Little Red Wagon
by Richard Thomas
Rebecca hated her father for what he’d done, refusing to help him dig the grave, arms crossed, tears running down her face, the body under the tarp no longer Grandpa, no more secret conversations when they were alone, just the two of them now—her father the killer, her father and his constant worries, her father convinced that the old man had finally fallen sick. They’d been alone for a long time now, the three of them living off the land, the radio antenna built up tall in the back yard, stretching up into the sky. Nobody ever answered, but she sat in the kitchen, turning the knobs, trying to find a sign of life, anyway. The black box sat on the table, static and interference crackling from the device, the puddle of blood on the floor where her grandfather had fallen, the hammer that killed him still lying there like a sleeping snake. Sitting next to her, the thick, black lab nuzzled her hand, whimpering. Sadie was upset, she didn’t know what to do, and neither did Rebecca. She was a teenager now, but inside, she was still a child, a baby—and she felt helpless.
One percent, that’s what Grandpa had said—only one percent had survived. This had been several years ago, when one percent meant something. He’d tug on his long, gray beard and stare at the television set as the man on the news rattled on, updates so infrequent, most of the population dead and gone now. Around them, the world had simply disappeared—no cars driving by, no planes overhead, with the farm still functioning, but just barely. Their pantry was filled with canned goods—it had been easy to drive around their small town and fill up the bed of their pickup truck with more. In the beginning the stench had been unbearable, meat going bad, bodies lying everywhere, but over time the animals and elements picked at the bones, leaving little behind but broken, white skeletons. One percent had turned into another one percent, and that’s when it all went quiet, went dark. The second wave erupted, the mutation—airborne or dormant, nobody knew—and then no more frantic man on the television set, hair sticking out in all directions, shouting at the camera. No, there was nothing more after that.
Grandfather talked about keeping the race alive, that they had to find a female, a woman—that was why they had the radio going, why he’d built the tower, why they constantly scrolled up and down the dial, looking for any survivors. He was a handy man, Grandpa, able to build most anything out in the barn with his tools and charts—his years of engineering so helpful now that the world had moved on. A stack of books sat by his leather recliner—biomechanics, computer programming, artificial intelligence, and bionics.
“What’s your earliest memory?” Grandpa asked her.
“What do you mean?”
“Think back,” he said, easing into the recliner. “What do you remember, the very first thing you can think of?”
Rebecca sat on the couch, and pulled her long, brown hair behind her head and into a ponytail, something she did when she was concentrating.
“Anything?” he nudged, his hands together in a steeple, pressed to his lips.
“I remember a little red wagon,” Rebecca said, and he nodded. “And inside it are a bunch of puppies—little black bundles of fur. Was that here on the farm?” she asked.
Grandpa didn’t answer, merely raised his eyebrows and grinned.
“They’d been born on the farm and I was taking them down to the end of the driveway, there were six of them, and we were going to give them away. You told me I could keep the last one, but only the last one. That must have been Sadie.”
“What’s two times two, Rebecca?”
“What’s four times four?”
“12 times 12?”
Grandpa paused, looking at her, as Rebecca focused in on him, her eyes shifting, the pupils getting smaller, then larger, then smaller again.
“144 times 144?”
“Good girl,” he said.
Rebecca stood in the kitchen, watching her father dig the grave, out beyond the apple trees, the shovel piercing the dirt, over and over again. She loved her grandfather, and didn’t mind the private examinations. He said it was important, their little secret, and this is what her father had yelled at her about as he stood over her grandfather’s body—but he was wrong, so very wrong. After the world went silent, after they’d filled the pantry with canned goods and planted a new harvest, made sure the pigs still had their slop, the chickens clucking at their feed—all they had was each other. The well wouldn’t run dry, Grandpa assured them, they had water and food, and solar panels lining the roof, as well as the barn, the windmills spinning, always spinning, at the back of their twenty acres, down by the creek—Grandpa said he saw it coming, it was only a matter of time. He said a lot of things when she was lying on the cold metal table, out in the faded red barn.
In the beginning, she thought it was just part of her education. No school anymore, so Grandpa would toss out math questions, give her writing assignments, talk to her about history, and even human anatomy. It used to be exams at the kitchen table—stethoscope on her bony chest where breasts refused to grow—seemed she’d always been twelve years old. He’d look in her eyes and make noises, humming to himself, muttering okay and yes and just fine as he looked in her nose, checked out her sinuses, made her stick out her tongue.
He didn’t start taking her out to the barn until her incident with the fingers. She came to him as he sat in the recliner, a book in his lap. Father was nowhere to be found. And if Rebecca had probed her memories, she’d find that to be very accurate—at first. She was pale as a sheet, sweat running down her face, the fingers on her right hand bent back and sideways at strange angles—no blood, merely broken bones, bent fingers.
“Grandpa?” she said, “Grandpa, help me, help me…something’s wrong.
He leaped out of his seat, the book falling to the floor, Sadie sitting up, always the same weight, always black, her muzzle never getting gray, barking at the sudden movement and Rebecca’s panicked voice.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” he said, rushing to her, as she stared down at her mangled hand, holding it gingerly but feeling no pain, sick to her stomach, and yet, no blood gushed forth. He put his hands on her shoulders.
“It’s okay, I can fix it, I can splint it,” he said.
She felt his hands on her neck, her shoulders, pressing down, as if searching for something, and then she fainted.
When she woke up her right hand was in a cast.
“It’s okay, honey,” her grandfather said. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as you thought. A few fingers were merely jammed, two fractured, but I set them right. You should be okay. Any pain?” he asked.
Rebecca shook her head. There was no pain, none at all. She sat up on the cold metal table and looked around the barn. Sadie jumped up and placed her front paws on the steel table, licking Rebecca’s bare leg.
And then, her father was around more. Suddenly he was a dominant presence on the farm—always keeping an eye on her, chopping wood, feeding the chickens, no longer the ghost or rumor that he used to be. Used to be, she’d think. She searched her memory for her father—she saw him driving away in a beige sedan, a salesman she thought, the letters popping up in her head like a neon sign. Then she saw him with a briefcase, walking in the front door. She saw him place airline tickets on the kitchen table and pour himself a cup of coffee. Yes, she saw her father well.
After the accident, she would meet Grandpa in the barn on a monthly basis, but only when her father was out cutting the grass or running the thresher. Her grandfather said it was because he had to run tests, diagnostics he called them, make sure everything was working right, and that it was okay for a doctor, for him now, but not in front of her father—he wouldn’t understand. It always made her sleepy, lying on the table. He poked and prodded, mostly by her head, always studying her eyes, what he called optics, when he muttered to himself. He was gentle, always gentle, and by the time his hands were on her shoulders, her head, she’d fallen asleep.
The questions certainly didn’t make Rebecca’s father feel included, the way she and Grandpa would talk in the living room, math and science, complex equations and theorems, always going quiet when her father came into the room. They would laugh, and say that he had plenty of education already, go milk the cows, they’d chuckle, go toss some hay around, and they’d both make muscles, flex them, and her father would scowl, and leave the room. He never had a good sense of humor.
Her father was a quiet man, a big guy, strong and silent, a bit of a worker bee, she used to think to herself. Grandpa would say that he was so grateful her father was around more—now that he was getting old, and she could see it in his eyes, his hair and beard sprouting more white every day, the way his skin wrinkled, and the spots by his wrists. She worried about him. But it gave Rebecca comfort to see her father outside in the yard, splitting timber, lugging buckets of water or slop, bales of hay tossed around as if they were nothing, a downed tree cut and cut and split, only the trunk left, a chain attached, a tractor pulling it, and then his massive arms wrapping around the roots, pulling it out and lifting it up, as if it were made of paper.
All it took was one time, one instance of her walking out of the barn buttoning up her blouse, and her father’s scowl turned into rage. She heard them yelling, Grandpa assuring him it was science, there were no doctors now, he was the only mind they had, that he was just making sure Rebecca was healthy. Her father wasn’t very trusting—almost simple at times. She’d seen him cry over a dead rabbit that had been gutted by a fox, holding the creature in his lap, rocking back and forth, so distraught. It had upset Rebecca—not the dead rabbit, it was just nature after all, but him, he had upset her, his reaction. No emotion, never laughing, never joking, never singing or dancing when Grandpa put on some music, but this—crying over the rabbit. It made no sense to her.
So she stood in the kitchen, and watched her father bury the old man, Sadie licking her hand. She was suddenly tired, her batteries run down, and so she went to her bedroom, and lay down on the floral sheets, staring out the window at the setting sun, orange turning to red, so tired, so sad. Maybe Grandpa had been sick after all, one percent of one percent of one percent.
She closed her eyes and replayed the scene at the kitchen table, her Grandpa holding her hand, trying to explain something to her, what was out in the barn, frozen and kept for a reason. He spoke about her as if she were two entirely separate people—and he spoke of her father the same way. He talked about her mother, and when he said the word mother a jolt went through Rebecca, a wave of confusion crashing in her head—and where there should have been memories, nothing. He said he’d fix everything, in time. But he was getting old, he needed help, the work he’d done wouldn’t last forever—the radio signal must be stronger. He spoke of amplifiers and how they might have to travel, all the while holding her hand, and yet, all she could do was stare at him—mother. It didn’t add up, didn’t compute. Why had she never asked about her mother, why was there nothing to cling to, no memory? Her father had walked in and stood by the door, his face an eternal frown.
The day after her grandfather had talked to her in earnest, trying to explain that they were running out of time, she lay in bed, not wanting to get up, a candle burning on her desk, vanilla and sandalwood drifting to the ceiling. Images of her mother came rushing back to her—hanging laundry on a clothesline outside, her auburn tresses flowing in the wind, her mother with an apron full of eggs, coming from the chicken coop, her mother singing a lullaby as she poured water over Rebecca’s head in the bath, smiling as she did it.
“In time,” her grandfather had said, standing in the doorway. “Give me time. I’ll make it all whole again, I promise.”
But now he was gone. Rebecca felt weak and unable to rise. On the floor by her bed, Sadie slept, hardly moving at all. Rebecca could feel the great shadow of her father in the doorway—standing there, silent.
“Dad?” Rebecca asked, tears in her eyes. “Dad, come here.”
The big man lumbered over, Sadie not even raising her head.
“Tell me about my mother. I can hardly picture her. What happened, where did she go?”
He sighed and placed his hand over hers.
‘I don’t know, honey.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“I don’t remember.”
Rebecca stared at him, as she felt the energy draining out of her body.
“What do you remember?” she asked.
Her father sat there, arms heavy, his head hanging low, a soft whirring sound filling the air, his frame suddenly growing weak, the room dark and quiet.
“What’s the first thing you remember? Go back as far as you can, what’s your first memory?” Rebecca asked.
Her father stared at the floor, the gears turning, trying to think back, to remember, something from his childhood. He held her hand, no longer warm, cool to the touch.
“I remember a little red wagon,” he said, and she nodded. “And inside it are a bunch of puppies—little black bundles of fur.”
Rebecca closed her eyes, two tears slipping out, as her chest moved up and down, slowly, and then, not at all.
“They’d been born on the farm and I was taking them down to the end of the driveway, there were six of them, and we were going to give them away. Somebody told me I could keep the last one, but only the last one. Who was that?” he asked the room. But there was no response—it remained silent.
He held his daughter’s hand, now cold, the black lab at his feet not stirring, the house around him closing in, the silence deafening.
“What have I done?” he asked.
Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books—Disintegration and The Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections, Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (TBA); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine, One Buck Horror, and Jotspeak and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press) and the Bram Stoker-nominated Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.