Most of the time mom’s snores are a source of aggravation for me and my younger brothers. The sound oscillates between dry wheezes and wet aggressive snorts. Siam thinks she does it on purpose and Theil worries it’s a sign she will die early. I don’t know about either of those things, but tonight I’m grateful for the sounds. When you want to do some sneaking, being able to hear if your mom is asleep is quite useful.
Rolling off the corner of our shared mattress and standing, I pause by the back door and look at my sleeping family through the dim light of the lantern mom always keeps lit. They’re huddled together in the center of the empty room under a thin paisley afghan we found in a wooden trunk in one of the upstairs bedrooms. It smelled like rot and mold, but mom washed it over and over in the small sink until it smelled like nothing at all.
Theil looks like a baby holding a ratty stuffed lion and sucking on one of his long, slender thumbs. Mom’s got her arms around him and his mass of curly brown hair is pressed into her chest. Siam has rolled away from them both into the spot I just left. He looks sweaty and he’s frowning. He’s probably hungry. After all, he’s always hungry.
Mom shaved her hair off when we arrived a few days ago and I’m still not used to seeing the scars on her bald head. If I was a bit more creative I might think they formed the shape of something, but I find them unnerving to look at. They are reminders of what we’ve been through and I want so hard to forget for a moment. Tonight is a time of new things, not old. A time for me, not mom and my brothers.
Pressing open the back door as slowly as I can, Siam opens his eyes and spots me. I’m worried he might scream, but he doesn’t even flinch. There’s a kind of “be careful” look in his deep brown eyes and I silently mouth, “I’ll be back, promise.” He gives me a little thumbs up and my heart breaks. What if I don’t come back? I’m tough, but the world is unpredictable and he’s lost so much already. It’s almost enough to stop me, but then I think about the softness in Remi’s golden-green eyes. I grab my backpack and close the door softly behind me.
In the orange light of a huge harvest moon, the overgrown backyard looks wild and inviting. Elongated and exaggerated shadows dance merrily across the broken fence—huge fractured flashes of dark and light. I’m suddenly excited to be on my own with only myself to protect. It’s alluring to be selfish.
There it is though—selfish. A battle rages within my chest, thudding uneven and fierce. Guilt. I’ve never snuck away from my family before, not even when the world was right-sided. Am I wrong for leaving my family to meet this boy? Don’t I deserve a moment of being a teenager?
“Meet me at the elephant ears tonight,” Remi whispered when I’d passed him in the street today with my brothers. He’d winked and smiled at me from beneath his black cowboy hat and touched my bare arm with his warm, strong hand. Since that moment all I can think about is what will happen if I do. Does he like me in the way I like him? Will I have my first kiss? What if this is some trick to humiliate me?
For the past two years, we’ve been on the run. I’ve not had time to really think about how I look, but now I feel self-conscious and dirty. Letting my curly black hair down from the messy bun it’s almost always in, I run my fingers through the tangles but they immediately get stuck. It’s too late now. Either I go as myself and risk being wrong about his feelings for me, or I go back inside and wonder forever what tonight could have been. I make the quick decision to pull my hair back up.
Inching around the side of the house, barefoot in jeans and a t-shirt, I stop beside an old rabbit hutch covered with thorny vines and open my backpack. Pulling on my favorite olive green sweater and my brown cowboy boots, I strap the leather-sheathed hunting knife to my thigh. There’s no reason to be stupid and walk around unarmed.
Looking at the empty hutch it occurs to me we’ve not seen any animals in town since we arrived. Usually, animals know when the monsters are coming and run far away from them. We’ve taken our cues from nature, running from place to place hiding as they do, until now. Is it a mistake to stay in the false sense of comfort this town affords?
For a split second, I picture myself bolting back inside to wake everyone and insist we run before the monsters attack, but the feeling passes. No fight or flight decision is necessary at this moment. Everything is okay. Mom’s got my brothers and I can take care of myself.
Mom says she wants to try living in town for the boys. They are small and all the running has made them skinny and weak. Although we both carry them on our backs as much as we can, they aren’t growing enough and they barely speak. It’s as if the fear of the last two years has pressed pause and they are stuck at age three.
The truth is, mom and I need this place too. Even if I’m right about the animals, I don’t want to leave. We all deserve a shot at something more normal.
Mom’s become friends with a woman we met on the road who led us here, Mer. She’s a tall, striking woman with rich brown skin, almond-shaped eyes, and jet black spiky hair. Dressed always in black leather pants, she has a pink smiling cat tattooed on her left bicep. She makes mom laugh, a sound I didn’t even know I missed until it shined around us all like a bright colorful rainbow. Maybe it signals the terrible scary storm has ended.
There are about 100 people here in the town of Amal, which mom says is an Arabic word meaning Hope. Surrounded by a makeshift wall with ten lookout towers, there’s limited electricity, a doctor, and rumors of a school starting for the little kids. It’s as close to a return to the old ways as we can get, but I’m not ready to lower my defenses. Not quite yet.
Climbing over the locked side gate, I walk along the cracked sidewalk, scanning all directions for any sign of movement. Most of the debris has been cleared away from the town, but there are still objects in the bushes and gutters. I pass a rusty French horn with dandelions growing around it, a reddish tricycle turned on its side, and a pile of shattered Christmas lights.
As I get nearer to the place with the elephant ear plants, my thoughts turn away from the town and toward Remi. What do I even know about him? Yes, he’s cute, everyone seems to like him, and he smiles a lot. However, those are superficial things. Nothing of substance. I’d been so worried he wouldn’t like me, what if I don’t like him?
What if he’s a bad person and I’ve been swept up in this fantasy version of him because we happen to be the only two teenagers in the town? What if I’ve misread everything and he simply wants to be friends? What if he’s going to kill me?
“Qamari?” Remi says softly from behind a huge maple tree whose bright reddish-orange leaves almost match the moon’s intensity. He steps out and all my fears of him fade in an instant. I can’t stop a big grin from flashing across my face.
“These are for you. I grew them myself.”
I take the bundle of lavender flowers wrapped in yellow ribbon and put them up to my nose. They smell wonderfully fresh and I feel myself inflate with an intensity I’ve not experienced before. It’s not love, I don’t think, but something more primal. A feeling of deep desire or maybe it’s the sensation of being desired. Either way, I really like it.
“I’m glad you came. I was worried you wouldn’t…I mean you barely know me.”
He’s not wearing his cowboy hat tonight and I can see he’s got wavy black hair. Dressed in dark jeans and a blue t-shirt, he smiles at me and then kicks the ground like my brothers do when they are about to be scolded. He’s as nervous about this meeting as I am and it makes me like him even more.
“I’m glad I came too.”
For a few minutes, we just stand close to each other in silence. The elephant ear plants around us have drops of water inside them—little reflection pools containing the splendor of the starry night sky. It’s like walking in the galaxy, I think.
I can hear his heavy, even breathing and he smells of something like campfires or fresh-cut wood. He grabs my hand and squeezes it. My cheeks flush pink as I feel myself growing warm all over.
“Can I show you something?”
Nodding, I let him lead me through the quiet town. He shows me the flowers which bloom only for “night owls and teenagers.” Behind a pale blue house, we find a cluster of evening primroses, delicate yellow flowers which smell sweet and tangy. Along a back fence, we find three trumpet-shaped moon flowers with a strong lemony scent and he warns me they are poisonous and to not let my little brothers eat them.
Finally, we arrive at a wooden gazebo near the center of town almost entirely overgrown by a dark green bush covered in tiny white star-shaped flowers. There’s a strong, sweet smell in the air and he picks one of the flowers and hands it to me. I turn the long stem in my fingers watching the petals spin.
“Night-blooming jasmine,” he says. “My mother planted these all over our property when I was little. One year I pulled off all the flowers and soaked them in a bowl of water to make perfume to give to the girls at school. Almost every girl who used it got a rash and mom was called for a meeting.”
I laugh but he doesn’t join me.
“A lady’s man then?”
He shuffles his feet and swallows hard. Turning from me and looking up at the sky, he talks in a low hesitant voice. I can tell he’s not sure he should be sharing so much with me.
“No. I was kind of an outsider, actually. My mom was like a town joke…an outcast because our property was covered in wild plants and she dressed a bit…different. I was trying to get the girls to like me with the perfume, but it backfired and it just gave them new names to call me. ‘Witchy boy’ I think was their favorite, but it’s better than how the boys treated me…”
For a few minutes, we are silent again and I consider telling him about how my father used to beat my mother every day before the monsters came…but then decide it’s not the time to exchange stories. I’d rather stop the discomfort, ease his pain, not transfer it into sympathy for me. Moving so I’m facing him I lean forward and wrap my arms around him.
We sort of sway in place for a few minutes until he pulls away and we lock eyes. I want to memorize the way the flecks of gold dance within the sea of green. I want to be looked at the way he’s looking at me forever. He leans in and I feel the warmth of his breath on my lips.
The sound of footsteps and voices pulls us instantly apart. Within seconds I’ve unsheathed my knife and Remi has found a jagged metal pipe. Crouching low, we slink together into the darkness of the old gazebo holding our weapons tightly in front of us. The voices are arguing, one whiney and the other gruff.
“I told you, man, I don’t want no trouble. No trouble at all.”
“Come on…it’s not like I did something really wrong. So what if I took some extra bread. I’m hungry, man. I’m starving. You can see my bones. Can’t you see my bones?”
“Put down your shirt and walk.”
“Then tell me where are we going? Can’t you tell me? I don’t like this, man. I got a bad feeling about this. It doesn’t feel right. I’m sorry. Didn’t you hear me say I was sorry?”
Remi and I kneel next to each other and peer over the railing of the gazebo. The dense plants hide us in shadow, but we are careful to stay low and not move. I can feel Remi’s breath beside me is calm. He’s been through much worse situations and so have I.
The shorter of the two men, the one with the whiney voice, is dressed in saggy, ripped clothing and isn’t wearing shoes. He’s got a scruffy blonde beard and his hair is wild and dirty. There’s a sour smell coming from him that reaches through the jasmine to sting my nose.
I recognize the taller man, but don’t know his name. He and mom talked for a long time the first day we arrived while my brothers and I waited in a room filled with toys and books. I think he might be in charge of security as he dresses like an old-timey sheriff with a bright white cowboy hat and a crisp button-up tan shirt.
Keeping my knife at my side, I inch close enough to Remi to whisper directly into his ear.
“Who are they?”
Despite his even breathing, Remi’s holding the pipe white-knuckled. Something about the situation has him on alert and it’s not at all about being caught out at night as a teenager. His eyes don’t leave the pair, but he whispers back as low as he can.
“That’s Tom, but I don’t know the other man.”
The smaller man suddenly stops and crosses his arms in front of him. He’s breathing hard now—tiny, wheezy gasps. Tom unholsters his black gun and points it at his face. Remi grabs my hand and we slink a little further into the shadows, but keep our eyes on the men.
“I said walk.”
“Please, man. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. I promise. You can’t do anything to me. It’s not right. We aren’t monsters. We don’t do this to each other. I’m just starving man. Starving!”
“Walk or I shoot you.”
The smaller man begins to cry but resumes walking. Tom reholsters his gun but keeps his hand on the grip. They walk past the gazebo toward a line of boarded-up storefronts. Tom pushes the wailing man past the hardware store, book store, and pharmacy and then stops at a place called “Sweet Symphony.” It’s painted gold and purple and I imagine it was either a candy or music store, perhaps both.
There’s a strange muffled sound nearby, a kind of faint moan I usually associate with the monsters. I look at Remi, but he’s focused straight ahead at the men. The hairs on my arms stand up and I tighten my fingers around the leather handle of my knife until I can feel the ridges dig into my palm.
Tom bends down and picks up a rusted silver crowbar from a pile of tools laying near the door. He hands it to the sobbing man who only takes it after Tom nearly hits him over the head with it. The faint moan comes again and I feel my heart pounding and my muscles tighten.
“Why man? I just wanted some bread. I’ll work it off. I’ll do anything. Don’t hurt me.”
Tom slaps the wailing man across the face and he stops crying. They stare at each other in silence for a minute and Remi squeezes my hand tighter. I’m unsure if he’s nervous because he knows what’s about to happen or because he doesn’t. The small man blows his nose on his shirt.
“Shut up and open it.”
He does. We watch in silence as it takes the sniffling man several minutes to pry open the wood from the door. Eventually, it falls to the ground with a splintery, cracking sound. The door has a red X spray-painted across it and Remi gasps.
“What?” I mouth without sound and he shakes his head. He knows what’s going to happen. He knows what’s in there. I realize by the way my body feels, I do too. They can’t have one here in the town. They just can’t. Remi smacks the pipe against his legs hard and then makes a kind of low growl in the back of his throat.
“No!” the man screams the second he realizes what’s happening. The scratching sounds of the monster behind the purple door intensify. Remi lets go of my hand to grip the pipe with both hands as Tom turns the doorknob and pushes the man inside.
We don’t see what happens next, but we hear it. The man’s garbled scream is swallowed up within seconds by the sound of the thing feasting on his body. The tearing, clawing, liquid sounds make my body shiver and I realize I’m standing now with the knife pointed toward the door. Remi’s beside me with his pipe. We don’t make a sound.
Tom shuts the door. There’s no mistaking the wide smile on his face as satisfaction. I shiver at the look. It’s wicked and wrong what he did and there’s no explaining it away. Remi and I slink back down as Tom opens a toolbox beside the door and hammers fresh nails into the piece of wood.
The second Tom’s footsteps disappear back into the night, I turn to Remi. He’s still grabbing the pipe tight and he looks sweaty. The image of my family sleeping a few streets away makes me feel sick to my stomach. I was right. There’s no such thing as comfortable in this new world.
“Did you know?” I say more to say something than to really know the answer. It doesn’t matter. My family is in danger and I’m already planning on how I’m going to explain to my mom what I just saw. She will be mad I snuck out, but I can take her anger. There’s no staying now.
“There were rumors…but I didn’t want to believe it.”
“We can’t stay here.”
Remi turns to me and there are tears in his eyes. I can tell he’s been thinking the same thing. We could kill the monster, yes, but it’s not about that unthinking beast behind the purple door. It’s the fact this town is being run by someone who would feed it and keep it nearby as a tool. Someone who smiled after. Someone who is far more dangerous than the monsters.
“We could go together,” Remi says in a whisper.
I don’t answer. The dream of kissing his beautiful face seems almost silly now. All I can think about is saving my family. I touch him gently on the arm and run out into the night. It’s time to move again.
Author’s note: I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea of witnessing a crime in a post-apocalyptic world where the ideas of morality are slightly skewed. They did this so well in the early days of “The Walking Dead,” and I think it’s where most of my inspiration for this story came from. I’m not sure I did exactly what I wanted, but I did grow really fond of Remi. I might want to do more with him in the future, this sweet “witchy boy” who is simply trying to do his best in a world torn apart by monsters.
Short Story Challenge | Week 38
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where the main character witnesses a crime. We had to include the words Christmas, almond, paisley, lion, pipe, scream, fade, French horn, inflate, and maple.
Write With Us
Prompt: Magic in everyday occurrences
Include: Krav Maga, touch screen, litter, vendor, doorbell, finish, hungry, aversion, signature, sweatband
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows
- Week 25: Chocolate Kisses
- Week 26: The Island
- Week 27: Take Me By the Hand
- Week 28: When the Snow Falls
- Week 29: Stitches in the Woods
- Week 30: The Peacock Effect
- Week 31: New Experiences
- Week 32: Blood Moon Messenger
- Week 33: The Masterpiece
- Week 34: The Blackberry Quest
- Week 35: The Broken Shell
- Week 36: The Octopus in the Room
- Week 37: With a Touch of the Tapestry