02:39 UTC

 “We got a good picture now.”

A television hummed in the small family room, broadcasting news that no one was really listening to anymore. Mommy and Daddy and their friends were all on their feet, cheering, clinking beer bottles. Wendy was watching from the top of the stairs. She was supposed to be in bed, but how could she have possibly slept, with those men walking around on that shining crescent out her window?

Onscreen, gray shapes and those impossible words: LIVE FROM THE SURFACE OF THE MOON. They’d landed a whole six hours ago and were just now actually getting to walk on the Moon, and everyone in the world got to watch, live, from an unfathomable two hundred thousand miles away.

“Here he comes!” Mrs. Clawson, who believed in little green men, was the only grown-up still paying attention to the screen. The others hushed. Halfway through clinking bottles with Mr. Watson, Daddy spotted Wendy, her face scrunched between the balusters. She shrank back, torn between fear of her inevitable punishment and wanting to see Commander Armstrong set foot on the Moon.

“Someone’s coming down the ladder!” Mommy whispered.

“There’s a foot coming down,” Walter Cronkite echoed.

Wendy mimed pleading at Daddy, who grinned and gestured downstairs. She skidded down the carpeted steps and climbed into his lap.

The hulking, space-suited figure was making its way down the ladder with agonizing slowness. Wendy’s foot twitched impatiently, and she saw Daddy’s finger tapping against his bottle. No one spoke.

More huge words: ARMSTRONG ON MOON. More clinking glass, and amazed murmurs instead of cheers. Mrs. Clawson dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.

“Pretty incredible, huh, kiddo?” Daddy said.

“Can I stay up and watch more?” Wendy whispered.

“That’s one small step for man…”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Save

Small Mercies

I envy – and I recognize my
irony – those who can pray
praises to fill a censer,
certain of their hope.
Open and raw,
Abba, Father, I cry only
leniency, relief, mercy.
See me? Small though I am?

Oh, I am worn out,
outdone, overrun,
run down. I need filling up.
Upon this rock, I listen:
Envy grows no good fruit –
root down my soul, water me.
Even here, tenderly, meekly,
leaves unfurl, silver and new.

Girly Burger

“It might be the best thing to ever happen to you.”

“I highly doubt that.”

We’re in line at a burger joint, the four of us staring up at the chalkboard menu. This place has a peanut-butter/pickle burger that John swears is phenomenal. I’m more interested in the beer list at this point, if only for their cider selection. My heels hurt, these bra straps keep escaping, and I sat through a three-hour conference call this morning. I’m not even that hungry. I just want a drink.

And John won’t shut up about this burger.

“Seriously, it’s worth trying.”

“I don’t even like pickles!”

“Yeah, but the peanut butter sauce they use – ”

“I. Don’t. Like. Pickles.”

“Just have them leave it off!”

“Will it still be the best thing to ever happen to me if I do?”

“I mean, probably.”

The line advances and we shuffle forward. I watch enviously as the trio of guys in front of us, in tucked-in dress shirts and polished black shoes, orders a pitcher of beer. I’m not actually sure if my work allows me to have a drink over lunch, but it’s probably better not to risk it. That seasonal apricot cider will have to wait.

“Hang on.” I do a double-take at the menu. “They call their smaller burgers girly-size?”

“Yeah.”

“What the hell! Is that some kind of attempt to shame people into buying full-size burgers?”

John shrugs. “Girls like smaller burgers.”

I glance at Dannica, hoping she overheard, but she and Matt are deep in conversation over the beer list. She’s very prim today in her black sheath dress – she doesn’t look like it, but I know she’s capable of annihilating twelve-inch subs and getting hungry again two hours later. A girly-size burger is a nice snack for her.

I actually planned to order a smaller burger, but now I want a full-size one, just for spite. “I don’t want a pickle burger and I’m not ordering anything called ‘girly-size!'”

I want a beer now, too: a huge, manly pint of something bitter and hoppy with too much foam. So what if I can’t actually finish an entire beer without feeling full? So what if it would be nothing more than a waste of money to order a beer I can’t drink and a burger I won’t finish?

I’m not sure why I can’t stomach the idea of just ordering a cider and a small burger, as if ordering the things I like to eat is something to be ashamed of, but the guys ahead of us finish their order and it’s my turn.

“I’ll have a small-size blue cheese burger, no pickles –”

“The girly size?”

I stare at the cashier, aware that it’s not his fault that his stupid company has a stupid item name and that the only effect a scathing tirade would have would be to ruin this kid’s day.

“Sure. With no pickles. And – ” And a porter almost slips out. “And an apricot cider,” I amend.

Screw work. Screw gendered drinks. Screw gendered food sizes. I swipe my credit card, take my cider, and leave. The cider is tart, a good match for my mood.

John sits down across from me with a strange-colored soda. He sees me staring at it and beams.

“Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, and lemonade.”

“See, this is why I don’t take food recommendations from you.”

Seated at the table behind him are the three banker-looking guys with their pitcher. A fourth joins them: our boss, Colin. I try to hide my cider behind my purse.

He waves at us, his hand halting when he sees the poorly-hidden cider. One eyebrow raises.

“Colin! Pull up a chair.” His friend pours him a glass, but Colin gestures for him to wait. He comes to our table and leans down to me.

“Nice job on that call, Cassie.”

“Oh – thanks.”

“The Boston branch can be a handful, huh.”

I laugh weakly. “Yeah.”

“Enjoy lunch.” He claps John on the shoulder, does the smallest of double-takes at his dishwater-colored soda, and sits down with his friends.

I sigh. My feet feel better now that I’m sitting again. A delicious basket of salty, greasy, pickle-free goodness is on its way and I didn’t have to call it “girly.” Best of all, not only is my boss not mad at me, he complimented me. It almost makes me forget it’s only Tuesday.

Matt and Dannica join us and I raise my cider. “Cheers.”

The Dentist’s House

Our pillowcases are already heavy with candy by the time we reach the stucco house on the corner. Candace and I exchange glances beneath our cat masks – this is a house we need to skip.

We try to be subtle, continuing past the house’s inflatable jack-o’-lantern and plastic headstones as if no one was home.

Of course, Dad notices. “Honey? You missed one.”

We stop, my heart sinking.

“We don’t want to go to that one.”

“Why not? Look at all the decorations they have!”

“We just don’t.”

Candace’s dad studies the house. “Who lives there?” He uses a lower pitch, the tone that tells me that just because I can hear him, it doesn’t mean he was asking me. He leans toward my dad. “Are they…weird?”

My dad rolls his eyes. “A dentist lives there.”

“Ah. Sugar-free gum?”

“Sugar-free gum.”

Dad raises an eyebrow at me. I’ve been trying to get my eyebrow to do that so I can make that face back at him sometimes, but it doesn’t work yet. It wouldn’t matter, anyway – he wouldn’t be able to see it under my mask.

“Every house, Bella. Unless you’re ready to go home?”

I sigh. Now I’m glad he can’t see the face I’m making, or he would definitely take me home. “No…”

“Then go do your thing.”

I nod my cat-eared head in agreement and walk with Candace up the cracked concrete steps to the dentist’s house. The only other kids are at least three houses away. Everyone knows to skip Dr. Ferris’ house. Either their parents don’t let them trick-or-treat here, or they don’t care if their kids skip it.

I wish my dad didn’t care.

The door opens and there’s Dr. Ferris, wearing his scrubs like it’s a costume, smiling widely. His teeth are weirdly white.

“Well, hello, girls.” He picks up the neon green plastic bowl full of gum and holds it out to us.

“Trick-or-treat,” we say obediently.

“Your costumes look great.” He curls the fingers of his free hand into claws and meows at us.

Candace snatches a piece of gum and backs away. There’s only room for one of us at a time, so I can’t leave yet, I have to be polite and reach in and grab some gum, but when I do Dr. Ferris grabs my hand.

“You don’t want that flavor,” he says quietly. “There’s some bubblegum in there. You just gotta dig for it.”

I pull my hand away. “This is fine.”

And we run down the walkway. We usually run – trick-or-treating takes way too long if you don’t – but I’m running faster than Candace now, and the back of my neck feels prickly, like I’m an actual cat with my fur standing up.

“What did you get?” Dad knows we only get gum here, and I’m mad at him for not letting us skip it, for Dr. Ferris’ weird smile, for not coming up the walkway with us, for not seeing.

My face is hot under my mask. I fish the gum out of my pillowcase and shove it at him.

“Bubblegum? I thought you liked bubblegum.”

“I don’t want it.”

Aptitude

Aunt Paula and I were having breakfast when the Administrator summoned me. My first thought was that I was in trouble, maybe for the unsanctioned mural I’d done in the Bunker’s generator room. We looked at each other over spoonfuls of oatmeal, the Administrator’s message blinking blue on the wall screen.

“Fighting the Coulson brothers again, Miri?” she asked.

“They were teasing Britney!” I hesitated. “Do you think…with my birthday, could it be aptitude testing?”

“There was a backlog.” Aunt Paula was a test proctor. “Maybe it’s just finally your turn.”

I jumped up and squeezed around the table, hurrying to my room. I’d decorated it like the other Bunker girls did: photos from antique fashion magazines, papers I’d scored well on, sketches of my friends. I’d also hung up my paper targets – firearms champion in my age bracket three years running. I liked to think my parents would be proud.

I frowned at my reflection and pulled my hair into a bun. If I still had pimples on my forehead, at least my hair could look grown-up.

Aunt Paula was pacing the tiny kitchen. She smiled when she saw me, but it was a tight, forced smile. The summons on the screen was gone, replaced by a faux view of a sunny meadow.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Everything’s fine.” She held up a small black tube.

“Wow – lipstick?” I’d never worn it before. Britney’s brother had brought her one from Outside, the expedition before he disappeared. All the girls coveted it.

“Special occasion.” She helped me apply it, a wine color that made me feel worldly and pretty. “Now, please be polite to the Administrator. And come straight home when you’re done, understand?”

I was already out the door. “Okay!”

#

I paced the Administrator’s office while I waited for his receptionist to find him. The walls bore paintings of long-lost landscapes: tropics, mountain forests, deserts more colorful than the one my dad had died in. Aunt Paula, having already lost her sister, formally protested when they sent him Out on expedition: I was five  years old at the time, already motherless, what were they thinking?

The Administrator sent him anyway. Their best guess was that he got caught in a radiation storm, but no one ever found a body.

I sat on a threadbare green couch and instead daydreamed about my work placement. Maybe I could work in Hydroponics, or – I hardly dared dream it since I was so young – maybe my marksmanship scores were good enough that I could teach firearms classes.

“Miss Skye?” The Administrator emerged at last. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.” He looked busy, distracted – maybe he was remembering my dad – but he made eye contact and shook my hand. The receptionist stood behind him.

“I’m looking forward to taking the aptitude tests, sir.”

His handshake stopped. “Aptitude? Of course – you’ve just had your sixteenth birthday. Well, that isn’t why I called you here today.”

My wisp of a wish to teach marksmanship vanished.

“The truth is, we already know your greatest attribute, don’t we?” He clicked a remote and his wall screen displayed footage of me, eyes focused behind safety glasses as I emptied a rifle clip into the center of the target 300 yards away.

“You’re going Out.”

He said it like I should be proud. Other kids dreamed of going Out – maybe they’d find fuel, or fresh water, or some little luxury like makeup and be Bunker heroes – but my dad had gone on expeditions. I knew the most likely things you’d find Outside were sand and death.

“Your expedition leaves tomorrow morning,” he was saying. The receptionist handed me a requisition chip for my gear. Her smile was tight, like Aunt Paula’s had been.

“What about my test?” I whispered. I could feel the stupid lipstick flaking. “My aunt said there’s a backlog.”

The Administrator shifted. “Yes, there’s…well, the truth is our greatest need is explorers, like you. The Bunker requires some very specialized equipment, and we’re sending many explorers Out to find it. Think you’re up to the challenge?”

The fighting. The graffiti. My mind raced: Britney’s brother had gotten caught distilling alcohol. And Sarah’s mom had gone Out after those rumors of hoarding rations…

“You’ll do our Bunker proud, Miss Skye.”

The requisition chip cut into my palm as I clenched my fists. There would be no argument; the best revenge I could get would be to come back alive.

“Yes, sir.”

Save