By EJ Dahm
Sheila’s breath catches as she spies her four-year-old son’s torn sleeve in the rubble. Kage stirs. Rocks catapult in every direction as she uncovers her son. Blood cascades from his forehead. She can’t help but panic. He needs stitches. What if…? She can’t think it. Superficial wound, Sheila tells herself. Breathe.
“You’re okay,” she lies, hugging him. She grabs her supply pack and hands Kage a rag for his head. He smiles at her. She tapes the wound closed as best she can.
Outside, the Lack’s armed vehicle rumbles ever closer, searching for ‘recruits’ in the rubble.
“We’ve got to go,” she tells Kage, kissing his blood-smeared forehead. He nods. Sheila scans the back alley. All clear. She lowers Kage out of the window into the alley, hands him the pack, and squeezes herself through. Kage crawls onto his mother’s back.
“Ready? Go!” Kage whispers loudly. Sheila marvels at her son’s joy, as she sprints across the destruction into a dilapidated building.
Kage is peeled from her back as she runs. A muscular arm locks around Sheila’s neck from behind. She throws her elbow into his abdomen, stomps his foot, and monkey-flips him to the ground.
Lieutenant Compet chuckles from the debris on the floor. He quickly rights himself.
“Wow. You’re stronger than I remember,” he smiles at Sheila. She ignores him and rushes to Kage. “I just want to talk, Hon,” he says gently.
“We’ve done all our talking,” Sheila answers. She grabs Kage’s hand and marches toward the doorway. A soldier melts into view from the opening, with Talon, Sheila’s fourteen-year-old son, in his grasp. “Talon!”
“I’m okay, Mom,” Talon reports.
Sheila spins to confront the lieutenant, but can’t. He is striking. Compet walks to her and caresses her face with his rough hands. She doesn’t try to stop him. His piercing green eyes and his familiar touch melt her toughness away. She allows herself to miss him. She can’t help the lump rising in her throat or the tears that fall. She holds his hand to her face, closing her eyes. She still loves him, no matter how hard she fights it. But she remembers how he’s changed. How power has corrupted him. How he wants to take their boys and turn them into soldiers and thieves and killers. She knows the sickness has changed him. He doesn’t think the same as he used to. He lusts for power now, not for her. It must be the sickness. They had something unusual. He couldn’t have cast it aside. It was love. He pulls his hand away slowly.
“I’m taking our boys, Sheila. If they stay with me, they’ll be ensured a place of power.” Compet studies her.
“No,” she says. “Stealing? Killing? Fighting to live, Daniel? Is that what you want for them?” She can’t let it happen. It’s up to her to take them to a sanctuary city.
“Talon must lead the Lack Army!” Compet growls, then softens. “You don’t understand. Look, Sheila, the sickness isn’t receding. I need him. Please. Don’t make this harder.”
It surprises Sheila to see tears in Compet’s eyes. Part of her wants to comfort him, but she steels herself. She’s seen him kill ruthlessly. Their children will not. She moves to leave.
Compet yanks Sheila to him.
“Don’t do anything stupid, Sheila.” She feels the cold slither of steel meeting her throat.
“Kage, run,” Sheila rasps. Kage sprints, unfollowed. “Talon…go to your father.” Talon balks. “Now!” she says tersely, the knife insistent on her flesh.
She can’t hold her anger in. She won’t let him turn their children into monsters. She throws a Hail-Mary punch, hitting the lieutenant’s nose. Compet groans, loosening his grip. Sheila grabs the knife, plunging it into his thigh. Talon deftly picks a grenade from the soldier’s belt. The soldier freezes.
“Mom!” Talon screeches, tossing his mother the grenade. She catches it. She and Talon run. Sheila makes it a point not to look back as she unceremoniously pulls the pin and throws it behind her.
“I’ll find them! You can’t stop us!” Compet rages. The sound that follows is deafening. She knows she has only slowed the lieutenant down.
Sovereignty City’s gates glint like forgotten bullets in the sand. The Gatekeepers greet them.
“Compet’s family?” They discuss the matter among themselves for what seems like hours. “Allowing your family may help bring peace to our lands. You agree to the toll?” Sheila nods, pulling Talon into a deep hug. He holds her tightly. Kage grips Talon’s legs.
“Don’t worry,” he says to his fretting mother. Talon steps forward. The gate opens.
Sheila weeps. Is she doing the right thing? This wasn’t Talon’s choice. He’s on his own now, at the mercy of The Gatekeepers. They will shelter, feed, and teach him. Only then will he see his family. What if he resents her for making this choice for him?
The Gatekeepers let the family of three enter together. They are allowed to hold each other one more time. Sheila can’t stop her tears. Talon hugs his mother, and kisses her cheek. He picks Kage up, and whispers something that makes Kage giggle. Kage hugs Talon tightly.
The Gatekeepers have been patient with their goodbyes. They take Talon to the Hive, where he will be trained to lead through peace. Sheila waves, but Talon does not look back.
Kage stares up at his mother, smiling. It’s infectious. “It’s quieter here,” he says.
“Yes, it is,” Sheila laughs, and takes his hand. She doesn’t feel like smiling, but manages for Kage’s sake. They walk to the dormitory, where they will be given a room.
For now, they are safe. But death could come to the people of Sovereignty City because she is Compet’s wife. The Lack Army could bring the sickness here, too.
She stares into the distance. He’s coming. She feels it. How can she still love him? But she does. Deep inside, she knows she can save him. Save them all.