Ernesto

The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Worlds of Ruin: A Literary Celebration of Apocalyptic Science Fiction. Please enjoy.

Earth was growing colder. Wind, rain, and snow cast the world in a gray existence. Seasons evolved to cold, icy, frigid, and arctic.

Whenever there was a break in the cold it was rapid and dramatic. If and when the temperatures rose, the floods arrived, sending people scrambling to the mountain ranges in the middle. That’s where most people lived. That’s where Manuela and Humberto ended up after Hurricane Helix destroyed their home in Jersey City. That’s when they lost their baby.

He was only six months old. The waters rose too quickly. A tidal wave came crashing in through the windows. The wave carried little Ernesto away in his basket—his wails echoing down the darkened streets.

That January night it had snowed over six feet. Ice crept up the side of the house. Icicles hung from the gutters. Manuela and Humberto moved to the first floor with the baby where it was warmer. They were expecting more snow.

“Keep the baby close,” Manuela said as she made up the couch with sheets from the bedroom. Her movements were slow and stiff from the multiple layers of clothing she wore.

“He needs to be close to the heat,” Humberto replied. He placed rolled up towels at the edge of the door and the window frames. He moved to seal the windows with large plastic sheets. Ernesto cooed and gurgled snuggled up in his basket. His pink, chubby cheeks stood out against the thick brown baby coat that covered him from head to toe.

“I’m his heat,” Manuela replied. She took the baby in her arms. She held him close. She removed her thick, wool wrap to expose her chest and slept with Ernesto nestled against her chest. His ear lightly pressed against her soft skin, he fell asleep to the sound of her heartbeat.

Humberto checked the heat. The temperature outside had dropped to -50 degrees Fahrenheit. He added more wood to the wood-burning stove in the center of the living room and hoped it would be enough to last them through the night.

When he walked over to the couch he found Manuela and Ernesto fast asleep. He stared at the two of them and listened to the soft sounds they made. Manuela let out a low rumbling snore. Ernesto sucked on his thumb.

“Tomorrow we leave,” he whispered under his breath. “Tomorrow we’ll head west. We can’t stay here.”

He was the reason they had stayed behind while most families on his block moved away. He was convinced the extreme weather was temporary — a fluke, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. He believed the climate change naysayers who cited false scientific reports claiming the icy temperatures and raging storms happened once every thousand years.

Manuela insisted they move even before the temperatures dropped but then she became pregnant. She didn’t want to be far from her parents–so they stayed.

Humberto leaned over Manuela and Ernesto and kissed them both on the cheek. He piled more blankets on and held them both tight.

At 3 a.m. a deep silence had settled over the neighborhood. The power had gone out. Darkness reigned. Embers glowed as the fire died in their wood-burning stove.

The baby shifted, cried. Humberto got up to rekindle the fire. Manuela felt Ernesto’s head. He was hot. She removed his coat and peeled off a number of his layers. He kicked up his bare feet and grabbed onto his toes. She placed him in his basket then walked over to the kitchen to heat his milk. Along the way she removed her own coat and her long, wool gown. Her undershirt stuck to her skin. She was bathed in sweat.

The house felt warmer, even hot. The temperatures had risen dramatically again. This was something they could never get used to—extreme changes from cold to hot and hot to cold from one month to the next.

A noise rose up from the basement, almost like metal splitting, the seams of the earth coming apart. The basement door moaned.

When the waters rushed in Manuela ended up pinned under the door, the baby’s bottle in her hand. Humberto, just a foot away, reached for her first grabbing her wrist—not letting go. He pulled her along as he swam toward the baby. They heard his muffled cries somewhere near the surface. The windows splintered. Bits of furniture and objects flew around them as they were both swept up and out of the house carried on the strong current. As they surfaced, Humberto pulled Manuela up onto floating debris. In a flash of light, she caught sight of the baby’s basket just a few feet away from her, his bare feet sticking out, he floated along just as they did.

His cries reached her ears and broke her heart.

“Ernesto!” Manuela screamed as she reached for him. Humberto held onto her as they nearly collapsed back underwater. He gave her a panicked look as they lost sight of the baby in the darkness.

When the waters receded Humberto and Manuela found themselves on an entrance ramp for route 80. Debris, garbage, dirt and bodies littered the highway. Some of those bodies came to life. Manuela saw a hand surface from a pile of rags. Shoeless feet kicked at the air.

Manuela and Humberto searched. Ernesto? They flipped over a soaked mattress. Ernesto? They climbed over splintered tables. Ernesto? They looked inside abandoned cars. Ernesto? They asked a bearded, bleeding man in rags. Ernesto?

Manuela wailed. “Ernesto!”

As she picked her way through pile after pile of debris she paused when she caught sight of a brown baby coat. A small foot stuck out at one end. But when she looked closely and pulled the foot close she saw it belonged to an old life-sized doll. The doll was covered in grime. Manuela brushed the dirt off its face. She closed her eyes and held the doll in her arms.

“Ernesto.”

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