Just before nightfall, we began to make our way out of the city.
Snaking our way through the ruined canyons, we kept close to the shadows, alert to the sounds of gunfire in the distance.
The continual gunfire made her nervous. “What do you think will happen if they find us, Joe?”
“Let’s not think about that now,” I whispered, “Let’s just concentrate on not getting caught.”
She looked down at her feet, and I saw a flicker of pain pass across her eyes. “How’re you holding up?” I asked.
She gave a thin smile, “I’m OK, I guess. I just don’t like being out like this. It’s kind of scary.”
I took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “It won’t be long now,” I said, just a few more blocks until we’re out of the city.
Even though the gunfire grew ever fainter, there were other sounds in the night that kept us both on edge.
The skitterings of rats among the rubble, moans coming from God only knew where. Voices echoing down the alleyways.
A night gallery of terrors that only grew more threatening the closer we got to safety.
“Where do you think we are we now?” she asked.
In the dark, it was near impossible to say. “Almost out,” I said, “We’ll have to find a safe place to lay up soon.”
As the morning light rose, once familiar shapes began to emerge from the night.
Staring hard at the buildings before us, I kept an eye out for movement that might signal danger.
Sensing none, we moved forward carefully, checking the remaining standing structures for a place to hole up for the day.
Finding a small shed with a sturdy door, we moved in and set up our pitiful camp.
“You should get some sleep,” I told her, “You need to keep your strength up so we can make it to the country.”
She lowered herself gingerly onto the bedroll and within a minute or two was fast asleep, snoring softly.
I watched over her for a bit, marveling at her ability to sleep so soundly under such harsh conditions.
God knows it’d been six months or more since I’d seen a decent night’s sleep.
Opening the backpack, I set out the handful of supplies that would serve for our supper. Not much, to be sure.
Once satisfied that things were arranged as efficiently as possible, I propped my weight against the door and tried to doze.
The dreams came again: riots and fires and a voice screaming at me to take her to safety; to take her west into the forest.
I woke to her hand pressing a cool cloth to my forehead, wiping the sweat and tears away. “Another one?” she said. I nodded.
She lay her hand on the side of my face and gave me a smile. “Come on,” she said, “I’ve made us something to eat.”
We ate in silence – much as we always did these days – waiting for the light to fall and the time to begin moving again.
When it grew sufficiently dark, I helped her get to her feet, then sat about packing up our stuff.
Moving out yet again, we made out way through the darkened streets, taking comfort in a newfound silence not heard in the city.
The buildings were thinning out now, and for the first time in a year or more we felt the spongy feel of grass beneath our feet.
“Can you smell it?” she asked, “Can you smell the soil and the leaves?”
I took a deep breath, inhaling the aroma of the fertility around us. Its richness was overwhelming. We were so close now.
By daylight we had reached the edge of the forest, and a great weight lifted from my shoulders.
“Almost there,” I said, smiling, “We’ve made it through the hardest part. Now to get you a place to rest.”
She placed her hands on her hips and arched her back forward. “And not a moment too soon,” she said, “My back is killing me.”
“Do you need to rest?” I asked, “If you need to lie down, we can find a spot close by.”
She laughed. “You’re very thoughtful,” she said, “I knew there was a good reason I married you.”
“Ah, don’t you be teasing me…” I started, only to see the sparkle in her eyes darken to a look of sudden pain.
“Ugh,” she grunted, “You know, on second thought, maybe it would be a good idea to lie down for a bit.”
I stepped forward quickly to take her by the arm and guide her to a fallen log to sit.
As I eased her down I noticed that she was breathing a little more quickly, and was warmer to the touch than usual.
“I’ll be all right in a second,” she said, “I just need to catch my breath. Can you get me something to drink?”
I rummaged through the backpack and found the little pink child’s cup she liked to drink from.
Filling it from the canteen, I handed it to her and watched carefully as she took a few sips. “Any better?” I asked.
She took another deep breath, then smiled up at me. “Much better,” she said, “But is it okay if we sit here just a bit longer?”
I nodded, and sat down beside her to throw an arm around her shoulder so that she could lean against me to rest.
“We’ll need find some shelter soon,” she said, “I don’t think I can walk very much further.”
I rubbed my hand up and down against her back. “I know,” I said, “Just a little more.”
After a few minutes she felt good enough to walk again, so I helped her up and we continued onward.
After a few more hours, the forest began to thin and we found ourselves at the edge of a large misty field.
Again on alert, we made our way around the fringe of the field, keeping close to the brush should danger arise.
Finally, through a gap in the mist we found what we were looking for.
Leaving her at the edge of the wood, I did a quick check to make sure the house was deserted before waving her over.
I could tell she was having difficulty now – her steps were shorter, and her breathing much shallower.
“I think my water just broke,” she said.
I ushered her into the house as quickly as possible and immediately eased her down while I set about arranging the bedrolls.
Once they were ready, she moved over to lay down, propping her head against the back-pack as I helped her shed her clothes.
“Does it hurt very much?” I asked, rubbing her hands between mine. “Do you need some more water?”
“It’s not bad yet,” she said, “There’s still some time yet. But yes, I could use some water.”
As the light fell, I found a candle in our belongings and placed it in an old lamp by the doorframe.
It wasn’t much, but it was enough to see by, and it’s golden glow bestowed the illusion of warmth upon our nativity.
For the next couple of hours we waited. As my nerves frayed to shreds, Mary’s pains came closer and closer together.
Of course, she sensed my distress – she always could – and as each wave passed she gave my hand a squeeze and tried to smile.
“Do you have any idea how much I love you?” she asked at one point. “Do you know how much you mean to me?”
I nodded. “And do you know how much you mean to me?” I asked, “Do you know how much I love you?”
Taking my hands in hers, she placed one on her breast, and the other between her legs.
“It’s time, husband,” she said, and as she pushed I felt the head of our child come forth into a ruined and hopeful world.
~~ THE END ~~