by Kate Wrath
Karalyn lay limp against the body of her dead husband. Up until that moment, she’d believed, somehow, she would overcome the illness. That she would fight it off, despite the lack of food or medicine. She’d recover because her children needed her. Because they required at least one parent in this cruel world. One person who was willing to wedge herself between their little bodies and the evil that could so easily consume them.
Now, she understood how she had fooled herself. The life was draining out of her little by little and she had no way to ease the suffering of her young. Unbearable sorrow pierced her heart, but the pain went beyond the emotional. She could feel the imminent failure of the organ within her chest, threatening to give out. This small bout of consciousness was likely the last one she’d ever get. She had only moments to prepare them, and hardly energy to speak.
“Henry,” she whispered, though it took great effort. Her eyes rolled sideways to find the face of her oldest son, who stood near the shanty’s door. She couldn’t reach for him. One finger twitched. That was all the strength she had.
He stepped closer, but not too close. She’d scolded him enough times for trying to come near to help her. To help Gabriel, the love of her life, who was now dead beside her. Would Henry hate her later for denying him one last hug? Or would he understand?
The eyes of the nine-year-old boy skimmed over her face, fearful and reserved at the same time. They paused on the sores crusted around her lips. Emotion flickered through his eyes and settled underneath a carefully controlled exterior. Henry was the one to do it. The one to keep them alive.
“Burn us,” Karalyn whispered.
Henry leaned in to try to make out the faint words. His face came into view– the golden-brown mop of hair and inquisitive eyes. For a moment he looked so young she thought she was seeing his brother. Then cold iron rose from beneath the surface, masking any youth in Henry’s face. He’d puzzled out her quiet words, and he knew what she intended. His jaw muscles clamped.
“Everything,” she croaked out, forcing the words up her dry throat. She glanced again to the doorway, where the rest of the children hovered, watching with quiet, horror-ridden expressions. This moment would be etched on their lives. For them, the first moment they were truly alone. And for Karalyn, the last glimpse of her family. A sigh drained out of her as she tried to catch hold of that glimpse: a beautiful spattering of ragged, skinny girls, mostly, from the ages of eleven to five. There were only the two boys– Henry, and the littlest one, whose face was now buried in his sister’s leg. Nora’s arms tightened on the little boy’s shoulders, and she shushed him softly, rocking side to side, trying to soothe the emotions that he instinctively felt but didn’t understand.
“Everything.” Henry’s young voice was full of unnatural calmness. His gaze was written with a stubborn determination to perform whatever duty Karalyn assigned to him. He asked no questions. No why was it necessary, or where would they live. He must have understood that there was no time for such things. He could only trust her. Allow her to give him what instruction she could in these fleeting seconds.
Karalyn drew in a ragged breath. Where would they go– she meant to answer that one. She was owed a favor from a long time ago. But the air was poison in her lungs. She sputtered and choked on it. Her next breath was frantic, and only halfway in before she was coughing it out. There was a horrible hacking sound. Then wheezing. She couldn’t grab hold of any words.
The girls cried out from the doorway. The twins and Angie were sobbing loud enough to drown out the sound of Karalyn’s desperate gulping for air. Nora tried to reign them in, but she had her hands full. The littlest one had broken from his face-hiding. He tried to make a run for the deathbed.
“Mommy!” he cried, as Nora caught him up in her arms.
“Get them out of here,” Henry growled fiercely, turning his face to his older sister. “Go!”
The other girls, sobbing with wide-open mouths and hanging arms, turned and walked obediently from the shanty. Nora struggled to lift her little brother, who was kicking and screaming, tears streaking his dirty face. She got hold of him, hoisted him to her waist, and refused to let go. She turned away from her mother, making for the door.
Karalyn’s head fell sideways, her chest heaving. Her eyes met those of the tiny boy reaching over Nora’s shoulder.
“Mommy, mommy,” he cried, renewing his efforts. Tiny fingers stretched toward her. His little face was contorted with desperate grief.
Nora kept walking, though her own back shook with sobs. As she went through the doorway, her soft, tremulous voice floated back to their mother. “It’ll be OK, Mattie. It’ll be OK.”
Karalyn couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. She was done. Terror gripped her at the thought of leaving them behind.
Henry crouched down in her blurring line of vision. His hazel eyes met her dying eyes. “Mom,” he said softly, and his voice was already fading, fading. “I’ll take care of them. I promise….”
Copyright 2014 Kate Wrath. All Rights Reserved.