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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Dreamscapes

A Natural Selection
Anne Greenwood


"Be quiet."
"What now?" Matt griped. They’d barely moved at all in the last hour. All he wanted to do was go down and watch Sponge Bob. He was bored and irritable. Now his foot was asleep.
"That! Did you hear that?"
"I don't hear anything, Maribel."

She put her palm out to silence him. Her mousy hair lay thin and lank, breaking at her shoulders, sticking to her forehead. Beads of perspiration dotted her upper lip. slowly turned his face toward the small window in the attic where they were hiding.

The otherwise square edges of the window were softened, not by curtains, but by long-forgotten cobwebs and a thick layer of matted dust, moist with humidity. Beyond the window, the sky was the red-green color of mixed watercolor paints. Not a good color for a sky. Especially at three in the afternoon.

The noise came again, and this time Matt heard it--a muffled hissing sound, like a bee hive in a sleeping bag.
White light flashed brilliantly across the sky, taking a momentary snap shot of the yard in front of the dilapidated farm house. The wide, flat lawn spread out across a quarter acre, ending at a sharp line where the grass ended and the cornfields began, the rows of green leafy stalks already standing nearly knee high. In the center of the yard stood a solitary oak tree.

In that flash of light, Maribel caught a quick glimpse of the garden hose, snaking a line across the grass far beneath them. She had forgotten to wind it up. She cringed and absentmindedly rubbed the angry purple circles around her wrists.

Their mother had been in her usual form today. She'd started drinking at ten. By noon she was taking swings at Maribel with a broken-off broom handle. By two, Maribel had chewed her way out of the bailing-twine wrist restraints and had herded her brother from under his bed and up into the attic. Your basic Tuesday. Maribel never knew what it was going to be that would set her off. Today it was because the hotdog buns had gone moldy. Tomorrow it would be that garden hose.

Matt had started counting with the lightning: "One Mississippi, two Mississippi, . . . ." He got to seven, and the thunder that followed sounded like a cannon ball had dropped onto the house. A fine layer of gray dust sifted from the rafters onto their heads. "Let’s get out of here."

Maribel gently cupped his cheek with her hand. "It’s too soon." She removed her hand and brushed her index finger across her own cheek. It was already swelling below her eye.
"Does that hurt much?" he asked, his eyes drifting from her eye to the three fading stripes on either side of her slender neck. His breath was a mixture of Doritos and sour milk.
"Not much," she lied. A smile twitched at her lips, but it did not touch her eyes.
Matt winced as he watched her press gently at the purplish skin, and he nodded silently. He looked back to the window, wondering how long she’d make them stay put.

The attic was just a crawl space, too shallow for an adult to walk around in it, and the cardboard boxes that were stored there had been simply shoved in by someone standing on the ladder below. Matt and Maribel had carved out this small hideout years ago from the boxes of mildewed magazines and their father's abandoned clothes. They never worried that someone might discover their occasional presence. No one ever looked for them in the attic, even when someone was looking.

When they were younger, they could move around quite well in the space they had cleared. Maribel was now thirteen, and Matt was ten. These days there was just barely room for the two of them to sit cross-legged, facing each other in front of the small window.
They sat in silence, mesmerized by the sounds that swirled around the house. The bee hive had now graduated to what sounded like rice in a dryer.
"Is that supposed to be rain?" asked Matt.
"Sounds more like a rattlesnake, doesn’t it," said Maribel.

Matt jerked his head around to look behind him, his imagination in overdrive. Maribel chuckled, and he scowled at her.
The lightning flashed again, and Matt began to count for the thunder. "Five Mississippi." They both ducked and covered their heads with their hands when the thunder sounded, shaking the attic like a maraca. "Five miles! Can’t we go down now? Please?"
Maribel looked at her brother’s face. His blue eyes, still childishly clear and innocent, were wide, and he looked even paler than usual in the flash of the lightning. His red hair was now plastered to his forehead.

She bit her bottom lip, wondering if they’d waited long enough. Maybe the noise of the storm had delayed the inevitable–maybe their mother, down below, was still awake. It wouldn't be safe until she'd passed out.
"Just be quiet," Maribel acquiesced, shifting in her position and angling her arm so she could unlatch the trap door in the floor and lower the ladder. "Let me go first."
Matt nodded. She always went first.

Maribel lowered the ladder, little by little, until it just touched the linoleum in the hall. She gave Matt a warning glance. "If I yell, pull the ladder up fast and latch it tight. If I signal to you, you follow." He nodded gravely.
Maribel descended the ladder. Her white cotton sun dress clung to her, molding itself to her damp body, the pink of her lower back showing through the thin fabric. The musky smell of new adolescence wafting as she moved. When she reached the bottom, she threw her brother one warning glance. He nodded. He watched as she tiptoed down the hall, following the familiar, sweet smell of bourbon to the bedroom at the far end. A floor board creaked, and she froze like a spider that had been spotted on the wall.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Yes," she hissed.
He pinched his lips together and waited. She took a few more steps, and then she slowly turned the door knob to their mother's room, pressing the door open just a crack. Matt held his breath. Maribel turned to signal to him. He came more quickly than she had, reaching the bottom in just a few seconds.
"She’s out?" he asked.
"Completely," she whispered.

In the bedroom, a small, sunken woman was unconscious, sprawled on top of the blankets, dressed in a black, Chinese-silk kimono over pajamas, even though it was the middle of the day. Her arms were flung wide, and one leg dangled off the edge of the bed closest to the door. Her face was yellowed, except for the purplish pools in the basins that were her eye sockets. She looked too old to be their mother. A bottle, nearly empty but retaining a small bit of amber-colored fluid, was lying on the floor, half hidden by a fallen pillow. A bottle of pills stood on the night stand nearby.
"Holy crap, look at that," said Matt, pointing at the windows, and he pushed the door open to get a better look. The sky, which had been so dark just moments ago, now looked like pea soup. It seemed as if the house were under water.
Maribel's voice was wooden. "Tornado."

The children turned slowly toward their mother on the bed. She never stirred. They were equally still, but Maribel’s thoughts were racing. They needed to get low, down to the cellar, away from windows. A siren sounded in the distance, low and forlorn.
"We gotta get out of here!" said Maribel.
"What about her?" Matt jerked his chin in the direction of the bed. "How we gonna get her down all those stairs? We can't leave her here."
Maribel’s mind was working quickly. Matt could see that, and he let it work its course. Maribel would know what to do; she always knew what to do. That was the one thing he could always count on.

Only a few seconds passed before Maribel’s eyebrows pulled together, and the corner of her mouth pulled up in resolve. "C’mon!" she said, and she went to the opposite side of the bed. She gathered up the corners of the down comforter and handed one to Matt. "You take the bottom two corners, I’ll take the top two, the head’ll be the heavier end." They fashioned a stretcher out of the blanket and slowly lowered their mother to the floor.
"Ah, jeez," groaned Matt, struggling with the weight.
"That was the hard part," whispered Maribel.

They readjusted their grips and, with some effort, slid the sedated woman silently across the floor to the top of the stairs where they reassessed their plan. Matt looked over the railing and down the stairwell. He looked doubtfully at Maribel, as if were being asked to repel down a cliff.
"Wouldn’t it be easier just to wake her up?"
"No!" shouted Maribel, and then she looked down to see if she had been too loud. No, their mother never moved.

Maribel wondered if maybe she were dead but, as if on cue, the would-be corpse snored softly. Maribel’s lip curled up in disgust. "Waking her up won’t make things easier." She took a deep breath and let it out evenly. "We’ll go slow. Let me know if you need to set her down."

Matt rolled his eyes in response. He might be ten, but he had enough adrenaline pumping right now for the both of them. He hoisted the makeshift stretcher just enough to keep his mother's feet from banging against the steps. Maribel was walking backwards down the stairs and trying her best to concentrate on her footing.

The bees and rattlesnakes were now a freight train. This was the sound they had been taught to expect. Matt’s eyes widened. "It’s coming right at us, isn’t it?"

Maribel’s experience with tornados wasn’t any more expert than Matt’s. What she knew was what she’d seen in the movies, watched on the evening news, and drilled at school. Whether they were in the direct path of the tornado, she had no way of knowing.
She could only hope.

Somewhere between the bedroom and the bottom of the staircase an idea had taken root. A solution so horrible, so poetic, she didn't dare speak it. Maribel hesitated just a moment and then placed her hand on the brass knob to the front door; she threw her brother a pleading look.
Matt's mouth popped open in shock, but as comprehension dawned on him, his teeth snapped together. "Why'd we even bother bringing her down?" he asked weakly.
"Hedging my bets," she whispered.
Tears flooded his eyes. This was his mother. As hellish as she may have made his world, he was tethered to her. And still too young to sever that line. Maribel, however, was not.

In a strangely protective gesture, Matt flipped the edge of the thick blanket up and over his mother's body, tucking it beneath her. He gave a small, grim nod of allegiance to Maribel. Whatever it was that he felt for his mother, it was not enough. His trust lay with Maribel.
She opened the door.

When the seal was breached, the knob ripped from Maribel's hand, and the door flew open, scraping at the porch, pulling the air out of the house. There was no rain now. The telephone lines crackled overhead. Sulphuric. Maribel's hair stood out from her face at a forty-five degree angle.

Out in the yard, the air sucked at their eyes. It gripped them, pulled them, compelled their bodies forward, step after step, despite any last-minute hesitation they may have felt. Matt gasped, and Maribel turned to see what held him captive. A twisting black coil of dirt and debris was slicing through the neighbor’s cornfield on a direct path toward their house. Mangled strips of metal siding were flying in all directions as the tornado tore through a pole barn.

"This is it! Just a little bit further!" Maribel’s voice was wild with hysteria, and she stumbled backwards the last few feet, finally reaching the spot, just below the oak tree. They laid their mother out, still shrouded in her comforter. She turned onto her side, but still made no sound. Matt and Maribel stared down at the form, took one long look at each other, and then tore back to the house, bolting the door behind them.

They raced for the basement, their bare feet stampeding against the concrete stairs. Matt's head was spinning and lights flashed in his eyes. Maribel's palms banged frantically against the sheet rock as she ran down the stairs, straining her muscles to keep herself upright. Reaching the bottom, Maribel pulled an old, pee-stained mattress away from the wall and gestured for Matt to take cover. She did the same, and they cowered behind it, pressing their spines against the cinder block and their noses against the mattress–the smell of ammonia emanating from the batting.

Maribel's heart slammed out a steady rhythm against her sternum, pushing her pulse to the brink in the welt below her eye. She didn’t know where her fear was coming from. There were too many possibilities. But the time for thinking was far behind her: up the stairs, out the door, and under the oak tree.
Matt’s breath came rough and ragged near her ear. "She’s going to get us." Thick, bitter tears saturated his cheeks, and mucous ran from his nose down into the gaping corners of his mouth.
"She’s not, she’s not, she’s not." Maribel whispered it like a mantra, over and over.

They ducked their heads and curved their spines away from the wall, curling like caterpillars in the triangle of space made by the mattress, the floor, and the wall. Maribel circled her arms around Matt, and they clung together until they were just one person.

The framing of the floors above them snapped like bones, and a high keening rioted in their ears. The mattress peeled away and was flung upward, spinning and spiraling into an abyss that was once their home.

For one fantastic second, they levitated an inch above the floor, then felt their hands go flat against the dank concrete once again. Matt looked up and gasped in wonder–the air burning his throat like dry ice. What an odd sensation, thought Maribel. To look up toward the heavens and instead see hell! Matt turned back toward her, whimpering into her chest.

But Maribel did not cry out. She felt the hairbrush-up-her-arms tingle of a terrifying but wildly liberating moment. The most beautiful scene she could imagine was being played out against the vicious backdrop of the storm. An enormous black bat, its Chinese-silk wings flapping angrily behind it, was flying like a missile across the sky.
© Anne Greenwood October 2009

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