Cover

PROLOGUE

A small boy is playing down by the creek that runs through Marysville. I can see his body between the trees and bushes in intermittent flashes each time he rises like a little pop-up toy and moves farther down the stream. Something in the water has grabbed his interest, because he remains rooted to the path alongside the rushing water for only a second or two, and then he’s off again. His hair is red, and the top of his head flashes silver in the morning sunlight dancing off it. He’s carrying a stick in his right hand, and he jabs it into the water each time he stops.

I don’t know him, although I should. I’ve met every living soul in Marysville. Many of the dead, too, before we buried them. Those we knew intimately—our fathers and mothers and friends, long ago given back to the rich, black comfort of the earth. Those we didn’t know who lay for months and months rotting because there were so many that we finally gave up trying…

I am no longer saddened by those thousands of other souls I never had the opportunity to meet. They’re just gone.

The boy stops again and jabs the stick out as far as he can stretch. He pulls it back in a whisking motion, and then reaches out again. Whatever it is that interests him so much must be just beyond his reach. But, he’s persistent, as children can be.

I’m worried that he’ll fall into the water, running high in this month of April, fed by tiny streams far away in the Santa Ana Mountains to the east. It was a wet winter. On the highest peaks there are pockets of snow still visible. I lower the basket I carry onto the path and begin to move quietly in his direction. I don’t want to startle him.

If only I were one of them…if I were, I’d simply whoosh as silently as the wind to his side, and there I’d protect him with my arms of smoky substance. Perhaps I’d ease the object of his interest closer to the bank.

Perhaps I’d simply let him fall and be taken away in the rush of water.

Even after all these years we still don’t know precisely who they are, or why they came and did what they did. Only that many still remain. They watch. That is all we know for certain.

I’ve lost sight of the little red-haired boy, but I hear the splash. Now I am running as fast as I can. He was born only days before the calamity struck, I'm positive, judging from his age, and if they won’t help him, I must. He is innocent after all. Surely they must know this, but this morning they are nowhere to be seen.

Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they never did. They just wanted us gone, but we refused to leave.

Marysville Is Dead

December 23rd, 2017

 

Jason had just left that afternoon. We’d been watching TV together in my bedroom. Aftermath, a series about a bunch of teenage kids who somehow survive a worldwide catastrophe. It was kind of lame, but I liked the lead character—a girl about my age. Mom was in the kitchen. She didn’t care, or at least she never worried about Jason being in the bedroom alone with me. He was openly gay, you see, and add to that the fact that he attended church with his mom and dad and little sister every Sunday…well, she trusted him. Daddy was a little more suspicious. I remember a year earlier when Jason first started coming over. Daddy showed him his gun collection, of all things. Jas and I laughed about it later.

It was raining. Jason had been sitting on the floor at the end of my bed, right below the TV on my dresser. He got bored watching Phoebe fight off a pack of zombies, I guess, and so he finally stood up and left. I’d been texting back and forth with Anna Merovich, my best friend at Marysville High, lying on my stomach on the bed, just over Jason’s head all the while. I set Anna aside on the cover, and followed him out of the room.

“Later dude,” Jason said as he pulled the front door inward. He started cussing right away. He hadn’t thought about bringing an umbrella, even a jacket. I watched him jump off the porch into the rain, and through the downpour until I lost sight of him three doors up the street. Mom walked out of the kitchen holding a spatula in her right hand right then. I guess she’d heard him cuss.

“He’ll be soaked crazy by the time he gets home. And half-frozen,” she said kind of indifferently. Well, yeah. It’s December, Mom.

“Does his mother cook?” she asked. But before I even processed the dumb question, she’d turned and gone back into the kitchen.

How should I know?

My mother was a cooking freak. I could smell some weird new cookie concoction she’d been busy with all afternoon. Two days before Christmas. There must have been a hundred plastic containers and gay-looking tins piled up all over the place. Platters of them sitting everywhere. Gifts for all the neighbors. Gifts for relatives and teachers and the mailman. Christmas crap to make me gain weight, but I wasn’t going to fall for that. Not me.

She turned and went back to her business after I laughed and shook my head.

“He’ll survive,” I shouted after her.

But he wouldn’t for very much longer. Nor would she.

I walked back into my bedroom and grabbed my phone, and then wandered back out to the living room, debating which to turn on first; the Christmas lights, or the big flat screen Daddy had bought last month. The TV was easier. I clicked the remote, and then plopped onto the couch and resumed texting Anna.

hey what’s up? sorry jason was here.

I waited for her to text me back, curled my legs up on the couch. Grabbed the remote again and changed the channel to find something other than news. Out in the kitchen, Mom was humming a Christmas song. I checked to see if Anna had replied. It was 4:39, and Daddy would come rolling into the garage by 5:00. Like punctually at 5:00. He was an accountant, and lived the religious life of “everything in proper order.” Every “i” dotted, every second accounted for. The last really clear thing I remember thinking was that Mom had better be cooking dinner instead of cookies, and it had better be on the table by exactly 5:15. If it wasn’t

The intense burst of light shocked me. I mean really intense, like a million flashbulbs had popped all at the same time, right outside the window across the room. But there wasn’t an explosion, even a sound, except for the spatula Mom had had in her hand hitting the floor, and then a clump when her body followed.

The TV went black. The lights in the room didn’t even crackle, they just poofed off. I sat there blinking for a second or two.

Mom?

I got up, threw the phone aside, and raced into the kitchen. I freaked! She lay on her back with one leg bent awkwardly sideways, and her arms spread out as though she’d tried to break her fall. The spatula was a few inches away from her right hand, and the oven door was open.

“Mom!”

She didn’t move. I ran across to her and hit my knees.

"Mom?” I shook her, but there was no response. I put an ear to her chest, and then my hand. Nothing. Nothing.

“Oh God, let her be alive. Let her just be in a coma or...” But people in comas breathe a little, don’t they? Their hearts still beat? I shook her some more, and then kissed her over and over, begging her to wake up. She didn’t. I stayed there beside her for several agonizing minutes, crying, losing it more and more with each second that ticked by.

It was already dark as a tomb outside. The rain kept banging on the roof, but my heart had stopped pounding so fiercely by then. I left her there and ran back into the living room. Daddy would be home soon. What time was it? I picked the phone up off the floor and looked at the screen. Black. I shook it stupidly, like that would wake it up, and then tried to reboot it. That didn’t work, and so I threw it aside again. The Christmas lights. I crawled behind the tree and jiggled the plug, pushed the button on the power strip over and over, and finally gave up.

I started to return to the kitchen, but my mind was throwing commands at me that were contradictory; worse than jangled. I tried the wall switches instead. Click, click, click. Useless.

I cursed, stumbling across the room to the mantle, found the candle lighter there and clicked it. The clock hanging above the polished surface said 4:39, the very same minute that the phone had said when I first threw it down. But I knew at least five minutes had passed.

Daddy, get home. Help me!

Whatever that light was, it had to have been the cause. I rushed to the front door and yanked it open. I didn’t know what to expect when I landed out on the porch. Would all of the houses up and down the street be incinerated? All the trees turned to blackened ghosts? But everything seemed so normal as I stood there looking right and left and up at the angry black-gray sky. One thing caught my eye, though. Not normal. At the end of the block, three houses down, an SUV sat all cock-eyed with the engine idling, its right front fender smashed into the Rainey’s Mazda at the curb. Why hadn’t I heard the collision?

I glanced back into our house, and then turned and leapt down the steps and headed through the rain to the SUV. I expected…what did I expect? To see some person inside, shaking his head? Like, What happened? He wasn’t moving. Whoever he was, he was leaning against the door, slumped forward against the steering wheel. I pulled the door open. He tilted slowly, and then fell out onto the street. I screamed and jumped up and down in horror when he hit. I left him there. Across the hood I could see the Rainey’s house. The windows were all black. The same at the Joslin’s next door. The Jackson’s. Our house. Every house on both sides of the street. Panic set in, because if they were all dead; if this guy lying on the street, and who’d been driving peacefully along, was dead, what might have happened to Daddy?

No, no, no. Whatever happened, it happened only on our block, or at the very worst, in our neighborhood.

 

Daddy never came home that night.

 

 

I Meet Crazy

                    

It was the longest night of my life. I knocked on every door, banged on every window, screamed for someone to wake up and tell me what had happened. I was soaked, too, at the end of it a few hours later when I finally gave up and returned to our—my—house.

Mom was still in the kitchen, lying there with her arms spread out as though waiting for the cross to be dragged in. I cried some more, and then walked away.

I hated the dark, the absolute quiet, and so I found every candle I could, spread them out in the living room on the tables, and lit them one by one. Have you ever sat in a room illuminated only by candles? The flickering made it seem like ghosts were whisking through the flames. I could see their dim shadows dancing on the ceiling and walls. I could hear them whispering ugly comments.

You’re all alone, now, except for US!

Stand up! Come here!

We missed you, but now we’ve found you!

Want to see your mother and father again?

Laughter.

I screamed to make the voices stop, but I knew there really weren’t voices anywhere except in my head. I screamed more anyway, maybe just to make the silence stay away. And when I could scream no more, I cried again until I fell asleep in exhaustion and despair.

 

I woke up early the next morning. It must have been after 8:00 because the front window facing east was ablaze with light. The rain had thankfully stopped. What a horrible nightmare! Reality hit. I’d slept on the couch. I was cold. Mom…the image of her lying on the kitchen floor; the guy in the SUV. None of that, and a hundred other images bombarding my brain, were parts of a terrible dream. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, checked the phone one more time—still dead—and moped to the kitchen. Mom hadn’t moved, of course. I had to look away.

It was only a matter of time until someone came onto our street. Police cars. Ambulances with their sirens blaring. Someone from outside the neighborhood in search of victims and survivors.

I thought of this. It had to be true. Just a matter of time.

I closed my eyes, stepped over Mom, and walked to the refrigerator, praying that the sound of a siren or the grumble of an engine outside would break the silence. I hadn’t eaten in nearly twenty-four hours, and my stomach was in knots, but it screamed for food all the same. The light was off, but the inside was still cool. I grabbed a small container of yogurt on the top shelf, and then another. Taking them to the counter beneath the window on the opposite side of the room—away from Mom—I pushed the curtains aside and stared out. The patio table. The two maple trees near the rear fence. The shed between them where Daddy kept the lawnmower and garden tools, droplets of water dripping from the eaves of the roof. I ate and wondered what my next move should be.

I had to go back out. Maybe walk to Anna’s house four blocks away. Hope against hope that she was alive, as scared as I was.

Get away from this mausoleum.

 

Two more interminably long days and nights of indecision and growing despair dragged by. Every other hour I’d brave the eerie silence, go onto the front porch and call out. Not a sound of any kind, except for my screaming voice dying on the air when it left my lips. Finally on the third day I could bear it no longer; I was starting to go insane waiting for someone to appear on the street. A loudspeaker atop an emergency vehicle calling for survivors to come out. That hope melted, and so I set out to go to Anna’s house.

The dead man still lay on the wet pavement, but the engine had stopped long ago. I wanted so badly to see someone walk out of their house as I went along.

“Hey, you’re alive, too! Do you know what happened?” Deathly silence instead. I turned left onto Ashton Street. Just four blocks. Please, God.

Ashton, as far ahead and behind me as I could see, was a mess. More of the same; cars stalled in the middle of the street. Two of them locked in a head-on collision. A delivery van on someone’s lawn farther ahead. I passed the body of an elderly woman lying on the sidewalk, still holding fast to her dead dog’s leash, an umbrella resting a few feet away on the parking. A cat lying on its side behind the railing of an otherwise deserted porch on my left. I tried to inure myself to the ugliness, but a feeling of dread began to overwhelm me all over again. I pressed on toward Anna’s.

Pine Street. Anna’s two-story house sat mid-block. My spirits fell the second I turned onto her street, more so because of the numbing silence rather than the few cars sitting in their crooked stances with dead drivers inside.

The front gate of the white picket fence stood ajar. I pushed it farther open with a creak of the hinges, entered the yard and approached the porch. I just knew she was inside, and that she was alive. Probably cowering in her bedroom. I put my foot on the first step.

“Heya’! Ya’ made it!” The sound of the voice made me trip. I rolled over onto my side and scanned the houses across the street, relieved beyond words, shocked, but frightened as well. I spotted him one door up. He stood on that porch with a brick in his hand. The front window behind him was shattered. He appeared to be about my age, but it was hard to tell from the distance separating us. He was short, with unkempt, blonde hair, and wore a black leather jacket and jeans all full of holes. He had a grin on his face as he leapt off the porch and walked in my direction.

“Ain’t no use knockin’ on that door. I been in all these houses,” he said waving the brick around. “They’re all dead. Busted the windows to get in. Deader’n cats in a gunnysack.”

“You…”

“Name’s Munster. Goddam, I’m glad ta’ see someone else made it! What’s your name? You live around here? God, I’m glad ta’ see ya’!”

Munster? Like in…Herman?

He threw the brick down and reached out to help me back to my feet.

“What’s your name?”

“A…Amelia McDougal. Oh Jesus, I’m as glad to see you as you are to see me! Do you know what happened yesterday...or, how many days ago? How many streets have you searched? Are we the only two left? What happened!”

His smile seemed genuine enough. He wasn’t carrying a knife or a gun, and so I let him pull me back to my feet. Three or four inches shorter than me. If he was a student at Marysville High, I didn’t recognize him.

“No idea. Just a blast of light, then nuthin’. I live a coupla’ blocks over,” he said pointing north. “My old man an’ my ma didn’t make it. Yours?”

“No. I mean my…my mother died. I don’t know about my father. He was probably on his way home when it happened. He might still be alive somewhere; hurt or something. You said you’ve looked in this house?”

“Yeah. They’re all dead. I been everywhere this morning. Jesus, what a fuckin’ mess. Same wherever I went.”

“How far?”

“Clear over to Main. South to Fifth Street.”

Quite a large area. Five square miles at least. So, our entire neighborhood, and then some.

“No one?” A stupid question, still…

“Not a soul.”

Munster let go of my hand and plopped onto the bottom step. I followed.

“So…what do we do?”

“Beats the hell outta’ me. I guess keep on lookin’ for others. Bound ta' be others 'sides you an' me that survived.”

“Aren’t you scared? What if there’s like a mob roaming around and you run into it?”

Munster grinned. He leaned sideways and back, and reached into the waistband of his black jeans.

“Found this inside some guy’s house a few blocks away,” he said proudly, pulling a pistol out. “He ain’t gonna’ need it no more.”

Oh my God. Armed, and probably dangerous.

“If I see anyone and he don’t look friendly, I’ll blow his head off!”

I considered trying to get away, but if he was crazy, how far would I make it before he blew my head off? My options narrowed to one single, not-very-pleasant point. Keep him happy for the time being. But maybe he wasn’t psycho. Maybe he was simply scared and confused like I was. I started badly.

“Munster. That’s a funny name…”

“Munster,” he said tossing the gun up and down in his hands as if it were a harmless piece of fruit. What if it went off, and worse, what if it landed in his hands, pointing at me, and fired. “Like in monster.”

“Your parents named you THAT?” I didn’t mean for the question to sound the way it did.

“Nah. They stuck me with Francis. I always hated that name. Made me sound like a sissy, ya’ know? I changed it when I went to high school. You go to Marysville High?”

“Yes. I did, anyway.”

“Me too. I hate that place. That asshole Harry Dink-Fuck-Face and his buddies used to catch me, most times at lunch period on the quad…I’ll shoot that sonofabitch if I see him. If he made it. Anyway, that’s why I’m Munster now.”

“That would be murder, Munster. It would be horrible!”

“Why would it be murder?” he said. “If most everyone’s dead like I think they are, there ain’t no laws anymore, and if there ain’t no laws, and nobody to arrest me, I don’t have to put up with some jock an’ his friends beatin’ up on me. They’re dead meat, though, if they’re still alive and I see ‘em.”

“You can’t do that!” I looked at him—so short, but so determined. I felt sorry for him. “Maybe if they’re alive and they want to keep hurting you, you could just wave the gun and scare them away. But you’re probably right. They’re most likely dead.

“Why us? Why did we survive?”

“You keep askin’ that.”

“No I don’t. I asked you how before. Not why.”

“Well how the hell should I know?

“Let’s get outta’ here. You hungry? I know a good restaurant,” he said with a laugh.

“No, I ate breakfast, but okay, let’s go. We can’t sit here forever.” I thought of Anna inside as I stood up. Another sharp pain hit me. “Anna. Did you know her? Is she…”

“Yeah, I saw her once or twice at school. She’s in there.”

I cursed whatever had happened, whoever had caused it. A tear came to the corner of my eye. “Which way shall we go?”

“Thatta’ way,” he said pointing the gun toward Ashton. “There’s an Arco station six blocks down. I didn’t go that far. They got Cokes in the cooler inside there. Free Cokes. Ya’ know…” he started to say, and then cut himself off.

“JESUS CHRIST!” He pushed me hard, off the walkway, into a small bush on our side of the fence. I landed with a thud. He was right on top of me. “Oh God. Oh shit. Don’t make a sound!”

The Flamecar and Saint Andrew's

His face was buried in my hair, his mouth so close to my left ear that he could have bitten it if he'd wanted. I tasted wet grass, twisted my face sideways and tried to spit.

“What? What do you see!” I mumbled out of the corner of my mouth.

“Shut up. I dunno’ what it is…” He stopped and raised his head, looking through the open spaces between the branches for a second or two, and then plopped back down on me.

“Don’t say nuthin’. Crap. Don’t move. I don’t know what it is, but it ain’t human.”

I jerked and squirmed. “Get off me! What do you mean it isn’t human?” I whispered angrily. It wasn’t easy to force him off, because despite his size he was surprisingly strong. After another couple of seconds, though, he finally gave in and rolled off, then onto his knees beside me, sticking his head into the branches once more.

“Shh!”

I rolled over, got to my knees, and joined him there, pushing the rough branches wider apart. I stared silently for a second or two, and at first I didn’t see it—that is, until it moved. Three houses down, on the parking beside a tree, a gangly, iridescent shape twirled its upper torso slowly. It had been facing the street, but now it was facing us. It could have been a very tall human, in a way, except for the lack of skin or hair, and the fact that it was so emaciated looking. I saw no arms for a brief, few seconds. It might have been that its entire body melted so well into the thick brown background of the tree, nearly invisible again when it stopped moving, but finally a long appendage that hung nearly to the grass broke the air, and raised itself. A lone, spiky finger unfurled from its end, and came to rest on the top-center of its featureless face, as if the creature was a scholar, concentrating on some lofty thought. There it remained, unmoving.

Munster reacted by yanking his head free of the brush and spinning onto his rear, his hands slamming onto the ground on either side of him. I knew without asking that he was thinking the same thing I was—how to escape.

I kept one eye on it, trembling, waiting for the thing to step away from its anchor of the tree and set off in our direction, the other on Munster sitting there with his eyes wide open, staring blankly at Anna’s house ten yards away. Just when I was ready to bolt, he bounded forward onto hands and knees, and pointed to the walkway leading to the rear of Anna’s property. The thick hedge our heads had been in extended unbroken all the way back; our only avenue of escape.

I took one last look through the branches at the creature, and then followed my new friend as quietly and quickly as I could.

Three-quarters of the way down the sopping wet sidewalk, Munster rose to his feet and made a mad dash through the puddles of water toward the fence at the alley. I cringed and cursed him underbreath for being so stupid. Unless the creature out front was blind as a bat, and deaf as a box, it had to have seen him, or in the very least, heard him. I had no choice, and I didn’t look back when I got to my feet and ran noisily after him.

He hit the fence at a dead run, and catapulted over it. He turned with a fluid movement when he landed, and motioned excitedly for me to run faster. I wasn’t as adept at the steeple chase routine as he was. It took me two tries to scale the waist-high rail. I made it, at last, ripping a massive hole in the jeans I’d only worn twice in the process. I landed on my back with a bone-jarring clunk.

Munster was whispering louder, now, urging me in a panic to get to my feet, all the while scanning the open space of the walkway behind us.

“Goddamit, hurry it up!” He grabbed the collar of my T and jerked.

“All right! I’m coming! Where is it?”

“No idea. It ain’t here yet, though. Jesus, it’s ugly.”

We scooted along the fence in the direction of Ashton. The wrong way! It was down there somewhere on Pine. It couldn’t have helped noticing our noisy retreat—if it could hear. We needed to run in the opposite direction.

“Munster! That way,” I said pointing toward Laurel Avenue fifty or sixty yards away.

“No, no, no. You never run away from someone chasin’ ya’, you backtrack an' go toward it, once you shake it off your tail. Don’t you watch movies?”

He tugged me along, explaining in clipped sentences the theory of evading the law, or Harry Pendragon and his gang of bullies. I didn’t argue the point. I prayed that his plan would work, anyway.

“But what if there’s more of them down this way? What if they’d been watching me when I was on Ashton?”

“We’ll find out. I’m right, though. I know how cops and stuff think. Trust me.”

Stuff? Cops, maybe—Munster was probably a juvenile delinquent from way back—but the thing out there was definitely not a cop, chasing him down in his squad car. It landed in the category of “stuff”, however. That much was certain.

He ran, we both ran. Passing each of the houses I glanced between them, expecting to see it, and worse, expecting it to catch sight of us. The End. If it spotted us, with legs the length of a stop sign, it would be on us before we got ten more feet.

An ancient detached garage sat a few feet in from the alley at the last house. Munster darted to its corner, pressed himself against it, and then slowly poked his head around it. A few seconds passed. He turned quickly, surveyed the distance behind us, and then spoke.

“I don’t see nuthin’. Maybe it didn’t see us back there. Let’s get crackin’.”

“Hah! You can bet it heard you!”

“Shut up. How do you know it can even hear?”

I didn’t, like I said, and I hoped whatever it was, it was blind as well. Probably not, though. My heart sank.

We snuck along another fence bordering the property—a dilapidated wooden-staked barrier. At the end of it he halted once again and peered up Pine.

“Shit, I don’t see it.”

“What now?”

He clenched and unclenched his fingers.

“Follow me.” With that he slowly crept away, south down the sidewalk until he arrived at the gutter, at which point he rose up and flew off again as fast as he could run. He didn’t look back to see if I was following. I did follow him as fast as I could run, though not nearly as athletically as he. Maybe sometime before Harry and his boys started beating on him, Munster had been on the school track team. If not—highly likely—he should have been.

Juniper. Magnolia. Oak. Birch—my street. Neither of us slowed. Had I been leading the way, I would have turned right and gone up one of those avenues. On Ashton, we were in plain sight if the creature was following.

He went straight ahead, defying all good sense. Three more familiar streets whizzed by until Munster veered left and shot across Ashton. On the other side stood the Arco, its convenience store at the rear. I’d been to the store a hundred times before the world went to hell, but that morning...

Four rows of pumps. All but one of them had cars at each station. Each with a driver either splayed out on the pavement nearby, or else inside, quite dead, and uncaring about our intrusion through their graveyard. Munster was the first to the glass door leading into the store. A body lay half in, half out. He wrenched the door all the way open, and then stepped on the poor dead man’s back as he entered. Disgusting.

I couldn’t help but notice, as I carefully swung the door open again, and with great care stepped across the guy’s body, the flies crawling all over his downturned face. Whipping in and out of the unprotected areas where his purplish skin was visible. I flashed to Mom’s body back home. To Daddy’s somewhere out there, God only knew where.

I forced the heartbreaking thoughts out of my mind. Held onto the door for a moment, and looked back up Ashton. Oh no. No, no, no! What I saw made me stumble backward.

Far in the distance in the bright blue sky I saw scores of them. Not like the creature we’d seen on Pine. Infinitely bigger. Dark, though, these spinning shapes that were suddenly appearing. An army dropping down, spreading east and west, moving silently across Marysville. I was certain my eyes weren’t deceiving me when I saw the same types of creatures we’d seen earlier zipping out of each of them, descending gracefully until they lost themselves in the tops of the trees and downtown buildings farther in the distance, bolts of more blinding light coming from the dark tornados every second or two.

Oh-my-God! That’s what happened yesterday!

“Munster! Look! Hurry! Oh God, we’ve got to get out of here!”

He dashed back to my side and looked out, standing frozen for a second or two.

“Ho-ly SHIT!”

Grabbing hold of my hand, he jerked me over the body and headed toward the nearest island. He hesitated for only a heartbeat. On either side of the pump sat a car. One, a late model packed with dead bodies, the other the strangest, ugliest car I’d ever seen. Empty.

“This one. Get in!”

Against every instinct I skirted the front of the desecration. A smallish, bright red, open-front cowl sat atop the hood. I had no idea what purpose it served, if any. The hood itself, though, had been painted by some mad artist…probably the guy stuck in the glass doorway. He looked the type, flashing back to his spiked hair and strange clothes. A red and orange dragon’s head with angry, squinting eyes on either side of the littler hood cowl, covered the entire surface, ending above the grill painted as angry, pointed teeth. Red-orange flames, starting at the fender top, shot backward, clear past the rear door on the panels. I glanced in dismay across the car through the passenger window. Munster had jumped in and was furiously throwing empty beer bottles lying on the seat I was supposed to sit on into the back seat.

“Seriously?” I yelled in at him.

“Just get in!”

I hesitated before opening the door, and once again looked north. The black, swirling clouds moved silently, disgorging ever growing numbers of tiny shapes earthward. I had no choice but to jump in.

“You can drive?”

Munster had finished emptying the seat, dribbles of stale beer spotting the leather. His eyes barely cleared the top of the chrome chain steering wheel, and he had to stretch his stubby legs in order to reach the pedals.

“Kind of.”

We were sunk. "Kind of" meant no, or I stole a car once. Wrecked it.

He turned the ignition key the guy had casually left inserted in the ignition. There followed a seriously loud roar that I had no doubt awakened every dead body at the station…and probably alerted the things skirting around everywhere in the city.

Somehow he managed to stretch his right leg and depress the brake, and then he yanked the shift lever backward a notch. He stepped on the gas pedal quickly, and we lurched forward like a rifle bullet—straight forward toward the store entrance curb!

“Munster!”

He didn’t lift his foot off the accelerator as he turned the wheel as fast as he could. I closed my eyes and pushed myself farther back in the seat, and I felt the wheels slam into, and then bounce over the curb ten feet from the front door. The blink of an eye! I heard a terrific crash when the front of the car smashed over the newsstands. Then, another bump when we made it back onto the asphalt and toward the street.

I forced my eyes open. We weren’t headed toward the street, but instead, right for one of the gas pumps!

“Oh God!”

Munster didn’t utter a sound. He was concentrating for all he was worth, trying to figure out just how to make the beast we were in do what he wanted it to. After lots of practice and lots of collisions with curbs and dead cars, and the gas pump, he’d finally master the art of driving, but at that moment I prayed a lot and kept my eyes squeezed shut.

There was a loud WHOOMP! When the sparks from the collision ignited the gas in the wrecked pump, and just like in the movies I’d seen many times, a fantastic fireball erupted. A red-orange angry genie released from his bottle.

If the creatures couldn’t see the fireball, I knew they had to have at least heard all the crashing and the screeching of the tires.

Munster somehow managed to make it onto the street, and after several more clunks and crashes against cars ahead of us, he finally got the flame car to obey and go pretty much straight. And he sped up.

I looked back. The creatures had appeared way back on Ashton, and half a dozen of them were coming in our direction.

“Munster, they're right behind us!”

Munster raised himself a little off the seat, which made his foot press down harder on the accelerator, which made the car go faster. But not straighter.

“Get the gun outta’ my waistband. Shoot ‘em.”

I bounced around in my seat, scared out of my wits. The handle of his gun was right there. I’d never even held one, let alone tried to point it and shoot something.

“I can’t!”

“Do it!”

“How?”

“Just grab it. Roll the window down, point it back at ‘em and pull the trigger! Do it!”

“Ohhhh…” But I pulled the gun out of his pants and wheeled around to lower the window. I was absolutely unfamiliar with guns, and accidentally put too much pressure on the trigger as I fidgeted with the window button. There was a horrible, loud bang when the bullet came out and smashed into the glove compartment. What was left of the small door flew open. Papers and other things inside came flying out. I dropped the gun and screamed.

Munster lost control again for a second. We sideswiped another car. He got angry.

“Amelia! Pick it up and shoot them, not us!”

“I can’t. I can’t.”

And so the gun remained on the floorboard at my feet, and Munster cursed my cowardice because of that. I didn’t think he could go any faster, but I was wrong there. He did, and I was nearly as frightened that we’d crash into a pole, or head-on into another car, as I was of the things chasing us.

I have to admit, my then-only friend was smart, even back then. We began to pull ahead of the creatures. More and more as the seconds ticked by. When we’d finally gotten several blocks ahead of them, Munster surprised me, and hopefully, I thought, the things chasing us. Crowley Street. He slowed a little when we got there, spun the wheel, and we screeched around the corner. Up onto some dead person’s lawn we flew, over some bushes, and then back onto the street.

Down Crowley, me screaming at him to slow down. This went on for three or four blocks, then around the corner onto Jasmine Street, and south once again at what seemed a hundred miles an hour. The engine roaring, and Munster whooping it up.

“I got it, I got it! This ain’t so hard. We lost ‘em!”

I was as happy as him in a terrified way, because he was right. They were nowhere to be seen, at least for the time being.

About a mile down Jasmine the spire of a church came into view on my side of the street. Munster slowed down, then succeeded in pulling over to the curb without banging over it.

The Cathedral of Saint Andrew. He bounced up against the curb in front, and then pushed the lever forward into park.

Our New...Home?

The Cathedral of Saint Andrew was the church my mother and father and I attended every Sunday morning. It was very ancient, well over fifty years-old at least. Red brick. Very tall, with two bell towers in the top that used to ring each Sunday. Big, heavy doors with black iron straps opened outward onto the wide, deep concrete top step. On either side of the entrance, tall stained glass windows—four of them—allowed sunlight to enter on a sunny morning, strewn with every color of the rainbow. When I was ten, I imagined that this was really the home of God here on Earth. Of Saint Andrew, whoever he was, too. It was beautiful and so very peaceful.

“I wouldn’t bother to look here if I was them,” Munster said after a few seconds. “Gotta’ get my car off the street, though…”

How would he know where they’d bother to look, I wondered? They didn’t appear to have eyes, they didn’t move as fast as a spider for their size. In fact, for all I knew they were as dumb as a pile of rocks. But, blind as bats, slow as slugs crossing a driveway, and stupid as empty boxes, they’d managed to kill everyone except my brilliant new friend, and stupider me.

“There’s a parking lot right around the corner. Daddy always went in there,” I said.

“Yeah…no, no good. If they come by they’ll spot my car in a flash.”

His car. Inherited from some dead guy. Smashed fenders and noisy as a rocket on the launch pad. But, okay. Munster’s…Flamecar.

“What about Father’s garage? It’s behind the church. Maybe we can hide it in there.”

Munster smiled at me. “You ain’t so dumb after all.”

He pulled away from the curb, turned the corner, and drove slowly, finally, into the garage driveway.

“Okay, Amelia, get out an’ see if the doors are unlocked.”

“What if Father Kenney’s car is inside?”

“Then we’ll push it out an’ I’ll pull my car in. Hustle up.”

“Your car? It’s half mine. I helped you steal it.”

Munster turned up his nose. “How the hell is it stealing when everyone but us is dead? An’ you weren’t much help anyway. Pick up that gun an’ give it to me before you get out.”

“Well, your car or mine or ours, it won’t be around for long the way you drive, Munster.”

“Just get out an’ do what I told ya’. They could be comin’ down the street right now for Chrissake. You always gotta’ argue with me?”

“Quit cussing, Munster. This is a church, and when have I argued with you?”

“It’s a fuc…a driveway! Just get out. Jesus!”

Whatever. I did like he told me, just to stay out of a fight….and because I knew deep down that he was right. The creatures might be coming right down the street any minute. Even a deaf person could hear the roar of the Flamecar’s engine.

Thankfully, the doors were unlocked, and so I pulled them open. Father Kenney’s car wasn’t inside. I turned with a huge smile on my face, and Munster almost ran over me when he came flying in, banging into the boxes at the back of the garage.

“Gotta’ get that brake figured out better,” he muttered as he got out.

“You almost killed me, Munster!”

“Yeah, but I didn’t. Let’s get the doors shut.”

And so, we were safe, finally. Maybe only for a minute, or an hour, but I was thankful. And thankful, too, that Munster hadn’t gotten us killed in a fiery wreck.

After we closed the doors Munster picked up a broom and shoved it through the handles so that no one could pull them open from the outside. I felt as though we’d locked ourselves into a tomb. Two small, square windows were on either side of the garage, both draped over with heavy curtains that prevented light from entering.

“This is creepy,” I said.

“Door’s over…” He cursed again when he tripped on something ahead of him. “…here. Goddam, didn’t that shithead guy ever clean this place up?”

“THAT guy was a priest. Watch your mouth.”

“Yeah, right. Shithead priest. That better?”

“You’re impossible. Just find the door.”

The priest. His name was Father Kenney, and I’d known him, though not well. His yard was surprisingly large, surrounded on three sides by a tall stone wall for privacy. As we stood just outside the door facing the rectory, I glanced around. To our left in the center of the yard stood a wooden gazebo with steps leading up to the surface, raised three feet or so off the lawn surrounding it. A shingled roof supported by six posts kept the hot summer sun out, and in the wet winter months protected the interior from rain. Beyond that, in a corner where two of the walls met, there was a small garden, and in the back of it stood a statue of Mary with her hands reaching out, a light blue, solid veil covering her head.

Munster left me for a moment and dashed to the wall that looked out onto Jasmine Street. He pulled himself up until his eyes and nose were just above the top of it. He surveyed the outside world for only a second or two, then dropped back down and walked through the flowerbed to the rear door of Father’s rectory.

After trying to turn the knob over and over, he finally turned to me and said, “It’s locked.”

Not waiting for a response—I mean, what was I supposed to say?—he left the door stoop and walked around the corner of the house. Three or four seconds later I heard a crash when the brick he’d found went through a window.

Munster’s key to every house.

Another moment passed until I heard the lock rattle and click, and then he appeared when the door swung in.

“Welcome to our new home.” He had this big Munster-grin plastered on his face. I could see a bank of white cabinets beyond him. He was standing in the kitchen. “Hope the TV here works!”

“I hope the toilet works. I have to go the bathroom.”

“Down the hall an’ to the left. Don’t bet on it flushin’. Make sure ya’ try though, otherwise we’ll have ta’ take our dumps outside somewhere.”

Munster could be so disgusting, I was learning quickly.

After I’d finished—and no, the flusher didn’t release any water (which at the time I didn’t find odd)—I returned the way I’d come. Off the kitchen was the untidy priest’s bedroom. A smallish area with his unmade bed to the right. On the far side of it, a window. Munster was busy taping the curtains to the wall on one side when I stepped through the doorway. At the end of the bed stood a plain dresser cluttered with papers and magazines, and above it a bookcase. To my left, five or so feet from the edge of the bed, was a stand with his TV. Next to it was the doorway leading, I guessed, to the front of the tiny house. I’d been there in the front once, when Mom and Daddy brought me with them to the rectory. They’d sat in front of his desk on sturdy wooden chairs that day, while I sat bored on the couch against one wall.

“That won’t keep them out,” I said to Munster as he cussed and worked away. He turned.

“No, but it’ll keep the light in.”

“Oh. Stupid me.

“How long are we going to stay here, Munster?” I followed.

“Dunno’, but we’ll have light inside at least.”

“Do you think the electricity works here?”

“Nope, but there’s gotta’ be a boatload of more candles layin’ around somewheres.”

He finished the side he’d been working on when I came in, and then jumped off the chair he was standing on and moved it to the other side.

“So we’re going to sleep in here? Both of us?” I asked.

“Yep. Unless you wanna’ sleep out in the garage.”

“I get the bed,” I said.

“Uh-uh, I’m sleepin’ in the bed. You can sleep anywhere else ya’ like.”

“Munster, what are we going to do?”

“Whatd’ya mean?”

“I mean…how are we going to live? There’s no one like us left in the entire world, and those…whatever they are…what are they, Munster? They want to kill us!”

“You don’t know that. 'Sides, we made it. There have to be others.”

He finished taping the window quietly, then jumped off the chair again. He fiddled with the tape for a minute, rolling it round and round in his hands. Looking down at it, thinking, I could see in the dim light of the bedroom.

“Well, for today and tonight, we’re gonna’ find some food out there,” he said pointing the roll of tape toward the kitchen, “an’ then I’m gonna’ tape the back door window up all tight. Then I’m gonna’ find somethin’ to cover up the busted window in the…” he hesitated and shrugged his shoulders.

“I dunno’, Amelia. Maybe if we stay low an’ don’t make no noise, them things will think we kept on drivin’ clean outta’ town.”

I knew that eventually we’d consume all the food in Father’s house, use up every candle, drink all the bottled water, start looking at each other like two maniacs in a dreary padded cell. And finally those creatures wouldn’t have to kill us. We’d kill one another.

We snooped around through the back part of the rectory the rest of the day, peeked outside every now and then, and finally night fell.

We ate a dinner of cold Spam, saltine crackers, and bottled water in Father’s small kitchen, sitting at a smaller table, beneath a well-covered window, with a single votive candle our illumination. My ears took in every word Munster spoke, while at the same time listening for any sound outside in the dead world. It occurred to me that maybe we really were safe, at least for the short term. We were on sacred ground, and whatever those creatures were, wherever they’d come from, perhaps they were obliged by higher law not to enter.

And then I thought of Father Kenney. Maybe he lay dead in the office at the front, or worse, on the altar in the cathedral. I questioned Munster about this, and of course his answer was that we’d have to investigate. We left our plates shortly afterward, and he led the way.

Connecting Father’s bedroom to the office was a long hall. At the end of it was the door, which I really didn’t want him to open. I followed Munster with both hands grasping the back of his jacket. He snuffed the candle just before he opened the door into the darkness of the room. To my relief, the moonlight offered enough light for us to glance quickly around the room, but what I saw made me gasp.

Others

 

The unfortunate priest’s desk stood three feet away from the wall that extended from one end of the room to the other off to our right. Books and papers were strewn about, haphazard piles on top of the desk, more stuff scattered across the floor as though a cyclone had whirled through. The bookcase I’d remembered seeing so long ago was empty, ripped from its place on the wall to our left, caught in its fall by the desk corner nearest it.

The windows in the opposite wall were opened, a tiny, unsure breeze lifting the sheers over and over until their weight pushed them back down each time with a small flapping sound. Two of them, that is. The third remained closed, but the glass in it had been shattered. The sheers covering them lay in a twisted pile on the floor.

I expected to see Father’s legs on the floor beyond the desk, and I cringed at moving any farther into the room to confirm my fear.

“Is…he…?”

“Nope. Just more crap down there.”

“What do you supposed happened?”

He lowered himself onto the floor. “I’d say someone busted in here an’ trashed the place.”

Duh. That was pretty obvious.

“Yes, but who? Why?”

“There ya’ go again. How should I know? It wasn’t me, though. I don’t bust into holy places.

“C’mon, let’s find the church,” he said.

“Right through that door,” I said pointing. “The rectory isn’t technically a ‘holy place’, by the way.”

"I don't really give a..."

He kicked some debris out of his way, not bothering to finish his latest round of cussing, and then opened the door leading to a small atrium-like yard, the rear entrance to the church sacristy twenty feet away. We both scanned the sky, the short colonnade ahead of us, the shadowy corners below the tall walls on both sides. Quiet. Deserted as far as I could tell. Munster galloped over the cobbled walk to the rear door. He looked back at me, then turned and pushed the door inward. Total darkness.

“Be careful,” I tried not to yell too loudly. I waited for the all-clear signal. He was gone for a long minute, but eventually a flickering light showed itself in the doorway.

“Don’t see nobody…alive or dead. Come on. I think it’s safe.” He turned again, and holding the small candle in one hand, he reached into the waistband of his trousers with the other and withdrew the pistol I’d nearly killed him with. According to him. He left me there. The candlelight began to fade away into the darkness inside. I ran to catch up to him.

By the time I caught him, down a short corridor that opened off to the right, he’d already started to make his way into a room there.

“What are you looking for?” Another one of my lame questions.

“People, idiot! Be quiet!”

“Start being a little nicer to me, Munster, or I’ll leave you stranded and go back home.”

“Yeah, right. Shut up.”

He lifted the candle high and we looked around. Floor-to-ceiling cabinets with polished wood doors that reflected the dim light. A narrow dressing area between them, and a padded bench center of it. Munster stepped forward and began opening each door.

“Nuthin’. Dresses.”

“They’re called vestments.”

“Whatever you say.”

Walking along, he opened each door he came to on the right side. I carefully opened those on the left.

“This guy had the taste of a real flamer.”

“Jesus, Munster, haven’t you ever been to a Catholic Mass? These garments have nothing to do with his sexual preference, They’re are all ceremonial. Give him a break.”

He laughed and continued on. He came to the last door and pulled it open.

“AARGH! Make a move and I’ll blow your friggin’ BRAINS OUT!” He slammed against the cabinets across from him, the candle falling to the floor. Its collapse snuffed the already inadequate light, leaving us in total darkness. I didn’t see it…at least him raising the pistol he’d managed to keep in his hand…he fired two, then another shot, the muzzle blast lighting the end of the room up for an instant each time the bullet left the barrel.

A frantic voice screamed out from the cabinet interior, “Don’t shoot! Please, don’t hurt us!”

Us?

“Who are ya’? Get out here!” His voice was angry, but at the same time mirrored the petrifying tone of the person he was trying to murder. Her voice. Definitely a her, and very young.

Rather than try to bolt forward in the blackness and stop him from firing again, I eased along the bank of cabinets until I came to the open door.

“Don’t shoot,” I said, “I’m right in front of you.

“You in there. Are you wounded?”

“No,” a terrified tiny voice returned.

“Thank goodness. Please come out. Munster was just scared. He won’t hurt you, I promise.

“Munster, for God’s sake put that gun away! Find the candle and light it. Jesus, it’s a little girl!”

“Well, how was I to know?”

“Open your eyes! Find the candle!”

I heard him shuffle. The vestments inside rustled. The sound of hangers moving; a foot stepping out.

“Have you found it?”

“Yeah, yeah. Hang on.” A second later he struck the match and touched it to the blackened wick. Light.

She was very short, with curly black hair all mussed, cut to just below her amber ears. In the candlelight her eyes, jet-colored, flashed above rounded cheeks. The young girl was Afro-American. She stood there shaking like a leaf, throwing her gaze from me to Munster to me, back to Munster, over and over. No one spoke for a moment. Finally somewhat assured my nit-wit skittish friend had no further intention of killing her, she turned back to face the clothing behind her.

“You can get up, Jerrick. I don’t think…” she shot her head back around. “You won’t hurt me or my brother?”

“Nah. Sorry. I don’t shoot just everybody, less they scare the shit outta’ me…like you did.”

“Munster! Will you please watch your mouth! Of course she scared you, but…”

Whoever brother Jerrick was, he rose and stepped out of the cabinet quietly, letting his hands come to rest on the girl’s shoulders. Strange, I thought looking up at him. His eyes were fixed well above Munster’s head. Kind of blank. I wondered if maybe he was, well, you know, mentally not all there? He wasn’t drooling, though.

Ohmagod, it finally hit me, he was blind!

Jerrick—that struck me as such an odd name—was so unlike his sister. He was very tall, anyway. She was very short. Immediately I noticed that his fingers were long and slender, like long enough to reach an entire octave on a piano. Both he and his sister were dressed in winter clothing. She was still terrified. He seemed absolutely calm, especially in light of what Munster had just done.

“You’re blind?” I asked him.

“I am.”

“You’re…Jerrick? What is your name,” I said shifting my gaze down to the girl.

“Lashawna. Lashawna Freeman.”

Lashawna suddenly let loose.

“We ran after everyone in our house died. Oh, it was so horrible! We came here. We didn’t know where else to go, or why they all died like that! We’ve been hiding here…since…this morning we were in the office back there. In the kitchen part of it. We were hungry. Someone came! We heard the window crash, and then the bookcase fall with another crash after that. I made Jerrick hide with me under the bed in the next room. We waited and waited. I could see feet! Two pairs of them from under the blanket edge. They…the men…they went into the kitchen, talking to one another and searching for food, too. Finally, they left the way they’d come. Have you seen them?”

“No. We thought we were the only ones alive. We did see the rectory office, though.”

“Oh. Well, anyway, we left that place and then came here. Into the church. We stayed there for a long time, until a while ago we heard this like horribly loud engine outside. I thought those men had come back; that they were driving some Monster Car, going around killing everyone they came across.”

“That was us,” Munster informed her…kindly enough. “An’ we weren’t going around killin’ people. There weren’t none left to kill. We thought.”

“We were lucky to be crouching down a minute ago,” she said with relief.

“He’s a lousy shot,” I said with a little laugh.

“Ya’ think so? Wanna’ find out?”

“Oh shut up, Munster.

“He won’t hurt you. He’s really quite harmless as a matter of fact.”

“No I ain’t.

“Let’s get outta’ this crappy dress shop. I don’t much like dresses, and it’s fuc…shitty crowded in here.”

I let his foul mouth pass for the moment. I agreed with him (silently) about the room being totally too crowded, however. And too dark for my liking.

“There isn’t anyone back in the rectory. We covered the windows…”

“I did,” Munster corrected me.

“He covered the windows. There’s no electricity anymore, but we can light a bunch of candles. It’ll be much nicer. The bed is big enough for you and me, Lashawna. Munster has already offered to stand watch…with his gun. We’ll spend the night there. If they don’t come by morning, we’ll leave and go farther south.”

“I never want to see those men again,” she said.

“I don’t mean just those men.”

“There are other men alive?”

I glanced at Munster. He shrugged. “She don’t know.”

“Don’t know what?” Lashawna asked.

“Come on, we’ll explain what we know back in the rectory,” I said.

 

Bang! You're Dead

I envisioned an angry God—or at least a put-out Saint Andrew—frowning down at Munster from wherever they lived up there.

“Shall I tell Michael to throw a lightning bolt at that foul-mouthed boy, Lord?”

“No, just tell one of the creatures where he’s hiding.”

“What about the others with him?”

 

We left the solitude of the sacristy, back beneath the colonnade, and then into the rectory.

Around the fallen bookcase on the desk. Across shards of broken glass. Over papers and books and magazines littering the floor. Even though I thought we might be safe, my ears were cocked and listening for any sound other than our shoes crunching the debris, and Munster’s constant rambling about how tough and fearless he was. In reality I knew well enough that we were actually in grave danger, still I was strangely happy and relieved.

We entered Father Kenney’s bedroom and settled in. I was amazed at how naturally Jerrick seemed to navigate the room without the assistance of his sister. Lashawna merely released his hand after we’d gotten past the minefield of the office to the door.

“Door, Jerrick. Be careful.” I turned and watched him after setting the candle I was carrying onto the dresser top. Lashawna abandoned him there and went immediately into the kitchen, where I could hear her opening cabinets and rifling through the contents. Jerrick hesitated for only a second, that blank look on his face, raising his arms a little and waving them just once, slowly, in front of him. I was tempted to return to his side and lead him the rest of the way in, but he walked carefully, steadily, between the narrow space between the dresser and the end of the bed like a ship in the narrows on a foggy night, captained by Lord Nelson himself. He easily found the comfy chair beneath the covered window, and then sat down, folding his hands in his lap. Even had I lived in that room for a month, I would have knocked into everything in front of me in the dark.

Munster eyed him throughout all this, and then when Jerrick had gotten himself seated, he said, “I’m goin’ back into the office to look around. Patch up that window. You stay here and…whatever. Find somethin’ to snack on.”

“Suit yourself,” I answered, not really overly concerned where he went, or what he did when he got there. If Munster could be annoyingly abrupt and crude, Jerrick fascinated me. Quiet as a mouse, resigned, even, to the situation he found himself and his sister in. Staring at him, I wondered that if we needed to make a run for it in the future, could he possibly do it? Would he be a liability, and get us all vaporized by ray guns if and when the invaders found us? He seemed content enough, though—the question in my mind was irrelevant for the moment—and so I grabbed the candle and joined Lashawna.

“He sure liked candy,” she quipped as we dug through the pantry side by side.

“He was chubby,” I grinned. “Wonder what became of him. He must not have been anywhere around…I mean his car wasn’t in the garage, you know?”

She shrugged and tossed the large bag of mini-candy bars onto the table across the room.

I told her a little about myself and my family, she responded by painting a small portrait of hers, how she and her parents and Jerrick had been visiting an aunt and uncle here in Marysville yesterday. How the light had blinded her momentarily. How looking up in a daze afterward…discovering pretty much the same as I had.

“How old are you?” I asked after a few minutes.

“Fourteen. Jerrick is fifteen. You?”

“Fifteen, too. I don’t know how old Munster is. Seven or eight,” I said with a laugh.

“You’re very pretty. Did you have a boyfriend?”

“Thank you. So are you.” And the tiny girl was, the light throwing shadows across her glistening, amber face. “No one at the moment. Certainly not Captain Kirk back there with his gun and an attitude.”

We continued our conversation; discovered a full bag of potato chips and some Cokes. I was laying the sodas onto the table when I glanced at the door across the room. The handle was turning. It stopped briefly, and then whoever was on the other side turned it more rapidly, rattling it. There followed the sound of a body putting a shoulder against it. I froze. Lashawna continued with snips of chatter back at the pantry, unaware of anything out of the ordinary.

“Hey in there,” a deep, gravely voice broke through the covered window. “Anyone alive in there?”

Lawshawna heard it and wheeled around in shock. A frighteningly long silence descended. I turned and put a finger to my lips, and then tip-toed to the door. Just as I was about to put an ear to the glass, it shattered. I screamed and leapt backward two or three steps. A hand holding the longest knife I’d ever seen began raking the spikes and sharp splinters of the broken window out of the way.

Munster, where are you?

He had the gun, and…suddenly a face poked through the bottom corner of the window opening. Lashawna screamed. I stood like a statue as the man’s leering eyes caught sight of me, five feet away, my rear locked against the barrier of the table.

“Unlock it, missy. We just want some food.” He waited for my reaction, and then withdrew his head and began searching for the deadbolt with a dirty hand.

The counter a step or two away. I dashed over to it, and started frantically opening each to find a knife; anything to stab at his hand with before he disengaged the lock.

Butter knives, forks that looked as though they would bend if I even touched them! Spoons. I slammed the first drawer shut. Atop the counter in the anemic glow of the single candle I saw it. The knife holder. I yanked the longest one out and turned back to the door.

He’d found the deadbolt latch, and was turning it! Lashawna was beside herself screaming through hands covering her face. Adrenalin raced through my body as I positioned the knife, stepping forward, readying it to stab the hand.

“Get back, Amelia!” Munster’s voice. He had finally arrived, and stood legs spread, both hands grasping the pistol, pointing it directly at the window in the door.

I wheeled my head around, and on seeing him there, threw myself up against the counter I’d just left. The next second seemed like time had been compressed into infinite nothingness.

The door began to swing in an inch, and then the sound of the gun. The flash of light. I winced and shut my eyes as tightly as I could. Beyond Lashawna’s continued screaming, coming out in bursts, there was no other sound, save that of a body collapsing on the stoop outside the door.

Munster had a strangely shocked, but determined look on his face. He stood quietly, his hands shaking, for half a second, and then he ran to the door and pulled it open. What we saw surprised us. Munster raised the gun once again.

“Don’t shoot! Please…”

A second man lay half beneath the one who had been trying to get in. He pleaded for his life, struggling to push his dead companion off him. Dead the filthy guy must have been, because blood was still spurting from a tiny hole in his forehead, streams coursing down across one eye onto his cheek.

Munster aimed down at him, but thankfully didn’t shoot again. The second man was petrified, but he finally managed to push his friend’s body aside. He scrambled to his feet, raising his hands high, continuing his pleas for mercy.

“We was just hungry, kid. Honest injun! We wasn’t gonna’ hurt nobody. Ray was just hunting for food, I swear it!”

“You got two seconds to turn and get outta’ here before I put a bullet in you,” Munster growled. “If I ever see you again, I swear I’ll shoot. Move it!”

My dear Munster! He did it. I thought back to what he’d said the day before when he first showed me the pistol proudly. There ain’t no laws no more, and if there ain’t no laws, and nobody to arrest me, I don’t have to put up with some jock an’ his friends beatin’ up on me. They’re dead meat, though, if they’re still alive and I see ‘em.” Not Harry out there, but just as dead.

No laws. Frighteningly real, now. My next thought, as Lashawna eased to my side with a groan, was, we’d found two other survivors in Lashawna and her brother…and two more, intent, not on raiding the refrigerator, but doing much worse. How many others might there be, and how many of them were armed? Suddenly I loathed this insane new world more than ever.

The man outside, his hands still shot skyward, began to slowly back up toward the wall.

“It was you guys that busted up the office back there, wasn’t it,” Munster said to him.

“Office? I don’t know nuthin’ about no office. No, kid, we was just lookin’ for food like I said. It wasn’t us.”

Probably a lie. It didn’t matter at all, now. He continued to ease his way back until he bumped into the stone. With one last pleading look, he turned, grabbed hold of the top, and quickly clamored up and over. I heard his racing footsteps retreating into the night.

 

We're Off To See The Wizard

“We ain’t stayin’ here another minute,” Munster said the minute the man’s footsteps faded. I didn’t argue that, but where would we go? He lowered the gun and turned to Lashawna. Jerrick was standing a few feet away in silence, one hand grasping the jamb opening into the bedroom.

“Get your brother and follow us to the garage.

“Amelia,” he said turning his eyes to me, “get out there and open the doors, then pile into the car.”

Hopping over the dead man, I got the funny feeling that this would be our life from then on—dashing from house to house to house, murdering people in my old town. God only knew how many hapless residents of Marysville had survived the light, and why. So far the odds of stumbling upon the civilized among them were fifty-fifty, if I didn’t include crazy Munster. Not so good considering one of the civilized was blind. The other a girl whose best reaction in a crisis was to cover her mouth and scream.

Soon enough the four of us were in the car, me in the front beside Munster. Before starting the engine, he plopped the pistol in my lap.

“Now this time, don’t squeeze the trigger until you point the barrel outside. The safety’s off. If you see anyone over ten, point it and shoot!”

“Ten!”

“You know what I mean.”

The entire car roared to life, he slammed the gear shift lever into reverse and gunned the engine. In a shriek of burning rubber we rocketed down the short drive, bounced when we hit the gutter, and then across the street in a bone jarring U that threw me hard into his shoulder. The next instant I was thrown backward when the Flamemobile’s rear fender met the uncompromising front fender of a car parked on the opposite side.

“Munster! For God’s sake…you can’t even see! Take it easy. You’re going to get us all killed!”

“I’m ok. I’m ok. Just fasten your seatbelts.”

“There aren’t any in this stupid car!”

“Well, just hang on. And don’t accidentally shoot me.”

Lashawna squeaked, “I don’t like this!”

“Don’t worry, I know how to go forward. Hang on.”

The next minutes were terrifying as he tried to stretch his foot onto the accelerator, yet position himself high enough in an unending series of wiggles to view the dark street ahead.

We flew past house after lifeless house, south toward the outskirts of Marysville beneath a moonless, overcast sky. I had lain the pistol in my lap and clenched the edges of the seat.

“Where are we going?” Lashawna asked as the last neighborhood disappeared and we came to a rise in the road that would curve gently eastward into the lettuce fields and orange orchards beyond.

Munster was calm, now.

“We’re off to see the wizard…”

“Munster, look out!”

The headlights caught the crumpled image of a dead animal lying in the road fifty feet ahead of us when we got to the top of the hill. He swerved, but the rear tire on my side bumped when we squished over it.

“Please, Munster, slow down. Ease up, we’re safe.”

“And the Pope’s a Protestant,” he answered with a laugh. “Okay, okay. Keep your eyes peeled for anythin’ movin’. Shoot it.”

Yeah, right.

I remembered going this way often on Saturday mornings with Mom and Daddy to visit the roadside stands that dotted the narrow highway. Daddy was always obediently neutral concerning the trips to buy fresh vegetables and oranges, which job to squeeze the oranges into juice afterward was mine. By the time I hit fourteen, the whole morning-consuming routine had wearied me so much that I pleaded with them to leave me home alone. They relented, but I was still made to squeeze the bags of Valencias they returned with. I tolerated the boring task only because that year Mom had cajoled Daddy into buying me my first smartphone, on which I could complain to Anna about the job as I slaved away…or discuss at great length the boys at school.

We passed by stand after abandoned stand and the occasional scarecrow sentinel on his sturdy pole in the fields. Mile after mile. Everything was quiet, except for the sound of the tires on the road, and the steady growl of the engine. Finally I began to yawn and nod off.

“Here!” Munster’s high-pitched, excited voice brought me back. He spun the wheel. The car squealed when he jammed his foot onto the brake, and we bounced off the highway onto a gravel drive, a set of tall iron gates twenty feet in.

“Get out an’ open them gates,” he ordered me. “I think I saw a light in that house up there. Gimme’ the gun.”

“Where are we?” I heard Jerrick ask.

“Home sweet home…I hope,” Munster answered.

“A light? How on earth could you see a light when you can’t even see the road? But if you did see one, how do you know there aren’t a bunch of monsters like the ones we just left living inside?” I put to him.

He cut the headlights. The Flamemobile’s engine purred.

“We’re just about on empty. We go much farther an’ we’ll be walkin’. Shoulda’ filled the tank back…I’ll go up this here road an’ recon-sider, ya’ know, the joint. We ain’t got no other choice,” he ended.

Oh Munster. You might have been in high school, but I have no idea how you made it.

I did as he said. As I pushed the gates inward, I glanced up the long drive, abutted on either side by orange trees dotted with fruit, their branches hanging heavy and low. The roof and a line of windows beneath it was all that I could see. They were dark, but as the house sat beyond the top of a hill seventy-five or a hundred feet away, perhaps from the road Munster had seen the rest of the place.

I stepped to the side, and immediately Munster gunned the engine and flew in, gravel banging the undercarriage of the Flamemobile, shooting out behind it. Twenty or so feet in, he turned the wheel for some unknown Munster-reason, and stomped on the brake. The car spun sideways, spitting stones and dirt in every direction. The rear hit the edge of the shallow ditch, banging over it, and then with the grate of metal on hard earth, came to a lurching stop. The rear wheels, elevated just over the edge, spun wildly for a second, and then Munster let off the gas. Lashawna in the back seat was screaming. Again.

“What are you doing?

He paid no attention to her, opened the driver side door and jumped out angrily. I left the gate and ran to the front of the car, the whole thing sitting precariously like an unhinged teeter-totter, rocking gently back and forth until the back end and the tires tipped slowly down and came to rest in the ditch. The engine sputtered, and then died.

“That’s just great, Munster. What the heck were you thinking about?”

“The damned thing started to spin on this fuckin’ gravel! I lost control I guess. Crap, how we gonna’ get it back out now?” he muttered, walking to the high-centered rear.

Lashawna, and Jerrick, a second or two later, pushed their doors open and climbed out, complaining bitterly about his insane driving.

“I guess it doesn’t matter. We’re out of gas anyway.” I glanced up the road at the house, half of it buried beyond the top of the hill as he cussed and fumed and scratched his head.

“You nit-wit!” I lowered my voice. “If anyone is in that place, they sure know they have visitors now.”

He turned his head.

“You stay here. I’ve got my gun. I’ll go up and take a look. The light I saw was comin’ from that window,” he said pointing to a pitch-black window on the end of what must have been the second story. He turned and kicked the rear fender in frustration, then left the stricken beast and set off up the drive. When he’d gotten only a little way, I dashed to Lashawna’s side.

“You guys stay put for a minute until I get back.

“Munster, wait up! I’m coming too!”

He turned, waving the gun over his head. “No!” And then he wheeled back around and resumed his reconnaissance mission at an enlightened pace. The moon had disappeared. A heavy layer of clouds crawled in, and I felt the first misty droplets of rain on my face. Just what we needed. No shelter, save the car and a house probably occupied by a den of thieves and murderers, or a crazy scared farmer and his family.

“Lashawna, do as I say. You and Jerrick get back into this stupid car. I’ll be right back.”

“It’s starting to rain!”

“Just wait in the car!”

I left them and ran to catch Munster, but he had already cleared the top of the hill. When I got there I noted that the house sat tucked behind a broad, low hill—no wonder all I'd seen from the drive was a bunch of windows—and it was huge, and ancient! Whoever had lived there must have been born in 1950. He could have been my grandfather! But whoever was inside, someone had maintained it well before they were murdered. Or maybe he or them hadn’t died, and were barricaded inside, watching the road and orchard every hour of the day and night. Oh please, I thought, let that be the case. You never hear of farmers being psychos. At least I never had. On the other hand, perhaps he had a shotgun. Whoever he spotted wandering up the road, he’d shoot first, and ask questions later. Or just drag the bodies inside and carve steaks out of them for himself and his insane, starving family. Maybe they got tired of eating oranges—which there were plenty off—or orange soup.

Munster was nowhere to be seen as I thought these ridiculous thoughts, and I debated whether to keep moving forward, or tuck myself beneath a wooden table sitting all forlorn in the lawn that sloped gently downward in front of the place and wait for gunfire to erupt. I ran to the table and ducked under it. From there I scoured the way ahead left and right as far as I could see for dead bodies, but it was like I had stumbled into a peaceful, abandoned park. The house itself stood almost grandly, painted a clean bright white. It was two stories tall, with a sloping, green shed roof that covered the porch running from one end to the other. Above this, six windows with thick sills coursed along the second floor. I wondered from which one of those windows, all dark and gloomy-looking, the shotgun blast would come from? That one, up there to the right of the front door? Was he peering out at me right now, raising his gun and taking aim?

I risked exposing myself after a few minutes of eerie silence had passed, calling out to Munster in a loud whisper, “Munster, where are you?”

He didn’t answer. I crouched low behind the table and tried again. “Munst…” That’s when I saw a shadowy movement directly in front of me moving along the long porch. Munster. He’d popped up at the sound of my voice, his gun in hand, waving at me to shut my mouth.

I took one last look at the windows, and then I abandoned my hiding place and ran through the wet grass toward the porch, wondering if Munster might shoot me, or bonk me with the butt of the gun he held for being so stupid. He was crouching, now, beneath a window at the end of the porch. As I raced toward him I thought I could see smoke and fire erupting out of his eyes and ears.

I should have stayed at the table.

But I hadn’t, and so I ran as quietly as I could, up the broad steps, and across the porch to his side. His eyes were razors, slashing at me. He made the funniest motions with his hands, the right one holding the gun, like he was batting at flies that buzzed around his head. I knew I was in for a good tongue lashing.

“You idiot! Didn’t I tell you to keep your mouth shut?” he huffed in a growling whisper.

“No you didn’t, but anyway I didn’t know where you were.”

“Idiot, now you do…and so does anyone else inside. Don’t make another sound, got it? I told ya’ to stay at the car,” he mumbled.

“Well, I didn’t.” Too loud. He scowled at me again.

My thoughts went back to who is inside? Potential friend, or cunning foe?

Time to find out.

More of Us?

Munster slid to the side of the window, stuffed the gun back into his waistband, and tried to lift the sash open. It wouldn’t give.

“Crap.”

Well, if I was a farmer and was scared to death of intruders, the first thing I’d do would be to lock all the doors and windows.

“What now?” I asked too loudly.

He didn’t answer, just crawled to the end of the porch and slithered over the rail, landing with a thump on the ground at the end of the building. I hurried to join him.

We crept along the wall there, and he stopped for a second at every window he came to in order to give it a push. Each one was the same as the one on the porch. Discouraged, I finally offered a solution at the last window at the rear corner.

“Maybe you should break it.”

“Yeah, right. Though with all the noise you’re makin’, no one would notice anyway. Just be quiet. I’ll find a way in.”

The rear of the house had just as many windows, and I peeked into two of them, my eyes and nose barely over the sills. Only shadows of furniture and an eerie glow of windows at the front of the house.

We came to a long, covered patio with a stone path leading from it to a gigantic swimming pool. In the darkness it was hard to see the water clearly, and so I left Munster for a minute to peer into it. What I saw shouldn’t have surprised me, but somehow it made me reel.

The water was filthy. Leaves and debris floated like dead fish in a stagnant pond, and near the edge I saw three bloated bodies lying face down. I was finally getting used to seeing dead people, but this time it made my stomach turn even more. One was a child. Another somewhat older. A girl in a swimming suit, her long hair spread out on top of the water on either side of her head. The last was fully clothed, the dress she’d worn spread out like a sideways curtain. Had this woman been standing at the edge of the pool smiling, and talking to her kids when the blinding flash of light struck? Fallen into her grave of water mid-sentence? Where was her husband? What became of him? Is his rotting corpse still lying out in the orchard somewhere, or…?

I heard a crash—the breaking of glass. Munster had finally taken my advice and broken one of the small panes of glass in the rear door, although I think he needed no advice in that department. He’d probably planned on getting in by smashing the glass if the door was unlocked. By the time I returned, he had already opened the door and was walking into the room. Crouched low, gun in hand extended forward.

I expected—what? An army of shimmering alien beings to descend from the ghostly image of the staircase not far away at the front of the house? The farmer lying in wait just beyond the archway, ready to smash Munster’s head the second he walked through the opening? No, what I didn’t expect to see was the master of this home. Something told me if he were alive, his family wouldn’t be rotting in the pool just outside.

I was way off the mark about the first two parts, but I knew we weren’t alone.

The silence is what gets you. A quiet inhabited by any manner of dangerous things. The ghosts and bogeymen that hide under beds every night, or lurk in the darkness of closets every hour of the day—the fears of six year-olds. They don’t speak, or even breathe, but they’re there, waiting for the right moment. We grow out of that paralyzing fear, or at least we pretend we have as we grow older. Even now, years later, the strange and momentary rush of dread and uncertainty still greets me like a huge neon DANGER sign flashing on and off whenever I’m alone. I freeze, and wonder what’s behind that dilapidated fence ahead, or that rusting hulk of a car, knowing full well that there’s nothing but more weeds, decay, and the melancholy of silence and aloneness.

 

I stayed several steps behind Munster just in case. He walked almost casually through the arched opening—but of course he had his gun with a single bullet stretched out in front of him for protection. No more crouching. With every step he seemed to gather up more courage. I can’t say that I did.

One thing Munster was good at was moving like a shadow cast behind him on the sidewalk on a bright, full moon night. We—or I should say he—searched every room on the main floor. Nothing out of the ordinary. Laugh. Yet, every piece of furniture stood undisturbed. Lamps on tables. Pictures still hanging straight on the walls. Dinnerware set neatly on the kitchen table. The only thing missing from this peaceful photograph of a family dwelling was light and the sound of happy voices.

When he stepped out of the last room he merely shook his head no. I quietly pointed to the obvious—the staircase. He nodded, and we left the main floor side by side.

The top of the stairs ended at a landing extending right and left, doors leading into more rooms in each direction. He went immediately to the first door a few feet to our left, but I grabbed his arm. He turned with a question mark on his face. I pointed down the hall to the room from which he’d said the light had emerged.

“Yeah,” he whispered.

The rain’s intensity had grown during our search of the rooms below. I could hear the now-steady pat-pat-pat of it clearly on the roof above us. I flashed to Lashawna and Jerrick back in the Flamemobile, probably wondering if we were still alive, and what their next move would be. I dared not run back to them until Munster and I discovered who or what was in the room we approached, or, if like Munster had said, my imagination had conjured up the image.

 Just a few more minutes, Lashawna.

One bullet. Dear Saint Andrew.

I let Munster go in by himself. I stood outside, my eyes locked tightly closed, and my fingernails clenched against the palms of my hands. I waited. A minute, then two, and then at last the silence was broken.

“C’mon out of there.”

The husband? Hiding in a second floor bedroom from four kids approaching? I opened my eyes and rushed in. The bedroom was beautiful, even in shadows—a canopied bed with a ruffled top. A white dresser with a white-framed mirror just inside the door. Posters and pictures. A closet with louvered doors. And the window.

Munster stood with the gun pointing at one of the floor length curtains. Between the bottom of the curtains and the floor I could see even in the dim light what he had no doubt also seen. The tips of a pair of sneakers. Small. Definitely not those of an adult. Not Farmer Brown’s. I heaved a sigh of relief.

The curtains rustled ever so slightly, and then a face slowly emerged, that of a child, much younger than me. A girl. Her face was round, with what I could see were smudges of dirt dappled carefully on her forehead, along her chubby cheeks, and beneath her deep set eyes. Like she had purposely put it there, trying to paint herself up with mud to look like a soldier crawling through a swamp into enemy territory. A second or two later she stepped out, and at last I understood the source of the light Munster had seen back in the Flamecar. A lone candle sat snuffed on the nightstand. Like me, total darkness no doubt frightened her. A pair of binoculars dangled on straps at her chest. Whoever she was, she’d been looking at us when we’d arrived.

I think she wanted to say something; her little mouth began to quiver, but Munster spoke first.

“You alone here?”

She slowly shook her head yes.

“What happened to your mom and dad? They dead?”

Munster! What a dreadful question to ask! He hadn’t seen what I had, the bodies floating in the disgusting swimming pool, but even so…

The little girl began to sob, and before my thoughtless friend could throw another cruel question at her, she whimpered, “Are you going to kill us?”

“Us?” Munster fired at her.

“Put the gun down, Munster! Of course he won’t shoot you, little girl.”

“You just said us,” he went on, “Who else is here?”

“I meant me. Everyone else died. Do you know what happened?”

Of course we both knew she was lying, but for the time being that was all right. How many others were hiding in the grand old house, and exactly where they were, it made sense that none of them were adults.

I crossed the room and took a knee in front of her, pushing the blond curls off her teary eyes.

“It’s okay. Don’t cry. He wont hurt you. Where are the others? Please. You’re all safe because my friend has a gun, and he’ll protect all of you.”

She hesitated. “Downstairs. Do you promise not to shoot us?”

“Promise,” I said.

“They ain’t downstairs ‘cuz I searched every room.”

“The cellar,” she answered. “I saw you drive the car in and get stuck in the ditch, and so I made everyone else run for the cellar.”

“Where’s the cellar?” Munster asked.

“Downstairs.”

“Yeah, I figured it ain’t up here. Where downstairs? I didn’t see no cellar.”

“You have to go outside to get to it.”

“We was outside!”

“Munster, stop it,” I scolded him. “Little girl, what’s your name? How many others are here with you?”

“Jacquelyn Marie Conklin. My friends just call me Jack, but I’m not a boy. I’m eight, and we’re all so scared. What happened? Why did Momma fall into the pool? And Terese and Jeremy. They were dead! Did Daddy die in the south orchard? That’s where he and the workers were, but we never found them! What happened to the lights and the phone and…”

She unloaded, wanting desperately for us to answer these and many other questions, most of which we didn’t know the answers to ourselves. I tried to calm her down; led her to the bed where she sat and waited for us to explain the unexplainable.

“Munster, you stay here with Jack, okay? I’ve got to go back and get Lashawna and Jerrick. Don’t you think we’re safe?”

“Yeah, guess so,” he said. “C’mon, Jack, show me where the cellar is. If you’re lyin’, though, I’ll shoot ya’.”

“Munster!” Of all the things to say! I punched him for his cruel statement. He could be so stupid I was learning.

Jack started to cry openly. I glared at Munster, and then turned back to her.

"I was just kiddin."

“No he won’t, Jack. Munster is just mean sometimes, but I promise you, he won’t shoot anyone, except someone who wants to hurt us. Go with him. Show him the others. I’ll be right back. I have to find our two friends and get them out of the rain. Okay? Will you do that?”

Jack shook her head, sobbing, and then eased herself off the end of the bed. “You’ll come right back, won’t you?”

“Yes. That’s a promise.”

By Candlelight

I ran out of the bedroom like the wind. Down the hall, the stairs, and out the front door. The rain was coming down in a steady sheet now, something I was used to in the winter months. Something I enjoyed before all this. When I could sit on the window seat for hours in the comfort of my home. When Mom would be singing in another room. When Daddy would be driving down the street at any minute, and I’d hear the garage door begin to open.

When no one was hiding outside in an abandoned car. We were safe at last I was certain. I threw caution to the wind halfway down the road and called out.

“Lashawna! Jerrick! It’s okay, you can come out. Hurry!”

I ran. I slipped twice on the crown of the muddy road, and fell sideways once, that last time. Lashawna appeared as I scrambled to my feet, fifty feet ahead of me.

“Amelia?”

“Yes! Get Jerrick. Everything’s okay. We have to get out of the rain. You’ll be warm inside.”

Without answering, she disappeared once again, and seconds later reappeared, leading her brother out onto the road.

“Ditch, Jerrick. Be careful.”

After what seemed like hours, we made it back to the house. Lashawna peppered me with question after question all the way. What did you find? How many are there? They’re all children? What happened to their parents?

The same thing that happened to ours.

We entered, and I called out to Munster, “We’re here! Munster? Where are you?”

He didn’t answer, but straight ahead, down the hallway leading to the kitchen, I could see the back door we’d come in through thirty minutes ago standing open. Below us somewhere was the cellar. I wondered how many kids—I assumed they were all kids—he’d found?

“This way,” I fired behind me at Lashawna and Jerrick, and then darted across the expanse of the room, through the kitchen, and out the back door. I stopped on the stoop and looked down along the exterior of the house to my right. Jack said that the entry was outside. You have to go outside to get to it, she’d told Munster and me. I guessed it had to be attached to the house in some way, but…

There! Of course, just like in The Wizard of Oz movie! The coincidence of that struck me. Dorothy’s family had gone down into a cellar, too…to hide from the horrific tornado. The difference was, I had no desire to leave Kansas—or California—and travel inside a whirling cloud to another fantastic but dangerous land.

The door leading to a room beneath the house protruded almost flat, thrown open, exposing the cement curb and cement steps leading down. I left Lashawna to guide her brother along the walkway behind the house and ran to the entrance. When I peered down the steep steps, I nearly fell backward in shock. I could hear the sound of muddled voices issuing forth from somewhere in the subterranean chamber, but what jarred me was the glow of light that illuminated that part of the interior I could see. It wasn’t thrown from a single candle—soft and dim—rather, it was bright, as though it originated from a thousand candles, tiny shadows flickering on the floor below. I stood staring down until Lashawna and Jerrick caught up. I didn’t say a word when they finally arrived; just pointed. Lashawna gaped for several seconds, then turned to me with a question mark on her face.

“Let’s go see,” I said.

Literally see.

The stairs led to a wide, long chamber that opened into three different rooms. Two on the right, the other to my left. Along the masonry walls to the right, candle after candle stood on boxes of different heights, still more set into roughly carved niches high above the boxes. The main source of light poured out of one of the two rooms farther away, and from within, the voices became somewhat clearer with each step I took. A conversation.

“Nah…they were…until…”

Munster’s voice, low enough so that whatever he was saying was split into little clumps. I stopped, waiting for Lashawna and Jerrick to descend the stairs, dripping like two rag dolls hung outside for hours in the rain.

“We…know, we don’t

Jack?

“Hurry!” I called to Lashawna.

“We’re going as fast as we can, Amelia.”

It should have been easy going for Jerrick once he managed to get down the stairs, but he took every step on the level floor tentatively, Lashawna a step in front of him, his hand in hers.

“Ohmagosh, the light! All these candles!” Lashawna said.

Jerrick finally spoke as we walked quickly down the hall toward the room with Munster’s and Jack’s voices. “A wine cellar, ‘Shawna. We’re in a wine cellar.”

I stopped and looked back at him.

“How would you know what it is? You can’t see a thing…or can you?”

“I can smell it.”

“What? I don’t smell anything,” I said.

“You aren’t blind, are you?”

Well, what would I know about the senses of blind people?

We moved on, Jerrick with one hand stretched forward, kind of waving it back and forth, I supposed, so that he wouldn’t run into a rack of wine and bring it down on top of all of us. I could do better without a great nose for anything out of the ordinary, but on the other hand, it occurred to me, we’d be on equal ground in a pitch-black room. Except I’d crash into anything and everything. Unlike him.

We entered the little anteroom ablaze with color and light, and, to my astonishment, five children. Two were sitting cross-legged on the frayed carpet listening to Munster and Jack. An older girl, about Munster’s age I guessed, stood beside Jack with a concerned look on her pretty face. The last had stationed himself in a corner with his arms crossed. Everyone turned their heads the moment we stepped in.

“They’re here!” one of the two youngest kids blurted. She jumped to her feet, followed by the other little guy who had been sitting quietly.

“Hello,” I greeted them. “My name is Amelia McDougal. This is Lashawna Freeman, and that’s her brother Jerrick,” I said with a twist of my head.

The younger ones seemed fine with our invasion of their home, and ran to us, inspecting each of us curiously. The boy stared silently up at Jerrick for a moment, then shifted his eyes to Lashawna, then me. After a few more uncomfortable seconds he walked back across the carpet to the girl’s side who was standing beside Jack. He latched onto her arm.

We eased a few steps farther into the room; a room about a third of the size of the kitchen somewhere above us. Unlike the room we’d just come from, this one was lined with open shelves, stacked with jar after jar after jar of food. Canned goods as well. It was some sort of underground pantry, and unless my eyes were playing tricks on me, there was enough food to feed all of us for a hundred years.

But, my burning questions were, who were these kids, and how had they come together? Jack had asked Munster and me upstairs in the bedroom if we knew what had happened to the world. Until we met Lashawna and Jerrick, and then the two men outside the rectory, we thought everyone but he and I had died. A short while ago we had to add Jack. Outside in the pool three bodies floated, decomposing, and two of them were children. Jack had survived the flash of deadly light, and so had these other kids down here. Like us, how had they done that?

Seems the number of survivors continued to grow, maybe grow even larger as time crawled slowly onward.

Jack opened up immediately, making the introductions rapid fire: Peter standing beside his sister, Cynthia, now. She standing near Jack, Mari and Ashton, the youngest of the group. After this she told the story of how the survivors came to be in this house that day, but she had no idea how or why they’d been immune when Mrs. Conklin and one of her two daughters had died.

“It was Terese’s birthday. She and Jeremy and me were playing tag in their pool when it happened. It was horrible! The light came, and it blinded me, but there was no sound at all, except when Mommy fell into the water. After…after…I shook my head and…They were just floating! I didn’t know. ’Wake up, Terese!’ But she didn’t.”

So the others in the chamber there below the grand old house had gathered for a birthday party—the young host not spared in some cruel irony; a vicious twist of fate. It was Jack’s mother who lay dead in the pool alongside her younger sister and a friend. Not long after coming to their senses in that new, dead world, the eldest of the survivors latched onto every cell phone they could find in order to call their parents. 911. Anyone. But everything was the same as I found it moments after I discovered something horrible had happened.

Peter and Cynthia lived on a neighboring orchard farm a few miles north of the Conklins, and within hours after the catastrophic event, ran to the Conklins’ home to find help. Of course they found a scene similar to the one they’d just left.

And then the appearance of the strange invaders far out by the main road leading in. The specters moved among the trees, crossed the drive, back into the trees on their frightening approach to the house. By then the children were crying, sitting inconsolable in the living room. Jack and Peter stood together on the porch, just outside, peering out over the orchard when they caught sight of the strange swirling phantasms.

“Inside, quick!” Peter had said to Jack.

Peter. The older brother I always wished I’d had. At least back then when the only other choice was Munster the Impetuous. Solid, beautiful with his dark hair and inquisitive blue eyes that belied the indifference of his quiet manner. He was the cement that held the other kids together when the natural inclination was self-destruction by exposure. Munster’s age. Munster’s opposite.

Like me, Jack had no idea who or what the creatures out on the drive were, only that their appearance in the wake of capricious death caused her to freeze.

“Inside, quick,” he had said.

The creatures, or things, whirling around outside would soon enough float into the house. Plainly, to him anyway, their presence was linked to all that had happened in the preceding hour. Hiding in one of the rooms wasn’t an option, he knew. Locking the front and back doors; yanking the drapes closed had probably been useless, given that they moved like mist through the orchard trees. Add to that the fact that the younger children were sobbing and crying, he knew he had only two options, and the decision would have to be made instantaneously. Grab his sister and the children, and then flee through the back door and hope they wouldn’t be spotted, or gather the children up and hide somewhere halfway safe inside the home. The second option had an addendum or two: find the safest room to hide in, gather them up, and then keep them together and quiet until the danger passed.

The cellar. He’d seen the prostrate door, but would the creatures notice it? Could they even? Surely, he reasoned, they possessed some sort of vision. How else could they travel about? In that second when a mind works a million times faster than a computer, he thought all this, and put the escape plan together.

“Jack, go outside and open the door to the cellar. Hurry!”

“What are they, Peter?”

“Just go!

“Cyn, help me.”

Jack left. The brother and sister corralled the terrified children, and in what seemed a snail’s pace, managed to herd them below the house.

He closed the slanted door behind him and rushed down the precipitous stairs. The unlikely survivors stayed below the house for two days and nights, softly sobbing, but undetected.

Everyone thought.

 

 

And The Flamecar...

 

“Have you been outside yet?” Lashawna asked Jack. “I mean other than to go back into the house?”

Jack, in her tiny little voice laughed. “Of course! But it’s dangerous out there. Isn’t it, Peter!”

Peter had been silent all the while until Jack addressed him.

“I’m sure of it. That’s why Jack, Cyn, and I take turns watching.”

The younger ones were fidgeting by then. Mari, a little Hispanic girl with jet-black hair and deep brown eyes exclaimed, “I want to go HOME! I don’t like it here. I want to see my mommy and daddy!”

“You can’t, Mari,” Cynthia said to her. “You know what Peter said. We’re stuck. Take Ashton and go play hide and seek or something. We can’t leave.”

“I’m tired of our stupid games. I miss Mommy and Daddy.”

Didn’t we all.

Jerrick had left Lashawna and was exploring the lines of shelves quietly, his fingers running over and along each jar, each box. I knew he could hear every word spoken, but he was like this crazy, intense machine.

“So now what?” Munster put to the obvious leader who approached us. “Ya’ gonna’ stay down here until ya’ keel over dead from boredom?”

“We only come down here to hide or get food,” Peter answered. “One of us is at the window up in the bedroom when the rest are in the house, or outside during the day.”

“Sounds like a pissy job. For your information, though, them things roamin’ around ain’t the only problem you—we—have. We just come from a run-in with real live humans a while back. Them space invaders might not see us, but there’s other people roamin’ around that can see good as you or me.” He brought the gun out proudly, and waved it for Peter and everyone else to see. “Had to cap one of ‘em back in the church we was in. Good thing you found us.”

“What? You mean you killed a child…in a church?” Cynthia asked indignantly.

“It was in the rectory, not the church,” I corrected her. A subtle difference of location in the act of murder. I guessed it was murder.

“Hah! That guy was no kid. ‘Sides, I didn’t know just where he was standin’ when I shot. But, I got ‘im.” Munster stopped and looked around at the faces of everyone with an uncharacteristically sheepish look in his eyes. I had no choice.

“He was ancient, an’ ugly as sin, an’ he was bent on killin’ us! Scared his buddy off after I done ‘im—shoulda’ capped him, too, but somethin’…He’s out there somewheres, and I’m bettin’ he ain’t the only one.”

“Oh no,” Jack said, slapping both hands over her mouth. I wanted to console her, but what does a fifteen year-old say to an eight year-old when it comes to explaining the moral rightness of killing another human, even if that human is “bent on” killing you? I just crossed the space between us and hugged her. Looking over my shoulder at Munster, I scowled for the umpteenth time that day..

“What are we going to do now that we’re here?” Lashawna asked.

“Get you a towel and some dry clothes,” I said, changing the subject from murder and violence to something more practical and calming. It was a cold night, even with the raincloud cover, but down there the temperature was seriously ten degrees colder. Lashawna was shivering heavily now.

“Jack, is there something in one of the closets that Lashawna and Jerrick and I could change into? And a towel?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Upstairs. I’m not sure any of the clothes will fit your brother…I mean her brother, but after you change I’ll hang the clothes up to dry.” She said that so matter-of-factly.

Jack took hold of my hand and urged me to go with her. As we passed Lashawna, she grabbed her hand as well.

“Tell your brother to follow us,” she said to Lashawna, as if his ability to do that was as easy as our quick-step out into the hall.

“Wait.” Lashawna stopped. “Jerrick, come with us. I’ll help you.”

Poor helpless Jerrick.

“You go ahead. I’m fine. I’ll wait here.”

“You’re soaked!” she shot back at him.

“I’m fine. Just go on without me. If you find a towel, just bring it back. I’ll wait here with the others.”

Lashawna shrugged, and then we left. Jack bounced up the steps ahead of Lashawna and me, both of us close behind. Out the door—which she closed when we’d gotten clear of the entrance—along the concrete path, into the kitchen, and through the house to the second floor.

She led us to one of the bedrooms opposite the direction Munster and I had taken earlier. Inside she went directly to the closet, opened it, and began pushing the dresses aside in the dim light.

“Can’t have a candle or a flashlight up here…I don’t know if any of these dresses…” She mumbled. She pushed, looked at and felt each garment hanging nearly as high as she could reach. “Ah, this one might fit you, Amelia. It’s warm feeling, too.”

Lashawna went forward to help the young girl in the search, but I left them, dry dress in hand, and crossed the room to the window overlooking the road in. Far away I saw the rear end of the Flamecar, and beyond it, the vague outline of the property’s end at the highway. There was no movement, save the steady rhythm of the downpour, and the occasional whip of orange tree branches driven by sudden gusts of wind. I stared out, my eyes clicking right and left for several moments, half-expecting to see someone or some thing appear, but it was thankfully quiet.

“I like that one. You’re shorter than Mommy, but it might kind of fit,” I heard Jack exclaim in an exuberant voice. “It’s pretty. We can cut the bottom off if it’s too long.”

Lashawna laughed. “At least it’s dry. Now let’s go find a couple of towels and something for Jerrick to wear, okay?”

“Right over there!” Jack said. I turned and saw her dart across the room to another closet that no doubt held her unfortunate father’s clothes.

“Amelia, Mommy and Daddy’s bathroom is right there,” she said pointing. “They have towels in there on a stand. You have to feel for them, I guess like Lashawna’s brother would do.”

And without another word she opened her father’s wardrobe and began again the task of selecting something dry for Jerrick to change into.

I entered the bath, found the rack of towels, and changed. The next thing I did was find the toilet and push the flusher handle down. The gush of water leaving the tank into the bowl, the swirling sound so familiar, and yet so foreign of late, lifted my spirits in a way that made all of the recent hell recede into something like the end of a very bad dream. A strange and hopeful awakening.

“It works! You have running water still?” I called out to Jack. She poked her head around the corner and explained the working toilet.

“Peter fills the tank up after anyone uses it. It’s hard because he has to bring big buckets of water in from the well,” she said.

Still, in this new, hope-filled existence, I knew we were absolutely not alone, and worse, light years away from being safe. I gathered up a few of the soft fluffy towels in the rack standing close by the gurgling toilet, and then carefully exited the dark room.

Jack and Lashawna had laid several pairs of slacks on the edge of the bed, two shirts—one light-colored, the other dark—by the time I returned.

“I don’t think color is important,” Lashawna said to her.

That would be true.

“What about socks?” Jack asked.

“Yes.”

“Underwear?” Jack giggled.

“Umm…no. I don’t think Jerrick would ever wear someone else’s. No. He’ll have to make do with what he has, or else skip them entirely.”

“I wouldn’t either!”

I interrupted their wardrobe selection, handing Lashawna one of the towels. “Here, Lashawna. Hurry and get out of those wet clothes and dry off.”

She took the towel, laid it on the bed beside Jerrick’s new clothes, and then began to undress. Jack turned her back, but I merely stared at this creature with dark skin, wondering if her entire body was one consistent color. As Lashawna rubbed the towel over her hair, I quickly surveyed her in a way I hadn’t had the time, or even the inclination to do before that moment. She was very pretty with her perfectly-featured face. I hadn’t noticed before that her neck was long, and her shoulders were much closer set than was visible when she was wearing her winter jacket. Undressed, I could see that she was much thinner than I’d thought, and that her knees were knobby. I don’t know why that struck me, but it did. Altogether, she seemed to be quite close to me physically. What did I expect, though? That the color of her skin would make her somehow entirely different? Like she might have two belly-buttons, or some other feature that set her apart from someone of my race?

Race. Or the consciousness of it. Those of us who’ve survived have nearly forgotten the word and all that it meant to so many before the catastrophe. What other species even notices such a differentiation, a classification based on color? Only humans. Thank you, Charles Baxter.

I handed Lashawna the dress as she finished the job of drying off. She took it without a word and slipped it over her head, working her thin arms through the short sleeves, and then she let the body of it fall. I couldn’t help but laugh. She did, too. Jack’s mother, lying face down in the pool—the woman didn’t appear to be that tall, but the short shift that probably would have hit her mid-thigh, hung nearly to Lashawna’s ankles. The short sleeves draped in an ungainly way far over her shoulders.

“Maybe scissors?” I offered, giggling. Jack turned, finally, and broke out in laughter.

“I’ll get them!” Jack said. “They’re over…”

“No. We have to go back to the cellar and give Jerrick a towel and fresh clothes first,” Lashawna said.

“I hope Daddy’s clothes fit him better than Mommy’s fit you!” So ebullient that little girl was under the dreadful circumstances.

We gathered up the towel and clothes, and then left the bedroom. I glanced back at the window just as I reached the doorway, thinking of the Flamecar stuck in the ditch for anyone happening by to see, or discover by whatever strange means those evil creatures possessed. Somehow we’d have to un-stick it, and then hide it.

Even in a downpour.

Settling in Oz

 

We arrived back at the cellar, half-soaked again, running from the rear kitchen door to the entrance. Laughing in a kind of three-part chorus at our bad luck. Somewhere in that house there must have been an umbrella or two, but none of us had thought to grab one.

Silly oversight.

The act of opening the door took several precious seconds, and had it not been for the overhang of the roof high above that somewhat protected us from the increasing downpour, it would have been…back to the bedroom for more dry clothes.

I'd carried Lashawna’s old wet clothes, and I dropped them near one of the wooden cases of wine where they landed with a splat. Hang them up somewhere to dry later. Not really that important, now.

Inside the underground pantry, Mari and Ashton giggled and poked one another when they saw Lashawna in her new dress. Peter, Munster, and Cynthia stood off to the side, talking in low voices to one another. Standing alone a few feet away, Jerrick’s head was turned in our direction when we entered, no doubt having heard or smelled our arrival long before we got to the entrance. Peter and Munster and Cynthia ended their exchange the second the children began to giggle, and turned to us.

“Real cool,” Munster said, eyeing Lashawna. She disregarded his approval (or disapproval, if that’s what it actually was) of her new gown and immediately took the towel and dry clothing to Jerrick.

“What’s it look like outside, Jack?” Peter asked.

“I didn’t look,” she replied with a tinge of apology in her tone.

“I did. I didn’t see anyone, or anything out of the ordinary. Just rain…and Munster’s car stuck in the ditch. Munster, don’t you think we should go move it?”

“In this weather? Yer nuts.”

“But there are four of us who could help push it now. If we wait until the rain stops, someone…”

“I ain’t goin’ out into that mess. And you don’t know how to drive, so yer stuck here until the rain stops.”

“It’s probably safe to go back upstairs,” Peter said, cutting the edge off Munster’s abrasive reply.

Meanwhile, Jerrick had begun to strip down to his boxers, Lashawna standing with her back to him as a kind of modesty shield to Cynthia. He dried himself, and then donned the new clothes, which oddly enough fit him fairly well, except for the waist. Apparently Jack’s father had eaten well. Obviously Jerrick never had.

“Belt?” I asked Jack.

“Forgot one,” she apologized once again. “He can just hold Daddy’s pants up with his hands until we get back upstairs.”

As he worked his fingers along the waistband, she burst out, “Look at his fingers! They’re so long!”

“He plays…or played…the piano,” Lashawna answered.

“That makes your fingers grow long and skinny?” Jack followed.

“I guess so,” said Lashawna.

“It’s a gene thing,” Jerrick said, settling the issue. If it was an issue, and not merely the answer to a child’s innocent observation.

Jack showed her utter confusion. She stepped closer to Jerrick and looked at his trousers carefully, his fingers tugging up on the waistband. Then she glanced up into eyes that could never see her.

“But…these aren’t jeans. Did you used to wear jeans? I don’t understand.”

“Later,” Munster said to her.

“He can tell you all about clothes and genes upstairs,” Peter added. “Let’s be on our way.”

Peter and Munster led the way, followed by Cynthia and the two children, Lashawna guiding Jerrick, with one hand on his new baggy pants, and then Jack and me behind them.

“I think Jerrick meant these things that are in your body—the genes. You inherit them from your parents, and they tell your body how to grow. They’re much different than clothes. Genes are inside the cells of your body,” I tried to explain to her. Walking beside me, I could see the gears inside her head spinning, trying to imagine the strange growth determiners.

“Maybe someday Jerrick or Peter will explain them better. Maybe Cynthia, if she knows. But not Munster. I’m positive he doesn’t know the difference.”

“Oh, okay.”

 

 

The rain continued to pound down. Peter stood outside against the wall of the house until we’d all gotten safely up, and then he closed the door over, sealing the cellar light in.

Once inside, Mari and Ashton shot about in the dark like little electrons freed from their nuclear orbits. They tagged one another and whooped it up, now free of the dank, crowded confines of their dungeon.

Peter went immediately to the stairs, hopping up them two at a time. I stayed close to Jack, Lashawna, Jerrick, and Cynthia. Munster turned right into the long, wide kitchen, and began rifling through the cabinet drawers. I knew without asking what he was searching for. Tape. Living in the dark each evening was simply out of the question in his simply-complicated mind.

A few moments later, after we‘d wandered through the hall into the living room, leaving Peter to do whatever he was up to on the second floor, and Munster to continue raiding the kitchen cabinets, Peter returned. The five of us had sat down on the sumptuous sofa. Cynthia was quizzing Lashawna and me about where we’d once lived when Peter swung off the curled handrail onto the floor.

“I don’t see anyone or anything outside, but I still think it would be a good idea for us to keep an eye stationed at the bedroom window tonight,” he said. “We can do it in shifts.”

Munster ambled into the living room as Cynthia and I stood.

“Can’t find any tape. You got any here?” he asked Peter.

“For what?”

“To tape somethin’ over all the windows. I don’t know about you, but if there's candles here, I’m gonna’ use ‘em.”

“No you’re not,” Peter shot back. The first butting of heads. I couldn’t see either of their faces clearly, but definitely one of the two intended on calling the shots. Unquestioned by the other.

“Cynthia, go upstairs to the bedroom. Take Jack if you like…she can sleep while you watch. The rest of you can take a bedroom at the back of the house. Cynthia will wake one of you when her two hours are up. Don’t light any candles.”

His tone, even to his sister, was sullen. The next statement he made had to have been directed once again at Munster.

“You hear that? Don’t light candles.” An uneasiness flowed like rushing water over the room and everyone in it.

“What about our car?” I asked.

“It stays where it is,” Munster said.

“He’s probably right…”

“I am,” Munster cut in.

“Okay, you’re right. We’ll leave it where it is for tonight. Maybe move it first thing in the morning if the rain lets up. Is that all right with you, buddy?”

Oh my God. The thought hit me that we should do as both of them ordered…and then get into the Flamecar, if it would start up again, and leave. Peter with his attitude; Munster with his gun and one bullet. Suddenly our bright new future had gotten clouded over. As if the creatures and a hoard of horrible men lurking outside somewhere weren't enough!

 

 

Cynthia woke me. I’d fallen asleep on the floor, curled inside a warm, heavy blanket, exhausted by the sheer tension of yesterday and last evening. Jerrick and Lashawna had taken the double bed. He was snoring softly. I didn’t know where Munster had gone to sleep. Perhaps right outside Peter and the kids’ bedroom, with his gun drawn.

“Amelia,” she whispered, poking at me with a finger, “wake up. Are you okay to stand next watch?”

“Huh…”

“I stayed up for three hours instead of two. Jack is asleep in the watch room. I’m really tired, now. Can you take my place?”

I blinked and stretched my arms and legs. “I think so. Is it morning?”

“No, no. Still night. Get up now. No one’s at the window, and you know what Peter said. Someone has to be there at all times.”

Peter. Why did he get to sleep, leaving the job of watching to the rest of us?

I crawled from beneath the warm cover and followed Cynthia out of the room, blanket dragging behind me. She led me to the watch bedroom, and then continued on down the hall to another bedroom. She waited, looking back at me until I opened the door as quietly as I could and entered.

Jack’s breathing was soft beneath the mounds of covers drawn to just below her neck. I padded past her to the window, wrapped the still-warm blanket around me, and sat in the hard wooden chair placed below the window. Outside nothing seemed to have changed. Darkness. The steady downpour. Flittering images of Munster’s Flamecar in the distance. I began to think of the evil, shimmering monsters. The man lying on his back with a hole in his head outside Father’s rectory. My parents…

Warm. Warm.

 

I woke with a start. The rain had stopped. The window glowed a hazy white that lit up the interior of the bedroom.

Peter was standing right behind me, and I knew I was in trouble.

“I’m sorry!”

His reaction startled me. He smiled.

“Tough job, eh girl? How long have you been asleep? See anything before you conked out?”

“I didn’t mean to fall asleep, Peter. I guess I was still tired after Cynthia…”

“It’s okay. No harm done, I suppose. We’re all still alive.” His smile waned, but there remained a warmth in his tone.

“I’ll take over for a while. Cynthia and the kids are awake. Downstairs. You can go to the kitchen and help them fix something for breakfast. She knows the routine. Just don’t let Mari and Ash go outside yet.”

I was so thankful. Maybe Peter wasn’t such a monster after all.

I left Jack and Peter to search for Cynthia. In the hall outside the room, I heard the soft sound of her voice in song rising from the first floor, as welcoming to my ears as the first glint of sunlight on a warm summer day always had been to my eyes. Intermixed were the squeaking, daybreak voices of Mari and Ash, peppering Cynthia with questions and complaints.

“I don’t want Cream of Wheat!”

“How much longer?”

“CYN...YOU’RE NOT LISTENING!”

“Can we go outside, just until…”

Cynthia just kept on humming away.

I went down.

Cynthia stood in the kitchen, back to me, stirring something in a good-sized saucepan on the stove. No doubt Cream of Wheat, I mentally chuckled. The memory of it. With lots of sugar, I’d always sort of liked it. Well, it was infinitely better than Pop Tarts. Nutritionally at least. Sweet Pablum.

I was surprised. Gone were the clothes she’d worn last night—the baggy jeans, the heavy knit sweater and hiking boots. This morning she wore tan shorts, a light white blouse, and no shoes. Like early September, let’s-head-for-the-beach-later stuff. I shivered that January morning looking at her. Her long hair, that last night looked dirty blond in the glare of the cellar light, glistened this morning, almost as though she’d washed and dried it, and then brushed it out. She looked thinner than she did hours ago, dressed as she’d been in warm winter wear.

Mari and Ash stood on either side of her, noses nearly to the top of the stove. They were still going on and on about how bad it smelled to them, did they have to eat the Cream of Wheat again, and...ya. Cynthia seemed not to hear, or at least care. She sang on, and stirred.

“Good morning,” I said, standing at the archway enthralled by the warmth in the room, the lightness of the atmosphere.

The three of them turned almost in unity. The looks of mild astonishment on the kids’ faces were swept away in a flash, replaced with huge smiles, but it was Cynthia’s face that struck me, and made me hope that someday—if I lived to someday—I could see someone as glorious and beautiful looking back at me in a mirror. I recalled a picture I’d seen in one of my mother’s coffee table books; one of a young woman standing on a seashell floating on a lake or the sea near the shore. I blushed. Had Cynthia been naked, she could have been that woman. Fifteen…or was she sixteen? All grown up, anyway, and beautiful in the way artists of long ago painted women.

“Amelia!” Mari shouted joyfully. She darted across the stone floor to my side, throwing her arms around my waist. “We’re having Cream of Wheat again. Tell Cynthia that you don’t like it! I’m tired of eating CREAM OF WHEAT!”

I stroked her dark hair and said, ”It’s my favorite food for breakfast. It makes my tummy happy.

“This is your morning routine, Cynthia?” I asked.

“Pretty much,” she said, laying the spoon aside, smiling. “There’s tons of it on the shelves downstairs. Mrs. Conklin must have hoarded the stuff.” She turned her attention back to the gurgling, bubbling pan, pushing it off the burner.

“Can you help Mari and Ash set some bowls on the table? I’ll go wake everyone. We have lots to talk about this morning.”

“I’m going outside,” Ash grumbled. “I’m NOT hungry!”

He had no idea how lucky he was. A hot breakfast. A secure home. Someone like Cynthia to care for him; like Peter—if not Munster—older and wiser and big brother-like. I knew hoe lucky we were, though. As much as I so missed my parents, I realized that fate, or God, or some other power that I couldn’t conceive had landed me here, and that we all might live, and figure out in time what life should, could, and must be like, and what our place in this strange new world must become.

I took hold of Mari’s hand and asked her to show me where the cupboard holding the plates and bowls was.

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

We Are Here...And We Are Watching

Munster was missing.

Cynthia and I, and after I had woken her, Jack, searched the rooms, the cellar, and the grounds immediately outside the house. There was no sign of him anywhere.

Peter had violated his own rule and left his watcher post upstairs so that he could eat a quick bite with his new boarders, but when he asked Mari where Cyn and I were, she shook her head. He left the kitchen and two grumbling kids to find us. When we informed him outside near an outbuilding that Munster had gone missing, he scowled.

“He’s around somewhere. Relax, Amelia. He’ll show up. That guy is so headstrong, and with that gun, I think he thinks he’s invincible. Let’s go back. We’ll look some more after breakfast.”

By then the Cream of Wheat had cooled, and any amount of sugar we could pour on it didn’t help make it more palatable. To Mari and Ash anyway. Cold or otherwise, it beat the heck out of saltine crackers and Spam. I couldn’t eat, though. Not more than a spoonful or two. His disappearance set my stomach in a knot.

Munster was smart—smart enough to sense danger outside at any rate. The three of us had gone as far as the Flamecar looking for him, thinking that perhaps his run-in with Peter had prompted him to leave the house entirely and sleep in the car.

“Jack, when you’re finished eating, go back up and keep watch. Look for any signs of movement in the orchards. Maybe that idiot is out there somewhere sulking.”

“I wish you hadn’t beaten him up so much last night,” I said to Peter.

“Yeah? Well I had to let him know who’s running the show here,” he replied through tight lips. “And I didn’t lay a hand on him.”

What a difference a few minutes made.

Lashawna and Jerrick eventually entered the kitchen, she leading him by the hand. I supposed that would be the routine until he memorized the layout of our new home. I liked Jerrick—I mean he was nice enough, for a new friend anyway—but deep down I resented his presence. It wasn’t his fault that he was blind, and it wasn’t his fault that our world had gone to pieces in the blink of an eye, but having to have a keeper was a liability for all of us. If someone happened upon us, he’d be the last to know, and for certain we’d be spotted.

Game over.

“He’s on the main road,” Jerrick said as if he had just left Munster's side.

We all looked at him a little astonished.

“And how would you know that?” Peter finally said.

“I see him there. I mean it’s a different kind of seeing than what you have, but he’s out there. I hear the sounds of his feet on the pavement, and smell the rainwater on it. The road in is gravel. It smells and sounds different. The ground beneath the orange trees. All of it different. He’s out there on the main road.”

Cynthia shot a questioning glance at Lashawna, but she merely smiled.

“Okay, different sounds and smells,” Peter responded, “but how do you see it right now? Nobody’s nose and ears can be that sensitive. And maybe what you think you see is someone else walking on the highway.”

“No. It’s Munster, I’m certain of it.”

“What else do you…do you smell or hear or sense outside, Jerrick?” Cynthia asked. And that was a very good question. If blind Jerrick could somehow sense things the rest of us had no ability to sense, that meant our chances of remaining undetected increased a hundredfold at least. His liability factor instantly disappeared.

Jerrick’s countenance fell as he seemed to be concentrating, his sightless eyes staring hard, upward. A second or two passed, and then he spoke. “Some thing is following him, I think. I see…acrid. Whaatever is behind him makes no sound, though. Far away. Not close to Munster. Maybe not exactly following him. Maybe. I can’t be sure. But it’s out there.”

See smells? My young mind struggled with such a concept.

“Why is he out on the highway?” Peter shot.

“I’ve no idea,” Jerrick replied.

“Can we GO OUTSIDE now?” Ash interrupted the conversation. Mari was already standing at the rear door, ready to escape the discussion that, in her head, had nothing important to do with her or her antsy brother.

“No, Ash darling. It’s still dangerous,” Cynthia said. “You must try to remember that. And you know you're not allowed behind the house. Just be patient. Maybe a little later, okay?”

“I’ve gotta’ go find him. How far away is he, Jerrick?” Peter said, ignoring Cynthia and Ash.

“I don’t know distances precisely in the way I believe sighted people do, but not far. About the same number of steps beyond the entrance as I walked from the car to this house.”

“About one hundred-fifty yards,” Cynthia said.

Ash perked up at Cynthia’s comment. “Like the front yard here?”

“Almost,” she replied, patting his head.

“Can you keep up with me?” Peter asked Jerrick.

“I’m going too,” I said.

“No, you stay here with Lashawna and Cynthia and the kids. God, I wish you could see better than you…see, Jerrick.”

“I should go, too. Jerrick can move faster with me at his side,” Lashawna said.

Jerrick turned at the sound of his sister’s voice. “I’ll be fine. Stay here, Shawna. Yes, I can keep up with you if you don’t run, Peter,” he said with a certain look of doubt on his face.

“Okay, okay. Let’s get moving then. God help us if that nitwit wandering around out there leads someone to this house.”

Peter’s overt antagonism toward Munster was beginning to rub me the wrong way, but I said nothing. For the time being, anyway. Taking a final look at Jerrick, Peter left him and hurried to the front door. Jerrick followed Peter’s footsteps as quickly as he could.

“Be careful, darling,” Lashawna dotingly said.

“Don’t worry about me.”

They left, Peter bounding across the porch and down the steps. He stopped at the walkway at the bottom and looked back. Lashawna couldn’t help herself—she’d had years of practice taking care of her brother. She walked beside Jerrick until he arrived at the first step.

“Three steps, Jerrick. Here…here’s the handrail,” she said.

"I know, I know."

I could see the look of consternation on Peter’s face, and almost hear his grumbling words. He watched as Jerrick navigated the steps, his right hand sliding down the rail, his every step tentative.

“Leave him be, Lashawna. If he stumbles I hope he doesn’t break his neck. Go back inside. Get upstairs and keep watch with Jack.

“Meet me at the front gate, Jerrick. I’ll wait for you there,” he said. And then Peter turned and ran, leaving poor Jerrick to sink or swim on his own.

For a moment, Lashawna stood grasping the porch post, reaching toward her brother in useless, jerking movements each time he lowered a foot to the next step. Not surprisingly, he made it to the bottom, hesitated, and then set off at a snail’s pace to follow our un-elected leader, who by then was a hundred feet away.

“Come on, Lashawna. Let’s do what Peter said. You can watch your brother from the window upstairs. He'll be ok,” Cynthia said.

I went back inside, ushering the two children along in front of me. Cynthia waited until Lashawna gave up and left Jerrick to negotiate the path ahead of him, and then joined us in the living room after closing the door. Lashawna had this frightful look about her when she heard the door click shut, like the door closing was Jerrick’s casket lid being shut forever.

“Upstairs, all of us,” Cynthia said, urging Ash and Mari toward the staircase in front of her. The children moaned and began to stomp up the stairs, but they obeyed her command. She turned to Lashawna, who by then was near to tears. “Peter’s right. Let’s go. You can watch better from the front bedroom anyway.”

I left her and Cynthia; raced past the kids, and dashed down the long hall to the bedroom where Jack had stationed herself at the window. Looking out, I could see Jerrick moving up the gravel entry road, waving both hands forward and sideways ahead of himself, twenty or thirty paces along in the treacherous journey without the guidance of his sister. Peter had reached the front gate, busying himself trying to swing its iron body back to cover the road in. A few seconds later Lashawna burst in. She raced across the floor and pushed Jack out of the way so that she could see her brother when he stumbled and fell.

But, he didn’t.

At the gate, three-quarters shut and stuck, Peter was beside himself, turning sideways and back every other second. I know he wanted to abandon the sightless boy who could “hear” visions, whose senses were so different than ours. He might have been shouting at Jerrick, but from where we stood at the closed window, it was impossible to detect any sounds other than Lashawna’s groaning.

Jerrick continued on. Peter waited impatiently.

Suddenly out of nowhere, our worst nightmare. A shadow coursed across the house from above in the morning sunlight, moving slowly toward the main road, and when it reached the spot directly above Jerrick, it came to a stop.

Lashawna screamed. My heart fell to my feet when we peered upward and saw the thing that had created the shadow.

 

 

 

A Black Scourge Descends

 

It hovered. There was no sound other than all of us inside the bedroom screaming, but I couldn’t help but notice Jerrick’s head twist sideways to cock an ear straight up.

The next series of events seemed like scenes in a movie running in super-fast motion.

Munster appeared at the gate, squeezing through in a flash movement. He was looking up. So was Peter, frozen in shock. Jerrick was taking little steps sideways and backward. Forward again. I know he somehow knew what had come to a stop right above him. Munster shook off his dumbfounded confusion, leaving Peter, whose mouth had dropped in horror, to stand and stare. Just like that, though, Peter was off and running. Both of them, toward helpless Jerrick. Half a second passed, and then maybe the worst of the two evils appeared in this horror show.

They were above us—above Jerrick and the two boys running in his direction—and that’s when a man in khaki trousers made his entrance with great difficulty, but with equally great determination. When he managed to scrunch himself through the gate, I could see him start to wave his arms frantically, but I couldn’t make out what he was yelling at the three boys.

Munster glanced over his shoulder, and then somehow quickened his pace. Peter did the same.

It was Munster who reached Jerrick first, only breaking stride enough to grab Jerrick’s arm and yank him along beside him. Peter rushed to Jerrick’s other side and clamped onto the other arm. Lashawna screamed one last time, and then she was out the door, heading down the hall to help rescue her brother.

Jerrick, in the firm grip of Peter and Munster, ran. Strangely jerky steps, but he was forced to move his legs probably quicker than he’d ever done in his life.

The man in the khaki pants caught up to them, unhindered by the weight of anything—other than his fear of the horrible black craft, one of them, directly overhead this time, instead of far away over the downtown part of the city. It was huge—I gauged it to be as long as a city block, and half that length in height—with what I can only describe as appendages poking out at odd angles and sizes from its body. Also, it was solid, unlike even a dense cloud, but every second or two I was certain that I could see flashes of light erupting from deep inside.

As Lashawna came into view thirty feet in front of the steps below, I waited with my hands covering my mouth for a death ray to burst in a flash of light and incinerate all of them. Nothing happened. Just silence of a sort, until a few seconds later I could hear what sounded like an army breaking in down on the main floor. Garbled voices. Commands that were contradictory.

“Upstairs!”

“No! To the cellar!”

“I’ll shoot your ass, mister!”

“Don’t do it! Calm down, boy.”

Calm down? With a spaceship outside? Munster with his gun ready to shoot his last bullet into the man? A man! An adult who’d somehow discovered us, and who’d been on his way to kill us all!

“Cynthia! Get down here!”

I stayed put, terrified to leave the window and the vision of the ghastly alien craft outside. Cynthia had both children by their hands, moving like lightning to follow Peter’s command. My heart sank as I stood frozen, staring out at it. There were no running lights like those on invading alien ships in the movies. No windows, or seams on its underside where one would expect to see a ramp lower to the earth when it landed. No little gun nozzles. Just a big broiling mass hanging menacingly like a monstrous beached and bloated whale fifty feet off the ground.

More overlapping, confused comments outside the room. I couldn’t pry myself away from the window because I expected the spaceship to slowly lower itself to the gravel road, see a ramp come down…and then see hoards of hideous creatures swirl out and head for our once-safe house.

Shouting outside the bedroom. Cynthia came running back in. “Amelia, get away from there! We have to run!”

I couldn’t. That is, not until I saw the spaceship rise, slowly at first, then tip sideways as though it was banking into the wind, and suddenly streak northeast faster than one of the bullets leaving Munster’s gun.

“Oh my God…”

Cynthia was on me before it disappeared far up in the sky. She yanked me away from the window and dragged me out of the bedroom.

We were sunk!

Everyone but Cynthia and I were gathered at the foot of the staircase. Peter stood near Jack. Jack was trying to get the children to stop crying. Munster was five feet away from the adult, both hands outstretched, holding the gun at the guy’s chest.

“It’s gone!” I screamed. “It left!”

Cynthia and I reached the steps, jumping down them two at a time. Peter and everyone else except Munster looked up at us.

“They’ll be back. Count on it,” Peter snorted.

“DON’T move,” Munster said when the man started to lower his upraised arms.

“Please. Lower the weapon, young man. I’m on your side.” He emphasized his request by taking a step backward slowly—as though that would help him if Munster decided to pull the trigger—and pleadingly brought his upraised hands forward. The palms were blotted with blisters. Purplish-black. Painful to look at. I could only imagine how they must feel.

Munster didn’t flinch, nor did he answer the stranger standing there among us. Peter wheeled across the space separating himself and itchy-finger Munster. He shot his arm over Munster’s and spoke. “Wait. He doesn’t look like he has a weapon. Let him talk.

“Cynthia, go find some rope or wire. If what he says sounds like bull, we’ll tie him up, and then decide if we let Munster shoot him.” He looked hard at Munster.

“Yeah, s’okay by me,” Munster said.

“Start talking, mister, and it had better be good. Who the hell are you?”

Cynthia began to leave the living room, but hesitated the moment the stranger began to explain who he was and how he’d come to be among us. His hands might be blistered, but there was something about his face and voice that belied evil. No cunning in his deep-set eyes that could be masked with a smile like that of the man back at the rectory. In fact a visible well of sadness dwelt in them. His mouth was broad, and his lips that moved slowly were chapped, as though whoever he was, he’d just staggered out of a desert. A softness in his speech, and a choice of words that even at my young age told me he was educated.

“I escaped their grasp,” he began.

Mr. Charles Baxter

“Yeah, yeah, you escaped. Sure. What’s your name for the second time?”

“My name is Charles Schultz Baxter. Please don’t laugh.”

At what? Until he explained his mother’s devotion to a comic strip creator I’d barely ever heard of, there was no humor regarding a name he’d been stuck with. My middle name is Bronte. No doubt my mother loved Wuthering Heights. Not my fault.

I watched the man, and I listened, my eyes bouncing back and forth from him to Peter to Munster. As the guy spoke, Munster slowly lowered his gun. Peter, on the other hand—his eyes remained narrowed. I don’t think he bought the story, not entirely, anyway.

“I am a teacher…or I was at least. Monroe Middle School back in Marysville. Eighth Grade.” His eyes clouded over suddenly, and he stumbled to a halt momentarily.

“They’re all gone. Fifty innocent children, about your ages,” he said glancing at me, and then Cynthia.

“I was in high school before all this hell broke loose,” Cynthia informed him. Mr. Baxter forced a weak, apologetic smile.

“Forgive me. You don’t strike me as being quite old enough.”

That was true, thinking back to those first days with her. Still, from my perspective, anyone in a grade higher than mine seemed to be so mature. So older. She was a few inches taller than me, but she’d cut her auburn hair short, which, along with her small nose and carefree blue eyes made her look much younger.

“Well, I am.”

“What are your names?” he said leaving the narrative. Peter glared at him.

“I asked you who you are,” he snapped. He stepped closer to Mr. Baxter and put a finger on his chest. “No questions, got it?

“Munster,” he said taking a sideways step, “if he makes a move, blast him.”

Munster shot Peter a confused look, but he didn’t raise the gun he held.

“Oh no!” Jack cried out, raising her hands to cover her eyes. Ash and Mari standing beside her whimpered, and Mari hid her face in Jack’s side.

“Don’t do it,” Jerrick said calmly, coming to life. “He isn’t one of them. He’s scared, just like we are.”

One of whom, I thought. For all Jerrick knew, the real Mr. Baxter might have three eyes, or a body in the form of a glittering, nearly-transparent ogre.. Standing close to her brother, Lashawna implored Munster not to raise the gun again. Peter, of course, remained adamant that Mr. Baxter explain himself, although his threat was only a warning to the man I’m positive.

“And how would you know that?” Peter asked him.

“I just do. There’s a smell about him. The same one that hit me before we went out to look for Munster. It’s all around him.”

“I am,” Mr. Baxter said. “I saw them all perish. I’ve no idea how I escaped the same death, but I witnessed all of it. I was knocked unconscious when the light struck us in the classroom, but when I awoke…after I’d gone to every single child and checked their pulses…after I’d stumbled, absolutely stunned, to every other classroom; the office, the lavatories and gym. It was the same everywhere.”

He went on, relating the next series of distressing events in all their morbid details.

If we were to believe him, and back then listening to him I saw no reason why we shouldn’t, Mr. Charles Schultz Baxter was every bit the victim of the catastrophe that we were. In a way, maybe more. At least none of us had turned a corner and run into one of the evil invaders like he said he had.

“I touched it! This was the result,” he said bringing his arms straight out, palms turned toward Peter and the rest of us. “A natural reaction. I was inches from one of those monsters. I pushed myself away, but it was as if I’d come into contact with a searing piece of molten steel. They aren’t very swift, even in their reactions. Take that as some comfort. Somehow in my shock and pain, I managed to turn and race like the wind back down the street. It followed, but I escaped, thank God.”

By then the tension in the room had vanished. Even Peter let up on the man.

“But how did you come to be on the highway? How did you know we were here in this house?” he put to him.

Mr. Baxter hesitated, and then gestured toward the sofas in the living room to the left. “Can we sit, please? I mean none of you any harm. I never did. I am also very weary.”

Peter eyed him for a moment, and then shook his head. “I suppose so.

“Jack, take Ash and Mari and go upstairs to the bedroom. Keep a close watch outside. If you see anything suspicious, get back down here and sound the alarm.”

“I want to hear what happened,” she complained. Peter looked over at her with his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed.

“Just do it. We’ll tell you later.”

When the three younger ones had gotten halfway up the stairs, Peter and the rest of us walked to the sofas facing one another and sat down, curious in the very least to hear what the once-schoolteacher had to say. The six of us squeezed together on the sofa facing the long bank of windows ablaze with the morning sunlight. Mr. Baxter sat alone across from us. He waited until we had gotten situated, and then dropped his gaze to his upturned palms resting in his lap. A few seconds passed, and then he continued with his tale.

“I ran, of course. To no place in particular, just away from whatever that thing was. “I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that I had to get away from the death and carnage in Marysville, and so I headed south. I slept for a few hours in the last house at the edge of town. Considered staying there until I could figure out what to do next.”

Mr. Baxter glanced down at his blistered hands again. “My first order of business was to find the medicine cabinet in one of the bathrooms, and hope to find some salve. The inside of the home was as dark as a tomb, but after half an hour of bumping into furniture, doors—tripping over bodies—I managed to find one on the second floor. I emptied its contents into a small trash receptacle I’d kicked over when I entered the room, and then stumbled back down the stairs, and outside where the light was somewhat better. Polysporin. I emptied the tube onto my palms. After that, I went back into the living room, lay down behind a couch, and like I said, slept for a while. Sometime during my fitful sleep, I heard the roar of an engine outside. I woke with a start, ran out of the house, and followed the sound until it faded.”

The sound of Jack screaming broke the next, most important part of his story.

“They’re coming up the drive!”

Contact

 

Peter bolted off the couch and raced to the front door, the rest of us only half-seconds behind him.

“Get the kids to the cellar!” he yelled, throwing the curtains covering the window in its top half aside. Munster and Cynthia crowded on either side against him, pressing their faces to the glass. Charles and I rushed to an adjacent window, leaving Lashawna and Jerrick to begin the dreadfully slow journey back out of the living room toward the rear door ahead of Jack and the two children.

I groaned when I peered out and saw, not one, but four swirling opaline shapes moving erratically toward us, fifty feet in from the gate. The memory of first having seen one of them days ago in front of my house, and then on the street in front of the mini mart leapt into my head. Those faces that weren’t really faces, grotesque as they were without eyes. One of them had come to a stop by the Flamemobile, one strangely amorhous hand coursing across the side window as though the thing was searching for a way to open it. It twisted its shimmering head unnaturally to the side, elongating it as if—I swear—it was investigating the interior. If they had no eyes…but then suddenly that apparently incorrect assumption shattered. Like a pit of snakes awakened from slumber by a sudden noise above them, tentacle-like appendages emerged to writhe and poke at the glass, bouncing left, right, up and down along it.

Peter, Cynthia, and Munster wheeled around after only a second or two of watching the invaders’ progress forward and exited the living room.

“Move!” Peter shouted from the entry to the kitchen, but Charles and I remained glued to the vision beyond our station at the window, as if both of us were Lot’s wife, turned to stone by what was happening to Sodom down in the valley below.

The creature that was plowing over Munster’s car moved away a few seconds later to join the others, which jolted me back to my senses. I let the curtain fall closed and grabbed Charles’ arm.

“They’ll be here in a second, Mr. Baxter. Come on!” I tugged at him, but he remained where he stood, one purplish and blistered hand holding the curtain open. A look of sadness descended over his face.

“I’m sorry, Amelia. I didn’t mean to, but I brought them here. Go. Hide with the others.”

“But…”

“Go. I’m no longer frightened of them. When they discover me, perhaps they’ll just do me in and forget the rest of you. Run.”

“They saw you and Jerrick and Peter! Please come with me. We’ll be safe in the cellar until they get tired of looking and then leave!”

Charles might act brave, but I saw the fear in his eyes. Would they use some sort of death ray sent from their hideous fingers to strike him down, or more likely swarm over him and roast him to a cinder?

That look on his face; fear mixed with resignation and sorrow. His fate should have meant very little, or nothing, to me, and yet I couldn’t run away. I don’t know exactly why. I just couldn’t, and so I did something which in hindsight still baffles me. I hugged him and threw my face into his chest. How strange. I couldn’t let him die alone, but I prayed that when they fell on us my death wouldn’t hurt too much. Is that what soldiers used to do—is that what they used to think—when they were being overrun by the enemy?

Neither Peter nor Munster nor Cynthia returned to drag Charles and me away from the window. Peter told me much later that they’d assumed we fled to an upstairs bedroom, or somehow made it up into the attic. Far from that, Charles took hold of my hand with a grimace, and then smiled down at me. He released my hand, walked to the front door, and using both of his, turned the knob and pulled it open. They stood at the foot of the steps, two of them. Their friends languished several feet behind them, waiting, I imagined, for the leaders to dispense with us. There followed a long moment of stasis as we looked out at them, and I guessed they looked in at us.

Mr. Baxter did something that at first made me recoil. He stepped out and approached them, lifting his hands upward and out, shaking his head no.

No, don’t kill us, or, no, don’t burn me again?

He stopped not two feet away from them and lowered his hands to his side. I could see them turn their cloudy face toward one another, and I could hear them speak to each other in voices that resembled water being poured onto the burners of a stove. Neither of them, nor their companions, made a move to whisk forward and end our lives. Their tentacle eyes gazed up at us, back and forth at one another—this way and that—and then ceased to move, pointing straight ahead.

Should we cook them and eat them here? A hundred frighteningly crazy thoughts pummeled me. As the seconds ground onward, it struck me that perhaps they had no intention of doing us in. But why? Oh, I wished and prayed, peering down at them, that we could understand what they’d been saying to one another. That they could understand the cruel question I wanted to put to them: “Why did you do what you did to all those innocent people?”

We mean you no harm.

Really? Just everyone else?

Well, no. That was just an accident.

Some accident!

No Allstate any longer to file a claim with.

We’re sorry.

That’s rich. But okay, we forgive you. Won’t you come in and sit with us for a spell?

Obviously they didn’t want to do that. They turned and returned the way they’d come.

WHAT?

Crisis over. CRISIS OVER?

My knees knocked. I nearly fell over in relief shot through with disbelief and utter confusion. I sighed, but leaving my throat the sound of it was more truthfully a groaning cry.

Safe? For the moment at least. Now what?

“Go gather the others,” Charles said in an even voice. He watched them move away like strange shadows under a stormy sky.

“Why didn’t they…? They didn’t hurt us, Mr. Baxter! What do they want here? We’re alive!”

“We are. Go get the others, sweetheart. We have work to do.” He finally turned to me and smiled. “I’m proud of you, Amelia. I’m very proud of you. Go now.”

Sweetheart. My father used to use that word sometimes when he spoke to me. When I’d done something that made him smile. That one word Charles uttered gave me hope and comfort greater than I can possibly describe.

I turned and ran as fast as I could in the direction of the cellar.

 

 

Suddenly Eden?

 I nearly fell down the cellar steps after yanking with all my might to lift the heavy door. As I descended I could hear Mari and Ash crying far back in the dark interior. Jack and Cynthia trying to soothe them with words that were contrived and unconvincing.

Peter appeared from the back room when I hit the last step, Munster at his side brandishing the gun with one useless bullet.

“They’re gone! Come out, we’re finally, finally SAFE!” I screamed with joy.

Peter rushed toward me. Munster’s jaw dropped, and his shoulders slumped. I think. I think. It was so dark! He stayed where he was, anyway.

“What? What happened up there?” Peter sputtered.

Where to start?

“We met them!” I began to stammer and wave my hands senselessly about, as if the words I wanted to say were flying around like bees outside their hive, and I could capture them.

“You what?” Munster said bounding forward. Right behind him came beautiful Mother Goose Cynthia and her brood, Jerrick all alone, feeling his way out of the small antechamber, probably unassisted by anyone for only the second time in his life. And all within an hour's space of time. I knew he could hear my heart hammering, and see with those other eyes he possessed the sheer rapture that had overtaken me from head to toe.

“They were right outside. Mr. Baxter and I didn’t run away. He…and well, I…opened the door. The creatures didn’t kill us! They were talking to one another—I could hear sounds coming from them. But, they didn’t hurt us! They turned and left!”

The news report was somewhat condensed, but its impact visibly floored everyone except Ash and Mari, who had no way of understanding its importance. Cynthia began to cry openly. Lashawna ran forward and hugged me.

“Where’s Baxter?” Peter asked. I could see the gears in his head spinning. He didn’t even smile at the news.

“I…upstairs still, I guess.”

He stepped around me immediately, and rushed to the stairs leading out of the tomb. It didn’t hit me at first that Charles hadn’t followed me. In my excitement and rush to break the good news to everyone down there, that is.

I followed Peter, and everyone else followed me. We found Mr. Baxter outside on the lawn, standing beneath something so strange and out of place that it stopped us in our tracks. Whatever it was, it hadn’t been there ten minutes ago. A cylinder of gleaming black. Much, much taller than Mr. Baxter, and five times his width. Each of us, except Jerrick, ran to it. We knew they’d deposited it there, and as I walked slowly around its perimeter, I could see that there were no breaks in its polished surface anywhere. No instruction manual lying nearby to tell us what it was, or what it might do, or how to open it and see what lay inside.

When I arrived back around at its front—if where Charles stood might be its front—Peter was standing five feet away from our newest family member, frowning. Munster was nearby, and he’d withdrawn his gun. I think he was considering using the last bullet on it.

“This is their gift to us,” Charles finally said.

“Maybe it’s a fuckin’ bomb,” Munster replied.

“How would you know what it is, Baxter?” Peter shot at him. He stepped forward raising his hand to touch the surface of what might be a gift, or might in fact be a bomb or other device which purpose we had no idea of. I didn't believe it was placed there to harm us, though. If that was their intention, they could easily have wiped all of us out earlier.

“No, don’t touch it. They said not to,” Charles warned Peter.

Peter stopped immediately and turned with downturned eyebrows to face Charles. “What’s that supposed to mean? You can talk to them?”

Mr. Baxter replied in his soft voice. “No, not really. They…what, what, what?...they communicated with me I suppose is the best way to answer your question. Do you see the script etched into the surface? There at the top.”

I’d missed the bizarre-looking symbols, but just as he said, there they were. A few columns running vertically. Squiggles and curls, almost invisible unless you were looking for them.

By then Jerrick had gotten down the steps and was standing beside Mr. Baxter. His eyes showed no depth or comprehension, and yet…

“They’ve given us the key,” he said. “It’s the way in.”

“In to what?” Peter asked Jerrick.

“That we don’t know,” said Charles. “All I was told is that at a given time, one of us is to use it.”

“We?” Peter grabbed the gun from Munster and pointed it at Mr. Baxter. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? What are you up to, mister? We don’t know the first damn thing about you, and suddenly you’re telling us they’ve given only you instructions concerning this gift, as you call it.”

Charles didn’t flinch. He’d been staring up at the writing, but then brought his eyes onto Peter. He raised his burnt hands.

“I touched one of them. Remember? This was the result.”

“Maybe that's how you got burned. Maybe. Anyway, if, IF that’s true, this thing isn’t one of them, and further, you’re the only one of us that stayed and talked to these monsters that wiped everyone except us out.”

“You left. I can understand why, of course, but Amelia and I stayed behind to confront them. I’m not sure precisely why she did—for my part, I was simply so tired of running and hiding. Still, they spoke to me. I didn’t say a word to them, and likely it wouldn’t have done any good had I done so.”

Peter lowered the gun, but I could see that he wasn’t convinced of anything Charles had said since he first joined us. Staring up at Charles, he bit his lower lip, and then contemplatively tapped the barrel of the gun on his free palm. Believe him, or no? Trust him, or no?

“Jerrick, what do you think?”

Jerrick didn’t hesitate in answering. “My sense is, he’s telling the truth.”

Uncharacteristically, Peter faltered. It seemed clear that he didn’t fully trust the man who, fact or otherwise, led the beings to our house. On the other hand, high-minded Peter had put credence in blind Jerrick’s opinion by even asking what his take on the matter was.

He handed the gun back to Munster. “So then, what do we do now?”

A moment of silence ensued as everyone let the question sink in. An hour ago we had all been living in a destroyed world, hiding, afraid, wondering if there was anything we could do to stay alive for another 24 hours. Suddenly that had all changed—or a lot of it. If Charles had somehow survived, so had others, like the two men who attacked us in the rectory. For all appearances, it struck me, we were safe from the cloudy beings and whatever their purpose here was—at least for the time being—but I feared we were far from being safe from our own kind, however many of them were alive and prowling around outside.

“To the business of living. What do you have to eat?” Charles said at last. “None of you appears to be starving.”

“There’s tons of dried and canned goods in the root cellar,” Cynthia answered.

“Food will become an issue in time. What about water?”

“Some, but there’s a well behind the house near the garage,” she said.

“Do you like Cream of Wheat?” asked Jack. “That’s what we have every morning for breakfast. Spam for lunch and dinner. I hate all of it.”

“Power? It’s down everywhere else,” he said, ignoring her comment, but smiling down at her.

Peter replied, “None.”

“We’ll need wholesome food, water, and it would be nice to power up the entire house. As far as food goes, all I’ve had is crackers and dried up cheese these past few days. We have plenty of arable land. All we’ll need is seed, water to irrigate the crops—and a lot of work on our part.” He stopped and looked at Munster.

“You have a pistol. What other weapons do we have?”

Munster shrugged his shoulders. One bullet. Not much help.

“There’s a shotgun and a few rifles locked up in the gun cabinet inside,” Peter said.

“Locked up? That won’t do us much good if someone surprises us. Ammunition?”

“I think there’s a few boxes in there.”

“All right then. I suggest we begin our new lives here in Eden by taking inventory of every ounce of non-perishable food stuffs we have available. See if the well is ok. Get the weapons unlocked and loaded, and then two of us will go back into town and find a generator large enough to provide adequate electricity for the house. Agreed?”

“And how do we get back to town?” Munster spit. “My car is stuck in the ditch.”

“I don’t want to ride in his horrible car ever again!” Lashwana said. “He’s a maniac behind the wheel.”

“I got you here didn’t I?”

“Barely. You ran over dozens of dead bodies on the way. You can barely reach the pedals or see over the steering wheel. I’m not getting into that car with you ever again.”

“No one asked you to. Anyway, we’ll be walking. Everyone but you and your blind slowpoke brother.”

“Enough!” Charles cut them off.

“Hey, who elected you leader anyway?” Peter shot at Charles.

Charles’ face dropped at Peter’s comment. A second or two passed as he looked at all of us gathered beneath the black cylinder. Glancing down at his burned hands, he finally replied, “And we’ll need medicine. Can we get to work now?”

Mr. Baxter’s plan, if that’s what it was, maybe wasn’t what some of us—Peter and Munster in particular—wanted, but it was all we had for the moment.

We left the gift standing steely and cold-looking, and began the task of turning the orchard farm and our house into a Garden of Eden. As Charles put it. The trouble with that was, there wasn’t a God anywhere close by to help us out that I could see, but there were serpents out there. I was pretty certain of that.

 

 

                            

 

Munster In Gunland

 

We spent the remainder of the morning counting boxes of food in the cellar; jars of fruits and tomatoes and potatoes that Mrs. Farnsworth had canned. Bottles of water. Gathering up what pills and wound dressings we could find in the medicine cabinets upstairs, and lugging it all down to the kitchen table where Charles sat clumsily holding a pencil, a tablet of the kids’ paper lying on the table's surface

Cynthia relented after we began working, and let Mari and Ash go outside to play—but only in the front yard, and only with Jack watching over them. Someone had to remove the rotting bodies from the pool before they'd be allowed behind the house. I guessed either Peter or Munster would be elected to dig graves for Jack's mother and sister and the other child floating on the contaminated surface of the water. Maybe Charles would know some final prayers when we stood with our heads bowed over their graves.

Peter was quiet all this time, but he followed Charles’ suggestions with a glum look on his face. He seemed to draw a little closer to Munster, although I suspected that the reason was nearness of age, coupled with a resentment of authority, more so than a reversal of attitude toward my first friend in our new world. Passing by them as we carted boxes of pills and bandages down the stairs, their voices dropped. Munster chuckled once on one of those journeys, and I noticed him pat the gun tucked into the back of his waistband. What had they been talking about?

Much later, after we enjoyed a lunch of cold, stewed tomatoes and Spam on crackers, Munster stood up and rushed anxiously to the study near the south end of the house. Charles sat quietly for a moment, and then followed him down the back hall. The older members of our little community were close behind.

Inside the study stood a desk facing the entry door. A padded chair behind it under the front window. A few books scattered on the shelves of a bookcase to the left, and a large gun cabinet standing alone beneath a picture of a ship caught in a storm on some angry ocean. I knew without asking that Munster was digging through the drawers of the desk for the key to the glass-faced cabinet. We stood watching until he spoke, rifling through the papers and stapler and other odds and ends of no interest to him or any of the rest of us.

“Where’s Jack? Maybe she knows where her father hid the key to the cabinet.”

Peter was quick to reply. “Would you tell your eight year-old daughter where the key to the gun cabinet was?”

“Sure. What if a coyote or burglar broke in, and Pops was out pickin’ oranges or somethin’?”

“You’re an idiot, Munster,” Peter responded. It seemed his attitude reversal had vanished. Munster finally gave up, slamming the last of the drawers shut. He walked across the room to the cabinet, took the gun from his waistband, and then smashed it against the glass over and over until it finally broke. Stabbing the gun back into his waistband, he reached in and removed the shotgun.

“Won’t need my little cap gun anymore,” he quipped, inspecting the two gleaming barrels. Charles frowned.

“Peter, you’re in charge of weapons,” he said, and that startled Peter. Munster wheeled around in surprise, grasping the shotgun and lowering it, as if preparing to send Charles to his grave. I was certain he had no real intention of shooting either Charles or Peter, but having done away with that man at the rectory, who could say? After all, I'd heard from my father that after your first murder, the next, and then the next, become easier. I don't know how he knew this, because he never even owned a gun that I was aware of, and he certainly had never killed anyone. But there you are. Munster stood there defiantly holding the shotgun that could kill every one of us in a single blast if he decided to pull the trigger.

“No he ain’t. Me and Amelia are.”

Oh no, count me out.

Munster, put the gun down,” Cynthia pleaded with him. She had quickly stepped half way behind Charles, and she was clearly frightened.

So much for our Garden of Eden all of the sudden.

The shriek of Jack’s voice out front put an end to the tense revolt. Every head snapped toward the window. Peter moved first, racing across the floor. Then Munster, grasping the shotgun. Cynthia and I left Jerrick and Lashawna and flew out the door, down the hall, and arrived at the open front door at the same time.

“Oh no,” she groaned.

Outside on the front lawn, Jack was bent over on her knees above Mari, stroking her face, shaking violently and crying. Mari lay motionless on her back, one leg bent unnaturally beneath the other outstretched limb.

“No, no, no! I told you not to touch it,” she wailed at the unconscious little girl. Cynthia and I raced down the steps. In a heartbeat we were on our hands and knees, peering up and down the length of Mari’s still form. Cynthia shot a hand onto little Mari’s chest.

“She’s alive.”

Ash stood a few feet away, his hands covering his mouth, his eyes the size of saucers. Jack turned her head instantly to Cynthia after the older girl’s announcement. I let out a long breath of relief. I saw no horrible burns anywhere—nothing out of the ordinary, save she had been knocked five feet backward onto her back, and her eyes were closed, almost peaceful-looking.

“I told her not to touch it or get near it, Cynthia, I swear. I turned away for just a second! She did what I told her not to do! It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t, was it?”

“No Jack. I’m sure she’ll be fine, honey. Let’s get her inside. Forget it. It’s done. Help me.”

I wondered. They had left instructions not to touch whatever this terrible gift was. What kind of gift will kill you if you disobey? What kind of being would leave such a thing? Well, they’d thought it okay to wipe out the inhabitants of our planet, maybe this latest round of alien brutality was just a last parting game of some kind to them. A bet amongst themselves to see how long it would take for the rest of us to disobey them and place our hands on it.

But that was illogical even to my young mind. Mari hadn’t perished.

Where were the invaders? Would they come swooping in to compassionately rescue the unfortunate little girl?

Before Cynthia and Jack had time to lift Mari’s shoulders, the rest of our band arrived, one after another in a mad rush. Peter pushed Jack aside and easily took little Mari into his arms. A narrow semicircle of distraught family moved sideways to allow Peter to carry Mari back into the house. Lashawna, Jerrick, Cynthia, and Charles followed in a close knot, everyone except Munster and me a cord inside it. He remained standing, facing the long road in, shotgun pointing straight forward, ready to be raised if one of them showed itself. After a few steps, Cynthia turned her head back, and then returned to our side.

“Munster, come on. That thing won’t do us a bit of good if they come back,” she said calmly, but with authority.

“We’ll see about that,” he replied in a low voice.

She moved closer to him and placed a palm onto the spot where the wooden stock met the black, gleaming barrel, and pushed downward. “Let it go. Let’s get inside. The damage is done. You can’t make it go away. Come on.”

I could see Munster’s eyes shooting back and forth from her to the road, unsure of just what to do. Finally he sighed loudly, let the gun lower under the pressure of her hand, and then he turned and began walking toward the house ahead of us. I looked up at Cynthia and smiled weakly, and then we left.

 

Grapes of Wrath

 

Peter took Mari directly upstairs to the front bedroom where I first met Jack, and there he laid her gently down onto the covers. The burning question in all of our minds was, how badly had she been hurt? We crowded around the bed and gazed down at her little body. Strangely, I thought, Munster abandoned his new weapon, setting it against the wall inside the door the moment he scuffled in, and joined us unarmed.

“What do you think?” Cynthia asked Charles. He curled his lips and slowly shook his head.

“Anyone here a doctor?” he answered uselessly.

Jerrick eased past Lashawna’s shoulder and reached forward toward Mari with his long fingers. With Lashawna’s quick assistance he found her.

“I wanted to be,” he said. “I know the thought of that is crazy, but I’ve read a lot about the human body and how it works.”

“How could ya’ read anything? You’re blind!” Munster scoffed.

“Haven’t you heard of Braille?” Charles corrected my ill-mannered friend.

“Oh. Yeah, guess so. But readin’ a lot don’t help us much here.”

“Having read a lot,” Charles once again corrected him.

“What?”

“Never mind,” he said. As Jerrick checked her pulse, Charles turned to me and said, “Watch the window, Amelia. God knows, they might return.”

Before I’d taken a step, Peter chimed in with authority. “Keep an eye peeled, Amelia. God knows they might return.”

Really? He had to say that? I went to the window and watched intently to see if any snakes were creeping-crawling into the house. I believed a few had already made it.

The orchard spilled off to the right and left under the hazy-blue sky. Far down the main drive in I could see the Flamecar still stuck like some short-legged creature high-centered on a log or a rock. At some point soon we’d have to go out there and muscle it back onto the gravel road, or else stay stranded. Or walk the long highway back to town, which didn’t appeal at all to me.

I brought my gaze to the tall, black cylinder left by the invaders down on the lawn, and wondered again what it was set to do when the proper command was given sometime in the distant—or not-too-distant—future. It cast a long grey shadow under the weak sunlight. A sleek alien sculpture; their version of David, only this work was more the sentinel rather than a work of enduring art? You remain suspicious, you know. Charles had said it was a gift that would open, or sing, or speak to us when the time was right, but maybe that was a lie they'd fabricated. Or else he had. Maybe it was set there simply to watch us and report back to its creators, wherever they’d gone, and whatever it was they were doing.

Low voices rising and falling behind me. I turned to see them gathered like baffled doctors and nurses and grieving family all round peaceful little Mari. Cynthia was on her knees at the bedside holding Mari’s limp hand. Peter was saying something to Charles about hospitals. Real doctors—who were no doubt all lying dead on the various floors. “Wake up, honey,” Cynthia murmuring over and over. Jack and Ash standing at the end of the bed, staring across the space, totally shaken and mute.

I turned back to the job of watching, although in the deadness outside it seemed useless. Something struck me as I scanned the scene of quiet. Something that I hadn’t noticed in the past days after the destruction of life here. Birds.

Why hadn’t they been killed like the scores of dogs Munster had run over, or the cats lying everywhere with tongues clenched between grisly death smiles?

A selective slaughter. Just in Marysville. Or California. Or the United States. That didn’t seem possible, though. If you’re going to swoop in and decimate the population and animals, why not get them all? Why leave birds? Why spare monsters like those men at the rectory? Or any of the rest of us for that matter?

Or Charles.

“We can’t do anything for now,” I heard Charles’ say. “She’ll either come out of it, or remain…sleeping. She isn’t burnt or injured in any way that I can see.” He reached across the bed and placed a comforting hand on Cynthia’s shoulder. “Stay here and watch if you like. Be with her. Peter and Munster and I have work to do.”

“Like what?” Munster asked.

“Like getting the hot-rod out of the ditch, and then driving it back into Marysville.”

“For what reason?” Peter said.

Charles didn’t explain at first. He left the bedside and walked toward the door. “There are some things we need to gather up and bring home.”

“You don’t have to bother with Munster’s car. Mr. Conklin’s truck is in the garage behind the house,” Cynthia said looking over at Charles. “ I don’t know where the keys are, but it’s there.”

“Excellent.”

“What are we gonna’ get...Chuck?” Munster asked as he walked across the floor toward his shotgun.

“A generator capable of providing enough electricity to service the house for starters. Gasoline. Non-perishable foodstuffs. Seeds. Fertilizer.

“Books.”

The last item on his list he said in an emphatic tone of voice, bringing his eyes to bare on Munster, who nearly dropped the gun when he heard the word.

“BOOKS? I don’t need no stupid books!”

Jerrick smiled at his comment and said, “I think perhaps you’d benefit from them.

“I’d like to go with you, sir,” he added, turning his head a little toward Charles and the doorway he couldn’t see.

“Why?” Muster shot at him. “You can’t see a damned thing, and you’ll just slow us down. Books. Crap.”

“Quiet, Munster. He can go.”

“Can I go too?” I asked.

Instead of answering me, Charles addressed Cynthia. “What do you think? I say she stays here with you and the girls and Ash.”

Munster, of course, reacted immediately. “If she don’t go, I don’t go.”

“She can’t help us,” Peter said. “Better she stay here and help Cynthia…and watch the road.”

“Why? ‘Spose she sees a bunch of ‘em come charging in. What’s she gonna’ do, scream out the window an’ hope we can hear her in town? She don’t get to go, I don’t go,” he added again.

Thank you, Munster.

“I’ll be ok. She can go with you,” Cynthia said.

So, it was settled. I’d be part of the expedition back into Marysville. We followed Charles out into the hall. Munster just couldn’t help himself. He growled at Jerrick who had grabbed hold of his hoodie sleeve, and was half-stumbling along behind him. “You ride in the bed, Jerrick. Keep your eyes open back there.”

“Very funny,” Jerrick jabbed back at him.

“I’ll sit with you, Jerrick,” I said. “Munster, you are so incredibly mean. Did I ever tell you that?”

“I ain’t mean, I’m just practical. Come to think of it, you oughta’ stay here with Cynthia. You, too, blind boy.”

We argued our way down the hall, down the stairs, and then through the kitchen door toward the big garage.

When we finally found books, I vowed to take hold of the biggest one I could lay my hands on and smack Munster hard on the head with it. Sometimes I loved him for being there when I was so scared and needed a friend, but that nasty side of him…maybe we could find a magical book that would change his attitude. If anyone could force him to read it.

Peter and Charles opened the two gigantic sliding doors into what I thought was in no way a garage. At least it bore little resemblance to Daddy’s little two-car garage at my old house. This place was twice as big as our entire house back in Marysville. Just as Cynthia had said, Mr. Conklin’s truck stood quiet, just a few feet inside the shadowy interior. Munster wanted to drive, but Peter nixed that notion, thankfully. I helped Jerrick find the truck bed while Munster railed at Peter, and side by side we crawled forward and sat down beneath the rear window.

“Do you know anything about generators?” I asked.

“Not really.”

“What about seeds?”

“Some, but not a lot,” he said.

“Food.”

“I like wholesome food. Or, I used to.”

“Me too. I hope we can find a store with stuff other than Spam or peanut butter.”

“I’m sure we will. No canned broccoli, though.”

“How would you know if Mrs. Conklin canned broccoli?”

“Lawshawna told me,” he said, laughing.

Peter backed out of the garage, wheeled sharply onto the wide drive, and we were off. Once outside the gate—that Munster was forced to open with a lot of cussing and growling—I resumed our conversation, fairly certain that Peter wouldn’t run over a dead body, or crash into a ditch or tree.

“Books, then. You can’t know much about them.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“But you can’t see to read them! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that like Munster did, but he was probably right.”

“Who says I can’t read?”

“Well…you can’t see is all.”

He held up his hands, fingers spread. “Of course I can see.” Then Jerrick brought them to my face, and gently let them course across my cheeks, my eyes, my nose and mouth.

“You’re very pretty.”

I blushed, but I was certain he couldn’t see that.

“Thank you.” What else could I say?

We passed those places that looked so different in the light of the morning, that took on a totally new face when viewed from the opposite direction we’d traveled the night before. Now and again Peter swerved right or left to miss a body, which time after time caused Jerrick’s shoulder to bump hard into mine, or mine into his. In a strange way that comforted me. It also made my heart race just a little. In time, I supposed because he was tired of being jostled about, he draped an arm over my shoulder and held me a little tighter to his side, and Peter drove on.

Several miles into the trip when Peter had dodged something lying in the road, I asked Jerrick again if he knew why birds had escaped being killed. They were animals, after all.

“I don’t know. Maybe because they live in trees, and not in houses.”

I laughed at that silly explanation. The blinding light certainly struck the trees as well as everything else in its path. It made no sense that animals with wings instead of arms and legs and paws had been exempted. He squeezed my arm with his long fingers and laughed himself.

“We don’t know that every other thing that breathes really was destroyed. Well, so many other creatures, anyway. Those two men made it for some reason. And Mr. Baxter. One thing is for certain; in time we’ll probably find out how many others escaped, at least in Marysville, but maybe we’ll never discover just why.”

That brought chills to my body. I snuggled a tiny bit closer to him, and wondered if in a crisis he could do anything at all to protect me or anyone else. If and when we found books in Marysville, his magical ability to read them seemed pointless in this new and frightening existence.

Half an hour later we turned onto Grand Avenue, the main street running east and west through Marysville, and an unending vista of destruction infinitely worse than the scattered-by-comparison death scenes farther out in the neighborhoods surrounding the heart of the city.

A Strange Utopia

 

I exhaled loudly with a groan.

I had raised myself a little so that I could better see what was passing by beyond the truck’s bed when Peter had first begun to ease off the accelerator, and the buildings had slowly begun to grow in height.

“Oh-my-God…”

“What is it?” Jerrick asked. “Where are we? What do you see?”

“It’s terrible!”

I threw Jerrick’s arm off me and stood. I’d seen cars and trucks with dead bodies hanging out, or slumped over the steering wheels on every street near my old home, but this was a thousand times worse.

The attack had taken place in the late afternoon. The downtown district had been teeming with last minute Holiday shoppers, and the traffic had been heavy. That was apparent. All along the avenue men and women and children had dropped like stones the instant the invaders struck us. Grand Avenue was now nearly impassable because of the quagmire of vehicles locked forever in a lifeless traffic jam. But it wasn’t so much the death I saw that so shocked me, rather the magnitude of it.

Grand Avenue ran in a straight line, and if the aliens in their mad cruelty had destroyed life, they hadn’t thought, or cared, to bring nature to its knees. An offshore breeze floated toward the sea twenty miles to the west. It took with it some of the stench of rotting bodies, but its ability to scour all of it was met, and then conquered, by the sheer volume of corpses. Had this befallen us in August or September, the months when heat was at its zenith and the air was dead…I couldn’t conceive of having gotten anywhere near this stone and glass canyon during those months.

“I smell it,” Jerrick finally said. “How many?”

I gagged. “God. God. The entire city. Everyone.”

Peter slowed to a stop, and then both he and Munster threw open the doors. They jumped out, their hands pulling at their jacket bottoms, drawing them over their noses, and Peter announced his intention to leave. Were we okay? Sick? His questions were muffled, as if his voice was rising from beneath the earth.

“We’re okay. Oh Peter, get us out of here!”

“Had to check,” he said. He bent his head a little and gazed through the cab's open doors, over at Munster who was throwing up in the gutter. “Get back in, Munster!”

I saw no alien beings, no vicious adults prowling the streets, just rotting bodies blocking every building entrance and every sidewalk for as far as I could see. A hideous open graveyard that I couldn’t for some reason take my eyes off of.

Peter gunned the engine and backed up. The truck turned, and we left the way we’d come, thankfully into the breezes off the mountains and desert beyond. Visions of Los Angeles to the north, or Chicago and New York to the east—all the great American cities with a hundred or thousand times as many dead bodies clogging the thoroughfares brought home the real tragedy of the event. It hadn’t fully hit me until that moment.

Peter raced east, swerving to miss abandoned cars and the occasional bodies we passed, but when we approached Madison Street, he wheeled left. At first I had no idea why he’d turned. I stood, bracing my feet on the bed, and stretching my hands out atop the hood of the cab. The wind threw my hair backward, and thank God the rank smell of bodies had been left miles behind. We passed a gas station, a low, squat building housing dead attorneys, and a mortuary, which I thought ironic. There was no “OUT OF BUSINESS” sign nailed to the closed door. Two blocks of residential homes, and then another row of small shops and businesses. I saw it then. A wide entrance and parking lot beyond packed with vehicles, and the familiar sign standing proudly near the street, “Home Depot”.

“Where are we?” Jerrick asked, his arms spread to brace himself as Peter turned in.

“More Saving, more doing,” I replied with a chuckle.

Peter brought the truck to a stop right outside the huge entryway into the warehouse-like interior. Munster, I’m sure, would have driven straight in, crashing into the tall, steel racks. Surprisingly, the air wasn’t altogether foul, given the number of dead people littering the building, but even so, I wondered if in my occasional visit to this store I’d missed the department containing gas masks or respirators. Surely, at least, this mega-hardware chain carried respirators.

I helped Jerrick out, took hold of his hand, and when we joined Peter and Munster, I asked Peter which of the ten thousand items available for our pleasure we were looking for.

“Generators. The biggest and most powerful they carry.”

“Yeah, and walkie-talkies,” Munster added.

“That’s Radio Shack.”

“Oh, right. Next stop.”

“Seed…and respirators,” I said.

“A windmill to pump water.”

“Yeah, sure,” Peter said to Munster.

“A Braille library,” Jerrick said.

“Next trip,” Peter answered.

We split up, Peter and irascible Munster heading for the aisle most likely holding gas generators, Jerrick and I off to the paint section to find gas masks.

“Even if they find a generator large enough to power some of the circuits in the house, we’ll still need gasoline to power it,” he said.

“One bridge at a time. One of them will figure out how to get that,” I replied.

From far away I heard Munster’s loud voice echo off the walls, “It stinks to high heavens in here!”

“Not as bad…” and Peter’s softer voice died away.

Half an hour later we finished carting our bounty back outside to the truck. Five shopping carts filled to overflowing with free merchandise, and one flatbed cart with our new generator. Most of the stuff we’d never use, but since it was ours for the taking, we loaded it up.

Munster was grinning. “In a way I’m glad everyone but us is dead. Think of it, we’re millionaires.”

“You’re sick, Munster Gardella,” I scoffed and poked at his side.

“He’s right, though,” Peter said. “What’s left in the world is ours for the taking.”

The final item, the generator, went up into the bed with a lot of grunting. Jerrick and I followed. On my hands and knees I read the brand and power output to him once we’d gotten it safely situated, and I inquired if he knew how to hook it up. I knew there must be a way, but mechanical things totally confused me.

Not my father. Most of the time, anyway...when he wasn’t angry or frustrated. He was just short of talented when it came to working on our car, fixing a squeaky door hinge, even repairing the toaster.

“Waste not, want not,” was his motto.

I thought back five or six years to the day Mom was off shopping, it was lunchtime, and we were fending for ourselves in her absence. A challenge arose, and he wasn’t going to let it get the best of him.

We were both hungry, so he decided to fix us soup. Pretty simple task unless the pop-up tab breaks and you have to open the lid another way. He’d rummaged through every drawer in the kitchen looking for the can opener, cussing a little at Mom’s habit of not putting things back in their proper place when she’d finished using them. He couldn’t find it, and I could see his temperature rising, so I got out of his way. He rattled the bottom of the can on the counter for a second or two, thinking, and then grabbed a steak knife and started jabbing it into the lid over and over. That didn’t work very well, so he threw the steak knife across the room and stomped off to the garage with the soup can. That’s where he worked, often successfully, on those difficult projects. I followed him. He put the can on his workbench, and then grabbed a huge screwdriver and a hammer, and started poking holes at an angle in the top, with better results than he’d achieved with the steak knife, but not enough. He had a mean scowl on his face after a while of doing that, and his tongue stuck out a little between his teeth. That effort wasn’t working, of course, so he threw the screwdriver away and turned the can on its side. I ran behind a stack of old tires and peeked over the top, because I knew what was going to happen next, and it did. He lifted the hammer over his head, with the claws pointing down, and then he hit the can.

I ran after that happened, and stayed far away from him until Mom came home, found the can opener in the pantry, and handed it to him.

“The PANTRY?”

Walking toward the master bedroom and its shower, he stripped off his soup-splattered pants and shirt, and turned back to Mom. “Need I ask if the clothes hamper is in the bathroom?” She gave him a dirty look.

He calmed down later. I ate crackers and cheese. He went hungry, defeated by a can of soup.

Jerrick answered me. “It’s simple. These kinds of generators are used to provide electricity to, say, power tools or appliances in the absence of grid power. You know, a temporary power outage, or even the total lack of service, like at a construction project. Someone building a home out in the boonies. You just plug the cords in, start it up, and presto! Power.”

Pretty basic. Sort of.

“But how will we plug an entire house into this thing?”

“There should be an adaptor provided with the generator—and an instruction manual showing how and where to connect it to the service panel at the house.”

That meant Munster was out when it came time to hook the thing up. Either that or we risked sending the house up in a ball of flame. Maybe Peter or Charles.

We needed gas for our new machine, so Peter pulled into a station. Munster had had a little experience in that department—just knock over the pump. But that method was like Daddy’s ordeal with the soup can. I trusted that Peter would find a way to get the gas up from the tanks below the asphalt, seeing that there was no way to turn the pumps on without electricity.

I left Jerrick to sit and advise us, and jumped out of the truck to join Peter and Munster who were standing near our pump. Munster was scratching his head.

“But we don’t have a long hose—or any hose for that matter,” he was saying to Peter.

“Go look in the service bays. They had to wash the ground once in a while to clean up the spilled gas and crap that accumulated.”

“Yeah, yeah. Be right back.” Munster dashed off to the open overhead doors and disappeared inside.

“Amelia, go back to the truck and grab a couple of the red plastic gas cans, and take them over to that car,” he said pointing to a sleek, new BMW stranded forever two pumps over. I ran back to the rear of the truck and retrieved two of the fours containers he and Munster had gathered.

“What’s up?” Jerrick asked.

“Peter wants gas cans.”

“Ah.”

By the time I returned, Munster was on his way out of the station’s service bays, dragging a long garden hose behind him. He stopped when he got to the car, and then hacked the fittings off both ends. In the meantime, Peter had opened the car’s gas cap cover. Munster jabbed the hose in, but it was too big to clear the pipe leading down to the tank.

“Crap. Now what?” he said.

Peter thought the problem through for a second or two. “Guess we can go back to Home Depot and find a smaller hose.”

“Wait a minute!” Munster said. “All we gotta’ do is open the lid coverin’ the tanks over there and stick the hose way down in."

“You’re a genius, Gardella. Go back in and see if there’s some kind of wrench or tool to get the cap off. Hustle up, it’s getting late.” Munster ran off again.

“Wait, how will we…on no, not me.”

Jerrick had gotten tired of sitting by himself, and had managed to join Peter and me.

“What’s the plan?”

“Amelia’s going to siphon some gas from the underground tanks,” Peter said, laughing.

“I am NOT!”

“I’ll do it,” Jerrick offered.

So it was decided. Jerrick would get a mouthful of gas, but if Munster’s theory was correct, we’d soon have plenty of gas, and then be on our way home.

Nothing about our new life in that strange Utopia was simple, though.

Wake Up, Mari

Nothing was exactly simple for Munster. He couldn’t find the tank cover removal tool, but he did find a long, round, pointed pry bar and a sledge hammer.

“I’m bettin’ this thing screws on, so all we have to do is bang it counter-clockwise with this here thing,” he said raising the pry bar, “an’ when it loosens, just screw it off.”

“What about sparks?” Jerrick noted.

“You and Amelia had better get over by the street and wait,” Peter said immediately.

“What about you?” I asked him.

“I guess genius and I are living on borrowed time anyway.

“Munster, you hold the bar tight. Pray there aren’t any sparks when I hit it.”

I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of seeing my friends become part of a fiery explosion, but I knew it would be useless to argue for a bit more thought concerning the dilemma facing us, so I led Jerrick far away. I waited at the street with fingers crossed. Munster positioned the steel spike into a notch of the cap. Peter raised the hammer, hesitated, and then brought it down onto the bar’s end with great force.

 

I gathered a bottle of water ten minutes later while Peter and Munster filled the two cans, and handed it to Jerrick who was spitting, a foul look on his face.

“Thank you, Jerrick. Are you ok?”

“Yes, I’ll live.”

“Bring those other cans over here, Amelia,” Peter called out. A stream of gas ran freely from the end of the hose Munster held, but who cared? If that tank drained, there were a thousand others in a thousand other gas stations.

They filled the other containers, dropped the hose, and a minute later we left, a stream of gasoline flowing behind us into the gutter. Gazing back at it, I wished in that moment that I had a match, just to see the whole station go up in flames. I smiled. Living without adults watching everything you did had its benefits. Munster must have read my mind. He had a certain ability that way, you know. Before we'd gotten more than thirty feet away on the street, I saw the passenger window lower, and an entire box of lit stick matches come flying out, landing like an angry torch in the gutter. Peter was cursing at Munster, but it was exciting to see the stream of gas catch, and how it trailed quickly in flames back to the huge underground tanks. The resulting explosion and fireball were amazing.

I watched the black smoke rise for several miles, until the city faded into farmland, and Peter pulled onto the gravel road leading up to the house.

“Next trip in, I’m gonna’ get me a Mercedes. Maybe a Tesla,” Munster announced over his shoulder to Peter after he parked the truck on the circular drive in front of the house.

“Next time you won’t be with me,” Peter answered.

Charles had been sitting on the porch beside Cynthia when we entered, and both of them jumped to their feet and ran to see how successful our scavenging mission had been. Standing behind the truck, pointing in at all the fabulous items we’d gathered up, Peter buried his attitude, explaining to them every detail of the trip, including the downtown dead zone portion, and Munster’s solution of the gas-gathering problem later on. He said nothing about Munster's final goodbye to the gas station, though.

Of course all of us were delighted, but Peter and I quickly afterward asked how Mari was doing.

“I was just with her,” Cynthia said, smashing the momentary joy we’d all shared. “The same as when you left. Jack and Lashawna are with her right now. All we can do is wait it out and hope.”

An idea struck me. “Charles, do you think you can somehow contact those creatures and ask them how to revive her? She didn’t know not to disobey them and touch that terrible thing they left.”

“Oh yeah!” Munster said.

Charles' reply was laced with doubt. “I don’t know how I’d do that. I mean, I have no way of summoning them, and who knows if my thoughts would move them if they even understood.”

“Well, you can try,” Peter put to him.

“Look,” Charles said, “they came here unbidden. I had nothing to do with asking them to. They communicated to me, not vice-versa. I have no idea how to call for them, and for all we know they’re long gone, or destroying other places for whatever reason they destroyed Marysville.”

“Well, you must at least try,” Cynthia reiterated Peter’s words. “Think thoughts to them. Or something.”

Charles shrugged his shoulders, but said he would do that, for whatever good it might accomplish, and then the men began unloading the truck. Cynthia and I left them to their work to go inside and see to little Mari.

We entered the bedroom. Jack and Ash were sitting on opposite sides of the bed, close to peaceful-looking Mari.

“No change?” Cynthia asked Jack. Jack shook her head dolefully.

I could hear the men down in the drive, talking as they unloaded the goods, and finally the main reason for our mission into Marysville to begin with. The generator.

“Just pour the damn gas in. Who needs a funnel anyway?”

“Oh shut up you idiot. First we have to get it…” And I heard the gravel crunching beneath their footsteps and the generator's wheels. Wherever the electric panel was located on the house, the four men moved onward toward it. Munster and Peter continued to spit at one another until finally I couldn’t hear them any longer. I turned my thoughts and attention back to Mari, standing a few feet away from her resting place. I debated whether to leave the room, run to Charles, and demand he leave the generator to Jerrick and Peter and Munster, go back inside and climb out onto the roof. Sit there and concentrate until something happens!

Please, whoever you are, come back and rescue Mari, I thought with all my might. If Mr. Baxter won’t reach out to you, I will. Come help her.

A lifetime later I heard the unmistakable putter of a small gasoline engine coming to life. Kind of like a lawnmower down the block at a neighbor’s house. Soothing in a way because I knew that pretty soon we’d have lights. At least lights. Our announcement to the corpse of a world that the party was inside. Off the road, up the gravel drive a ways. Right there in that grand old house. We’d even have music if someone knew where the ancient CD player and discs were. We might even dance.

There wasn’t a flicker, or the sound of millions of excited little electrons racing at light speed into the room. Just the bedside lamp bursting to life, throwing an arc-shadow down onto Mari’s face. Ash reacted by bolting backward off the bed as if that spacecraft outside somewhere had just flown into the room. Jack and Lashawna clapped their hands.

Mari didn’t seem to care.

I turned to Cynthia and smiled. We were so clever. So resourceful.

“Let’s go see,” I said. She was all ablaze with happiness. It’s was like impossible for her to stretch her own smile any farther across her face. She grabbed hold of Lashawna’s hand, and together the three of us ran to the stairs. I controlled my urge to slide with a full-on burst of glee down the banister rail. At the bottom, even in the dull light of the afternoon, I could see the end table lamps beside the sofa glowing brightly, and I heard Charles’ and Peter’s voices entering into the kitchen.

“Yes, working.” Peter.

“Check the refrigerator.”

I swung off the ornate newel post and bounced down the short hall into the kitchen, with Cynthia and Lashawna close at my side. Peter stood in front of the refrigerator, holding the door open. Light. I heard the sound of its compressor cooing against the now-soft purr of the generator outside. The sounds of mechanical things in the home! The sounds of life!

“TA-DA. What do you think, girls?” Peter said.

I ran across the room, threw my arms around Charles and kissed his unshaven cheek.

“You did it! You’re all so amazing!”

Charles quickly eased me away, but like everyone else, he was smiling for all he was worth.

Munster loped in. He turned all bright-eyed at the door threshold and looked back. “Just keep your hand on the house, Jer. Coupla’ steps, but you oughta’ know where they are by now.”

I supposed that Jerrick did know with that sixth sense of his. The moment Munster popped in, Lashawna readied herself to burst out and help her brother. I stopped her with a firm hand on her shoulder, and a silent shake of my head. He’s got to make his own way sometime. Leave him alone, girl.

She nodded against her instincts and training, but she couldn’t help poking her head out the door to see if Jerrick would stumble.

“You’re good, Jerrick. Watch for the first step.”

I pulled her in and scrunched my lips. Leave him ALONE!

Everyone was jabbering at once, except Charles who was now leaning against the sink counter. Across the island cabinet, Cynthia was busy inspecting the interior of the refrigerator.

“God, it smells.”

“Care for a glass of milk?” Peter joked.

“Some of that crap must be good.” Munster had bounded over to join Cynthia, and he rifled through the shelves. “Somethin’ decent.”

Jerrick finally arrived without Lashawna’s help. We celebrated.

“Mark our calendar,” Peter said. “In the future this will officially be January 10th, a high holiday, the beginning. Light Day!”

Lashawna was moved. “I love that. Oh, it’s so unbelievable! We’re going to make it, aren’t we Mr. Baxter!” she said turning to him.

“We are.”

“I’ll fix dinner!” I said. The promise and hope were something like the sudden brightness filling the room.

“Not with any of this shit,” Munster said with a laugh.

“Munster, why don’t you go clean out your foul little mouth,” Cynthia said.

“Ain’t no runnin’ water yet,” he replied sarcastically. "That’s next. We’ll get that fixed, and then you can go take a shower. I’ll watch.”

“Over my dead body.”

Charles ended the discussion barely in time to save my friend from a beating by Cynthia’s brother. Cynthia herself.

“Our next mission will be to find additional edible food—which the four of you somehow forgot about when you were out.”

“Hey, we was pressed for time,” Munster shot.

“I understand. But tomorrow we’ll go out again. There are so many things yet to bring back.”

“Yeah, my Mercedes!”

“Any one you like, Munster,” Charles said, smiling. “But that’s later.”

Munster wasn’t quite finished. His mind and mouth worked like a needle skipping over a scratchy record. He looked the short distance dividing Cynthia from himself and said, ”The pump outside is workin’. I’ll pull up and down on the handle if you want to…”

She hit him solidly on his chin, sending him stumbling backward into the arms of the refrigerator. He laughed.

“Stay away from me you little craphead.”

 

 

Mari-Wake-UP!

Rice. Without sauce. But with Spam. And hot, because the microwave worked perfectly.

Running water was a problem, though. We had plenty of it in bottles, certainly—and could always go into town for more—and we had the well out back. But how many times did I go to the sink in the kitchen and lift the lever on the faucet? Habit. Unconsious assumptions.

We had music. Jack left Mari’s bedside later that evening and showed Cynthia and me where tons of old CDs and movies had been stored after the hundredth time of being listened to or watched. We danced after dinner, although every apology Munster could make to Cynthia did no good. She refused to join him on the floor in the family room.

The TV worked, but no one was interested in watching snow, or the words, “Check your cable connection.” Looking at the first box of videos, I wondered how long it would take to view all of them, and I wondered that after that was history, how many other thousands and thousands were stacked away in some library of forgotten videos. Some brilliant that I’d never seen. Others atrocious. Better off locked away forever anyway. All history. A record of who we were, but would never be again. We could look back up the face of the cliff we’d unwillingly fallen from, but there was no going back to be the next generation of artists who defined our culture.

We dug three graves out front the following day, just beyond the drive and its grass border. A few feet away from the beginning of the orchard. Cynthia thought the location would be best. A small graveyard between sweet-smelling Orange blossoms blooming each Spring, and the heart of Mrs. Conklin’s life beyond the drive. Munster and Peter fished the bodies out of the pool, laid them carefully on plastic tarps, and then dragged each one to their final resting place. Peter on one end of the tarp, Munster on the other, they lifted the corners and rolled each body into the holes. It hit me as kind of irreverent. Hearing them land with a clump, one after another until the grisly job was finished.

Would we have to dig one more grave? One final piercing of the earth for tiny Mari?

Don’t let her die. Come back and help her.

Charles stood with his burnt hands clasped behind his back at the end of it and spoke the words of invocation, his head bowed. “Almighty God. We commit these, thy servants…”

Where was our Almighty God these days? Where was he when this horror was unleashed? Off in some other galaxy picking up the pieces of another desecration unleashed on his “servants”? I suspected we’d get no help from him anytime soon. If ever.

I found myself praying to invaders. I might as well have prayed to the orange orchard.

Ash rarely left Mari’s side while the rest of us went about the business of trying to make a new pitcher out of the shattered pieces of the old. The light on her nightstand shown dully during the days, and burned brightly throughout every evening. A beacon reaching out to the creatures who had disappeared.

Damn them.

I sat in the chair beneath the bedroom window, in turn. Sometimes with Cynthia close by, sometimes with Jack sitting on the edge of the bed cross-legged talking away, telling Mari about the events of the day, or just jabbering.

“They’ll come back, Mari. You’ll see. They’ll know how to wake you up. Hey, you should see what Munster brought home!”

Someone was always with her, someone always watched at the window. Each of us in his own way hoped for a miracle that didn't appear to be forthcoming.

One evening on my watch—it was dead silent outside, except for the distant hum of the generator—with Jack speaking in great animation to Mari, I thought I saw the lifeless little girl smile. When I blinked, though, her face was exactly the same as it had been a second before.

“Jack! Did you see her smile just now?”

“Of course. She always smiles when I tell her something funny.”

Or were both of us imagining things?

In the days that followed, Munster and Peter, and oftentimes with Charles, took the truck and went back to the city’s outlying shopping centers in search of new things we discovered were missing in our little heaven. A huge pump that Charles and Jerrick were certain could be hooked up to the wellhead, and then connected to the main servicing the house. It worked, but only after Munster and Peter engaged in another verbal fight, and lots of leaks along the way. Charles and Jerrick arbitrated. Cynthia was overjoyed, because now she could shower—with the bathroom door locked—albeit a freezing experience.

We needed gas to heat the water tank, and so on one mission the men found a monstrous butane tank, the apparatus to hook it up to the gas main with on the side of the house, and dragged it with chains back home. I think Charles was surprised it hadn’t exploded.

“That was foolish of you, boys. You should have strapped it to a skid.”

“And just how would we have lifted it to get a pallet underneath it?”

“With a forklift,” Jerrick answered.

It seemed nearly an age since Peter had smiled at Munster, but he did after that comment by Jerrick.

“Told you we should have brought him with us.”

“I’ll listen better next time,” Munster said with an agreeing laugh.

In no time we all had hot water, and despite the fact that Eden was as noisy as an industrial plant because of the water pump and generator, no one seemed the least concerned. Much later, on Jerrick’s suggestion, they figured out that with enough pipe and heavy wire, the two machines could be moved behind the garage, inside a building constructed to keep them out of the elements. And quiet.

Mari lay quiet and serene upstairs, and Jerrick noted on Light Day plus three, that very soon she would starve to death unless we figured out how to feed her. Jack, naturally, exploded in grief.

“I’ll feed her with a spoon! Why can’t she just-wake-up? It’s all my fault.”

“You can’t,” Charles tried to console her. “She’d choke to death. I’ll go with Jerrick and Peter back into the city. Downtown. We’ll get IVs and the proper nutrients to keep her alive until…”

Yes? Until Doomsday?

“We’ll go right now.”

I discovered later that it was Jerrick who somehow knew exactly what to retrieve, but I had no idea how he knew. Was there a Braille medical book he’d consulted during the late night hours he spent alone reading in his bedroom?

 

The hours and days rolled onward uneventfully.

We had books. Truckloads of them. One of Charles’ demands. Much to Munster’s chagrin, he had the office stripped of the gun cabinet and its contents, and moved lock stock and barrel out to the garage. The bookshelves emptied of their wealth of trophies. Anything not resembling a book was taken down, and replaced with the classics.

“Latin isn’t a dead language, Munster, and you will master it under my tutelage eventually, and then read Cicero and Ovid.”

“And pigs is gonna’ fly.”

“Pigs are going to fly.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Seed. Charles knew exactly where to look, and what kinds to look for. Fertilizer, and more piping for irrigation. Shovels. Picks. Hammers. All brand new and shiny.

Munster’s Mercedes. A BMW for Peter, I think only to one-up Munster.

 

And then on Light Day plus thirteen, Jack screamed loud enough to wake the dead. So to speak.

“Mari! Mari! Mari!”

 

 

Away and Back Again

 Cynthia and I were in the kitchen when Jack's voice rang out. A piercing scream that surely would have brought the men racing into the house had they been anywhere near.

It was midmorning, cold, but clear outside, seventeen days after the event. Charles, Peter, Munster, and Jerrick were off gathering up a growing larder of essentials and God-knows-what-else that struck their fancy. We didn’t expect them to return until late afternoon, because each trip took them farther and farther north. Munster in his flashy off-the-lot Mercedes wanted to go south toward Camp Pendleton, sixty miles away. A wealth of guns—maybe an artillery piece, his for the taking. No, Charles had said. They would stick close together. And so each afternoon they would return in a convoy of three vehicles, loaded with vegetables that lay in the fields dotting the fertile land between communities, more gasoline, useless electronics, medicines they’d missed on previous forays. And news that everywhere they went, more dead bodies and stench.

Four days earlier, Peter had returned with an armload of high-powered walkie-talkies and a box of batteries to power them. The home receiver stood in its cradle on the counter, and the moment Jack cried out, Cynthia snatched it up on the run.

Either Mari had died, or else she’d awakened. That much was certain to me. The men needed to be informed and told to return, whichever was the case.

The three of us scrambled up the stairs. Cynthia hit the doorway first, and one step inside, she stopped dead in her tracks. I pushed her aside, flying in around her with warring feelings of anxiety and joy. Ash was nowhere to be seen, probably outside playing, weary of the hopeless vigil at his best friend’s bedside. Jack was on her hands and knees, straddling the legs of Mari—who, it was plain to see, was sitting upright, smiling.

None of us, save perhaps Jack, had seen it. I tripped on the edge of the rug as I ran to the right side of the bed, amid the shouts and exclamations of joy erupting. Gathering myself up, my eyes fell to the window in front of me. Outside I saw two creatures swirling slowly a few feet away from the black cylinder, appendages stretched and touching.

They’d returned. Mari had been delivered from the darkness of her comatose state. One plus one still equaled two. The only reasonable explanation; they’d done it.

I couldn’t comprehend their rationale, if reason as I understood it was even part of their mental makeup. Destroy humanity except for the few of us, and then come to the aid of a stricken child who had unwittingly disobeyed a command that none of us, except Charles, was even aware had been given. To what end this deadly game of theirs?

I pushed these thoughts aside, and left the creatures out there to watch, or whatever they were up to. They had simply returned and brought our Mari back to life. That was the only thing important and pertinent for now.

The chrome stand holding Mari’s life-giving liquid nutrients was still beside her on the other side of the bed, the clear tube dangling down to the needle Peter had inserted into her arm last week. She peered down at it with the most curious look in her eyes, and then lifted her arm to inspect the lifeline.

“It’s okay, Mari. You had an accident, and that’s how we had to feed you. Just like nurses would have done at the hospital,” I said.

“She’s awake,” I heard Cynthia say into the walkie-talkie pressed to the side of her face.

The receiver squawked once, and then Charles’ voice rang out as if it had left the mouth of a bullhorn. “Awake? Did I hear you correctly?”

Another low squawk. “Yes. Just now. Where are you?”

“Newport Beach. We’ll be home in fifteen minutes.

“Fellas…” and then the walkie-talkie went silent.

Mari had yet to utter an answer to the questions thrown at her one after another.

“How do you feel?”

“Can you remember anything?”

“Are you in any pain?”

The little girl just kept looking from Jack to me to Cynthia, who had walked excitedly to the bedside, and back after each glance to the tube and adhesive covering the needle. Very purposefully, she removed the tape, and then pulled the needle out, laying it gently onto the covers beside her.

Despite the look of total cognizance in Mari’s eyes, Lashawna tried to explain her silence. “She’s still groggy.” Somehow I couldn’t buy that. I waited for Mari to say something, but she simply sat there smiling for several minutes, and then finally threw the covers aside and swung her legs off the mattress.

“My regular clothes, please,” she said as she stood on shaking legs, grasping the nightshirt material with her hands, peering oddly at the folds between her fingers.

It had been nearly two weeks since Mari collapsed in front of the black cylinder out in the yard. Later, when the men had left the bedroom, Cynthia and I had pulled a nightshirt from the closet, undressed the unconscious girl, and then redressed her. As though Mari would simply sleep througout the coming evening, and then bounce back to life, refreshed and ready to go.

She waited patiently for us to retrieve the clothes she’d worn that day, and when we handed them to her, she put them on…the same as any of us would have done after a good night’s sleep. But her face was expressionless, and her tone of voice was strangely more...mature. Not that of the ebullient chatterbox I’d come to enjoy so much before she fell. Not alien like one of the creatures had invaded her head, or taken over her mind, either. Simply the voice of a different Mari.

I glanced at Cynthia to gauge her reaction. Her eyes were narrowed in suspicion or confusion, or both, her brow creased. She glanced back at me, biting her upper lip. “Something happened. This isn’t Mari,” she mouthed. Mari turned to Cynthia at the unspoken comment.

“I am Mari! Why would you say I wasn’t?” A simpler voice suddenly. Eyes wide and questioning. A six year-old, hurt…or someone acting like one.

Cynthia abandoned her doubt immediately, choosing to see the little girl as she’d always been before, I guessed. Choosing to want to see Mari as the child she physically and emotionally should naturally be. I watched with not a small  degree of apprehension as Cynthia darted to her and took her into her arms. Mari threw her arms around mother-Cynthia’s waist and buried her head into her chest.

“I don’t know what happened. I don’t! Was I very, very sick? Why was that needle in my hand? Where’s Ash?”

If this was a ploy of some sort, it was a good one. Even so, I began to doubt my own suspicions. What could I look for in the Mari standing there hugging Cynthia that would entirely dash that initial feeling of differentness we’d both experienced a second or two ago? And then a thought exploded into my head. Ash was somewhere outside playing. The creatures…

Lashawna broke the spell. “Ash is fine. He’s outside playing. Are you hungry? Do you think you can walk?”

I dashed back to the window. The creatures were gone. Ash was halfway down the drive throwing rocks into the orchard branches. They had left him alone. I thanked them. Who else could I thank, after all?

Mari released her grip on Cynthia, and stepped away from her to face Lashawna. “Why would you think I couldn’t?” That un-childlike voice again. The tone slightly different, lower, but nearly undetectably so, and the coy half-smile following the rhetorical question. Lashawna didn’t seem to notice, and I could only surmise that it was because of the weight lifted off her at seeing life back in Mari.

“Because you’ve been bedridden for nearly two weeks!”

Mari showed no reaction, instead took hold of Lashawna’s hand and walked past Cynthia and me in the direction of the door.

“See?” she said. “I can walk, and I am hungry. I’m starving!”

“Well then, I’ll fix you something delicious! If you don’t mind having canned meat. The guys have found vegetables…” She went on about the daily trips our men had taken as they left the bedroom and walked gingerly down the hall. I lingered inside, placing a hand on Cynthia’s arm when she began to move.

“She’s not right. Something happened. You saw it too, didn't you?”

The momentary confusion reappeared on her face, but then she shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe it’s just part of regaining consciousness. Her thoughts are still rattled. Come on.”

We left to join them, but something told me she’d reached the easy conclusion, and I didn’t think it was the right one.

 

Mari ate as though there were three of her. She laughed at Lashawna’s comments between bites, and generally acted in the old-Mari way. Her eyes were clear and bright. Inquisitive. Filled with laughter. I watched to see if there would suddenly be a change, but nothing.

Ten minutes later a high-pitched roar and the sound of gravel being thrown aside burst into the house through the open front door. They were home, and in a hurry. I left the kitchen at a run, Cynthia right on my heels. We burst through the entryway onto the porch, and my eyes opened wide in a kind of I-didn't-expect-this surprise when I saw it.

 I should have known it would eventually happen, though. I mean, it was inevitable. The red sportscar rocketed up the drive and came to a screeching halt at the apex of the circle below the steps. A half-second later the door opened, and Munster jumped out.

Ash was on the grass fifteen away, the stick in his hand drooping at the interruption of whatever game he’d been consumed with seconds ago. Behind him and to his right, the dark cylinder stood solidly locked to the earth beneath it, watching all of this, reporting the entire scene to the mother ship somewhere, I was certain.

Munster paid no attention to Ash, who dropped the stick immediately and sprinted on stubby legs toward the gorgeously sleek vehicle. My rebellious friend was at the steps in a heartbeat, and he nearly stumbled up them in an effort to begin throwing the questions at us. Lashawna and Jack, now beside us with Mari between them, quickly added to the mix of gawkers, dismissing Munster in favor of his latest toy.

“Wow!”

“Holy-shit-howdy…you’re back!”

“Where did you find that?” Lashawna exclaimed, releasing her hand from Mari’s arm and dashing down the steps.

Munster managed only a few words, glancing distractedly at her, and then back again to little Mari. “Uhh…car lot. Up the coast…Mari!”

To Cynthia and me, “What happened?”

"We’ve no idea! She just woke up. Jack was with her upstairs…Munster! It’s beautiful!” Cynthia blurted. Suddenly, Mari’s reappearance among the living seemed secondary in everyone’s mind, except Munster's and mine. For her part, Mari hopped onboard the awestruck train exiting the porch to pour their affections all over the sportscar. At first they walked around it, touching its polished surface as if it were something holy. It was Mari who first opened the passenger side door and popped inside. On finally noticing Mari, little Ash stumbled a step, and then began screaming in joy. Lashawna quickly rounded the car and then climbed into the driver’s seat, rubbing her hands around the steering wheel reverently.

“Where are the others?” I asked.

“Dunno’. Comin’ I guess. I left first. Jesus, what happened? She’s really back!”

I took hold of his hand, and we sat down on the top step, watching the congregation oohing and ahhing over the car. Wherever the men had been when Cynthia broke the news to them, I could just imagine seeing the streak of rubber and cloud of smoke when Munster shot off the lot to return home.

“Munster, there’s something strange about Mari now.”

“Huh?”

“Just keep an eye on her. Oh, I mean, just watch. Don’t say a word, but…Munster, sometimes she’s the old Mari, but at other times…it’s just strange.”

Before he had time to plunge more deeply into questioning, I noticed Mari suddenly turn her attention to us, her eyes knitted, a tiny smile growing on her face. The look sent chills up my spine.

 

Books and Games

 I covered my mouth with a hand, and tried to explain the series of events in the bedroom after Cynthia, Lashawna and I entered to find Mari awake.

“She had this glazed look in her eyes, Munster.”

“You would too if you’d been out for two weeks.”

“No, no, different than that. Almost as if she could see right through me. Into me.”

“I dunno’. Maybe the stress of all this last-of-the-humans crap. Makes you imagine…”

Cynthia popped her head out of the window and called to Munster. “How do you start it?”

“Red button on the steering wheel.” A second or two passed, and then the low roar of the engine.

“What kind of car is it?” I asked leaving the subject of Mari’s strange condition for the moment.

“Ferrari. Latest model. Cool, huh?”

“It’s pretty. Maybe later you can take me for a ride.” On second thought, probably not a good idea. Listening to Cynthia revving the engine, I could just see Munster losing control.

“It’s fast, I’m guessing?”

He looked at me with a huge grin on his face. “You can’t imagine.”

“Expensive?”

“Hell no! It was free.”

“Well, yes, but I mean when…before all this happened.”

“Not sure, but Charlie said it was worth a couple hundred grand. There weren’t no sticker on it at the dealership. If you had to ask how much it cost, you prob'ly couldn’t afford it.”

We could afford anything we wanted in those days, even a mansion way up in Beverly Hills. If any of us was inclined to leave our modest farmhouse and move to Los Angeles. Out of the question—the stench would be horrific. Perhaps in a few years. Perhaps never. I couldn’t say what our separate futures here would be by then. If Peter’s attitude toward impetuous Munster would worsen over time and they would wind up wanting to literally kill one another. A thousand different scenarios could present themselves as time passed, and the true reality of living alone settled in. For the time being we could bring home anything our hearts desired…if we could load it into the truck, drag it, or in Munster’s case, drive it.

Peter and Jerrick wheeled onto the drive in the BMW, followed by Charles, all by himself in the truck a few seconds later. They slammed on the brakes when they neared the Ferrari, and like Munster had done, flew out. Jerrick’s fingers guided him along the body of the car, and even though his eyes were vacant, I could feel the excitement overwhelming him.

Cynthia continued to rev the powerful engine. Mari had heard the two vehicles skidding to a stop on the gravel. She opened the passenger door and swung her legs out to greet them. Munster and I leapt off the porch and joined the elated men.

“Hi, kid!” Peter exclaimed.

Charles ran directly to Mari and hugged her. “I knew you’d pull through, Mari. Tell me all about it,” he said releasing her little body and holding it at arms length with his bandaged hands. “Do you remember anything?”

How lovingly he uttered the words. Father Charles. The only one of our small group who might retain sanity and guide us through the difficult times ahead. Who might, on the other hand, be one of them, along with Mari. The thought was terrifying. I pressed myself to believe otherwise.

The rejoicing continued for quite a while, Peter in particular was ecstatic, plying her with a hundred questions, remarking over and over how good she looked. Mari merely said it had all been strange. There had been dreams, she recalled vaguely, but nothing else that she could remember. A deep, empty sleep. After a time, Charles crossed around the front of the car to the driver’s side, reached in through the open door, and pressed a button on the steering wheel. The engine purred to a stop.

“Help us bring the things we gathered into the house, Cyn.”

She reacted with, “Isn’t it just the coolest car you’ve ever seen?”

“Yes, it’s very nice. Time for a little work, however.” He lifted his head and spoke to the rest of us. “Okay, let’s get the things in the truck into the house and put away. We need to talk. Peter, give Mari a hand. Let’s go.”

“I can walk just fine. I’m ok.”

Peter took hold of her hand anyway, and led her into the house as if she might collapse at any second. With Ash at their side, she began to babble and giggle in the old Mari way. I watched for a second or two, and then joined Munster, Lashawna, and Charles at the rear of the now very plain-looking truck. There were several boxes of vegetables among the array of sundry items wrapped and sealed in colorful boxes. At the front beneath the cab window, half a dozen large bags of soil, and what I guessed must be seeds in burlap bags in front of them. Our adult was going to make good his comment from days ago to begin growing food. In time the produce in the farms in the outlying areas would wither and die. We’d be left with only Spam and crackers. If we could only plant a cow or a goat or a pig, how lovely our life would be.

“We’ll leave the fertilizer and seed for the time being. Here, Lashawna, take this toaster that caught young Munster’s eye. What in God’s name we need another toaster for is beyond me, but he wanted it.”

“Amelia’s gonna’ make bread. We ain’t got no butter, but toast’ll be nice in the morning. Lots of it.”

“You can make bread, and while I’m thinking about it, you can take your turn at vacuuming the floors and washing the bed sheets. You can scrub the toilets once in a while, too, instead of shooting that silly gun of yours outside every morning, Munster Gardella.”

“Hah! What do I look like? Some dumb girl?” he said, reaching in for a red, white, and garish green-colored box, Portland Chainsaw printed on the outside.

I should have hit him for that. Instead I reached around him and kissed his cheek. “You’re going to learn the finer arts of domestic duties, Munster. There are no sexes here any longer. Only dumb people—in your case.”

Charles smiled. “We’ll change that soon enough.”

Lashawna handed her brother one of the smaller boxes, asking him whether he could carry it if she stayed close with her bundle.

“Yes, yes. Don’t worry about me. I have the grounds and the house memorized.”

 

We unloaded the last of the bounty gathered that day, and then after refilling the generator and checking the leaky water lines outside, Charles summoned us into the living room.

“We have everything we need. Everything that’s available at least. More than we could have dreamed of in the old consumer world. A world, by the way, that was decaying. It’s time to take stock of who we are, now, and what will be critically important in the months and years ahead.

“Munster, you have a two hundred-thousand dollar sports car, but forgive me for saying, you have no knowledge or social skills, and further, you'll likely kill yourself in that car. I mean to change the knowledge part of that, at least, before your demise. The rest of you,” he said turning his attention to us, “your educations stopped the moment the catastrophe struck—much sooner than it should have. I think you’ll all agree with that.”

“Yeah, but…”

Charles raised a hand to cut Munster off. “You will not remain ignorant for the rest of your lives. You will not descend into mindless and meaningless existences. All of you will create, and to create, you’ll need to be educated. I can assist you there. Starting tomorrow, we’ll devote half the coming days to reading and writing and…arithmetic. Schoolwork.”

“I got better things to do.”

“Shut up already, Munster,” Peter said. “You’ll do as Mr. Baxter says, and like it, or else I’ll take that chainsaw you snatched and cut your bloody legs off.”

“Oh yeah?”

They were off and at it again. But Charles was right. What was missing, truly missing, in our lives was direction. Something more than flashy new cars, scads of mostly useless gadgets, and beautiful clothes that we could wear to…what occasion? The opera in Marysville Playhouse?

I liked school, and I know Jerrick had, too. Whether Jack and Mari and Lashawna and Cynthia, and eventually Ash, felt likewise was unimportant. The older of us at least, saw the importance of what Charles said.

“I think tomorrow at daybreak, after breakfast, we should make another trip into town—to the first school we come across—and find enough desks to accommodate all of you in our new university.” He smiled. “And more books.”

Munster groaned.

For the remainder of the afternoon, and long into the evening, everyone except me fawned over Mari. Maybe I should have. Maybe I’d been way wrong in my suspicions that Mari was just not Mari. Even Munster, recuperating from the shock of learning he’d be attending school the next day—and every day thereafter, until he became a Rhodes scholar, or died in a fiery crash ditching school—even Munster kidded and joked with the little girl.

After dinner he helped with the dishes. Loaded the dishwasher, anyway. Charles had gathered CDs that day from the Target store where Munster found the chainsaw. All of them were Classical and Broadway albums, and the ancient stereo now filled the house with Bach and Beethoven and Mozart until poor Munster could take no more. When the counters in the kitchen had been at last cleaned spotlessly, he bolted out the rear door. A few moments later I heard his Porsche roar to life.

Wherever he was going, no doubt listening to something a lot more current and exciting, and at a bone-jarring, shrieking volume, I hoped he’d return alive.

 

As promised, they left the house the next morning. I stayed behind to tend to Ash and Mari. She had reverted to her old self at first, playing what I thought were odd variations of old schoolyard games like dodgeball and hide and seek. From my place on the top step of the porch beside Jack, I noticed that she dominated each easily, well beyond what she should have for a girl her age. Her reactions were instantaneous. She never tripped or hesitated, and several times Ash became angry, fuming that she was cheating when, without effort, she caught the ball he threw with all his might at her, or simply sidestepped it. She laughed, and cajoled him to try harder. Abandoning that game, he sulked, and stomped off to take a seat beneath the black cylinder. Mari peered over at him for a few seconds, bouncing the ball slowly up and down on the gravel, and then tossed it aside. Another few seconds elapsed until she padded past him around the cylinder, and disappeared like a ghost.

“She cheats. She’s no fun. Can we go for a walk, Amelia?” he said with a forlorn look on his face when he finally approached me at the bottom of the steps.

“When she returns.”

“NO, you and me! I’m tired of Mari.”

“Maybe we can go look for her. I think she’s hiding in the orchard, down near the road. She’s waiting for you to find her.”

“No she isn’t. She’s no fun anymore.”

“Well let’s go find her anyway.”

“Oh, all right, but I don’t want to play with her anymore.”

“That’s fine, Ash,” I said, standing, and then stepping down to where he stood.

Jack bounded to Ash’s side. “Come on, Ash, we’ll look for her together.”

“I hate this place! I wish I could go home,” he pouted.

“I know,” she said, “but we’ll find Mari, and then things will be better. This is our home, now.”

“Ha!”

They left ahead of me, calling Mari’s name.

Look...But Don't Touch

We found Mari deep in the orchard sitting beneath a tree. Ash had called out to her over and over once he stuffed his anger, but she hadn’t responded. Seeing her there with her knees tucked to her chest, held tightly with her arms, he left Jack's side and ran to her. Why didn’t it surprise me that when he arrived and addressed her she didn’t respond? It wasn’t until he shook her that she looked up at him with a reaction of surprise.

I lingered back within earshot, but partially hidden in the rows of trees, curious to see what would transpire in the forthcoming seconds. That was pointless. The minute she turned her head I saw her eyes whisk past Ash and Jack, and come to rest on me. She smiled—not that devilish smile I’d witnessed the day before, but a genuine little girl smile of recognition and invitation. I left the futile cover of the branches and walked to their side.

“You weren’t hiding,” Ash was saying to her, “why weren’t you hiding? We found you, though. What were you doing?”

“I think she was just resting, Ash.”

“Oh no. I was talking…” And then she stopped. I searched her face, doubly sure now that something of colossal importance had happened during those days Mari had been comatose. She blinked, but didn’t abandon the innocent smile, and she ignored Ash and Jack all the while. Where had she been?

I determined in that second that I would discover what had happened to her, and further, exactly what this new and seemingly amicable relationship that had developed between them was. I would return to the cylinder and touch it. The frightening thought surfaced, however, that whatever mysterious metamorphosis had overcome a child among us would not happen to me for any number of reasons. My age, perhaps. The beings’ disinclination to rescue me—if that is what they’d done with her. It was true that no one except me saw in Mari a change other than a slow sweeping away of the cobwebs that had descended over her in her unconscious state. Maybe placing a hand on it would kill me.

“We are not to touch it,” Charles had warned us.

“I think we should go back,” I said to them. “I didn’t bring the walkie-talkie. If someone tries to call, we need to be near the phone.”

Mari shot a peculiar glance at me, followed quickly by the stunted smile. “I think they’re okay,” she answered with conviction. She rose from her spot beneath the branches, brushed the dead leaves and brush from her dress and leggings, and set off toward the drive without another word. Ash picked up a dried out orange, cocked his arm, and then threw it at a cluster of oranges hanging from the branch of a tree farther down the narrow path. After it hit, he turned and followed his playmate, and Jack and I followed him.

Nearing the ditch and Munster’s abandoned Flamecar, I caught up to her, Jack close at my side. Ash had stopped several feet behind us and had begun pitching more fruit at the car. Each time they landed with a splat on the metal, he laughed, and then bent down to pick up another missile.

“Mari, look at me,” I said, standing at her shoulder. “What happened? What did they do to you. Why are you so different now?”

She looked up at me surprised. “Nothing, Amelia.” She hesitated for a second. “I’m me, that’s all! I don’t understand…”

“Mari! You aren’t you. You know that, or you should. You must remember how you used to think, and it’s different now. Isn’t it? Think back. Back there you started to say that you were talking to them. How? What did they say to you?”

She began to stammer like a child caught with her fingers in the cookie jar, fidgeting for the little white lie that would satisfy me.

“Tell me, please. I won’t breathe a word of it to anyone else. I promise.”

A moment passed. She gazed intently into my eyes as Ash continued to pummel the car, and Jack stood listening in silence.

“They told me not to.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. They aren’t scary, Amelia! They aren’t! They’re nice to me, and they tell me…things. Good things.”

“Like what, Mari?”

She was struggling for the right words now. “That I’ll grow up. That everything will be fine if I listen to them. That we’ll all be fine…that there are others. Like Charles! Like those men who you said tried to hurt you.”

“Is Charles one of them?”

“I don’t think so. But I don’t know for sure. They don’t tell me everything, you know! Just that I have to be careful. They’ll help me, and someday I’ll get to go inside the tower, and I’ll understand everything.”

The tower? Babel? The University of the Universe?

“Come on, Mari. I’m going back to the cylinder…tower…and I’m going to touch it. Just like you did. I have to know what it is they’ve done to you for myself.”

Jack finally broke her silence. “No! It will kill you!”

“It didn’t kill you.”

I left them at the car and walked up the long drive, stepping off onto the grass border, thirty feet away from the porch. The tower stood shining in the late morning sunlight, down the low rise in the hollow. Mari and Jack were at my side in a flash, warning me not to approach it. Ash was far back on the road, consumed with throwing small stones at something—or nothing in particular—in the trees bordering the road.

“Don’t do it,” Mari warned again. I touched her arm with shaking fingers, and for the first time in weeks felt an uncanny kinship with the girl, as though our fates were inexplicably connected. Turning back to the glistening tower, I took a step forward, but then hesitated.

“Wait. Stay here. You two keep an eye on Ash, I’ll be right back.”

I left them and ran to the house. Wherever the rest of our band was at that moment, something told me to fetch the walkie-talkie and tell them what I was about to do. I knew they would scream murder, but also that my intention would make them abandon their foray and return. Better to have Charles and Jerrick and Peter and Cynthia there in the aftermath, whatever that might be.

I found the phone on the coffee table where I’d left it earlier, grabbed it, and then began to return to Mari and Jack and the tower waiting for me.

“Charles, are you there?”

A moment of static and silence followed, and then Peter’s voice answered. “Yeah, we’re here, except for Cynthia and Munster. What’s up?”

“I’m going to touch the cylinder.”

He responded in a heartbeat. “No you’re not! You can’t be serious, Amelia. Stay away from that thing!”

“It’s already decided. I have to know what it does.”

Charles’ voice chimed. “Amelia, don’t. Stay where you are. We’re on our way back. Wait. Please do as Peter says.”

There was a crackling instant of astonishment and overlapping exclamations of confusion on the other end until I pressed the talk button again.

“I’ll be fine—I hope. It didn’t kill Mari. Didn’t really hurt her, but it did do something strange to her. All of you know that. I’m going to find out exactly what it was.”

I laid the walkie-talkie onto the boards of the porch, and then walked down the steps. Jack stood several feet behind Mari, and when she saw me lay the walkie-talkie down, she began to move toward me, a disturbing look covering her face. How odd, I thought looking over at Mari. She was on her knees in front of the tower, her fingertips spread near its surface. It appeared as if she was praying to it. I crossed the drive onto the grass, more determined than ever…and more frightened than ever. What kind of gods were inside that strange alien tabernacle?

“She’s saying something to it!” Jack said.

“I know, I know.”

“Amelia, don’t do it! Please don’t!”

When I arrived, Mari jumped to her feet. She turned to me and shoved her back against its surface. She spread her arms and hands out against it and shook her head.

“No, Amelia. They told me not to let you come in contact with it.”

Ha! She was pressed against it, alive, coherent. Like Jack had just said, she’d been talking to whomever, or whatever was inside, or somewhere listening to her. This time it didn’t make her collapse, and interdict or otherwise, I had to risk that it wouldn’t strike me down if I did the same.

“Go get the walkie-talkie, Mari. I left it on the porch. Everyone’s on the way home, just let them know straight off if something terrible happens to me. Now move out of the way.”

Mari remained locked to the surface defiantly, and then I saw her eyes shift to her right and narrow. She stepped forward suddenly, her full attention caught by something down the drive. I glanced over my shoulder, following her stare. Ash was still on the road throwing stones. A hundred feet farther down near the crippled Flamecar I caught sight of what had grabbed her attention. Five men, three in long overcoats, the other two in flashy, but soiled, suits that didn’t fit their appearance. All of them had unkempt shocks of hair and scruffy beginnings of beards. I recognized the first one—the attacker Munster had let go back at Saint Andrew’s. He turned and said something to the others, and then they began to move away from the car in our direction. Ash finally noticed them. He let the stone in his hand drop to the ground and stared as they scuffled forward.

“Ash! Jack! Run for the house. Now!” I screamed.

 

 

The Return

 

Mari said nothing. She moved toward them, her shoulders back and her hands balled into fists. Lashawna and I had told her many times during the first days at the house how two men had tried to smash into the rectory, and once they’d seen us, what their intentions probably were. The look on the first man’s face, the repulsive half-smile—the terror of that night was forever welded into my memory. Even at her young age I knew Mari had understood.

All of them disregarded Ash and Jack, who stood frozen and staring at them as they approached. I had no weapon, and even if I had, killing someone like Munster had done without blinking an eye was beyond my comprehension. I followed Mari anyway, praying that our men would miraculously appear before the gang of rapists and murderers laid their filthy hands on us.

The leader, dressed in one of the long overcoats stopped dead and motioned for the others to do the same. He’d gotten a good look at me when Munster threatened him weeks ago. I was sure the man had no idea that Munster was nowhere near, though. He took a small step and slowly raised his hands outward at us.

“Good day to you, ladies,” he said in a saccharine tone. “We had no idea there were others alive! Do you have food? Are there others here with you at this…grand home?”

A lie. Could he possibly think I didn’t recognize him?

Mari said nothing and continued to stride toward them.

“Yes. They’re in the back.” I turned. “Ash, get in the house. Now!”

“Amelia?” he bleated.

Mari halted a few feet in front of the man and asked rhetorically, “What do you want?”

“I told ya’. Just some food and water. A place to rest for a while before we continue on our way.

“Who else is here?” he ended suspiciously.

“Just the four of us,” Mari admitted.

How stupid of her. How unthinking and fatal. We needed time. She had just destroyed that. Charles and the others would return soon, but not soon enough I was certain. Munster…God, I hoped Charles had called him! He’d be first in his Ferrari, and I knew he was armed. He always was. How far away were our men? Please God!

The man glared at me. Yes, he remembered.

“Well, ain’t that sweet.” He lowered his hands. “Your little friend ain’t here then? Nobody but the four of ya’?” He waited a second for a reply he knew wouldn’t come.

“Why don’t we just go inside for a spell? We’re…hungry as hell,” he laughed. With that he turned and motioned his grisly gang to surround Mari and me. They began to encircle us immediately, cackling and growling little obscenities. Jack left Ash and ran to my side, grabbing my elbow with both hands.

“Amelia, who are these men?”

“Run. Get Jack and get into the house. Hide,” I said as quietly as I could. She peered up at me with a frightened look, and then slowly began to back away.

The leader motioned with a quick flick of a hand for his companions to follow Jack, and then he moved on me with that look in his eyes. He withdrew a vicious looking knife from its scabbard at his waist beneath the overcoat at the same time.

Why didn’t you kill him when you had the chance, Munster!

He stepped beside Mari as if she didn’t exist, tossing the knife up and down in his right hand. Time for her later.

I stumbled backward, one step, then two, until my back met the body of one of the other men who had circled behind me. His rough hands shot around me. He lifted me as effortlessly as if I were a newborn baby, his fingers digging into the wool of the sweater and my stomach. I thrashed my legs uselessly. He merely laughed the more I struggled. I heard Jack scream, but there was nothing I could do, now, to help either her or Ash.

“Whoa, slow down there little girl!” he coughed into my ear. The man with the knife continued forward, a frozen, intense look in his eyes, a malicious smile of conquest on his lips. I watched in terror as he gripped the handle of the knife firmly and brought it slowly up to the neck of my sweater. He turned the blade sideways and slid it downward through the thick threads of material slowly until the tip of the razor sharp blade came to a halt at my stomach.

“Seventeen, I’m guessin’?” he growled lowly, lifting an eyebrow. And then he eased the blade farther down, forcing it between the button of my jean shorts and my stomach as his companion slid his hands upward and grabbed hold of the halves of my sweater and tee shirt. He yanked outward. I closed my eyes, screaming in my mind for God to rescue me; for the alien invaders to suddenly appear. For any help.

Nobody. Nothing.

Ash was screaming at the top of his lungs by then, somewhere close behind us. Jack was crying. The knife sheared the button loop of my jeans, and then a second later I heard it hit the gravel—the monster’s fingers ripping the denim open. Oh no, no, no. Please…

Mari? What was happening to her? I wanted to open my eyes to see, but couldn’t find the strength. She hadn’t made a sound.

I was half naked in a sea of roaring voices and gruesome laughter. Exposed in a nightmare, about to be raped, no doubt by all of them in turn. I wondered, after the horror and humiliation of that what greater horror of the knife entering me would feel like? Worse, being dragged off to their lair, chained to a filthy bed post for the remainder…

The man holding me let loose. I fell to the ground crying in terrible gulps, and the leader of those beasts followed me down. Behind me, a momentary scuffling of feet interrupted the maelstrom I was locked inside, and then the sound of a hand meeting a face with a loud whap! A cry, and then another sharp crack, this time a fist meeting…it was Ash’s face. The screaming instantly stopped, but the demon laughter, the hands, the unimaginable terror continued at an even higher volume. I heard the muffled sound of crying from poor Jack. Oh dear God, what was the young girl enduring?

Beyond me a sudden grunt. A spattering sound. A whoooosh! Quick exclamations of shock, and then a brief silence. The man atop me stopped and looked behind him to where the commotion had come from.

“What the…?”

It was the last thing he uttered in this life. I opened my eyes. Mari was striding forward from what could only be described as a swirling cloud of black dust and gravel, little shrapnel-pieces of it striking him like a thousand enraged hornets. He rolled over onto the road, raising his arms to protect his face…and then he disappeared! She continued forward, her head held high, and a look of savagery on her face. Two of the invaders of our Eden were still behind me. I heard the gravel stamping beneath their feet as they tried to run, but their escape was doomed in another flash of black fury, different from the leader’s hornet end, but just as effective.

As quickly as that, the four of us were alone once again. I wept more loudly in the strange silence.

It was over. Mari knelt beside me, looking down at me with pity. The other Mari. She offered her hand to me, helping me sit up. I quickly covered myself as best I could, blubbering incoherently, trying to put what had happened all together into something that made sense.

“What…what did you just do?”

Mari sat back on her haunches, her eyes filled with sadness, but she didn’t answer. She reached forward, straightened a few strands of tangled hair at the side of my face, and then she rose quietly and crossed the space to Ash and Jack. I whipped my head around. He was lying on his back, his face turned toward the house, and droplets of blood oozed from his ear and nose. That side of his face that I could see was as red as a beet. Jack's blouse was torn. She knelt over Ash with her hands covering her mouth, shaking her head, crying in streams.

A moment later Mari returned to me with a worried look. She said, “We have to get him into the house quickly. He’s hurt badly.”

I regained my senses, struggled to my feet, and went with her to Ash. Together we carried the little unconscious boy toward the house with Jack stumbling along beside us, absolutely destroyed by all that had just happened. On the way Mari said in a low voice, ”You are not to mention anything of how those savages left, Amelia. Not to anyone. Simply tell them that a dark presence materialized and frightened them away. Nothing more.”

I shot my eyes to her. “But why?”

“Because I said not to, that’s all. Be patient. Will you do that?”

I wondered if I could—or should. After all, we were all in this together. My suspicions concerning the change in Mari were now absolutely confirmed, though what her exact connection to the alien presence was still baffled me.

We passed the tower sitting stone silent in the grass. I glanced over at it.

“Don’t even think about it, Amelia.”

I looked back at her. “Did the old Mari die when she touched it? You’re not Mari anymore, are you? You’re somehow one of them,” I put the question to her plainly once again.

“You’re wrong, Amelia. I’m Mari, I swear it. You’ll understand in time. Quickly, now, let’s get Ash inside.”

We reached the steps, and with little effort, ascended them.

What Have We Here?

We laid Ash gently onto the nearest sofa in the living room. I ran to the kitchen, and returned with a moist, clean Terry cloth to daub the blood from his swelling face. Mari was sitting on her legs on the rug holding his lifeless little hand in hers when I returned, her eyes closed tightly. I knew without asking that she had to be summoning the creatures that had bestowed a remarkable power on her. Perhaps she was asking them how badly Ash really was hurt, and what she should do to mend him.

There was nothing more that I could do for Ash. I cursed the man who had struck him, and I continued to search Mari’s face, hoping her eyes would pop open, and she would look up at me with a large grin. I have it!

She merely sat, her lips moving almost imperceptibly.

Ten minutes passed, when at last I heard the low roar of the Ferrari and the hurling of gravel from beneath the wheels. I left Mari and Ash, and ran to the porch just in time to see the powerful car skid to a stop beneath the steps. Cynthia threw the door open and leapt out before it even came to a halt, followed by an ashen-looking Munster brandishing a pistol on the other side.

“What?” he shouted.

She said nothing, racing up the steps with her eyes riveted on me, darting from my face to my shredded clothes, and back again to my face.

“I’m okay,” I said clasping my sweater with one hand, my shorts with the other. “It’s Ash.”

She hesitated for only a heartbeat, looking at me with her mouth open in bewilderment and shock, and then she sidestepped me and rushed inside. Munster bounded up the steps before Cynthia had gotten two steps, and grabbed hold of my shoulders, the pistol still locked in his hand. He whipped his head around to the drive and orchard they had only seconds ago passed, searching for someone still lurking there in the shadows.

“They’re gone,” I told him.

“They? What happened? Are you okay?”

“Yes, yes. It’s Ash. One of them beat him unconscious.” I saw his eyes dart over my shoulder toward the interior, and then back to me.

“You sure you’re okay?” He looked hard at me, and then let his eyes drop to my hand holding the sweater closed. I forced the whimper rising in my chest down, and took a deep breath. Closing my eyes in shame, I simply nodded in the affirmative. But I wasn’t okay, and he knew it. How can you be okay after something like that? I survived, that’s all. As for Ash…

He tightened his grip on my arm with his free hand and began to lead me across the porch toward the somber vigil inside.

“Tell me,” he said.

In garbled and broken half-sentences, I tried to relate the series of events, shying away from Mari’s actions as best I could, trying to construct a lie that would deflect more questions centering on her. I was no good at lying, editing my comments clumsily, and I knew when the rest of our group arrived shortly, I’d have to pull it together and tell them something halfway believable. I didn’t see what was happening to Mari. She was over there somewhere, cries of no, no, no erupting from her mouth. I couldn’t see for what was happening to me. Just a terrible hailstorm of rocks and dirt and broiling black clouds. And then quiet. No good at lying. Maybe someday I could tell them the truth of it.

Cynthia was beside Mari, one hand on her tiny shoulder, the other on Jack’s quivering arm. It was apparent that Mari hadn’t said much to her—if anything—because the moment we arrived, she turned and began her litany of questions. I began the revised lie once again. Mari didn’t look away from Ash, and Cynthia could not, in her best efforts, calm Jack down.

 

It took ten minutes more until the same entrance of Peter and Charles and Lashawna and Jerrick in the truck. The same rush and pounding of feet on the wooden porch steps. The same looks of shock, and the flurry of questions the moment they saw Mari and distraught Jack, Ash unconscious, and me clasping my tattered clothing standing at Munster’s side.

“One of ‘em was the guy I didn’t cap at the church. Jesus, I shoulda’ killed him when I had the chance,” Munster said amid the rush of voices.

“But…where…I mean, the creatures killed them? Took them away? What?” Peter asked. Jerrick found Ash’s body. He ran his fingers over the wounds slowly and carefully. I rehashed the events that had occurred in their absence again and again until they seemed satisfied and finally went silent.

There was little more to be said. Peter lifted Ash from the sofa and took him upstairs to the same bed Mari had occupied a few days earlier. I went as quickly to the bedroom across the hall, found fresh, untainted clothes, and changed into them, not wanting to ever, ever again see the sliced and torn clothing I’d put on that morning.

Cynthia was in the room, near me, offering words of comfort. Clumsy words. I’m so sorry, Amelia. In time…followed almost immediately with little diversionary snippets of what she and Munster had done that morning.

“He sideswiped a truck just outside Marysville! He was so angry, but I had to laugh. He’s crazy!”

“Honest?”

“Yeah. He’ll probably have to get himself a brand new Ferrari once everything settles down,” she said with a laugh.

“He’s going to kill himself one of these days,” I said, pulling a maroon hoodie over my tangled hair. I was grateful for the change of subject. I straightened myself up somewhat, and we left to join the others.

Mari had decided to sit with Ash. I was thankful for that. God knows, maybe she could summon him back. The rest of us left her there and went back down, Jerrick, begrudgingly. Lashawna had to nearly pull him away from Mari and Ash, and no doubt he would have stayed with them had Mari not said in a sweet voice, “I’ll watch, Jerrick. You can go. I’ll call if…when he wakes up.”

The discussion in the kitchen centered, not on Ash—we’d been through one crisis similar to his with Mari—but on the men who had found us.

“We saw the truck parked at the side of the highway near the gate,” Charles said. He stood at the sink counter pouring water into the coffee maker. Cynthia sat beside Jack and me, one hand on mine atop the table, while Lashawna poked through the contents of the refrigerator on the other side of the room. Jerrick, Peter, and Munster sat across from us, worried looking.

Peter said, “There have to be others.”

“Maybe we string a wire or somethin’ down at the road. You know, so if anyone tries to sneak in…”

“Or we pack up and move farther out,” Jerrick broke in.

Lashawna returned to the table with a platter of anemic-looking carrots and sliced beets. She laid it on the table and then sat down beside Cynthia. “I like it here. I don’t want to run away and start all over again.”

“You don’t know that there are others out there, Munster,” Peter said.

“There are. Bet on it.”

“So then, what do you propose we do?” Charles asked.

“Set a watchman at the window like we had before any of you got here,” Peter suggested. I saw Jack’s eyes flick to the ceiling, as if she was fearfully searching in her mind for the window that would announce the appearance of other beasts. 

“For the rest of our lives?”

“Maybe so,” Peter answered my question.

“Those carrots don’t look much better than the beets,” Cynthia said almost absently, poking at the wilting veggies.

“They’re still nutritious,” Charles said. “Amelia, get some food in you.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“WHAT are we going to do? I don’t want to stay locked up on this farm for the rest of my life! And I certainly don’t want to live in fear that long, either,” Lashawna said.

Charles left the counter and the coffee maker. His brow was furrowed. There was no good way through our futures, no real vision of hope, I could see in his face.

“We’ll stay. For the time being, anyway,” he said. “Munster might be right. A trip wire across the road in. It wouldn’t require much electricity, just enough to break a circuit and set off alarms.”

“That’s stupid,” Peter harrumphed. “Any idiot would notice the wire. Besides, who says an invader would even use the drive when he or they came snooping around?”

“Land mines,” offered Munster.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Why not?” he spit at Cynthia. “We’d know where they was buried.”

“And where do you think we’d find these land mines?”

“Pendleton.”

“Knowing you, you’d blow yourself to kingdom come setting them up.”

“So then, what do we do?”

“We’re back to square one,” Charles said calmly. Of all of us, he was the one with the straightest, most rational mind. This time, though, he seemed lost for answers, or a clear path to take. Crazy or otherwise, Munster was correct, the ugly truth hit me for the hundredth time. We were not alone. Whether the alien invaders had simply missed a hundred or a thousand, or ten thousand humans when they decimated our kind, or simply left them to make our lives hell, was up for debate. Further, they might not be hanging around to protect us, if they even cared.

“You said they came after the men appeared. I have to believe that from what I know of them—the tower outside, the fact that they seem peaceful enough around us…I mean, they came when you were in trouble, Amelia….”

“I didn’t actually see them. It was different, like a tornado or something. And it was Mari…” I bit my tongue.

“Mari what?” Peter followed.

“Nothing. I don’t know. It all happened so fast, and I was lying dazed on my back. Just a swirling mess of rocks and gravel, and the monsters disappearing when she walked out of it.”

“You and your crazy notion that Mari is one of them now,” Peter scoffed. I looked over at him defensively, but I knew I couldn’t say anything else concerning what I knew to be the truth.

“The wire across the entry road down by the gate. For now, that’s our best option. No land mines,” Charles ended, smiling at Munster. “Do we have wire, Peter?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t even know what kind we need, or how to hook it all up.”

“I’m headed for Pendleton first thing tomorrow morning. They’ll have what we need down there.”

“Get some gas masks,” Lashawna said sourly. “Getting that telescope out of the store through the stench nearly killed me.”

“Telescope? That’s the last thing we need right now! And we don’t need gas masks…at least not me. I’m never going back to town.”

“Ah, the telescope. Let’s get it out and set up,” Charles said cheerily, obviously trying to take the edge off the conversation. Even so, it struck me as weird, his sudden change of demeanor. He glanced over his shoulder, out the kitchen window over the sink. “It will be dark soon enough. Pray that the night is clear.”

“You want to look at the stars?” I asked, dumbfounded.

He said nothing for a second or two, his eyes focused elsewhere. “They’re up there.”

“So what? We all know that! We need to figure out what to do to stay alive, not look for…for spacemen!” I said.

“How many ships are orbiting the planet. Do they have shuttle craft coming and going? I want to know. And I want to see Mars and Venus and the galaxies beyond ours. Education, young ones. Exploration from the comfort and safety of our own front yard,” he answered, walking around the table toward the hall.

“And I thought Munster was the only crazy person here,” I shot at his back. “And we’re not safe, here or anywhere else!” Munster took offense at my comment.

“Hey, if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be here, Amelia. You guys have fun with Chuck’s new toy. Tomorrow I go to Pendleton, and then on down to San Diego to scope out the city and see if anyone’s alive. Hit the airport…Jerrick, you know how ta’ start a jet?”

“Like I said, Munster,” Cynthia said, shaking her head, smiling.

I had no interest in the telescope. Well, yes I did in a way. Daddy, being an astronaut (I laughed inwardly—Munster almost bought the story way back when), the stars and space had always possessed a certain interest for me. But, there were more important, vital things to concern ourselves with right then. I let the men get up and go outside to unload it from the back of the truck, and headed up to check on Ash.

And Mari.

 

First View

“How is he?”

Mari looked over at me. “The same. How are you?”

“The same, except that I survived. Do you understand that in human terms?”

“What do you mean ‘human terms’ ?”

“Just what it sounds like. Which Mari am I talking to?”

Mari shook her head in frustration as she rose from the chair. There was no childlike grief apparent over the condition of her once-playmate. Just a dry, clinical observation. In fact it struck me that I was talking to an adult in a child’s body. Her reaction was more what I might have expected from Cynthia or Peter or Charles had they not known the little boy, and had her position at Ash’s bedside been replaced by one of theirs. She lowered her eyes, fidgeting with her fingernails for a second or two, and then looked up at me.

“I don’t know if Ash will make it,” she said with a defeated sigh. “He needs medical help—a real doctor. They are silent when I ask them to come to him. I certainly don’t have the power to help him myself.”

Welcome to the new and glorious earth.

She stared unblinking at me until I acknowledged defeat by shifting my eyes away. She turned, then, and resumed her place in the chair beside the bed. The scuffling of feet and muted voices outside made her lift her head toward the closed window.

“They’re busy guys, aren’t they? I wonder what new toy they’ve brought home?” she commented blandly, pushing the fold of the curtain aside.

“It’s a telescope,” I said walking over to see for myself. “Charles’ latest thing. He wants to look up at…the stars.” I watched for a moment as he and Peter pushed and pulled a huge box from the front of the truck bed to the rear. Jerrick and Lashawna stood on the drive nearby; Jerrick motionless, but Lashawna scuffling her feet here and there, as though fighting the urge to jump into the bed and help them. I couldn’t see where Munster, Jack, or Cynthia were—if they were even with the group.

“They want to find the ships,” Mari said.

That stopped me. “The ships? As in plural?”

“As in four,” she answered.

“How do you know that?”

“Because I saw them. One of them, anyway." She shifted her eyes up to meet mine. "Does that surprise you, Amelia?”

I thought about the comment, the inevitability of the answer. “No, not really. How did you see it?” Somehow I knew her next answer wouldn’t surprise me either, but I expected her to say that she dreamed she saw it in her unconscious state.

Shock.

“I went there with them. Well, actually they took me.”

“You’re joking. You were here all the time. One of us was with you every second that you were out.”

Mari smiled, that’s all. And then she turned back to look through the window.

“Still, it’s true. Would you like to hear what the ships look like inside? What kinds of creatures inhabit them?”

Yes. No. Yes. I’d seen them. We all had. What other kinds could there be? Others with real bodies, perhaps? Nevertheless, hearing about the inside of one of their vessels oddly intrigued me.

“What do they look like?”

“They being the creatures inside?”

“Well, yes. Them, too.”

She began the short version of what I suspected would be a very long description, and even lengthier story.

 

“It’s a beauty, isn’t it?” Charles gushed much later when night had fallen and the temperature quickly followed.

Save for Jack who was sitting in the upstairs bedroom at the window, we had all gathered on the front lawn around the huge telescope after dinner. The only one among us who wasn’t drooling over it, wanting to put an eye to the eyepiece, was Jerrick. He held his excitement in, but just the same as me, I knew he wanted to have a look, in his mind’s eye, at least. It was an impressive instrument, “Meade” printed in white on the cylindrical body, and I was sure that before the fall of mankind, none of us could have afforded it in a hundred lifetimes.

The stars that shown brightly overhead were magnificent that and every night since Los Angeles, San Diego, and the hundreds of other communities between them had gone dark. No more light pollution. Its absence had resurrected the glorious white blanket we’d always known as The Milky Way, but had never seen firsthand with the naked eye.

Peter held a skymap and gave the coordinates to Charles so that he could find and focus in on objects of interest. Mars close by. Venus below it near the horizon. I had expected somehow to be able to see land features, especially on Mars, our near neighbor, but I was disappointed. It was simply a large reddish circle. I wondered what the attraction to sitting outside on a freezing cold night to view a big red dot had been to amateur stargazers? The moon was nice, but still, huge craters quickly became boring to look at. Charles seemed ecstatic, however, and lectured on its history, which most of us knew about anyway. Except maybe Munster.

Mari should have known very little about any of this at her age, but she showed a visible interest, if not excitement, as we each in turn peered through the lens. Half an hour into the session, I was returning to the house to find a heavier coat to wear. Mari followed and caught my elbow at the bottom porch step.

“Have them turn the telescope there,” she said, pointing to a spot above two of the tallest trees in the orchard, six rows in from the drive. “That’s where you’ll all see what you’ve been wondering about. It’s more or less stationary, as if it was tethered to the earth by a pole.”

I forgot the heavy coat for the moment. Seeing them, or at least one of the four crafts that had brought them into our orbit, sent chills up my spine that a hundred jackets would have no effect on, and so I began my return to the group.

“Not a word about how you know where to look,” Mari instructed me after I’d gotten only a step away. “Tell them it’s a hunch. You saw a flash of light. I’m cold. I’m going inside.”

How long would this charade last? Was there a reason that made sense why Mari did not want to be exposed? I had to believe she wasn’t in league with the aliens, plotting some greater catastrophe. That made no sense. Whoever they were, they knew we were alive, and once again it hit me that they could have wiped us out in the blink of an eye had they wanted to. And Mari had…what had she actually done to the men who’d attacked us. Whatever, she’d saved our lives.

What, Mari? What is this secrecy all about?

I came to Charles’ side. Munster was squinting into the lens. The others among them were making small talk, except Jerrick. He stood alone, his hands to his mouth, blowing warm breaths into them.

“I thought I saw a quick flash of light over there,” I said to Charles, out of earshot from everyone. “It was weird. Can you focus the telescope just above those two trees?”

He looked at me quizzically. He didn’t ask for any further details, though, just followed my finger, and then walked the several steps to the telescope and interrupted Munster.

“Hey! I was lookin’ at some chick on Mars, Chuck!”

“Forgive my interruption. I'm sure she’ll still be there later, Munster. Move aside for a moment, please.” Charles shook his head as my friend stepped aside complaining. Munster turned to Cynthia.

“Naked as a Jay Bird. Different body parts than you have, though.”

“Shut up, Munster.”

I crowded close to Charles as he tapped in the instruction on the keypad remote. The giant tube rotated down and sideways until it came to a halt in the general vicinity I’d mentioned. Charles looked into the viewfinder, tapped the remote again, and then put his eye to the eyepiece as we all waited in silence.

“Oh-good-God…” he muttered. He remained stuck to the telescope for ten or more seconds, adjusting the focus with a thumb and finger, and then raised his head and looked back at us in astonishment, one after another.

“Amelia, have a look. How on earth did you know…?”

I rushed forward to his side, dying to see what was up there. Of course I had a pretty good clue.

“I just saw that flash of light. What is it, Charles?”

“See for yourself.”

Cynthia buried her disgust with Munster for the moment and ran to join us. I was dead certain she wasn’t imagining naked alien girls, and pretty certain that she knew what was hanging around up there in the night sky as well. Lashawna and Peter quickly crowded in beside us. I peered into the lens.

“Oh my God!”

There it was—or part of it anyway. Mari had asked me if I cared to see them. It. One of their craft. What I saw was shattering. I couldn’t be precisely certain what I was looking at, but it covered the entire field of the lens. I reasoned that the black amorphous-looking image must be part of the underside of their macabre vessel. Portions of it seemed to undulate, opening and closing, allowing quick white flashes of light to escape from the interior. Like scores of mini-mouths. Like fish heaved onto dry land, gasping for breath. Had I expected to see sleek, glistening metal, with windows and a single, massive laser turret and thousands of tiny metallic folds of skin? Independence Day Part Two?

As each of the weird apertures opened, something exited, and then flew like the wind out of view. I say something, because it was unlike anything pictured in a Hollywood movie where small attack ships leave the Mothership. Attack or otherwise, that’s what those things had to be. If I'd had to guess at the time, I would have said they were groups of the creatures we’d all seen, clumped together by the thousands. Coming down here.

Each of us, except poor sightless Jerrick, gazed at the ship, scared witless at the reality of its being. Each of us confused by its appearance. It reminded Peter, he said, of some huge nightmare blob pooping out smaller nightmare blobs. I guess the analogy was somewhat true. Munster’s turn to look came, and after a few seconds he stated, “What the hell. There’s gotta’ be more of it.” He lifted his head and asked Charles, “Can ya’ cut the power a little? You know, show it all, Chuck?”

“Yes, I suppose. Move aside, please.”

“Why, Munster,” Cynthia shot at Munster, “you think you’ll spot a naked alien cloud-girl?”

He didn’t respond. Unlike Munster.

Charles removed the high-powered lens at the end of the tube, and replaced it with a less powerful lens. He brought his eye to it, adjusted the focus again, and then gazed for several more seconds as we all waited.

“What do you see now?” Peter asked.

“It’s…uh.” He hesitated, fingers fine-tuning the lens. "All of it. I’ve no idea how big it really is, but…well, take a look.”

Peter stepped forward and edged Munster out of the way, and then he anxiously put his eye to the eyepiece. He stood peering for several seconds, hands on his knees, and then he raised himself upright, glancing first at Charles, and then at the rest of us gathered close by.

“It’s butt-ugly…well, what did we expect? And without some reference, I couldn’t begin to guess how big it is either.”

“Let me see!” Lashawna said. She replaced Peter at the instrument.

“There are more of them,” I said as Shawna gazed in grim astonishment.

“What? How do you know that?” Peter and Charles asked in unison.

“I just do.”

“Ohmagod! Something just came out of it! Wait! Something else is going in over there! It’s like alive! Tons of them…” her voice trailed off.

“That isn’t an answer, Amelia. What actually happened here while we were away?” He had paused and searched my face for a clue, or a reaction, before asking the question I didn’t want to answer. But then, why should I have cared about Mari’s command? Everyone, especially Peter and Charles, had a right to know the facts of the incident on the drive earlier that afternoon. Didn’t they? I asked myself.

Cynthia and Peter joined Charles at my side and grilled me with their eyes. Meanwhile, Lashawna was hopping up and down, trying to keep her eye on the lens holder, Jerrick beside her.

“What? What is it, Shawna? Tell me what you see.”

“It’s getting bigger! It’s coming this way!”

 

 

Casualties

Charles stood his ground, waiting for me to answer. Peter, however, snapped his head from Shawna to me, to Shawna again, and then left to see for himself what she was screaming about. Munster rushed over to join him, yanking the pistol out of his waistband as he ran. What on earth did he think he could do, other than accidently shoot one of us?

“Spit it out,” Cynthia said.

I found myself squished between the rock and a hard place. “I can’t. They told Mari…I mean she told me I wasn’t…” I’d opened the door with my big mouth a moment ago, and there was no going back now.

As I struggled for words, Cynthia looked up at Charles. “Mari…Where did she go?”

Charles glanced up at the window, and then back at me. “Start again, Amelia. This time tell us the truth. What exactly happened this afternoon?”

What exactly happened? All of it was a blur, thinking back. The men came. They attacked us. She murdered all of them somehow. Or made them disappear, or…

“I think she should explain what happened. Really happened, I mean. I don’t know how she did it. She made me promise not to tell anyone. Not yet, anyway.”

I felt like the world’s biggest snitch; the world’s worst betrayer. Laugh. Some world!

“Into the house.” Charles’ command to me wasn’t exactly fatherly. He took hold of my shoulder and turned me. Like I’d just thrown a rock through the front window, or killed the dog next door, and it was time for punishment for being so heartless and stupid.

“Cynthia, go get Mari and bring her to the living room.”

Cynthia gave me a dirty look. It was her, wasn’t it Amelia! We had a right to know was in her eyes. She left and ran up the steps into the house, calling out to Mari.

“Go,” Charles said again. I began to plod forward.

“What good would it have done to try telling you what I think happened, Charles?” I said in self-defense.

“Because it would have been the truth.”

 

Peter made Munster stay behind and watch. Jerrick stayed with him, asking constantly for updates. “Yell if the ship comes into view above us,” Peter had said.

“It ain’t the whole ship! I can see it in the background!”

“Just keep an eye on it. Let us know when you can see whatever it is with the naked eye.”

Cynthia had sat Mari down on the sofa, alone, and with a look of contempt for me in her blue eyes. I stood between him and Cynthia, feeling about six inches tall. Peter was beside his sister, his armed folded, and he stared down at Mari in her hotseat.

“From the beginning, Mari,” Charles said in an even voice. “But first, maybe you should tell us what happened to you while you were in the coma.”

“I DON’T KNOW! I told you that, Amelia. I told you. Nothing happened that I can remember! Why are you doing this to me?” She looked at me like a little puppydog. Like the little girl we’d all known before…

“Mari, that isn’t true, and you know it. Please. You told me that they’d taken you up there. Or away, or somewhere. Tell them what you told me, Mari. Something happened.”

Mari dropped her head, closing her eyes. I could see her squint, as though in deep concentration. Her small lips moved ever so slightly for a second or two. Our Fathers, who art in space…? All our eyes were locked on her, forgetting for the moment that the creatures from the ship hanging just beyond the earth’s atmosphere were on their way down. Mari at last opened her eyes and sighed.

“It was like a dream,” she began. “I don’t remember all of it, only that…” she stopped suddenly and shot a painful look directly at me. “Amelia, you promised me…” And then she caught the last of the words and buried them.

No, Mari. I promised nothing. You commanded me.

“I remember waking up—sitting on what felt like...like rumpled blankets. It was dark. I was confused, I remember that clearly, and they spoke to me, although I couldn’t see any of them at first.

“Charles, that day they first came, you spoke to them, and they answered,” she left the story and tried to draw him in.

“No, dear, they spoke to me. Try as I may, they didn’t seem to care about answering my questions, and the encounter lasted for only brief seconds. I dreamt nothing, nor was I taken anywhere, as you say you were. Did they tell you why they did what they did?”

Mari shook her head no.

“Go on, then. And please tell us why you didn’t want us to know that something changed inside you. What did they do to you, and what do they intend to do with us?”

Mari pointed toward the front door.

“Wait,” she said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Peter said.

She looked at him calmly and replied, “They said they mean us no harm. They left the gift as proof—out there on the front lawn. Charles,” she said looking up at him, “They told you the same thing, didn’t they?”

“Mean us no harm?” Cynthia shot. “That’s a good one! One of these days you have to go with us back into Marysville to see the ‘no harm’ they’re talking about.”

“Us, not the rest of civilization.”

“Explain the appearance of those men, then,” I said.

“I can’t. I don’t know why some humans weren’t extinguished along with…the unfortunate ones who were.”

Munster had crept in unnoticed at some point during our conversation with Mari, and he said, “Well why din’t you ASK 'em?”

“Munster! What are you doing in here?” Cynthia was first to verbally hit him. Peter dashed outside, cursing . Charles threw up his hands in defeat.

“Ah, I got bored. I told Jerrick to keep an eye on things for a sec."

Lashawna, “WHAT?”

“...That whatever it was musta’ turned. All the sudden it started gettin’ smaller. You know, like it was headin’ east insteada’ west.”

“I say we throw him out,” Cynthia said.

More arguing and cat calling ensued, until a few moments later Peter returned with the good news.

“I don’t see any sight of the landing craft, if that’s what it was. It’s gone.”

“Well, did you bother to look around to see if maybe it was below the lens line?” Charles asked rather acidly. Peter glowered at him.

“I sure as hell did…Charles! Nothing anywhere that I could see. Why don’t you go out and freeze your butt off scanning the sky?””

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry.” Charles calmed down somewhat after Peter took him down a notch with the answer. He looked down at Mari again, and then rose and walked toward the open front door. The chill of the night air had begun to roll in already. “One of us has to watch, just in case,” he said, stationing himself just outside on the porch deck. Jerrick had by then wandered up to join us, but he stopped when he got to Charles. They spoke, but in voices too low for me to hear. I returned to question Mari once again, who, I hoped, would shed some further light on her strange new dual personality, if nothing else. She sat silent, glaring at me, and I realized that even if she did try to explain what all had happened, none of us would likely understand it. She was what she was, cruelly connected at the hip, now, with the invaders. Her role in that new world? She probably didn’t have a clue about it anyway. At least the cat was out of the bag finally.

“Tell everyone exactly what happened this afternoon, Mari, please. It’s important. They have a right to know. Tell us what you experienced, hon.” I did something that surprised even me. I knelt down, placed my hands on her cheeks, and then kissed her forehead softly. “You’re still our Mari.”

She heaved a small breath, and a tear formed at the corner of her eye when she looked into my face. “I shouldn’t even have told you. Now I’ve disobeyed them.” She hesitated, and then began to cry openly. Lashawna and Cynthia rushed forward and joined me at her feet.

“It’s okay, Mari, we love you. No matter what happened, you’re still one of us. We won’t abandon you, even if they do. You didn’t betray them, because no matter what they did, you’ll always be Mari. Try to tell us.”

She composed herself with great difficulty. I could see the contempt vanish, and the little girl began again to relate how, when the horrid men surrounded us, a cloud of sorts encircled her mind. The words needed to adequately explain the phenomena simply weren’t in her vocabulary, however. How do you paint a vivid picture when you don’t even have the right brushes or paints? We sat and stood there listening anyway. At various points in her narrative, Peter broke in with questions, which she answered as best—I thought—that she could.

Charles and Jerrick finally wearied of the cold. It was pointless of Charles to stand and peer out at the sky shivering, and so the two of them came back in and shut the door behind them. Wherever the aliens had gone, whatever was on their agenda that night, it was beyond our ability to control.

“Nothing,” Charles said. “It’s as quiet as an abandoned church out there.” He blew breaths of warm air into his hands, hands that finally had nearly healed completely. Munster laughed at the comment.

“Learn anything new?” he asked. We shook our heads, and Cynthia was beginning to say something, when the frantic sound of Jack’s voice exploded from the bedroom end of the hall upstairs.

“Something’s wrong! Help! Something’s happening to Ash!”

We snapped our heads in unison. Peter was the first to bolt to the stairway, followed in a mad rush by the rest of us. Amid the clatter of feet I could hear Mari’s tiny voice behind me. “Oh no, no, no…”

When we arrived at the bedroom door, the reason for Jack’s cries became apparent. Ash lay on the bed under a blanket, his arms thrashing and his body jerking violently.

Everyone except Cynthia entered, banging into one another, gathering in a ragged semi-circle inside the room at the foot of the bed. She ran to the side of the bed nearest the window and lay hold of his arms, trying to hold him down amid the exclamations bursting like firecrackers all around me.

“He’s havin’ a fit!”

“Oh God, a seizure.”

“Someone help her…”

“What do we do?” Peter’s voice was a desperate high pitch. He ran to the opposite side of the bed and tried to help his sister, which only seemed to make Ash’s torso and legs jerk more violently. Lashawna grabbed hold of her brother, burying her head in his chest, whimpering.

“Mari, help him! Do something,” I screamed over the din, but she stood helplessly beside Charles with her mouth open, shaking like a leaf in a storm. “Call them! Call them!”

I knew she would. I know she did, thinking back to that night. Standing there beside Charles, who seemed locked immobile, and rooted at the foot of the bed, she closed her eyes and mouth as if in deep concentration, or a reverent prayer to a pantheon of disinterested gods.

It was bedlam for long minutes as Cynthia and Peter tried in vain to stop the boy from jerking, Jerrick offering useless instructions, the rest of us running aimlessly around like chickens under attack by a fox. But as suddenly as the seizure had grabbed hold of Ash, it stopped. He shuddered violently one last time, and then fell still. Peter reacted by throwing his ear onto Ash’s chest, his hands grasping the little guy’s shoulders.

“What, Peter?” Cynthia blurted. “He’s alive, right? He’s ok now?”

Peter didn’t respond to her question, merely kept his turned head on Ash’s motionless chest for several more seconds. He finally raised himself up and shook his head.

“Nothing,” he bleated.

Charles rushed to the bed, shoved Cynthia aside, and began CPR. Over and over and over he pressed down with his hands, stopped at intervals and blew into Ash’s mouth, urged the boy to come back, until at last he realized the futility of it all.

Ash was dead.

And Unto Dust...

“They’re evil. They caused this,” Lashawna cried openly the following morning.

Peter and Munster had finished digging the grave for Ash beside his playmates and their mother. Of course we all shed more tears. During the long night, clouds had crept in, and now there was a light misting of rain, adding more misery to the new day. I didn’t sleep much after we exited the bedroom. I don’t think any of us did.

“They’re gone now,” I tried to console Lashawna, who stood beside me, Ash in a blanket wrapped around him in front of us on the wet ground. “I hope the cruel aliens sent them all to a burning hell.”

“I’m not talking about the men who beat him! I’m talking about them! If they hadn’t come…”

“Hush, Lashawna,” Charles drew her to his chest and whispered.

The solemn ceremony surprised me on one hand, but brought fresh confusion to me on the other. Munster leaned on the shovel above the fresh opening in the earth as Charles uttered a few words—the usual benedictions—and then he laid the shovel aside and jumped into the pit. He raised his arms to Peter, who without a word gently picked Ash’s body up, and handed it to Munster. With Mrs. Conklin and the other two children a month before, Peter hand laid two ropes out beneath the bodies, and then he and Munster had lowered them in, tossing the ropes atop them. There was something altogether more personal, more…loving about this morning’s laying to rest of dear little Ash. Not a body decomposing, but a real soul we’d grown close to.

The other thing that struck me was Mari’s disintegrated composure throughout the terrible but necessary task. She stood beside me, openly crying. Somehow I’d expected her to maintain an aloofness. A respectful silence once the shock of his death had set in. Something mirroring her new half-alien nature. Obviously none of the new masters of the planet had answered her pleas for help, and maybe that had awakened her, the half, anyway, that seemed lost after they’d resurrected her? Her real humanness overcoming their callously bestowed nature?

We finished the heart-wrenching job, and then went back inside, out of the wet and dispiriting weather to begin again the task of living.

“I’m sick of this!” Cynthia cried in the living room. “I’m sick of hiding. I’m sick of lousy vegetables and canned meat. I’m sick of living in a bubble, not knowing what’s happening in a real, live world. I’m sick of wondering and dreading what those horrible creatures’ next surprise for us will be. I so miss my old life, my friends, my…my…I wish they’d killed me along with the rest of everything and everyone I loved.”

It was Mari who threw an unexpected wrench into the equation. “Maybe it wasn’t them who caused the catastrophe. For all we know they simply arrived after the fact to help the remainder of us to pick up the pieces.”

Peter bristled at her comment. “You’re dreaming, Mari! Two and two still equals four. Who or what else could have decimated civilization?”

She looked up at him from her place on the sofa. The look in her eyes wasn’t anger or disbelief, rather deep sadness after his reply. Silence fell on us until Mari stood, walked to the coat tree beside the door, grabbed her winter jacket, and then began to leave.

“Where are you going?” Munster shot at her back. She stopped, one foot outside, the other on the threshold. She slowly turned her head and answered him.

“Goodbye. Don’t follow me, and stay away from the gift they left.” Then she turned again and walked across the porch into the wet and cold of the morning.

“Stop her,” Charles said.

Mari heard the command. She wheeled around with a cold look in her eyes.

“Don’t even try,” she said directly to Charles.

Peter had jumped to his feet and was halfway to the door when she said this. He came to an abrupt halt, as though some invisible force had yanked his collar. If the look on her face when she’d turned was cold, her words were ice.

“You’ll die out there!” Lashawna pleaded with her, but I knew, Peter and Jack and Cynthia and Charles and Jerrick—each of us knew otherwise. Mari walked down the steps, out onto the drive, and then made her way slowly and purposely toward the gate in the distance, not looking back. Her last words to us before she disappeared that morning were, “You’ll be much better off without me. I’m not one of you.”

Chilling, but I, at least, should have expected a warning and eventual goodbye like that. She was a light bulb that one second was all aglow, and then without warning went dark after someone flicked the switch from far away. No longer one of us. I wept in my heart. Another casualty. My confusion and distrust of the invading hoard turned into a feeling of hatred for them and what they’d done, despite Mari’s words in their defense. She was so young. Why her? It was worse than unfair, it crushed me to see what she’d become at their hands.

Helplessly watching her walk slowly away, I vowed to find a way, if it took me the rest of my life, to destroy them.

 

                                     *

 

The days ahead crept onward sluggishly. Conversations were limited to often-boring, small details of our past lives before the catastrophe, or what we needed in order to survive the next day or week that would have to be scrounged from the nearby farms, and from Marysville. Munster spent a good part of each afternoon away. He and Peter. They didn’t say as much, but I was certain that their forays outside our little compound included searching for any sign of Mari. Cynthia, Jack, Lashawna and I scrubbed and polished the interior of the house until not even a mote of dust could be found. On one of the expeditions into the stench-filled city, the men had hauled a truckload of musical instruments back. Jerrick fell in love with a cello that Charles and Peter had stumbled onto at the symphony hall, and he consumed every available hour practicing. Accompanied by the tinny sound of a CD in the background, he mimicked what he and Charles called masterpieces played on the instrument long ago. Clumsily at first, he eventually began to master the bow work and fingering. Which, not surprisingly, made sense, given that the masters depended mostly on their minds and fingers when they sat with orchestras in the halls. Or so he said.

“What is it you’re playing?” Lashawna asked one afternoon. He didn’t respond for some time, until she asked a second time.

“Dvorak. Cello Concerto. Third movement.” And then he flicked the rewind on the player, moving back to a spot in the concerto that seemed to enthrall him, and began again to practice until every note he played wed itself to the note on the disc. Day in and day out, much to Munster’s displeasure.

“Why doesn’t he play the Fender I grabbed last week?”

“Shut up, Munster,” Cynthia said to him that afternoon. “You have the musical tastes of an alley filled with tomcats.”

“Boring crap,” he muttered, leaving the room. I thought it was beautiful in its sad and melancholy way. Even Jack with her simpler tastes would sit for hours listening quietly, peacefully.

We needed that. Peace of mind. A diversion from the pain of losing Ash and Mari. Of being caught in a whirlpool of aloneness.

True to his word, or in Munster’s case, his threat, Charles made us gather each morning in the study after breakfast—oh how I missed the simple things, like bacon and eggs and toast. We sat for hours as he instructed us as best he could in algebra, geometry, science; history and literature in particular. Peter and Cynthia were attentive, but aside from the rudimentary study of science, Munster was most often elsewhere. I could hear him snoring softly sometimes, until Cynthia tired of listening to him, and woke him with an elbow in his ribs one morning.

“Do you intend to stay stupid your entire life?”

“I’m dreaming of you and me,” he poked back at her.

“Slob. That’ll be as far as you’ll ever get.”

During those days I often wondered at our future together. Would we eventually be struck by Cupid’s arrow? Certainly as time passed that would be inevitable, it seemed to me. We were, after all, human. Despite their present antipathy toward one another, the numerous and various barbs they cast, was it inconceivable that as both matured, the wall between them would crumble? Or would Munster begin to notice Lashawna? Or, God forbid, me. What of Peter, or maybe quiet and introspective Jerrick? Who would catch their eye? Charles…he was father to all of us, yet…these were strange and different times. I mentally paired each of us up. Some day, maybe far off, there would be children. If we survived. I thought about this a lot, and I ventured the guess that I wasn’t the only one who did.

In the quiet of the months that rolled by I began to listen closely to every word spoken, every burst of laughter, notice every movement of his body, every lifting of an eyebrow, every smile. Peter.

Sometimes late at night when the others had gone to bed, or sat engaged in conversation in the kitchen or living room, oblivious of our disappearance, I would find myself beside him outside. Quite often at the telescope searching for the ship just above the atmosphere, or just marveling at the stars. More often walking together through the orchard, talking about the past, the present, or…the future. Soon enough he began to search for my hand, and I gave it to him with a rush of excitement racing through me. For hour after hour we merely walked and talked in this way. I could see him in a way that I couldn’t see Munster or Jerrick, and certainly not Charles, twice any of our ages. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like with him. That conversation finally came up. The possibility of us. But Peter knew that the time wasn’t yet right, and despite a growing and overwhelming desire otherwise on my part, I had to agree. If nothing else, we shared a knowledge that time was on our side. On everyone’s side, save Charles’.

“Peter, there must be others like us out there, don’t you think? I mean, those brutes who appeared months ago. They survived. Surely others did, too,” I said to him one night as we sat beneath a tree deep inside the orchard, the moon shining in a clear, deep azure sky above us.

“I’m positive of it,” he answered in his beautiful, soft voice.

“We have to find them, don’t you think?”

“Why?”

“Because…because…I don’t know. Because they’re there, or might be, I suppose.”

He looked into my face questioningly. “We have all that we need right now. Right here. You and I…”

I felt as though my words betrayed us. I didn’t mean what he thought I did, though. Just that, well, if others were out there, wouldn’t we all want to know?

“I’m sorry. Honestly, I do have all that I need. You’re right. Who cares?”

 

I had fallen in love with him.

Life had taken on real meaning again.

Even so…

 

Change of Focus

 "It's time to plant," Charles announced one morning in March after class.

I thought it odd that Munster had stayed awake during the morning lessons and discussions lately, but he had. More astonishing was the way he agreed with his nemesis after she answered one of Charles’ questions, or dissed one of his comments.

“I think you’re right, Cyn. Now that I think of it. There weren’t no way wars ever solved our problems.”

“There was no way,” she’d berated his language skills. Softer, though, than what she’d usually throw in his face. I noticed the change occuring as spring set in. In fact, beyond the lightening of tension between them, she even joined him once or twice when he had had enough of the farm, and so sped off in his beloved sports car. I said nothing about his seeming change of character—such as it was—or the burial of the hatchet between them to anyone except Peter.

“Do you think he, you know, likes her?”

“Why wouldn’t he? She’s smart, unlike him, and she’s pretty. Maybe he simply wants to let her smack him around, and by agreeing with her, thinks that will make her hate him even more. Men are funny creatures.”

“You agree with me a lot.”

“That’s different.”

I couldn’t see how.

“She goes off with him in the Ferrari.”

“She likes the sun and the wind in her face.”

“I think you’re blinder than Jerrick.”

Peter chuckled, and then kissed me.

“Probably so.”

“Let’s follow them the next time they leave together.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I am. They go somewhere. What do they do when they’re away? Just drive up and down the highway?”

“Are you suggesting what I think you are?”

I was, but I lied. “I think they’re searching for others.” That was a conveniently safe answer.

“Please.”

Peter sighed as we walked that morning toward the garage filled with the seeds and fertilizer that would provide needed nourishment in the future. Ahead of us, Munster stayed a foot or two behind Cynthia, but there he was, sort of beside her. She was talking to Charles about something. He listened politely as they went along—his arm draped over Lashawna’s small shoulder in a most peculiar manner.

Maybe I just hadn’t noticed it before; maybe it was because the days were growing longer, warmer, and altogether more pleasant, and birds had returned from wherever their exodus had taken them last winter. Maybe it was because of the fact that we neither saw nor heard anything lately from the invaders. Maybe the change had simply needed time, a rest, and a moment of breath before it turned around and struck us? But there it was all around me, whatever the reason or reasons. I tightened my hold on Peter’s hand.

First inside the garage, Charles inconspicuously guided Lashawna to the hoes and rakes and shovels. Just beyond the hand tools, behind the pickup truck, stood the gleaming, small tractor Peter had put-putted all the way back from town a month ago. Nearby, the accessories that would turn it into a plow, harrow, scoop, and a myriad of other earth-tending tools that would take it from toy to real farm servant status.

“Do you think you can drive it, ‘Shawna?” he asked her with a smile larger than any I’d seen on his face since his arrival. She rubbed her fingers over the green cowl covering the engine, and beamed back at him.

“I think so.”

“Hop up onto the seat, then. I’ll help you get it out.”

We all watched, a little taken aback at the two of them. It should have been Peter or Munster that Charles directed onto the machine after all. Munster sidled closer to Cynthia. I heard him chuckle, noticed, too, that she leaned into him afterward and whispered something that made him burst out laughing.

Under Charles’ guidance, Lashawna started the engine, and then slowly began to back the tractor out, narrowly missing the fender of the truck, laughing. Charles leapt onto the seat, throwing his arms over her shoulders onto the steering wheel, cradling her back with his chest. Even from where I stood at Peter’s side, I could almost hear his heartbeat rising; feel it hammer into her small back. I lifted my eyebrows and peered up into Peter’s face as they slowly passed by. He grinned.

Good God, she’s not even my age yet!

The old world and all its conventions were long gone. There was no denying that. Still…maybe just a super-charged fatherly act of tenderness? Let me help you, daughter. Something told me that that was way not the case.

They putted down the gravel walkway beside the house, Lashawna laughing; Charles directing her, all aglow, making certain his hold on her was firm. Far beyond a simple fatherly attention.

“Well, well, well,” Cynthia remarked. “What have we here?”

“What’s going on?” Jerrick asked.

“Oh, nothing,” she replied. Of course Jerrick couldn’t possibly see the grin on her face.

Jack, who’d been standing close to Cynthia exclaimed with a giggle, “He’s HUGGING her! He’s going to kiss her!”

“WHAT?”

“Come on, Munster…I hate that name. I’m going to call you by your Christian name from now on. Come on, help me drag one of these bags of fertilizer out, Francis,” Cynthia said as Jerrick stammered and began to carefully leave the garage.

Francis Munster Gardella didn’t object. Together they grabbed hold of one of the bags and tugged it out. Good Lord.

“Seed?” Peter said to me, pointing to the neat stack of bags behind the fertilizer.

“I think so,” I replied with a little laugh. Seed indeed.

 

That evening there was singing and laughter inside the house, every light in every room glowing brightly, the generator outside struggling to keep up with the electrical demands put on it. We were exhausted and covered with soil, but there was a lightness brighter than all of the fixtures put together. Jerrick sat on the sofa next to Lashawna, lecturing on the mundane aspects of farm work, but she hardly noticed his presence. Charles sat on the other side of her, smudges of dirt on his cheeks and forehead. Very close to her. But he diplomatically kept his hands in his lap in the presence of the rest of us who could clearly see them. At times he commented back at Jerrick, and each of those times Lashawna shot a glance up at him, shaking her head. Smiling like the cat that got the canary. If Charles was now aware that he was being watched, Lashawna seemed oblivious of our presence.

Peter had laid several logs inside the fireplace shortly into the evening, and soon we had a warm fire crackling that added to the fires at work in the rest of us. I left the small spectacle in front of the sofa, and sat on the thick rug in front of the fireplace after a while. I watched the flames dance in red-orange and yellow, and thought back months and months to the world before its sudden end. I thought of Mom and Daddy, a sharp return of pain stabbing at my heart, but the remembrance quickly flew away. I thought of Ash. I flashed to Mari, somewhere out there all by herself…or was she up there in one of those ships, content?

Peter joined me on the rug. He put his arm around me, and I snuggled closer to him. Neither of us spoke as we sat gazing into the fire, and of course by that time, neither of us cared what anyone else thought.

The winds had shifted suddenly, taking all of us except Jerrick and Jack into new and unexpected universes.

 

Leaving Eden

 It became all too apparent, at least to me, that something was out of kilter. Wasn't adding up to the sum I'd calculated, anyway. I had—we all had misjudged Charles.

 

Standing just out of sight at corners, I watched them day in and day out for several weeks, waiting for the worst to happen—that they would disappear together, but in fact their time during the day was spent nurturing the half acre garden we’d planted, in plain view. At night he would read to her, and sometimes, if he was around and inclined to listen, Jerrick as well, sitting on the sofa in the living room after dinner. Peter, Cynthia, Munster, and Jack were elsewhere in those most favorable moments of my spying.

It was a clear, cool evening. Charles was sitting beside Lashawna near the fireplace. How romantic, I thought, standing out of sight, but not entirely out of earshot. The rest were outside, gazing into the telescope, except Jerrick. He was in the next room practicing. I could hear snippets of Charles’ and Lashawna’s subdued conversation in the seconds and half-seconds when the bow hesitated on the strings of the cello, or stopped entirely. I became frustrated after some time of straining to hear over Jerrick’s playing, and finally snuck away and entered the music room.

I don’t know how he did it, but he was aware of my entrance the moment I stepped in, even over the notes that rose from the instrument. He continued to work the bow and his long, delicate fingers, but he turned his head toward me the second I entered. I padded to his side and whispered into his ear.

“Shh.”

At last he stopped playing and let the hand holding the bow sink to his side.

“What?” Very low.

“Stop practicing, but turn the CD player on with the volume turned down.”

“Why?”

I hadn’t considered what reason I’d give him, even that he’d ask why I wanted him to stop. I had never been very good at chess. I wracked my brain quickly, and as quickly decided to tell him the truth.

“Something is going on in front of the fireplace. I can’t hear what it is over your playing.”

“Between…?” He must have rightly sensed that that something involved his sister. In the quiet he strained an ear in their direction. “Who is it?”

“Charles…and Lashawna. I…I don’t know what’s been developing between them. I mean, I’m not certain yet, but they’re sitting there talking. I just want to find out what it is. You know, eavesdrop.” I whispered that last word more loudly.

For a moment Jerrick seemed confused, his brow knitting, and his mouth curling.

“Shawna is only fourteen!”

“Hush. Just start the CD player and wait here. I’ll let you know when I come back.”

He set the cello and bow aside, reached over and pushed the start button on the player, and then he lowered the volume. I turned and crept back to the living room. Outside I could hear Munster laughing. Charles had had his arm around Lashawna when I first began my mission that night, but now he sat slightly farther away from her as she spoke, looking straight down at his fingers. I eased forward unobserved behind the sofa until I was within a few feet of them. A second later I felt Jerrick’s shoulder touch mine.

There was nothing to be done about his presence by then. I should have been more emphatic back in the music room. Don't follow! Little good the command would have done, though.

The music from the player, and the merrymaking outside, did their work at any rate. Neither Charles nor Shawna noticed our presence so close to them. I watched and listened.

“But it isn’t out of the question, is it?” she asked Charles. There was a sadness in her voice. Charles looked away as though unable to answer, fiddling nervously with his fingers. Whatever she thought wasn’t out of the question, he must have thought otherwise. The fire crackled. Peter’s voice grew louder for an instant, and then died away. Charles finally answered Lashawna’s question, and I nearly collapsed.

Stupid, stupid me. Stupid all of us.

“It is out of the question, Shawna. How could I have…you misunderstood me.” He finally turned his head to her, and although I couldn’t see her face, I sensed the crashing of her spirit. “You’re a lovely, beautiful girl, and I’ve grown to love you, perhaps more than I do Amelia, Cyn, and little Jack, even, but not in the way you imagine. I care deeply for you. For your future, but…”

“What future?” she whimpered.

“Oh Shawna, I can’t. Not with a child, not with anyone right now. I have work to do here.”

“I’m not a child.”

“But you are.”

“Who then? Cynthia? Amelia?”

I cringed.

“No one. Not now.” He placed his hands that had once been burned and bandaged onto her quivering shoulders. “Look…”

“Don’t touch me!” At that, Lashawna jerked away from him, rose in a burst of sobbing, and rushed out of the room, upstairs.

I quickly forced Jerrick down lower, ducked my head, and waited until Charles left after some of the longest moments of my life. Probably his as well.

Dear, dear Charles. Something had to be done, both for him and for grieving Lashawna. Thinking back, I’d misjudged Charles, and now, with another spate of misplaced logic, I began to formulate a plan that would probably screw up their lives even more.

Jerrick and I lay there until all that could be heard was the clatter of voices outside, and then I rose to my knees. “Let’s get out of here. Don’t say a word to anyone. They’ll figure it out in time without our help.”

I helped Jerrick stand, but that was unnecessary. He made his way to the stairs, and his sister up in her room. I left the house to join Peter, burning to tell him what we’d heard, but I decided without a second thought to wait until I unveiled the plan forming in my head. First thing in the morning.

 

“Yes, you and I. Get your jacket, I’ll pack us some food.”

“What will you tell them?”

“That we’re leaving for a while to find others like us, if they ask. That’s all. Load up two sleeping bags, too. This might take some time.”

Ever the cautious one, Peter asked me, “What if we stumble onto more of the kind that attacked you?”

“I’m bringing one of the guns. Hurry up, now. I’ll meet you at the truck.”

I’d had to tell him. Maybe because I just couldn’t hold it in. That was part of it, surely, but whatever the reason, or reasons, I trusted him not to despise me for eavesdropping on business that didn’t really concern me. I wondered who might be spying on us? I didn’t care.

Ten minutes later, after I’d raided the supplies in the cellar, I placed them behind the passenger seat, and then went to the garage where the shattered remnants of the gun cabinet lay. I figured one of the rifles wouldn’t be best. The double-barrel shotgun would be, though. There was a fifty-fifty chance that if we met others alive, they wouldn’t have tea on their minds. I grabbed the gun and a box of shells and turned to leave.

“Whassup?”

It was Munster, standing in the doorway grinning over at me. I turned in surprise.

“Peter and I are going away for a day or two. I hope we don’t need this,” I answered holding up the shotgun.

“Going where? For what reason?”

“None of your business.” I almost felt bad for putting it that way.

“Lemme’ go with ya’.”

“No. Stay here with the rest of them, or take Cyn for a wild ride if you want. We’re going alone.” With that I walked to the doorway, brushing his chest with my shoulder. He followed me outside, continuing to throw questions at me. Peter was at the truck, standing there with the door open.

“Just-stay-here, Munster Gardella. We’ll be back. Go find Cyn or something. This doesn’t concern you.”

Right as the words left my mouth, and Munster stopped as if I’d punched him in the nose, Charles and Cynthia and Jack appeared on the porch. Cynthia bounded down the steps and came to a halt at Munster’s side.

“What’s going on?” she asked him.

“I ain’t thinkin’ they’re off to find pheasants.” His answer was laced with humorous affection. What a change in those two.

Cynthia ran to me, just as I was placing the box of shotgun shells on the floorboard, trying to get out of there before another flurry of questions slowed us down.

“What are you two doing?”

“Just going away for a while.” I stuffed the gun behind the seat, and then surprised myself. I turned to her, took hold of her cheeks, and kissed them.

“We’ll be fine. We’ll be back. Peter and I need to do something. The gun’s just for protection. Don’t worry.”

I turned and climbed into the passenger seat, and pulled the door closed.

“Peter?” Cynthia said, peering through the open window, across at her brother.

“It’s okay. Just stay here and hold down the fort until we get back. Love ya’, sis.”

“But…?”

Of course Charles had by then joined her, starting up with his battery of questions. Francis quickly crossed the drive and latched onto Cyn’s hand. Peter started the engine, and without another word of explanation, we made our way down the gravel drive toward the gates, leaving Munster to fill them in with his deplorable English.

San Diego de Alcala

 

It was a shot in the dark. I wanted to head north toward Los Angeles, but Peter was against that. Too many bodies. Too many crashed and stalled cars and trucks clogging the freeways. Besides, he admitted to me, he never liked Los Angeles for reasons he couldn’t really put his finger on.

“Two million or so rats in a decayed cage.”

“There are lots of other cities in between,” I said.

“Don’t care much for them, either.”

“If we’re looking for people who might have survived, our odds of finding them increase with size.”

“San Diego is south, and it’s big. Prettier, too.”

"Whatever."

We had dodged Marysville, picking up the west bound freeway a little north and east of the city that would take us to the major north-south 5 freeway. The air was clear, with the sun well behind us, warming up the morning, throwing heat down in an invisible blanket that would further speed up the decomposition of the millions of the unfortunates caught in the burst of light at Christmas. By now the incredible stench had dissipated, bodily bacteria and vermin having done a gruesome amount of work. Bodies lay where they had fallen. Corpses in discolored holiday clothes, faces and hands little more than leather.

I had only been away from the farm on two occasions, even so the magnitude of horror still struck me as hard as it did on those trips away from the serenity of the farm. I had yet to travel on one of the several freeways coursing across the landscape like huge arteries. It shocked me, the number of vehicles trapped forever in tangled masses of metal. Semi-trucks jackknifed, turned on their sides in unnatural directions when the drivers died. Entire lanes all but impassable amid the wrecks. Peter picked his way through them. Around them, sometimes—more often than not—at a crawl.

From my place at the window I saw the engine of an airliner that had crashed to the earth lying a hundred feet away from the twisted and broken remains of the rest of the wing and airframe, a graveyard of bodies scattered nearby the blackened fuselage, face up, face down, contorted. Burned. None of them had noticed the reception that had greeted them that fateful afternoon when the plane struck the earth. I prayed.

We passed community after community slowly, heading south, until we got through San Clemente where the number of stalled and wrecked vehicles thinned. Peter accelerated through the still-virgin landscape north of the Marine base, the ocean on our right serene and majestic, the same as it had been before our European ancestors began arriving centuries before.

“I never thought of it, Peter. There must have been hundreds or thousands of submarines! Do you think the men and women in them could have survived?” I said, turning to him.

He glanced over at me quickly, then suddenly slowed as we came to the crest of a hill without answering. I turned my head. Two hundred feet ahead of us another semi truck had tumbled onto its side and straddled the lanes, blocking our advance as effectively as a military barricade.

“Crap!"

“Now what?”

We stopped fifty feet ahead of the stricken semi and climbed out. Two hundred feet away, the beautiful sound of waves crashing onto the shore was the only sound. There was something so eternal and peaceful about it, continual and clock-like in this wrecked world. An offshore breeze ruffled my hair, and carried the fragrant odor of wildflowers on its way across the freeway to the mighty Pacific.

The cab, laying on its side, was no more than two feet from the sturdy median fence. At the opposite end, the rear of the trailer rested perhaps ten feet from the edge of the shoulder, but one door lay open on the pavement like a ramp. We didn’t bother with the cab—whoever was inside…I didn’t want to see his remains. Together we walked to the rear where we stood for a second or two looking.

Inside, boxes with Sanyo printed in bold letters were scattered in disarray. Another snapshot. Never to change until time turned them to dust years in the future.

“Is our TV a Sanyo?” I asked Peter jokingly.

“Samsung I think. Jesus, how do we get around this?”

Farther down the endless ribbon of highway, many other cars and a few trucks stood motionless, huge empty spaces separating them. In the distance I could see the turbine domes of the decommissioned San Onofre nuclear power plant, and wondered about radiation. Had the men in charge cleansed the cores before the aliens arrived to shut all humanity down? Were we already suffering from radiation sickness and didn’t even realize it? Too late to wonder, we’d find out quickly enough now.

“We could leave our faithful old truck here…go down there and take one of those,” I said pointing. I saw his eyes shift south.

“Or we could try to close this door. I don’t relish the thought of packing all our stuff half a mile away. What do you say?”

I shifted my eyes down at the ramp/door. It looked heavy. We were traveling light, with only the gun, ammunition, and a backpack apiece. A first-aid kit. No problem to…Peter had loaded some water, an extra five-gallon can of gas, sleeping bags while I’d been gathering up the weapon. Not exactly traveling light. He eyed me.

“Well?”

“Okay, it’s worth a try.”

I got on one side of the door’s end, Peter got on the other.

 

Ten minutes later we were off again. As we passed the dead power plant, I gazed over at it one last time. It was too bad that some brilliant nuclear scientist or engineer hadn’t devised a leak detector with a peculiar, strong smell like someone had done for natural gas, or a bright flashing pulse of light that warned of radiation, and ran on huge batteries. Could the nasty visitors from galaxies far away have sealed the core for our benefit, maybe? Useless thinking. We drove on.

Silence surrounded us. Dead quiet. No movement anywhere as we approached the city, at least from our vantage point on the freeway, except for the occasional startled takeoff of birds. Mile after silent mile.

“Why birds, and not dogs and cats and other animals?” I asked Peter when we had gotten deep into the outskirts of the city.

“Who knows?” he said. Peter kept his eyes forward, and slowed to maneuver around the growing clog of vehicles. “It’s so fucking weird, isn’t it? Marysville and the coastal towns surrounding it are one thing, but this…”

Yes, this. Mass death. Tens of thousands of victims back home, but here…How big was San Diego? Two million people? A million and a half? And here we were, entering the open graveyard. Over the past months the thought of something like this had been abstract, existing only in imagined images. Now it took on the mantle of reality, and the scope of destruction was truly shocking. Playing the odds, how many, if any, survivors might there be? I couldn’t imagine that if a dozen or more had been spared back home, how many beyond that number would there be in a huge city of this size? Further, the thought struck me—and not for the first time—how many would be scared, confused, in despair, or men and women descended into savagery?

Charles and Lashawna. That was why I'd decided to venture out in search of living souls. To find suitable companions for them. Maybe that was idiotic of me.

But here we were.

In the distance the spires of high rise buildings began to emerge. A cluster of office towers and hotels. Peter saw them.

“Shall we start there? Where would you go if you were the only one left?”

“Depends on where I was when it happened. We could spend eternity scouring all the neighborhoods. Yes, downtown is as good as anyplace else.”

I remember vividly. Peter turned to me and smiled. “Not such a bad idea.”

We exited the freeway, drove carefully past the first of the buildings for several long blocks, and then stopped. To our right, a huge parking lot with its patchwork of abandoned cars buffered the view of the harbor, yet the conning tower of the USS Midway loomed high into the sky just beyond it. On our right, the entrance to a grand hotel. We sat for a moment until Peter finally opened the door and stepped out of the truck.

"This one, I guess."

Why not?

Dead doormen, a few unlucky visitors nearby them at the entrance. The absence of the horrid odor I smelled when we’d first driven into Marysville months ago. Thank God. Whoever they’d once been, these victims were now barely recognizable as flesh and bone, covered by their discolored clothing.

I grabbed the gun anyway, and joined Peter, veering wide around a woman and what must have been her husband once upon a happier time. The doorman close by, lying half-atop the luggage they’d brought. Vacation cut short. Afternoon duties ended abruptly. We entered the lobby through the revolving door, the squishing sound of its rubber seals on the cylindrical metal framework breaking the silence, alerting the ghosts and cockroaches of our presence. Every step we took echoed eerily back at us, reminding me of Saint Andrew’s Cathedral in miniature. I turned my head left and right and skyward, taking in the once-magnificence of the place in quick glances. A few bodies on one of the lounge sofas off to the right near the dusty windows, tumbled over against one another. A small dog on a leash beneath them on the cold marble floor lying on its side. A magazine dropped. I imagined that moment in December, looking at them. The flash of light searing through the windows. She reacting in pain and surprise. A bolt of lightening racing down the leash frying the dog. Did it yelp as it died?

We stopped at the reception desk. I didn’t need to glance over the top. No doubt a body or two or three lay on the floor on the other side, not smiling or frowning. Not anything. Just dead.

“Should we sign in?” Peter joked, and his words echoed almost thunderously, even though he’d spoken softly.

“I think we should find the dining room, or the kitchen. If I’d survived…” I said, my comment trailing off.

“Restroom first,” he said. “I have to pee.”

So did I. “Okay, meet you back here in five minutes. If you see anything…”

“I know, scream bloody murder.”

“Or hallelujah,” I said.

I pushed the door of the Ladies Room inward, halting for a second, momentarily confused by the darkness. Black rooms always frightened me, this one no less than any other. I used the butt of the shotgun to smash the door closer, banging on it half a dozen times before it clattered free of its mooring. It sounded like World War III, and before I’d gotten two steps in, Peter came bursting around the corner.

“You okay?” Echo, echo.

“I couldn’t see.”

“Oh.” He stayed planted just inside, a few feet behind me as I walked to each stall, pushing the doors open. Each was empty, thank goodness, or bad fortune. It was Alien, wasn’t it? The little girl hiding in terror in an air duct? The sole survivor. Hiding this time in one of the stalls.

Not today.

I glanced over my shoulder at the dim image of Peter standing behind me. “You can go now. I’m fine.”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll stay. I can use one of these stalls down here.”

I wondered if he was joking.

“Peter! That’s gross! Go use the Men’s.” But he wasn’t joking, he was already in the first stall. I laid the shotgun against the modesty panel, closed the door, and quickly grabbed a handful of tissue and stuffed it in my ears. Funny. A simple, universal biological necessity clouded by convention.

Peter was long gone when I finished. I left to join him back in the lobby. Dining room first, and then off to the kitchen.

 

Hello?

 

I didn’t mention my embarrassment, but Peter was grinning when I rounded the corner.

“You look ten pounds lighter.”

“Ha ha. Just remember who’s holding the shotgun. Don’t get any funny ideas. Now, where’s the dining room?”

Here we were in an elegant hotel, looking for signs of life. A one-in-a-million shot at finding anyone, even if we searched every room on every floor—every door locked anyway. The idea was absurd, it hit me as I followed him through the lobby, unless we could access the public address system for the hotel and shout out, “Anyone home?” Dead system, out of the question. We might as well try building a rocket ship.

A modern hotel. An emergency city power failure. Sort of what happened…could this place have a generator the size of my old house in case of such an emergency? Even if it did, we’d still have to figure out how to start it up. It probably started on its own after the calamity anyway, and ran out of fuel long ago. Scratch that idea.

We wandered through the dining room—a sterile looking place if you discounted the presence of dead bodies and dried up food on the tables. Into a corridor leading to the kitchen.

I’m some kid or waiter or chef or wandering soul. Would I hang out here? Maybe, at least in the short term. After I’d raided the food lockers, would I find a room that I could get into to sleep off the meal of canned beans and fruit cocktail, or would I wander back out onto the street to search for some kindred spirit elsewhere? I flew in from Chicago or New York; landed just before the rest of the airliners came crashing to the earth in balls of flame. Somehow I found this place, absolutely confused and in despair. How long would I stay? Would I? Probably not. But then, where would I go?

Snake eyes. Seven-eleven. Give us a decent shot at finding the little girl in that air duct.

The massive kitchen was pretty much like the rest of the hotel; dark, with a dank odor that struck me the second Peter shoved the door inward. I don’t like darkness. Peter reached for a trash container just inside and shoved it against the open door, and then stepped farther in. I followed.

At first, the sound of skittering tiny claws on the concrete floor. Then a chorus of high-pitched screeches. Movement in the near darkness emanating from a spot on the floor ten feet in. Peter struck a match.

COCKROACHES! RATS! At our appearance the remainder scattered in every direction, a dozen of the rats abandoning the piles of bones they’d picked clean over the months, and were now gnawing on.

Why didn’t you kill THEM, invaders!

Instinctively, I raised the gun and pulled the trigger, aiming badly, but well enough to blow the carcass of some worker farther into kingdom come, along with the few creatures on it that hadn’t scurried away when we came in. The noise was deafening, and the force of the blast sent me flying backward onto my back.

The whole scene there was beyond disgusting, and the second I gained my senses, and Peter had rushed back to my side, I screamed.

“Get me out of here!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m with you there! Get up. Give me your hand.”

He helped me to my feet, and we both darted out.

“Jesus,” I wailed, “I’m going to throw up!”

“Okay, okay. Give me the gun. God, you missed me by an inch! Pull it together, Amelia. Try to shake it off. We’re alive…they were just rats. We’re fine. Settle down.”

I let him pull the shotgun from my shaking hands, and then stumbled to a chair far away from any of the other grisly-looking bodies. Peter returned to the kitchen entrance and kicked the trashcan. The double acting door swung closed. He retraced his steps to my side.

“I hate this place, Peter. It’s cold and sterile, and if I’d been here when it happened, the first thing I’d have done would be to leave! Oh God, the rats!”

“Maybe you would have. On the other hand, at least here you would have had a room to go back to.”

“And how would I have gotten in? Blow the lock open with that gun? God, my shoulder aches!”

He scrunched his eyes and mouth in agreement. “Well, we’re here, and every other hotel or bar or restaurant will probably be the same.

“I’m hungry. Did you pack anything, or do I have to go back into the kitchen and find something canned? We’ll eat first, and then decide whether to leave, or search the floors one by one.”

“Just a bag of chips and some candy bars. I’m sorry. Don’t go back in there, we can eat the chips.”

“Chips aren’t food.” He stopped. “I’m going back in to find something that’ll fill our stomachs with nutrition. Wait here…and don’t shoot when I come back out.,” he said, laying the weapon against my thigh.

“Hurry. I don’t like being alone in this graveyard.”

He leaned over, placed his hands on my cheeks, and kissed me softly.

“I’ll be right back.” With that, he dashed out to the lobby, returning a few seconds later with a pen light, smiling. “Should have thought of finding this when we first came in.” He continued on without hesitation, back into the kitchen and the rats and cockroaches and decayed bodies, shoving the trashcan back into place as he entered.

I cringed watching his figure disappear, the feeble light bouncing left and right with each of his footsteps. I glanced around at the nothingness, regretting my Cupid idea once more. Maybe Charles didn’t want a mate. At least with Lashawna he’d indicated that. Certainly he’d never cast his eyes longingly at Cynthia. Or me. And as for Lashawna; just a serious case of puppylove?

I wondered what was going on back at the farm right then? Were Cyn and Charles and Munster weeding the garden, talking about Peter and I off on a dangerous adventure, all alone? Wondering what we were doing together? Conjecturing about our coming night together? Could Munster and Cynthia, maybe, have followed in his flashy sportscar, far enough behind so that we wouldn’t spot them tagging along? Or maybe they'd left after we did, smiling and laughing, and heading north?

I gazed out the long bank of windows at the gray-blue sky. What were the aliens up to? Had they seen us leave the farm? Did they care, even? They were out there somewhere, and Mari was with them. Perhaps. Or dead somewhere.

Mom and Daddy. The Horvats. Mrs. Ryan, my math teacher. Again and again images of all of them smiling and talking in the good days. The gone days.

Back to Lashawna. My head spun.

Hurry, Peter.

Five minutes that seemed like five hours passed. I trained my ears toward the opening, thoughts of Peter collapsed on the floor somewhere deep inside the room, bleeding. Ambushed by men like the ones Mari had blown away. But no, the shotgun blast would have scared them out of their wits. If anyone had been in that kitchen—so, so unlikely—they would have hightailed it out the back door in the confused seconds when we rocketed out the front.

Too long.

I rose and began to creep toward the open door, the gun raised, my finger pressing lightly on the trigger.

Easy, easy. Don’t freak and…

At the threshold, the comforting bounce of light, the absence of shouting or screaming announced the return of Peter. A few seconds later the outline of his body appeared, and then his face with the look of resignation and defeat.

“Empty. Nothing at all in the larders except a can of sauerkraut they must have missed. Or him, or her.”

“Larders? Like in plural?”

“Yes. Like in two. Perishables from the looks of the first one—refrigerated long ago. No rats inside, by the way. It was sealed tight as a drum. The other next door to it,” he said pointing back, “was for the imperishables and canned foods. Huge! The guests must have been served like kings and queens.”

“So some one or ones survived, like us,” I mused out loud.

“Looks that way, or else the rats packed it all out.”

“With a can opener or two.” I looked behind Peter as I said that. A tiny squeal and the reappearance of one of the disgusting rodents. Another right behind it, searching for what remained of the carcass.

“Let’s get out of here. This whole hotel,” I said turning away from the revolting scene behind him. I heard Peter’s footsteps behind me.

“Wait a second, Amelia. Someone raided the pantry here. Maybe whoever it was is still in the building. We should at least check the floors for…”

For what? A hundred more dead bodies, and a thousand locked rooms with ocean views?

“Maybe go to the roof,” he added after a pause.

I walked hurriedly to the front doors, not letting my eyes dwell on the dead lying around us, and there I stopped, considering his plan of action. I looked upward, past the open mezzanine to the industrial ceiling of stark silver, and then turned to Peter.

“Okay. We’re here. Lead the way.”

In truth, Peter was right, I knew. If we left this hotel and went to another, the scene would be the same. Just different dead bodies in different putrid clothes, and hoards of rats and cockroaches wherever foodstuffs had been kept. We’d investigate every floor, go to the roof if we could get there, and later find something unspoiled somewhere to eat. Our odds of finding someone alive were slim; worse, finding a woman closer to Charles’ age. A younger boy for Lashawna. Both being at least half-sane. I followed Peter in silence to the staircase and the floors above us.

Each floor was a carbon copy of the one beneath it, except for the numbers and positions of the fallen. Our luck showed its face on the last one, though.

We left the staircase and pulled the heavy door open, entering the long hallway with its brightly colored carpet. Midway down we spotted what we hadn’t expected to find—a maid’s cart filled with linens stacked neatly on the top, and cleaning supplies beneath it on the bottom shelf. It stood halfway inside the room, the door blocked from closing because of it. I’d given Peter the gun down on the main floor, and he raised it just slightly as we quietly made our way to the room. As we neared it I caught sight of a white-shoed foot, the remains of a young woman’s body attached to it lying face down inside. Certainly no one could be in the room, unless months ago they’d worn a gas mask. But the open door was a welcome break. We entered cautiously anyway.

“It’s abandoned,” I whispered. Why did I whisper? We were searching for a survivor. Obviously there wouldn’t be one there, living with a rotted corpse as a door stop, but against all odds, if there were, wouldn’t we want to announce our presence, using a normal tone of voice?

The curtains were drawn closed at the far end of the suite. Peter walked quickly across the room and opened them, letting a burst of welcome light from the afternoon sun flood in. A TV on the wall to the left. Beneath it a writing desk, and beside it a mini-refrigerator with the door open. The king-size bed was unmade. Luggage and a few articles of clothing hanging inside the tiny closet on our right.

Peter peered left and right as he returned to my side, the shotgun lowered, now. He put a finger to his lips, raising an eyebrow, and then he pointed to the bathroom door. I took a step backward, my right foot scraping the skull of the maid as I did. My stomach turned a somersault.

He carefully turned the knob and pushed the door inward a little, and then lifted the gun as he used a foot to push it fully open. He stood immobile for a few seconds, and then cautiously entered, using the barrel of the gun to whisk the shower curtain along the chrome bar holding it.

“Nothing,” he said, and then he turned to me. “Hopeless.” He sighed and set the gun aside in the narrow space next to the maid’s cart.

“Go check the frig. Maybe…”

It was nearly imperceptible, the noise that overlapped his voice. A tiny millisecond of a clunk from somewhere out in the hall. A shoe, perhaps, that met a wall? Something dropped? I started, my eyes popping open in surprise. Peter reacted immediately, grabbing the gun and rushing back out into the hallway. He raised it, pointing toward the inland-facing end of the corridor.

“Hello? Anyone here?”

Victims and Monsters

No one answered. Would you?

It couldn’t have been a wayward rat; the noise wasn’t anything like clawing. Whatever caused the sound walked upright, I hoped. Whatever, or whoever, made the nearly imperceptible noise had most certainly, it semed reasonable to me, come to this floor several, or a hundred times, and most importantly was hiding from the intruders right now.

We had the gun. What might him or her or them possess, and before Peter could react—would that person leap out of a room and kill him? And then kill me?

“Come out,” Peter called into the emptiness in front of us. “We won’t hurt you. We’re just looking for survivors. Show yourself.”

Neither of us had noticed it when we’d walked down the hall a few moments ago. The last room near the window. A brick sat against the cracked door, then carelessly shoved outward to allow the door to close, and the lock engage, and the resulting noise that followed the action when Peter and I were inside the room across the hall. Whoever was inside that room was probably scared to death, and I wondered again if that person had a gun. A child? A group of children holed up in the hotel room, frightened by the slightest noise? Armed and ready to shoot anyone over ten that came to…or just one soul wanting to be left alone for the rest of their life?

I eased past Peter, walked to the room, and then knocked.

“Please open the door. We won’t harm you, I promise.”

Trust could get you killed in this new world order, but I prayed that my suspicions were correct. Someone was hiding, and that someone was merely frightened, and that whoever it was would finally break down and show themself. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Peter shaking his head slowly, motioning with the raised gun to get out of the way. Instead, I knocked softly on the door once again. A few seconds passed. The knob turned slowly, and then the door swung inward an inch or two. An eye and a cheek appeared, strands of blonde, stringy hair partially covering the edge of the eye. A woman, though what age she might be I couldn’t tell. She didn’t say anything at first, but her eye moved quickly up and down as she scanned the unwelcome guest standing inches away.

“Hello,” I said as gently as I could. “Please don’t be frightened. I swear we mean you no harm. My friend and I have just come from up north, looking for other survivors.” I saw her eye shift rapidly to my left, but Peter stood out of range of her sight.

“Leave me alone.” The woman began to close the door. I stopped it with my foot.

“Wait! Please.”

The pressure on the door eased, and long seconds passed until the door swung inward a tiny bit. I pushed it in, and nearly gasped when I saw her. She had stepped backward three or four steps, brandishing a knife that would have made Munster swoon with envy.

“That’s far enough,” she uttered in a cracked and nervous voice. “I’ll use it.” She raised the knife straight out. I extended my hands toward her, trying to calm her.

“It’s okay. We’re as confused about all of this as you are. My friend and I are glad we found you.”

As I spoke I took her in. An inch or two shorter than me. Mottled hair, that from the looks of it, hadn’t been washed since the world stopped. Her shoulders were narrow, barely supporting a light green shift that was spotted, and was torn at the hem above her knees. Her frame was thin to the point that it looked emaciated. She wore no shoes, and her feet showed that she had obviously left the safety of her prison to walk many miles, many times over the course of months that had dragged by. Altogether, she had the look of a beaten animal that hadn’t had a decent meal—and certainly not a bath—since it was abandoned and left to die by its heartless owner. In full view, now, I gauged her age to be late twenties. Left alone, she would soon enough look like a sixty year-old hag.

Peter by then had shown himself in the hall, just outside the door, the shotgun raised somewhat, not high enough, though, to threaten. She reacted immediately by raising the knife straight out and going into a crouch. Useless if Peter decided to raise the gun and pull the trigger. I turned to him.

“Put it down! Can’t you see she’s frightened out of her wits?”

He hesitated as he sized her up, but finally lowered the gun. He must have seen that even if she’d wanted to, she probably didn’t possess the strength to defend herself, let alone attack. Still, she remained crouched, the knife extended, her hand shaking. I turned back to face her, stepping between her and Peter, raising my hands in a friendly gesture.

“You’re safe. Peter won’t harm you. We’re a little frightened too, that’s all.”

She seemed to consider this, but remained in her defense mode for several more seconds. I tried to smile, to reassure her that I’d spoken the truth. She shook ever more violently nonetheless, but suddenly dropped her face, and then let the knife fall to the carpet. She took a step backward, leaned against the wall, and then slid onto her rear, covering her eyes, crying in gulps.

I rushed to her. I could only imagine the terrors she had endured being all alone. What had this woman seen these past months? I placed my hands on hers and squeezed gently.

“You’re with friends. You’re safe. Can you tell me your name?”

“Denise.”

Good. She heaved a breath, but appeared to calm herself a little.

“Hi Denise. My name is Amelia, and this is my friend Peter. Like I said, we came from Marysville up north to see if anyone other than us had survived. It’s so horrifying what happened. Are you from San Diego? Have you seen others who made it? How did you come to this hotel?”

Denise’s face went blank for a second as she tried to put the questions I posed in some order and context, I supposed. Her shaking settled, and then pushing strands of unkempt hair away from her face, she took in a huge breath, and began her tragic narrative.

“I was here with my boyfriend when it happened…Oh God, what was it? Everyone just dropped! The lights flickered, and then died for a few seconds, and then came back on. But they were all dead. Mason, too. We were in the cafeteria. It was near dinnertime. He stiffened as though he’d been hit by a lightning bolt, and then tumbled out of his chair!”

Denise broke down into deep sobs at that point. I could almost see the scene she had been describing. The shock of it. Peter laid the gun aside, and knelt on one knee beside us.

“Let’s get her onto that chair. Try to stand, Denise. That’s it.”

We situated her as carefully as we could into the chair beneath the window, Peter gazing down into her plaintive face, me on my knees in front of her.

“Go back and close the door!” she suddenly blurted.

“Why? Everyone’s dead,” I replied.

“No they’re not! They showed up here not long after it happened, and they return every now and then. Sometimes two or three times a week! I can hear them when they come!”

“The clouds?”

“No. Yes, them too. They haven't returned for a long time, though. I locked the door. I was so scared, but when the electricity finally went out a few days after the bomb dropped, I had to put the brick by it. I had to go find food and water. I was so thirsty, and nothing was left in the refrigerator. I had to leave, and I knew that if I didn’t leave a crack in the door I’d never get back in!”

“We don’t think it was a bomb,” Peter said.

“Then what was it?”

“We don’t know for certain, but if it had been a nuclear bomb, none of us would have survived. We saw the invaders weeks ago. It was something they did selectively is all we can figure out. They spoke to one or two of our group back home, but they didn’t say why they’d come, or why they did what they did. You’ve seen them, right?”

“Yes. Oh God, there were hundreds of them out there whirling around for days and days and days. But whatever they were doing, they missed a lot of us in their killing…it was killing off the survivors, right? They finally went away a few weeks afterward, and that’s when the men came out of hiding. Breaking windows everywhere. Taking whatever they wanted. I couldn’t hear them from up here, but I could just see them howling and jumping and lifting the things they’d grabbed over their heads like a mob. Fighting. Yelling at one another.

“I had to risk going downstairs. I had to! I was starving!” She began to shake, remembering back. I took hold of her hands again.

“It’s okay. You’re alive. You made it, and we’re going to help you.”

I suspected that on one of her trips down, someone had spotted and surprised her. Denise closed her eyes, and then continued in a broken voice.

“There must be hundreds of them. They come back every couple of days. They’re worse than animals! One of them caught me in the kitchen…”

She didn’t have to tell me more.

“We need to get her out of here. Find some decent food somewhere—if there is any—get her back to the farm,” Peter said when she broke down once again.

“Will you go with us, Denise? Well, that isn’t really an option. You must. You’ll die here. We have everything we need at the farm. Food and water and friendships. Weapons to defend ourselves. Come with us.”

Her eyes brightened. Perhaps the nightmare was over, she must have been thinking.

“You have food and guns? You won’t let them…”

“We have everything, and then some. You’re safe, but you have to go with us. Are there any others like you who’ve survived? We can help them, too.”

“I don’t know,” she said leaning forward, preparing to stand. “I can’t imagine there are. I can’t go out to look for them, anyway. I can’t! I won’t!

“Okay, okay,” I said, trying to calm her again. “She needs food, Peter. We have to try finding some before we leave.”

“We have…potato chips,” he said in a scoffing tone.

“Funny. You go get that can of whatever it was that was left behind down in the kitchen. It’s better than nothing. I’ll help Denise gather her things and meet you at the truck.”

“Do you have any water?” she asked.

“Yes. Plenty. Come on, girl, let’s get you out of here.”

“You take the shotgun,” Peter said, helping Denise stand. “Just in case.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but within minutes, I’d appreciate his offer.

He left. I helped Denise scavenge the few things she'd held onto dearly in her pitiful existence. An armful apiece of dirty clothing, a pair of heels. A purse containing her picture on a driver’s license from Illinois. We left the suitcases she’d brought. As we exited the room, she looked back over her shoulder, but then quickly left the rest of her life behind and followed me to the stairs.

 

Don't Think I'll Do it?

 

The marine layer had begun to roll in when Denise and I rushed through the revolving door onto the sidewalk. The soft, misty-white fog performed a shimmering, slow dance in the late afternoon sun, and cast a ghostly veil over our truck thirty feet away on the street. The doorman, the woman and her husband—I had nearly become inured to the sight of corpses—I skirted close by them, heading for the street. Denise, a step behind me, suddenly let go of my hand with a jerk, tripping over the remains of the man. She hit the pavement with a low grunt. I turned.

“You okay?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Too fast I guess. Didn’t see the bodies. I should have remembered them being here. Sorry.”

I helped her back to her feet. She brushed the dust from her knees, and we set off at a slower pace toward the waiting truck.

“How long has it been since you last came out of the hotel?” I asked when we arrived.

“I don’t know…a week? I went over to that ship looking for food, and as I got to the top of the gangplank, I heard voices. Scary voices and laughter. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I remembered what that gang of men in the hotel kitchen…I ran back down and hid in the ticket booth until they left. It must have been an hour. When I thought it was safe, I left and went back up into the ship. It took me until nightfall to even find the monster kitchen and the rooms where they stored food.”

“So you were able to eat?”

“Yes. I found loads of rotten, dried-up meat and eggs and sour milk, but in another room I found a few boxes of canned food that hadn’t been taken. I searched through them until I found one with kidney beans. Amelia, I gorged myself—looked around for other stuff as I dug the beans out and stuffed handfuls into my mouth. That’s when I heard more voices and footsteps on the deck above.”

“And?”

“And so I grabbed one last can—it was canned meat—and then ran as far forward as I could to hide. I found a huge room with machinery everywhere, and so I squeezed in behind one of them and waited. I was there all night. It was terrible. As hungry and thirsty as I would be, I vowed never to go back onto that ship.”

I could understand that.

When Denise fell silent once more, I told her all about our farm—the garden we’d planted, the electricity we enjoyed—the running water. The relative peace and security there. I said nothing at the time about our visit by the brutal men, or Mari. As I spoke, her eyes lit up.

“There are five of you?”

“No, eight remaining. We buried three bodies.”

Her countenance fell when I said that.

“They were already dead when we arrived a few days after the invasion.”

“Oh.”

I opened the rear cab door and grabbed the un-opened bag of chips and a few candy bars.

“Here, not the best, but help yourself.”

Where was Peter? Five or so minutes had passed, and he hadn’t come out of the hotel. It shouldn’t have taken more than a minute to find the larder, grab the lone can, and then whisk out of the building.

Denise didn’t hear the sound over the crunching of the chips. I did. Low voices and scuffling footsteps in the near distance. I darted to the front of the truck and raised the shotgun, aiming it at the noise. I heard the bag of chips hit the ground, and a terrified groan from Denise.

The first of them appeared through the fog.

“That’s far enough. One more step and you’re dead.”

He was dressed in a grimy white shirt and filthy suit coat and raggedd trousers. Naturally he hadn’t bothered to shave, and his hair was long and wild. He stopped dead in his tracks as the other four men with him came into view, and even from the distance that separated us I could see the look of surprise and shock on his face. He raised his hands.

“We just come looking for food,” he blurted. “Don’t shoot.”

“And we’re just leaving. Turn around and go back the way you came, or I swear I’ll blow every one of you to kingdom come.”

One of the men at his right felt gamey. He stepped forward, smiling a leery smile. I sighted the gun barrel directly at him, and he stopped.

“Don’t think I’ll do it?”

“Okay, okay, just relax,” he said raising his hands, gesturing for me to take it easy. “We’re not going to attack you. We just want something to eat.”

“I’m sure you do. I‘ve heard that one before. Just do as I said and leave us. Go find your dinner somewhere else.”

One of the others, as dirty as his companions, backed up a step. I saw him reach behind, toward his waist slowly. I wondered if I could do it? Peter would. Munster, surely. But me? My heart was racing.

I swung the barrel in his direction as he withdrew the pistol from his waistband and started to raise it. Burying the stock into my shoulder and balancing myself this time, I pulled back on the trigger. The horrendous explosion next to my ear…the recoil I was ready for. When the tight spray of shot hit him at the same instant, he flew backward without uttering a sound, both hands flying up and outward in front of his body. I’ll never forget the splash of red; the grimace—all of it in the blink of an eye.

I felt worse than sick.

Had he been alone, I would have dropped the gun and thrown up, but as matters stood, I stuffed my nausea, quickly reloaded, and brought the gun to bear on the first man who’d shown himself half a minute ago. I sighted at him. Denise started screaming. The leader raised his hands higher, but said nothing. He backed up, one faltering step. Two. A third, and then he turned and disappeared along with the remaining trio into the thick white mist.

“Peter! Where the hell are you?” My turn to scream. I turned to Denise who was practically running in place, shaking her head, screaming at the top of her lungs in a fit of panic.

“Get into the truck, Denise. Hurry!”

Peter arrived at a gallop out of nowhere, a look of fear and concern on his face.

“What hap…”

“Get in, Peter! Get us out of here!”

I noticed he’d lost the can of glucky sauerkraut somewhere along the way. No big loss. I bolted to the passenger side, scooped Denise and her bag of chips into the rear seat, then hopped in beside Peter. He had the engine running before I’d shut the door, and so we were off. Home sweet home.

I’m so sorry, Lashawna, but I’m sure you’ll understand.

Charles, Meet Denise

 

We left the downtown area at a crawl; partly, the thick marine layer, the other half the thick mass of tangled metal and darkness. Put together, these three obstructions alone made me want to get out, leap onto the hood, and act as Peter’s Barrelman. What in normal times would have been, at most, an hour and a half trip, even in heavy traffic, took us four hours. Within the first thirty minutes, Denise had drunk two bottles of water, eaten what remained of the chips, and the six candy bars I’d brought. Within an hour, she was fast asleep, and I wasn’t far behind her, my last thoughts being, half-successful.

 

I woke from a fitful sleep when Peter stopped the truck and left to open the gate. I rubbed my eyes and yawned, thankful. It’s funny that in those times, simply having survived a road trip alone gave me pause to take a deep breath and sigh in relief.

I turned when Peter approached the open cab door again, and gently shook Denise’s shoulder.

“We’re home,” I whispered twice. At first she merely blinked, gathering consciousness, and then flew bolt upright in fright, putting the unfamiliar vision around her in real-time sense. The harsh glare of the overhead cab lights in the front caused her to wince and look sideways through the windows, and then she whirled around and gazed intently through the rear window at the lonely highway and the orange trees across it. As Peter shut the door and began to pull in, I glanced at the clock on the dash console. 10:45. A very long day. Ahead, the lights upstairs shone brightly in two of the four bedrooms. Munster’s flamecar was still stranded in the ditch. The tall, black cylinder reflected moonlight eerily in the fog-free sky this far inland. Peter pulled to a stop directly in front of the porch steps, and cut the engine.

“Well, here we are,” he said to Denise. “Welcome to Eden.” She remained speechless, looking quickly around, first at the black cylinder, and then out the opposite window at the house.

“This…is…it,” she stammered, the palms of her hands pressed against the glass.

“Ready to meet the rest of us?”

“Yes. Yes.”

“Won’t they be surprised,” Peter kind of laughed triumphantly. He opened the door and jumped out, and I followed. For a moment, Denise remained locked on her knees motionless, entranced, but finally released the latch and pushed the rear door outward. Jack had been on watch, and noticed the headlights at the gate when we arrived. No sooner had the three of us gathered at the bottom of the steps, than Munster burst through the door, followed by Cynthia, Charles, Shawna, and Jerrick. Little Jack was the last out, crashing into Jerrick’s back.

Of course all of them gaped speechless at Denise in her ratty condition and appearance…except Munster. I might have known he would have something to say.

“What the hell! Where’d ya’ find her? In a trash can?” Cynthia pounded his stomach with a fist. “You moron, shut up.”

“Welcome.” Charles.

He stepped down to join us. One after another the rest of our family made their way down and stood in a tight half-circle in front of us. Everyone smiled and made little comments, all of which seemed to relax Denise immensely. I made the introductions, and then led her up the steps to the warm, inviting interior of her new home.

“What a day. We’re starving,” Peter said when we’d all gotten inside.

“Francis, you go back outside. You’re impossibly rude,” I heard Cynthia poke at Munster.

Francis. I grinned.

“Ah shit, Cyn, I’m sorry. I just meant…”

“Shuush!”

The questions began. The answers, sometimes short and clipped, other times recounting in greater detail what had transpired throughout our day, and Denise's existence in the hotel.

“Chicago, huh?”

“Yes.”

“My God, all those months alone!”

“Weren’t you scared?”

“Always.”

“You’re quite safe here…”

“How did you find this house? It’s so…wonderful. The lights!”

Cynthia took no time in yanking our obnoxious Munster by the shirtsleeve, leading him out to the kitchen.

“Just keep quiet, Francis. Help me make something for them to eat. The poor woman looks…” Her voice trailed off. A few seconds later she reappeared, poking her head around the corner.

“Give us five minutes. Francis will set the table. I think he can manage that. I’ll whip you up a feast. Like fried Spam?” And then she disappeared.

That night I loved the thought of it.

The tales of terror on Denise’s part continued. Jerrick took a seat beside her on the sofa, and explained in perfect detail how we’d lit up the house with the generator, connected the pump to the well. Left weekly to gather supplies. Planted the half-acre garden. No one mentioned Mari.

Charles said little, standing at Peter’s and my side. He mostly just stared at the ghost of a creature sitting in front of us. I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. Midway in the exchanges, Lashawna quietly left and padded off to the kitchen. A twinge of sadness hit me as she left.

We have nothing but time. We’ll find someone, somewhere. Oh dear God, the thought of another journey.

Throughout the discourse my thoughts flashed back over and over to that moment outside the hotel. The shotgun rising. How the man took a halting step backward raising his pistol. How unthinking and easy it had been in that hundredth of a second that followed. My stomach turning afterward.

We ate ravenously a short time later amid laughter and more conversation. After Denise had consumed half of what Cynthia and Lashawna had cooked, Cynthia stood and went to her side. She put her face close to the woman’s ear and asked in a sweet voice, “If you’d like, I’ll show you the shower. When you finish, I’ll have a bed made up and ready for you. You can sleep in my room if you want. You must be exhausted.”

Denise looked up at her, and then burst into tears, the dam finally breaking. “Thank you.”

 

Morning came, bright and sunny. Denise left her bedroom, hair disheveled, but radiant and clean. The pallor of her face had disappeared. I thought, as I watched from the hall, two doors down, how incredibly different she looked. She was very pretty, in fact. Nothing at all like the creature Peter and I had stumbled upon twenty-four short hours earlier. The long white t-shirt she’d slept in draped to her thin, upper thighs, and she carried a fresh change of clothing and clean towel. Seeing me, she smiled and raised a hand in greeting, and then turned to enter the bath. Again. It would take weeks, but nutritious food would fill her out. Do wonders. Help her mind heal and dispel some of the agony of remembrance of the months we’d left behind.

Our wonderful Charles would fall in love with her. He had to. As his wounds had healed, so would Denise’s. As his painful rejection of Lashawna must have deeply pierced him, that wound would also heal as the days and weeks and months rolled on in her presence. Or so I thought at first.

He was kind to her; showed her the grounds in Peter’s company, the silent black gift left for our benefit some day in the future, but even in his smiles, I couldn’t help but see a wall having been erected. A distance. How he’d abruptly wander off, leaving her in Peter’s or someone else’s company. I didn’t understand, and so I went to him one night three weeks later.

“What is it?” I asked.

That evening he’d started a fire, and sat in deep thought in front of it. Jerrick and the rest of the group were in the study where he entertained them on his cello. Glum Munster sat alone in the upstairs bedroom on watch.

Charles started when he heard my voice.

“Oh. Amelia. I didn’t hear you come in. What do you mean?” He smiled languidly. “I’m fine. Just thinking. We’ll have to…”

“Charles, something is bothering you. What is it?”

He understood the statement and the question very clearly. The smile fell away. He dropped his eyes almost guiltily.

“You shouldn’t have done that, my dear.”

“We did it for you. And besides, if we’d found someone else…another man, or a child, or even an old lady, we would have brought them back.”

“Yes, I’m sure you would have. But you didn’t. You brought back someone you thought I needed. When did you bother to consult me before doing what you did? That wasn’t right, no matter the motive.”

What?

“But Charles…Lashawna. You. I mean, we went in search of others for both…”

“Do you really think I’m unhappy? Unfulfilled in my own life?

“And Lashawna. I love the girl, but that’s what she is. A young woman like yourself. Still a child.”

“I’m not a child.”

“You are! She is. Look, Amelia, we’re still in danger here. There are others outside our home who’ve descended into savagery. God almighty, you’ve seen it! Someone has to have their wits about them. One of us has to be an adult."

I looked at him. His words were curt, yet not angry. I still failed to comprehend, though. I knew, certainly, the precariousness of our situation; that we’d have to remain vigilant, but…

“I’m sleeping with Peter. Did you know that, Charles? We’re together, but we’re both constantly aware of danger. We’re not adult?”

“I’m not saying that you aren’t aware of the danger, and it isn’t my place to interfere in either of your lives—that isn’t the point. Sleep with whomever…”

“Charles!”

“You misunderstand me, Amelia. You’ve complicated our lives here. You’ve sent Lashawna deeper into the pit I helped dig by what you did. Did that ever enter your mind?”

Yes. More than he knew, and more than I cared to wrestle with at the moment. But there was time. We’d go again despite whatever objections he might have. We'd fix it.

I was an adult!

Life could be so frustratingly complicated.

That’s how…adolescents thought, right?

I left the room and went upstairs to relieve Munster, and to try to figure at least some of it out, sitting beneath the window.

 

Dreams of Shadows

Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months.

The comings and goings of the invaders from the mothership took on a metronomic flow. At least at night as we watched—mostly with indifference. They hadn’t reappeared anywhere near the farm. Even though we wondered where they’d gone, and what they were up to, it seemed apparent there was no way of finding out—short of setting off on another, longer expedition. For all we knew, they were zipping off to Denver, or Kansas City or Chicago.

Peter felt my stomach almost every morning, a hopeful look on his face. Was I maybe feeling the effects of morning sickness every time I scowled or frowned or raided the refrigerator? I was either put off by some event, unhappy on occasion as we all were at times, or simply hungry. Maybe I was incapable of conceiving…or perhaps he was impotent. Maybe without our even knowing it the aliens had sterilized us.

Throughout these days our education continued, reaching new heights, and growing from a few hours each morning to half the day. The reason was Denise. She was lovely by June, fully recovered—at least bodily—and she took her place beside Charles in front of us there in the “classroom”; the shotgun propped against the wall, always loaded. We learned that she’d graduated with high honors from NYU. An English major, of all things. She developed a strong and motherly affection for, yes, Munster. He responded by paying attention whenever she spoke of this great book, or that one. It was she who stressed the importance of writing clearly, concisely, and the benefit of mastering the art of translating thoughts into words. Both on paper and in our daily conversations. As a family, we would want to leave a legible, coherent record of those days for posterity, after all. Munster never balked, and I was certain the reason was Cynthia, more so, even, than mother Denise. Slowly, but surely, he began to bloom, and slowly but surely he lightened up on his penchant for cussing. Thank you, Cynthia.

Charles welcomed Denise’s help, convivially, but always at arms’ length. Deep down inside me, I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—accept his feigned indifference. It simply defied logic. It was out of my hands, at any rate, so I had to let it be.

Lashawna regressed, even though by all appearances she’d made it through her first rejection without suffering a mortal wound. She worked beside me, or Peter, or Charles in the garden or orchard happily, trading asides and laughter, but inevitably the night would find her alone in her room, or mothering Jerrick, often to his consternation.

I should have learned, but I hadn’t. I plotted another trip, perhaps north this time. Someone was waiting out there for her. Throughout the spring and early summer, the idea became a grain of sand in my stomach, scratching and growing and demanding. I’d leave again with Peter before Fall. This time I’d bring back a mate for her.

 

August came, and with it the beginning of hot days and nights that required use of the house air conditioning circuit, which created a heavier load, which—that was all Greek to me. The generator that had supplied our power finally gave up the ghost. I should say generators. We’d had to replace it three times with ever-heavier models because it ran constantly. Someone—I think it was Jerrick—suggested in late Spring that we gather up the necessary components in town, and then install solar, but for the time being it was far simpler to just throw the old generator away, raid Home Depot, and hook up a brand new one. Munster’s, Peter’s, and Jerrick’s province of learned-expertise.

The questions arose over the months about supplies; gasoline—for how many months or years would it remain usable (Jerrick’s concern)? The question, the probability that in time the stuff from the filling station tanks might become useless, horrified Munster, and so the men dragged ten empty one thousand gallon tanks that could be sealed, back to the farm. They used a portable generator set up in turn at several filling stations to activate a pump, that in turn filled an endless number of cans which were laboriously dumped into each tank back at the farm, and then sealed until—sometime far in the future—the life-extending fuel would be needed.

The shelf life of canned goods. As long as the cans remained sealed, we were good for decades. Charles’ projection.

Medical supplies. For the short term, they weren’t a problem. We stocked up on a variety of items we knew we’d need. The problem was someone qualified to actually cure, and the equipment any hospital once had to help effect the cure. We desperately needed a doctor in our family. At least that. No one could be certain if a real doctor still lived, and if he or she did, where might we find that person? Would he or she even agree to join us? One of us would eventually fall ill, and then what would we do? Pray to the aliens?

Such were only a few of the issues we faced, the solutions to many impacting our very survival. Working on the answers consumed us, more so with every week that raced by.

I put it to our family that first week of August. I intended to leave with Peter soon, once again, this time with enough supplies to last a month. The reason was ostensibly to search out a physician, if one existed somewhere in the state. More truthfully, I felt the odds were good that a young man close to Shawna’s age was out there, and if he was, we’d find him. And maybe if we were lucky, a real doctor.

“Suppose you run across a Mad Max gang, and suppose they cripple the truck. What then?” Charles asked that evening.

“That scenario is Hollywood,” I said.

“But you found such a group in San Diego!”

“We’ll have to risk it. We’ll take heavier arms,” Peter answered.

“I’m going with you,” Munster said.

“Not enough room, and besides, you’re needed here to help keep the farm running, not to mention helping to protect it.”

Charles argued against us going, citing a laundry list of reasons why we shouldn’t. But he knew—everyone did—that eventually another trip into dangerous waters would become necessary. He finally relented, and so we drew up a detailed plan.

It was odd, those last few days when we immersed ourselves in packing the bed of the truck with every conceivable item we might need, that Jerrick wandered off to sit beneath the cold, black cylinder cross-legged, daily. It was almost as though he was trying to communicate with whatever lay inside. I could see his hands draw close to the deadly surface. I could see that he wanted to touch it…but he’d always draw back.

Don’t mess with it, Jerrick. Wait like the rest of us. Remember Mari’s command.

 

August 6th. We said our goodbyes. Cynthia cried. Lashawna hugged me and said, “Good luck. Stay safe.” Munster uttered, “Shit.”

 

“Godspeed,” Charles invoked his blessing, and we were off.

 

Imprint

Publication Date: 12-26-2013

All Rights Reserved

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