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.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The complete story is available in the Askance collection “Saltwater And Other Stories“.
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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