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The Taurids Branch

I wanted to tell you the truth, before the end. I’m sorry it took this long, and I’m sorry I’m too cowardly to tell you to your face, but I don’t think I could ever get it right, saying it all out loud. I hope you don’t hate me, but you might. I hope you can at least understand, even if you can’t feel the same about me after. It’s okay if you can’t.

It had been three weeks and Ray still hadn’t come back. He was never an audacious man. His inflexibility, his aversion to risk or conflict of any sort, was the raw spot at the center of our relationship. But I liked him for that reason, too. He felt like a home. Solid. I wanted to be held by him, covered by him, pressed into the ground by the weight of his body.

But put a burning girl inside a house and it will burn too, I guess.

No. I won’t take the blame. I was so good during the pregnancy, and mostly good after. I was twenty-nine, and we were growing apart. A few weeks into our relationship, he said, “When I’m a dad,”—so quick to apply the title to himself, so comfortable under the weight of it. And so I quietly set the timer in my mind, the expiration date on our relationship ticking down, second after second, until I would be forced to pick between my own autonomy and this man and his immense, gentle tenderness.

I imagine most other people would have kept Ray at arm’s length, but I threw all of myself into the endeavor of us. I told myself a lot of things: that it was okay that this was going to end, all things end eventually, enjoy him while you have him and then let go. I also told myself, quieter, never in words, just in an opaque white hope that pulsed softly at the center of me, barely material, that if I made him love me enough he would choose me over his children, who didn’t even exist.

I see now how stupid it sounds. I should have told you. You would have talked sense into me. But then, the thought of losing him . . . no, not that. The thought of being alone terrified me. You might have said I would have had you, but it would have been a different sort of “have.” I could never demand from you the amount of attention I need to feel calm. I would have become a burden, and you would have started to resent me. So I needed to keep him.

We were together four years when he started drifting. He stopped tying me up in bed, then stopped fucking me at all, then replaced our conversation with movies I had no interest in and was not consulted about. He endured my presence on the couch like one tolerates a needy dog. In bed one night, he turned out the lights and rolled over without a word, and I imagined being in that bed alone, the great expanse of darkness around me. I reached out and pressed my palm flat between his shoulder blades.

“Let’s have a baby,” I whispered. He looked over his shoulder at me. Saw me for the first time in months.

• • • •

The baby just refused to stop gumming. He tore my nipples to shreds. After he was done feeding I would sit in bed, sobbing, with ice cubes on my areolas, little pink rivulets of blood all down my front, and Ray still didn’t want me to stop breastfeeding. He made me feel horrible about it.

“It’s completely up to you. I know how bad it hurts. We can stop—it’s your choice. I just think that, with all the science we have now about how essential breastmilk is to immune system development and the microbiome . . . I just think we should only stop if it’s the absolute last option.” If you want to be a bad mother, it’s your choice.

I white-knuckled through it for a while, but the night we found out about the comet—the president’s speech turned up loud over the baby’s screaming—Ray offered to go get formula. I thought it was a peace offering. The baby was six weeks, at the height of his colic. That night, he screamed for twelve hours straight. He screamed until his face was blue, until he burst veins in the whites of his eyes, until his fists were purple little stones. Even with the monitor off and the door to the nursery closed, it filled up the entire apartment with this electric noise. At first, I just wanted to comfort him. I just wanted to make it okay. I needed to make it okay, but I kept failing, and failing, and here was this tiny, helpless creature that I was responsible for, screaming at me louder than my father ever did. My whole life, I couldn’t be in the same room as a fucking blender without having a panic attack, and here I was holding the sonic equivalent of three of them, on high and full of nails.

It took until sunrise for me to notice Ray never came back.

• • • •

The baby’s colic worsened. He stopped screaming only to sleep, and never for longer than two hours, three at most. Listening to him cry was like listening to someone who had been mortally wounded—the sound consumed me with terror. Nothing I did worked. Nothing in the books, on the web, on the mommy vlogs. The noise was going to give me a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t keep doing it. The urge to shake him was so strong I couldn’t trust myself not to, so I put him down. And I didn’t want to miss the news, in case Ray was in the suicide report. I had read so many things saying not to do this, but my father always said “just let them cry it out,”—it’s the only parenting advice he ever gave me. Most of his generation did it, and we were fine, so what was so different about this baby?

I shut the nursery door, curled up on the sectional with my laptop, and put on my noise-cancelling headphones. The shrieking that had haunted my every waking hour dimmed to a mild buzz . . . I noticed, only then, that I was holding my entire body rigid—my shoulders around my ears, my stomach clenched like a fist—and was able to let it all go in the quiet.

A little over a month after we found out about the comet, nine weeks after the baby was born, the countdown was at six hundred and eighty-eight days. It was back when people first started going missing, when they were still reporting the identity of suicides on the local news to help clear out the morgues, back when folks still thought burying people was worth the time or money. I always hated local news. What a farce, hopscotching from tragedy to absurd mundanity with no self-consciousness whatsoever. But then, knowing everything was going to end, and so soon . . . it was nice to feel like all over, people were hearing the same voices, the same information, living in the same world that I was, up there on the thirteenth floor of an apartment building I hadn’t left since I came home from the hospital. The power stuttered, the lights guttering out for a few long seconds before blinking back to brightness. It was happening more and more frequently.

I knew the baby needed to eat soon and my tits were getting uncomfortable, so I attached the breast pumps under my shirt. Taking my shirt off made me imagine how I must have looked sitting there naked, rolls of fat spilling over the band of my yoga pants, two vacuums sucking milk out of my sagging tits. It made me feel like a heifer. In a final fuck you from Ray, I was too scared to leave for formula. Homicide was becoming commonplace. The news was obsessed with it. Most of the victim’s faces were women—the prey of men with violent fantasies and a long-term moral incentive that no longer existed, with certain death less than two years from the horizon. Ray still wasn’t dead, by his own hand or anyone else’s, so I took my headphones off, trading the parade of death for the screaming.

That’s when you texted me again. I’m so sorry I ignored you for so long. I didn’t know what to say. I felt like, if I could just stay in the apartment, if my life was just Ray and the baby and the apartment, it wouldn’t really be . . . happening. If I talked to you, if we acknowledged it in any way, then it would be real.

Your dad was livid that you refused to live with him and your grandma in the bunker. He was convinced the three of you could wait out the end together, furious at your apparent death wish. But you knew what you wanted right away. It’s one of the things I love about you, how sure you’ve always been. You were going to stay and face the end, and you wanted to do it with me. Bring Ray and the baby, you said. The farm produces enough for all of us, and it’s out of the way enough no one will bother us. Let’s do the end of the world together, in the sun, with dirt underneath our fingernails.

Something scratched in the hallway and I froze, listening for Ray’s footfalls, his quiet sniffing from the cold, the sound of his keys clacking against their plastic fob. But it was Mrs. Brennan’s door that opened and shut. My body continually humiliated me, still aroused into the straining attentiveness of a dog at the slightest door-sound, even three weeks after he was gone.

I walked to the baby’s room and rested my forehead against the door jamb. I didn’t like opening the door. When I opened the door, I was an animal under the baby’s spell. In his crib, he writhed and screamed, tried to flip himself over, his head the color of a small turnip. When he saw me, his crying went up a pitch, and I snatched him from the crib, laying him not ungently on the changing table. One of his mittens had fallen off; red scratches streaked across his face like comet tails. His diaper was ungodly—it may have been half a day since I changed it. Maybe a full day. When I pulled it off, he kicked out an angry raisin foot, sending up a spray of excrement that landed in a slice from the crook of my neck down to my stomach.

I stopped. I closed my eyes. I timed my breathing to my heartbeat: inhale five beats, hold two beats, exhale nine, like my therapist taught me. I grabbed him by the ankles, removed the diaper, and placed it in the trash. His entire lower body was covered in shit. I used the last of the baby wipes getting it off, and had to dry him with a paper towel, which pitched his screaming up again. I fit him back inside his dirty pajamas, all the rest being as dirty or worse, and put the pacifier in his mouth. He resisted me, stiffening and thrashing, but I followed his mouth with it, keeping it inside until it was more comfortable to latch on than to keep fighting me.

From the window, I watched the empty street far below. The room was a deep blue—the curtains let in only a slice of dusk. The baby was solid and warm against my body. I breathed in his hair. I stroked the curve of his cheek, his gold-filament eyelashes. When a branch of the Taurids meteor stream obliterates all life on earth, the baby will be two years and three weeks old.

Down on the street, a mandorla of orange flame parted the blue twilight. Inside it was a woman who was not screaming. She wandered down the empty street as if lost before sinking to her knees. It was a long, long time until the fire spent itself. A half-dozen souls trickled over to make a wary ring around her body, keeping vigil. A fire truck arrived so comically long after it was needed it made me laugh, which set the baby wailing again. This was also funny. I laughed until I was crying too, until we were crying together, a piteous pair. I closed my eyes and pressed my lids against the baby’s soft, downy skull, and I knew what to do all at once.

In the kitchen, I looked through our knives. Ray had something of a fetish for them, obsessed with their maintenance, always oiling and sharpening even though he could barely butcher a roast chicken. I slid the Wüsthofs from their block one by one, savoring the hiss and suck of the steel against the oiled wood as I pulled them free and laid them on the granite countertop.

I touched them all, but the bird’s beak was always my favorite, and it gave the most control anyway. I remembered how my dad taught me to shoot a gun: take a deep breath, then let it out, slow and steady, and when it’s all gone, squeeze, don’t pull.

I closed my eyes. I took a breath, and let it out, long. I slid the knife into and down the flesh of my palm, just below my pinkie finger. It cut clean, like a potato. I let myself holler. The baby matched my pitch and then overtook me, not to be outdone. The wound didn’t hurt as long as I didn’t look at it, but every time I caught a glimpse of the blood, my head swam and I could feel my heart throbbing in the cut. I wrapped it in a white linen dish towel and waited until it was completely saturated with blood to go across the hall. The baby’s screams disappeared behind our sturdy front door.

Mrs. Brennan hadn’t removed the Christmas wreath on her door since her husband died. Before, she had one for every obscure holiday. National Cat Day. Ice Cream Day. Arbor Day. Two snowmen fixed me with their beady black eyes as I banged on the door, desperate but not frightening. Mrs. Brennan’s slipper-shod feet shuffled to the foyer. There was a pause, then the sound of the lock, the deadbolt, and the chain coming off.

“Jesus wept, what happened?” she asked, already ushering me inside. “Keep it up, keep it elevated, above your heart.” I blinked back tears—the shock had worn off, and the meat of my palm was throbbing. She led me through the dark house, past Mr. Brennan’s empty hospital bed, into the kitchen. Dozens of Precious Moments figurines kept vigil from atop the cabinetry. Cats flitted in and out of view, about their own business.

“I was peeling potatoes, I slipped.” Mrs. Brennan sucked her teeth but nodded.

“Can’t guess you’re getting much sleep with that child, always screaming. Let me look at it,” she said. She peeled the sodden towel off and hissed. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I’m going to have to stitch you up. Run it under cold water.” She disappeared into the bowels of the apartment and I did as I was told. “Come in here,” she barked from the living room. A minister in a red stole led a sermon on the cathode TV.

“Now is the time to repent. God’s cleansing fire is coming, and only the worthy will ascend—”

Mrs. Brennan was threading a sewing needle in a plastic-covered wingback chair. She carefully sterilized it with vodka. On the table, a small, milky glass vial of morphine sat next to a syringe. She dragged a folding chair between her legs and nodded for me to sit.

“I used to be a nurse, so I know what I’m doing. Give me your arm here . . .” She plunged the syringe into the bottle, drawing up a few millimeters of the clear drug, and sunk it easily into a vein on my arm, first try. The world went soft at the edges. When she sewed me up, it felt like I was watching her mend a toy. She was wearing a thin cotton muumuu printed with little pink roses. Her hair was grey and wiry, her skin pillowy and dry.

“Do you miss your husband?” I asked. She didn’t look up.

“He was a drunk and an asshole. And now that he’s dead, I have no idea what to do with myself. I guess I won’t have to wonder much longer.” She let out a laugh of genuine mirth, like an ill-conceived plan of hers had gone better than she could have imagined. “You keep that clean, change the dressing every night, and you should be fine.” I looked down at my hand, and it was bandaged neatly. “Take this tape and gauze, tell me if it gives you any more trouble.”

“Can I have something for the pain?” I nodded toward the vial of morphine. She frowned and scrutinized me a moment, assessing my constitution, looking for any tendency towards the melancholic. When she handed it over, I couldn’t tell if she found me an unlikely suicide or thought it kind to offer me a gentler way out. I like to think that she knew. I think if I told her everything, she would have still given it to me. I think she would have understood.

When I got back to the apartment, the baby was still screaming. The burned woman was being scooped into a body bag.

I grasped the baby’s cheeks with my thumb and forefinger, his mouth a dark hole drinking the light. I moved his face to the right, to the left. He was undoubtedly mine, my double—my cleft chin, my apple cheeks, my red-blonde hair. Mine.

I put ocean sounds on the speaker. I surrounded him with his favorite things: an odd-eyed lavender sheep, two fleece starfish, a rattle shaped like the moon. I pulled his swaddle down, exposing the creamy swell of his thigh, and administered the shot, like I had seen the doctor do so many times. I tucked him in. His screaming broke to hiccups, to coos.

When I showed up in your dirt driveway, alone, I was going to tell you, but you shrieked and grabbed me, already weeping. We sank to the floor together, tangled in each other’s hair. You brought me inside, and the moment to ask the question came and went. Whatever it was, it was black and heavy. You made me a great batch of fried rice with egg and soy sauce and chives, with strong black tea. You knew I’d tell you in my own time.

In the time we had left, we would grow old together, like we always planned to.

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Alanna J. Faelan

Alanna J. Faelan

Alanna J. Faelan is a queer, genderfluid, working class writer and visual artist from South Philadelphia. She is a 2018 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and has attended the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop in 2016 and 2017. You can find her on Twitter @AlannaFaelan or at alannafaelan.com. She currently makes her living as a Marketing Specialist for the nonprofit Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon.