Red Wheelbarrow

I wrote a short fiction piece inspired by a Lightning and the Lightning-bug prompt a little while back and the characters and their story never left me. I wanted to expand on it, share more of them, so I decided to make it an ongoing thing--a blog novel, I guess you could say. And since I can't think of a title yet, I'm going with the first title I gave it: Red Wheelbarrow.

On this page, you can read all the installments, or "chapters" (though they're not the length of chapters you'd find in a book), in order, and I will add the new ones to this as I write them. That way, there's no searching through my posts.



So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed in rainwater beside the white chickens. Everything does, since water’s worth more than gold these days. But Mama told me it wasn't always like that, that water used to flow at the flip of a switch.

Two inches of rain rest within the wheelbarrow's walls, and Hank takes the first handful to his mouth, his fingers trembling with excitement and fatigue. Hank’s always first, since he’s the smallest. 

Rose rolls her eyes as she stands back, but I know she understands. He’s weak, even weaker than yesterday. 

We haven’t seen rain in too many months, and my mouth is dry. Sometimes it bleeds, but Mama’s is worse.

She stands back and watches the three of us, and her tongue grazes over her cracked lips. But she’ll let us drink first, let us wet our dry tongues and fill our bellies, and I tell myself to save her some when my turn comes.

Hank is laughing now, and water dribbles down his dirty chin, leaving tracks. We can’t help our laughter, too, even Rose. Even the three chickens cluck.

And I imagine what they would taste like, though Mama refuses to kill them because the chickens give us eggs.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t imagine.

We have to hide them when other stragglers come by. Most men, and even women, would kill for a live animal. Sometimes even a dead one.

After Rose gulps four handfuls, it’s my turn. I see rust flakes floating in the remains, but it doesn’t stop me, and after one handful, I back up so Mama can take her turn. My hands are still wet, so when she isn’t looking I’ll lick them.

But she scolds me with her eyes, narrow and fierce and loving. Charlene.

I ignore her at first, but her eyes continue to dig and her feet seem fastened to the ground. And as I bow my head and eagerly cup more, I know that even though everything depends on that red wheelbarrow glazed in rainwater for Hank, Rose, and I, it doesn’t for Mama.

For Mama everything depends on the life of her children. 

Actual post here.


The sun is heavy, and so are my eyelids. But I walk anyway, stumbling really, since my feet are heavy, too. My boots absorb the heat like an iron skillet, and I feel the dirt inside them turn moist between my toes. It's been three days since we left, three says since the strangers forced us from the only place we've ever called home. It was the first time I ever made eye contact with a gun, me and the double barrel in a stare down, and Mama went hysterical.

She fell to her knees in that moment I thought was the end, between me and the shotgun, and cried until the woman with ratty hair and crazy eyes shoved her aside. That was when they found our white chickens, and Mama says those white chickens saved my life. And because Mama wouldn't put up a fight, they let us go. Made us leave everything behind.

Just like that.

Mama might be too passive to put up a fight, but in that moment I was desperate. It was the only place Hank and Rose ever knew, and the only place with walls that I ever knew. It was small and lacking, but it was ours. And so were the chickens.

I grasped the barrel of the shotgun with both hands when the woman-beast was distracted, but she kicked me in the stomach, knocking the wind from me. I fell into Mama, and Mama's arms imprisoned me as I screamed at the beasts.

The rabid woman just laughed, as though I was a joke. In two years, maybe one, I wouldn't be. Maybe I'll even be stronger than Mama by then.

We carried nothing with us through the mountains, since the beasts took everything from us. Mama and I took turns carrying Hank, and sometimes my arms tingled until I felt nothing at all. Rose cried a lot, and so did Mama. She tried hiding it, but I know the sound well.

I'm better at hiding it. I don't sniffle like her, or blubber like Rose.

"We're almost there," Mama says, and I almost jump, even though her voice is soft. Hank was asleep at her shoulder, but now he stirs. It's the first any of us have spoken in hours. She's talked about the Sea of Yellow ever since I was little, about the place she and Grandpa fled to many years before, when all Hell broke loose on the civilized world--a world I know nothing about.

I manage to harrumph between breaths, my feet still trudging over rocky terrain. The sun burns my neck and my moist shirt clings to my ribs and back.

"We're almost there?" Hank groggily asks, and I imagine him rubbing his eyes in the way he sometimes does. But I don't turn to look. I'm ahead of them, still giving Mama the silent treatment.

"It'll take your breath away, Char," she says, trying to soften me up. Nothing has ever taken my breath away. I've read stories, Mama's old books, where women's breath gets taken away all the time, mostly by men. But it doesn't make sense.

The brush gets thick then, and as I shove it aside and make a way for Rose, it scratches at my forearms. I push through and my hair gets caught, but I ignore it. Rose grasps the back of my shirt in her fists, whimpering. Probably over the bugs. They were small and non-threatening, but they were everywhere.

Then I see it. A clearing ahead.

Is that...yellow?

I shove through faster, telling Rose to keep up, and once in the clear, I freeze. A meadow, hidden away. Just for us.

Mama's Sea of Yellow.

And something strange happens inside my chest. Almost like a thud, and my breath seems to catch deep in my throat. I understand now, about Mama's claim that it would take my breath away. And the feeling elates me in a way I never experienced.

I close my eyes, and before I can help it, I'm smiling. At the breeze against my face, at the feeling inside me, at the image inside my closed lids. I open them again, just to make sure it wasn't my imagination.

I feel Mama behind me now. She's sniffling again, and Hank is cheering. There's a cabin at the other end of the clearing, probably the very one Grandpa built, but that's not what catches my eye. It's the openness, the freedom, the new start.

The Sea of Yellow.

My eyes follow the dancing wings of a butterfly. It seems drawn to Rose, for it lands right at her feet. She giggles, extending her finger to it, and I shake my head, my mouth still turned in a smile. One minute the insects are her adversary and the next, her kindred spirit.

The flowers are everywhere, coming to my knees. As I remove my boots, Hank jumps from Mama's arms, and my eyes burn. And when I run my swollen, sweaty feet over the grass, I sigh. Refreshing, green blades between my toes, promising reprieve.

I fall to the ground and let them envelop me, and so do Mama, Rose, and Hank, and we all laugh.

We have nothing, except the cabin and each other.

And Mama's Sea of Yellow.

Actual post here.


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 the 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.

Actual post here.

CHAPTER 4 (Dialogue only, per the writing prompt instructions--between Charlene and new character, John)

You go any further and the tip of my blade emerging from your gut will be the last thing you see.



You said if I go any further. It’s farther.

You really wanna correct me with a knife to your back?

I just figured you’d want to know. You know, just so you don’t make a fool of yourself the next time you’re threatening someone’s life.

Son of a—

Be careful with that thing, sweetheart! If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you actually wanted to use it.

What makes you think you know better, Mr. English Professor?

Not an English professor. Just got an education is all. You know, from a real school. And I know better because your voice is trembling. You won’t do anything.

My voice is not trembling.

That was a little better.

Shut up. Don’t talk.

What, this isn’t going how you rehearsed?

I said Shut. Up.

Well, you did rehearse it, didn’t you, sweetheart? You sound too young to be a pro. That’s also probably why you think someone who's grammatically correct is some brilliant professor.



You laugh one more time and I’ll actually use this knife. And I never said brilliant. You’re pretty stupid if you think sitting here in the bare bushes like this is discreet.

Oh, discreet. Good. Sounds like you know a little.

I know a lot for someone like me, idiot. Back when things were still normal, before she had me, my mother was a school teacher. She’s taught me everything.

Not everything, I’d say.

Who the hell do you think you are?

Oh, look. She’s getting upset…

Why are you spying on us? Who sent you to look for us?

No one sent me. I’m alone. Just trying to find a safe place is all.

Liar. No one’s alone anymore.

I am.

You probably have some squad somewhere, waiting for your command.

I wouldn’t serve a minute for our piece-of-shit government. Not now. Do I look like I belong in the military?

I’ve seen them use disguises.

So, how old are you, sweetheart? Twelve, thirteen?


Shit! I said be careful with that thing. You even know how to use it?

I could have you gutted in a matter of seconds.

So why haven’t you?

Stop talking and let me think…

Well, if you’re all this camp has for protection I’d say I’m coming out on top.

You know nothing. You don’t know what we’ve been through, what I’ve seen. Or what I’m capable of.

Sweetheart, I’m sure it’s the same things any soul still living has seen.

Don’t call me that anymore. Keep your mouth shut, put up your hands, and walk.

If you’re so hardcore, why not just gut me from behind, right here?

Stop tempting me.

I mean it. Why not?

We might need you. If you know where this meadow is, others might, too. We’ll need to know who.

I already told you, I’m alone.

Then I guess I can kill you…

Whoa, whoa. No need for that. My guts happen to be very precious to me, so why don’t you just lower that knife and we can talk?

Oh, now you think I’m serious?

Your voice isn’t so shaky anymore.

Turn around.

Why, so you can gut me the right way?

So I can look into your eyes.

Romantic. But you’re nearly ten years younger than me, sweet—

So I can read you. I happen to be good at that. If you’re telling the truth, I might let you live. But no funny business.

Well, I’ll be. You’re kinda pretty for a little murderer.

What makes you think you can lower your hands? I said—

No funny business, I know. But really, sweetheart—you think you could take me?

Stop. Don’t come any closer.

Look at you. You’re just a little thing. What are you, maybe a buck-five? And you gotta be crazy, being out here by yourself like this.

I’m warning you…

John. Name’s John. And I’m the last person you need to worry about out here. Now give me the knife, sweetheart, and maybe we can make some arrangement.

Actual post here.