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Fantasticoe 2010 Contents
Family Recipe

Courtney Marti

They told us the war was over.

They lied.

My brother says the government is to blame. He says if only they would listen to us, we would regain everything we've lost in the past four years. If only they would hear us, then we would be free.

Bullshit. We will never be free.

I keep my head down as I step carefully past the guard. He could be one of our guards, or he could be the enemy's. I can't tell, and I don't care to know. Neither one is my friend. So I don't look. I walk with purpose, head down, eyes glued to my brown-toed boots as they clip-clop over the dirty pavement of the alleyway. Maybe if I keep moving and don't look, I will be invisible.

Please, God, don't let him stop me. Let me go. Please, just let me go.

"You there," barks the husky voice of the soldier.

I stop.

"Where do you think you're going?" he sneers.

"To the infirmary, sir," I respond, keeping my eyes down. The concrete walls that line the street seem to shrink around me. "I have to get some medicine for my brother."

"Not today, you don't."

"Please." My voice doesn't waver. Mustn't show weakness. "He's very sick."

"What was that?" he snarls. Suddenly he's right next to me, his hot breath snorting anger into the side of my face.

"Please, sir." My pulse thumps in my chest.

"That's better," he leers. A shiver runs up my neck as his hand creeps up my back and into my hair. "All you have to do is be nice, kitten." My spine turns to steel as he caresses my scalp. His fingers tangle in my disheveled hair, and he wrenches my head back to look me in the face. I do not cry out.

He is ugly. A tomato nose pins back the thin smile, and black stubble prickles across the lower half of his face. His dark hair is cropped short enough to make his oversized ears seem out of place. I don't look into his piercing eyes. I avoid the fire that bores into my soul and stare at a pimple on his wide forehead.

Don't look. Don't look. Stiffen your lip. Clench your teeth. Dig your fingernails into your palms. But whatever you do, don't look.

"Look at me," he commands sternly.

No.

"Look at me!" He yanks the fistful of hair down, making my neck crack and my head bob pathetically.

No. I won't look.

"Look at me, you little bitch!" he yells, his foul breath swimming up my nostrils and making my head spin.

My pupils dart toward his eyes, glaring, penetrating. Hating. Hating him and hating everything to do with this stupid war that no one understands. He spits in my eye, and I gasp, falling to the ground. I paw frantically at my eyes as the toe of his boot meets my ribcage. My lungs pinch with the sting of his kick, and I curl into a ball on the narrow street. I can't see, can't breathe. His foot lashes out again, this time at the side of my head. My face grinds against the pavement, and my mind swims with pain as I try to shake away the dizziness. He pulls me up by the shoulders and slams me against the wall of the alley. And all at once, he's on me like a hungry dog, his raw tongue running up my cheek. His strong chest pins me to the wall as his hands go for my skirt. The skirt goes up, and his zipper goes down.

Don't look. Just don't look.

He clamps a hand over my mouth, and I struggle in vain to break free of his hold. My tiny hands thump against his back again and again, but I know there is no point in resisting. He'll get what he wants from me one way or the other.

When he savagely plunges himself into me, my skin rips, and warm blood runs freely down my legs. He doesn't seem to notice; he just presses me into the wall that much harder, squeezing all the air out of my lungs. Every time I exhale he pushes closer, and my lungs cannot fill up again. Tighter, harder, and it hurts. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts.

My feet dangle slightly above the ground; the hand cupped around the lower half of my face holds me up. The world spins and begins to lose color, and I feel myself tilting blindly into unconsciousness.

Something wet and foul-smelling slaps me in the face, and I am wrenched back into reality with a gasp. I blink mud out of my eyes and look up at the guard standing above me. His cruel eyes have lost none of their luster. If anything, they burn more brightly, like he sucked every ounce of strength from my body and used it to bolster his warped sense of entitlement. He bends down, almost to my level, and I shy away in fear. He just snickers.

"Get out of here," he says, his eyes mocking me.

"Please, sir," I weep openly, "Please-"

"Did you hear me?" he barks. "I said, get out of here!"

"My brother," I choke, shrinking into the ground, "He needs, I have to- medicine, please, I just need-"

I reach for him, hoping to find some compassion beyond my fingers, but he slaps my hand away. Grabbing my hair, he pulls me to my feet. My eye is an inch away from his, and I see no compassion blinking back at me. Just sick pleasure and anger.

"Get out of here." He throws me back in the gutter.

I try to pull myself off the ground, but my gut seizes up, and I fall sideways into the wall of the alley. I use a crack in the wall to pull myself upright, but the best I can do is lean into it for support and drag myself along, staining the concrete with my blood. The fingers of my right hand clutch my damp, red skirt as the ones of my left scrape against the wall, opening new scratches on my hands.

All the while, the guard watches with a perverse expression. There is nothing behind those eyes. There isn't a human being inside that head, just a pointless war. Just the intent to cause pain. He blocks the way to the infirmary, to the medicine that will save my brother. Josef is dying. If I don't bring the medicine back to him, he won't live through the night. And I cannot get to the medicine. I cannot save him. A wave of dizziness washes over me, and I vomit onto my own shoes. The watery paste mixes with my blood and leaves a sour trail back to the one-room cube I call my house.

The house is an unadorned block of concrete with a doorframe set into one side. Two steps lead from the dirt-strewn street to the gaping hole of a door. We used to keep a curtain over the opening, but it doesn't matter because the cold brushes it aside anyway. There is no grass; only upturned dirt lines the front of the house and steadily creeps up the steps. To the right of the steps is a fire pit with an iron grate and a pile of damp wood, but it has been long since we used them for cooking. Our neighbors' houses stand flush against ours like shivering birds desperate to share body heat; no one lives there anymore though, just us.

I stumble through the doorframe to where my mother leans over the stiff body of my younger brother, covered in the only two ratty blankets we own. I can smell him before I even enter the stuffy room; he has soiled himself. The smell intensifies as it meets the stench of my vomit-covered shoes. I don't bother taking them off as I fall to the stone floor next to my mother. She sobs into her hands, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet. Her thin fingers weave through her unkempt, black hair, and her skin hangs loosely from her bones, brittle from lack of nutrition. She doesn't even look up as I crawl toward Josef.

I place a clammy hand to Josef's sweating forehead. He is burning from the inside; the fever rushes into my fingers as if it were alive. I shakily curl his drenched hair behind his ear and stroke his cheek, leaving streaks of blood across his pale face.

"I tried, Joe." My face scrunches in pain, and tears swell in my still stinging eyes. "I tried to get it for you, but I couldn't."

My mother's wail grows louder.

"I'm sorry," I whisper, touching my forehead to his as I kiss his vacant expression. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."

"Josef!" Mother chokes on her son's name. "Josef, don't you leave me! Don't you leave me here alone!"

He does not respond, nor do I. We are both gone from her mind along with all concept of reality. I want to scream, to shake her and tell her to wake up, but I am the invisible daughter; mother hasn't even said my name since Josef got sick. She is alone in her own mind, and as much as I've tried, I cannot penetrate the chaos in her unwinding head. I've pleaded. I've cried. I've sobbed at her feet, begging her to be my mother again, to love me again, but she doesn't even notice. She doesn't even recognize me. I am a stranger to her.

Josef's eyes glaze over as he stares unseeingly at the ceiling.

"No, no!" Mother wails, snot pooling in her throat and warbling her voice. "Don't leave me alone- no, not, please..." She gasps lungfuls of air, but the air catches in her throat. A horrible noise, like a belching pot of stew boiling over, escapes her lips as she inhales. She drags his limp figure to her breast, crying "no" over and over and cradling him like a baby, but he still says nothing.

He is already dead.

They made Josef fight for our country. They made him stand proudly at the frontline until the enemy's chemical bombs infected his lungs, until the scent of the dead drove him mad. The radio said he should be proud to be Chosen. They said it was his destiny.

But Josef wasn't proud when he stood next to the other Chosen Boys, waiting to be incinerated. Josef wasn't proud when the other fourteen year-olds were shot down at his side. Josef wasn't proud when the virus spread through the army camp like gas, killing off those who survived the battles. Josef wasn't proud. He was afraid.

My brother will not have a funeral. It is illegal to bury a boy of Josef's age; the laws of our country say we cannot give him a proper burial until he is legally an adult. They will take his body from us and burn it. The scientists that work for the government have figured out a way to turn ashes into gunpowder, and they have a constant supply of underage soldiers to provide it. They planned it this way. After all, the Chosen Boys are all under the age of eighteen.

I cannot let them turn Josef into a bomb.

I am curled into a fetal ball in the corner of the house. My entire body has not stopped aching since I met the guard in the street, but my stomach hurts more than everything else combined. The bleeding eventually stopped, but my skirt is still crusted with dry blood. I can feel my pulse in my own gut, and every time my heart beats I feel like I might die. Sometimes I scream in pain as the knife-like sharpness courses through my body, but there is no one there to hear me. Mother doesn't even flinch.

It seems like it's been days since Josef died even though I know it's only been a few hours, and mother hasn't stopped holding him since. She mutters his name over and over and stares blankly into space, stroking his greasy hair. When I cry out for her, she just goes on rocking my brother in her arms. I scream her name, but she doesn't hear me.

What am I going to do? What if I get pregnant? I need my mother more than anything else in the world. I need her to rock me in her arms and tell me it will be ok. I need her to tell me that I'll be fine and that the war will be over soon. I need my mother to tell me she loves me.

But she only cares for Josef's dead body.

If she doesn't let him go, they will find out and take him. They will burn him and turn him into a weapon. My screams and the scent of his dead body will be enough to draw the guards, and I know it won't be long before they find us. I cannot let them take him, so I crawl across the floor toward my mother.

"Mother," I say softly, "I need to take Joe somewhere safe."

"Here is safe..." she whispers, clutching him closer to her chest. This is the first time she has spoken to me in days.

"No it isn't. They can find him here. I know a place where no one will ever get him."

"No." She shakes her head violently. "No, no, no, no, no."

"Please, Mother," I beg her, "we have to get him out of here. You don't want them to take him away, do you?"

"No, no, no."

"Then let me hide his body."

"NO!" She screams. "YOU MONSTER! I WILL NOT LET YOU TAKE HIM FROM ME!"

Her arm appears out of nowhere and collides with the bridge of my nose, throwing me backward. I land on my bruised knee with a yelp, and tears well in my eyes. I wipe at my nose, which has started to bleed, and staunch the flow with my sleeve, staring at Mother in shock. She has never hit me before. She screams and screams, thrashing about the house. Her head smashes against the wall, only causing her to wail all the more at the pain that springs up in her temple.

Who is that woman? 

She isn't my mother. She is just a scream in my head, and they are going to hear her. They will hear her and take Josef. I pull my aching body off the floor and club her over the head with the heel of my dirty shoe. She crumples to the floor, and the screams immediately cease.

I grasp my brother's limp arm and drag him to the corner of the room. A spigot is positioned about a foot off the ground in the corner, and beneath it are a few pots, pans, and eating utensils. My fingers close around the rough handle of the butcher knife, and I yank it from the small pile. It is dull, but it's the only knife we have. I bite down on the blade to free my hands, and I pull Josef outside with me. Tears stream freely from my eyes; he is heavy, and my stomach cannot handle the weight. It is a slow process, but I eventually heave his body over the front stoop and into the dirt.

The wood in the fire pit outside our door is still damp, but somehow I manage to get a small fire going; I have to work quickly before someone smells the smoke. I limp back inside to retrieve our biggest pot, checking my mother to make sure she is still unconscious. She doesn't stir, but her chest rises and falls with each belabored breath, absolutely silent. After securing the pot, I fill it with water from the spigot in the corner. Sewer water gurgles into the bottom of the pot with a sick splattering noise, and after what seems like a lifetime it is finally full.

I heave the pot outside, splashing a bit of the sewage onto the steps as I go. It takes all the muscle I have to lift it onto the grate over the fire. Gasping for breath, I fall to my knees and try to throw up, but my stomach is empty. Once the dry heaves stop, I turn back to Josef's body. With one hand I raise the knife and with the other I turn my brother's face away, so I don't have to look into those empty eyes. So he doesn't have to watch me do this.

I take aim and squeeze my eyes shut as I swing the blade downward.

Mother doesn't ask where I got the stew. She scoops spoonful after spoonful into her mouth, hardly noticing as it dribbles down her chin and onto her lap. I don't blame her, I guess. It's been a week since we had anything to eat. The government stopped giving out rations about a month ago, and it didn't take long for everyone else to run out of food for us to steal. This meal is heavenly to our starving bellies.

I eat slowly, trying and failing not to think. All that flashes through my mind is Josef. All I can think about is the time when we were little, and Mother told us what a great life we would have. She said we were lucky that technology had come so far, andwe would be the generation that lived in space instead of on Earth. Josef loved space. He wanted to take to the heavens right then and there and was angry when Mother told him we couldn't go yet. He didn't understand, just kept saying, "But Mama, we have to stay together, and I'm going to space." I open my mouth to ask if my mother remembers Josef saying that, but I think better of it.

It isn't until Mother lifts the pot to her lips to suck out the last drop of stew that she even stops to take a breath. She licks her swollen lips, but it doesn't prevent the drool from seeping out the corner of her mouth. Her flat eyes stare blankly as her mouth hangs open, and she makes no effort to close it.

She doesn't even ask what I did with his body. She has already forgotten