Never Again

“Never Again!” I grumbled, trying like mad to get all the balloons in the bin. They weren’t going to fit, I knew that. I also knew I should puncture them all and look up the recycling rules, but I had had enough for one day.

Never had there been such an ungrateful child, I thought. Yes, she was my sister, and I loved her, but it was getting more than a little tiresome knowing that no matter what she got, it would never be enough.

I had spent days planning and organizing. Mom hasn’t been able to do these things since the accident. She can’t concentrate; she forgets even the overall picture, let alone the small details. Besides, Nancy demands every second of her attention, milking Mom’s guilt over her confinement to the wheelchair.

The accident wasn’t Mom’s fault. But Nancy insists that nothing would have happened to her if she’d been allowed to stay home while our mother went to the grocery store that day. It’s not as if Mom could have known a drunk driver would slam into them when he ran the light at that intersection, but to hear Nancy tell it, our mother destroyed her life.

Honestly, what good mother would leave a five-year-old child home alone?

Nancy wears on my nerves. More for Mom’s sake than my own, I resent her narcissism. She blames her disability, but it’s not true. This is her personality, and she would be the same even if she had full use of her legs.

She didn’t get a dragon. She wanted a dragon. The party was ruined, and it was all the fault of all the guests who didn’t bring her a dragon. She screamed and cried her crocodile tears, pounding her fists on the arms of her wheelchair. Had she ben able, she would have kicked her feet as well.

Naturally, the guests fled. Who could blame them?

Knowing full well that I’d be returning in an hour to deflate them, (there are laws regarding the disposal of balloons, I’m sure) I left the mess at the curb and stomped into the house to confront my bratty sister and my poor, befuddled mother.

No more birthday parties for you, Nancy.

Beached

Mathis texted me to meet him here, but the bar appeared deserted.

From the moment I left the parking lot and started walking the shoreline, the eerie feeling had set in and clung, a dizziness in my chest that was making it hard to draw a deep breath.

Where were all the people?

This beach was normally teaming with people, mostly families with young children at this time of day. There were no boats on the water, no fishermen with pails of bait sitting at the water’s edge or tossing out their lines.

Near the boardwalk leading to the bar and grill, a few boats were beached, looking for all the world as if they’d been there for years, even though I knew Mathis had been out in the blue one just yesterday.

The closer I got to the bar, the slower I walked. Gooseflesh broke out on my arms and I could feel the hair rising on the nape of my neck. I was alone–but I felt…watched.

I was ready to bolt and make a run for my car, when suddenly the bar door burst open. Mathis stood in the doorway, waving frantically. “Hurry, Windy,” he cried. “Get in here! Quick!”

I was still in bolt and run mode, and nearly turned around, but when the howling started up just behind me, I raced for the door, Mathis urging me on.

A dozen yards never seemed so far away…

Many Happy Returns

The flash of green at sunset was a sight he had always wished to view, but something told him that wasn’t a flash on the horizon.

The problem with wishing for things was the disappointment that was inevitable when it turned out to be something entirely different from what you’d led yourself to expect, Randy thought.

He’d been certain that Melody would return to him on a ship. But he’d expected it to be a seafaring vessel.

This…thing–whatever it might be–had just risen to the surface of the water, and then continued to rise above it.

What the hell?

There it was again–that flash of green! It was followed by a flash of blue; red; gold; green again.

Randy swallowed hard, but the lump in his throat remained.

He raised his phone, swept through messages until he found the one he was looking for. “My love,” it read, “look for me on the horizon. I’m happy to say I’m coming home to you. Please be there for me. Melody.”

He looked out across the water again, squinting hard, hoping to see something familiar. Perhaps a sailboat. He saw nothing now, not even the flashes of color he’d previously taken note of.

A voice from behind him: “Did you see that?”

Another voice, off to the right: “I thought I saw–but, no, it couldn’t be…”

“I saw it,” Randy said. “But I don’t see anything now.”

He realized that he wasn’t at all surprised to discover he wasn’t alone on the beach. He should have been. Until people began to speak, he’d believed he was alone. But after what he’d just seen? Apparently, it would be difficult to surprise him again, ever.

He looked around him: there, an elderly man with binoculars studied the sea and the reddening sky; just beyond, a very young woman holding a sleeping infant that looked to be quite new to the world; a small group of teenagers with a middle-aged man; and many more people, all watching and waiting.

“What are we waiting for?” Randy whispered. He didn’t expect an answer, and didn’t get one.

He looked at the old man with the binoculars and wished he’d thought to bring his own. The sun had sunk below the horizon now, and the red glow in the sky was growing darker. There was no sign of the green light.

Randy’s shoulders slumped as the last of his hopes dwindled. All around him he felt, rather than saw, other people stirring and shifting restlessly. The first sound he became aware of was that of soft sobbing. It seemed he wasn’t the only one who felt let down.

“Randy?” Melody’s voice came from far behind him. It was followed by others:

“Susan, are you here?”

“Malcolm?”

It seemed the group on the beach turned in unison as the voices of their loved ones called from the darkness, and soon there were people embracing and sobbing with happiness and relief.

Randy held Melody close and stroked her hair. “How did you get behind us?” he asked. “I saw the flash on the horizon, just over the water.”

Melody shook her head. “The only thing I know,” she said, “is that I found myself with a group of people on the edge of sand, just past the parking lot. We all started walking and calling out. And you’ve found me, now, Randy.” She smiled up at him, and tears coursed down her cheeks. “I know you have questions; so do I.” She sighed. “More questions than you could possibly imagine, really. But that’s for later. Please. For now–please just take me home.”

He did.

This was inspired by a Writers Unite! prompt. Once again, I have bungled the word count. Once again, oh well. I liked the photo.

Hidden Places, Part 7

I am the quiet one.

Penny says my periods of silence are caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She reads a lot; she knows things.

She also spent a lot of time talking to the doctor when we first went underground, and he agreed that it was probably the case.

I don’t remember being traumatized. Everything I know about what happened to me, Penny and Mae have told me.

There was the break-in, of course. Men with guns burst into our house and grabbed our mother and hauled her away. Penny and Mae hid, so they didn’t get taken with her. And as for me? Well, I was strapped into my high chair for lunch, and one of the men dragged me out to the stoop and tossed me head first into the dumpster.

I guess up until that point, I was screaming my head off. And if Penny and Mae hadn’t run out and jumped into the garbage can and pulled me out, I know I would have drowned in the liquefied muck I’d landed in.

They did rescue me, though. The thought of it amazes me; the nerve they had to even get out the front door and see the legs of my highchair sticking up over the edge of the dumpster? That would have been the end of me right there! And they jumped in and got my head and face up out of the slop and got me out of that slide and buckle contraption. They are my heroes, that’s for sure.

I don’t know how they didn’t get caught. Heck, they don’t know how they didn’t get caught. They got me out of there and back inside, and from that point they get me cleaned up and kept me clean and fed for the days up to the point when Daddy and Morty showed up to rescue us.

But after that, I didn’t make a sound for a long time. Penny says it was months. And the first sound I did make was a laugh.

It was Danny, of course, who made me laugh. Penny says he brought me out of my shell. I’m not surprised; he’s so outgoing and friendly and happy, he just pulls you right into his circle and holds you there. No offense to my sisters, but Danny is my favorite person in the world.

It’s weird knowing that he and his mother weren’t part of the group intended to live at the compound. They were a last-minute addition. Penny says it’s the last minute alterations to the best laid plans that make the most impact, and I think that’s true. For worse, like Mamma’s plan to leave the base the day after everything went to hell, or for better, when Danny ended up with us in the community.

Anyway, I did learn to talk, but I am still mostly quiet. I don’t find that I have a lot to say under most circumstances.

And then there are times when I do find Penny’s theory of PTSD plausible. Those are the times when I find myself with plenty to say, but no voice. There are also times when I completely lose my words, so that even if I could make a sound, nothing coherent would pass my lips.

That was the condition I found myself in when we rounded that last curve on the twisty downhill road, and the valley spread out below us. I could feel my eyes widen and my heart starting to race. My breath caught in my throat, and I pushed my hat far back from my forehead so I could drink in every single sight.

I had stopped my dirt bike and turned off the engine without even realizing it. Danny, who was just behind and to the left of me, stopped too. “Wait,” he called to the others.

I sat on my bike, my hands pressed over my nose and mouth, and just stared.

Danny took in the vista, too. He smiled at me and said, “Yeah, baby! It’s spectacular.”

It was. Until now, we’d seen trees and more trees, and only glimpses of what lay below. Now the tree line was behind us and the valley lay in a splendorous display. Green wheat swayed in the breeze. Wild flowers of all colors nodded their tiny heads, mere dots against the green field. Far across the valley, a river flowed at the base of cliffs that rose high above the level of the hill we were on.

I dropped my hands from my face and stretched out my hands, gesturing for my companions to look. From here the derricks were easy to see; they reminded me of pictures of Diplodocus in one of my old dinosaur books.

“Holy shit!” Morty cried. He was grinning widely. We all were.

Mae turned to Penny and said, “I told you with was a dragon cave!”

Penny nodded. “You were right. And there’s his treasure!”

We all laughed. Penny’s treasure, her trove of library books, included all volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and we had listened to the adventures of Bilbo Baggins so many times that it would have been impossible not to understand the reference.

“Ready to go, Dawn?” Morty asked.

I shook my head, still speechless. Danny studied me for a few seconds, and then said, “She wants to paint it.”

I nodded vigorously. Didn’t I tell you? Danny understands me, even when I can’t speak for myself.

“I’m sure we can set you up with a canvas, easel and paints soon,” Penny said. “We need to keep going.”

I shook my head, dismayed. I’m sure my distress showed on every inch of my face.

“It will never look the same to her as it does right now,” Danny said. “I know we don’t have any paint, but I do have something for you, Dawnie.” He pulled his backpack off his back. Soon he produced a large book of drawing paper and a bag full of colored pencils.

Sid looked impressed. “You don’t happen to have an easel in there, too, do you?” he asked. I studied him carefully: no sarcasm; genuine interest.

Ash laughed. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if he did.”

Danny shook his head, smiling. “I only wish!” He looked at me as I greedily accepted his offerings. “Will this do?”

I know my smile was big enough to crack my head in half as I nodded happily.

Danny waved a hand at the others. “You go on, now,” he said. “We’ll be here waiting.”

“No!” Finally, my voice was back. “No, Danny. You go with them. I’ll need a full report from all of you if I’m to make a decent map later.”

“Sure,” Morty agreed. “I think you’ll be fine watching from here, Dawn.”

“I will,” I said. “I just need…” And there went my words again.

“Maybe you’ll draw us into the picture,” Mae suggested.

“No,” Penny said quietly, studying my face. “Not in this one. The first one…it’s going to be—”

She swept her arm dramatically, gesturing at the fullness of the land. “It’s going to be perfect. Just the way it is, it’s going to be the perfect first look.”

I smiled at my sister. Wow. It’s good to be understood, even when words don’t come.

Danny kissed my cheek and remounted his dirt bike. “You have fun, now,” he said.

“Yeah,” Morty added. “We’re going to see if this is real treasure, or just costume jewelry.”

Penny giggled.

Engines roared to life and the six of them headed down the road. I propped my sketchbook against the handle bars of my bike and prepared to draw.

I hope Penny’s right. I hope it is perfect.

Dawn rarely says anything. She is, as she said, the quiet one. But she needed her chance to weigh in on this story.

If you want to know where it all began, see it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L4GM4PN

Med Quest

My destination lay straight ahead.

This presented a problem: I didn’t have a boat. I wouldn’t be swimming: I swim like a rock.

I sighed. I had complete faith in the compass; my sister made it; she knew her stuff. Everyone in our family owned one. It was how we had found one another after the world went to hell.

I remembered the Christmas theme: handmade gifts only. Millie made compasses for a living, but she didn’t break the rules.

I had gifted books of poetry. My brother argued they should have been individually hand-written and bound. I’d had them printed. That was cheating. Ha! Let him handwrite and bind fifteen books!

By the way, he baked cookies. I knew he’d used a mix, but I didn’t protest!

Remembering hurt; there’d be no Christmas this year.

I had other things to deal with. First, cross the lake. Somewhere over there was a pharmacy, where I prayed I’d find insulin for my mother.

“My kingdom for a raft,” I muttered.

There was nothing to do except go around, and I knew that was going to take hours. I settled my backpack and started walking.

The breeze picked up and slapped water rhythmically against the stony shoreline. Inspired, I sang a tune that matched the beat. I moved faster.

Still, it was a long walk. It got dark. I constantly checked the compass to make sure I didn’t walk past the point where I’d need to veer off to get to town.

Imagine my delight when I discovered the boat at that very point. I inspected it and put it into the water to make sure it was sea-worthy. I pulled it out once I knew it would float, and stashed it safely.

Whatever else happened, I wouldn’t have to walk back!

Re-Do

One more cup of coffee for courage, then I needed to leave to do something I was dreading.

My granddaughter set a steaming cup in front of me and patted my shoulder encouragingly.

Julie’s little coffee shop had managed to stay afloat in difficult times, largely due to the fact that she was well-known county-wide for being a raging germaphobe who practiced excellent hygienic cleansing long before it became the recommendation world-wide. Adding a social distancing factor to her service barely required any changes to her shop. Removing two tables had instantly put the others six feet apart.

I waited until she had backed up, and then removed my mask to sip my latte. “Mmm. You’re the best, Julie.”

She smiled at me–with her eyes. I’ve been amazed by that, you know. I have known so many people over the years who smiled only with their mouths, and I brushed it off–until lately. The ability to show a genuine smile with your eyes is a gift in these times, and I find myself grateful each time I am on the receiving end of one.

“Did they tell you how long it would take?” Julie asked.

“I should have an answer today,” I replied. I resisted the urge to blow on my coffee and took a careful sip. “I go through this every time.”

“Try not to worry,” Julie advised, and I giggled. We both knew better; we were both worried.

You go in. A few days later you get the letter: Please come back for a follow up. Everything inside you goes tense and nothing can ease that tension until you sidle up to the machine and let them re-run their tests and do a couple more.

I finished my coffee and re-masked. I mimed blowing a kiss and air-hugged Julie. Then I left the shop and headed back to the Women’s Center to repeat my mammogram.

Spirits Rise

The stone arc had guarded the valley for centuries without giving up its secret, but I knew. It was a symbol of triumph erected by a gloating, murderous bigot.

Ghosts whisper the tales of days gone by, and those days were unpleasant. The time would come when they would rise up and take their revenge–this, my father taught me since I was very young.

A white man had built the arc, he said. It was there to mark his land holdings on the western side of the valley and to proclaim his victory over my people.

“Such a victory it was,” Papa said. “He and his people brought a plague among the human beings, and we died by the hundreds. Weakened and starved, we were easy enough to defeat and drive away from our home. But still, he was so proud of his great accomplishment that he erected a monument to himself. Coward!” He spat on the ground.

“When will the Spirits rise, Papa?” I asked.

“No one knows this, my son. But there will be a great battle, and few will remain here. I believe even the human beings will be gone from the earth–most of them. Those who remain will have to learn a new way to survive.”

My father picked me up and sat me on the wall that had been built at some point in time, behind the arc overlooking the valley where our clansmen had once lived, free and healthy. “Look, my son,” he said. “There are people living down there, as our ancestors did long ago. But perhaps that will not be true for much longer.”

“It’s a town, Papa. What could happen to it?” I was ten years old, and therefore knew everything. “I don’t believe in ghosts!”

My father laughed, a whooping sound that came from deep in his belly. “Oh, my son!” he cried. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe the Spirits will never come, and all the world will live in peace.”

My blood ran cold; you’d think a father’s laughter would be a cheerful thing, but in this case, you’d be wrong. I knew in that moment that my father was right–there were ghosts, and there would be repercussions that I could never imagine.

***

My daughter Penny and her friend Sid sat where I once sat, looking down at the town in the valley below. Morty sat leaning against the wall, facing the other way and sipping from a canteen. We had taken Dale’s old Volkswagen Bug from the underground parking early this morning, and had driven for hours to get here.

We could have made it sooner, but Morty insisted we stay off the old Interstates and take back roads. He’s right, of course. There aren’t many people around these days, but it’s best to avoid the ones who are left. As far as the children know, we’re the last people on Earth.

Penny turned and glared up at me. “What are we doing here, Dad?” she asked. “Grandpa won’t like it.”

I would love to say that Penny has just reached that pre-adolescent stage where it’s cool not to like her parents, but the truth is she hates me.

Okay, that’s harsh. She loves me, you know. But she kind of hates me, too. I don’t blame her; she can’t help it. She tries not to; I can see the struggle in her every day. But she can’t forget that on the day she needed me to be the hero and save her mother’s life, I failed. And she can’t forget that on the day when her mother was first taken from her, I wasn’t there at all.

She’s only twelve. That’s too young, I think, to tell her about watching her mother die, helpless to stop the man who bludgeoned her and threw her out the door before I could shoot him dead. It’s too young to explain that I knew perfectly well that the satisfaction of seeing his head explode seconds later would never make up for the loss of losing the woman I loved. She already knows I failed to save her mother; she doesn’t need to hear about the pain it causes me, when she has so much of her own pain to deal with.

I offer this as a slight explanation of her tendency to get snarky with me. She mentions her grandfather’s displeasure as a way of reminding me that she, at least, answers to a higher power.

Sid, bless him, was having none of it. He gave her an impatient nudge and asked me, “Do you think there’s anyone down there, Mr. Vance?”

I can’t break him of that “Mr. Vance” thing. He and his brother were brought up by southern women before this all went down, and the manners are deeply ingrained. I don’t know why I’m complaining, except it makes me feel kind of old.

“I don’t know, Sid,” I answered. “I’m leaning toward ‘no’, though. What do you think?”

Morty had binoculars raised to his eyes, and he was studying the town carefully. He lowered them for a moment to regard his foster-son, interested in his answer.

Sid frowned and looked back into the valley, taking his time. “Well,” he said, “I can’t see as good as Da, but I don’t think anything is moving down there…”

“As well,” Penny interjected.

“Huh?”

“You can’t see as well.” Penny gave him one of her patented exasperated sighs.

“Okay, teacher,” Sid agreed amiably. “I don’t see anything moving, is what I want to say.”

“Neither do I,” Morty agreed. “Place looks deserted. I can’t find a single vehicle.”

I nodded. That was about what I’d expected.

Morty handed the binoculars to Penny. She raised them eagerly and started fiddling with knobs to adjust them. “Why are we here, Vance?” he asked. “Your kid’s right; Dale wouldn’t like it if he knew we’d gone so far.”

I sighed. “I don’t answer to Dale,” I replied testily.

“But–”

“Never mind that,” I added. “I grew up on the reservation near here. My people–”

“You’re an Indian?” Sid exclaimed.

“Native American,” Penny corrected impatiently. “Jeez, Sidney!”

“Whatever,” I said. “It hardly matters at this point, does it?” I shook my head at Penny, who was ready to argue her point. We didn’t have time for it. “I just wanted to tell you about the curse my people claimed had been put on this valley.”

Penny was immediately silent and attentive. I have to hand it to her—she loves to learn. She’s a bit of a pain in passing her knowledge on to others, but she’s not always going to be this obnoxious. I hope.

“What curse?” Morty asked. “I didn’t know you were from around here, Vance.”

“About an hour that-a-way.” I gestured with my head. “Reservation kids were bussed here for high school. Until then, I went to school on the rez.”

“So you graduated from here?”

“How’d you meet mom, then?” Penny demanded. “She lived in the city with Gramps and Gran. That’s far!”

“I finished high school here and got a football scholarship to college in the city, where I met your mother,” I replied.

“She was a cheerleader,” Penny told Sid. “I saw pictures…before.” She looked back at me. “Why’d you curse them, Dad?”

“I didn’t do it,” I said. “It was done long before I was born.”

“What was the curse?” Morty repeated.

“There was a rich man who came from the East,” I said. “He wanted this valley. It had rich soil for planting, plenty of grass for cattle, plenty of water.” I swept an arm from left to right, indicating the land below. “Even now, you can see the promise of the land.”

Everything was green. I could see that even now, there were flowers and trees and other plants prospering without interference from people.

“This man paid to have smallpox infested blankets and clothing delivered to the tribes in the valley and in other areas. It nearly wiped the Native People from the planet. Those who were left were so weakened that it was easy to cart them off to the reservations.”

“That’s horrible!” Sid cried.

“The People prayed and cried to the Ancestors to help them. They put a curse on the valley and all the stolen lands. One day, it was said, the Great Spirits would rise up, bringing a great battle that would drive the thieves away.”

“I think it worked,” Penny said. “There’s no one down there, is there, Dad?”

“I don’t know, Penny,” I admitted. “But I mean to find out.”

“Vance,” Morty cried, “no!”

“Mort—”

“We can’t take the kids down there.”

“We? Oh, no,” I said. “You and the kids are staying here. I’m going in alone.”

“Daddy, you can’t do that!” Penny grabbed my arm, and the binoculars she’d been holding dropped to the ground.”

I pulled away from her as gently as I could. “I’m not afraid of ghosts,” I told her.

“Neither am I!” she insisted. “But there might be…be people down there.”

I nodded. This was true, after all. “And?” I asked.

Her jaw tightened and her chin lifted in defiance. I braced myself for her answer. “Maybe you think I’m stupid,” she began.

“Never,” I said.

“I’m not afraid of ghosts; but Daddy? I am afraid of people.” Her eyes met mine, unwavering. “Please don’t go down there. Please.”

I hesitated. I looked from her, to Morty and then to Sid. They shook their heads at me.

I considered it. I looked at Penny, whose eyes were pleading with me to see reason. To see that she could never bear it if she had to lose me, too, after losing her mother.

If there were people down there, would they be friendly to a man they might see as an enemy because of the color of his skin? If spirits had visited here, would they have seen them and now recognize me as one of the same bloodline?

I conceded that Penny had every right to be frightened of people. Even in a world where few remained, there were still those things to be considered.

What a pity!

I looked down into the valley below, where I could see no sign of human life. But I knew—they were all gone, fled to other locations or long dead. Did I really need to go down there to verify what I knew in my very soul to be true?

At last, I said, “There’s no one down there. I don’t have to go and look to know it—I can feel it in my heart.”

There were audible exhales of relief from all of them.

Penny took my hand. You can’t know how good that felt—she’s generally standoffish. I smiled down at her and said, “Let’s go home.”

“Yes, Dad. Let’s go home.”

I didn’t expect this to mend everything between us. Penny has always been her own person, and a difficult one at times. But I love my daughter with all my heart; I will never see a need to make things harder on her than they have to be.

She held my hand all the way back to the car and let me buckle her in. I took it as a small victory and cherished it.

Mort took the wheel and we went home to face the music with Dale.

This image was a prompt from Writers Unite! Penny’s world called out to me again. This story is told from the perspective of her father, Vance.

Penny Candy

Since the first trip to the city with Dad and Morty, I hadn’t been allowed to go back. “You’re too young to see all that destruction,” Dad said.

What he really meant was I was too young to see all the dead bodies.

While many conversations between Dad and me ended in arguments, this wasn’t one I was anxious to pursue. I was only seven years old, and I didn’t much care for running into bodies if I didn’t have to.

There were parties of grownups, mostly men, who went to the city to salvage whatever could be found to keep the community in our compound going. Grandpa and his people had equipped their places well, but everyone knew nothing was going to last forever.

People in the city were gone–or dead. They didn’t need things now, either way. But getting access to those things was a lot of work. The place had been bombed out; buildings had collapsed, roads were impassable. It was a tangled up mess. And yes, there were bodies.

Mortimer was one of the younger grownups. He had taken in Sidney and Asher, who had lost their family. I’m pretty sure he’s my cousin somewhere along the line, but even if he’s not, he’s family. He famously hated his name; we called him Morty or Mort instead.

Morty held the opinion that it wasn’t always necessary to go salvaging in the big city. There were several small hamlets in the surrounding area as well. These had been deserted, for the most part, and he convinced Dad and Grandpa that taking a few of us along with him was okay. Everyone could do their part in getting supplies for the group.

Of course, in retrospect, I know Morty didn’t take us in cold; he cased the places and removed bodies before taking a group of kids in to salvage.

One morning Morty gathered a few of us together and loaded us into a big extended-cab long-bed pickup truck. He’d recruited Zach and Jacob, who were a couple of the older boys he had rescued from the base. They were, by then, about 14 or 15, while I had reached the ripe old age of 9-ish. Sid was with us, and so were Mae and Ash.

We rode for over an hour on 2-lane blacktop that wound through the forest, and we knew we’d find a little town waiting for us sooner or later. Morty liked the small out-of-the way communities. I think he must have had hope, every time he found one, that there would be people. I know I felt that way a lot of the time.

The town was tiny; there was a general store/gas station/post office—it said so, on the sign. There were half a dozen little houses and three mobile homes, and a small wooden building that declared itself “Murphy’s Bar and Grill”.

“Metropolis,” Zach grinned, swinging around in his seat to speak to us.

“Hardly,” I retorted.

“Don’t be so literal, Penny,” Mort said.

He was right; I can be tedious sometimes.

“Are there any people here?” Mae asked.

“Nah,” Jacob replied. “Not a car in sight.”

That was true. I wondered if we’d find anything here. People who drove away from their homes generally took everything they could load up with them.

We got out and started our searches.

Morty and Zach started with the gas station. If fuel could be found, Mort would come back with a pump truck and get it.

Jacob headed for the bar and grill, carrying a couple of bags with him.

Sid, Ash, Mae and I headed for the houses.  

I liked looking at houses. We had lived in a base house–really a duplex–before the end, and I liked the different layouts in some of the houses we had gone into since then. I harbored a hope that one day I could live in a real house, instead of an underground compound space.

My mother had always been an environmentalist, so she had collected quite an assortment of cloth shopping bags. When she was getting things ready for us to move to the compound—before the men with guns put an end to that plan—she had packed assorted canned goods, dry goods and even clothing and toys in the bags and put them in her van. Morty drove us away in that van on the night he rescued everyone. Whenever we went out to salvage, Mae and I took her bags with us.

Today, though, I was carrying my new favorite bag. It hadn’t been one of Mamma’s; Sid found it while out with my father and grandfather one day, and I loved it. It was printed on all sides with pictures of books, and captioned: “Give Me Library, or Give Me Death”.

Sid gets me.

The first house we went to was really small; I suppose it would be called a cottage in some storybook. The door was unlocked, and we went inside.

There wasn’t much to see. Whoever had lived there had left a small flower-print loveseat behind. It sat askew on three legs. Asher sighed, looking at it. “That could be fixed, I bet,” he mused. He sat down on it, and puffs of heavy dust rose around him. He wrinkled his nose and waved his hand in front of his face. He fought it, but finally let out a good sneeze. “It’s comfortable,” he offered weakly, and Mae started to giggle.

Sid said, “We don’t need it.”

Sid and I wandered into the kitchen while Mae helped Ash dust himself off. We went through cupboards and drawers, looking for canned food and any useful items we might find. We all checked closets and bathroom shelves, and I snagged a very nice shower curtain, rod and rings. It featured a lighthouse and beach scene, and I thought it would look great in my doorway. There were no actual doors in the compound, and privacy was jealously guarded.

Mae found a plastic-wrapped towel set in the back corner of a bathroom shelf, and tucked it into her bag.

We hadn’t found much in the way of food, so we went out the back door and headed toward the next house. As we went around the side of the house, I saw it: An older model bicycle leaning against a sunshine-yellow stucco wall. The body of the lady’s bike was still black and shiny, but the chain had rusted. There was a plastic-wrapped lock chain looped through the front tire.

I stopped in my tracks and sat down hard. I’d been struck by one of those famed “Déjà vu” moments which, up until now, I had only read about but never experienced:

The street in front of our duplex on the base on a sunny fall day; Mamma wheeled her old bicycle in a not-so-graceful manner. She was heavily pregnant, and it was a bit alarming to see her pumping those pedals and giggling at me as I attempted to emulate her now that I had insisted that my training wheels be removed.

Mae, astride a bright red tricycle, barreled up and down the sidewalk, singing “The Wheels on the bike go round and round.”

“It’s ‘bus’,” I called, shakily maneuvering my way past her, avoiding the deep gutter that would surely topple me into the street.

“Not today,” Mae said.

Mamma passed me, turned and came back toward me and smiled brilliantly as she picked up speed. She looked so happy. I no longer thought she would fall; she had gained control of her bike in spite of her added girth.

After a few more passes, she pulled to a stop and announced, “Gotta pee! You’re doing so great! You’re a pro, kiddo. You too, Mae!” She waddled quickly up the steps to the door. “Can’t wait a single second! Will you lock her up for me, please, Penny Candy?”

God. I had forgotten she used to call me that. Stunned by the sudden crystal-clear memory of the day, I burst into tears.

Mae knelt down and threw her arms around me. Sid and Ash joined us on the ground, and after a couple of embarrassing moments, I was able to explain my reactionary outburst.

Sid patted my shoulder awkwardly. “I’ll load it in the back of the truck,” he said.

“We don’t need it,” I protested.

“Yeah,” he said, “you do.”

With the front wheel locked, there was no way to roll it, so the boys picked it up and hauled it to the truck. I sat on the ground with Mae, feeling drained and tired.

“I don’t remember that,” Mae said. “I wish I did. It’s a good memory, Penny.”

“It is,” I agreed. I had neglected—deliberately—to tell them my old nickname. Remembering it had been a shock, but now I felt like that particular memory was mine alone. I would keep it in my heart. That’s where it belongs.

December’s Write the Story for Writers Unite! sent Penny on a Deja Vu trip!

Holiday Self Promotion

It’s holiday season–time to buy some books! Also time to save some money! Did you know you can give eBooks as gifts? It’s true! And right now, all titles on my Author Page are just $0.99 for a limited time in the USA and just £0.99 for a limited time in the UK. Offer ends 12-11-2020 at midnight, so hurry!

https://www.amazon.com/Paula-Shablo/e/B01H2HJBHQ… USA

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Paula-Shablo/e/B01H2HJBHQ… UK

We all know how hard it has been to get out for some in-person shopping. This will take some of the pressure off! Shop now while the prices are low!

Thank you very much!

Back to your regularly scheduled scrolling.