Daddy said it with a huge grin, towering over Blake in his bedroom doorway, but none of that smile or the happy way he said those words was in his eyes, which were wide and maybe scared. Mommy and Blake’s big dumb sister were already running all around the house, grabbing stuff, throwing it into bags and suitcases. Daddy was yelling at them to take this and leave that, goddamnit! Blake didn’t like the yelling, but he was determined to be grownup and do what Daddy said.
He couldn’t take everything he wanted. When Daddy, still with that clown grin, slapped a pile of stuff out of Blake’s arms, Blake had to fight back tears. Mommy, who was crying, said, “We’ll come back for it.” But Daddy told her not to lie, and told Blake to pack clothes. He did, but he also got his stuffed monkey, Dr. Grubbers, into his knapsack.
The fireworks were still going off when they ran to the car. Blake had been hearing the poppoppop for days — weeks. Their street was messy. Ms. Schadler’s lawn was on fire.
Daddy drove fast, and Blake, in the back with his sister Ellen, barely had time to watch the house shrink away behind them. Something told him that Mommy really had been lying. They would never come back here.
There were lots of car crashes, and Daddy drove around the wrecks, making the tires squeal. Blake felt his stomach do funny things. People were running around outside. Some were fighting. Some were breaking stuff. There weren’t any police people around. The firecracker sounds got louder, but it was day and there weren’t any colored light explosions in the sky like from fireworks at night.
“We should’ve left sooner!” Mommy yelled. And Blake realized that she’d said that like twenty times since they’d got in the car.
It wasn’t until they got close to the freeway — Blake recognized the on-ramp they always took to the mall — that Daddy had to stop. The street was really messy here, and people were standing by the long pile of shopping carts and couches and cars lying on their sides. Daddy couldn’t drive past to the freeway. In the front, he and Mommy gave each other a long look. Some of the people were walking up to their car. They looked mean. Ellen grabbed hold of Blake’s hand, which surprised him so much that he missed whatever happened before the big BOOM! came, louder than any firecracker.
Blake blinked at the smoke. Everything smelled burnt. Daddy handed a big black pistol to Mommy, and suddenly the car jumped ahead. They crashed through a weak part of the barricade and headed to the on-ramp.
Twelve years later, as a part of the advance Reclamation team visiting the wildzone for the first time, Blake was struck by a disorienting déjà vu. His team chief, who had herself come from a formerly thriving city from which police and all social services had had to be withdrawn, understood. She permitted him his side trip.
His father was gone. He had died the way people were supposed to die, in his bed and with the comfort of loved ones and medical care — not gunned down in the street or starving in the wake of society’s collapse. Mother, though, still lived in a safezone, where the economic and social Reclamation had taken hold. Ellen was doing work similar to Blake’s down in Florida.
He stepped through the ransacked, skeletonized remains of the house. Once again, he found himself holding back tears. But the feeling passed as he went to his old room, seeing the smashed up bits left behind. He was standing right where his father had on that day, when he’d said those words that had changed everything forever. Blake knew how lucky they all were to have gotten out. He even understood, with an absolute adult certainty, that he hadn’t needed to take anything else. His family and Dr. Grubbers — he still kept the stuffed monkey in his quarters back at the base — were all that had mattered.
Eric Del Carlo‘s fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Talebones and many other publications, and is upcoming at Asimov’s. He has written several novels with Robert Asprin, like NO Quarter (DarkStar Books), and some on his own, such as Nightbodies (Ravenous Romance).