“Caden?” Her voice at first was only curious, a bit playful, as she jumped behind trees making funny faces and looked under bushes.
“Caaaaa-den?” She sung his name, enticing him. He can’t have got far, she thought, for the swing was still swaying with the memory of his presence, and the park stretched on for farther than his little legs could have carried him.
“Caden? Baby, it’s time to come out now.” Hide-And-Seek-That-Only-I-Know-About was his favorite game, as it is with every toddler at some stage, so she knew she shouldn’t worry, and besides, there was no one else there.
“Caden.” Her voice lost its singsong quality and she swallowed the panic that rose in her throat. She knew she was overreacting but she couldn’t stop that biological reaction, that desperation. A mother has to know where her child is.
“Caden!” She was screaming now. It had been four minutes. Four minutes was too long. The swing was slowing. “Caden!” She screamed and ran and watched and searched behind trees and under bushes, driven by more than playful curiosity now, driven by something much deeper, much more desperate.
In ten minutes she called her husband on her cell phone.
In thirty minutes he arrived.
In an hour the police were there, and still she wouldn’t stop screaming his name. Even when they told her they had a dozen men looking and he wasn’t in the park, she wouldn’t stop screaming his name. Even as the sun crept downward and her husband tried to drag her back to the car and the police needed her to sign a witness sheet, even then, she couldn’t stop screaming his name.
The swing was still.
The boy looked up, and blinked, and shook his head. He put his hand over his eyes. They hurt. Well. Something hurt. He couldn’t see. He opened one eye. That’s better.
He was in a small room. It was dirty. There was wood. He blinked again, opened both eyes, squinted. A blurry shape. An old man. Like grampa. With hair on his face but not on his head. The old man was smiling. Caden reached out and touched his cheeks. They were wet. The old man hugged him.
“Caden,” he whispered, and squeezed so tight Caden thought he might burst.
“Honey? Why don’t…why don’t you come upstairs. It’s dinnertime.”
She ignored him.
“We’re having grilled ranch chicken.”
She ignored him again.
“Baby, you have to eat.”
“Caden has to eat.”
He sighed and sat down on the top step, buried his face in his hands. He was trying, he was trying so damn hard but this wasn’t working. He wanted to be out, but he couldn’t leave her. Not like this.
“He’s been gone five years, hon. We’ve got to move on.”
Instantly he regretted saying it. Move on was the one thing she swore she would never do. She weighed 90 pounds and that only by force. He watched her in the dim light of her workshop, a brilliant mind, three doctorate degrees wasting away tinkering with blinking lights in a basement. She was under the machine now, a computer in her lap hooked up to the metal box, switches and dials covering its surface. She ignored him, and he was glad, because it was better than the alternative. She reached down and tapped a few keys on the keyboard, cursed under her breath, and wiggled a cord back into place.
He walked downstairs and grabbed her sandwich and apple from lunch, untouched on its plate, and turned to walk back upstairs. When he got to the landing he stopped, one hand on the railing, and sighed.
“I miss you,” he said.
She ignored him.
“Caden, come here, buddy,” the old man said. Caden took his hand and walked through a doorway into a bigger room. There were more people here, but Caden wasn’t afraid or shy. He smiled and waved and made a funny face that made the bigger people laugh. He liked making big people laugh. Sometimes they gave him candy.
The old man sat in a chair and brought Caden into his lap and gave him a little toy airplane to distract him. Caden flew it through the air and didn’t listen to a word the other people said.
The woman watched Caden from across the room, bouncing familiarly in a lap he couldn’t possibly recognize, and shook her head and smiled. A decade of planning was finally yielding some results.
“Gentlemen, gentlewomen,” she said formally, addressing the ragtag gathering around her. Not a single person in the room, save the toddler making buzzing noises in the corner, was a day below 68. The eldest was 92, but still sharp. She watched them all for moment, the twelve of them, and wondered if she had to pick from all the world if she would have chosen them to be the ones to survive. She shook her head. Definitely not. And yet, who better?
“I, Cherise Isling, call to order this meeting of the Council. All attending have documented their names, ages, and places of origin in the book.” She cleared her throat, and began.
“We won’t last much longer. You know that, all of you.” A few nodded. “Even with levels down below safety thresholds we’ve been far too exposed. A few of us will die within the year, a few more within the decade. Hopefully a handful will last long enough to raise this new generation into adulthood and send them out into the world on their own. We are here, as a formal council, to make a few decisions about how we are going to raise these children.
“I want you to look at Caden here. He has no idea what’s going on. He will remember nothing of his former life, of his mother, of technology. This is what we want. Any older than him, and we may have problems.”
An elderly man in the corner sat drinking a light brown liquid. He coughed and interrupted her. “What if none of us make it?” he asked. “What if there is no one left in ten years? Will they be able to safely navigate adolescence alone?”
She nodded. “We will leave books, videos, instructions as much as we can, and if there is only one of us left, we will show it to them, so that if we all die they will have as much knowledge as they can hold.”
“That’s an awful lot of risk.”
“The council is open to other suggestions.”
The room fell silent. There was no other option. Bringing in an older child was riskier than the chance they might have to raise themselves.
“All in favor, say aye.”
It was unanimous.
Even a hundred miles away he could see the flashes, feel the ground shake. The roar that had come after the first blast had never ended. It was continuous, the dull hum of death that monotonously droned closer.
With cautious steps, and two weathered hands clasping the rail, he made his way down the rickety steps toward the basement. She’d grown old, his wife, and he came down so rarely that each time he saw her now it was like greeting a new person. Where did all that white hair come from? The wrinkles? The plates of food he left were always picked at, just enough calories to sustain life and nothing more. She had no interest in food. She’d had no interest in food in over forty years.
“Hon,” he said, and the word sounded like it belonged to a different man, someone from a long time ago he kind of remembered if he closed his eyes and breathed really deep. “We really need to go. The bombs. They’re closer. Closer and closer.”
“Not leaving,” she said, fiddling with a cord and typing more into her computer.
How did he still love her? How was it even possible that he couldn’t walk out the door and save himself and let her die in a cloud of shadow and ash?
He came down the last two steps. The roar was louder. There were planes, and copters, and a ship headed toward deep space. They wouldn’t live long enough to last the journey, but at least they could start one more adventure together.
He was next to her now. He put his hand on hers. “Please. Let’s…”
She grabbed his hand, squeezed tight, pulled him close. He almost fought her. She hadn’t touched him in decades.
“It’s ready,” she said, and with a strength she shouldn’t have, dragged him toward the box in the corner.
“What’s ready? What are you talking about?” He became afraid but didn’t want to hurt her, somehow. He couldn’t pull away.
She pulled and pushed him into the box and pulled a strap over his lap. Still, he couldn’t fight. He wasn’t quite scared enough to hurt her. Not yet.
Would she kill him?
She’d never been aggressive before. Never tried to harm him. Never blamed anyone but herself.
She was mumbling as she fiddled with dials and switches and knobs he couldn’t understand. She took a big book and shoved it into his lap. “Manual. You’ll get it.”
She shut the door. He didn’t know what was going on, and tried to unstrap himself, but in his panic he couldn’t figure out how to work the buckle. She was still fiddling with things on the outside of the box, and, for a fleeting moment, he wondered if she was going to kill him.
But this was too complicated for murder right before the apocalypse.
After a minute she put her face up to the glass set into the metal frame. He could hear her breathing. He could hear everything.
“Not enough power for two adults,” she said, and put her hand up to the glass. He raised his, and touched her through the pane. “But there’s enough for an adult and a child.”
“What are you doing?” he called, and he knew his face betrayed how terrified he was.
“You always were a better person than me,” she said, and took her hand away and let it rest on a single lever, large and heavy, behind a door on the side. “Caden deserves a father.”
She pulled it down.
His head hurt.
He rubbed his temples and tried to open his eyes, but the light was blinding. He was nauseated, and rolled over and threw up.
God, his head hurt.
He pushed against the floor and tried to open his eyes again, slowly, and the pain faded to a dull roar.
He leaned against a wall. The metal machine was in a corner, smoking, glowing. A woman stood next to it, unfamiliar, but wrinkled and grey. The book his wife had left in his lap was in her hands, and she flipped through it, a look of elation across her face. She was engrossed in the book, and he just watched her, still unable to stand up on his own, head still pounding.
Finally she glanced up from the book, saw him, rushed over. “Dr. Prent?” she asked.
“No,” he managed. “That was my wife.”
“Ah.” She tried to hide her disappointment, a fleeting look across her face, then forced the smile back. “No matter. We can work with this.” She extended her hand, and he took it and balanced himself.
“Come. Eat. What is your name?”
He leaned on her as he stumbled out of the room. “Gabriel,” he said, barely even remembering. “Gabriel Prent.”
“Good,” she said, and helped him into a wooden chair in a room that looked like it had been through a war. “My name is Cherise Isling.”
“As you know,” Cherise said, her voice heavy, and still the boy didn’t listen, but made puttering noises with his mouth as he landed the plane on his father’s face and made it take off down his arm, “our first test has been successful. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Dr. Prent,” she nodded in Gabriel’s direction, but he didn’t respond, “we have successfully relocated one male child. A dislocation of fifty years was a strain, and we can’t attempt anything further back than that. In fact, I suggest any further disruptions to be no further than one year before the War, to minimize damage to the engine. We cannot build another one if it breaks, we have neither knowledge nor parts. Does the Council have anything to say?”
No one said a word. This was an easy vote.
“All in favor, say aye.”
It was unanimous.
The meeting continued for several hours as they decided how many children to retrieve, what ages they should be, and what genders. Though the argument about what religion to teach the children became heated, they all eventually agreed on one thing–they must teach them, above all else, to value life, and work together, and to never crave what others had.
They also agreed to not tell them about the War.
They would put their history in a sealed vault which would open when the children turned thirty, long after the last adults who would remember the old days were dead, and long after the children would be able to grasp the enormity of what they were reading.
Gabriel barely listened to any of the proceedings. In his pocket was a picture of his dead wife and his son when he was only a year old. He hadn’t looked at it in decades, couldn’t bring himself to remember. Now he wrapped his arm tight around the boy’s chest, remembered his wife as she had been, and kissed the boy’s hair.
The boy didn’t respond.
Already the smell of the old man was becoming familiar.
He stood in the field as the children ran and tagged each other, hand gently wrapped around Freida’s, who would die soon, as he would. The children had grown along with their world, grown tall like the grass. He’d watched the memory of the lives they had been plucked from fade and crumble and melt into dust like the buildings in the cities that had become overgrown with weeds and mutated animal life. But they were safe here, and happy, and the world would live and humanity would live in it and Gabriel smiled as Caden, tall and tan and strong, sprinted toward him.
“Dad!” he called as he ran into the old man.
“Ooof, bud, careful,” Gabriel said, and tousled his hair.
Gabriel laughed. “Of course you are. When I was your age I think I ate a cow a day.”
“What’s a cow?”
“Never mind,” the old man laughed again. “Come on, son.” They called to the other children, who raced back to the sprawling complex of wooden houses they’d built on top of an old farm far from the visual disruption of the destruction of the city. Gabriel wrapped his arm around his son’s neck and squeezed.
“Let’s go eat.”
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