All the Elders Orphans

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 tapped around on the nightstand for her glasses, found them, and slid them on. The expired prescription only helped a little, but old habits die hard. 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, which was a good sign, or at least a sign they weren’t coming for her yet. Or quietly lying in wait. 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.

Something 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. No one she recognized, though. The woman 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.” She 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. Fee reminded herself of what could happen to her if she didn't fortify the trailer better. She vowed to do it 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 before ingesting. 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. Talking with students. Attending conferences. Complaining when the university didn’t reimburse her travel expenses for months on end. Spending hour after hour revising her writing or organizing course materials.  

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 left like a tiny offering. To what? Fee thought it was to the idea that someone could still be made happy. And if there were a way to do that, and if it were as easy as placing a tightly-bound collection of pieces of paper on someone’s front porch, then it should absolutely be done.

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. The offerings stopped. 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 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 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. Then she went to bed.

Every day still started with reading, though, which was one luxury life hadn’t offered before. Fee opened up a cupboard door, tilted her head to the right, and began scanning titles. Some days, when all the chores were done or the weather was bad, she did nothing but read. A single good thing she clung to.

Choice of the day. Hemingway? No. Gibbon? Really, no. As Fee reached for de Tocqueville, 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 saw 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 could hear him sniffling.

Fee undid the bolts on the door, opened it, and creaked open the screen door to talk to him.

“Hi, Jason.”

“Hi, Professor. Can I talk to you?”

“Sure,” she said as she stepped back and made a path for him. “I was having coffee. Do you want something? Are you hungry?”

“No. Thank you.” He sank into the kitchen chair near the window.

Fee felt a selfish bit of relief that he wouldn’t be wanting any of her coffee. After her nocturnal friend’s visit, her food cupboard was already a good bit emptier than it had been just the day before.

What do children like? she wondered. Chocolate, right? She squatted down in front of the bottom cupboard and began pulling items out, digging around for the bag of cocoa she knew was in there somewhere. She wondered for a moment if she’d given it to the old woman, but she didn’t think she had.

Jason looked like he’d been crying, but that didn’t worry her much. Didn’t children cry a lot? Especially now? Didn’t everybody?

Fee glanced at him in-between frowning at objects she either didn’t recognize or that had clearly gone bad.

“How are you? Everything alright?” she asked.

“Not really,” he said, his voice low, hesitant.

Jason slipped out of his coat, leaning his head first to one side and popping out a shoulder, then the other, and placed his hands together on the table. He picked up the salt shaker and rolled it nervously between them.

Jason lived in town with his older sister Mia. There was a gap of probably four or five years between them, Fee guessed. She often saw the two of them walking together when she traded in Winchester. She stopped to talk with them whenever she saw them mostly because of the sister. Mia was one of the many teens who had been turned into a parent by the war, so if she needed advice or help with something, Fee was always willing to do what she could.

“Aha! Cocoa!” Fee held up a clear plastic bag full of dark brown powder. She dangled it in the air in his direction with eyebrows raised in anticipation of his response. But he only nodded and stopped fidgeting with the salt shaker. He placed it next to the pepper shaker and carefully lined the two of them up.

“Mia’s gone,” he said, slumping forward and laying his head on his arms.

“What do you mean, gone?” Fee stood up. She knew exactly what he meant, but she needed the buffer.

“I can’t find her,” he said. Tears began streaming down his face. “I can’t find her anywhere.”

“I’m sure she’s around, Jason. There’s no way she’d leave you.” The two of them were a close pair, and Mia was far too mature to skip out on Jason. She loved him too much to hurt him like this. Even Fee, who only had a passing acquaintance with the pair, could tell that much.

“How long has it been?”

“Three days.”

Fee removed her glasses and began cleaning them with the edge of her shirt. Mia wouldn’t want to be away from him for an entire night, much less three days. And if, for some legitimate reason, she had to be, she wouldn’t leave him confused and scared like this. All of the easy, reasonable causes for Mia’s absence vanished from Fee’s mind.

“Tell me about the last time you saw her,” Fee said, moving the cocoa-making supplies over to the kitchen table so she could see Jason as he spoke.

“We were getting ready for bed and one of her friends came over. I don’t know what for. Before I went to bed, I talked to them for a little while but they didn’t say they were going anywhere. When I woke up in the morning, she was gone. I waited a long time for her. I’ve been all over town and talked to everybody. No one has seen her.”

Fee slid the finished mug of cocoa toward him. He pulled it close and wrapped his hands around it, as if to keep it from exploding in front of him.

“They were talking in the living room when I went to bed and in the morning, she was just gone.”

“Who was the friend?”

“Amy.”

“And who is she?”

“I don’t know her. The two of them were friends before the war. They knew each other from high school. We ran into her and her brother one day in the street in Winchester, though. Amy lives at The Blue House.”

Fee leaned back in her chair, wondering if Jason understood the kinds of things that went on at The Blue House. Most likely he didn’t, but her mood grew somber at the thought of it. Whatever he might know about The Blue House aside, what he did know was Fee’s negative reaction to his mentioning of it, and when he saw the pity in her eyes, he cried even harder. He dropped his head and sobbed.

“I know it’s bad! I know something bad has happened to her!”

Fee reached across the table and laid her hand on his arm.

“What can I do, Jason?” she asked, already dreading what she felt he would ask.

“Help me look for her,” he said, raising his head and wiping his eyes so hard on his sleeve she thought it must have been painful. “I’ve already asked everyone I know and they won’t help. You’re a professor. You’re smart. You can find her.”

Fee pulled her hand back.

“I don’t know how to find people, Jason. I wouldn’t know where to start. I’m sorry.” She could hear her own voice growing as plaintive as his. She tried not to sound dismissive, but could see on his face how badly she’d failed.

“No one will do anything to help me. Everyone says I have to take care of myself and if she can, she’ll come back.”

“I don’t think that’s bad advice, Jason. It’s a dangerous world now, and anyone going out there is taking big risks.”

As soon as she said it, she wished she could take it back. He already knew the dangers: she was just confirming them and making things worse for him. 

“I’m sure she’s okay. I’m sure Mia will be back before you know it. You’re worried, but worrying about something doesn’t make it true.”

“Yes it does! I’m not stupid! I know something happened to her and I have to help her! Thanks for nothing!” he screamed, his voice nearly hysterical.

Jason’s thin frame shot up as he stood, pushed back his chair, and headed for the door in one violent movement. Fee sat silently as the door behind him slammed so hard tiny ripples appeared in his untouched cocoa. Through the kitchen window, she could see his small back as he ran down the hillside to the road.

When the little calico cat began brushing up against her leg, she pushed it away with her foot.

 

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.

Melissa Dykes