By Jon Trobaugh
Followed by Q&A
Mother drags me half-awake through the trailer and into the black morning. I wear only my white sleep shirt, no shoes, my hair cropped like a boy’s because my head lice won’t go away. Mother’s in her ratty pink bathrobe, her peroxided hair pulled back, an unlit cigarette scissored between her long and skinny fingers. Our ’69 Beetle, faded gold with missing bumper, missing headlamp, sits running in the driveway.
She coaxes me down the porch steps and toward the car like a momma hound, a painfully firm grip on the nape of my neck. The white stone gravel pinches my feet. Winter is coming, and I am cold. Father’s rummaging inside the house and yelling. “I’ve got her,” Mother yells back. The civil defense sirens are blaring—hurry hurry, go go.
I pound on the glass as Mother puts me in the car. The doors are old and rusty, and I’m not strong enough to open them from the inside. Something’s wrong, and we will never see our home again. I yell at Mother not to forget my rabbit. His name is Sinclair. I have had him since Father lost his job and we moved here from the city. They will not leave him, I tell myself. They can’t leave him.
Sirens. Sealed in, I can still hear them, a roaring, rotating mess, full and screaming. Mother comes back to the car with a bundle of clothes. The door opens, the bundle flies inside, the door shuts. The bundle does not include my coat. I find some rainbow toe-socks to warm my legs.
Mother is our Sunday school teacher at the First Baptist Church, but she doesn’t read her Bible. Last Sunday, “in spite of some objections from our church family,” Mother taught the class about the book of Revelation. She said it was a message everyone “living in the shadow of the reactor” needed to hear, no matter how young. She said that when the world stopped turning, Jesus would arrive from the East to pick the souls of the dead from the ground like flowers and to reward the living faithful with a warm embrace and a call up to heaven. Our dead puppies and kittens and grandmothers would be waiting for us in the New Jerusalem, where there are rainbows and waterfalls and candy cane slides. This is Mother’s idea of heaven. She didn’t mention rabbits.
I sit in the freezing car seat, my arm resting against my father’s tube amplifier. It is warm. He had been playing before the sirens went off. He plays when he is happy, or nervous. He never plays very well either way. The guitar lies in the floorboard. A “telecaster, ’72, gold sunburst” covered with wet potting soil from Mother’s Wandering Jew, the one she tipped over with the bundle of clothes. The back seat is a jungle. Mother brought all thirteen of her houseplants. Father gives her one every anniversary.
The door opens again. It’s my father. He pats my head.
“Can you slide over a bit, sister?” he asks. He pushes a stack of records at me. “It’s going to be …” the door shuts, and he goes away.
Father has talked about problems at the power plant. He has worked there for three weeks now, as a janitor. He doesn’t get to handle anything that glows. He lost his job on the line at the shoe factory. He tries too hard. He wants to make Mother happy. He wants me to be proud of him. He spends a lot of time in the shed behind the trailer. He plays guitar in there, and writes songs. Mother says he just goes in there to get away from her. I asked Father once if I could get a shed of my own.
The early morning sky comes out of the dark as my parents slide into the front of the car. I know the bulge under Mother’s housecoat is her mutt, Delilah. I’m screaming for Sinclair. Mother yells at me to be quiet. She says that she knows I am upset, but we had to leave Sinclair because “rabbits don’t have souls.”
“It’s okay Stacey,” she says. “I’ve told you this before. Your bunny rabbit doesn’t know anything is wrong. He is as happy as he ever was.”
Delilah’s never happy. She bites me and scratches me and pees in my room. She probably gave me my head lice. I plead for Father to go back and get my bunny. He doesn’t eat much, I say. I cry. I hit and scratch at the door. I forget that we are all going to be blown apart soon, radiated and cut up like construction paper.
The bug sputters, poking along. We gain speed as we pass a grain truck loaded down with furniture and plastic jugs and barrels. A boy is driving. He doesn’t have a shirt on under his overalls.
Mother laughs. “He can’t possibly hope to get away in that thing,” she says. “And he has no business driving. He can barely see over the wheel.”
“Actually, Mother, I bet those barrels are full of water,” I say. “He is going to hide in a cave somewhere and wait it out. That’s why he needs the furniture.”
“And how do you know that?” Mother asks. She turns to face me over the front seat, the dog growling at her chest.
“I don’t,” I answer.
But I do. The boy’s name is Lyndsey. He’s a sixth grader, but he comes to our classroom during English period because he is slow. He is my desk buddy. The teacher wanted him to sit by me because she thinks I’m smart. I am smart, smarter than at least Mother. Lyndsey draws during class. He doesn’t pay attention. He has a black pen and a red pen and a gold colored pencil.
He starts with a white piece of construction paper and colors the bottom half black except for a little square in the bottom right corner. He colors the top half red, pushing the pen hard into the paper. The teacher tells us about prepositions, and when she stops talking everyone can hear him scribbling, swirling his pen like he’s crazy. He usually stops if I nudge him with my elbow or whisper that the teacher is looking.
In the blank square at the bottom, Lyndsey always draws a little gold man, smiling. If the teacher doesn’t take the piece of paper away, Lyndsey will also draw a couch for the man to sit on, and sometimes a TV. He says the little man is him, escaping the fire. He says when the time comes he will take his dead daddy’s truck from the barn. He will fill it with barrels of water and chairs and canned potatoes, and he will drive to a cave and live forever.
He said that his momma’s boyfriend knows a lot about the end times and Jesus, so I told him what Mother told us in Sunday School about heaven. “That’s garbage,” he said. “Heaven’s already full. It’s like that junkyard at the edge of town. You can only bring so much in before they tell you that they ain’t taking no more. Jesus is already getting ready to come back to Earth, to make the devil pay.”
He says if the fire doesn’t come he wants to be in the Army. He says he likes the way the men say hello by putting two fingers on their foreheads. I told him that’s called “saluting.” He says he also likes machine guns and bombs. The other kids call Lyndsey a retard, but he’s not. He asked me if I wanted to come to the cave with him. I said no even though I wanted to say yes, and not just to make him feel better. He makes me feel safe. As we pull past the grain truck, I look at Lyndsey through the back glass and the dust. He puts two fingers to his forehead. I salute back, and try to smile.
The gravel road we live on hits Interstate 10, “an approved evacuation route,” but we head north through the valley because Father thinks the freeway will be blocked by all the other people trying to get away. Father says this way will take us right by our Uncle Lynn’s house. Father says he hopes that his brother isn’t home, that he’s already left. “But you know Lynn,” he says. Mother tells Delilah that the last thing we should do “with the balloon going up” is visit relatives.
Mother had me baptized two Sundays ago. Uncle Lynn did the job because he’s the preacher. He knew I was afraid of water, so when the time came to dunk me under, he didn’t push me all the way in. He held my face, and smiled at me. My hair got a little wet, but I didn’t mind too much because afterward I got cake and ice cream in the community room. Father takes the curves quickly. The houseplants slide around the back seat.
We make it to the highway. Father drives as fast as the car will go, but Mother keeps yelling that we’re not far enough away yet. I don’t have much faith in our ability to run away from it. I have a lump of potting soil in my lap. The lump is cold and wet, like Sinclair’s nose when he is sick. The bug’s engine is whining. Father turns the radio on, but nothing but static and noise comes through. The bug doesn’t have an antenna, just like Father doesn’t have a pinky finger on his right hand because he lost it at the shoe factory.
My uncle stands in his yard. He wears a white shirt, black suspenders and pants. Big black boots. His hands are on his hips and he is looking back toward town. Father drives into the grass. He stops, but doesn’t turn the car off. He rolls down the window. My uncle leans inside. His large hands grip the door. He has a goldfish tattooed on his arm.
“Hey darling,” my uncle smiles and looks at me. “Where’s your coat?”
“She said she wasn’t cold,” Mother answers, puffing hard on her cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke around her,” my uncle says.
“Smoke doesn’t bother dogs,” Mother says.
“You’re coming with us, Lynn,” Father says.
“No, I think your little girl is smushed enough back there. Besides, this is going to blow over. You can’t go running into the cellar every time it thunders.”
“Lynn, really, you need to come…”
“We’ll be fine. Fine.” My uncle leans his head farther into the window and looks back at me. “Now, you take care of your mom and dad, okay girl?”
I nod my head.
My uncle leaves the window and begins to walk away. He is tall. I could climb him like a tree. I want to get out of the car, and I want to jump into my uncle’s strong arms. I want to tell him that my rabbit hasn’t had any water this morning, that if he takes me back to the trailer and lets me get Sinclair, I will live with him forever, and cut his lawn and do his dishes and cook his meals. He’s alone, but I want to tell him I will be there for him. I just need my rabbit.
We sit in the car for a second and watch my uncle disappear back into his dark house. The overcast sky paints everything blue. Blackbirds cover the power lines. The willows look like skeletons. Something is wrong, and I will never see the cows in the field behind my uncle’s house again. I will never see these trees again. I will never see the grain silos standing tall like giant robots beside the road again. And I will never see my Uncle Lynn again. He will become a willow when the fire comes, and everything will burn away. Hurry hurry.
“He’s not coming,” Mother says, blowing a plume of blue smoke toward Father. “So, let’s go. Let’s go!”
The road seems to have no end, but it keeps going up and up, and getting skinnier. There is no traffic. The ditches get deeper. The sirens whisper now. The mountains in the distance are sharp and grey. We see dark shapes ahead, and Mother begins to pray, Delilah to growl.
Trash lies scattered across the road. Boxes. And barrels. A busted table. A TV. Cages. Dead and dying chickens.
Father stops the car. He gets out, shutting the door behind him. I smell gasoline and smoke. “Sweet sweet Jesus,” Mother says. She lights another cigarette. There are two big trucks, one smaller than the other, both smashed and overturned. Father sprints toward the wreck. “Jesus, sweet sweet Jesus,” Mother says. I imagine Sinclair at home, alone, afraid, the sirens in his floppy ears and I cry, but Mother doesn’t notice.
Father gets back into the car. He grips the steering wheel with both hands and sits up tall in his seat. “What happened?” Mother asks.
“It’s bad. They, they must have hit head-on. The chicken truck driver is still inside his cab. But the boy is on the shoulder.”
Mother flicks ashes from her cigarette into the car.
“They’re both gone.”
“Jesus, sweet Jesus.”
“The road is blocked. I don’t think I can get around. We may just have to hunker down here.”
“We can’t, we can’t. We aren’t far enough away. You know that!”
Father just looks at her. He wipes something from his eye.
Mother stumbles out of the car. The dog is still swaddled in her housecoat like a baby. She wades into the water-filled ditch. She turns toward the road and bends down, holding the dog out in front of her like Uncle Lynn held me. Her breasts are exposed. The cigarette hangs from the side of her mouth. She begins praying something I can’t understand. Father gets out too. He leaves his door open. Hurry hurry, go.
I crawl over the front seat and out of the car.
The pavement is cold. My socked feet are cold. My arms are cold. I begin to shiver. Mother and Father are both in the ditch now. He tries to retie her housecoat. She prays louder and dunks her dog into the dirty water again and again. The fire under Lyndsey’s truck is warm. If Lyndsey could ask me again to escape with him, I would say yes. I would get up early before the sirens went off, and I would grab my coat, and put Sinclair in my backpack, and run to Lyndsey’s house, wake him up, tell him the fire is coming. He would ask about Sinclair. He would make sure I was warm, and I would give him a hug. We would take the interstate.
The chickens cry inside their cages. Lyndsey is not crying. He is lying on his back. His overalls are wet now, and stained, and dark. His eyes are closed like he’s sleeping. Mother and Father are still in the ditch. The sirens still whisper. I am still. I am alone. Lyndsey is alone too. I lie down beside him on the frozen pavement, and together we wait for the world to stop turning.
Jon Trobaugh is an Arkansan. His short fiction also appears in Knee-Jerk Magazine.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: This story’s protagonist first came to me saying, “We left so fast we forgot to pack ourselves.” I wish I could have kept that line, but the story decided on a different direction.
Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?
A: Hodge, Samuel Johnson's cat: good conversation, good literature, and all the oysters I could eat.
Q: Straight road? Or winding road?
A: I'm a horrible driver, so I'll say sidewalk.
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
A: As a story nears completion, I begin to discover bits of my personality that I've unintentionally left behind. This is always enjoyable and surprising.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A collection of short stories, along with a collection of essays and anecdotes on Bell's Palsy, a condition I've suffered with since birth.