The Children, the Children
Jimmy O'Brien


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 smoke woke me at an interminable hour. I believed it to be a lingering dream. Then I felt my wife shaking me, pointing to the window. The fires had spread into our yard and I could see the shadows of our neighbors running to their cars, dragging suitcases, their dogs by their leashes. My wife had begun to throw clothes into our suitcases. I woke the children from their slumber. I told mine to help my wife pack. I told the visiting children to hide in the basement. Why, they asked. I told them because they were guests and good hosts don't let guests do any work. They paused at first, scared and tired from the cough syrup. Then I took them by the hand and led them downstairs and to the basement. I locked the door from the outside, feeling the heat encroaching, eating away at the frame of our house.
When we were miles away, the car full of our clothes, my own children's sobs, my wife's silence. I had to stop on the roadside. I began to cry, hit my head against the wheel, watching the fires reach into the sky, the highway fill with cars and noise, feel the car rock in the quakes, the children scramble in the backseat, knowing that somewhere back where we once lived the other children were doing the same, scrambling away from the fires, clawing at the basement windows and sobbing.


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.
We called for our children, our boys, our girl, called and called until our lips cracked at their sides, called and called, for them, our darlings, those strangers.