The normally timorous Tilly put her hands on her hips and gave a truculent argument for dessert before dinner. “Daddy said coal miners get to eat dessert first! When I grow up, I wanna be a coal miner!” A very serious look passed between Mama and Daddy. Their surreptitious plot to make the horror of those old shafts sound like a grand adventure, with spurious rewards, were gradually bearing fruit.

Tilly’s mother forced her lips into a wan smile for Tilly. “Well, now, that makes good sense. Coal miners work hard all day, down in those mines. They’ve earned the right to eat dessert first, if they want to.” She didn’t explain to Tilly that those old, spent mines would soon be their only respite from the heat, or that they often collapsed, due to the ubiquitous fissures in the rock, as the ground underfoot shuddered and heaved, trying to rid itself of a two-legged pestilence.

A deep fissure had appeared in their back yard, only yesterday. The Culbersons’ house had vanished into a bottomless sinkhole, just a week, maybe two, before, taking the couple with it.

The parched and torrid earth seemed to be opening mouth-like chasms, gasping for oxygen and fresh water. There was little left, between the sparse, increasingly toxic air and the scorching sun.

“I found a grotto, yesterday,” Daddy said. “Water’s not too acidic.” That look, again.

“What’s ‘acidic’?” asked Tilly, eating the hated turnips first, before the sweet carrot patty, under Mama’s stern and watchful eye. Vegetables were hard to come by, even using ingenious, living room gardening techniques passed down by Tilly’s sagacious, prescient grandfather. The roots, showing signs of rot that had to be carefully pared away, were the last of them.

“Sour, like fermented apple juice,” said Daddy. A few teaspoons of vinegar probably didn’t have enough Vitamin C to ward off scurvy, but it was the best they could do, now.

“Eww,” said Tilly. “Can I see the grotto?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” said Daddy, appraising his spunky little girl. “It’s a long way. I had to climb down the old elevator shaft and walk through those dark tunnels to get to it. You’d have to be a good climber – very strong and very brave.” Encouraging a solipsistic interest in that dangerous, ancient colliery was now a survival skill, Tilly’s father thought, resigned.

“Are there bats? Like in a cave?” asked Tilly.

“Would that be scary, do you think?” asked Mama, concern written plainly across her brow.

“No, I wanna see bats!” cried Tilly. “Mouses with wings!” Tilly flapped her arms. Mama and Daddy often called her “Little Mouse.”

“Good! Because there might be bats. We’ll have to look very hard to find them, though,” said Daddy. Mama nodded, thinking how unlikely it was that they’d find any signs of life in the abandoned shafts. There wasn’t much time left to buy. In a few hours, a few days, maybe, the choice would be clear: burn, suffocate, or starve. The grotto, with its “not-too-acidic” water, might offer a fourth choice, a gentler choice.

“Can we go tomorrow?” asked Tilly. Her excitement was giving way to happy somnolence. Daddy picked her up and her head dropped to his shoulder.

“Let’s go now,” said Mama, clearing the dinner dishes and grabbing the backpacks that had been placed by the front door, earlier. Now, before the early morning sun began to penetrate the thinning atmosphere. “We can have dessert for breakfast, Little Mouse,” she whispered, her eyes glistening.


This story inspired by Writing Prompt – Creative Copy Challenge #615 and the words: Ubiquitous, Truculent, Torrid, Torpid, Timorous, Surreptitious, Spurious, Somnolent, Solipsistic, Sagacity

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