Perennial

I did a double-take when the girl entered the grocery store. I was tall for a girl, and she was a foot taller than me, with ropy-muscled limbs and bulky shoulders. Did they let teenagers get mods now?

She caught me staring and I busied myself arranging the day’s fifth bouquet of roses. With a basket looped over her bare arm, she wove through the produce section, glancing frequently toward my booth.

I finished the bouquet and started the next, shooting my own furtive glances in the girl’s direction. She looked too young to drive, but strong enough to lift a truck. A handful of students in my cohort had mods, but they were either high school graduation gifts or school-funded athletic exemptions. Jenna Hartley had gotten modded when she made dance captain, but what Malibu Glow™ skin and enlarged irises had to do with dance team had always escaped me. This girl, with muscles and stature like that, must be a star athlete, maybe even an international competitor.

Bouquet six of fourteen; not even halfway done. I’d snapped myself with those little green rubber bands at least once per bouquet, and the wastebasket under my register was filled with roses that had lost or bruised petals or broken stems. I was trying to ignore them; their value would be deducted from my wages.

She’d wandered closer, her gaze fixed on the flowers. “Can I help you find something?” I asked.

“I can never remember the name of these.” Her hands were hooked in her belt, as though she could prevent them wanting to roam. “I know they’re called Peruvian lilies, but they have another name, too.”

“Alstroemeria.”

“That’s right.” She fidgeted with her belt loop. “They’re so pretty; I can’t believe they’re just filler flowers. Do people ever just buy them?”

“Sometimes. Mostly people just want roses – if they’re feeling adventurous, variegated roses.”

The girl grinned. At last, she reached out: one sturdy finger caressed the edge of a shiny leaf.

“Want to take some home?”

“Oh, I can’t.” She gazed toward the roses. “It’s so hot today – I just wanted to be somewhere air-conditioned for a bit.”

“Let me guess, after-school sports?”

“I wish. Work. I load trucks at the bakery.” Her broad shoulders shrugged. “And then I missed my bus, so I had to walk here.”

“Bakery…Past North Bank?”

She tucked her thumbs back into her belt as she bent over the canary-yellow roses. “That’s the one.”

My fingers fumbled and the green rubber band shot somewhere under my register. “You walked seven miles to get here?”

“It’s not so bad. My mom’s place is nearby.”

A teenager with heavy-duty mods, a factory job, and only one parent – she’d be too embarrassed to say so, but this girl was in ULI. Urban Labor & Improvement mods were granted under specific circumstances and with labyrinthine conditions. One or both of this girl’s parents were either dead or in so much debt that their only solution was to enroll their daughter in a government work program and have her transformed into a machine.

“None of the other grocery stores have a floral department like this,” she added. “I wanted to work in a florist’s or a nursery when I got modded, but the only options were heavy labor stuff.” She shrugged again. “Don’t really need Flexx or SteelSkel to arrange flowers.”

When Jenna got modded, she kept her muscles delicate and trimmed her waistline to a permanent nineteen inches. On campus, she always wore crop tops to show off her exaggerated hourglass figure. This girl weighed as much as two Jennas and had had her future rebuilt by ULI before she could even draw up her own plans.

I bent down and plucked a yellow rose out of the wastebasket. Its stem was intact, but many of the outer petals were bruised. I plucked off the most damaged petals and held it out to her.

“I can’t pay for that,” she whispered, her cheeks going pink.

“It was going to be thrown out. I’d rather it go to someone who appreciates it.”

“I have to walk another mile, and it’s hot out.” She was backing away, her huge frame seeming to shrink.

“Just put it in water first thing. Anyone can arrange flowers,” I said, “but someone strong has to get the roots in the ground first.”

She stretched out one hand. “Will it be okay?”

“You’d be surprised what thrives.”

Finally, she took the flower, smiling. “Thank you.”

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Finch Forgives

“Hello, Finch! It’s Jay!”

“Why are you here, Jay?”

“Can’t an old friend drop by? I just wanted to see your nest!”

“Last time – and the time before that – you stole all my food.”

“Yes, but you forgive me, right?”

“You’re forgiven – but you may not come near my nest again.”

Forgiveness doesn’t require reconciliation.

unsplash-logoVittorio Zamboni

Compartmentalizing

She begins cleaning out the closet: on hangers, ironed blouses; in drawers, crumpled camisoles; on high shelves, plastic tubs packed with summer clothes.

She doesn’t – can’t – bring them down yet. It’s hard enough to contemplate tomorrow without her mother; summer is incomprehensible.

Adrift

It was the worst August Esther could remember. Not even the final leg of their journey to Vancouver two years ago had been as terrible as this.

Although, she reflected as she massaged her absurdly huge belly, she had been approximately this pregnant then. Besides, here they had clean water, shelter, and plenty of food. True, all eight children and herself were ill, but it beat having to walk fifteen miles a day. At least Amos was well enough to journey to Oregon City for medicine.

In the other room, Samantha was coughing again. Esther levered herself out of her rocking chair and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The clay pitcher was nearly empty – she’d have to go for more water soon. Maybe Curtis was well enough for that task…

The pounding on the door set her heart racing.

“Missus Short! It’s the Company. Open up.”

She froze. They weren’t supposed to be here – the neighbors were supposed to be keeping watch –

Then she remembered how Samantha had been playing with their daughter, how she, too, had been coughing…

“Missus Short, we will break down this door if we have to!”

She set down the pitcher with a trembling hand. Fine. She was on her own.

She opened the door with as wide and supercilious a smile as she could muster. “And what brings the HBC to my home today?”

The group of men before her seemed to tilt and she dug her nails into the soft wood of the doorjamb. The blood pounded in her ears and the only thing that kept her upright was the thought of what these cretins might do to her children should she pass out.

“I think you know, ma’am.” The leader hefted his shotgun. Belatedly, Esther realized they were all armed. Good thing her illness-clouded senses hadn’t even allowed her to think of grabbing her own gun. She was a good shot, but not that good. Plus, what a mess…

“Something humorous, ma’am?”

The group tilted again and the edges of her vision darkened. In her mind, Esther frantically cycled through the names of her children until the world righted itself. “Not remotely.”

“Then if you’ll come with us, please.”

[]

“Mama?”

Esther blinked, trying to focus. They were in a boat. The boat was in the river. Drusilla was vomiting into the river. Curtis was holding a lone oar. Alfred and Aubrey were crying. So was Grant, his tiny face flushed, his eyes glassy.

She looked back. No smoke over the treeline…at least they hadn’t burned the cabin this time.

“Jerusha.” Her voice came out a low growl. “Hold Grant.”

The boat rocked as her eldest daughter took him. Esther’s head spun afresh but she gritted her teeth and held out a hand to Curtis. “Give me that oar. You lose the other one?”

“They only gave us the one.”

“All right.” She settled onto her knees and fixed her eyes on the shore. “Row with your hands, then.”

He didn’t protest, just rolled up his sleeves.

“Drusilla?”

Tears striped her feverish cheeks and her dress was ruined, but her expression was steely. “Sit up front,” Esther instructed. “Make sure we don’t hit anything.”

“Yes, Mama.”

By the time the boat scraped the pebbled shore on the Oregon side of the river, the sun was setting. Esther’s arms ached and trembled, and she could feel something dreadfully similar to contractions. Curtis’s arms were blotchy from the cold river. Even steadfast Drusilla was crying. Esther braced herself on the prow of the beached boat, willing the baby to just wait a little longer, trying to come up with a plan.

“Esther!”

The shout was so faint, she thought she’d hallucinated it. But as she slowly stood, she saw him: Amos, God bless him, running down the beach toward them.

He caught Esther and every child he could reach in a hug. “Traveling doctor saw you,” he gasped. “Are you all right?”

“I’m mad as hell, Amos,” she whispered.

“I know, darlin’.” He kissed clammy forehead. “They won’t take our land. The Griffiths offered to host us for a week or so to recuperate. After that –”

“The children can stay.” She met his eyes. “They need the rest. Me, I’m going back tomorrow.”

“Mama, the baby!” Jerusha protested.

“Baby’ll be fine. If they burn the cabin again…if they think for even a moment they’ve won…”

Amos studied her for a long while. “Damn, but I do love you, Esther. Tomorrow, then.”

Transcript of a Tape Found Near The Depot, 09-01-35

It used to rain a lot out here. Not as much as some places, but enough that we kinda earned a reputation for it. They would joke that summer didn’t officially start until the Fourth of July because before then it would be in the 60s and raining.

The 60s sound downright frigid now. And rain…let’s see…it rained last December. Early in the month sometime. It’s hard to keep track of dates these days.

It used to be real green around here, too, green and beautiful. The hills had these huge forests all over them, and the downtown buildings stuck up between them like silver pillars. On those nice, sunny days – you know, the ones you got in between spells of rain that you just treasured because they were so damn rare, if you can believe it – on those days, the city looked like something out of the future.

Well, the future as we’d hoped it would be. Exactly the opposite of what we got.

I guess I should say why I’m recording this. Power’s been out for years, obviously, with the rivers too low to run the dams. Before that we were using the Internet to try to get aid, but it was bad everywhere. There wasn’t any aid to send. ‘Round August of the third really bad year, the weather forecasters just quit posting their predictions, because there hadn’t been any change to predict. All those websites just said “help.”

Anyway, some folks had their own generators, so here and there you could get Internet if you needed something real specific that no one else had been able to tell you. But the news just kept getting worse and worse, from all corners of the world. Finally, a year and half ago I suppose, even the folks with generators couldn’t get online anymore. The weirdest part was no one seemed to know why. You’d think with all that information that’d been careening around for so many years, we’d be able to figure out why the world had ended, but all we got were wild rumors about nukes and aliens and liberals.

I guess the real weirdest part was that we didn’t mind not knowing. What difference would it make? Still no water.

Christ, it’s hot.

There used to be huge forests out in the mountains between the city and the coast. I haven’t been out there to see if they’re still standing, but I can guess. There used to be a lot of farmland out there, too, but I know for fact that’s still there ‘cuz that’s where I got run out of. Maniacs cursing the “libs” – those are finger quotes there, listeners – loaded with boxes and boxes of ammo but not enough water to drown a fly. Probably no farming knowledge, either. Good riddance. That land must be looking real bad by now. They chased me out nearly two years ago and even then it was turning yellow. Well, some fields are always yellow, but they’re still green, you know? Still alive.

Oh yeah, the tape. So there’s no more Internet, no planes, hardly any trucks…none that can be trusted to transport stuff, anyway. Paper’s mostly used up. I built a converter for my laptop but I save that for when I boot up to look at my old pictures of my grandkids. They were five and two when the bottom fell out of the world. The oldest should’ve been in high school now if everything…well.

So this tape is my invitation, I guess. I found a whole box of them in a basement so I can record a bunch, put them out here and there, maybe someone will be able to play one.

I’ve found a good spot up in the hills west of the rail depot. It’s small, but the soil does alright, and it’s secluded, which I figure is the most important part.

So if you hear this, come out and join me. I got corn, beans, some tasty cacti, even a couple apple trees. What’s mine is yours, if you’re willing to put up with a cranky old lady made extra cranky by the end times.

Oh, and my name’s Missy. That’s probably important. Look for the blue flag on the split pine. I’ll see you soon.

The Death of the Model A

The guttural purr of the Ford clunked into silence well before Johnny and Earl made it down the drive. Grace put down the dress she was hemming and went to the screen door.

She shaded her eyes against the glare of the setting sun on the yellow fields. The Model A was still a good twenty yards from the safety of the garage, but judging from the sounds it had made, it wasn’t going to get there on its own.

“Finally out of gas?” she called as she stepped out onto the porch. The dry planks creaked underfoot.

“Yep.” Johnny and her brother had already hopped out, opened both doors, and started pushing. “Wasn’t sure we’d even make it home.”

Earl freed an arm to point through the empty car at her husband. “You owe me a quarter.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Can I help?” Grace asked. Johnny hesitated, and she didn’t quite blame him. When they’d married four years ago, she was frail thanks to childhood illness. But the drought had no mercy on the frail. Times like this, everyone had to pull their own weight, no matter what.

“Just take it easy, Gracey.”

Johnny ushered her to his place on the driver’s door. He planted a gentle kiss on her cheek before dropping back to apply his weight to the bumper. Grace settled her hands into the prints her husband had left in the dusty window frame and pushed.

Her back and palms and legs ached by the time they reached the shade of the garage. She slammed the door on the dead Ford and leaned against it, catching her breath, ignoring the fiery catch in her lungs.

“So,” she said. “Now what?”

“Head to California, turn migrant?” Earl suggested. He took off his cap and wiped his brow. “I hear it’s not so bad in Salinas.”

“It’s bad everywhere. Besides, how can you turn migrant if you can’t move?” Johnny kicked one of the cracked tires.

“But how are you going to get to the employment lines without the Ford? How are we going to deliver my sewing?” The catch was turning into a tickle, threatening a coughing spell. “How are we going to eat?”

“If we sold the tires off the Ford, we might – ” Earl stopped suddenly, staring at the car.

“What?”

“I was just thinking,” he mused, “we could do what the Johnsons did.”

“Which is?”

“Hoover wagon.”

A laugh burst out of Grace before she could contain it, and it turned quickly to coughing. She checked her hand – no blood this time. Ignoring Johnny’s concerned expression, she turned to Earl. “That ridiculous thing? You trying to kill our mule, too?”

“It’s not that heavy!” he insisted. “Once you take out the engine, it’s much lighter. Even the windows could go. You just –”

He darted to the front of the car and tapped on the bumper. “Just fix the tug here and Izzy can haul ‘er like a cart. It’ll be slower, but we can still transport your mending, and we can keep going into town to wait in all those lines.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow. “It’s not the craziest thing I’ve heard.”

Earl pressed his advantage. “We could even get Grace to town for medicine. If we sold a few things, we could just afford it.”

“If we do this, though,” Johnny said slowly, “we got no way of going to California. Izzy can’t get us there. The car can’t get us there – even if we did have gas, if we take the engine out, it’s done. We have enough saved for bus fare, but not enough to survive in a new place.”

For a moment, Grace envisioned California as it had been in the magazines: America’s Eden, green, breezy, with an abundance of crops instead of endless dying oats. Maybe it wouldn’t be as dusty there, and her lungs could get better…but there still wouldn’t be enough to eat. There still wouldn’t be enough work. The land, the languages, everything would be different – yet not different enough.

“We stay,” she said. “It’s gotta rain sometime, and once it does, we should be here. This was my granddaddy’s farm, and I’m not quitting on it.”

She opened the Ford’s hood. “Now how do we get this thing out?”

The Contest

In the middle of the dark room was a steel kitchen table and the demon. The table was heaped impossibly abundantly with food. The demon sat at the end of it, smiling, waiting.

“I’ve come for my father,” Becky announced.

“He’s here.” The demon gestured and there he was, seated at a dining table high on a dais, fidgeting with the silverware.

The demon raised a hand, cutting off her cry. “He can’t see or hear you. He’s simply here for the contest.”

“What contest?”

“A cooking competition!” The demon spread his arms and the walls transformed: banks of stoves and ovens, rows of mixers, racks of knives, bowls, spoons; a vast and perfect kitchen. “Whichever of us makes the dish your father likes best, with them shall he stay.”

“But – he’s a food writer! How can I make something that will impress him when you have the power to do all this?”

He bared his blackened teeth in a cruel smile. “Begin!”

He materialized in a puff of smoke before one of the stoves, flanked by a staff of smaller demons. Becky remained alone. She looked one last time at the dais and began to plan.

The table seemed to boast more food every time she looked: cured meats, fresh herbs, gleaming peppers, oils and vinegars, whole chickens, fragrant cheeses, bowls of greens. Even with all the exotic flavors and techniques her dad had introduced her to, the variety was overwhelming. Her demonic competition scampered back and forth, taking ingredients, but the table never seemed to empty. They took a slab of purplish fish – tuna, she realized – and some greens, which the demon sautéed. Both items soon reappeared on the infinite table.

Becky picked up some tomatoes. The food rearranged itself, adding crab and capers to the assortment. She was beginning to feel sick with fear. What could she possibly make with her skill level – which was high for a fifteen-year-old, but still – that could best a supernatural being? And assuming she could produce something Michelin-star worthy, what could she make that could win over her father, who’d eaten at the best restaurants in the world?

On the demon’s side of the kitchen, a squat assistant was blending a green emulsion. The demon himself was grilling something wrapped in parchment that was steaming gently and smelled like backyard summer.

And then Becky knew what to make.

*

They served her father three dishes: two by the demon and one by Becky. The kitchen lay shadowed, and the dais had transformed into a candlelit leather booth. He even had his notepad out for reviewing.

He sampled the tuna first.

“Magnificent,” he announced after swallowing. “Beautifully seared. And is this wasabi in the emulsion? Amazing.”

The demon smirked. Becky’s heart sank.

Next, the mysterious parchment dish, topped with fries from multicolored potatoes and bathed in a swirl of scarlet oil. Her father unfolded it, enchanted, and carefully took a bite.

“Barbecued chicken,” he murmured, his eyes closing in appreciation. “Perfectly balanced sauce…fork-tender meat…and these fries, with this spicy oil, it’s just perfect!”

Despair tore through her as he reached for her dish. A tear escaped down her cheek. Even though he couldn’t really see her, she wiped it away furtively.

“Grilled cheese and tomato soup?” Bemusement gave way to a smile, distant but warm. “My favorite.”

Becky felt her own small smile. At least she’d been able to give him this moment, before the end.

He dipped half the sandwich into the soup and took a bite. His smile grew broader. “Mayo instead of butter on the sandwich – nice touch. And this soup…”

He frowned suddenly and tasted another spoonful. The smile reappeared. “Plenty of oregano, Parmesan, garlic…and sun-dried tomatoes. Just like my daughter makes it.”

He looked up at her – really at her – and the dark kitchen vanished behind her, taking the frustrated roar of the demon with it.

They were home. The demon’s polished kitchen had transformed into their own battered wooden cabinets, scratched black mixer, and mismatched knives.

“Hey, Bec.” He was still smiling. “Great soup! Where’s yours?”

She smiled back and poured herself a bowl.

(I forgot to actually submit this to yeahwrite this week, but go check out the other submissions! There are new nonfiction essays, short stories, and 42-word microstories every week!)