“See ya when I see ya! Have a nice afterlife!”
The nuns have Howie beat as much of the ash off of him as he can before he comes inside, and he gets a good lot of it off himself too, but he still looks like half a powdered wig under the light filtering in through the stained glass windows. Sister Etty gives him a bottle of water which he chugs and then immediately spits back out, soaking an open box of baby clothes in chalky gray gargle.
The Sisters stare at Howie without apathy. When he can breathe again he apologizes and takes a normal sip of water. It goes down without issue.
“And thank you for the water, too. I really needed it.”
The Sisters nod.
“So…” Howie begins, then takes another long sip. The water goes down smoothly, like a breath of cool spring air. “Neither of you would happen to know what actually happened last night, would you?”
The Sisters shake their heads no.
“Great… well, as I was sayin’. Nice to meet you, thanks for the water and all.” Howie gets up and starts towards the door, his footsteps punching loudly throughout the church. ‘Weird acoustics in here.’
“You can’t just leave, Howie, not just yet,” says Sister Etty’s voice as she runs up behind him. “We let you stay here until you woke up, we didn’t kick you out, we gave you water; you can’t just leave. You need to help first.”
“Help?” Howie says. Veins and clouds of worrisome color swim up to the surface of Sister Etty’s face, like her skin was just a film of algae over a stagnant pond. “With what, what’d’you… wait, what happens if I say no?”
The Sisters Three look feverishly back and forth at one another. “Howie, three nuns are asking you for help. Our church has a surplus of boxes full of supplies, as you can plainly see, and there’s ash in the streets. There’s no one out there–”
“You didn’t even look,” Howie says. “The parking lot was clean, there were no footprints. You never went out there to check if anyone was alive, you just busted out the supplies for yourselves. There could be children out there taking their last breathes right now, but you three need my help?” Howie barks a chortle. “This is hilarious, and I would know. I’m a comic, and this is just the kind of joke I’d write, too. I must be fuckin’ dreaming.”
“Howie…” Hoots looks at Sister Letty. “Look sweetie, I’m all about the positivity and joy, but… there’s nobody out there.”
The grave melodrama playing out across the faces of Sisters Betty and Etty seem to agree.
“Howie.” It’s Sister Betty this time, standing out in the open. “There’s nobody left, they’re all gone. Come on, help us move some boxes so we don’t have to join them.”
Though the church’s heavy wooden slabs are closed to the ruined world still it beckons to Howie, still it sings him its song, it all but sends him an invitation through the mail to come open the doors and step through.
“I just don’t see how you can be so sure we’re alone here. It’s just ash, it’s not like the air is poison. It’s just–”
“Fire.” Sister Betty’s voice is chillingly low. “The fires of Hell, the fires of Heaven. ‘Twas fires, Howie. ‘Twas the Lord’s righteous fires that scorched the Earth, and I think you know it. I think we all know it.”
The stillness inside the church is suffocating.
“Whatever it is, it’s done and over with. The world we knew is finished, Howie. It came to its end.” Sister Betty’s hand falls on Howie’s shoulder. “We can all agree on that much, can’t we? The end has come.”
The urge to slap Sister Betty’s hand away and call her sicker than a mange-riddled coyote comes and goes like a gust of wind. “Yeah, that’s… certainly how it seems.” He kicks the ground. A scuff of ash is left on the floor. “Look, ladies–… Sisters. I’ll give you the help you need, but I need to get home. I have some stuff I need to grab and… and a ‘man I need to look after. He might still be alive, we don’t know. I can’t know, not ‘til I see him.” Howie tightens his belt a loop without telling his hands to do so. “And I don’t want none of you try’n’a stop me either, y’hear?”
“We hear you, Howie,” Sister Etty assures him. “Loud and clear. We are appreciative of your help, we won’t hold you any longer than you let us.” She looks at her Sisters. They look back. “Since you have somewhere to be, why don’t we get right to it?”
“Sounds like a plan to me. What are we doing?”
Sister Etty explains the plan. In a flurry of habits so ashy their blacks and whites have blended into a solid gray, no less than six dozen boxes of supplies are emptied and collapsed, their contents sorted and stashed away in one of two classrooms over the next five hours. Howie has his squiggle of a jaybird clenched between his teeth more than half the time the boxes are moving through the air, garnering scowls and confused gawks from the Sisters Three, Etty especially. She, like the other two, will usually look away when Howie catches her staring at him, but after so many gazes she starts staring him down and she doesn’t stop until he puts the joint back in his pocket. If he was smoking it in the church that would be one thing, but he’s just holding it between his teeth so it doesn’t get crunched in his pocket, he doesn’t understand what her damage is. Whether the world’s ended or not, getting sticky pot flakes out of the pocket of a pair of jeans a few years too small for the wearer in the first place is just about the farthest thing from what Howie wants to be stuck doing when he gets home to Jhan, because he is going to get home to Jhan. This is exactly the kind of shit he has Jhan for, good ol’ Jhan… forget the nuns, Jhan’s alive. He must be alive, he’s strong. Whatever happened that burned all the trees and laid down all that ash… Jahn survived it. That’s just what it is, Jhan survived it. Jhan had to survive it. He wouldn’t leave Howie behind, just like Howie isn’t leaving these defenseless nuns behind to move all these boxes. Armageddon’s heavy work, there’s a lot of heavy lifting involved. Jahn wouldn’t leave Howie behind to do all that heavy lifting by himself. Never, he would never do that. Not on his father’s grave, no way.”
“What’s that, sweet one?”
Howie blinks and sees himself stuffing a camelback backpack halfway past capacity with soup cans. “Huh? What’s that?” he asks over his shoulder.
“You say somethin’, Howie?”
Howie blinks again, then sets the can he’s holding down into the backpack. “Did I? I don’t know.” He pauses for an answer but goes without. There are water bottles sticking out of an open box to his left, he grabs four and puts them into the backpack. Zips it up. Slings it on his shoulder. “Hey, how are we lookin’ Sisters?” Stands.
“We’re lookin’ good here, Hoots,” answers Sister Betty, her voice bubbling with jubilation. Sister Letty seconds it, followed by Sister Etty’s grunt of approval.
They’re all standing up on the second floor, six hands on the railing like a trio of fair maidens standing on a balcony of a castle’s tower. Three boxes still remain in the Prayerway, the rest are leaning flat against the back of the pulpit. Two of the classrooms are still full of boxes, more full than they were this morning in fact, and the two on the second floor have been converted into pseudo-dispensaries; Howie set up tables in both rooms and the supplies are all sorted – the clothing by size and body type, the drinks by contents, the food in two groups: soups and non-soups. The office was locked shortly after they started working, Howie’s not sure what’s going on in there. He saw a Sister or two go in and out a few times but they were crafty, he never caught a glimpse at what’s inside.
“Good, glad I could help.” Howie tightens the straps of his backpack. “And thanks again for the care package, I bet I’m going to need it.”
“Yes, you will,” Sister Etty says solemnly. The other Sisters nod in agreement.
“Howie, promise us something,” chimes Sister Letty.
“That you’ll come back here once you get home and take up what you need.” She looks to the other Sisters and they both nod, although Etty takes a moment to get there. “You’re a strong young man, and you have a good heart. We got a lot of work done today but there’s more to do, and… we can do it, but… oh Howie, it’s the Rapture, dear. We all got left behind, all four of us. We should be sticking together. Why do you need to go off on your own?”
“There’s a ‘man waiting for me,” Howie tells her with finality. “Back at our–… my apartment. His name is Yahn. There’s also Roscoe, but he’s always waitin’ for me… look Sisters, I’ll lay it out. I have a stash’a’pot waiting for me back home, had about a third of an ounce left last time I checked. You don’t seem too keen on the whole smoking thing, so…”
“We could make an exception, Howie,” Betty pleads. “The Lord brought us together in this stone church last night to save us, to keep us together so we can restart civilization and bring humanity back to its past heights! Your boyfriend is dead, Hoots, I’m sorry but it’s the truth. Isn’t he, Letty?”
“I think he probably is, Howie,” Sister Letty admits to the floor. “You must know that you’re probably going to arrive home to an empty house, or worse, a house with a corpse in it. A burnt corpse covered in ash like the dead of Pompeii… you must realize that such is a pretty likely possibility, right?”
“No, I musn’t. I don’t have to know or realize a single thing.” He thinks for a moment. “Besides, I can’t possibly know Yahn’s dead, not from here. And neither can any of you.”
“For Christ’s sake, Howie!” Sister Etty shouts, making everyone leap. “Stick your head out the door and listen for a few minutes, man! Do you hear anything? So much as an insect buzzing around looking for some blood to suck? Everything’s dead, every living soul burned. It’s all ashes now…” She falls to her knees and cups her arthritic hands over her leaky eyes. Sister Betty rushes to console her, but Sister Etty doesn’t seem to notice. “They’re ashes now… every last one of them, all ashes… all ashes…”
Sister Letty steps hastily towards Howie and turns him around, putting a hand on the small of his back to push him along with her.
“What are you doing?” he asks, his feet moving all by themselves.
“They need a moment,” Sister Letty tells him as she ushers him towards the door. “You said you needed to go, right?”
“Well, yeah, but–”
“All right, then I’m walking you out. Come on.”
They walk out the door. Sister Betty joins Sister Etty in weeping. The harsh white sunlight drops vague beams through the stained glass of the windows, painting the church in holy shades of despair.
Hello Commons, this has been the fourth subchapter of the first chapter of Flowers, a novel about a man who smokes the last of his pot.
Flowers is part of the Third Spiral, an anthology of sorts called The Here and Now which is comprised of stories told from the various planes of Existence.
Flowers is available to read for free in its entirety on my website. Click here to check it out.
I’ve written a few other books, too. Click here to see the list.
If you like Flowers and would like to help support my work, click here and buy an autographed copy of the book (or anything else!) from my store. Alternatively, you can snag a cheaper (and unsigned) copy from Amazon by clicking here.
Be well Commons~