Written by Gabrielle Rupert
I hate kids. Claire thought, crouching below the broken window of a grocery store. She peeked outside to watch a parade of parole vehicles roll along the street. The vehicles were electrically-powered, sleek. Before humots took over the world, millionaire humans owned these cars to show off their riches. Now, humots claimed that the cars were the ancestors that led the way of humot technology. They may have been right, but Claire never paid enough attention to scientists to know for sure.
That wasn’t strictly true. Claire had paid attention, more and more, as scientists gave advice to society: there are too many people on the planet; people are living longer; people say they need what they want; the planet is getting sick, and if we don’t work together, we won’t have a planet that can sustain the future of mankind. Society asked how we could work together. Recycle more, use less water, grow and buy organic, use less fuel, cut fewer trees, grow more gardens. What else? Too many curable diseases, humans live longer, too many people, too many people, too many children.
To Claire, this had meant birth control. To her boyfriend, this had meant convincing Claire to adopt. To humots, this had meant getting rid of the surplus humans. This would conclude in less waste, less violence, fewer people. Children were the more selfish, so why not start with them?
The humots passed, leaving Claire with white knuckles around her backpack straps. The idea of setting up shelter in the back of the store ached in her mind, but she dismissed the thought and started walking back to the church. The children she had saved would be there.
Rounding the corner to the street of the church, Claire didn't notice any difference to the setting. She pushed on the doors to the church entrance and they swung open. Looking around, she didn't see the children.
‘Guys!’ Claire’s voice echoed inside the vast church.
When there was no response, she rushed to the back room. Empty. Going along the middle aisle, she looked down each pew, trying to spot some small bundle of human hiding under the seats. She started to worry, but then a small creak came from above her head. She looked up. The eldest child was peeking down at her from the choir balcony.
‘What are you doing up there?’ Claire felt relief as well as her usual annoyance.
‘We thought it would be safer up here.’ The girl said. ‘And there are blankets to sleep on.’
Making her way up the hidden stairs, Claire was held back from running by the backpack that was heavy with rations. At the top, many of the children were sleeping, wrapped up in the blankets. Those awake tore through the blueberry-flavorued tarts she produced from her backpack. One of them passed his half of the package to Claire, but she refused with a smile.
‘Are we going to stay here?’
Claire nodded and took a gulp of water.
‘I like it here.’
‘Yeah, my mommy used to make me dress up for Mass.’
‘The shoes I had to wear hurt my feet.’
Claire listened to this conversation, thinking back to her elementary education at a Catholic school. She hadn't liked the company of children back then, either.
‘My parents are dead.’ One boy whispered, as if trying to get the words out through a tight throat.
‘Mine were taken by the robot-things.’ A girl said, crumbs lining her mouth. ‘Do you know what they do to them? Or do they just die?’
When she realized the question was for her, Claire redirected her gaze from the stained glass window to the girl.
‘I'm not sure.’ She said. ‘They either die or are put to work.’
‘Where are your parents?’
‘... My parents went missing right before…’ Claire hadn't spoken to anyone about this since shit went sideways, not even to herself, ‘my uncle went into slavery, taken while he was working at his law firm. I heard stories from coworkers who got out, saying he immediately gave up, but I knew he just wanted to live.’
‘We can't do that.’ The eldest said. ‘We won't be spared or enslaved.’
‘I know.’ Claire felt a heaviness in her chest and a knot in her throat.
‘Why haven't you given up, like your uncle?’
Staring into the girl’s eyes, she saw a loss of innocence and happiness. This girl, soon to hit puberty, had probably seen more death than Claire. All Claire had seen were brains of her boyfriend laid out on a wall. This girl had probably seen her parents killed. Claire had been the one to pull her out from the pile of discarded bodies of children where the girl had been hiding.
‘I’m not sure,’ Claire hated saying those words again, ‘I just haven't. And I don't think I want to.’
The girl grabbed a bottle of water, and laid down in a corner far from the rest of the group. Claire looked back up at the stained glass window, trying to remember which number of the station of the cross it was. This one was when Simon helps Jesus carry the cross. The colourful glass showed the blood and mud on a weak Jesus. Simon could've continued watching, but he didn't.
Before Claire allowed herself to feel self-righteous, she looked away, finished her dinner, and took a much-needed nap.
The nap didn’t last long, as Claire couldn’t lay still for longer than fifteen minutes before needing to check outside the window. She got up, laid back down, sat up to drink water, laid back down. This occurred for most of the night. Finally, sleep held her for about two hours before she heard rustling near her feet.
Frightened, Claire kicked her leg out violently and sat up. Then heard a child crying. When she looked, she saw one of the little boys hold his shoulder. All the other children stared at Claire.
‘Sorry,’ Claire grumbled, not moving toward the boy, ‘Did I kick you?’
The boy nodded, rubbing his arm. ‘I… I’m okay. I was waking you up to tell you that Jodie left.’
‘Jodie?’ Looking around, she counted the children. Yes, she was one short, but she couldn’t tell which one.
‘She grabbed some food and water,” the boy continued, ‘Told us she was leaving to find someone else to take care of us.’
‘Oh,’ Claire realised that it was the eldest child that was missing. ‘Well, I’m sure she will come back.’
‘She’s been gone since you went to sleep last.’
‘... Fine, I’ll go look for her.’ Claire stretched a bit. ‘What direction did she go?’
The boy shrugged. ‘She said she was going out to the river.’
‘Outside the city?’ Claire grabbed some supplies. ‘What is wrong with her?’
‘She said the robots don’t like water, so won’t patrol the area as much.’
‘Whatever,’ Claire ran a hand through her hair, and headed toward the staircase to leave. ‘Stay here. Don’t leave.’
Humot patrols on the edge of the city were thick before the grass began leading to the water’s edge. The children would be fine without her, as long as they didn’t leave the balcony or church.
Heading into a warzone of an old humot neighborhood, patrols increased. Claire relied on shadows, timing, and silence.
As the daylight dawned, the situation Claire had put herself in became clearer, but she didn’t allow herself to think about it just yet. The outline of a small house by the river could be seen from the urban edge. There weren’t places to conceal herself anymore. Trees studded the grass randomly, some close together while others far apart. To get to the closest bush, Claire would need to move now!
Bolting to the bush, Claire stayed low to the ground, trying not to crunch the grass loudly. At the bush, she looked back at the city streets to see something shine or hear the hum. When there was nothing, she took a breath and ran to the closest tree. Her sweat weighed down her skin and clothes.
Along the river was a wooden house. Inside would be two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a basement. The walls of every room would be lined with wallpaper made from old 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s car ads. An outhouse was positioned further down the river. In the yard would be an overgrown garden. Traveling directly down the river, one would stumble upon a small, personal graveyard. Claire didn’t have to explore the area to know these things.
The front door of the house was open, which wasn’t how she’d left it as she and her boyfriend fled many months ago. Perhaps scavengers went through the house, only to find it empty. Through a non-curtained window, Claire saw the familiar silhouette of Jodie’s single-braided head.
Stupid kid’s gonna get caught.
Heading up the river, Claire tried not to get distracted by the noise of the rushing river. It used to feel nice, listening to the water hitting the rocks and sides of the bank. Now, it covered the hum, forcing Claire to use only her eyes. The water also blocked out the sound of her rapid heart and shoes crunching on the grass.
She walked into the house.
The wooden floor rushed toward her and Claire realized she had been hit in the head. The pain spread through her neck. Turning onto her back, she saw a familiar face, but it wasn’t Jodie’s.
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