"I wrote you a letter."
The words drop from her lips gently, sliding into the air of the room as fluidly as the shadows created by the gas lamp.
Resting on the dilapidated sofa, her eyes are a sea of mixed emotions as she gazes down at the tiny bundle of blankets in her arms. The woman looks at the rosy face of the sleepy baby against her breast with the same fascination as a recluse seeing the sun for the first time after having endured a long sentence in the darkness.
"Well, it’s barely a letter, more like a note for when you grow up, but I'm afraid you're going to have to settle for that" she says with a small smile as an apology. “I've never been any good when it comes to words.”
The little girl opens her eyes and stares at her mother. A spark of curiosity shining in the clear eyes of the newborn, almost as if she understood the transcendence of that confidence.
"There are too many things that I’ve never been good at" she says with so much bitterness. “And for a long time, I was so sure that being a mother would be one of them.”
There are so many things that she regrets and for which she can never ask for forgiveness.
"I've never been any good with children, especially babies." The woman looks at the little girl in her arms and leans closer to her, whispering in a conspiratorial tone. “You make me panic”
The woman tries to smile at the poor attempt at humor but it gets lost in the silent light of the room like the ashes of the bonfire outside, dragged by the wind.
"I never saw myself as a mother. Not even before... before the Outbreak when life was easy and safe, "she confides, closing her eyes for a second when memories of the past assail her with all the force that can only strike the memory of what was raptured with violence.
"I knew your father wanted to start a family someday. And who knows, maybe when we had our lives more figured out, maybe then I would have followed him into that fantasy of 2.5 children, a dog and a house with a large white fence.
The memory of those days and that simple happiness that is only found in routine and only valued when it disappears, reignites the flame of rage inside her hearth. A rage based on pain. Pain from what has been lost and would never return. From the guilt of having survived where so many failed. For the injustice of seeing her whole world destroyed and its ashes scattered to the four winds, ruthlessly erasing all hope of a future.
"We were so naive, you know” The woman shakes her head and lets out a bitter, resentful laugh as she remembers those carefree days. “We used to spend whole nights planning survival strategies for the moment when the Apocalypse finally break through. It didn’t matter: zombies, robots, aliens, nuclear war. We had a contingency plan studied down to a T for every threat possible. But in the end it was just a pastime, an excuse to amuse ourselves and have some laughs in front of a few beers.
The woman closes her eyes, trying to prevent the tears that had begun to wet her eyes from falling definitively. “And you know what's the funniest thing, sweetheart? When the end of the world came, despite all our stupid plans, we froze up.”
The sound of an uncomfortable cough from the other side of the room forces her to open her eyes and look for the face of the other occupant of the room. The other woman, tall and dark, sits by the door, far enough to give mother and daughter a tiny bubble of intimacy, but not so much as not to lose detail of her friend's movements.
She is aware of the concern behind the serious gesture of her silent guardian. Despite her impassive face, she can see the agony of defeat reflected in those hazel eyes that for so many years have look out for her and never asked for anything in return.
"If it had not been for Marlene, I would have died the first night," she says not breaking the eye contact with the other woman. “I still don’t know how we managed to survive during those first few weeks. We were terrified and bewildered. We did not understand what was happening but we were confident that someone... the government, the army, whoever it was, would come to help us.”
The sneer on the woman's face says everything about how much contempt she has for the authorities. That feeling of abandonment is reemerging again, mixed with anger and hatred for a government whose actions, guided by fear and incompetence and, later on, poisoned by corruption, have stripped her of everything she ever loved.
"We hid and waited. We waited until the screams and explosions gave way to silence. But that silence was even worse. It was not normal, the streets burned but there was no noise, no sirens, no weeping. Nothing.
The woman is silent for a moment, letting the sounds of the warm night enter through the window. The singing of the crickets intermingled with the buzz of the gas lamp, while the melodious tinkling of the rusty wind toy, hanging from the porch, is accompanied by the distant howling of an owl. All of those soft noises composing an improvised symphony that praises the simplicity of life.
"I know it's hard to imagine now but back then the world was a noisy, busy place. Silence and calm only confirmed to us how bad things were.”
Adjusting her position on the worn sofa, she continues speaking solemnly. "It took a lot of time and it wasn’t easy... it will never be any easy. We lost so much along the way. Friends, family and to some extent, even ourselves. One by one everybody we ever knew left us, everyone except for Marlene, your father and I. We joined other groups here and there but in the end, it was always just the three of us."
The woman caresses her fingers through the soft, and surprisingly thick hair of her daughter. “And then you came around.”
The tenderness with which she caresses her daughter surprises her even more than that warm feeling of satisfaction that sits deep in her chest. She never thought that after five years of horror, she still had enough soul to be able to feel and express feelings as strong as the ones that little girl is awakening in her now.
"I'll tell you the truth, honey. When I found out I was pregnant the first thing I did was cry, but not from happinnes. I never intended to bring you into this shitty world. I never wanted to see you grow up surrounded by this horror. You don’t deserve this, you don’t deserve this suffering, nor this life among ruins. But don’t get me wrong, it's not that I don’t want you, honey. It's just the opposite, I never imagined that I would come to love someone as much as I love you. You are barely a day old and I love you so unconditionally it scares me."
The woman looks with hate at the bite on her forearm. It’s been hours since the wound has stopped oozing but instead a reddish-purple mark extends for almost the whole of her arm. It isn’t so much how it looks, as it is the slight musky smell that gives off the wound, which betrays the advanced state of infection.
"And just to think that I won’t be there to help you, to protect you... it hurts me more than all imaginable tortures. I would give anything to be at your side. I’d love to see you grow and be proud of the woman you will become.
The woman is aware of how little time she has left. The fever continues to rise and the cramps on her muscles, which at first spread throughout her body, has now been replaced by a strange feeling of numbness.
"You've changed everything” she says fighting through the sickness that is eating away her soul and body. “For so long I've been struggling with surviving. I didn't understand why we were even bothering with it when there was no future worth living for. How can we pretend to redeem ourselves after all this? All the things we have seen and done. There’s no forgiveness, there’s no turning back.”
The poison in her tone speaks of all the suffering and horror she has witnessed in the last five years. There are things that nobody should experience, things that only have room in the darkest corners of the most depraved nightmares. And yet she has not only had to witness them but she has also had to take part in many of them.
"But Marlene and your father..." The woman looks up again to the entrance of the room where, hidden in the gloom generated by the gas lamp, the brunette guardian, Marlene, watches mother and daughter quietly. They had been through so much together. And yet there she is, five years after the end of the world, at her side, taking care of her as the first day.
"They thought there could be a future. It was them, honey" she says, with a deep sense of pride in her words. “They are the ones that started the process to save the world.”
The woman smiles coyly at the little girl, as if sharing a secret with her that they would never have been able to say out loud.
"At first I did not understand why they did it, what's the point of starting a revolution when there's nothing left to fight for?. And then, when people began to stand up too and support us, I finally understood."
The woman looks up and her eyes are lost at one point in the distance. “It is almost as if I could see the faces of those people left in the quarantine zone. They were lost... as lost as I was. Their world had collapsed but they were not going to lie down and succumb to the ruins of the past. They just needed to be guided and given something to fight for, a common goal. We would never recover what we had lost, but we shouldn't have to bow our heads and wait for our turn to die. We shouldn't fight to rebuild the world of before, but fight to create a new and better one."
With a bitter smile she remembers the illusion and conviction with which Marlene and Jeff had spoken in those first days of the uprising. How they managed to give hope to people who had long since given up on having a life again. As they provoked a response that made the foundations of the entire quarantine zone falter, it won the trust and loyalty of hundreds of people united by one common goal.
"And that’s what we did… that's what we're still doing" she says, getting lost again in the clear eyes of her daughter. “And then you entered the scene and you gave me a new reason to fight. I was terrified, but at the same time I've never fought so hard for something as I’ve done to make sure that you were born in a safe place, surrounded by people who love you and who would willingly give everything for you."
As if understanding what her mother is saying, the girl stretches a small fist and grabs her mother's index finger, drawing a smile on the woman's face.
For a few moments mother and daughter are left with a false sense of ease. Playing and caressing with no greater concern than staying together. As if the monsters, the war, or the murderers on the other side of the moldy walls of the farm house could not penetrate the safety of that ethereal shrine that mother and daughter had raised around them.
However, as soon as it arrives, that warm moment of perfection disappears; diluting itself in the dark and terrible reality of the present world. With resignation, the woman remembers the reason why there’s just the three of them in the house. The reason why, with just one day of age, her daughter is going to be orphaned.
"And then one day we lost your father. And it feels as if a part of that dream had died with him. Dammit, honey I wish you had met him. Your father was... was..." For a few seconds, the woman has to stop and take a deep breath to calm the emotions that assault her. "Your father was a good man and would have been a great father had he had the chance to meet you. You were his joy and his illusion. I had never seen him as happy as during these last months. He used to spend hours lying down with me, almost wedged to my belly, telling you all the things you were going to do together once you were born. He had so many plans and was so excited with the idea of finally being able to hold you in his arms."
The woman feels her voice tremble as she remembers the man with whom she had shared almost fifteen years of her life. The memory of his smile when he talked about his future daughter, because for some reason he was convinced that they were having a baby girl, breaks her heart. She won’t forget how every single time, after returning from a mission, no matter how tired he was, the first thing he did was to go and talk to his daughter. Just thinking about her and the happiness the three of them will share together once she was born made him forget all the evil in the world.
"There is nothing that I regret more than that he died before he could ever get the chance to see you." Finally the woman's voice breaks and a deep sob escapes her throat before she can do anything to suppress it. She does nothing to hide that heartbreaking pain. The pain for the loss of the man she loved, her best friend, her partner and the father of her daughter. Snatched from her side by a firing squad as she and Marlene fled to protect what was left of that revolution that one day will reclaim all their lives.
"These last weeks have not been easy without him" she continues, once she manages to compose herself a little, wiping the tears from her face with her free hand. “But you gave me strength to continue and now that I finally have you here, I see that it’s been worth it. Because these hours with you, however short they have been, have been the best of my whole life.”
Suddenly the woman closes her eyes when a sharp pang of pain runs through her brain. Her body stiffens for a second and then relaxes, leaving her shaken and exhausted. When she finally opens her eyes, Marlene has risen from her chair and has taken a couple of steps toward them. Her hand is firm, hovering over the gun on her hip, ready to intervene if the situation gets any worse.
"Anna?" Marlene asks uneasily, not daring to move her hand from the revolver.
Far from feeling threatened, the woman, Anna, smiles tiredly at her friend, glad to see how Marlene is willing to protect the child no matter what, even if it is from her own mother.
"My mind is almost gone, honey" she says to her daughter, completely ignoring her friend's concern. Anna takes the little girl's hand and for a wonderful second she allows herself to be captivated by the perfection of her daughter's small fingers.
Anna feels a knot tying at the base of her chest. A knot of emotion so strong it leaves her breathless and makes her eyes wet again.
“I don’t have much time left and there's so much that I want to tell you. Although I don't know why. You will never remember tonight. You will never remember my voice, or my caresses, or how much I love you. You won’t remember how it feels like to be in my arms, huddled, warm and protected. I wish I could stop the time. I wish I could go back and change the past. I wish there was a way to make this moment last forever because I don’t wanna lose you, Ellie. Not when I finally found you.”
Anna hugs her daughter against her chest, lowering her head and inhaling that magical scent that characterizes newborns.
"Life is very unfair, sweetheart. And as you grow up you'll see how it seems to do everything it can to lash out at you again and again until it has torn you to shreds.” she murmurs delicately against her daughter's hair, reveling in the little sounds the little girl makes in response.
"But I'm gonna tell you a secret: Life can be wonderful too. There are moments, small moments here and there: a dawn, a good meal, a song, a kiss. Those simple things that make up the day to day are the ones that make life worthwhile. And it is worth living, honey.”
Anna rises her head back up and looks out of the house. A group of fireflies flutter by the neglected rose bushes under the windowsill. Anna quiets her tone, turning her voice into a whisper as soft as the summer breeze that rocks the tattered curtains of the window.
"Those special moments are like fireflies in the dark" she breathes, keeping her eye on the group of insects. “And the deeper the night, the more they seem to shine in return. So when you feel lost, you just have to follow their light and they will take you home.”
Drawing her attention from the window, Anna turns her gaze back to her daughter's face and gently caresses the girl's pink cheek.
"Marlene will take care of you" she said, nodding toward the woman standing in front of them. “And don’t worry, even though you might see her there, so serious and hard; inside she is just like a fresh baked cupcake. I know she will take good care of you, because if she doesn’t I swear to every god out there that your father and I will return from the Other Side and kick that sexy ass of hers from here to the Stone Age.
The brunette snorts sarcastically at the words of her friend. Although that does not stop a half smile from settling on her lips.
"Asshole" Marlene says, folding her arms.
“Ah, Ah. Tell her, Ellie" Anna raises a finger and comically warns the woman in front of her, adopting a childish tone of exaggerated sweetness. "No, auntie Marla, no swearing in front of the children.”
Marlene narrows her eyes, amused, and Anna lets out a sincere laugh. For a moment it seems as if nothing is wrong in the world, as if they're just two best friends joking and sharing the joy of seeing the newborn in the arms of her mother, as if out of that room the world is still standing, normal, boring and imperturbable. A world in which monsters only exist in fiction and people don’t have to bury their loved ones prematurely.
Without warning, Anna's smile dissipates in an instant and a sinister grin takes over her features. The woman can feel a burst of irrational anger pull at her whole being and she has to grit her teeth to try to contain the urge to crush the tiny human being in her arms. Anna panics at the sudden animal outburst. It’s her daughter who is in her arms. Her daughter. That small, warm little body, so helpless and fragile; so easy to destroy with just increasing the pressure of her hands. She just has to squeeze a little more and the girl's delicate body will break like a dry twig.
Somehow, sensing the change in her mother, Ellie begins to cry frightened. At the sudden change in the state of her friend, Marlene moves quickly to stand at Anna's feet and looks with uneasiness at the woman's distressed face.
"Take her" Anna implores, lifting the child closer to her friend, finding herself unable to support her own daughter for fear of hurting her in another outburst of anger.
Marlene holds the baby in her arms and cradles her protectively, calming the little girl with a series of delicate whispers while rocking her from side to side. Anna's eyes go wet again as she watches the disconsolate expression on her friend's face. She’s protecting the child from her own mother and it’s breaking her heart.
"Anna, don’t ask me to do this, please" Marlene says, for what seemed like the millionth time in the last twenty-four hours.
“Don’t give up. Listen to me, we don't have to do this" she interrupts, stubbornly. The desperation in the brunette woman's voice stings like a poisoned knife in Anna's heart. “We can keep you in isolation. We can wait until we find a vaccine or something...”
“Marlene. No” Anna raises a trembling hand, silencing the other woman at once. “This is my last stop. Let me go with dignity. Let me go while I’m still myself.”
The fateful words echo through the small room as a death sentence in a courtroom. Silent tears begin to emerge from Marlene's eyes. Tears of impotence, of anger and grief. Tears that are nothing more than the reflection of the same that flood the eyes of Anna.
“Just…” Unable to continue speaking because of the knot of emotion that has formed again in her throat, Anna has to stop for a moment and breathe deeply a couple of times before continuing.
"Just promise me you'll take care of her. You'll take care of my Ellie" Anna continues, her voice tear-stained. “Don’t let her end up in this war. Take her to a safe place, where she can grow up safely and in peace. Take her to a place where she never has to pay for the sins of her parents or worry about ending up like them.”
With surprising resolution, Anna straightens up in her seat and stares at the woman in front of her.
"Promise now, Marlene, and never break that promise," she says with more desperation than strength running through her veins.
Marlene is silent for an endless minute, until at last, giving up, finds Anna's eyes and affirms with a quick nod.
"I promise you, Anna," she says firmly, no matter the tears streaming down her face with impunity.
The two women remain in silence for a long second, staring at each other, their eyes telling each other what they are unable to say with just words.
Finally, Anna reaches for the coffee table by the sofa and picks up the revolver she had left there hours before. Checking the ammunition for the last time, Anna closes the gun drum and straightens more comfortably in her seat. Without needing to look at her, Anna can feel the misery of Marlene. But even so she knows her enough to know that however much her heart is tearing, deep down, Marlene understands that her decision is correct.
It is in those last minutes, looking at the woman in front of her, when Anna realizes that she could never have been luckier for finding a friend like Marlene.
"Ah! By the way, would you mind doing me another favor?" Anna reaches inside one of the pockets of her shirt and pulls out her old switchblade. "Will you give it to her when she's older? You know the troubles this little one has gotten me out since we were kids, and it would be good if Ellie got at least something useful in inheritance, don’t you think?" she jokes humorlessly, handing Marlene the knife. Their hands meet and both hold the connection for a few moments longer than necessary. It’s their subtle way of saying goodbye and thanks for all those years of unconditional friendship.
Sensing the end, Marlene leans over to the couch and brings the baby closer to her mother. Anna takes the hand of her daughter and gently kisses the tiny fingers before moving closer to the small girl's ear.
"I love you, Ellie. Never forget it" she murmurs movingly, barely managing to pull away to kiss the girl's nose gently and caress her hair for the last time.
"It's time" Anna says moving away from her daughter and leaning against the sofa once more, before jamming the revolver.
Marlene makes a gesture as if trying again to argue her friend's decision, but at the last moment she surrenders before saying anything. Anna nods, silently thanking her for respecting her request to at least have a dignified end. Not hiding her tears anymore, Marlene straightens up and takes a few steps back before turning around and leaving the room with the little girl half asleep in her arms.
As soon as the door closes behind the woman, Anna lifts the revolver and places it against her temple. Her breathing is altered and her hand shakes. She closes her eyes angrily and her thoughts scream inside her head. It is so unfair, it is almost cruel. Why does it have to happen to her? What has she done to deserve such punishment? Wasn’t it enough to watch her parents die like indigents among the ruins of their home? Or see all her friends succumb one after the other, torn into pieces by monsters? Or losing Jeff when it seemed that life was smiling at them again? Was none of that enough? Now she must also leave Marlene and Ellie on their own in this ruthless world and there’s nothing she can do about it.
But as all these terrible memories take over her mind, she unexpectedly feels a strange tingling on her arm. Opening her eyes, Anna is surprised to see one of the fireflies a few inches from the infected bite.
And is right then when she remembers the words she had spoken to her daughter. And suddenly her life doesn’t look so horrible; because despite all the suffering, there is still light in the shadows. Because deep down she doesn’t regret her life. Because all those unforgettable anecdotes with her family and friends, are worth it. Because all the confessions and all the sleepless nights with Jeff, are worth it. Because a lifetime with Marlene as an accomplice for all her mischiefs, it's worth it. Because having seen her daughter, is worth it.
"It's worth it," she says with a grin on her mouth and pulls the trigger.
The shot echoes through the farm like thunder, flooding the night, for an instant, with noise before dissipating in the summer breeze like a ghost.