In this painting, the observer is the driver of a truck looking into a rearview mirror. There are three images: the ground and the top and bottom views of a Class A mirror.
If I painted something like this again, I would make some changes. I would blur the ground to add depth. I would add a high horizon line as I did in the sketch. I would make the bottom mirror convex. I would also use a color pallet that matches the mood of the story.
“I’m glad that you read a lot, but I’d like to see you having a good time with people your age,” Donna said.
“Grandma, all the kids in my high school are stuck-up,” Kenneth said. “Besides, I need to keep my grades up so I can go to college and you can stop working at that factory.”
“Don’t you worry about me,” Donna said. “I like staying active, and the ladies I work with are hilarious.”
“You can’t do that job forever,” Kenneth said. “What happens if you hurt your back one day?”
“Your grandfather left me enough to comfortably spend all day in chat rooms,” Donna said. “But we’re talking about you right now. You can’t tell me there’s not one decent kid in your school.”
Kenneth remembered that no one had talked to him in any of his classes since the middle of last year. He remembered all of the lunches he had spent alone. He felt like a stunted plant in a garden: neglected, but watched. The gardener not pruning or expecting blooms – not wanting to kill a plant, but hoping for it to die. “There’s not,” Kenneth said. They stood together in the living room for half a minute staring at each other. When it was clear the discussion was not going to move forward, he left.
Kenneth’s response broke Donna’s heart. After his parents died, she had watched him live quietly like a beggar on the side of the road being ignored by the same people over and over again. She could not replace his parents. The few friends he had before they died, avoided the stench of his sadness.
Donna conjectured reasons Kenneth did not acquire new friends. He did not seek nor draw attention. His looks, intelligence, athleticism, and personality were so average he was imperceptible among others. He never caused any problems. His most remarkable trait, that he truly loved others, did not help him. It actually kept him from others. He knew people were afraid to be loved and their existence valued automatically. Those feeling, when revealed, were misunderstood and repulsive. Most of all, he did not want to feel the pain of losing someone again.
“This is as good a time as any,” Donna said to the living room furniture.
When Kenneth walked through their front door after school, Donna was waiting for him on the sofa. He looked at his grandmother. She radiated energy as always. Were it not for her gray head of hair, laugh lines, and vintage glasses; she could have been just another young woman in a sweat suit.
“Put your exercise clothes on. We’re going for a jog,” Donna said.
“I’m tired, Grandma,” Kenneth said.
“That’s because you don’t exercise,” Donna said.
“I have P.E. at school in the morning,” Kenneth said.
“I guess you’re all set then,” Donna said. “Well – if I don’t come back in an hour, please call an ambulance. My heart has been funny today.” She put her right hand over her heart and took a deep breath.
“Hold on,” Kenneth said, “Just let me get my shorts on.”
Minutes later, Donna and Kenneth were running up the left side of a road. Donna ran ahead of Kenneth. She led him out of their neighborhood and into a rural part of town. She allowed him to catch up several times, but then pulled ahead so he would follow her to where she wanted to go. After three miles, she stopped in front of a tractor that was parked on the side of the road and waited for him to arrive.
“Grandma,” Kenneth said out of breath, “Your heart. You know we have to run back the same distance, right?”
“I’m perfectly fine,” Donna said. “I want to show you something and this is a good place. The sun is shining brightly above us and no one is around.”
Kenneth leaned over and put a hand on each knee as he breathed heavily. Donna had maintained a race pace, but that did not seem to have an effect on her. She walked to the back of the tractor making sure he was watching her. She looked around to check that no one watched them. After she felt sure there were no eyes on them, she walked between the tractor’s links and put her hands under the towing hitch. She lifted the back end of the tractor off the ground, looked at him, and lowered it back down.
Kenneth stood up and walked to Donna. She backed away from the back of the tractor and suggested with a motion of her hand that he should try to do what she had done. He put his hands under the towing hitch and tried to lift the tractor, but it did not move. He looked underneath it for a jack, and there was not one. He waved his arm over the top for a wire.
“What would it be tied to, silly?” Donna asked.
“How did you do that?” Kenneth asked.
“A family secret I’m about to share with you,” Donna said. She reached up to her neck and pulled on a silver chain until she held the jewel at the end of it in her hand. “Do you know what this is?”
“A sapphire,” Kenneth answered.
“That was a trick question because I don’t know what it is either,” Donna laughed. “I only know it was passed down to your grandfather by his father. I actually didn’t know about it until the day he asked me to wear it. It was the same day he died.”
“Are you a super hero, grandma?” Kenneth asked.
“Heavens, no!” Donna laughed.
“Then how did you do that?” Kenneth asked.
“I don’t know,” Donna answered. “What I do know is that whatever I try to do, I can do more of it when I wear this. I can lift heavy things. I can run really fast. I can do so many neat things.”
“Do you get tired?” asked Kenneth.
“Well, no. I need to take it off so I can sleep,” Donna answered. “If I’m not in the sun, I’ll get hungry before I get tired. Trust me, you don’t want to get tired while you wear this thing. It feels bad.”
“Can I try it?” Kenneth asked.
“One day you can, but not today,” Donna answered. “You need to do three things for me before I’ll let you.”
“What?” Kenneth asked.
“You need to make friends,” Donna answered. Kenneth groaned. “You also need to do something big on your own.”
“Like what?” Kenneth asked.
“You tell me,” Donna answered. “Big. And you must never, ever, ever, ev-er tell anyone about this thing.”
“Why not?” Kenneth asked.
“Walk with me,” Donna said. She and Kenneth walked back down the farm road a quarter mile. They approached a dead raccoon they had seen earlier on the side of the road. It was fresh. She looked around to ensure no one was looking. Then, she reached down and touched the raccoon gently with her bare hand. Kenneth cringed. The raccoon’s stomach began to fill and its body became bloated. It released gases, fluids, and a stench into the air that Kenneth could not bear. The body began to disintegrate. The raccoon’s dry skin covered the ground for a few seconds, and then it was gone. When she pulled her hand back, there were only bones left on the ground.
“Compare the color of the ground here,” said Andrew as he moved his hand in a circle over the earth with his right palm facing downward, “to the color of the ground over here.” Sandra knew he was only defining the edges of the excavation aloud and not instructing her, but she was irritated. His habit of thinking aloud made her feel as if he was talking down to her. It hatched the need to tell herself she was just as good, or better, an archeologist as he. She licked her teeth as she listened to him go on and on, and she looked at him from head to toe with a hint of aggression. She always expected him to be dirtier than he was, but then she remembered that all of his shirts and all of his pants were identical so he would not need to think about his clothing.
“We should expand the edges for belongings,” interrupted Sandra.
“Oh, I’ve looked and haven’t found any indication he had any,” said Andrew. He backed up and looked over the ground as if he could see through it. He had the look on his face a chef has just before diners begin having their meal. He had a theory that the chiefs of this tribe were judged by their generosity. Therefore, it was a great honor to have no possessions throughout their lives and be buried with none. When he examined the site, he only found one grave. That was unusual in such a beautiful location. The two archeologists excavated under what appeared to be the opening of an enormous cave. From a distance, they looked like two tiny figures under a colossal stone wave that was about to crash down upon them. Many could have used the formation as a shelter, but it was instead a massive headstone for an ancient human.
After weeks of careful work, Sandra and Andrew began to exhume a body. Sandra bit her lips as she looked at the boundaries of their dig. She was troubled. “Andrew, I don’t think we defined the edges of the context correctly,” said Sandra.
“No, no, no,” said Andrew. “They’re good. The ground penetrating radar only showed human remains.”
“I’m going to run the metal detector over the sides just to make sure,” said Sandra.
“Now?” asked Andrew. She nodded. He took a deep exasperated breath, but he estimated if he protested they would argue longer than it would take her to fail to detect a stray find.
She returned with the metal detector and began to work around the edges of their dig. Andrew listened to her move about, but focused on exhuming his chief. Then, the metal detector sounded a positive signal.
“You just had to look, didn’t you? Look, we are not going to dig out of phase,” said Andrew looking up at Sandra.
“No, we’re not,” said Sandra. “We’re going to define the edges of a new context and do a proper dig.”
“We’re not going to ruin our schedule for nothing,” said Andrew.
“You don’t know it’s nothing,” said Sandra.
“I’m leading this dig, Sandra,” said Andrew.
“Do you really just want to run with this and have that flaw in your work?” asked Sandra. “I’m not just going to forget about it.” She felt so strongly, she waved the metal detector around as she spoke without noticing. She emphasize, “I can’t forget about this.” As she unconsciously pointed to the location of the signal; the metal detector slipped from her hand, hit the earthen wall, and dirt poured down. A red object flowed down with it.
“What is that?” asked Andrew. He had seen the object in the earth.
“Don’t move!” exclaimed Sandra.
“Don’t tell me not to move,” exclaimed Andrew. “You’re the one that just over-cut the site.”
“Stop and listen, Andrew!” pleaded Sandra. He felt rumbling under his feet before his ears perceived it.
“Run!” shouted Andrew. Sandra did not hesitate. She was off like a sprinter after the gun. He would have taken his alleged chief with him if he could. Instead, he clawed with his hand into the earth where he saw a part of the red item peeking through. That decision cost him. There was a deep-seated landslide and a layer of the cliff they worked under broke off. It fell with the force of ice calving off a glacier. He sprinted, but he only made it to the edge of the debris flow. Earth and rock covered him. A cloud of dust made it impossible to see. He could not breathe from the heavy weight on his chest, and he felt himself slowly lose consciousness.
When Andrew woke, he heard Sandra crying near him. He opened his eyes, and they teared up to wash the dirt out. He looked toward the sound of her sobs and saw her sitting awkwardly on the ground. She was covered in dirt. Her wrists rested on her legs. Her palms faced upward. They were raw and had blood on them.
“Is that my blood?” asked Andrew.
“No, it’s mine,” answered Sandra. Andrew stood up and dusted himself off. Sandra let out an odd yelp as if someone had just given her terrible news.
“What’s wrong, Sandra?” asked Andrew.
“You should be dead!” exclaimed Sandra. After hearing the strange sound of distress in her own voice, she visibly tried to compose herself. She used the back of her hands to wipe the tears from her face. She slowly stood up. Andrew saw cuts on her legs. She appeared exhausted.
“Are you OK?” asked Andrew as gently as he could.
“How are you OK?” asked Sandra. She motioned toward a pile of rocks. “All of those – all of them – were on top of you.”
“Those rocks?” asked Andrew in disbelief. The pile could have filled several bathtubs.
“And those,” said Sandra pointing toward boulders that appeared to have been dragged from where he laid. “I used the truck and a chain to drag them off of you. You were at the edge of the landslide. I thought I could save you, but after I removed heavy rock after rock after rock.”
“Thank you, Sandra,” said Andrew. She stared at him. There was along moment of silence during which he allowed her to look at him.
“You had no pulse,” said Sandra.
“I’m fine,” said Andrew.
“I may have hit you with the pick,” said Sandra.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Andrew. “Nothing is hurting.”
“And I may have been the cause of some stones falling back onto your head,” said Sandra.
“Your dissertation was on exhumation methods,” said Andrew.
“Of people who have been dead for years. I was trying to get you out, you jerk. And look at me,” said Sandra looking over her wounds. She looked at him again. “And look at you. There isn’t athing wrong with you.” Andrew realized she was right. He felt like he was eighteen again, or at least the idealized memory of how he felt when he was 18. The only odd sensation was his clenched fist. He felt something in his hand. He turned away from Sandra so she could not see him looking into his palm. There was a red jewel in it.
George notices the sky and the ocean turning red as he cleans the grill grate. He leaves the task and straightens up as if he just decided firmly that the chore can wait. He turns his body toward the setting sun and stands with his arms crossed across his chest. He looks at the back of his wife’s head as she leans against the wall of the pool. Her brown hair shines and he admires the bun she used to tie it up so it does not get wet. He watches his ten-year-old girl jump into the deep end of the pool, swim back to the edge, climb out, and jump in again. He watches his five-year-old son sitting on the grass inflating a pool toy. The air leaves the toy almost as fast as he can blow it in. George takes a deep breath, notes his full stomach, and is glad he decided to rent a beach house instead of taking his family to a hotel for this vacation.
George looks out again at the sun, sky, and ocean. He takes in the colors of the sunset. The reds and their intensity shock him. He suddenly feels like something bad is going to happen. The change from peace to foreboding makes him feel unreasonable – a trait he does not like in people. He tries to force the feeling away by studying the seascape intently and making an effort to appreciate its colors.
As he stares at the distant sky, he believes he notices a flock of birds. However, the objects are flying too steadily to be birds. Their formation is too regular. He listens closely to help confirm a suspicion, but the ocean is too loud. However, it does not matter. The objects are moving so fast they have gotten close enough for him to see they are drones.
George uncrosses his arms and stands with his arms at his side and fists against his thighs. He looks at the drones with squinting eyes. His lips are small and compressed in anger. He wants privacy. He does not want photos or video of his family to show up on some television show or on the web. He turns and stomps across the deck, swings the door open, picks up his mobile, and pokes the password to unlock the screen. He tries to open a search engine to find the number for the local police, but an error message tells him he does not have communication services.
As George tries again, he can hear the drones clearly. He hears faint screams. He looks out at his family. They are looking in the direction of the drone swarm, but the screams are not coming from them. He goes to the door to ask everyone to come inside until the drones leave. As he opens the door and pokes his head outside, he sees a small drone make a deliberate suicidal crash into his wife’s head. As he runs out to her; a larger drone picks up his son, carries him up to a height above the two-story house, and drops him. He lands in the deep end of the pool just missing the concrete walkway surrounding it. George runs past his daughter, who is running into the house with her bleeding mother, and dives into the pool. His son’s fight to climb him to get air is a relief. He pulls him to the side of the pool and they both climb out. George picks up his son again and carries him across the deck and toward the door leading into the house. A drone makes a deliberate suicidal crash attempt, but only just misses and breaks apart against the outer wall of the house.
George takes his son to the master bedroom. His wife is in the bathroom looking into the mirror and treating the open wound on her head. He puts his son on the bed and looks him over. His son is crying, but he looks alright. George asks his daughter to get a towel for her little brother. She does not hear him because she is standing at the window looking out at a neighborhood under attack. It is twilight and difficult to see people, but the drones have lights on them. She says it looks like drones are hurting people. He can hear screams and yelling coming from the street.
As George opens his mouth to ask his daughter to step away from the window, she dives to the side. A drone crashes through the glass. George grabs a lamp. The room darkens when the lamp cord unplugs from the wall. He raises the heavy lamp above his head and bashes the drone into pieces. His wife pulls the kids into the hallway as he stands over the destroyed drone. He is breathing heavily after the effort and stares at the pieces on the ground feeling surprise, anger, and confusion. He hears doors slamming shut and leaves the room to join his family.
Everyone is sitting in the hallway in its decorative low illumination. George’s wife is holding their son who is sobbing. He asks his daughter if she is alright and if she has any glass in her feet from the broken window. She says she pulled out a small piece a minute ago and the cut is not too bad. She is being brave and he gives her a hug. He asks her if she has a phone with her. She does not. His wife volunteers that she does not have one either. He looks at her head and it has not stopped bleeding. He asks everyone to wait in the hall while he goes downstairs to call the police.
George runs downstairs. He spots his phone on the kitchen floor. He grabs it. The screen is shattered, but he is able to unlock it. He dials 9-1-1 and hits send. As it rings, he goes to the foyer and looks out of the house through the thick windows beside the door. There are drones in pieces all over the ground. He looks toward the sky. He sees no drone lights in the air. He continues to look around as far as the windows allow him to see. The phone continues to ring, but he drops the arm holding the phone away from his ear. He lets the phone slip out of his hands and slip to the ground. He thinks he sees people lying on the ground, but it is too dark outside to tell.
George opens the front door and walks out to check on the figures he saw. It is quiet. He can hear the ocean behind him. He scans the torn up neighborhood. Other front doors are opening. More people, from other families on vacation, come out to survey the neighborhood. They look at each other with the same question written all over their faces, ‘What just happened?’
George hears sirens in the distance. Someone is getting help. He hears a vehicle approaching. Someone is coming to help them. A large military vehicle comes around the corner and illuminates the neighborhood with its bright lights. Its large tires crush the pieces of the drones on the street. Friendly soldiers march along with it. They check on people in the street. Medics run into homes. He suddenly feels like something bad is no longer going to happen. He does not try to change his sudden feeling of peace.
My world was cold. All of it. I left my home, against my family’s advice, to find a warmer place. They told me, ‘Louie, you’re not going to find anything.’ They were right if they were talking about a warmer place. I didn’t find it. I walked and walked, but it was winter everywhere. I did, however, find other things.
I don’t know where all the people went. I didn’t see as many people out there as all of the empty houses suggested there were once. Many of the houses were wonderful, but nobody could live in them. They were too far from other things needed to survive. The houses that were in good locations were in terrible shape for reasons known too long ago to matter to me. Anyway, I walked for days without seeing anyone.
One day months later, I was tired of walking and finding nothing. I stopped for a couple of hours to build a shelter with blocks of snow I cut out of the ground with my hunting knife. It was bitterly cold that day, so I made a small fire inside of the shelter in the evening to warm it up a little before going to sleep. The glow of the shelter in the dark night must have been inviting to someone looking at it from the outside.
The next morning, I woke up to either a boy or a young woman and a dog sleeping with me in my shelter. I could only tell it was a person because he or she was facing away from me. No matter, I was surprised to say the least. I learned why the person was not afraid to crawl into a shelter with someone: when I reached over to wake the person, the dog swiftly put himself between us and threatened me with a low growl. I reached for my knife, but I did not need it. The person, a boy, rolled over to face me and asked his dog, Charles, to stand down.
I asked the boy why he was in my shelter. He said he was cold and didn’t know how to build one for himself. He said that he and Charles had been following me for a few days. After watching me, they decided it would be safe to meet me. He said his name was Clarence.
After that, they stayed with me. Clarence, the boy, and Charles, the dog, were good hunters. The dog’s powerful sense of smell was especially helpful for finding our prey. One thing people learned to do since the world had gone cold was to share with each other. So, I ate better since the pair joined me in my travels. I showed the boy how to make shelters and shared a few other things I knew.
I didn’t count the days we spent walking together looking for that unknown warmer place, but it was a significant amount. We got to know each other well. The boy had to fend for himself for so long that he was too mature for his age. For that reason, I wasn’t like a father or a big brother to him despite the difference in our ages. So, we were friends.
One day, the three of us saw a shelter growing larger than we expected as we approached it. We got as close as we could to estimate that the shelter was large enough for 10 people. Most people in our world had been softened and made friendly by the never-ending winter, but not all. We had to be cautious. Even Charles had enough sense not to bark or run off.
We watched the shelter from a distance to see what we might be dealing with. We saw a couple of older men exit the shelter. Then, we saw a couple of older women. After a while, they were called in by a woman who seemed to suddenly spawn two miniature versions that ran away from her legs and had to be chased down. Seeing children was a good sign, but we couldn’t be hasty – especially after a man stepped out of the shelter to join the older men.
As Clarence and I discussed taking the long way around to avoid the shelter and being seen, we heard someone behind us ask; ‘Why are you watching us?’ We turned to find that the question came from a young girl about Clarence’s age who was armed with a spear that was pointed at us. The abilities of people who survived in this world were not to be underestimated, so we took the girl and her spear seriously. She took turns pointing the spear at us as our minds calculated whether fight or flight would be more likely to get us out of this situation. When I noticed Charles was not growling, I relaxed a little and asked the girl to take us to her father. She seemed relieved too and led us to the shelter, but she didn’t lower the spear.
The shelter belonged to a family group. The way their social system worked, I had to explain our situation to all of them. My task of explaining why we were watching them would have been simpler if the two children had not been pestering Charles the entire time I tried to speak. I think the family was more convinced that we were good people by Charles’s not biting the children than by any part of my explanation. They invited us to stay with them until we were ready to continue our journey.
After a couple of days, I decided to continue my search without Clarence. The family had watched quietly as Clarence and the girl, Olivia, hunted together. The young pair thought of nothing, but the task, and got along wonderfully as friends. Her father, however, looked sideways at me once in a way I could tell he was thinking about his family’s future. Another good hunter would add to the group’s safety and security. They were good people and I could not deny my friend basic and psychological needs for a good life.
I planned to talk to everyone involved one at a time until there was agreement. First, I tried to speak to the father privately about taking in Clarence. Naturally, everyone gathered around us to hear what I had to say. Instead of the series of conversations I planned, we had a single open discussion. I expected Clarence to protest and erupt with strong adolescent feelings of betrayal and abandonment, but the look on his face said he hoped the family would accept him. They did.
The father asked me to stay out of kindness. I knew if I did, I would disrupt the harmony of the group. The next day, I left without Clarence. Out of everyone there, I believe my heart was the heaviest. After me, Charles may have been saddest to break up our trio. I would like to think that Charles grew to like me best and left with me for that reason. The truth is more likely that he was tired of the little kids pulling on his ears.
My youngest son was excited to go out for a walk with his two older brothers alone for the first time. I gave my boys the conditions of that Saturday afternoon’s freedom as they scrambled to put on their winter coats, boots, gloves, and hats. They were to stay together, be home before sunset, and stay away from the shed if for any reason they were still out in the woods after dark.
My middle child froze for a moment and then scanned his older brother’s face to see if he caught him being scared. He had not. My oldest boy was lacing his boots and, without looking up, agreed aloud with an OK whose pitch ascended on the O and descended on the K. My youngest son looked up to at me with apprehension and asked why they should stay away from the shed.
I had not told him the story before, so I told him while he bundled up. A long time ago, all of the land around us as far as we could see belonged to one family. The farmer intended to cultivate all of the land; but his wife died giving birth to their second daughter, Anna. The farmer had more to do with less help than he had planned, so he only used a small portion of the land for crops and the rest of it remained a forest.
One January, after a few years had passed and Anna was about preschool age, a warm front moved in and chased the freezing air away. It was beautiful outside that day. Mary, the oldest girl, and Anna had been kept inside of the house by freezing temperatures for more than a month already that winter. They expected to be trapped inside the house for many more cold months, so they were excited to get out of it. Mary prepared a picnic basket and Anna prepared her doll.
That afternoon, the girls left the house for their picnic without telling their father. They walked past the fields and into the woods to eat their dinner among the trees. Since the day was so warm, the top of the ground had thawed and become muddy. They did not want to set their blanket down on mud. Mary told Anna that they would picnic by the creek where they could lay their blanket over large flat stones.
The girls guessed at the general direction of the creek and hiked through the leaves and mud on the forest floor to it. They eventually found the creek, but the section of the creek at which they first arrived was not rocky or dry. So, they walked along the side of the creek until they found a good dry spot. They set up their blanket, had dinner, and played by the creek for a while.
Mary noticed that it was getting dark. She gathered up their belongings as Anna told her doll about the animals found near the creek. Once she packed everything, she grabbed her little sister’s hand and scanned the woods for a path. She did not see one. She pulled her sister along the shore of the creek hoping to find a path back into the woods, but did not find one. Holding her little sister’s hand harder than she intended, Mary walked briskly up and down the edge of the woods trying to find a familiar landmark. Everything was unfamiliar to her. The girls were lost.
As Mary thought hard about what they should do, the sun set. The temperature dropped. The beautiful day that had welcomed them outdoors was abandoning them there. The wind started to blow. Mary guessed at the general direction of their home, took Anna’s cold little hand, and led them into the woods.
It was darker in the woods than at the creek. The sun was gone. The temperature’s drop accelerated. Despite their brisk pace, Mary and Anna were cold. The wind bit at their exposed skin. They began to trip over roots and other things they could not see on the forest floor.
The girls found a shed and went inside to get shelter from the wind. Anna shivered violently and began to cry. Mary cried too, but kept quiet. Anna thought they were close to home because of the shed, but Mary did not recognize it. Anna became desperate and tried to leave to find the way home. Mary had to pull her back into the shed and hold her tightly so she could not get out again. When Anna calmed down, Mary gave her whatever spare clothes she had on to help keep her warm. Thinking only of Anna, Mary wrapped her in the picnic blanket and held her tightly to both keep her warm and keep her from leaving the shelter of the shed.
A search party found the girls the next morning. Anna needed medical attention, but survived. Mary did not make it.
The story about the girls, as everyone tells it, was based on the way the sheriff had reconstructed and documented what happened.
The people who lived near the shed learned more. They found out that Mary’s ghost haunted the shed. On windy days, the doors swung back and forth; but on windy nights, they closed tightly on their own. Children avoided walking by the shed when it was cold and dark. Mary grabbed those that did not as they walk by, pulled them in, and held them inside of it all night like she held Anna.