Originally published December 2017, by Red Sun Magazine
By Aeryn Rudel
“Can I go to the basement and see Daddy?” Caroline asked.
Barbara set the shotgun on the kitchen counter, checked the safety, and knelt beside her daughter. “Honey, Daddy isn’t ready for visitors yet.”
“When he finishes his lessons?” Caroline said, hopeful. She and David had been close, and she felt the loss more than her twelve-year-old brother. Mark wanted nothing to do with his father. Barbara hoped he’d come around, especially if he could see the progress David had made, but she knew she couldn’t rush things.
“We’ll see, but that might be a long time from now.” Barbara pulled her daughter close, and Caroline melted into the embrace. “Now go outside with your brother and Uncle Robert. I’ll call for you when I come back upstairs.” She wouldn’t risk having the kids in the house during rehab.
“I could help with the lessons,” Caroline said. “I could help Daddy too.”
Barbara smiled. “I know you could, but remember what the people from the Rehabilitation Agency said. Just one of us right now, until he gets a little better.” The rehab process fascinated Caroline, and she questioned Barbara on every detail. Barbara didn’t tell her much. Most of it wasn’t fit for an eight-year-old to hear.
“Please, I miss him so much.” Tears stood in Caroline’s pale green eyes. Green like her father’s used to be.
Seeing Caroline like this sunk a knife into Barbara’s heart. “Go on, honey. Now.”
Caroline shuffled to the sliding glass door, opened it, and stepped into the backyard, where her brother and uncle waited. Robert looked a lot like David, enough that Barbara often did a double take when she found him drinking coffee at their table in the morning. Outside, he scooped up Caroline, and she came alive in his arms, smiling and laughing. Mark walked up behind them, grinning. They looked happy. Despite the terrible thing that had happened, her family looked happy.
Barbara watched Robert and her children for a few moments, trying to soak in as much of their joy as possible. Robert didn’t like staying outside while she worked with David, but she needed him to stay with Mark and Caroline. She didn’t want to worry about them while David did his lessons. There was another reason, too, one she couldn’t tell him. Robert had become the bedrock upon which they were rebuilding their lives. She remained devoted to her husband, but if David couldn’t come all the way back…She pushed the thought from her mind, feeling guilty for even considering it. Too soon for thoughts like that.
Barbara locked the sliding glass door and returned to the counter where the shotgun waited. The Mossberg 500’s black barrel and synthetic stock looked like a gun-shaped oil slick on the soft cream tiles. Barbara picked up the weapon and began loading shells into it from her pockets: double-aught buck. She hated the gun, but it was mandatory. She’d asked for something smaller and easier to carry, something that didn’t kick like a goddamn mule. The Rehabilitation Agency refused. The gun had to have legitimate stopping power. She had to be able to kill her husband with one shot.
With the shotgun loaded, Barbara made her way to the basement door. It had been the first of the “improvements” made to the house when David came back to live with them. They’d replaced the wall with a concrete slab to support a heavy steel frame and the new door. The entrance to her basement looked like a bank vault, a thick rectangle of shining metal. The door made her feel safe and terribly sad at the same time.
She entered a six-digit code—David’s birth date—into the keypad to disengage the locking mechanism. Barbara pulled open the door, and the stench of rancid meat wafted from the dark stairwell beyond. The smell used to make her sick, but you could get used to anything with enough time and determination. She flicked on the lights, filling the stairwell and the basement below with a harsh fluorescent glow.
Barbara thumbed the safety off on the shotgun and waited. The sounds of David’s chains dragging on the concrete drifted up after a few seconds.
“David, I’m coming down.”
A low, rattling moan followed her announcement, animal-like and unintelligible. Barbara drew in a deep, steadying breath and descended the short flight of stairs.
The Rehabilitation Agency had remodeled the basement, like the door. First, they’d painted the walls a soft blue. The color had tested well at the local containment center where David lived after the Agency captured him. He’d been there six months before they deemed him a candidate for rehabilitation. The agency also put in banks of fluorescent lights and the manacles and chains on the wall.
David stood in the far corner of the basement, his gray, cloudy eyes tracking Barbara as she moved into the room. His wrists and ankles bore heavy manacles, padded on the inside with soft leather. The manacles attached to chains, that in turn, attached to thick steel rings set into the wall. He had five feet of movement in any direction. A bright yellow half-circle on the floor indicated how far he could reach at the end of his chains.
David had finished eating. Nothing remained beyond the crimson stain around his mouth. Barbara never asked where the “food” came from; she didn’t want to know. A white van delivered a package wrapped in opaque plastic once a week. The agency told her the wrapping was edible—like a tasteless Fruit Roll-Up—so she just pushed the package into David’s reach with a broom handle.
A plain wooden table and chair sat outside the yellow half-circle, five feet from its farthest edge. She’d positioned the table close enough for David to see and hear her, and far enough away that he had no chance of reaching her. On top of the table sat the rehabilitation materials: a stack of white plastic binders. Barbara put the shotgun down and smiled at her husband. He shuffled forward, chains rattling against the concrete.
She took a binder from the top of the stack. Inside were big, laminated cards with pictures of ordinary objects. She selected one and held it up. “What’s this, David?”
He cocked his head and stared at the card. A line of pink drool fell from his bottom lip, and he opened and closed his mouth, making wet smacking noises. She almost set the card aside to choose another, and then he spoke.
“Treeee.” David’s voice was low and grinding, like a man who needed to clear his throat.
“That’s right, baby,” she said, trying not to feel too hopeful. He’d never identified that particular card, but they were a month into the rehab process and recognition of simple objects wasn’t enough. “What kind of tree?”
David tilted his head back and moaned. To Barbara it sounded like frustration, but the agency told her not to read too much into David’s vocalizations.
“Come on. You know this one.”
He lowered his head, stared at the card, then at her, his milky gray eyes moving back and forth. A few seconds passed, and then, “Crisssmaaasss treeeee.” He’d put two words together coherently for the first time.
Barbara couldn’t contain her glee. “Yes! That’s it, baby! Christmas tree! Christmas tree!”
David had made a monumental breakthrough, but it paled in comparison to his reaction to her delight. The corners of his mouth, still stained red from his meal, twitched, and then rose. An unmistakable smile. The sight of it brought warm tears to Barbara’s eyes. The smile disappeared, and David’s face fell slack again. She didn’t care. He’d exhibited a genuine emotional response. Undeniable progress.
She set the picture of the Christmas tree on the table and looked back at the binder she’d taken it from. The label on the spine read SERIES TWO. Next to this binder sat a stack of four more. Their spines read SERIES THREE, FOUR, FIVE, and SIX. Rehabilitation was a long, slow process, and the agency told her never to work outside the program. Full rehab was possible, although only fifteen percent of candidates made it all the way back. The agency told her she must complete each series in order, but David was doing so well. In under a month, he’d shown increased levels of cognition and memory, and a decreased aggression response. Add to that the breakthrough today, and…
“You’re ready, right, baby?” Barbara grabbed the SERIES FOUR binder from the stack, opened it, and flipped through the cards within. The one she wanted lay at the bottom. She pulled it out, held it to her chest, and took a deep breath.
She held up the picture of Caroline taken a year ago at the park. Their little girl sat on the swings, her face glowing and happy. “Who’s this, David?” she said, her heart thundering in her chest.
“Girrrrl,” David said, eyes fixed on the picture of his daughter.
He’d answered quicker than ever before. She knew she should stop. Pushing him further might set him back weeks, might trigger a violent response. But he was so close. Could this be the road to full recovery? He’d loved Caroline so much. The agency didn’t know everything, right? Rehabilitation was a new process. They couldn’t have it all figured out.
She held the picture out further. “That’s right. It’s a girl. What else? Who is it?”
David studied the picture again. His mouth worked, and his eyes roamed around the room, as if he searched for something. Barbara allowed herself to hope, to prepare for the overwhelming surge of excitement should David remember his daughter.
“Come on, David,” she said, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice.
His lips squirmed away from his teeth, and his eyes rolled in their sockets. He looked like he was fighting something, trying to push through a thick caul of base instincts and hunger, to the light of reason beyond.
David’s face relaxed back into the slack, emotionless mask he’d worn since he’d been infected. “Girrl.”
Despair washed over Barbara, a dark tide that smothered the hope she’d felt moments ago. She put the picture of Caroline down on the table and stared at it, running her hands over the glossy surface. Then she looked at the shotgun. Would it be better to end it now? Would it be easier on everyone? Robert was a good man and already like a father to the kids. Wouldn’t David understand?
She swallowed and shook her head. “No, I won’t give up on you.” She put the picture of the Christmas tree and Caroline’s picture back in their binders.
David watched her do all this without a sound. When she finished, she picked up the shotgun and moved to the stairs. At the top, she flicked the light switch, plunging the basement into darkness.
She stood there in the dark, the shotgun dangling in her right hand. She knew tears were coming, but they would be for her. Robert and the kids couldn’t see; they needed to believe David was getting closer. She needed to believe, too, if only to give her a reason to keep going.
Below, David’s chains rattled, and Barbara looked down at her left hand, at the plain band of gold on her ring finger. A chain of her own.
Barbara pushed the heavy steel door closed. Before it shut, David’s voice drifted through the thin sliver of darkness between door and frame. The words came through ghostly and heartbreaking, crashing against her emotions, carrying both hope and the damning resignation that there was still so much to do.
Barbara woke with a scream climbing up her throat. The dream left no trace in her mind beyond a lingering sense of terror and panic. She let her eyes adjust to the darkness in her bedroom, taking deep breaths to calm her racing heart.
Minutes passed, and that sense of acute panic did not dissipate. She got up and went to her closet. Inside, behind the clothes, loomed a jet-black gun safe. The Rehabilitation Agency recommended she keep her gun close at hand, but with an eight- and a twelve-year-old in the house, the thought of a loaded shotgun within easy reach terrified her. She touched the combination dial, letting her hand rest there while she tried to decide if she was being foolish.
Barbara waited for the alarm hammering through her brain to subside. It did not. She entered the combination, opened the safe, and pulled out the shotgun, shuddering as her skin made contact with the cold metal. She stuffed a handful of shells into the pockets of her pajamas, unable to bring herself to load the gun yet.
Barbara left her room and stood in the hall, listening. The house was quiet. Mark’s room was closest to hers, and he always shut his door. She opened it a crack and peered inside. A boy-shaped mound lay on her son’s bed, and she watched the subtle cadence of his breathing for a moment before moving on.
Some of her fear dissipated, and she crept down the hall to Caroline’s room. The soft glow of Caroline’s night-light splashed into the hall though her open door. Barbara approached, carrying the shotgun behind her back. She didn’t want Caroline to see it if she was awake.
One look into her daughter’s room, and the panic came roaring back, dumping ice water down Barbara’s spine. Caroline’s bed was empty.
“Caroline,” Barbara whispered, stepping into the room. No answer and no sign of her daughter.
She left Caroline’s room and ran to the stairs at the end of the hall. She stood at the top, listening again. Nothing. The stairs ended in the living room, and she could see into the kitchen from there. The overhead light was on, and she had a clear view of the steel door to the basement.
Someone had pushed a chair next to the keypad, and the door stood open a crack, just enough space for a slim eight-year-old to squeeze through.
“No, no, no,” Barbara said, and dug into her pocket for shotgun shells. She stopped long enough to jam three shells into the shotgun and pump one into the chamber before running to the basement door and hauling it open wide.
The lights were on below, but she couldn’t hear anything. Barbara bounded down the stairs, the shotgun at her shoulder, her finger on the trigger guard like the Agency had taught her.
Barbara’s mind whirled with terrifying images. Caroline missed her father so much, and Barbara sometimes worried she might follow her down into the basement. The keypad and the door made her feel safer, but Caroline often lingered in the kitchen before Barbara went down to work with David. Had she watched Barbara enter the code? How stupid she had been to think such paltry obstacles could keep a grieving child from the one thing that would make them feel better.
Barbara reached the base of the stairs and stopped. The shotgun dropped from her shoulder, and she stared in mute horror at the scene before her.
There was so much blood. It ran in thick rivulets from David’s half-circle and splattered the wall behind him. Her husband sat on the ground facing her, his shoulders slumped, head down. Something lay on the floor in front of him, something she couldn’t look at, couldn’t see, or she would not have the strength or sanity to do what must come next.
She shuffled forward, her mind blank, numb. She brought up the shotgun and put her finger around the trigger. David didn’t move until she stood inside the “safe” zone. She pointed the shotgun at his head.
He looked up, his face streaked with blood. His eyes found hers, and some of the old green peeked through the muddy gray.
David’s mouth worked, and his eyes held hers. He tried to speak. Her finger tensed around the shotgun’s trigger, but part of her needed to hear, needed to know the destruction of everything good in their lives.
David’s eyes were pleading, desperate with terrible pain, and worse, understanding. He answered Barbara’s question in a single word, uttered with perfect human clarity.
She pulled the trigger.
© 2017, Aeryn Rudel
Originally published December 2017 by Red Sun Magazine