Wendy had always believed the news exaggerated. She’d run the store for nearly thirty years and didn’t see any reason to not plan an anniversary party, no matter how bleak the news was. If anything, a party would cheer them all up, take their minds off things.
In another four months, she could’ve done it.
The news had scared off the other stores: the laundromat, Suarez’s hardware store, even the big-box store. Wendy took no pride in outlasting them. The news reported lootings in the bigger cities, so she starting sleeping in the office. Just in case. She also let Mooch have free run of the place, feeding him whole cans of tuna up on the counter by the dusty backup register.
Her own register accumulated dust, too. The Benson boys occasionally bought a candy bar to share while they smoked outside Suarez’s boarded-up shop. She didn’t know where they got cigarettes – certainly not from her – but she never asked. Their mother, a real smart cookie, had qualified a few months back, but refused to go up to the space station without her family. The suits ended up dragging her away, from what Cassie said. She’d heard the boys screaming from across the street.
Wendy knew she’d never qualify. She didn’t mind – what would Mooch have done without her?
He was out patrolling the alley when the missiles finally launched. Wendy stopped and stared at the BREAKING NEWS and the white trails she’d been bracing herself to see for months.
Maybe she’d overprepared and actually numbed herself, because at first it didn’t seem to register. Mostly she was upset she couldn’t throw her anniversary party.
Time to go, she reminded herself. Hopefully the back roads stayed clear. That’d be the ticket.
Time to go.
She pulled on her denim jacket, dug her keys from her purse, and, with shaking fingers, unpinned her nametag for the final time.
Then Cassie and her daughter came in.
It made Wendy’s heart seize up, seeing little Shay holding her mama’s hand. Five states away, Wendy’s daughter was probably just picking up Brayden, and Wendy knew she’d never let him go because if Wendy’s daughter was still that age – hell, if she was here now – Wendy wouldn’t let go, either.
Cassie came to the register with a bottle of wine and a box of ice cream sandwiches. Wendy glanced back at the TV, hoping for some kind of map revealing how widespread the madness was, but it just showed blue sky and tangled white stripes, like an airshow from hell. A countdown appeared: twenty-five minutes.
Barely enough time. Getting Mooch in his crate would take at least five minutes…
Cassie was still standing by the register. What was she waiting for? Wasn’t she in a hurry, too? She had a child to pack up, and that took way more time than a cat.
Belatedly, Wendy realized she wanted to pay. Shay was staring up at her, waiting for her ice cream. Wendy remembered, as a child, knowing when things were wrong and how frustrating it was when no one would explain what was wrong. She also remembered how badly she wanted to protect her own children from such truths, just for a little longer. What a blessing, that Shay was still too young to realize.
So Wendy did her job. Cassie kept playing her role, handing over money: a twenty.
Precious seconds were slipping away. “What am I supposed to do with it?”
“Please?” Cassie’s daughter was starting to fidget, so Wendy quickly counted out change, fingers still trembling.
They left. Shay was smiling, oblivious.
Wendy looked up at the screen. It was impossible to tell which trails were missiles and which were shuttles, bearing a few hundred of the best and brightest into their future.
The countdown suddenly dropped. Now there were only ten minutes, twenty seconds. Not even enough time to escape the neighborhood. A map finally appeared, showing red blast zones spanning countries. Her entire state was smothered in it.
Wendy only realized her fingers had been moving when they stopped. She looked down and saw the twenty shredded into little squares sprinkled across her clogs. Was that a felony? It felt kinda nice. Eight minutes, fifty-one seconds.
Wendy fetched a bottle of whatever Cassie had bought and popped a can of tuna. Mooch trotted in and she sat down next to him, scratching his arched back as he ate.
She raised the bottle to her ceiling. “To thirty years.”