Just tuning in? Start here.
The strange contraption continued to beep at regular intervals. Once again Daphne was glad she had insisted her sons know how to read as both Isaac and Ephraim took turns attempting to decipher the strange messages. It would have been exhausting to figure it out herself day after day, especially when half of the words were gibberish. Internet. Survey. Sale. Aluminum. Biosphere. Election. Daphne had never heard of any of them.
Reports of the strange disease slowly became more frequent on the unofficial channels, although no one noted any additional mentions in the daily briefs that came from higher up the organizational chain. Instead there were birth announcements, jokes, and references to games Daphne had never heard of before.
“It’s like they’re a nation of children,” she said with a wry grin after reading yet another description of one of the games the strangers took so seriously. It was one thing to kick or throw a ball around as a child, but she’d never heard of adults taking such a thing so seriously before. She wondered if they also still believed that the Tooth Fairy would steal them away to the underworld if they forgot to leave her their baby teeth the night after each one dropped out. Daphne had secretly enjoyed frightening her sons with that story, especially once they grew old enough to ask her logical questions about what faeries did with teeth and how they lived in black, cold caves without any food, heat, or light.
The next week was oddly quiet. Esther Penn never made it to her next visit, and when Daphne asked Ephraim to quietly scout the surrounding area to see if any soldiers were passing by he returned with nothing to report day after day. It was almost as if they’d disappeared from the face of the earth, although Daphne knew it was just as possible that they’d altered their routines once again. The visitors were nothing if not inconsistent.
It was just as well. Their food stores had just run out, and the herbs Daphne had dried for tea were nearly gone as well. The hollow time of year required all of one’s attention.
For a moment Daphne considered eating the mule, but her deep aversion to red meat and every step of the butchering process as well as her complete inability to replace the animal if anyone found out where it had been taken made her pause. They’d buried the body deeply enough that it was unlikely ever to be discovered, but the penalty for stealing such a valuable creature was enormous. Daphne soon let the mule wander around the property instead and started wondering if she should give the creature a name. She ate anything she could find, which at this time of year wasn’t much, and other than Lemon there was nothing the mule encountered that she found particularly interesting or terrifying. None of these traits immediately pointed to a name for the strange creature. Perhaps it would come with time.
Daphne had forgotten how often children needed to eat, but autumn was nearly here. Surely they could all find something else to fill their bellies soon. Wilma and Felix quickly made their displeasure known when they realized that even their one reliable meal of the day had dried up. Daphne tried to get them to fill up on weak tea, but neither child was interested in the taste of any of the herbs she still had in her pantry. In desperation Daphne mixed several of them together into a kind of cold soup for the children.
“This smells like medicine,” Felix said, wrinkling his nose.
“That’s because it’s only for grownups,” Ephraim said as he slid the bowl away from the boy who had picked it up. Felix watched warily as Ephraim’s lips touched the water and he pretended to drink. “You wouldn’t like it anyway.” The boy wasn’t entirely convinced, but an hour later when Daphne offered him another batch of medicine soup he at least was willing to swallow a few gulps of it.
Since their return Paige had slowly stopped interjecting herself into the decisions Daphne made about their everyday lives. She still followed Daphne from the kitchen to the bedroom, but she left the childcare and discipline up to the younger members of the household. Sometimes Paige stared off into the corner, and once when she didn’t realize anyone was watching Daphne caught her silently mouthing something to the cobwebs.
“Lemon, come with me,” Isaac said. The lethargic dog lifted his head and whined. “I know you hate this, mom, but we’re going to see if Lemon can catch any rabbits. I’ll keep an eye out for edible plants, too.” Ephraim nodded and stood to join his brother.
Daphne felt old arguments bubble up in her chest, but each one popped before it reached her lips. At this time of year it was unlikely they’d catch or gather anything. Her more traditional son didn’t see the point in sitting around doing nothing when the food ran out. At least a rabbit would fill them up for one meal, and it would give the boys something constructive to do in the meantime.
Flavoured tea was a temporary distraction from their hunger, but Daphne knew it wouldn’t last for long. After her sons left for the hunt she invited the children to sit on her bed as she told them old stories about an impossibly strong hero who travelled from another world to save this one. Like Felix and Wilma he had been raised by people who weren’t his biological relatives, but unlike them he grew up knowing virtually nothing about where he came from or why certain rocks made him feel so weak.
It was such a good tale that Daphne didn’t register the crunch of boots in her front yard or the low murmur of voices until moments after someone began quietly wiggling her front doorknob.