Written by Gabrielle Rupert
‘Oh, my God, baby!’ Claire’s mother’s single braid fell over her shoulder as she bent down to help Claire up. ‘I thought you were a robot.’
‘This hurts bad.’ Claire held her head, her fingertips feeling the lump growing, but still wrapped her other arm around her mother. ‘I thought they took you.’
‘No,’ Mom examined the lump and put something cold to it. ‘Your father and I went on a trip with his friend, the one who has that boat. Thought we wouldn’t tell anyone, make it more exciting. When we came back, it was like this. I’ve been living here for… a few weeks, maybe two or three.’
‘I haven’t been here since it started.’ Claire glanced out a window at the hidden graveyard.
Following Claire’s attention, Mom caught the sad note in Claire’s voice. ‘Your father didn’t make it, either.’
Having already accepted both her parents’ deaths, Claire nodded and hugged Mom for a very long time. They told each other of the fights they had been in with the humots and how they scavenged for food.
‘So how many children are with you?’
‘Oh, I think fifteen. One of them left, so I’ve been searching for her.’
‘You left a whole bunch for one, who left on purpose? You know she’s probably going through a rebellious phase. Let her go and if she wants to come back, she will.’
Red-faced, Claire took some canned food from the cupboard and spooned the mush into her mouth.
‘What do you plan on doing with the children?’
‘Keep them alive.’ Claire spoke through a mouth full of food, staring at the floor in an exhaustive daze.
‘What would you do?’ Claire tried to hide her irritation.
Mom had her fists on her hips. ‘Well, keeping them in the middle of a city of robots that want to kill them doesn’t top my list.’
‘I’m trying to get them out.’ Claire looked at her mother. ‘But where would I take them?’
‘Here.’ Mom didn’t let a robot apocalypse get in the way of criticizing her daughter’s decisions. ‘You easily slipped out of the city. Bring them out with you.’
‘Then we all would get caught, very easily. They cry and whine all the time.’
‘You’ve always been so negative towards children!’ Mom was furious, now. ‘Why do you help them if you despise them so much?’
‘I don’t hate them!’ Claire stood up and peered outside. ‘It’s just going to be very difficult making sure they stay alive when they aren’t making it easy for themselves.’
‘It’s never been easy.’ Mom laughed with her frustration. ‘Children have never been easy. You weren’t easy for us. I wasn’t easy with my parents. It’s how having children is. It’s a challenge.’
‘I never wanted kids!’
‘Then why?’ Mom exclaimed. ‘Why do you have fifteen or so children waiting for you in a church, bundled up in blankets you got for them, and food you found for them?’
‘I tried turning away.’ Claire sighed. ‘I saw the first one, thought I would just keep walking. Started walking. To be honest… I did walk away. He was sobbing, hiding under a car. Before he could see me, I turned in the other direction. After about ten minutes, I saw another kid standing out in the open. Couldn’t hide then. Bastard came running straight up to me and wrapped her arms around me. Told me she couldn’t find her brother. I wanted to push her away, but when I looked down at her, I saw that she looked like the boy under the car. So I brought her to the boy, and the two stayed with me for a few nights. Watching them die of hunger wouldn’t have been a pretty sight, so I shared my food. After the past few months, the rest of the children just… happened.’
‘Where were you going before you had the kids?’
There was a moment of silence before Claire shrugged. ‘Just staying alive, I guess.’
More silence. Mom ate her can of mush while Claire looked at the fields through the windows. Passing by the windows, looking out onto the river, she saw the endless fields of grass beyond it, somehow untouched by man. A small child could easily hide in the grass.
‘We need a plan.’ Mom collected all the recent trash and put it in a trash bag, which she put in the trash bin in the kitchen. Then she began organizing dishes. ‘Would you have enough energy to get all the children here with multiple trips?’
‘There weren’t many humots the closer I got to the edge,’ Claire continued staring out the window. ‘But before that, they are everywhere. At least I don’t have to pass through a humot suburb.’
‘Stupid robot rights.’ Mom had finished with the kitchen and was searching for something else to clean. ‘I can’t believe you supported that.’
‘Yes, Mom,’ Claire rolled her eyes and changed her view to the window of the cityscape. ‘One of the many mistakes I have made. Giving toasters human rights. Anyways…’
‘If I come with you, the children will get out faster. We can take two or three at a time.’
‘Are you sure you want to go in there?’
‘Yeah, what else am I supposed to do?’ Mom looked at Claire. ‘Clean?’
They both smiled a little.
‘What do we do about Jodie?’ Claire asked. ‘The girl that ran away.’
‘Like I said,’ Mom sat on the couch. ‘Let her go. It isn’t worth looking for her if she doesn’t want to be found.’
‘You didn’t see a girl come into this direction?’
‘If I had, I’d tell you by now.’ Mom looked at the front door, crossing her arms over her chest.
‘At dark, we can go.’ Claire spoke while she lay on the wood floor, stretching her back and legs.
‘Do you think they will be okay this long?’
‘... Are you sure?’
‘Yes. If we wait until dark, we are less likely to get caught.’
‘But you came here during the daytime and didn’t get caught.’
Mom stared at her daughter, who stayed spread out on the floor with her eyes closed. Claire felt like this was the first time she could relax since before she took the children into her care. If she fell asleep, she could stay asleep and not worry about anything. A pounding sound came through the floor, and Claire recognized it as the blood pounding through her head. A headache was arriving.
‘I can’t believe you are just lying there!’ Mom’s stern voice made Claire open her eyes. Mom was standing, glaring down at her. ‘Those children need us and you’re resting.’
‘Mom, please.’ Claire couldn’t believe her relationship with her mother hadn’t been altered for the better by the present situation. It simply gave Mom another opportunity to micromanage Claire’s life. ‘I’m so tired.’
‘So am I!’ Mom grabbed a bag she had been packing while Claire was lying on the floor. ‘Those children need us! My knees hurt, but who cares! Stop thinking about yourself! You’ve always been so selfish!’
Getting up off the floor, Claire grabbed her bag and threw it on. Mom was ready to leave, at the door, hand about to turn the knob. Claire could feel a small vibration running through her shoes, coming from under the wooden floor.
Mom opened the door. ‘What?’
‘That sound?’ Claire walked towards Mom but kept her eyes on the floor.
‘I only hear the river, hun.’ Mom walked out, and Claire followed.
It took the two about the same amount of time to get to the church as it had for Claire to get to the cabin. To Claire, the city looked completely different with the sun going down. Mom kept up, seeming as if her knees didn’t hurt at all. She was never one to complain.
At the church, the children were still huddled together in the balcony. When they saw Mom, they stepped back, hesitant.
‘Where’s Jodie?’ one of them asked.
‘I couldn’t find her.’ Claire said, mentally counting the kids. ‘We all need to leave the city.’
‘I want to stay here!’
‘I understand you are afraid.’ Once Mom spoke, the children quieted. ‘We all need to work together to survive. My daughter and I are going to bring you to a safe house, outside of the city.’
‘That’s your mom?’
‘I thought you said she died.’
‘No,’ Claire spoke quickly. ‘I said I didn’t know where she was. But I found her.’
‘Do you think I’ll find my mom?’
Mom hugged that child and said, “You may. But if you want to find her, you need to stay alive. Can we do that?”
The child nodded.
‘Let’s pack up our things. We are not going all at once. Claire is going to take two kids; same as me. We will keep coming back until we are all together again, like a family.’
These words sounded strange to Claire. Growing up, Mom would say the phrase, “like a family,” in strange situations. If Claire asked what Mom meant, Mom would chastise Claire and say Claire would understand when she was a mother.
The trips were difficult with a couple kids each time. Mom took the louder children while Claire took the easier ones. On a few occasions, Claire almost ran into humot patrols.
On one trip, Claire had to wait with two children, hiding in a porta-potty while a small group of humots explored the ruins of a natural human neighborhood. After three hours and no humming was heard, Claire shoved the children and herself out of the shit box, and into the fresh smell of decaying bodies that still lay on the street.
Each time Claire came back to the city, a part of her just wanted to lay down in the grass like she did on the wooden floor of the cabin. She didn’t want to hear her mom yell at her. She didn’t want to hear the children whine. She didn’t want to hear the humming. A field of green grass lay open for her, though she never veered her path from the pavement.
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