Arlene heaved the last suitcase with a grunt, misjudged how heavy it was and how tired she was, and slammed it into the side of their baby blue Plymouth Savoy station wagon. The case bounced off and fell to the ground, opened, and a load of clothes splattered all over the lawn. Arlene lurched the other way, collided with the vehicle, and rocked it.
She shook the dizziness away and trembled. “Ffffff–” she began, but then she saw the five pairs of quivering, wide children’s eyes within the car – from eleven-month-old Robert through nine-year-old Richard – and she finished, “–fiddlesticks.”
She bent over and took a deep breath. Fatigue tremored through her arms and legs and she was drenched with sweat. Her dress clung to her back and her legs. Octobers weren’t supposed to be this hot. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The war wasn’t supposed to be this hot either.
She turned her attention to the lawn, covered with James’s clothes. One by one she began packing socks, shirts, and ties into the case again. When she heard a window rolling down behind her, she shuddered.
“Mum!” said Richard. “Mum! Mum!”
“Yes?” It was all Arlene could do to keep her voice steady. Out of the corner of her eye she had a good view of the rest of the street. The whole neighborhood was packing up. It was a zoo of scrambling suburbanites and screeching children. There was Linda, in her fancy heels, like she was hosting a soirée. There was Patricia, having somehow corralled her brood of six little monsters into helping her load their car. There was other-Linda, chatting with Deborah and Barbara. Where did these women find the time? How did they do it?
“Why did you do that?” Richard whined.
“It was an accident, honey. I didn’t mean to.” She shoved another three pairs of James’s socks into the suitcase. The thing was already overflowing and most of his clothes were still on the grass. How could she ever get this closed again? How did they get it closed in the first place?
“Mum! Mum! Mum!”
“Why are the Cubans attacking us?”
“They’re not!” screamed eight-year-old Randy at his brother. “It’s the Reds!” Then they screamed at each other, and someone threw a fist, and someone else was hit, and someone started crying so everyone else started screaming louder.
Arlene buried her face in her palms. “Quiet!” she said. “Richard Douglas Cooper, if you hit your brother one more time–”
“–that’s it!” Arlene said, rising, her fists juddering at her sides. “Go to your room this instant!”
All five of her sons stopped fidgeting and stared at her, eyes wide. It occurred to Arlene what she just said. She felt yet another convulsion tickle her nerves, felt her jaw so tight she thought it might snap. All she wanted was a moment’s peace. A moment’s quiet, to maybe finish that stupid Harper Lee book Linda had recommended to her, almost two years ago. So long ago the other neighborhood women had even gotten over gabbing about it.
“I meant,” she said, pushing the words through clenched teeth, “stay in the car. Quietly, please.”
Thankfully just then, a military Jeep drove down the road and the boys followed it with their gaze. The steely-eyed soldiers waved as they passed.
“Arlene, honey,” James called out. He stood up the driveway a bit, cigar in one hand and beer in the other, discussing man-things with David, William, and Father Thomas. “What’s the hold up? This isn’t the time to be goofing around with the kids.”
The men all had a good chuckle and Arlene sputtered. “I am not goofing–”
“Tut-tut,” said Father Thomas, wagging one finger in the air and bowing his head sagaciously. “A woman’s place, Arlene…”
“Yes, Father,” Arlene said, trying to collect herself with a huff.
“A woman’s place–”
“Yes, Father, thank you.” She got back to packing and the men got back to important discussions. Naturally, the suitcase wouldn’t close when she got everything in there, so she sat on it and jumped up and down a few times until she could get the latches closed. Again, out of the corner of her eye she spotted the neighborhood women, only this time they were not-so-surreptitiously watching her and having a giggle.
“Oh Arlene!” Deborah called out. “You are such a gas!”
Arlene bared her teeth, which the other women seemed to take for a grin. But then the suitcase clicked shut and Arlene let herself a solitary sigh of victory.
She squatted by the car, stretched her arms and rolled her shoulders to loosen them up, and firmly planted her feet on the ground. She even kicked off her heels. She grabbed hold of the case and with a primal growl heaved it over her head and onto the other cases. When it came down the whole car bounced, delighting her sons to no end, except for little Robert who started bawling.
Arlene breathed heavily. She leaned against the car and rested for a moment, which was comfortable despite the metal being scalding. Slowly, coming back to herself, she put her heels back on. In so doing, she spotted an unsightly tear in her hose. A problem for after the evacuation.
She stretched her aching back and surveyed the luggage on their car. Three cases for James. A small one each for her four eldest boys, with a second one for Richard. A bigger communal one for their toys. A box of non-perishables. James’s fishing gear and three of the boys’ bicycles. Their 21 inch Philco television, which James insisted they take because, “You never know how long we’ll be gone, and we don’t want to leave our important things behind in case pinkos come around.” It had taken her all morning to get it on the roof of the car.
Arlene frowned. It seemed to her that something was missing. She walked around the car, counting things off again.
Throughout the street, car engines roared to life, horns honked, and vehicles started driving. James and the men parted ways.
David asked, “Say, do you think I should water the lawn before I go? I don’t want things to dry out, in case… you know.” He made a whistling sound and pantomimed a bomb dropping.
The men laughed. “No need,” said Father Thomas. “I wager the government’s just overreacting, as usual.”
“You think so?” said James.
“Oh yes, oh yes,” Father Thomas continued. Then he took a deep puff of his cigar and tossed the butt on the driveway. “Have no fear, we’ll beat those commies yet. God bless you all, God bless you.”
They all went their own ways, to their own vehicles. “Looking for something, honey?” James asked, as he went to the driver’s side door.
“Yeah,” Arlene said, rifling through the cases she had so meticulously loaded on the car. “James, I can’t find… where is my suitcase, James?”
James chuckled. “Ah, well, you must have forgotten it in all the excitement.”
She drew her lips tight. “I asked you to bring it out. You bring them out and I load them. That’s what we agreed!”
“Honey,” he said, grinning, and he shook his head as though that explained things. “I can’t be the one doing all the work. Besides, the boys came over. I couldn’t well be inhospitable. It’s probably still in the basement.” He got into the car and started the engine. “Well, get in. It’s time for us to evacuate.”
“James!” she said, still standing outside the car. “I need my things!”
James rolled his eyes and cracked open another beer. “Gee willikers. Honey, we have to evacuate now. I don’t want to get stuck in traffic and the whole town is hitting the road.”
“I can’t go without my things.” Arlene felt herself trembling again, felt her teeth grinding against each other.
“Fine, fine,” James said. “I spoil you, you know that? Okay, run inside and get your things, and then catch up with us at the intersection.”
“Catch–” she said, frowning. Then the meaning of the words hit her. “Catch up?”
“Get a move on, slowpoke!” James said, reversing the car into the street. Her sons chanted, “Slowpoke! Slowpoke!”
Arlene dashed back to their house. He wouldn’t actually leave her. Would he? She got the door open and Sir Pancakes, their golden retriever, barked happily at her and wagged his tail.
“Not now, Pancakes!” she said, pushing past the dog and beelining for the basement. She nearly fell down the stairs, because she wasn’t used to running in heels – or at all. Then she did fall down the stairs when Sir Pancakes sprinted by her and knocked her over. Thankfully she was nearly at the bottom anyway, and they had recently covered everything in a clean, comfortable shag carpet.
Arlene got to her hands and knees, then rose. She thought she had bruised something, and her hose were now visibly ripped. Ah, but there it was, her suitcase. Just where she had left it. Just where she had told James to find it. Just where he had left it.
She stalked over to it, muttering things under her breath. This day couldn’t get any worse. James would probably leave without her and then she’d have to hitch a ride with a neighbor into the city. And it would probably be one of the Lindas, and she’d gossip about the torn hose.
Arlene picked up her suitcase. Then she saw a curious flash of light fill the entire basement. Then she heard a deafening roar. Then she was flung against a wall and everything went black.
Sometime later, it was Sir Pancakes who woke her, by licking her face. Everything hurt and everything was covered in dirt. The basement looked like it had never been cleaned, but of course there was nothing to be done about it now, since they already packed their vacuum cleaner in the car.
Arlene rose on unsteady feet, grabbed her suitcase and lugged it up the steps. This time she moved aside so the dog could sprint up.
Upstairs, the first thing she noticed was that the house didn’t have a roof. The clouds were grey and swirling high above her. The second thing she noticed was that most of the walls were torn, broken, and either blackened or still gently on fire.
“Oh my goodness,” she whispered. Sir Pancakes whined up at her, his tail wagging uncertainly. “I have to tell James.”
She continued dragging her suitcase and shambled out the front door, which fell out of the frame as soon as she touched it. Outside, their pristine lawn was scorched earth. The neighbors’ houses looked no better than hers, and there were cars scattered all around. Some on their sides, some on their roofs. All burned or melted. Here and there, she saw charred bones.
“Oh my goodness,” she whispered again, covering her mouth with her free hand.
When she looked up the street, she saw Father Thomas’s church. Mostly just the left and front wall, and a pile of debris within. The massive cross hanging over the door was askew, and as she watched it, it groaned, rotated on the one remaining nail, and crashed to the ground.
“Oh… my goodness…”
The reality of what happened cut through her confusion. It shook loose the last webs of disorientation. “They did it,” she said. “They actually did it.” She wasn’t sure why she spoke out loud. For Sir Pancakes’s benefit? For her own? Just to hear a human voice?
“It’s all gone,” she said, surveying the destruction. Her home, her neighbors, her everything. “It’s all…” She tapped her chin. “It’s all so quiet.”
She looked down at Sir Pancakes, patted him on the head. “It is quiet, isn’t it boy?” She went back inside their home, and the dog followed. Among the debris, she found one intact bottle of Bordeaux and made her way to what was left of the living room. There she heaved a blackened wooden beam off the surviving half of the couch, and swept any remaining glass off it. She sat down, patted the cushion beside her for Sir Pancakes, and then dug out that Harper Lee book Linda had recommended to her, from her luggage.
She sniffed, took a swig of wine, and started chapter two.
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Oh dear, I can't help but cheer for Arlene. I asked myself why I wasn't upset that the children were dead, but then I remembered that they were annihilated so it didn't hurt, and they were actually lucky not to grow up and turn out as awful as their father. And Sir Pancakes lived, so all was well. A beautifully crafted story, and I love the title. Crisis averted.
Thanks, Carolyn! I was cheering for her too :) James and the others made for a very frustrating situation. Yeah, I think you got it. I think Arlene actually was exhausted. Not just physically, but emotionally. No doubt she loves her family, but perhaps there are times when she doesn't like them. That's not really socially acceptable, is it? But a complete lack of respect can wear on a person. I appreciate the feedback!
Wow. Powerful tale in just a few paragraphs. In my own conclusion to the story, I assume that the lady might have been in shock at first, and that it would have taken a bit for her to process the impact of what had just happened. I've seen that occur. Well written!
Thanks, Ron! Yes, I think you're right about the conclusion. It seems like shock in a case like this is unavoidable. The event itself is hard to fathom, but then when you consider what comes after - your whole life and everything you know has just been changed - that's probably the kind of thing that takes time to process too. I appreciate the feedback :)
Reminds me a bit of that Twilight Zone where only one man survived and he was a total bookworm, but broke his glasses. But one-upped by the extra oomph of the related release from awful, rigid gender roles. You use the little details (the tear in the pantyhose, gossiping other Linda, her suitcase being the only one NOT in the car, etc) well to really show how macro and micro-oppressive her reality is.
Heh, I was actually thinking of that episode of Twilight Zone as I wrote this. The idea for the end hit me, and I thought it was really good, but then there was this thought like, "why does that sound familiar?" I'm glad all the little details came through. Oppressive is exactly what I wanted to portray, particularly in comparison to the other characters, like her husband. I appreciate the feedback :)
I think the end worked great. I've always liked that episode but, honestly, compared to her reality, the main character in it didn't have it all that bad. The mom in me winced a bit at the kids being (presumably) swept away as well, but the way you have them join in the chant right before it all goes south I think provides the necessary buffer to ease the sting: the toxicity is multigenerational. It's not like any one of them speaks up on her behalf or shows any gratitude.
I love the 60s era as a setting in stories and I really enjoyed how you create the feel of it with the names, big families, the women running around after the kids while the men talk, and of course the real life events going on. The attitudes were really entertaining though, they are far more concerned with taking the TV so they don't get bored than about impending nuclear war. I feel like there is that tendency to just assume the worst won't happen, especially before the days of everyone being on the internet all the time and winding each o...
Thanks, Kelsey! I'm really glad this setting worked out for you, as I'm pretty new to writing anything historical, and I find the prospect intimidating :) But yeah, the Missile Crisis was a super interesting time. I wasn't there, but I imagine it was a time of widespread understanding that yeah, we probably could end it all. How do you reconcile that with just living your life? Anyway. It sounds like you got everything I was going for. I also think Arlene's reaction is a mixture of shock - how could it not be? - and a kind of relief. The...
Loved this story. I've never liked Historical fiction, but this was really good. Great job!! :)
Thanks! I've struggled with historical fiction too. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
All I can say is this is a powerful story. Truly enjoyed reading this. Wonderful work!
Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
Another awesome story from you, Michał! You portrayed the arrogance of James and the other men so perfectly, I was squirming with hatred for the characters and how they treated Arlene - which is brilliant. You have to be quite a skilled writer to really make it seem like these character's are real, and I'd happily give James a good slap. A bit of historical fiction can either be boring for me, or a very interesting read. Personally, this one was on the interesting side of the scale, for sure. A good use of the prompt - at first I was wond...
Thanks, Zoë! Yeah, James and the others were greasy for sure :) I'm glad the historical fiction worked out for you here, and I think I know where you're coming from. I'm personally usually intimidated by it, because of all the facts and reality in it, but I must admit I've read a lot of great historical stories. Some writers definitely have the skills - maybe we can all learn. I appreciate the feedback!
I don't care what the neighbors say, this is definitely my idea of a happy ending. Should have been called Revenge of the Stepford Wives, if that title wasn't already taken.
Heh, thanks Patrick :) I think Arlene would agree with you, to a lesser or greater extent :)
Wow, this story took a turn! Brilliant work capturing the mix of complacent arrogance and sheer terror that occurs in a situation like this. I think you did a great job of setting the scene in the first part of the story, which made the ending even more powerful!
Thanks, Daniel! I'm glad the scene setting worked out. I think the ending wouldn't have quite the same impact without it. I appreciate the feedback :)
Oh wow, I really enjoyed this, Michał! I felt for poor Arlene, with her chauvinistic arse of a husband. I thought you captured that dynamic so well - the casual dismissal, the gaslighting… I loved the ending - I did get a bit of a shock! I loved she got to have a rest and a wine with good book… Thank you for sharing! :-)
Thanks, Beth :) "Chauvinistic arse" is a great way of putting it. I felt for Arlene too, since there were frustrations from all sides, kind of hemming her in, and then relief comes from an unlikely place. Oh, we do make these poor characters suffer. I wonder if it's possible to write an engaging story about a happy person with a charmed life, having a good day? Perhaps that's a good challenge. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I appreciate the feedback :)
Haha that sounds like good challenge indeed!!
Wow Michal! I loved this piece for a few reasons. The vivid imagery you captured was incredible and the dialogue really sealed the deal for me. I once asked my grandmother what it was like raising her black child in the 1960s during the civil rights movement in the US and she said, “We just lived, dear. We just lived.” And I feel like you captured that sentiment in the beginning of this piece. All of your characters are just living. They’re still parents and partners and people practicing their faith. I also love, love, loved the way you ad...
Thank you, Amanda :) I'm very glad the setting and characters worked out here. Historical fiction is a weak point of mine, so it's good to hear that the work in improving is paying off. I love that sentiment of your grandmother's, "We just lived, dear. We just lived." Sometimes the stories of people "just living" get overlooked, but they can be incredibly interesting, and especially so during something like the civil rights movement. I appreciate the feedback :)
It's interesting how people react to a traumatic event, and I think you've captured it well. Arlene's life was chaotic with a rude husband and demanding children, and I like how she got found a pocket of piece in the aftermath of the bomb, a moment with just herself, plunged into reality, still reeling from the fact that she made it out alive. I really liked the Cold War setting. Well done!
Thanks, Mary! Yeah, reactions to trauma are fascinating. How do we make sense of the world, when the foundations of our beliefs have been shaken? Well, there's no shortage of talented people writing about it, and sadly no shortage of trauma. I'm glad the setting came through well, and I'm also pleased she got a break at the end. Just writing James was irritating :) I appreciate the feedback!
You evoked so much emotion in this story, I felt tight jawed while reading. I think you played on all the senses as well as emotions. On top of the exasperating husband, you have the noisy arguing children, the sticky heat of day, the weight of loading luggage, and the underlying panic of evacuating the neighborhood. I love how you seamlessly established the era through small details like car models, names, and then eventually the political climate. I think showing Arlene’s lack of reaction to losing her family, or at least the children, s...
Thanks, Aeris! Yes, I think you got it exactly right with Arlene. Utterly worn out. I suspect she does miss them, but at this moment she's balancing fatigue and shock. I'm not even sure what an appropriate reaction to something like this would be. There's probably a minimum amount of time you need to even accept it happened. Then a realization that your whole world - perhaps *the* whole world - has changed. Then maybe procrastinating, to avoid facing that terrifying question, "what do I do now?" It's all probably very personal, what a pe...
Same for me! Or with older settings, I’m always afraid that some historian is going to come out of the woodwork and pick my whole story apart.
I've read four of your stories so far and you've got range. From fantasy to children's to this speculative, historical fiction, you write with authority that matches the style of each genre. You've captured the male dominated world of the early 60s. Maybe it wasn't as over the top as your story or maybe it was. I suspect the husband would have insisted on doing all the heavy work. On the other hand, it's exactly what would have happened in an episode of the 60s TV show The Twilight Zone. Great throwback story!
Having read some of the other comments, I agree characters should be proactive in a story. In one moment she is. She could have listened to her husband and gotten in the car without her suitcase but she went back for her things. The feeling I had at the ending was relief that she finally got some time to herself. Her lack of concern for her family is unrealistic but that is okay for dark humor. If you wanted to make her reaction more realistic you could have her choose to stay in the basement to read a bit and catch up with her family late...
Thanks, Craig! Yes, I'll admit this might not have been a strictly realistic piece (alternate history aside) with some elements being exaggerated for effect. When it comes to social issues, I often find myself drawn to the kind of arbitrariness that Kafka might have used. That idea of "other people decided you must live this way regardless of what you want, and they won't tell you why" makes my skin crawl. So in that sense, I'm glad the ending works from a dark humour perspective. It's funny you mention the Twilight Zone, as I did have t...
That's the episode that came to my mind too! But your story has more depth because it takes on the issue of a male dominated society.
This story hit a lot of sweet spots for me. It is a historical drama, is suspenseful, and of course, has feminist themes woven into it- subtle yet powerful. The last one of the three reasons scores the brownie points as far as I'm concerned. And makes me wish I had written it! Of all of your stories that I have read, this marks the deep dive into the feminine psyche(or the dissection of gender-assigned roles) perfectly. I liked the way you crafted the frantic efforts of a young mother to find some peace and quiet and of course, respect juxt...
Thank you, Suma! That means a lot. Yes, those were the kinds of themes I was going for, and I always worry a bit when writing problems I haven't personally faced. Requires a lot of research and analogy, though I guess one of the advantages of writing is we spend a lot of time imagining what it's like to be other people. It's good to hear when it works out, and yeah, I suspect the world would be a much nicer place with more empathy. The two guiding principles I had here are "being dismissed" and "feeling trapped". I'm glad that works with...
I've always said that good fiction should make you feel something. That something doesn't necessarily have to be positive, but it should force the reader to experience some kind of emotion other than boredom. And so, with that being said, kudos for making me absolutely despise James. Genuinely aggravating behavior, and he served as a good antagonist here. Double kudos for tagging this "Historical Fiction," both because of the "nuclear crisis" storyline but also for the subtle hints at the time period (the "woman's place" dialogue, the Plymou...
You picked up on a lot of the things I hoped would come through. Yes, her situation and the people around her were meant to be frustrating, at best. This, to set up the payoff at the end. The relief, if you will. Given it comes with a bomb, it's a bit of dark (hopefully) humour -- but more importantly, not just pure frustration the whole time. When I wrote this, I did wonder, does Arlene's (lack of) remorse or sorrow make her a bad mother and wife? A bad person? Maybe. Maybe not. Historically, and still today, there are certain expectation...
You did a very good job at making us feel bad for Arlene, even angry for her. Whats truly dark about this, is that the world was like this. This could have easily happened. Anyways, I wont even try to leave a long comment for the king of long, amazing comments. Ill just leave my honest opinion! The opening was a little soft, but the imagery was great. I think the middle could have been a little shorter, but I also have the attention span of a goldfish, so take that with a grain of salt. As for the ending, I loved it. So dark and perfect, wit...
Thanks Jaden! Yeah, I remember first learning about mutually assured destruction, and it truly was mad. It's crazy how close the world was to catastrophe, and there's endless room now to speculate on how it might have turned out. Of course, the threat of nuclear war never really disappeared :P I appreciate the feedback! Especially if things bog down. Very useful to know :)
Standing ovation. Original? Yes Enveloping? Yes Theme: a woman's place (is safe at home). Character empathy? Nailed Flow? Worked with old eyes and even a cheap voice reader. 2 day improvement. 2 days to edit? Maybe. Let me read again in a minute. Think I saw something. Good stuff.
Thanks :) I thought I'd go with something a little darker this week, but maybe darkly humorous too. Something about mounting frustrations reaching a boiling point, and then an explosive ending.
I wanted to give the husband a "what for," leaving her to do all the work and then leaving her while she got her suitcase from the basement. I thought it was shocking, but I liked the idea that she needed peace and quiet, and she actually got it so that she could read To Kill A Mockingbird. I had an inkling that this would be the case when she had to get into the basement. An odd place for a suitcase - especially for the woman of the house - presumably she and her husband would pack from the master bedroom on the main floor. Nonetheless, I ...
Thanks, Lily! Yes, he was definitely a frustrating person. The situation may have been exaggerated a little, but there are certainly cases where people take advantage of their loved ones, or take them for granted. That's a good point about the suitcase being in the basement! I'm actually not sure how it got there. Perhaps the sons were goofing around and moved it. It is an unusual spot, but not implausible, I think. I appreciate the feedback :)
Don't get me wrong - I loved the story. LF6
There’s some very dark humour going on here- whilst I’m grimly satisfied the rotten husband and lousy kids can’t bring Arlene down anymore, I’m also shocked. It really could have happened like this, and it’s uncomfortable to be a fly on the burning wall. What else to do but read a book when the world around you is gone? At least she might endure radiation sickness with the stoic wisdom of Atticus Finch.
Yes, you're very right about the dark humour. That was an aim here, because I think with things of this magnitude, humour is about our best defense. That, and perhaps fiction about the worst case scenarios. That two cities were actually hit with these things is sobering, and we've only invented bigger and better bombs since the '40s. The actual crisis was before my time, but I saw an amazing portrayal of it in an episode of Mad Men. It's like everyone was collectively holding their breath, faced with the very real possibility of the end of ...