Congratulations to Tom Howard and his story “Hildy,” the winner of our Short Story Award for New Writers. “Hildy” follows a brother and sister who lived through a recent epidemic and struggle to survive a newly changed world. Howard’s fresh take on a post-apocalyptic landscape and the tenderness in which he writes about Woody and Hildy as they wander the abandoned boardwalk will dazzle you.
I’m on the pier with Hildy behind the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Himalaya, and all at once I get this feeling like the wind’s whipping over my grave. From the end of the pier you can see for miles, and the same few houses on each block are always lit, all day and all night long. It’s like a constellation you don’t know the name of, you just know it’s always there and it always looks the same. Only tonight it doesn’t look the same. There are dark patches where there never used to be dark patches, like burned-out stars in the sky.
“Hey,” says Hildy. “Woody, hey. Why’s your face look like that?”
“I’m just thinking,” I tell her.
“You’re sure you’re not gonna have a fit?”
“I’m thinking,” I say again. “Can’t I be thinking?”
“Just that you look grim, is all. Sometimes you make that face before.”
“I’m okay,” I say. I try to get back to my thinking, and remembering about the wind whipping over my grave.
“I just don’t think that’s like a normal face,” Hildy says.
“Hmm,” I say.
“It’s just an alarming level of grimness, is the thing.”
“God damn,” I say, and finally look over at her. “It’s okay to be grim sometimes, Hildy.”
She says that’s the truth, with this kind of world-weary sigh, then puts her sombrero back on. All day she’s been wearing that sombrero. Said she found it under the boardwalk. She also has on these gold-glittered sunglasses with a giant eyeball sticker on each lens.
A couple dogs are out prowling the beach in the dark, including the yellow lab Hildy tried to adopt back at the beginning of the summer.
She says, “Well, could be that you just got to poop.”
“I don’t have to poop,” I say. “Jesus, Hildy, it’s just grimness. Why can’t it just be plain old grimness?”
“It can be grimness,” she says. “You don’t gotta yell. I got these ears.”
The lab barely turns his head in our direction as he comes out of the shadows into the glow from the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Himalaya. Hildy takes off the sunglasses and stands up, and calls out: “Reggie, over here! We’re over here! Reggie! Reggie! Reggie! We’re over here! Reggie! We’re over here! Reggie! Hey! Reggie! Look over here! Reggie! Hey! Reggie!” The whole time she’s standing and waving her arms back and forth like a crazy person. The lab gives a weary look in our direction and then moves on down the beach.
She sits down and says, “I think maybe Reggie can’t hear too good. Like he’s got ear worms maybe. You think he’s got ear worms?”
“Hildy,” I say, “his name’s not Reggie. Just because you call him that doesn’t make it his name.”
She sits back down on the edge of the pier and puts her arms around her shoulders. “I think it’s his name,” she says under her breath. She sets the sombrero down and pushes her hair out of her face, which looks sunburned and dirty and kind of weird in the glow from the Tilt-a-Whirl. She’s got leaves in her hair, too. There aren’t any leaves at the shore anywhere I can think of.
“Where’d you get those glasses anyway,” I say. I go through the backpack again to make sure everything’s still there. Just habit. Most things we keep at the Snack Shack or the house on Poplar, but some things I like to have with us all the time. Flashlight and batteries, a couple books, emergency meds, so on. A drawing Hildy did for our mom on Mother’s Day that she wanted to keep for some reason. Some pictures of the three of us, pre-Cory.
“Pier Three,” she says. “Milk jugs. ’Member?”
“Kinda.” Thinking that we’re running low on antibiotics. And clonazepam, but I already knew that.
Hildy says, “So yeah, I went back and set ’em up and explained the rules to myself. Then I was like, ‘Alright, Hildy, now take your time and whatnot. You can do it. Just concentrate.’ And I’m like—”
“You don’t gotta tell me the whole story,” I say. A heavy godforsaken silence follows. Finally I say, “Jesus, okay, you can tell me.”
“I’m sure,” I say.
“Well, so then I was like, ‘Dang, I got it, you don’t gotta lecture me, we’re the same age, right?’ And so I went around and picked up the first ball and threw it, but I missed pretty bad. Like I don’t even know where that ball is anymore. But I said not to worry, I said, ‘You’re a natural, kid! You sure you’re only eleven? You sure you’re not a professional ballplayer?’ Friendly at first, but then kind of suspicious. I said, ‘You trying to pull a fast one on me, kid?’ And I’m like, ‘No, sir, I’m eleven.’ I said you’d vouch for me because you were there when I was born, even though you were only two and maybe didn’t remember me being born, because that’d be so weird? But then I was like, ‘Dang, I was just kidding, Hildy, I know you’re eleven. You go on.’ Which was mighty nice, so I said, ‘I appreciate that, sir.’ Being extra polite and whatnot, thinking maybe it would get me an extra ball?”
The dogs are gone now, slipped into the dark beyond the pier. When I look back to the south I can’t even tell which lights are missing anymore. I’m thinking maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe the lights aren’t going out just yet after all. Other than Pier One, which went dark right after we got here in May.
“I’m glad you finally knocked them down anyway,” I tell her. “Just stop saying whatnot.”
“Sorry, yeah. ’Cept I didn’t exactly knock them down, but the thing is that I felt bad for myself, standing there all sad and crazy-looking. And I said, I mean the other one of me said, I could maybe borrow one of the prizes? Just one of the small ones?” She turns the glasses over in her lap. “Guess I can take ’em back. You think I ought to?”
I remind her we should only take what we really need.
Hildy blinks down at the glasses. “Yeah I know,” she says. “Just seemed like I needed ’em.”
“Forget it,” I say. “Let’s go. We need to shut things down.”
“I wish we could just keep everything on all the time,” she says.
I tell her she always says that. Then I get to my feet. “Come on,” I say.
“All right. I’ve got to poop now anyways.”
As we leave I sneak a look back toward Pier One. The wind is picking up and the Ferris wheel’s moving on its own, which makes me unhappy. Makes me think of ghosts. Or like one weird ghost, maybe, who rides a broken Ferris wheel over and over and never says anything, never even looks at you. I think maybe that would be the worst kind of ghost. Just because he’d look so sad and lonely and terrifying at the same time. Also I hate Ferris wheels.
To read the rest of “Hildy” click, here.