Categories
Dystopia Genre Short stories

Until The Last

Pain.

Pain, hot and sharp, pierced through Nadine’s ragged awareness. She gasped, forcing her breath inward and choking on the cry threatening to escape. She couldn’t yell out. Not here. Not now. That would alert them…alert him, to where she was.

She would not let that happen. Not again.

She reached out to halt her fall as her knees buckled. Rough and jagged tree bark bit into her flesh, pulling, tearing, and digging into her skin. Her teeth clamped hard on her chapped lips and she tasted blood, tangy and salty, a torment to her parched mouth.

She had been such an idiot, trusting him, believing his lies. She was a thrice-damned fool and now…

Nadine shook her head. She couldn’t let herself dwell there or finish the thought. She had to meet up with River, first and foremost. Then, she could decide what their fate would be.

From his carrier against her breast, a young toddler stirred, pulling her from the self-incriminations. There would be time later for those. Provided she survived the night.

Hoping her voice wouldn’t crack or betray her desperation, Nadine swallowed and forced a smile. “How are you holding up in there, Colby?”

Even in the darkness, the head of golden blond hair still managed to shine as he wormed and wiggled about. A small face tilted upward and his light brown eyes gazed at her. He blinked several times and opened his mouth.

Nadine’s heart skipped. If he cried now, they would be found.

But he merely yawned, rested his head against her, and closed his eyes.

A wave of relief rushed through her body, leaving her feeling weak. She braced herself against the tree trunk. The sedative she had given him before this mad flight still held him in its grip.

She forced herself on, intending to push deeper into the woods towards safety. But as soon as she put pressure on her foot, the pain flared again, bright and fresh. Nadine lifted her now bare foot. Her shoe lost somewhere among the rocks earlier. She didn’t need the light of the full moon to see the brambled stick that came up, clinging to her foot.

Lying to herself with the thought that it would be like ripping off a stubborn band-aid, Nadine yanked the offending piece of forest debris off. Pain seared the sole of her foot, a hungry fire. She set the foot down and tried to put weight on it. Again, her body protested. She felt the remaining thorns dig themselves further into the soft flesh. She’d never make it like this.

Clamping down her panic, Nadine searched for anything to ease and protect her foot. Nothing. Not even a fallen branch long enough to serve as a walking stick. She had no extra wraps and would not take clothing from Colby. The night air was bitter in this early autumn, and she’d not expose him to such conditions. She had her shirt, but nothing to cut a strip with. She’d have to use the whole thing then.

With care to not disturb Colby in his carrier, she slipped out of her thin shirt. A shiver ran down her now exposed spine as a breeze mocked her venerability.

She had to keep moving.

Nadine wrapped her injured foot as best she could. Then, in spite of the pain, she forced her body to take the weight and stepped forward.

Followed by another step.

And another.

“One step. One more step…You can do this. You have to do this,” Nadine whispered. If she told herself that enough times, maybe she could trick her body into believing it.

Time ceased to have meaning as her world narrowed down to the small patch of ground just in front of her. One painful step after the next, one lie after the next, Nadine pushed her mind and body further and further on.

One moment, it was dark. The next, man-made light flooded the area about her from behind.

She was undone.

Refusing to admit defeat, Nadine straightened her shoulders and turned around, arms encircling Colby as if they would shield and protect him from the imminent harm about to consume them.

“You know…That was a very stupid thing you just did, dear heart,” a familiar male voice said, “I mean, I knew you to be rash. But this? Come now. I was certain you’d give a better game than this. It’s pathetic, Nadine.”

“So sorry to disappoint you, love.” She spat the words out as if they were spoiled wine. “I’ll do better next time.”

Dead leaves crunched underfoot as Jacob Covington, a company man of the mega-corporation GenTech, stepped forward. A dark smile danced on his lips and sparked in his hazel eyes. “We both know there isn’t going to be a next time.”

Nadine tightened her muscles to keep from shaking. She would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her fear. Instead, she readjusted her arms around Colby.

Jacob shook his head. She knew she must look a fright, her long brown, hair tangled and wild, falling into her brown eyes. Her arms covered in scrapes, pants ripped, shirtless, and one foot crudely bound with said shirt. He tsked.

“You know, you’re lucky it’s me that’s found you first.”

She refused to respond to such an obvious lie.

“Anyone else would have just shot you.”

Which would have been a mercy, she realized. He, instead, would toy with her like a cat with a mouse.

“I don’t understand it, Nadine. Well, okay, I do. No doubt he reminds you of your own lost son, yes? A young boy in peril. A child guilty of nothing more than a simple miscoding in his DNA, now at the mercy of bloodthirsty killers…Tell me, Nadine, do I look bloodthirsty to you?” With each word, he moved closer. The shadows as if living things, wrapped themselves about his body, clinging to the darkness pulsing through his veins.

“Even Satan appears as an angel of light.” She took a step back, fighting a whimper of pain.

Jacob’s eyes darkened, displeased. “You don’t understand anything. After all this time…I’d’ve thought you’d come to your senses and would know by now the truth of the matter.”

“The truth is you’ll kill him.” She pressed Colby closer.

“He’ll die anyway, Nadine. Why not give him a good, clean, and honorable passing instead of one where he dies from
and honorable passing instead of one where he dies from thirst? What did you think you would do for him out here in this?” Jacob gestured about them. “You’d miraculously find water enough for him in this waste? Don’t you think if there was, we’d have known and used it already? Did you think you’d somehow save his life? More like prolong his death. Answer me this, what sort of sick and twisted mercy is that?”

From in his carrier, Colby shifted, protesting her embrace with a low moan.

Nadine shook her head. There was no honor or clean death awaiting Colby back in the city. There was nothing more than a poison-filled needle to be thrust into the back of his skull with no one to hold or comfort him while he screamed in pain. Then, insult to injury, his body would be tossed in the flames, lost among all the others deemed unfit, unworthy of water rations. His light would be lost to the world and in exchange, they’d put his name on a wall? As if that made up for his murder?

“Over my dead body.”

“That, my sweet love,” Jacob said, voice far too smooth, “can be arranged.”

He lunged at her.

Nadine turned to flee, cursing herself once more. How many times would she play the fool to this man? She let him keep her talking, let her body rest and grow stiff, let the enforcers tighten their net about her, making her and Colby’s chances of escape all the harder. Fool!

Her injured foot would not incline itself to bear her and little Colby’s weight under such conditions anymore.

She fell, rolling on her side and taking the impact to spare the child. White, searing pain, lanced from her shoulder up through the back of her skull. For a brief moment, all she saw was white.

As the world returned, she felt hands pulling at the carrier, intent on wrestling the babe from her.

She tried to roll to her other side, bringing her arms up, and using her fingers and nails as claws.

Awakened by the sudden jarring, a thin wail of fear rose into the air.

“Get away from him!” Nadine screamed, thrashing and writhing against her assailant.

One swift kick to her lower back was all it took.

Her body arched in pain, exposing the pack with Colby.

Before she could recover, the booted foot came down on her neck, pinning her to the ground and cutting off her air. Desperately, she tried to claw at the offending limb but found it protected by thick clothing.

The pack was lifted from her body, taking the child with it.

Jacob shifted his weight, releasing some of the force from her neck.

Nadine’s shrieks mixed with Colby’s cries, rending the night air in discordant song.

The sharp crack of a bullet ended half of the chorus.

Nadine stared as Jacob dropped Colby’s now silenced body to the ground. It fell with a sickening thud.

You,” Jacob said, pointing with the barrel of his still smoking gun at Colby, “You did that, Nadine. You forced this ending on him. This is your fault.”

“No.” The protest fell from lips that barely moved. “No.”

“He could have passed on with all the honors of Remembrance. But you had to drag him out here to die like an animal instead…Now he will never be remembered.” Jacob stepped away from her and reached into his pocket.

Nadine closed her eyes. She would die now, too. A fitting end for her failures. She didn’t deserve to live.

Instead, she heard the soft crack of a pod being opened.

She watched as Jacob drank the clean water from a water tree pod. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed. He lowered the pod, saw her watching him, and then, with deliberate slowness, poured the remaining water on Colby’s body.

Jacob moved and knelt beside her. His hand reached for her.

Even as she tried not to, Nadine flinched under his gentle touch as he pushed her hair out of her face. “We could have done so many amazing and wonderful things for this ailing world together. Your fire and passion with my intelligence and strategy. We could have brought the world back to its former glory and filled all the dry basins with water enough for everyone…But you had to go and be selfish. You had to betray me.” He stood and wiped his hand on his pants. “Now you’ll pay the price.”

“Just kill me,” Nadine said, refusing to look at him.

“No.”

Unbidden, her eyes turned towards him. What game was he playing at now?

“That would be far too merciful. You’ll get the experience of dehydrating to death. Just as that child would have suffered if you’d gotten your way. And to make sure of it…” He pulled out his gun and shot her in the lower leg, near her knee.

Nadine screamed in pain and clutched the wound. Her eyes closed as defeat consumed her.

“I found her, boys. Her and the candidate,” Jacob spoke through his intercom, “They’re both dead. Let’s pack it up and go home. Nothing left out here.”

“Copy and acknowledged,” an unknown male voice answered him.

Jacob sighed, followed shortly thereafter by the sound of him walking away.

Nadine remained where she was, resigning herself to death. Her neck craned to see the carrier. She should…She should try to go to him. But as she thought it, she knew she couldn’t. Her body refused to move any more. Which was, perhaps, just as well. She didn’t think she could bear to look upon the fruits of her failure; another dead child. “I’m sorry, Colby,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

The night passed slowly, seconds merging into minutes, and minutes blurring into hours. Through it all, Nadine drifted in and out of awareness. Here in the woods would be a good place to die. Here, she and poor Colby would return to the earth from which they were formed, as had all their ancestors before them. This was a clean death.

“Nadine!” a panicked male voice cut through the darkness. River. That was River calling her name. “Sweet Jesus, Nadine.” Hands, rough and calloused, grabbed at her shoulders and sought a pulse at her neck.

Slowly, she forced her eyes open and squinted against the dawning light.

“Oh, thank God, you’re alive.” Relief flooded her old friend’s face. “Here.” He thrust a dented canteen near as he gently lifted her up, easing sweet water on her lips and into her mouth. “I’ve been so worried about you. When you didn’t make it to the grove…I’ve been searching all night.”

She wanted to push him away, wanted to refuse the water. What had she done to deserve it? But instinct took over and she swallowed, greedy for the life-giving liquid. The water woke her further, bringing waves of fresh pain to her wounds. Her groan turned into a whimper.

“Nadine, what happened? Where’s Colby?”

Her eyes closed again as grief washed over her. Her head began to shake as she pointed in the direction of his body. She couldn’t say it. Saying it would make it real. So instead she said, “Jacob found us.”

She waited for the tirade and the recriminations to come. River had protested her getting close to Jacob from the beginning. He had seen clearly what she had blinded herself to. If only she had listened to him.

When nothing came, she dared a glance. Instead of anger, she found only pain and sorrow in River’s blue eyes. “I am so sorry, Nadine. So sorry.”

Tears flowed. But who she cried for, Colby, Jacob, or herself, she could not begin to say.

River wisely said nothing, letting her cry for a few moments, rubbing his hand up and down her back. Then, he gently said, “We have to go. It’s not safe here.”

Nadine drew in several shuddered breaths, forcing her tears down. River was right. She had to live and push forward. It was high past time she started listening to his sage counsel. Never again would she disregard his words.

With outstretched hands, he helped her to steady herself and to stand. “We can’t leave him,” she said as he went to wrap his arms around her waist to offer her support. “Jacob said he’d be forgotten.”

River shook his head. “No. That won’t happen, Nadine. Not as long as we have a beating heart to remember him by.” He left her side and picked up the carrier, strapping it to his body.

A small hand slipped out, fingers curled in an empty grasp.

“Riv-“

“No, Nadine. You don’t want to remember him like this. Trust me.”

Tears stung her eyes, but she brushed them aside. Someway, somehow, Jacob would pay for this. He would own to what he did here today and the life he chose to end. Never again would she allow another child to be lost in such a fashion.

She would not lay down and die. Not when there were more children like Colby. They needed someone like her. And with God as her witness, one way or another, somehow, she’d find a way to save them all.

Categories
Dystopia Genre

All For a Drop

It was wrong to steal. And Jazel was not a thief.

So it was with little difficulty that he shoved back the random thought that he could easily slip an extra water pod or two into his jacket pockets and not be caught to the recesses of his mind. He was an honest, upright, and faithful citizen to the GenTech Company. Which was the least he could do for all that the company had given him. In the years following the last of earth’s natural freshwater supplies being exhausted, it was GenTech that had stepped up and quite literally saved the world. With their water trees that needed only air to live and ability to produce precious pods filled with clean, drinkable water, they had managed to prevent the nations from rending each other apart. They gave generously from their massive and carefully cultivated forests, providing with seeming ease enough fresh water for every man, woman, and child to not just survive, but thrive. All they asked for was peace; for all to share their wealth and resources just as they had done.

The world willingly complied.

One by one, nations merged with each other. Currency and money became a thing of the past. Crime began to go down. What need was there to take or force from another when all one had to do was ask? Patriotism, nationalism, racism; all those ills of society began to move from daily life to the realms of history books and museums. It was a new era for the world, for mankind; and it was golden.

GenTech continued to be the sole guardians of the water forests. They were the ones who monitored, cared for, nurtured, and distributed the water pods. It seemed like an impossible task and to someone like Jazel, a logistical nightmare. But GenTech had been a profitable company in the years before and thusly showed little difficulty with adjusting to managing the populations of the very world. They ran with a precise science and formula, everything carefully calculated and overseen to ensure that everyone got exactly what they needed; no more and no less.

Every day, people like Jazel loaded pallets onto trucks. And trucks hauled the precious pallets filled with water to the different distribution sites. Every day, the people of the world would arrive at their appointed times with their baskets, bags, buckets, and arms ready to receive their alloted amount. So it was, and so it would continue: the world finally, truly at peace.

For a company that gave so much good for so long, there was no question at all that they would continue to do so in Jazel’s mind. The company would always give just what was needed. All he would ever have to do was ask.

Then Shara became ill.

It started innocently enough, nothing more than a normal childhood illness. His wife kept her home from day care, more to keep the other children from falling ill than anything. Then she stayed home a second day, followed by a third. She lost her color, her appetite, her energy. Jazel stayed home that third day, his wife needing a break from the constant care. Shara remained in bed, clutching her bunny rabbit as she tossed about in fitful sleep. Jazel sang softly to her. Songs that his mother and his mother’s mother used to sing. He soothed back her hair. He painted her nails in her favorite lime green. And he read her her favorite book over and over without compliant or suggestion of her second favorite book.

Then the fever hit.

He took water from his own supply and gave it without question to his daughter once her daily allotment depleted. His wife did also.

They called the doctor who came without delay. He poked and prodded, took measurements and readings, all the while scribbling ferociously in his little book and muttering to himself words and phrases that made no sense. When Jazel asked him what his daughter had and what she needed to recover, the doctor only bobbed his head, flashed an apologetic smile, and said that he had to run some tests. He promised to call as soon as he knew anything and felt certain that all would be well. In the meantime, continue to ensure that Shara got her rest and that she drank her daily water. GenTech would, as always, provide exactly what the family needed, no more and no less.

Jazel never doubted.

The fever grew worse in the night.

Shara’s skin almost glowed red, flushed with heat. Her curls clung to her head, limp and wet. When Jazel dared to touch her, she burned.

That day, he gave her everything he could spare of his water, leaving just enough for himself to take off the sharp edge of thirst.

The following day, his gaze lingered on the pods as he packed them away into their crates. His hand held their weight a little longer. He was thirsty and surrounded by water, but unable to take even a drop. It would be taking from another. It would be wrong. It would be stealing. He would not steal or take from another.

Finally, two days later, the doctor called back. Shara needed water for her fever and medication for the virus which ravaged her body’s ability to regulate its temperature. He had already called in the request for supplies and GenTech would no doubt respond by the end of day. They would provide exactly what Shara needed to ensure the quality of her life, just as they had for every other human on the earth over the years. There was no reason to fear or be worried.

GenTech responded quickly. A currier arrived within a few hours with a small bag and an official notice.

Jazel disregarded the notice. It would be nothing more than words of affirmation of what he already knew. Inside was everything Shara would need. GenTech was generous and gave freely to those who asked. In the bag would be both the medication and all the water she would need. It never crossed his mind to doubt.

Inside was one small vial of mysterious green liquid.

He frowned at it. The vial was so small. Barely a mouthful for even a child as Shara. Surely she would need more medicine than that. And where was the water?

He picked up the notice and quickly read the words. It fell from his fingers.

There would be no water.

There would be no medicine.

The vial contained not life, but death.

Surely there had to be a mistake. It had to be a simple mix up. The company would not condemn a child like Shara to death. This had to have been meant for someone else. Someone else who was old and already so near death after a full life. It could not be meant for his little daughter.

Jazel called the company. He was granted an appointment for that evening. Everything would be fine as soon as he could speak to them. He would explain what had happened and he would return home with the proper supplies; medication and water. He promised his wife and his daughter, kissing Shara’s fevered brow. She was so hot she no longer sweat at all. She only burned.

He was greeted promptly by name upon his arrival to the large glass building. While he waited, he was offered a glass of water while he waited. Jazel accepted with many thanks. He had drank nothing that day, giving all to Shara. He took nothing for himself but enough to wet his lips.

The rest he slipped into a small water tight bag and slid it into his pocket. Shara needed it more than he.

The company man who greeted him was polite and cordial. He listened well and nodded sympathetically at all the right moments. Yet when the time came and Jazel asked for the correct supplies, the man shook his head. There had been no mistake. They had sent exactly what they had meant to. After looking at the results of the test, an expert panel of doctors had concluded that Shara was too far gone and too sickly to survive and recover enough to achieve any means of acceptable quality of life. Giving her medication and water would only take from another who would benefit more from it. And that would not be fair to that person. Surely Jazel could understand. While it was sad to see one so young have to leave this earth so soon, it would be for the best. And after her burial, he and his wife could apply to have another child. They were young enough yet that the man stated he felt confident they would be granted permission to conceive again.

Jazel left empty handed but for his one small bag with water.

That night, every single drop was given to Shara.

The morning light brought the dismal realization that no help would be coming.

Jazel’s mouth felt like pure cotton and his head felt made of stuffing. He needed water but there was none left in the house. Everything had been given to Shara. And their daily supply would not be given until that evening.

He went in to kiss his daughter’s forehead and could hardly believe what he felt. Her skin was cool. The fever had broken. Though weak, her eyes were clear and was she able to smile and ask for her favorite book.

He returned to the company building. Surely things would be different now. The doctors had misread the tests. They had been wrong. Shara would be well. All she needed was some extra water. No more than a pod or two for a few days. GenTech surely had enough to spare. They had given him an extra glass only yesterday had they not?

He was turned away. The company man refused to listen; refused to even see him. The answer would be the same. There was no water to spare. They would receive their daily allotment at its appointed time, no more and no less. It was advised that he return home and bid his daughter farewell. It was also advised that he remember just what happened to water thieves of old. They were executed on sight.

He went to his work, watched, and waited. Supervisors walked the rows. They counted the boxes. Machines weighed the pallets. Everything was checked and double checked to ensure not a single ounce was missing. He had never paid attention before to how closely everything was monitored and guarded. Not a single movement was lost to the watchful eyes of those who guarded the water pods.

Jazel picked up a water pod and it slipped from his hand, falling to the floor. It hit with a slosh. Supervisors rushed over in a swarm, everyone on alert.

It was then that he noticed the gun. He caught the quickest flash of it under the jacket of one of the supervisors as he leaned down and over to pick up the unbroken pod. Jazel only recognized it because of the old movies he had watched. He had thought they had been all destroyed years ago. At least that was what the teachers had said.

Before he could say or think anything, another was asking him if he was alright. Was he ill? Did he need to go home and rest?

No, Jazel assured them. He had been merely lost in thought. His wife’s birthday was approaching and he was struggling to figure out what to give her as a gift. It would not happen again.

The answer seemed to satisfy. The pod had not broken so no harm was done. After admonishments to be more mindful and a few gift suggestions, the supervisors left back to their original posts and watches.

How was he supposed to get the water he needed for Shara? With supervisors that watched this closely and guns to kill, it looked hopeless.

Perhaps the company man had been right. Perhaps the kindest thing he could do would be to go home, hold his daughter tight, and give her the vial. Who was he to argue with doctors; with the company? If they said Shara would have no quality of life after her illness, would they not know best of all? Had GenTech not saved the world? Were they not versed in making decisions such as this?

And he was no thief. If he failed, he would be killed before he ever reached Shara with the water. What would it gain her? Nothing but a father to mourn before her own death. And where would that leave his wife? But childless and without a husband. Was it not better to grieve only one instead of two?

His daughter. His only daughter. He could not shake the images of her from his mind. He could not silence her laughter that echoed in the shadows of his memory. She was but a child; so young, too young.

He had to try.

He signaled to a supervisors. He was feeling faint, he explained. He had drank all his rations from the day before due to excessive working out in the yard, and now he was incredibility thirsty. Could some of his rations from later be given early now? In the state he was in, it was not hard to convince the supervisor that he did indeed some some water.

A small glass was provided to him. It would be noted and what he was given this evening would reflect the deduction he took now.

Jazel nodded his understanding and took the smallest of sips. It was hard, but he forced himself. Shara needed the water more than he.

He waited until the supervisors were turned away, then dropped to tie his shoe. In his palm were two water pods. He slipped them into the sides of his shoes, pulling pant legs down and over.

He repeated the process twice more. Each time he felt certain the pounding of his heart would give him away. Surely the supervisors would be able to hear it from their posts? He could hear nothing but. With each drop, however, he managed to slid the pods away. The last time, he pocketed the glass of water, dropping it into a small bag.

At day’s end, he went to file out with the rest of the workers. Jazel fought to keep his head up and gaze forward as he walked out of the door. If he didn’t look like he had anything to hide, then perhaps he just might make it through without notice.

Sunlight hit his face as he passed under the double doors.

He heard his name called along with the directions to stop.

Slowly, he did as directed, hoping his face looked suitability confused and not guilty.

Did he have any water pods on him? The sensors had detected water when he passed under.

The water from earlier. Jazel reached into his pocket and pulled out the small glass. He had but taken a sip. Not wishing to drink more than he needed, for water was precious, he had pocketed the remainder. It must have slipped his mind.

It was hard to tell if the supervisor believed him or not. He did not know if the sensor above the door told them how much water was on him. If it told quantity, all was lost.

The supervisor checked a read out on his tablet. He tapped the screen a few times. Asked to hold the water. Made a few more notes. Then handed the water back. Next time, he should declare such things before leaving. It threw the senors and caused more work.

Jazel apologized profusely. It would not happen again. It was one of those days. Tomorrow would be better.

Yes, the supervisor agreed, tomorrow would be.

Jazel left unable to believe that he had managed to do it. He had actually walked out with six extra pods of water for his daughter. That night, when added to the regular ration, there was finally plenty of water for all in his home to drink and be filled.

Jazel repeated the process over the next few days. Each time, he was successful. And every day, Shara grew stronger.

It came to its end.

Jazel had slipped ten pods away in specially concealed pouches he had brought for the day. It was to be his last day taking this risk. Shara was almost fully recovered. He had his water in hand and declared it before leaving that night. He passed the supervisor and his heart did not pound at all. The sensor he knew, read only that water existed, not how much.

He saw the company man walking towards him, two supervisors flanking, and knew he had been found out. Jazel didn’t even bother trying to defend himself. Instead, he asked just one question. If he was found guilty and killed as the law demanded, would his daughter be able to get his water rations?

The company man nodded.

Slowly, Jazel leaned down and pulled out the water pods, sitting them gently on the ground before him.

That night, a young water tree was delivered to his home.

*Winning Short Story on Reedsy
Categories
Science Fiction

Child of Night

The day the world ended was the day Joseph’s life began.

The red light winked to life, bathing his room and entryway in its soft glow. Joseph blinked several times, his eyes struggling to adjust to the intrusion of even this, the most gentle of lights. While many of the Night Children complained about the red light, Joseph found himself at odds. For the red light signaled more than just the Day Children’s arrival with their offerings of food and drink. It signaled the promise of Amina.

Joseph stood, smoothing his shirt. Today; he was going to tell her today. He pressed his lips and swallowed hard. He could think of no reason why he should be nervous. Amina wouldn’t laugh or call him silly. Surely, she felt the same way.

The heavy metal door swung open, gliding across the concert floor. Just as softly, in stepped Amina, her skirt flowing about her legs in what Joseph liked to image the swells of water at the ocean’s edge looked like. She smiled at him and warmth rushed through his inner most core to the very tips of his fingers and toes.

“Hello, Amina.” He was smiling like a fool and knew it. Today, he didn’t care.

“Hello, Joseph.” She nodded her head in greeting, sitting down her offering on the table. The smell of fresh bread and strawberry jam wafted up; his favorite. “I hope your day has been well thus far.”

“It has.” He swallowed again, rubbing his hands on his pants. “I finished the book you loaned me.”

“Oh?…And what did you think?”

“I think the people of Earth were unusual creatures.”

“They…were a fanciful people,” she agreed, pushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

Joseph watched entranced by her movements, the line of her neck. “Amina-“

“Today is the big day, Joseph.”

He frowned. “Today?”

“Today,” she echoed. She took a slow, steadying breathe. “You can already see it happening Outside.”

Outside; the one place he had never been. He knew about it. He knew because of his books, his lessons, and from Day Children like Amina. But never had his feet crossed the threshold between his home and there. Night Children were not able tread in that place; not yet. Outside belonged to those such as Amina. The care of Outside was theirs to tend until the Day of the Sleeping Sun.

Today.

How it could be today? Yes, he knew it would come during his lifetime. It was why he had been born; why he was a Night Child. The Day of the Sleeping Sun was the day the Night Children would be able to walk openly in the Outside. But for the Day Children, for Amina, it would mean… He shook his head, cutting off the thought.

“Outside is yours now,” Amina said.

Joseph could only look at her. How could she even think that, say that? Did she really think that was what his thoughts would turn towards? That he could be so shallow, so narrow minded?

She turned to him and he couldn’t help but note how her arms wrapped around herself. “You get to leave the Underground today. It is a good day.”

“Not for the Day Children,” he said.

“We always knew this would come. It’s how it’s always been on this world since time began. Day Children keeping the Outside during the Long Day and the Night Children keeping all well during the Long Night. You know this. All the preparations have been made and all stands ready. Once you go Outside, you’ll see. I even brought goggles for you. The sun is still too bright yet…but in a couple hours.” She smiled, but Joesph thought he saw a strain at the edges. “You’ll see.”

“I love you,” he blurted.

Amina’s smile reversed into a pronounced frown. “What? No, Joseph. You can’t.”

“But I do.”

“You have been Awake for barely two weeks. That is hardly enough time to know what love is.”

He blinked. His mouth opened to protest;  to seek understanding, to reaffirm his devotion. All these things he wanted to say and more, but nothing came. The words were gone, unreachable and foreign; just like Outside.

“Joseph, come now. Eat your meal. There isn’t much time.” Amina motioned to the food. “You’re needed to help us to our Rest. Others have already begun.”

“You gave me your books.”

“I let you borrow my books.”

“You remember my favorite foods.”

“It’s the common meal.”

“But you do love me?”

“Joesph,” Amina shook her head, “Day Children and Night Children cannot be together. I cannot survive the darkness of the Night. Just as you cannot the survive the light of the Day. We live in two different worlds.”

He looked down at the floor.”We don’t know that. No one knows that.”

“You’ve avoided the history lessons?” It wasn’t so much a question as a statement.

He rubbed his hands along his legs.

Amina looked at him, head tilted to the left. She shook her head, tsking softly behind her teeth. “We left the old Earth thousands of years ago. Those few who survived landed here. Turned Espera into our new home. Then they learned about the Long Day and the Long Night. How the moon and the sun exchange places, creating such extremes that the only chance to survive here was to become two different types of people.”

“Day Children and Night Children.”

She nodded. “And we trade places just like the sun and moon, always passing and never joining.”

“I love you.”

Amina sighed and looked away. “Eat your meal.” She placed a pair of goggles on the table. “I’ll wait Outside for you.”

She turned to go.

“No!” The thought of her going to into Rest was unacceptable. He could not let her go. He could not be parted from her. He would not. His hands grabbed at her shoulders, fingers digging into her flesh like hooks and pulling her back. He thought she cried out, but he could not hear it over the hammering of his own panic. He threw her bodily as far away from the door as possible. “You’ll stay here! I’ll take care of you and you’ll be just fine. You’ll be the one to see!” Though he knew he spoke the words, they sounded distant, like another’s voice.

“Joseph!”

He scrambled to the table, grasped the goggles, and flung himself out into Outside.

The light burned.

Joseph’s eyes watered and he shut them tight against the searing pain. Working through touch alone, he fumbled with the goggles, trying to put them on. Sounds and smells assaulted his  senses in an cacophony of stimulus. It was too much. It was too big. It was too overwhelming. If this was Outside, he wanted nothing to do with it. He turned to find a way back into his home.

“Joseph?” A familiar voice cut through the noise.

“Henry?”

“Here. Let me.”

Joseph felt Henry, a Night Child like himself, grab hold of the goggles and adjust them.

“There. You can open your eyes now.”

Joseph swallowed hard. He didn’t want to feel the pain again. But he couldn’t just stand here with his eyes closed either. Henry had not lied to him before. If Henry said it was okay and safe, then there must be some truth to it. Slowly, Joseph opened his eyes.

“Welcome to the Outside.”

Even with the dark lenses, it was still almost too bright for Joseph’s eyes. He blinked several times.

Slowly, his vision cleared. He saw Outside. It was huge.

His brain began matching images with names that he had learned in his lessons; rocks, grass, buildings, birds, clouds, and sun.

“Don’t look directly up,” Henry advised, “unless you wish to be well and truly blind. These goggles apparently aren’t light proof. Just enough to give our eyes protection while the transition takes place. From what I hear, this started some weeks ago. Today is the last of it, though. Darkness will overtake, and us Night Children will walk the Outside for the next hundred years or so.” He laughed, nodding his head. “Yes, indeed. All of this will be ours.”

“The Day Children?”

Henry shrugged, “Do their thing in their Rest like we did in ours, I guess. Come on,” he nodded away across an open expanse towards a squat building on the other side. “That’s where the Day Children will be staying and they need our help to tuck them in.”

It looked a long way and there was so little between here and there. “It won’t fall on us?”

“What won’t fall?”

Joseph pointed upward to the sky.

“Oh. No. The sky stays up there just like our ceilings. Had one of them tell me just to pretend it was a big, painted ceiling. It’s worked well enough so far.” Henry shrugged again and started off without a glance back.

Having no choice that he could see which did not involve him being alone, Joseph followed. He kept looking back to the door of his room, but Amina never showed. What had she said once? That it locked from Outside to prevent the Night Children from accidently entering the Day and being burned by the sun? Unless he or another opened the door, there was no way she would get out.

Amina could have her Rest there. He would take care of her. Bring her food and drink and more, just like she had done for him. She would not die. She would be fine and they could be together. He would love her and she would realize that not only did he speak truth to her, but that she loved him back. Joseph nodded to himself. Yes. That was how things would go and how they would be. Everything would be just fine.

All around, he saw Day Children converging on the building that he and Henry were headed towards. Some of them he knew, others not. Day Children of all ages, all moving to escape the Long Night through an artificial sleep known as cryosleep. For the next several hours, Joseph aided the Day Children, following the instructions in his books. Each one thanked him as they closed their eyes and drifted off to sleep.

Through it all, his thoughts kept returning to Amina.

“Why can’t you stay awake during the Night?” he asked of one man.

“Why couldn’t you stay awake during the Day?” the man replied with a laugh, settling himself into the sleep pod.

“The sun would burn us. Make us to go blind. Our bodies cannot live under the Day.” Joesph attached the sticky pads to the man which would monitor his vitals. Lights on a nearby panel started to pulse, affirming everything was set in place.

“Exactly. And we cannot survive the lack of Day.” He clasped his hand on Joseph’s forearm, an blotch of inky darkness to the near translucence of his own skin. “So, thank you. Mine and all my fellow brothers’ and sisters’ lives are in your hands until the Day dawns again.” He smiled at Joseph, rested his hands across his chest, and closed his eyes.

The Day Children could not survive the lack of Day. Those words haunted him as did Amina’s stricken face. But it didn’t make sense. The Night would not burn her. It would not do any physical harm to her at all. Had she not spent hours with him in his home with only the faint red light to give her enough to see by? Never had she spoken of ill effects or shown any. There would be food and water for her. He had seen the crops on his way over here and heard a river in the distance.

With those things, she would surely be fine.

She would come to see that.

She would become the first Day Child to show that they could survive and stay awake during the Long Night.  It would be a new era for this world. An era where he and Amina would be together.

That first night, she cried. She was scared. “Please, Joseph,” she whimpered, “I know you don’t think you’re doing wrong. But you’re killing me. Please. I need to enter the Rest.”

He merely shook his head. “Trust me, Amina. All will be well.”

The next day he brought her her books to read.

She refused to look at him.

Joseph comforted himself with the knowledge that this was all only passing. She would not avoid him like this forever. It was her fear that made her hostile and harsh against him. Once she saw that she would be fine, she would look and speak with him again.

In the meantime, he explored Outside. It was proving to be a place of wonder. Every day, Joseph and the other Night Children expanded and learned more and more about the world they had inherited from the Day Children and what was required of them to sustain that life. Joseph found that he particularly enjoyed working in the fields among the plants. Three quarters of the fields were thriving, their plants growing strong and well in the darkness which continued to grow as the moon finalized its replacement of the sun.

It was the remaining quarter that had him concerned. The plants there were starting to wilt and die. No matter how much he tended to them, how much water he gave them, how he moved and arranged them, they continued to grow increasingly weak and sick.

How like Amina who now never left the bed and barely touched the food he brought her.

Joseph knelt at the base of one of the sick plants. His fingers ran through the rich dirt. “I don’t understand. Why are you dying?”

“Lack of sun,” Henry’s voice answered him from behind.

Joseph turned and looked up.

Henry knelt beside him. “This plant? It’s a Day plant. Needs the sun to live. No sun, no life. Simple, see?”

“No. Why does it need the sun?”

The other man shrugged. “Just what the books say. Don’t bother wasting your time trying to get them to live.”

“There’s nothing that can be done?”

“Not that I know of. Seems to be the way of this divided world. Day or Night. Sun or moon. If you’re born under one, you can’t live under the other. Shame though.” Henry ran his hands over the delicate stalks. “Would have liked to really see this one. Pictures of it are so pretty.”

Like Amina was pretty.

Like Amina was dying.

Joseph swallowed, head bowed. He loved Amina. He couldn’t just let her leave and go to her Rest. He’d never see her, hear her, share with her again. He didn’t know if he could stand that. But by keeping her, he was killing her.

Either way, he lost her. The only question was how he was going to lose her.

“I have to go,” he said, standing.

“Sure. See you at dinner?”

Joseph nodded. His steps took him without having to look to his old home.

Amina was lying on the bed, curled into a tight ball. The food from yesterday still untouched. The books he had left her still right where he had left them. Not even a rumple of the sheet was different from when he had last come.

“Amina?” he asked.

If she heard him, she gave no acknowledgment.

“Amina!” he rushed across the space, nearly tripping over a chair in his haste. He threw himself beside her, hands seeking her skin, her pulse. “Amina!”

Her eyes blinked open, red rimmed from crying.

“Amina…I am….I love you.”

Her eyes looked at him for a moment, before sliding away to focus on some distant point beyond his shoulder.

“Amina.”

Silence answered him.

“I’m sorry. I…I can’t lose you. I can’t…I don’t know what to do,” he confessed. His head dropped limp, brushing his cheek against hers. Her breathe was faint, soft. He could hardly feel it.

He thought of the Day Child man. He thought of the Day plant. He thought of Amina.

He thought of himself. Alone and unloved in this strange Outside.

Was it better to be alone and unloved because Amina was safe in her Rest or because she had died in this room for lack of the sun?

Joseph sat there as the seconds slipped by one by one; unmarked and unheeded.

He heard himself say eventually, much to his own surprise, “I will take you to your Rest, Amina.”

She looked at him. Her lips pressed together and parted as if she wanted to speak. In the end, she only gave a small nod.

He picked her up, marveling at how light she was in his arms; no more than a heavy blanket. The journey to the Rest Hall as it was now named was swift and one in which he would later only remember her eyes, bright with unnamed emotions he couldn’t understand.

He found an empty pod for her and gently deposited her within. Joseph was quick to attach everything she would need for her Rest, hands moving almost of their own accord.

It was time.

All that was left was to touch the final button. The pod would close and Amina would enter her Rest which take her all the way through the long Night only to awaken again as Day dawned, years after his death, once more.

“I am sorry, Amina. I love you. Believe me, I do.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek.

As he moved to pull away, she whispered, “I know. Thank you.”

Joseph almost faltered in his resolve. He almost undid the wires. Almost picked her back up to take her back to the room. Almost.

Instead, Joseph pressed the button, watched the pod close, and bore witness as Amina, the last Day Child, drifted into dreamless slumber. He didn’t know what would become of himself in the time to come, but he would face the future and figure it out a day at a time.

Categories
Dystopia

Party of One

Jack woke to the birds singing outside his window. He stretched, arching his back, enjoying the sensation of muscles moving and pulling under his skin. He rolled his shoulders, opening his eyes and smacking his lips. Today was a day to linger and indulge in all things which brought pleasure.

“Good morning, little birds. Beautiful day to be alive, eh?”

A faint breeze moved the lacey curtains, bringing in the scent of sun and lilac. Clouds floated like white pieces of cotton candy on a stately parade across the ocean blue sky.

He folded his hands behind his head and enjoyed the private show put on by the wonder of nature. His eyes darted to the empty bed beside him. The comforter was pulled up and pillows already fluffed. Marcy was always such a stickler about making the bed, even when half of it was still occupied.

“Guess it’s time to rise and shine, eh?” With a chuckle, Jack pushed himself up and out of bed. He reached down and touched his toes, did a few waist twists, and stretched his arms. If it was good enough for the cats and dogs, it was more than good enough for him. Besides, he needed to do something to remain limber in his golden age.

The thought brought another chuckle. Sixty-six years old to the day. By goodness, there had been a time when he thought forty was one step in the grave. Twenty-six years past that and still on the move. He nodded to himself, feet padding to the bathroom. He paused before the full length mirror, “Why hello you, sexy thing, you.” He winked at his image and strolled on, whistle dancing off his lips.

He paused at the head of the stair, ears straining for sounds from the kitchen, radio, or TV.

All was silent and still.

The song paused for a perplexed, “Hmmmm.” Marcy must be at the store then. The ole gal was always chittering on about how it was easier to shop during the morning. Jack never found it problem no matter what time of day it was. As long as one knew what one wanted and went for just that then there was little occasion for frustration. Of course, asking Marcy to take a list and to stick to said list was like trying to herd cats. As long as the stores were able to invent new sales, his Marcy would have to hunt them all out before she could leave.

The kitchen was still silent twenty minutes later when a dressed Jack descended the stairs. Maybe she had decided to tackle all the day’s errands early then? He flipped on his grandfather’s radio. Static burst through the speaker, protesting and angry. He fiddled with the old knob, turning it across the stations, seeking some sort of music. Even that new soft rock was acceptable if the oldies station wasn’t on.

Everything was static.

“Finally gave up the ghost, eh?” Jack patted the well worn wooden curve of the radio as he clicked it off. “I’ll give you a look over later. See what we can’t do about that, eh? Remember, age is just a number and a mindset after all.”

He rustled through the kitchen, seeking nourishment and a strong cup of coffee; the type to put hair on your chest. Truth be told, he was a little put out that Marcy hadn’t at least put on the coffee before she left. While he never expected her to or demanded that she would, she normally did from habit. And he would have thought that today of all days, she would have made sure to have a pot ready and waiting for him.

“Must be a busy morning indeed,” he assured himself, measuring out the grounds. Just as well. He would rather have her out all morning and back home to rest and perhaps watch a movie or to two before dinner than to have her out in the traffic of the day. The city was getting far too crowded and dangerous for his liking. While he did enjoy being closer to the kids and grandkids, perhaps it was time to consider moving to the outskirts. Find a little plot on a few acres of land. Make a cozy little retreat. Get a few chickens. Oh, Marcy would love that idea.

Maybe there was something on the way up to the lake that would do for them. He’d have to ask Charles when we saw him next Monday at the golf club. Charles would know what was available up that way and what was worth having. If anything sounded good, he’d bring it to Marcy’s attention.

Jack opened a cabinet and frowned. The cereal was just about out. Hardly enough left for even a bowl. That was unlike Marcy to let it get that low. A stocked larder was the sign of a healthy family, as she was always saying.

Well, he reasoned, pouring the last remains into a bowl painted with child-drawn stick figures, it’d be filled up by tomorrow. That might be why she was running so late. Somehow the poor girl had let the larder run a little low and she was bound and determined to set things to right. Never one to let things sit or one to settle, his girl. Heaven knew, she was reason why his head was still on straight after all these years.

She hadn’t been feeling too well these last few days, now that he thought about it. Complained about her joints hurting and feeling a bit faint. He remembered her going off to Dr Yang’s to see about some pills or such. He didn’t seem to recall what she had said about her visit afterwards. He’d have to ask her about it.

Breakfast ended.

Jack checked the clock. It was closing in on almost ten and still no Marcy. He sucked on his bottom lip. Visiting the kids perhaps? Coordinating for a surprise for him later tonight? Trusting that he could keep himself entertained and amused until her return home?

Well, he would not bother or disappoint her. “I live to please, eh,” he informed the empty room. He even washed out his bowl and put it away. Marcy no doubt had a lot on her plate today and she would enjoy that he had been so thoughtful as to keep her from having to do another load of dishes. He had offered, more than once, to give her a dishwasher. But she always had some such reason why not. So he had finally let the topic drop. She’d let him know when she was ready for one.

In the meantime, he would take a look at the radio. See what parts it needed this time. Maybe go down to Henry’s and chat up the boys there for a bit while he bought the wires and other pieces needed to get the radio singing again. He could tinker all day if it came to that.

Hours passed and frustration began to grow. As much as he tinkered away, Jack couldn’t seem to figure out what was wrong this time. Everything seemed to be working. But every time he tested the stations, all he ever got was static. He almost went down to Henry’s a few times, but every time he pushed himself up to go, he thought, surely Marcy might be getting home soon. And if she came home with plans for him and he wasn’t here, he’d be in for it, his birthday or no.

“Well, girl, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said, leaning against the silent radio, “You’re bound and determined to embarrass me by making me call in a professional now, eh?” Jack shook his head. He’d see what Roger had to say about it. His son-in-law was a competent tinker in his own right. Surely he’d come over with Heather and the grandkids later tonight for a birthday supper. Between the two of them they’d get the radio going again. Or at least they’d have the problem figured out enough that he could get the needed parts the following day.

But there comes a time when a strategic break was called for. And this was it.

Still no Marcy.

Jack meandered over to the DVDs and tapes collected over the years. He’d watch a movie while he waited. Best to make it one he could stand to pause and walk away from. Just in case.

He made his selection, popped the tape in, and settled himself in his armchair.

The chiming of the grandfather clock in the hall woke him hours later. The movie had long since ended. The TV displayed nothing more than black, white, and gray lines chasing and dancing with each other over the screen.

“Marcy!” he called out, wetting his mouth with his tongue. Surely that woman was home by now. The sun which had started by peeking through the window to the left was now well beyond the right. Evening was on its way.

No answer.

Had she come and gone? It wasn’t like her to not wake him. Maybe she had tried and he had slept through it. That had happened once or twice lately. As much as age was just a mindset, there were some physical manifestations such as the afternoon nap that could not be avoided. He yawned and stretched, sitting up.

Maybe she had left a note.

Jack ambled back into the kitchen. The counter was as blank as he had left it this morning. His glass of water untouched by the sink. Marcy wouldn’t have left it there had she been home.

The first stirrings of doubt began to gnaw at his heart.

Well, if she wasn’t back yet, then that meant the mail was still outside. Maybe she’d be pulling up in the drive as he was out there. If not, he’d call her. See exactly what was keeping his bride out and away from the house today.

There was no mail in the box.

He knew he shouldn’t grouse or feel sorry for himself. But it was his birthday, after all. He’d expected to get a card from a few people like Pastor Mills and his wife, and his best friend Alex.

Speaking of which, he couldn’t remember the phone ringing even once. Heather always called. Why had his own daughter not called?

Jack sighed heavily, feeling the weight of sixty-six years settle on his shoulders. To be forgotten by all on one’s birthday was a most grievous affair indeed.

A flap of wing to his left drew his attention. So much that he did not notice the red piece of paper with a health warning from the CDC to stay inside and avoid all contact with others due to a deadly and highly virulent strain of the flu. “Why, hello there, little fella. Come to wish me a happy birthday have you, eh?” Jack crouched down.

The sparrow hopped a few times and let out a trill before flying away.

Jack watched it until it became lost to the thick leaves of the tree. He looked down the street for signs of Marcy, but there was none to be found. He sighed and went back inside.
His stomach grumbled, reminding him that he had slept through lunch and breakfast had been a small affair. Well, he’d set to fixing that right away, he would.

He returned to the kitchen, opened the freezer, and began the hunt for the ice cream. Once again, he was thankful for the decision to put solar panels on a few years ago. He’d never felt okay keeping up the search this long otherwise.

Jack found the carton and pulled out his prize. Marcy could grouse at him for ruining his supper all she wanted tonight. Today was his birthday and he wanted ice cream before dinner, he could and would indulge. It wasn’t like it’d be the end of the world or anything.

He piled himself a large bowl, covered it with enough chocolate syrup to drown a small army, and added a cherry. As he took it to the table, he hummed happy birthday to himself. He could start his celebration well enough on his own and the rest of his family could join him as soon as they arrived.

“Happy birthday to me, eh?” said Jack, the last man on the earth, as he raised the first spoonful and took a bite.

Categories
Dystopia

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