By William Baxter
I was just eight years old the day momma stopped the
school bus a long way from my bus stop. That was the last day that I
saw him. Most eight year olds don’t have a real grip on things
going on around them and I was a normal one. I thought at first maybe
we were going to the Burger Shack like we sometimes did for a couple of
burgers when dad had to make another trip, but she wasn’t smiling when
she picked me up that day. Not even close.
“We’ve got to hurry.” she told me as she scooted me from the bus to
the big backseat of the old Buick. The seat wasn’t any bigger than most
back seats, but when you’re small the world always seems so big. I
tossed my book bag in and followed in behind it.
“What’s wrong, mama?” I asked and she gave me a look
that said shut up before you get into more trouble as she closed the
We drove back to the house, the radio blasting out
some oldies song that wasn’t as oldies at the time. I can’t even
remember the song much less who did it, so don’t ask. As I peered out
the window I noticed people busy, boarding up their windows and moving
their outside stuff inside garages and under awnings. It gave the place
an abandoned look that was creepy even to a kid.
“Momma, why’s everybody…..”
“Hush, Steve. Don’t you know when to hush?” she spat and then realized
how harsh her words had sounded. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m just a little
stressed right now.” I saw her look up into the window to make sure I
wasn’t crying. I wasn’t, but her tone had stung pretty bad. Telling her
so would have only hurt her feelings and made her cry , that was
something I had seen enough of that in the last two weeks. I’ll
never forget that he made her cry a lot then . Maybe I was being a
little protective, but it pissed me off when he did that. In the past
it had almost never happened, but in the last two weeks it
happened every day at least once, often two or three times .
Fifteen days is how long it took to reach us. Two
weeks and one day. An eternity to me at the time. At first it was a
curiosity, that faint glow fighting to be recognized in the horizon.
Randy, my brother, older by four years, and I followed our parents
outside to stare at it. At first I didn’t even know what I was looking
back and dad hefted me up and pointed to it with his finger. I figured
it was the street lights of nearby Ashton, a somewhat larger town
twenty miles down the highway, but dad said that it was much farther
away. Miles away. That’s a huge distance to an eight year old. I wasn’t
even sure what big city lay beyond Ashton because we rarely went
Every night we’d go out and see how much brighter it
had gotten and every night it had grown brighter, from a dark purple
against the night sky to an almost white one the night before mom
picked me up. Every night I had asked the same question, “ What is it?”
and every night I was told to hush. The night before mom and dad had
been arguing loudly in the next room. I could hear their voices but not
enough to make out what they were saying.
“I hate it when they argue. It makes momma cry.” I complained to Randy who glared at me.
“Just shut up. Steve. Shut the hell up before I beat the crap out of
you.” and he meant it. Not wanting to have the crap beat out of me, I
shut up but the question of why had never been answered.
When we pulled into the driveway I could see Randy
and dad boarding up windows at our own house. Dad saw us when we pulled
up and gave us a forlorn smile that was a pitiful as I had ever seen
before or since .
“Waste of time if you ask me, but we’ll do what they say. They seem to
have all the rest of the Goddamned answers.” dad said giving mom a hug
before tousling my hair.
“Then don’t do it. It’s not going to make any difference anyway.” mom told him but dad shook his head.
“No, it kind of keeps my mind off of things.” he told her. For some
reason adults didn’t like to be reminded of anything and out of sight,
out of mind, held true with my dad. For him to be home from the office
this early on a Tuesday it had to be bothering him, whatever it was.
“Stevie, go put your books in your room and give mom a hand.” he told
me and I wanted to argue that I had homework, but I knew if I did I
would be awarded a look and not the nice one either. So I did what I
was told. Later Randy came and helped us and we finished packing in
less than an hour. It was easy to do since Cathy, my two year old
sister, was napping and not under our feet.
“Mom, where are we going?” I asked but tears were all the answer that I’d gotten.
Mom and dad hugged each other for what seemed like a
very long time before mom loaded me and Randy into the car and kissed
with both of them crying for another ten minutes before dad told her to
just hurry up and go. I know that she didn’t want to and when we did go
we had to keep stopping every few minutes for mom to stop crying and
wipe the tears out of her eyes before pulling back out into traffic. I
undid my seatbelt and peaked out the back window. I saw my dad there,
Cathy in his arms and tears streaking down his face as he waved weakly.
I wanted to ask why they weren’t going with us but as soon as I opened
my mouth to speak Randy glared at me so I shut up.
That was twenty years ago and I still miss him and
Cathy too. She used to tell me that I have his face and because of that
she would never miss him. As I wipe the remaining shaving cream off of
my face and stare at myself in the small round mirror that used to be
his I realize that she’s was telling the truth and on days when
I’m missing him the most, all I have to do is get that mirror out and
he’s there, in his mirror looking back at me, still alive and well and
with us here at Camp Delta in the tent we’ve been provided with. They
won’t let us leave because they learned fast that some people are
carriers and will never suffer the disease those bad men let loose, but
they can transmit it. So here we live in our government provided tent
eating government food that’s air dropped to us every other day.
It wasn’t until later, after I was in my teens, that
I learned exactly what had happened and that the glow we watched every
night was the glow of fires raging as troops used napalm to scorch the
earth and everything on it. It wasn’t until then that I learned about
the lotto and how the “lucky” ones had been selected to evacuate
to the tent camps before the razor wire and armed guards were placed
outside of that. Those left behind had no choice in the matter . I used
to hope that one day I’d see dad and Cathy pulling into the camp in
dad’s truck, but I gave up on that fantasy long ago.
A year later the ones who stayed were declared
heroes by the same government who had been instrumental in their
deaths. Dad was number 5115 on the list and Cathy was 5116. I don’t
think of them as heroes but a sacrifices, payment for the governments
inability to keep us as safe as it had promised to do in the days
before Martial Law.
So we sit and we wait long times to die. Mom died
five years ago after catching pneumonia that winter. It was a long
drawn out painful way to die and it hurt my heart to watch it.
Randy was able to get out before they realized about the carriers
and no one knows what’s happened to him. Once, a few years ago, I was
looking into the mirror and I remember watching as my dad and my sister
grew smaller as we drove away. Sticking out of the waist band of his
jeans was something that made no sense at the time and was a relief
years later and then I remember what he’d said that made momma cry so.
He’d told her not to worry, that he’d take care of Cathy and then
himself long before the burning started. I hope he did it. I really
Length: 1,554 words
Email: William Baxter
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