by Lillian Csernica on May 24, 2018
Today’s fortune says:
Demonstrate refinement in everything you do.
THE STANDARD OF LIVING
Deanna watched the fire, adding some sticks to keep the flames at the right height. The grill Johnny had found in some trash heap held four skewers with five small chunks of meat on each skewer. Deanna didn’t know what kind of meat. She told herself it was animal protein, and that was what mattered. It could have been worse. Even with the city burning and the streetlights smashed and the blood smeared on the sidewalks and the doorways. Somewhere Johnny had found some meat. It might have been tofu.
Deanna could make herself put up with a lot of discomforts. She’d braided her long brown hair to keep it tidy. Her jeans and blouse were still fairly clean. She’d have given up her gold chain for a toothbrush and some toothpaste. Eating junk food and drinking sodas or energy drinks or anything else they could find, that she could live with. She drew the line at tofu.
Johnny came jogging back from his latest hunt for supplies. Deanna let out a sigh of relief. It had been quieter today, but still. The sight of his greasy blue overalls, curly black hair and long legs made her feel a little calmer. This morning they’d moved to the sheltered spot on the side of the high school facing away from the road. It was better to keep out of sight, hiding in a place where they could hear the scavenger crews coming. Two nights ago Deanna had seen a boy swept up in the mob rushing down the street. She didn’t want to think about what might have happened to him.
“I found some good stuff in a basement.” Johnny plopped down beside her on the flattened cardboard box they used for ground cover. He rummaged in his backpack. Glass clinked. With a big grin, he held up two bottles of some off-brand beer. “Nothing like a barbecue under the stars!”
Deanna managed a smile. She loved Johnny for his upbeat spirit, for his endless cocky remarks reflecting a confidence she didn’t feel. Four nights ago the world had gone insane. The power grid failed. Computers all failed due to some big horrible virus sent out by some mysterious gang of international hackers. All the news outlets had been shut down. No phones, no TVs, nothing but hysteria and violence and whispered rumors about who was behind it all.
Deanna pulled a clean bandana out of her backpack and set two skewers on it, offering them to John. She pulled out another bandana for herself, then two of the paper napkins.
Johnny pulled the heavy keyring out of his hip pocket and pried the cap off one bottle of beer and handed it to her. “It’s warm, but hey, that’s how they drink it in England, right?”
Deanna nodded. She accepted the beer, watched Johnny open his own, then held up her bottle.
“To better days.”
Johnny grinned. “Better days, baby. You bet.”
They clinked bottles. Johnny drank a long swallow of his beer, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Deanna ducked her head to hide the wince she couldn’t stop. A diamond in the rough, she told herself. He worked hard at the auto shop, he’d always been polite, and he made sure Deanna felt safe and comfortable. She’d just have to do what her grandmother taught her and be the one who preserved the manners in the family.
Grandma Elaine set a perfect table, gave the best presents, and made sure Deanna knew all the proper phrases for formal occasions. “Congratulations.” “I’m so sorry for your loss.” “Happy Birthday! Wishing you your best year yet.” On and on, handwritten thank you notes, party invitations, and the list of Christmas cards. Deanna’s mother had abandoned writing by hand in junior high in favor of electronic devices. Mama had laughed at Grandma’s slow, old-fashioned ways.
Tears blurred Deanna’s sight, smearing the flames into so many orange flickers. Nobody was laughing now. Deanna had been out with Johnny when the house caught fire. Mama and Grandma were already asleep. Deanna hoped the smoke killed them before the fire did.
“Hey,” Johnny said. “Hey, honey, why are you cryin’?”
Deanna sat up straight and wiped her cheeks with her napkin. “The smoke, Johnny. That’s all. Just smoke in my eyes.”
Johnny looked up at the sky. “Yeah, the wind’s picking up. Rain would sure help, but we gotta find a place inside first.”
Deanna nodded. She bit into a chunk of the meat, ignoring the peculiar taste. Protein meant strength. Strength meant survival. Survival meant living to see those better days, living in a house again with nice furniture and fresh flowers and guest towels in the downstairs bathroom. Concentrating on all the proper details Grandma would expect to see in Deanna’s new house made it easier to force down the strange meat and the bitter warm beer.
She’d survive. Grandma would consider that a lady’s duty, to preserve civilized behavior.