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.

Bickering Bears

I could see them arguing on the side of the road from a mile away. As we got nearer, they paused and raised their paws in that ages-old gesture: “Can I get a ride, Mister?”

I briefly considered it. But after two days in the car with my wife, I quickly decided one bickering couple in the vehicle was all I could handle.

They resumed the fight as soon as I passed; I could see them in my rearview mirror.

“First good decision you’ve made all weekend,” my wife declared.

I almost turned around; it was a close thing. But I figured they’d never eat her. Sour grapes aren’t very appetizing.

Leavings of Joy and Sorrow

Marlo had closed the house and gone on a soul-cleansing trip after the funeral.

Her brother had protested–a little– but had eventually agreed that there was nothing inside that needed her immediate attention. The place had been cleaned before receiving after-service guests and again after everyone had left.

The day had been long and heart-wrenching. Cleaning up after the last guest had departed had taken most of the night, but Marlo was content to have something to do. It kept her from thinking too much about how much she had lost in such a short time.

There was so much food. Too much, truthfully. People fall back on their need to feed when they can’t think of the right words, Marlo believed. She spent a few hours in the dining room and kitchen, wrapping and labeling food items and putting them in the freezer for later consumption.

She washed numerous casserole dishes and put sticky notes on them with the names of the people she’d have to return them to. She silently blessed those who had used disposable containers.

Marlo over-watered the many plants and flowers before leaving for a long weekend away. She practically flew out the door when the shuttle bus to the airport arrived.

She took an early morning flight to Las Vegas, where she indulged herself with show after show, buffet meals and a few rounds with the one-armed bandits. She spoke only when she had to, looked no one in the eyes and slept an extravagant number of hours.

She turned off her cell phone for the entire trip. She didn’t want to answer questions, make arrangements, learn of any problems or report to anyone about anything for the entire 60 hours of her mini vacation.

Monday night at 8:32 p.m. her plane landed, and she reluctantly turned the phone on. The little devise instantly began to chime and ding with notification tones for text and voice messages. Marlo sighed, wishing she had waited until she was back at the house. People on the plane were staring at her. Her seat mate quietly commented, “Busy lady!”

Marlo shoved the offending phone into her back pocket and stood to retrieve her carry-on bag. The shuttle service was waiting for her; she was getting good at prearranging things like that. Generally, she would have asked her brother for a ride, or left her car in long term parking, but she hadn’t wanted to drive, and she hadn’t wanted the burden of conversation with anyone who knew her personally.

Once she arrived at the house, she stood on the stoop for several minutes, her bag at her feet and the key in her hand. She took cleansing breaths and tried to calm herself.

This wasn’t her house, but it had been home for the past three years. She had moved one of her kids into her own place as caretaker, while she took care of her aging parents.

For most of their time together, her parents had been in relatively good health, just no longer able to get about as well as they had. They were prone to more frequent falls and the basement stairs had become a hazard to folks with 80 plus years under their belts.

Marlo regarded the wheelchair ramp, newly installed less than a month ago. They’d barely had occasion to use it; no one was getting out much these days. Her mother had been using a walker for quite some time, but her father’s declining strength had led to the decision to install the ramp. He was reluctant to use a cane, and flatly refused to consider a walker for himself. Marlo and her brother negotiated a deal with him: a ramp from doorway to sidewalk and handrails from doorway all the way down the driveway to the mailbox. It was a rare day that he even went outdoors, but he agreed that handrails were a good, safe idea.

Marlo shrugged. They were a good, safe idea for her, too. Winters here were killer cold and icy, and there wasn’t a thing wrong with having something to hold on to on a trip to get the mail.

Not that she would still be here by winter.

She unlocked the door and went inside.

She had been gone fewer than three days, but the place felt strange to her now. Cooler. Emptier. There was a cloying odor of floral life in various stages of decay. There was also a lingering aroma from the many food items she had packed away before leaving Saturday morning.

She wandered through the house, depositing her carry-on and handbag on her bed. She considered looking for something to eat, then dismissed the idea. She’d had plenty to eat at the buffet before her flight; at this point, eating was just a way to put off doing anything else.

She studied the many floral arrangements scattered about in the living room and dining room, then went for a small garbage bucket. She plucked dead roses from their places of honor in bouquets of mixed flowers and threw them away. The carnations and chrysanthemums had fared better; she left them alone and added water to all the vases.

She watered all the live plants, hoping against hope that she wouldn’t drown any of them. Her mother was the one with the green thumb in the family. Marlo suspected that her own thumbs might be grey. Or black, more likely. She’d have to find homes for these lovely green things, or they would be doomed.

Finally, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and flopped down on the sofa. She couldn’t bring herself to sit in either of the chairs. The recliner was Dad’s, forever. The rocker was Mom’s, also forever.

She swiped the face of the phone and hit the speaker button so she wouldn’t have to hold the damn thing up to her face. “I’m back,” she announced, once her brother had answered. “How’s Gadget?”

“He’s upset and displaced,” Don replied. He sounded testy, but you never could tell with him. He didn’t have a phone friendly voice. “Can I bring him home?”

“Sure,” Marlo replied. “I’m upset and displaced myself. Maybe we can cheer each other up.”

There was a pause, and then Marlo heard a loud *sniff* over the line. She blinked hard, determined not to cry again. “I’ll be there in a few,” Don said. “Do you need anything?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Did you eat?”

“Too much,” Marlo chuckled. “Buffet was actually just the ticket this weekend.”

“You ate buffet? What a waste of money! You never get seconds.”

“Like I said, too much. I ate like food was going out of style. I don’t know why.”

“Stress.”

“I guess.”

“See you soon.”

Marlo willed herself off the sofa. Gadget would be home soon, and his bowls would have to be filled with fresh food and water.

Don arrived and released Gadget from his leash as soon as the door was closed. The little pug squealed when he saw Marlo and raced to her on stubby legs, then wiggled himself silly, whining and yipping. His bulgy eyes were full of tears when she managed to lift him up and cuddle him over her shoulder, and his tongue swept over her cheek repeatedly. “Yes, baby boy, I’m home, Mamma’s home. Don’t cry, sweetie.”

“I don’t think he stopped crying the whole time you were away,” Don scolded.

“I should have taken him with me.”

Don shook his head, contrite. “How would you hit the buffets and slots with a dog in tow?”

“I guess I should have stayed–”

“Stop. I was being selfish when I told you not to go. If anyone needed a little vacation, you did.”

Marslo didn’t argue with him. She’d been the primary caregiver for their parents for quite a long time; Don visited less than once a week, and sometimes went as long as two weeks before showing up. Marlo didn’t hold it against him. He had a traveling job, and he got there as often as he could. But she had needed a little time away after everything.

“You want a soda, Don? There’s about a million choices in the fridge.”

They walked together into the kitchen and selected soft drinks. “Glass of ice?” Marlo offered.

“Sure.”

They sat at the table, sipping soda and sneaking peeks at each other. Gadget settled his head on Marlo’s shoulder and went to sleep. Little pug-snores soon ensued.

“Wow,” Don said, looking fondly at the roly-poly dog. “He’s asleep. Finally.”

“He wouldn’t sleep?” Marlo felt terrible. She never should have gone. Poor little dog.

“Not much. He had bad dreams.” Don held up a hand, palm facing her. “Don’t ask. I know what I know.”

Marlo nodded. “I’m sorry about all this,” she said.

“What? Why?” Don frowned at her. “This is not your fault, Marlo.”

“I shouldn’t have let them go!” Marlo wailed.

“You couldn’t have stopped them.” Don frowned at her. “They wanted to go. It was their thing. You know that.”

“They couldn’t even dance anymore.”

“They were the best dancers on canes and walkers ever.” Don stood up. “Come on,” he said. “I have something to show you.”

He led the way to the study, and Marlo followed, reluctant but curious.

On the desk, Dad’s glasses, a magnifying glass and a digital camera sat together in the center of his leather mouse pad.

“Where did the camera come from?” Marlo asked.

“The police returned it right after you left,” Don replied. “It was in a different bag and didn’t get sent to the…to the mortuary.”

“Don–”

Don picked it up and turned it on, then opened the files so the most recent photos could be seen on the viewing screen. “Just look, Marlo. I don’t know who took the pictures, but…well, you’ll see.”

Marlo sat at the desk and moved Gadget to her lap. He moaned in protest, then settled himself. She took the camera and held it close to her face.

“Use the magnifying glass,” Don advised.

Marlo did.

As she flipped through the photographs, she saw her parents, with various others in their square-dancing group, dressed to the nines in their colorful costumes, dancing and laughing, twirling with their canes and walkers and obviously having a wonderful time.

“Oh, God!” Marlo sobbed. “Look at them! They had a ball, didn’t they?”

“They did.”

It was an annual festivity, one their parents hadn’t missed in decades. Marlo had discouraged them from this year’s trip, but they wouldn’t hear of skipping the fun. The group had taken a chartered bus and had spent two days in competition. Their last night away, the hotel had experienced a gas leak in one wing, and several people in their group had gone to sleep and never woke up.

Marlo kept looking at the photos. “Wow. Look at them go. Amazing!”

Don grinned. “I haven’t seen them looking that happy in a long time. Have you?”

“Not really,” Marlo admitted.

“They went to sleep tired and happy,” Don told her. He looked at her expectantly.

“It’s still not fair!” Marlo snapped.

“No, it’s not,” Don agreed. “But…”

“But, what? It could have been worse? They didn’t suffer?”

Don sighed deeply. “Yeah. I’m sick of the platitudes, too. Even if it’s true.”

Marlo stared at a photo of her parents, nose to nose and laughing as they both leaned on Mom’s walker. The joy on their faces, the love in their eyes as they stared at each other–it shouted out from the little camera, and Marlo couldn’t wait to have the shot enlarged.

“Marlo?”

“This should have been the main picture at the wake,” she said. Don looked, and nodded. “I’ll get two copies.”

“Okay.”

“No.” She frowned, thinking.

“What?”

“I’ll get copies for the kids, too.” Her tone was decisive. “This is a joy that should be shared.” she shook her head. “Just look at them!”

“I know.”

“It’s not fair!” A flood of tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I know.” Don didn’t bother to brush away his own tears.

He pulled the extra chair around and sat beside her. While Gadget snored his pug-dog snores, they sat shoulder to shoulder and looked at the pictures of their dancing, laughing parents. They spoke no more for quite a while.

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Stop on the Line

Rebecca’s jaw was clenched in determined resolve. She moved among the others in the security team as they made their way to the subway platform.

Mark walked beside her, crestfallen, but resigned. “I wish you’d change your mind,” he told her, quietly. He knew she wasn’t going to; she no longer had a compelling reason to stay. Her husband and children had been on the surface when the explosions started; images from the city’s surveillance cameras had shown total devastation. Rebecca held no hope that they’d survived it.

Besides, the decision to bar the subway entrances made their possible survivals a moot point; they weren’t ever getting back in.

Rebecca briefly considered turning back; she hadn’t brought a thing with her. She had a few dollars in cash and her bank card in her phone case, which was currently riding along in the back pocket of her jeans. Any of those things either would or would not do her some good at the end of the line; she decided she didn’t care much, one way or the other.

Mark, Tony and Damien each hugged her long and fiercely before she boarded the train. They all voiced their concerns and assured her she’d be well taken care of if she’d agree to stay, but she couldn’t bear the thought of going back to an empty apartment, knowing her family was never going to return. She gave them one last shaky smile, turned her back, and stepped through the door.

There were plenty of people aboard, but it wasn’t so full that she couldn’t find a seat by herself. She was in no mood to talk to anyone, and thought she might have a good cry once the train got moving. She looked around at the other passengers and realized she wouldn’t be the only one succumbing to tears.

Finally, she was unable to resist the urge to look out the window. The security team was still on the platform, waiting. Her eyes met Mark’s through the window, and she smiled shakily, even as tears rolled down her cheeks. He looked like he wanted to say something; his mouth worked, but didn’t seem to be forming words. Then, he smiled back and nodded encouragingly, but there was no way to miss the tears standing in his eyes.

Damien had his face turned away from her, talking into his radio. He’d continue finding something to do until the train pulled away, Rebecca knew. He and her husband, Jeff, had been great friends for years, and he wasn’t doing well.

Tony gave her a thumbs-up sign as the train started to pull away. She returned the gesture, more to perk him up than to express any optimism.

As the train began its departure, the team on the platform started walking away. Rebecca sighed, knowing she would never see her friends again.

Things had happened so fast and had been so odd that Rebecca knew the motorman had to have serious concerns about the state of the tracks. But Megan and Ruben had seen no damage anywhere along the lines, at least where surveillance cameras were in place.

She had deliberately taken a backward facing seat, as the train would be moving in reverse, back to its destination stop. She wanted to see where they were going. No one was next to her or across from her, which suited her just fine.

Across the aisle, a lone man sat, his face buried in a thick hardcover book. Rebecca sighed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone anywhere without something to read. She strained to get a glimpse of the cover–reader’s curiosity overwhelmed her–but he was sitting at an odd angle and she couldn’t see it.

This would be a long trip. With nothing to distract her, all she could do was think about Jeff and Holly and Joe. She’d seen the destruction of the Broadway stop; she could only pray that they’d been far from it when things went so drastically wrong; she could only pray that they had somehow escaped.

Surely there were survivors on the surface.

The train picked up speed, and Rebecca leaned against her window, trying to see ahead to the next platform. Would there be more passengers to board? Would they stop?

As she stared out, there was a sudden flash of light unrelated to the periodically placed fluorescents  along the track. It was almost as if they’d passed directly into a storm cloud as lightning strobed through the atmosphere.

The passengers gasped and squeezed their eyes shut. Rebecca waited, in vain, for the screams to start. It seemed, however, that these people were all screamed out. There were sounds of quiet sobbing, a few mumbled questions and that was all.

Flash.

Flash.

It wasn’t like a strobe light, and yet that was as close to a comparison that Rebecca could reach. The reader across the aisle lowered his book to his lap, and looked at her, eyebrows raised. She shrugged.

When the flashing stopped, Rebecca resumed her attempts to see where they were going. That’s when she noticed that the tunnel and tracks now looked nothing like the ones she had been monitoring for the last five years.

The walls were dark grey, and the florescent lighting had been replaced by bulbs in wire baskets hanging from the ceiling. The walkway on her side of the car was mostly dark; metal handrails ran the course, with the occasional candle-like light placed for a minimal visual aide.

A woman’s voice from behind her: “What is this place?”

Another voice, ahead of her, this one male: “Where are we?”

The train slowed down. Rebecca held her breath, anticipating an overhead announcement from the motorman. None came.

The conductor, a grizzled Hispanic who looked to be well past retirement age, made his way up the aisle toward her. He looked bewildered and frightened; he wasn’t bothering to check for tickets. He stopped walking a few feet away, flopped into an empty seat and triggered his radio. “Okay up there, Joe?”

“Yeah.” The reply was staticky, but clear enough. “Weird shit goin’ on here, Juanito.”

“Si.” The old man paused. “Did we take a wrong turn?”

“There is no turn.” Joe’s voice sounded as bewildered as Juan looked. “I don’t… I guess we’ll just keep going.”

“Si, mi amigo. Track goes somewhere. Seguro.”

“For sure.” Joe agreed. “It’s clear. Looks stable. I’m just taking it a little slow, that’s all.”

The passengers in Rebecca’s car had no trouble hearing this exchange, but there were other cars and other passengers to consider, so Motorman Joe finally elected to make an announcement on the overhead speakers.

“Attention, ladies and gentlemen. It appears we have taken a detour of some sort. I’m as surprised as you probably are. I’m sure you noticed the different scenery out your windows. I have slowed the train to be certain that we don’t encounter any surprises on the track ahead.”

There was a pause. Then he added, “This has been an interesting day. If you believe in the power of prayer, you all might lend a voice to mine and ask for a good end to this ride.”

Things had gotten interesting, all right, Rebecca thought. So much so, she had forgotten to have her cry. She wondered what Megan and Ruben were seeing on the monitors back in the security room. This wasn’t something she’d ever seen, and she’d monitored miles of track in all directions.

“Toto,” she whispered. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The gentleman across from her heard this, and replied, “I’m not sure we’re in Oz, either.”

As the train slowed down, they began to hear a locomotive-like clatter as it moved over the tracks, very unlike the hum of an electronic. Clack-clack, clack-clack. Uneasiness filled the car, and the passengers began to move from their separate seats to sit closer together.

Rebecca was disinclined to do this, at least for now. She was still reeling with the pain of losing her family, and felt that if anyone sat too close to her, she might fly into a real case of hysterics. The way things were beginning to look, she might be with these people for a while. She didn’t care to embarrass herself right off the bat.

The reading-man across they aisle made no move toward her; it seemed he understood her state of mind. He did smile kindly, though. “It looks like we’re on a bit of an adventure,” he said.

“One I could have done without,” Rebecca replied dryly.

“Indeed.” The man nodded. He drummed long fingers on the cover of his book. “My plan was brunch with my wife.” He looked out his window, pensively watching as those periodic candle-shaped lights flashed by. His voice was low and soft as he added, “I hope she was somewhere safe.”

Rebecca swallowed hard before she offered, “My husband and children were out for the day. Work. School. I hope the same for them.” Then she added, “For everyone.”

An older woman made her way up the aisle, and after some hesitation, sat across from Rebecca. “I saw you with Security at the station,” she said.

Rebecca nodded.

“Were you with them? I mean…” The woman looked flustered, but pressed on. “Do you work there?”

“I did,” Rebecca admitted.

“What did you see?”

Rebecca looked around the car, mostly to acknowledge her suspicion that all eyes were on her now. She sighed. Did she really want to describe the images they were able to pull up on the cameras around the city? It was bad enough that the footage was now permanently seared into her brain.

Then again, what was the point in lying? There were valid reasons Megan and Ruben had elected to lock down the underground. Letting people return to the surface would be like sending them to their deaths. Letting outsiders come down below would reduce the limited resources of those who made their homes in the underground.

There was no win/win situation to be found, no easy compromise, no information to sift through, and no time to debate.

“We saw chaos,” Rebecca replied. “We saw destruction and death. Massive levels, all over the city.”

“Where are we going, then?” The woman bit her lip hard enough to draw blood.

Rebecca had no answer; the train had had a destination, but it appeared to have gone drastically off-course. Nothing she could see out the windows was familiar; these were not the tracks and tunnels she had monitored. If they were to stop and look around, Rebecca suspected there would be no cameras to be found.

“Miss?”

“I don’t know,” Rebecca admitted. “I have no idea where we are now.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? Isn’t it your job to know?” This, from a young man with a purple mohawk and an eyebrow ring that looked like a pitchfork.

Rebecca was beginning to regret her decision to leave the underground.

“Look,” she began, “I-”

She was interrupted by the overhead speakers. “We are nearing the end of the tunnel and will return to the surface in approximately two minutes.” The motorman’s voice was shaky. “I can see the light ahead of me. I’m not sure now where we’re going to come out of this…”

“How can you people not know?” Mohawk was agitated, but didn’t seem to be contemplating any crazy moves.

Rebecca sighed. “There was a plan, to get as far out of the city as possible. The track we’re on should have led straight there. But…”

“Things have changed,” the reader across the aisle acknowledged, after a long pause.

“It was the lightning,” Mohawk suggested.

“I just do not know,” Rebecca admitted. “I have never seen tunnels like this. I don’t know how we could have changed tracks. There are no other tracks…”

Further down the car, a child turned to her mother and said, “I’m scared, Mommy.”

Her mother replied, “I guess we all are.”

Clack-clack, clack-clack.

The train was moving backward; that hadn’t changed. The motorman wasn’t able to see ahead of him through his window. What he saw was what they were leaving behind. Still, he had monitors that showed him clearly what was ahead, and when the back of the train emerged from the tunnel, all the passengers heard his gasp from the overhead speakers.

All eyes turned toward the windows, and faces pressed against the glass, trying to see what was coming.

As the emerged from the tunnel, they all gasped and murmured amongst themselves. “Where are we? What is this place?”

It was a full desert landscape, low shrubs and sand dunes. The train slowed, then slowed even more as they approached a low structure that looked to be made of a combination of board planks and logs. As they came alongside it, they could read a sign: “Welcome to Outback Station. End of the Line.”

Clack….clack…clack…clack…

The train came to a stop.

Silence on the train.

Finally, Rebecca directed a question to the Conductor. “Is he going to open the doors?”

Juanito thumbed the button on his radio, and flinched when it uttered a squawk. “Joe? Doors?”

“Yeah, yeah.” The doors slid open.

No one moved. All eyes were on Rebecca.

Jesus, why me? She felt a sudden intense irritation with the woman who had exposed her as a security employee.

Whatever. She stood abruptly, causing the others to jump a little in their seats. She found this reaction appeased her irritation a little. She stepped to the door.

There was a wooden boardwalk just beyond the threshold, and she stepped out. It was wide enough for at least four grown people to walk side by side. She walked toward the station, unsure of herself but unwilling to let her trepidation show.

Mohawk had followed her out. “Do you know where we are?” he asked.

“Nope.”

She looked beyond the station, and saw a huge, teepee shaped rock, deeply fissured, standing alone in the midst of low rock formation and sand. Besides the station building, there didn’t seem to be anything else around besides sand and rocks and the occasional scrub bush.

“God, I hope there’s someone inside that building.”

“Me, too.”

People began creeping out of the open doors of the train. They slowly made their way to the doors of the station–there were four, all closed. The building was long, nearly the length of the train they’d arrived in.

Rebecca, took a deep breath before grasping the handle of the door in front of her. Mohawk put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She pressed the latch, and it clicked audibly, making them both jump.

Not locked…

If it were possible to exchange looks with so many people at once, they all did so now. Every face was resolute. They were going in.

Whatever else happened, this really was the last stop on the line.

 

Author’s note: This is a continuation of June’s story, “The Last Train”. It was inspired by a prompt on Writers Unite!

 

 

Anthologies For You!

This is my personal blog, where I generally share stories and sometimes observations and opinions. I don’t often do promotions, but sometimes a person just has to make an exception.

Recently, I submitted a couple of stories for possible publication in an anthology being published by Writers Unite! Writers Unite! is a writing group that emphasizes the writing process and has administrators and members who encourage one another in their writing and publishing journeys.

Both my stories were accepted for publication. Each volume contains one story by me and several other stories by many other gifted writers I am proud to be associated with.

Both volumes are now available. I hope you’ll take a look! (See my name on the cover? Whoo-hoo!)

Writers Unite! Anthologies Dimensions of Science Fiction: Volume One Kindle Edition

Dimensions of Science Fiction: Volume Two Kindle 

Both volumes are also available in paperback! Please check us all out!

Thanks!

Paula Shablo: The Last Train

My story for June on Writers Unite!

Writers Unite!

Welcome toWrite the Story!Each monthWriters Unite!will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone.WU!wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.Pleasecheck out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support!

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The Last Train

Paula Shablo

Within minutes, “The Underground” became the whole world.

Rebecca had screamed and sobbed as Megan and Ruben hit buttons and switches that would bring down iron gates and slam airlock doors shut.

All over the city, people trying to flee into the subway stations were thwarted. Those who were already on the platforms were prevented from going to the lower levels, where shops and food…

View original post 3,014 more words

Lies

His mind was reeling as he floated in the icy water above the ruins.

The place was flooded in the ’70s to manufacture a lake and recreation area. The government made the decision; residents weren’t asked, they were told.

“Dear Resident,

“Plans for our new lake and recreation area are underway. You have 6 months to negotiate a sale with this office for all personal property and land.

“Cordially Yours, GOVERNMENT.”

And screw you. (The letter didn’t say that, but it may as well have.)

Everything in the town was sold by the owners to the government for unreasonably low prices. Some people managed to have whole houses moved to new locations, but the time, trouble and expense was just too much for most of the town’s residents.

The cemetery was relocated at government expense.

Everyone was told whatever else was left behind would be demolished and hauled away before the flooding began.

Residents, for the most part, took the money and ran. A few moved to the next town over, but the majority went further.

No one wanted to watch the valley be flooded. No one wanted to see the home of generations drown.  Had they cared to witness the deluge pouring into the place, covering fertile farmland and old streets, it wouldn’t be allowed; roads were closed for days while filling the artificial lake was accomplished.

Years later, the lake is vast, the campgrounds and picnic areas lovely. Greg’s parents and grandparents had brought him here often.

But they had never seen this!

Newly certified to scuba dive, Greg decided to make the lake one of his first solo treks. Now he wished for a camera, because Grandpa would never believe this.

The church, the school, streets, houses, fences–all still here! Nothing demolished. Nothing moved.

Imagine that: they lied!

 

The Last Train

Within minutes, “The Underground” became the whole world.

Rebecca had screamed and sobbed as Megan and Ruben hit buttons and switches that would bring down iron gates and slam airlock doors shut.

All over the city, people trying to flee into the subway stations were thwarted. Those who were already on the platforms were prevented from going to the lower levels, where shops and food courts could be found.

Ruben cursed under his breath.

“What? Megan demanded.

“No time to get the outsiders up to the platform,” Ruben said. “We’re stuck with them, whoever they are.”

Rebecca stared at her screen, which showed the area around the Broadway entrance, the station her husband and kids exited each morning on their way to work and school. The gate had come down, but it hardly mattered; the street was nothing but rubble and bodies, intermingled and bloody. Particulates– either dust or smoke; probably both– hung in the air.

Rebecca leaned forward, staring. Tears coursed down her cheeks; a single tear hung, trembling, from the tip of her nose. She made no move to wipe her face, just stared at the ruination of Broadway, her breath hitching in that after-sobbing hiccough Megan associated with small children.

Ruben, in the meantime, was monitoring the screens that showed the shops a level above them. Customers were still lined up for coffee or bagels, just beginning to show signs of awareness that all was not right over their heads. There weren’t a great many of those whom he’d just labeled “outsiders”, not in their section of the underground. He was thankful it wasn’t a rush period of the day.

Megan lifted the handset of her phone and called Mark, who was supposed to be sleeping before his shift. He answered before the first ring could be completed. “How’d you know?” she asked.

“I was talking to Larry. He’s– uh, he was— heading for the Stuart Avenue station. There were a lot of big… bangs. I lost him, Meg. I don’t think he made it.” Mark’s voice faded a bit at the end.

Megan bit back a sob and took a deep breath. “We’re going to need the whole team,” she told him.

“How bad is it?”

“It’s…” Megan’s eyes shifted from screen to screen: the entrance on the surface above them; entrances to other stations on the East/West line; the capitol building; City Park. “It’s bad.”

“Shit. I’ll round ’em up. On my way.”

There was a clatter on the metal stairs beyond the security room door. Megan turned to look, and saw the daycare workers leading the little ones down, single file. She could see that they were calm and in control. They worked their way down the hall and knocked on doors, delivering the children to their parents before going to their own little apartments.

Tony, the daycare supervisor, stepped into the doorway. “Hey, Meg. Things turned a bit wild up there all of a sudden. Thought it best to bring the kids down now.”

Megan motioned him over. “Did you lock the stairwell door?” she asked.

“Better believe it,” Tony assured her. “We don’t need outsiders down here.”

Ruben grimaced. “Those outsiders have just become insiders,” he declared. “We can’t open the outer doors.”

Rebecca sniffed loudly and pointed at her screen. “They’re going up to the platform,” she said. “Our east side door didn’t close.”

“What the–?” Ruben snapped. He pulled up video of the east door, hit a couple of buttons and watched as the metal barrier began to slide down. A couple more people managed to get under before it slammed shut.

“Let ’em go,” Tony said. “Look, the train just arrived.” He pointed at Megan’s screen.

Ruben hit another button and the terminal appeared on the main overhead screen. Sure enough, the train was on the platform. People were lined up to get on when the doors opened, and a few could be seen hurrying toward it from the east side.

“Not all of them went up,” Tony remarked, tossing Ruben an accusing glare.

Ruben glared back. He was more concerned that others might try to come down.

“No matter.” Megan, beginning to shake with delayed shock, stared at the train. The doors were still closed. Passengers on both sides of the doors and windows stared at each other. “We can’t let them…”

After a pause that seemed eternal, Ruben said, “We can’t let them what? Get off? Get on? Leave? Stay?” He slapped a palm on his desktop, making them all jump. “Do what, Megan?”

“Shut up, Ruben.” That was Mark.

Oh, thank God! Megan was never more glad to see anyone. He was followed by seven other members of the security team.

Rebecca had gone an even whiter shade of pale than she’d previously gone, and Megan left her seat to go to her.

When Megan placed her hands on Rebecca’s shoulders, the young woman gave her a grateful look. “Why are the doors still closed?” she whispered. Then her eyelids fluttered, her irises slid up in a slow motion eye roll, and she fainted.

Mark and Tony moved her from her chair to the floor and covered her with their jackets. Ruben shook his head and Megan resumed her seat. “She lasted longer than I thought she would,” he sighed. “Her whole family… damn!”

Damien, head of security patrol in this area, was still standing outside the observation office space, near the door. He was talking quietly into a radio. Megan strained her ears, trying to eavesdrop, but could only make out about one word in ten.

She began scrolling through camera feeds along the subway route. Broadway East/West showed several people on the platform, milling about confusedly. There was no train in that station.

The stairwell gates kept anyone else from going down from the street; people on both sides of those gates were working frantically to pull them open. Megan manipulated that camera enough to look past the people at the foot of the stairs; beyond a couple of layers of living people, she could see the dead lying in unnatural poses on the steps.

She switched to Stuart Avenue Station, a North/South line, and the sights were much the same. Ruben followed her lead, and they checked location after location. Mark watched over their shoulders. “Where are all the trains?” he asked.

Damien came inside. “We have a motorman on the platform,” he said. “He wants to know if he can open the doors.”

“No,” Ruben said.

“Yes,” Mark said.

Damien sighed dramatically. “Riiiiight,” he drawled. “Look, guys. I haven’t been able to raise any of the other motormen on the lines. What’s going on?”

“Trying to find that out,” Megan grumbled. “Cameras are active on all routes, but I can’t find a single train…”

“What are you talking about?” Damien cried. “They have to be somewhere.”

Megan swiveled in her seat and glared at him. “You want to search, Damien?”

He raised his hands, chest high and palms out, and waved them in surrender. “No, no,” he said. “I’m going to have to go to the platform and deal with that situation.” He pulled a key ring out of his pocket and started sorting through them. “I don’t think I’ve ever used the emergency stairwell.”

“What are you going to do?” Megan asked.

“Ask a lot of questions.”

Megan raised her eyebrows enquiringly.

“I need to know, first, how many people are on the train already. If there aren’t many, I suppose we could let them get out and stay here…”

“No!” Ruben interrupted. “We don’t have room–”

“Ruben,” Mark said.

“We don’t have the resources to add more people down here!”

“What about the people waiting to board?” Megan asked.

“We don’t have room for them, either!” Ruben was red-faced.

Rebecca stirred, moaned and sat up. “Jesus,” she sighed shakily. “To quote someone or other, did you get the licence number of that truck?”

“Stay still, Beck,” Megan ordered.

Rebecca started to cry. “Dear God,” she said. “My babies…”

“I’m so sorry, honey,” Megan said.

Mark and Tony sat at the terminals on each side of Megan and began their own searches. They were bypassing the platforms and looking at en-route tracks throughout the metropolitan area. “I don’t see any signs of cave-ins or track damage…” Mark’s fingers flew across the keyboard. “All the lights are on…”

“Where the hell are the trains?” Tony cried.

Megan was still looking at platforms, counting heads–sort of. There were other security stations throughout the area, folks who looked after their own platforms and apartments and sales kiosk floors. They patrolled and checked camera feeds, just like Megan’s people did. But they didn’t have the authority to do a city-wide lock down. Megan and Ruben had made that decision, and now…

Now it was what it was. At least no one else could get down now.

No one could go up, either.

Damien hadn’t moved. The security team milled restlessly, unwilling to interject any opinions or offer suggestions. All of them were intelligent enough to know that one answer was going to come with a hundred questions or concerns.

Megan pulled up camera feeds along the routes at street level. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” she chanted, barely a whisper, but heard by all. The split screenshots all showed different versions of the same chaos: bodies, fires, rubble, crashed vehicles. There was an occasional glimpse of a live person, staggering or crawling. Megan’s tears, unabated, soaked into the collar of her blouse.

Tony, meanwhile, was doing a camera by camera search of the tracks. They were clear–and empty of trains. Platform shots showed waiting patrons milling about in increasing levels of stress. Terminal gate shots showed others trying to get in or out; panic levels were rising.

Mark was on the phone. “Look, Alice,” he said, “we’ve got our own situation right here, including a train on the platform with people inside.” He listened. “Yes, we closed all your gates. We closed everyone’s gates. Did you want even more people down there? Alice… Alice! Stop yelling at me, or I’m just going to hang up. I have other people to call… No, we’re not opening the gates. Look at your monitors, Alice. Is anyone topside alive?”

Mark covered the mouthpiece on the phone and sighed loudly.

“Shit, shit, shit!” Megan chanted. It seemed the only thing she was capable of saying as she monitored the streets above.

“What are we going to do?” Tony asked, speaking to no one in particular.

Ruben swiveled away from the monitors and faced the room. “The tracks are clear,” he said. “Load that train up and send it on its way.”

“On its way to where?” Megan demanded. Ruben’s suggestion had managed to pull her away from her chanting.

“Wherever,” Ruben replied. “They can’t stay here. We don’t have room for more people. We already have outsiders in the shops– we’re not going to be able to feed ourselves for long, let alone extra people! Whoever made it to the platform–they have to go!”

Damien stared at him. “You’ve lost your damn mind,” he declared in a flat, implacable voice.

“Have I?” Ruben snapped. “Are you going to invite them to stay in your apartment? Are you going to feed them?” Ruben pointed at the ceiling with both hands. Everyone up there is dead!” 

Mark spoke into the phone: “Alice, we’re not letting people down here with us… No. We can’t do it. We don’t have room. We don’t have resources…. Well, you and your people will have to decide that yourselves. We can’t get to you, Alice. You can’t get to us…. I–okay, well, let me know. You can– whatever, Alice, just let me know. Goodbye!” He restrained himself from slamming the receiver down, but it was a close thing. He stared at the others. “She thinks they can walk out,” he told them.

“What–on the tracks?” Megan gasped. “They’re still live!”

“There are walkways,” Tony mused.

“Walk out to where?” Damian demanded. “To the same place he–” he pointed at Ruben– “wants to send that train?”

Mark put his face in his hands and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Train goes west,” he muttered. “Goes to the surface for the last two stops, right?”

“Yes,” Rebecca whispered. “Belview, then Park Place, past the freeway.” She rose to her feet and sat in an empty chair.

“Meg, bring up the end of the line.” Mark sat up straight and swiveled around to look at the big overhead screen.

“I already tried,” Megan told him. “The last few cameras are down.”

“What about end of the line to the east?”

“Same.” Megan’s tears kept flowing. “North and south, too. I can’t get a look at any of the surface platforms.”

“But the eastern end is clear out of the city,” Rebecca said. “It could be fine out there!”

“This one came in from the east. What does the motorman say?” He directed this last to Damien.

Damien shrugged. “Zero perspiration the whole trip, he claims. But he did say he never passed the east bound train that should have been at Fremont Station.”

Mark spun around in this seat a few times, staring at his feet and pondering. Finally, he said, “We have no way of knowing what that means.”

Megan blurted, “It means there are no other trains!”

“We don’t know that, either.”

“Of course we do,” Tony sighed. “The underground cameras are functioning all along the line. We haven’t located a single train.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” Rebecca cried. “That’s just not possible!”

“If we send the train out–” Mark began.

“We can’t!” Megan cried.

“If. If.” Mark glared at her. “If we send it out, we send it back east, where it came from.”

“Because?” Damian prompted.

“It’s like Beck says. The last stop is way outside the city; it’s all fields and farms out there. It could be totally safe.”

“But we have no way of knowing that!” Megan protested.

“They can’t stay here,” Ruben growled.

Rebecca frowned. “Could people really walk out?” she asked.

Tony shrugged. “Any one of us could use the walkways to go station to station,” he said. “It would be a long trip. And,” he added, “it would be platform to platform. All the gates and doors are locked. No food. A couple of water fountains maybe. Not all platforms have them. Here and there a vending machine.”

Megan sighed. “No one at those stations are any more likely than we are to open up and let anyone in.”

“Not if they’re thinking about the ones who live there,” Ruben said.

“Okay, Ruben,” Mark commented crossly. “We get it.”

“Hey, I got a wife and kids to–”

“Shut up.”

Ruben snapped his mouth shut and glared at everyone.

Mark stood up. “Okay, people. This sucks. It’s not going to be pretty, I’d say. But…let’s head up there.”

As they filed out, he continued. “No one gets off the train. All those on the platform have to board. We send them back to the east and pray they’ll get off in a safe place. It’s all we can do.”

Rebecca stood up abruptly and ran after them. “I’m getting on the train!” she cried.

“Becky, no!” Megan jumped to her feet.

“I’ve got nothing left here,” Rebecca told her, walking sideways to keep up with Mark and look her last at Megan. “I’ll take my chances.”

“Probably for the best,” Ruben remarked.

Megan whirled to face him. “Will you, for hell’s sake, just shut up?”

Ruben shook his head sadly as the security team, Rebecca included, turned a corner and disappeared on their way to the emergency stairwell. “Megan,” he said. “I’m right about this.”

Megan scrubbed at her face, finally aware of the tears that had soaked through the top of her blouse. “I know,” she said. “Shut up, anyway.”

Ruben shut up.

They stared at the monitors. Megan brought the platform up on the big screen. Security appeared.

Over the next few minutes they watched as security argued with people on the platform. People inside the train were moved away from the doors and into seats. One at a time, loading doors slid open and passengers were ushered inside. When the platform was empty, Mark, Tony and Damien motioned the others to step back.

For several more minutes Damien could be seen talking into his radio.

Megan sighed and brushed away more tears. She could only imagine what sort of conversation was going on between their head of security and the motorman who was expected to drive the train away into the unknown.

She felt sick with guilt. But she knew she could have done nothing else besides close the doors. Ruben was right, damn him. There was no room. There were no resources; they were going to be in a world of trouble themselves before the next week passed. If they couldn’t return to the surface soon, they were as dead as the people above them.

Briefly, she considered running out of the room, up the emergency stairwell and onto the platform, where she could board the train herself. But even as the thought crossed her mind, she saw Mark turn and face the camera lens. She read the tension in his face; he wasn’t going anywhere.

The train started to move, heading back the way it had come.

Ruben pulled up cameras of the track. Clear.

As the train moved away, the cameras picked it up, on and on down the line, and then… it was gone!

“What the hell?” Ruben and Megan both leapt to their feet.

“Are the cameras out? What happened?”

Ruben bent and flipped switches, pushed buttons. There was the track. Empty. Clear.

They stared at each other, aghast.

They could hear the footfalls of the remaining “Underground” people, and the few outsiders who hadn’t gone to the platform.  Soon everyone was standing with them, watching as shot after shot of track showed them… nothing.

The last train was just… gone.

“Jesus Christ, what happened?” Damian cried.

“Rebecca!” Megan screamed. “Rebecca!” Mark threw an arm around her waist to support her, and led her out.

One by one, they left the observation area.

They still had homes. For now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headlines, but… You Have to Read the Story!

Once upon a time, many moons ago, I took a Journalism class.

Yes, I did. It’s true. It was taught by Bill Duncan at Green River High School, if you care. He taught me a lot, but one lesson has stood out in my memory all these years, and it was all about the importance of a good headline. (Credit where credit is due–Thanks, Mr. Duncan!)

“A good headline,” he told the class, “draws the reader in. It makes him want to know more. It has to give just enough information to make you read the story.”

Clever headlines are great, but they can be misleading. Take his example, shared in class one day: “Nut Bolts and Screws”.

Now, I look at that headline, and imagine it on one of today’s websites. What could it be? A sale on tools? A “How To” article?

Add a picture of a fence, with a large building in the background. Are we building something? Was the fence damaged?

Is it a misprint? Did they mean “nuts” instead of “nut”?

Hmm.

Now, you imagine it. What do you think the story is? Are you going to read on, or just assume you know the answer and hit that all too infamous “share button”? And if you do share, without reading the story, what will your comment be?

I have a point.

All too often, as I scroll through social media sites, I see stories shared by acquaintances of mine with comments like, “Unbelievable” or “I knew this would happen,” or other similar statements that lead me to think they read the story and found it worth sharing for good reasons.

So, silly me, I click on the story and actually READ it.

As soon as I do, I realize that the person sharing read nothing past the headline and shared it because that short introduction sparked an emotional response.

The last one I saw, yesterday, turned out to be a parody site which clearly states on their “About Us” page that nothing they print is real, and if you believe it is, you need your head examined.

FreedomFictions

I was very amused by this “About Us” page, but appalled that the story they ran is being shared repeatedly by people who have clearly not read the story, or the disclaimers, and believe that the headline is real.

It doesn’t matter which story or headline I’m talking about, since all the stories are fictional on this site. I will add that they clearly use the words “fiction” and “fictional” throughout their stories to make sure that people know it is satire.

But… you have to read the story! 

I have literally begged people not to share stories if they don’t know what they’re about, but… no.

I once had someone tell me that my very own story was “fake news”, and it was an essay about something that happened to me on a trip that was completely true. I then asked him if he read it, and he admitted that he had not. He just thought WordPress was a fake news site.

Okay, then.

This is what we’re dealing with. People want sound bites and tidbits, and are unwilling to go the extra mile, even just to read a little article. The story isn’t as important to them as the chance to spread the headline, especially when they feel like it supports their agendas, whatever they may be.

As a writer, I find that discouraging. I like to think people read my articles from beginning to end, and maybe learn something. I can’t be the only writer who feels that way.

I wondered if it would make a difference to remind them that their agendas just got torpedoed?

Nope. I shared the “About Us” page in the comments, and got zero response. I’m not even surprised.

A good headline is a teaser, just like those movie trailers that make you want to fork out a few dollars and sit in a theater for a couple of hours. Sometimes the trailer tells you everything you need to know about the movie. And sometimes they are so misleading that you’re completely floored when you take the time to watch.

(I’m thinking of “Phenomenon”, with John Travolta. I don’t think I have ever been so fooled by a movie trailer. And even so, it was worth every minute of watch-time.)

Phenomenon

Okay, I know some of you really do already know the story, but for those of you who don’t, here you are:

Nut Bolts and Screws

Thursday night was not your typical quiet weeknight. Bobo Bumhug, a patient at the Whoo-Hoo Mental Asylum escaped the grounds by jumping a fence when guards were distracted by a dancing dervish. Before he was captured, he broke into a nearby home and sexually assaulted a woman. Mr. Bumhug is now in custody awaiting further mental testing and no longer presents a danger to the community.

A “nut” “bolts” from the asylum and “screws” someone. For the record, if you are groaning now, I get it. I groaned, too. The whole class did.

Still, the headline is, in analysis, perfectly correct. But was the story what you thought it would be?

Let me know in the comments below.

 

Note: Naturally, it has been over 40 years since my teacher told this story, so it is not word for word what he said, but it’s close enough.