Gemma Plank stretched out in bed, clutching an anthology of fairy tales to her chest as she felt the warm morning rays of sunshine filter through the curtains.
“I’ll read you a story,” she said to her brother, who was still half-asleep in his bed. She thought she was helping since his eyesight had worsened and he couldn’t read anymore. It was also how she dealt with the guilt of being the only one in the family who didn’t suffer from the fallout.
“No,” he grumbled.
“You’ll like it.”
He groaned, pulling the pillow over his head.
Once there was a brother and sister who had an awful stepmother.
Darian threw his pillow at her and got up, fumbling for his clothes before dressing. He went to the window and felt for the latch.
“Where are you going?”
“Out,” he said vaguely, climbing out the window and then replacing the screen.
Leona was awake, lying on the ground in the living room. She must have crawled out of the bed she shared with their mother and scooted across the worn carpet. She rocked back and forth as she clutched her rag doll and made a grunting sound.
“Good morning,” Gemma greeted, stopping for a moment to consider her younger sister. Leona had been tucked away in the sacred space of their mother’s womb during the war but she ended up being the most vulnerable. Now she served as a bitter reminder of a time they would all rather forget. Gemma shook away the thoughts, continuing on to the kitchen.
She returned with breakfast and struggled to get Leona off the ground, her sister’s body uncooperative and heavy. Once Leona was upright Gemma offered her a spoon full of scrambled eggs. Leona took a bite and chewed before spitting it out, bits of yellow egg spewing everywhere. Gemma sighed, cleaning up what she could and then returning the uneaten food to the kitchen. She came back to help Leona with her toileting and then got ready to leave for the market. She was already exhausted.
The crowds were thin at the market. Gemma found her usual spot and laid out her mother’s hand sewn garments, hoping to entice enough customers to pay the electricity bill. Two old ladies dressed in similar sweaters stopped to look, leaning on their rickety canes as they stooped down to touch the fabric of the blouses with their wrinkled fingers.
“Great deal,” Gemma called out. “Name your price.”
One of the ladies scowled and shook her head. They wobbled off.
A man paused to examine a pair of pants she had watched her mother sew for weeks during her worst days of fatigue and pain. He held the pants up to inspect them in the sunlight.
Somebody in the distance screamed. The man dropped the pants and ran.
“The dogs!” a young woman cried, running by with a small child slipping out of her arms.
Gemma’s heart beat wildly. Her hands shook as she bundled everything and slung it over her shoulder, searching for a place to hide. She spotted a dumpster and ran as fast as she could, tossing the bundle inside before struggling to climb over the edge. She found herself on a cushion of foul, rotting garbage. Her hand touched a banana peel and something wet and sticky soaked through her pants.
The mechanical dogs made their snarled sounds. Gemma peeked over the edge, her hands trembling. A pack of five came trotting down the street and she could hear the sound of their metal paws hitting the ground in ominous unison. Two of the dogs strayed from the group, pausing to sniff the area where the vendors had been doing business only seconds earlier. She ducked, holding her breath as she listened to one as it approached the dumpster. The dog raised its aluminum head and scanned the area with its laser eyes. Soon it was gone.
She waited several minutes before climbing out of the dumpster and brushing off her pants. She felt her heart still racing.
A man ran down the street, stopping when he saw her. “Did you see the dogs?” he asked, out of breath.
“They’re after a kid who burglarized the government building.” He used the back of his hand to wipe away the sweat on his brow. “Kid’s probably dead by now.” He continued on into the direction of the dogs.
The market had become a ghost town; nobody wanted to see if the dogs would return. She decided to go home empty-handed.
“How much did you make?” her mother asked weakly, leaning against the kitchen counter. Her face was pale and gaunt.
“Nothing. The dogs came.”
Gemma set the bundle on the table. There wasn’t much to say. She sorted through the clothes in silence.
“You need to learn a skill,” her mother said. “I won’t be around much longer.”
Gemma blinked, trying to suppress the moisture in her eyes. She left the kitchen and went to her bedroom, not wanting to talk about it. She realized Darian was still out and worried, especially with the mechanical dogs on the loose. His poor eyesight would only give them an advantage.
Gemma closed her door and sunk into the softness of her bed. She reached for her book, feeling in the mood to escape into a story.
Her fingers grabbed at the empty space next to her. There was no book. There was very little of anything.
Their house had been hit by the bombing. She and Darian and their pregnant mother were at the store in the next town over. Her father and sister Marsha weren’t so lucky. She remembered the evacuation, having to leave behind her entire life without saying good bye.
Gemma could still see her book, the stories she knew by heart and the illustrations clear and vivid in her memory, her mind’s way of sugarcoating reality.
Once upon a time…