First Published in Hear Me Roar, Ticonderoga Press, 2015

           The diner’s just two clicks off the edge of the contamination zone. You want coffee? We’ve got coffee. It’s not good coffee, but it’ll do in a pinch, and I guess you could call this a pinch all right.

Clara owns the place and runs the grill. She’s a gnarled old bitch, scarred with radiation burns and she don’t speak no more, not since her tongue came off. It fell right outta her mouth and onto the grill! She just scooped it off into the trash and kept right on cookin’. I mean, bits are fallin’ off Clara all the time. These days she just grunts and points, but she does a mean breakfast with spam and a side of beans. Calls it the ‘Big Fry’.

Clara swats me on the shoulder ’cause I’m dreaming again, staring at the scrubbed Formica counter top. Sometimes I’ll start on a staring jag and it’s like the solid surface just opens up and I can see through it to forever. A part of me knows that I should be filling the salt shakers but I’m lookin’ right into the face of infinity…

Anyway, Clara snaps me out of it, puts a rag in my hands, points to the dish-pile and grunts. The bell above the door jangles and two scrubbers come in. We’ve got motion sensors and a three-stage monitored cleanroom system, but Clara still put that bell atop the front door, and it sets my teeth on edge every time it sounds.

“Evenin’ Eloise!” Shep booms across the diner as he takes a seat in a booth by the window. There’s nothing much to look at but swirling dirt outside, but Clara makes me polish the inside with vinegar every morning ’til my arm aches. She’s a real stickler for tidy.

“Hey Shep, evenin’ Jimmy,” I say.

I pour coffee into both of their cups, full for Shep cause he likes it black, three-quarters for Jimmy so he can stir in milk and sugar.

“What’ll it be today?”

“I’ll take a double Big Fry, thanks darlin’.” Shep grins, a gummy smile punctuated with a few crooked choppers.

“And I’ll take a Half Fry with a side of pancakes if you got ’em,” Jimmy says.

“You bet we do. I made the sugar syrup myself last night.”

I hear the order ping through to the kitchen. Clara grunts and shuffles around, throwing things on the grill. The buzzer goes off again and before I know it, a bunch of girls from the whorehouse out by the dorms flood in. Them girls always have spare coin for Clara’s pies. You want pumpkin pie? Clara makes them twice a week.

 

We close up around ten, Clara and I. She counts out the register and I do everything else ’cause she don’t trust no one with the money. After I’ve scraped off the grill she hands me a plate she’s kept special for my dinner. I always make a big deal of how good it is, and it seems to please her. She don’t exactly smile, but she kinda frowns less, if you know what I mean.

I’ve got a room to myself out back, just a bed and a sink and a space to keep my things. I guess I just work for room and board. I don’t got no family to send coin to back home, so it don’t really matter. ‘Sides, what else would I do? The scrubber corp wouldn’t have me and they’ll hire almost anyone. Truth be told, I was on my way to that whorehouse lookin’ for work when I washed up at Clara’s. That’s okay – I like bussin’ plates of eggs better than I like bussin’ my ass. No disrespect intended, them girls do honest work.

After dinner Clara shuffles out the door, huffing into her respirator. She disappears in a whirl of dirt, the puff of her breather fading off into the night. There’s nothing round for miles, so who knows where she gets off to.

Without Clara grunting or any of the Scrubbers bellowing from the booths for more coffee, things get pretty lonely. In the deep quiet night, in this little diner perched on the plain, the only thing for miles that ain’t blowing topsoil or roaches – sometimes I don’t think that whorehouse woulda been so bad. It woulda been a family, you know?

 

In the morning, Clara doesn’t come.

I raise myself before the sun turns the dirt swirls to a lighter shade of brown, slice up a brand new pie (careful now, Clara likes it done just so) and set to folding the napkins. I like folding before Clara comes because I can get some quality time with the counter top and infinity without having a spatula aimed at my head.

But Clara doesn’t come.

I fold a whole box of napkins and get a good deep glimpse into forever and it’s only when my fingers brush the bottom of the box that I realise something ain’t right. Usually before this point the buzzer would snap me back to the diner and Clara’d come limping in, drop her clinking bags on the floor, point at the shelves and grunt.

But Clara doesn’t come.

I put on a pot of coffee because we still have grounds left, but there are only three cans of beans and a sack of eggs on the shelf. Clara don’t bring extra and when I asked her why she wrote on a napkin that no one would bother breakin’ in for a few measly cans of beans and a pie or two.

Well, I asked, wouldn’t the robbers just get mad at going to all the trouble to bust in for no reason? Maybe take it out on the poor waitress napping out back? She threw the napkin at me and limped off, grunting. She didn’t seem to think that part was important.

When the third shift quits and starts trickling in, looking for hotcakes and greasy eggs with ham, I don’t know what to tell them.

“I don’t know what to tell you, fellas. We don’t have no food. Clara didn’t show up this morning.”

Bernie, Gus, Javier and Dumb John look up at me from the booth like I’m not talking real words.

“We’ve got coffee or pumpkin pie.”

“You don’t got any beans?” Javier asks, his face strained as if he’s trying real hard to work it out.

“No beans, Jav.”

“No eggs?” Bernie chimes in, looking just as befuddled.

“No eggs, I’m sorry.”

They grumble, but settle for coffee and the four split a whole pie. On their way out they complain ’bout how they’re still hungry. I stand by the door and apologise again.

“Let me know if you see Clara,” I plead.

I put a note up on the door to say we are only serving coffee. Folks still come in for a cup, but mostly just to find out what’s going on.

‘Round lunchtime we see a Scrubber approach, puzzle over the sign for a bit, sounding out the words. As the message gets through, he flies into a rage, screaming and kickin’ up dirt, though we can’t hear the show he’s putting on. Finally, he pulls a shotgun out of his Jeep and methodically pumps shells into the diner’s front window until he runs out and shuffles off. The window holds: it don’t even chip.

Blonde Sarah and Cupcake from the cathouse look around, wide-eyed, and no one speaks for a few minutes. Dax and Sammy suit up and take off after him. They come back half an hour later and let me know he won’t be a problem no more. I give them a free cup and the girls all gush and fawn over them. They won’t be payin’ next time they stroll into the whorehouse, that’s for sure. And they say chivalry’s dead.

 

On the third morning I put up a sign that says, ‘Closed. No food, no coffee. Gone looking for Clara.’ I zip into a coverall and strap on Clara’s ancient shotgun and a respirator before I crack the door. I mean, the Scrubbers do a good job cleanin’ the zone, but the dust still blows, don’t it? Better safe than dyin’ a long slow death is what I always say. My breath echoes through the breather, too loud in my ears. There ain’t nothing else to hear out here.

The working girls let me borrow one of their Hovers. It jerks a fair bit when I take off, but it don’t stall and soon I’m peering down at the lonely little square of Clara’s diner. The open plain feels too much, too big. Like I might just keep expanding outwards until I’m so stretched out that I just stop being. Don’t you hate that feeling?

The Hover holds a day’s charge. Twenty-four hours to find one grumpy old griller in one big old desert. I don’t know why I’m doing it. Maybe because it’s this or nothing.

I incline up. If I blink against the sun off in the distance I can just make out the row of Scrubbing machines, giant and inching across the desert like enormous bugs. Closer still, the Scrubbers’ dorms, rows of long, low buildings. The whorehouse rises up, a gaudy box panelled in yellow and pink. That’s it: that’s all there is to see. I bring the Hover around, setting it on the first line of the grid on the nav. The auto does the steering while I peer down, looking for anything that might hide a little old fry cook.

In the late afternoon shadow I spot a cluster of shapes crowding in an old river bed. Tents and Hovers, old Jeeps in pieces and flapping sheets of plastic. As I ease down and land, a man walks out of the closest tent, squinting out from under a cupped hand and I’m horrified to see that he’s barefaced. In a minute he’s joined by two more fellas, not a respirator among ’em. Not even a particulate filter! One of them has a rag tied round his mouth, though there’s not much point to it. These are bandits; no one else would be out here living like this. I put a hand to the shotter in its long holster, fastened round my waist and my thigh.

“Hey fellas,” I say, my voice muffled by the breather. “I’m not looking for trouble, I’m just trying to find a friend of mine.”

No one says anything. My heart beats quick.

I’ve made a terrible mistake.

“She’s about, uh, this tall?” I hold my hand up to my chin. “Old, wrinkly, goes by Clara?” I don’t know why I’m still talking.

“We like your Hover,” the first man says, the healthiest-lookin’ of ’em. He hacks and spits a great pink wad into the sand. Maybe not so healthy.

“Well, see – it’s not technically mine…” I say, but they ain’t listening.

“We like your breather,” says the man with the rag under his nose. I take a step back, and they all take one forward. I whip my shotgun out and they all lift their shooters. There’s three barrels aimed my way and inside I’m sinking ’cause I ain’t ever even shot a gun before. I don’t notice that someone’s creepin’ up on me ’til they pull my mask down and clamp a stinking rag on my mouth. After that I don’t notice nothin’ for a good long while.

 

“Hey lady, hey, hey,” the voice is close, hot breath tickling my ear and it’s only when I go to swat it away that I realise my hands are tied behind my back. I jump right awake and wrench my arm ’til my shoulder near pops right out, bellowing around the cottony mass they’ve shoved in my gob. I shift on the little cot I’m trussed to and a cloud of dust flies up. I panic. I’m not wearing a breather. I hold my breath for a good minute before I realise I been breathing this muck in for who knows how long. I exhale, picturin’ the cells mutating in my lungs.

“Hey lady, what’s your name?”

There, by the edge of the cot – a pair of wide brown eyes. And another. And another.

“Eloise,” I say around the gag, but it comes out all garbled.

“If we take that sock outta your mouth, you promise not to scream?”

I nod and a little brown hand reaches up and plucks the wadded clump from between my teeth.

“Eloise,” I say, spitting out the taste of dirty feet. I turn over to get a better look at who’s talkin’, and my head swirls. I feel like someone took out my brains and replaced ’em with a double serve of scrambled eggs. Out of the corner of my eye, in the dim, I can just make out those eyes, the tops of three curly heads. “What’s you guys’ names?”

“JimandJebandJoey,” they sing. I blink past them. I’m in a vast tent, lit by a solar lantern hanging from the roof on the other side of the room.

“We sure are glad you came to visit,” the one in the middle says.

“Our Hover’s on the fritz, so our Daddy borrowed yours,” says the one on the right.

“Borrowed it, did he?” I say, trying to wriggle one of my wrists free. The binding’s tight though, and I just mince my hands a little before I give up.

“Yep, he’s gone to get s’plies. I hope he brings us back some Ramen noodles,” the one on the left pipes in.

“Or a candy bar!”

They laugh and their little heads bob in unison.

“Are you someone’s Mama?”

“I almost was,” I say. I’m writhin’ on the cot, trying to get into a good position to maybe loosen the ropes on the metal frame. I want to keep ’em talking.

“What happened?”

“I lost my baby. Before he got born.”

The boys nod, solemn. “That happens a lot, don’t it?”

“It does.”

“Our mama passed, when she was havin’ us. We nearly didn’t get born. We’ve had lots of mamas, but they always pass or run away. Our Daddy says you can be our new one.”

I squeeze my eyes shut, pulling my arms to their stopping point with a new sense of urgency and dread, trying to hook the binds onto a sharp little jut on the frame. Just as I get it there, the tent flap flies open and orange light floods the canvas space for a second. I blink, tryin’ to clear the blindness from my eyes.

“JimandJebandJoe, you get away from her!” There’s a scrabbling noise. The boys wriggle their way out from next to my cot.

Sometimes babies get scrambled up a little while they are cookin’. Happens more and more these days. The boys, triplets – they’re all joined up. Through their wide, skinny, shared chest I can see their little ribcages. One innie bellybutton, two outies, all in a row. They got two hands and six legs between ’em and they jostle and skitter like they wanna tear apart and scatter in three different directions, but they can’t. Little boys, you know? It’s hard to contain ’em.

The girl is young but tall, with a big mop of curly brown hair and black eyes. She tries not to look at me and she hefts the triplets up under their arms and plonks them on their feet.

“Go play. Go see if Daddy’s back.” She shoos them away.

“I’m Eloise. What’s your name?” I say, all soft.

She shakes her head, picks up the sock and stuffs it back in my mouth. Then she drapes an old, stinking towel over my head. Before the light fades I look into her eyes, beggin’ with mine. She looks sad. In the dark I hear her walking away. I swear I hear her say something.

It sounds like, “Sorry.”

 

The rope on my wrists goes with a whisper of partin’ fibres and a flood of blood back into my hands. I been working on it for what feels like half my life, but is prob’ly nearer to half a day or so. The towel on my face has slipped a little and I can see fading light spill around the edges of the tent flap. Right away I sit up, throw the face-towel off to one side and make short work of the cords at my ankles. There ain’t no time for caution, but when I spring up and see her by the door, a surge of fear still zings in me. I hold my hands up, a sorry-lookin’ pair of rope-burnt wrists topped with measly fists.

“I’ll do whatever it takes,” I tell the girl.

She blinks at me. She’s got a baby in one arm, a little snot-nosed kid with big old eyes. With the other hand she pulls out a flarelaunch and points it at me. I drop my hands. It ain’t a real shooter but it’ll make a pretty coloured mess of me anyways. I wonder how long I’ll last wiping asses, pumping out sick babies and feedin’ this bandit brood of kids before I cough myself to death. The baby sniffles, starts to whimper. It lifts one fat brown hand to its face and rubs a dusty eye. The girl drops the launch.

“I can help you,” she says. She puts the baby down and it crawls over, clings onto my pants. It looks up at me and a giant bubble of snot grows and shrinks, grows and shrinks over its plugged nostril as it breathes. “But if I help you, can you help us?”

 

We wait ’til dark. The Hover comes back in just as the sun burns out for the night and the fellas are too busy whoopin’ over their spoils to bother checking in on me. Sylvie tells me to bunker down on the bed anyways, just in case. She’s rounded up all the kids and they peer at me from cots and cribs, eyes glimmerin’ in the dim lamplight. It’s creepy. There’s five of ’em plus the triplets. Virginia’s twelve but she don’t say much. Percy’s nine, Amy is eight. The triplets (James and Jebediah and Joseph) are six. Xavier is blind but still rambunctious as all heck and he’s three. The little snot-nose, Sophie, isn’t even one and she’s still snifflin’ as Sylvie manhandles her into a sling on her chest.

“Sylvie! Come get some supper for the littluns!” The bellow comes from outside. Sylvie beckons. She’s found me a shotter, not the one I brought with me: this one is better. I creep round the edge of the camp with it raised. I sure hope I don’t have to use it. It’s so big that the recoil will prob’ly take my shoulder clean off and I’m so blasted inept with firearms that I’ll no doubt just end up shootin’ myself in the foot.

The Big Daddy of this little clan stands by the fire. Noodle packs drift around his feet on the breeze. He stirs the pot of Mi Goreng, rippin’ open flavour packets, cursing at the little foil pouches as he fumbles.

“Sylvie!” He bellows as he drops one into the pot, cursing and kicking at the plastic scattered round his feet. “Come help me with these noodles!” She hurries out the tent flap, wipin’ the bub’s green nasal flow with a rag. When she reaches her pappy he goes to hand her the spoon but instead’a taking it, she pulls a shooter, a real gnarly hand-cannon, out of the sling with one hand and points it right at his face. With the other hand she draws the flarelaunch and aims it to a point on her left. The baby gurgles in the harness, waves its chubby feet back and forth.

“Where’d you get my shooter, Sylvie? I tole you a hundred times not to go poking round in Daddy’s things.”

It’s then I see what she’s pointin’ the flarelaunch at – the Jeeps, the fuel cans. She don’t say nothing, just pulls the trigger.  Bright red light erupts from the launch, and the whole thing goes up with a roar. The kid at her chest starts to cry.

Her brothers are here now, and I come outta my hiding spot, training the shotter right at ’em.

“You’re dead meat, Sylvie,” the dumbest-lookin’ one says, spitting out her name. He looks like the meanest as well. He points at me. “Her too. We’re gonna rip you to bits if you don’t put that shooter down. Look what you done to the Jeeps.”

“Oh, piss off, Harrison,” she says. “Who do you think scrubs the stains outta your shorts after a raid? I’m surprised you ain’t sobbing into your hanky with that shotter aimed at your face.”

I pump the action for emphasis. I don’t even know if I’m doing it right, feel like I’ve probably switched it off or something, but he flinches, so I just try and look menacing and such. I catch Sylvie trying not to smirk. She looks beautiful in the firelight with the fuel-smoke billowing behind her, like a girl I saw in an old comic book one time.

She motions to the kids and they file out in a line. The triplets gallop ahead, bellowing ’bout how they want to sit in the front. I side-step over, gun still trained on Sylvie’s daddy and brothers, and help the little ones climb in, try and shoo the triplets into the back.

“You ain’t taking my kids, Sylvie!” her daddy wails. He starts towards her, raising a hand, but Sylvie don’t hesitate. She fires a bullet right at his feet. He glares at her, wounded, but only in the feelings.

“The kids need to live somewhere clean. They’re sick. We’re all sick! What’s gonna happen to ’em when we die, huh? How long you been coughing blood, Daddy? How long you think you got?”

He pulls himself up tall, his boys clustered behind him. “This is my fam’ly, Sylvie, and you’ll do as I say. I’ve made a decent life out here for you. We got food, don’t we? A buncha nice tents? I even found you a new Mama to help with the kids.”

“Some life. You and the boys rob and kill good folks for-” She looks around. “For fuckin’ noodles,” she says, kicking away an empty packet that’s come to rest on the top of her bare foot. “Meantimes, we starve and bake under the sun and I try and keep these kids from dying on me.”

“Babies die, Sylvie, it’s always been like that. And these are hard times. We do what we gotta, we stick together like a fam’ly!” Her daddy’s face is flush with rage. A vein throbs in his neck. One of the boys launches into a coughin’ fit behind him. There’s a wet slap as he hacks a bloody chunk onto the ground.

“This ain’t no family,” she says, real bitter. “This is just you tryin’ to build a kingdom out here. That’s why we left the commune back when Mama was still alive. It was clean there, safe, but they wouldn’t let you be in charge, would they?”

He steps right up to the barrel of the shotter. She’s so mad that it shakes, but she keeps it pointed true. She’s so tall that they are eye to eye. “You’ll leave your mama outta this if you know what’s good for you, girl. I brung you into this world and I’ll take you right on out of it.”

“You can try, Daddy, but I’m the one with a shooter aimed at your face.” For a long second I think she’s gonna do it. The tension stretches right out.

“Shoot him!” squeal the triplets together, and I damn near bolt outta my seat. Everyone jumps. I swat at the boys and they wriggle out of my reach. It breaks the moment. Sylvie don’t lower the barrel, but she starts to back away. Her arms are like steel, the launch and shooter still poised to fire. She climbs backward into the Hover.

“Go. Now. Before I change my mind and blow his fool head off.” I don’t need to get told twice. The Hover struggles a little as we top out. Six wriggly kids, plus us and the bub on Sylvie’s chest, is a whole lot more cargo than this boat is used to.

“Swing round, Eloise. I wanna take one last look.” I bring the Hover round and start a big circle over the camp. Thick black smoke billows from the centre and in the orange light I see the boys runnin’ behind the tent, going for the ammo boxes, the weapons. They don’t know it yet, but every shooter and shotter and even one pretty slick laser are wrapped up tight and stored under the Hover’s seats. Sylvie lifts the flarelaunch and fires off a brilliant purple sparkler right into the middle of the big tent. By the time we turn around, it’s already catching.

Her daddy kicks over the pot of noodles, then drops onto his knees in the wet dust. I think he’s crying, but with all the smoke and his filthy face, it’s hard to tell. He could just as easily be laughing.

“Wave goodbye to Daddy,” Sylvie says, and the kids all dutifully flap their hands as we pass. She has to grab hold of the triplets who lean so far out of the Hover to wave that they almost topple right off. Even the baby starts wavin’. She don’t really know what she’s doing, but she wants to join in.

We skirt the twin plumes of smoke and peel off just as something else inside the camp catches and goes off. I set the auto to Clara’s, then turn about to watch the thick dark clouds rise and shrink in our wake.

Lil’ Sophie keeps on waving, chanting, “Bye bye bye bye…” under her breath. Sylvie ducks her head to kiss her, thick black curls spilling over the both of them. Her shoulders start to shake. I think she’s crying, but behind all that hair, it’s hard to tell. She could just as easily be laughing.

 

“Hey Eloise?” Joey asks, ’cause he’s the closest to my ear. “What’s your place like?”

“It ain’t really my place,” I tell him. I gotta yell to be heard over the wind. The air’s pretty clean up here, and even though there was two spare filter masks on board, I don’t have one on. Sylvie and me strapped ’em on the two youngest, though they both fuss with the straps. It probably don’t make much difference, but it feels like the right thing to do. I barely know ’em but I got this urge to protect the littluns that’s coming up deep from somewhere in my guts.

I let the auto do the steering. I haven’t forgot that I came out here to find Clara, if she’s out here to be found, and I scan the ground out the corner of my eye.

I’m not paying much attention to the drivin’, so I almost spill right over the edge when the impact comes sudden. Sylvie and the kids cry out. The glowing nav screen shows us almost back to the point I plotted as Clara’s.

It comes again right away, crunching up against the right side. Another Hover, edges glowing in the thin silvery moonlight. The slap-up rig is barely flying. It trails long streams of smoke and bobs like a drownin’ rat in a sink. I expect to see their daddy behind the controls, but it’s them brothers instead. They got looks of all fury and no control. Oh, I’ve seen that look before, more times than I’d like to tell you ’bout. I’m no swift flyer but I grab the stick and switch off the auto, ’cause by their twisted, set mouths I can tell that me and Sylvie gonna be in a world of hurt if they catch us. I gotta try.

“Hold on, everyone!” I scream just before I peel off to the left. The kids all shriek, but I can hear the delight in the way the triplets bellow.

“Faster, Eloise!” Jeb squeals, and the three of ’em shake the back of my seat as I angle the Hover upwards. I sneak a look behind, real quick. The fellas don’t got much by way of manoeuvring, but they ain’t wanting for speed. They’re gaining.

I try to speed up. It’s too late though, they’re on us again and this time when they hit, the whole boat tips. I see the dirt racing up to meet us, ghost-lit by the moonglow.

I don’t know how we make it, but we must’a hit the dirt only a little off kilter. Whenever I’ve heard the Scrubbers tell stories of wrecking bikes or trucks or the occasional Hover, they always say one minute I was ’bout to crash, the next I was waking up in the med bay, so I expect it to be like that, but it’s not. I remember every second. It feels like it happens so slow. We thump down hard and wrong and the Hover tips on its side. I wait for it to go over, but it doesn’t, I don’t know how. Dirt flies up in a huge spray before us. Beside me, Sylvie holds tight to the baby, her eyes squeezed shut and I reach out without thinking to grab at Virginia, who’s tryin’ to keep hold of the triplets as they slide across the cargo floor. I see the other boat come down, missing us by just a hair, and it starts to roll. It comes apart piece by piece; sheets of orange flame spring out of the growing spaces between the parts. I see one of the brothers’ faces twist in fear, and then the fire eats ’em both whole.

We clang into something and the boat shudders, stops with a lurch. Sylvie tumbles out, awkward, tryin’ not to squish the baby, then she starts to pull all the kids off the back. They are too shook up to do much but flop like little dirty ragdolls off into the sand. I’m afraid the Hover’s gonna blow too, but I can’t move. I’m not hurt, I’m just starin’. In the middle distance stands Clara’s, the little box lit against the deep-blue deep-night sky. But right here, so close to where I’ve whiled away all them years folding napkins and bussing plates, is something I ain’t ever seen before. The thing we hit – it’s a door.

Not a door like the door to the kitchen, but a door sunk in the ground. It’s been covered all over with dirt, but the hover edge pried it up when we hit. It’s only the size of a big man’s shoulders around. Sylvie don’t see it yet, she’s looking over at Clara’s.

“That your place?” she asks. I don’t answer. I unbuckle, drop to the dirt and push the sods away in big handfuls. They are loose, like they’ve been brushed off and brushed over again and again.

“What is that?” Sylvie asks, coming to stand right by me. The kids all follow in a wobbly line, stunned to silence. I think it’s the first time I heard quiet from the triplets, who are usually muttering, squealing or plotting something.

“I don’t know.”

She drops to her knees and helps me brush the dust away. The handle is a lever in the middle of the round door. I pull it up and the thing starts to hiss.

“It’s okay,” I say as Sylvie leaps away. White light pours from the inside. There’s a ladder and I don’t even think before I drop right in and find the rungs with my feet. The climb ain’t long and just a few steps down I realise I’m standing in a decontamination room. It’s an airlock.

 

We find Clara in the sleeping quarter off the main room. She’s layin’ on a cot, just a little hump underneath a blanket. She’s long dead of course, but I feel like I always knew it, you know? She looks peaceful. I bet she didn’t even know she died, and that woulda pissed her off! Clara don’t like surprises.

The room’s cosy and all fit-out like a little house sunk under the ground. In the refrigerator I find a pie, unsliced and covered over with plastic wrap. I hand it to Sylvie and she digs into it, hands clumps to the kids with her clean hands. They look different now they’ve been through decon, like the camp and desert are far away. Sylvie’s cracked brown hands are scrubbed and her big mop of hair frizzes and gleams. Little Sophie smears pumpkin filling over her face and squeals with delight when some of the sweet stuff ends up in her mouth.

I walk around, peering in drawers and behind cupboard doors. When I put my hands to the walls I can feel a thrumming behind. Air filtration, generators. Right on the other side of the room is another door. It’s heavy, with a big wheel for a handle. Sylvie helps me turn it, gets sticky pie smears all over the steel. It takes a good minute or two to find the light and while I fumble I feel something strange. The dark space feels too much – like I might just keep expanding outwards until I’m so stretched out that I just stop being.

“Does it feel big in here?” Sylvie asks, coming up beside me. “I hate that feelin’. Like I could get lost forever, you know?”

I smile in the dark. I like her.

There’s a mighty click-crunch as the lights go on. The pie plate clatters to the ground, sweet pumpkin splatterin’ all over our legs.

I ain’t never seen a room so big. I can’t even see where it ends. And every part of it is filled with huge shelves in long rows, and every shelf is filled with cans and sacks and bags and boxes. Oh, Clara had a stash all right. It went and outlived her. Hell, it’ll outlive little Sophie’s kids, if she makes it that far.

“Nice place you got here,” says Sylvie.

We both take off running down the rows. She don’t even make it halfway before she stops, laughing and coughing and clutching her belly. The kids follow slower, lookin’ round with big eyes. The triplets drag Xav along, whispering in his ear about all the treats he can’t see.

There’s a ladder right at the end and if I’m judging my distances right, I bet it comes up right inside Clara’s. All this, right under my feet. All that time. The sneaky bitch. Guess keeping secrets is easy when you got no tongue.

“So, Eloise. What you gonna do with all this?” Sylvie says, catching up to me.

“Well, I got one idea. Do you know how to cook?”

 

Next morning we turn the ‘open’ sign back round. I fold the napkins, Sylvie fires up the grill. Virginia and Percy wipe down the booths and we try to keep the triplets busy with fillin’ up the salt shakers, but they just make an awful mess. The smell of hot coffee fills the diner and my heart leaps a bit when the buzzer sounds for the decon room. I straighten my apron, go and polish the windows even though there’s not much to see out there. Clara was a real stickler for tidy.

The bell sounds. It don’t jangle my nerves this time.

“Morning fellas! Coffee’s on. You want eggs? We got eggs. They ain’t great eggs, but they sure are better than no eggs.”