Like Mother’s Milk

by Kiyomi Appleton Gaines

I awoke and the children were there. My heart raced with the usual, feral fear, and then quieted itself. This was not anything unusual. The girl lifted me onto my pillows and gave me a glass of milk, and the boy stretched out across the foot of the bed, propped on his elbows to watch me drink. When I was done, it was there turn, and they each lay on either side of me, and bit into my flesh. They were careful, neat always, but the bedsheets witnessed their daily feast and the spatters had grown brown. “I’ll wash them, Mother,” the girl said, and kissed my cheek, her lips moist with my life essence.

They reminded me of Chelsea, that’s why I let them in. They were so small and helpless, and things had gotten so dangerous out there. They might have been children from the first grade class I had so recently delivered Chelsea to for her first day. She was so proud of her new outfit and backpack. I hadn’t posted the pictures. Everything happened so quickly.

I fell back into the sleep, exhausted from the feeding. They were bigger now, and were eating more. They took more out of me.

When I awoke again, I was alone, and I struggled to my feet. I felt weak and wasted. The reflection I caught in the mirror over my dresser looked like a dead thing, all skeletal and clinging skin. I looked old. The children were grown now. It’s strange that in times following disaster, time feels different. It’s hard to tell how long it’s really been. But the house still had food. The milk the children brought me each morning was powdered now, but not long ago it had still been refrigerated… was it two weeks? I had been making myself meals, the children had found ice and brought it to me, cold and dripping, and we had packed it into the refrigerator, and I had eaten a lot. I was ravenous after I brought the children in. And quickly they began helping me, bringing the ice from I could only imagine where. There were gas stations with quick marts only a couple miles away, but they were the size of Chelsea when they came.

The electricity was gone now, but the boy had scavenged a generator, and the girl spent time in the garage, tinkering. Sam had installed solar panels on the roof before this all happened. He had been so proud of them. The girl thought she could make the solar panels charge the generator. They were clever, these children, and they had grown so fast. I felt old and tired, but they were taking care of me.

As I came down the stairs, the windows in the living room were, mercifully closed. The children were thoughtful that way. I went right into the kitchen. The fridge still cooled, because of the generator, but there was no fresh food left. They kept their own things in there. I wasn’t the only one who fed them, but the others came in pieces and parts. When they were done, the parts ended up in the back, with Sam. The yard was mounds of dirt. I didn’t like to see it. I hadn’t been able to bury Sam. I hadn’t had it in me. The children dug the grave, covered him over, and brought me out back, while his was the only dirt mound. I felt grateful to them for taking care of him when I hadn’t been able to.

I found a can of fruit, emptied it into a bowl. Water was limited, but the children has set up rain catchments so we had a renewing supply. The form of things matters, the girl said to me once. There was wisdom in that, so I ate from a bowl.

They had grown so wise, these children. They grew fast and learned fast and moved fast. I looked at the calendar hanging on the wall above the counter. The pictures were cats dressed in costumes. Chelsea had picked it out. I had crossed each day off. It was those little things, those little normal things, that mattered. I had brought Chelsea to school in August. The children had only been with me a matter of weeks. Yet now, already, rather than first grade, they looked like they might head to college soon. If those were still around.

Sam was already gone when they arrived at the door. If he hadn’t been, maybe I wouldn’t have let them in. They were so little, clutching each other’s hands, and afraid, and alone. Their families were also gone, and they had found each other, and then they found me. The knock was so foreign by that time, that I ignored it at first, but it persisted. Sam was gone. I don’t know what I was doing when they knocked. I didn’t know what to do at the time. When I opened the door, there they were, two tiny cherub-faced children, with tear stained faces.

“We’re alone,” the girl said. “We’re scared.”

Behind them the normally quiet street was still quiet, but I also felt the full weight of the difference. No one walked dogs, and cars were stopped, doors ajar, in the middle of the street. There was blood everywhere, if you looked, but I quickly drew the children inside and shut the door behind us. I settled them on the couch, told them they were safe now. It gave me a sense of purpose, a sort of feeling like I could get through this, for now. I felt relieved at first. They fell asleep together on the couch.

When the woke they were hungry. They wouldn’t eat any of the food I had, and they cried. What do you want, I asked finally, desperate. If I didn’t have it, I could maybe make up something close enough.

They each took one of my hands, brought me to the couch. The little girl’s hair brushed my cheek as she knelt beside me. “Feed us,” she whispered.

I nodded, and the dimpled little hands lifted my shirt, and her small mouth latched on to my breast. It hurt, but nursing always does at first.

They took care of me and I took care of them. I hadn’t left the house in weeks, not since it all happened. But the children went out nearly every day, and came back with new supplies. They were smart, and they kept the house running in a way that I couldn’t. I didn’t know how things worked outside anymore, not since everything changed.

Sam would know, I thought. Or I would know, if Sam was still here. We could figure it out together. But he was gone almost as quickly as it started.

I was running errands after dropping Chelsea at the school. Traffic was heavier than usual, but nothing seemed especially different. Then the emergency alerts started coming to my phone, and then the school sent a message. The children were safe. They would shelter in place, and then be bused home. She never came home.

Sam managed to come back the next day, and we were going to get our child. He had been out there, in all of it, and he knew it would be a long journey, dangerous, and one we would have to make on foot. We started packing supplies. News coverage was in and out in those early days, and nobody could really give us a straight answer. None of us knew.

We didn’t think beyond getting Chelsea. It almost didn’t matter. We would be together, and that’s what was important.

I thought of going myself. But I needed a couple days after losing Sam. It was such a shock. I would go. I knew I would go. The children arrived not long after that. But they were nearly grown now, and they didn’t need me as much. I would go. The supplies Sam and I had packed would still be in the front closet. But I was tired. I was tired all the time. I had to build up my strength. But as long as the children needed me, I didn’t know how I would do that.

And if they didn’t need me anymore, how long would I have, I wondered, before I ended up in the refrigerator, or beside Sam in the yard?

I put my bowl in the sink. I already saw, in the front yard, my bedsheets hanging limply on a line. They would catch whatever bit of sun we might get, soak up whatever breeze. In a day or two they would be dry. The children were gone, to wherever they disappeared to in the fullness of the day. I opened the cupboards. Anemics needed iron, I knew. I pulled down spinach, black beans, raisins, a tin of sardines. I would go. I would find my way out of the house. I would survive.

My fiction has appeared in Enchanted Conversation, and The Grimm Reaper.