Night Glow
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 door.
    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 anywhere else.
    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 hope so.

Length: 1,554 words
Email: William Baxter

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