Johanna was indulging in a lovely memory of a warm summer’s day when her thoughts were interrupted by a drawing being thrust in her face.
“Mama, look,” said Shelly, wiping a bubble of snot onto her sleeve. Her mother scowled and pulled a worn tissue from her pocket, wetting it with spit and scrubbing at the dirt streaked face before looking at the picture. Drawn on gray construction paper, the child’s tree looked stark and uninspired. This is what Johanna thought, at least, until encountering the real thing on the walk home. No, that’s pretty accurate.
Not wanting to break curfew, they’d abandoned the long line at the grocery store empty handed once again. Johanna wasn’t sure what she was going to feed Shelly for dinner, but would rather scrounge around in their increasingly depleted supplies than take the chance on being out after dark. There were never any guarantees, but the more activity on the streets at night, the greater the chance of setting off the sensors, and nobody wanted that.
It was a tense way of living, the ever-present shadow hovering above. Programmed to identify and eliminate suspicious activity, the drone was far from accurate, as could be attested to by the pile of broken concrete Johanna stepped over as they approached their apartment building. Lifting Shelly over, she sighed heavily. Each of these failed trips felt like a huge drain on her time and energy.
“Johanna!” Mrs. Russo called out as they entered the foyer, “I’ve been worried about you two. You shouldn’t stay out this long!” Gladys Russo was the mother hen of the apartment building, and she worried constantly about her chicks, especially the single mother and little girl who lived above her. Their neighbor’s concern was warranted, but Johanna still blanched at the reproach.
“Sorry, Gladys, I thought I’d left enough time. The line was longer than I thought for a Tuesday.”
“Well, I thought you might be getting low. Here, it’s not much but I have a few things for you,” she said, holding out a paper bag filled about halfway with staples. “I had some extra.”
“Gladys, nobody has extra. We can’t take your groceries. We’ll be okay.”
“Don’t be proud, Johanna. You have a growing girl. Take them. I’m an old lady. I don’t need so much.”
Johanna had seen the way Mrs. Russo’s jaw was set before, and she was too tired to have this conversation with her right now. “Okay, but you have to let me pay you back.”
“Yes, yes. Of course. When things get back to normal, pay me back.”
This was the old lady’s way of agreeing without agreeing. They both knew that “back to normal” wasn’t going to happen in her lifetime. Johanna bowed slightly and mumbled a thank you before shuffling up the steps with her daughter and taking her inside for a now much more substantial dinner.
It was around 2:00am when Johanna heard the whistle. She’d heard it enough times to know what was coming; only this time it was much closer than before. She hurled herself out of bed and ran to Shelly’s room, snatching the child out of a sound sleep and running for the bathroom door frame. She had barely enough time to cover the two of them with a mattress before the whistle turned into a rumble, and the ground and walls around them began shaking and cracking.
It was the building next door, they learned when Johanna found the courage to crawl out from cover with her daughter. Looking at the rubble through their window, she realized how ridiculous and ineffective her little mattress strategy would have been, and she hugged Shelly tighter to her.
“Come on, sweetie. Let’s go check on Mrs. Russo,” she said to the silent child. Shelly didn’t cry anymore, and something about that bothered Johanna.
But they needn’t have worried about Gladys. The door was slightly ajar, and as Johanna wandered through the nearly empty apartment, she saw that the cupboards and all the drawers were barren. The old lady lay on her bed dressed in her Sunday best, a slight smile of contentment on her face, and an assortment of empty pill bottles on the nightstand beside her.
It seemed she’d spent the previous afternoon giving what little she had to neighbors, the only family she had left. Nobody thought to wonder why; she’d always been so generous.
“Oh Gladys, rest peacefully.” Though saddened, Johanna couldn’t help but feel somewhat envious of the old woman. She looked into Shelly’s increasingly stoic face, and knew she didn’t have the same option.