The Labor by Lex Chase

Genre: Dystopian Horror

Rating: R

While Peter strolled through the lush garden, he carefully considered the blooming flowers. The chrysanthemums were as large as his hand and sunny bright this month. He smiled and chose those for the base of the bouquet. The puffy red and yellow blossoms bunched together. He added sprigs of baby’s breath, then pops of pansies.  He smiled at the meditative contentment of his monthly task. It was Wendy’s birthing cycle once again, and he could barely withhold his joy for the pitter-patter of little feet that would be blessing the Neverland compound.

***      ***      ***

He and Child 82, now a strapping teenager, built a special crib together when Wendy and Peter conceived. 82 happily sanded the birch wood planks until they shimmered like silver in the morning light. Child 43, who was quite the gifted seamstress, made a quilt with fluffy kittens embroidered in colorful patches. Child 286, who was excited by the arrival of his new sibling, donated his favorite toy: a stuffed tiger. 286 told Peter he wanted more than anything to take his baby brother to Africa to see real tigers on safari. That is if Africa still existed and all the tigers weren’t gone yet.

***      ***      ***

Peter finished the ostentatious bouquet and slowly made his way across the meadow to the collection of dilapidated Government Issue trailers that served as their little piece of paradise. Peter breathed deeply of the sweet southern air, and tried to calm his jittering nerves. He was anxious, and in the same measure, over-eager to meet the new addition to the family. 286’s comment hung heavy in his mind.

If Africa still existed…

He frowned darkly. It angered him that the children were aware of the circumstances that brought them into the world. He so desperately wanted them to retain their innocence in Neverland. One by one, when they were old enough, Peter had told them how they came to be. They were very special children in a time when not many children were being born. The world was different now, and had been for several decades. Men had become monsters, and monsters had become men. Out in the world those who would hurt them, or even take Peter away from them if they knew about Neverland. Peter impressed on them they were safe in Neverland, that they would always be safe within the verdant valley and their compound.

He regretted he couldn’t stop the march of progress when the first children grew up and went off into the world. They were always so curious to find out what remained of the world after the Tide came. They were always devastated by their discoveries of the vast wastelands, the poisoned forests, and the skyscrapers that were overgrown husks. Peter had seen that side of the world himself. He knew all too intimately the tidal waves that took New York and left the land in eroding jagged cliffs. He had beheld with his own eyes when Florida was swallowed whole into the muck. He even searched for survivors on the newly made island of California, and he found a few, but they were too sick with the disease. He knew the children had always been horrified with the findings. They didn’t trust him enough as he thought they should. It was like a stone in his heart that he knew their innocence was always destroyed.

***      ***      ***

It seemed like a lifetime ago the disease had rushed over the world like a tsunami. Many had died in an instant in epic proportions akin to the Rapture. Those who remained were gravely disappointed the Rapture was grossly misrepresented. It wasn’t a pleasant disappearing into the light. By the thousands, people dissolved into puddles of rank blood and spoiled plasma. They were unmade while trapped in their morning commutes, peacefully mowing their yards, happily directing school children, and passionately making love for the first time. It was obvious that God touched the planet with His finger. The survivors wondered in the years following, which finger?

Those didn’t dissolve got sick.

Those who got sick got hungry.

Peter hadn’t been Peter then but he’d felt the call to do something. He’d wanted to save what was left. He wanted to help everything go back to the way it was. He’d surrendered his name and his place in the world to serve to the remaining global interest. He and hundreds of men and women volunteered to ride the Tide. They wouldn’t run from it; they’d coax it to do their bidding. They’d use the wrath of God to crush their opponents and establish a new world order. It seemed like a fine idea at the time. It was the only idea they had, after all. The Commander-in-Chief had been infected and devoured his unsuspecting Joint Chiefs of Staff. All in all, it was certainly a fantastic idea in the face of anarchy.

Scientists had decoded the Tide’s properties. It had been an incredible breakthrough back then. They…, what was the phrase?  Peter searched his memory and blinked when it came to him. They took him and the other subjects and gave them a controlled drowning.

After his drowning in murky waters, Peter’s body had burned for months as the Tide coursed through his veins. He thought he would combust as his DNA rewrote itself into something better, stronger, and more terrible. When it was over, Peter never exited his eighteenth year of life ever again. The fire within him was made manifest in his anger. Villages burned with his wrath. Husbands and wives ignited in their beds while they slept. The tongues of flame licked down his arms and flowed in a torrent over the streets incinerating the children as they failed to run…. Oh god…, the children…, it was such a mistake. A terrible mistake!

***      ***      ***

Peter trembled with the memory while navigating a footpath between the trailers designated Happy Acres Preschool and the other deemed Sunny Days Elementary. The flowers quaked in his white knuckle grip. It was just the nerves, he thought. Today was Wendy’s special day and he was selfishly moping!

***      ***      ***

Wendy’s experience with the controlled drowning had been shocking. Even the scientists were polarized as if they had gone too far. By their own single-minded insanity to save the vanishing population they had made the Wendys, a series of identical soldiers whose only purpose was to defend and reproduce the depleted populace.  The world had never known such mad science until the Wendys marched onto the desolate battlefield. Each one a haunting scarlet-haired and blue-eyed dangerous beauty able to rip tanks in half with bare hands and stomachs round with soon to be born children.

He reminded himself what had gone before him was a lifetime ago. They were free and Neverland would forever be their refuge. There were no longer one-sided wars to fight, or supply drops to raid, or dubious world leaders to assassinate. They were no longer living weapons; they were lovers in a time of chaos.  He loved Wendy. When they met, the madness of the world fell away. On that fateful day in the chow hall, Peter knew Wendy, that Wendy, had to be his. Since that day, Peter could never look at mashed potatoes without instantly envisioning the sexualized way Wendy had licked them from the spoon.

With Wendy at his side, the world made sense. When they had been left behind enemy lines and Peter had lost his mind to the flame inside him, Wendy brought him around again. It was Wendy who had gone into the charred husk of a church and quietly brought a life into the world. He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it for himself and held that perfect tiny boy in his arms. Peter knew then he had to protect them all, even Wendy. They were a team. They were soul mates.

***      ***      ***

Ever since Wendy answered the call of duty, the children were conceived and born every month and not a day late. Every month new mouths to feed, and every month the older children took turns changing diapers. Every month the adult children left Neverland. The children wanted to see what the Tide had done with their own eyes. It always broke Peter’s heart. He couldn’t protect them forever.

***      ***      ***

The day he received Child 20’s letter, it left him in shambles. Peter had eagerly read the words only to fail in convincing himself they might be lies. He didn’t dare show Wendy. He locked it in the strongbox he kept under the Happy Acres Preschool floorboards. He couldn’t bear Wendy knowing what happened to 20’s older sister Child 12.

“12’s infected,” 20 wrote. The words banged like a hammer on an anvil. “Will do what’s best for the family. Keep me in your prayers.”

Child 32 made it all the way to Europe somehow. She wrote, “There’s nothing! Just nothing! Pure anarchy! Shouldn’t have left!”

***      ***      ***

Peter turned a corner, stepping lightly through the tall vegetable garden with ruby tomatoes heavy on trellises. He tried to smile. He tried not to think that one day the newborns would grow up. They too would leave the safety and love of Neverland.

They too would never return.

He wondered if Wendy thought about the fates of the children. Peter wondered with an aching heart if Wendy knew the constant birthing cycles were useless. Humanity wasn’t getting better. It was getting worse. It was the end. The Tide took everything from them. The Tide cruelly took the last vestiges of Peter and Wendy’s humanity and remade them in its image. There was no God here, there never was.

Despite what lay in waiting for the children, today was special. Today was Wendy’s day, Peter reminded himself. Today, Peter would be a father. The other children, while Peter loved them like they were his own, were Wendy’s doing. Every last child was an exact mirror of their creator with the same scarlet curls, the same fair skin, and the same curious azure eyes. They were beautiful, all perfect. They gave Peter purpose, a higher calling than the mass genocide he was made for.

 ***     ***      ***

It was a month ago Peter and Wendy had carefully considered the implications of having a child of their own. They had been completely committed to one another in war and in peace. They decided to take the next step and complete the devoted circle of their lives. When the children were safe in their beds they had conducted the ritual. The circle of votive candles had been lit in the clearing just beyond the compound. They had met naked; Wendy was fresh from the river like a sylph from a forgotten mythology. Together they danced in the flickering golden light, their bodies entwined like a freshly woven thread. By morning, the ritual was complete. Wendy was full and satisfied with the new life they had made. The child was a testament to their loving promise. They had planted a seed of hope in the face of adversity.

***      ***      ***

Peter came to the end of the flagstone path to the meadow behind the compound. His face heated with the memory of the passionate rite. He cleared his throat to shoo away such scandalous notions. There were more important things to focus on and the ancient oak greeted him with a sly shiver of the branches.

Peter, Wendy, and Wendy’s children called it their family tree and it lovingly shaded the small wooden shack that was Wendy’s most private and special place. The babies came into existence within the modest four walls, the perfect children, and soon Peter’s own child would emerge into life. The birds gleefully sang in the oak’s boughs while Child 294, 295, and 296 played a joyous game of Ring around the Rosy in the clover dappled grass.

Peter chuckled and quietly crept towards the children. He lifted his finger to his lips beckoning silence.

“Babies…,” Peter whispered. “Wendy needs quiet….”

294 glumly turned his gaze to his toes. “We thought Mommy was done…,” he muttered in embarrassment. “It’s been really quiet….”

Peter’s eyes snapped wide and his heart shot up his throat. “How long?”

295 frowned and poked her tiny fingers together. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

How long!” Peter snarled, his heart slamming in his chest.

The triplets warbled a startled cry in unison. “Peter! You’re scaring us!” 296 stammered.

Peter brokenly smiled, his own shame blushing on his face.

“Shh, shh, shh…, It’s okay, babies,” Peter assured them. “Why don’t you run along?”

The triplets watched him cautiously then nodded in unison and scampered back to the compound, vanishing into the bountiful vegetable garden.

Peter watched them disappear and took a steadying breath. He guarded himself with the bouquet like a shield. He considered Wendy might be exhausted from the labor. Perhaps Wendy was resting comfortably and tending to their newborn child.

Peter’s cheeks flushed with the warmth of contentment. Their child. One of their own. One that would make them a complete family.

A child with a name and not a number.

Peter couldn’t wait to meet his son. They decided to name him after Peter’s father, John. It was a proper sturdy name for a proper sturdy boy. He steadied himself to keep his bubbling excitement under control. Peter was practically beaming. The time had finally come when he’d hold his newborn son in his arms. He’d lay him in his special crib and let the child wrap his miniscule soft fingers around his broad digit. He’d never tell him what was outside Neverland. John would always be safe. John would always be innocent.

Peter sucked in a content sigh and pushed it out his nose with a pleasant hum. He knocked once on the wooden door of the tiny shack.

“Wendy?” he called. “Baby, I’m coming in….”

He parted the door and stepped softly into the dark cabin. The tangy humidity washed over his face like a mist of honey, sticky and sweet. His eyes tried to focus in the sudden darkness. The new mother was quiet. Peter could hear soft breathing and murmurs from one of the corners. He cooed in greeting to Wendy and his son. He stooped to brighten a kerosene lamp on the bare plywood floor.

“I brought flowers,” Peter happily told the lantern. “Chrysanthemums. Your favorite. They match your red hair….” Slowly, Peter turned his attention to the new mother and child.

Wendy sat naked and crumpled in a corner of the empty shack. Wendy’s hard masculine body shuddered, sheened with grimy, oily sweat. The redheaded man hugged himself, clinging to each bicep, his knees pulled to his chest to protect both of his sexes. Blood stained his thighs and gathered in a pool beneath his bare rear. Peter and Wendy silently locked eyes. Wendy’s cerulean welled with mournful tears.

Peter stood frozen to the spot. The bouquet slipped from his fingers and shattered in pieces of stalks and petals.

Timidly, his gaze slid over the contour of Wendy’s shoulder, bicep, then over the knee, and down the milky thigh. His heart stopped when he found the purple misshapen mass of flesh next to Wendy with the umbilical neatly clipped.

Peter’s son didn’t cry. He didn’t even have a mouth to cry from.

John in his imperfect perfection laid still.

Peter summoned every ounce of bravery and then some not to cry. Slowly, he sat on the floor and drew Wendy into his lap. Wendy leaned into Peter, curling his fingers into his shirt and head against his heart. Peter kept his eyes on the small sliver of light coming in through an air vent in the roof. He trained his breath into staying even now that the tang of humidity had announced itself as the rank scent of stillbirth. He ran his fingers over Wendy’s long crimson curls, greasy and soiled with dirt.  He smoothed the locks in comfort. Wendy’s long fingers curled tighter into Peter’s salvaged t-shirt and pressed his forehead firmly into his chest. Peter patiently waited.

Silently, they held one another in the sickly artificial brightness of the lantern. The bouquet’s sweet scent added sourness on the tongue that clung to the roof of the mouth. Peter focused on keeping the air moving in his lungs. He refused to let Wendy know the smell of the shack always made him vomit afterwards. It was a small price to pay for the children. It was pittance in return for Wendy’s perfect self-conceived offspring. It was a mark of scalding shame after a stillbirth or miscarriage. Peter felt the ball of acid gather in his throat and he forced it down.

After ten beats of Peter’s broken heart, Wendy burst into strangling sobs. The sound was a tone that broke the soul and crushed all hope. It was a tortured miasma of a mother’s grief and a father’s anguish. Peter bravely withheld his tears, and he rhythmically petted Wendy’s hair. He was the strength in Wendy’s devastation. Wendy had carried enough sorrow for them both. Wendy was a soldier with the sensitive heart of a virgin. Peter had to be the rock and the guiding light so Wendy could always find his way back to him and remember the reasons they chose to love.

“I tried so hard!” Wendy wailed his confession. “I tried so hard!” he repeated like a mantra.

Silently, Peter kissed his forehead.

“That’s the fourteenth one! Why can’t we have one? Just one!” Wendy croaked, riddled with the crush of grief and failure.

Peter cooed sweetly in a nonsense lullaby, and securely guarded his deep disappointment.

“We’ll try again…,” he whispered gently while his nausea blossomed into beads of sweat on his forehead. “We’ll keep trying. The Tide won’t take this from us….”

He kissed Wendy’s forehead again and petted his hair. A tear mixed with a rolling droplet of sweat and spattered to the floor.

“The Tide won’t take this from us….”

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