Maturity comes to us all, eventually...
| “Mom’s dead.”
Mylah glanced up from her gardening and stared at her brother. The sun at his back made his blond hair shine. The shovel resting on his shoulder glinted as he impatiently shifted from one foot to another, waiting for her to respond. She brushed a grubby hand across her brow, wiping away a trickle of sweat and forcing that one annoying strand of loose hair back for the millionth time.
“Good,” she grunted. “It was starting to get embarrassing being the only kids in the neighborhood with a living parent." She directed her attention back to the ground and poked her finger in the dirt, creating another well for a seed.
“You can toss her in that ditch next to dad, by the old shed,” she directed. His shadow covered her and then fled as he marched off to comply. She breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t tried to argue with her as the younger kids constantly did.
She pushed a few more of the seeds into their cozy dirt beds before stretching her arms over her head. Her back gave a satisfying pop and she rested on her heels to watch as her brother rolled their mother’s body into the shallow hole. In the past two years Davian’s arms had bulked up and stubble covered his cheeks; he was growing up fast. Mylah rubbed her hands together, shaking loose the dirt that clung to her fingers. He was growing up too fast, she realized. It wouldn’t be long before he matured to the point of no return. Before the mind sickness took him—
“You think we should have a ceremony? Say a few words or something?” Davian asked. Mylah started, realizing she had been staring into space. She shook her head as if to clear her mind.
“Well,” she hesitated. “There’s some soda stored in the pantry. I was hiding it for a special occasion. Might be able to find a bag of chocolate chips tucked away in a corner, too.” She grinned as his eyes lit up.
“A party! Yeah!” He pumped a fist in the air and she laughed.
“I’ll just finish up here, first. Could you let Kane and Penny know? I’m sure they’ll be excited that we’re finally on our own,” Mylah said, plucking another seed from the bag.
“Sure! I’ve been itching to tell them the news all day.” He threw back his head and howled at the sun, “Freeeedom!”
Soda spilled down Kane’s shirt and dribbled onto the floor as Mylah pulled off her muddy boots in the kitchen. He giggled as he ran past, leaving a sticky trail across the kitchen floor. Mylah frowned for the briefest of moments feeling a twinge of…something. Shaking off the odd feeling, she dumped the last bag of chocolate chips into the last clean bowl and set it on the table.
Two little grimy hands reached into the bowl and grabbed for the sweet treat. Mylah smiled as Penny shoved the chocolate in her mouth. Kane came screeching past, bumped into Penny, and dove for the bowl of chocolate.
“Ow! Ka-ane! You made me bite my tongue!”
Kane stuck out his tongue before tossing a chocolate chip in his mouth. “Did not. You did that all on your own.”
Penny crossed her arms over her chest. Her scrawny elbows jutted out like mini javelins, ready for battle. Her tongue poked out, revealing a drop of blood.
“Cool!” Kane crowed.
“Not cool,” Mylah said with a frown. “Look at that. She’s bleeding.”
Kane rolled his eyes. “So? What do you care?”
Mylah caught herself before she could respond. That strange feeling flooded through her again. She struggled to put a word to it. It was on the tip of her tongue but—
Penny’s bottom lip wobbled. “I’m gonna tell mama on you, Kane Walker!”
“You can’t, Penny. Mom’s gone, remember?” Mylah reminded gently.
“Oh. Yeah. But you and Davian won’t do anything to that bad boy,” Penny pouted. “You just…just care about yourselves. But if mama was here, she’d make him say sorry!”
Mylah shrugged. “Deal with it, kiddo. Times have changed. It’s every kid for himself.” The words were automatic, but something about them felt off to Mylah.
“In the movies, the big kids always take care of the little kids,” Penny said. Her voice sounded small and fragile. “When the grownups turn into zombies or aliens attack, the brothers and sisters take care of each other.”
“We’re not in a movie,” Mylah said softly. “If anything, we’re characters in a crappy story with an author who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.”
“It’s not fair,” Penny whispered. Her shoulders fell as she walked off to sulk in her bedroom.
Mylah thought of the last year. Of how the grid had gone down and how all the adults had suddenly become annoyingly responsible to the point where they could think of nothing but duty until a massive headache caused their minds to explode. She agreed, life wasn’t fair.
Kane laughed at Penny’s back and ran off with the last handful of chocolate. Something crashed and Mylah sighed. Nobody else would clean whatever mess had been made so she would have to be the responsible…she gasped. Responsible? Her stomach twisted at the word. Nobody was responsible anymore. Responsibility was a symptom of the mind sickness. Responsibility was what drove the adults into an early death. She could feel her heart pick up speed, her breath grew faster. She clutched her throat with one hand as fear fogged her vision.
“Hey, you okay? You look like you’re gonna puke and I definitely don’t want to be smelling that during our party.”
Mylah nodded weakly at Davian and sank onto a sticky kitchen chair.
“Yeah, sure. Just a little too much sun today, I think. Glass of water and I’ll be fine.” She waited for him to take the hint but he just shrugged and turned away.
“Okay,” she mumbled. “I’ll get it myself then.” A wave of dizziness came and went as she stood. She turned on the cold water at the sink before remembering it didn’t work anymore. Even after six months it was habit to reach for the faucet. She closed her eyes and pressed her lips together, frustrated, and turned to the Berkey her mother had bought before her father passed from the mind sickness, seven months earlier.
She turned the spigot but nothing came out.
“Hey, Kane! Isn’t it your job to fill the Berkey when it runs low?” she yelled.
“Job?” Kane yelled back from the living room. “What job? Are you crazy?”
Mylah grabbed the plastic pitcher they used to refill the Berkey and stomped into the living room. Kane was lounging on the couch tossing a football in the air and catching it over and over again. She threw the empty pitcher at him, making him miss the next catch. The football skittered out of his hands and across the floor.
“Get some water from the rain barrel and refill the Berkey.”
Kane narrowed his eyes. “You ain’t the boss of me.”
“Look, if we don’t work together we won’t survive,” Mylah snapped. “That means we’re each going to have jobs we’ll need to do. And yours is water duty.”
“Make me,” Kane sneered.
“You realize if we don’t have clean, filtered water we’ll get sick and die, right?” Mylah huffed. A spark seemed to light up in her mind and she drew herself to her full height.
“Somebody else will do it and we’ll be fine, oka-ow!”
Mylah twisted her little brother’s ear, forcing him to stand. “You will do this job or you’ll be eating vegetable soup for the next week!”
Kane’s eyes welled with tears as she released him. He rubbed his red ear. “Fine! I’ll fill the stupid water! You’re acting so weird, Mylah,” he pouted.
“Not weird,” came a voice from behind them both. Mylah spun to find Davian leaning against the door frame leading to the kitchen. “She’s acting like mom. Like a parent. Like a responsible adult.” He gagged on the last words. “You know,” he continued. “Being two minutes older than you, I figured my mind would be the first to go but I guess it’s true what they say about girls maturing faster.”
Mylah swallowed. Her throat felt dry. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Davian. I’m fine.”
He shook his head. “No, you’re really not. I’ve been noticing it all day. You keep slipping into these moments of maturity. You’ve become rational and…and downright sensible!”
Mylah gasped. “Davian, I—“
He ignored her protest, pushing himself away from the door frame and stepping closer. Her hands were engulfed in his and his eyes, an identical blue to hers, stared unblinking at her face. “Admit, it, sis. Yesterday, when Kane cut his knee you chastised him for being thoughtless. He doesn’t remember how mom always said a million times to be careful about climbing the old plum tree but—“
“But I do,” Mylah whispered. “I didn’t, before, but it’s…it’s like all those things she repeated over and over again finally lodged in my…my mind.” She couldn’t stand the horrified look in Davian’s face or the way he flinched at her admission. She glanced away as he dropped her hands.
“You remember our deal?” his voice was low and suddenly too kind. She nodded slowly.
“But I don’t think…” she gestured helplessly toward Kane, now standing silent, his mouth open in shock. Her thoughts flew to Penny, playing peacefully in her room. “They need to be cared for. They can’t just run around doing what they want. They won’t survive. Too many kids are starving or drowning or dying from simple injuries. They…they need me to be responsible.”
Davian shook his head. His jaw tightened. “No, it won’t work. You’re one of them now. The mind sickness will just get worse and,” he swallowed. “I can’t watch you go through that like dad and mom did. You have to choose. Leave or I’ll have to fetch the shovel. And I really don’t want to be digging another hole today.”
Mylah shuddered at the determined look on his face.
“I…I’ll go,” she murmured, defeated. “Just let me grab a few things.”
She didn’t leave with much. She didn’t want to take too much of their food, though she was pretty sure they wouldn’t use the supply of beans and rice and canned fruits and vegetables mom had stored when the illness first came into play. She bit her lip, wondering how they would keep from starving when the store shelves had long since been stripped bare.
“I’ll be back,” she promised herself as she crossed the street and walked past the Miller’s burned down house. The Miller boys had accidentally burned it down after their uncle died two months earlier. They moved in with the Davis kids, next door, and spent their time joy riding abandoned vehicles. She imagined they would eventually accidentally crash and kill themselves on an old, broken down telephone pole. Shaking the morbid thought away, she paused and glanced back at her childhood home.
“Davian will have a change of mind,” she chuckled at the thought and shrugged her backpack onto her shoulder. “And I’ll go back and we’ll take care of the kids together like we were always supposed to do. As responsible adults.” A headache flared up behind her left eye but she ignored it, smiled, and walked on.