Juno’s talent for rage-naps had always been impressive. Like her mother, she disciplined those who crossed her by showing the ultimate control: opting out.
This nap was particularly bitter. Bored of playing Monopoly yet again, Juno had asked her mother politely if she could run upstairs to grab Life. By then Delilah had made it clear more than several times, as if the air-raid sirens and the bullhorn drivebys weren’t enough, that there would be no going upstairs until the city said—so she had repeated the fact. Maybe a bit snappishly. Juno had replied by punching two holes into a stack of Monopoly money, stringing an old shoelace through them, and wearing the thing as a nightmask. And Delilah wasn’t about to blame her. They’d been officially “hunkered down” in the basement since the first air raid—a week? Almost two? Maybe she’d ask Juno to measure her leg hairs.
From her spot by the washing machine, Delilah glanced between her sleeping daughter and the pages of Architectural Digest. Aware that her overhead light might fail again that night, she had to use this alone time to her advantage.
“I heard all that, you know.”
But she never really had alone time. The voice, tinny and hollow, pursued Delilah from a rusted pipe in the wall beside her head.
“If she wants a game,” said the voice, “try Fuck, Marry, Kill. Ever played that?”
Delilah pursed her lips. But elsewhere her muscles relaxed; secretly, she was relieved to hear her neighbor again. She leaned toward the pipe. “Not till she gets braces,” said Delilah. “Nice try, though.”
“Now, now—just try it. I’ll start you off: the mailman, the chief of police, or the mayor.”
“They’re probably already dead.”
“Suit yourself… Well, are you still reading last month’s Architectural Digest? I’m in the middle of ‘After the White House: A Tour of the New Presidential Mansions’. Check page twenty-six when you get a chance—the President of California has a nice lamp. The one in some ballroom, next to a stuffy baby grand. I bet it’d look perfect next to your washing machine.”
Delilah’s house was connected to her neighbor’s thanks to some crummy old pipes running between their basements. Together they were the neighborhood’s only black households, but Delilah’s neighbor didn’t admit to caring about that the way Delilah did. In the ten years since moving in, Delilah had never once seen her neighbor outside the house. She knew her as a silhouette behind kitchen curtains, and the occasional blare of game shows, the news, HBO through an open window. But they talked through the basement pipes regularly.
Delilah’s neighbor lived alone. Her husband was in a cigar box on her mantle, and her children never called. More often than not, Delilah could count on hearing her whenever she was in the basement. She liked to send ghostly moans crackling through the pipes until Delilah replied with an “I hope you’re feeling well today,” or a sudden “Boo!” When Delilah had time, her neighbor liked to cluck over headlines and celebrity gossip, but her favorite subject was Delilah’s life. She loved chewing on Delilah’s stories and spitting out unruly advice. And Delilah loved hearing it, whether or not it was wise. Sometimes, when Juno was with her white family for the week, Delilah would spend hours in the basement, smoking cigarettes and chattering with her neighbor late into the night.
Delilah considered herself lucky, at least when it came to home. The whitest state in the Union, and she had landed right next to another black woman. One she could talk to, no less. When she left New York years ago, her mother had warned of despair and stir-craziness, told Delilah any black folks she’d meet in Vermont would be lawn jockeys. She wasn’t wrong by much, but she was wrong, and so were all the smiling white folks here who loved saying as much to Delilah’s face, laughing it off like crows. As if “some” were no better than “none.” As if “nobody” felt as warm as “somebody,” “anybody.”
Another interruption came between Delilah and her magazine. It wheedled vaguely at her from across the room, an exoskeleton of a voice—the radio. Streaming from Delilah’s phone in the dirt by Juno’s head. Juno was still stretched out on her blankets, Monopoly money over her eyes.
“…from UVM’s bioengineering program, talking with us about today’s emergency GMO bill and the potential benefits, as well as some concerning risks it brings.”
“Remember when the scariest GMOs were just carrots and peas, Jane?”
“I do, Tom, and I still won’t touch the stuff.”
“And how about people, then, Jane? You never know who’s a GMO these days unless they—well, snap.”
“Of course you can’t avoid them, Tom, and you shouldn’t—millions of GMOs lead perfectly happy, productive, stable lives. It’s true we’re not as exposed to them in Vermont as folks in New York or Texas, but we can’t let the horror stories turn us into bad neighbors.”
“Well said, Jane—you know, a close friend of mine is actually a GMO, and you’d never know it if he didn’t tell you. Folks who are nervous about this coming GMO wave should remember there are already GMO Vermonters all across the state, and they’re contributing to our communities just like anyone else. In fact, we’d love to hear what GMO Vermonters have to say about this emergency bill, or just about the GMO experience here. If you have something to share with Vermont National Radio give us a call at 1-800-639-2211, that’s 1-800-639-2211.”
“Good thinking—don’t be shy out there folks, we welcome your perspectives. You know, Tom, Dr. Carol mentioned that some lawmakers want to follow up today’s bill with one to implement an ID system like there is in Texas. Now that’s a sore subject for—”
An otherworldly wailing drowned out the radio. Air raid sirens. A cottony thunder of bombs buffeted the house from somewhere across the city, and Delilah watched Juno’s lips for a slip-up, a grimace—nada. Juno had stopped letting the ruckus disturb her a few days ago, after her dad skipped town without her.
Delilah’s skull roared with the spotless attitude of her ex-husband’s Silverado. He had called to check in while packing it with his wife, toddler and home essentials, advising Delilah to let him know when she and Juno were somewhere safe. She could have chewed him out, just for Juno’s sake, but she knew it was for the best. And she liked to think Juno knew it, too. Pale as she’d come out, Juno had always had more of her mother in her.
In time the sirens petered out, breaking back down into radio jabber.
“…the Executive Council, no civilians will be allowed to enter Burlington until further notice. And folks, don’t forget to come by the Montpelier Farmers Market if you’re hungry, or if you just need some company.”
“That’s right, Jane, it’s potluck breakfast and lunch every Wednesday and Saturday, and free care bundles are—”
Bubbly xylophone tones cut off the radio.
“Mama!” Juno was up, bounding across floor with the phone in hand. “It’s Aunt Diana.”
Delilah’s eyes drifted up from her magazine, and she suppressed a sigh as she reached out for the phone. “Hello?”
“Delilah—is this Delilah?”
“Oh, I— …sometimes Juno sounds just like you. Have you left Burlington yet?”
“The busses still haven’t come to my neighborhood.”
The phone filled with Diana’s breathy, oxygenated silence, and Delilah felt a growing thickness in her lungs, new layers of chemical residue from nights spent burning magazines and underwear.
“I know that’s not true, Del. They’ve been showing drone footage on the news every night. Hell, I saw your house just yesterday, people lining up on your street to get into a bus. What do I need to do to help you? The bombs aren’t gonna stop.”
There it was again. Diana had a cross to bear. She was a copycat of course, riding their mother’s coattails as always, but Diana bore all that certainty with too much ease, as if she were born with it instead of pure flesh and blood. That was what their curse mother liked to say—they were born with it. The truth that lives underneath us, the fly in America’s soup. But Delilah didn’t even like soup.
“Have you tried having sex with the president?”
“Very funny, Delilah. You need to get out of that house.”
“No, no—we’ve got guests coming.”
“What? Stop that—be real with me for half a second.”
Delilah hesitated as her ears began to ring. The sound crackled faintly, like papers being shuffled—she began to make out her neighbor’s whisper eking from the pipes.
“Hang up. Hang up, Delilah, that sister of yours is too uppity. What does she think, you gonna run back to Queens and raise your girl in her broom closet? We’re at war. Does she think you’re about to shack up with your white friends in Stowe? So they can pat themselves on the back, call CPS on you for not straightening Juno’s hair? Hang up. We’ll figure this one out for ourselves. And shut off that radio too. It’ll make Juno soft as her father.”
Delilah hung up on her sister, and, before the radio could fade back in, she turned off the phone and laid it in the dirt beside her.
“So guests, huh?” her neighbor whispered. “Gonna throw a party for the neighborhood? Good idea. Now there’s no excuse not to whip that basement of yours into shape.”
“Shh,” said Delilah.
She looked to Juno. Back in her corner, she was hunched over a mess of Monopoly money, her eyes hard and nitpicky as she tore and folded a blue bill into an origami person. Delilah doubted Juno would ever be as soft as her dad. But half of her was always hidden from Delilah, just as the other half hid from her dad. Delilah had never been sure how to make sense of that.
“Come over here, Negroni,” she teased. “Let’s pick some new colors for the walls. Nothing wrong with sprucing things up.”
Summer in Vermont could make up for any shortcoming. When Delilah first visited with her family as a teenager, she knew she would need the place. Her parents spent the trip hating it, worrying at the windows of their rental cabin over bears and buck-toothed home invaders. Her sister dismissed the whole state before they even booked their stay, warning the family they’d be put in a zoo if they went out in public. And they did attract stares on the village green, and they did see Confederate flags billowing from passing pickup trucks, and they did not see another black family in the village or at the lake. But Delilah had seen worse in far uglier surroundings. What she had never experienced before, and what she would chase forevermore, was calm. A moment away from somebody’s plans and opinions. Roads that climbed away from town into nowheresville, the otherworldly destination that kids back home avoided like homework. Well it was good enough for Delilah. There was music in the mountains, and the lyrics never sucked. When you heard a gun going off, you didn’t assume it was ruining someone’s day. You could drive miles and miles, all damn night, without seeing a cop. And if you really just had to do something, there was, Delilah discovered, the city of Burlington. No bigger than a breadbox, if you asked Delilah’s mother, but Delilah often daydreamed of cutting down on bread.
After that first taste of Vermont, Delilah spent most summers working at a summer camp on Lake Champlain, where every night she watched the sky burn until it, the lake, and all the mountains melted together —poof, gone.
When she enrolled at UVM she was hardly the only Black student there, and the city opened up to her with every color and attitude she could imagine. She could dance herself sick with someone different every night and at dawn meet tomorrow’s victim on the beach. One night outside a Church Street bar, she watched a drifter stroll up to some kid staring at his phone and stab him in the neck. A mighty iron bolt ran through her spirit, pinned it to the earth.
In time Delilah’s father died, and the money he left her to spite his wife went toward a two-bedroom bungalow downtown with the medical student she’d met and kept. A blue-eyed, blond white man, handsome, and relatively nice. He seemed easy to please at first, but by the time Juno could talk Delilah must have worn out her welcome. All of the sudden her jokes weren’t funny, she watched too much TV, she didn’t scramble eggs right. So he moved across town, and they began trading Juno back and forth while her father tried again with a summery yoga instructor and herbalist. Delilah’s mother said it was because with Juno he could still be with a piece of Delilah, except the piece got to look white.
“Ugh—blue? We don’t play tennis, Juno.” Delilah’s index finger trailed down a crack in the wall like it would a distant lover’s spine. “I was thinking a nice red.”
“I don’t really like red.”
“Oh, sweetie, don’t say that… Red is one of the most beautiful colors out there.”
“It reminds me of blood, though.”
“Blood isn’t so bad. It’s salty. You like salt. And you wouldn’t have been born if I couldn’t bleed.”
An image gurgled up in Delilah’s mind: syrupy blood dripping from the ceiling to curtain the walls, and her body alone, engorged on the floor. She shut her eyes and turned away from the wall, and when she shook them open Juno was gone.
She had wandered over to the pile of crumbled cinderblocks and bricks by her corner.
“What could we put over here, Mama?”
“Where?” Delilah kept her eyes on the wall, pretending she hadn’t noticed.
“Right here. The pile—maybe we can clean it up. And put a pretty table there, or some big plants.”
“Oh, plants—yeah… We’d have our own little mountain.”
Delilah turned to scan the basement; she landed on last year’s snow tires, leaned up in a row against the opposite wall. She advanced on them, and while Juno looked on she rolled them one by one toward the stone pile. She stacked three on top of each other just beside the pile, and the fourth she balanced upright on top.
“There.” She smiled wide at Juno. “A tree. Just until we can get the real things.”
“What we need is a Persian rug. A super ugly one.”
Delilah and Juno faced each other crisscross-applesauce on the bare floor. Between them was a burning heap of Home Living and Bon Appétit.
“Daddy has a Persian rug.”
“Do you think he left it here?”
“…Has he texted you?”
“I don’t think so. He might have lost his phone. He does that all the time, doesn’t he? I bet war only makes worse.”
They were interrupted by a chiming from Delilah’s pocket. She sighed as she slid her phone out—she had forgotten to turn it off after listening to the radio earlier.
“I’m about ready to call the police up there and tell them to get you, Del. I don’t know how, but I will.”
“They’re very busy. How’s Mom?”
“She’s fine, she’s fine, I— …Do you even have food there?”
“And what’ll you do when it runs out?”
“I said ‘plenty.’” She hung up, rested the phone in her lap, and switched it to silent mode. “Aunt Diana says hi.”
Delilah stared down at the phone, forgetting to throw Juno a smile. She began tapping out a text message:
– Don’t ever call us again. I won’t pick up. Love you.
While Juno slept that night, Delilah told her neighbor what she had done.
“The police? So they can shoot you dead in self-defense? What will they see when they barge into that basement? A little white girl—Jewish, at best—cowering behind a mad, dirty Black woman. That’s all anyone ever sees, isn’t it? Your damn sister included. Well, I say good riddance. You certainly don’t want her talking to Juno anymore, it’s not good for a girl like that.”
“…What do you mean?” Delilah whispered. “A girl like that.”
“Oh, please, you know what—she’s a GMO. They need to hear consistent messaging. Or they’ll snap.”
“…Juno’s not a GMO.”
“Oh really? She may have come right from you and that cracker, but she’s just like the lab ones. She ain’t natural. Now I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that—but you’ve got to be careful around her. I hate to break it to you… Your sister may be a princess, but she’s right about one thing—half-devil doesn’t cut it in heaven.”
“…I’m going to sleep. Goodnight.”
Delilah gnashed in the dark. A GMO. Unbelievable—even her sister wouldn’t say something so dumb. Her mother might have—-she’d have said it just to toy with Delilah, then call her back in the middle of the night to say she couldn’t shake the thought, that something told her she was right. And what if she was? Delilah couldn’t be sure she’d ever met a GMO, but they couldn’t be much worse than regular people. Maybe being a GMO felt nice sometimes. Every one of them was created with a purpose. To be tireless, or brilliant, or ravishing, or survive their parents’ diseases. Whatever wrong in the world their creator saw fit to right. Must be nice. The only purpose Delilah ever heard for her creation was the same her mother would spit out for a stranger: “To praise the Lord and resist the White Devil.” And in her mother’s esteem, Delilah had already failed at both—Juno was the proof.
Delilah couldn’t tell you why she created Juno. But Juno had never asked. Most likely her dad already told her something unoriginal, and she figured the truth didn’t matter. Or maybe Juno already knew what Delilah took decades just to suspect. The truth does not exist. Even if the whole world wants you born, you still come out a screaming, gory, useless animal, your mother wounded and in mortal danger. If Juno were really a GMO, Delilah would have had the power to imbue her life with purpose. She would have chosen the purpose she used to believe was her own: to be loved.
Before the war, but not a moment too soon, Delilah brought Juno to New York for the first time, right to her mother’s door. At the bridge over Lake Champlain into Upstate New York they hit a road block and waited bumper to bumper for hours while staties enforced the new Governor’s cap on refugees. Delilah’s driver’s license passed inspection, and she answered the trooper’s questions politely enough to cross the border. Along the highways as they drove south, they passed signs of the nation’s unrest as reported in the news—travel centers along the highway gutted and boarded up, stretches of billboards tagged with swastikas, hate speech, messages of hope—but when they reached the city it was no different than Delilah remembered it. As her neighbor liked to predict, the sea level can’t rise higher than New York’s horse.
When Delilah and Juno arrived at the address her sister had relinquished, her mother answered the door and nearly scoffed, said, “Sorry ladies… I already did last call.” But they went inside anyway. The next hour of their lives didn’t matter too much. That’s how Delilah resolved to explain it to Juno until the day she, herself, had the reason pinned. Her mother had been cordial, lowering the volume of the TV to host them in the living room. Even a little kind, offering Juno, who had never tasted fast food before—banned in Vermont, Delilah explained—a bucket of chicken scraps, still warm. While Juno squirreled through the ragged wing bones and drumsticks, Delilah and her mother took it to the kitchen, where Delilah dropped the real bomb: She had come to beg. Not for forgiveness, or understanding, or anything her mother would have relished giving—for her home. The collectors wouldn’t stop calling for the mortgage, no matter how many times she told them to ask her ex-husband for it. To this Delilah’s mother sneered, “Oh, you can take my money, baby. So long as you don’t ever come back again.”
Afterward, Delilah took Juno to the zoo and lost track of her while staring at the elephants. Five minutes, maybe, it couldn’t have been more—but long enough for a small crowd to gather around a disturbance in the distance, down by the zebras. As Delilah ran she heard a steel shearing in the air—a child’s wail—and as she neared the crowd she recognized a small, bright mass emerging, bursting forth like a solar flare—Juno. They were brandishing her, offering her to passersby who shook their heads, refused her. Delilah galloped into the fray spitting, “That’s my daughter! Excuse me, that’s my daughter!” And as Juno reached out to her she reached back—but the white woman holding her recoiled. The crowd constricted. Delilah heard them asking softly, “Is that the truth? Is that your mama?” And she watched Juno blubber, cheeks glistening, complete gibberish.
Delilah woke in the morning to a bug in her ear. A high-pitched nag, just barely whining through her morning grogginess.
“Psst. Delilah—Delilah, wake up. It’s that daughter of yours, look what—”
Delilah opened her eyes, and she saw Juno in her corner with the phone to her ear. Her lips were moving.
In two bounds, Delilah unfurled from her pile of blankets and sweaters with her open palm cocked up like her mother’s, and she appeared across the room and swung it down against Juno’s cheek—an ember popped between them, and the phone clattered on the floor.
Delilah’s skin beat and crawled with heat. Eyes wide, she stared down at Juno with her muscles wound tight as the minute, just last summer, when she’d had to pull Juno from a carriage’s path in Central Park.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she blurted.
Juno cowered against the wall. “I was— …I was listening to the radio.”
“She’s a little liar, Delilah.”
“Oh, I know,” said Delilah.
Juno began to tremble against the wall, and tears boiled up in her eyes. She closed them. “I don’t— …” She choked on gurgling stones in her throat. “I—I want to leave, Mama, I don’t wanna be here anymore…”
The words raked Delilah. She crumbled to her knees and wrapped her arms around Juno, and she stared over her shoulder into the concrete wall.
The world she needed began to unfold from her skull: a fresh hardwood floor clapped into place over the concrete, and a crimson Persian rug alighted over it to match the slowly reddening walls. The dryer and washing machine became a clanky old turntable, maybe a jukebox glowing gently, too. Delilah’s pile of blankets took on the legs of an antique daybed, and the nearby sediments of rubble grew green until they were rubber plants and young Venus flytraps. The barricade and the beach buckets of piss and shit at the stairs could be a darkwood bar, well-stocked with top-shelf liquors, glass vases plump and bright with citrus, and a built-in ice cooler. A few stools would be tucked under its counter, and around the room would be small, round tables for intimate arrangements of four or so. And Juno really was right about the little stone pile in the corner—a few potted Norfolk Island pines, some Boston ferns and… and peace lilies, and it was better than Mount Mansfield.
“I told you that ‘Negroni’ was—”
“Lay off,” said Delilah.
Delilah uncoiled her arms from around Juno and swiped up the phone as she stood. “Are you hungry, miss thing?” she asked.
Now curled up and sniveling in her blankets, Juno wiped her eyes. “We only have three rice cakes left. And some peanut butter.”
“I heard that. Are you sure she’s not being a primadonna?”
“No, no, that’s— …I’ll just, uh… We’ll order some delivery.”
“Alright, hold on—you’ve got to think carefully now. Who do you trust? Besides little ol’ me.”
As a rule, Delilah avoided trick questions, but this one landed. Nearly knocked her breath out. As she trudged across the basement back to her corner, her mind tripped over thoughts of the few people possibly left in her life. The mailman, likely no more. Her few friends had all fled the city at the first evacuation order or earlier, and none cared to please her enough to let her have her way.
“What about that man you like to string along? The white boy—you and these crackers… Noah the contractor. He’s got big balls and no spine, doesn’t he?”
She held the phone up to her nose to smash out a text message.
– Hi. Where are you?
The reply came in seconds.
– Down at my parents house. They’re jarring preserves lol. Where are u?
– Safe with Juno. Can you bring us food?
– Where? Do u know when the supply trucks get there?
– We’re in my basement
– Huh? Why?
– Cuz my house is still sexy
– Don’t make me beat it up. How do I get past the checkpoints?
– Just have sex with the soldiers
– K. I’ll leave in the morning
New York’s presidential mansion was also featured in last month’s Architectural Digest. It was the same brick fogey that used to house the governor, but the new president had installed a bowling alley in the basement and an observatory in the south tower, and he had revived the old backyard zoo from the 1920’s. Delilah’s eyes traced the page captions over and over, but her mind was busy with the image of helmeted bears, ostriches, giraffes, and penguins marching the perimeter of the mansion while the president fucked her sister on a bowling lane.
Last night Delilah had dreamt of Juno thrashing and screaming on the floor. At the base of her neck, oozing at the spine, was a clumsy incision. Delilah straddled her back and held her down with one hand—in the other she gripped a blood-smeared shard of glass. She dropped the shard, and she plunged her fingers into the wound to dig and dig for whatever was buried there. A glinting chip, a wire to snap, some claw-footed chemical micro-pump. Through Juno’s screams and the grinding of teeth, she heard herself cooing an unintelligible nursery rhyme. She woke without finding whatever was in that wound, and guilt drove her to allow Juno two hours of radio time.
“…so no reinforcements from our friends the New England Federation, is what we’re hearing.”
“I don’t doubt it, Jane, though I would hope for better from our neighbors. You know it’s not an uncommon opinion that going it alone is what doomed us.”
“There is that old saying, ‘You can’t keep trouble from coming, but you don’t have to give it a chair—”
“Do you hear that, Delilah? That garbage you’re letting her listen to? I swear, if I—”
“Shut up, please,” Delilah murmured.
“Fine. But don’t think I don’t see you using up that magazine. Why don’t you go polish the cutlery for once?”
Delilah let her hands drift up from Architectural Digest, and she stared into her palms. They didn’t really seem all that dirty to her. But maybe they were. Everything else down here was filthy. She spat into each hand, and she began to rub the fluid deep into her arcane lines, up and down and between each finger, into her nails with the repetition of small circles.
“Mama! Mama there’s a text from Noah—he says he’s at the door! Can I go get him?”
Delilah lowered her clasped hands from her eyes, and there was Juno, standing by the greasy black remains of last night’s fire.
“I’ll get him. You just sit back down and listen to your radio.”
She laid her magazine on the floor, and cold rushed back into her lap. As she rose, the chill spread over her body and tightened, but she dragged on toward the stairwell’s dark.
The walls upstairs blared whiter than she remembered. She forced her eyes through the adjustment with recollections of the pride that followed every afternoon spent hunched at the walls to scrub away this or that offending mark. And the kitchen was as open house-ready as she always kept it, the living room and mud room, too. Delilah sailed through her wealth of proper placements and clever lines of sight, and she nearly forgot why she had come upstairs.
Feet away the front door rattled. Her blood thinned to a trickle—but it surged back, frothing, when she recalled Noah and food, promises, sex. She harried the locks and snatched at the doorknob, and a tall, dark figure swallowed up the doorway—she seized Noah into the house.
They embraced and did not kiss. Delilah’s eyes darted to his hands—just a paper bag, a small bag—and back to his eyes, which were sad marbles. He smiled to himself, like he was on the subway.
“…You really look like shit, Del.”
“My diet isn’t working?”
Noah held her remark with wasteful silence, and Delilah felt an unusual burning in her cheeks.
“Come on,” she said, “Somebody’s hungry.”
She snatched up Noah’s empty hand and led him toward the basement. In the kitchen he pulled back, and Delilah bore her fidgets so he could awe.
“Man… Looks like you haven’t been eating the mice, at least.”
“Mice? No way—where?”
“Um… Everywhere? Well, that’s where their shit is. Maybe they’re out grocery shopping.”
Delilah let her hand throttle the knob of the basement door as she eyed Noah and ground her teeth. “Nice try,” she said.
Noah’s boots paddled the concrete as he advanced toward Juno.
“Isn’t it quiet? What happened to the radio? Juno’s too good for it all the sudden? I can just imagine what she might have done while you left her down here, who she could have called… Do you really trust her? You don’t have to, you know.”
Delilah watched from her spot by the washing machine as Noah crouched in front of Juno. They exchanged inaudible whispers as he removed a wrapped sandwich from the bag, long and white in wax paper. When he stood up he bent himself into a bow, and he turned to thud back to Delilah. “So… I got you the usual.”
He sat down in front of Delilah with another wrapped sandwich in one hand—his other was crumpling the bag into a ball. When he slid the food into her lap, she went pale and grimaced. “Thank you,” she said. “Should I help you get all the food you left in your car?”
“This is all I brought, Del.”
She dug her shoulder blades into the washing machine. “…If I only eat one bite a day will it last till we win the war?”
“You’re supposed to eat the whole thing now. Or in the car. There’ll be plenty of food later. I’m taking you and Juno to my parents’ house.”
“Oh, they finally signed over the deed to me?”
“I’m serious. I’m not leaving here without you two.”
“…I’m sorry, Delilah. I wasn’t quite expecting that either. He’s been pretty good lately, after all. I guess we can give him more benefit of the doubt, if you like. But that’s how they get you, you know.”
“We’re not going anywhere. I’m serious. Dude.”
“Fuck, Del—why are you doing this? Do you think you’ll be safe when they bomb the shit outta your house? Half the city’s burning—dead.”
Over Noah’s shoulder, Delilah saw her daughter glance up from the sandwich in her hands. She watched her tired chewing until all she could see were the hollows in her cheeks. “Quiet down, please.”
“No! I’m not letting you do this to yourself!” Noah spread his arms wide enough to bearhug. “What about Juno? You’re gonna let her go through this lunatic shit when she could’ve been safe and clean and healthy somewhere weeks ago? You guys look like coal miners. It’s freezing as fuck in here, and it smells like a septic tank, it fucking reeks. And I don’t know what you were trying to pull in the kitchen, but you know the whole place is full of mouse holes and covered in their shit!” His open hands shrank into shuddering fists, but he reigned his arms back in. He tried to nuzzle Delilah’s shins with his knuckles. “I’m not bringing any more food, I can’t… I’m getting you out of here. I’m sorry, but that’s final. Final.”
“Oh, it’s final, I see now… Did you hear that, Delilah? That man is dropping F-bombs on your daughter. Is that how they talk around children where he’s trying to take you?”
Juno tried to become as small as possible as she watched her mother breathe over the stone pile. She had seen Delilah count long breaths through crises in the past, but these now were dagger short and jabbed inward over and over, the kind of breathing Juno had only seen from frantic women losing control of their wombs on TV hospital beds. She hoped it would pass if she kept still and silent—but she heard Noah’s careless boots thudding across the room.
“Time to get out of here, Juno,” Noah whispered. “Go upstairs and get what you need. I’ll meet you up there with your mom.”
Juno had only just passed the black well of the fire pit when she heard a grunt. The room rattled, she turned. On the floor, facedown, Noah gurgled into a dark puddle. Delilah knelt beside him, a cinderblock cocked over her head.
She swung it downward and Juno looked away, she closed her eyes—she heard a terrible sound. Dull and stupid and wet.
Then quiet ballooned in her ears. The darkness in her eyes wriggled and jumped, alive with rashes of faint color. In time, through the haze, her mother’s voice returned, muttering.
“Look at this red… Look at this. It’s all wrong. It’s—oh, come on… Red walls. Guess we’ll just be red then, sure… Juno? Come lend Mama a hand.”
Desmond Saunders Peeples’ writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Big Bridge, Past-Ten, Goreyesque, and elsewhere, and they write regularly for the Vermont Arts Council. They are the founding editor of Mount Island, a literary magazine for rural LGBTQ+ and POC voices. They hold degrees from Goddard College and Vermont College of Fine Arts. Desmond was born and lives still in Vermont. Learn more at desmondpeeples.com.
Featured image by Steve Johnson on Unsplash