Chapter 11 - Entry 6
October 17th, 2021 cont - October 18th, 2021
“Cleo? Oh my god!” The sight of her red eyes and yellowed skin didn’t faze me as I rushed to give her a hug. In many ways, Cleo had been like a mother to me at the Fort. Always checking in. Always there. I’d assumed she died.
She rose and wrapped both arms around me in a familiar, long lost embrace and I felt hot tears match my own as we cried softly together. It took several moments before I remembered the reason for her visit, fond memories having resurfaced and carried me away.
“I have a million questions for you.” I managed, finally breaking contact. We both sat down on the bed, her hand coming to rest over my own.
“I know you do hun. Let’s tackle the most important thing first. Mal is safe. Frank brought him to me instead of Simon.”
The shock of that statement left me gasping for air and vibrating with excitement but a yellow finger rose to touch my lips before I could speak again.
“I have to ask you to do something very painful, Marley. Something that no mother should ever be asked to do.”
“What?” Up and down. Elation and dread. Happiness and the sense of impending sorrow. The emotional roller-coaster was breaking me apart.
Cleo leaned forward and placed her forehead against my own. The scent of herbs and woodsmoke clung to her wild, gray hair. Red eyes peered into mine. “I want you to give him up. For Jaeger.”
Speechless, I tried to pull away but Cleo’s hand held me steady. Kept me from running and screaming for help. “She’s nearly lost what’s left of her humanity. Ever since Molly died. But a child….a child could save her, Marley. A son would give her a reason to care.”
“He’s MY son Cleo. Not Jaeger’s. Not yours. Mine. You can’t ask me to give him away. How could you?”
“I can because Jaeger’s too dangerous to us all. Me. You. Mal. All of us. If left alone, in time she’ll care for nothing but the thrill of the hunt. The bloodlust of killing. She needs Mal.” Then, more softly, Cleo added, “And she’ll keep him far safer than anyone else. She’ll save him from Simon’s lot.”
“Where is he?”
“With Frank. About a mile from here.” Her hand rose to cup my cheek and force my gaze to meet her own. Despite the eyes and yellow skin, the smile she offered belonged to the Cleo I’d known and loved. A hint of sorrow tinged those eyes and the words she offered next. “I’ll take you to him but you’ll need to decide before we leave.”
“I can’t Cleo. I can’t give away my only son.”
She stared at me for several moments in silence, hand still tenderly touching my cheek. At length she nodded and rose. “Alright sweety. Get dressed. We’ll leave as soon as you’re ready.”
We slipped out into the night and passed through the gate where two other yellow-skinned Infected waited just beyond. Together, we traveled in silence until Cleo led us off the road and down a residential side street. There a savage-looking Infected woman stood guard with a rifle in front of a small home’s doorway.
“This is Chernobyl. She’s the leader of the Infected.” Cleo offered by way of introduction.
Without a word, Chernobyl stepped aside and opened the door. I could hear Mal laughing softly beyond.
I rushed inside and found two other Infected, both children in their early teens, seated on the floor playing with Mal. Frank, white-eyed and still as a statue, stood in the far corner, watching with a slack-jawed expression.
My hands shook as I reached down and lifted Mal from the floor. My lips couldn’t cover him with enough kisses. My eyes poured tears like rain. He gurgled and cooed while I nearly crushed his little body against mine. Weakness washed over me and my knees gave out. Frank moved in a blur, impossibly strong hands gently lowering me to the floor.
“Thank you Frank. Oh god, thank you.”
I stayed that way forever, crying and kissing my son as the world faded around us. The others came and went, passing through the room like distant memories. I fell asleep somehow and woke on a couch in the same room. Mal sat in a highchair nearby, being fed by Cleo from a bottle.
“Its goat milk mixed with powdered baby formula,” She offered with a motherly smile. Mal complained briefly when she stopped the feeding and carried both he and the bottle to me. “He’s gained a few pounds. Healthy boy.”
“What happened? How did you end up with him?” I asked, settling Mal into the crook of my arm and quieting him down with the warm bottle.
“Frank is…special. Not like Jaeger. But….different. Simon’s grip on him is tentative, at best. When there’s no personal stake in it, he does what Simon says. But he knew somehow that Mal was yours and that you were important to me and Jaeger.” Cleo smiled and shrugged, leaning forward to tuck a strand of hair behind my ear.
“Near as we can figure, Frank got about halfway to Simon before turning around and bringing Mal to us. It took us a little while to learn he was yours. I came to you last night once we did.”
I nodded and focused on Mal, watching his little face scruntch up when the bottle emptied. A loud, impressive burp soon followed.
Chernobyl stepped inside and silently watched me for several minutes, a scowl worn on her face all the while. “You won’t give him to Jaeger?”
“He’s my son. How could I give him away?”
“The others still won’t accept him. You’ll still become an outcast. How will you take care of the child on your own?”
Cleo moved to stand beside Chernobyl and placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “It’s her decision to make.”
“Can I stay with you?” I asked. Every head in the room shook in reply.
“No. You’re not Infected. Neither you nor your son are welcome to live among us.” Chernobyl replied coldly. “Even if your people allow you to remain, eventually Simon will send another to take him. Or Jaeger will grow bored in her forest and decide to hunt again. I will not put my tribe at risk.”
“I’ll die before I let someone take him.”
Chernobyl nodded. “Yes. You will.”
They left me alone with Mal after that, though I could hear them talking just outside. One of the teens brought a fresh bottle for Mal’s next feeding and a bowl of hearty stew for me. The other came close to sunset with clean blankets and warm water for washing.
I tucked Mal into the crib they’d brought and waited till he fell asleep before stepping outside. A small campfire burned in the home’s front yard, surrounded by chairs and Infected who watched me approach in silence. The dancing flames made their eyes glow crimson in the darkness.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said, sinking to the ground at Cleo’s feet. The tears had run dry, leaving nothing left but exhaustion and fear.
Cleo nodded and stroked my hair, eyes staring into the fire. The expression of sadness had been there when I stepped outside. It didn’t disappear when she spoke. “It’s a horrible situation. Unfair and unnatural. Keep your son and risk having him stolen away by strangers or give him away by choice to another who can keep him safe.”
“How long will you stay here with us, Cleo?”
“Until you decide one way or the other. I’ll see you home safely no matter what.”
“Do you think Jaeger would let me visit him? Do you think I could stay in his life?” I asked.
Cleo heard the desperation in my voice and reached down to turn my face so our eyes could meet. “It’s all or nothing, Marley. Jaeger’s forest is closed to everyone. I doubt she’d make an exception for you.”
“If she’s going to raise him as her own, you’ll only threaten that.” Chernobyl added. The others nodded their agreement.
“Could Simon really get to him? Is there really no chance I could stop him?”
“I’ve seen some of the groups he sends out. They’re not as dangerous as Jaeger, but they’re more than you or your people could hope to handle.” Chernobyl said, shifting her rifle from one shoulder to the other. “They’ll have the element of surprise and they won’t care who gets hurt.”
My head spun and heart thundered. It was too much. More than I could handle. More than anyone should have to handle. Cleo held me as I cried again, the tears coming from some hidden reserve deep inside my core. For a long time there was only the sound of my sobs, the soft crackle of the fire, and Cleo’s gentle humming as she tried to comfort me.
Later that night, I laid in blankets set on the floor with Mal as he slept. There were no words to describe my hopelessness. No method to express the earth-shattering sorrow I felt at being unable to keep him safe. Even if Karl stayed true to his promise, I knew the others would not risk their lives to protect my son. Each shadow and whisper in the night would hold the threat of thieves coming to steal and kill.
Mal’s little hands fumbled in his sleep as I leaned on one elbow, watching his dreaming face. I lowered my hand to his and felt chubby fingers wrap around my own. He squeezed and held on tight with an infant’s surprising strength.
Firelight gave way to dawn just as my son’s eyes fluttered open. Somehow I knew they stared at me. Somehow I knew the little smile that tickled his lips was for me. Spit bubbles and gentle cooing mingled with that tiny grin when I kissed the soft, smooth skin of his forehead. White eyes shining brightly dispelled the darkness of my world and filled me with a strength I’d never known.
We were dressed and ready to go half an hour later. The others waited outside, watching as I stepped into warm sunlight with Mal in my arms. We were both smiling. The tears were gone.
“I’ve made my decision. No one is taking my son from me.”
Cleo nodded as the others prepared to break camp. Chernobyl radiated anger and barely controlled rage, standing beside Frank, who seemed ever at peace and calm. No one spoke to me. Again I was an outsider because of Mal. Again I didn’t care.
“Let’s get you two home,” Cleo finally offered.
Two goats trailed behind us, collars attached to thin metal chains held in Cleo’s guiding hands. Chernobyl led the way, slinking down the road with her rifle at the ready. Frank and the others remained behind to finish packing.
For awhile Cleo spoke, giving me instructions on how to care for the goats and the tricks to get milk from them. A backpack worn over one of Chernobyl’s shoulders held several cans of powered baby formula that could be mixed with water or milk, should the goats stop producing. We were halfway home when Chernobyl abruptly stopped and held a closed fist over her head.
I dropped to a crouch, holding Mal protectively against my chest, as Chernobyl slowly lowered her rifle and slid a large knife from its sheath at her side. Her chin lifted, nostrils flaring as she scented the air. The gesture reminded me of Jaeger.
The goats shifted restlessly behind me, one held tightly by each of Cleo’s hands as I looked over my shoulder. Her eyes grew wide and a cry escaped her lips when a shadow passed over me.
I turned in time to see Chernobyl’s hand flash sideways, gleaming knife leading the way. Its blade passed over Mal’s head by inches before a searing pain unlike any I’d ever known ripped through my throat. There was no breath to scream or cry. No time to do anything at all.
Hands took hold of my shoulders from behind as Cleo rushed forward to catch me. Chernobyl pulled Mal from my arms and stood, staring down at me with contempt while burning blood filled my lungs. The muscles on my neck failed. My head flopped backwards to rest against Cleo’s shoulder.
Dimly I heard her scream, “Why?”
“You said it was vital that Jaeger have the child.”
“Not like this. It had to be her choice! What have you done!”
“I only did…”
The sounds faded as my vision dimmed. Cold washed over me, so sharply in contrast to the burning agony beneath my breasts. Blood tickled cooling skin. Spasms sent numb limbs flailing.
“…out of her misery.”
Somehow my eyes opened, images blurry around the edges and dancing with motes of light. Chernobyl hovered inches from my face, red eyes searching for something as Mal cried and wiggled in her arms.
“.. can’t just leave….like this…”
I focused on his little face. Tried to keep my gaze locked onto him as the knife moved into view once more. There was a brief, searing explosion of pain.