From the author: After the apocalypse, a mother and her family find themselves self-sufficient in terms of their energy and food needs, yet facing their ultimate demise. They struggle with, and face, their own cultural prejudices to create hope for the future.
I'm lying on a cot I set up in your office, Jack, and I see the moon through the window, white as milk. It's full and round and smiling, and I wonder if it's an omen.
I'm surrounded by you, by your things. Your computer. Your radio receiver, blank, silent. Your maps of the farm and the county, grain charts, memos on the bulletin board, all silver and shadow. The office smells of you, still. Sweat and dust. I think of the times I lay in your arms, wet with our love-making, and now I lie on this cot, here, in your office, with another man's seed inside me.
Am I becoming pregnant? I'm thirty-eight. What are the chances?
I did what I thought I had to do.
Now I wonder, how much damage have I done? I feel . . . empty and alone and as far away as that moon sailing in its sea of stars.
Today plays over and over--
The office. Sweltering. Me, scanning radio frequencies. Again. Still. Full to bursting with the frustration of it, stretched thin in circles within circles of vexation.
I was looking out the window, watching Julie wash the thresher, playing the spray over the fenders. She'd been mowing hay all day. Amazing what the children have learned to do. She's twelve, now. You remember how that fine desert dust needs to be rinsed away? It's August, Jack, and so dry, so hot on the compound where the sun's been beating down.
I caught David from the corner of my eye, walking from the generators with his head down in that focused way he's had since he was two years old--working something out, a more efficient way to do the monthly maintenance on the solar cells, maybe--and Julie flicked the spray on him. She soaked him, head to foot, then she laughed, falling over herself, spray flying everywhere. I couldn't help but smile, watching him wrestle the hose from her and chase her to the other side of the thresher. When was the last time they played like that?
I switched off that horrible hiss of the radio so I could hear their laughter. Then, goddamn it, I cried. It made me angry with myself that I couldn't just enjoy a moment of pleasure without tears springing from my eyes. Goddamn it.
Why? I wasn't crying for William, lying in my arms with those horrid pustules all over him. Not even for you, Jack, and your strength, that I've missed, every day, for the last four years.
It's like--how do I explain? Like trying to hold wooden shutters closed in a wind storm. First an image seeped through: William in his coffin. Then a thought: who'll bury the last of us? Then the whole confused jumble of what-ifs and should-we's and if-onlies came tumbling down.
You and I understood--I think--what the loss of all those other people meant, but we never talked about it. Back when the radio, T.V., net, first went dead, remember? We wondered what happened but we didn't prepare. Even in that time that followed, when the farm became a fortress and there was nothing we could do to help all those people, and our own barley fields became a war zone? We should've figured out what was going on and made plans. But it took time for us to realize we were on our own. Did we ever realize it? We never discussed the future, not in terms of how we would cope when it came. It was left to me to figure out what to do, on my own.
And today, Julie had her first period. I realized, I couldn't procrastinate any more.
"Mom?" Little Sara's voice, calling on the intercom from the kitchen. "Supper."
I looked out the window. Julie and David were gone, washing up for dinner. I wanted to stay in the office, with your smell, with my procrastination, a little longer. I fiddled with the radio.
But it was no good. Sara would only call again. I had to put one foot in front of the other and go down to dinner. I didn't let myself think about what I was doing, but I could do first step. Go to dinner.
The sun rested on the ridge in a hot, yellow sky.
"Mom?" A knock on the door.
I stood up. I put the headset down.
Sara poked her little face in, panting from the heat. "Supper."
After dinner, I came here, to the office out behind the elevators where you used to load grain on the monotrains before they stopped running. I love the first cool of dusk, when the warmth of the day radiates back from the concrete, but the desert heat is gone.
Do you remember how beautiful the farm is? I love the way the house rambles, comfortable, with the patios and shady gardens around it. The work compound. The garages for the farm machinery, the tool sheds and the generators and solar cells, and the windmills up on the ridge. The storage elevators, mill and food processing plant, off to the right where they don't block the view of the river and the orchard. The grain fields that stretch for miles to the south where the valley opens out. Some day, I want to tell my grandchildren about the pasture up on the hills that my grandfather kept for his sheep. No. I put the thought of grandchildren out of my mind. If I think too far ahead, I'll never be able to do this.
Weeks ago. Months ago, I found a prepackaged syringe, some rubber gloves and disinfectant in the medical closet in our upstairs bathroom. After dinner, I brought them down here, to your office. It was as if I were preparing for expected guests. I put some blankets on the over-stuffed arm chair and got the cot ready. I sterilized a small glass bottle and stopper in the autoclave. It was like I was a robot, following a program I denied writing. Then I returned to the house.
David was on the couch, reading. Julie and Sara were on the floor, hunched over the old pine coffee table you built, playing chess. Sara was studying the board with her finger on the tip of a bishop when I came in. She hasn't started to grow, yet, and she looked so precocious--too young to be taking on this horrid new world. "Want some popcorn?" she asked. I remember, she didn't even look up.
My bowels turned to water. I stood in the doorway, listening to my own voice and wondering how I made it sound so calm. I said, "No. Thank you, Sara. I need to talk to David."
David lifted his head from his book, and I didn't know if he could see the flush in my cheeks or the trembling in my hands. "What?"
"It's about the farm," I said, which was almost true. "I need to see you in the office."
He put a bookmark in his place and stood up. He ran his hands through his hair, and I wanted to weep inside for the little boy I loved. "This may take a while," I said to the girls. "And don't come to interrupt."
"We won't," Julie said. "I'm going to bed." She moved her knight and grinned at Sara.
David followed me outside. The night air was cool and I was glad for the dark. One thing about our farm, it cools down at night.
"What's it about?" David asked as he walked by my side. "I didn't screw up the temperature setting on the grain belts, did I?"
"No, they're fine," I said.
"I was out in the hay this morning and I figure we can start mowing the lower section in about a week if the weather holds."
"That's good. Hay's early this year." Hay, then oats, then wheat. There should be plenty of work coming up to keep everyone busy. Thank God.
We came to the office. I opened the door, and a surge of anger and despair ran through me. "Sit at the table," I said. Control.
David sat and looked at me expectantly.
God, I wished I had a shot of whiskey. I'd thought of it earlier, but I left it back at the house. We both needed to be clear-headed. No misunderstandings later. No accusations.
"David, there's something we have to do, and it is not pleasant." There. Clinical.
I looked him straight in the eye and he was pale under his tan, a look of fright, maybe, at my tone. "All right," he said. David had always been compliant, always wanted to please.
I wanted to say, think about it! Decide for yourself. But, Jack, there was no room for if he wanted to, no room for, let's think about it a while. There was only one answer, Jack. Only one.
"I don't know if you've thought much about the future," I said to him.
David shook his head a little, trying to read me, I think. He said, "The farm's doing fine. Is that what you mean?"
But David was on a roll. He pointed to the map of the compound on the wall behind him, and I let him go on. He was so proud of himself, like he was whenever he had a school presentation to practice on me. "The storage facilities are all operating one hundred per cent." His finger stabbed the generator station. "There's no way to run out of solar energy, but even if our machines break down so bad we can't fix them, we've got enough food stored to last most of our lives, even if we stop farming tomorrow. I figure the environmentally resistant packaging'll keep the food viable for--"
"Forty years. I know, David. Talk about the rest of our lives."
His finger dropped from the map. "Well...I don't know. I guess we keep on farming. We've got the oxen, and I want to experiment with ploughshare farming in the spring."
"Keep farming. . ."
"And grow old."
"Yeah." His expression became distressed. "Okay, I know we're the only ones. We've been the only ones for a long time. It's the shits. Is that what you brought me out here to talk about?"
"So dying, one by one, first William, then the rest of us, until the last one is gone, is the only future you can think of?"
His brows knit in that little boy pout that came on him whenever he'd tried his hardest at something, and found himself boxed in a corner. "No. I don't think about it. I try not to."
"What about rescue?"
"Rescue?" His voice became querulous, as though he knew I was trapping him.
"Do you imagine a future when we may discover others, like us, who are resistant? Survivors?"
David hunched down into his chair and picked at a splinter on the table top. "Yeah. Sometimes."
"You know we've been signaling and scanning the radio spectrum for four--"
"I know! Shit, Mom. What do you want?"
"If you think that there are others--"
"There might be! Somewhere!"
I let silence follow his outburst. Then I went on. "You know why we have no petroleum-based fuel left? Why we have to run the threshers and combines on solar batteries instead?"
"No. Why?" He pushed himself up in his chair and leaned his forehead in his hands. "Yeah. I know. When I was fourteen. You left me in charge. You and dad went looking for other survivors. You didn't find any. Dad got sick and died."
"We used all the fuel because we had to be sure. We wanted to leave no possibility open. David, you need to know this. Maybe there was someone, alive, who didn't have a transmitter."
"There could be."
"There could be."
"David, we found whole cities of rotting corpses. No one could have lived there, even if they had been resistant to the virus, like we are. And, we went to isolated places, too. Farms, acreages. A lot of people fled to the countryside in those days. You remember. They took the plague with them. If there are any survivors, now, David, they're too far away to reach. Ever. And they don't know we exist."
"All right." His eyes were still covered by the palms of his hands.
"Do you believe me? Do you know this to be true?"
I reached forward and took one of his hands and held it across the table. "To think otherwise is magical thinking. It's denial, David."
His face was pale, but he nodded, lips pressed together.
I had got this far, the easy part. Now my stomach churned. "But we don't have to stay here, alone, until we die." I forced myself to say it. "There is another way."
He rubbed his nose. "What?"
My mouth went dry and I couldn't speak. My stomach heaved. I looked for a bucket to puke in. I hadn't prepared for that.
"What is it?"
I couldn't do it, Jack. I felt hot. I had to get out of there.
"We have to start over." I couldn't say it. Not there, sitting across the table from him, holding his hand. I couldn't look him in they eye and say it.
"You're not making any sense."
"There's no one out there. You can never marry. Julie and Sara are perfectly fertile--should be perfectly fertile, for all we know--but they will never marry and have children." I put my hand on my forehead to shade my eyes from his response. "We have to. We have to--make children. Lots of them. Raise them. Teach them--"
David's fingers stiffened in mine and I couldn't go on. I tried to make my brain be logical and think about what to say next, what to do next.
He pulled his hand from mine. "I know."
My stomach turned to water. "You know?"
"How long have you known?"
He shrugged, one shoulder. "Well, like you say. There isn't much to do here. Farm. What's the point? I've thought about. . . about, we'll I'm the only boy--man--aren't I? Some day, when the girls get bigger. . ."
I licked my lips, trying to find the words. "You didn't say anything to me about it."
"Jesus, mom. It's disgusting."
"How long were you going to wait?"
"I don't know." He went back to picking at the splinter. "'Till they were older."
"I don't know! Get off my back."
"'Till Julie was, what, fifteen?"
Again, the shrug. "Sure. Maybe."
"Four more years, David. A lot can happen in that much time. You could cut your finger on a dirty blade--"
"Nothing's going to happen."
I gripped the edge of the table. "We can't count on that. I've put this off too long already. We need to start. Tonight."
He breathed in sharply. "You?"
"For now. Yes."
He paled. "Jesus!"
"You're my mother!"
I had no reply for him, Jack. There was no choice.
David slammed his hand on the table and shoved himself toward the door. He stopped, his fingers on the knob. I heard him turn and I could imagine his eyes on me, loathing me.
"Listen to the whole thing." My voice was harsher than I wanted it to sound.
"What more could there be?"
"I've sterilized a glass bottle for you. I've found a syringe. It doesn't have to be as disgusting as it sounds."
"Jesus. You mean it."
"We have to."
"There's no doctor, no midwife, even. If something happens to you--"
"If something happens to me, you still have two more chances. That's the choice. Begin now, you and me, or wait. How long until the girls' hips are wide enough to deliver a baby? Hmm? If we wait and something happens to you, we have no future."
"This is sick."
A wave of irritation boiled through my stomach. "Well, maybe it is, but we have to do it anyway."
David snorted. "And what would we call the little bastards?"
"Children!" I said and anger gave me the strength to look up at him. I swallowed back my other words. Do you think this is easy for me? Don't you think I'm terrified? What about genetic abnormalities? What about children like William, who didn't inherit the resistance factor? What about complications of childbirth? You're getting off easy.
He slumped against the wall next to the door. "A bottle for me. A syringe . . . . Jesus H. Christ."
"You can't do it if you think about it."
"I can't do it at all." His lips barely moved.
"Just take the bottle. I'll leave."
He lifted his eyes and they were glistening. "Mom."
"You're the only one who can do this."
He closed his eyes and I made myself move, stand up. I disinfected the table top. I brought the glass jar and stopper out of the autoclave. I pulled the cot and blankets closer to the table.
I paused at the door and put my hand on David's shoulder and he flinched. "I'll wait outside."
He didn't look at me.
I stepped out and closed the door behind me.
I felt myself collapsing, then. My legs were weak and I threw up, finally, into the weeds. I pushed away from the door, around the corner, and sat down in the wiry grass by the monorail. All I could see was pictures in my mind, flashing by, unconnected. David as a baby, playing with that mangy one-eyed dog. Julie running the seeder, the muscles on her little arms knotted like ropes. You, Jack. Your eyes, reproaching me.
I sat there for a long time. After a while, I wiped my nose on my sleeve and opened my eyes. The cool air touched my back and I felt chilled. The smooth line of the monorail shot straight as an arrow down the valley, finally curving to the right behind the hills, going nowhere. The stars blazed out of the sky, so close I could almost touch them. The moon rose.
I felt flat, numb.
After a while, I heard the door open, and David's boots on the porch. "What you need is on the table," he said. His voice was husky. Then, the sound of his boots, returning to the house.
I pulled myself from the dry grass and dusted my pants off. I went inside the office. The little jar was in the middle of the table, half full of milk. Promise, for the future. I didn't know if I could store half to use again tomorrow night. I didn't know if the syringe was big enough, or had enough force. I didn't know if it would work.
But. If it didn't work this month, we could try again next month. If we had to, we could drop the technology and do it the old fashioned way.
Then. In four years, maybe sooner, it would be Julie's turn, and when she was fifteen, Sara.
And so I lie here, something dead, gone, Jack; but, something growing, maybe. Jack--we have a beautiful farm, food and energy for a long, long time. With babies, we can thrive. Last.
And maybe--maybe--others areout there. Can you see it, Jack? A band of travelers--new world explorers--cresting the hill where our grandchildren tend the sheep.
This story originally appeared in Tesseracts 11.