The light is flickering, and now it’s out. The insignificant intonations of an occupied dwelling are disappearing, and now silence. Now comes the smell in a tipping of the scales as darkness falls and odor rises, acrid and bilious but faint enough where you’re standing to ignore at this moment.
You’re listening to the gasps and giggles of the children in the rooms along the hall. Now silence falls in the rooms, the hall where you’re standing is inky black, and you’re wondering how many children you can hold in your arms as you leave.
Your own breathing is the loudest sound in your universe, and you realize its time to go. Your first step brings an indistinct pop, a lightbulb being crushed under a mattress, but you feel nothing underfoot. “It’s time,” you’re thinking. “It’s time to go.”
You enter the hall and you remember counting open doors, children’s rooms, before the lights went out. There were three. The dim light filtering in from a lone streetlight down the block serves only to distort shapes, but not to guide, or to assist you in counting. You’re deciding which room to walk past with your eyes straight ahead, which child to leave, and you’re wondering how you can possibly play God to two tiny lives who will leave in your arms and one tiny life you’ll leave to the wolves. How can you be the one to decide this fate, but how can you choose not to decide? The crushing gravity of forward motion is making the decision for you, and now there are only two.
“There’s two,” you’re saying out loud, breathing audibly, too much volume for the silence. You’re choosing your words carefully because you know what is safe to say out loud and what will, quite literally, bring down the house. “There’s two,” you repeat because you’ve agreed with yourself that there are only as many children as you can carry. You’re confirming this number by turning one of the doors into a mistake, or a closet, or maybe the third door was the room you were standing near when the lights went out. Maybe your memory was only a trick of the light, but the lights have gone out, so which trick is this? “There’s two,” you’re repeating like a child’s rote prayer. Some other child’s, but not these two.
You’re entering the first room, stepping through a noxious draft, and inhaling through your mouth. You’re scooping up a child, tucking it under your arm, settling it on your hip. You’re entering the second room, exhaling as another acrid gust washes over you, and again you’re scooping, and tucking, and settling this child on your other hip. You’re walking past the third room with your eyes ahead, barely seeing in the murky gloom, the heaviest of weights balanced under each arm. You hear a tiny tone as you pass the third open door, hardly audible above the murmur of the child who is shifting on your hip. This single intonation blends into the child’s breathy and indistinct susurration, and now the tones are one and the same. The child is whispering, you think, but you do not say this aloud because you do not want to speak as you pass the open door.
The light is too weak to cast three shadows on the wall as you carry the children down the hall. Instead, the dim is transforming the dated paisley wallpaper into colossal, pulsing vines with poison-tipped leaves and circular tendrils that will clutch and grab hungrily if you dare to pause for a moment on the carpet with the children on your hips. You’re passing these vines safely, glancing at the sinewy shapes transforming even now into a thousand slithering tentacles that will surely extend from the wall and slip around your wrists if you look too closely.
You’re beset by the burgeoning odor, and by the silence. You can only control one of the two, so you break the silence by softly crooning to the children on each hip. You’re distracting the three of you, and you have authored a fact; there’s no third child because you have no extra place on your body to scoop, and tuck, and settle it. Now it is also written that there never was a third child’s room; you cannot conceive of a third child in a room you walked past because you did not enter, because you did not save it. And so there are two. They are real, and you have them both. The top of each head smells milky and warm, and you’re breathing in the scent of life, two, and breathing out the scent of life, two.
You’re saying the word out loud like a mantra as you walk down the darkened hall with vines, and tentacles, and the children on your hips. You’re bending first to the perfectly pink, seashell ear on the left, and then to the other pink, seashell ear on the right. You’re audibly establishing the facts with everyone, only two in the first place because that door was a closet or a mistake. Surely the infinitesimal tone you heard as you passed the open door with your eyes ahead was your foot against the carpet, the shifting child on your hip, or your own breath in an exhale against the gust. One of these choices, you are already beginning to believe as you exit.
You saved them both, and now you’re leaving with two on your hips and the odor of the house on your clothing. It’s going to be okay because you’re walking out, the air is fresh, and soon the clinging scent will fade into the stratosphere. The children are breathing deeply. It’s okay because the house is still dark. There is no one behind you, and none of you are looking back.
If they ever ask you about a third child, if anyone brings it up when the lights in the house have come on, and the air is sweet once again, and the children have grown too large to scoop, and tuck, and settle, you’ll tell them you searched every room. Even at this moment, you’re starting to believe you searched every room and there were only two, and you saved them both. You will never mention the smell.
“Do not forget this,” you’re telling your future self, because you searched every room. The third open door must have been a mistake.
T. J. Butler lives on a sailboat with her husband and dog. She writes short fiction that is not all fun and games. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a regular contributor to Tiny House Magazine. Her work has been or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine, Anti-Heroine Chic, Quail Bell, The Moon, SisterShip, Pen in Hand, and others.