Rosa spied Mason marching downhill, the formerly pregnant swell of his beer belly dwindled to a saggy bump. Morning light glinted along the barrel of the shotgun in his hands. She tapped her fingers against the windowsill and calculated the days since electricity failed: twenty-three. The chill of autumn crept into her very bones as the house creaked and sang to itself. As far as she knew, beyond their hill the human race had ceased to be.
Now Mason was coming to her, gun in hand. No attempts to hide, no subterfuge. Rosa’s lip curled in disgust, even as fear fluttered in her chest. Such a lack of respect. He assumed he could waltz on in here, bully an old woman, and take what he could—probably all her food and the gas from her car. She turned from the window, her weight heavy on her cane. In the chair, Spritz lifted his narrow Siamese head, his front paws kneading the fur-coated seat.
Rosa sucked in a breath. Mason hated cats. Threatened to shoot hers more than once. Shot at everything else that wandered the woods, too, and claimed it all tasted fine with ketchup. And now he was undoubtedly hungry.
“Move it, niño.” She shoved Spritz from the chair. The cat squawked, scampering for the back cat door. Where were the others? Lily ate from the cat dish still mounded with dry food. Rosa tapped the cat’s hind paws and herded her toward the flap. Through the back window, she could see the two cats dash across the dry grass to the trees. She couldn’t spot the others, but imagined they were out in the woods at this time of morning.
That hick brute of a man wasn’t going to hurt her babies, or her. Her gnarled fingers clutched the knob of the cane. Who was she trying to fool? She could barely walk, much less fight. If Tomas were here… She hurried back towards the front of the house, her hip creaking almost as loudly as the wooden floor. Pausing, she evened out the rug underfoot, then continued.
Her hip, her cursed hip. It had shattered when she fell off the Bank of America building back in ’83. Rosa thought it had healed just fine, even as Tomas scolded her to slow down, take it easy. By the time she qualified for a senior discount, a painful limp had replaced the skirt-swinging sashay that commanded the full attention of a room.
If this apocalypse had happened two years ago, Tomas would have gone up the hill, taken care of Mason from the start. Mason had always been the neighbor from hell: threatening the cats, roaring by in his truck in the wee hours of the morning, stacking rusted car carcasses in his yard in place of bushes or trees. Now she had to deal with him on her own turf. God help her. His thick boots shuddered through the old wooden porch, his thick brows and bloodshot eyes glaring through the front glass.
“Old woman, I see you in there.” His words drawled like molasses poured from a jar. “Just open on up now.” He waved the gun barrel in front of his face, as if she had somehow missed it.
She forced her spine straighter and hobbled for the door. Might as well open it, as the thing would probably shatter in a single kick. Tomas always intended to replace that. He intended a lot of things that never came about in that blur of chemo and endless appointments.
“Mister Mason.” The lock undid with a loud click. “How are you?”
Mason worked something between his teeth and cheek. Rosa concealed her disgust behind a naïve smile. Life had required her to be an excellent actress, but her skills failed her today. Her trembling fingernails tapped against the door handle.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“Well, of course I am willing to share—”
Mason shoved open the door, almost striking a small side table loaded with picture frames. “I’m not here to share.” He pushed past her and rounded the corner to the kitchen.
Well, he was going to be disappointed. “I saw you drive by a few days ago. What did you find out in town?” Not much, judging by the empty bed of his truck that evening when he returned.
He flung open a cabinet. “They had roadblocks set up outside. A few places burned. Carson’s Corner Store was empty, and not much left in the Blue Circle Grocery, either. Word is that it was nuclear, in a dozen cities at once. Maybe more.” He dropped a half-empty box of Ritz crackers on the counter. A few cans of tuna thunked alongside it. “No one knows when things will be up and running again. It’s every man for himself.”
His sneer told Rosa where she fell in that equation. “I feared as much,” she said, her tone quiet. Nuclear. All the nightmares of her childhood come true.
Drawers opened with goose-like squawks. “Damn it, woman. Don’t you have anything good? Half the cabinets are filled with cat food. I seen you do those big trips to the club warehouses down in the valley. Where’s it all at?”
“It’s been three weeks.” Rosa met his glare. “But I assure you, I have plenty of toilet paper.”
“I don’t need your lip.” He stabbed a grimy finger in her face. The blackened, jagged edge of a nail waved in the air like a flag. “Where’s your food? You’re still all fat and sassy. You got something.”
His chest collided with her shoulder, bending her over the corner of the kitchen counter. His Clydesdale feet echoed heavily on the living room floor. “What’s all this junk?”
“My life.” Rosa’s teeth ground together as he yanked a handful of books off the shelf. He tipped others, peering behind the stacks. Photographs swayed on the wall, as if she had taped crackers behind the frames.
“What were you, some kind of dancer?” Mason motioned to a picture of her as a mock Carmen Miranda. That head full of fruit had caused a week-long migraine.
“That was my day job, yes.” And my night job involved hunting down useless punks like you, she thought. Her tongue wedged against the back of her teeth to force her to silence. Thirty years ago, he never would have made it off her porch. His lips would have kissed the knotholes.
Her hip griped as she edged forward. Deep in her chest, her heart twitched at the sight of his filthy fingers on Tomas’s favorite philosophy tracts, his CDs, at how he tossed the family Bible on the floor; even if it hadn’t been read in twenty years, it came from Mama, and that made it priceless.
He didn’t look twice at the masks hanging on the wall, the ornate red satin with sequin roses; Tomas’s blue mask hung right above. Foolish, she knew. The youthful her would have been appalled at the lack of discretion. But after Tomas died, their old secret identities didn’t matter anymore. No one remembered La Rosa and El Toro, how they trolled the streets of Los Angeles through the ’70s and ’80s, a dam against the rising tide of gang violence.
L.A. had probably been nuked. She blinked back tears. Detective Johnson and his wife, the old commissioner, Duke, Rodriguez—all their old friends who still met for golf every Wednesday morning. Dead.
Rosa couldn’t keep up as Mason fumbled through the bedroom. Photo boxes were dragged from under the bed and left half-dumped on the floor. Then the bathroom. He gasped in glee. Of course. An entire shelf was lined with pain pills, old expired ones from Tomas as well as her current prescription. She heard the trashcan upend, the shivering of the plastic liner bag, the rattle of the pills dumped inside. He came out with the bag swaying, his teeth a brown grimace of triumph.
“I need my pills,” Rosa said, keeping her voice mild. Stupid, stupid. She’d become so complacent, so normal, that she left everything in the medicine cabinet. She could picture the slow shake of Tomas’s head and the tsk-tsk of his teeth.
“You don’t need nothin’.” The bag made rhythmic sways as he opened up the empty guest bedroom. He spat at the empty closet and left the dresser drawers in a heap on the floor. He never relinquished hold of the shotgun with his hand, or of the bag of druggy delight. She pursed her lips. That would slow him down. The man was like a raccoon. Once he had hold of silver, he refused to let go.
“I do need my heart medicine. Take the codeine, but leave the other pills for me, please.” She couldn’t contain the plaintive wail in her voice.
Mason motioned the barrel towards her. “You know what? You don’t need any of this at all. This house? Nothing. I bet you still have gas in that old Cadillac of yours, too.”
She had suspected as much, but hearing the words made her heart tighten in a knot. “But winter’s coming soon, and—”
“This house will be perfect for me. It won’t get nearly as cold as up on the hill, and none of that ice, either. When people do come to the rescue, this place is right off the main road. Not easy to miss at all.”
There wouldn’t be any rescue, and not simply because Mason would loot and kill anyone who came near. No one cared about some remote unincorporated section of the county, not when millions were dead across the country. The world. Besides, left to his own devices, Mason would overdose on those pills within weeks. Maybe days.
“You’re planning to kill me, then.” Her voice trembled. What could she do? Tomas was gone. She was a decrepit old woman with a bad hip and an aching body. Maybe this was mercy.
“I do what I got to do.” Mason’s boots thudded across the living room, and he paused as he faced the shelf again.
“Huh.” He reached for a small statuette on the shelf. It was an artifact of the 1970s, an ugly-as-sin big-headed little boy holding up a Valentine. Tomas had bought it, back in the day. “My grandmama used to have one of these.”
“Everyone had them.” Her voice shook.
“You got grandkids?”
She sucked in a small breath. He had recognized her as human. “Yes, five,” Rosa said. Not by biological children, but the babies of the street children they’d supported over the years. Please, God, let them be alive. To survive those harsh years of neglect, then triumph with college and families and jobs, only for a bomb to go off and… She blinked back tears.
Mason cast her a sidelong glance. “Your old man’s dead now, right?” His voice had lost its triumphant bluster, but his grip tightened on the gun.
Tomas’s picture glared at her, one eyebrow arched. Ah, Tomas. He could still set her straight. Despair evaporated in her mind. No. She refused to give up on life. She couldn’t.
“My Tomas died six months ago.” She nodded to his framed photograph as she clutched the solidness of her cane. Maybe she could make this work. Maybe Tomas could still play her partner. “If you have to do this, then please, do it out at the edge of my back lawn. My Tomas is buried out there. Let me be near him.”
Actually, Tomas was buried twenty miles away, just out of town, but the memorial along the edge of the woods could pass as a grave.
Mason remained quiet, his brow furrowed beneath his cap. “I can do that. Make less of a mess. I need this place. I don’t got any more food, and I’m not going to share. I’m going to live.”
“I understand.” She did. It was one thing to point a gun, and another to use it. Mason was a bully, but no murderer. Not until today.
I am still La Rosa, she told herself, breathing through her fear.
She needed little prompting to go outside. He even helped her down the steps a little, one hand on her arm. She resisted the urge to strike him then, standing so close his tobacco breath seemed to stain the air. Rosa knew that with her back and hip as they were, she could never haul his body the fifty feet across the yard. The thought of that stinking corpse on her back steps—with her sweet kitties bringing morsels inside—made her gag. No, she needed to bide her time, just as in the old days. As Tomas would say, wait till moonlight reflects in their eyes.
The morning was brisk and blue-skied, complete with birds twittering in the trees. Rosa suspected the radiation wouldn’t come their way for a while, or much of it. Not by the usual wind patterns. A white blur bounded through the leafless shrubs. Camille. Hopefully the rest of the cats had the sense to stay hidden.
“Where’s this grave?” Mason asked. He used the barrel of his shotgun to adjust the angle of his ball cap.
“Just down the slope a little.”
He grunted. His young, long legs passed her by. Rosa hobbled after him. Mason slowed as the grass ended. She quickened her pace, tears streaming down her cheeks as her hip clacked and fought against her.
Mason stopped, facing the woods. “Okay, old woman—”
The solid wood of her cane smacked across his face, twisting his body around. His cheek seemed to deflate, several teeth airborne. The next blow landed in his kidney, the knob of her cane so deep it threatened to impale him. Rosa’s breath huffed and gasped, pain dizzying as she relied on the full pressure on her bum leg to keep her erect.
“My name is not ‘old woman.’ My name is Rosa Garcia.” She smacked the opposite cheek. His jaw made an audible crack, like a breaking branch. “But you can call me La Rosa.” The knob caught the scraggly cliff of his chin and jerked his head up and back. That pop was his spine. Mason’s eyes rolled to white as he slumped to his knees and flopped over.
Rosa almost followed him down, gasping. The foot of her cane caught the ground just in time and she leaned heavily into the 40-degree angle. Killing. Today she became a killer, but not a murderer. Not like Mason. Back in the day, they had only killed three thugs, but Tomas had done all of the dirty work. Most of the criminals were left neatly hog-tied for the police. But this man, he needed killing. She smothered a sob against her trembling wrist.
“Oh, Tomas. Why did you have to leave me alone in a world like this?” she whispered. She had to kill Mason. She had to. Once he killed her, it wouldn’t stop. Anyone on the road would become his victim.
Slowly, ever so slowly, she stooped to pick up the pump-action shotgun. With her short stature, she never favored long-barreled weaponry. She didn’t fancy guns much at all, not after seeing what they did close-up. Rosa squinted. No release on the magazine. She held down the slide release until the chamber was empty, and then reloaded with a single shell. Mason hadn’t been bluffing. That should have made her feel better. It didn’t.
She set her cane against the nearest tree. With her toe, she dragged the bag of medicine from under Mason’s arm and threw it behind her. The man still breathed, his neck crooked at an impossible angle.
“I could leave you here like this,” Rosa said. “But I do believe in mercy.” Out of habit, she motioned the four points of the cross and then raised the shotgun.
The blast sent birds fluttering from the trees. Rosa’s ragged breath filled the vacancy of sound. She felt the urge to throw the weapon aside, but knew better. She might need it again.
She waddled back up the slope, shotgun, cane, and bag in her grasp. Pausing at the steps, she leaned against the railing. Round cat eyes stared from the rhododendrons. Her hip groaned, the fire burning deep in her pelvis. She needed food, then maybe she could stomach her pain medication. Then she could spend the afternoon burying the man.
Spritz had returned to his chair sometime during the drama outside. His head tilted against his stretched-out inky paws. Rosa shook her head in disgust. She set the shotgun in the nook by her chair, pausing to smooth the white doily on the back. The base of her cane lifted up the floor rug and revealed the hatch to the basement.
Her footsteps on the stairs were slow and pained as she took in her bunker of supplies. Hundreds of cans for cat or human alike, cases of cereal and granola, drums of water, everything they might need. This, Tomas had worked on, even hairless, his skin blanched like a grub. Because they saw the way of the world and how the gangs worsened, how world governments turned. They came here to retire, to get away. To be safe.
“I would have shared this with you, Mason.” Her voice echoed against the ceiling. “I would have. I’m not going to live long enough to use all this.” Her medications wouldn’t last forever. But today, right now, she was alive. She fought back. She killed a man, and that act would not be in vain. The sun still rose each morning. Birds still tweeted. Her cats still shed tumbleweeds of fur around her feet. She was alive. She would keep fighting, even by herself.
Tears traced hot streaks down her cheeks. Rosa tucked a box of shredded wheat under her armpit and hobbled back up the steps to where milky morning light cast the floor in gray and black stripes.
La Rosa Still in Bloom originally appeared in Crossed Genres #32 (Sidekicks). It is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Beth Cato’s debut steampunk novel THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER will be released by HarperCollins Voyager in September 2014. Her short stories can be found in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Nature. Her website is http://www.bethcato.com.
Many thanks to Catherine Smith for narrating this month’s story!