All the Elders Orphans - Melissa Dykes
War came in the summer like a heat wave. Moving through the country fast and hot but lasting only a season, it burned the land and scorched the lives of its inhabitants. All living things struggled; most died. But here and there, what was left glowed and smoked, willing itself not back, but on.

***

Two years after the war, in the back bedroom of an old trailer tucked deep inside Mountain Country, Sophia Walden dreamed of her life before. In the dream, David had ordered pizza and they were trying to decide on a movie. He sat down on the sofa beside her and she could smell the cologne she had bought him for Christmas. She could feel the soft, flannel-like cotton of his favorite shirt.

Then the doorbell rang. Or maybe it was a knock.

“Pizza!” David exclaimed and stood up to get it.

But he didn’t come back. Fee called out his name, but there was no answer.

Again, a loud sound. Then the dream was gone. For a moment, the lightness, the happiness, of it remained. But she could sense another reality looming in the back of her mind, hovering there, waiting to be remembered. And when she did remember it, it enveloped her like a heavy cloak. Real life came back to her.

She opened her eyes.

Fee lay motionless, listening for what might have awoken her. Hearing nothing, she turned on her side, folded her pillow, and dropped her head back onto it. But when she looked over at the little calico cat that had taken to sleeping next to her, she saw that it was awake, too. It was alert, sitting straight up like a meerkat, neck strained and eyes locked on the open bedroom door.

“Hey,” she whispered to it.

It didn’t respond. It kept completely still, watching and listening. Its ears pivoted this way and that like miniature satellite disks. When she reached out to touch it, it jumped off the bed, hunkered down, and scuttled underneath it. Adrenalin began dripping into Fee’s bloodstream.

Now she could hear it. Sounds of scraping and rustling were coming from the other end of the trailer. Someone or something was rummaging around in the kitchen. Heart hammering, she reached down to the floor and wrapped her fingers around the handle of the baseball bat.

If it were raiders, she would be in big trouble. Only a week ago, they had attacked Imogen Culver, the woman who lived just up the road from her in the mint green trailer with all the blackberry bushes. Imogen’s neighbors on the other side had found her dead in the front yard and all five children were gone.

Fee cursed herself for not doing more to secure her own trailer. What more did she need than this brutal, awful example of the Culvers to make her take precautions? Why was she getting ready to confront whatever was in her kitchen even now? Why not sneak out the other door? Turn and go, Fee. Part of her brain kept telling her that. But the other part willed her to stay and fight, regardless of what happened. Live. Fight. Flee. Die. Fee hadn’t made up her mind about her own grim future, so she’d settled into the habit of following sudden impulses.

Current impulse: Fight.

Quietly easing up off the bed, she crossed the bedroom and moved slowly through the doorway and into the hall with the bat raised and ready.

Step by step she crept down the dark hallway. She could hear the crinkling of packages. She strained to hear voices, but there weren’t any. When a can dropped with a loud clank, all sound stopped. Fee waited until it began again before she inched closer. She hoped to get herself in position for the initial blow so she could start the fight on her own terms. If everything went well, she might not get hurt at all.

If there’s going to be a fight, I’ll win. If there’s going to be a fight, I’ll win.

As she reached the end of the hallway, she saw the tall food cupboard door next to the stove standing wide open.

Someone was moving around behind it.

Fee kept moving forward. She raised the bat overhead with her right hand, tensed her muscles, and with her left, whipped the cupboard door back to see what was on the other side.

What she thought at first was a child, from the size of it, turned out to be a very old woman. Fee didn’t recognize her. She was wearing a parka with the hood pulled up, and the faux fur lining around her face made her look like a possum. Her eyes were huge with fear; her worn cheeks were hollowed out from starvation. Crumbs had collected in the fur around her face and streaks of strawberry jam marked her face like war paint. Whatever she had held in her hands she threw to the floor when Fee surprised her.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the woman began whispering as she backed away. She waved her tiny, bony hands back and forth in front of her as if she were shooing something away.

“You nearly gave me a heart attack!” Fee said, lowering the bat. She leaned it against the wall next to her but out of view. “I was really going to crack you one.” Fee laughed nervously.

The woman stopped backing up, but did not speak further. She just stood there, waiting.

Fee smiled at her. “You’re hungry. Have a seat. I’ll pack you a bag.”

The woman sat down but didn’t take her eyes off of Fee. Fee dumped out an old plastic bag of sporks and individually wrapped napkins and began filling it with whatever she could afford to give away. She tried to ask the woman’s preferences, but no matter what she said, the woman just nodded. When the bag was full, she held it out and waited for the woman to take it. Then she opened the front door to let her out.

“Be careful. Good luck,” Fee said.

The old woman walked away silently, the bag clutched to her chest, her head turning from side to side as she descended the hilly yard to the dirt road.

Fee wondered if she would find herself in a similar position when she grew old. And if whoever might discover her stealing food would be kind to her. Fee wondered if she would even grow old at all.

***

Going back to bed now was useless; the adrenalin still pumping through her system would not let her sleep. Since daybreak was coming soon, she decided to go ahead and make coffee and watch the sunrise.

First order of the day: double-checking all the doors and windows to figure out how the woman got in. She had to have come through the back door Fee left ajar for the cats. That, in turn, meant she had walked right by Fee’s open bedroom door while she’d been sleeping. She shuddered to think of it. She vowed to fortify the trailer today.

But doing so meant she’d have to go into the bedroom on the other side of the bathroom, the one filled with artifacts from whoever had lived here before. She still hadn’t made herself go through it. She would have to now, though, for her own safety. Besides, if there were anything useful in there, she should take it. Given the circumstances, no one could mind that.

But still, she hesitated. Some old habits—like respecting other people’s property—were harder to break than others. More than once she’d wondered about the people who had lived here before her and in truth, she didn’t want to know anything about them. Wherever they were, whatever had happened to them, wasn’t pillaging their things a desecration of their memory? It felt like it.

Fee began her own rummaging and pulled out the last can of coffee. Here’s the real end of the world, she thought to herself as she dusted it off. She’d have to make it weak. Dried creamer was easier to find than coffee itself, so her morning started out with a hot cup of milky brown water that any self-respecting coffee drinker would toss to the ground. But she felt thankful to have it.

She stirred it, set down the spoon, and placed the mug on the kitchen table.

Fee’s kitchen was more a library than a place to prepare meals. Her cupboards held more books than food. Everyone needed food, and they wanted liquor and coffee. But hardly anybody wanted or needed books. She used to think it was a lighting problem. Lots of places were still without electricity, and there were only so many hours in the day. But more recently, she’d begun to believe it was because people didn’t want to be reminded of life before the war. No one needed that. No one wanted that. Some paid lip service to the old adage that those who didn’t learn history would be doomed to repeat it, but for the most part people felt only doomed, and the avoidance of repetition part was a place they just couldn’t quite get to.

Part of Fee still lived there, though. She’d worked long and hard to create her life with David, getting graduate degrees in history, becoming a professor. Teaching, researching, writing, going to meetings.

And yet, if she were so comfortable with living in the past—what a good historian she was—then why had she still not cleaned out that second bedroom? And why did it bother her so much?

When she first moved into the trailer, she’d done a lot of exploring and collected most of the books she now had. Spending the day out, then returning at twilight with a heavy satchel full of them was a source of happiness for her. She would spend the whole evening thumbing through them and then thoughtfully putting them away. First, she organized them alphabetically. Later, she reorganized them thematically. One week she would decide they should all be kept in the kitchen and the next, that they should all be kept in the bedroom. The week after, back to the kitchen. Merely touching them brought back happy memories.

Friends and neighbors quickly learned this about her and anyone who found a book would bring it to her. More than once, she had woken up in the morning, stepped outside, and found a small stack of books.

But things changed as time progressed. The exploring began to make her feel too much like a vulture or a rat, crawling into the lives of the dead, picking and nibbling at the bodies of their lives. She began rejecting the books others brought to her. She wrote a small sign that said, “No Books, Thank You” and taped it to the screen door. She stopped organizing her books in any manner at all. Now, when she finished reading one, she opened a random cupboard, threw it inside, and shut it. Once, in a sudden fit of anger that even she didn’t understand, she chucked one out the window into the yard. It lay there all day, and when rain began to fall, Fee just sat at the window watching the heavy drops pummel and soak it. She stared at it until darkness fell and she couldn’t see it anymore.

As she reached for a book now, the living room screen door jangled loudly. The trailer’s previous occupants had made it themselves out of 2x2s and hand-stretched screen tacked on with finishing nails. It was lop-sided and loud, but effective enough.

She leaned to the peephole of the front door. Nothing. But when she pulled back the curtain on the side window, she was surprised to see Jason Conrad standing alone on the small cement block porch. His thirteen-year old body was hunched in on itself in the cold morning air, waiting for her to answer. His eyes and nose were red, his pale face blotchy. She couldn’t recall him ever showing up at her place before.

He looked at her through the glass and attempted a smile, but it was forced and weak.

Fee opened the door and stood back to let him in.


About the Author

Melissa Dykes is the author of All the Elders Orphans, a powerful post-apocalyptic novel that pits one woman’s humanity against the dark realities of her brutal new world  – and at the heart of it all, a child’s life hangs in the balance.

Melissa is a former English professor with a specialization in Victorian lit, and you can keep up-to-date with her writing on her website, and on Twitter @DrVictorian.

Want to see where the story goes? The incredible All the Elders Orphans is available to buy on Amazon.

Written by Melissa Dykes