What You Leave Behind

Submitted into Contest #160 in response to: Set your story during a drought.... view prompt


Science Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

“Mom! Mom!”

I woke abruptly to the panicked whisper of my ten-year-old, Benji, who was also shaking my shoulder.

Adrenaline shot my body upright and I grabbed his hands, which had started to move toward his temples.  Pulling out his hair was a fairly new development, gradually worsening after the death of his father, my husband, six months ago.  He had started with pulling out eyebrows, then eyelashes, and had recently started with the hair at his temples.

Fear bloomed in my chest, but I shoved it down and gentled my grip on his hands, shifting into soothing mode.

“Shhh shhh shhh,” I whispered back, “it’s ok it’s ok it’s ok it’s ok it’s ok,” a litany of soothing, although I had no idea what was wrong.

I moved my hands around Benji’s thin body in a hug and could feel him shaking with quiet sobs.  I stood and picked him up under his armpits, carrying him on my hips like when he was small, and moved into the living room.  My five year old Ruby slept on in the bed next to where I had lain.

I could tell from the light coming in the back windows that it was early morning as I settled into our old rocking chair, the chair that had nurtured all three of my children.  He was much bigger now, but adjusted by curling himself sideways into my chest, my arms around him, rocking, rocking, rocking while he cried.  I smelled his hair as I rocked, we had just washed yesterday, using an obnoxious amount of water. He smelled sweet, a reminder of better times.

When at last the crying had slowed, he said in a small voice, “Mom, I forgot. I forgot to put out the collectors last night.”

And my heart simultaneously broke and froze in fear.  The collectors.  Shit. This meant we had to go to the river today.  Every night, as part of his chores, Benji put out the collectors that pulled water from the surrounding air and gave us (barely) enough water for the day: for us and for the garden and the precious chickens that kept us alive.

Except last night.  Which meant we had no water because we had used it all washing yesterday and were counting on the collectors today for more.  Poor Benji, he should never had had to carry this burden, should never have had to grow up this fast.  If I had believed in a God, I would have yelled at Him non-stop for the shit we were going through now.

Fatigue filled my body while my eyes filled with tears.  Going to the river was a two to four hour project and was fraught with danger from people who wanted take what you had, like Tony.  I kept rocking, “it’s ok it’s ok it’s ok”.

We were soon joined by Olivia, my eight year old, coming into the room, rubbing sleep from her eyes.  She saw us sitting in the chair and came to wrap her thin arms around us both, humming a song we had learned when camping once, something about the worms crawling in and the worms crawling out.  She was the nurturer and comedian in our family, and the absurdity of that song appearing now at such a serious moment caused us all to giggle.  We sat there for a moment laughing quietly and trying to remember the words to the song when Ruby starting wailing, “MOMMA! MOMMA WHERE ARE YOU I’M SCARED!!!!”

Gently removing myself from the sweet kid cocoon, I collected Ruby and we started our day. I could tell from the light coming in the back windows that we needed to get a serious move on if we were going to make it to the river and back safely. “The early bird gets the worm”, and all that.  In the Sacramento Valley in late August, that meant get to the river in the morning before it’s a million freaking degrees in the afternoon.

Ruby went outside to get eggs from the chickens for breakfast and Olivia gathered some purslane for a little extra nutrition.  Purslane was a “weed” that I used to pull out of my garden in the time before.  But now I saw it as a particularly advantageous thing in the dry environment of California’s Sacramento Valley, as it grew obnoxiously well just about everywhere in our yard with very little water.  It was versatile, you could eat it raw or cooked, and nutritious.  The kids had learned to eat it without complaint. Olivia even joked about “weed salad”.  The apples were getting ripe so Benji climbed the tree and carefully picked four of them from the higher branches.  We would harvest more of them on a day when we had time to put them in the solar dryer.  Today, we were going to the river.

After seeing the headlines for monkeypox for months, the now rapidly mutating disease had made the leap to deadly virility and proceeded to wipe out at least 60% of human beings on the planet (who knows what the count is now, there’s no one around providing updates).  Now, we had very few neighbors and no services or infrastructure left.  All of the neighbors we had been friendly with before were either fled or dead.  We were either lucky or unlucky to be some of the survivors, depending on how you looked at it.  John and I had been able to expand our garden and chicken population so we were just about self-sustaining.  Except for the water.  California had already been in a megadrought prior to monkeypox and it hadn’t gotten better with time.

This morning, as I now did every morning, I checked the “perimeter” of our space.  Our nearest neighbors in all directions were gone and we had slowly removed the fencing between our yards to make more rooms for the chickens and garden that were our survival.  I was looking for holes that coyotes or dogs may have dug, trying to get to the chickens, for weak spots in the wood, for signs of rats’ nests, for any sign of Tony terrorizing us again.  Once he had nailed the rotting body of a coyote to the fence, blood, flies, and a ghastly smell collecting on the corpse. One day after he had killed John, Tony had jammed the head of one of our neighbors on one of our fence posts, as if he was saying, “you’re next”.  Poor Olivia had had nightmares for weeks.  Now I took the perimeter and the nightmares.

After breakfast, we geared up for the trip to the river.  Ruby and Olivia had taken the news with good grace and were putting on their river clothes and homemade holsters for their knives.  We had made the holsters out of old soda bottles, yarn, and belts. The knives were our kitchen knives: a paring knife for Ruby, an 8” chef’s knife for Olivia.  Over the last two years, I had gotten more used to my kids carrying weapons, but my heart still hurt at the necessity.

For Benji and me, we carried our two handguns. Both had been purchased by John the year before monkeypox, John and I had joked he must have had a premonition of things to come.  They were small, 9mm caliber, so that me and the kids could use them. We had run out of ammunition not long after the power grid and the water system had gone off line nearly two years ago, but so far no one else has figured that out and tended to leave us alone.  When this whole thing had first started, John said we couldn’t trust anyone but ourselves. Now,  after run-ins with Tony and others, I felt suspicious of just about everyone.

We packed our red Radio Flyer with two large empty plastic water bottles, the ones you used to find at office water coolers.  To avoid having people know we’d left our home unguarded, we made it a habit of not walking openly down the street, and therefore headed out of our previous back neighbors’ gate to the street behind us.

The kids were quiet.  They knew that danger came from other human beings.  They haven’t forgotten the times we ran into Tony on our way back from the river or from foraging from other houses.  Even though we were always on the lookout, he tended to ambush us, even when John was alive.  He grabbed whoever was nearest and held a knife to their throat, demanding whatever we had with us and sometimes more.  He has consistently demanded a “safety payment”, and unfortunately, we have had no choice but to comply.  Our partially burned garage served as testament to what he would do if we didn’t keep giving him our hard-earned resources.

Tony had been a bully before the plague and surviving had just made him worse.  It made you wonder about God. Why had Tony survived and so many other good people had not?   Why had my husband John been killed and Tony had not?  I was pretty sure Tony had killed John, but there was no justice in this new world, at least not the police and jail, trial and prison sort.  I couldn’t even see karmic justice, because Tony was still alive, and seemed to be thriving.  Fucker.  Once, he had tried to rape me.  Luckily, I had a sharp knee and good aim.  Two days later, John was dead.  That was no coincidence.  As far as predators went, Tony was worse than the coyotes that lived here and near the river.

I looked at my quiet serious children, with their knives and gun and my mama heart was proud and sad.  No noise, no play dates, no friends, just survival.  We still had each other, which was enough for now. It had to be.

We all listened and looked before we hurried to the next yard across the street. Benji pulled the wagon.  Olivia was the look-out in the lead.  I held Ruby’s hand and we brought up the rear.  

By working our way through gates and backyards we had previously used, and minimizing the vulnerability of the open space of the streets, we made it safely to the railroad levee.  Going up and over was easier in this direction, when the water bottles were empty. It would be more challenging the other way.  I breathed a little easier when we were in the open space by the river.

Getting to the river and filling the water bottles was thankfully uneventful and we soon found ourselves heading back to our house.

Across the street from the last yard we needed to cross to get back, Olivia’s hand shot in the air, stopping us all in our tracks.  I inched forward and her whisper floated to my ear, “Tony.”  Double God damn mother fucking hell.

I moved as quietly as I could to peer out of the crack between the boards of the fence and sure enough, there that fucker stood, walking down the street like he owned it.  He was carrying three dead chickens.  AND OUR BACK GATE WAS OPEN.  That asshole had stolen OUR chickens!  Rage filled my body and I now knew what “seeing red” was all about. I found myself reaching for the gun and Olivia’s knife.

“Mom, no!” Benji’s whisper was frantic, his hands agitatedly pulling his hair.

“Benji, you’re in charge. Girls, do what Benji says,” just like I was stepping out to run an errand and putting the oldest in charge.

Ruby burst into tears and I almost stopped, almost.  But this man, this absolutely terrible man, needed to GIVE ME BACK THE CHICKENS.  THOSE WERE MY KIDS’ CHICKENS HOW DARE HE!!!?!?!?!  I stepped into the street armed with the unloaded gun, the knife, and my stubborn rage and strode toward him.  I didn’t have a plan, which was stupid, but part of “seeing red” means that you become somewhat of an impulsive idiot.

“GIVE ME THOSE CHICKENS BACK!” I screamed and he turned toward me.  His stupid smirking face said, “Fuck you” or maybe it was “Make me” or maybe it was “I killed your husband too, what are you going to do about it?” I really have no idea, because anything he said short of, “So sorry! I must have made a mistake! Here you go,” would have been the wrong thing.  At that moment, I was madder than I had ever been in my life.  This man had killed my husband and was now threatening the very survival of my children.

I pointed the gun at him.  “Give me the chickens or I’ll shoot you!”  I could hear the shrillness in my voice, the desperation.

Tony just laughed and turned away.  With the chickens.

That was it. I lost whatever I had left of any self-control and rushed at him.  He half turned before I sank the knife in his shoulder.  He screamed.  I screamed and fought to pull the knife out.  His fist lashed out and connected with the side of my head, snapping it to the side and as a bonus, the knife came free from his shoulder with the impact. Ear ringing, I did what any woman would do who is confronted with a dangerous man: I rushed close and brought my knee hard into his groin.  He, in time-honored tradition, bent over double and rolled onto the ground. I pulled his head up by the hair and drew the knife sharply across his throat, as if I were killing one of the chickens.  Blood spurted, Tony gurgled, and I moved back quickly as he thrashed until the blood reduced to a bubbling froth and then he was still.  The metallic smell of blood surrounded me, it was on my hands, my clothes, in my hair, and all over the ground.  My stupid first thought was, we’re going to need more water to get this blood off of me.  Then I collapsed to my knees and vomited, adding to the nightmare of the scene around me.

There is a saying that when God closes a door, He also opens a window.  First of all, what the fuck with the capital He and second, I don’t think God is a he. At that moment, God opening a window was most definitely manifest in the female form of a woman appearing suddenly next to me in the weedy street.

“Hey hon, I’m Anne,” she said, all casual-like, as if we were just meeting on the street and making small talk.  “Can I help you move him?  He’s not worth digging a hole for.”

My rage drained away and I began to weep. I had killed a man, not that he hadn’t deserved it, but my kids were watching and what had I become?  Anne squatted down and, despite the blood, wrapped her arms around me and rocked with me, “Shh shh shh It’s ok it’s ok it’s ok” over and over.

“Momma?” Benji’s voice was hesitant.  I raised my head at the sound of his voice. “I didn’t let them watch, none of us saw anything, but we’re glad he’s dead.”

I took a deep breath and reset myself.  “Oh sweetheart, you did wonderfully, I’m so sorry this happened…” tears were forming again.

“Mom,” Benji said. “I’m NOT sorry! But we might have to go back to the river for more water to get the blood off.”

I couldn’t help it, I laughed.  “I had the SAME THOUGHT kiddo!”  And things were ok again, except for the inconvenient body at my feet.

I looked at Anne, she looked at me.  Her brown eyes were kind, laugh lines radiating from the corners of her eyes.  She was about my age, 40-ish and her light brown skin was faintly glowing, like a freaking angel.  “He’d make a good snack for the coyotes by the river,” Anne said.  “He can finally contribute something to this world.  Let me get my kids and we can all go together.”

She had kids! A possible friend for me? Friends for the kids? The view from this new window had become dazzling.

But she wasn’t done.  “I noticed you have chickens hon.  Would you be interested in trading eggs? We keep bees.”

I grinned, I couldn’t help it. The world had just become so much sweeter. 

August 26, 2022 15:44

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