I remember thinking that morning that maybe I just wasn’t meant to have children. David and I had been trying for almost a year, and even though the fertility tests kept coming back positive, pregnancy eluded us. We tried everything. Tracking my ovulation. We used a special pillow. We prayed. Heavenly Father eventually directed us back to my OB/GYN who recommended IUI, a procedure that would plant David’s seed directly in my garden.
That morning, I had just had my first procedure—an hour’s worth of poking and prodding and sharp pain somewhere deep inside me. Afterwards, as I lay there alone and bleeding on the exam table, I thought about whether it was all worth it. Then I felt bad as a not-yet-mother to be questioning the gift of having a child. I wanted one so badly. We wanted one.
I guess Heavenly Father was there with me in the room.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
Classes were already in full swing when I arrived at Little Feet Pre-school. Joanna had come in on her day off to cover my spot in the 24-to-36-month class. They were playing with finger-paints. All twelve of the little desks were covered in paper, a virginal white that was barely visible under the mishmash of reds and blues and greens. The children wore plastic white smocks that did little to keep the paint off their clothes. Most had streaks of yellow and green on their faces. The smell of the paint hit me hard when I entered the room, and I almost gagged.
Little Feet prided itself on the student-to-teacher ratio, but today, Joanna was only one of two teachers in the room along with Sheila, and she was having a hard time keeping track of her six charges. The little ones were tougher than the 4 and 5 year olds she usually worked with. When she saw me come in, the smile on her face broke for half a second.
“Look who it is, kids! Miss Amy is finally here.”
The finally would be lost on the children, but not to me. If I hadn’t known Joanna for most of my life, if I hadn’t sat next to her in church every Sunday, I would have thought she was trying to make me feel bad about being late. But Joanna wasn’t like that. She and the other teachers at Little Feet knew how much David and I were struggling, how the lack of a larger family was eating away at us. It would have been easy to feel hopeless, to fall into a deep depression if I hadn’t had my friends by my side. They were the ones who reminded me that everything was going to be okay.
I only took a few minutes to put my stuff down, and despite what felt like horrible cramping in my abdomen, I pulled on my apron and put a hand on Joanna’s shoulder to let her know she could go.
“How are you?” Her head dipped as she worked at the ties on her apron.
I waited for her to look up before I nodded back at her.
She gave me an understanding smile, the kind you give a stranger when you pass on the sidewalk, an acknowledgement of the other’s existence and struggle, but nothing more. I knew she wanted to know more, to ask more, but there were the children to think of.
“I’ll catch up with you later,” I told her.
“Call me if you need to leave early.”
I nodded again, watched her disappear through the dutch doors that led out into the hallway. Something in me wished I could go with her and tell her every awful thing that had happened to me that morning. There was pain in my abdomen and pain in my heart, and I needed to get that out to someone. The clock on the wall said 10:35 a.m., which meant my next break wasn’t for another fifty minutes when the kids had lunch.
My group of six were my usual charges: the Varis triplets, Gray, Cole, and Hud, who we usually kept separated but for some reason were back together today. There was also Beth Ludlow, Teresa Orton, and Reno Cardenas. The two girls were angels compared to the boys, and Reno always seemed to gravitate to them. His desk sat between the two, and I noticed he kept looking from left to right, judging his abstract painting of a tree against their rainbows.
I did a lap around the desks, but painting was one of those activities where as long as the kids weren’t eating it, there wasn’t much for me to do. A little encouragement here, a little behavior correction there—that was the full application of my teaching certification.
Joanna had set up a little chair facing the six desks. I sat down opposite Reno and winced. As much as I tried to stop it, a single tear escaped my right eye. I wiped it away quickly, but not quick enough.
Reno stood out in my class, and not only because he was the only Hispanic boy in a room full of children who could likely trace their lineage back to the original pioneers. He was also more sensitive to the feelings of others. I’d only met his mother a few times since the start of the year, and everything I knew about their story would fit on an index card.
Single mother. Crossed the DMZ in Colorado to come north a year ago. Worked for one of those chain cleaning services scrubbing toilets in strangers’ homes. And somehow in the middle of all of that, she’d taught her son manners, respect, and compassion.
Reno came around his desk and put a hand on my knee. Blue paint smeared in a short line across the apron.
He blinked a few times as he studied her. Long black eyelashes bordered large brown eyes.
“What it is you’re feeling?”
“I’m okay, Reno.”
“Are you sad?”
“No,” I told him, thinking back on how exactly zero professors had ever mentioned just how much lying I would have to do to children. “I just have an ouchie.”
“Do you get a Band-Aid?”
“I’ll get one later.” In the form of a glass of wine and a handful of Ibuprofen, I thought to myself.
The answer seemed to satisfy, and Reno went back to his desk to continue painting. A few minutes later, I yelled at the Varis boys to keep their hands to themselves, but other than that, the classroom was running on its own. I remember it being bright and sunny, with light pouring into through the high windows over the bookcases. Jackets were hung on the wall by the cubbies where backpacks had been shoved by tiny hands. The pain was still there, but the room felt like home. It felt safe.
It’s hard to recognize gunfire if you’ve never really heard it before. The sounds you hear on TV aren’t the most realistic, and they lack a certain proximity factor, a physical deforming of the surrounding air that you can feel at the base of your spine. Real gunfire is at the same time higher pitched and gut-rattling, such that you’re not sure how you’re supposed to respond.
Sheila and I responded by going to the one window that looked out to the west side of the building. As more of the loud pops sounded off, we shared a look, something between concern and confusion.
The whisperer in my ear crackled, and Sheila and I both looked away from each other at the same time, trying to concentrate on the sudden stream of words flooding into our ears.
I caught the latter half of the message. Something about an emergency broadcast. The voice was digitized, an old text-to-speech conversion like something out of a movie. But then the recording ended, and another voice came on.
Sheila and I looked at each other again.
The voice belonged to Patriarch Kellum, and he was only saying a single word over and over again.
Someone spilled cold water over my grave. I felt the chill permeate the jelly-like spaces between each of my vertebrae.
Sheila’s eyes started to mist over, but I reached out and grabbed the side of her neck.
“No! Twelve here. Twelve there. Right?”
She nodded, but I repeated.
“Twelve here. Twelve there. We can do this, Sheila.”
She wiped both of her cheeks with her hand, nodded again, and smiled that same muted smile Joanna had offered before. Only now it didn’t say I see you but rather I’ll do what it expected of me even though I don’t believe we’ll be successful. But that was okay. I didn’t need her to believe; I needed her to move.
We practically ripped the paint-smeared smocks from the children. A few had noticed the infrequent gunfire outside, but once the power went out and the music died, the noise became palpable. Every gunshot shook something inside of me. Every burst of what I guessed at the time was an automatic rifle or machine gun made one of the children duck to the floor.
“Fire drill, everyone! Line up at the door with your buddy. Cole and Gray, Hud and Teresa, Beth and Reno.”
Sheila called out a similar pairing of names.
We poured out into the hallway and joined the exodus of older children marching dutifully toward the front door. Some wore looks of worry; others laughed and talked amongst themselves, oblivious to the word repeating in the heads of the adults around them.
A period of time with a discrete beginning and a distinct end.
The current epoch began with Adam, and now it was ending.
The sky had already turned red by the time we made it into the parking lot. A great cloud of dust and ash blew left to right over the line of cars. As we gathered on the evercrete sidewalk, a civil defense siren ramped up, echoing eerily over a growing symphony of gunfire, explosions, and screaming.
I spied Little Feet’s director, Josephine, running from one group of kids to the next, a palette cradled in her arms. She stopped in front of me and asked for my count.
“Twelve. All accounted for.”
There was no smile on her face; her jaw was pushed forward, as if she were angry this was all happening. And maybe she was. She knew it wasn’t her fault, and it certainly wasn’t the fault of the children, and yet they were the ones who were going to suffer.
A spray of bullets pinged off a nearby car. I grabbed every child within arm’s length and pulled them to the ground. The other teachers did the same. A terrible hole opened in my stomach and every horrible nightmare I’d ever had about school shootings and mass murder spilled out of it. I didn’t want to die on that sidewalk, not with the potential of new life growing inside me. It had been less than two hours since the procedure and yet I couldn’t not think of my egg as splitting into two, into four, over and over until there was a sweet little baby swimming around inside me.
At the strip mall across the street, several of the stores were on fire. As the insides heated up, the glass windows began to pop and shatter.
Heavenly Father, we need your help. These children need your help.
I don’t know how other people prayed, but at the time, I did it as if I was always having an ongoing conversation with the Lord. He was up to date on everything that was happening to me, so there wasn’t any reason to explain why the children needed help or what horrible fates might befall them if they didn’t get it.
All I did was ask for help, and really, that’s all we can do.
Take us. Spare the children. Spare your children.
The ground shook beneath our feet, and far in the distance, a bright white light pierced the sky. I told my kids to look away, to shut their eyes.
A nearby burst of gunfire shook me from my prayer. At the end of the street, a convoy of five blue vans was turning the corner onto Brooklawn. Sitting atop each one in a bolted-on crow’s nest was a rifle-toting militiaman. Or woman. They were wearing so much protective gear that I couldn’t tell for sure. The lead van led the others into the parking lot. As they pulled to a stop in front of the waiting line of children, their side doors slid open and two more citizen soldiers stepped out. They waved to the open doors.
Sheila and I got separated. I put my six kids in the third van, and she put her six in the fourth. Piling in behind us was Tiffany’s class of four year olds, eight of them. The vans weren’t meant to carry that many people, but we made it fit. I didn’t even have time to thank the Lord before we were all packed up and moving again. The van lurched and swerved and accelerated away from the preschool.
I could see the fourth van out of the back windows and hoped Sheila was doing okay with her kids.
The motors on each of the van’s wheels whined in unison, and it took a moment for me to realize that was the only sound I could hear. The children were scared or sobbing quietly. The gunfire was nonexistent. The siren was gone.
Worse, Patriarch Kellum’s voice was gone.
I could only imagine the word now.
“What it is you’re feeling?”
I looked down at Reno. His face bobbed with every bump the van hit. I put my arm around his shoulder.
“I’m scared, Reno.”
“Did you have a bad dream?”
“Yes, sweetie. I’m having it right now.”
“Do you dream about spider bugs?”
“Yes,” I said, and then I was crying. A look from Tiffany didn’t help. Reassurances from the soldier sitting in front of me didn’t help. I knew exactly how far away we were from Temple. I knew that bright light in the sky was a nuclear blast.
I knew we weren’t going to make it.
Reno put his face in my ribs. This poor little innocent child had no idea what was happening. The scariest thing in his world was spider bugs, whatever those were.
“I’m scared,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I told him, I lied to him, again. “We’re going to see Heavenly Father.”
He looked up at me.
In the moment, I had forgotten that Reno wasn’t one of us. I didn’t know what religion, if any, his mother subscribed to, but I knew they weren’t Mormon. Sometimes transplants from the south joined the Church, but it took a while. They hadn’t been here long enough.
Another sharp poke in the abdomen.
All of these children, if they had made it to Temple, would have been reunited with their families. Reno’s mother wasn’t one of us. She wouldn’t have been at Temple, wouldn’t have known to go there, wouldn’t have heard the word of Patriarch Kellum telling her the world had ended.
I remember the radio crackling and the urgent message come hurtling out of the silence. The van in front of us veered left as we veered right. Through the window, I saw the street where we had been headed blocked off by what looked like police officers and soldiers. They had their rifles raised and were firing. The bullets arrived before the sound, pinging off the side of the van. The children screamed. Outside, something answered them.
It looked like a small rocket blasting off, but instead of going up, it was moving horizontally. It passed behind us and hit the fourth van. The explosion almost toppled us, but our driver managed to keep us level.
I started to say Sheila, but instead heard Tiffany calling my name.
She was covered in blood. Some hers. Some belonging to the little girl in her lap.
Hands wrapped around my waist.
Save the children.
Something struck the van from behind, lifting the tail into the air. The driver was suddenly down from me, and I felt like I could see all the way to the depths of Hell. I saw Satan reach up for me, for my children, for my womb, for everything good in this world.
I pulled Reno into my chest, wrapped as much of myself around him as possible, and braced for the hit I knew was coming.