by Laura Duerr
They wanted to save me – but just me. At first, I was grateful, elated: we were safe, all of us. Then the fine print. They deemed me the only one worthwhile. Just me.
My family was with me when I opened the envelope. They all knew what it signified, and they all journeyed with me from excitement and relief to disbelief and horror.
I should have read it alone. Maybe I could have spared them.
But that wouldn’t have made the midnight knock any easier. That wouldn’t have explained the suited men, the booted feet, the black-masked soldiers rushing past my sons’ door where their pale faces peered through the crack. They didn’t dare speak, not even when the soldiers grabbed my wrists and dragged me from my bed and forced me down the stairs.
My husband spoke, though – he used language he’d shelved when the boys got old enough to repeat it. It would have been funny any other time, but at the moment, I just wanted him to be quiet. Didn’t he know the boys would need him now?
They didn’t let me take anything, no coat, no shoes, no wallet, not even for the photos. They didn’t even let me look back, but I could hear the boys crying. I hadn’t heard them cry in years, not because they didn’t, but because they never risked me overhearing. They wanted so badly to be men like their father, who, they assumed, didn’t cry.
The whole street was blocked off for me. Black vans barricaded the intersections; the brownstones were painted blinding blue and red by police lights. The pavement was cold and jagged under my bare toes. It was a clear night. I couldn’t look back, but I could look up, where all those stars hung blithe and eternal over our slow-motion wreck of a planet.
Then the black doors shut and I was saved.
The streets were even quieter than usual. Amy held tight to Misha’s hand as they walked to the corner store. They were out of juice; Amy doubted they’d need it, but Misha was five and demanding, so they went. It was nice to get out of the house and walk in the sun. Misha’s teacher stopped coming to the school three days ago, and Misha was already climbing the walls. Amy wondered if Miss Katie had qualified; the few remaining teachers didn’t know where she’d gone.
The Benson boys were the only other ones out, leaning against the boarded-up window of Suarez’s hardware store, sharing a cigarette. Their mother had qualified – she was a physics professor – but she’d refused to leave her family, so they simply came and took her late one night. Their father sort of checked out after that. Like most, he didn’t go to a job anymore, nor did he leave the house. The boys had been cut adrift, little boats left to face the storm with no oars.
Amy liked to think Ian had qualified and just hadn’t gotten the chance to tell her before he left, and that was why she hadn’t heard from him in so long. Otherwise he would have called, at least to try to see Misha again. She couldn’t think of what skills Ian had that would have gotten him qualified, but the possibility was better than many of the alternatives.
“Look, Mommy!” Misha pointed, her eyes wide with delight. “Rocket ships!”
Amy looked south first. If they were launching from the south, that meant shuttles, more of the qualified being borne to the station that awaited high in the thermosphere. You could see it at night, if you knew where and when to look: a bright white dot racing east, only to retread its path two hours later, forever fleeing something.
The southern skies were clear. To the north, though, nine white lines arced high across the clear sky like a pen sketching a fresh blueprint.
Then, to the south, the shuttles launched.
Amy looked away. The Benson boys stared at the silvery trails, cigarette forgotten.
“I want to watch them!” Misha cried as Amy resumed walking.
“We can watch from home, sweetie.”
“They’ll be all gone!”
“There will still be plenty,” Amy murmured. And they continued towards the store.
Shari had owned the corner store since her father died and reluctantly let her, his only child, take on the family business. He hadn’t been wild about a woman running things, but he’d rather have had the world end than lose the store. As it turned out, neither of Shari’s children had wanted the store – Kara had become a doctor and Devin a journalist – so both were happening.
Shari kept an eye on the other shops as they closed, one by one, and boarded up: the laundromat, Suarez’s, the big-box store whose employees disappeared one by one like stars come sunrise. There was some looting, but as the town emptied, the looters moved on, too. Gone to plague the bigger cities, she supposed.
She continued to sleep in the office, though, rather than upstairs in her apartment, and she kept the shotgun and shells out on the desk. Just in case. She let Mooch have free run of the place, too, going through the shop’s tuna stock and letting him eat on the counter by the dusty backup register. Sarah had been the only one to officially quit; the others had just vanished. Shari still balanced the books and sent their paychecks. Why not. They were never cashed, anyway.
She ran the shop alone for about three weeks, not really bothering to open or close, just helping whoever came in and locking up when it got dark. The Blackburns came in to stock up on camp fuel and canned food before they left for the safe haven they’d staked out upstate; the Benson boys occasionally bought a candy bar each to eat while they hung out on their corner and smoked. She didn’t know where they got the cigarettes – certainly not from her – but she was afraid to ask. Poor kids had already been through enough.
Unlike some folks, Shari wasn’t ruffled that she hadn’t qualified. She knew she never could, and she didn’t mind – what would Mooch have done without her?
He was out patrolling the alley when the missiles launched. It interrupted her soaps. Shari stopped and stared, finally seeing the BREAKING NEWS and the white trails she’d been preparing to see for months. Maybe she’d over-prepared, numbed herself, because none of it seemed to register.
At least it was a sunny day, she supposed. The roads were a mess when it rained. All those cars going every which way – well, hopefully the back roads stayed clear. That’d be the ticket. She’d lure Mooch into his crate with a fresh can of tuna and they’d be on their way.
She pulled on her denim jacket, dug her keys from her purse, and was unpinning her name-tag for the final time when the bell over the door clanged cheerily and Amy and her little girl came in.
It made Shari’s heart seize up, seeing little Misha holding her mama’s hand. Five hours away, Kara was probably just picking up Brayden, and Shari knew she’d never let him go because if her kids were still that age – hell, if they were here now – Shari wouldn’t let go of them, either.
Misha’s voice floated up to her from the middle of the store. “But Mommy, you forgot juice!”
“We’re getting ice cream instead.” Amy’s tone was measured and pleasant. It made Shari smile, in spite of everything: what parent hadn’t attempted this placating bait-and-switch at least once?
Amy came to the register with a bottle of wine and a box of ice cream sandwiches. Shari glanced back at the TV, hoping for some kind of map to tell them how widespread the madness was, but it just showed blue sky and white stripes, like an air show from hell. She wished she knew how much time there was – she had to pick the best route out of town. Even the back roads would get backed up at this rate, and she still had to find Mooch.
The countdown appeared: eighteen minutes to local impact.
Amy was still standing by the register. What was she waiting for? Wasn’t she in a hurry, too? She had a child to pack up, and that took way more time than a cat. The news overhead was a tangle of white contrails: more rockets had launched, many more, very few of them shuttles.
Belatedly, she realized Amy wanted to pay. Misha was staring up at them, waiting for her ice cream.
“How does ‘on the house’ sound?” Shari suggested.
“At least pretend?” Amy mimed scanning. “For her?” She met Shari’s eyes and Shari felt her own fill with tears again.
Misha didn’t seem to have noticed the TV. The girl’s eyes darted between her ice cream and the increasingly tempting array of candy bars in their tidy boxes.
Shari remembered being in grade school and knowing when things were wrong – when the news was on too much, when Pa looked especially serious, when she wasn’t allowed to play outside. She remembered hating not being told why things were wrong – but she also remembered having her own children ask, and how much she’d give to protect them from such truths. What a blessing, that Misha was still too young to realize.
So she scanned, and she told Amy the price. Amy actually handed over money, as if she expected change, as if money would do either of them any good five minutes from now.
“What am I supposed to do with it?” Shari whispered.
“Please?” Amy’s daughter was starting to fidget.
So Shari counted out change. She hadn’t tallied the drawer’ contents in weeks – she hadn’t needed to. Nothing had changed. Still, the bills whisked crisp and swift as always between her fingers and into Amy’s waiting palm.
How is it you aren’t crying? she wanted to ask. Where will you go? Where can you go?
She squeezed Amy’s hand when she took the change. “Have a nice day,” she said, like always.
Nothing else could possibly be said.
The bell tinkled as they left and was quickly muted by the glass door shutting. Amy looked back through the dirty windows: Shari was still staring up at the news, her jacket collar sticking up on one side. She was shredding the twenty into precise confetti.
We saw how it began. Fifteen of us were from that country that had broken first and pressed the button. There was a little violence, of course, a brief frenzy of retribution quickly interrupted by station security.
We’d passed over my hometown twenty minutes earlier. I wouldn’t have to watch them burn, at least. Out of the shifting cross-stitch of white vapor came the remaining shuttles, straining to reach us before the atmosphere ignited.
What was that? Who launched first? Oh. Does that really matter now?
Twelve minutes, forty seconds. Not even enough time to make it past the county line. Shari shrugged off her denim jacket and watched the countdown. Her fingers moved without her thinking about it, and when they went still, she looked down to see the twenty-dollar bill shredded into little squares sprinkled across her clogs. She used to shred napkins in restaurants when she was anxious – hadn’t done it in years.
It felt kind of nice to commit a felony. She’d never even gotten a speeding ticket.
She wondered if Amy and her little girl were home yet. She thought about trying to call Kara or Devin, realized with distant dread that she’d have to choose – that there wasn’t enough time for both – and found herself incapable of making that choice.
She tapped her phone awake, but the screen showed no bars. Service must have been knocked out already. The choice was lifted from her, leaving her feeling relieved yet cheated. Maybe they were texting her even now, telling her they were headed to safety. The possibility comforted her.
She popped a can of tuna and set it by her register. Mooch trotted in through the back door, white-tipped tail high and jaunty. He leapt up and crouched on the conveyor belt, purring. Shari scratched his arched back as he ate.
Amy poured the wine and unwrapped an ice cream sandwich for Misha, who had forgotten about juice but not the rocket ships.
“Now can we watch?” she begged, dangling from the kitchen counter like it was the edge of a cliff. Amy handed her the ice cream and she dropped to her feet, seizing the bar with both hands and biting off one corner.
Fifteen minutes left, perhaps. Ten? The news would have accurate tracking, but Amy left the TV off.
Upstairs, their last remaining neighbors were packing. Amy hadn’t known their names, didn’t know where they’d go. Their next-door neighbors, the Blackburns, had gone to stay with family upstate. They all knew it wasn’t far enough, but Amy had wished them well.
She looked around the kitchen, at the spaghetti pot still soaking, at Misha’s soggy leftover cereal by the sink. The clean dishes in the rack were dry. She thought about putting them away, but instead she opened the cabinet over the fridge, where she kept the wedding-gift china that had been used only for a single Christmas, the year Misha was born. She took down one of the cut-crystal wine goblets inherited from Ian’s grandmother. It wasn’t really her style – nor was it Ian’s, apparently, since he’d left it here and never asked for it – but the legacy of it appealed to her. These fine glasses deserved a last use, to catch the sunlight in their polished facets on this beautiful afternoon. She poured her wine into the new glass and set the old in the sink.
She turned back to Misha, who was already sticky with ice cream. “Do you want to watch the rockets?”
Misha beamed. “Yeah!”
Their small deck faced east. Amy could hear the highway, with its frantic honking and the sirens, and more distantly, the first impact, a low rumble she felt more than heard. They could see uninterrupted sky, the blue and white china-plate designs left by the contrails becoming ever more complex. She lifted Misha onto her lap.
“Can you count them?” she whispered, brushing trembling fingers through the brown curls.
Misha pointed. “One…two…three…”
Laura Duerr is a speculative fiction writer and social media coordinator from the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her husband, and too many cats. Her other stories have appeared in Escape Pod, Shoreline of Infinity, and Gallery of Curiosities.
Ice cream photo credit Joseph Gonzalez via Unsplash
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