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Reaper at the Picnic
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
Reaper at the Picnic, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming


The park was the pride of the town: a piazza of grass framed by wizened, pillar-like oaks and bud-luscious sugar maples in their bright green prime. On the corner by Western Avenue there was a small penny fountain and a metal merry-go-round, the horses repainted every summer by the Lion's Club.

A strip to the east had been humbled by a row of ugly red collection vats headed with signs for each kind of metal and a fading billboard of Allied Anne and Coalition Cody silhouetted against a golden dawn.

The parking lot was nearly empty.

Within moments of arriving Mom had efficiently busted out fried chicken and coleslaw and carrots with dip and cheese-filled fillo pastries and potato salad. She told Dad to fetch the lemonade and he returned from the car with beer.

"Cheers, Mr. Bleeton!" said Jordan, helping himself to a can.

"Christ, Howard," said Mom. "Lemonade."

"You could always put beer in the lemonade," suggested Hunter.

Everyone ignored him. Paramjit grabbed a beer, too, but Old Andy couldn't on account of doctor's orders on behalf of his liver. He reluctantly conceded to lemonade so Dad went back to the car. When he returned he was startled to see Sarah taking a can of beer from the cooler for herself. He was about to say something but realized he no longer had cause. She wasn't a little girl anymore.

"No fair!" said Hunter. "Sarah gets beer and I don't?"

"Pipe down and drink your lemonade," said Mom.

Sarah asked Tabby and Jordan what they had been up to over the winter and it turned out they were both in munitions, and had even arranged to work on the same line together ever since they'd become engaged. "Oh my God!" cried Sarah, hugging Tabby. "Wow! Congratulations!"

"If we have a kid quick I can keep exempt, eh?" explained Jordan. "New draft regs come down first of July, so we've been...working hard on the problem."

Tabby giggled and blushed.

Jordan crushed his beer can under his boot and sauntered back to the cooler for another. "We're still saving up for the rings," confided Tabby with a forlorn glance at her hand. She looked up. "What about you and Mike?"

Sarah hiccoughed a mouthful of beer.

"Oh my God," exclaimed Tabby, eyes cartoonishly wide.

"Shut up!" whispered Sarah fiercely.

Grandma said the fried chicken was too dry but everyone else was quick to assure Mom how great it tasted. Mom was uncharacteristically unconcerned. "There's more potato salad if you'd prefer," she told Grandma, who muttered nothing audible.

She caught Hunter swigging from Paramjit's beer and scolded both of them, and then Dad, who had been pretending not to notice, scolded Hunter too. Then he winked.

Hunter had stopped paying attention, however. He was looking up over his father's head, using his hand as a visor against the sun. Paramjit and Dad looked at the boy curiously. He glanced at them and pointed.

Three specks stood out against the blue sky -- three harsh new stars: one fat and yellow and two twinkling and white.

"Must be one helluva light show up there to be visible in the day," said Dad quietly.

One by one the others noticed and looked up. The stars were slowly drifting apart. One of the smaller ones was starting to leave a trail as it burned across the troposphere.

"Jeez," said Jordan. "Hope that was one of theirs going down."

Grandma sucked her dentures wetly and then touched Sarah's wrist. "Your Michael, dear, he's not up there --"

"Oh no, Gramma," said Sarah distantly, eyes still on the sky. "He's down here with us. He's on the Indian Ocean, supporting the Pacific Front with the Australians."

"Thank goodness," said Grandma, nodding to herself.

"Mike's safe," said Sarah, which was something of a mantra to her. He included the phrase in every message, pushed back into the third person for an extra authoritative flavour: MIKE IS SAFE.

"As if the world doesn't have enough problems," muttered Dad. "Fucking opportunistic chinks."

"Howard! Language."

"Bastards should be fighting with us, not against us. Not goddamn now, for Chrisake."


"Right on, Mister B," agreed Jordan.

"Whenever you drink beer you swear," hissed Mom, swatting him with a plastic salad fork.

"Sorry, dear," said Dad. He licked a spot of dressing off his arm, then turned around and grabbed his beer back out of Hunter's hand. "Thanks for holding this for me, son."

Hunter belched.

Before Mom could become upset Sarah stood up on the picnic table and tapped her beer can with her keys. All eyes turned to her, which made her stammer just a little. "Could I talk to you, everybody, for just a sec? Can I just...I want to make a kind of announcement."

"Oh my God!" murmured Tabby into her hands which were pressed into her mouth. Her eyes grinned.

Sarah ignored her. "Okay, what I want to say is -- I know this might be a bit of a surprise, but we'll do everything right and proper afterward, um, when Mike comes home, but..." She took a deep breath, and then withdrew a golden ring from the hip pocket of her jeans. "Mike and I got married!"

Paramjit and Hunter cheered. Tabby laughed and cried simultaneously, hiding behind her doughy forearm. Grandma smiled and sucked her teeth. Andy had fallen asleep. Dad seemed stunned. Mom looked oddly neutral, the muscles in her neck taut.

"This calls for more beer!" enthused Paramjit, his white teeth shining in his dark face. Hunter cheered again.

And then everyone was around her, pressing in, squeezing her shoulder, hugging her head, cooing over the ring in her moist palm. Dad swung Sarah off the table in a tight embrace, then put her down and winced while grabbing his back. "Damn!" he said, and then added quietly, "I'm sorry about that stupid 'chink' comment. I didn't mean it. I mean, you know I think the world of Mike."

Sarah hugged him again. "I know you do, Daddy," she said into the thinning hair behind his ear.

In the furthest corner of the park Mom stood by the merry-go-round. It creaked slightly as the breeze nudged it. She was in a faraway place. She blinked and noticed Jordan standing beside a nearby oak, his telephone hanging limply in his hand. "What's the matter, dear?" she heard herself ask.

Jordan jumped. He hadn't seen her. Her looked at his telephone. "My mother just called," he said. He swallowed awkwardly. "She went to get the mail." He started to say something else and then stopped and looked up, his face stricken. "What the hell am I going to say to Tabitha? Oh jeez. Oh fuck."

"Tabby's a good girl," sighed Mom, eyes defocused. "She'll understand, Jordan. We all have to do what we have to."

"They're going to send me to Europe," he said. "I'm scared, Missus B."

"There, there," said Mom, her throat dry, her voice like paper.

Jordan looked back to the picnic table where everyone was babbling over Sarah. "I can't stand to ruin everybody's good time with my bad news," he said hollowly. "Makes me feel like the grim reaper."

Mom looked down at the letter held tightly in her left hand, unfolded and refolded a dozen times since she had left the post office. "I know just what you mean," she whispered.

Jordan glanced down, licked his lips nervously. "Is that from Mike?"

Mom sighed. "It's about Mike," she said sadly. "Yes."


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CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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