"You understand, don't you? You understand it's not because we don't love you?"
The tears that have been welling up in his eyes spill over as he nods. I look to my wife for support, but she only glares at me. She doesn't support my decision. She never does. If I'd chosen differently, she would have been angry with me for different reasons. I don't blame her, I really don't. But sometimes, it would be nice if she would help me out just a little bit.
I always have to do this, I always have to be this guy. She's the one they run to when they've done something they're proud of, or when they fall and scratch their knees. She's the one who tucks them in at night, I'm the one who has to wake them up. I'm the one who has to force them to do chores, I'm the one who has to give spankings or stern talkings-to. I'm the one who is forced to do this.
She's the good guy, I'm the bad one. They love her, they fear me. They love me, too, of course. But instead of hugs and kisses and laughter, they show their love for me with respect and obedience. I tell myself that it's enough, I tell myself that this is the way it has to be. We all have to do what we all have to do.
Blake sniffles, drawing my attention away from his mother. I look down and see that he's looking to her, too. Looking to her for help, just like I was. Not this time, little guy, she can't help you this time.
I feel my own tears welling up, and I quickly wipe them away. My sudden movement causes him to flinch, and I have to blink away fresh tears.
"This isn't punishment, buddy. Okay? It's not because you did anything wrong. This is just the way it goes."
"I don't want to go," he says. His ten-year-old voice is high-pitched and scared, and it breaks my heart.
"We talked about this, right? It's nothing to be scared of."
"I know. But I'll miss mommy. And Ryan and Sherry and Bran."
Everyone but me. For a brief second, I lose all pity, but then it's back, along with guilt. I feel like throwing up, like crawling into a corner and weeping. I feel like dying. But that's not my place, not my job, not right now.
This is how it goes. No matter how much I hate it, this is how it goes.
"No you won't," I tell him. "Remember?" I reach for his hand, but he dashes over to his mother. By the time he reaches her, they're both weeping. This is why we do this without any of the other kids around. His brothers and sister are all younger than he is, and this would only scare them.
You tell them and tell them, you make it seem almost like a party. But that all falls apart the second their mother breaks down into crying fits.
I cross the room and gently pull him from his mother's arms. "It's time, Blake. Come on, buddy."
"I'm not your buddy! I hate you! I hate you!"
"You aren't the only one," I say quietly. "Let's go."
Once outside, his bawling quiets down to an occasional sob. It's bleak and gray, just like it always is. You don't see the sun anymore--at best, you'll see a spot in the clouds that looks a little brighter than the rest of the sky and you can assume that's where the sun is. I was eleven years old the last time I saw the sun--barely older than Blake.
I didn't realize it would be the last time I would ever see the sun, or I would have tried to remember it better. I didn't understand about war back then, about the apocalypse. Or about survival.
I hate that my children know about these things. I hate that they have to.
"Why did Mommy cry? If it's like you said, why would she cry?"
"Because she'll miss you. We'll all miss you."
We walk in silence then. He has stopped sobbing, and the world is quiet except for our footsteps in the gravel. I remember when there were things like sidewalks and streets and grass. When you stepped, the sound changed. Now, there is only gravel crunching beneath our feet. That's all there is, no matter where you walk.
"I don't hate you."
"I know you don't."
"I'm sorry I said that."
"It's okay, buddy. Everybody says things they don't mean, sometimes."
The walk seems to take forever. I know that later, it'll seem like it was over in an instant, but right now it's eternal.
The stink gets worse the closer we get. It always stinks these days, no matter where you're at. But this is worse. More offensive. The smell of chemicals mixed with burning.
I give his hand a squeeze, and tell myself it's to reassure him, not to keep him from getting away. "Nothing to be scared of, little guy."
"But I'm still scared."
"I know. Pretty soon, you won't be."
The smoke is always there, spread across the sky like a jagged scar. You spend your days ignoring it, telling yourself it's just another part of the destroyed landscape that is this life. But deep down, you know it's there, every second you're awake, and every second you're asleep, it's always lurking in your mind.
You don't see the smokestacks until you round the corner. I feel his hand clench, and I give it another squeeze. This time, I can't even pretend that it's to reassure him.
The two smokestacks loom above the tiny cubic building, they look like horns on the side of an eyeless skull. There's a dead man by the side of the road, his head crushed in. Blake doesn't seem to notice, but I know he has seen the corpse.
I prepare an answer in case he asks about it, but he doesn't say anything until we reach the door.
"I don't wannna go in."
I push the buzzer. "I don't either, little guy. But this is what we have to do, right? This is what we've been waiting for."
"Jimmy's big brother said that you've been lying to me. He said that Heaven isn't real, and you're just gonna-"
I laugh, loud and quick. "Jimmy's big brother? Is that why you're worried, little guy?"
I wait for him to nod an embarrassed little nod.
"Name and ID number?" A tinny voice asks from the intercom.
"Name of the initiated?"
The door buzzes and I pull it open.
"Buddy, Jimmy's brother is dumb as a turd! This is the same guy who ate ragberries, isn't it?"
Another nod, and a hint of a smile.
"He's lucky that he didn't crap out his bones--everyone knows that ragberries are poison. And this is the guy you want to listen to instead of your loving parents?"
"Come on, Blakey, that guy's an idiot. You know better than to believe anything he says."
The smile finally breaks through, a smile of relief. I smile back, even though I want to cry, and I lead him through the door.
"Okay, I have to go in here and fill out some papers. You sit right here and be good, okay?"
He nods and sits down on one of the torn plastic chairs. I walk through another door and it clicks locked behind me. There's a window that looks out into the waiting room, but I don't turn to look. I don't know who would want to, but apparently, some people do. I know what's going on--the vents have begun emitting a gas that will slowly stop his heart. He'll get dizzy first, light-headed--I've been assured that it's a pleasant experience. Then he'll go to sleep.
I sit down on a chair almost identical to the ones in the other waiting room, and I fight tears.
Time passes. How long? I don't know, I never know. Eventually, a man in a stained white coat brings out a cart full of wrapped packages. Not nearly enough to make this all worth it.
But we do what we have to do. I take the packages out and load them into my backpack, and then I leave.
The dead man is gone--either dragged away or dragged into the plant. I wonder who crushed in his head. Probably someone just like me. The dead man probably said the wrong thing at the wrong time, either when his assailant was entering the plant, or leaving it.
Doesn't matter. He's in Heaven now.
I laugh, and it echoes in the emptiness of the world. Covering the sound of my footsteps on gravel, covering the faint grinding noise from the plant behind me. It is not a pleasant laugh, nor is it a sane laugh.
I don't know how much longer I can do this. We all have to do what we have to do, but I don't know how much longer I can last.
There must be a better way. But nothing green grows anymore, and the livestock died long ago.
The other children greet me at the door.
They have tears drying on their faces, but they are smiling.
"How was it?" my wife asks, and I hate her. I want to crush her head in, just like the dead man I saw near the plant. Instead, I smile, and I tell her it went wonderfully.
Over supper, I tell them about how angels descended from Heaven and took Blake by the hands, how he laughed when they lifted him into the sky.
My wife cries as I tell the story, and she holds one hand over her swelling belly, as if trying to protect the life inside. But she doesn't stop eating.
Posted under Short Stories on 9/12/10