Harden Times
by 
Susan J. Kroupa

This story won first place in the Deep South Writers Conference Competition in 1996,
and won second place in the Utah Arts Council Contest in 1999.

This story is currently appearing in the April 2001 Realms of Fantasy
Read an excerpt below:

Johnny Calico first saw Graylady on a mild spring morning, one so 
full of the damp scent of life that he could almost believe its promise of new
beginnings.  Spires of smoke rising from south of Provo and northwest of 
Orem told the truth, however.  The fires still burned, a neighborhood here, 
a city block there, and would continue to do so as long as there were houses 
to feed the flames.

Johnny crinkled his nose against the trace of smoke and ash in the air.
Before he'd left the reservation, he used to love the smell of smoke, pungent 
with memories of fry bread and mutton stew and shelter from bitter winter 
winds.  Now, it always smelled of death, even smoke from the clean fires that
burned in the woods far from the homes.

            Still, he preferred the outside air and was glad that it would soon be mild
enough to sleep outside.  He hated sleeping in the houses, with the stink of 
blood soaked into the walls, and probably a ghost or two just looking for a
ten-year-old Navajo boy to torment.  Once, Mom Tyler had told him that Anglo
houses didn't have ghosts.  She had said it flatly as if she couldn't possibly be
wrong, but Johnny wasn't sure--his grandfather believed in ghosts.  He
wondered if the Tyler home had ghosts or if by now it had burned to the ground,
but he didn't  know.  Since the Death, he had lived in twenty or thirty houses, 
and had wandered all over  Utah Valley, moving every week or so, but he'd 
never gone near the Tyler's neighborhood again.  If the men from the Church 
were still looking for him, that would be the first place they'd check

This time, he'd picked north Orem, and, in the dark of the night, had ridden 
his bike withone of his packs hooked over the handlebars and the other on his back.  
He'd worn the precious rifle, found just two weeks before, slung over his shoulder. 

He hated riding in the dark.  One big piece of glass and he'd have a flat tire, 
which wouldmean endless searching to replace it and might delay his trip just when 
it was critical to get started. But daylight was too dangerous, so it had been in the 
dark that he'd traveled north, picking a house at random when he felt he'd gone far 
enough.  It hadn't been hard to get in--it never was; people had been too busy dying 
to worry about locking doors--and Johnny had spent the night on the couch.

In the morning he'd gone into the backyard to breathe the spring air, and to 
check out the neighborhood from the protection of the backyard fence.  Peeking 
through the old redwood slats, he saw her.  She sat among the weeds in the yard 
of the house across from him, staring at something behind and above him. Mount
Timpanogas, perhaps.  She was about thirty-five or forty, and, despite her baggy 
sweater, Johnny could see that she was thin.  

Suddenly her shoulders began shaking and she raised a sleeve to wipe her
eyes.  He named her then.  Graylady.  Not because of her fair skin, paler even than
Mom Tyler's, or because of her dark hair that fell raggedly around her shoulders, 
but because, as he watched her alone in the weeds, it seemed that her heart was 
as gray as the ash from the ever-present fires, her soul as burned and fragile.  

**

The horse came almost a week later ...

**  

Read the rest of the story
in the April 2001 Realms of Fantasy magazine

 

 

Susan J. Kroupa 2001