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Fiction Speculative

 Emilia.

 I found three pairs early that evening. They were lined up in a row behind the loose slat in the cupboard, right where my uncle hides the tuna cans that he's not supposed to feed to the cat. I stood there for quite a while, staring at the small round shapes, although I couldn’t quite make out the colors in the half-dark. There was the familiar jolt, the surprise followed by recognition, as it always happens. And, as always, something sweet and sandy burst in my throat, shrinking back into a tight ball of treacle. I clenched my teeth as the ball dissolved, and then I winced. It tasted like the metal of all memory, ferrous and red. 

 They were children's shoes. That’s it: just children’s shoes.

 They turn up in the unlikeliest of corners, in the houses of people whose children have long gone. The shoes are the size the children wore at their loveliest, at the point parents feel such utter certainty of loss that they welcome fear as a respite from their terrible knowledge. 

We tried to make sense of it, but eventually realized that the shoes themselves don’t matter. The joke would be as pointless with any other child object—a yo-yo, two rag dolls, one blue marble. And so the empty punchline is played on my uncle, and on the remnants of his wife, who was also a mother of three, and on the ones who made me. These small, shiny parcels have been turning up everywhere, in all the neatly lined-up houses in so many rows of so many towns, and sometimes they appear right before the scourge hits, so that when a parent finds them 

on a high shelf, 

or waiting patiently by the garden hose, 

or maybe even on a freshly made bed, 

he shall know without a doubt that white-hot sweet metal loss has paid him a visit.

Samuel

The third Tuesday of the month is Ride Your Own Pony Day at Camp Sojourner, and I get good tips. There's a lot of generosity going around on the third Tuesday. But the good will evaporates a few days later, when many reach expiration, and our rays of sunshine turn gray. No more chubby cheeks, you’ll see. It’s always a drag on team morale. There are other feelings, too, feelings like dread and pity and such, and some employees don't wait for protocol, taking matters in their own hands instead and disposing of the damaged goods behind the stables.

Compressed parenting means cramming as many rites as possible into these weeks. Rites, as we know, define lives. That’s what the boss says and that’s what we believe. Repeat Genitors have become experts at it, and they trust us to provide the best service on a consistent basis through every cycle. Our camp offers the widest variety of activities and learning opportunities that we know parents want for their child. There is virtually no limit to this virtual paradise created especially for your fleeting bundle of joy. They all send their kids to us, to Camp Sojourner, with good reason. 

You should see their faces when they get to ride their own pony. Jeremiah leads them into the riding ring --he's one of the few kids who've gone on past expiration-- and they just squeal with glee. Jeremiah gets a bit misty-eyed, too: he remembers being that age, just a few months back, and he gets so excited for the kids. And who wouldn't! Each of them is as unique as a snowflake, I like to say. That's what I tell people: they're one of a kind. 

It took us a while after the scourge took the country by surprise six years ago, but now we know a blessing when we see one. It’s a chance to fill our lives with beautiful snowflakes, and to make a decent living while we're at it, bringing smiles to everyone, doing it all over again every few weeks, and getting better at it every time. 

Dr. Clay.

Before the scourge, people say before recounting a memory of time. Before is the time back when there was time, what people cry out for in their sleep. Before is before the lapse. And yes, one could speak of a fall, but that sounds biblical, and this is not the apocalypse. What we have here now is no dystopia. There are no totalitarian regimes eating their own until there is just one (or maybe two, two of each) left. No, such a scenario would at least imply hope, or a fight for redemption, or even the possibility of revenge, but this is different. What we live now is a permanent after that does not move forward. 

 Some believe we have lost a dimension, and that events are no longer linked. Emilia says we live in a room where the nouns have killed off all the verbs. Others say it's the ultimate joke: time has been unleashed from space, it has gone insane, it has us in its grip, and we can't complain to the gods because time took them, too. Time has stopped for the men and for the women, but it slashes through our children in a cycle. That’s the only certainty we have, the only remnant of time's behavior as we used to know it. Our comfort lies in knowing that the cycle stops when death wins over decay, but this victory happens so rarely that most of us have lost faith in it.

The children don't stop coming to us. They keep getting born, growing old, and dying. In their compressed lifespan we turn once and again, even as we remain in the after, every second and every year, since we do not age. 

 Now here's a problem: our language doesn't work anymore. We don't have the words we need to speak of this, because we still refer to days and lease terms and last week, when none of that exists anymore, at least not for the women and the men.  

At some point, around six years ago, children everywhere began to get sick. Without warning, in a few weeks’ span, they all shriveled, from the Finns to the Malay. We eventually called this the scourge. 

There's always an event, isn't there, that marks the end of a time, and this time for good. An event like that needs naming. But remember that this is no dystopia, and there won't be any running through windy, empty, newspaper-littered streets, so we refuse to capitalize it. We call it the scourge, and we spell it out small and hard. 

The children were diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of progeria, even though few had the genetic markers. Some lived for months --and observers noted that the condition progressed at slightly slower rates in tropical climates-- but none were spared. The parents had more children after the first batch died, and none of those were spared, either. But as this was happening, all adults, childbearing or not, stopped aging. It seemed that any human over eighteen years of age at the onset of the scourge was safe. At first this just meant that they had time on their side; they could keep reproducing if they wanted, spawning batch after batch of soon-to-be-geriatric offspring in a seemingly endless loop, fueled by a hope for difference, for an exception that never came. 

Now, some of these adults have died. But dying comes in randomized bursts, so that every single one of its manifestations for the past six years has been sudden, and, of course, welcome. And something else has arrived with this. People know that sudden death will strike, and this certainty has given them the privilege to ignore it. The fear that waiting brings is over, as there is no end to anticipate, and they are freed in absolute randomness. But Repeat Genitors are the freest of all. They beget and consume the goods needed to love their senile children, cycle after cycle: a present that breaks their indenture to mortality.  

And once death comes to an adult, there are celebrations the likes of which we hadn't seen since the before. Relatives of the suddenly dead cry with relief, banners go up, silence and joy overwhelm their neighbors, monks chant. The now that never changes for the fully grown, the now that is only punctuated by the decomposition of their young, is finally torn, if only for a moment, with the death of a man or the death of a woman. 

(From Memory, Memoir, Memorial: One Doctor’s Quest, Price Publishers)   

Emilia.

There were two children. I saw them clearly, and I spoke to them and they spoke to me, clearly. But I seem to have been alone, and I seem to have known at that precise moment that it would be no use trying to get any of my classmates to remember, even if they were all around me on that heavy yellow day. 

It was hot and we were playing on the baseball field. We might have been doing something else, it was gym class after all: we would always walk from the elementary school building to the field across from the high school and do the things kids do at gym class, which might have included playing some game. We wore skorts and striped knee-high socks. My mother had promised to get me new sneakers that week: these were getting tight. I looked up and felt a thin ray of light shoot right through my temple. It was hot.

I wandered off, but I wasn't alone, I know that much. One or two kids came along, and we walked over to the far edge of the field, where the cyclone fence met with an abandoned property overgrown with ferns and tall weeds. The house was still there, charcoal gothic and creaking with rust and faint moans. Just as you’d expect,  

planks warped,

edges coiled, 

a faint patina of phosphorus limning the edges of still air, 

a structure (the house, these letters) 

with no more screws left to 

turn. 

I felt the house wobble and hum like a mirage in heat, sucking the shine out of that yellow day. And as I paced in dotted lines at the very edge of the mowed grass I came upon the fence, and touched the searing sweet metal, and saw the children, who looked me in the eye and smiled.

This is not a scene that turns in time, but a scent and its warm ribbon. The children smelled of something for which I still had no name. I somehow knew, even then, that this smell was not to be allowed in these bodies. It wasn't until some years later that I recognized it for what it was, the thing wrapped up in a bundle of dense vapor and heavy eyes.

I am there now. I don't recall it because I can’t evoke it, and I gave up on trying to recount what happened, because this is not a memory. Instead, I am there, breathing them. 

Now.

As I approach the fence they walk up to me, hand in hand, until we're so close that it would be a matter of choice --the only choice in this whole affair, it seems-- to join tip to tip, fingers gingerly grazing. But I stop for a moment, jerking backwards just a bit so that I can focus to look at them. Their skins glisten and sag under the weight of their eyes. They’re both wearing t-shirts that must have been white at some point and are now muted with use and dirt, and laced-up Buster Browns that seem too small for their feet. I recognize these objects that cover flesh and joint, layered and posed carelessly, like the folded edges of paper doll clothes. 

 Then I catch the air. They should smell of grass and the sweat of outdoor play, as we all did. Instead, what opens up there is a thing that grasps and hits and holds, flower of decay bright, scent humming in my temples like open treble clefs, and I can't help but place my face close to the fence, trying to drink in as much as I can without touching them, a burst echoed and pleasured, smelling with abandon. I see that they know what they do. They see that I see, and come over a little closer yet, placing their necks at just the right angle for me, barely a centimeter away, aiming to please. I breathe in the fetid water of abandoned lily vases, the dregs of a vial of ripe musk oil, the remains of a scene, years later recalled but now anticipated --now seen-- in which I found myself in a cocoon. I felt an immense happiness on the day I realized, years later, what the scent was, and I have spent most of my time since trying to meet them again, for I know they exist, and I am certain that these lovely children are the ones responsible for the scourge. 

Dr. Clay.

Agents point to the unsolved children apparitions of the 1970's as a possible catalyst for the plague that hit us years later. But these periodical, unexplained sightings, which raised no suspicions until months after the fact, when those who claimed to have seen the kids could not stop talking about them, are just a correlation. It's never been proven that the sightings caused, or even announced, the scourge. Unlike some of their UFO-viewing counterparts, the witnesses of child sightings were always alone at the time of the encounters: they had no companions to verify their claim and no associations of sympathizers, and perhaps because of this their obsession with the event grew a layer of sadness not found in the more paranoid, but supportive, guilds of the paranormal. Once a witness mentioned their encounter with a child to their friends or to the authorities, and took them to the house where they swore the child lived, a child they had never seen before but who’d seemed perfectly at home in the front yard, they saw no traces of kids anywhere. With no reported missing children in the area (a common source of confusion and false hope, especially in this age of milk carton alerts) they all knew --all of them, including the witness-- that this was a case of oculus infantiae, as it came to be known in the psychiatric community, but that little could be done to convince said witness of its hallucinatory nature.

(From Memory, Memoir, Memorial: One Doctor’s Quest, Price Publishers)   

Samuel.

We had a special guest at Camp Sojourner today. Frederic Price, CFO of Eternal Snapshot, came on a surprise visit and raffled off five discount passes to the studio headquarters in Purchase. The kids were thrilled. Why, I have to admit I was a bit star-struck myself. Price has single-handedly transformed the industry. He revitalized infantile dead photography, retrieving it from its nineteenth-century waste bin and adding cutting-edge technology and fresh attitude from the upcoming twenty-first. That’s what the promotional brochure he dropped off at the office says, anyway. It was Parents' Day today, too, so we were quite busy making sure everyone enjoyed themselves and the lucky winners didn't leave without their discount pass.  

I know of parents who have whole walls filled with portraits of the passed, Repeat Genitors who love their temporary charges so carefully, so gladly, that they have arranged for regular appointment times at the studio, where they spend a full half hour posing in their Sunday best: mother, father, and child-body dressed, propped up, eyes closed, smiles open.

Dr. Clay.

Emilia came to my practice at the onset, as an inexplicably unaffected fifteen-year old. Her two younger siblings had already fallen ill and died. Her parents reacted as expected: shortly after the deaths they fell into the usual wells of grief and refused to climb out. Within a few months they were declared clinically insane, and she went to live with her aunt and uncle, whose three young children were also stricken, one by one, in the space of a year. Emilia had already begun her sessions with me, and it's only natural that her weekly office visits transferred into the laboratory. It's also logical --necessary, considering the circumstances of a fertile young woman probably immune to the most catastrophic event known to man as of yet, and quite possibly hiding the key to escaping from this strange new ice age-- that I had to accept my duties and responsibilities, and that these consultations extended to daily sessions in my private quarters, and that it's absolutely mandatory to keep her safe until she finally bears fruit.

(Unauthorized notes, from Memory, Memoir, Memorial: One Doctor’s Quest, 2nd ed., Price Publishers)   

Emilia.

Dr. Clay just told me that the coupling was a success. He says we might break through evanescence, and never again face the brief children.

He sent out a press release to all of the news outlets, and word spread quickly. Camp Sojourner will close, Eternal Snapshot will shutter, and I shall be known as Emilia the Mother, for the cycles are at an end.

But I've just opened the door to the lab and smelled an air smelled of petals in vase water, thick and slow. I've walked over to the metal examination table and felt a gob of sweet acid burst in my throat.  

I've howled.

On the table is a pair of children’s shoes.

February 04, 2023 20:15

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2 comments

Wendy Kaminski
13:52 Feb 12, 2023

What an astounding story, Ana! I was in its grip fully, and the way you've presented it from three viewpoints was incredibly effective. This is such original story-telling, and what a unique approach to the prompt, too - I don't want to say it was awesome, because of the subject matter, but I was enthralled! So many great lines in there, too; a couple of favorites: - parents feel such utter certainty of loss that they welcome fear as a respite from their terrible knowledge. - Emilia says we live in a room where the nouns have killed off al...

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Ana Marina Rúa
20:15 Feb 12, 2023

Wendy, thank you so much for reading, and for your response! I had been looking into Reedsy a while back, on the recommendation of a few members of a writing group, and found this writing prompt intriguing. This story is the opening section of a novella I have been working on for quite some time-- I just can't get myself to the point of finishing it and finally having a manuscript. In my case, since I summoned these (persistent) visitors, I don't mind the Repeat Genitors, but frustration with my stop-and-go writing pace is definitely someth...

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