The Children, the Children
When it happened we were far from home, our three children staying with a friend of ours, dreaming, probably, in their sleeping bags, dreaming deeply, quietly, we hoped. As we ran from the waves of fire and the smoke my wife screamed their names until we sheltered in a basement with four men armed with rifles. The fires above sounded like the waves we had left, crashing, surging, and the men spoke of God and prayed. My wife just huddled there cursing us for ever leaving our children, whispered their names as she had when they were infants.
The children could not sleep, not mine or theirs, which I
blamed on theirs as my children typically sleep without waking and, if
they wake, they bother no one. My wife, were she here, would attest to
this. The night it happened the children were knocking on our door on
and off, complaining about the wind as they might in a thunderstorm. I
disregarded them at first, told them to count sheep or floating
clouds, leave me to my own dreams. When they returned I told them,
Enough, and fed them each a capful of cough syrup to make them sleep,
Like grape soda, I said, and put them back in their sleeping bags in
their room covered in posters of robots and cartoon ballerinas.
The wind woke me. I did not know where I was, that room so alien to me, my polyester sleeping bag whispering against itself as I rose. I could see little but my brother's face lit thinly by a light that came pale through the window, riveted, distant. He was older than I was and I did not quite understand him, the few years between us, then, like whole decades now. My sister laid beside me, her sleeping bag inched closer to me throughout the night. The nights before I had felt her reach out and grab my arm to be sure I was there, to ask where we were, who was there, where our parents were. In a place with waves and sand, I said, and I tried to say it like our parents would tell us a bedtime story. But that night she said nothing when she grabbed my arm, her eyes like two puddles reflecting moonlight.
It took us years to return, to wind our way through the
ruined highways, pick our way through the hills. We did not talk about
why we were returning for we both knew. Our children. Though daily we
neared to what should have been familiar with each mile and with each
hour it all seemed to grow more removed, foreign, for as we went over
the land we went through time, and with time the world decomposed
further and further. By the time we arrived, thin, ragged, strangers
even to ourselves, the neighborhood where we had once lived was
silent, warped, the houses windowless, the shingles scuttling along
the streets like wounded birds, bodies holding each other, mummified,
their skin inched back from their grayed fingernails. The house where
we left our children that night had no door but we stopped for an
instant to knock anyhow. Inside it had been gutted for firewood,
blackened with soot.
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