Choosing Death

This must be what it’s like to be a death-row inmate.

Heather closed her eyes and turned her face towards the warmth of the sun. She fought to capture the sensation, to drink it in through her very pores, but it eluded her, slipping away like her grandmother’s ring did in the lake all those years ago. Eyes opened and she swallowed hard against the loss.

“Mom! Mom! Look at me, Mama!”

Only a knuckle in her mouth muffled the groan. “I’m watching, baby girl!” Her face felt like it would shatter holding the false smile. But she would be damned if her daughter’s last memories of her were of her crying. She had dark enough days ahead of her as it was. At least, what days she had left.

The child of seven took several running steps, then flung herself into a cartwheel. It collapsed half way through, but ended with giggles. “Hold up! Hold up! Let me try again! I’ve got this!” She bounced up, smoothing back her long, dirty blond hair, features falling into a determined mask. She looked just like her father like that.

He would have been proud; so very proud.

She knew every parent that ever was thought this, but she also knew down in her bones if things had been different, their daughter would have gone to make such an impact that she would have left a ding in the universe. Their daughter would have changed the very face of the world.

But the world was dying. And with it, the human race.

Who could have known that when her husband died six years ago from a mysterious illness he would have been nothing more than a forerunner to what would become known as the worst cataclysmic pandemic to ever hit planet Earth? It was a virus so viral and complete it became known simply as Death.

And Death was everywhere.

Already, from a population size of nearly eight billion, the human race was down to only three. All in less than six years. In all those agonizing, six years not a single surviver was to be found. Once Death showed up, it was just a matter of time until the end. In some, the infected could go on for years it seemed with little to no ill effects. But once those first symptoms appeared, it ate the person alive from the inside out. With less than one percent of the population immune, it left a grim tableau for the future of mankind.

So for the first and last time in all of history, the world came together as one and decided the best hope they had was to fling themselves to the stars and beyond. Hence was the Persephone Project born. Those immune and deemed able to survive were ruthlessly sought out. If you were chosen for the project, there was no option to decline.

Heather rued all her productive and responsible life choices. Perhaps if she had taken those drugs in high school, failed med school, given into the desire to firebomb her first boyfriend’s car, she would have been left to stay on this dying world instead of finding herself being forced to spend the next five years on a one way trip to Titan without her daughter. Do everything right in life and all you get is punished. It wasn’t fair.

The urge to run swept through her. There were no fences to block her path. Every muscle tensed and ached with the need to move, to put distance between herself and this place; to grab her daughter and go as far as she could as fast as she could. Her mind’s eye showed her ways she could disqualify herself from the project. She could jump off a building to the ground below, cut her legs off, crash a car, down some rat poison. Those options and more ran through her mind.

The monitor on her wrist beeped.

Heather’s hand automatically covered the damned tracker and forced herself to take several deep breathes. If she got too worked up, it would alert them, and they would come and take her away. They’d force her back into that small padded white room with nothing, literally nothing, until it was time to shove her body on the spaceship and ship her off. She would not go back to spend her last few hours on this planet in a drug induced comma, locked away from her daughter. She would not risk these last chances to hear her daughter’s laughter, to see her smile, to smell her hair, or feel her slender arms.

She looked to the towers and the stainless steel doors of the facility that had housed her since she was given the so-called honor of joining the project. They remained silent and empty. Good. There was no alarm or checking up on her then. At least not right now.

Heather didn’t buy all the propaganda about how she would go on to be known as one of the mothers of the human race. She didn’t give a rat’s ass about that. She didn’t want the honor nor to be remembered in the history books for all time. She just wanted to be Mary’s mother; to hold and love her firstborn. She didn’t want or need anything else or more.

And it was being stolen from her.

Heather could have screamed her fruitless rage to the skies. But it wouldn’t gain her a moment more of what she really needed; her life with her daughter.

“Mom!” Her daughter held her hands up in question.

“I’m watching, honey!”

Mary’s hands dropped and she took several determined steps, eating up the ground with her long legs. She stopped just before Heather, eyes to the ground, and reached out, tips of her fingers brushing along her arm. “No, you weren’t… You were thinking again.”

“I was thinking about how much I love you.”

Her daughter looked at her, eyebrows arched. “I’m not a kid, Mom.”

Heather let out a small huff and pressed her lips together. “No. No, you’re not. Sometimes I doubt you ever were.” She should have played more with Mary. Should have shielded her more from the world. Should have read her more fairy tales. Should have hugged her more and sang silly songs instead of worrying about dinner and laundry. She should have taken more pictures and agreed to video recordings. How would her daughter remember her voice now?

“It’s okay, Mama. I like me just the way I am…Auntie says it’ll help me when school starts back up.”

“Does she now?”

The schools had been closed for years. What was the point of education when everyone would be dead before they could use it?

Mary nodded. “You’ll come see me at school when you get back, won’t you?”

The great lie; “Yes, baby. Of course, I’ll come see you at school.”

Fingers curled around her wrist and clung tightly. Did she sense the truth? Did she know she was to be as good as orphaned in less than five hours time? Did she know she’d probably never live to see fifteen? Never have a first crush? Prom? High school graduation? Or an infamous Spring Break? Never get married? Never have kids of her own? Did she know that her Mommy was going to get to live instead? And would end up with a new Daddy and have new children; siblings that she would never know of and never meet? Did she sense those things?

Heather prayed to the heavens that the answer was no. She pulled her child to her, pressing her close as if she could absorb her into her very skin and make them one again. “I’ll miss you every day, baby girl.”

“I miss you already, Mama.”

“Now, now.” Heather shook her head. “I’m not gone yet. We still have some time left.”

Mary pulled back.

Even though it killed her inside, Heather let her.

Her daughter’s hands trailed down her arms, leaving goosebumps in the wake. Mary’s hand caught on the monitor, giving it a slight tug.

The clasp gave way and it fell to the ground.

At first, Heather could only stare, frozen by disbelief. She had spent countless hours trying to get it off. She had smuggled dulled knives, pens, screws, anything she could get her hands on into her room. Nothing worked. Nothing had even come close to making the barest of marks. Yet there it was; lying on the sun baked dirt.

For the first time in two years, Heather was free.

Her eyes looked at her daughter who looked back at her. They went to the silent towers and closed doors. They went across the empty expanse of manicured lawn to the near empty parking lot and the small stand of trees beyond.

It was madness. It would never work. They would notice her vitals gone from their screens. Perhaps even now they were making their way down to those doors. Doors that would open and swallow her whole. Doors that would force her from her daughter for the rest of their lives.

No. She could not, would not, let them win. Not without a fight.

Heather grasped her daughter’s hand and together, they ran.

*Winning story for Reedsy Short Story contest

Seductive Affair

Elizabeth Doreen Esquiren, Chair of the Great Tea Initiative, stood in front a large metal door with no handle in a nameless back alley and wondered how she ever managed to find herself here. She pressed her lips together, suppressing a sigh. Her head slightly shook from side to side, still in denial. This could not be happening. Not to her. Oh, she knew many people who had been personally affected by the coffee ban that had finally taken effect six months ago. Whole families had been ripped asunder as those with addictive tendencies had sunk to lawbreaking and worse to obtain the condemned drink. Joyce had been forced to publicly disown both her sons and daughter for being found in a similar back alley coffee den like this, drinks in hand. It was that or step down from the Board. Elizabeth had pitied her. To be forced to make such a choice. It had aged Joyce ten years in only two months.

But now was the time for sacrifice, as Elizabeth had reminded her. They had known that the battle to drive coffee out of the country would be long and arduous. The vile drink with its addictive tendencies had a firm grip on most of the nation. When the informational campaign to spread knowledge of coffee’s numerous evils had failed, they had pushed for legislation. And won. As the ruling had come down and the President had signed the ban into law on national TV, Elizabeth had known the worse was still to come. That always was the way. People entrenched in addiction, refusing to see the scientific data, of course they would try to cling to their coffee with everything they had. Many on the Board had been surprised when rumor of the coffee dens began to pop up within a week of the ban.

Elizabeth had not been surprised.

Anyone who knew their history could have predicted this coming. But unlike history, they would not falter or give in. The law would stand firm and punishment under the law would be meted out as needed until this horrid addiction was finally purged from the nation. A long road, but one that must be walked with head high and iron clad will. With determination and perseverance, they would overcome; and in time, everyone would come to their senses. Coffee would be purged once and for all, leaving it to the realm of the history books where future generations of children would read and laugh and ponder over the idiocy of this time as they sipped their various teas, secure in the fact that they would never fall victim to the bitter drink’s dark allure.

Green eyes darted back and forth along the quiet alley. She could almost taste her pulse in her throat. Police could appear at any moment. She would be arrested, just like the others inside, another common criminal. Standing before a coffee den was just as much an admission of guilt as being inside one. While she might be the Chair, the damage it could do to her reputation and her influence would be nigh irreparable.

She should go.

She should turn now and leave. She should put one foot in front of the other and walk away. She should drive home and pack. Go stay with her mother for a while. That would be best. That would be safe. That would put her above reproach when the truth came out. No one could question her then. She would have to give a speech, no doubt, like Joyce had to. That would be embarrassing. But she could afford to eat a little crow if it kept her reputation and all she had fought so hard for so long intact. While she didn’t want to think herself as the linchpin the in the success of this new law, if she fell, it was entirely possible that the whole law would unravel as well. And that could not happen.

Even as logic urged to her go, she found herself rooted to the spot unable to move. She couldn’t walk away.

Her forehead touched the cool, solid metal of the door. The chill felt good against the flush of her skin. “Why couldn’t it have been another woman, Mark? Why?” she whispered. Another woman would have been a relief compared to this. A simple affair of the flesh was much more manageable and forgivable. There were no laws against that.

So why this? Why coffee? Why the forbidden fruit? Why the risk to himself, his family, to her? She hadn’t wanted to believe it. She had tried so very hard to ignore it. But the warning signs were all there; his sudden perky awareness from complete grogginess in the mornings, the mugs he kept hidden in his sock drawer, spending inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom in the mornings, the missing money from the change jar, the way he wouldn’t kiss her goodbye, and most condemning of all was the scent. That damn rich, earthy scent that permeated the air around him and clung to his clothes worse than any mistress’ perfume could. She had denied it for so long; years in fact.

She had been blind and she knew it. He must have fallen prey when he had entered graduate school and taken that advanced history class. Everyone knew that the world of academia was filled with the worst offenders and the most vulnerable population group was the helpless students. She had known and done nothing. That was how confident she had been that her dear husband would not fall to temptation. Her mistake.

And it could cost them both.

Her mistake, her responsibility, her family, her husband. Elizabeth’s eyes fluttered closed. She could not abandon him. She would not abandon him. For better or worse, she had vowed to remain beside him no matter what. And some things were worth more and meant more than any law. Laws would come and go. The bond and vow between husband and wife endured throughout the ages for time untold and unseen.

Elizabeth squared her shoulders, raised her chin, set her lips, and knocked on the door; three quick raps followed by three slow ones.

A moment later the door swung inward, making no sound.

She stood before a narrow stairwell, leading down into a murky darkness. At its end, a pool of fuzzy yellow light spilled from underneath a second door and even from here, she could hear the mummer of voices, occasionally cut by a high laugh, and above it all, the smell that rich, intoxicating drink. There was no turning back. Elizabeth grasped the door and closed it behind her with a soft but firm click as it latched into place. Her foot descended to the first step, followed by the next, down into to the coffee den.

Elizabeth Doreen Esquiren, Chair of the Great Tea Initiative, never heard the shouts of the police as they swarmed the alley behind her.

*Winning story in Reedsy Short Story conest