"November Short Story Contest - A Bitter Harvest" Winner



November Image Prompt.jpeg

Sue woke to sound of her dog barking; she turned on her bedside lamp and glanced at the clock; it was nearly time for the asteroid explosion. She slipped on her flip-flops and went to her daughter’s room to wake her to see the event, only to find the bed empty. She didn’t panic, but peered out the bedroom window to see why the dog was barking because it was her daughter’s constant companion. Out across the field, she spied Linda standing on top of the windrow, silhouetted against the night sky, with the dog on the ground, unable to climb up to join her.

After George had been killed by a drunk driver, Sue had used some of the settlement money to move away from the congested city that held so many painful memories. The twenty-acre tract was relatively cheap because it was covered by trees, and the only access was by a narrow dirt road. Loggers had harvested the timber on half the land, and bulldozers had pushed the stumps into a ten-foot high windrow along the edge of the field. She had purchased a manufactured home, and filled the little house with pictures of George because she worried that Linda wouldn’t remember her father; she had just learned to walk at the time of his death.

The little girl helped her cultivate the organic produce and sell the vegetables at local farmers’ markets. The business only generated a modest income, but they lived a frugal lifestyle, and she had some income from investing the remainder of the money. There was something very satisfying about growing most of their own food; she canned as much as she could, and stocked a freezer with more vegetables.

Sue clung to Linda as her only physical link to her deceased husband, and their constant companionship had produced a very close mother-daughter relationship. Now Sue faced the decision whether to homeschool Linda, or to send her on the long bus ride to the public school. She considered the wisdom of her past decisions as she walked across the field to the windrow. Had she denied her daughter the chance to play with other children, and to learn from museums and performances? But the news about the approaching asteroid had set off riots around the world, so she was glad that they were away from the urban madness.

“Honey,” Sue said. “What’re you doing out here by yourself?”

“Looking at the sky, Mommy. Is it time for the big light?”

“In just a few more minutes,” she answered as she climbed up the mound.

The girl pointed at a bright point in the sky. “Is that the asteroid?”

Sue took a moment to orient herself and recall her astrological knowledge. “No, that’s the planet Venus. Sometimes it’s so bright that people call it the ‘morning star’ because you can still see it even when the dawn light blots out the stars. Don’t worry about the asteroid. They’re going to blow it up with atomic bombs; we’ll be safe.” Silently she added, “I hope.”

Sinking down on top of a stump, she pulled the little girl into her lap.  She struggled to remember the names of constellations to point out to her daughter: Orion’s Belt, Pisces, the Big and Little Dippers. Without the glare of city lights, the celestial objects shone clearly in the sky.

They sat quietly contemplating the vastness of the heavens, when the bright light blossomed in the sky. They watched in awe as it temporarily eclipsed the moon in brightness, and then slowly faded away.

Linda pointed out a ‘falling star.’ More lights streaked across the sky as the pieces of the asteroid started to fall through the atmosphere. Linda danced in a circle as she tried to count the meteors. Then she stopped and pointed out another bright light in the sky.

“What’s that?” the little girl asked.

Sue wasn’t sure; it was much brighter than the other points of light, even Venus. As they watched, it seemed to grow in size. Sue tightened her grip around her offspring as she slowly realized what it must be. They had said that the explosion would break the asteroid into smaller pieces that would burn up in the atmosphere, but they hadn’t said anything about the possibility of bigger pieces. Maybe they hadn’t wanted to cause more panic and unrest.

She said nothing as she watched it grow brighter and bigger. There was nothing she could do; they couldn’t run from a rock falling out of the sky. Slowly she noticed a slight shift in its position against the field of stars; she relaxed her grip around her daughter with the realization that it wasn’t coming right at them.

The apparent movement of the object accelerated until it streaked across the dark sky from left to right. A bright tail trailed behind it, and it created enough light to cast shadows on the ground. Sue stared at it, mesmerized by the approaching disaster, yet praying it would pass them by to strike somewhere else.

Suddenly it exploded in a blinding light; too late, they turned their heads and threw up their hands to cover their eyes. Sue blinked in the aftermath as orange orbs danced in her vision. She knew what would follow from the innumerable hours of media coverage about the approaching asteroid. Jumping up, she blindly stumbled down the slope, dragging her daughter by the hand while the frightened dog howled and ran towards the safety of his doghouse. Her vision slowly returned so she could see again by the time they reached the ground.

The blast wave knocked them down. The sound was too loud to be heard; they felt the sound as pressure on their skin. Sue covered her baby girl with her own body as small pieces of debris rained down. She looked up just in time to see the house disintegrate in the wind that carried off the walls and roof. Her pickup truck rolled over and over like a toy kicked across the ground by a petulant child. Luckily, the mass of dirt and stumps in the windrow provided some shelter from the blast, or else their bodies would have been blown away like the house and vehicle.

There was total silence. Her body felt like a cattle stampede had run over her. She felt wetness on her face, and her hand came away covered with blood when she touched the side of her head. Her baby girl laid unmoving on the ground with blood oozing out her ears, but there were no other visible signs of injury. Fearing the worst, she stretched out her fingers to feel her daughter’s neck. It would be a bitter harvest to lose her baby girl on top of losing her husband. She couldn’t bear the thought, but she felt a faint pulse, which gave her hope.

She realized that her daughter needed help or she would die. Sue tried to stand, but her legs were too weak, so she crawled on her hands and knees towards the wreck of her truck.

Her little farm had been transformed into an alien landscape. The blast had blown the trees down on the ground, all pointing in the same direction as if a giant had stomped them flat. Tree limbs littered the ground, and she stuck her hand in a gooey mess. She pulled back her hand in horror after realizing it was the remains of an animal; she wondered if it was their dog. When she reached a tree branch too large to crawl over, she used it to pull herself upright and scrambled over it. She found a stout stick for support, and used it to hobble along to the wreck of her truck lying on its top.

She cut her hand on broken glass when she reached through the window to find her backpack. Normally she would have freaked out over the cut, and rushed to the Emergency Room for stitches; now it was just a minor inconvenience. Blood dripped down her fingers as she used her stick to stir the pile of belongings inside the cab, hook the strap of her backpack, and drag it out of the twisted metal.

Slinging the backpack over one shoulder, she applied direct pressure on the cut with her other hand as she stumbled back to her daughter. She collapsed beside the unmoving form, and simply stared at her baby girl until she saw her chest rise. Then she dug around inside her first aid kit for a roll of gauze to bandage her cut, and used the same roll of gauze to sponge some of the blood off her daughter’s face. The little girl’s skin felt cold and clammy, so she pulled a sweatshirt out of the bag to drape over her body.

Her baby was in shock; they needed warmth. Sue crawled around a ten-foot circle, tossing the debris into the middle. She found a piece of paper in her backpack—a flyer for the market scheduled today—and touched it with her lighter. The tiny flame slowly consumed the paper as she added pencil-sized twigs to the fire. She fed larger sticks to the hungry flame as it slowly built into a raging bonfire. She had to drag her daughter away from the fire as the heat increased, but she still continued to toss wood on the fire. It was all she could do to feel like she was accomplishing something.

The bright light from above blinded her, and the strong downward wind blew the flames in all directions. She threw her body on top of her daughter to shield her from the dust and debris flying around. Then the light moved away, and she passed out on the ground beside her girl.

Someone shook her shoulder, and gently pulled her away from her daughter. Two men in khaki jumpsuits lifted her baby girl into a stretcher, while the other man held her head and shined a flashlight in her eyes. His mouth moved but she heard nothing. He helped her to her feet, and supported her as they followed the stretcher to the helicopter.

She woke up on a narrow gurney, surrounded on all four sides by light green curtains. The gurney and curtains reminded her of the morgue scenes in crime movies. With a great effort, she tried to get up to find her baby girl. The IV stent ripped out of her arm as she staggered to her feet; nurses in green scrubs rushed through the curtains to restrain her and ease her back onto the gurney. She fought their efforts until she saw the man in the khaki jumpsuit who had helped her.

He pulled a pen from his chest pocket, wrote on his palm, and held his hand before her eyes: “She’s OK.” As Sue relaxed, he leaned over her and said with exaggerated mouth movements, “She just has a concussion. We came when we saw your fire, and getting her to the hospital quickly probably saved her life.”

Sue finally relaxed and let them install a new IV stent. A concussion would have been a major worry a few hours ago; now it was a major relief. Mere things could be replaced; her daughter was all that mattered.