Momma was out that morning killing another mommy, so I had to wake up all sixty-seven of my brothers and sisters. I was the big girl now, the oldest one in the household, and I had a lot more responsibilities.
We had work to do while Momma was away: rain had washed out part of one of the trenches around home, so the bigger kids got their shovels and dug out the caved-in part, while the little ones took knives and sharpened new sticks to jab in the trench floor.
Any mommies that wanted to come steal us away? They’d have a whole bunch of obstacles to get through first.
Momma came home when the sun was high, leading a little boy by the hand. He looked up at her with love in his eyes.
“This is Travis,” she said, and all of us kids surrounded him and gave him hugs. “He’s your new brother.” She wiped at her mouth, swiping away the last of a bloodstain.
Another mommy dead, another kid to join our family.
Sometimes Momma would tell us a bedtime story, one of the few ones she still remembered. Most of the time, it was about the A-Filaments.
‘A’ stood for some long, stupid science-name for a kind of mushroom. ‘Filament’ was another fancy word, this one for ‘string’.
Anyway, the bedtime story went that these ‘A’ mushrooms grew everywhere and spread their little ‘filaments’ into the air. People breathed them in, and that’s what changed the world into what it is now, with mommies and daddies and babies, and nothing much else.
One of the kids, little pigtailed Beth Anne, asked Momma, “Didn’t nobody want to change the world back?”
Momma shook her head. “Nobody knew how, after a while. Besides, if the world changed back, you wouldn’t have me for a mommy no more.”
Beth Anne agreed that would be a terrible thing.
All my dozens of brothers and sisters kept asking me about my birthday, which was only a week away. They were excited and unsure because none of them had ever seen a girl turn eighteen before. The only thing I could tell them was what I’d seen a couple of years ago, when my sister Polly came of age and turned into a mommy herself.
The story scared the little ones and made them cry. I had to promise them the same thing wouldn’t happen to me when I hit eighteen.
“I ain’t never gonna leave y’all,” I said, and meant it, because what Polly had gone through scared me, too — I still had bad dreams about it, and I wasn’t about to let that happen to me.
Momma and the kids needed me, and I wouldn’t abandon them.
I found Momma in her room, licking the last of the dried blood from her fingers, making that ee-ee-ee squeaking noise she always made when she wasn’t talking.
“We got Travis settled in,” I said. “He’s rooming with Jed, Phillip, Marcus…”
“That’s good,” Momma said. She looked at her hand and nibbled at a red-crusted fingernail. “That bitch put up a fight, let me tell you.”
I nodded, and she looked at me. “I ever tell you the story about the A-Filaments?”
Momma got real mad if we brought up her bad memory, so I let her tell me the story for the thousandth time. She got it muddled up with the story of her latest kill, and kept talking about ripping that other mommy’s throat out, and how Travis switched over to loving Momma as soon as his old mommy’s heart had stopped.
“He’s a good boy,” she said. “He’ll be a hard worker. You teach him good, you hear?”
“Yes, Momma,” I said, but she’d already gone back to licking her fingers and going ee-ee-ee.
I grew up in the world after it changed, so there were a lot of mysteries in it. For example, on the outside of our home, it said OFFICE DEPOT in big, tall letters, but nobody, not even Momma, knew what that meant.
I took a little pride in being born into the new world, especially since I was one of Momma’s actual, out-of-her-belly babies, instead of a baby she’d claimed after killing its mommy. For me, Momma went, did whatever-that-thing-is mommies do when they find a daddy, and, like she told me, ‘out you popped’.
But all those mysteries out there do chew at my thoughts a little. What was the world like before? What sort of things did people do when there weren’t just mommies and daddies and babies?
I thought when I turned eighteen I might go for a walk outside the home, past the trenches and barbed wire, and take a look at the world out there. I went out scavenging for food all the time, of course, but when you do that you’re so focused on staying alive you can’t really…enjoy it.
The world out there fascinated me, I guess is what I’m trying to say; and I would like to explore it. Not as a mommy, but something else…
Forget it. Those were thoughts for later.
After I turned eighteen, I had my whole life to do stuff like that.
Momma left again the next day. Her ee-ee-ee was more agitated, and she barely said a thing as we cranked open the big, heavy gate to let her out.
I took charge and got the babies to work. We checked how much food we had and decided we didn’t need to forage for a few more days. Brothers and sisters walked around the fence, looking for places where it had come loose from the dirt. The most exciting thing to happen was when one of those ‘cat’ animals wandered close, but not too close before the attention of the kids made it run away. Momma said cats used to like people, but not anymore.
At least, we thought that would be the most exciting thing that day.
The sky started to get dark, and it looked like Momma wouldn’t make it home until the next morning. But there was a commotion at the gate, and we thought she’d come back, after all.
Thing was, it may have been a mommy, but it wasn’t our mommy.
The mommy wandered around the big fence, looking in at all of us with an awful hunger. We weren’t scared — she’d have to get past the fence, the barbed wire coils, and the trenches — but we took up arms anyway. Some had gardening tools, others spare pointy sticks we hadn’t put in the trenches yet.
“No, bad mommy!” we shouted. “No! Get on outta here!”
She kept staring at us, sniffing the air, even going so far as to reach an arm through a gap in the fence.
“No, bad mommy! Go away!”
We kept it up as the sun sank until we could see her turn to go. She may have had her own babies to get back to. We jeered her as she wandered away, and my heart filled with pride for my brothers and sisters.
We had defended our home against a bad mommy. Momma would be so proud when she came back.
Momma came straggling in alone the next morning, holding her arm to her side with teeth gritted. She brushed past all of us and stumbled into the home, back to her own room. I followed close as she collapsed onto her bed, and told the other babies to leave us be.
“Momma?” I moved to the bed and pressed my hand on the mattress.
“I had her,” Momma croaked. “I killed the bitch and took her daughter. But we were coming home in the dark and I fell. Hurt my arm. Passed out from the pain. When I woke up, my new baby was gone. I couldn’t find her anywhere.” Momma started to cry: big, ugly-face tears. “I named her Cassandra.”
I climbed into bed with Momma and curled up in front of her. She put her good arm around me, though not without a hiss of pain.
“Good girl,” she said. “You’re such a good girl, but you’re leaving me soon, too. Any day now, aren’t you?”
“No, Momma,” I said. “I ain’t. I promise I ain’t never gonna leave you.”
She didn’t say anything else. Her breaths got slower, as did mine, and we slept.
My dreams were of Polly, as they had been the last few weeks.
A couple of days later, on my birthday, the thing that woke me up was the smell: horrid, like a dead, rotten animal.
I wondered what could smell so bad, but it was hard to think. Hard because something else was in my head, chasing out all my thoughts.
I got out of bed, my head aching. As I walked out into the big open space at the center of home, all the kids turned to look at me.
And the way they looked at me was all wrong, like they didn’t recognize me.
But I knew them. There was…well, what was her name? And him, the little red-headed one, he was…
It didn’t matter. I could give them all new names. All I needed to do was make them my babies. And to do that, I just had to…
She stepped out of her room at the back, sniffing the air, like she had the right to think anyone else smelled bad. She was the source of the stink that had woken me up, and when I caught sight of her, I hated her more than anything else I’d ever seen.
I just had to kill her, and all these sweet, wonderful babies would be mine. Me: their new Momma.
The old bitch was wounded, with a broken arm. Killing her would be the simplest thing.
I took a step towards her, but the babies moved to block me, a little army dozens-strong.
Some of them already had gardening tools, holding them up to warn me away.
“…No, bad mommy,” a tiny, hesitant voice said.
I glared at the smelly, ancient bitch. I could come back. I knew the security of this home. I could get in easily, in the night, and —
— the sound pulsed in my head again, and I whispered along with it, so softly I could only hear the ‘ee’ part. I couldn’t remember the security measures anymore, not with the sound overtaking everything else.
The babies moved as one, pushing me back to the door, then out into the main yard.
“I love you,” I said to them. “Let me take care of you.”
Their little faces were so solemn.
Back further, over the boards laid across the trench, past the coils of barbed wire, and to the gate. Babies worked the wheel and the gate ratcheted up.
I moved forward, one last try, but they weren’t having any of that.
One girl with pigtails jabbed her pointy stick at me. “No, bad mommy,” she said, almost crying. “You get on outta here.”
The others joined in the chant. I stepped backwards, outside the gate, and they shut it.
I stared at them a moment longer as they shouted and threatened me. And there, at the door to their home, stood the bitch.
She smiled, not in a mean way, but sad.
I turned and walked away, looking at the world around me. I didn’t understand any of the words on the grey, mushroom-covered walls: U-HAUL. WHATABURGER. MALL OF ABILENE.
But I knew I didn’t have to understand this world. I just had to needbreedfeed, to let it pull me along on its strings. I had to find babies, or a daddy. That was all that mattered.
I was a mommy now.
Time to start acting like it.