Written Autumn 2018; this draft finished July 30, 2020
by Kevin Trickey
“Oh, Henry,” cooed Billa Taft, running her wrinkled hands through her seven-year-old’s brown hair. “I’m sorry, penguin, it’s hard for all the parents these days, I’m sure something important came up.”
“But Max said he’d come,” cried Henry, “and Jimmy too, he said he wouldn’t miss it. I just wanted to show them our house, Momma.”
Not much of a house to see, Billa, thought, glancing around the flaking walls of their apartment. The other families probably had similar places in similar grey canister buildings. Still, it was home to Henry. The orange HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner she’d bought yesterday was strung hopefully by Henry’s Apollo 13 and ISS posters, but Billa knew that Jimmy and Max’s promises were worthless without their parents’ blessings. Which they didn’t have, it seemed.
In truth, the same thing had happened last year. No matter what the young playmates told each other at school, parents simply wouldn’t take their children out at night anymore. The only people Henry got to talk to outside of school were the nice couple next door—university professors, or something—and the yeast-delivery man, who sometimes stopped in to say hello or offer Henry some interesting spaceship-shaped stone he’d found along the way.
She looked sadly at Henry. Of course she didn’t subscribe to all the rumors going around about Reaper, as if the grim guy himself was following them around. But she was just superstitious enough to wonder, in times like these, at the stories her son brought home from school—bedridden parents, coughing up “Reaper” itself; feverish premonitions of death; dogs and cats driven rabid, going mad at their owners.
Senseless fearmongering—she thought—despicable, really—as poor Henry sobbed in her lap. Billa attributed those stories to poor nourishment and feeble rations, and a hefty dose of exaggeration. She wished the public might focus on that: Reaper frightened, but starvation killed.