Your assignment: You must begin your story with the words “We had to leave immediately” and end it with “And then we realized we were already home.”
The middle part is up to you.
This is the third installment of the Red Wheelbarrow. For the first two "chapters," visit the Red Wheelbarrow page at the top. Comments and critique are welcome!
We had to leave immediately. I was five then, and Mama was pregnant with Rose. I didn’t want to go, even though the place smelled bad. I was used to the smell, used to playmates and packed cots.
Now, years later, I realize the scent that permeated our “home” was burnt flesh. And body odor, too. And I’m ill from the thought that the smell had once been comfortable to me.
There were too many of us crammed inside, hiding from the soldiers. Most were sick or injured.
But then we got word that the virus was there, the one that had started on the East Coast, and Mama wouldn’t stay another night. She took me away in the night, when the only thing lighting our escape was the full moon and the smoke-lit sky to the east. Where a place called Denver used to be.
We hid from the soldiers for days, squeezing into small, tight places, until we found a dirt road—one Mama said was in the middle of nowhere. She said she wanted me and the unborn baby as far away from civilization as possible. Or at least what remained of it.
I didn’t understand then. I was only aware of my fear and Mama’s hand, and the fact that I hadn’t seen Daddy since the day the soldiers ripped him from Mama’s arms one month before.
Mama had cried for days when he’d left, and so had I, even though I hadn’t understood that he was gone forever.
And now all I have of him is the sound of his jaunty laugh when he’d spin me until I was dizzy. I had liked feeling dizzy then, but after he’d left, and when Mama and I were on the run, it made me homesick. For the man I hardly remember. And sometimes even for that old warehouse we and so many others called home my first five years of life.
Mama and I traveled for days. She had to stop a lot to rest, sometimes to throw up. And sometimes nothing would come out and she would gag until I felt sick, too. She said it was the baby, and I hated the baby.
But then Mama had her, and I didn’t know how to hate something so tiny. I loved her then, especially because Mama let me name her. I named her Rose, because to this day, I’ve still never seen one. Mama used to talk about them all the time, about their beauty and their perfume smell.
A few days after Mama had Rose, she bundled her up in her jacket and we continued to travel. I whined a lot, but Mama told me there was nowhere safe.
Then we saw the abandoned house. It was the only one we’d seen without broken windows and doors. The only one that hadn’t been ransacked. The mountains on the evening we found it were majestic, and not so far from the house. And in that moment, I imagined I was a normal little girl, with a normal house in a normal world.
The cupboards weren’t bare, and there were some clothes and supplies. There were even chickens and farming equipment outback, a shiny red wheelbarrow catching my eye. And it wasn’t until our second day there that Mama found the body. The man was white and covered in wrinkles, and Mama said he’d died from old age. She buried him out back, behind the chicken coup, and I helped cover him in dirt.
And she shed tears. When I asked her why she was crying, she said it was because she wished I knew the value of a life, wished that seeing a dead body wasn’t something so normal for me. And again, I didn’t understand.
For the first few weeks at the house, I missed the company and stability of the warehouse. And so did Mama, I think, because she cried a lot, almost every time Rose did. When I asked her if she thought they were all still alive, she cried harder. And that told me she thought not.
Then eventually tears turned into smiles, and smiles into laughter. I wasn’t so homesick for Daddy anymore, or even the warehouse. We were happy, and Mama even swung me around until I was dizzy.
And then we realized we were already home.