Dark as Hell
He was slouched next to her in the transport, his pale, dazed eyes staring straight ahead.
Her first thought had been surprise at how small he was, just barely over three feet, and so skinny his skin hung limply on his bones like crumbling cloth. He was also much quieter than she'd expected. She thought all children were loud and boisterous, but not this one. Even when he spoke, his mumbled words were barely above a whisper.
They'd met in the Reception Area, a tiny tomb-like room, just a short time before. A young woman in a somber black uniform had marched her down the hall. They'd stopped in front of a doorway, soft voices murmuring on the other side.
"His name is Klyle," the young woman said. "But you can change it if you like."
No, she wouldn't change it, she'd decided right away, because she was smart enough to know that's what they wanted.
It was an easy name to remember, that was good, so it'd be an easy name to forget, that was even better.
It was another government program, that's what she hated most of all. In a world that was already drowning in complications, she hated intrusions of any kind, and that's exactly what this program was.
Population Control it was called.
In the last fifty years, a strange and unexpected new social movement had suddenly sprouted. More and more women were making a choice , and that choice was not to have children. The population was flat, and would soon be shrinking at a faster and faster rate .
That was the problem.
In place of hard fa cts, there was the usual surplus of wild guesses and lunatic theories. So me believed it was simply the destiny of the species. There was a secret suicide note hidden somewhere deep in our DNA. Others believed the cause was environmental, the culprit s ome new un known strain of microbe that had somehow affected the maternal instinct.
Whatever the reason, women were choosing not to do what they had always done, and the size of the group was growing like an out-of-control virus.
Her name was Consuelo Bonne.
She'd made her decision like so many others. Exactly why, she wasn't even sure herself. After all, she'd grown up with a brother and a sister, and parents she'd loved. It didn't matter. The decision seemed natural and right, so she didn't feel a need to investigate it's origin. It came from somewhere deep inside, that's all she knew.
"Petra, I don't want to have children," she revealed a few weeks before they were bonded.
An awkward discussion had followed, but not a very long one. Petra tried to change her mind, but quickly saw he couldn't. His decision was to respect her choice, even if he couldn't completely understand it.
The government had a made a decision too, one that was much less tolerant of this troublesome new movement. It couldn't force women to have children, but there were other options that might prove beneficial.
Consuela had been expecting the notification for some time. Their childless status was sure to be identified.
The government's stance was firm. Given the current conditions, if a woman chose not to have children, that woman should at least be given the opportunity to clearly see what that decision had deleted from her life.
So what few children there were witho ut parents were given a very special government duty. They were assigned to a childless couple for a designated period of cohabitation. The benefits were deemed positive for all involved. The children were given a succession of temporary guardia ns , and the childless couples were given a child that would hopefully prompt them towards a biological duty they had chosen to ignore.
Looking out the soot-covered window of the transport, Consuela could see the jagged haze of the landscape blurring past. It was a dark world she lived in.
Dark as hell, she often thought.
The landscape was an endless stain of crumbling, misshapen constructs that were a ferocious assault on the eyes. Looming overhead was more of the same, churning clouds of sooty black after-burn darkening every corner of the chemically scorched sky. But there was always light too. It was off in the gloomy distance, the mysterious, shimmering static that snapped and crackled on the horizon.
Consuela could also see the reflection of the frail boy floating ghost-like in the window. He was slumped next to her, his withered legs hanging limply towards the floor. Like her, he was staring outside at the endless darkness and shimmering gloom.
Consuela sat very still, but a hot, nudging anger had been growing inside her from the very first moment she was notified. The boy would be living in their home like a tiny intruder, sent by the government on a mission. She was suddenly startled by the fierceness of how she felt.
Deep in her heart, she despised him already.
It was solemn and quiet as the unwelcome intruder was introduced to his new home.
Their quarters were beneath the southern rim of the city in a sagging mega-structure that looked close to final decay. They lived on one of the lower levels where the scorching stench was almost unbearable, and a noxious chemical fog had been hovering for as long as she could remember.
Their quarters were small, but clean. Like a jail-cell, Carlos liked to joke. The boy was given a corner on the floor to sleep. Consuela had decided that would be enough.
From the outset, communication was kept to a minimum. They'd agreed on a unified front. No special kindnesses would be offered, or curiosities revealed. The unwanted child was just another temporary government intrusion, nothing more.
The first morning Consuela was allowed to sleep, but was still up and dressed before the boy stirred. Carlos had already left much earlier, but she'd been given temporary leave for the purposes of the program.
On the first day, she decided to let the boy do as he pleased, not encouraging him toward any activity, or restricting his movement within the cramped walls of their home. She kept her distance, using the time as her own.
It also became apparent that the boy's persona would be equally distant. After wandering through the quarters a few times , he stumbled back to his makeshift bed in the corner, a nd slumped against the wall. From that position, he spent the rest of the day staring at the strange looking woman he was now living with.
His listless behavior was so overwhelming, Consuela began to wonder about its cause. Or maybe he's retarded, she also thought. The faraway look that was fixed in his eyes might indicate the latter, but she couldn't be sure, and she wasn't about to probe him for information.
As she moved through the quarters, she knew the boy's silent gaze followed her progress . His presence didn't make her nervous, but it didn't provide the pleasure of companionship either. For that, she was grateful. She didn't want the boy's companionship, and wouldn't have trusted it even if it had been offered. She remind ed herself that the s lumped, frail body on the floor was a temporary intrusion, nothing more.
At the end of the first day, it was a peculiar looking group that circled around the meal table.
The boy's pale eyes barely cleared the top edge of the small table, and his skin was so ashen it seemed completely drained of color. It was the most delicate looking skin Consuela had ever seen, like something ancient that would crumble if touched.
Consuela had already come to a private determination. His sullen sluggishness was more like someone approaching the end of a life, not the beginning.
But the boy's appearance did present a modest offering she could take comfort in.
She and Carlos had hunched over backs because of their torturous work. Their skin was discolored and scabrous from long-term exposure to the poisonous air killing the world outside.
What she found comforting was how different the child looked from them. There was no aspect or detail of his appearanc e she felt any kind of connection to. She could snatch glimpses of him with complete indifference.
As the meal continued, the only sound at the table was the soft clatter of utensils scraping against plates.
The unwelcome intruder never said a word.
Quiet and somber it remained, until the third day when Consuela got her first glimpse of how fragile the boy really was.
Like the previous two days, he'd spent most of the third sitting mutely on the floor, lost inside some private inner world. What's he thinking about, Consuela wondered. Does he know how much I don't want him here, and that's why he's so solemn and still.
It was late in the day when the listless silence was suddenly shattered. Consuela was passing through the quarters, when she heard a whimpering scream.
Twisting around, she saw the boy was falling. She was only a short distance away, but it was still too far to help him in time. His back hit the hard floor. He let out another wh impering scream.
Consuela rushed to the boy's body sprawled on the floor. "I have to see what happened," she said quickly, pulling his tiny hands away from his head. Blood was already flowing from a ruby red cut. Looking up, she could see the sharp corner where his forehead hit.
"It hurts..." he moaned in a whispery, weak voice.
The flesh around the cut had turned crimson. Consuela s hoved her hands under the boy's body , lifted him up, carried him to the meal tab le. His skin was damp, his eyes half - closed. She pushed away the soggy clumps of hair matted around the wound. More blood streamed out.
She hurried away, came back with medication and a wet cloth. She wiped away the blood, smeared the medicatio n on the boy's damp head. His skin was trembl ing and feverish to the touch. She stayed with him until he fell asleep, then slowly carried him to his place on the floor.
That evening, she decided to let the child continue to sleep, as she and Carlos ate alone. His troubled moans were just loud enough to hear, as they silently ate.
Earlier, Consuela had come to another conclusion about the real cause of the accident. The problem was clearly his frail physical condition, and for that she blamed the Center that was supposed to care for him. The child needed nourishment. If he couldn't even walk across the floor without falling, he needed strength.
When they finished eating, Consuela carried scraps of food to t he boy still sleepi ng on the floor. She kicked him awake with her foot, so his eyes saw the food. She h ated the sight of him, but no purpose would be served in letting him die.
Then later that night, she found herself waking up from a deep sleep, and she found herself back in the room with the sleeping boy. She'd slipped out of bed without giving it much thought, then shuffled groggily to the corner where he slept.
Why was she here? She wasn't sure.
Maybe it was to finally study the child when he wasn't staring back with those dazed, pale eyes. Or maybe she just wanted to make sure he was sleeping.
Moving closer, she could see that he was. But even asleep, he seemed on the verge of a deathly collapse.
Then she suddenly became angry.
The boy's body was curled up at her feet, so near she could touch it. And that's why she was angry. She was angry that she wasn't in bed with her husband, but was standing all alone in the dark, wondering about the welfare of a child she had vowed to hate.
The unwelcome intruder.
She shuffled quickly back to bed.
The next morning, Consuela slept even later than the previous three days, but she still felt a vague uneasiness when she awoke. The remainder of the night had not been restful, her sleep troubled by a succession of murky dreams that lingered until morning.
She dressed slowly, giving herself time to think. She was worried that the boy had somehow crept into her thoughts against her will, and she couldn't push him back out , no matter how hard she tried. She was concerned about his welfare. She couldn't deny it. But she was also angry she felt that way, and decided to focus on that instead.
Before leaving her room, Consuela renewed her vow. The boy was an intruder, nothing more. Her behavior would not be outwardly hostile, but it would leave no room for misinterpretation. No special kindnesses would be offered, or curiosities revealed.
So went the day.
Through the morning and int o the last moments the afternoon, Consuela kept to her vow . If the boy was slumped on the floor, she busied herself in another part of the quarters. If the boy moved, then so did she, quickly strolling off in the opposite direction. When conta ct or proximity was unavoidable, she was careful not to linger too long on the boys pale gaze.
In her heart, of course, she didn't really hate the child, but she did detest the reason for his presence.
Why were all power structures so obsessed wi th self - preservation, because that's what this program was really all about. She wasn't sure what faction of the Triad was currently in majority, because that knowledge had negligible importance. They were all the same, only their constant mistake s were different.
She hadn't ventured outside since the boy had arrived, so she wondered what fresh horrors would be lurking when she did. With so much grimy science around, the new horrors were always ghastly and sordid.
Like the previous nights, little was said as the sat around the meal table that evening.
The boy kept his gaze low, quietly taking nibble-size bites and small sips from the offerings in front of him. The injury looked better. The swelling was down, and the medicine had healed the cut, leaving only a reddish line as a scar.
But he's so pitiful looking, Consuela found herself thinking. His droopy hair needed cutting. His gaunt body needed some of the wild, frantic energy that all little boys had.
And that was the real mystery, wasn't it?
If this was the child that was supposed to change her maternal mind, he seemed blatantly counterfeit. His chronological years were the same as a normal child, but so much else was missing.
"Aaaaaahhhhhh....." the boy suddenly cried out in a whimpering scream.
Carlos was out of his chair first, then Consuela was up too. The boy had a knife in his hand, which had now clattered to the table. It must have slipped while he was eating, cutting deeply into the flesh below the thumb . The boy looked up, frozen, in shock, his pain - stricken face was now as shockingly white as a tiny little moon.
"It hurts..." came the whisper.
Carlos was already gone, stumbling off for medication, as Consuela began to move too, shuffling quickly around the table, reaching out with her hands, being pulled towards the whispery, moon-faced child by some unseen force she was just barely beginning to understand.
So it went.
Perhaps, Consuela should have realized sooner what was happening, but she didn't. They'd bandaged the hand, then she sat vigil again, as the boy curled up into a fitful sleep.
The next day there was more blood, and the next, and the next. When the boy awoke that morning, it was sme ared on his face and arms. The bandage on his hand had rubbed off during the night, and blood had dripped until morning. The following day, the boy started coughing, and there was blood there too, splashed on the hand he held at his mouth. The next day, his legs gave out as he was walking to the bathroom, and he plunged to the floor, banging his knees.
Those were the only words the child whispered as the mishaps continued. A few days ago, the boy had seemed feeble and frail, now he was much worse.
Consuela had tried continuously to contact the Center, but could never reach anyone to answer her questions. She found herself sitting with the boy, doing what she could to comfort him.
Then, finally, she was able to reach a gruff voice at the Center who could answer her questions. That's when she was reminded of something she'd been too distracted to think about.
The boy was leaving.
Tomorrow he was scheduled to be returned.
It was later that night , when Consuela woke up, and slipped out of bed without making a sound. It may have been a muffled noise that stirred her awake, or a nagging fear that had been building for days. But something had nudged her eyes open, then pulled her into the roo m with the boy.
When she got there, he was waiting for her.
Standing in the middle of the room, there was just enough light for Consuela to see his slender, frail form, and see what he had done with the gleaming metal knife he'd searched for and found just minutes before.
How long Consuela stood there, she didn't know, but it was long enough to finally understand the truth about the boy. Everything about him was a brutal reflection of the government that sent him.
He was silent and naked, his trembling body covered with blood. He had taken the small knife and wandered over his ghostly-white skin, randomly cutting and slicing at the limp flesh.
Consuela was too shocked to move, until an achingly small voice drifted through the shadows and hit her in the heart.
Just those two words and Consuela suddenly realized her whole world had changed.
The intruder has won, and she was powerless to stop him.
Tears came against her will, as she also realized much more about the dark puzzle of the child. She guessed his body had scars from all his other visits too, probably hundreds scattered across his tortured skin, and they'd all been removed, just like these would be too.
As Consuela stood there, her heart ached at the sight she was seeing, and she wanted more than anything to grab the frail boy in her arms and comfort him. But she also knew that's exactly what the Center wanted.
In the darkness of the room, with the bloody chil d a short distance away, an image flashed in Consuela's mind. She imagined the despicable cadre of social scientists who'd schemed together and come up with the plan. After all, what woman could resist the helpless plea of a child in pain. And wh at child could resist the grimy science that would easily turn them into a willing participant.
Yes, she had been tricked into caring about the boy, so now she would have to find someone else to care for when he left. In a few weeks, she would have to confide to Carlos she wanted to have a baby.
It was all such a perfect plan, the surprise is that it didn't work.
That's because Consuela had a secret of her own.
In her heart, she already was a mother, but she refused to bring a child s he would love more than life itself into a world it would despise. This was the origin of her decision not to give birth. It had seemed so natural and right, but she'd never understood the real reason why.
Now she did.
Like all the others, she had been protecting her unborn from the horrors of the world, like any good mother would.
Tears were still streaming down her cheeks, as she shuffled through the darkness. She reached the boy, and gently tugged the knife from his shivering hand.
Holding the knife tight, Consuela turned and shuffled away, disappearing around a corner where the boy couldn't see her. She stood still for a few moments, gathering her strength , and her maternal rage. Then she held the knife over her pounding he art. She didn't want the boy to see her, because she had to do something he wouldn't understand. He was young, so he wasn't yet aware of the true nature of his world.
But she knew all too well.
It was dark as hell.
And only another woman would understand the sacrifices you have to make for your children.
About the Author
Sheldon Woodbury is a writer who lives in New York City. He is very excited to have his 3rd story appear in Popcorn Fiction. He is even more excited that his son William is starting the 4th grade!