Fiction: “September, After”

This is one of the first stories I wrote when I started writing seriously—one of the stories which got me into the Viable Paradise workshop in 2012, in fact.  I wrote it before I knew much about story structure.  I’d of course had Freytag’s Pyramid in school, and I tried to write this story in that form, but I knew once I finished it that I had missed.

Yet I thought the story still worked, I just couldn’t explain why.  I only realized much after learning about the kishōtenketsu form that I think I all but accidentally hit on it when writing this story.  Fortunately I think that structure fits the themes of the story very well, so I’m loath to try to ‘fix’ it.  See what you think.

Also I wanted to write a post-apocalypse which reflected my experience growing up in poor, rural places which had lost a lot of population from the farm crises and were a little post-apocalyptic already.  Somehow we didn’t descend into a Mad Max hell of guns and gas and hard men killing for canned goods past their sell-by.

“September, After”
by Kellan Sparver

It was about noontime on a Saturday that the mail wagon turned in to the driveway of David and Nathan’s place, a cloud of dust from the road rolling in behind it. The driver reined in the horses as it approached the house and jumped down once the wagon had fully stopped. David, who was digging potatoes in the garden to the south of the house, reached for his holster before he saw who it was — the revenants had mostly moved on, but you were never sure — then, recognizing the mail wagon, stuck his fork into the dirt, wiped his hands on a rag hanging on the handle of the wheelbarrow, and went to greet the driver.

She was a woman in her fifties, sturdy and weathered. She hailed him when he was halfway across the lawn. “Hello, David! How’ve you been?”

“Been good, thanks. Yourself?”

“No complaints. Got a package for you, today, if you’ll just sign right here.”

He scrawled his name hastily next to the X on the clipboard while she went around to the back of the wagon and started wrestling a box out from under the tarp.

“Here, let me give you a hand with that,” said David.

“Careful, it’s heavy” she said, handing the box to him. She held the storm door for him as he opened the inner door and brought the box inside.

David set the box on the card table in the mud room. In the dim light he could see the return address, confirming what he had suspected — it was the preserves they were expecting from Nathan’s parents.

He went back outside to see Phyllis climbing back up onto her wagon.

“Phyllis,” he said, “It’s about lunch time. Would you like to eat with us? Nate and I were just going to have something simple and cold, roast beef sandwiches probably, but if you’d like to stay you’d be welcome to.”

“Why yes, thank you,” she said, smiling, “I think I’d like that.”

David helped her unhitch and lead her horses to the water tank up by the gate to the pasture and then invited her in. The mud room was dim after the outside. “You can hang your coat here if you like.”

“I’ll keep it on, if it’s all the same to you. It’s chilly in here,” she said.

“Sure,” said David. The mud room was full of baskets of root vegetables, carrots and potatoes and onions and parsnips, waiting to go down to the root cellar. They both sat down on the bench in the mud room to take off their boots.

“Busy day so far?” he asked.

“Not really,” Phyllis said. “It’ll be a month or two before things start to get busy with the holidays.”

She grimaced, like a thought had just occurred to her.  “Actually,” she said, “I’m sorry to impose, do you mind if I leave my boots on? They’ve been some robberies up north a ways. Mail wagons, in broad daylight. Not so near here, but not so far either.”

David gave a low whistle. “Tell you what, you can borrow Nathan’s moccasins. He never uses them.” David set his boots by the wall but slipped on his own pair of rubber-soled mocs, then continued into the kitchen, which was bright despite the chill. “They have any idea who’s doing it?”

She followed him in. “Oh, they probably do, but if so they haven’t told me.”

“That’s bold, to hold up a mail wagon in broad daylight,” David said. “Here, have a seat.” He gestured to the long table covered in a vinyl tablecloth that occupied one wall of the kitchen. “Can I get you anything to drink?”

“Just a glass of water would be fine, thanks. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Oh, no, I’ll be fine,” David said, as he pulled down two glasses from the cupboard beside the sink. “Well, you can move the phone and charger to the buffet.” The solar charger occupied the puddle of clear fall sunshine on the table. David filled one of the glasses from the tap and brought it to Phyllis, then busied himself with pulling mustard, several jars of pickles, a pot of sauerkraut, and the beef roast from supper the night before out of the icebox. “Would you like cheese?”

“No, that’s fine,” said Phyllis. “Thank you though.”

He heard the front door open and then Nathan’s voice saying, “Hello the house!”

“Hello Nathan,” David called back. He pulled out one of the cutting boards from behind the dish-drying rack and transferred the roast onto it, then took a long carving knife from the knife block and set to work making thin slices, which he piled onto a plate.

“I see we have a package!” said Nathan from the mud room. His boots thumped on the floor, and he came to the kitchen door in stocking feet.

“And a Phyllis,” said David. “I invited her to stay for lunch.”

“Hello Phyllis,” said Nathan. “I wondered when I saw your wagon out front.”

“Hello Nathan,” said Phyllis, smiling.

“While you’re out there, hon, could you bring up another block of ice from the basement?” asked David.

“Sure thing,” said Nathan, and David heard him tromp down the basement stairs.

“Oh, and would you throw another log in the furnace too?” David shouted after him. A muffled sound of affirmation came up from the basement. David finished slicing the roast and put the remainder back into the refrigerator. He set the plate of sliced meat on the table, then took another cutting board down, opened the breadbox, and took out a loaf of bread. “I hope you like rye,” he said, “because I’m afraid it’s all we have right now.”

“Mmm, rye is fine,” said Phyllis. “You know, my grandmother made a wonderful rye bread. It always made the house smell heavenly when it was baking. Is it your own rye?”

David smiled. “It is — I made it a couple nights ago with the last flour from our first crop.”

“Did you mill it yourself?”

“No, I took it into town. Let somebody who has electricity do it. You know Mr. Oldenkamp is setting himself up a miller’s shop across from the elevator. I don’t know where he found the equipment, but I’m thankful he did.”

“Lot of good stuff going spare these days,” said Phyllis.

“Yeah, but it must be an antique! It’s not like he could just walk into some abandoned bakery and make off with it.”

David fetched some vegetables from the mud room and nearly collided with Nathan, carrying a large block of ice, bits of sawdust still clinging to it, as he returned to the kitchen. David stepped back and gestured for Nathan to go first, then followed him in and opened the icebox for Nathan. Nathan straightened up and David said, “Mmm, thank you, dear,” and leaned in and kissed him hello.

“You’re very welcome,” said Nathan, dusting the sawdust off his hands and onto David’s shirt.  (“Hey!”)  “What can I do to help?”

“Here,” said David, handing Nathan the plate of bread, “this can go, and then you can slice this onion once I rinse it.”

“Oh, sure, make me slice the onion,” said Nathan, smiling. “You just want to see me cry.”

David sighed and rolled his eyes and went to the sink to wash the root vegetables. “He wears contacts, onions don’t bother him,” he said to Phyllis by way of explanation.

“Contacts!” she said. “How do you have…?”

“I picked up a lifetime supply off my eye doctor’s office after he disappeared,” said Nathan, setting the plate of bread on the table. “They’re even the right prescription. Of course most of them are technically expired now, but I haven’t had any trouble, and they’re better than wearing glasses.” He returned to the sink, pulled out the cutting board David had sliced the meat on, washed it, and started slicing the onion.

Soon everything was laid out on the table. David sat, unclipping his holster and setting it at his right hand. The three ate in silence for a while except to pass things to each other. Then when everyone was beginning to feel a bit full the conversation opened up again.

“So how’s your family doing?” Nathan asked Phyllis. “Bob and the kids?”

“Oh, they’re doing well,” she said. “Emma, our youngest, just started fifth grade this year, she’s very excited for it. Sam, he’s next, he’s in seventh grade. He claims he’s in love with a boy in his class, I just don’t know. At that age, shouldn’t they be out playing baseball and hacking computers, not obsessing over each other like grownups in some TV show?”

Nathan and David looked at each other and smiled a little. “I think seventh grade was about when I had my first crush,” said Nathan. “Mine too,” agreed David.

Phyllis smiled. “I suppose.” She wiped her mouth with her napkin. “He’s a good kid. The other boy, I mean, Sam is too. They’re working together on some video game project. They spend a lot of time at friends’ houses, depending on who has electricity that night.”

“Man, I remember doing that,” David said. “Following the power. I don’t miss it. I’m happier off the grid.”

“We have a cell phone, dear, that’s not really off the grid,” Nathan reminded him.

“Yeah, but it’s a more tenuous connection. Nobody shuts the sun off because we’ve had our four hours of power for the day.”

“Sure, but then we have to pull out the gas generator in April when it’s raining for weeks on end. And the cell towers die occasionally.”

“The cell towers died before too.”

It had the rhythm of a well-rehearsed argument whose outcome neither participant was particularly invested in, each of them smiling at the other faintly as they went through its motions.

“And how’s your oldest? She’s in college now, right?” asked Nathan.

“Katie’s a junior in college. We get letters from her occasionally. She really wants to do something biomedical — they’re working on what makes the revenants tick. Oh, and she got engaged over the summer! He’s a nice boy, I think he’ll be good for her.”

“Enaged? Mmm, that’s nice,” said Nathan.

“You think it’s too early? I think so too. But, ah, they’ve been dating for two years now, and they’re madly in love. They’ll make it work, I have faith.”

“Careful, they may end up coming back to you guys. There aren’t as many places for college-educated folks in the world now as there used to be,” said David.

“I suppose so,” said Phyllis. “I don’t think that would be altogether a bad thing, though. Do you?”

“Nah. They could pick up a piece of fallow ground, start a farm, start a family.” David looked at Nathan, held his eyes. “It would be a good life. Simple, but…” They were both smiling, a shared secret.

“Mm-hmm.” Phyllis smiled at them, and their gazes parted, still smiling. “How about you guys? Got any, ah, plans for the farm?”

“Ah, you might say that. Nathan is…” David looked down, blushing. “Ah, Nathan is…”

Nathan took his hand. “We’re pregnant.”

Phyllis grinned. “Congratulations! I had hoped I would be seeing little ones running around here before long. If it’s not too personal a question, where’d you have it done?”

“We drove up to the city a couple weeks ago,” said Nathan. “Dr. Larsen in town said he could do it, but David wanted me to have it done somewhere a little bigger in case there were complications.”

“Somewhere that gets more than four hours of electricity,” David said. “Worth every penny.”

“Mostly because otherwise he’d have been a nervous wreck the whole time,” said Nathan, squeezing David’s hand.

“I wasn’t exactly in the best shape as it was,” said David. “Dr. Larsen will do the routine checkups, and then when it gets close we’ll go up and stay with my sister in the city for a few weeks so we can be there when the child is born.”

“If seven hours in the wagon doesn’t expedite the process,” said Nathan.

Just then there was a frightened neighing and a man’s voice, crying out in surprise or pain. David’s hand was on his gun before he could think. Phyllis, who could just see the water tank from where she was, was half-standing, having drawn her own pistol.

“Revenants?” David asked quietly.

“No,” said Phyllis, shaking her head. “Thieves.” Then: “Damn, they are after the wagon.”

Outside, there was indistinct shouting.

There were three of them, two men and a woman, riding quickly now out of the thick row of trees which separated the acreage from the fields, in front of the water tank, guns over their shoulders. David ran to the kitchen window and flung it open. One man was picking himself up off the ground and another had run up to catch the reins of the horse he had been hitching to the wagon and was trying to calm it. A woman stood by the front of the wagon waiting with her pistol trained on the house. They must have come up around the house from its blind side.

“Stop!” David shouted.

“Hold on, I’m coming out,” shouted Phyllis from the mud room. Behind him he heard Nathan talking on the cell phone. The riders on horseback trained their guns on the side of the house. The man who had calmed the horses started tying them in to the wagon, the man who had fallen moving to help him.

“All done, Ted,” hollered one of the men who’d been hitching the horses, before hopping into the driver’s box as his compatriot, already seated, reined the horses into motion. “Hiyup!”

“I’m opening the door now, don’t shoot!” Phyllis shouted. After a suitable pause, there was a creak as she suited action to words.

The driver turned the wagon in the yard and headed down the driveway. “Stop!” Phyllis cried after them. Then: “Ted Nack!” One of the men on horseback stiffened. David tracked the wagon with his gun through the kitchen windows, running to follow it, into the living room and out the front door, coming up behind Nathan on the front stoop, who was tracking the wagon with his hunting rifle. The storm door banged as Phyllis ran around the house to follow her wagon.

Just then a car turned off the road into the driveway and came tearing up it, stopping partway up to block the path. The doors opened and the four people in it fanned out. Mr. Gaupta and his family, who lived just down the road. Mr. Gaupta, who had been driving, was a big man and the only one armed, his shotgun out, now flanked by two older girls and a boy. “Where do you think you’re going?” Mr. Gaupta said.

“Out of the way!” hollered the driver, reining in the horses.

“I said, where do you think you’re going?” Mr. Gaupta asked again.

“I’ll run you over!” threatened the driver.

“Stand down, you’re outnumbered! You’d really run over those kids?” shouted Nathan.

The driver looked to the man Phyllis had called Ted. A beat, then two. Then three. “All right,” the man said. “Stand down.”

The driver stood up. Glaring at Ted. “What? ‘Stand down.’?”

“That’s right,” Ted shouted. “I said stand down!”

“After all the risk you put us through to get this far? Stand down?!” His voice rising nearly into a scream at the end.

“Yes, dammit, stand down!”

“No! No I won’t stand down!”

The driver snapped the reins, snapped again, urging the horses forward. “STOP!”—Phyllis, from the corner of the house. The horses were balking. The driver snapped the reins a third time. The family in front of the wagon scattered and the horses started to move, confused, the wagon swerving around the car. A shot rang out—Nathan, Nathan’s gun. The driver cried out and fell heavily into the box, clutching his chest, as his compatriot grabbed for the reins and pulled up on them.

The wagon slowed, and Phyllis came up to it shouting “WHOA! WHOA! Whoa,” calming the horses. The man jumped out of the driver’s box and pulled his companion’s body down.

“How is he?” Phyllis asked, her jaw tight.

The man had torn his companion’s vest and shirt away, was checked his pulse.

“Dead,” he said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “It was a clean shot.”

“Damn,” she said.

David came down from the front stoop, his gun in his hand but no longer pointed at anyone. “All right,” he said, addressing the thieves, “I want all of you off my property. You have five minutes to load up and be gone. Starting now.”

“Okay. Okay,” said Ted. “Phyllis, the wagon is yours. I’m sorry we troubled you.”

“What did you think you were doing, Ted? Your father wouldn’t be happy if he were alive to see this.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. You know times is tight all ’round.”

“Stealing a mail wagon in broad daylight? Times are tight, but they aren’t that tight.”

“Maybe not for you, ma’am. It’s great for you, living in town on the government payroll, but things ain’t so good out here. My brothers and I, we can’t scratch enough out of that used-up patch of earth our father left us to feed our families, let alone to sell and get ahead for next year. There’s a lot more to go round now, but food and labor still aren’t free.”

“Ted, you know I would give you the shirt off my back if you but asked. And I know there are lots of other people willing to support you through a rough patch. Hell, your father’s church would take up a collection for you. Why are you doing this?”

“For how long?” He laughed hollowly. “If the farm can’t feed us now, it never will, and we can’t live on charity forever. And we’d be wrong to ask. A man has to support hisself, ma’am.”

“A man is dead because of it,” said Phyllis sharply.

Ted ground his teeth together but said nothing.

The dead man was tied onto his horse, and the four remaining would-be thieves walked their horses down the driveway and onto the the main road, single file. Silence followed their departure.

“I had hoped it wouldn’t come to that,” said Nathan quietly to David. “I had the shot. And I didn’t want to aim any lower out of fear I would hit the children.”

“You did what you had to,” said David.

Mr. Gaupta came up to them. “Thank you for coming,” said Nathan. “Your timing could not have been better.”

“We were just headed into town when you called,” Mr. Gaupta said. “We came as fast as we could.”

“I’m… sorry for what happened. For putting you and your family in danger. I’m sorry your children had to see that.”

The boy was crying, and his sisters were comforting him, crying themselves.

“They’ll be okay,” said Mr. Gaupta quietly. “And you’re welcome. We know you would do the same for us.”

“We would,” said Nathan solemnly.

Phyllis came up to them. “I need be off,” she said. “I’m sorry. Thank you for lunch.”

“You’d be welcome to stay a bit if you like,” said David.

“No,” said Phyllis, “I still have my rounds to do.”

“Of course,” said David after a moment, smiling crookedly.

Phyllis returned his broken smile. “Thank you, Mr. Gaupta. Thank you all. And thank you, David, Nathan.”

The children smiled at her through their tears.

“You’re welcome,” said Nathan.

“Indeed,” said Mr. Gaupta.

“If you ever need anything, let me know,” Phyllis said.

“We will,” said David, answering for all of them.

She turned and walked to her wagon, climbed into the driver’s box, snapped the reins once and started down the driveway.

David turned to the Gauptas. “Would you like to come in for a bit? We were just finishing up lunch.”

It was the neighborly thing to do.

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Copyright © 2015 Kellan Sparver. All rights reserved. The cover image is “The Mail Coach,” by John Charles Maggs, a public-domain image from the Wikimedia Commons.