If you don’t clutch at foolish hopes, life’s miseries can’t wound you so bad – that’s what Mum always said. Still, Alida held on to a smidge of hope that Mum’s fever would break. Leaving her weaker and thinner for sure. But alive.
The virus was brutal. It had moved through the Demi-Settlements like the rumour of an overturned LeaderCorp supply truck. Until three days ago Alida had reckoned they’d got lucky. The outbreak had nearly burnt itself out when Mum started coughing.
Mum’s hand was hot and clammy. She’d stopped moaning and writhing at least, and her face was calm in the dim light. Graycie was zonked out, sucking on the edge of her blanket, her fingers tangled in Alida’s hair. All around them the neighbours slept in their own flimsy homes, their lamps out for the night.
Alida had been awake for two nights straight, keeping Mum comfy. Falling asleep was usually a trick she played on her brain. She’d pretend she wasn’t interested, turn her back and let sleep creep up on her. Now that she needed to stay awake, for Mum, sleep wouldn’t leave her alone. Her thoughts wriggled free of her grip, only to come back together as a soothing gobbledygook.
Mum shuddered, pulling Alida back from the threshold of a dream. Alida pinched the fleshy inner part of her upper arm to give herself a jolt. She pushed the curls off Mum’s damp forehead. Her skin was pale and patchy, her lips split and flaking. Alida memorised the terrain of Mum’s face, all the healed breaks along her nose and the sunspots across her cheeks. Mum’s shallow breaths caught rhythmically in her throat, hypnotising Alida until her eyelids drooped.
Some people bounced back from the virus. Maybe Mum could too. At thirty-six she was still youngish – only seventeen years older than Alida. But the melanomas spreading through her body, and the harsh chemicals she swallowed to fight them, had left her weak, susceptible to every passing sickness.
Alida closed her eyes, just for a moment, to ease the burn of her dry eyeballs, and opened them to light and people banging around, shouting and laughing, and littlies squealing.
Mum’s hand was cold. She hadn’t been there for her last moments. Had Mum wanted to say some last words? Had she felt alone and unloved? Alida would never know and she would never forgive herself.
Graycie sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She reached for Mum.
‘No!’ Graycie punched Mum’s chest with her little fists, her white-blonde hair whipping around. ‘She’s supposed to look after me. She said always.’
Alida lifted Graycie away and held her in her arms. ‘It’s okay, little bird.’
When the tears dried up and Graycie was juddering with hiccups, Alida’s thoughts turned to practicalities. They’d get by. She’d have to flog more scavenged goods from the burbs to keep them from going hungry, but they’d get by. She dried her sister’s cheeks and cleaned away the yellow crust around her eyes.
There were things they had to do. First was to show no weakness to their neighbours. Alida would have to be as fearsome as Mum had been if she wanted to hold on what was theirs and keep Graycie safe. And they’d have to remove the body, before the bugs and rats rocked up.
‘I have to take Mum to the bio-recycler.’
Graycie curled up in the corner, her back away from Mum, sucking on her blanket again.
‘Do you wanna say goodbye before I take her?’
Graycie rolled over and touched Mum’s hair, then rolled away again. Alida blinked away tears and tucked Mum up in her own ratty blanket. Alida didn’t even know what Mum reckoned happened after death. Mum had spent her childhood in an anti-tekker, nature-revering cult called the Rewilders and her grandmother had filled her with all sorts of religious stories about heaven and hell. Wherever she ended up, Alida hoped Mum could finally rest.
She didn’t want to hand Mum over to a corpse collector. They needed the bio-recycler credits for themselves, and the idea of strangers with their paws all over Mum’s body was icky. She had suffered enough of that in life. Alida hoisted Mum over her shoulder. The virus had stripped the meat from her bones and she weighed shit-all.
‘I’ll be back soon.’
Mum’s hair swung limply over Alida’s heart. Why did her mother have to die? Every other virus had passed them by with no hassle. It wasn’t right that Mum had died so young and those plasticised oldies in City 1 were shiny and smooth well after their hundredth birthdays.
Alida wove her way out beyond the roof of what had once been an open-air market. She pulled the hood of her SunSuit over her hair and went out into the hottest part of the day. People wouldn’t meet her eye, but she suspected they were taking note. Sweat trickled down her sides and her breath came fast. The LeaderCorp Hub that housed the bio-recycler was a ten-minute slog without extra weight to carry. The uneven ground jolted her knees with every step. She walked on the side with a little shade, close to housepods, shacks and tents.
Littlies skipped around her legs, trying to see what was in the blanket. Alida couldn’t remember the last time she’d played like them. There would be even less chance of playing now that Mum was gone. When she was five, like Graycie was now, she’d been a pro at looking after herself – already bringing home treasures from the inner burbs. But Graycie had always been sickly: runny tummy, titchy for her age, red crusty eyes and sores that wouldn’t heal. It was a miracle a virus had never nabbed her.
Shapes at knee height moved at the edges of Alida’s vision. On the left she clocked two mutts, their heads low. Alida scowled. She was no good with mutts. They had a history.
‘Rack off!’ She stamped her foot. She stumbled forward a little, trying to right the weight on her shoulder.
She turned slowly and spied Zave in the curtained doorway of a shipping container. He smoothed down his streaky blonde hair, picked up some rocks and chucked them at the mutts. They bolted, lips curled into gruesome smiles, tails over their buttholes.
‘Zave.’ Tears squeezed out and Alida blinked them back.
Zave put a hand on her waist. ‘Your mum?’ he whispered.
She nodded, not trusting her voice.
‘Let me help.’
She wasn’t too proud to accept help when it was offered. Especially with hungry mutts and curious littlies circling.
Zave stood behind her and took some of the weight of the blanket. They continued towards the hub.
‘Fuck off,’ Zave yelled at the littlies. He chucked another rock at a mutt that came close enough for a sniff.
Alida held her head a bit higher with Zave helping her. She could almost imagine they were taking Mum for a proper funeral and burying her somewhere beautiful. Alida wondered if Mum would like that and then she remembered Mum was dead and had no more opinions about anything.
There were three other corpses ahead of them at the recycler chute. When it was their turn they hoisted the body onto the polished metal, blanket and all, and waited for verification of death and the calculated value of the organic materials.
Alida wished she had prepared some kind of speech or something. Would she look back one day and regret that she hadn’t made more of a ceremony of these last moments with Mum? Maybe if she could remember one of the religious stories Mum sometimes told. Even just a phrase. Alida’s mind was as blank as her credit chip. And there were people waiting behind them to ditch their own dead.
‘Death verified,’ said the bio-recycler artificial intelligence. ‘Please scan your wrist chip for credit transfer.’
The chute closed and Mum disappeared.