Announcing the Grand Prize winner of the 2nd Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards
Grand-prize winner in the Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards
By F. Macias-Mossman
Bean sang the macaroni-and-cheese-blues jingle while he ate dinner. Suzie thought her little brother had a good voice for a 4-year-old. She loved the kid, but when he asked her to cut up his hot dog, she did so with some reluctance. Suzie didn't want to step away from the window and lose her view of the backyard, or more important, her chance to catch Mother.
Mother had been down in the bunker since coming home. She spent most of her time there, and Suzie wasn't sure but guessed Mother had lost her secretary job at the doctor's office, which explained the late notices that littered the counter.
Suzie cut up Bean's hot dog, tousled his hair and went to stand watch at the window again. This time she would talk to Mother and make her listen.
Mother had come home with her Honda packed with cases of bottled water and Gatorade.
"Suzie, help me get this unloaded."
"Mother, is this all you got?"
"All I got? Suzie, I've got about two to three months of fluid here if we ration it right."
"And this is for the bunker?"
Mother started to transfer cases out of the car onto the driveway. "Yes. Now help me unload these."
"Mother, there isn't any food in the house. We needed stuff. Real food kind of stuff."
"Here." She handed Suzie a package of hot dogs and an industrial size box of microwavable macaroni and cheese.
"This isn't what I meant."
Mother brushed a hand through her hair and tugged roughly at the ends of it. She looked at Suzie and said, "Please. Just help me unload this."
Mother came up with the idea for the bunker after Sept. 11. Daddy had laughed at the idea, but Mother insisted. So he'd come home with brochures and teased Suzie how she'd make a great Dorothy Gale once the damn thing was built.
Then Daddy died.
"We have to get it built, Suzie. We have to. With your father gone now and the world the way it is, we have to get it built. It's the only way I know you and Bean will be safe."
Mother had gotten her bunker. Its entrance lay at an angle about four feet off the ground, and it reminded Suzie of a storm cellar except the doors were made of metal, not wood. The latch required you to hold down a button and then twist the lever clockwise for the door to open, which it did with a hiss on a pneumatic hinge. You entered it by stepping down metal stairs into a 12-foot hole, nine-feet wide on all sides. Mother had wanted something bigger but had relented after many calls to the city failed to get her the permits she needed.
"Once you're inside you hit this button." She pointed to a red knob; it reminded Suzie of the fire alarm pulls at school.
"What does it do?"
"It'll lock the door behind you. Suzie, if I'm not here, you have to remember to hit the button or else you might miss your chance."
"Chance for what?"
"To be safe."
For three months, the backyard had become a construction site that fascinated Bean and worried Suzie.
"Look, Suzie! I'm gonna do it just like this," Bean said, pantomiming swimming.
"It isn't going to be a swimming pool, Bean."
"Yes, it is Suzie. Mamma, tell her it's gonna be a swimming pool."
"It isn't a swimming pool," Suzie said again.
"What? What is it Bean?" The sharpness in Mother's voice made Suzie take Bean into her arms.
"Tell Suzie it's a swimming pool," he said and held on to his sister.
They all stood together inside the hole that would become the bunker and, hands on her hips, Mother said, "No sweetheart, this isn't going to be a pool. It's going to be a safe place for you and Suzie. A safe place for all of us."
The early evening light cast odd shadows across Mother's face. Suzie squeezed Bean a little tighter and said, "It's getting late. I'm taking Bean in, Mother. Are you coming?"
"It's not a pool, Suzie?" Bean asked.
"Mother, you coming in?"
"No, not yet. You two go in." Mother said, turning her back to them.
On the day the bunker was finally completed, Mother had seemed more like herself. She carried Bean, propped on one hip, and together they explored the space.
Mother announced, "OK, who's hungry?" She tickled Bean and draped a free arm around Suzie's shoulders.
"Suzie-Q, how does frozen lasagna sound?"
Suzie smiled. Mother hadn't called her that in a long time.
"It sounds great, Mom, really great."
"You're a good girl," Mother said and gave Suzie's shoulders a squeeze.
They'd eaten in front of the television to Bean's delight and then later had piled in Mother's bed for a story. Suzie had fallen asleep to the rhythm of Mother's voice as she told Bean all about the Pied Piper.
The next morning, Suzie woke up to Bean's gentle snores. The other side of the bed was empty. Careful not to wake him, she drew back the covers and slipped out of bed. The silent house bothered her, and she wanted to find Mother.
Suzie stood at the entrance of the bunker. The metal doors were wide open.
"Mother? You down there?"
Mother emerged with her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. Dark circles ringed her eyes, and she bit, almost chewed, on her bottom lip.
"Suzie, the bunker isn't enough."
"What do you mean? What were you doing down there?"
"We need to stock it. We need beds and extra clothes. I'll need to get canned food."
"I couldn't sleep. It came to me that we don't have any supplies. When we're attacked, we won't be ready. I can't risk that for you and Bean."
"Attacked? What are you saying?"
Mother gripped Suzie's shoulders, her fingers digging into the flesh.
"I have to know you and Bean are safe. I won't be OK until I know that you are."
Suzie winced, and Mother's grip only tightened.
"I love you, Suzie. You and Bean. I just want you safe."
Suzie looked away, afraid of what she saw in Mother's expression, and nodded.
"Suzie, don't wait for me. You'll know when it starts. When it does, you just grab Bean and head down," Mother told her one night. Lately, Mother's claims had gotten wilder.
"Mother? I don—"
"You run. Do you understand me? You grab your little brother and run. They won't care that you're little, or that your brother is just a baby. They'll take you. And then how will I get you back; how will I protect you?" Mother asked and started to pull at her hair again. "I just want you safe."
Suzie was scared. Scared about how there wasn't much to find anymore for them to eat. The disconnected phone terrified her, and it was only a matter of time before the electricity would be disconnected, too. Mother didn't seem to notice any of this, let alone bother with changing clothes anymore, and she spent most of her time making the bunker ready. Suzie was scared all right, and tonight she had to get Mother to understand.
She watched through the window waiting for Mother to rise up out of the bunker when Bean said, "I'm tired."
She turned to look at him, his tiny face smeared with cheese sauce. His eyelids drooped. He yawned, rubbing his face. She went to him and lifted him up. He nestled into her, plopping his thumb into his mouth.
"Don't suck your thumb, Bean."
"Sorry, Suzie," he said, his voice soft and light. He curled up his hands around her neck instead. She laid him down in her own bed and pulled the coverlet up to his chin. He settled in, falling asleep.
Down in the kitchen, she filled up the teakettle and set it to boil on the stove. She brought down a large mug and dropped in a tea bag.
"Hello, Mother?" Suzie said staring down into bunker.
"Will you be coming in soon?"
"What do you want, Suzie?"
"I'm making you some tea—"
"I didn't ask you to make me any."
"I know, but I thought maybe you could use a break."
There was no answer, but she watched as Mother made her way up the metal stairs.
"Really, Suzie, what is it? I just got the last of the water stored away, and I'm tired."
"It's cold, and I thought you could use some tea. That's all," Suzie said hugging her arms around her.
Mother looked behind her into the bunker and then sighed.
"Fine, I'm done for the night."
Suzie didn't answer and moved only after Mother started toward the house. The high-pitch whistle of the teakettle greeted them as they stepped back into the kitchen. Suzie walked over and poured the hot water into the mug, the steam billowing into her face. She carried the mug over to her mother and set it down before her.
Mother stared out the window into the night. When Suzie asked her what she was thinking about, Mother only shrugged.
"Mother, I want to talk to you about the bunker."
Mother turned to look at her, and Suzie noticed for the first time the hallowed cheeks and large eyes. Mother's lips were thin, pale and cracked.
"Good, I wanted to talk with you about the bunker, too. We need to be ready—"
"I know," Suzie said. She rushed the words forward, fearful Mother would cut her off. "You're worried for Bean and me, but you're taking this too far. Bean's scared of you, Mother. He's only 4 years old. He doesn't understand. You're never around; you're always down there. It's like first he lost Daddy and now you."
Mother's lips pursed together in a line, just a white scar slashed across her face. She slammed a fist down hard on the table and jostled the tea. Standing up, she lifted the mug and sat it roughly on the counter. Hot tea splashed the back of her hand, but Suzie didn't think she noticed.
"Shut up! SHUT UP! God damn it, Suzie, I'm doing this for Bean and for you. I'm tired of your damn bitching about it. I have to do what I'm doing so we'll be ready."
Suzie flinched and took a step back. Mother's face darkened. She pulled at her hair and, to Suzie's horror, dragged her nails across her own face. Red scratches punctuated it, and Suzie took a step back, unable to look away at what had become her mother.
"I'm your mother, and you need to do as I say."
"What do you want from us?"
"I just want you to be ready, damn it."
"But for what? You're crazy...this is crazy."
"GET OUT! JUST GET OUT OF MY FACE! I DON'T WANT TO LOOK AT YOU ANYMORE!" Mother screamed, and her voice carried like the hissing sound of the tea-kettle earlier.
Suzie winced, ran out of the kitchen and fled to her room. She didn't bother to change out of her clothes but crawled into bed with Bean, burrowing into his warmth. Her body hitched with sobs, but she kept her eyes clenched tight forcing the images of her mother scratching at her own face out of her mind.
In the dream, Bean was crying.
Suzie kicked back the covers, still asleep until Bean's shrill screams cleared away the clouds of drowsiness. She sat up, felt around for Bean, and then another cry filled the house. It was dark, and Bean's cries weren't coming from down the hall but from downstairs. Suzie scrambled up out of bed, slipped in socked feet and ran down the hallway to the stairs.
"Bean? Baby?" she yelled, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. She made it to the kitchen in time to see the outline of her mother disappearing into the moonlit backyard with Bean in her arms.
"Mother?" Suzie said.
Mother said nothing, but Bean called out for Suzie, and she saw his pale frightened face over her mother's shoulder as he reached out to her.
"Mother? What are you doing?"
"Let's get down into the bunker. We'll sleep the rest of the morning in there," Mother said.
"What's wrong with you? You're scaring Bean."
"He needs to be scared. It's a scary time, Suzie. I want my babies in a safe place. Now help me with him."
Outside the bunker, Bean wrestled in Mother's arms, and Suzie could see his terror. Mother bent down low and tried to work the lever. Suzie didn't think she even noticed as Bean's fists hammered down on her head and chest.
"Mother! Stop it! This is too far. What's wrong with you?" Suzie screamed. She ran at her mother and pulled Bean out of her arms. He buried his face into Suzie's neck and started to cry.
Suzie held Bean tight and said, "Mother! Look at me!"
Mother didn't respond but instead worked the lever, pressing down the button and twisting it as she had shown Suzie many times before.
"OK, get him down in there, Suzie. Hurry up."
"No! You're crazy! You're sick! There isn't anything wrong except with you."
Mother covered the few feet between them and, with one pull, had Bean in her arms and threw him over her shoulder.
"No!" Suzie yelled, but Mother moved fast, disappearing down into the bunker. Suzie stood just outside the dark hole and took a step down inside it. Her hands clenched around the thin metal railing.
"Come on, Suzie," Mother called up to her.
"Bean, baby, don't be scared. It's OK," Suzie said, her voice choked with fear.
"Suzie?" Bean whimpered back.
"Get on down here, girl," Mother's voice called up.
"Bean, I'm going to get help! Be brave, Beanie. Suzie's going to get help."
Still gripping the handrail, Suzie stepped back out of the bunker. She turned, meaning to run back to the house when her mother grabbed at her shoulder.
"Why can't you ever mind? Why can't you just listen and do what I say."
Suzie jerked out of her mother's grasp, and now she ran, her heart pounding in her head. The back door was open, and she ran back through the kitchen slamming hard into the dining room table when she did. Before she could even get around it, Mother was on her, taking hold of a chunk of her hair.
"God damn it, Suzie. You're just making this too damn difficult. All I'm asking for you to do is stay down in the bunker, where it's safe."
"Mother, you're sick. Something's wrong with you. Daddy wouldn't want you doing this to Bean and me."
Mother laughed and shoved Suzie forward. The girl slid and fell, colliding into the kitchen counter.
Mother's eyes, framed in dark circles, looked wild, and her skin hung making her look older than the 45 she was. The bunker had consumed all her time, and the woman who stood before Suzie was too thin and old to be her mother. Suzie started to cry, her stomach wrenching at the sight of this stranger.
"Get up, damn it." Mother reached down, wrenched Suzie back up and started to drag her through the kitchen. Suzie dug her feet and resisted. Her mother turned and slapped Suzie hard in the face. She pinched down into Suzie's shoulder with surprising strength.
Suzie reached out, knocking clutter off the counter and then her hands came around the teakettle. Cold water sloshed out of it, and for a moment, as her mother jerked her forward, Suzie thought she wouldn't get hold but she did.
The early-morning sky was an array of pinks and purples with the last of the evening stars fading away when Suzie brought the teakettle down hard on the back of Mother's head. She fell forward, her hand falling away from Suzie's shoulder.
Suzie yelled and kicked at the crumpled body. She brought down the teakettle again and again, until her arm screamed with pain.
"Why? Why did you have to be so crazy? What was wrong with you? Why couldn't you take care of me and Bean?"
Mother didn't move or jerk but lay in a heap on the dewy grass. Suzie's heart thumped, and she felt the maddening vibrations up her throat and through her skull.
"Mother?" she said letting the teakettle fall to the ground and, with a tentative hand, reached out to shake the woman. Suzie started to cry and knelt down next to Mother, shaking her and lifting her up to see her face.
"No, no, no. Mother, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Mother." Suzie said, stroking back the mangled hair and ignoring the warm stickiness she felt at the back of Mother's head. Mother's eyes stared out past her.
The light of early morning lit up half of the stairway, but down below it was pitch black. She heard soft whimpering sounds.
He was to the left of her, and she felt in the darkness until her hands made out the shape on the cot. She lifted him up into her arms, and her back and shoulder screamed in protest. He climbed up on her, frantic in his embrace.
"I'm scared of the dark, Suzie. Mamma left me in the dark," his voice hitched with sobs.
She hugged him tighter and realized that Bean had wet himself. His Bob the Builder pajama bottoms were soaked through and clung to his legs like a second skin. That old anger flared up in her.
How, Mother? How could you let it come to this?
"She's sleeping, Bean. Mother's been tired, and she's sleeping. We need to go in the house now, OK?"
Bean slipped a thumb into his mouth. An older part of her wanted to tell him not to, but she brushed the thought away. They made their way across the lawn, and Suzie was about to tell Bean not to look over at Mother, when they both heard the sound.
At first Suzie thought it was her imagination, but the ground beneath her vibrated, and the sound came again.
Bean popped his thumb from his mouth, and his eyes widened.
"What's that?" he whispered.
This time the ground shook with such ferocity that Suzie had to crouch into a squat to keep from dropping Bean. Bean started to cry again and clung to her neck. This last "whump" set off car alarms, and their shrill sounds peeled through the silence of the early morning.
The windows of their house vibrated, and the kitchen window exploded. Suzie turned, crouching low to the ground. She shielded Bean from the worst of the breaking glass. From over the fence, great billows of smoke etched out the horizon.
She heard a woman scream and a man's voice yelling from the house behind them how those f***ers must be bombing us again. Those f***ers—
She looked over at her mother, who still stared out into the open sky. Suzie could just make out the snarl of her mouth from where she stood. Just before another whump-sound, Suzie thought it might have been not a snarl but a smile.
"It's OK," she said to Bean and then led them both down into the bunker. She closed the door behind them locking it the way Mother had shown her how to do.