There are things she knows: The alleys are unsafe for a woman, even more so for a woman with a child; the water has been unsafe for drinking for some time now, but still safe enough for bathing, though some cities were reporting skin parasites that ate through the skin like acid.
There are things she doesn’t know: The names of the men who impregnated her with either of her children – Brice and Penny – though their faces, sweaty and disfigured from the physical protests of women before her, remain. At night she dreams of them, in three ways. There are the true-to-life dreams, with either of the men sweating above her, their grunts becoming one with her cries of disgust and pain. (She had tried to remain silent because it was known that they enjoyed those sounds, but the body under trauma does not ask permission.) Those are not the worst of the dreams – those dreams wake her before the men finish, before she can feel the heat between her legs followed by the cold, before the washing over of shame and regret that suggests guilt on her part. Those dreams end swiftly, returning her to her babies sleeping on either side of her: Brice, with his thumb in his mouth the way babies used to do, and Penny on her back with her arms behind her head as though she were on a beach somewhere.
Then there are the other dreams, which are worse. There is the one where she wanders the alleys where the men assaulted her. The first one, where Penny was conceived, and the other one where Brice was conceived while Penny crouched several yards away with her eyes squeezed tight and her tiny hands clutching her ears. (There had been blood under her fingernails when Rebecca bathed her.)
In the dream, she wanders those alleys – sometimes with Penny, sometimes without. She can feel her body tense, her jaws clench together like mother and child clinging to one another. The whole of the dream is her wandering, waiting for the horrible things that happened in those places. Though, in the dream, she knows she should leave those places, she cannot do it. Away from those alleys, unknown traumas await, and her dream-self prefers the familiarity of the approaching violence. In a world so unfamiliar, anything recognizable is preferred.
The third dream is the worst. She wakes into the dream, noting at first the softness of the bed and the feeling of being well-rested. She notes that the light behind the curtains is the yellow of memory rather than the gray of the present. She lies there a long while, unsure if movement will shatter the heaven she’s woken into.
It is always the sound of her children that stirs her. She jumps up with a twitch of her whole body and moves toward the sound of her children. She knows that if something has happened to either of them, she will have to burn the bed and shutter against the yellow light to remind herself what they cost.
She always comes upon the same scene: Penny and Brice sitting on a large white sofa, a white she can’t even remember as possible. They both giggle and invite her to join them. Then there is the sound of a man’s voice and the smell of pancakes. In the doorway to the kitchen is one of the men whose genes are the other assemblings of her children. Her joy at finding her children safe does not dissipate and she greets the man with a smile she can feel genuine on her face. He approaches and touches her face, but when he leans down to kiss her – her own face stretching up to meet his, which alone makes her afraid of sleeping – his mouth is a sour mix of old saliva, blood, and smoke. This is the moment that wakes her; the taste and smell all too familiar that her body reacts as though he is standing above her.
The dreams have become more frequent, and many nights she lies away trying not to fall asleep. She has grown increasingly irritable, and tiny moments throw her into a rage that Brice and Penny have begun to associate with their mother.
At bath time, Brice and Penny huddle in the chilling water. Rebecca uses a sponge to wash each of them, slowing over the boy’s face and squeezing water from the sponge each time she nears his mouth. He coughs and swallows and spits and cries.
The boy does not wake the next morning or the day after that, and Penny cries with her face in her brother’s chest in a way that makes Rebecca sure she has done the right thing.