My submission for Stories on the Go
There is one can of food left: Peas. I’ve always hated canned peas. Frozen or fresh, sure. But canned? No thanks.
It’s funny how things change. There was a time I would have turned my nose up at the offensive vegetable. Now, imagining the smell of food, any food, makes my mouth water.
I think about opening the can and eating all the peas while my daughter sleeps. I should just do it. If I think about her I’ll lose my nerve.
I glance at Cassie. It’s easier to look at her when she’s asleep because then I don’t notice her sunken eyes or the way she just sits and does nothing. A three-year-old should be running and playing. Instead, she is dying. We both are.
Her emaciated body is wrapped in the warmest wool blanket we have, and she sleeps with her head thrown back and mouth open. My mom would have said she was catching flies.
I think about this and wish there were some flies. Protein, right? There will be flies soon, but it will be too late for us then.
My mind wanders. I think about the day the power and phones went out. They say it was the shockwave from a nuclear blast that exploded in space above us. All I know is one minute we had power and the next we had nothing.
It’s been six months since the blast. So why are we still alive? I wasn’t a prepper or anything. As if a single mom could afford it. No, I was a couponer. I used to go through the newspaper and Internet and find coupons and deals that I could combine to buy boxes of cereal for a dollar, bottles of water for a quarter, or tubes of toothpaste for free. It was a game, trying to whittle down prices to next to nothing. Then I’d buy as many as I could.
Who knew couponing could save lives? Or, prolong them, anyway.
Once again I contemplate my daughter. Her tiny body reminds me of when she was first born. I was only seventeen, a party girl not ready to sober up. I hated being pregnant and I resented the parasite growing inside me.
That all changed when they let me hold Cassie for the first time. It was only a few minutes before they rushed her away, but everything was different after that. I sat in the NICU and watched her struggle to breath. I was so afraid that I’d outlive my child.
Now I’m terrified my child will outlive me.
I’m startled, but not surprised, to hear gunshots from the street below. Cassie stirs in her sleep and I know I only have a few minutes before she wakes up. My heart feels as heavy in my chest as a can of peas. My path is clear to me: I will eat the peas so I won’t leave my daughter alone in this nightmare of a world. I will be here to comfort her as she dies, then I will die alone.
I square my shoulders, take a deep breath and reach for the can opener.
* * *
I’m asleep when I hear pounding at my door. It’s forced open by men with weapons. The afternoon sunshine streaming in half blinds me and I push weakly to my feet, confused and disoriented.
I am close to death now. I welcome it. I wish I could remember my daughter’s last moments, but my thoughts are hazy. I remember self-contempt and the smell of peas. It’s probably a mercy I’m spared the rest.
One of the men speaks. “The peace corps and U.S. military have established a joint outpost here. We’ll provide food and shelter for you and your family.” He adds, “You’re safe now, ma’am.”
I fly at him with fists and feet. He is young, as unprepared for my attack as I am, but he holds his ground nobly in the face of my onslaught. Screams and sobs tear painfully from my throat as I pound at his chest. My outburst lasts only a moment before my strength is gone and I sink to my knees.
“You’re too late,” I choke out. “Oh Cassie, what have I done?”
“I’m sorry for your pain, ma’am. We’re doing the best we can. If you’ll get a few things we’ll take you back to camp.”
I stifle bitter laughter and turn my head away. I’m not going with them. I’ve already chosen my fate.
As I turn, I see the open can of peas on the tray of my daughter’s high-chair, baby spoon sticking out from the empty can. My daughter, peas still smeared on her face, peers at me from behind the arm of the couch.
My mind clears and I remember feeding her, unable to make the hard choice when it mattered. Complicated emotion washes over me. Cassie runs to my open arms and I hide my tears in her pale hair. I’m either the best mother alive or the worst.
Ellisa Barr writes post-apocalyptic fiction for young adults and thinks there should be a law against canned peas. Connect with her at http://ellisabarr.com