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General

Only little shadows of whistling gray signaled there was Elsewhere beyond the grocery store doors. Violent flurries of frozen cloud descended upon the remains of the little town outside, mutating into a scene of almost still whiteness. I was alone, austere grey walls wailing against the blizzard outside. 

Somewhere there was hope. And it was out there - not just outside the walls in which I sheltered myself for the day - but outside this godforsaken town. 

However sure I was that it was out there, I knew I wasn’t bound to find it. 

I shouldered my crossbody satchel as if I had Somewhere to go to beyond the wall of raging white. If “Through,” was a destination, that was where I was headed. Whether I reached this mysterious place was not necessarily considered a goal. “The End,” was yet another working title. 

I walked toward the automatic doors, heart swallowing my throat, when I heard it. 

Someone sneezed. 

It was such a tiny noise, I almost thought I imagined it. I tried to convince myself that it was only a mouse. If I made the sound more ignorable, then I could leave and finish what I set out to do at the first. But the question of, “Do mice really sneeze?” had me wandering towards the noise in order to see if the phenomenon could at least be observed if and while it existed. 

There it was, bundled up on the floor like a trash parcel of old Christmas tissue paper. It was unmistakable for what it was, given only that a tiny white knit cap was fastened around its forehead. 

A baby. Two beady eyes blinking. Or squinting, more like. A miniature mask was fastened round it’s red little face. The words “Take Care,” were scrawled across the blue paper folds. I was unclear as to whether this was a farewell or an instruction. 

But the two black eyes continued to blink at me. Quietly judging. After a moment it occurred to me how thoughtful it was to abandon the child with a mask tailored to its doll-sized face. 

I stared. The bundle blinked. 

Blizzard blazing, white cavernous halls of old lives sinking into emptiness, I couldn’t help feeling responsible for yet another solitaire being. I unwound the satchel bag from my shoulders. It slunk to the floor with more finality than I had any energy to emit myself. 

“Well, fuck.” 

I folded into a sitting position. Perhaps getting on the thing’s level would help me understand better what it was doing there. 

(Other than the obvious.) 

“You, too, huh?” 

It blinked at me. 

“You really ought to broaden your vocabulary.” 

The light beyond the storm was fading to blue. I ransacked the candle aisle, and lit up a fairy circle of scented flames around the two of us. 

“It’s sort of like camping,” I said to the blinking bundle. “Except, instead of us gathering around the fire, we’ve gathered the fire around us!” 

I sounded just as convincingly cheerful as my father when I accidentally shaved off half my eyebrow last summer. 

“It’ll grow back, honey,” he tried assuring me, ducking behind his hand to unsuccessfully conceal his laughter. My expression of grief was all the more grotesque thanks to the mutilated eyebrow, and the man couldn’t help laughing harder as my face seemed lost halfway between misery on the one side and permanent surprise on the other.  

“I wonder what your name is?” I pondered aloud, absently scratching an eyebrow. We studied each other’s faces for a moment. 

“I wish I knew what you were - although I suppose I shouldn’t assume.” 

I said this conversationally. As if the child would nod sagely at my progressive understanding of its autonomy, and reply back. It blinked pointedly. 

“I’m not going to check, though!” I replied quickly. “No, no...won’t come to that...I’m sure.” The uncertainty was clear in my voice. 

As the temperature dropped I added a table top grill to our circle. Some synthetic logs flamed to life on it. I was unsure how well this contraption would work for us. I figured I would just slam the lid shut if the flames got too out of hand. 

I tried some names on the baby, but it wasn’t quite like naming a cat. A cat would look at you once you guessed their name right. Horace, Maggie, Rodney and Katherine didn’t seem to fit. The thing just blinked endlessly at me; strangely, unwittingly quiet. 

I sat rippling the old newspaper with which I tried unsuccessfully to start a decent fire before finding the logs in Gardening. Maybe I would find a good name for the beady-eyed bundle somewhere in the ink-soot of last week’s news. 

Thousands Escape Harvesting the headline read. Splashed across the front page was a black-and-white photo of a man with a face contorted in anger, one finger raised in admonition of the outrage. 

I chuckled grimly at my faceless celebrity appearing in a local headline, however outdated. 

“We’re two out of thousands, Julie.” 

No. That name didn’t work, either. 

I tried Susan, Paul, Phyllis, and Jesse. Andy was a close call, but that led me to Buzz Lightyear (which of course I’d never disassociate) so I moved on to names of old classmates. I got as far as Adam Andrews and Sarah Burkhart before realizing naming a baby after the dead seemed a little too Brontë for me. I almost named it Gerber while shopping the baby food aisle during a lunch break.  

“S’why you don’t shop hungry,” I waxed eloquent. 

I considered solid knockouts like Ermengard, Menkis, Sybil and even Hieronymous. Looking back, I suppose Odysseus would have been the most suitable. 

Whatever it’s name, the small thing passed a solid during our deliberation and I almost named him something more colorful given the noisome episode he put me through. I disposed of the the soiled diaper in a dumpster on the utility aisle before returning to his makeshift nursery and the crib I had assembled for him from the fine selection in the store marked “Baby”. 

I tossed a few more duds around - Noah, Gertrude, Jill, Calvin, Hermetica - before finally settling on Murphy. After all, it was by his law the two of us wound up in this predicament together. 

I continued to read. Masks were exposing more citizens to infection as people reused their old ones instead of disposing of them properly or washing the reusable options. 

The President released an official outline of how to spot a potentially infected patient, whether they were an antibody carrier (it was cleverly titled Know Your ABCs!), and how to report them to the nearest Harvester’s station. Our closest service location was eight miles on the other side of town. I made mental notes as to what was the opposite direction. 

I turned to the funnies section. I already knew the signs of an infected person. Mom’s mask had bled right through on the first fateful cough. Dad’s paper mask looked like it had sprouted freckles, like a robin’s egg. 

It wasn’t until Murphy and I were waking to the third day of the storm when I saw it in the dim light. 

Little brown flecks on his paper mask. And suddenly the message of “Take Care,” was no longer a plea, but a warning. 

Take Care: 

Infected patient. 

Take Care: 

Do not get attached. 

For the first time in those three long days of changing diapers; of hunting and gathering baby food, formula, wipes, and rash cream from the grocery aisle stock; of touring him through the tiled lanes in a stroller as I would through a park; of trying all the cutest baby clothes on him from the baby section - he cried. 

No amount of pats or cooing would soothe him. He screwed up his red little face and wallowed for a full two hours. 

I was rocking him in my arms, his soft head under my chin, humming tunelessly. Something dropped onto my thumb and I jerked my hand down to dislodge whatever bug had alighted there. 

The dot had no body to it and immediately melted to one side. I looked into Murphy’s face. One long dribble of blood spilled out of his nose. He sneezed. 

We would no longer walk the opposite direction. The only way to save him was to bring him to the station. 

I blew out all the candles. I threw the remains of last night’s dinner into the dumpsters. I lined my satchel with a few outfits of baby clothes. Looking out the windows at the frigid calm, I began to shiver. Yet again, Murphy was in his knit cap, his doll-sized mask, wrapped up like a Christmas parcel. A scarf was added round the top for extra protection. 

Trudging listlessly in the right direction, I was not expecting the blizzard to return. Once storms are died down they are supposed to stay that way. 

First the wind kicked up. Then suddenly it was a gale. Snow shoved itself up my sleeves and into my socks. I hugged my Christmas parcel as tight to my chest as I dared without crushing it. I bent my shoulders and lowered my head towards Murphy’s. My hood hovered low enough to cover the opening I knew his face breathed out of. 

Step after step after step after step. Wind over wind over wind. Gale through gale through gale through gale. Step-crunch, step-crunch, step-crunch. 

I don’t know how long I had been at it when a particularly violent gust of wind stole the breath right out of my mouth. 

I tried to cough, to regain control of my own lungs, but it was no use. I was drowning in air. It poured down my throat, a gush of snow and winter. My knees buckled and I hit the ground hard, twisting to avoid squishing poor Murphy. 

I gave up the chase. The world was a howling volcano of sound and buffeting ice. It was an Olympic maneuver, but I managed to shove Murphy-the-Christmas-bundle down my jacket in hopes when they found my body, at least he might have had a chance at surviving against the storm.  

I don’t remember them picking me up. I don’t remember the snowmobile ride. I don’t remember the storm settling or the dawn rising. I don’t remember them taking Murphy from me. 

I blinked my eyes open in a yellow lit trailer office of some kind. The heat was blaring. Strangely unbearable. Rather peevish of me considering I just survived a snowstorm. 

No luxury is a comfort when you are prisoner. 

“This one’s an ABC,” I heard a nurse explaining to someone in a white jacket. “No reason to keep one here. I say, let’s send this one up with the others for immediate harvesting and call it a successful raid.” 

I blinked. The cold wet of my eyelashes hitting my cheeks jostled a memory....

Black eyes. 

The emptiness in my arms woke me faster than an ice cold splash to the face. 

“Where’s Murphy!” I shouted, slurring gloopily. My brows furrowed as I tried to understand my own language. 

“Oh, look they’ve come to,” said the nurse. She strode over and immediately inspected my eyes. She asked no permission, just grabbed either side of my temples and spread my eyelids up, down, and around for signs of popped blood vessels. 

Sloppily, groggily, I waved her away. 

“Where’s Murphy?” This time the question was clearer. 

The nurse bent over with her hands on her knees as if talking to a very small child. 

“Do you mean the baby?” 

I blinked at her, trying to remember if that’s what I meant. 

“Is that what you call the baby?” the nurse repeated. 

I nodded. My mouth was cotton. There was no use trying to say more. 

The nurse stooped down and patted my leg. Vaguely, I remember trying to kick her, but only managed to bounce my knee instead. 

“Poor thing. Was blue as a blueberry when we managed to wrestle him from your jacket.” 

She might as well have said “blue as a blueberry,” as impetuously as if she had said “cool as a cucumber.” I have never wanted to punch someone in the teeth more so than in that moment. 

I demanded to see Murphy. She said she was afraid it was quite impossible. I said she’d be afraid of a lot more if she didn’t take me to Murphy right now. I didn’t care what color he had turned, just let me see him damnit. 

She stood up, clasped her hands, and pursed her lips. It was an altogether smug, almost triumphant look.  

“You can’t see him. This...Murphy, as you call him....he’s been incinerated.” 

“You had him...? He’s—?” 

“Incinerated.” 

I stared, unblinking. 

“It’s unfortunate,” she continued, an air of ravenous insolence about her smirking lips. “The little thing was just like you. Perfect ABC. Ripe for harvesting. The nosebleed was a little concerning, but turned out benign. Thanks to you, we managed to salvage a few parts before disposal.” 

I was catatonic even unto the very moment they loaded me into the truck. 

“The President thanks you for your service to science.” 

The howling wind muffled with the banging shut of the door. Three pairs of feet shuffled mindlessly on the metal flooring, nowhere to go. A black ice chest glared unblinkingly at me from the corner. I stared back.

At the end of it all, the only thing on repeat in my brain was the revelation: 

I never told him my name. 

I never told him my name. 

I never told him my name. 

July 25, 2020 10:56

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13 comments

Pragya Rathore
16:57 Aug 15, 2020

WHOA! This story is awesome! It has elements of repetition and reads like a poem. Such haunting beauty in your prose. This is the best interpretation of this prompt I've read yet. I loved it!! If you get some free time, please check out my stories too :)

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Velma Darnell
18:30 Aug 12, 2020

The way you describe the events is amazing! It actually helped me easily imagine the story in my mind. I enjoyed reading this. Great job, Maria! p.s. I would appreciate if you could read my story "A Lifelong Journey" when you aren't busy, thank you!

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Vicky S
21:11 Aug 09, 2020

Really enjoyed your story. Especially the description used

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Maria Hefte
00:15 Aug 12, 2020

Thank you!

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Doubra Akika
13:01 Aug 08, 2020

Wow! I love your style of writing. It was so easy to read and understand. I was able to follow the story till the end. The humor wasn’t overdone towards the end and felt like the perfect amount. I felt shivers reading this🤣. Wonderful job! If you’re not too busy, I would really appreciate your feedback on one of my stories. Thanks and God bless you!

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Aditya Pillai
07:41 Aug 08, 2020

Wow, what a story. I love your style. The detail, the pacing, the ending - it was all so great. The sprinkle of humor works really well. The repetition of that haunting ending is powerful. This was a great read. I would love it if you could check out my latest!

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Deborah Angevin
23:51 Aug 06, 2020

A wonderfully written story, Maria. Loved every bit of it; I enjoyed reading this! Would you mind reading my recent story out, "(Pink)y Promise"? Thank you :D

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Jonathan Blaauw
17:31 Aug 06, 2020

This reads like a professional story. I don't know how you (and the pros) do it, but it's beyond being easy to read, it demands to be read. The overall feel, especially towards the end, is heavy, and you contrast that spectacularly earlier on with some humorous inserts. It works so well. My favourite is how you use 'take care'. In having your character debate the two meanings, you make the reader forget the obvious third meaning - beware! Brilliant! This is so, so good. Please write more stories.

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Maria Hefte
18:17 Aug 06, 2020

I appreciate the feedback! Yes, the ‘take care’ was a personal favourite, as well. Thank you for taking the time to read it!

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Thom With An H
22:58 Aug 05, 2020

You have a gift for description. I got cold reading this story. I also like stories that keep me uneasy from start to finish. Check. I’m looking forward to your next story.

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Maria Hefte
17:00 Aug 06, 2020

Thanks, Thom!

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M Daly
21:48 Aug 05, 2020

Great story Maria! I really liked the twists and the pacing was very good. Keep writing!

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Maria Hefte
22:56 Aug 05, 2020

Thank you!

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