Category — CONTEST
The following story by Ely Azure, is a runner up in Ragazine‘s first fundraising writing contest, “Speculative Fiction by People of Color (Written in 2013)”. We extend our appreciation to all those who entered the contest, and especially to our esteemed judge, Sheree Renée Thomas.
Click here to read the winning entry, “The Chance,” by Avery Irons.
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NEVER. GIVE. YOU. UP.
By Ely Azure
On my fortieth birthday, Mac blindfolded me and took me to an adoption agency. He told me to pick one, as many as I wanted, and we would take them all home. I burst into tears. Not exactly the reaction he was going for and over a wad of tissue I explained that it was a baby I wanted, and nothing short of an actual baby would ever satisfy me. I’m sure I sounded like a hopeless brat, but Mac just nodded and swallowed several gulps of air, a nervous habit he has when he’s trying not to cry.
He looked around at the hordes of unwanted kids. One sweet-faced toddler with bushes of dark brown curly hair waddled towards Mac with his one arm outstretched. What was left of the other was heavily bandaged and soiled. Mac scooped the child into his arms and the little boy lit up like the sun. This child was familiar with my husband.
“They need love too, Mel,” he said. His voice choked back emotion and I felt a certain aching come over me.
“Parker has that same curly hair as yours. Why don’t you hold him?” He held the child toward me and I took a step back.
I had no idea how much preparation he’d put into this visit, the paperwork, the extensive meetings with the agency. He wouldn’t have unless he’d felt sure of more than one kid I would gravitate toward.
The children at this agency were all victims of terrorism and natural disasters. They had been orphaned by circumstances beyond their control. Parker was the youngest of the bunch, barely two years old, while the rest fell between five and fifteen, and all looked desperately abandoned. Their eyes passed over Mac with softness, like fingertips caressing his face, but they scowled when they looked at me. It felt like they were poking their dirty little fingers right into my eyes.
“I can’t stay here another second,” I said, holding my breath. I fled to the safety of our car in the sweltering heat of the parking lot. I’d forgotten to pull the mask over my face in my haste and those few moments in the tainted, diseased atmosphere had me hyperventilating.
The building was draped in airlock plastics as were most of the structures outside of the safety zones in Miami. It was mid-August and there was no breeze blowing. The buildings looked like giant, frozen ghosts. I shuddered and inhaled from the alkaline booster that was plugged into the cigarette lighter, and then pulled the paper mask over my nose and lips. The boosters had been invented a few years prior as a method of prevention, to try and neutralize the infection at first contact. I’m not sure they ever really worked, but Mac and I always kept them handy. I brushed a bead of sweat out of my eye.
For the past six years, an airborne virus had swept across the United States, leaving a lot of people in a decayed state; what we in Miami called the rotten, because their skin was covered in foul lesions by the time the infection was finished with them. The normal dead could be buried or cremated, but the rotten happened to still be walking around, and the virus was so aggressive that a simple sneeze had the potential to wipe out an entire city block.
When the government realized that the infection couldn’t be contained they began to organize evacuations. Massive amounts of the population tried to migrate into other parts of the world. The gates at customs were quickly slammed in our faces. Mac hadn’t been home to France in almost ten years.
The grind of a concrete drill suddenly filled the silence. I twisted my head right and left searching for the sound, then saw Mac walking toward the car. He didn’t look happy.
“You alright, baby?” he asked with concern. Even after I’d clearly embarrassed him in front of the entire agency’s staff. I couldn’t find any words. I only nodded. He handed me an envelope.
“I don’t want to disappoint you, but it’s rare for the agency to receive babies anymore. Parker is their youngest. All of the kids here are infection-free and certified healthy for the most part. This is the only agency in the south with a kid under three years old, I’ve checked. Parker’s ours if we want him, but there is another family waiting to adopt.” He paused, waiting for me to answer or change my mind. I could do neither.
“If we don’t decide by Wednesday, they’ll put us on a waiting list. If a baby comes available, we’ll be the first couple they call. I’ve made sure of it.” He motioned to the charity slip with a huge donation made in our names. I stared quietly out of the reinforced window.
“I won’t lie,” Mac said. “I’m disappointed, but I’m not angry with you, Mel.” He reached across to slide the mask down to my chin, then leaned over and kissed me. My body folded into his and I melted against his shoulder. His touch was familiar and soothing. He reminded me of fresh-baked sugar cookies. The curve of his neck was where the warm cookie scent was the strongest.
My mother had known sugar cookies were my weakness, my pleasure, my comfort. It was the last thing she did before the infection took her from me. Right after my hysterectomy she’d brought a warm batch over to the house. Since then Mac has baked pounds of cookies for me. I still enjoyed the scent on him, but because the taste reminded me of my mother, I couldn’t eat them anymore.
“I’m sorry I flipped out,” I said. “I’m just so stressed about turning forty.” It wasn’t completely a lie. I’d found two gray pubic hairs in the last month and one in my armpit. I was slipping again; I felt that familiar sludge of sadness creep across my shoulders.
We floundered on the adoption waiting list for five years before they started closing state borders. Three more years passed since then. The infection was rampant and it was a miracle that Mac and I were still healthy. My fiftieth birthday was staring down at me from the top of the hill. I kept looking the other way, but my hair had started to shed. I tried to keep Mac from seeing the full-length curly black hairs wash down the drain.
He still had an entire head of lustrous hair, with only a minor spackle of gray. He was still as beautiful as he was when I met him twenty years ago as a part of the student exchange program in college. I looked haggard and wore the wrinkles of an old woman. Mac would be so angry if he ever heard me say that aloud, so I only ever whisper it to myself.
Nine years later, the call we’d been waiting on finally came. I nearly wet my pants when Mac told me. Did I still want a baby? Was he kidding? Just the news of an available infant made me so happy that I was dancing around the kitchen in my slipper socks, singing into a pepper sauce bottle.
Mac and I made love for the first time in four months. Then we dove into our rows of sterilized boxes in both the attic and shed, pulling out long forgotten baby toys, clothing and furniture. I insisted that he finally peel that “baby on board” sticker from its shiny white backing and promptly attach it to the bumper of our Chevy Volt IX.
The next day we charged a car that had been parked in the garage for a year and headed down the familiar roads. A sheet of dust covered the hood, made it look gray instead of baby blue. I bounced in my seat as we rode through a city devastated by the infection. It was ashen outside. Smog clogged the sky, the Earth coughed and shook. In order to decontaminate areas of the city, more buildings had been demolished than there were buildings still intact, and the reconstruction efforts were undermanned. There were more rotten than living people occupying the cities.
There were less than ten passenger cars on the road going in any direction; mostly the streets and highways were congested with delivery trucks. It was late January, and even though Miami didn’t experience winter, the ashy substance floating about reminded me of dirty snowflakes.
Every few miles a patrol Hummer would pass by, red and blue twirling silently, checking for breaches to the perimeter; it’s what the military did now, fight homeland wars. Outside of the safety barricades, the fluorescent green flashers were the ones to worry about. Those meant an uncontained contamination site was nearby, take cover.
Quite a few roads were permanently blocked off and the streets were littered with yellow detour signs and those sterile red, white and blue “Quality Assurance Quarantine Area” signs. They were fresh out of the box and had yet to be defaced. The QA markers were intended to be a comforting thing, but it’s hard to feel safe in a place guarded with barbed wire and airlocks.
The things that normally soured my mood didn’t that day; I’d waited too long for this. It’s true what they say about becoming a mother for the first time.
When Bambi looked at me with those big, round eyes, I oozed delight. She was only two weeks old. They reassured us that she was African-American, one of my preferences; however, her complexion was so translucent that there was hardly any color in it at all. She had the palest, pouty, heart-shaped lips I’ve ever seen. She was almost weightless.
I loved her immediately, but there were so many warning labels wrapped around my baby that I couldn’t feel her touch. Those tiny fists and feet were enclosed in safety mitts. I didn’t even know they made a protective mask that small. She was already infected.
She was a part of a growing unit of newbies that had been born of infected mothers, but the infection was in a precognitive stage the doctors believed the right kind of treatment could suppress, but were not hopeful of long-term survival. She would need to be placed with a family with the right amount of resources in order to give her the best chances at a semi-normal existence.
Mac and I were prime candidates, not just because of our financial security, but also because of our ages. It was news to us. Something about a vaccine we’d been given as children made our resistance higher. Too bad the government had cut funding for it when they decided it had become obsolete.
We were part of a first-time experimental group of parents and along with that responsibility came an ocean of waivers to sign, mountains of health paperwork, and hordes of medications. The doctors had to be sure we understood the potential risk of exposure while caring for an infected child.
There was also a field of protestors waiting for us outside. The coggie experiment, as the media liked to call it, had angered the survivalist groups who believed that releasing coggies into the safety zones, heavily medicated or not, was a danger that threatened their health and freedom.
Initially I agreed, however there were seven coggies at the agency in Miami, and the moment I held Bambi, I was certain that I no longer held that extremist view. I didn’t need to look any further. My family was finally complete.
Two of the many sanctions of the experiment were to wear full body protective armor at all times while handling the baby and to keep a detailed health journal of the child’s developmental milestones. While wearing the armor, Mac pretended to be an astronaut to make Bambi laugh, which by three months she hadn’t done yet. Not even a hint of a smile in her sleep. The doctors warned that her growth would be far behind that of the average child.
That didn’t bother me so much, but the crunchy sound of the plastic body wrap that separated me from her was unbearable. How was I supposed to establish a bond with my baby that way? I was almost to the point of ignoring the warnings and loving her right. I wanted to hold Bambi against my chest. I wanted to press my lips against her fragile skin and feel how alive she was. She was alive. Nothing anyone can say will ever change my mind about that.
Mac didn’t share my complaints. He loved to don his body armor and take Bambi outside. The doctors said it was good for her to get fresh air. Technically the virus was dormant as long as we kept her on those thousand dollar medications. However, she’d be highly susceptible to the infection becoming primary, so ‘fresh’ air was the key word.
Mac bought one of those bulky supercharged alkaline booster machines they used in the sports stadiums. Most of the surviving arenas were quickly closed-in and the owners added the extra benefit of the machines to reassure the crowds that the games were safe to attend, but the infection was too strong, people still got sick, so soon the machines became obsolete. The doctors agreed that the machines could work better in a smaller area, such as our backyard, where there was less contaminant. It made me smile to watch Mac run around the yard pretending Bambi was an airplane. Mostly she looked terrified, but she never cried.
I sipped mineral wine and filled baby journals while Mac and Bambi had daddy-daughter time. The normal developmental milestones say that by three months old, the infant should be able to lift her head while being held at the shoulder.
At five months, holding Bambi that way only made her cry. I would’ve, too, if I had sticky plastic plastered to my cheek. She preferred the arm cradle so that she could always look up at our faces. She didn’t lift her head on her own much, yet, but she could turn it from side to side pretty well, even with her tiny face smashed into the carpet. She wiggled and kicked up a storm and responded well to our voices.
Just before she turned seven months, a flaming diaper filled with rocks and mud flew through the window, splattering glass everywhere. Someone had scribbled “diseased baby” on it. It landed on the floor a few inches from where Bambi was snuggled asleep on a pallet. Without even waking, she rolled out of the way of the fire bomb and stuck a thumb in her ear. That was a surprise. We hadn’t expected to witness a full rollover for a least another four to six months.
The week before she turned nine months old, we were unloading boxes in an entirely different city in Florida while Bambi sat in her rocker on the shady side of the porch. She already had eight teeth and was gnawing ragged little patterns into her safety mitts. We had to finally throw away most of her toys. She’d long ripped all of them apart. In fact they were becoming so unevenly chipped that we’d been searching for a dentist in the area that would treat her early. No such luck.
We’d already moved twice to avoid the intense sort of scrutiny that made some angry protestors set our first house on fire and leave a burning tombstone in the yard of our second home in Coral Gables. It had Bambi’s name slashed angrily across it in wet spray-paint. At first, we refused to be bullied. But after the incident with the flaming diaper, Mac thought it better to abandon Miami completely.
I had been reluctant to move, afraid the conditions would be worse in other parts of the state, but St. Petersburg wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t as hot as the bottom of the Florida peninsula, and being located on the milky Gulf coast, the breezes were heavenly. Mac and I could afford the overpriced, gated, twenty-four-hour safe zone. It lulled the inhabitants into a false calm that made it easy to forget the horrors on the outside.
Before the infection became official, Mac and I had gotten in on the Amway knock-off, Tidal Wave Industries. We topped the pyramid in less than three months. Both of us were business majors; Mac had been a financial advisor and I worked in accounting, so we knew how to run a business. Everyone wanted online product distribution to deliver the things they were unable to find within their own communities. They rarely traveled farther than a few miles, even for work. Retail businesses couldn’t prevent contamination unless they were closed to the public. We kept so many products on-site in order to offer quicker delivery service that we eventually had a storage facility built on our property.
At fourteen months old, Bambi still wasn’t crawling. She could roll-over like a slinky, pushing those awful little gagging noises out of her throat. I hated when she did that, it was almost as bad as when my little cousin ground her teeth in her sleep. The doctors suggested we keep her supplied with pacifiers, but she usually chewed those into tiny bits. Once, she nearly choked on a piece that got lodged in her throat and Mac had to pry her jaw open so I could shove my finger into her mouth to get it. She tried to bite down several times and missed my finger by only a second.
Her face crumpled like she wanted to cry, but then her eyes swiveled to her bare fist and she chomped down on her own hand instead. Blood slithered from the tiny hole her incisor made just above her knuckle. Mac applied pressure to the bite while struggling to keep her mouth away from her own skin. I hurried to get bandages. After we replaced her safety mitts and mask, she glared and rewarded us with the silent treatment. Not one gagging sound until the next meal. It nearly broke my heart.
Speaking of meal times, she hated the formula we fed her, but refused to graduate to the jar varieties either. The only thing she seemed to really want was Vienna sausages. She’d devour can after can after can of those things. I was getting worried that her diet was insufficient. We’d tried so many of the snack choices and usually ended up sweeping that off the floor. She was gaining weight at a decent pace, on the other hand. Thirty pounds already and it was killing my arm and hip to carry her around.
Her fingernails grow like kudzu. I had to clip them twice a day or she’d rip holes in the mitts that we already had to replace once a week because she chewed on them. But whenever she slept, we loved to curl up around her, intertwining our hands and feet, creating a circle of love to protect her from the rest of the world.
Mac slid his fingers through Bambi’s straggly curls. “Our baby is growing so fast,” he said with a tired yawn. It had been his shift the previous night. She doesn’t sleep well alone. If she woke up and no one was near, she’d screech like a recently spayed cat.
“She really is,” I said, staring into Bambi’s angelic face. Her eyes darted side to side as she dreamed those innocent baby dreams. If only she didn’t breathe so jaggedly. I rubbed my finger across her lips and caressed her belly. Those were the only times I allowed myself to touch her without the body armor. Her skin was so soft that it felt like cool water against my fingertips. It had darkened over the past few months, but instead of getting browner, it was taking on a grayish pallor.
“I love you so much,” Mac whispered to me and clasped our fingers into a tighter grip.
“Me too.” I squeezed him back. My heart ached with love for my family.
Just after Bambi turned two, the state relinquished all responsibility of each city back to itself. It was becoming too much of a burden to control the entire state. The new decrees were fierce in St. Petersburg. There was barely any communication with any city beyond Tampa and Clearwater. We could no longer take Bambi in to see the doctors in Bradenton for her check-ups and the wait time for a video consultation was enough to make me pull out my hair.
The good news was Bambi finally crawled. It was an odd, shuffling sort of movement. She appeared to be dragging her left leg around instead of using it, but she was definitely beginning to move. Mac was ready with the video camera. Their trips out to the backyard became ten times more interesting. Bambi had an eye for bugs. She stopped to examine every single one that crossed her path. Keeping her from sticking them in her mouth was the biggest obstacle. It didn’t take long before she graduated to small furry animals. It took all of my energy to keep chasing the squirrels away. Poor things, they didn’t know any better.
My birthdays after fifty went by unnoticed because Bambi was the center of our entire lives. She was one of only two coggies still alive from the original experiment and I was determined to keep her that way. The doctors were amazed at the developmental growth I expressed in Bambi’s journal entries and attached videos. They still warned that long-term survival was not likely at this point, but nothing could discourage me.
The safety zones encouraged community involvement, be we shied away to protect our child from the external dangers and the hatred. Some of the other experiment participants had inadvertently put their children into harms’ way. I never left the house, not even with Mac, now that we had Bambi to protect.
He understood that and still found ways to make putty out of my heart.
It was one of those nights that Mac got all romantic and prepared an extravagant dinner. Bambi was asleep on the couch where we could keep an eye on her, but lucky for us she was dead to the world while she slept. After dessert, Mac switched on the karaoke and even though the song was long forgotten nearly two decades before we were born, we had a thing for vintage music. Mac belted out the verses of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” as if he’d written it himself. It was the same song he’d performed for me at our wedding reception. We danced closer than we’d dare to then.
Things had just begun to heat up when Bambi’s gagging sounds interrupted us. She sometimes made them in her sleep, but it came in short grunts, not the gasping, choking sound she made while awake. Sometimes it seemed she was trying to communicate, I’d written it up in her journal. Mac and I jumped as if we’d been caught kissing behind the bleachers.
“Omigod, Mac, she’s standing up!” I immediately tore myself from his embrace and ran to my daughter.
“C’mere, Bambi, come to Daddy!” Mac said with his usual enthusiasm. Bambi lifted her right foot, the one she didn’t drag, and put it back down. There was no forward movement, but it was still a reason to celebrate. We cheered and clapped to encourage more attempts, but she only stood there staring off into space. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve called it sleep-walking. The gag and sputter were the only replies before she plopped down on her bottom.
I swooped her into my arms, cooing in her ear. I felt Mac’s arm wrap around us. We stood that way until we thought she’d fallen asleep again, but when I moved to lay her down, she squeezed tighter. Mac had to peel her arms from around my neck and in the process her fingernail scratched my skin. I suppressed a yelp and scolded myself for forgetting the body armor. It was enough to keep me preoccupied the rest of the night; Mac finally gave up on rekindling and went to sleep.
As soon as it was safe, I hurried into the bathroom to survey the damage. A cut, not more than a half inch long on the back of my shoulder, had already stopped bleeding. I knew how lethal her nails could be, but I was still shocked at how easily it tore through my blouse to draw blood.
My thoughts were playing bumper cars. Was Bambi even contagious? If so, was the small scratch enough to infect me? Should I worry Mac about it?
I doused the area with alcohol and smeared Bambi’s medication over my skin. Just as a precaution, I swallowed two of the antidote capsules I normally had to mix into her food. I sucked on the spare alkaline booster like it was an inhaler. Was my breathing uneven? Did I feel feverish?
I stared at my face in the mirror. It couldn’t be, but it looked like my eyes were pink around the irises. I splashed water on my face, took a breath, decided that wasn’t enough, and then stripped down naked for a scalding shower. My scalp tingled, my toes curled, but I didn’t turn off the water until I had washed my fear down the drain.
I reapplied the skin creams, put on my pajamas, and made an entry in the journal. I vowed to wipe the incident from my mind. It was just a little scratch; nothing could happen to me because I had to be here for Bambi. The only thing worse than other people fearing her would be her parents doing the same. Mac and I had worked hard to create a safe haven for her, and I wasn’t willing to mess that up. Wrapping the plastic-rubber jacket around me, I gingerly moved Bambi from the couch to her crib and went to bed.
The scratch healed, although I hadn’t been able to keep it a secret from Mac for very long. No doctor would examine me on the outside. They were too afraid I was infected simply by association with my child. So Mac had insisted that I order a double supply of Bambi’s vaccines and antidotes for the next few months, just to be sure. The medicines made my skin dry and my body dehydrated, but other than that, I didn’t notice any changes.
It was easy for Mac to forget about it because the act of standing had been ammunition for Bambi’s growth. Within less than a year she was able to walk on her own, slowly dragging the left foot, her steps were more certain. At three, she still hadn’t spoken a word, but she found ways to communicate. Mac and I joked that instead of teaching her English, it would be easier to learn her language. So we deciphered the signs she gave for needing to be changed, wanting to play or be held, and most of all hunger. She’d eat all day if we let her, but we didn’t. We had to force her to drink the nutritional supplements by withholding meat.
Just after Bambi turned four, some neighbor’s poor pit bull pup got loose and ended up in our backyard. The outer bands of a tropical storm had recently passed over our region and we’d been stir-crazy cooped up in the house. The three of us were having a picnic on the lawn and playing dolls together when Bambi suddenly lurched forward into the bushes that lined the back gate. I’d never seen her move so fast. The whimpering sounds soon followed.
Mac pointed at me like it was my turn to save the squirrel, but by the time I reached her she’d already torn into the puppy’s neck and had blood and guts all over her hands and face. I didn’t have time to cover the shock. The dog was the biggest animal I’d ever seen her attack and honestly we’d gotten so comfortable saving the little ones in our yard, that I didn’t think she really hungered for them anymore. Perhaps the occasional lizard, but I left those parts out of the journal entries.
She stared at me, red-streaked palms up, with a guilty look on her face, and let a tuft of damp fur fall from her lips to the ground. My shock was replaced by pride that we had somehow gotten through to her. She knew by killing the dog, she’d done something wrong. I held back the usual chastisements and instead smiled at her. And for the first time ever, she smiled back. It wasn’t exactly a proper smile because her mouth was open too wide, but the idea that she was able to move the muscles of her face in that direction had me bouncing. I called Mac over and he snapped several dozens of pictures. An hour later, her face was still frozen that way, even after I brushed her teeth.
It became impossible to satiate her hunger with food after that. She’d refuse to eat anything that wasn’t living flesh. After three days of nothing to eat, I could see her rib cage poking through her tender skin. Her breathing was choppy and she slept for longer periods of time than normal. Mac gave me that look, the one that said, “We do what we got to, to save our little girl.”
I stared out the patio doors at the backyard and tried to meditate on what all that involved when a squirrel scurried across the tree branch near the house. It looked at me the way I was looking at it. I accepted the sacrifice and crushed a sedative into a bowl of nuts and fruits. An hour later, two squirrels lay still, warm and breathing, underneath the tree.
Mac brought Bambi outside and put her down. The scent must have been strong because she immediately opened her sleepy eyes. She looked up at us curiously. Mac nodded and held my hand. Bambi squatted over the small animals, and touched one with her fingertips as if to check for a pulse. She then pressed her face into the animal’s belly and tore it open with her teeth. I refused to look away. Blood splattered across her nose and her eyes rolled back in her head. She didn’t stop until there was nothing left but a shriveled, matted piece of furry skin. She offered the other squirrel to Mac. He took it with a smile.
“How about bath time with Mommy, while I put this somewhere safe for you?”
Bambi gurgled a reply and came to take my hand. Mac kissed me on the cheek.
“Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’ll teach her how to hunt. Everything will be fine.”
I had strange dreams for months where I was being served little creatures: squirrels, mice, chicks. The taste of warm flesh was inviting; it was the fur that made me gag. I’d wake up and vomit like I had morning sickness. While I nursed a bellyache, Mac ordered a tranquilizer dart gun and hunting gear for the two of them. I dare to say he enjoyed the excursions, and since they were the only times Bambi could leave our property, she wore that wide smile on her face for days. Her skin lost its sallowness and she almost looked cured. I didn’t want the doctors to misinterpret that part, so I left that out, too.
The morning of her fifth birthday, I received an email from the doctors expressing gratitude for my meticulous journaling, but they regretted to inform me that it would no longer be necessary. The other surviving coggie had died the previous week. I believe Marlin was his name and he’d been only a year older than Bambi. The autopsy revealed the same results as all the other coggies. The medicines hadn’t worked, there was no cure, so the experiment was over. They confirmed the coggies had mostly damaged internal tissue, very little brain activity, and the failing organs of the elderly.
They suggested, gently, that we have her put down at a local veterinarian’s office. It was so gentle, in fact that they rambled on for six paragraphs before dropping that bomb. My heart lurched. I deleted the email before Mac could see it. There was no way I was going to euthanize my daughter. At a vet’s office. The nerve it took to even suggest it.
I went back into the kitchen where Bambi and I were baking her birthday cake. Mac danced around the living room while hanging decorations. Bambi grunted to the music. We were just like any normal family. We had a picky eater. We had some behavioral issues. Sure, we wore plastic-rubber all the time, but for one night that would change. This was a special birthday and Mac and I had promised to dress up in real party clothes.
“I’m going to jump in the shower. Don’t forget to set the table, baby,” I said to Bambi with a plastic kiss. She grunted that she understood. At some point Mac joined me in the shower. The heat between us made the de-steamer obsolete. We didn’t care. It was the best day of our lives.
We came out dressed in clothing we hadn’t worn in years. Mac, in his cobalt tuxedo jacket, told me that my gold Grecian evening gown complemented my skin better now than in the past. We had that morning-after glow all over our faces, but the birthday girl outshined us both.
Bambi was all dolled up in the pink taffeta with the tiny white hearts that I’d laid out for her, complete with white patent leather shoes. There was a pink feather in her hair and more on a chain around her neck. It was jewelry the two of us had made together one rainy afternoon. She led us to the table that had been decorated for a tea party, like the one in her bedroom. We each took a seat and sang happy birthday to her. She smiled, a genuine one, and clapped excitedly. We’d been working on her wide mouth scowl for months.
She moved around the table as she poured us some of the lumpy beverage from her teapot. We toasted and drank it and I was suddenly feeling quite sleepy. A blurred tranquilizer dart sat broken in the center of the table. I was unable to have any reaction at all when Mac slumped to the floor.
He’d gulped. I’d only sipped. The scent of rotting flesh was strong and no longer able to be ignored. I watched paralyzed as Bambi put on her bib, bowed as if to say grace, and then began chewing gracefully on Mac’s neck. Blood bubbled and his body twitched involuntarily.
When she finished, she wiped the blood from her lips on a birthday napkin and looked at me with eyes so ravenous that it was hard to believe I’d just watched her chew most of the flesh from her father’s bones.
Bambi climbed onto my lap and reached for me. That move I’d been waiting for, but had never received. That recognition of the bond every child has with their mother from birth and hearing their voices utter that beautiful word.
“Mommy,” Bambi whispered in a tone so soft that it melted from her lips. A milestone. I felt hot tears well up in my eyes, but they never fell. I was in a state of frozen ecstasy. She pressed those precious lips against my neck and my eyes closed. I wished Mac had been alive to see it.
About the author:
Erica Shaw, pen name Ely Azure, is a native Floridian and a veteran of the United States Air Force who has been conjuring imaginative tales as a storyteller since she about eleven years old. She loves the sounds of nature, traveling, and every color in the orange spectrum. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California-Riverside. Her short story “Strange Fruit in Pratt, Kansas” was chosen as a finalist in Glimmer Train Press’ 2012 June Fiction Open and she has had both poetry and creative nonfiction published in The Cypress Dome‘s Spring 2011 issue. Currently, she is a poetry reader for The Whistling Fire and has written professionally for both the Goodfellow Monitor, a military news publication, and the “Teen Wrap” section of The Florida Times-Union.
Walter Gurbo, Drawing Room
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Fiction Contest/Runner Up
Yes, Another Contest …
Okay, here’s The Scoop:
Walter Gurbo, internationally famous for his very long-running surreal-absurd-crazy “Drawing Room” series, recently suggested Ragazine.CC run a contest where authors write up a flash fiction/short story to “illustrate” his art. The first of these pieces appears above. His title: “Bear, Swan, Bomb.” Walter and other Ragazine contributing editors will be the judges. Judges’ decisions are final.
Contest winner’s story will appear in the next issue, published with the art, and the new issue’s art subject.
200 words MAX. Submit in the body of an email (NO ATTACHMENTS). Email: Editor@Ragazine.CC, with THE WRITING ROOM in subject line. Entries that do not meet these unbelievably minimal criteria will be wished away to the nearest cornfield.
Only One Entry Per Issue, Please!
Entry Fee: $5.00. A prize will be awarded based on 1/3 the number of entries received. So, 60 entries, $100.00 to the winner. Simple, yes?
Entry fee accepted through PayPal:
|ENTRY FEE WRITING ROOM|
“Put your hand down.”
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on The Writing Room, with Walter Gurbo
The following story by Avery Irons (above), is the winner of Ragazine‘s first fundraising writing contest, “Speculative Fiction by People of Color (Written in 2013)”.
We extend our appreciation to all those who entered the contest, and especially to our esteemed judge, Sheree Renée Thomas.
Runners up (stories to be published in Ragazine in 2014):
Ely Azur’s “Never. Give. You. Up.” (moving but creepy adopted monster/baby/zombie? And a disclaimer, don’t usually care for zombie tales, but this family’s attempt to adopt and become parents during a biological epidemic was compelling)
Lisa Bolekaja’s “Don’t Dig Too Deep,” (spooky children’s lore), and
Sharon Warner’s “The Color of Time” (short and sweet microfiction).
Honorable Mentions for Imagination and Lore
“Jacob and the Owl,” by Shawn Frazier
“Ruth’s Garden” by Kyla Philips
Honorable Mentions for exciting locations/settings:
(Dogon tribe /Africa), Sacha Webley
(Brazil), Adanze Asante
by Avery Irons
Robert pulled our thin curtains aside and jabbed his index finger at the snow falling on the other side of the window. The ceiling light flickered in rhythm with his thumps on the glass. “If those suckers at the city are dumb enough to open up in all this mess, that shows you how jacked up their system is and why you shouldn’t go.”
I lay on the couch watching his shoulders bunch higher and higher towards his neck, the signal that he was prepared to argue the point all night. “How will I get more food credits if I don’t go?” I asked.
“Are you hungry?” he turned hurt eyes to me.
“No, but you know that babies sleep and eat.” I emphasized the ‘you.’ I didn’t want to waddle to the Pregnancy Registration Center in two feet of snow, but I had already traded two night shifts at the hospital to get the day off. If the first radio reports said that the government offices were open, I’d make the trip even if I had to dig a tunnel all the way to downtown Brooklyn.
“We’ve been making it, and we’ll keep on making it. Fernando said he’s gonna need more help in his new building in a few weeks.” Robert walked over to our leaning bureau and rummaged through the top drawer for his emergency pack of cigarettes. Knowing the unpredictability of bodega owners during snowstorms, I hoped that he had enough to get him through the next day. His shoulders gathered even higher—he didn’t.
“You working with Fernando isn’t getting us anywhere. He has you running around the neighborhood fixing toilets and checking boilers at all hours of the night for change. It’s not safe.”
Robert shrugged and sighed as he bent his tall, lean body to check the temperature on our space heater. “Hot or cold?” he asked.
“So hot, I wanna strip naked and go lay in the snow.”
Chuckling, he sat next to me on our saggy loveseat and draped our afghan over his legs, placed my feet in his lap and said, “Please don’t.”
“I don’t have a choice.” I nestled back against the cushion. “Tina says it’s easy. The services clerks think we’re all trifling and sleep with anybody anyway. I just say that it could be more than one man’s baby and I don’t know where either is. They’ll give me a hard time to embarrass me and then move on.”
I told the short version of the story, leaving out the details about the services clerk interviewing my sister raising her voice so all of the other clerks could hear that part of the interview. Tina told me that she’d heard snickering and teeth-sucking from all around her; and, as she left, four or five clerks found reasons to stand or leave their cubicles to cut their eyes at her. I also didn’t tell him about the signs posted all over the PRC describing the government’s plan to start DNA testing all fatherless babies in 2152. The PRC’s would then cross-reference all of the baby DNA samples with the male samples in the Justice System Database. We couldn’t afford the baby I was carrying, so having another in just two years wasn’t even a possibility.
“We always have a choice,” Robert said, his calloused hands kneading my swollen feet.
“Baby, I don’t need a lecture right now.” The over-head light was dim, but I put my arm over my eyes— my own signal that I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “It at least gives him a chance of staying out of the Centers. If something happens to me, or if he gets sick and has to go the hospital, they’ll start digging around. If they figure out he’s yours, they’ll take him for sure. I’ve seen it happen at the hospital—too many times. I’d rather dance with the devil on my own terms.”
“That’s the problem.” Robert shifted upright. “That’s why things never change, except to get worse. People think it’s easier to just go along. Look around this zone. Trash on the streets. Buildings falling down. We choose this shit. You leave the zone every day. You know nobody else in this city lives like this. And they aren’t registering their babies. Even if you say the baby isn’t mine, as soon as he gets to their schools they’ll give him a million diagnostics until they find something wrong with him. And then they’ll take him.”
I lifted up and looked around our studio apartment bulging with just a double bed, our little couch, a work desk for me, a mini-fridge and microwave, and a chest of drawers. The yellowed paint on the walls had cracked and bubbled, and no matter how much I cleaned, the place smelled like the dried-out hardwood floors. The lights flickered again, dimmed for a few seconds and then brightened. “You look around. You have a choice too Robert. We can get out of this. You take care of the baby for the first few months, and I’ll pull whatever shifts I have to finish my practicum hours. Then I can apply anywhere in the city. You’re waiting for some moment when everyone’s gonna run out into the streets. It’s not happening. ”
“What am I supposed to do, Jackie? “ His eyes darted to his ankle bracelet “You show me a good job, in a good neighborhood, with a swipe station near it. Who’s gonna hire me? I went through their facilities, got their diploma, but I come back and can’t get a job.”
I wished that I hadn’t brought up work. He and plenty others would have gotten on-the-books jobs if they could’ve. Few businesses would hire the young men and women returned from the Healthy Child Centers. Even in small print, the words stood out on their records, warning instability and disconnection. Robert’s parole status and the required and random swipe check-ins didn’t make things any easier. I wasn’t trying to upset him, but I was tired of the never ending argument. And I was tired of not talking about what was really going on with him. I softened my voice to just above a whisper. “Just because you lost Little Robert doesn’t mean they’ll take our baby too.”
Robert tensed and straightened on the other side of the couch. His burdened, brown eyes gave me the same searching look they always gave me when I brought up the little boy tucked away in his wallet. “Like father like son. Isn’t that what they say? Isn’t that the reason they sent me upstate, and for this leash around my neck?” He ripped the swipe card and chain off his neck and flung it across the room. “I want to burn that bullshit. I’m just trying to give the baby a chance.”
He leaned his head back against the couch’s spine, closed his eyes and said, “Baby, you know it wasn’t always like this, right? I don’t think it was ever perfect, or ever will be, but it wasn’t like this. It used to be that at least a man had a chance to stand or fall on his own. A child didn’t have to pay for his daddy’s mistakes. I didn’t have anything to do with my no-account father killing that man.” Robert turned to look at me, his eyes fierce and desperate. “Jackie you gotta keep him out of their system. Don’t let it anywhere near him. It eats our babies.”
His words hung over me. My mouth opened, but what could I say? What could I do? As if to buy me a little time, or mercy from the pain in his eyes, the light flittered out and the space heater and mini-fridge both rattled to a stop. We sat in silence and darkness except for the glow from the snow falling outside. I wanted to tell him that I saw what he saw, that I understood, but when you’re surrounded by fire, the only way out is through it.
Robert’s legs started to shake. His breaths deepened between muffled sniffles. I reached over, felt the wetness on his cheeks and ran my fingers through the edges of his short afro. He wrenched away and snapped up off the couch. His bare feet thudded on the hardwood. Our front door screeched open and slammed shut behind him. I remembered his swipe card on the floor across the room, hoisted myself up and stumbled in that direction, running my fingers under the radiator until I found the cheap, aluminum, beaded chain. Not wanting to waste time forcing my feet into my snow boots, I slipped into Robert’s work boots, wrapped the blanket around me and ran to the door only to stop short in the hallway’s complete darkness. I moved back towards our door, but then pictured a gang of cops lounging in a van calling over everyone who passed by. They would take any parolee without a monitoring card to the house of detention. Panicked heat spiked through me and I inched forward until I touched the banister. Balancing my roundness and Robert’s boots, I took the steps one at a time.
The snow fell in sheets of large, wet flakes. I shuffled slowly in Robert’s tracks, working to lift his boots with each step, hoping his bare feet would turn him around soon. My chest and thighs burned after the first block. I leaned against a brownstone’s railing to steady myself and rest for a moment. The gray sky hovered above me like the cement below me, unending and immovable. Without the orange-yellow glow of the streetlights, the snow fell pure white and rounded the cars into rows of little hills. Except for a few prayer candles dotting a few windows, the block had given in to the clarifying darkness. It was a night rarely seen in the city and under different circumstances would have been beautiful, like the night I’d met Robert a couple of years before.
I’d worked a double-shift and had to take the late, late bus back to the zone. A few guys hanging at my stop started following me with hey-babies and shouts that I made my scrubs look good and how badly they needed a nurse. I picked up my pace and headed for the nearest all-night bodega a few blocks away. When we neared a young man smoking on a stoop; I figured he’d only add to my problems. But as we passed him, he stubbed out his cigarette, eased down his steps, stood his full six feet and barked at the guys to leave me alone. Without arguing, they scrambled back towards their corner.
The young man said his name was Robert and walked me the rest of six blocks to the apartment I shared with my sister and grandfather. Keeping a respectful distance between us as we walked, he asked which hospital I worked in and how long I’d lived in the zone. I explained that I’d been born in the zone and raised there by my grandfather after my mother’s death. He only nodded when I said I was surprised that I hadn’t seen him around. Despite the summer heat and my fear that I smelled like antiseptic and sickness, I left my cardigan on since my little curves didn’t amount to much. I concentrated hard on holding my right foot’s pigeon-like tendencies in check, all the while trying to hide my nervous interest in him. I wanted him to ask me more questions, talk more. None of the young guys I knew had a voice like his, gentle and unhurried. I smiled with relief when we reached my building and he asked if he could take me for another walk the next day.
Robert let me into his life a little bit at a time, taking me to his favorite neighborhood spots and his friends’ houses for parties or to hang out. I’d known immediately that he was on parole. It was summer and too hot to hide his ankle bracelet. And his parole officer buzzed him to swipe during more than one of our dates. He’d dash out of the restaurant or friend’s house to the nearest swipe machine and return embarrassed and quiet. A couple of months in, he finally sat me down and told me about the bar fight with another young man back from a Center. He didn’t actually remember the fight just the young man bleeding on the ground as the cops cuffed him.
I trudged in Robert’s tracks for two more blocks, the cold, crisp air squeezing my lungs. “I can only make it one more block, baby, and then I have to go back,” I said aloud to Robert, wherever he was. Tightening the blanket around me, I rubbed my belly to calm the baby kicking in protest of all the late-night jostling. Slow step after slower step I crossed the intersection and began trying to convince myself that Robert would find his way to safety. At the end of the block I scanned all the streets around me. My heart jumped into my throat as a gust of wind swept the snow aside revealing the outline of a man standing stone-still halfway down the next block. I croaked out “Robert” and ran-wobbled, holding my belly, telling the baby it would be okay, and asking God to keep me on my feet.
The snow had whitened his afro and soaked through his t-shirt and jeans. My own feet hurt for his bare toes. His head shook and his shoulders trembled. He stood transfixed. I followed his stare across the intersection to the black, metal spider’s nest raised high above us. You never knew if there were any cops in them. I wasn’t sure if the thing even worked when the power was out, but I wasn’t waiting around to find out. I called Robert’s name again and grabbed his slick, bare arm to pull him back towards home. He jumped a bit, but held his gaze and his ground.
“I’m sorry, baby. I need to get you home safely,” I said as I fastened the swipe card around his neck and tried to pull him again.
He raised his hand to the swipe card and looked at me for the first time. His eyes went back and forth between me and the spider’s nest. His trembles became shudders. I expected him to scream or yell; but, a loud sob burst out of his chest. He dropped to his knees, clutched his stomach and vomited onto the snow. I eased my hand towards him. When he didn’t flinch away, I knelt beside him and began to run the base of my palm up the side of his spine. As I pressed more forcefully, his purges deepened, shaking us both. In that moment, I fully, and finally, realized that it would take both of us to work the pain, anger and fear out of him. When he was spent, I settled my heaviness into the snow beside him and rocked us until the sobs lessened and his breathing slowed.
“We we’re just kids, J. We hadn’t done anything wrong,” he cried. “They set us up. They set us all up. We were so small, baby. How could they do that?”
I wiped away the tears and melting snow in his eyelashes and on his cheeks. “I don’t know, baby. I’m so, so sorry. “
His eyes raised to mine. “Please don’t leave me here. Please don’t leave me,” he begged, holding my hand to his face.
“I won’t ever leave you, Robert,” I said. “Let me take you home.”
His eyes questioned me. I nodded. “Yes, baby, let’s go home.”
With my arm around his waist, we slogged through the three blocks back to our building. Exhausted, and with Robert straining through each step, we climbed the still dark stairs without hesitation. Once inside he headed straight for our bed, but I stood him against the wall to undress him. After he lay down, I elevated his feet, cupped my hands around his cold toes, and was thankful to feel them give a little. Murmuring for me a stop, he groaned as his feet warmed, but I hugged them until I was certain his toes would recover. After I’d tucked him under our comforter and sat beside him, he wrapped his arm around my waist and pressed his head against my hip
“She was in on it, baby,” he said from the edge of sleep. “My mother . . . She let them take me. She should’ve fought and found a way. She told me I was going to some new school with lots of kids and places to run around. She actually said I’d have fun, that I’d be happy there. How J? How could she do that to me? She was supposed to protect me. All of us were so small baby, and mad and hurting. We didn’t know who to blame, so we fought each other. I prayed and prayed for her to come get me. The boys in the dorm laughed at me, but every night I kneeled by my bed. But god never answered my prayers. She never came to get me.”
His arm tightened around my waist. I felt him looking up at me through the darkness. I didn’t know what to say. He rarely talked about his mother. I only knew that she and her second family had moved out of the city during his last stint upstate; she hadn’t left a forwarding address for him. I had no idea why she had registered him or listed his father and couldn’t judge a woman for hard decisions made in hard moments. I just needed Robert to see that I was trying to make the best choice in our hardest moment—I had to go the PRC.
My worn-out body refused to get up and undress for bed, so I dozed off sitting there with Robert. I dreamed the dream I had every night. I was standing in the middle of the street holding a little boy’s hand. The boy and I tried to cross to the sidewalk, but endless cars zipped in front of us and behind us. I shouted for Robert, but one of the bums on the sidewalk yelled that he was locked up again—or sometimes, that he was dead.
The flickering of the overhead light woke me. Relieved to be in the calm of our apartment with Robert safe, I got up to hang up his wet clothes and straighten up before turning in for the night. As I cleaned, I bumped his pack of cigarettes on the chest of drawers. Surprised by the lightness, I opened it. It was empty. He hadn’t said a word about it.
The clock on the chest read five minutes after twelve. I prayed that the all-night bodega hadn’t closed because of the snow. I grabbed Robert’s wallet, slipped on his boots again and bundled my winter coat around me the best I could. The snow had stopped and most of the clouds cleared. The full moon glistened off the momentarily perfect blanket of snow. By sunrise the snow plows would have piled it into street corner mountains, and the buses and cars started their task of turning it into a long-lived, gray slush. The PRC would open in the morning.
It was just half a block to the corner store, but I huffed by the time I made it to the bullet-proof window and pounded to wake the man sleeping behind the glass. He jumped up, fumbled for his glasses, and slicked his hand back over the few strands of hair on his head. “Good thing for you my brothers are late coming to help me close up, or I would have been long gone.”
“Lucky me,” I said. “Can I get ten unmarked?”
“These are for my revolutionary friend.” The man leaned closer to the glass and ran his eyes around the empty street before stretching his arm high above him and bringing down ten unmarked cigarettes wrapped in cellophane.
“Yeah.” I didn’t like where he was about to go.
The man laughed. “I’m not joining any revolution led by a man that sends his pregnant woman out in a snowstorm to get his cigarettes.”
“He’s not feeling good.”
“Sure, Mommy. That’ll be six bucks.”
Robert had exactly six dollars in his wallet. I hesitated, but slipped them into the metal dish beneath the glass. It would be okay—Robert could sell a few as singles if we needed a few dollars until I got paid, or our food credits came through. As I was about to fold the wallet away, I saw the picture of Little Robert and pulled it out of its slot. The boy looked so much like Robert I couldn’t believe the resemblance. On the back, a feminine hand had written “Little Robert, Age 8, 2130.”
I stopped. That date had to be wrong; the picture had to be much more recent. I thought back to one of early dates when I had caught a glimpse of it as Robert had opened his wallet to pay for something. I made him show it. “Who’s that?” I had asked
“Little Robert.” Embarrassed, he rushed the two words as he shoved the picture back into his wallet.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had a son?”
Robert had tilted his head, given me a questioning look and then relaxed. But he spoke with a longing sadness. “The system got him.”
Once back in the apartment and stripped out my bundling, I sat beside Robert again. I looked at the man and then at the boy in the picture. Both had the same point to their ears and arch in their eyebrows. Both had the same brown speckle on the right corner of their bottom lips. I wished that Robert had just said that it was a picture of him. Maybe, I thought, it was too hard for him back then to own that lost and hurting little boy, too risky to trust me with that knowledge. In the photo, Robert’s eyes were blank and his mouth was a straight line. I wondered if Robert’s mother had written his name on the back. How could she have gotten that picture and left him in that place—a scared and miserable little boy, sleeping in a cold, bare room with dozens of other cast-off boys?
Although Robert was healing, the boy would always live inside the man. If we had a baby boy, Robert wanted to name him after his late grandfather, Richard, but with the last letter changed to a “t” so our son would know that even if he was alone or hungry or cold, he would still be rich in his heart. Realizing just how much I had misunderstood Robert hurt my own heart. I had always thought that he wanted a second chance. For the first time, I understood that he’d never had a first, and that I was the only one who could give it to him. I pictured the baby growing inside me, imagining Robert’s toffee skin, lush black curls, and round, dark eyes. Both the child and the man deserved a chance. Clicking off my alarm, I whispered, “I trust you,” as I slid under the blanket and into Robert’s warming arms.
About the author:
Avery Irons is a writer and advocate for youth justice. She currently splits her time between Champaign, Illinois, and Los Angeles, CA.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on CONTEST WINNER: The Chance
FUND RAISER/WRITING CONTEST
Contest Is Closed.
Winner and Runners-Up will be announced in December.
Thanks to all those who entered!
November 2, 2013 6 Comments