“I didn’t want him,” she says. “I wanted something, something I saw in the eyes of Libby, Sam, Sandi, and Agnes. Something that would have made our new world, our safe world, a home. Children were a part of that world and so I found myself a child. Perhaps, I thought, I would love him and everything would fall into place. Perhaps with a child I could be content with safety, and normality, and a world without knives taped on mop heads.” A cold smile. “I still catch myself thinking that. I still think that maybe tomorrow will be the day where I can fall asleep with the lights on.”
Carmen’s features are stark and cold; like the chiseled lines of Soviet propaganda etched onto an icy street corner. A straight decided nose, high sharp cheekbones, and thin pinched lips. Her eyes are black. We sit together in a small, bare walled, room on a pair of fold up chairs.
I frown. “You mean off?”
“No. I mean on. During the war we were always hiding. If we needed light; a fire to cook, a light to clean the gears of a gun; then we would make it small and turn if off quick. Never would we sleep with a light. I still sometimes walk around the house at night without a single light on. I think that was my first mistake with him. A child is like a sapling. It needs light to grow. But I was – still am – a creature of the dark. He would get back from school and do his homework and I would sit nearby not helping but looking out into the dark to make sure nothing saw our light.”
Carmen grimaces and stands. “Do you want something?” Gestures towards the fridge. “I have everything. I even made some tomato juice the other night.”
I shake my head.
The house is small, curtains thick, and outside an indecisive rain comes and goes. I check my recorder though I already know everything is as it should be. I make a meaningless adjustment to the microphone and set the device back on the table as Carmen returns with a strip of jerky and a cup of brown red. She doesn’t speak.
“You were a child during the invasion,” I begin again, “you and your sister lived for years behind enemy lines and you weren’t old enough yet for high school. I understand coming back to civilization after such an experience must have been tricky, for both of you.”
The phone rings. Carmen flinches at the sharp noise but doesn’t move to retrieve it. I wait. Soon the sound stops and a robotic answering phone deals curtly with the would-be caller.
“I’ve read your book,” I try. “Taming Libby.”
A hard, fast, look. “It was a stupid thing to do,” Carmen grunts around a mouthful of dried meat. “The social worker told me to do it. She said it would make people aware of what it was like to be one of those left behind. But nobody really wanted to know.”
“It’s a best seller.”
“It’s mostly lies. The editors didn’t like draft one. They said it was too pointless and needed an angle, and edge, and a resolution at the end or it’s not a story. Just a bunch of words on a page. So instead I wrote about how hard it was to teach Libby to read and how we never got her to wear shoes.” Shrugs. “Not a good story, really.”
“It’s an extraordinary story,” I object as a stray tendril of wind darts in an open window and sends the curtains into a twirling dance. “Teaching a woman who grew up wild to be part of society again. And the deep connection you two had to sever. How old was she when the war began?”
“And you were…?”
“And your parents died in the first bombings?”
“And it was almost sixteen years later, when the war was almost over, when you both crossed no mans land.”
I grin. “What did you tell the commanding officer on duty that night? That line?”
“Do you want to trade for some blue eggs we found?”
Carmen keeps eating as she speaks; bites, chews, and swallows with a deliberate practiced efficacy; consuming not enjoying. She saves the tomato juice for last and drinks it in one long gulp.
“It is a marvellous success story,” I continue, less enthusiastically, leaning back in my chair. “She now has a husband, two children, and a job. A far cry from the day by day survivor she had become. And to think she didn’t remember what life was like before, to adapt so well…”
Carmen looks up. For the first time I notice a faint pink scar snaking from her chin and down her neck. “Yeah.” A pause. “But that’s the thing isn’t it? She figured herself out. Me? I’d been taking care of her so long that once she got herself figured I didn’t know what to do. This place,” she waves a hand at the sparse room, “this peace isn’t home. It is for her now. She’s moved on. But me? It’s just another sanctuary. A place to hide until they get too close and we have to move on.”
“The war is over.”
“I keep telling myself that.”
She sits still, feet planted, and eyes hard. She wears a simple brown top the same colour as her skin. Her boots are made for hiking. The rain is getting heavier and I know it will distort the recording. I speak louder.
“Why did you adopt?”
“I told you. I wanted something the others had. A sense of peace, perhaps, or a sense of home. I’m not sure. Again, it was a mistake. I was never that boy’s mother.”
“How often do you speak?”
“When forced to; birthdays, Christmas, and at family gatherings. It’s not that we dislike each other but we don’t have anything in common. He is post war, political, smart, and studies fine arts. I write unsellable stories in my basement so the glow of the computers can’t be seen on the street and fish with a stick.”
“Are you proud of him?”
“No. He is not mine to be proud of. I am proud of Libby.”
She leans forward and cups her hands together. “I’m proud that she is so solid and safe. I know that if something happens she can deal with it and I don’t need to worry. I know she is also happy and content here in this new world.”
I mirror her movement and shuffle forward. “But you are not?”
“Why?” I don’t voice the full question. She’s a famous author, a pioneer of wartime stories, and a strong independent woman who saved her sister and survived in a battle drone, and mutant ridden warzone for an impossible period of time. How, with such a successful life behind her, could she be unhappy?
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I think it’s like I said before. Here isn’t home. It’s a sanctuary. A hole where I hide. I kind of wish,” her wartime accent invades her speech, “that Libby hadn’t left so quick, you know? I hadn’t gotten used to not being needed and… no. I kind of wish I could go home.”
She stares at me while she speaks, making no move to hide her emotion. I look away, embarrassed.
“Your parent’s home?”
“No. The warzone, but we never called it that of course. It was just where we were. Where we lived. And the bombs, and the bullets, and the monsters, and the robots were all just part of life. I know it’s a terrible wish and I don’t really want it to come true but… I still… everything made sense back then. A and B, black and white, hunger and food. No fine arts, politics, kids, or packed to the ceiling grocery stores… I know I should be grateful for the new world - the safe world - and really I am, but sometimes I wish I could just leave this sanctuary before I… eh… what’s the word? All the air has been breathed and you can’t breathe anymore?” She clutches her throat and mimics gasping.
“Suffocate,” I supply.
“Yeah,” she nods and lowers her hands. “Before I suffocate.” A frown. “I should know that one.”