Charlie sat in silence in the kitchen, ramming together action figures of anonymous soldiers. The torn remains of newspapers that had been used to wrap the toys lay scattered across the tiled floor. He felt a little lethargic from all the birthday Twinkies; his mother had insisted that he keep eating until his belly had felt close to bursting.
Charlie couldn’t disappoint his mother. She seemed so sad all the time nowadays.
He shivered as he listened to the growling noises from the basement. Charlie’s mother wouldn’t tell him what type of animal was making those sounds, but it must have been very angry or very hungry — or both! — and it seemingly never went to bed. For weeks now Charlie had been forbidden from opening the recessed door in the hallway that led downstairs. He wasn’t sure he’d have wanted to anyway.
Anna, Charlie’s mother, entered the hallway through that forbidden door and walked slowly into the kitchen. She was wearing a heavy beige sweater – one that Charlie recognized as belonging to his father. It hung down nearly to the thighs of her faded jeans, sagging off her emaciated frame and making her look like a small girl. The house had been perpetually cold since the last of the kerosene had run out over a week before. Even when it was sunny and warmer outside, Charlie wasn’t allowed to go play in the yard. “Nobody goes outside anymore, baby,” Anna had intoned glumly.
Charlie noticed the t-shirt wrapped around his mother’s left arm. It looked wet, like it had been dipped in water. “What happened to your arm, Mommy?”
Anna twisted a chair around with her unencumbered arm and sat down at the table. The fading sunlight revealed that her face was whiter than the newspapers that Charlie belatedly wished he’d picked up. “I… I had a little accident downstairs, baby,” Anna began. “I have a small puncture wound in my arm. I tied a field dressing onto it and wrapped it up tightly, but it wouldn’t stop bleeding. So I wrapped the t-shirt around it…” Anna trailed off and stared at her arm as if it had betrayed her.
Charlie was afraid; his mother never answered questions in such a direct manner. It was always “You’ll understand someday” or “You’re too young to hear this” or “We just can’t, okay?” But he wanted to make Anna see that he was capable of comprehending complex adult problems, so he told her, “I’m bleeding too, Mommy.”
At first Anna seemed not to have heard him. She was staring back at the door in the hallway, from which Charlie could still hear the angry/hungry creature in the basement. He cried, “I said, ‘I’m bleeding!’” Then he grabbed his upper lip with the thumb and index finger of each hand, flipping it up toward his nose. “Look!” he begged. “It’s cubbing out of by gubbs!” He realized how silly he sounded trying to speak while holding his lip, but mothers always understood what you were trying to say.
“Your gums?” Anna asked, leaning in to inspect more closely. When she sat back a moment later, tears were welling in her eyes.
Naturally, this frightened Charlie even more. “Now what’s wrong?” he asked.
“Scurvy!” Anna replied. She laughed a little bit as she said it, but she wasn’t smiling, and Charlie had never heard her laugh quite that way before. Anna saw the question in her son’s eyes, and began explaining before he could even ask. “It’s a disease, honey. You get it when you don’t get enough Vitamin C — when you don’t eat any fruit. It used to be a big problem for pirates.”
Charlie brightened immediately at the mention of pirates. If he had to have a disease, he was definitely happy to get the pirate disease! “I’m Jack Sparrow!” he declared to the toys still in his hands.
Anna was crying and laughing at the same time now, but Charlie was mercifully engrossed in his plot to outsmart the (suddenly British) soldiers. After a few minutes, she crossed the kitchen to fiddle with the knobs on the tiny radio. She did this several times a day, but the only thing Charlie ever heard from the device was static. “Gross, Mommy!” he called out, pointing to the drops of blood dripping from the t-shirt onto the tiles.
Anna pulled her hand back as if to punch the radio, but then slowly lowered it to the counter. Without turning around to face her son, she asked, “Would you like to visit Daddy today?”
The simple query sent several questions through Charlie’s mind. Where had Daddy been? Why did we wait so long to go visit him? But the past few months had made Charlie a pragmatic boy. He simply asked, “How will we get to Daddy? We can’t go outside.”
Anna continued to face the radio. “We don’t have to go outside. He’s down in the basement. We can go see him, but you have to promise to be very brave. Okay, honey?”
“Of course I’ll be brave,” said Charlie, solemnly. “I’m Jack Sparrow.” He hopped down from his chair and hurried toward the hallway. He wordlessly put his left hand behind him. Anna dragged herself away from the radio, glancing calmly at her side. The entire left arm of her sweater was now soaked with blood, and she staggered forward to place a flashlight in Charlie’s hand. She leaned down to kiss his forehead, realizing with shame and horror that she was savoring the taste.
“Go ahead downstairs, Charlie,” said Anna. “I won’t be long.”
“I love you, Mommy.”
“I’ll always love you,” said Anna, closing the door behind him.
Authors Biography: “Michael is a mild-mannered 29-year-old currently deployed to the Middle East with the U.S. Army. Other examples of his writing can be seen here. His blog, which has almost nothing to do with zombies, can be viewed here. And in a shameless plug that his good friend Tony will never properly thank him for, another wonderful zombie-themed blog is available here.”
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