The Fall

Amelia, March 28, 2236
480 Kilometers from Carthage, NY

This last bit of stolen concealer would not last much longer. She dabbed the paste on two pinkish dots just outside the bridge of her nose, spread it outward, and worked it in until she was satisfied that no one but her could see them.

The first time she saw them a few months ago she tried washing them off, scrubbing at them with every kind of soap she could find in the compound, but they stubbornly remained just where they were. Something about them seemed so very foreign on her otherwise perfectly white skin that she was too frightened to tell anyone, even Laurel. And then one morning she simply woke up knowing exactly what they were: marks of impurity, an indication that something was wrong with her genes, her DNA, the very thing that made her and all the other girls here so valuable.

Of course she’d known what they were for as long as she’d been at the compound, which was exactly as long as she could remember herself, but just like all the other things she knew, these bits of knowledge surfaced like memories only when they were needed. She couldn’t control when they appeared anymore than she could erase the marks from her cheeks.

Stealing more of the concealer from the loft of the woman whose job it was to teach the girls how to apply makeup was risky, but she knew that the woman was not due to arrive for another three weeks, and nobody else had any business going up to the very last story of the compound, this dusty place right below the beams of the roof.

She found it by chance on one of her before sunup explorations of the place, something she did every time she couldn’t sleep, which happened more and more frequently of late. She took the stairs all the way up, two at a time, until she finally collapsed into this vast, empty space. It was hot and smelled the way she imagined a tree would smell on the inside, although she’d never seen one up close. The windows overlooking the yard were coated by a film of oily dust, and she felt compelled to draw patterns on them, but the thought of someone discovering her presence in this new hideaway kept her hands firmly behind her back.

Standing at the window now, she watched the birds flit above the wall of the compound and disappear on the other side. The side where all things were dangerous. The side where the people were genetically off. The side where those who killed her parents and the parents of all the other girls lived. As she watched what now popped into her mind as definitely a sparrow bounce on the aged stones, a body suddenly flung itself, or was flung by someone, over the wall. As it landed with a thud she couldn’t hear, she instantly calculated the chances of survival at 9.27%.

She knew it would be at least another hour until the first of the residents woke up to do their morning chores, and that Drake was likely asleep up in that cozy cabin he made for himself at the top of the watch tower. No one has ever broken into this place in all the years she has been here.

The lawn would have muffled the sound of the fall some.

Intending to wake the mistress, she raced down to the fourth floor where the staff were housed in their luxurious rooms with private baths and actual maids, dark and slender mutes who moved in and out of the shadows of the compound. Something in her hesitated. She knew what the protocol called for: raise the alarm, wake up the mistress, and in case of an actual invasion by Zoriners, grab one of the stun guns located in the alcoves throughout the compound, five meters apart, and use it for personal protection while the adults handle the rest. Instinctively, she reached into the closest alcove and pulled down a slick, gray weapon. It buzzed softly and felt warm to the touch, although it looked like it was made of metal, and she recalled just now that metal is supposed to feel cold.

She went past where the mistress was, following the stairs all the way to the bottom and raced outside towards the dark form splayed out by the wall, its arms akimbo, a tangle of dark hair covering the face. It looked Zorin. It also looked young. She stopped, breathless, just out of lunging distance of the lifeless body, had it been alive and capable of lunging for her. Staring at the torn shirt and streaks of blood covering what little she could see of its flesh, she could tell it was definitely a boy. Moments later, she could see that it was definitely breathing.

Stifling a scream, she jumped back a full meter and pointed the stun gun at the form as it tried to rise. And now it did, standing, shakily, staring back at her. The eyes were enormous brown circles that looked directly into her gray ones.

Nothing in her memory vault was helping her figure out what to do now. She aimed the buzzing weapon at his chest and waited. She could hear him breathing, hard, probably from the pain. They seemed to simply stare at each other, transfixed, for ages. Finally, he took a step forward and calmly took her gun-holding hand in his, moving her aim a little to the left, and pressed his chest to the barrel. He was still staring into her eyes, but it was entirely unlike that time Laurel stared at her when they were wrestling and she almost broke her arm. Laurel, who was too proud to beg for mercy, had looked at her with so much pain that she immediately let go and swore never to fight again. He wasn’t looking at her like that at all.

“Can’t remember which button to press?” His voice was soft, quiet.

He slowly raised his hand and put it on top of hers. Squeezing gently, he moved her index finger under the arch protecting the trigger, and the buzzing of the gun got louder. Suddenly, she was deathly afraid. Afraid that he would press the trigger. She jerked her hand down and threw the safety back on. The buzzing died.

“If you don’t do this, they might,” he said softly, pointing to the other side of the fence with his head, “so shoot me or help me get into the compound. You can do with me what you will afterwards. I’m in no state to run at the moment.” He said it flatly, quietly, as if he really didn’t care what she’d do.

She couldn’t shoot him. She knew that much.

“Can you walk?” she whispered.

He nodded. She turned around and started back toward the buildings. He walked with a slight limp, but was moving as quickly as she was. It only took a few minutes to get inside, but there was no way he’d be able to make it up all those stairs before the compound woke up.

As if he could tell what she was thinking, he approached the staircase leading up to the loft, “How many?”

“1,238 steps,” she replied.

He nodded and started up without looking at her. When she pulled up, exhausted, to the top landing and peeked into the loft, she could see a figure in the semi darkness hunched in front of a large mirror. His shirt was off and he was scrutinizing a multitude of oddly shaped scrapes and bruises on his flesh. There was so much blood and dirt and so much purple everywhere. She wanted to turn away, feeling sick to her stomach and a little embarrassed. He saw her in the mirror, but silently kept at his task as if she wasn’t there. His jaw was clenched and his breathing became strained when he touched something as he assessed the damage.

She remembered now that she had medical knowledge, if not training per se. If anything was broken, she’d likely know what to do to help fix it. But how could she tell this stranger, a boy likely born to the people who killed her people, that she wanted to help? How do you approach someone who had held your hand with the gun against his own chest, not caring if you pulled the trigger?

She turned her face away from the blood and waited. She heard him run the water at the sink, and after a while, heard him put his shirt back on. Now she could look at him again.

He turned around and looked her in the eyes for a long time, and then walked right up to her and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. “Thank you. For not shooting me. I’m Riley. I am Zorin-born, but you already know that. I don’t know what they’ve taught you about us or the world outside these walls, but we are not animals… I owe you a debt that I’m unlikely to be able to repay, but I will do what I can if the time comes. If there is any risk to you for my being here, tell me. I’ll turn myself in. If not, I need to hide here for a few days, just until my ribs heal enough for me to run. But I need to know if I’m putting you in danger.”

He said all of it very quietly, quickly, in a rush. Now he waited. His eyes remained calm, but his chest was moving much too fast for someone who looked as calm and unconcerned as he did.

She stood frozen, unable to move. There was a faint feeling of warmth spreading from the middle of her forehead to the rest of her face. She knew she was blushing now, and that he undoubtedly could see it. Looking down seemed safer than into those darkly intruding eyes of his. He was waiting patiently, silently, staring at her. She could feel him looking at her face, through it almost, forcing her to look up at him.

For some inexplicable reason she felt like crying. It had been a very long time since she cried but there was no mistaking the lump in her throat for anything else. She felt a solitary tear spill from the corner of her eye and run down her cheek, making a track through the milky paste she had spent so long working into her skin not an hour before. She turned to run, toward the stairs, toward the safety of her room, toward the welcoming smells of breakfast soon to be emanating from the kitchen, her favorite place besides the garden in this entire walled city of survivors and replenishers.

A not too gentle hand squeezed her shoulder and flung her around. He took her by the neck and walked her, stumbling as she went, to the mirror. He flicked the light on. She could see one of her marks, plain as day. She was shaking now, thinking of all the things that could have happened if she had been discovered. If they realized she was not what they thought she was. Thinking of being expelled into the world beyond these walls, living amongst the dark haired people with no knowledge of anything. The memoryless. People who lived as if they were truly savages and the centuries of civilization didn’t happen for them.

His hands traveled to her shoulders and held her in place. He was looking at her face in the mirror, waiting in that way he had. There was something about the way he stopped her from leaving… She knew that he knew she didn’t belong here; that he knew there was something wrong with her. She knew, too, that he knew a lot more than a Zorin-born outsider was supposed to.

He gently turned her around to face him.

“You have freckles… I know that’s not what you call them, or what they mean to you, but that’s what they are. If you spent more time outside, you’d have more of them. They come from the sun. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. I’m sorry if I scared you, Amelia.”

She felt a punch to her stomach on hearing her name from his lips. Nobody outside these walls even knew she existed at all. He drew his finger over the A.L. on her neck, the initials that were tattooed into the base when she was chosen to become a replenisher. Every girl in the same group had unique initials, and no two names started with the same letter. She’d be the only Amelia in this 16 year stretch at this compound, but she knew there were others out there, other Amelias that she would likely never meet. That’s how he knew.

“Breathe… I keep scaring you like this. I’m sorry. I really need to know if you are in danger for helping me. If there are cameras or if there is any chance anyone else saw me fall. If you were alone. I need to know if I can hide here for a little while…”

She looked down again, for safety from blushing.

“Please, look at me.” He put his hand under her chin, gently lifting her tear-streaked face up to his, and stared at her with such intensity that her face burned.

She didn’t know about the cameras, or even if there were any. There didn’t seem to be much need for security here, considering the impossibly tall walls surrounding the grounds. Not so impossibly tall. Anything that was not done according to protocol was risky – that much everybody knew, but having him turn himself in was not an option. They would execute him, or at the very least, beat him, torture him, and possibly trade him for one of the old guards captured by Zoriners decades ago, long before her time.

Looking at him now, she felt compelled to protect him, which struck her as odd as he was the one who seemed in control here. He knew far too much for one without an implant. It just didn’t make sense. She should hate him. His kind had killed her family. They made those like her into exiles. She should have shot him with no hesitation, and yet, she couldn’t do it. Not even with his hand pulling the trigger.

They had fought on the wrong side of the war and lost, hadn’t they? They were the one true enemy of the human race – savages, destroyers, at least that’s what her implant was telling her. Yet, this boy before her wasn’t adding up.

Turning her face away from him, she asked in a whisper, “Did your people kill my family? My mom and dad… My baby sister… My dog, my dog Blanche? I need to know…”

He stepped back from her then, giving her a little room to breathe, away from his warm, gentle touch. He lowered his eyes and hesitated for just a few seconds before blurting out, “I think so. It was before my time, all of it, but yes, my people may have killed yours, Amelia. I’m sorry.”

He looked up at her at this, as if knowing why she asked. He walked over to the sink, slowly, straight-backed, his hands fisted at his sides, and stood there motionless for a while. She couldn’t see his face in the darkened mirror.

She waited. Finally, he turned and walked back towards her, only now he held her stun gun in his right hand. She didn’t remember him taking it from her. She froze, too surprised and scared to scream. He closed the remaining distance, not quite looking in her eyes. She let go of the breath she didn’t realize she was holding when he handed her the gun, handle first.

The gun was buzzing softly, telling her that he had flicked the safety off. Still not looking at her face, he laced his fingers behind his head and nodded, calmly, “I’m ready.”

He turned his back to the barrel of the gun and walked towards the stairs.

The Pill

Doctor Sandra Groning
February 4, 2107 Manchester, UK

The orderlies no longer broke for lunch. The clinic has been frightfully understaffed for too long now to keep track of who clocked in and who didn’t, so Sandra Groning took all the help she could get from whoever felt like helping these days. She looked ragged herself. She had lost weight, her eyes seemed to have sunk in deeper than when she was fighting cancer. Even as a doctor she was surprised at the physical manifestations of exhaustion.

She walked over to the fountain and put her face directly over the stream of clean cold water, one of the few luxuries that were still available to everyone. The cold was just bearable, but at least now she was awake enough to go to her lab. Over twelve hundred tests and no closer to finding that magic bullet. Something had to give. She couldn’t take it for too much longer, especially with all the newly homeless replicating themselves. Something had to just work at this stage, so that she never had to pull a frozen corpse of a newborn from the snow bank on her way home. That was too much to ask of anyone.

She almost ran into Jason, lost in thought as she was, who seemed out of breath, but had an uncommon smile on his face. He didn’t seem to have aged much in the decade they worked together. Somehow he retained his youthful, almost childish face, and the few lines drawn symmetrically across his forehead didn’t make him look ragged or aged in the least. He was gesturing wildly towards the lab, not saying anything, just pointing, so they sprinted, he casually, she gagging on spit, lungs unable to quite keep up like they used to. God, she felt so, so old now. Ancient, even. Chronology be damned, she’d seen far too much death for her 26 years to ever feel young again. And far too much of that death were babies, so the mere thought of being with a guy in that way was a turn off.

The doors to the lab were wide open, and her staff moved timidly against the wall while Jason caught his breath enough to explain: “The extra dose of AlterX in the bonobos seems to have worked, when combined with half the Ovix pill. Twenty three of the bonobo females have been thoroughly taken care of by the males for weeks now, and yet, not a one has the CRH in their system. It’s like it just didn’t take. Basically, not a one of them is pregnant…” He slumped into his swivel chair and stared at the techs, then at her. Nobody said anything. It was as if this news itself was too fragile to acknowledge fully, to speak of in anything but a whisper.

She grabbed her notes, stuffed them unseen into her briefcase, and bolted out of the lab, not bothering to close the door behind her. She needed a drink. Someplace quiet. And a bit of time. A tall Gin and Tonic, single in a double, a bit of time to process what she, what they may have just accomplished by accidentally mixing related meds in a single sample.

The technician responsible for dosing this group of bonobo females left unexpectedly and the new kid, and he really was a kid, didn’t bother to read the notes before medicating the girls with AlterX. It was an accident. She was furious the day she found out and fired the kid. Jeremy, or something that sounded like Jeremy, just out of college, eager blue eyes through the specs, decent smile, too young to see bodies of dead babies.

The pub was warm and smoky. She beat the snow off her boots on the stoop at the door and walked to her favorite spot in the darker corner of the place, farthest space away from the door where the bartender could still hand her a drink. She felt far too weary to walk to get the refill if she’d need one. Charlie, who’s been tending the bar here for as long as she could remember, could always tell if she needed to talk or be left alone. He sensed immediately that it was her alone night, made her a drink she didn’t have to ask for, slid the payment token silently across the counter and walked away, quiet as a ghost.

She had always admired Charlie for that bizarre ability to read people’s moods. Or maybe it was just her moods he read so well. She never quite got the hang of paying attention to people around her. Not Jeremy, Jerry… Jerry Stiles. Single mom raised, smart kid, scholarship to Cornell or some such, a quiet, decent sort. She pulled out her phone and dialed 2 for Jason, “I need you to call Jerry and hire him back with my apologies. I want him on my team. Tell him I was in a lousy mood. Estrogen deficiency, whatever. I want him back… Thanks.”

She was distractedly doodling on a napkin with her immaculately un-chewed pencil. Jason chewed all of his, to barely centimeter-sized nubs. She always razzed him about that lousy habit, telling him that it was impossible for him to ever hide his DNA, constantly wearing gloves notwithstanding. She giggled to herself at the thought of Jason ever needing to hide anything from anyone. That man-child was an open book. A very thorough and efficient open book. And not altogether bad looking. But he was far too taken with her fame, such as it was, and her reputation as an anti-sexer to ever see her that way. Just as well, she thought. Just as well.

She looked up at the sound of ice clinking. Charlie refilled her drink without asking if she’d wanted one. She did. She had allowed Jason to look into him once, years ago, when it seemed everyone was trying their damndest to make her stop her research. They were all afraid for her then, and walking home alone, going to a pub, none of these seemed safe.

She needed her alone time then more than ever, and so she conceded to Jason running a background check on Charlie, and her doorman, and the occasional flower delivery boy when she had to send flowers to the parents of the kids she couldn’t save. That was when you could still send flowers. And when there were doormen, she thought wryly.

But Charlie was still here, and he checked out alright. A wife of 23 years who died in a car crash, two boys fighting in one god awful place or another. Two lost boys he thinks about all the time but can’t touch. Two boys whose faces are frozen in the only not-dusty frame behind the beer kegs. A smiling red-headed chap of about 20 and a somber looking younger kid, standing on some beach next to a cold looking sea or ocean, staring directly into the camera. For some reason she’d always wanted to ask Charlie who took the photo, but never quite got the courage to. Somehow she always knew that it wasn’t Charlie. That even in that photograph they were already lost to him.

She looked down at her doodles. Symmetrical, yet sloppy. She crumpled the napkin and flicked it into the ashtray, watching a small spray of ashes or dust rise quickly and fall back, slowly. She turned away. They needed to find a way of testing the compound on human subjects now. They would need to sell it to the board, of course, but they still had plenty of money for the meds, and the research part of it seemed to be almost over. She’d be willing as a subject, but that would mean her actually having sex, and she had nobody to do it with. They would need a sample of at least a hundred healthy, appropriately aged females, preferably between 20-34, of different races, in case there is an immunity that’s genetically based, all willing to go on record about every intimate experience, preferably with multiple partners, or they would have to test the health of every man in the sample as well, which likely won’t be feasible.

Charlie was staring at her, intently. Asking without asking what was bothering her. In an uncharacteristic and likely Gin and Tonic fueled looseness of tongue, she looked him dead in the face and blurted out, “I need to find about one hundred healthy, youngish females willing to have lots of sex on the record for my research,” and she broke down laughing. It was the most unlike her thing she’d ever said in this place, or most places outside of her lab, and it was strangely liberating. She was collecting her things when Charlie, rather gravely, responded, “Prostitutes?”

That’s it. Prostitutes. They do the sex thing for money every day. For very little money, nowadays. And birth control is rarely an option, as it costs far too much for the girls and the men don’t particularly care if they impregnate a prostitute… This could indeed be the most perfect drink she’s ever had at this pub.

She ran back to the clinic and then to her lab only to find it deserted and the lights off. She looked at her phone: 3:21 a.m. Everyone was asleep, at home, and would remain so until at least 8:00 in the morning, when Jason would come in bearing a thermos of coffee and a pair of nutro-bars. He was always worried she’d forget to eat to the point of starving herself to death, so at the very least, she was guaranteed this bit of tasteless but highly nutritious breakfast, all 940 calories of it.

She pulled out her cot and folded her winter coat under her head for a pillow. She needed a blanket. She’s always needed a blanket, or anything really to pull over her body to be able to sleep, even in the summer. It wasn’t a warmth thing, it was a comfort thing, this needing to feel the weight of something covering her. The pillow she could do without, so she unfurled her coat over herself and curled up, arms over her head, and flicked the light switch off. Tomorrow, she would task Jason with finding the human test subjects. Anything that happens after that she didn’t yet want to think about.

For all these years, all she wanted was to find a way of making pregnancy be a choice that required a physician’s intervention, not the other way around. Making it so that parents never had to bury their young because there was simply not enough food and warmth to keep them safe past breastfeeding, and at times, not even then. She was saving the dead babies from ever been born accidentally, thinking that if pregnancy did not almost automatically follow sex, she’d see fewer corpses of newborns on the streets, or starved, obviously abandoned toddlers breaking into old apartment buildings just to keep warm for one more night, subsisting on snow water and god knows what else. This, what they may have just discovered, would cost almost nothing to make. It would fix this. They could make these pills available for nothing with the freely donated meds and still have enough research funds left over to use for distribution. They could put up automated dispensaries in all the cities where one could anonymously take one pill and have no chance of having babies from simply being intimate with someone, or maybe, they could work it into a routine vaccine protocol.

They would have to come up with a reversal procedure of course, for when someone genuinely wanted to have a child, but now that they know what compounds work, it would be something as simple as putting together one shot or pill that negates the initial effect. This would take a little bit of the cash they have left, and maybe a few months to perfect the delivery method. It would be a small price to pay for giving people this kind of control, a very small price to pay for not having to bury so many babies.

She closed her eyes and for the millionth time she remembered when she learned what she would end up doing with her years of med school and pathology training. She drifted much against her will to the one dream she wished she never had again and couldn’t stop herself from dreaming, knowing the whole time it was a memory. It was all far too real, and after all these years, still far too close, too intimate, too detailed to not wake up screaming in the middle of. And far too personal to ever share with Jason or Charlie or her thankfully now-dead mother… She was drifting into it yet again.

The snow had just began to melt, not enough to turn to slush, but enough to feel uncomfortably slidy underfoot. It was the tail end of the first week of April, and the trees and shrubs on her street seemed to eye the world with curiosity again. She could almost smell the promise of green steaming off the trunks and branches, and the rare plush buds appearing here and there drew her to them with their impossible new softness. She’d take her gloves off and timidly run her fingers over the sides of the buds, inhale their still stale, almost mildewy scent, and spend far too much time imagining what the next week or month or year would bring, and she’d have to run to not miss her train to school.

This was an every Spring occurrence and as much as she wanted to tear herself away from this examining, from this prying into the secret world of newness, she couldn’t pull away in time to not be late. So she ran, through the slippery snow, pulling her hat and scarf off in the process for suddenly feeling hotter than the weather report indicated she should, and still hoping to catch that very last car of the train, even if she had to hitch a ride on the outside ledge. Sometimes she made it. More often than not, she did not, and on those days, as there was no longer any point in trying to get to school, she’d wander the streets of Manchester, following whatever streets caught her attention phonetically.

On that day the street that appealed to her was called Madeline. She always thought of that word as indicative of some mysterious female, certainly not something as commonplace as a type of pastry. It drew her, and she walked for what seemed an inordinately long time. The hat and the scarf went back on. She was chilled to the bone now, and nothing on this street promised a solace of a well heated hearth. The entire street seemed to be abandoned. The apartment buildings, shops, pubs – everything was boarded up, closed, deserted. Not even stray cats or dogs were roaming this street.

She felt the urge to turn around and run back to the main stretch, but as she looked back towards the road she came from, she suddenly saw it: smallish hills, inorganic, too similar in size and too evenly spread not to be man-made. They were dotting the snowbanks in almost straight lines, the snow now melting, tiny crosses made from sticks in the top of each. So many of them, lining both sides of the street.

She stood there, frozen, and watched the bits of white powder slide off the tiny bodies buried underneath. So, so tiny. She screamed then, but it didn’t matter. She was alone with dozens of corpses of babies defrosting into the new Spring, one that should have been their first, by the looks of it. She ran then. Fast. As fast as her feet and lungs could take. Only this dream, this memory was always just behind her. Even now when she may have just solved this entire mess. After the 20-hour days, and death threats, and no one to share her bed with, this street still followed her.

She sat up and pressed “2” for Jason. She was still his boss, and if she needed to wake him up, so be it. She needed a bloody hug, and for the first time in all these years of working with him, she was not ashamed to ask him for one.

The Fence

Riley, March 16, 2226
Waller, NY

Riley was fuming at Brody for getting him in trouble with Mr. Sanders again. He knew that by the time he got home, his parents will have been pacing the small yard out back for an hour, thinking of a suitable punishment. In that regard, Brody was lucky. His parents were gone, and his uncle had no stomach for discipline. Maybe that’s why he did it. Always talking back to Sanders, laughing at his stuttering, without even trying to hide it.

But he had no right to drag him into his stupid fights with the headmaster. None whatsoever. And yet, every single time Brody did something stupid, he stuck up for him, played along in whatever game Brody had concocted, so that he wouldn’t be alone in it. Ever since he’d lost Ella, Brody was it. The only person he could talk to about stuff that actually mattered, things that were never assigned as homework, and things his parents would never ask him about or talk about in his presence.

After his performance in school the last few months, he was pretty certain he’d be severely beaten and then grounded. Locked up in their shack of a house for a month maybe, unable to even coax them into letting him walk Samson. Curse you, Brody, and your stupid big mouth.

It would start to warm up soon. The air he was sucking into his lungs no longer pricked, and the metallic smell of coldness was almost gone. The snow would be melting by the end of the week, he thought. His favorite time of year, and he’ll miss most of it. The newness of the buds, the first flies and bugs spreading their little translucent wings, shaking off the long sleep of winter. Or maybe they weren’t alive in the winter at all and will just be born with the Spring – he didn’t know. Biology was not something he’d be allowed to touch for a few years yet. But it didn’t matter. The bugs mattered. He liked watching them. In some of them, you could see their insides if you were lucky enough to get that close without spooking them.

Brody stuck a dragonfly on a needle once and brought it to him. By the time he saw it, the dragonfly was not moving. It had just sat there, the dead wings extended out, the big black eyes still, not seeing anything anymore. He’d cried then, right in front of Brody, and Ella had comforted him, had gotten him to stop crying. He hadn’t talked to Brody for six months after that.

But Ella was gone now. He slowed down at the end of Willis, buying himself a few more minutes before the inevitable. He could see the corner of their roof just beyond the trees now. He could almost see his father, chewing on a sprig of something or other he picked up from their little herb garden, or at least that’s what mom called it. It was really just a dozen old pots with dirt in them, and just a few always struggling plants craning their necks to the sun. Mint and rosemary and something else whose name always escaped him were the only things that ever took.

Father always told mother to put the plants inside for the winter, but their house was so dark, mother knew that even in the midst of the coldest winter, the plants would be better off outside, feeding on light as they did.

The days when she’d spot new growth in one of her pots were the happiest. She’d sing to herself while cooking supper. She’d tuck him and even Ella to bed at night. She’d hug father, unprovoked. She’d even laugh at something silly Samson did on occasion.

He remembered coming home the day they’d taken Ella, only that would happen later, and mother found a new sprig of thyme or something that smelled just as awful growing out of a pot. She ran out to meet him in the street, something she hasn’t done in years, and she was beaming. Her eyes were sparkly and all the sadness was gone out of them. He let her hug him and kiss him right there in the street, hoping nobody was watching. But he was happy to see her like that.

That was almost two years ago now. That night Ella was gone. His mother’s sadness came back into her eyes and stayed there, even with the new greens in her pots. He could feel the sadness leaking out from under the unfixable space in the corner of their roof, like smoke from father’s old pipe that he still kept even though there hasn’t been any tobacco to put in it for years now.

He turned the corner and picked up the pace to his house. He was suddenly eager to get it all over with. The door was wide open. He wiped his boots on the torn up mat in the mud room, knowing that it wouldn’t really do any good, but mother always insisted on it anyway. The house was eerily silent. His parents were not in the kitchen or the yard. He could see all of the back yard from the small kitchen window without even needing to turn his head. Something was wrong. He felt that wrongness that night their parents fought with the strange men and they lost Ella. It made it hurt to breathe. Samson… Where the hell was Samson?

That was the wrongness. The dog was always there to meet him at the door, his ears up, tail wagging into the walls of the narrow hallway, and his soft whimpering noises. For some reason, Samson never barked. “Samson!!! Come here, boy!” Screaming into the silent house made it feel worse that no one replied. And that there was no sign of Samson. He took his coat off and hung it up on the rack, only now noticing that all the other coats were gone. Hats and scarves too. And Samson’s collar was lying opened at the link on the floor by the mat….

…end of preview

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