Mary tips the brass watering can into the small strawberry patch and watches as thirteen different streams of water flow onto the small green plants. Maybe she will have berries for the children this year. It would be nice to offer them something sweet that doesn’t come from a can.
“Mary,” Felix calls from the cab of his rusted Ford pickup truck. He’s driving slowly down the driveway. Mary knows the sound of his voice means he found another one.
He brings her the broken children. The ones he finds wandering alone—mute and shivering. Who better than the one without memories to care for those with too many.
She sets down the watering can and wipes her damp hands on her faded yellow apron. Felix pulls to a stop beside her, turning off the engine. The sounds outside the walls swell and then fade again. Leaning on the window, Mary peers into the cab. She catches a quick glimpse in the side-view mirror of her freckled nose and messy red curls.
“Morning, Felix,” she says. “How are you?”
“I’ve been better.”
There is blood, both fresh and dried, on his plaid collared shirt. By the look and smell of him, she’d guess he’s been out of the gates for a week or so. The grey around his temples has grown, as have the wrinkles around his soft eyes.
There’s no child in the cab, but piled on the passenger seat are a clunky grey satellite phone, a long wood-handled shotgun, and a rather old-looking book. Its cover is faded brown with splotchy water stains. She can’t make out the title.
Felix was an antiquarian before the outbreak, studying rare books and writing academic papers. He once had an invitation to be the guest speaker at the annual White House Historical Association conference, an honor he’s proud to say he declined because he didn’t agree with the political divide of the country. He doesn’t support corruption on any level, even if it would have brought him notoriety.
“You find something good?” Mary asks, pointing to the book. Felix’s tired face transforms into a wide, youthful smile. He lifts the book into his hands and traces the golden letters on the spine with his pointer finger.
“An Enquiry concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness by William Godwin. I found it among a stack of books in an old farmhouse. It’s in remarkable condition, considering it’s a first edition published in 1793. The cover is a bit of a mess, but the pages are untouched.”
When he talks about books Mary can see a glimmer of what he must have been like before people started dying and then coming back as monsters. She wonders if the two of them would have been friends or perhaps lovers if they’d met before all this. When he’s close to her she feels a spark between them, a kind of electric energy similar to how the air feels before a storm. She’s too scared to ask him if he feels it too.
Mary doesn’t know who she is. Felix found her wandering the woods covered in blood looking for something. She has no memory of how she got there, what she was searching for, or who she was before the world descended into chaos. She owes Felix her life, her name, and her purpose.
“You find anything else?” she asks.
He knows she’s not asking about supplies, although she’d really love some fresh fruit or some cinnamon. His face changes from excitement to something she can read as distress. Yeah, he found another one.
“In the back,” he says. “Under the blanket.”
He grabs her hand through the car window and squeezes it. The intensity in his dark brown eyes reminds Mary of the world she’s not a part of. She’s happy to stay within the safe harbor of the compound walls blocking out a world she knows only from the stories the children tell her. There’s dried blood under his fingernails.
“Brace yourself,” he says. “This one seems really hurt.”
Mary takes a step back and watches as Felix drives down the dirt road to the home of the doctor. The child will have to be checked for wounds and disease before being released into her care. The process usually takes a day or two which gives her time to get things ready.
“Stephen?” she calls. “Where are you?”
She finds the young boy sitting with his back against the large cedar tree eating one of the oatmeal cookies she made this morning. His soccer ball sits beside him. He’s been with her for over a year and she’s watched him transform from a terrified jumpy child to one who is prone to giggles and loves to make other people laugh.
“We have a new friend joining us,” she says. “Can you help me get things ready?”
“Yay,” he says. “Boy or girl?”
“I don’t know yet.”
He’s hoping for a kid his age he can play soccer with. It’s been hard for him only to have Tiff as a companion. She’s half his age and hasn’t spoken since arriving three months ago. A small, sweet child who scares easily but who trusts Stephen and follows him around everywhere he goes.
Mary finds Tiff sitting on the other side of the tree with a cookie in each hand. She’s got long black hair she loves Mary to brush. Today she allowed her to braid it into two long braids tied off with soft purple ribbon. She offers Mary one of the cookies and gives her an adorable gapped-tooth smile.
The three of them make their way inside their cozy two-bedroom house painted pale blue with yellow curtains and filled with lots of squishy, soft furniture. Mary loves to collect items from nature and display them in little glass dishes around the house; acorns, pinecones, dried flowers, and stones. They are her treasures—her Mother Earth fortune.
Felix cleaned out this house for her. It was supposed to be temporary until her memories returned. It’s been two years and she still remembers nothing.
A few weeks after rescuing Mary, Felix found a small blonde girl with wide green eyes and a badly broken leg. She screamed and screamed in terror night and day. The doctor kept her medicated, but the community scolded Felix for bringing her in. They were afraid of her.
“Could you take her for a bit?” Felix asked Mary. “Just until we find her another home.”
Mary agreed. It was a month before the child could leave the bed and another two months before she spoke. She found it easy to be with the silent child, to hold her as she cried, and to be a calming presence. Being around children feels natural to her as if she was made for this and nothing else. It makes her wonder if perhaps she was a teacher before, or maybe she had a child of her own.
She’s nursed a total of six kids to health. She wishes she could keep them with her, but there comes a time when they need other children to run and play with and to be removed from the new children with fresh nightmares who wake to scream during the night. Although it’s hard for her to say goodbye, each time they leave she feels a great sense of relief, accomplishment, and happiness.
Mary figured out pretty quickly the children could not sleep in a room alone, so she filled the master bedroom with three large mattresses. It creates a huge bed where they all cuddle close in order to make it through the night. Stephen has been moving further and further away from her and Tiff. He’s very close to not needing her anymore.
“Let’s wash all the bedding,” Mary says. “Help me gather it up.”
The day passes in a series of chores. Mary, Stephen, and Tiff work together to prepare as much as they can for the arrival of the new child. After washing the bedding, they gather up clean clothes and bake blueberry muffins from a mix. Tiff seems excited when Felix comes for a visit and tells her the child is a 4-year-old girl with curly red hair and lots of freckles. Stephen tries to not look disappointed.
As the day winds down, the community gathers at the old Catholic church for a town hall meeting. Apparently, some are worried the new child has “the sickness,” causing a fresh round of panic and renewed anger at Felix for his rescue missions. Mary can hear the angry voices traveling down the street toward her and the children. Using the generator, something she rarely does, she plays a King Harvest record Felix recovered for her a few months ago.
“Everybody here is out of sight
They don’t bark and they don’t bite
They keep things loose, they keep things light
Everybody was dancin’ in the moonlight”
She and Stephen hold hands and dance in the small living room, around and around the big flowered rug. Tiff sits on the green couch and bangs her hands on an upturned tin can with perfect rhythm. Mary sees her smile and it brings tears to her eyes. She’s going to be talking soon. She’s so close.
They play the record late into the night, over and over, drowning out the fear being played out by the adults down the road. Mary wishes they’d learn how to speak softly and worries about all the children living in the community. Fearful talk brings new rounds of nightmares.
The next morning, Felix arrives with two canvas bags of supplies. He’s freshly showered and shaved. Stephen and Tiff smile from their place at the kitchen table, always happy to see the person who rescued them.
“I have a special treat,” Felix says.
He pulls out a plastic bag filled with red, round apples. The sight of them makes both the children giggle with glee, and Mary rushes to Felix and gives him an enormous hug. They haven’t had fresh fruit in ages.
“Thank you,” she says. “You have no idea how happy this makes me.”
“I have some idea,” he says.
Mary thinks he might have blushed and it makes her own face turn red. She busies herself with putting away the canned goods and offers him some pancakes and coffee. Stephen talks his ear off as he eats asking all kinds of questions about soccer, a topic apparently Felix knows a great deal about.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Felix says between bites. “You can come to get the child today. Since she isn’t talking, I’ve taken to calling her, Annie.”
After breakfast, Mary leaves Stephen and Tiff to clean up and walks with Felix down the road. They walk in silence, side-by-side, their pinky fingers brushing a few times. Mary thinks she can feel those sparks again and wonders if he notices them too.
She searches for the words, but can’t find them. They feel stuck inside her, perhaps locked with her memories, safely hidden where she can’t be hurt. Felix stops a few steps before the doctor’s house and grabs her hands into his.
“I have a strange feeling about this child,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
He pulls Mary to him, hugging her tight against his body. He smells of pine and fresh air. There’s something about him that reminds her of her Earth treasures, a certain kind of preciousness she wants to keep for herself. She rests her head against his chest and listens to his heartbeat.
“I’m glad you are here,” Doctor Bains interrupts.
They pull apart and face the tall, thin frame of the doctor. He has deep black rings under his dark brown eyes and a scruffy unkempt beard. He must have been handsome at one point, but the stress of the last few years has made him look perpetually unkempt and in need of rest.
“How is she?” Felix asks.
“Stable now,” he says. “She had a deep gash along her side which required some complex stitching and a blood transfusion. She will need to be kept still while she heals. She’s very weak.”
“Has she spoken to you?” Mary asks.
“I’m afraid not. I’m sedating her to keep her calm and I’ll send some meds with you. I know you don’t like to use them, but if she tries to run away she might die. She was very close to death when Felix found her. You need to keep her calm and resting.”
“Don’t worry, Mary will work her magic,” Felix says. “She’s got her now.”
He grabs Mary’s hand and squeezes it three times, a code Mary isn’t sure what it means. She squeezes him back and she sees the skin around his neck turn red.
“Very well,” Dr. Bains says.
They follow him inside and find the small child laying on a bed in the dark back room. There are scrapes and cuts all over her thin body. Mary lowers herself to her knees beside the bed and speaks in a slow, careful voice.
“Hi, dear. I’m Mary. My home is down the road and there are two other children there who are excited to meet you, Stephen and Tiff. We are going to help you heal. You don’t have to talk to me or them, but I hope you will when you are ready. You are safe now.”
The child turns her head sharply and stares into Mary’s face. Her blue eyes widen and fill with tears. She reaches her hand out and touches Mary on the cheek—the softest of touches.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” Mary says.
A strange sensation takes over, a kind of rumbling inside her mind which might be the act of remembering. There are no clear images yet, but it’s as if someone shook up a snow globe giving Mary silhouettes through the snowy bits. She stumbles a bit and Felix grabs her arm. He gives her a reassuring smile and she continues.
“Is it okay if my friend Felix here carries you? I’m afraid I’m not quite strong enough.”
The girl nods and Felix lifts her into his arms. She’s so tiny—a baby lost in the woods. There’s something different about her, a calmness transcending the medication. Mary reaches out and holds her tiny hand. Snippets of memory tug at her mind, straining and straining to be made clear. Annie’s hand feels sweaty and begins to shake in her own.
“Are you okay?” Mary asks.
“Yeah,” she says. “I’m okay.”
They walk down the road in silence but the child keeps her eyes on Mary. The intensity of her stare feels a lot like longing and they arrive at the house in what feels like a moment. Felix lowers Annie onto one of the mattresses beside a bundle of wildflowers Stephen and Tiff gathered for her. She rolls onto her side and pulls the bundle to her nose.
“Welcome home,” Mary says.
“Thank you,” she says.
Mary gives Felix a hug goodbye and lays beside the small child. Annie latches herself to Mary’s arm, wrapping her small body as close to her as possible. Stephen and Tiff wander in and out of the room for the next few hours, but they understand Annie’s need to be close to Mary.
She doesn’t speak again, but Mary expected this. She simply breathes in and out, Mary accepting the child’s need to rest and to be held. She watches the sky outside turn dark through the open window and realizes how hungry she is. In her most gentle of voices, she speaks to Annie.
“I need to cook dinner, but I don’t want to leave you alone. Do you want to come with me?”
The girl nods. Mary picks her up and takes her into the kitchen. She places the child on a wooden chair beside her and the child grabs the hem of her long skirt with her fist. Stephen and Tiff set the table and pour each person a glass of water from a pitcher on the counter. Mary pours several cans of chicken noodle soup into a large pot to cook before pulling out the bag of apples.
“These will be our dessert,” she says.
She cuts an apple in half and sees the star shape inside and gasps—the fairy star. It takes her a minute to catch her breath. The memory rings through her like a golden bell.
“Do you know what this is?” she tells the children. “Long ago there was a small apple tree, the first of its kind. It loved to look up into the night sky at the beauty of the stars. It longed more than anything to have a start for itself, to hold it within its hands. It wanted to feel it and touch it.”
Crying now, the words come easier and easier.
“One day a small fairy heard the apple tree talking to the stars and offered to go up into the sky and bring one back. It took her a long, long time. Seasons passed. Spring became Fall. Fall became Winter. Winter became Spring again and the fairy returned. She had gathered the magic of the stars within her wand and touched all the bright shiny apples with its glittery tip, forever locking a star inside each one.”
She holds up the apple for the children to see. Stephen and Tiff clap, but Annie grows silent. Mary scoops her into her arms and pulls her tight to her chest. The impossible has become real. Mary buries her nose into the child’s red curls and breaths in the truth, her memories popping and clicking into place one after the other.
In the middle of the night, her toddler wandered out into the world of monsters. She woke up in a panic the moment she didn’t feel her child’s weight beside her, but it was too late. She couldn’t find a trace of her anywhere. For days and weeks, she searched for her girl, growing further and further manic with worry and despair. She didn’t sleep. She didn’t eat. She killed the monsters with a sharpened stick through the eye and kept moving. She walked and searched until her mind and memory snapped and Felix found her.
“My baby Lula,” she says. “It’s you. It’s really you.”
“Mommy, “ she says.
She kisses her face over and over.
“I’ll never lose you again.”
Author’s note: I cut open an apple this week and remembered the Waldorf story explaining the origin of the star inside. I wanted to weave that sweet tale into this week’s prompt, playing with finding moments of kindness in a time of chaos. It’s been another hectic week and I wish I had another few days to make this story better, but I don’t. Some weeks I have to allow myself the grace to walk away knowing it’s the best I can do given my schedule. I’m writing and sticking to my goals—22 weeks in a row. Thanks, as always, for reading and I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 22
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 about the main character having amnesia. We had to include antiquarian, satellite, cinnamon, fortune, cookie, harbor, cedar, invitation, soccer, annual, and speaker.
Write With Us
Prompt: Adult friends on vacation in the tropics
Include: scuba diver, champagne, invasion, archway, hoard, strawberry, penguin, autumnal, cease, mist
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