If We Can Be Vikings

by Bailey Bridgewater

“Your mom’s dead. In the tunnels.” That’s all the grimy boy said before he turned on his broken shoes and flew off.

Cassida stared after him, the poisoned words slipping into her ears. Button, who had perfected the art of moving like a ghost while alive, appeared behind her.

Button’s eyes grew large. “Did he tell the truth?”

“Why lie about a thing like that? Besides, he knows everything.”

“Maybe he’s wrong.”

“He’s not.” Cassida had known this would come eventually. Prostitutes don’t live long. Her mom knew the risk. With her oddity (she never said “deformity” like other people did), it was the only way she could make a living. There was a plan to put in motion now. Cassida knew where she’d take her sibling and where to find the secret money her mom had been saving.

“What do we do now?”

“I have to go get her.”

Button breathed in hard, trying not to cry. “But she’s dead.”

“I know, but I can’t leave her. There are rats.”

“Will she have a funeral?” She rocked back and forth.

“No. She wants us to keep all the money. We’ll need it.”

“So what will you do when you find her?”

“She’ll be a Viking.”

Cassida reached for a coat, then fished around in the drawer-of-all-things for a flashlight and a lighter. “You’ll be ok here.”

“No. I want to go too.” Button had somehow already gotten a coat and boots on.

“It’s late and you’ll be scared.”

“I won’t be! Stop treating me like a baby. You’re only two years older than me.”

“Yeah, but I’m a teenager, and that makes a big difference.”

“I’m coming with you.”

Cassida opened the door. She didn’t have time to waste. “You’re just a little girl. You shouldn’t see it.”

Button’s face turned red. “I’m not a girl! You know that!”

Cassida had said the wrong thing. It was clear that Button wasn’t a girl today. Now she had to make up for it. “Ok. I’m sorry. I know you’re not.” She held the door. “Well, come on then.”


Underground it was warmer than the Seattle air above them. Cassida played the flashlight over the exposed brick walls of sunken buildings, trying to find the route her mom had walked her along. Button sneezed.

“It smells like old men.”

“I know. It’s mold and dust, I think. It’s ok. We won’t be here long.”

They walked slowly, checking the side paths for signs of their mother. Cassida wanted to be quiet, but Button did not, so Cassida explained how the original city had sunk into the ground and the townspeople had built over top of it. As they walked, she pointed out the buildings her mom had shown her. The old bank. The hotel. The brothel. Her mother had laughed about that. It was the building she liked to stay closest to at night when she worked.

When they rounded the corner, Cassida’s flashlight caught something alive. A huge brown-and-grey shape writhed slowly along the ground like pudding being pushed around in a balloon. A pile of wood, some of it burned up, lay beside it.

Button grabbed Cassida’s coat. “What is that?”

Cassida shined the light on the pile of filthy blankets and something grunted as a glass bottle rolled out from under the pile and hit hard against the brick, echoing down the tunnels.

“Best to leave it be.”

At the end of the building they turned the corner, and there was their mother, on her back with her head turned to the side. She didn’t look particularly dead, but when Cassida knelt by her, she could see the blood that had run down the corner of her mother’s mouth and congealed in her dyed-blonde hair. Her eyes were already closed, and that was disappointing. Cassida wanted to close them.

Button knelt down and smoothed the short, sleeveless dress that showed off their mother’s special skin and extra parts.

“I’m glad she’s wearing the blue one. That’s a Viking color, right?”

Cassida confirmed that it was, her eyes following the path. “Stay with her a minute, ok?”

It was only a couple minutes before the tunnel ended at a door-sized piece of plywood over a circular opening. Around its edges, Cassida saw the steely river below, sand sloping steeply to it.

Cassida passed Button without a word and returned to the pile of blankets, which was still now. She gathered the stolen wood into her skirt and rushed back to the plywood-covered exit, where she left it.

They lifted their mother carefully. She wasn’t heavy—barely more than bones and mascara. Cassida pulled the plywood down and piled the wood on top of it, then she and Button placed their mother on top, careful that she didn’t roll off down the slope. Cassida pulled out the lighter.

Button scowled. “Are you sure this is the right thing?”

“Mom said we’d have to be Vikings when she left us, right?”

Button nodded, and eventually the damp wood caught, and then the blue polyester dress, and then the hairspray.

Neither of them knew what to say, so they pushed their mother off onto the water in silence.

The homeless people sleeping by the water that night saw a blazing light moving slowly down the water for just a moment before it stalled and then extinguished. Some of them made wishes on it. The orphans, turning back to the tunnels, each made a wish to be good Vikings.

Bailey is an East Coaster living in the Midwest. Her work appears in a variety of publications, and her favorite place to write is a tiny cabin in the middle of a part of Alaska that can only be reached by plane, then boat.
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