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Historical Fiction Speculative American

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!”

What!?

“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–”

“–I didn’t!–”

“–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.

August 28, 2022 22:22

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62 comments

Zelda C. Thorne
18:46 Aug 30, 2022

I was so frustrated for her! The dialogue was great. I felt like balling my own hand into a fist at the husband! Grrrrrr I thought she might just decide to stay in the basement, so the sharp turn really surprised me despite the enormous foreshadowing. Loved it. Glad the dog lived and she got to read her book, and with a glass of wine no less! Bahaha Another fab story👍

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Michał Przywara
21:24 Aug 30, 2022

Heh :) Yeah, the whole situation was meant to be frustrating. I felt bad for Arlene while writing it, doubly so since my guiding principle for the husband was "smarmy sexist asshole". I'm glad the end worked out though :) Sometimes we just need a break.

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H L McQuaid
12:06 Aug 30, 2022

I wanted to kill that good-for-nothing husband myself! Luckily (?) the military-industrial complex did the dirty work. Really great characterisations and skewering of suburban mores. very enjoyable story from you, as always. :)

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Michał Przywara
21:23 Aug 30, 2022

Thanks, H! Heh, yeah, I wanted to see how frustrating a situation I could make for Arlene. Naturally that involved cranking up everyday stresses like family and community, perhaps to farcical levels. Cruel perhaps, but characters that suffer are more interesting to read about :)

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05:23 Aug 30, 2022

Things I liked about the story is, in a global nuclear(?) war, it focuses on one scene with one family getting into a car with their suitcases. That's genius. The ending is great too. Low key, and at the end she just accepts it and opens some red wine and reads the next chapter of her book. It matches the friction with her husband and difficult children before in the story well. Short, sweet, character focused and with a big unexpected finish. Great short story. Suggestions.. I did think the midsection could drop a few sentences, for a wh...

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Michał Przywara
21:22 Aug 30, 2022

Thanks, Scott! Yeah, global nuclear war. I think I made this too subtle, but this is a (not entirely serious) alternate history take on the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, which ends much worse than it did in reality. Thanks for pointing out that section. I'll see if I can tighten it up. I appreciate the feedback :)

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Tommy Goround
23:48 Aug 31, 2022

Yes. Midsection had wee drag. Loved: pancake, long explanation of things that being put in the plymouth. This includes the large heavy 100 lb philco television. I saw a slight tension and that I wondered if she was forgetting her children... I could actually see the big teeth of the double Linda's.. The Twilight zone has a similar ending though. Hmmm

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Scott Skinner
02:45 Aug 30, 2022

Ha! I was going to say wouldn't it be nice for a moment's quiet to maybe finish a book :) I really like how this came together. The point of the suitcase being in the basement, the chaos of her life, her jerk husband, it all made me want her to get some time alone. I was wondering if maybe she'd decide to stay in the basement on purpose so she could have that time, but she didn't need to make the choice. Great one! If I were to provide any feedback, it would be that the word 'screeching' in 'screeching children' made me do a double take. ...

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Michał Przywara
03:21 Aug 30, 2022

Thanks, Scott! Hmm, her deciding to stay is actually a cool alternative too! Probably more realistic, and certainly more historically accurate. I just had it in mind to go full nuclear on this one. Sometimes we just need a moment's peace :) I appreciate the feedback!

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19:20 Aug 29, 2022

Poor Sir Pancakes! (And what a great name for a dog). Left behind all by himself. I could feel this woman's frustrations and sympathise with her over how completely unappreciated she was. I was actually quite glad that her awful husband and kids didn't make it. You've got a huge amount of character detail into very few words. Enough for me to feel no loss at the destruction of this shallow, patronising, neighborhood. What an interesting take on the prompt! Great write.

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Michał Przywara
21:46 Aug 29, 2022

Thanks, Katharine! As soon as I saw this prompt, I couldn't help but ask myself, what is the least likely unexpected event to find comfort in? And the first thing my mind returned was "surviving a nuke." So I'm glad Arlene's frustrations come through. It's a little exaggerated, maybe to the point of tongue-in-cheek, but she's definitely underappreciated. I appreciate the feedback :)

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Kevin Marlow
03:34 Aug 29, 2022

I like the implication of ritualized excess. Left to our proclivities it seems we would all be concerned about that last bag, yet it doesn't really matter when there is nothing left. I wouldn't care so much about the pet, but leave me an unopened bottle to soften the pain, won't you?

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Michał Przywara
04:32 Aug 29, 2022

I didn't even think of this in terms of ritualized excess, but yeah, that defines our modern world, doesn't it? Sometimes less really is more, especially when our things control us. The dog wasn't actually in the first draft of this, but I found the idea of taking the TV and leaving the pet too funny not to use. But the wine was there from the beginning. I appreciate the feedback :)

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Tommy Goround
23:49 Aug 31, 2022

Yep. Dog worked. So did fishing kit. Kept thinking about a dad drinking in a jeep. Time capsule.

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Michał Przywara
21:41 Sep 01, 2022

Yeah, it's fascinating how drinking and driving attitudes have shifted over the years. Different era, but I (mis?) recall a scene in Great Gatsby where a jolly party goer is absolutely plastered and rolls his car into a ditch, and everyone has a good laugh.

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