I let my mother pour me a bowl of cereal, dry because we don’t have any milk. I sit at the counter and begin to eat it, and I can feel her watching me. Can she tell I’m hiding something? The strange quiet of the room is punctuated by the loud crunching of the stale cornflakes against the sound of rain against the roof. I know she still hopes the group will come back today.
There are seven people out in the group, including Paul and my dad, Allen. Paul’s dad, Donovan, is also with them, as is Sophia’s husband, Ken. And then there’s Laura and June.
And finally JJ; he is 23, just a year older than Paul. They knew each other before the war, vaguely, but they are thick as thieves now. Paul likes to make jokes about having JJ take care of me if he died, which I don’t find very funny.
I don’t think they’ll return today. I think they could, but I know not to put my faith in dates and timelines and promises anymore. I would be worried about them no matter what. But my worry won’t do them any good, so I need to find some way to contribute.
The sound of the rain suddenly gets louder as Kara steps inside from the backyard, rain dripping from her cropped hair, and then it is silenced again as she closes the door. She brings a bucket of water over to the sink, double checks the stopper, and dumps the bucket. She leaves the pail by the backdoor and disappears into one of the other rooms.
When my bowl is empty I take it to the sink and dip the bowl in just to get the cereal dust out and give it a once over with a rag to dry it. My mother is still leaning against the counter, watching me. She gives me a brief weak smile, and I almost ask her if she’s okay, but I don’t want to upset her; it’s probably best for her to keep it in.
I decide to do some laundry and clean up the living room and bedrooms so that when the others do come back things won’t seem so bleak. I gather up the pillowcases, sheets, sleeping bags, blankets, and the few spare clothes our group has.
“You doing some washing?” my mother asks from the kitchen.
“Yeah, might as well.”
“That’ll be nice for them when they come back.”
I don’t respond, but keep picking things up as I make my way around the room.
Carrying them in a basket under my arm, I head for the back porch again. I stop at the door and part the curtains to peek outside. The stranger from this morning is not there. What if he comes back – why would he come back?
“Why don’t you see if Dottie wants to help?” she ventures. I know she just doesn’t want me to be outside alone. Though what protection a fifteen year-old can offer me, I don’t really see.
Dottie was orphaned by the war, her parents both killed in an air strike. We share my room now, she sleeps on a mattress on the floor, and so we have grown to be fairly close.
“Yeah, okay,” I say. It will take a few minutes for the buckets out back to fill up in the rain, so I decide to set them up and then look for Dottie.
Despite my concern about the stranger from this morning, I force myself to go outside. The two large buckets we use for laundry are out on the deck already, and I drag them out from under the overhang and into the rain. I squirt some dish soap into the first one and watch it foam for a moment, the turn to head back inside in search of Dottie while they slowly fill.
I find her upstairs doing a puzzle on the floor. I’ve seen her do this one before – it’s a scene from the Portland Japanese Garden. She’s working on the bridge right now, and I know that surrounding it will be green and yellow and orange leaves.
“Hey Dottie, I’m gonna go out and wash some stuff, any interest in helping?”
She shrugs her shoulders like she doesn’t care either way, but pops up immediately and follows me down.
We get outside and each drag one of the now heavy buckets back out of the rain, under the overhang. I dump some clothes into the soapy one and start scrubbing. She sits on the other side of the bucket and reaches in for another piece to work on.
I start thinking about the stranger again. He was just passing through, harmless enough. He looked about twenty, maybe older – about my age, Paul and JJ’s age. I tried to recall his face, his messy hair, the rain beating down on him, the gun. What was he doing in our backyard? Why was he alone? Why didn’t he hurt me – why did he run from me?
“You doing okay?” Dottie says.
“Always am,” I try to smile at her.
“You sure don’t look like it, Anna.”
“Yeah well,” I look for something to say. “I’m just worried about our group coming back safely is all.”
I take the first batch of clothes out of the soapy water and put them in the second bucket and rinse them off. Dottie puts the second batch into the wash. I get up and hang the clean pieces, one by one, on a clothesline hung under the cover of the back deck. With my back to Dottie, I let my face twist the way it wants to – I never lie to Dottie. There’s no reason these days to lie to your own people, there are bigger problems – ones worth telling the truth about. But if I’m really not going to tell anyone about the stranger, I’m going to have to lie to them all.
What was his expression? Was he afraid of me? We both froze, knowing we were both caught by the other. If leaving me were merciful, he didn’t act like it. He ran away, like I was the one that could hurt him. The unarmed, naked girl taking a shower in the rain. I couldn’t figure him out.
I correct my expression and turn back to Dottie, who is dunking this batch of laundry into the rinsing bucket and swirling the clothes around. I lean over and pick out pieces from this second batch to wring out and hang up.
“Here you wanna help me dump this out?” she asks, gesturing to the rinsing bucket, now soapy after two loads. Together we waddle with it over to the side of the porch and turn it onto its side. She places it under the downspout and we stand, arms crossed, watching it fill up again.
“You want to talk about it?” she says.
“About what?” I ask, briefly alarmed, thinking that somehow she knows about the guy. But I quickly realize my foolishness. Of course she doesn’t know.
“About whatever’s bothering you. The group coming back, or whatever it is…”
I can tell she doesn’t believe me that the group is all that’s on my mind. “I don’t know if we’re the only ones here,” I admit.
“What do you mean ‘here’?”
“In the neighborhood. We’ve been thinking there’s no one in the area but I’m not so sure anymore.”
“What makes you say that?”
I keep my gaze on the bucket and don’t answer her.
“Anna did you see someone?”
The bucket is full and I pretend to be pre-occupied trying to move it. She follows my lead in helping to pull it back over to our operation area and we throw a large blanket into the soapy water.
“Anna?” she asks again as we both work on scrubbing the blanket.
“I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Anna if you saw something you shouldn’t keep it to yourself, the rest of us need to know – if there are others out there it might,” she pauses for a moment and I know what she is going to say. “It might affect our group out there.”
And she’s right. Just because he wasn’t a soldier doesn’t mean he’s benign. If he’s with people nearby, they might run into my dad and Paul and the others. Maybe the stranger I saw is part of a gang, and he didn’t hurt me because he’d rather ambush all of us later with the rest of his group.
In unison, Dottie and I get up and take the blanket over to a set of patio chairs and drape it over them, since it is too heavy to hang up.
Some sheets go into the soapy bucket next and we scrub at them. They are stained with sweat. It gets hot inside at night, with so many people sleeping in such close quarters. That, and the nightmares. Some of us get them worse than others, but I’ve had my fair share of waking-up-in-a-cold-sweat-in-the-middle-of-the-night episodes.
“Dottie I know I shouldn’t keep it to myself, but just trust me on this – I’ll tell, okay, but not yet.”
“Why not?” she asks.
“Just…because. I have a weird feeling. I don’t want to upset anyone if there’s nothing to worry about.”
“You don’t think this is something to worry about?”
I pause before answering. “Maybe not. I can’t explain it, I just wasn’t afraid. I feel like I should be, but I’m more intrigued than anything else.”
“Fine, Anna – but if something happens and I feel like people need to know, I will tell if you don’t.”
I nod. She has a point.
“I’ll tell them tomorrow, I just want to sit on the information for a little while before I go sounding the alarms,” I promise her, and she seems to accept it.
We go back to doing laundry in silence, and my thoughts turn to Paul. My wonderful Paul. He grew up just down the street from me, and we started dating in high school. We had already been together for three years when everything went really bad here. No one really knows when the war started, people disagree, pointing to different events that might mark the beginning, but it’s been a long time. But it’s only been two years since it came here, and his family was among those who moved in with us when it did.
In those two years he has left several times in groups like the one he’s out with now, and he’s always come back. Not everyone always comes back. I recognize one of the shirts I am washing as his, and I smile halfheartedly. He will come home, and he will wear this shirt again. This nice, clean shirt.
We dump both buckets out when we’re done and head back inside. The laundry won’t dry very quickly, the air is moist with the heavy rain, but it’s the only time we can wash clothes. I’ll come back and check on them later.
The room inside is tense. Paul’s mother, Kimberly, and my mother are talking – they are still worried about the gunfire Dylan heard last night. Dottie heads back upstairs to resume her work on the Japanese Garden puzzle, and I walk past my mom and Kim and into my room, closing the door behind me. I am thankful that it was my house that became the unofficial home base, because it meant I got to keep my room.
I pick up my latest literary distraction – Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Sometimes I feel unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim. Other times I feel very, very stuck.
Sometimes, like this morning, when I woke up to the rain and played Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, it’s like the war isn’t even happening. This morning was like waking up on a lazy Saturday and knowing Paul will come knocking on the door any minute to un-lazy it: to take me on a hike, to take me to Powell’s bookstore to explore the clumsy over-piled aisles. I was unstuck in time.
But now…now there is only now. I cannot make myself leave this current moment and forget that if I pried the wooden panels hammered over the windows of my room I would see burned down houses and blood stained streets littered with car parts. I could not make myself forget that Paul wasn’t here. That my dad wasn’t here. Or Donovan, or Ken, or JJ, or Laura, or June. I couldn’t pretend for a second that hope was on the horizon.
I wish, too, that everything could be beautiful, and that nothing would hurt. But that’s not how it is. And I am stuck knowing that, and I cannot convince myself otherwise. Everything is ugly, and everything hurts. So it goes.
And then I hear knocking at the front door – two quick knocks, pause, two quick knocks, pause, one knock. The secret knock.
They’re back. Or at least some of them are.