My labor pangs are mild at first. They’re intense, sure, but it’s mostly warmth and pressure like my abdomen is hugging itself. I’ve got time. Hours maybe, before I have to flee the enclave and get myself to the birthing hideout.
In the meantime, I’m in our makeshift infirmary, trying to get water past old Eileen’s tight-pressed lips because we ran out of IV and NG intubation supplies a long time ago. She reluctantly takes one sip, two, and that’s all she can handle before she grunts, whips her grayed head to the side, spraying water all over the chalkboard.
She whispers, “No more, Brit. It hurts.”
“You have to drink—”
“Let me go.”
I pull the mug back and stare down at my friend. Eileen’s hair spreads thin and gray across the faded sheets of her cot. Except for the tumor bulge in her belly, she’s so tiny now, her muscles wasted away, her wrinkly skin so loose it looks like a whole different person used to live inside it.
“A, b, c, d, e, f, g,” she sings softly, like she always does when the pain is bad. She’s staring up at a row of paper letters draped over the chalkboard. It’s been more than a decade since the flesh-eaters came, but the letters still shine bright with primary colors, maybe because that wall never got direct sunlight. It’s why we chose this particular classroom for our infirmary. We all needed a bit of color.
There’s nothing I can give Eileen for the pain. The only supplies we have left—expired ibuprofen, Min’s bathtub gin—make her stomach hurt worse.
I open my mouth to tell Eileen it’s fine, that I won’t force her to drink, but Marisol bursts in. She’s sucking air, her black skin sheened with sweat. She must have sprinted all the way from the watchtower.
“The baby’s coming?” Marisol gasps out.
“Yeah, how did you—? Just mild contractions so far. There’s plenty of time—”
She’s shaking her head. “They’ve scented you. We’re going.”
“My water hasn’t even broken!”
“Flesh-eaters are massing at the gate.”
The undead are like sharks, drawn to blood, but they’re drawn to birth even more, and they seem to have favorites. I guess I’m a favorite.
Which means we must run before the flesh-eaters trample the gate. My go-bag has been ready for weeks, for exactly this moment, but I’m frozen in place because Eileen can no longer drink water.
“Eileen…” She might not be here when I get back. If I get back.
Her bony, paper-skin hand grasps mine in a show of strength she hasn’t displayed in weeks. “Honey, it’s okay to let me go,” she says. “Because I win. I win at everything.” At my puzzled look she adds, “I get to die an old woman. Who does that these days? A badass motherfucker, that’s who.”
“You’ve got five minutes!” someone calls from the hallway.
“Brit,” Marisol urges.
“Tell you what,” Eileen says. “I’ll hang on for you. I’ll drink every day until you get back. You hear me, girl? I want to see that baby.”
I lean down and press my lips to her forehead. Then Marisol grabs my arm and yanks me away, through the door, down the hallway lined with old lockers toward the room we share.
Our go-bags lean against the door. Mari grabs them both, since I don’t bend over so good these days, and we hitch them over our shoulders. They contain water, food, needle and thread, flashlights and candles, ammunition, rope, a sealing container for the afterbirth, and all the rags we could scavenge during the last eight months.
Marisol grabs her shotgun. We both carry knives at our hips already; no one goes anywhere without her knife.
Another contraction takes my breath away.
“You okay, baby?” Mari says.
I’m leaning against the doorframe, and I can’t speak, but I manage a nod. The contraction lingers, getting tight, tight, tighter, and when it releases sweet air rushes into my lungs.
“It’s fine,” I manage. “Like period cramps, just more intense.”
“Eileen says you’re supposed to breathe through that.”
“I forgot.” I’m staring at our bed. It’s just a mattress on the floor, but it’s covered in an old patchwork quilt, neatly made. Mari always insists on having a made bed. Beside the mattress sits a fruit crate, which Marisol painted with vines and flowers. A yellow blanket is folded inside the crate, a gift from Eileen, before she got so sick.
Marisol notes my gaze and says, “We’re coming back.” She takes my face in her hands, forces me to look at her, plants a kiss on my lips. “We are coming back,” she says again.
“We are coming back,” I echo, and I make myself waddle after her out the door, but even if we return the world will be different, and it’s like I’m turning my back to everything—warmth, love, safety, a whole era of self. How do you say goodbye to yourself? You don’t, I suppose. You pretend it isn’t happening.
We hurry past the sanctum—formerly the boys’ locker room—where members of the enclave go to menstruate, and take the concrete steps down to the old boiler room and our hidden exit. In the basement, a gauntlet of women awaits us.
“Go with God,” says Rebekah, her hand grasping my shoulder as if to lay down a blessing. Even after everything that’s happened, Rebekah has faith.
“Eyes up, knives ready,” says Min.
“Eyes up, knives ready,” Stacy echoes.
“Selfish bitch,” someone whispers. Liz’s voice. Our leader thinks that by choosing to get pregnant, I risked two of the enclave’s most valuable members.
She’s right. I’m selfish.
They usher us into the tunnel. The gate before us squeals open, and we pass through. The sentry says, “Eyes up, knives ready,” before she swings it closed at our backs and slams the padlock home.
The tunnel grows dark, and Marisol flicks on her flashlight. Our path is half an inch deep in rain run-off, turned to shiny black tar by Mari’s light, and we splash along, not speaking but listening instead. Eyes up, we always say, but the truth is our ears do just as much labor.
We pass another gate, another sentry. “A murder of flesh-eaters passed by an hour ago,” she says, this time in a whisper because we’re almost outside. “Move fast, or they’ll trace your scent back here.”
The tunnel brightens. We reach a curtain of trumpet creeper vines, carefully cultivated to camouflage this exit. We push it aside and find ourselves in ratty, new growth forest with branches as sharp and stark as bones. Lazy winter light from a low sun makes me squint. Our breaths frost the air.
After pausing to listen, Marisol whispers, “This way.”
I know where to go, but Mari likes to lead and I like to let her. Our footsteps seem too loud, crunching over fallen autumn leaves, half frozen from the night’s cold snap. They smell of rot, but it’s the good kind of rot, loamy and alive.
We pass an old farmhouse, the porch caved in, the walls half devoured by kudzu and poison ivy still in autumn colors. Down the rise is a brackish pond limned with ice. Something long and bloated floats near the edge, partly camouflaged with arrowhead leaves. Marisol spots it the same moment I do. We freeze.
It’s either dead or undead, a decomposing body or a flesh-eater in a state of dormancy until sound or scent alerts it to a nearby meal.
“It’s dead,” Marisol says at last.
“Brain stem’s been severed.”
Mari’s always had better eyesight than me. My glasses got busted three years ago, and we haven’t been able to scavenge a decent replacement. “Good. That’s good.”
We continue on, but I steal a glance backward at the bloating, floating body. That’s how Eileen’s daughter died. Eileen says she probably dove in, thinking the water would mask her scent. When Eileen found her, she had to drive her own dagger into her daughter’s brain.
I put my hand to my giant belly. Is it horrible to bring a person into the world, knowing you might have to send them right back out of it before they’ve hardly lived? Maybe that’s what Liz meant when she called me selfish.
We reach the train tracks. They’re on a graveled rise, and my swollen ankles appreciate the firmer ground, but I hate being out in the open. At least we’ll be able to see them coming.
We round a bend, and I glimpse a line of rusty shipping containers through a break in the trees. “Almost there,” Mari whispers.
But I grab her hand as another contraction takes me. “Holy shit,” I say. My water doesn’t burst and rush out of me in a flood like all the stories I’ve heard; instead it leaks out, dribbles down my legs.
“Sshh, honey, I know it’s hard,” she says, soft and low. “But you cannot yell or grunt or moan or anything. You hear me? Just breathe. Here, I’ll do it with you.” She inhales through her nose, counting, “One, two, three, four. Now out for one, two…”
I breathe with Marisol. Breathe and breathe even though my insides have turned to fire. When the contraction releases, she says, “See? Not so bad.” But she’s glancing everywhere but at me. Eyes up.
“Mari, it’s getting pretty bad.”
“I know how tough my baby is. Remember when you came out to your Baptist preacher dad while holding the hand of the most beautiful Black woman in the world?”
“This is not harder than that.”
“Remember when you fucked that trader silly, faking the big O night after night until you were good and sure he’d given us a baby?”
“This is not harder than that.”
“Not even close.”
“You got this.”
“I think my water broke.”
Her breath hitches. “Let’s keep moving.”
We angle toward the shipping containers. We’ve been whispering, sure, walking soft like rabbits with a hawk overhead, but if my birthing scent is strong enough to bring flesh-eaters to our gate early, it’s only a matter of time before they find us here.
The tracks open onto a huge, overgrown train yard, scattered with sleeping locomotives and tankers and shipping containers. A few lie on their sides, and others are riddled with rust holes, but many seem intact. Marisol leads us through, weaving around containers until we reach one near the center, untouched by forest overhang, sheltered from wind by the containers around it. It’s a faded green color, with the words “Smith-Patel” in huge lettering on the side. We reach the end, and Marisol raises her hand to the latch. A caution sign screams down at us, still in bright yellow.
“I oiled these hinges to get the door open, but they still squeal,” she warns. “Be ready to move fast.”
I nod. She yanks the latch, the door shrieks open, and I practically leap into the container’s black belly. Mari jumps in beside me, heaves the door closed and drops a two-by-four to bar us in. I spare a thought to the enterprising survivor of long ago, who welded brackets to the inside of this container so it could be barred from the inside. Women from our enclave have been using this birthing hideout for years, though fewer than half ever return.
The darkness is nearly total. My eyes adjust, enough to note a tiny bit of light coming from a rust hole in ceiling. That tiny hole is essential. Smith-Patel was an international shipping company, and many of these containers are still air- and watertight.
Brightness sears my vision. Mari uses her flashlight to rummage through her pack, retrieve a scented votive candle and some matches. She lights the candle, flicks off the flashlight. The air begins to smell of lavender.
We have light. Air. Shelter from wind and rain and flesh-eaters. This will be our home for the next several days.
Something bangs against the wall; I feel its echo all the way down to my toes.
“We barely got here in time,” I say.
“We knew they’d find us.”
We are silent a long moment. Another bang, then a slick whisper of a sound as something slides along the wall. I hardly dare to breathe.
“The container will hold,” Mari says.
“They’ll mass while you push that baby out, and for a day or two after. But we’ll keep quiet, and the birthing scent will fade, and they’ll eventually give up.”
“We’ll go back to the enclave with a brand new baby for everyone to love on.”
“They’ll be so glad we did this.”
“She called me a selfish bitch. As we were leaving.”
Mari chuckles. “Easy for her to say. She already has a daughter almost full-grown.”
The door rattles. Flesh-eaters don’t manipulate physical objects well, but it seems to me that some memory of their lives before must remain because they’re always fussing at doors and windows, massing at gates, worrying doorknobs and latches.
“The container will hold,” Mari repeats. “But it’s a good idea for us to be quiet a while. Maybe get some rest?”
My lower back is killing me. “Yeah, okay.”
We already prepped the place with piss buckets, water jugs, and all the blankets we could find, so it’s just a matter of stretching out and pillowing my head on my pack. It’s not so bad, I tell myself. I have food, water, shelter, and Marisol. Everything I need.
The flesh-eaters continue to knock and pound and side-swipe the walls. Their peculiar shuffling gait crunches through the gravel outside. It’s hard to tell through cold, corrugated steel, but my best guess is we’ve attracted at least seven of them, with more on the way. A whole murder.
The container will hold.
At Mari’s and my continued silence, they settle a bit. More contractions take hold of my body, and they are terrible but Mari is right; my life has been full of way harder things. I manage to doze off between them.
Hours pass. Mari’s lavender candle winks out, and she replaces it with another. We’re not sure whether it helps to mask the birthing scent, but we both love lavender. The rusty air hole goes dark with night. The flesh-eaters slow with the night’s cold. There are twelve at least now, drawn by movement and the smell of new life.
My contractions get fiercer as night deepens, coming minutes apart. Mari gnaws on a bit of jerky, offers me some, but I shake my head. She stretches out behind me on the blanket so she can press her palm against my lower back, as if to push away the pressure of labor. It helps. Between contractions, she kisses the back of my neck, tells me how great I’m doing, asks if I need food or water, and I can’t imagine how anyone gets through something like this without a sweet, beautiful, perfect Marisol at her side.
I’m no longer forgetting to breathe. My panting comes naturally, demandingly, primevally. Eileen said that would be a sign my cervix was dilating. It’s making me want to push. Wait, Eileen said. Resist pushing as long as you can, and you’ll need fewer stitches after.
“It’s coming, Mari,” I whisper. “Soon.” So many things could go wrong. We’ve discussed all of them. Like billions of child-bearers who came before us, we’re counting on a little luck.
She kisses my cheek, gets up and grabs the flashlight.
Something crashes against the container wall.
We ignore it. Marisol aims the flashlight at my legs. “Spread ‘em. I’m going to take a look.”
I oblige, and she sticks her head between my bare legs. “Oh,” she says. “Oh.”
“Oh, what?” I prop myself up on my elbows.
Another crash, followed by that unmistakable hiss from undead lungs. A flesh-eater is right at my head; we are separated by mere millimeters of steel.
“Our baby,” Marisol says. “It has hair.”
Oh. “I think I need that mouthguard now.”
Mari grabs it from her pack, a wobbly plastic thing we scavenged from a sporting goods store. I shove it into my mouth just in time.
Pain rips down my spine, into my hips and thighs. It’s the most intense pressure I’ve ever felt, like I’m going to explode with diarrhea or vomit or both or maybe just burst like a huge bloody balloon.
I pant through my nose. Pant, pant, pant, but instead of relaxing the contraction gets tight, tight, tighter and when I can’t possibly take any more, it gets worse. Tears leak from my eyes. My breath wheezes as I try to suck more air past the guard clenched in my teeth.
The pressure fades, and I almost sob with relief. But I don’t even catch my breath before the next contraction possesses me and I’m blind with pain, but not deaf because I hear the door of our container rattling like a castanet.
Suddenly the mouthguard is gone, maybe I spit it out, I don’t know but air rushes into my lungs just as something in my abdomen ruptures, and I yell, “FUCK!”
The contraction releases. I sink into the blankets and my eyes start to drift closed but horror is blossoming on Mari’s flashlit face, because something did rupture and now I’m broken… No, it’s because I just yelled fuck at the top of my lungs without even thinking about it.
Banging comes from all sides now, random and startling and echoing. It’s so loud it’s likely to draw every flesh eater within twenty miles.
“Shit,” I whisper.
“Shit,” she agrees, hefting her shotgun, checking the chamber. The two-by-four is moving, shivering in its brackets. They shouldn’t be able to get in. They shouldn’t be able to manipulate the door at all.
Or maybe they could. All it would take is an unlucky accident of physics.
“Oh, god, here comes another,” I say, clutching handfuls of blanket.
Our container rocks on its foundation as pure, white-hot pain stabs deep in my gut. The thing inside me wants out, and more than anything in the world, I want to push it out. “Mari?”
Marisol looks at the shivering bar, back at me, to the bar again. Defend or support? I see the exact moment she decides.
She sets down the gun, crouches beside me, grabs my slick hand, and says, “Baby, you can say fuck as loud as you want.”
“FUCK!” I yell.
“FUCK!” she yells back. “FUCK THE FLESH-EATERS!”
The floor rocks violently.
“FUCK THEM IN THE BRAINSTEM,” I scream.
“FUCK THAT FUCKING STUPID-ASS TRADER.”
“FUCK YOUR DAD.”
The airless hissing of hungry flesh-eaters is all around us.
“FUCK THE WHOLE FUCKING WORLD—OH, GOD IT’S COMING.”
Marisol shoves the flashlight into her mouth and practically leaps between my thighs. She’s just in time; something roughly the size of a melon slips out of me, and I hope Mari is catching it.
The pressure in my back is instantly gone, and the contraction evaporates to nothing. It’s too dark to see anything, though I hear the susurrus of wiping rags and a squelch of wetness. “Is it okay? Is it alive?”
Wailing pierces the night, echoes around us, magnifies until it fills my soul. I am buoyant, I am life, I am weeping, and I hardly notice when a final, stabbing contraction pushes out the afterbirth because Mari has placed a warm, wet, wriggling bundle against my chest, saying, “Sweetheart, we tentatively have a son.”
The container rocks, lifting several inches from its mooring, crashes back to the ground. Banging reverberates all around us but Mari and me and our new son ignore it all, spending a few precious moments making a tight little cocoon of wonder. She waits for the pulsing in the umbilical cord to stop completely, then she ties it with some thread and hacks it off.
As she gets to work dealing with the afterbirth—scooping it into the container, mopping the floor with rags—I guide my boy to my nipple. He roots around a bit, and it takes a few tries, but he finally figures it out and latches on like a champ. His crying quiets. I can hardly see anything, but I can brush his soft cheek, his soft hair, trace his tiny ear.
We haven’t discussed a name yet. In the new world, no one names a baby until it has survived a few days.
“Brit,” Mari whispers, against a backdrop of constant banging and hissing. I discern the outline of a knife as she hands it to me, handle first. “Eyes up, knives ready.”
“You think they’ll get in?” I take the knife.
“They are very focused on the door for some reason.”
As if in agreement, the bar rattles viciously.
“Get that afterbirth ready,” I say.
“I’ve got it right here.”
My right hand is my best knifing hand, so I shift the baby into my left arm. He fusses a bit, but latches back on quick. It’ll be a while before I drop any real milk, but he seems content to suckle anyway. A small bit of luck.
The wooden bar cracks, and it’s like a thunderclap in my head. Mari raises her shotgun.
Mari checked the brackets thoroughly when we prepped this place. The undead would have to grasp the handles from the outside and pull in order to get in. They are too clumsy, too mindless to work through the logistics of that.
Then again, what they lack in mindlessness, they make up for in relentlessness.
Carefully, Mari reaches with one hand, runs her fingers along the wooden bar. She gasps.
“What?” I whisper.
“It’s wet. A bit rotted. Rain must’ve gotten in a while back.”
“Shit.” The opening wasn’t as well sealed as we thought.
“Get the rope out of my pack.”
The hissing intensifies. Our container wobbles. I force myself to my knees, babe in one hand, knife in the other. I transfer the knife to my teeth and rummage through Mari’s things until my fingers find the nylon rope.
I’m too late. The door clangs like a cymbal. The bar splinters, and suddenly our door is swinging wide to the icy night.
They rush in, all yellow teeth and gaping eyeholes, spaghetti limbs and melting candlewax skin. Mari fires; the gunshot explodes my eardrums, magnified by container walls. The baby screams.
Mari launches at one with her knife, pushes it back just enough that she can expel the shell and fire again. They tumble backward. Mari grabs the plastic tub filled with afterbirth, tosses it out the door. It plops into the gravel. The flesh-eaters roar, swarm over it like ants on a hill.
Mari jumps out, grabs the door, jumps back in while pulling it behind her.
A flesh-eater’s arm shoves inside, keeping the door from closing, and I attack with my knife, slash, slash, slashing until it finally withdraws. The door bangs shut.
“The rope!” Mari yells, her voice faint and tinny in the wake of the gun blast.
I drop the knife, toss the rope at her, grab the inner bracket and hold the door closed while Mari loops around it. The door rattles, threatens to pull out of my grasp, but most of the undead must be busy with the afterbirth because it’s nothing I can’t handle.
Mari weaves and loops the rope around inner and outer brackets, effectively tying the door closed. Still holding the frayed end, she slides to the floor, letting her head loll against the wall. I know my Mari; she’ll hold that rope tight forever.
The baby screams and screams.
I let Mari catch her breath for a minute, cooing at the baby while offering him my breast again. When he quiets, I say, “They’ll eat the afterbirth, and then they’ll leave.”
She shakes her head. It’s dark inside again, which is why I didn’t notice right away that she’s crying. “I saw more coming. So many. We could be buried under a mountain of them.”
“Oh.” I clutch the baby tight to my chest. “Well. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
We don’t get lucky.
For the next few days, the door rattles and shakes, but the rope holds. Mari and I don’t dare talk too much, lest we send them into another frenzy. Instead, I spend hours staring at a tiny circle of pure light on the container wall, cast by the rust hole. I nurse my baby, listen to flesh eaters hiss and bump the walls, and watch the light spot creep down with the rising sun until it finally winks out.
On the fourth day, we run out of food. It’s just as well, since our slop buckets are almost full. We put a blanket over them to quell the reek, and it helps a little. But the flesh-eaters refuse to leave.
On the fifth day, the sun breaks unseasonably warm, and our container becomes a sauna, hot and thick with blood and sweat and piss. The flesh-eaters continue to mass. All day long comes a slick, wet, rhythmic sound as one licks the wall.
On the sixth day, clouds must fill the sky because the light spot does not appear. I stand below the rust hole for hours, because it feels good to stand, and because I’m hoping it will rain. It doesn’t. We run out of water, along with clean changing rags for the baby.
On the seventh day, we are out of options.
“Dehydration is not the worst way to go,” Mari says.
“Getting eaten alive is the worst way to go,” I agree.
“So… we just wait to die?” Her gaze drops to the baby in my arms. He is such a good sweet boy, already flexing his fingers and toes and trying to look around, so content to be held by one of us. He has no idea the life that awaits him outside this container, that’s he’s just gone from one womb to another.
I kiss his tiny forehead. He deserves a chance. “Maybe we die trying to live,” I say. We knew it might come to this. “I’m the one still reeking of birth. I’ll make a run for it, draw them away. With luck, they’ll follow. When the way’s clear, you take our son and sneak back to the enclave.”
“Oh, hell no. They’ll be on you in seconds. They’ll swarm you.”
“Then you’d better run fast.”
She stares at me. “Brit.”
I hand her the baby. “You’re faster. You’re his best chance. You know it. This is the only way.”
Her chin quivers, but her voice is steady as a rock when she says, “If they don’t chase you, we all die.”
I grab my knife, and quick before I can think about it, I swick the blade across the back of my hand. A line of heat pours blood, and I smear it everywhere: my face, my hands, my neck, my breasts. “Now they’ll chase me for sure.”
“Oh, god, Brit.”
She moves as if to embrace me, but I put up a hand to stop her. “You’ll get my blood all over yourself.”
She blinks. Tears pour down her cheeks. “I can’t even hug you good-bye,” she says.
“I love you, Marisol. Keep our son alive if you can.”
I grab the shotgun, because I’ll need something to clear a path, make space for Mari and our baby to flee. Mari works the knots of the rope, unwinds it from the brackets.
I push the door open.
The sun is blinding but I don’t have time to adjust, to do anything except get a shot off as I’m leaping from the container. A mass of undead topple backward, but others reach with gaping mouths and bony fingers for my arms, my neck, my hair. I reload, shoot again, reload, shoot, all the while pushing forward.
Flesh-eaters roar with hunger. Something snags my hair, yanks my head sideways. I swing my shotgun around and fire blindly.
Reload, shoot, push forward.
My foot tangles in something—the train tracks—and I go sprawling, the gun flying out of my hand and skidding across the ground. This is it. The moment I die. I hope I made enough space for Mari.
I crawl forward toward the gun, but my eyes are closed. Any moment now, teeth will rip into my flesh. I force myself to imagine Eileen’s smiling face. My baby’s tiny, perfect nose. Waking up on cool autumn mornings with Marisol at my side.
Death does not come.
Someone screams—not a scream of rot and hunger but rather life and fury. Gunshots thunder around me. Bullets zing past my ears. Footsteps patter by. Someone yanks me up by the armpit.
“Let’s go, Brit.”
It’s Liz, one shotgun in hand, the other stashed under her arm. With her are Rebekah, Min, and half a dozen others. They’ve formed a perimeter around me. I jump to my feet, Liz tosses me the gun she retrieved from the ground. Nearly half the undead trickle away, drawn to something else.
Together we ooze out of the train yard like an amoeba of shotguns, shooting anything that dares approach. By the time we reach the treeline, no flesh-eaters remain in visual distance who are capable of coming after us. Mari is there holding our baby, guarded by Liz’s own teenaged daughter Emma. “We set some menstrual lures, but they won’t last long,” Liz says. “We need to hurry.”
Mari squeezes my hand once, quickly, and we follow after Liz as she rushes us toward the enclave. “Why did you come for us?” I say to her jogging back. This was a costly rescue: the lures, the precious ammunition, the risk to lives.
“You were gone too long,” Liz says gruffly.
“But you said I was selfish.”
She stops in her tracks. Whirls on me. “I stand by that assessment,” she says. “But what kind of world are we making if a woman can’t go after what she wants?”
“We all volunteered,” Min says.
“Our bodies, our choice,” Emma says.
“We really wanted a baby,” Rebekah says. “I mean, I don’t ever want a baby, but I’m glad for you to have yours.”
When we arrive at the enclave, I immediately wash a week’s worth of blood and stench from my skin. Safety first.
The second thing I do is gather Marisol and our baby and take them to the infirmary to see Eileen.
She’s hard to look at. Her skin is so sallow, her eyes so hollow, her teeth gigantic in her face. I half expect her to roar with hunger and charge after me.
But when she sees us, she smiles like a little girl on Christmas morning. “Oh my god, he’s so beautiful.” Marisol places him in Eileen’s arms. He’s swaddled in clean rags now, and his little cheek muscles work as if he might have something to say. “He has your nose, Mari,” Eileen says, and then she laughs at her own joke.
“I would die for him,” Mari says. “Brit almost did.”
“And Liz would die for any woman in this enclave,” Eileen points out.
“Did we make a terrible mistake?” I don’t mean to say it aloud; the words just sneak out of me.
Eileen says: “I have no regrets.”
“Really? Your own baby girl, killed by flesh eaters…”
She closes her eyes. Someone did her hair, making a neat gray braid that drapes over one shoulder. Someone painted her nails, too, in bright pink. Beside her, propped against the chalkboard, is a colored pencil drawing of a tidy little farmhouse with a pretty porch overlooking a gleaming pond. She says, “I miss her every day. But the important thing is not that she died. It’s that she lived.”
An hour later, she’s singing, “Now I know my a-b-c’s” when she slips into a coma. The next morning, she softly dies.
We name our son Eileen.
“That’s a girl’s name,” Rebekah says.
Marisol gets in her face. “Says who?”
I put a gentle hand on Mari’s shoulder. “It’s a new world, Rebekah.” I remind her. “And if Eileen ever asks, tell him he’s named for the toughest bitch who ever lived.”
(Editors’ Note: “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 32A.)
© 2020 Rae Carson