I never saw the morning ’til I stayed up all night.
I never saw the sunshine ’til you turned out the light.
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long.
I never heard the melody until I needed the song.
- Tom Waits, San Diego Serenade
The dewy sunlight plays across the leaves way Grandma’s knuckles plied dough. Every wrinkle a story waiting to tell for simply a passing ear half to listen. Every crease a superstition eye roll garnering while the breeze bullies clouds around, and late hours commandeering strict obedience by the howl of a glowing moon.
The sunshine turns the tumbling, drifting pollen thick through the lively air into haloed fairies, campfire sparks, and metal grinder showers, whirling and flitting with unsettled currents.
Golden light a lazy syrup drips down the toppled country lane riddled with shitty potholes as though plucked from slide guitar strings by fingers stretching while turning over mid afternoon nap. There’s still moisture under the remnants of leaves left over from past fall, winter hasn’t trudged grumbling all that far away, after all.
Sitting pretty as a picture on a stump of a rollaway rock, soles anchoring shoes pointed to the bushy, dappled, shaggy summer growth above, fingerprinting the hot asphalt with the well rounded stumps of her once boot worthy heels.
Mouth full of jawbreaker paragraphs not yet sure how to crumble or spit aside. Hands rubbed and still feeling numb, glittering tree tuft fairies flying or not, might as well be Alaska. Had once heard that was coldest place to be shy of insanity. Barely feel much at all. Considering, maybe, maybe no surprise.
Looking about and wondering if them freckles still dot her cheeks. She strains to catch her reflection in her footwear and concedes that allowances for buff shining to appease vanity were scuffed away long ago. Sighs soundlessly as though asking a deaf audience for attention. Only the grasshoppers and katydids bother to pass through offering unsolicited suggestions, yes and.
She touches her face and finds her fingers passing right on through. She shrugs and wonders if she’s cellophane, see through, a wisp of fancy. Sure, she can see her own self, what self respecting ghost would go blind to themselves after all the adventures they’d seen themselves through?
She’s distracted, and resists another trail head, so many mental distractions flitting past as she becomes combobulated, becomes one with herself, quite literally, though admittedly kindred too the feeling one has returning home to a crowded city flat after spending a week or three contemplating career changes, or abandonment, on some tropical shore hours before the next luau, smell of the roast pig starting to waft up the sandy beach like a swishing grass skirt across the thighs of a dancer making waves.
She spots a snail trucking along and shifts her foot away from its projected path. She says a few warm greetings and salutations, hears nothing, and supposes ghosts must get annoyed most with the silence of themselves.
“Strap in,” she mouths, leaning her face down close to the chocolate coloured shell banded with honey hued gold, puddle of invertebrate meat hauling it’s home and refuge along, trailer park invertebrate, eyes confidently out on viagra stalks. She waved and wished the thing save travels up that long and windy road. Rolling snail collects no moss. “You take care, fella. Watch out for salty puddles.”
She smiled and turned her face up to the sun, scattershot leaf filtered though it was. Sixty years is a long time, unless you’re a cathedral or corporate interest. Six decades and here she sits trying to talk to snails. The Snail Whisperer. She leaned back and nearly slapped through a knee silently laughing for the incredulousness of her entire circumstance.
“Hold on, fella, if you’re not going anywhere fast, I’ve some things I’d love to get off my chest.” She decides to tell the snail a mixed medley, little bits of everything, and a whole lot of nothing at all. Her brain is a scramble, she realizes, and improv may well be her immediate best course of action. Take things as they come, let the words fall out, all the jawbreakers, turn them to dust on the asphalt and let those willows weep.
No one else happens to hear a thing, not a single utterance, nary a peep. Not at this juncture. Many chapters later, the reader, that being you, will learn some of the secrets she shared with her terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusc acquaintance. The ones worth knowing, anyway. For what it’s worth, most involved insights about USO club politics and a particular raccoon named Hank Crawford the Third, who once was kept as a pet after a harrowing rescue from a fox trap, though moved on to thrill children and adults alike as a pettable amusement in the family den, stiff for stricken with an unfortunate case of taxidermy after a sordid evening out in the backyard chicken coop.
She sighed, stood, and wavered as though her brain had gone starved for oxygen. She steadied herself with Al Jolson hands and let her grin form and go lopsided. Most peculiar beginnings often rolled downhill into utterly ridiculous if and thens. She delighted with the prospects of unexpected thens. She did the jerk and wiggle to shake some proverbial lead out, fanning her hands and popping her jaw.
She looked left and let her eyes drive up the road far as they could see. Perhaps I can jump up for a better view? Could be a ghostly super power. She tried, went up about a foot and a half, landed unremarkably, maybe sank a couple inches into the roadside dirt without disturbing a single thing, soon settling right back where her cloppers had started off from.
She shrugged and gave the road to her right a review. Either way the road warbled through long, hunched shouldered, Rock and Roll High School runs of droopy trees feeding off the runoff ditches that followed the shoulders of the pavement, thick barked dressing along grazing field property lines.
She looked around, with head then spun a full twirl, soon finding no one that seemed inclined to speak to her beyond the unsolicited, drive by suggestions the insects were barraging her with.
“Look, not sharing the rat, let’s get that straight right now.”
“I”m not a rat.”
“I’m a field mouse. You really don’t have to squeeze that hard, you know.”
Slapping through her forehead trying to adjust an absentee hat out of habit, she squints across the road and spots an old tom sitting on one of the jutting stones of the mortarless wall defining the road side property line of the country house she’d completely failed to notice sat leaning just across the way there. She looked both ways quickly, then crossed the road to better chat. Apparently with a cat. And a rat. Or field mouse. All she could discern as she crossed the faded dotted line was a swishing tail dangling like a bait worm from up over the massive blue cat’s jutting, caterpillar stubbly jaw.
“Look, I mean no offence, but if you intend to have me for lunch, I’d appreciate you’re getting on with it.” The rodent’s tail curled into an indignant point and jabbed at one of the cat’s eyes, a pearled blue eye for cataract or war wound, she couldn’t tell. “Maybe you’re doing me a favor.” The tiny voice squeaked, gallows admissions. “That wife of mine used to roost in a Catholic household. You get my meaning? Not rest for the wicked, am I right?”
The cat chuckled, and the tail disappeared, punctuating a loud gulp. “Chatty rat. Where you headed, red?”
She stood, about to clasp her hand to her head again, and thinking better of it, floats her hands on her hips. Shrugs. “Can you hear me?”
“Hear you?” The cat licks his wide chest tufts noisily. “You haven’t shut up since you got here.” Squints his good eye as he sneezes. “Poor snail is probably traumatized. Who’s your writer, Emile Zola?”
She doesn’t answer, looking past the cat, eyeing the door set back into the depths of the shady porch like a diving boxer’s eye. She feels drawn, pulled, called. She points with her chin. “This your place then, cat?”
He looks back over his shoulder dextrous as an owl. “One of many, longer than most.” He switchblade a claw and licked the inside of the curve clean. “Lady there, kept the cream saucer perpetually wet, know what I’m sayin’.”
“Not an inkling,” She said as she began to walk over to the flagstone steps that lead up to an overgrown path through green weed and crabgrass lawn to a sagging wooden porch gone grey from sun and sadness.
“Had a feeling you’d want a look around.” Cat huffed himself up, coughed, hacked up a hairball wrapped field mouse. Said over his shoulder as he sauntered after the girl. “Been a hoot, buddy.”
The wet, blinking field mouse sat wet and sullied on a stone and wondered which end of dead he’d emerged into. He heard the cat and sighed. “Yeah, thanks cat. Same time next week?”
Cat didn’t answer as it followed, stopping just before the bottom step up onto the porch.
She knocked, no one answered. She turned to look at the cat sitting proper on the path in the yard. “Is anyone home?”
The cat yawned, showing a blue tongue and four key massive needle sabor teeth, one of them broken off, tip missing. “Sort of. HAve a gander, doubt it’s locked. Who throws a bolt out these parts?” He’d managed to add some southern drawl to the last part, surprising she thought what with that cleft lip and all.
She tried the door, an old faux bronze thumb lever affair that creak and squealed, though never commit to blocking her progress opening the door. Through a narrow gap, she called out again. Dust and stale aromas replied. Smells of a big old house left dormant far too long. She looked back at the cat. “So what now, cat?”
“I’m not your spirit animal, lady.” The cat locked eyes on a passing squirrel coming around the base of a maple tree on the edge of the yard. The squirrel squeaked and shot up and around the tree’s lean trunk. The cat flattened his ears somewhat adversarially. “I have things to do. Go in. Stay out. Don’t care.”
She said, “Oh, ok, well, then I”ll just be along my way then.”
She stepped down the cranky stairs and walked past the cat. She watched as the cat looked back and forth from her to the house and back again, its chin dropping, looking about ready to cry. “See, I knew it. You do care.”
“Do not.” The cat sniffled.
“OK, cat, I’ll go in.” She smiled and deftly tussled his ears before he could think to jerk away. “Since you seem so concerned about it.”
He snarled and hissed with halfhearted effort and mimed a swipe after her ankles as she bounced back up onto the porch and slipped into the house. He sniffed and wiped his nose on the back of his furry blue wrist. “Hope you go upstairs.”
He rolled to his feet and turned to walk back towards the road. He spot the field mouse still wiping off cat fur and other unpleasantries at the top of the stairs to the road. The mouse saw the cat and froze mid-swipe.
“Go home to those thousand kids already, Morty.” The cat growled with conviction lacked. “I need some space to think a think.”
The mouse waved and vaulted away down the flagstone steps towards the road, slimed fur glowing golden in the afternoon sun.
The cat settled in a patch of sunlight, casts a glance over his fur shagged shoulder at the house with his one good, gold sharded eye, then drops his head heavily on his forearms and huffs himself into a deep, buzzsaw burring slumber, pearl cadaver eye never closing.
Kin followed Benny up the steps onto the double decker bus. Benny swept up, rounded the first row of seats and into the aisle, dropped his chin like a bull focused on a daisy and pushed his way towards the back of the bus. His girth sent kids scrambling to get clear. Kin followed after him, mouthing apologies as she rubbernecked all of the other children along for the voyage. The “field trip down memory lane” as the cherry cheeked official had called it. Most kids seemed roughly her age, a couple passingly familiar faces mingling with a seething horde of new ones. A small world maybe, but not that small of a town, these kids had come from all over. She felt she’d probably never see most of them again, not unless someone organized an anniversary reunion or something.
Benny led Kin into a thicket of mostly older, largely louder kids near the back of the bus. She heard singing and spied expensive shoes dangling down from the well hole at the top of the spiral staircase leading to the upper deck of the bus. She felt a passing pang of contempt at the sight of those pretty little shoes; kicks a far cry from the scuffed, hand me down, steel toed work boots she wore, leather worn away from the tips of the toes, scratched metal glaring up people’s skirts.
She shook her head slightly and scolded herself for rich kid envy, a resentment shored up by suddenly convenient blue-collar working class pride. Too preoccupied with classist associations, Kin nearly fell flat for the people when Benny grabbed her arm to drag her into an empty bench row.
“Don’t let those brats bug you, hey?” Kin turned to find a kid with huge eyes beneath a considerable jutting forehead sporting twin fuzzy caterpillar eyebrows. “Names Wooly.” He splay his hands to either side of his face like a blossoming flower. “Any guess why?”
Kin tried not to laugh, coughed up an embarrassed giggle like a hairball.
A red headed girl next to Wooly held up her hand to press pause on a conversation with a girl sitting knock kneed across the aisle. She turned her hand into a fist and punched Wooly in the shoulder. “Stop flirting, Wooly. Doubt she’s into worms.” Their school uniforms matched, Kin noticed, much nicer than her coveralls.
Wooly shrugged, showed his palms to heaven, and jiggled his brows comedically. “Sisters.” He said. “Just wait ‘til I turn into a pretty little butterfly.” He chortled a practiced cackle.
Wooly’s sister sighed for the cheap seats and returned to her conversation with her school mate. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love seeing the world and all, but I have to go find some old lady’s dolls? Seriously? Like, as if. She’s so old, I bet she’s ashes before we even get wherever we’re going.”
Her friend nodded emphatically, chalk full of commiseration. “I’m supposed to find some old guy’s toupee. Do you know what that is? I didn’t either. It’s fake hair.” The girls “ewwwwed,” collectively. “I know, right? I mean, I get that old people like lived a long time and need respect and all, but seriously, more’s the merrier.” She waved and looked back over a shoulder for good dramatic measure.
“I don’t think that is what that expression means.” Said a tall, gentle faced reed with the blackest skin Kin had ever seen. The owner of those peepers met Kin’s gaze and she realized she’d begun to stare at the boy and tried her feeblest to look away.
“You look surprised to be here.” He said. “What’s your name?”
Kin forced a smile that didn’t fit her face. “Kin. And I am. A bit.”
“You didn’t think you’d get picked, did you?” His eyes seemed bottomless. She wanted to throw pennies and make wishes. He swept a long hand around to indicate the kids heaving around them. “Neither did most of these guys. Am I right?”
“You already know it, Teddy.” Said one chubby kid from a couple rows away. “This seething sorrowful suck has seriously sequestered us.” He grinned, front teeth missing. “How about that alliteration?”
“You’re lisp sold it.” Wolly’s sister said, twin thumbs up before a sarcastic smile full of teeth.
“I didn’t see him drop any trash.” Benny said loudly from beside Kin, causing some kids to jump. Not Kin. She’d had nearly a lifetime’s indoctrination to Benny. His volume. His inability to comprehend the basics of human social etiquette. His frequently inadequate grasp of the obvious. His radiant heart twelve sizes too big. His hugs tight enough to crack ribs.
“He means starting all of his words with the same sound.” Kin answered softly.
“Oh.” Benny nodded, not appearing convinced even a little bit.
“Not Teddy any more, my friend. It’s Susan B. Anthony on this trip.” The tall kid smiled and Kin smiled along with him while completely not sure why. “And don’t a one of you make fun of poor Susan’s name here, ok?”
Laughter and raised pinkies filled the air.
“How many times you gone, um, Susan?” Wooly asked, bouncing on his knees, prompting his sister to ground him with a restraining hand on his shoulder.
Susan shrugged and appeared to count silently, lips moving slightly. “What, five, no, six. This’ll make seven.” He grinned. “One more and I gets a badge.”
“What? They have badges?” A curly head popped up next to the chubby kid. “I want a badge.”
“He’s having ya on, numb brain.” The chubby kid said, shoulder checking his neighbor. “You’re only supposed to go one time.”
Susan held up a finger, tapped the top of his shoulder. “Unless you’re staff.”
“And you have to be legal to be staff.” Said a blonde girl from the row behind Kin.
“Right.” Susan nodded. “Do I look legal to you?” A few kids laughed, others looked uncomfortable, including Kin. “Oh yeah, they love us assignees as kids, let us be the ones go out and see the world. But go and get grown up, options get real limited all the sudden.” He jutted his chin, “So me, I figure, why not make the most of this and get myself on the bus every year I can get away with it?”
Susan put his hand straight up in the air, his fingers nearly brushed the ceiling. “Show of hands, how many kids here assignees?”
Kin looked around, tense as though smelling scandal afoot. A couple tentative hands went up first, back in the back of the bus, more followed. Wolly’s sister and her friend nodded to each other and threw theirs up as though leading cheers for a sports team. She elbowed Wooly and his hand went up shyly. Kin felt Susan looking her way and dutifully put her hand up. Soon the latter half of the bus had become a forest of raised hands, every youth representing but one. Benny.
Benny looked at Kin, brow furrowed, cheeks flushing. Kin pat his thigh and smiled. “It’s ok, Benny. Just makes you special.”
“I’m not special.” He said quietly. “I’m just like everybody else.” He threw his hand up defiantly. Kin hazard a glance at Susan. He caught her look and nodded slightly. Benny isn’t an assignee, he’s real born, and Kin decided Susan probably now knew.
“How’d you do it, Susan?” Wooly asked. “How do you get to go so many times?”
Other than the faint sing songs drifting down from upstairs, the back third of the long bus fell strangely silent as people let their hands drop, a forest felled.
Susan looked around and ducked his head a bit, waving for folks to lean in. “It’s pretty easy when people don’t want their children to do it. There is always someone like me to stand in, and far as I can tell, no one seems to care long as the old folks get what they asked for, or something like it, or something you tell ‘em they asked for since most of ‘em can’t remember what they asked for anyway.”
Kin squint, considering the idea of substitutes. Susan saw her do it. He winked atop a smirk. Takes a long face to pull that much expression off successfully. Kin smiled.
Benny broke the silence. “I signed us up.” He beamed, his eyes disappearing behind the swell of his cheeks. He wrapped an arm around Kin and squeezed a gasp out of her. “And the lady gave me an ice cream.”
Susan nodded. At least, Kin believed he had, her vision had begun to swim. She still didn’t understand how Benny got picked, regardless of being coerced to sign up. Real borns never got picked. Of course, most reals weren’t shortchanged like Benny, either.
“I thought I’d get away with writing someone else in.” Said the blonde in the row behind Kin and Benny. “But I think she wrote me in, too.” She threw her hands up. “What a brat.”
“My parents entered my name.” A small boy said from across the aisle from Kin and Benny. “My sister did it before and they insisted I do it too.”
“Wait, I thought I recognized you.” Wooly said. “You’re Bardi’s little assignee brother? I knew your sister from school. My Mom fixed your arm once, remember? You used to fall down stairs a lot or something.”
The small boy nodded without looking up.
“Yeah, I heard what happened.” Wooly said, swatting away his sister’s attempt to cover his mouth. “Your sister Bardi went to get some old guy’s dancing shoes. What was it? Tag dancing or gap prancing, I can’t remember.”
“Tap dancing.” The boy said.
“Right, tap dancing, whatever that is.” Wooly paused to repel a fresh attack from his sister. She grunt and crossed the aisle to squeeze in with her friend. “So she goes into this big room, huge.” He flings his hands out to convey the scale of the space.
“A dance studio.” The small boy says so softly Kin suspects only she heard. She and Susan. One glance and she could tell that he hears everything. She peeked to confirm and found Susan looking her way. She pulled the front of her coveralls forward to hide her washboard chest, self conscience.
“Yeah, so his sister goes in there to get the shoes, and she sees all these mirrors, like the walls have floor to ceiling mirrors all the way around. And there’s these racks of shoes. Dancing shoes. She must’ve found some that fit her. Then she found some kind of music machine that she can crank up a tune on.”
Kin can see that all other nearby conversations have ceased. Young faces are peering down from the upper deck to listen in. Wooly has his hands up as though shilling snake oil. “And this girl is dancing, she has the music going and she’s twirling around like crazy.”
Wooly pauses and looks squarely at Shae for a moment. Lowers his voice. “When she spins out into the middle of the room, the floor breaks.”
Wooly slaps the back of his bench seat, causing most around him to jump, and at least one snooper from upstairs to gong their head on the lip of the stairwell. “She drops five stories, nothing to catch her but a parking garage.”
“I hear a fall like that, she didn’t feel a thing.” The chubby kid added assuringly, nodding deeply.
Kin felt an urge to cross the aisle and hug the small boy as she watched his shoulders start to go up and down, top of his head bobbing, cowlick hair swaying limply off his crown, tears working their way down his flushed cheeks.
Susan waved Wooly off, eyes slits that caused Wolly to duck out of sight. Susan leaned forward over the back of the boy’s seat to poke the small boy’s shoulder gently with a long finger. The boy shied away from the touch, chin tucked into his sternum.
“How old are you, little man?” Susan asked, voice soft.
Sniffling. “Seven.” The boy said without looking up.
“Nah, man.” Susan softened the a sound in man, turned it into mon. “You younger than that. Still got that adorable baby lisp.”
Susan rubbed the small child gently on the back, soothing. Shae’s shoulders stopped bobbing. “What’s your name again, little man?”
“OK, Shae, my little brother from another mother, how old you be, really?”
“Five.” Shae said softly. Kin’s eyelids flared.
“Oh man.” Susan ran his hand over his head.
Wooly popped back up, tall on his knees. “You’re five? Five?” He practically shouted the number. “They signed you up and lied about your age?” Wooly emphasized the “and” for full dramatic effect. “Whoa, you’re parents must really have a hate on for you.”
“They’re not my parents.” Shae said.
Shae is up and out of his seat before anyone can react. Up and headed for the front of the bus, straight into the crotch of a blonde woman with government authority swag like an out of control rash spread across the expanse of her pocket laden jacket. She adeptly catches Shae like she’s defending a goal, leans over and begins to shush the child with hushed tones. Everyone stares silently until she looks up and frantically waves at them all to go on with their business, eyes hard.
New conversations erupt around the bus. Beside Kin, Benny looks from the woman with Shae to Kin and back again, cheeks going red. Kin puts a hand on his arm and tells hims to breath slow, everything is all right. She knows the signs. Benny needs to stay calm, bus isn’t even moving yet.
Kin watches the woman console Shae. Console and effectively guarantee he doesn’t leave the bus. Kin feels eyes on her and glances over her shoulder, finds Susan’s gaze levelled on her. He doesn’t smile as his eyes turn towards Benny. Benny, who seems intent on counting down from chaos. Kin looked at Benny, then back to Susan.
“He’s quite a fella, isn’t he?” Susan’s flash of thin smile felt forced to Kin. “He maybe wrote you in to watch out for him. He’s on your dime then, kid. You’re responsibility. No take backs now.”
Susan’s smile vanished and he rolled around in his seat to look out the window. No matter how many times Kin glanced his way, Susan didn’t turn back until the bus lurched forward and rolled off the tarmac to join the progression of vehicles headed up the highway towards a destination far outside the city limits.
Soon after the government woman ushered Shae up the aisle. His face looked blotchy from crying, eyes swollen and red. Susan perked up and put up a hand and elbowed the kid next to him off the bench. The woman nodded and coaxed Shae onto the bench next to Susan. Susan leaned down and whispered something into Shae’s ear. Soon he had the boy sitting up taller, not long after laughing about something Susans had said. Kin watched them and suddenly felt that these were people she wanted to continue to know. Not just today on the bus, but after, once they all returned home.
She thought of Wooly’s story and frowned. If they all returned home.
At some point one of the crew put on music. Kin had never heard anything like the warbling guitars and pining voices bleeding from the speakers set into the walls of the wobbling, creaking cabin. Every tune became an instant classic to Kin, tamping mile markers into the journey as her rocking soul rolled along gathering no moss.
She watched the world pass by through a thick window, wondering how much of the distorted landscape came from grime on the glass versus the weight of time’s passage. Small houses reclaimed by nature, consumed, twisted trees jutting up from collapsed barns, glimpses of husks of mysterious and massive buildings when the road had high enough ground or the rolling shoulders sagged.
“When are we gonna be there, Kin?” Benny said from beside her.
“Soon, I think.” Kin said, shrugging. “Did you bring any books?” She looked at his face. “No, course you didn’t. Want me to read to you?”
“No, thank you for the offer, but I think I’m too excited to pay attention and I know how much repeating yourself makes you mad, Kin.”
“Benny, I… ” Kin stared at the side of her friend’s face. Around them kids chat or drowsed, head bobbing in time with the bumps of the road.
“I think we’re close, Kin. I think we must be.” Benny said, eyes showing far too much wet white in the gloom.
“Oh, we’re definitely close.” Susan said from his bench where he and Shae were playing a variation of Go Fish that involved Rock Paper Scissors whenever a player contested a response. A quick study, Shae had learned to contest every reply and always play Scissors.
“I heard one of the loaders saying this jaunt would be going nine hours deep.” Susan shrugged. “We’ve been rolling over eight so we must be close.”
“You’ve done this before.” Kin said. “Six times? Really?”
Susan began to deal. “This really is my sixth time.” He looked at Shae. “How many is that?” Shae held up double scissors. “Close, but you’re a couple fingers short, little man.” He pried the boy’s thumbs out. “There you go, that’s six.”
“Do you even submit an application?” Kin drew her feet up onto the bench and rest arms on her knees, leaning back against Benny’s cushy girth.
“Susan’s folks did.” He smiled. “I accepted on her behalf.” He plucked a scrap of paper from his jacket pocket and held it up. “Easy order to fill, couple extra things for her parents.” He lift his voice a bit to get Beny’s attention. “Hey big handsome, what’d you get asked to get?”
Benny looked surprised to be spoken too, fleeting glee too swiftly melting into sadness. “The nice lady I talked to said she wanted me to find her lost dog. She showed me pictures and everything, even gave me one, want to see it?” He began to root through his pockets.
“I told Benny that maybe we could find a stuffed animal or something. I mean, dogs just don’t live that long.” Kin said. “Do they?”
“Honestly,” Susan scratched his chin. “I’m pretty sure the only thing close to a dog to make it out there now is descended from wolves or coyotes, and even those seem few and far between.”
“So definitely not this then?” Benny held up a tiny, crisscross creased photo of a fuzzy ball with eyes and teeth.
Susan whistled. “I don’t think that was ever a dog. She’s right, find something fuzzy and put a couple googly eyes on it, lady’ll never know the difference.”
Susan pointed at Shae. “They took him to the same dude his sister’d talked too. Same request, tap shoes.” He scowled. “No offense, little guy, but more I hear about them, more you’re people starting to get on my last nerve.”
Shae nodded and held a card up for Susan to see, not fully getting the part about asking for a particular card. Susan shook his head and Shae readied his scissors.
Kin said, “That’s not a happy mission.”
Susan shrugged. “Forget them. We’re going to look for cool stuff and even if we stumble across some tap shoes, we’re not getting them. I mean, we aren’t even going to the same place his sister went. Those jerks didn’t even go see the old woman the kid was assigned to see, just dragged him back to that old dance teacher.”
“Wow.” Kin shook her head. “Technically I didn’t see the right person, either.” She pointed to the picture Benny still had out, squinting at it in the gloom. “He’s holding the dog I’d have been sent to fetch. We saw the man he was supposed to talk to and I could tell Benny wouldn’t get along with him.”
Benny put the picture away. “I didn’t like him. Something bad with him.” He hugged himself and shuddered, jostling Kin bouncing enough to nearly tumble her off the bench. “He scared me.”
“Benny doesn’t really trust anyone that reminds him of his grandfather.” Kin pat Benny over her shoulder, mostly to get him to stop moving. He settled. “Understandably, that guy scared milk sour.” Kin shrugged. “So we traded and he got the dog lady. I got a nice, soft spoken old man looking for something from his childhood.”
“They all want something from their childhood.” Susan said. “They’re the only ones with memories predating life as how we happen to know it.”
“True, just that he is easily ten to twenty years older than most of the elderly in that place.” Kin paused to let that sink in.
“So?” Susan said.
Kin shrugged. “He told me all about his childhood, about being passed back and forth every week between parents that couldn’t stand each other. People that didn’t want to own up to the child they’d brought into the world. So whenever they wanted to express their fondness, or to bribe him for his, they bought him toys, games, whatever he asked for or they heard boys his age might like.”
“Spoiled him rotten. Now he wants it all back?” Susan asked.
Kin shook her head. “No, exactly the opposite.”
She recalled listening to the old man with the vast, jutting eyebrows set blazing by the sunlight falling through the tall, narrow slit of his residence window. “He wants me to try to find a plastic case of little plastic figures that has within it the only toys he got from his parents while they were all together. Still happy.”
Susan nodded, lips pursed.
Kin continued. “His parents started out poor and could only afford to get him a couple little toys each year, one from them and another from some fictional character that snuck into people’s homes on some winter holiday.”
“Santa, baby.” Susan said. “You’re going to learn a lot about history on this trip.”
Susan let Shae win another hand and conceded another card that didn’t match anything Shae had. “Let me guess. His parents got money into their lives, maybe just one of them did, and presto the wonderful family picture is destroyed, love all leaked out of their lives.”
Kin nodded, thinking of her Nana. Of the ruined birthday dinner. Of that officious rap at the door that came because Benny fell for an ice cream bribe.
“Been there, done that.” Susan said. “Parents, man, overrated. Am I right?” He held out a hand to Shae. Shae looked at him with his head cocked sideways for a moment. Susan took Shae’s hand and guided it over to gently slap his open palm. Shae nodded, grinned, and exclaimed, “Again!”
Outside more and thicker clusters of buildings and houses began to dot the sides of the road. The front end of the bus got busy as the adult crew roused and began prepping for arrival. Kin could hear muffled instructions being given to the kids upstairs.
“Other than me, none of you guys have done this before, right?” Susan’s voice drew the attention of most kids in the last third of the bus. A couple sleepy heads dangled down from upstairs, fists rubbing eyes clear.
Susan pointed out the windows, at the remnants of houses, schools, and playgrounds passing by. “Let me be the first to warn you that what you see out there won’t line up with the sticky pudding your kindly administrative bodies have been shilling you, and you’re going to need to be ok with that.”
Susan surveyed meaningfully. Shea looked ready to size up a horse. Benny looked out the window, the waterbed of him warm against Kin’s back.
“And there’s some procedure about clouds.” Susan shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure why, but if you see a bunch of clouds coming in like it’s going to rain, pack up and head back to the bus.” He scanned the crowd. “Again, I don’t know why, but I’ve heard of buses leaving kids behind because heaven started dumping rain on ‘em.”
Kin started to laugh, then stopped when Susan glared at her. He shook his head sharply. She nodded, looked out the window and felt great relief seeing clear skies stretching out past the horizon.
“And you all have cards, right? Plastic with a shape on them.” Susan paused as kids began looking around themselves, patting pockets and opening backpacks. Kin watched kids find their cards as she tapped her own zipped safely inside her breast pocket with notes from the old man about where he’d lived as a teen on alternate weeks.
“Do not lose those cards.” Susan sounded like a parent. “Those get you a ride home.” Susan smiled. “Ideally they match up with a particular transport, but I’ve hopped the wrong bus home using my charm and the card I happened to have.” His smile disappeared. “I do know they’ll leave you behind if you don’t have one. Do not test this advice.”
An adult marched towards them up the aisle, issuing instructions and stipulations. Never once mentioning the clouds, or the cards. Kids looked back and forth from Susan to the adult. Susan stood and pushed Shae out into the aisle, ducked around the adult and beat the rush to the front. Kin saw Susan waving at the blonde woman that’d previously caught Shae, then lost sight of them as kids began to spill out into the aisles.
Impatient riders swarmed towards the front as the bus rocked to a halt among several other busses and an industrial collage of flatbeds, forklifts, cherry pickers, dump trucks, and a myriad of cargo trucks. Kin followed Benny through the press, scouring the crowd for Susan and Shea.
Outside Kin spot Susan talking to the blonde government woman that had earlier caught runaway Shae. A lot of words were shooting back and forth while both seemed concerned with keeping an over over their shoulders. The blonde woman’s face shifted from annoyed to concerned to exhausted to relieved. Susan easily stood a full head taller than the adult, and Kin wondered if Shae wasn’t the only kid on the bus lying about their age.
Susan plucked Shae up from the bustling crowd and hoist the child up onto his long bow shoulders. Kin watched Susan hold something up for the woman to inspect. Cards. Same kind Susan had recently given cautionary advice about to the kids at the back of the bus.
As she watched, the woman looked around, then took one of the two cards from Susan and dug a replacement card from one of her many pockets. Susan had a huge smile as he took the card. Soon as the plastic left her fingers, the blonde woman disappeared, scurried away, disappeared into the seething crowd. Kin didn’t understand. Return tickets, so what? Why trade?
Susan spot Kin and Benny and waved. Shae joined in. Beside Kin, Benny waved back, face disappearing behind a massive smile.
Once back together, Kin asked, “What do these cards mean?” She held up hers. “Really?”
Susan looked at her card, then said. “Looks like it means we’re sharing a ride home together.” Kin waited for more, Susan gave nothing else.
“Does the black diamond means something specifically?” She asked.
“Mine has a diamond on it, too.” Benny added helpfully.
Susan pat Benny’s shoulder. “Means we’re cohorts now. Let’s go find somebody can tell us where our destination is.” He pointed towards where other kids were grouping into packs, holding their cards up for adults to scrutinize. He elbowed Kin, pointed with his chin. “Black diamond means we aren’t with any of them. Giving a five year old a black diamond card is about as stupid as trying to stop a train with your forehead.” Susan frowned. “Black diamond means unchaperoned.”
Kin shook her head, at a loss for words. She glanced at Benny. Fifteen going on five.
As they wormed through the flash mob, Kin noticed some adults near an open truck were shrugging on vests and armor, others unloading weapons from crates. She poked Susan and pointed, he frowned and shook his head, pulled her along.
The first adult slow and unaccompanied enough to accost gave them directions to a group of scavengers near the farthest forward and likely first on scene massive vehicle. A burly, armored beast that might once have been several separate vehicles unnaturally conjoined into a segmented monstrosity. Wooden wedges locked it in place where it sat near the mouth of a bridge arching over open water into the heart of downtown. It wobbled on it’s shocks as people moved around inside.
Susan spot someone he knew and let out a war cry.
“Davenport, my man! You uglier than I remember.” Susan warmly displayed a lot of teeth.
A brick wall of a man looked up from his backpack, eyes surprised, delighted. He stood, closed distance, and Swept up Susan into a brotherly hug, taking Shae along incidentally.
“Group hug!” Shae announced loudly.
Davenport stepped back. “Teddy, man, I wondered if you’d make it this year.”
“It’s Susan now.”
“How many names have you had, man?”
“Teddy, Bootsy, Rosie, Martin. Couple more before that.” Susan grinned. “Gotta keep things fresh, right?”
“Sensing a trend.”
“Nah, this girl was white.” Susan grinned.
“So was Teddy.”
“Teddy was a girl?” Susan looked confused. “Nevermind that, we have addresses here but no one gave us a map for where to go.”
“Right. So you come interrupt my work so I can be your tour guide.” Davenport smiled.
“It’s not like that, D.” Susan pointed at Shae. “Little man here needs coverage, and I got no where else better to be.”
Davenport seemed to have noticed Shae for the first time. “Holy. How old is he?”
“To young not to know any better. Show him your scissor skills, little man.” Shae held up his scissors like a champ. Beside Kin, Benny emulated the gesture. Kin gently palmed his arm down.
“They with you too?” Davenport pointed at Kin and Benny.
Susan nodded. “I tried to shake ‘em, but they were too good for me.”
Davenport snorted through flared nostrils. “Ok. Well. You.” He pointed at Susan. “You will have to keep an eye on all of them.” He pointed at Shae, Kin, and Benny.
“The boy and I’ll tag along with these two and keep ‘em out of trouble. Fine by you?” Susan said.
Davenport shrugged. “Totally fine by me. Safety in numbers.”
Davenport squint towards the western horizon where the ocean kissed infinity. “Look, we’re still at the staging ground and there’s clouds burying the horizon.” Davenport pointed to a bumpy bank of clouds furrowed on the distant edge of the ocean. “That’s not as far out as it looks. Wind is swift this end of the world.”
Susan nodded, no longer smiling. “Look, I don’t mean to impose, but could you do us a kindly and not roll off without us?”
“Yeah.” Davenport flipped his bag shut and shouldered it. “Long as you’re back here before those clouds. Let me see your addresses.”
Kin and Benny obliged, producing the survivors’ request chits and Benny’s dog photo. Susan nodded without showing anything, hands open. Davenport gave Susan a curious eye. Shae pointed finger scissors at Benny.
“Ok.” Davenport handed the papers back. “You need to go downtown, across the bridge. I’m headed that way.” He glanced west. “Let’s get on the bounce.”
Susan looked at the massive green suspension bridge, back at Davenport. “That bridge is pretty high up.”
“We’ve had goons humping back and forth for hours. It’s fine.” Davenport slapped Susan on the back. “Shouldn’t you’ve dropped a pair by now, Susan?”
Susan feigned indignation as the group began shuffling towards the bridge.
Across the bridge and through the woods to a merry downtown core we go. Davenport passed them off to other ruffnecks in his detachment, each steering in the right direction, ultimately delivering the group into a length of street lined with tenant houses down one side and stubby, wide office buildings up the other.
A buff woman wearing a massive tool belt emerged from one of the tenant houses and waved to them. The group scuttled over, Susan cradling a weary Shae against his shoulder.
“Got word a bunch of kids were on this side of the bridge.” She grinned and Kin marvelled at the number of the woman’s teeth were encased in shiny metal. “Davenport wants you bugged.”
The woman leaned towards each of them and attached a gizmo looking like a beetle with a button fused into it’s back. Kin winced as the thing’s legs clamped onto the fabric of her coveralls.
She attached Shae’s to the back of Shae’s puffy vest. Easier for Susan to grab, Kin supposed.
“Panic button?” Kin said, pulling the front of her coveralls out to get a better look at the device.
“Yup.” The woman replied. “Get into trouble, hit the button and hope one of us is still in the vicinity.” She smiled and sunlight glint off her metal teeth causing Kin to squint.
Benny pointed to the black streaks going up the facade of the office building across the street.
“Fire.” The woman said. “Might’ve been on purpose. Look in there through the windows, see the shapes?”
The group crossed the street and peered into gloom through a long ago shattered plate glass window.
“Sort of.” Kin said. “Lumpy and jaggy? Like branches.” Kin felt her stomach flipflop. The idea of seeing dead people somehow hadn’t occurred to her.
The woman studied Kin’s face. “Yeah, you got it.”
“Why would they burn the dead there? Like that?” Kin said, voice weak.
“Who said they were dead when the fire was put to them?” The woman’s shrugged. “And on that happy note, I have to go, those bags aren’t going to fill themselves.” She pointed to a row of rubberized mail sacks sitting by the curb. “I believe that’s your building. Get in and get out. If the floors feel springy, get out. If you feel shaking, get out. If stuff starts falling from the ceiling.”
“Get out.” Susan said. “We know the drill.”
“You got light sticks?” The woman asked.
Kin answered. “Yes.”
“Good.” She said. “Probably dark as the inside of a bat’s ass in there. Don’t be afraid to pop some windows open for more light.”
“OK.” Kin said as the woman nodded, showed them an enthusiastic thumbs up, collected her mail sacks, and head away up the street.
Benny cracked a light stick and headed straight into the building.
Kin shouted, “Wait for us, Benny.” Benny ignored her.
On the stoop of the building, Kin fished two light sticks from her thigh pocket and held them out to Shae as Susan set the boy on the ground. “Do you want these? I have extra.” Shae smiled and took the waxy sticks, began popping and shaking them to make them glow. Soon the sticks were nearly too bright to look at directly. He walked slowly into the building, crouched a bit like a ninja, slowly waving the light sticks before him as though warding off malicious spirits.
“That was good of you, sis.” Susan said. “Glad you packed extras.”
As she passed Susan and head into the building, she softly replied, “I didn’t. He needs them more than I do.”
Benny swiftly disappeared from sight into the darkness beyond the foyer. Kin could hear heavy footfalls bounding away, and began to smell the years of neglect.
“Slow down, Benny.” Kin yelled into the gloom. “Where’d you go?”
“Down here.” Benny sounded muffled, far away. “The floor is bouncy.” Joyous laughter.
“Benny, that’s a bad thing.” Susan said from behind Kin while Shae’s light sticks lit up the hallway ahead of them, albeit from a low angle source.
They hustled towards the sound of Benny’s voice, stepping carefully down the length of a hallway, dazzling harsh light carving shapes from the clutter lining the walls that Kin willed herself not to become unsettled by. “We need to stay together.”
“We are together. There’s no one else in this entire building.” More laughter, getting closer. “It’s our building now, when you think about it.” A gale of gleeful laughter, not afraid one iota. “We could all take turns being king. I’d demand pie for every meal.”
“Pie does kick cake’s ass.” Susan said. Kin laughed.
Benny appeared from a doorway just ahead of them, grinning wide and waving his hands about. “I don’t think I’d want to live here though. Smells like the inside of a rotten pumpkin.” Benny pinched his nose dramatically, making his voice sound strange. “The smell is no big deal once you get used to it. Just breathe shallow and enjoy.”
“Sounds like a sweet deal. Allow me to run away now.” Kin stepped around a mound of cardboard and what might’ve been book covers once, pointed at a doorway. “Can you make out the number on there?”
Benny squinted at the door. “Sixteen, I think.” Benny pointed to an open doorway on the other side of the hall. “That side doesn’t have a door. The floor in there is awesome. Want to try it?”
“No, thanks. I like this whole staying alive thing. Sort of my thing.” Kin squint up the hall. “We’re close then. We’re looking for twelve and eleven, they should be across the hall from one another. Guess the old man and the dog lady were neighbors in a previous life.”
Susan said, “We’ll take the next ones down, then, see if we can find something fun to bring back.” He led Shae to Benny, pausing and pointing into the room with the missing door. “The building is mostly concrete, but if that floor in there is bouncy, means it’s likely missing support and could cave in. Sorry to ruin your fun, big fella, but if you like living, stay out of there.”
Benny stuck his lower lip out for a moment and mumbled, “OK.” Kin worried he might act out but as soon as the thought formed in her head Benny brightened up and began reading numbers off doors further along the hallway. “Fourteen, Thirteen, no number on this one. Oh, I think it’s a stairwell.”
Benny walked with Kin up the hall towards the doors with twelve and eleven on them respectively. The doors were offset from one another, one door displaced by a utility closet. Benny found a metal mop handle in the closet and took to waving it around like a sword against the darkness, making Shae laugh and demand a sword as well, a request soon answered with a plunger.
Kin tried both doors. The door to unit eleven held fast while twelve swung open easily. “Your room is open, Benny, so let’s get that recovery done first.”
Benny nodded, “If there’s anything left to recover. Remember what the teacher said about open doors.”
“Right, open could mean left in a hurry, or could mean looted.” Kin looked into the unit for a moment, saw a short hallway that lead into a larger room, presumably a living room. “Only one way to find out.”
Susan stopped Kin with a hand on her shoulder before her foot crossed the threshold. He waved at Benny to hand over the metal mop handle. “Hallways have more support than rooms, or so I’ve been told. Guess cause the framing is closer together. Always take a pole to tap your way along and listen to the sound of the floor. The more hollow it sounds, the less supported it is. If it’s hollow, start making sure it’s still strong enough, and try to stick to the edges of the room, not go out into the middle.”
Kin saw Shae nodding solemnly next to Susan’s thigh. Shae flipped the plunger upside down and rapped the tip of the handle against the hallway floor. Kin took the metal mop handle from Susan and smiled. “Thanks.”
Susan shrugged. “You’re the one with the huge backpack. Be a shame if you went through the floor. This is the first floor but most city buildings had a couple floors underneath for parking their vehicles or basements for laundry. Either way, nasty hurt come from a fall like that.” Susan pointed at Benny. “And I know I can’t carry him out of here.”
Kin laughed and tapped her way into the apartment. Benny followed after, walking on tip toe.
Kin negotiated the length of the short hallway and began to cross the room. She did the step, test, wait, step technique, hugging the wall just in case, tapping the floor with the mop handle and listening to what the floor reported back.
She crossed the room to the curtains on the far side, gave them a tug. Instead of opening, the rod holding the curtains popped out of it’s anchors and Kin found herself engulfed with dank smelling fabric. She yelped as the curtains pulled her to the floor.
Benny helped untangle Kin from the curtains, their eyes blinking from the stark daylight flooding in through the big, grimy windows overlooking railroad tracks and concrete docks heaped with rusted shipping containers like the ones used for residences back home.
Susan yelled from the hall. “You all alright?”
“Just pulled down the curtains.” Kin said.
“Good. Did the same thing once with a shower curtain. Nearly pissed myself.” Susan replied. “We’re heading up to have a peek into nine and ten. Meet you up there when you’re done.”
“Let me know if you find a dog.” Benny called.
Susan laughed. “Right, you’ll be the first to know, big fella. Oh, and I popped the lock for you on Eleven. At a glance looks like it’s pristine in there.”
“Thanks.” Kin called, beginning to tap her way around the room to the cupboards. “Come on, Benny, let’s find something fuzzy to take back for your lady friend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.” Benny deadpanned. They both erupted into giggles.
After collecting a few items, Kin sent Benny on to help Susan watch over Shea while she rooted through unit eleven.
She found clothing, jewellery, a creepy music box, nothing worth dropping into her bag. People didn’t like the idea of wearing items not directly connected to their own family history. Her Nana would be horrified if Kin showed up with a gift bag full of some dead woman’s jewelry, maybe even call Kin a grave robber. No sweet bread for a month. So Kin’s backpack still held slack empty until she entered the bedroom that had to have belonged to the old man as a boy. His descriptions were thorough to the point of confusion until Kin stood among his kingdom and suddenly understood. Context is certainly everything.
Glossy posters of spaceships and monsters may have faded over time, but if at all, not by much. Once Kin opened the curtains and blinds, she stood in a boy’s room filled with toys, papers with posters, and heaped with organized passions, just as the man had promised. Comic books, something Kin had seldom seen and never touched before, each sealed inside a plastic bag with a white card insert to keep the comic book flat.
Toys still in their packages hung on pegs along the top of the walls, a few had fallen over time. Plastic castles made of tiny bricks with tiny plastic soldiers defending the battlements, landscaped across the breadth of thin shelving, what hadn’t turned into ramps from fatigue.
Kin leafed through the comics, careful of the aging, bulging boxes holding them, judging the thin books by their covers and selecting a few to slip into her backpack.
She took the castle and everything that seemed to fit with it, breaking it up to better fit it into her bag hoping her mental snapshots would suffice for later reassembly.
Kin plucked robots and reptiles, monsters and machinations, a mix of toys she thought would make children in her neighborhood happy, if nothing else.
The old man had told her where in his closet he’d stashed his plastic case of childhood treasure. She dug in and after exhuming a lot of stale and withered things, she felt something like a small briefcase and knew she’d found the old man’s long lost buried treasure.
She pulled it free, admired the scenes of epic space war on every surface, explosions and spaceships, a supernova and ample other cosmic chaos. She found the snap on the front and popped it open carefully. Inside the case sat a compartmented tray with a toy in each slot. She sat the case on the bed and wiggled the top most tray out of the case to reveal the case beneath.
And sitting in the middle of the lower tray sat a plastic character that had no meaning for Kin, but at a glance matched the old man’s description perfectly. Brown? Check. Plastic red wings? Check. Black face with pale, red eyes? Check. Little black plastic gun pegged into the closed loop of one hand? Check.
She held the tiny thing in her hand. It was shorter than all of the others, certainly uglier. The old man had explained that the toy represented an unpopular background character from the movies he’d adored as a child.
He’d been able to identify with the character since he’d felt unpopular and relegated to supporting background actor himself, in his family first and eventually school and life otherwise.
Further, as an unpopular character, the toy had been cheaper in the stores, clearance. All his parents could afford when they’d still been together. The most beloved toy of his childhood is the toy that no other kids wanted.
She turned the little figure over and over between her fingers, enjoying the feel of the plastic, standing by the window to read the text a finger stroke had discerned ran along the back of one of its legs. “Hong Kong, 1978.” She stared at the holes in the bottoms of it’s feet. She debated trying to move the limbs and decided if anyone should break something off accidentally, it should be the old man himself.
She returned the figure to the bottom tray, returned the top tray, and snapped the case closed. She felt relief that the whole case would fit in her backpack, then pulled the case out again. The pillowcases on the bed had similar art to the case. She shucked the pillows from the pillowcases and sheathed the toy case in doubly ply fabric sacks. She replaced the case into her backpack and had a last look around the room for anything that seemed irreplaceable.
Irreplaceable. Occurred to Kin tat that moment that out of her group, she would be the only one returning with exactly the memory requested.
She dropped a few other figures she spot that seemed related to the ones in the case from the floor, desk, and shelves. She looked at all the comics and other things she simply didn’t have room for. She wondered if someday perhaps she might come back, or someone like her. That question in mind, she closed the blinds and curtains, noticing as she did that the curtains were of the same themes as the pillowcases and toy case.
As Kin stepped back into the hall she heard felt the building shimmy, heard the colossal crash, followed by metallic screeching and strobing alarms.
“I don’t want to look. You look.” Benny had huge eyes and a shake to his voice. Kin felt no better. Smoke rolled out of a doorway at the end of the hall.
“I think it’s time to clear out.” Susan said, point back toward the foyer atrium.
“I’ll go look.” Shae said and dart forward. Kin caught him and stepped around him.
“Thanks Shae, but it’s too dangerous.” She squat down to match him eyeline. “Let’s get outside where it’s safe.” She pointed up. “We don’t want this whole building crashing down on our heads, do we?”
Shae slowly shook his head, still glancing towards the source of the dust and smoke, a child’s call to adventure.
“I want to go.” Benny said.
Susan nodded, “I agree with the big fella. This is most definitely not part of our regularly scheduled programming.” He hefted up his satchel. “I have more than enough to bring back, Shae can barely stand up since that kid won’t leave anything that looks magic behind.
He pointed at Kin’s bulging backpack. “You look like there is a whole ‘nother you inside that backpack of yours.” Susan grinned. “Andand we found a fuzzy toy critter for big man there, so he’s covered.”
“I have more stuffs than that.” Benny said, looking proud. “Let’s go.”
They first heard the voice when they emerged onto the street. Didn’t take long to see that the source of the distorted voice came from where something big and metal had crashed into the side of the building, and brought down a considerable portion of the adjacent structure. Susan whistled softly.
“Oh my god, oh my god.” The voice crackled and hissed, coming from a speaker that had taken a two story fall. “Gerdy? Gerdy? Hello?”
Shae put Susan’s legs between himself and the debris as something man shaped began to flail and heave in the midst of the carnage.
Kin looked at her compatriots, back to the struggling form. “what kind of suit is that? Looks like what painters wear to me.”
Susan nodded. “I think it’s a hazmat suit, except way bulkier than any of the ones I’ve run across before.” Susan turned and looked at Shae. “I don’t plan to hang around and find out why.”
“Oh god, I think my arm is broken.” Kin thought the distorted voice sounded calmer than such a declaration might merit. “And my leg. Poor leg. Yup, going to lose that.”
“Should we help?” Kin kept looking back and forth from Susan to the pinned stranger. “Maybe it’s someone from your friend’s team?”
Susan shook his head. “Nope. I have no idea where that person is from.” He looked up, the others followed his gaze. Clouds were wooly and well on their way across the sky above them, consuming the blue as though famished.
She looked at Benny. His calm surprised her. “What do you think, Benny?”
He shrugged. “What if that’ll were one of us?”
Kin nodded, rolled out of her backpack and sat it next to Susan. “Yeah, we should help.”
Benny rocked on his heels, chewing his bottom lip.
“My poor leg.” The distorted voice said. “I’ll definitely never dance again.”
Before Susan could react, Sheae bolted around his legs and scurried closer to the strange, slowing when his shoes began to shuffle through the skirt of the debris.
Kin quickly caught up to the boy, sliding noisily through loose bricks and plaster to put herself between him and the stranger. As they drew closer she could see how pieces of the buildings facade and a metal strut dangling a mane of colourful wires were locking the person in the suit in place. She looked at the damaged leg and had to look away, stomach tight.
“Hello?” Kin called out. “Do you need help?” She could hear Benny and Susan coming up behind her.
“What. Who’s there?” The person’s voice screeched, suited head raising towards them, a hand floundering around until it landed on the butt of something webbed to their waistline, unsnapped a clasp and began pulling out something bulky, something with a barrel. A gun. The children froze.
Somewhere up the street the breeze slapped a hoist line against the hollow metal of a flagpole, tapping out a melancholy metronome.
“You’re just children.” The head sagged back, the muzzle of the gun lowered. “Just children.”
Benny stepped past Kin and pointed at the metal strut. “If I move that, I think we could drag them out.”
The gun snapped back up. “Don’t.” The tip of the guns barrel flicked up a couple times sharply as though scaring away flies. “I know where you’re from.” The voice wheezed. “You’ll kill me.”
“I don’t think that’s in our repertoire.” Susan said. “And looks like you’re well headed there already on your own.” He made the shape of a gun with his thumb and forefinger. “Unless you want to die here, if you want us to help you, that bang banger has to go.”
The figure held the gun up in front of their visor, as though discovering an unexpected growth on their hand. The children watched the gun arc through the air, bounce off the cobblestones and slide into the gutter on the far side. “I’m not getting any younger.” The figure warbled.
Benny reached the trapped stranger first, Susan directly on his heels, directing and holding debris whole Kin carefully got a grip in the heavy fabric of the stranger’s suit. Up close, Kin could see through the faceplate, discover a gaunt woman, huge eyes sleepily looking back from inside the thick, burly suit.
Shea stood with the backpacks while the boys worked to get enough weight off of the stranger for Kin to tug her clear.
“She weighs a ton.” Kin said.
“Gotta be the suit.” Susan replied. “Benny, let’s trade. You lift this and I’ll wiggle that forward.”
“It is.” The woman said through a speaker on the neckline of the suit. “Best bubble suit brand in Heaven.” The crackling speaker made her laugh sound ghostly, Kin cringed. “There’s an armature in it that helps make a person stronger, faster. Fat lot of good that did when I didn’t stick the landing.” She pointed to the rooftops across the street. “Meant to touch down up there.”
“I think your suit’s what’s keeping your leg on.” Susan said, voice flat. “That’s it, Bernie, I can feel this strut starting to budge. You got your back in it, big fella?”
“I got it.” Benny said through clenched teeth, face flushed
“OK, when I say pull, girl, you pull like there’s a prize waiting.” Susan spat on his hands, something the woman’s face in the visor notably recoiled from. He gripped the metal dangling wires. “Ok, gang. One. Two. Three. And pull.”
Benny huffed, Susan puffed, Kin pulled, and Shae watched wide eyed. Kin felt her back begin to ache as the woman in the suit slid an inch, another, then cleared the obstruction and lurched across loose drywall flecked with colorful wallpaper towards Kin, causing Kin to drop backwards onto her backend.
“Benny, she’s clear, let go.” Susan said, letting go himself. Benny stumbled backward and Susan spryly got out of Benny’s way, standing to put a guiding hand on Benny’s shoulder. “Let’s get away from this building. I have a feeling more of that up there is going to collapse.”
The boys helped Kin drag the woman in the suit down the street and across to the far side. Shae tried to bring all the backpacks at once, found them to heavy, and began to fetch them o5ne after another.
They leaned the woman up against the wall. Susan reached towards the drooping helmet, she smacked his hand away and raised her head, staring at the sky. After a moment the woman’s head inside the helmet turned and looked at Kin.
“I’m not supposed to be in this area.” The woman seemed strangely calm to Kin. “I definitely wasn’t supposed to crash into it. Worst sneaky deployment ever.”
The kids put their packs back on. Susan picked up Shae and stepped back away from the woman.
“Is that a space suit?” Shae asked.
Kin thought of the toys in her backpack and nodded. “Sort of looks like one, doesn’t it. I’ve never seen a real one.”
“You guys are getting bold.” The woman winced, glanced at Kin. “Not you, you’re just a. Kid.” She winced again. “Whoever brought you. Coming this far south. Not the deal.”
“What deal?” Said Susan.
“Ha. Hunh.” The woman tried to stand, slide her back up the wall. Almost. Almost. Collapsed back down again. “Well that’s dandy.”
“What are you talking about?” Kin said. “What deal?”
“Your boss, or leader. He bailed, didn’t he, must’ve known we’d be ready.” She tried to stand again and Kin could hear things whining from all throughout the suit. No good, and Kin could hear a faint alarm sound pinging from inside the helmet. “Kids, I’m going to need a favor.”
“Ready for what? What deal?” Kin looked up at the approaching clouds.
“Doesn’t matter. None of it matters.” The woman leans over Kin, servos squealing complaint. Kin is positive the suit is keeping the woman alive and upright. “You wouldn’t believe the drugs this suit is propping me up with right now. Rainbows and butterflies, kids. Stay in school.”
“What favor?” Susan asked, also sky gazing. “Cause we have to go or we’re going to miss our ride.”
“If you haven’t already.” She laughed, distorted by the speaker enough to make Kin’s teeth itch. “As soon as I wiped out my suit called for help. If any of my fellows happen to see you out there, you’ll be euthanized. That’s the charming term we use up there in heaven, floating up there in the clouds. Euthanize.”
“I know what euthanize means, lady.” Susan said, holding Shae tightly. “Gang, crazy space suit lady is right, we gotta go.”
“Hey dark and handsome,” The woman just her face forward and kissed her faceplate, leaving a smear. “Did you also know that if I took off this helmet and did that to you that I’d be dead inside of fifteen minutes, ten if you cut out the melting eyeballs and bleeding out of every orifice part.” The woman laughed.
“Man, you’re so nasty.” Susan said. “Nobody dies like that.”
“Lucky ones did. Anybody left now most definitely would.” The woman sounded proud, punctuating her comments with a finger thrust into the air. “People that went up to heaven I mean.” She lowered her voice, whispering her words conspiritally. “The cloud people.”
Benny’s cheeks were flushed, brows knit. Kin put a hand on his arm, looked at Susan. “Do you know what she’s talking about?” Susan shook his head, brows high.
“Like your leaders would ever tell you what really happened.” The woman pointed towards a wide gap between the buildings across the street, several doors down from her crash site. Beyond the buildings, the children could see a rusty chain link fence with a lot of collapsed sections separating them from rows of train tracks and long dormant railway cars. “If you don’t want to meet more people from the clouds, heaven’s gun toting finest, I suggest you follow those train tracks to get back to your people.”
“What is she talking about?” Shae asked.
“No idea, little man.” Susan stood and looked around. “But she’s right about getting a move on. We need to get back to Davenport. It’s not safe for us here.”
“Nope.” The woman said, shaking her head fiercely in her helmet. “And now I’m dizzy.”
An explosion several blocks away caused the children to cower. Susan looked at Shae for a moment, then moved his hand to hit the button on the gizmo Davenport had given each of them.
“Wait,” the woman said. “That looks like a panic button. Hit that and it’ll bring your people this way.”
“That’s the general idea.” Susan said. Shae nodded.
“It’ll get them all killed.” The woman sighed, through the speaker sounded like an engine dying. “If they weren’t already in that explosion.” Another burp of an explosion sounded from far away. “Or that one.”
Kin’s jaw worked. “That what you do? Come down and blow up people?”
“Or shoot them. What you do with trespassers.” She pointed towards the tracks. “Follow those. Go left, beck towards the sea.” She waved her hand. “Should lead you most of the way back to the bridge. Or, if you really want to stay safe, look for a boat and paddle across.” The woman tried to pantomime rowing a canoe, failed miserably. “You know what I mean.” She formed a bridge with her hands held flat. “Don’t trust bridges when things are going boom.”
Benny cocked his head. “I think I hear someone coming.” Kin listened hard and sure enough the sounds of chatter were bouncing towards them from somewhere a block or so away.
“Once you can see the bridge, you’ll be ok to hit your panic buttons so your people can come get you, or at least know to wait for you before they run away.” She laughed. “They always run away.”
“So should we.” Susan said, turning on a heel and heading for the tracks.
“Why are you helping us?” Kin asked.
“I don’t like what we do up there.” The woman pointed to the sky. Kin looked up and suddenly felt menace in the thick steel wool clouds boiling and seething up there. “The jealousy. The pettiness. The secrecy.”
Benny took Kin’s elbow. “We have to go, Kin.”
Kin nodded and lead Benny away towards the collapsed section of fence after Susan and Shae.
The woman called after them. “Ask yourselves where all the orphans come from.”
Kin stopped. She turned back and saw the woman waving at them slowly, grandly.
Kin shook her head and took off after Benny, her pack heavy on her back, questions heavier on her mind.
There’s whispers in the weeds.
Turtling after a mother’s desperate shove triggers an avalanche of clothing, camouflage in a closet covering up a child with cauliflower hair. Finger pressed to whitened lips as her Mama backs out of the bedroom.
Drowning in the smell of stale laundry, peeking through gaps between fingers, sound muffled by cotton and polyester.
Straining to comprehend with every sense, to understand.
Cringing for the roar of a monster’s opera sung over a symphony of shattering glass and bursting furniture. Wincing for Mama’s voice, shrill and hoarse, details lost in the whirlwind. Thunderous cracks when there hadn’t been rain in weeks. She scuttles backwards away from the sound and the pain it represents, clutching her injured arm to her chest. More garments pour down upon her head.
Eventually couldn’t hear much of anything at all, just the hot evening breeze sifting through the dry weeds outside, brushing against the skin of the doublewide.
Papa used to keep the field groomed. Take pride in who you are no matter what your station or circumstances, he’d say.
Until one day. Something changed that no one talked louder than a mumble about.
Papa stopped mowing the field. Stopped trimming back the weeds from around the trailer’s flat tires, checkerboard apron, and cement block porch. The weeds began to grow, became ragged and restless, full of hostile opinions scratched from raspy throats.
Papa stopped talking much. He stopped celebrating refrigerator drawings or telling bedtime stories or leading expeditions to the creek for crawdads.
Left room for the voice of the weeds.
After a couple of weeks, Papa just disappeared. His husk still stood around. Shadow he cast more alive than what came from inside. After a little while, Papa disappeared altogether. An empty sack shoved into the back of a county sheriff’s car.
The weeds grew tall and strong, a ragtop mane that set the mobile home adrift atop gilded waves, insects flitting and forming orchestras.
She strained to hear anything more than the scratch of weeds and crawled close to threshold of the closet door. Swelling her chest with all her courage, she pulled the protective barrier away and crawled to clutch the bedroom door frame. She listened with all her might and could only hear herself, feel her breath hot on her forearm where she pillowed her head against the doorframe, her other arm clutched to her chest, hand tucked up into her armpit.
Out of the bedroom, she scuttled across the disemboweled living room into the tiny kitchenette, to her cupboard. A cubby accessible without a stepping stool. Afternoon snacks and self-serve breakfasts. Cereal with marshmallows, the kind in the bag pretending to be that kind in the box. Plastic bags, yellow labels, white boxes, black stars.
Thoughts raced through her head. Need to pack up and go. The monster could come back. Need to run away. Need to brave the weeds.
She began to select supplies and tried not consider where her Mama might be.
Mama would bring home snacks from her work. Tiny white donuts. Packet of 8 plus a little shape and the powdery ghost of the one that went missing. Pack the donuts. Pack the raisins too. Slow to do with only one hand holding things right, other still folded up close.
Scour the living room for keepsakes and prized possessions.
Bag of pirate coins to purchase train tickets or a pony. A bracelet made at the country fair. A book she liked to hear her Mama read aloud.
Stuff everything into a burlap bag. Struggling to stuff precious things in with only one arm, trying not to jostle that broken wing.
Rest for a moment. Feeling sleepy, cold, and alone. Swooning as a baby bird might when the nest has been flung away. Hearing waves.
Slapped awake by angry sounds and seeing a terrifying parade of shadows dancing across the walls. Red and blue lights causing her to blink and scurry back into the cupboard, hermit crab finding refuge.
The sunshine has gone out and left seething oil behind.
Yelling outside. Something crashing through the weeds. Pops and explosions, something slams heavily against the side of the doublewide. Everything rattles. Her tiny teeth feel loose against her tongue.
A howl that causes an ache deep inside her is cut off by a final gunshot.
Even the weeds go still.
Creak of someone stepping into the trailer, footsteps shuffling across the floor. Shuffle and crunch, getting closer. Dazzling light etching the edges of the cupboard door.
The door opens and stabbing light blinds her. A gentle voice speaks and she feels shame for the tears spilling down her cheeks, juts her chin.
The voice tells her help has come.
She lets the sheriff attached to the voice lead her out of her cupboard. She clutches her Grandpa’s bag with her one able hand. She refuses the woman’s attempts to pick her up as she shuffles to the door and stands on the stoop feeling the cooling evening air.
A loud rustling sound catches her attentions, she turns and sees a tarp settling over the size and shape of her papa on the ground outside her home. She felt a touch on her shoulder and jerked away, her vision beginning to swim.
“Someone go get the mother.” the Sheriff said, sounding far away, scooping the child up mid-swoon.
“We have the child. And get me some blankets over here, this kid is freezing. Where are the paramedics? Her arm looks a mess.”
A whisper of wind passed through the weeds. She felt soothed by the sound.
A fresh, cool breeze swept up an ovation as a mother’s arms folded around her child, pulled her away from the Sheriff’s chest. “I’m here, baby. I’m here. We’re safe now.”
Gentle rain began to fall, the first in months.
The weeds bowed beneath the falling drops.
Originally written for and graciously published within in the wonderful 2015 flash fiction compilation Baby Shoes: 100 Short Stories by 100 Authors
Because it already happens. Or happened. Or will happen again.
The state of words. Of seasonal flavors. Of Cherry Coke. Of madhouses burning. The roof is on fire. Let it burn. So wrapped up tight the skin across your sternum aches and lilts troll your lifting back.
I hold my memories like a sack of obedience and try to filter out the unnecessary, the stale bread, like combing a gone sour playlist, like purging an ex-client’s rolodex. The dead space between office door and building shared bathroom is a time for fleeting contemplation, while noticing a leak spot on light shorts subsequently affords pause for posturing.
And then the twist. The midlife crisis, presumptive as though assured a steady eighty. Trappings of clinging nostalgia, now met with late found disposable income. The dance of diligence on EBay. The duck and dive of purchases on the credit card statement when your spouse is CFO. So rare, so precious, great deal, unbeatable bargain. Lift the knees high while clogging those loose porch boards.
I offer you, hands well apart and holding empty, an earnest report. A rebooted cleanliness. An honesty no matter how benign or pathetic. Though I will never afford you a coy selfie. Though photographs, most selfies reflect deception, Kenny Rogers rotisserie Snap Chat roulette trying to hide chins, sins, or munchkins. There’s only so far you can tuck a turkey for neck, so far you can swell a sailboat.
Fallible, an admission, not deflection. Plain words with flowery prose deliberately chosen. Bass lines thrumming against a washing machine walls, dubstep Albatross heaving against monkey mists while rocky shores become pillow recipients. Sound and fury signifying nothing, and wilting silence while conveying a point.
So this will be the unflinching respite. The spit collender for every anecdotal whimsy my saggy cerebellum decides to clench brows producing. Georgia O’Keefe birthing sunsets. Robert Mapplethorpe subverting floral arrangements. I’m the honey bee licking fly paper. And that’s enough churn for one spill.