Copyright Liz Coley 2014
Published by Liz Coley at Shakespir.
Cover by Liz Coley, image license purchased from Bigstock.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted without express written permission of the author, with the exception of brief quotes for book reviews or critical articles.
Ebook edition License Notes: This ebook is published for your enjoyment and should not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this story with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the copyrights of authors and other hard working content producers.
Visit to discover other titles.
Willa dragged sand-filled shoes, two sizes too large, along the brush banks of the rock stream. Twigs dry as dust tore at her bare calves and snapped. Kindling for tonight. Somewhere along here an old drain used to dump sluggish brown water onto the tumbled stone. She remembered it from last year when she passed this way in the opposite direction. The stream had been flowing then—green-tasting, but safe. Now gray husks of algae clung with their last embrace to the bare boulders.
The monotonous crunch, crunch, crunch of footsteps was suddenly broken with a sound Willa hadn’t heard for six or seven full moons. A voice. A child’s voice. It echoed with metallic resonance. The drain was found.
Willa silenced her steps a-purpose and crept closer. A pair of grubby feet protruded from the gaping mouth of the pipe. She strained to catch the soft, high words.
“And the Mama says it’s mousetime. And the Papa says it’s sleepytime. And kisses. Night night.”
Willa moved to where the filthy toes became a pair of scabbed legs, and farther around until she saw framed in the dark circumference a child—no doubt a girl as she was quite naked—banging two larger rocks against a small rock, making kissing sounds with her mouth. Stringy long hair draped over her features, her eyes downcast and intent on her play.
“Hi,” Willa called gently.
A pair of panicked blue eyes swung up and, quick darting as a feral cat, the girl vanished into the pipe.
“Girl, wait…” she called, but it was too late. The pipe rang with light-footed flight.
Willa was left with an impression of stretched canvas skin over a lattice of ribs.
Drawing close to the edge of the darkness, she picked up a small crystalline rock, flecked with mica, abandoned in the escape. She pouched it in the one remaining pocket without a hole. Her jeans were torn off above the knee and threadbare at that. Another six months of wandering and she might be skin clad as well. She needed to find a town that hadn’t been completely raided to restock the dwindling supplies in her canvas bag.
As far as she had come and as far as she could see along the arroyo, no weeds, no splash of green suggested the stream had gone underground. It had just gone.
She slung her carry-all across her back and started up the pipe herself. To find water, she told herself. The child was living on something.
The conduit sloped slightly as it penetrated the red soil bank. Willa gritted her teeth against the wear of knees on corrugated steel. Maybe she should have crouch walked. Deep inside, the lure of high-pitched murmuring drew her on. Light thinned behind her. She spotted the girl ahead, only a silhouette. Holding breath, Willa watched her play.
Feet tucked under her bottom, the girl held a stick in each hand, one long, one short. Another long stick wedged between her knees. She stroked the small stick with the long, a feeble attempt at fire-starting, if that’s what it was. “Mama says brush-a-hair,” she whispered. “That’s a purdy girl.”
Willa’s vision transformed. She saw the long stick as the caressing hand of her own lost mother.
“Papa’s off to work, bye bye,” the girl said. The little stick kissed the Papa stick held between her knees.
Willa’s eyes filled with tears, and she touched her cheek, remembering Father’s tickly yellow beard. It had been black and stiff with blood after the raiders left fifteen full moons ago. Squeezed into the attic rafters, Willa had only heard the battle—had only seen the aftermath when she crept down days later, finally sure they had gone. The buzz of flies broke the otherwise complete silence. The buzz of flies over the bodies of her parents, of her aunt, of her cousin Laird, of her neighbors, of the shopkeeper Mr. Brown, of the minister Pastor Stephan, broke the otherwise complete silence of her town. And everything had been taken.
An uncontrolled sob gave her away.
“Blacky?” the girl called. “Blacky, you there?”
Something dark shot past her, and Willa opened her mouth to cry warning to the child.
But the blur resolved into a cat that slithered around the little body, purring madly. Something in that ecstatic sound lifted Willa’s heart. Her mouth tested a smile for the first time in forever.
“You hungry?” the little girl asked. Willa realized she wasn’t talking to the cat. The girl knew she was there.
“Yes,” she replied. “Yes I am.”
“You can have this. Blacky will get me another.” A limp ball hung from a string in her hand. Rather, a mouse dangled by the tail. In all her wanderings, Willa had never eaten mouse. Mother had always said they were germy little vermin. And the girl’s ribs were proof of her own desperate hunger on this scant diet.
“No thank you,” Willa said. “I think you’re hungrier. What’s your name?”
“Purdy,” she replied. “Mama called me Purdy.”
“I’m Willa.” Silence fell after these introductions were managed.
With dark-adapted eyes, Willa watched Purdy expertly skin and gut the mouse with the sharp end of her Papa stick and tear the meat from the bones with her teeth. “The slimies make your tummy sick,” Purdy informed her. “Don’t eat the slimies. Or the face. Or the tail. Blacky teached me that.”
“Taught,” Willa corrected automatically. “Blacky taught you that. Is there water in here?”
Purdy pointed farther up the pipe. “There’s a drip place you can lick. I can show you.” She rose carefully, back curved enough to avoid hitting her head. She arranged her three sticks by size in a row and pointed. “Papa, Mama, Girl.” The two large hand rocks were laid beside them. “Papa, Mama….” Her voice trailed off.
Willa fished in her pocket. “Here’s the daughter,” she said.
Purdy smiled as she took the small crystal. “Dotter,” she repeated. “Girl.”
Purdy led her twelve more crouch steps up the pipe and lifted Willa’s hand to the rounded ceiling. “There,” she said.
Willa felt a seam, and moisture rolled down her fingertip. She sucked it dry, in spite of the bloody taste of iron.
“Like this.” Purdy arched her back to lick at the spot. Willa’s heart squeezed at the pathetic sight. They had to find a better place for Purdy, maybe an abandoned apple orchard coming into new fruit. Maybe a forest with berries growing wild. Maybe a real stream with slow-witted fish.
“Purdy, will you come outside with me so we can stand straight?” Willa backed down the pipe, too narrow for her to turn around. She picked up Purdy’s stick family as she passed by them. “Bring your rocks,” she said.
They both blinked in the brightness. Blacky had followed them out and was scent-rubbing Purdy’s pale ankles. By daylight, Purdy was even thinner than Willa had guessed. And cave-dweller white. Her skin would burn terribly. Willa reached into her carry-all for the man’s T-shirt that was sometimes her coat, sometimes her pillow, all times her only connection to Father. “I have a new dress for you to wear.”
Purdy’s blue eyes widened. Her face was gray with ingrained dust. She put up her arms, rocks clutched in her fists, and Willa slipped the enormous green T-shirt over her tangled, greasy hair. It covered her decently, the short sleeves all the way to her elbows, and the hem to her mid-thighs. “Am I a Purdy girl?” she asked.
Willa stroked her head. “Yes. You’re beautiful.”
Purdy flung her arms around Willa’s waist and squeezed the breath out of her. At least it was very hard to breathe.
“Can you show me your rocks again?” Willa asked.
Purdy released her and laid them out on the edge of the pipe in size order. “Papa, Mama, Girl,” she said.
Willa picked up a medium white river rock and put it next to Girl. “Sister,” she said.
Purdy looked back and forth between the new rock and Willa. “Sister?”
Willa held the two smaller rocks together in her palm and closed her fingers over them. “Sisters.”
Purdy watched her, head tipped and eyes bright with sparrow curiosity.
“Let’s go for a long walk,” Willa suggested.
She gathered the sticks and stones families into her carry-all, then took Purdy’s little hand in hers. Like magnets meeting pole to pole, palm to palm, Purdy’s grip was unbreakable.
“Sisters,” Purdy repeated.
If you enjoyed this short story, please consider leaving a review wherever you go for recommendations. You can find more about me here:
And look for additional free short titles, including Practically Invisible and Tor Maddox: Disarmed.