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I hold my baby in my arms as her breathing slows and I wonder what brought us to this terrible moment. She’s so thin, I count her ribs as she shakes. She was supposed to grow up and be wonderful and cure cancer and fall in love and dance at her wedding. She hasn’t even seen her second birthday. She doesn’t even know what lemon cake tastes like in the early morning or what it’s like to see snow fresh for Christmas. She’ll never have a first kiss or sneak out to see a boy in the wee hours of the morning or color inside the lines.
“Daddy,” she whispers. I kiss her cheek.
“He’ll be home soon,” I say even though I know it’s a lie. We haven’t seen Brian in a year, since the road home was swallowed up and the sun started to die. I pretended he was alive for months before I accepted that he was gone, really gone. He forgot his lunch that last morning. He said he would be back at noon to eat with us but then got caught up with a client. I wish he had blown work off and stayed with us. If he had maybe he’d know what to do. If he had, maybe Ellie would be laughing instead of dying.
The knock on the door is unexpected. The knock on the door rattles my bones. I hold Ellie to my chest and cock the shotgun resting it on my hip. I open the door cautiously.
He’s thin and dirty, his jeans worn in the knees and fringed at the bottom. His shoes look new. He probably stole them. I haven’t seen another human being in six months.
“Please ma’am,” he says. “I just want to get warm.” He looks at the fireplace which I imagine is warm and inviting.
“I don’t have any food.”
He pulls a can of beans from the bag he carries in his left hand. “I’ll share. Please, just let me in.”
I open the door and step back. He sits close the fire and warms his hands. He’s almost as thin as Ellie.
“Where are you from,” I ask.
“That’s a long way off.”
“It’s bad everywhere. There’s nothing. You’re the first person I’ve seen in three months.”
“What’s your name?”
“Mary,” I say. It’s a lie.
“Mary.” He smiles. “I knew a Mary, once. She had the nicest eyes.” He rests his hand against the hearth stone. “It’s nice to talk to someone.”
I smile. “It’s been awhile.”
“Funny thing about the world ending. I didn’t expect I’d be this lonely.”
Ellie’s body is growing colder. “Yeah, funny thing. Did you go through the town?”
He nods. “Empty. Didn’t see a single soul. A few stray dogs, but I couldn’t catch any. You’d have some luck with that shotgun.”
I don’t tell him I’m down to one shell. “Those dogs are vicious. We had a few come up here missing limbs.”
“I guess I got off easy then.” He stands and walks toward the kitchen. “My mother had jars like that, the blue ones.”
I smile. “They were my grandmothers. She was supposed to come over to can, but…” I don’t have to finish my sentence.
“You’re lucky. My family was with me. I watched them all go, one by one.” He hands me the beans.
I take the beans and open the can with a knife, dribbling the bean juice into my baby’s mouth. She sputters and swallows.
“She’s dying,” he says.
“You’re wasting the beans.” I think I hate him.
“I don’t care.” I spit. “I’m not going to let her starve to death.”
“It’s too late for her.” He rips them from my hands and starts to pour them in his mouth.
“Stop. Just stop!” I scream. Bean juice runs down his chin and I think of how many days that one can could last us. “Haven’t you watched enough people die?”
“I’ve lived this long,” he says, his mouth full.
I wish Brian was here. He’d know exactly the right words to say. He’d know what to do. He’d find a way to save us. Ellie’s body spasms in my arms. She wheezes. I can’t lose her. This wasn’t in the book What To Expect When You’re Expecting. It wasn’t in the blogs I read or the classes I went to in the sterile hospital air.
Calmly, I lay Ellie on the couch. I only have minutes. I know I only have minutes. Brian looks at me, regret in his eyes, the empty bean can in his hand. He doesn’t see the knife until it’s too late. I catch the warm red in the old blue mason jars, filling them and not wasting a drop. I lean him over what used to be a plastic toy bin and reach for my baby. I bid her to drink. She does, slowly. It’s the first warm meal she’s had in weeks. She opens her eyes, her belly swelling like a tick’s.
“I’ve lived this long too.”