Je Vois, J’ai Vu, J’aurai Vu

5:32pm. Monday. I’m walking to the subway when she’s struck by a car.

“I didn’t see her!” The driver is frantic.

The woman reaches for me as I kneel next to her. The lab coat she wears is torn and bloody. No one else has come close – they watch from the sidewalk, some taking pictures.

“Please,” the woman whispers hoarsely. “I’m in an accident.”

“You’re going to be all right,” I say, squeezing her hand. “Help is coming.”

“I’m in an accident,” she repeats. Her eyes are wide and stunned, but I feel like she doesn’t quite see where she is, like she’s looking around for something.

Then her eyes aren’t seeing anything at all.

*

12:04pm. Tuesday. I’m in the grocery store buying a pathetic boxed salad.

And there’s the woman, the one I watched die yesterday. Her basket is full of batteries and she’s frowning at the calculator in her hand. She shrugs and tosses five more into her basket.

“Ma’am?” I ask tentatively. Some hair has fallen out of her bun and she looks exhausted, but she’s alive, her lab coat only lightly creased. I look down and see that she has covers on her shoes, the kind you wear for a realtor at an open house – or in a clean room.

She looks up at me, eyes wide. “Yes?”

“Did you – I thought I saw you –“

“Possibly,” she says wearily. “I’m in an accident. I have to go.”

She hurries with her basket to the self-checkout. I see her leaving shortly after, weighed down with four dozen batteries and her calculators.

I come across her abandoned bags between 12th and 13th, in front of a coffee shop. The reclaimed-wood tables are full of twentysomethings conversing over their phones. If a woman disappeared in front of them, they don’t seem very bothered by it.

I have to get back to work – goodness knows I see weird stuff daily in this city – but I also have to know if I’m going crazy or not. I approach the tables.

“Do any of you know how these bags got here?” I ask. “Did you see the woman who was carrying them?”

They glance, almost in unison, from me to the bags and back. “I didn’t see anyone,” one man says.

“No one’s been by in a while,” a woman adds. “And I’ve been watching – I’m waiting for someone.”

I debate taking her purchases with me – if she can come back from the dead, maybe she’ll find me again – then decide to take them inside and leave them with an employee. There’s crazy, and then there’s anticipating-being-haunted crazy.

I regret my decision before I’m even out the door. I already feel a certainty, like a prologue to déjà vu, that I’m going to see her again. I look over my shoulder, expecting to see her lab coat billowing.

But the sidewalk is deserted.

I return to work.

*

6:37pm. Wednesday. I was stuck late, I’m hungry, and the crowds going down to the subway seem worse than usual. I have no new texts, no emails worth reading. I’m scrolling through a collection of makeup I can’t afford when I catch white out of the corner of my eye.

It’s her, again, but she looks different: her bun is tidy, her makeup simple but professional, her coat pristine. The shoe covers are gone.

She catches me staring. “Can I help you?”

It’s the icy tone we usually reserve for men being creeps and I look away, flustered. “Sorry. I just feel like I’ve seen you before.”

“You might have,” she says. “I’m in an accident. But I’ll get it fixed, nothing to worry about.”

The train arrives, screaming past us and dragging the first few strands from her bun. Her coat whips against my arm. “The machine just needs more power. I’ll get it fixed.”

We get on the train and she sits, hands folded, calm. It was the last seat; I stay standing and grab a strap. The crowd flows around me, packing the car. I almost don’t notice the usual jostling. What machine? Is she crazy?

Am I?

“Ma’am?” A man catches my eye and points. “There’s a seat if you want it.”

The woman’s seat is empty.

I sit slowly; it’s still warm.

I’ll get it fixed.

The feeling of déjà vu is gone. I won’t see her any more – but I have seen her again, last week, last month, in my childhood.

Then she is gone.

Something Out of Nothing

“Can you see anything?”

The streets are scorched. The buildings we once inhabited are gray shells. The ashes fall lightly on me. I pretend it’s snow.

“There’s nothing to see.”

They knew they were losing, and they couldn’t tolerate us returning to our homes. First they stole our resources, then our people, now our futures.

Our son lifts a case from the rubble: Grandmama’s seed stash, overlooked in its humble box. Inside, the colorful packets aren’t even singed.

“Isn’t that something.”

Save

For An Orange

“They still won’t eat the oranges?”

Elena sat with her hands folded in her lap; her host, Princess Kilar, sprawled across her daybed. It was hot, too hot for proper posture – unless it was expected of you. No one expected anything of a princess in her own rooms, but of Elena, a great deal was expected, including some discomfort.

“We aren’t…accustomed to them.” Elena and her family had been plucked out of the famine-riddled countryside weeks ago after the princess learned there was royal blood in Elena’s family. Kilar thought it droll to have distant cousins visiting; Elena could only think of everyone they’d left behind. “The children are daunted by the expense.”

“But nothing is an expense here.” The princess sat up. Elena suspected she was genuinely confused. “Here they can have whatever makes them happy, the poor lambs.”

Someone always pays the expense, she thought. Instead, she said, “So I keep telling them, Your Highness.”

“Eight weeks is a long time to be a guest,” the princess continued. “Surely they must have settled in by now.”

“They’re children; they miss home.”

“Even when at home there was no food? Devastating heat?”

Elena shrugged. “It was home.”

“How curious.”

Ellen thought to challenge her to some empathy, to imagine how Kilar might feel if she had to leave this castle, but she expected the retort would be that the castle was beautiful and comfortable – a place worth missing. So Elena quietly accepted the cup of chilled wine a servant brought for her and sipped.

#

The next day, she came across Rohan and Reza sitting enraptured on the floor before the princess. Kilar had just finished peeling an orange, keeping the peel in one complete ribbon, which she curled it back into a simulacrum of an orange, to their amazement. By the boys’ knees were piles of coin-sized chunks of peel, and a tidy pyramid of peeled fruit stood on a platter between them.

“Look, Mama, she can make a snake!” Rohan pointed at the princess’ hollow orange.

“I made a piece this big!” Reza held up a piece of peel the size of her thumb.

“Well done, Reza, you’re learning quickly.” Elena raised an eyebrow at the princess. “How many oranges have you gone through today?”

“It’s no trouble – there are plenty.” Kilar gestured to a bowl next to her. Even after all their practice, at least a dozen oranges were still heaped inside. It reminded Elena of the solstice feast six years ago at the regional governor’s house, when each family was gifted a bushel of oranges. It was expected that they would gorge themselves on fruit before it rotted; everyone in Elena’s household savored two oranges, then she turned the rest into preserves.

“And how many have you eaten?” she asked the boys pointedly.

“Five!” Reza announced.

“I don’t feel good,” Rohan said.

“Perhaps I should take them, Your Highness.” Elena scooped Rohan into her arms.”I’m sure they’ve given you enough trouble for one day.”

“But I want to learn to make the snake!” Reza’s sticky fingers clutched her velvet skirt and she winced. Somewhere in this castle, someone did Elena’s laundry, and she had no idea who. Kilar had assured her that Elena’s household staff would be brought to the castle, but Elena wasn’t sure she’d ever followed through. It was a hallmark of the royal staff to be as unobtrusive as possible; perhaps Chari was here, watching her former family from a distance.

“The princess has responsibilities to attend to,” Elena said. “Come.”

She looked back to see Kilar disinterestedly separating the peeled oranges into segments, laying them out in rows on their platter.

“So how many did you eat, Rohan?” she asked.

“None.”

Elena frowned. “But you feel sick?”

“I’m not sick at all, Mama.” He parted his vest. Heaped inside his shirt were several oranges – still, mercifully, in their peels.

“Rohan, why are there oranges in your shirt?”

“I wanted to give them to Chari. She hasn’t gotten to have any oranges at all. All Kilar wants to do is peel them.”

Princess Kilar, Rohan.” But she hid a smile. “What about your brother?”

“I let him eat the ones I peeled.”

Beside her, Reza nodded emphatically. “They taste like solstice!”

There had been oranges after that particular solstice, but not nearly as many, nor as sweet. Chari and the other staff wouldn’t have tasted oranges in years.

She set Rohan on his feet. “Give Chari your oranges, then, and my blessing.”

Won’t You Smile

(a filk to the tune of Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby, which goes way back!)

Won’t you smile for me, lady
Won’t you smile for me, lady
White teeth shine and she sure looks fine
but she’ll never be your lovin’ lady

Won’t you smile, pretty lady
Won’t you smile, pretty lady
Eyes through the smoke so thick you choke
on the curse you wanna tell that lady

Won’t you smile for me, lady
Won’t you smile for me, lady
She’s gone away where the red scarves wave
taking all us unrepentant ladies

In Stock

“She’s getting pretty good at waiting.” Chris adjusted the fraying grip on his baseball bat as we approached the gas station.

“The sounds scare her.” My shotgun was loaded; the ammo belt was starting to feel light, but this minimart looked promising. “I think she’s beginning to figure out why we make her wait, you know?”

“Had to happen eventually.”

“But we’re not teaching her to shoot yet.” We crouched behind a bullet-pocked concrete barrier across the street and squinted at the minimart.

“Jane, she’s got to learn sometime. It’ll be safer in the long run if –“

“Think they have binoculars in there?” I interrupted.

Chris sighed. “A new set would be nice, yeah.”

I looked over my shoulder. The top of Lena’s lime-green hood was barely visible over the bramble we’d instructed her to hide in. Guns may have taken on a new necessity that I’d had to reconcile with my gun-averse upbringing, but I wasn’t ready for our six-year-old to learn to handle one.

“Let’s go.”

We darted across the weed-choked parking lot. The gas pumps had been emptied, later smashed; most of the shop windows were shattered. I went first, shotgun ready, with Chris at my back. Our footsteps crunched over broken glass. We checked between the ransacked shelves, in the bathroom, the storeroom and the musty office: the place was deserted.

I returned to the entrance and whistled, our signal to let Lena know it was safe. She popped out of the bramble and ran, the fluorescent green parka bouncing like a laser pointer against the gray afternoon. She leapt into my arms, giggling, and I spun her around.

“Gold star for hiding, baby girl.”

“Thanks, Mommy.”

I let her slip to the ground – she was too heavy to carry these days. “What do you want to find in here?”

“Umm…” She tapped her chin, an adult gesture of thoughtfulness she liked to mimic. Finally she looked up at me, brown eyes sparkling. “Peanut butter!”

“Peanut butter?” I teased. “Boring! I want to find a pony…or a unicorn.”

“Or a dragon!” She freed her hand from mine and flung her arms out like wings, growling.

“Hold hands, please,” I reminded her. I could hear Chris in the storeroom sorting through boxes. I collected what little I could find out front: a few protein bars past their expiration date but still sealed, boxes of raisins, two cans of beans that had rolled under the shelves.

“Careful,” Chris said as we entered the storeroom. The beam from his headlamp danced over us. “Chopped liver in the northeast corner.”

The storeroom was almost pitch black aside from our headlamps, and I was relieved I didn’t have to see what Chris had found. ‘Chopped liver’ was our code phrase for something unpleasant, usually human remains, that we didn’t want Lena to see. Luckily, the box Chris was searching through had her distracted. I looked over his shoulder and saw a tangle of wires, batteries, remotes, and other electronic parts that had been obsolete even before the collapse. Looters had overlooked it, but I could see what Chris was after: hidden underneath was some fairly sophisticated survival gear.

Lena’s chubby fingers gripped the edge of the box as she strained to peer inside. Her eyes widened. “Are those from the 80s?”

Ever since we came across a Pac-Man machine in the back of a laundromat, Lena had been obsessed with the decade of her parents’ birth. Any technology she didn’t recognize from before – chunky flip phones, shop-vacs, PCs – must have originated in the 1980s, the furthest back in time she could imagine.

“No, sweetie,” Chris chuckled, “this is new stuff. Look: flashlights, a solar charger…”

He didn’t point out the taser, but handed it silently to me to pocket. We also took a fresh pack of batteries and an unused first aid kit. Chris had already found some canned chicken and, amazingly, peanut butter. We packed it all into our still uncomfortably light satchels.

“Mommy!”

My heart pounded – I thought she’d found the body. But Lena was crouched over a soggy cardboard box.

“Toys!” She held one up: a superhero figure still in its packaging. Relieved, I knelt next to her and helped her rummage through.

“Lena, look!” I held one up. “A dragon!”

She gasped, delighted. I pried it out of its packaging and swooped it into her hands, like playing airplane with her baby food. Holding it aloft, she ran out of the store, roaring into the daylight.

Creation

Lay out the bowls –
the largest fits cupped in your palm –
smallest to largest,
a bit like planets.
Place a very large bowl
at the end.
Pour in the flour, scooping and leveling
carefully
so as
not to
compress it.
Fill the others with
baking soda, cocoa,
sugar, baking powder.
Let the gravity of the largest
draw them, one by one,
glucose and alkalinity
and calcium and magnesium
and carbon dioxide
all activating
like primordial life when you
mix.
Add salt: a sprinkle
of minuscule asteroids
cratering the powder.
A second bowl, not as large.
Combine eggs, oil, and milk.
In the first bowl, make a well
and then there is water,
and it is good.
Pour into pans and
bake.
Breathe in the fragrance.
Creation takes time.
Allow it to cool.

(inspired by these ancient poem-recipes)

The Real Thing

Margo wasn’t surprised to see the visitor hunched on a stool at the card table, breathing deeply, his large hands curled around a chipped mug of coffee. She hadn’t asked his name, and he hadn’t asked hers. She wanted to think he had kind eyes, but actions, not eyes, were what counted these days. Besides, the vote had been taken: the visitor had to move on.

“This is great,” he said, raising his mug. “I haven’t had real coffee in ages.”

“It’s not real.” Margo realized she was scratching her head – she was embarrassed, and pleased. It felt good to have someone compliment something she’d made. They were all so used to flavorless rations that compliments were rendered artificial, so no one bothered to make them.

“It’s just the powdered substitute,” she explained. “They used to give it to the soldiers, to keep them awake longer.”

“Wouldn’t that cause psychosis?”

“Oh, it did. But I don’t drink that much.”

He chuckled and one corner of his mouth lifted. Margo tried to ignore the way her heart fluttered. Nice to know it was still possible, she decided, though it could have picked a better time.

“I drink it, too, when I can find it,” he said. “Guess it tastes better because I didn’t have to make it.”

“Like breakfast in bed.”

“Like breakfast.” He laughed, and Margo did, too, watching the way his smile cut like a sunbreak through his black beard, how his breath made the rising steam dance.

She poured her own mug and sat across from him. The rain had let up; aside from the acidic puddles and maybe a couple mudsnakes, he’d be safe to move on, wherever he was headed. She didn’t ask that, either.

She wished he could stay one more night, now that she was more certain of him. The hidden cameras could capture his smile, his expressions, his words, but not him, the way he radiated help and ease and comfort. If they had – if the others had seen what Margo saw – they’d never have voted him out.

For a moment, she entertained a vision of herself unlocking the door to the basement, throwing open the hatch, and having him meet everyone. They’d like him. It wouldn’t be like last time, when Elle thought that woman seemed sweet and matronly, and then she tried to steal their solar panels. She hadn’t gotten far.

“Well,” he said, and reality asserted itself. “Guess I should get out of your hair.”

“Yeah, I need to…” The usual excuses wouldn’t come to mind. She kept hoping Cooper or Elle would burst through the locked door, announcing he’d been cleared, that he’d been voted in after all. “I should check the roof for rain damage.”

“Need a hand?”

“No, I…I’ve got it. Thank you, though.”

He hesitated only slightly before smiling amenably. In the front hall narrowed by stacks of crates, he pulled on his patched jacket and shouldered his road-stained pack. A blue enamel mug hung from one of the straps. It gave Margo an idea.

She ran back to the kitchen and returned with a tiny tube – a film canister, an antique even before the bombs fell – and held it out to him.

“What’s this?”

“You’ll have to make it yourself next time.”

He popped the lid and breathed deeply. “Sure smells like the real thing.”

“I wish it was.”

“You’d still have given me some?”

“I would.”

He tucked the coffee into the breast pocket of his shirt. She watched his eyes: sea-green and surprising, the contrast even more breathtaking in shadow. He stretched out a hand to shake hers.

“Thanks,” he said, that smile peeking through.

She took his hand and pulled him into an embrace. The pack strap dug into her cheek, but she didn’t care: his back was warm under her hands, and she could feel his, broad and comforting, around her shoulders.

Margo pulled away and opened the door.

#

Cooper was waiting at the bottom of the ladder, shotgun over his shoulder.

“He’s gone?”

“Yep.”

“Never tried anything?”

“Nope. Just needed a dry place to sleep.”

“Wasn’t scoping the joint?”

“No, Cooper.”

“Just checking.” They went down the tunnel, Cooper’s flashlight beam leading the way. “Too bad. He seemed nice.”

“Yeah.” She pictured him down the road, alone, popping the lid off the canister to breathe in the smell and maybe think of her. “I think he was.”

Save