Orange & White Noise

Submitted into Contest #138 in response to: Write a story about an afternoon picnic gone wrong.... view prompt

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Contemporary Fiction Suspense

TW: Language and Chaotic Sequences

Terri set the cooler and tote bag on the grass beneath her feet. She pulled the big blue blanket out of the bag, gripped the edge, and let it unfold in the breeze before setting it on the ground. She set the cooler on one corner, the tote bag on the other diagonally opposite. 

“Well, come on, then,” said Terri. Her eldest child Lexi, carrying her youngest brother Ezra, stepped onto the blanket. She let Ezra go as she crossed her legs, scooping her red hair behind her ear and away from the wind.

“This isn’t the best day to do this,” said Lexi. “I can’t see anything.”

“It’ll let up,” said Terri. “Don’t worry about it.” She opened the cooler and pulled out a handful of sandwiches handing one to Lexi and tearing one in half for Ezra. He stayed standing, holding the sandwich in his clenched fist, examining his surroundings. Terri couldn’t tell if it was bewilderment or confusion on her son’s face but found it comical regardless. “Sit down, Ez.” He sat, feet forward and cheeks red.

“Why peanut butter and jelly, Mom? We have this every time,” said Lexi. 

“It’s the standard,” said Terri. “I didn’t hear you once volunteer to pay for and make new sandwiches.” She smiled but Lexi didn’t reciprocate, just forced a bite and pulled her phone out of her pocket. “You’re not going to be on that phone when your father gets here. We’re going to spend quality time together.”

“That phrase makes me want to puke. ‘Quality time’. Isn’t any time quality time?”

“Don’t get analytical with me now. Just eat your lunch.” Terri watched Ezra bite his sandwich, a glob of jelly slipping free from the bread and landing on the blanket. She thought to complain but saw it paired nicely with the old vomit stain Lexi had put into the blanket six years prior. The bloodstain by her flip-flops was now a deep brown, a remnant from when Patrick had kicked their orange soccer ball a little too hard and drove it into Elliot’s nose. He had come running to her, a mix of tears and blood streaking down his face. One of his teeth, having already been loose, was knocked free. They’d left the beach that afternoon without finding it, even after another hour’s worth of search. Patrick had put a dollar under Elliot’s pillow anyway.


The snap of Lexi’s gum brought Terri back to reality. She could smell the artificial grape flavoring despite the wind blowing against her daughter’s mouth. A yellowjacket came to visit, floating under Terri’s nose. It hovered, nudging at her cheeks. She swatted several times, shooing it away. It circled around, almost tickling at Lexi’s scalp. Ezra watched it float off into the trees behind them, licking the peanut butter off his lips. 

Despite the wind, Terri felt proud for picking today to have lunch at the park. The sun shone in a sky as blue as toothpaste, wisps of clouds drifting along like slow-moving animals searching for rest. The trees shuddered in the wind, leaves singing and dancing in the invisible current. A couple of families studded the grassy expanse of Ridgeville Park like pimples, some sitting at benches, others playing with a yellow frisbee. A play structure sat to their left, built with seven slides and a set of swings on the end. There was a sandpit with a crane arm and seat, giant climbable tires, and some sort of spinning seats attached to poles that made her nauseous to look at.

“Da!” said Ezra, bouncing in his place. His left hand was covered in jelly. He pointed with his right down the slight incline, near the play structure. “Da-da!”

Approaching them was Patrick and Elliot, both with hair like fire. Terri stroked her brown hair, throwing it over her shoulder as best she could with the wind. Elliot charged up to the blanket, almost tackled his mother with the hug. Despite being only ten, he had his father’s strength in him. Patrick came up, handsome as ever with his beard and button-up shirt and tie. He picked up Ezra, placed him on his hip.

“Hey buddy,” he said, giving him a forehead kiss. “Having a good day? Are you giving Mom hell as always?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” said Terri. Patrick kissed her as he knelt, rummaging through the cooler.

“That’s my boy,” he said with a smile he’d hoped to hide from his wife. “Hi, Lexi.”


“Hi Dad,” said Lexi, looking at him before returning to her phone. She was lying on her back now. Patrick shrugged and took a big bite of his sandwich. He’d tossed another to Elliot, who’d already taken several bites by the time he started his, eating around the crusts. They looked like toenail clippings. 

“How was the dentist, boys?” Terri asked. The wind had begun to settle, the gentle tickle giving their hair an ethereal floating effect. Ezra’s nose had regressed from red to pink.

“Fine,” said Patrick, resting on his right elbow as he leaned back. “They found a couple of small cavities between his teeth but everything was fine on the surface. They gave him a small bag with the usual stuff but gave him two cartridges of floss and heavily emphasized that he start using it.”

“I will,” Elliot said, chipmunking his sandwich as he nibbled on a carrot. “Trust me. I don’t want my teeth pulled.”

“Slow down, hon,” said Terri. “Swallow the food already in your mouth before shoving something else in.” Elliot gave a hard swallow, almost choked, and took a sip from his juice box before eating again.

Snap! went Elliot’s carrot. Pop! went Lexi’s gum.

“Nothing too expensive, I hope?” Terri asked before biting into a Thin Mint. She’d bought a box two days prior when the Girl Scouts had migrated to their side of town. Her family didn’t need to know she’d gotten an extra box of Tagalongs for herself that was currently hiding under the driver’s seat in the station wagon. 

“Compared to what we have to pay for our dental work? Not expensive at all,” Patrick said.

“One less thing to worry about,” said Terri. “For now.” She reached into the bag on the opposite side of the blanket and pulled out a short wave radio. Her father used to have one himself; they’d stay up past her bedtime listening to old radio broadcasts from the 50s; crime dramas that kept her up until morning, praying the batteries had enough juice for the next episode the following evening. When she left for college, her father had given her a spare radio he’d hid in the garage when she was home but worked on repairing for her when she fell asleep. She’d cried over it when he bid her goodbye and she cried over it again the night after he passed away. Now, she flicked through the radio stations, hoping for something more interesting than adverts and pop songs.

“Brite-Shine, the new mold-clearing cleaner that’ll have your tubs looking as shiny as the-,” said one station. Click.

“I just can’t hold this feeling in me anymooooo-” sang some twenty-something. Click.

“-the bombing of Jackson Bank on the north side of Ridgeville. This assault is the third in what appears to be a string of serial attacks against-” This was enticing but she didn’t want to scare her boys. Click.

“You say goodbye and I say hello,” sang the Beatles. Terri smiled and set the radio down, taking in the sun. Birds chittered somewhere in the trees surrounding the park. Behind them were cars, some honking, others revving. Despite being two in the afternoon, the avenues were packed. She thought of Dr. Seuss and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! That one line came strong amongst the others; Everyone is just waiting.

When Ezra’s curiosity got the better of him, he took off toward the playground. Terri began to rise but Patrick ushered her back down. “I’ve got this,” he said, chasing after his three-year-old son. He stomped down the small incline, roaring and swaying his arms like a monster. Ezra shrieked with happiness, took off under the monkey bars and they were gone, lost among a jungle gym and the plastic construct of the slides. Terri ate a Thin Mint and looked at herself. Her sides were peeking through the lowest part of her shirt, pale skin exposed for the world to see. She put her hoodie on, zipped it up. She admitted that maybe she could cut back on the sweets and left it at that… until she ate two more cookies. At least Patrick still thinks I’m pretty… right? 

“Can I have the cookies, Mom?” Lexi asked, reaching out her hand. Terri blinked.

“Did you eat your sandwich?” Terri wondered, her eyebrows raised in challenge.

“Like… half of it,” said Lexi. “Please?”

“Fine, but you need to eat some carrots sometime before we go, okay?” Terri said, tossing her the sleeve of Thin Mints. With the quietness of a panther, Elliot dove headfirst and snatched the cookies out of the air. Terri flinched and Lexi squeaked. 

“I’ll take those,” said Elliot. He popped a Thin Mint into his mouth, his smile full of crushed cookie.

“Fucker!” said Lexi, getting up and giving chase as Elliot began to run. 

“Hey, watch your language!” Terri called after them. “Don’t hurt your brother, please!” She heard Ezra shriek at the playground. Patrick was chasing him, arms in the air, swaying back and forth with slow stomps carrying him forward. She thought there was dirt in Ezra’s hand but couldn’t tell from the blanket. Lexi had Elliot pinned. Face to face, she geared up her gum and blew the biggest bubble she could. Elliot squirmed as the purple sphere neared his face. 


Terri couldn’t tell what had happened. It was like her vision went dark and she was just now able to see again. Her ears rang, the screams echoing through them muffled. Lexi was still on top of Elliot, frozen and staring straight ahead. Terri sprinted to them. Elliot bucked from under his sister, trying to wrench free but to no avail. 

“Get off, Lexi!” Terri said, wrenching her hands from Elliot’s wrists. “Are you both okay?!”

“I think! What’s going on?!” Elliot shouted, rubbing his ears. 

“Lexi!” Terri and Elliot both said, shaking Lexi’s shoulders. They followed her gaze and saw it. A cloud of black smoke plumed into the sky and at its tail, a building wreathed in orange and yellow flame. Half of it was gone, scattered across the street and setting some of the nearby foliage ablaze. Another blow came from inside, windows left unbroken now shattered, shards of glass clattering onto the sidewalk below. Terri’s ears popped, heard the hundred car alarms screeching in disharmony. People were screaming, dashing to their cars, all away from the building. Terri grabbed Lexi and Elliot, turned them away as, one by one, survivors from the explosion came sprinting out of the building, arms flailing and engulfed in fins of tangerine. Some jumped through the windows up high, screaming as they collided with the concrete. The rest ran down the streets, crying for help, rolling on the ground.

“Come on,” said Terri, turning away. The three of them ran back to the blanket. She gathered what she could of their stuff and then her children’s attention. “You stay right here! I have to find your father and brother! Lexi, you watch Elliot! Do you understand?” Lexi gave a shaky nod, her gaze returning to the flaming people running in the streets. Elliot was crying. “Don’t look, sweetie. Don’t look. I’ll be back.”

By the time she got to the structure, the flames had started to spread. Sirens were wailing somewhere across the city. The trees separating the burning building and the park were starting to catch flame, bark popping as the fire licked up their trunks. The grass curled into charred spirals like black licorice whips. The fire crept along, inching closer to the playground.

“Patrick!” Terri screamed, jumping onto the play structure. The wood chips surrounding it started to smolder. “Patrick!”

“Here!” shouted Patrick. He came barreling toward her from under the structure, crying Ezra in his arms.

“Oh, thank God,” Terri said. She hopped down and took his hand. “Let’s go!” They ran, watched the flames start to climb the play structure, singe the pine handrails and melt the plastic tunnels. Lexi and Elliot were still there. They all collapsed onto the ground, huddled like football players.

“Are you okay, Dad?” Lexi asked, patting him down. “Is Ezra okay too?!”

“He’s fine,” said Patrick. “We have to get out of here. The fire isn’t going to stop spreading. Let’s get to the car.” They picked each other up and slogged to the car with what energy they had left. Ezra’s face was red with tears again. Terri kissed his forehead and strapped him in. 

“Hospital?” Terri asked as she buckled into the passenger’s seat.

“Good idea to get there now than later,” said Patrick. They sped off, taking a sideroad and breaching the parkway to avoid the congested avenues.

Ridgeville Hospital North, and South for that matter, was always busy, but the fallout from the recent explosions had them pushing the limits of their capacity. The limit would certainly be toppled after this one. With Patrick leading, they stepped into the emergency wing. Patrick told the nurses the situation and they were seated to wait for the next available examination. The lobby was practically empty save for an old couple and another family with a crying newborn. They sat and whilst waiting, watched a stream of folk in dirty clothing come barging into reception, distressed and screaming at the nurses for help. Despite the catastrophe, this happened only a few times before the room fell quiet. Patrick had made the smart move to travel farther to the south hospital. He’s always been good like that.

They settled in. Another family that happened to be at the park came into the lobby, met, and talked to help ease the tension, but otherwise kept to themselves. Patrick drank himself a cup of coffee, Terri holding Ezra in her arms. He was fast asleep, eyes swollen from the crying. Lexi and Elliot sat together on Terri’s right. She couldn’t help but smile when she saw them holding hands. 

“Your gum scared me,” said Elliot. Lexi looked over, eyes bloodshot.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“The bubble popped when the building exploded. Thought that’s what made the noise.”

“Well, sorry… not gonna chew gum for a while.”

“Yeah, you’d better not if it makes buildings explode,” said Elliot. Patrick chuckled under his breath. 

“Yeah, Lex,” said Patrick. “How about you switch to something else for a while? You’re gonna get caught if you keep doing that.”

“Oh, to hell with you both,” said Lex, smiling. “How do we know it wasn’t your monster stomps that brought it down, Dad? When chasing Ezra?”

“She’s got a point,” said Terri, smiling with a bit lip.

“Oh yeah?” Patrick asked with a stunned look painted across his cheeks. “Peanut butter makes me fart. It could have been your sandwiches that did the job.”

“Sounds more genetic than anything. I shouldn’t be blamed for that at all.” Terri laughed as she spoke. They poked fun for a while before the hysteria brought them back down. It started to rain, drops pecking at the glass windows of the waiting room. Smoke danced on the horizon, painting the sky gray. Terri dug through the bag at her feet, picked the radio out, and caressed it, going over the lines and buttons with her fingertips before turning it on.


March 24, 2022 18:18

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1 comment

Chandler Wilson
14:29 Apr 03, 2022

Your attention to detail in the beginning of the story did an excellent job of creating a peaceful and tranquil setting. This all being disrupted in an instant by a violent explosion putting people in peril was well done. Reedsy suggested I read your story as part of a Critique Circle. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading more of your work while learning to improve my own. Thank you for sharing and well done!


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