Practice Makes Perfect

Lucinda had spent years denying her witch heritage. After all, it had gotten her mother and grandmother in spectacular troubles over the years, and each time Lucinda would end up in foster care for a month or two while things got straightened out.

Was she crazy enough to tell the case workers and foster families the reasons she was suddenly returning to care? No, she absolutely was not.

Lately, though, she’d been doing a lot of studying on the subject, and she had come to realize that the troubles of her elders were caused by simple ineptitude.

She was eighteen now, free do live where she wanted, have a job and a normal life. But suddenly, witchcraft called to her.

She figured she’d start with the broom. She would study the spells diligently and practice close to the ground. None of Grandma’s high-wire antics that knocked out power all over town and landed her on a road-side garbage clean-up detail to pay off the fines and damages.

(That was one of the earliest foster care stints; Mom had to work, and Grandma was unavailable to babysit.)

After several hours of practice, Lucinda was adept at hovering about a foot off the ground.

When she decided to try a higher elevation, she discovered that she was afraid of heights. Or perhaps she was afraid of repeating Grandma’s accident. No matter, she decided. Until a spell could be found to eliminate her fear of flying, practice at low levels was wise. After all, practice makes perfect!

Author’s note: A little pre-Halloween chuckle inspired by a Writers Unite! prompt.

Coming Home

Gramma always said the house had “character”.

I didn’t remember ever being to the place as an adult. I’m not a young person anymore, so I may be wrong, but it does seem to me that I couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve the last time I laid eyes on the place.

I also didn’t remember it as being so… crooked.

We were still quite a way out from it when we were first able to catch sight of it. It wasn’t a particularly big house, although my grandmother had raised seven children there. The roof was swaybacked as an aged mare, and the whole house seemed to lean.

Madge sat up straighter in her seat and stared until we lost sight of the house. The roads leading to the place twisted and turned, and so for the next few miles we’d only get glimpses. “Is that it?” she gasped. I could tell she was less than impressed.

“Yep.”

“Um…it looks a bit…”

“It’s an old house, Madge.” I sighed. “It’s also a free house.”

“How long has it been since anyone lived there?” Madge demanded.

“Oh…let me see. Gramma moved in with Mom when I left for college, so–“

“Oh dear God!”

I threw a scathing glare at my love. “That sounded suspiciously like you were saying, ‘But you’re so OLD, Liv!’ Which,” I added, “I am.”

“Not at all,” Madge remarked mildly. “But that’s a very long time for a house to stand empty.”

“Mom never wanted to live there,” I said. “After Gramma died, she actually tried to sell it. But, it being so far out of town, she never got any offers.”

“And now, it’s passed down to you.”

“Yes.”

Madge stared at the cottage as it once more came into view. “You called the county and had the power turned on?”

“Yes.”

Under her breath, she muttered, “Surprised the power surge didn’t blow the place up.”

“I heard that,” I informed her haughtily.

“Do you suppose it actually works?”

I sighed again, and didn’t bother to answer. I wasn’t sure of anything.

The cottage disappeared into the trees as I took the next curve at a slower pace. Madge was fidgeting in her seat, and I was nearly holding my breath, waiting for her next words. I knew what they’d be, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow when she said, “Are you sure it was a good idea to give up our lease?”

I wanted to stop the car, but I drove on with some determination. “Madge, you know as well as I we were close to getting an eviction order. This economy–“

“I know.”

“The house is mine. The land around it, too. Free and clear–the property taxes are paid out of Gramma’s trust, and that continues until the family line–” I stopped abruptly. The family line ended with me.

There were cousins, of course. Mother had siblings. But the house had been left to her and her descendants. I was it, and I had never had children.

I could leave the house to one of the others, but the trust that funded the property taxes and other minor expenses would be done with.

Madge stared at her hands, neatly folded in her lap. We had discussed children; of course we had, and if we’d been of another generation we might have gone further than a discussion. But we’d both been in our thirties when we met and fell in love–not exactly a great age to be having babies, not with all the hoops we would have had to leap through to accomplish it.

I took a deep breath. “That doesn’t matter, because we can deal with who next gets the house later. For now, the place is home.”

“Home…” Madge let the word drawl on, thoughtfully.

“Our home.”

The cottage popped back into view. I frowned. It looked…straighter. The roof line appeared less sway-backed.

Madge leaned forward in her seat, gasping. “Do you see that?”

“Uh…” I blinked hard. “It must be some trick of the light.”

“Maybe it was just a distance perspective that–“

“Made it look like it was falling over? I–I don’t know.”

We had a straight stretch of road to traverse, and would soon be arriving at the house. As we got closer, it looked even better.

“A fresh coat of paint, and it will be downright cute,” Madge declared.

“I’m sure there will be some roofing issues, and the porch might need some work,” I said. “But with no other expenses besides utilities, we should be able to swing it on our pensions.”

“Is it–is it already painted?” Madge asked. As we arrived, it appeared to have been painted a buttery yellow. There were no chips or faded spots that we could see.

Madge turned to me as I parked and shut off the ignition. “Did you send someone ’round to paint?”

“What, in the last half hour?” I couldn’t take my eyes off the house. It really did appear to be freshly painted, and it was a color both of us loved–warm and sweet, like early morning sunshine.

We got out of the car. Walking a complete circle around the cottage, it was clear that there were no repairs needed. The porch floor was intact. Every shingle on the roof was perfectly in place. No window was broken.

Madge stared at the house, then placed hands on hips and stared at me. “When did you have time to–?”

“I didn’t!” I protested. “I would have, of course; I planned to! I–I wanted to see it first, but–” I stared back at her, and shrugged. “My flabber is gasted, Madge, what can I say?”

Open mouthed, she studied me intently. She knew I wasn’t lying. “Well,” she said, “I don’t know whether to be amazed or terrified.”

I knew what she meant.

We had both seen the house before we arrived; we’d been seeing it off and on for miles. We hadn’t imagined the dilapidation.

Determinedly, I took out the key and marched up to the door. “Well,” I said, “I’m going to go with amazed. I’m sure there will be work to do inside, and we’ll do it. And it will all be amazing once we’ve moved in and made it our own.”

Inside, we discovered vague shapes under dust-covered sheets, and this was more like it–more like what one would expect of a house that had stood alone for a long time.

We lifted the sheets off carefully and took them outside for a good shaking, trying not to leave too much heavy dust in the house.

Under the sheets we found furniture that was perfectly intact and charming. Madge shook her head in disbelief. “Look at this beautiful chair!” She ran a hand lovingly over the tapestry. “I’ve always dreamed of having a chair like this.” She sank to a seat and sighed contently.

My grandmother had apparently be a fan of Queen Ann style; the table and chairs, the small sofa and the chair, a couple of occasional tables and a china hutch all reflected a time ages past. It was all in wonderful condition and beautiful, and I couldn’t believe our good luck.

We had rented a small furnished flat in the city for years, and had never owned much in the way of furniture. The moving van that was scheduled to arrive the next day had our clothes, musical instruments and books, and not much else.

“Let’s look at the bedrooms,” I suggested. “See what size bed we’ll be needing.”

The flat had featured a Murphy bed. “Ahh,” Madge sighed. “No more shoving the bed up into the wall! Joy, joy!”

We went upstairs. Furniture was covered with sheets in the bedrooms. The larger room held two full size beds and two big chests of drawers. The smaller room held a queen size bed, a wardrobe, a dresser and a chest of drawers. Neither room had a closet, but there was still plenty of storage space.

“How many kids?” Madge asked.

“Seven.” I grinned. “My mother was the youngest.”

“Wow. Close quarters.”

“We’ll have to clean up all this dust, but–I think we have everything we need!” I still couldn’t believe it. I flipped light switches. The power was on and working.

“I can’t believe no one wanted this house,” I continued as we went back down stairs that exhibited not a hint of a loose board or even a creak. “I think it’s charming!”

Sure, we were going to have to get a modern refrigerator and a washer and dryer, but those things seemed trivial now. I had anticipated a daunting job of repair and restoration, and now…

It was perfect, really. Anything else was going to be icing on the cake.

Madge slipped out the door and came back inside with my purse. “I think it’s time you read the letters your mother and grandmother left for you,” she said. “Maybe there’s some sort of explanation.”

“Like a caretaker or something?” I asked. “Okay.”

We sat at the table.

I read out loud. “My dearest Olivia,” I looked up at Madge and grinned. “Gramma never would call me ‘Liv’. She said I had a beautiful name and I should insist on using the whole thing.”

Madge smiled. “She wasn’t wrong, Olivia.”

“Stop it.” I looked back at the neatly scripted letter in my hands. “I have prayed for the day when someone would love my little house enough to make it a home again. I miss it so, but your mother insisted that I should not be alone, and she didn’t want to live so far away.

“I agreed to live out my days with you and your mother, not because I was alone, but because you were. When your father died, I was afraid June might come to wish she could join him; they loved each other fiercely, and it was a great blow to her.

“I know now she will not return to her childhood home, and none of my children are interested in it either. I have left instructions that it will go to you.

“You need to know that the house is special. It has great character. If it is loved, it returns the love. If love dwells within its walls, it thrives. If you call it home, it will be restored.”

Madge gasped, and I felt my jaw drop as I looked up at her. “She meant that literally, didn’t she?” Madge asked. She didn’t need or expect an answer, and so I just smiled.

I opened the letter from my mother. “Livvy,” I read, and grinned. She wasn’t adverse to nicknames. “What Gramma said. Ha ha ha!

“I want you to know I did love that house. We all did. But we had to balance that with the need for schools close by and other things that we thought were so important at the time.

“I’ve gotten wiser in my old age, and wish I’d done differently. But I wanted things for you…

“Well. You’ve done good things with your life, and you deserve all the best, and this house will be the best thing for you. I feel that.

“At this stage of your life, you and Madge are free to live as you like, where you like in your retirement years, and I know you will make the house your beloved home.

“And it will love you back. Believe it.”

I could feel the tears slipping down my cheeks. I smiled at Madge and she smiled back. “I do believe it,” I said. “I do love it, too.”

“So do I,” Madge agreed. “Coming home is the best thing we’ve ever done.”

“It is.”

Once again, inspiration from a prompt on Writers Unite! got this story on its feet. (I always wanted a living house–you know, a NICE living house.)

Today I Didn’t

Today I didn’t wake up with tears on my face

Today I didn’t greet you on my way up the stairs, only to encounter your empty chair when I entered the room

Today I didn’t start that extra cup of coffee or reach for the place setting you no longer need

Today I didn’t do those things

So…

I told you I was doing better

I will never stop talking to you; I know you can hear.

I told you I was getting used to you being in a different place; a better place

But I would never get used to you not being near

Today I didn’t try to feed you

Today I didn’t count out your pills

But today I did print out a joke I found online, because I knew you would find it funny

I wanted to show it to you and hear you laugh

And today I did shoot a video of your dog playing with her ball, so you could watch it and smile

So…

Today I didn’t get it

Today I didn’t accept a thing

And when I was told to take it one day at a time

I said

No

I take it each thing I did or didn’t do today

And so

Today, and every day

I didn’t stop loving you

Today, and every day

I didn’t stop missing you

But today I didn’t cry

Outta Here

Easy—get a ticket to anywhere and get out of town before they realize I’m gone.

I’m just saying, Miguel was certifiably a pain in the ass. I’ve never known anyone else in my life who could worry so much about so many things at the same time without having a stroke.

If he wasn’t so nice, and such a treat to look at, too…

But he was, so I figured I’d keep him.

“Did they see you leave?”

“Of course not! They’d be right behind me if they did!”

“Do we have enough money? What if–“

“We have plenty,” I assured him. We had been saving for months. Part time jobs, allowances, birthdays and babysitting–it all got socked away. We were always broke, and our folks laughed it off and paid for our clothes and food.

“What if it’s not money we need? What if–“

“Miguel, just hush!” I snapped. He pushed the doors of the station open, and then we stood there, jaws agape.

There were people, but it seemed eerily empty compared to any other time I’d been there. People were wisely keeping their distance from each other; that was gratifying to see. Not everyone was as crazy as our parents were being, apparently.

Everyone was wearing a mask, too.

Good. We wouldn’t stand out in the crowd. Suddenly, I felt a little… hopeful.

“Where will we go?” Miguel asked, his black eyes suddenly sparkling. He felt it, too. We had a chance!

We decided to get out of the city when Miguel’s father and mine both chose to ignore everyone’s advise and started working for a day labor group with no mask mandate. “It can’t be that bad,” my father said. “If it was, the President would say so.”

Bye-bye. I’m not planning to die any time soon, and certainly not because my parents believed the government would take care of us. As if!

“What if they won’t sell us tickets? Do we need to be eighteen?”

I didn’t know the answer to that, but no one asked for an ID when we got to the kiosk, so Miguel breathed easier. I did, too. I had an ID for work and school, but I sure wasn’t eighteen yet. Neither of us were.

We purchased tickets– first Colorado, then on to New Mexico. We wanted to land ourselves in the middle of some one-stoplight small town we’d never heard of before. Hide. Live.

Before we boarded, Miguel whispered, “What if they search our bags?”

“What if they do?” I countered. “Do you thing we’ll be in trouble for packing Ramen Noodles?”

“What if there’s no food allowed?”

“This train serves food, so I don’t think it’s a thing. Besides, we’re not going to eat them now!”

We had disassembled our cell phones and scattered the parts throughout the city the day before. We could get burners later, when we had jobs.

We had emailed goodbyes from the public library and promised to check in soon.

Running away is scary. But we wanted to be safe. We wanted to live. And that couldn’t happen if we stayed with people who wouldn’t even listen to good advise.

We didn’t feel entirely free until the train left the station. We were cash only and cell phone free. They’d never find us.

Miguel looked at me, then out the window at the receding cityscape. “What if–?”

I sighed. “What if what, Miguel?”

Certifiable pain in the ass worry wart. I wasn’t ready for what he said next: “What if we’re happy?”

I smiled. I made sure he could see it in my eyes, because the mask was not coming off anytime soon. “Yeah, Miguel. What if we are?”

His eyes smiled back.

We’re outta here!

The End is Near

They were coming.

I wanted to believe we were ready, but truthfully, we never could be.

There are a lot of people with us now. The girls have been rescued, thanks to Morty, and I have nothing but gratitude for the return of my granddaughters, but losing my daughter is something I will never get over.

We drove out here this morning to take a last look at the prairie before heading into the forest. I watch my man as he walks across the field, and I weep, not just for myself, but for the father whose daughter is lost to him forever.

We didn’t expect it to happen so soon. We were all nearly ready for the last move. We though we’d have time.

She had everything packed; all Morty had to do was buckle the girls in and drive away; everything was loaded in the van.

Well, first they had to be rescued, but I simply can’t think about that part of it yet.

It makes me sick to think how close she was to escaping! Another day, and they all would have been with us! Another day, and there would have been no need for a rescue.

I want my baby back. She was too young to go. Her babies are too young to have seen what they saw.

People have arrived and are moving into the shelter. Everyone has staked out their little areas down there. We have, too. There’s plenty of room. We have food and fuel.

The groups are together, and we can stay hidden.

But now, they are coming. I feel it in my bones. I see it in the haunted eyes of the man I have loved for decades. They are coming, and nothing will ever be the same again.

He walks back to me and hugs me tightly. I can feel hot tears on my shoulder, and I hold him, pouring every ounce of love I can muster into my embrace.

We drive back to the compound and make our descent,  praying we won’t have to stay underground for long.

We’re as ready as we can be, but really… we can never be ready. Not really.

They are coming.

Keyhole Cove

He hadn’t expected people that morning.

Darren came here to get away, and was filled with a species of resentment when he looked up and saw Matt’s boat headed his way.

He already had his line in the water, and was looking forward to slapping a few fish on the grill this evening, but now that bonehead would be out there racing back and forth with his bratty kids on skis.

He looked at Mitzi, who was shaking her head. “Makes you wish you could purchase the water when you buy shoreside property, doesn’t it?” he grumbled.

“How does he pull those kids around with that deathtrap?” Mitzi asked. Darren’s question was moot–they didn’t own Keyhole. But she understood the sentiment.

“That big outboard will sink them all one of these days.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“So’s his ex.”

Mitzi slapped her hands on her thighs and stood up. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she yelled, “Yo! Matt!”

“What are you doing?” Darren cried, appalled.

“Inviting them to dock and fish. I’m not going to watch anyone sink!”

Darren got up and waved his pole at Matthew, who had slowed the boat and was drifting closer.

Mitzi, behind him, waved a bag of jumbo marshmallows.

Without even looking, Darren knew: “S’mores? That bait’ll catch ’em every time.”

“S’mores,” Mitzi agreed, giggling.

“You could save the world if you tried, Mitz.” He stomped off to help Matt dock the boat, grinning in spite of himself. If the fish were biting, maybe they could keep the kids off the water all day.

Reading his mind, Mitzi called “Fish fry!” at his retreating back. Then she checked her s’mores supplies. As always, she was prepared.

Inspired by a prompt on Writers Unite! https://writersuniteweb.wordpress.com/

Echoes

*Disclaimer: May be disturbing for some readers

Billy stood with his mother near the edge of the precipice, looking down into the valley below. Pinion pines, fir trees and aspens, some tall enough to reach out and touch–if he didn’t want to fall, that is–marched their way down to the edge of the river; and far, far across from them, he could see the rocky side of a mountain.

He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello!” he called. “I am Billy!” He waited for his echo to come bouncing back to him across the valley.

Nothing.

Perplexed, he looked up at his mother. “What’s wrong with my echo?” he asked.

Helena smiled and put an arm around his shoulder, patting him reassuringly. “Oh,” she said, “Snow probably muffles the sound.”

“Snow? What snn–?” Billy stared, jaw agape. Snow covered every surface. In the bright sunlight, it sparkled extravagantly from treetops and mountainside. The river below was frozen.

A gust of wind blew sheets of it from the pines, casting iridescent flashes across the valley below. The colors were blindingly brilliant, and Billy gasped in delight.

How had he missed the snow a moment before? He would have sworn–

“The world is full of beauty,” Helena sighed. “I forgot about that.”

“What?”

Helena smiled distractedly and pulled Billy into her arms for a long hug. Billy hugged back. It was nice to get a hug from his mother. She usually wasn’t still long enough for an enduring hug like this one.

“Why don’t echoes work in the snow?”

“I don’t know, baby. Maybe they do. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Billy cupped one hand around his mouth, still hugging his mother with the other arm. “Hello?” he called.

There was still no answering echo.

He didn’t like that. “Where are we?” he asked.

“Here.”

“Yeah, but–“

“Isn’t it lovely?”

It was. The snow glittered and flashed, the treetops swayed, colors splashed across the ice on the river below, and everything was gorgeous.

They stood looking, watching the snow blow in whirling dervishes as the wind changed directions. Billy frowned and looked up at his mother. Her chestnut hair hung to her waist, unmoving. His own hair was still.

It was so very odd. Their hair should be thrashing around their heads. Not only that, but he realized he didn’t feel cold.

He was trying not to be scared. “Mom?” he asked. “Are we going soon?”

“I think so.”

Billy looked around. There was no road that he could see, and no footpath, either. “Where’s the car?”

“Oh,” Helena remarked unconcernedly, “It’s around here somewhere, I guess.”

“I don’t remember…” Billy’s voice trailed off. He felt more than uneasy. Nothing was right. “How did we get up here? Did we walk?”

He was wearing an old Alice Cooper t-shirt that had belonged to his father. It was his favorite, and was nearly transparent with age. He had on cargo shorts and ratty old huaraches. He should have been freezing.

“Mom?” He had so many questions! But before he could ask–

“Billy?”

Billy turned to see who had called his name. His great-grandparents stood a few feet away. “Gigi Ma! Grampy!” He pulled out of his mother’s embrace and ran to them.

Helena gave a low moan of despair and lowered her empty arms to her sides.

Gigi hugged Billy tightly. Grampy feigned offering a handshake–very manly–and then pulled him in for a fierce hug, too. “Where have you been?” Billy demanded. “I missed you so much!”

Gigi looked over at her granddaughter, who hadn’t moved. “Helena,” she said.

“Hello, Grandma.” She looked at Grampy. “Hello, Grandpa. You look well.”

“We are,” Grampy replied.

“Oh, Helena,” Gigi sighed.

Billy watched this exchange with some alarm.

“I wondered who would come,” Helena said, and smiled. “I’m glad it’s you.”

“Mom?” Billy pulled away from Grampy and started running back to his mother. No matter how fast he ran, she never got any closer. “Mom, what’s happening?”

“No going backward,” Grampy said. Billy turned toward him, and he was right there. “We can only go forward from here.”

“We?” Billy looked back at his mother. “Mom?”

“I love you, Billy.” Still, she didn’t move. She stood at the very edge, hands at her sides, and she smiled at him. “Remember that. Go with Gigi and Grampy, now.”

She looked at her grandmother. “Take him quickly,” she said quietly. “I don’t want him to…to see what’s next.”

She turned to her grandfather. “I never did know anything,” she said. “I never could answer his questions. Tell him about echoes.”

She turned away then, staring out across the valley. “I love you all forever.”

Billy’s hands were clasped by his great-grandparents, and suddenly they were rising. Up, up and further away, his mother seeming to shrink below him. “Mom? Moooooooommmmm!”

“It’s fine, son.”

Billy stared up into Grampy’s face. “Why can’t she come, too?”

“She knows why,” Gigi said.

Billy stared down, no longer able to make out more than an anonymous figure below. “Is she waving?”

“Of course.”

“I can’t see her!”

“No more looking back,” Gigi said. “Look ahead, Billy. See?”

A chunky corgi was waddling toward them, and started running when he saw Billy’s face. “Bunny!” Billy cried. “Oh, Bunny!” The dog leapt into his arms and licked his face. “Hello, girl! I missed you!”

Boy and dog raced ahead of the old couple. Grampy looked back, in spite of his own advise to Billy.

“Is she gone?” Gigi asked.

Grampy sighed. “Not yet.”

“Oh, Helena!” They followed Billy, shaking their heads. No more looking back.

Far below, Helena stood at the edge of the precipice. She wondered who would be coming for her. She cupped her hands around her mouth and called “Hello!”

Voices echoed back at her: “Helena! Helena!”

What had she done?

Wrong Turn

I knew it was a wrong turn as soon as I took it, but the road was narrow; there was no place to turn around. I drove slowly, hoping for a turn-off or at least a some spot wide enough to turn back.

Instead, the road got narrower. I tried to back up, but trees which had already leaned over the road now crisscrossed so low that branches scraped the roof of my car.

Frightened, I stopped the car. I would walk back.

The road was blocked.

My choices: forward or sit in the car.

The trees are moving in.

Author’s Note: Inspired by a prompt on Writers Unite! page. Fun with spookiness.

Sifting Through the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. You never get used to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged, indifferent. “I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The plane.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Penny!”

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

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

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

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

“Amen,” Ash added.

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

We found plenty of bodies that day.

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

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

Like I said: I don’t blame them.

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

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

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

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

God doesn’t listen.

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

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