Autumn hurried around the dirty little apartment she and her family called home. It wasn’t that she didn’t try to keep it clean; it was that the air quality in Wayside was so awful. Everything was dingy and sooty from the constant fires burning to incinerate the plague victims’ bodies. After the Exiles had moved to Wayside, the modern conveniences of the new millennium had begun to wear out and break. Most of the new infrastructure of the buildings in the settlement was made in part out of old computers, broken down appliances, and old metal from buildings that had been taken down and reassembled when scavenged.
Autumn knew if she didn’t have dinner on the table when her husband got home, she was in for a beating. Regardless of how meager the offerings were, she tried to make mealtime as pleasant as she could for her children, Rae and Colton. Rae was thirteen and she had been a small child when the plague hit. Colton was only five, and hadn’t known the world before everything changed. Autumn set the table with the mismatched glass plates she had managed to find along the journey to Wayside, then added silverware and the chipped mugs they drank out of. She thought back to those nights as a child when she was so put out by having to sit down to dinner with her family. Now she tried anything to give some semblance of humanity to their utilitarian existence.
“Rae, Colton, wash up for dinner!” she called into the other room. She heard the scramble as her children ran to the sink in the corner. They were fortunate to be in a settlement like Wayside because there was still running water, safe for them to drink and wash in. The kitchen consisted of an antique icebox, a propane gas stove, and a sideboard. There were no more Kitchen Aid appliances, no more microwaves, no more true modern conveniences; they had all quit working eventually. The only things still functioning had been made in the 1950s or earlier.
Autumn turned the burner on the gas stove down to keep the soup warm. She then sliced the brown bread she had made earlier in the day. Glancing warily over her shoulder at the clock on the wall behind her, she hurried at her task.
Exactly two minutes later she was putting the bread on a plate on the table, as the thin door to the apartment opened with a bang. Ansel always made an entrance, expecting to catch Autumn doing something wrong. Autumn braced herself at the side of the table as Ansel came up behind her and grabbed her roughly around the middle. She repeated over and over in her head, ‘He’s a good protector, he’s a good protector.’
Autumn hated the way he groped her in front of the kids. Only Colton was his. Rae’s father had died when the plague hit initially, along with the rest of her family. She had been working her way West, fighting to keep her and her daughter safe, when one night a drover had hit on her, and began making insinuations regarding sex with her and Rae. Ansel had stood up to the burly man and kept her from the drover’s advances. It wasn’t long before he expected something in return for his protection. Within a matter of months, Autumn found out she was pregnant. There was no real law anymore, but they decided to claim they were married to deter any attention sent her way. It had worked out, but then after the baby arrived, Ansel had become aggressive, claiming lack of sleep from a crying baby made him irritable. Autumn knew better, as the baby did very little crying and if he did, she was up with him.
“How was your day, Ansel? Did you do well?” Autumn asked.
“It was an okay day,” he answered brusquely, letting his arms drop from her waist, and plopping into his chair.
Ansel did not have a job, per se. He was part of the Home Guard, but spent most of his day gambling at the bar at the Town Center. He usually ended up losing what little money they had, making it necessary for Autumn to scrape and scratch to get food on the table.
“Oh, really,” she said, hoping that okay meant good, not bad.
“I made a bit, not to worry, I always provide for you and the shits,” he said with narrowed eyes. “I don’t suppose you did anything worthwhile today.”
Autumn bit her tongue, not willing to make the mistake of regaling him with her day’s chores that included laundry, making bread, delivering the cleaned laundry to those that paid her to do theirs, teaching the kids for a couple hours to keep them sharp, and trying to keep some of the grit and grime off the apartment furnishings. Oh, and make him dinner.
“Just the usual, Ansel,” she said, pulling her chair out and pointing the kids to their stools.
They ate dinner in silence, both Rae and Colton knew better than to talk at the table. Autumn dished up enough food for each of them and made sure to put a slice of bread on each of their plates before Ansel started. He did not care if anyone else was hungry; he lived by the rule ‘daddy gets the biggest piece of chicken’. Autumn carefully ate her stew, and mopped up all the dregs on her plate. Ansel was a pig, letting crumbs and dribbles fall down his chin. Autumn didn’t know when she started hating everything about him, from the goatee and sideburns he sported to the greasy black hair hanging long and limp around his face. She hated that he was so vulgar, that he was such a slob, that his hands shook whenever he used them.
She took a deep breath, then said to the children, “When you’re done, please go in the other room and read for a bit.”
Both of the kids nodded their heads silently. Autumn stood and cleared her plate and cup, placing them in the wash basin. She took her time cleaning out the soup pot, and then her and the children’s dishes when they brought them to her. Whenever Ansel was home, Autumn’s nerves were on edge. Her spine was taut with anticipation of his next touch.
Autumn jumped as Ansel cocked his pistol. The sound was unmistakable. Autumn’s shoulders tensed, rolling forward protectively. All her movement stopped. A low chuckle sounded through the room.
“I never get tired of that,” he drawled. A smaller clink informed her that he had uncocked his weapon.
Autumn could not relax her shoulders though. She knew when he was in this kind of cruel humor that the night would only get worse.
“Hey, kids, will you go check on Mrs. Cooper down the hall? She was feeling a bit lonely when I saw her earlier today,” Autumn called out to her children.
“Yes, ma’am,” was the only reply she got from Rae. They knew when their mother asked something of them, there was no room for discussion.
“Now what if I was feeling lonely?” Ansel asked. Autumn heard his chair creak and cursed herself for her involuntary wince.
“I’m here, Ans. You don’t need the kids when you have me,” Autumn answered with false cheeriness.