Steal Tomorrow Extra: The Last Barbecue

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This flash fiction piece was written for Sunday Scribblings. It is not part of the novel and it contains no spoilers. Be sure to drop by Sunday Scribblings for more fun!

Natasha lay on the chaise lounge, watching her sister Leila try to light the patio grill. A barbecue was a bad idea, but their neighborhood was still relatively safe. The smoke of the cooking fire wouldn't attract much attention. Young survivors of the pandemic hadn't come looting here yet.

There was no real occasion for this improvised event, but electricity was becoming uncertain and the sisters were down to their last pieces of chicken from what had once been a fully-stocked family freezer. The meat was freezer-burned and smelled funny, but that didn't deter Leila. "We might as well enjoy it and besides, you need protein," she had insisted. "You're sick because you kept giving your food away."

Natasha knew better. She was symptomatic with the same pandemic virus that had killed their parents and older sister Carmen. Leila had it too, although at sixteen she was still too young for the symptoms to manifest.

"The fire's going good now," Leila announced. "We'll have a grilled chicken dinner in no time."

Natasha gave what she hoped was an encouraging smile, but even the smallest gestures exhausted her. While Leila brushed barbeque sauce on the chicken breasts, Natasha let her gaze wander their backyard. Her parents and had loved this place with its pool and landscaping. How many summer parties had they hosted? Through the fog of fever, Natasha tried to remember but had only a vague impression of paper lanterns, music, laughter, and the splash of guests jumping into the pool.

"Would you like a glass of water?"

Natasha was desperately thirsty, but it didn't seem fair to take such a scarce resource for herself. Leila was going to need everything she could get. "Maybe when the chicken is ready."

What would become of Leila? Natasha wondered at the irony of her dumpy, math-loving little sister surviving while their beautiful older sister and their charming and successful parents rotted in the pits. Natasha wondered if her own body would be cast into a mass grave as well, but in spite of her visceral revulsion to the idea she hesitated to say anything to Leila, who already had enough to deal with.

"Too bad we don't have any potato salad and ice cream." Leila said. "But I know just the thing."

Natasha closed her eyes and listened to Leila's footsteps disappear into the house. What was she up to now? Unbidden, her mind returned to those backyard parties. When Leila was very young, she had enjoyed cutting up and trying to get the guests' attention. Years of rejection and disapproval subdued her, though. Occasionally Natasha would see glimpses of the old, exuberant Leila when she brought one of her friends over to play in the pool, but for the most part she comforted herself with food and calculus while Natasha and Carmen basked in their parents' approval. They were the pretty and talented ones. Leila was just a disappointment.

"Here we are!"

Natasha opened her eyes to find Leila holding a bottle of wine and two glasses.

"Why not?" she asked before Natasha could protest. "Who's going to arrest us for not being twenty-one?" She giggled. "Besides, we're in our own backyard, so we can do what we want."

Natasha accepted a glass. Before she could thank her, Leila went back to the grill and turned the chicken, humming a little tune.

While she sipped her wine, Natasha tried to remember why she and Carmen had never thought much of Leila, but as with the memories of the pool parties, she could remember nothing specific. Leila was sloppy and lazy, but those were just words. No particular instances from before the pandemic came to mind; only the images of how her sister had behaved since. It was Leila who had driven their mother to the hospital and braved the half-looted stores to get food when they ran low. It was Leila who nursed Carmen and held her hand when she died.

It occurred to Natasha that she should tell her how much she loved her. She should tell Leila that she was good and kind, and she was so sorry to only notice these qualities in her now, when it was too late to make amends. Would Leila even listen, though? Natasha took another sip of wine and tried to think, but concentration was an elusive thing. Her fever was up again. She closed her eyes.

"Dinner's ready."

Natasha tried to sit up but every joint ached and she was too weak to do more than struggle against the cushions. Although the night was cool and a refreshing breeze blew through the trees, her clothes were soaked with sweat.

Leila held a plate out to her. "You need to eat."

She tried again to sit up and look around. Where were the paper lanterns and music? Where was Carmen? Why was there only Leila, offering her a piece of burnt chicken? Natasha closed her eyes and a moment later felt a cool hand on her forehead. Leila was saying something, but the words made no more sense than the chatter of sparrows tussling over a piece of bread. She had a vague impression that there was something she had intended say to her; something important, but the memory of it eluded her. She was only aware of the laughter of her parents' guests and the splash of people frolicking in the pool. It was a lovely evening for a party, and whatever it was Leila was trying to say to her in that urgent, panicked voice, didn't matter very much. In fact, it wasn't important at all.

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Jae Rose said...

I liked the feverishness this of this piece followed with a calm, dream like ending..another engaging write..Jae

Linda Jacobs said...

This pulled me right in! I love the way you created Leila's character.

Alice Audrey said...

You make me want to cry. If only she'd said the words before it was too late.

Old Egg said...

You certainly piled the emotion into this piece. For anyone who has held a person's hand when they were dying as they uttered incoherent words to you this may be quite a tearjerker. Wonderful writing.

Jeff B said...

I haven't read your other pieces, but if this is any indication, you are one talented writer. Very engaging.

Gel said...

I was drawn right in. I can tell you enjoy writing fiction. The emotional qualities came through.

Belva Rae Staples said...

What a great story you have created! I am hooked. There are many lessons in this.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Yeah, late to the party again... I've often wondered about the people dying of Telo (right?). What happens to them and how it affects the people around them.

I'm glad you went here.

K said...

The tone of this piece was palpable. The fever, the love, the sense of loss, the regret, and even the sense of hope.
Ann, you outdid yourself with this one. I was riveted, especially toward the end when Natasha was fading and we, the readers, faded with her. This had a breath-holding quality. Simply breathtaking.