Pack Light in Case of Storm

by Christopher S. Bell

May 15, 2023

Marcy hadn’t been in Sheperton for eight years. What had once felt like a chore, leaving the rich glow of high ground, now had its charms. A night drive in the trunk of Shomo’s hatchback before the drop off. Peabody’s cabin for a day’s worth of canned goods with another girl who didn’t want to talk about her past. She was almost too young to remember what it was like, and Marcy never considered making friends.

They branched off after a morning on the trail, Marcy taking her dose a mile before the tunnel. Underneath the streets, every microscopic deposit cradled her, bright luminance letting arms swing and fingertips scribble patterns of false prophets and their junkie kin.

“Yo, who’s that shimmy?” The guard was a plump blur in his black trench coat. “Who ya here for?”

“The matador yells ‘Toro!’ so the bull knows who’s boss,” Marcy had memorized the line a day after getting her cousin’s postcard.

“Very well, child.” he opened the gate slowly. “Just know it’s almost impossible to leave without getting the horns.”

“Who said anything about leaving?” she walked past his slick exterior and up a small ravine then calmly into the empty streets. It would’ve been a nice evening to stroll with a lover and watch the fireflies, but she’d already taken advantage of that moment. What remained was far less bright; cracked slits of gravel cutting the earth into bite-sized portions as structures leaned with little tolerance for their neighbors.

As she progressed down the main drag, dim glimmers slowly evolved into phosphorescent stupors only occasionally covered by passing shadows. Marcy considered docking, uncertain of a correct direction. They wouldn’t notice her shouting up to the satellites in a scratchy voice. That is unless she cemented it, made that “right now” her triumphant return; a moment for those desperate to know just how little she’s been doing. “Is this the Sheperton I’m looking for?” captioned and filtered with blue eyes glancing to the side, a dirty finger on her bottom lip.

“More like: is this the Sheperton where you belong?” she sighed into the night.

Marcy could barely feel her feet when she finally reached the large cobblestone at the dead end of Brier Street. Stereo bass shook the windows as she knocked then rang the bell. Blanche swung the front door open with a fervor, a radiant epiphany in the green speckled evening gown. “Well, it would appear as if there’s still a place for family in what’s left of this world,” her voice had plummeted since their last encounter, an offshoot of age or unhealthy air.

“Blanche, you old curmudgeon,” Marcy sauntered through the doorway.

“Bitch, c’mere and get some of this shit,” Blanche wrapped two thin arms around Marcy’s neck, before kissing a patch on her forehead. “You taste like an epilogue to a book I’ve been meaning to read.”

“How do you think it all ends?” Marcy asked.

“With some bullshit life lesson that doesn’t amount to much for those unfortunately stuck in reality.”

“Thankfully that’s not us, right?”

“Not for as long as we can will this existence,” Blanche lifted one hand high, before leaning into the large oak door and locking it behind them.

“So where are the mister and missus?” Marcy wiggled out of her father’s boots, setting them below the radiator.

“The good Dr. Vermillion was one of the first to buy in on The Judy Plan.”

“What’s The Judy Plan?”

“I’ll tell you, but first, do you want anything to eat?”

Marcy accepted her cousin’s offer immediately; Blanche uncorking a bottle of wine in time with the expired Dorito bag. “Don’t worry, these will go down easier than you think,” her feet bopped in the kitchen.

“A lost relic from the clogged arteries of yesteryear.”

“Not as much comes in as you might think, and even then it’s hard to hold onto,” Blanche whirled past the fridge into the living room.

“At least you still got a good stash of red, right?” Marcy forced a smile.

“The cellar’s taken some hits this last year for sure,” Blanche rationalized. “But this, my love, is a special occasion.” She fell back on the brown leather sofa. “Some music maybe?”

Marcy agreed, starting on an opposite end before meeting in the middle on Meat Loaf. They laughed at boisterous rock commercially marinated in the juices of time. Then Blanche started in on The Vermillion’s. She was first hired as a surrogate but Jarvis couldn’t bring himself to plant the seed. This left Sylvia at quite the disadvantage, wanting to have a child before finally realizing the world was far too fucked for procreation.

By then, there was no point kicking Blanche out onto the street. After the fire bombs and severed fiber optics, somebody had to maintain the household. “So Doc’s making a go of it for a while, helping out until he’s just flip-flopping antibiotics, realizing it’s better to keep all the good pain meds for himself. That’s when Judy showed up.”

“Finally we’ve made it to Judy.” Marcy was already lightheaded under high ceilings.

“Yeah, nothing really special there,” Blanche smacked her lips together. “Just another mantra scam with big tits, but damn if they didn’t grab their best shit and follow her right out of town. Jarvis left in the middle of the night with less than he should’ve. When Sylvia woke up the next morning, she went off after him. I haven’t seen either of them since, and that was almost a year ago now, I think.”

“Time flies, right?”

“Sure does,” Blanche sighed. “I never thought my twenties would be like this.”

“But some variation of this, right?” Marcy crunched a chip, and quickly drowned the aftertaste.

“I actually got out of Sheperton for a while.”

“Oh, that’s right. What was it? That commune in Oregon?”

“Utah,” Blanche corrected her cousin. “And it wasn’t a commune, just a collective bunch of coconuts striving for a better world.”

“What a great job y’all did,” Marcy jabbed.

“I should be there right now. I only came back because I needed money, and then the whole surrogate thing happened and fell apart with everything else.”

“Do you honestly think you’d be better off with a bunch of people you barely knew to begin with?”

“I wouldn’t be as hungry as I am right now,” Blanche said.

“I always just thought that was part of being a woman,” Marcy observed. “You smoke a cigarette and forget about your stomach.”

“I guess…” Blanche looked away.

“Wait, are you holding out on me? You got a few loosey’s lying around?”

“Shit…” Blanche stood and gulped the rest of her glass.

“What do ya got?” Marcy perked up. “Joe’s? Jack’s? Maybe a Hauser crush?”

“Just rollies and probably only a few left.”

“Well let’s split one then.”

“I’ve got half of one shorted upstairs.”

“Well let’s split half of one, or half of half of one?”

“Yeah, alright,” Blanche grabbed the wine bottle, divvying its remains between their two glasses. She bounced her bare feet off the hardwood, each step resonating from the second floor to the attic. Holiday boxes reflected dim expectations on both sides of a clear path, Marcy following her cousin to a large wicker chair by the window. Blanche struggled with the loose board, before pulling out a red cigar box, hiding its contents from Marcy if only to instill a remaining flash of mystery.

Cracking the window, a breeze fluttered past her peace sign lighter before she got the end sparked. “Almost like new,” Blanche blew a soft side stream toward the night sky before passing.

Marcy savored her first drag, lungs far from fresh. “You honestly think you have to hide this shit up here when you’ve got the whole house to yourself?”

“Maybe I just like coming up here,” Blanche replied. “There’s something about all of these things still occupying space, and no one ever bothering with them again.”

“More junk that doesn’t matter,” Marcy said, dismissively.

“But it would’ve to them, ya know, under different circumstances.”

“Don’t you have a lot of this same crap back at your folks’ house?”

“Yeah, that’s all gone now,” Blanche replied.

“What about them?” Marcy was hoping she wouldn’t be first to broach the subject, but there it was without thought or subtlety.

“Yeah, they’re gone too.”

“I figured.”

“Yours?” Blanche asked.

“I know where mine are, but it’s best I don’t go back there any time soon.”

“Too many pieces to pick up off the floor.”

“Disassembled from scratch,” Marcy said.

“What?”

“Oh, it’s just this sticker I saw a bunch back home when things first started to get bad. It was this cartoon robot, sitting on a slab, taking himself apart.”

“And there’s some kind of profound significance in that?” Blanche suggested.

“Maybe more now than then,” Marcy savored the taste another instant. “You’re the first family I’ve seen for about a year, but not like that really means anything, because I’ve had just as many moments with complete strangers, and it all eventually comes back around again, but the thing with the robot is that he knows what’s he’s doing to himself, what each piece means to him overall, and he’s pulling it all apart anyway.”

“Maybe that’s so he can be better.”

“Or malfunction completely.”

Blanche stood and stretched her arms back. “It feels like it might be time to truly unwind.” She walked towards the attic stairs while her cousin took one last drag and followed.

In the living room, the needle sputtered across grooves in an endless scratchy loop before Blanche flipped the album. “So what’s the plan for the weeks ahead?” Marcy situated in the maroon leather recliner and slowly leaned back.

“Since when are you the type to make plans?” Blanche dripped red wine drops from the bottle to her mouth with little discretion.

“After college I became very regimented.”

“But before then you were just going with the flow, right?”

“I guess,” Marcy sensed a shift in the room, as if her lungs had only just begun to air out. “You’re not still mad at me, are you?”

“About what?” Blanche played coy.

“That thing with that boy last time I was here.”

“You mean Duane?”

“Was that his name?” Marcy honestly couldn’t remember.

“Yes, it was.”

“Right, well yeah, all we did was make-out. I mean, it really wasn’t a big deal. We were sixteen.”

“How is it that age so often becomes an excuse for mistakes? I’m not sure that’s going to work so much anymore, because kids are expected to grow up faster now, learn to fuck people over without hesitation.”

“You really are just kind of rambling, ya know that?” Marcy looked down at the ground.

“That’s another nice thing about right now. Everybody’s got a perfect excuse to say exactly what they mean or just let their crazy out, and nobody can judge or make them feel lesser for it.”

“Is that what you’ve most been looking forward to tonight?”

“No, I just think it’s nice to have somebody to talk to for once,” Blanche replied. “Somebody who I know is really going to listen.”

“I’m sure that’s somewhere in the definition of family, right?” Marcy observed.

“Probably.”

Changing the subject soon became a necessity, although no matter how often they circled back around that evening, the cousins couldn’t curb their distaste for what had made them who they were. Those few times they gained traction only to have it quickly fade into the scroll. They knew it was all still waiting, but at what cost? Nostalgia could become like any other addiction, a grinding itch underneath the surface in constant need of scratching.

Marcy awoke in the same recliner just as the sun shined through the cherry blossom drapes. Her insides dangled as she headed upstairs in search of the first empty bed. It was afternoon then, a morning of potential gone to waste. She riffled through the cabinets for sustenance, before chewing from room to room, searching for Blanche. Her cousin wasn’t hiding in the attic or basement; a void of scraps left in lieu of a formal letter. It would take a few days before Marcy finally left the house, but not Sheperton. There were rules in place to which she’d only been vaguely informed. Freedom from the feed wasn’t always necessarily free.

About Christopher S. Bell

Christopher S. Bell is a writer and musician. His work has recently appeared in Alluvian, Gambling the Aisle, and The Ocotillo Review. His latest novella, Contemporary Disregard, is out now. He currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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