now, and still, it was witch-like.

Ha! What hair, you son-of-a-bitch?

The bow paused in air, as Spring took a breath before Summer began. Lauren giggled again.

Yes, she was hurt. Damn it.

She played on, the bow moving faster.

The hospitals were full of sick people. The emergency rooms were overwhelmed.

The violin was magic. The music had healing powers.

Lauren played on.

“This is how you do it, Gilbert,” she whispered. “This is how you let your hair down.”

The stage was filled with music. She heard every note, although no one else was there. She relished every strain.

The neck of her gown was wet with her tears, and she briefly considered the stains. How much blood was there?

If she died here, how long would it take for someone to find her?

Autumn.

Stop it, stupid.

“You be quiet,” Lauren growled. “I will finish this piece.”

She didn’t have a cell phone. How crazy it that, she thought. Everyone has a cell phone these days.

It would have been one more thing, though. Even the house phone was a problem. “Who was that?” Gilbert demanded, every time she took a call. It didn’t matter who it was; for Gilbert, it was always some new lover, some friend who didn’t like him, someone who wanted all her attention, when it belonged only to him.

People she worked with had them. She saw them texting and calling and scrolling social media sites. She could just imagine having one. Gilbert would have been taking it from her constantly, checking her calls and messages. It wasn’t worth the trouble it would have caused.

It sure would have come in handy now, though. She could at least call a nurse hotline and ask if this pain might be life-threatening.

We have a concussion. I know it.

“Hush now,” Lauren sighed. “Winter is here.”

Winter is going to kill you.

“Gilbert did it. Gilbert killed me.”

Lauren played on. She could no longer see.

Finally, she reached the end. Four seasons had passed, and it hadn’t been an hour, but it felt like a year had truly gone by. Music could transport a person that way.

She practically lived here, but it was still difficult making her way back to the dressing room after carefully replacing the violin in its case. She was blind.

This is bad.

You don’t say. 

There was a landline phone in the dressing room. It took her a while to locate it. It was live. Lauren burst into tears of relief and dialed 911.

Three tries, but she succeeded only to be put on hold.

Let down your hair. Let down your hair.

“Shut up, you wicked old witch of a Gilbert! There is no hair.”

How will anyone climb up to rescue you?

“Shut up!”

“911. What is your emergency?”

Oh, thank God! Lauren gave her location. “I can’t see,” she said. “But I will try to get to the door to let someone in.”

She took the violin. It was magic, after all. She found the front doors and managed to unlock one before passing out.

When she woke up, she was on the bathroom floor, lying on a blanket of her own hair. Gilbert was banging on the door, demanding to be let in.

The violin was in its case in the top of her closet. Useless.

With her final burst of strength, Lauren lifted her hand to touch her bald head.

Her hair was attached and matted with blood.

Let down your hair. Let down your hair.

“Go to hell, Gilbert….”

Bedtime Prayers and Long Farewells

On Facebook, I have an page called Author/Writer Paula Shablo. I was just scrolling through past posts, looking for something.

I wasn’t looking for this, but it is what I found.

This was posted in the wee hours of July 22nd, as I sat watching my father through the night. At any given time, he was either with me or he was walking with others. Some names, like Louie, I heard him speak. Others, I don’t know.

Many times, he would reach his hands skyward, and it looked for all the world like he was shaking hands with someone. He muttered and mumbled and I strained to hear him.

He smiled often. He was not afraid. But he was so restless.

During a quiet period, I tried to play a game of solitaire, but my mind would not stop churning out this little prayer, and so I wrote the following:

“Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take”

I always took exception to this prayer when I was a kid. I was an introspective child, quite impressionable. Over-thought everything.

What sort of prayer was this to teach a child? How do kids even go to sleep after saying this prayer? Obviously, dying in your sleep was a thing–why else would there be a prayer about it?

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware that I would die sometime. We all owe a death–the act of being born guarantees we’re going to die someday.

But that nightly reminder? Unappreciated.

Those who know me know that I am a horrible sleeper. Maybe this is one of the reasons. I would recite my nightly prayer, ask God to bless everyone I could think of and also those I might have forgotten to list–this was important; I didn’t want to leave anyone out–and then I would crawl into bed.

First, I would make sure my neck was completely covered. Vampires, you know. Best not to tempt one by leaving my neck exposed.

Then, I would…worry. Would this be the night I died before I woke? Where would I go? What would happen to me? What would happen to my family if I wasn’t around to look out for them?

Wait–maybe I could hang out and look after them.

But what if I couldn’t?

Maybe the vampire thing would be the better plan. At least I would be able to stick around.

Uncover the neck. Come and get me, vampire, if this is my night to die before I wake.

Um…never mind. Up came the covers. All the way up over my chin. Sometimes right over my head.

“If I should die before I wake…” Would I know I was dead?

You get the picture. Who could sleep, knowing they could just die right there in bed?

According to my mother, my bad sleep began in infancy, long before I learned to recite a nightly prayer. But it surely didn’t help matters, I would say.

Of course, as I grew up I began to believe that it really would be my ideal way to go: in my sleep, all unaware, peacefully. No pain. No drama.

“Now I lay me down to sleep…”

His sleep tonight is not peaceful. Drama is playing out over the hours. He sees me, and is startled: “Are you still here?”

He informs me that he’s all finished with hunting. He won’t be going out again.

“Are you okay?” he asks me.

“Are you?” I counter.

An hour passes, and he says, “Oh, yeah. Getting better all the time.”

I decide, however right or wrong I may be, that he has answered my question.

He tells me, “Kick his ass, Paula.”

“I will,” I promise.

I find I really do want to kick someone’s ass. I realize I am angry with… someone. Something.

And that stupid prayer keeps repeating in my head.

Damn it.

Peaceful, my ass.

Sleep well and Fly High. Paul Eugene Shablo, September 8, 1935 to July 24, 2020

I wasn’t ready for his death. I believe he was. I don’t know for sure if he was peaceful; I just know that I wasn’t.

I wrote this in a state of exhaustion; I didn’t even remember it, until I found it just now.

Now, if I could only remember what it was I was looking for…

On the Edge of Tomorrow

We never knew where we’d end up or what we’d find when we went out exploring, especially in the earliest days after the city was destroyed.

Vic and I had left the city years before. We’d worked hard, saved plenty of money, and decided that the time was right for a change. We bought some land in the mountains and built our cabin there during our vacations and weekends.

Vic had met Vance a couple of years before that. Vance was, in my estimation, a bit of a fanatic. He was career military, but he had grown distrustful of the government he worked for. He told Vic that his father-in-law, a man of some renown and with more than plenty of means, was building a compound in preparation for the end of the world.

Vic listened and nodded, and afterward, when he told me about it, we had a good laugh.

But things started getting odd in the city. We always felt watched. We worried constantly about our children; schools were no longer safe places, were they? Otherwise, why did they start each school year learning how to avoid shooters?

We built a fallout shelter near the cabin, and started loading it up with supplies: dried and canned foods, bottled water, batteries, oil lamps and oil. We had beds and bedding for us and our three children. We put in an electric stove, and behind the shelter we built a long tunnel where we stored generators and propane.

We built a concrete cellar under the cabin and stored more: food, blankets, clothing.

We were getting paranoid, we told each other. This was the day we started building a stone wall around the property we’d worked so hard for. That was soon followed up with camouflage netting, all through the trees around the cabin.

We moved to the cabin permanently, but continued to work in the city, and we drove the kids in early each day for school, until that last year.

Vic had kept in contact with Vance, and as it happened, we were ahead of the game when it came to getting out.

We knew where the big compound was located; the plan for that place was a shelter for about one hundred people. Vance said there would be room for us if we wanted to go.

Vic told him we had it covered.

They were on one side of that city. We were on the other side. We haven’t seen Vance since the end came, but we have spoken to him via HAM radio. Vance had been insistent about us having one, just in case. We keep in touch, once in a while, with his group and a few others in the area that Vance’s father-in-law had helped set up.

We went underground when the city blew; we could hear the explosions and smell the smoke, and God only knew what might have been poisoning the air.

That was awful, and it seemed to last forever, but we’ve been back in the cabin, most of the time, ever since.

The boys are nearly grown now, and it amazes me how well they have done alone on this mountain. But lately, they’ve been restless and expressing more interest in traveling to meet with others.

We’ve been to the city; everyone we have contact with has been, some many times. We’ve only got one open road to travel there, as appears to be the case with most of the others. I think that’s a good thing. We haven’t had to compete with anyone for the things we have managed to salvage there.

Believe me when I tell you, salvaging in the city is not for sissies, and the last thing anyone needs besides the hard work of it is a competitor.

On our very first salvage trip, we discovered a big ranch on the outskirts of the city that had been abandoned. They’d left everything behind, it seemed, including half a dozen horses. Those were half-starved and frightened, but we managed them, and we took them home with us. We also took the stable, board by board, and rebuilt it next to the cabin. That was quite a job, but the horses are worth it.

Vic works that old place just enough to keep the hay field going. I’ve thought about moving us there, but it is just too close to the city. Still, it has been a great place for sleep-overs when we go looking for things. We have expected to find it occupied every time we return to it, but so far, no.

This week, though, we decided to ride out west of the cabin. There used to be a couple of little villages just off the two-lane highway out there, and we’ve avoided them because we thought there might be survivors. The more time that passes, the less likely it seems; those who might have been there would also have had only one way into the city to salvage, and they would have needed to do so. We’d have run into someone by this time, I decided, and so we agreed to explore.

I was more than happy to take the horses on that jaunt. The road is narrow and twisty, and Vic can be a maniac behind the wheel. The boys were delighted to be out in the fresh air, too.

We had packed up a good picnic and bedrolls, along with loaded rifles. You never know. Things out there are hungry.

By midday, we had reached the turnoff for one of the towns. As expected, it was empty. Cars and trucks, new a decade ago, stood on rotted rubber. A few doors swung on broken hinges.

A quick inspection of houses and little stores led us to believe that the people here had taken the time to pack up and leave. There wasn’t a scrap of food to be found, or any batteries. They had left vehicles behind, but that was about it.

I suppose the place could have been scavenged by salvagers like us, but everything was too neat.

Or maybe I just want so badly to believe they escaped that I let my mind conjure up the feelings I experienced there.

“Ma, look!” Benji, our youngest, was pointing at something in the valley below the village. “I think it’s working!”

We all moved to the edge of a drop-off to look.

The object was on the far side of the valley, not in it as I had first believed.

“It can’t be working,” Scott scoffed.

I squinted at it. “I see lights,” I said.

“Nah,” Vic replied. “It’s just the sun reflecting off it, Suz.”

“I think it’s working,” Benji repeated stubbornly.

“So do I.”

“Me, too,” Cory agreed. “Sun reflections don’t blink.”

“Blink?” Vic stared and squinted, craning his neck as if that could get him significantly closer.

“Let’s ride over,” I suggested.

“It’ll be dark by the time we get there,” Vic objected.

“Good,” Benji declared. “Then we’ll really be able to see it!”

Vic sighed dramatically. “See if there’s running water. We’ll need to water the horses well before taking a trip like that!”

Cory had his binoculars now. “There’s a stream,” he said. “But Dad’s right. They need water now, too.”

Finding a tub to put it in proved more of a challenge than finding running water. The first outdoor tap we tried gushed out rust for the first few seconds and then clear water, cold as ice, poured out.

We all drank. “Must come from an aquifer,” Vic mused.

It was delicious, not matter where it came from.

We made our way into the valley and across it, eyes on the prize all the way. As the sun sank in the west, we could all clearly see blinking red lights.

“What is it?” Benji asked.

“Radio tower. Cell phone tower. Something like that,” Scott posited.

“What’s a cell phone?”

Scott and Cory chuckled a little while Vic explained. Cory wasn’t quite three when we left the city, and he was never allowed to play with my cell phone the way lots of kids did back in those days. We got terrible reception at the cabin, anyway. We had a land line there–not that it had been a working phone in a decade or so.

It was a tower of some sort, anyway. There were satellite dishes facing in different directions all the way up the surface, and yes, those blinking red lights.

“Is it sending a signal, Dad?” Cory asked. “Could that be?”

Vic shrugged. “I suppose it could be, but…”

There was a long pause before I added, “But where does the signal go?”

There could be any number of answers to that. Or no answer at all. We got as close as we could, dismounted, and unpacked the picnic to eat.

We unpacked our bedrolls and spread them out. Vic made a small fire. We lay on our backs, staring up, up at the blinking lights, and beyond them into the star-filled sky.

No one spoke for a long time. I felt like I was holding my breath, waiting for some revelation.

“That’s where the signal goes, now,” Benji announced, pointing up at the Milky Way.

“Yeah?” Scott asked.

“Yeah. Maybe they’ll answer. Someday.”

Cory sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees. He stared into the fire. Finally, he said, “Maybe they already did.”

Oh.

Maybe…

This story was inspired by a prompt on Writers Unite! Check out their page!

https://writersuniteweb.wordpress.com/

Respect

Every morning, he greeted the dawn, sitting on a solitary rock in the bay.

When he was a small boy, the water had never come so far inland. Now, even at low tide, the only way to the church in the bay was by boat.

He remembered walking to church on Sunday mornings, the footpath weaving its way down the slope and then back up. He and his brother would spread their arms and “fly” down the hill, and then pretend to forge a mountain on the upslope of the path. Their mother good-naturedly tolerated the tomfoolery, knowing that her boys needed to expend the energy prior to being expected to be silent and still through the Sunday service.

Then came the week when they discovered that water hadn’t all receded with the tide. It pooled in the lowest area, forming a little brook, which they were at first able to step across easily.

By the next week, they had to jump.

Soon enough it was too wide to get across without getting their feet wet, and their mother started asking around, trying to plan another route to get to their Sunday services.

Over the weeks, the water had continued to rise, until the church, built atop a rise, was alone in the bay, with no land route to get there. It had once had a basement, but no one could use it now; it was full of the sea.

The water leveled off, finally, and at high tide it is barely possible to get to the little church’s doors. Low tide leaves some of the churchyard exposed, but the water has destroyed the grass and paving.

For a while, people had insisted on taking rowboats or pontoons across and attending church services as usual. They built docking stations to tie up the watercraft, only to see them destroyed repeatedly by the water and the elements.

Services came to an abrupt end when Pastor Johnston fell through the floorboards and drown in the basement while ringing the bells that last Sunday.

He and his mother and brother were there when the deacon made the gruesome discovery.

Every morning thereafter, the morning bells rang just after sunrise. The bells had always been rung by hand. There was no electricity, but lights were often seen from shore.

His mother declared the place haunted and found another house of worship, one on dry land.

Years have gone by. He comes now each day, hails the sunrise and pays his respects to the Pastor, who waves from the doorway of the church before retreating inside to ring morning bells.

A Beckoning

Deep in the abandoned culvert, the portal appeared.

Tom, zipping along with reckless abandon, braked his bicycle and dropped it to the floor. He stood, staring, for an unknown length of time.

“What fresh hell is this?” he asked no one.

H had been alone for hours now, pedaling his bike at speeds either slow as a tortoise or fast as a bunny through the city’s old sewer system. He had been expecting to confront running water, sewer rats, homeless old men, even wild dogs.

He hadn’t expected this.

The city behind him was bombed out and on fire. His husband, Tito, had been struck by falling bricks and rebar during the initial attack, and died in his arms minutes later. Tom wanted to stay with him, but things were escalating swiftly. He pulled Tito off the sidewalk, propped him against the trunk of an Elm and kissed him goodbye. Then he mounted his bike and took to the streets as fast as he could go.

He’d entered the culvert in a state of desperation; staying in the streets was sheer folly. At least he might find a hiding place.

Now–this. This tunnel within a tunnel.

It was bright, a beckoning entrance of swirling lights and a low, thrumming hum.

Tom stood, indecisive. Then he shrugged. What did he have to lose? Tito was gone; he was alone. Did it matter what was on the other side?

Not really.

He mounted his bike, and breathing deeply, pedaled through.

Safe With Nena

There are a million stories in the city, and I don’t want to be one of them.

I inherited the car from my father. It’s an oversized sedan, a gas hog, and features a roomy and comfortable back seat. 

Mom told me to sell it.

I decided to turn it into a cab, and make a living with it. Why not? If there are a million stories, imagine the millions of people who need rides every day. 

Nena appeared out of nowhere. I mean that literally. 

On the morning I picked up my newly renovated cab, a tiny dog greeted me when I slipped into the driver’s seat. She was no bigger than a minute, no easily identifiable breed and had big, expressive eyes that said, “I love you, Sandra.” 

Silly? Whatever. It was love at first sight for both of us. I didn’t want to mention anything to the guy who had built my custom cab, but, “Excuse me. You probably want to get your dog out now.”

“Got no dog,” the fellow answered curtly.

“But, there’s a little dog in here,” I argued. 

He poked his head in the window, looked briefly, and gave me a perplexed smile. “No dog,” he said. “Have a nice day.”

I looked at the tiny dog. She looked at me and winked. “Nena?” I asked, and she nodded. (This is all true–she’s a special dog.) “Well, he has my check. And my phone number. But you’re staying with me, okay, sweetie?”

Nena gave me a cute little bark of agreement. 

We were fast friends, and I had already decided she was special, but how special she was became clear to me just a few days later. 

The fare in the back seat that day was sweating profusely, and Nena repeatedly wrinkled her nose in distaste. He kept changing his mind about his destination, until I finally lost patience with him. 

“Look,” I told him, “Next place you name, you’re getting out. I don’t have time to traipse all over Manhattan, and I’m running low on fuel.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, lady,” the stinky man muttered. “Dintya never hear, da customer’s always right?”

 Nena growled, low in her throat. I glanced at her; she looked bigger. But…that couldn’t be.

“Did you read my notice that I will exercise my right to refuse service to anyone?” I retorted. 

“Ah, blow it out yer ass!”

Nena growled again. I wasn’t wrong–she was bigger. 

I pulled over, grateful for the plexiglass between me and my so-called customer. “The fare is $12.68. Put it in the tray, and get out.”

“Dis ain’t where I want to go!”

Nena looked over the top of the seat at him and bared her teeth, her growl quite threatening by this time. I was amazed to see that she was still seated, not standing up. Shoot, she couldn’t see over the seat even when she got up on her hind legs! What on earth was happening?

“Shut dat mutt up!” The smelly fellow had the nerve to get right up next to the glass and pound on it, right in my Nena’s face. 

Nena grew to an enormous size, and the plexiglass retracted. She snarled, and barked, and the man retreated as far as the seat would allow. 

I looked at Nena, who was now roughly the size of a Great Dane. She looked back at me and grinned, her mouth full of huge, sharp teeth. I turned and looked at my nasty smelling passenger. “$12.68. Put it in the tray.”

He began a frantic search of his pockets. Nena growled again, and barked three times. 

“What? What, doggie?”

“She says add a generous tip,” I said. 

He tossed a twenty in the tray. I slid it closed from my side and examined the bill. You never could tell. “Change?” I asked in my sweetest voice.

“Just lemme outta here!” 

I unlocked the door. He jumped out. “You oughta control that dog!” he shouted. 

Nena, all three pounds of her, stood on her hind legs to look at him through the passenger side window. She could barely be seen. “This dog?” I said. “What’s the matter with you?”

People paused on the street to admire my sweet, tiny Nena and give the flustered, malodorous fellow bewildered looks as he ranted on and on about the monstrous dog in my taxi cab. 

I decided they’d all seen enough, and we retired for the evening. 

We haven’t made the nightly news yet; so far, our story hasn’t spread. Why would it? Nena is unbelievable. 

Author’s Note: Sometimes, you just have to have fun with a Writers Unite! prompt.

Sunday

Early morning mist shrouded the vineyard.

Sue wandered between the rows, petulantly counting plants as she went. She was tired. She was bereft. She couldn’t decide whether she really wanted to do this again.

Mike would have been trotting along, remembering the fall’s harvest of each plant to her. “You thought it was never going to bear fruit, remember, Sue?” He could chide her all day, and never get her riled up; she was happy to be proven wrong when it came to the grapes.

Last year the grapes had been plump and juicy and sweet; this year they were non-existent. The workers had been unable to return in the spring; rules and walls and laws–politics would be the ruin of farms and vineyards, Mike declared.

Then Mike caught a cold, and was dead almost before the doctors could decide he’d fallen victim to the new virus in town. “And politics,” Mike’s father stated flatly as he sat in the parking lot of the hospital where no one had been allowed inside to see Mike off on his final journey. “God damn politicians make a game of it, and see where we are.”

“Hell,” Sue said. “We’re in hell.”

That was March. There was no funeral. Sue put the ashes of her beloved in a midnight-blue urn and placed him on the nightstand on his side of the bed. She didn’t know what else to do.

She didn’t argue when she was told to isolate herself for two weeks. She’d had a cotton swab shoved up to her brain already; two weeks of television, coffee and books didn’t sound bad after that.

Mike’s parents had been a little less enchanted with the ordeal. “Your mom’s gettin’ fond of delivery service,” the old man told her. “I can’t work, and she’s spending money.”

Sunday, the third day of May, and Sue stood in the fields. The mist was cold, soaking through her t-shirt and making her shiver. The vines were shriveled and grey, and Sue felt they looked exactly how she was feeling in that moment: cold, shriveled and grey.

“Oh, Mike!” she cried. “What am I going to do?”

Clearly, she heard his voice: “You thought it was never going to bear fruit. But it did. And it will again.”

Sue gasped. “Mike?”

“Don’t give up.”

It started to rain.

Sunday.

Author’s note: This was a story prompt on Writers Unite! that called for up to 300 words. I went overboard, with almost 400. So, here ya go, a longer short-short.

After

Getting things organized kept her mind and body busy over the days and nights following his death.

Who needed to be called? What paperwork needed to be done?

Phone calls to strangers, beginning with, “I am calling to report the death of…” She always faltered here, even after the 10th call. This wasn’t supposed to be her job. Her job was keeping him fed and hydrated, clean and warm.

Instead, she found herself in a funeral home for the first time ever in her life, picking out an urn, choosing designs for the guest book and programs for the funeral, signing paperwork.

Oh, dear Lord, the paperwork! Who even thinks about all the forms that have to be filled out and signed? Who thinks about military records so there can be an honor guard present? Who thinks about changing the names on the bank accounts and the title of the house? Who thinks about powers of attorney that will now have to be arranged for someone to take care of her own shit when she kicks the bucket.

They had bought and paid for their cremation niches years ago, and made arrangements well in advance, so why was she doing all this now? The things no one tells you about, she thought. So many things!

So the days following his death were a blur of work and arrangements, and by the time the funeral came around, she was numb. She sat in the pew at the front of the church and recited the prayers and sang the songs and let the tears flow as she listened to others extoll the virtues of the man she had spent her entire adult life with.

It wasn’t until they had gone to the cemetery for the inurnment that she began to wake up from the comfort of numbness. There were long, long moments with the unfolding, displaying and refolding of the flag that seemed to stretch out into eternity. Then the military unit played Taps and it really hit her: He is gone. He is not coming back.

She couldn’t have told a soul what it was about the playing of Taps that made it all real to her. It may have been just the lifelong exposure to the song. It may have been simply the fact that Taps is the most mournful tune she had ever heard.

Now the house is empty. The visitors have gone home. The kids have gone home. There are no grandchildren having meltdowns or running up and down the halls.

Too quiet.

Her daughters had done all the laundry, and she didn’t know what to do with it. Neatly folded pajamas–the last outfit he had worn–smelled of laundry detergent and fabric softening sheets when all she really wanted to smell were the last smells of him. The aftershave he’d been wearing, the essential odors from his body that she’d grown accustomed to over years of marriage. The sheets and blankets from his bed were already folded away in the linen closet.

She spent a day looking for something the girls might have missed, something that still held his scent. But they’d done a thorough job, and there was nothing left at all.

She sat in his reclining chair until the little dog’s reproachful looks got on her nerves. “I can sit here if I want,” she told the pup who had spent that final day on the bed, only leaving when she needed to go outside and relieve herself. The dog whined. She got out of the chair and sat in her own. Their little pet jumped into her lap and they both sighed extravagantly. Tears stood out brightly in two sets of eyes.

She needed to go through his things.

She went to his office. Finding his camera on the desk top, she wondered about the last photos she might find on the digital storage card. She sat in his chair and stared at the camera. She moved his glasses from one side of it to the other, then put them on her face. Nope. She couldn’t see a thing. She took them off, folded them, placed them beside the camera again. She toyed with a magnifying glass and wondered what he’d been doing with it. It had belonged to her grandfather, once upon a time.

She got up and left the room without checking the camera for photos. She couldn’t bear it, not right now.

No one can tell you about AFTER, she thought. You have to be there, in AFTER, to really get it.

AFTER has sharp teeth. And it bites, over and over.

Even the dog understands that.