“Do it, Eddie. Don’t be a mouse.” Ramya stared at him, her mouth set resolutely. “Do it, or I’m walking out on you.”
“You’ve said that before. You wouldn’t dare,” he said.
“You wanna bet?” She thrust a large bowl of oatmeal into his hands. “Now get out there. And try learning their names for once.”
Edward pushed through the door into the dining room. “Good morning,” he said, flashing the assembled children a wide smile through gritted teeth.
“Good morning, Uncle Octopus,” a girl said and giggled. Most were still yawning. There were nine children there, ranging in age from three to fourteen. Besides Sean, he knew that one of the girls was named Meredith and there was a boy named Hugo there somewhere. The three-year-old was named Ernesto, but he only knew that because the phrase “Ernesto wet himself again” was heard so frequently in the house.
“Before you get any breakfast, you have to tell me your name,” he said, plunking the bowl on the table.
“We told you yesterday,” the oldest girl (Portia?) said.
“Well, tell me again, dammit,” he said. “Sorry, just—tell me as I come around.” He tried to remember them in the order they were sitting: Sean, Hugo, Meredith, Kaveh, Hazel, Portia, Ernesto, Cala, and Lalasa. The names were muddled and gone from his head almost as soon as they told him.
“I want raisins in mine,” Cala, the four-year-old, said.
“There weren’t any raisins yesterday and there sure aren’t any today,” he said, remembering not to swear. Cala looked mournful, but picked up her spoon and started poking around the edges of her bowl.
“We’re going to need more food soon,” Ramya said when he was finished doling out the breakfast. “We have enough oatmeal for maybe another day and the rice is almost gone too.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “They’re little eating machines. The argument that they don’t eat much doesn’t work when there are nine of them.” He regretted it when he saw her face. He had promised not to keep bringing it up, subtly blaming her for their shortages.
It had been two weeks since they had moved into the house in Harlow and although the other residents had been generous at first, donations had dropped off quickly as stores of supplies shrank.
“I need to get everyone united somehow,” Edward said. “Other people may be able to get by on their own, but we can’t, not if you’re gonna—if we are going to have these kids here.”
She put her arms around him wordlessly and he hugged her, glad of her warm presence. He wondered what he would be doing if she hadn’t been with him. He wouldn’t be in Harlow, that was for sure. Most likely hoofing it along the coast or up to Cambridge like everyone else. He squeezed her harder and she grunted.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I got a bad stomach. Just tired, I think.”
He looked at her closely, then gave her a quick kiss. “Taking care of nine kids makes you tired? That’s crazy talk. Get some of the older ones to help and take the day off. I’m off to get some unity around here.”
Edward skipped breakfast and walked downtown. Now that the residents of Harlow numbered only a few hundred, they had drawn closer together, most living within a kilometre of each other in the town center. Edward got some spray paint and a ladder from a hardware store and went to the main roundabout in town, where there was a large blank wall of an electronics store. Carefully, he wrote with the spray paint, trying not to smudge the letters. Then he sat down underneath it and waited. Twenty minutes later, people began to gather around him, reading the message in huge, red letters:
It isn’t about survival
It’s about redemption.
It isn’t about existing
It’s about living.
It isn’t about me
It’s about us. [*]
“What does that mean, exactly?” asked Noah Crawford, a lawyer who had just arrived from a neighboring town with his family.
“It means we need to cooperate,” Edward said. “Each of us can get all the things we need, for a while maybe and while the weather is good, but what about later? What happens when it’s stormy or people starting getting sick and each of us runs out of food or medicine or drinking water? We need organization. We need to work together. We can’t do it on our own, but together, we have a chance.”
“And with you as the leader, I suppose?” Crawford asked.
“No leader,” Edward said. “Just a committee. It’s not about me, or you, it’s about us.” He could see that the idea appealed to them and he saw also that even with his proposal of a round table committee, he would be the natural leader, if only because he had come up with the idea. People look for a strong leader in times of uncertainty, he thought.
“We’ll meet tonight, in the Food Collective. Anyone who wants to be a part of it is free to come,” he said. There were many nods of agreement. No one argued. He was practically their leader already. Once he headed the committee, he and Ramya would never lack food again. He gave a warm, reassuring smile.
Thirty-six people attended the meeting, just over a quarter of the town’s current population by their best estimates. Jacine Ramm volunteered to be in charge of the census, to make sure no one was overlooked for food or necessities. The Crawfords—Noah and his wife Nikola—offered to be in charge of medicine distribution since Nikola was a nurse practitioner. Edward, Kaine Bowlery, and his son Heston were in charge of food collection and distribution. The evening went perfectly and Edward walked home feeling the happiest he had since the world Before had ended. Already they were referring to that time simply as Before and it was starting to seem like a dream.
“Eddie, is that you?” a voice called from the darkness in front of his house. It was Portia, standing on the porch. “Come quick, Eddie. Ramya’s sick.”
Fear struck Edward in the chest. He rushed into the house and upstairs. Children seemed to be crying all around him. He reached the top and recoiled at the pool of bloody vomit just outside the bathroom door, spatters flecking the door and walls nearby. Ramya was inside, her head resting on the toilet seat and Hazel, in tears, holding back her hair.
“Ramya, what the hell! What’s wrong?” No. No, it couldn’t be. No. Suddenly, he was terrified.
“I’m sorry, Eddie,” she said in a weak voice. “I didn’t feel well after dinner. I’ll clean it up, don’t worry.”
“Forget that. I need to get a doctor. I’ll be right back.”
It took thirty minutes for Edward to find Nikola Crawford and return with her in tow, almost dragging her along. Ramya had cleaned up a little and was in bed.
“Have you been taking your medicine, the Abadocil?” Nikola asked her, after examining her.
“Yes, every day,” Ramya said.
“How many times a day? The directions say three a day, but I would suggest up to five or six a day for adults in this situation. It won’t hurt you as long as you take it with food.”
“I’ve been giving the children one with every meal, but—I was afraid it would run out, so I’ve only taken one a day. Is that the problem?”
“You’re suffering from a type of acute radiation poisoning,” Nikola said. “It’s killing you.”
Edward felt his heart suddenly squeezed with fear so intense that he felt light-headed. “What’s the most she can take in a day?” he asked. “If she took eight or ten, would it make her better quicker?”
“It’s preventative medicine, Eddie,” Nikola said, looking sympathetic. “It won’t help to take more now. The damage is done.”
“Then what can we do? Surely the hospital has something that can treat her. Machines or medicine or something.”
“There’s no power, Eddie. As for medicine, I can go look around tomorrow.”
“You go tonight,” he said. She shot him a look of anger at his tone, but then nodded quickly and left.
Ramya reached up and took his hand. “I don’t want to die, Eddie.”
“You’re not going to die,” he said. He couldn’t even conceive of the possibility; no images came to his mind. He was going to marry her. They had made plans. Then again, the whole world had had its plans.
Nikola returned three hours later, exhausted but carrying a needle and an IV bag of green liquid. After it was started, Nikola went home and Ramya drifted off to sleep, looking peaceful.
Edward woke up on the window seat next to the bed and saw the morning rays slipping through the curtains. Ramya looked as peaceful as she had the night before. He put his hand on her cheek and felt with a shock that it was cold. He checked her pulse. Nothing. He checked it again and again, unwilling to accept it.
It took only a moment before he was trembling so hard that he had to sit down. The terrifying black abyss of What if? had arrived and he was powerless against it. He wanted to scream, and then find a gun and blow his brains out.
I can’t, he thought, and the image of the nine sleeping children came into his mind. I’m Uncle Octopus. He had never felt so alone in all his life.
(to be continued)