***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2013 by Lydia Kang
Maybe if I move a little slower, I can prevent the inevitable. Time will freeze and it’ll be easy to pretend we’re not moving again. I don’t want to budge from the roof of this cruddy building.
The door to the stairwell creaks open. Dad sees the lump of me at the edge of the roof, unmoving. Dark clothes, dark frizzled hair. I am depression personified.
“Here you are, Zelia. I told you to stay off the roof,” Dad says, his voice scratchy with fatigue.
I jerk to my feet. “Sorry.”
“Traffic is about to get bad. Let’s go.”
“Okay.” I cross the gravel roof quickly, trying to catch his shadow slipping down the stairwell to our apartment. Our old apartment. This place is nothing to me anymore. Dust bunnies lurk in the angles of the hallways, kicked around by the maelstrom of moving activity. Inside my small bedroom, I push my duffel bag to the door. Just one bag, crammed to the brim. It’s not much. After years of moving every ten months, you give up amassing anything larger than your fist. Basically, heart-sized or smaller is all I can take.
Around the empty room, remnants of the past haunt the surfaces. Rings from juice bottles cover the desk; pictoscreens glow in big white rectangles where photographs have been deleted. I still had eight weeks of rental left on those images—the latest telescope images of the M-16 nebula, beaches and mountains from the twentieth century untouched by humans. So pretty. So gone.
Down the hallway, I smell my little sister walk by. This month, it’s Persian freesia. Dad says nothing about her pricey scent downloads. He also hasn’t commented on the string of boys popping up with alarming regularity on her holo. Unlike me, he’s not bothered by Dylia’s flourishing teenage hormonal nirvana. In fact, she’s chatting up one of her undeserving male friends as she skips down the stairs.
The glowing green screen hovers at an angle in front of her, a projected image from an earring stud that everyone wears. It’s practically impossible to live without our holos. They’re like a sixth sense, with limitless connections and information. Dyl got her first holo stud six months ago when she turned thirteen and barely turns it off now. Within the green rectangle, a boy’s face is shadowed under a hoodie and he’s wearing an oily smile.
I follow her downstairs and join Dad in front of our dilapidated townhouse. I tell myself I won’t miss the building’s crunchy gravel roof, or even the ancient ion oven that always zapped our food too much on the crispy side. There’s no point in getting attached to the good or bad of wherever we live.
Dad punches in an order for a magpod on one of the metal cones decorating each street corner. I drop the bag from my tired shoulder and massage my neck, looking up. Out here, the sky isn’t sky but one continuous sheet of painted blue, as if the whole town were built underneath a gigantic, endless table. In Neia—what used to be Nebraska and Iowa—we get the fake blue underside of the agriplane; up above it’s got grain fields of burnished gold and a sun so bright, it doesn’t look real.
Moving from State to State sucks. In history class, we read about a unified nation hundreds of years ago where you could live wherever you wanted, with any lifestyle you chose. No intense border scrutiny and screening tests; no pledges to adhere to the morals and dress code mandated by each State. But after the country couldn’t agree on religion or politics or how to wipe your butt the right way, they divided into clustered States. Alms, Ilmo, Neia, Okks . . . each stewing in their happy ideals, all of them unified under a federal government weaker than my left pinkie.
Dad thought Neia would be a unique place to live. Of all the States we’ve lived in, I almost looked forward to this one. He said we’d go up to the agriplane and have a picnic someday, but the picnic never happened. Now when I stare up at that false sky held aloft by synthetic, spidery supports and blockish buildings, I don’t want to go up there anymore. They say it used to be sunny and bright here, but now the agriplane steals it from everyone. There’s never a moon to look forward to, or a dawn. At least it’ll be a change to see the sun again, which reminds me . . .
“What State are we moving to?” I ask. Dad doesn’t answer until Dyl pokes him, hard, on the shoulder.
“We’re . . . I’m . . . maybe Alaska.”
“Alaska’s another country, remember? It seceded four years ago,” Dyl points out. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t actually know. He breathes and sleeps work. No matter the little consequences of State politics or geothermal catastrophes in what’s left of California.
“Right, right,” he mutters. We both watch him suspiciously. Usually we have one week’s notice and a detailed to-do list for the move. This time, it was twelve hours, and Dad’s more scatter-brained than usual.
“Well, as soon as we know, I’ll see what labs I can work in,” I say brightly. Four years ago, Dad decided I should take a holo molecular bio course. I was going through a poetry phase and balked. But as usual, he knew me best. I love my lab work now. He pulls strings to find me after-school work in each new town. I’ve spent all my free time running protocols alongside post-docs and grad students, learning all I could. Hungry for it. There have only been three constancies in my life—Dad, Dyl, and lab work.
“No more lab work,” he snaps.
My body shrinks into a smaller space. “What?”
“You’re too unbalanced. Life isn’t about plasmid vectors and bio-accelerants. It’s about dealing with people. You’re going to take States history and political science courses. I’ll reprogram your holo channels when we get settled.”
History? Politics? Is he kidding? I wish I could argue, but Dad’s face is stony and confident. My gram of rebellion combusts like pure magnesium. Well, he’s probably right. He always knows what I like, even before I know myself. I thought I wouldn’t like molecular bio, but it’s a second language for me now. Or at least, it was.
“Okay,” I mumble. I wait to see if he has new classes in mind for Dyl, but he stays silent. She never needs any nudging or fixing, academically or otherwise. I’m the imperfect one.
“Anyway, there’s a worldwide excess of geeks,” Dyl adds, trying to unstiffen the air around us. “Why add to that?” The guy on her holo chortles on cue.
“And there’s a worldwide excess of brain-dead boys trying to get in your pants,” I counter.
Dyl cups her ear, and the holo image disappears. “Quinn is not like that!” she whispers. The guy on Dyl’s holo coughs. It’s the guiltiest-sounding cough I’ve ever heard.
I mope aggressively, but Dad is too busy studying the metal cone’s flashing display. With one touch, it accesses your info and account. Even if you can’t afford a magpod, a nasty public pod will come pick you up. If you’re a little kid, lost, a press of a finger brings a magpod that will take you to the police, your school, or home, depending on the time of day. They’re more reliable than the sun rising and setting. On cloudy days, even the sun lets you down.
It won’t be long before he confesses where we’re really going. Maybe it’ll be like Inky, where there’s a women’s uniform. Dyl will just love that to death. A neck-to-toe gray smock can’t be easy to accessorize.
Other magpods of varying size and luxury float by, hovering over the metal lines embedded in the road. A flashing 3-D sign across the street tells me I need the New and Improved SkinGuard to harden my soft self, in case any projectiles fly my way. If only I wanted to look like I was part insect.
I yank my no-slip (yeah, right) bra straps back onto my shoulders for the third time today. When there’s hardly anything up front to keep the bra in place, it defies the laws of gravity and rises up. Dyl, who’s younger by four years, is already my height and is destined to sprout a larger chest. Maybe by tomorrow.
A dull-looking magpod slows down in front of us, the color of old teeth and sporting a triangle-shaped dent in the back. I’ve never seen this one before, but like all the magpods we get, it looks abused and stinky.
“Get your bags, girls. Let’s go.” Dad’s eyes are hooded and dark. His late nights working have etched deep lines in his face. I toss my bag into the back compartment. Maybe with this next job, he’ll have a better schedule. But who am I kidding? Doctors are always in short supply for those who can’t afford personal CompuDocs, which is half of the population. So no matter where we go, he’s crazy busy.
Dyl turns away from us, whispering to her mugshot of a friend. “Don’t forget your vitamins. And call me after the test. I want to know which poets they quizzed you on.” She finally shuts off her holo.
“You’re over your weekly holo hours anyway,” I tell her. “And remember to switch sides. Your neck is already getting twisted. Look.” I reach over to gently touch the tense muscles below her ear.
She straightens her neck and moves away from me. “I’m okay,” Dyl says, adding a tiny smile to dispel any meanness. She does that little side-stepping dance all the time now—keeping her distance, owning her space more and more. I know it’s normal for her age, but it hurts. She hasn’t let me hug her in weeks.
I jump into the driver’s seat before Dyl can protest.
“At least put it on auto, Zel,” she whines.
“Why? I like driving.” Most people put their mags on auto. Just punch in your destination and it goes. But going manual is so fun. It’s a dying art. You really feel like part of the magpod and sense its personality. All the magic of technology disappears, and it’s just you and the machine. No games, no illusions.
Thankfully, Dad’s deep in thought and doesn’t care about me driving today. Dyl tucks herself into the backseat and grabs a pen-sized styling tool from the mini salon stashed in her purse. She zaps a lock of dirty-blond hair into a perfect helix, then pauses to yawn, squeezing her eyes shut. When they open, she sees me still planted in the driver’s seat and wrinkles her nose.
“You know, nobody in school drives mags.”
“Well, L’il Miss Dyl Pickle, your friends aren’t here, so I can embarrass you all I want.”
Dyl’s face pinks up. “Don’t call me that. I’m not a kid.” She goes back to curling her hair, but won’t meet my eye. Her voice drops. “And you don’t embarrass me, Zel.”
I bite my lip. She’s trying not to hurt my feelings, but I know the truth, with the same certainty that I know the atomic number of oxygen. I’m a total embarrassment. My refusal to wear makeup, nice shoes, or tight clothes. My penchant for getting excited over CellTech News, my favorite holo channel. My endless nagging about her flashy dresses and too-shiny lipstick. She’s horrified of me.
I glance back at Dyl, whose head is now covered in romantic, drooping curls. She’s daydreaming of meat-for-brains boys, I’m sure. I turn to Dad.
“Okay. So where to this time?” I say, feigning a good attitude.
“Let’s . . . let’s go north. No, west.” I can almost hear the dice-roll of our future clinking in his brain. I don’t like it. I like having a plan, and Dad always has a plan.
“I’m hungry,” Dyl moans.
“We’ll get food later. After we leave town.” He looks behind us as we hover for a bit. I push the T-shaped steering bar forward and we zoom down the street, ensconced in our bubble of plainness. Inside the mag, there are no sweet treats, games, no mobile e-chef. Nothing. There isn’t anything to do but curl your hair, drive, or ignore your imminent future, like Dad is doing.
The other mags zip around us. The hum from the metal mag lines in the street is the only sound we hear. I’m concentrating so hard on swerving in and around the slower mags that my vision goes blurry around the edges. Dad touches my arm.
And then I remember, the way I must remember hundreds of times a day. I suck in a huge breath, and then a few more big ones to make up for my distracted moments. My stupid affliction. Dad says it’s called Ondine’s curse. On its own, my body will only take a few piddly, shallow breaths a minute. If I don’t consciously breathe more deeply or frequently when I’m excited, or running, or doing anything besides imitating a rock, my brain won’t reflexively take over enough to keep me alive.
Just add it to the list of other annoyances in my life. The non-fatal ones, that is.
“Why don’t you just put on your necklace?” Dyl suggests. “It scares me when you don’t wear it.” She gives me a worried look, but it doesn’t convince me. My titanium necklace is safely tucked away in my pocket. When I wear it around my neck, the pendant signals an implanted electrode in my chest to trigger normal, healthy breaths every few seconds. It’s great for sleeping, since dying every night is quite the inconvenience. But during the day? It feels like an invisible force yanking the air in and out of my body.
“You know I hate that thing when I’m awake.”
When Dyl was little, she used to fetch it for me all the time. As soon as she’d leave the room, I’d take it off. It was a cat-and-mouse game we played. Now that she’s older, she respects my decision not to wear it when I’m awake, but she still brings it up every day. My heart dreads the day she stops reminding me.
“It would make life easier for you,” Dad adds. His fingers comb through my hair absentmindedly. After two seconds, his scuffed wedding ring gets tangled in the mess. “Drat.” After a tug, and a small tuft of lost hair on my part, he’s free. Luckily, the subject has changed to how I inherited the frizz-fro that skipped a generation.
“You can borrow this, you know.” Dyl taps my head with her hair-styling pen.
Deep breath, I tell myself, so I don’t grab the pen and chuck it out of the magpod.
I twist the T-bar to maneuver around other mags, now that we’re in the center of town. The 3-D signs are everywhere, poking out from the sleek metal façades of the buildings, beckoning us to buy their wares. We drive under a giant holographic arm holding a purple fizzy drink the size of a trash can.
Another mag swerves a little too close, and I veer to the right with a jerk.
“Can you please put this thing on auto?” Dyl squeaks. She braces herself against the inner walls of the magpod to maximize the drama, while her curls bounce erratically. “I don’t want to break my arm if I’m going to join the fencing team in my new school.”
“You’ll be fine,” I groan.
“You should join me,” she says. “It’s harder to hit a small target like you.”
Before I can deflect her insult-as-compliment, Dad interjects. “Dyl, no more fencing either. Time to move on to something else.”
“But Dad! I was getting really good.”
“Balance is the key,” he says. “And Zelia, no sports.”
My hand touches the outline of my pocketed necklace. “But—”
“Never start something where failure is likely.”
I shut my mouth. Dad’s list of no’s runs through my mind. No sports—you’re too weak and delicate. No roofs—you’ll fall off. No rule breaking—you’ll get in trouble. No boyfriends—they’ll give you a resistant form of disfiguring herpes. And now, no science.
Still, I understand. He’s protecting me like he always has. He may not be around much, but I appreciate how he cares for me, every day. In every No.
Dyl steers the conversation away from me, knowing I’m upset and brooding in the driver’s seat. She tries to convince Dad to let her buy $1900 morphs (“But the shoes pay for themselves! Fifty pairs in one!”), then chatters on about where to eat, when he rubs his eyes again.
“Let’s just get beyond the city limits first.”
I’m distracted by an octopus ad with tentacles curving toward me when Dad puts an anxious hand on mine. A bright red magpod far away in the opposite lane bobbles unsteadily, like a cork being dragged through water. ?People on the elevated walkways point at it and pedestrians scramble out of the way in anticipation.
“Watch it!” Dad yells.
I turn our mag to the right, to get as far away as possible. Still, it comes closer, its speed increasing, and I open my mouth in surprise.
The runaway mag drives into our lane and smacks right into a yellow mag way ahead of us. The sound of the crash is loud, and the mag spins in a yolk-colored blur on the sidewalk, the metal squealing horribly. People nearby throw their arms up and scatter from the wreckage. The out-of-control red magpod changes direction again and heads our way.
This is like a horrible holo game I’m losing. I go left, the red magpod goes left; I go right and now it’s too close. I can’t get out of the way of this thing hurtling so impossibly fast toward us.
“Hold on!” I yell, making one last jerk to the right.
“No!” Dad throws his whole body over me and grabs the T-bar, pushing it hard to the left instead, putting himself between us and the oncoming mag. I see his other hand pull the emergency detach lever by my leg. In a second, we are all flying in different directions and my world is upside-down and I’m spinning so fast that the g-forces press my body painfully to the left side of the magpod. I can’t see anything because white foam expands in milliseconds, surrounding my body and skull to cushion me from the inevitable impact. I spin, it seems, forever and ever, and pump the air into my lungs so fast, I’m dizzy from hyperventilating.
Where is the crash?
It never comes. Everything is dark. My body can’t move. The protective foam has me mummified into a single position, hands still grasping the T-bar and legs still on the oval footpads. Muffled voices speak above me. I hear a scratching, the sound of hands on the shell of the magpod section I’m still in, trapped in a stiffening mold.
It’s so dark. A bubble of air surrounds my face. I feel my body rock to one side, like an infant in a cradle, then to the other. There is a crack of something breaking apart, and a sliver of dusky daylight penetrates my chemical cocoon. I suck in a breath of fresh air.
The chunk of light grows and fills in with the concerned faces of red-uniformed medics. I gulp more air, ripping the foam away from my head. Chunks of it are stuck in my hair. Finally, hands pull me up and out, and the rest of the foam is removed in large, falling white masses.
“Ma’am? Are you okay? Do you have any injuries?” One of the medics rattles out questions at me, but all I hear is yelling and sirens and the sounds of panic. I try to stand, dizzy and nauseated. I dry heave from the foam fumes, and the spinning sensation in my head won’t stop.
“You need to rest, miss.” Another medic grabs my arm and I shove him hard, staggering away.
“Dad,” I croak. “Dylia. Oh god.” I look around wildly and find another piece of our magpod. Another group of people pull my sister, dazed, from her back section. They pry a huge piece of foam from her head as I run forward. Her curls are a mess, pointing every which way.
She sees me immediately and her eyes are so big, so doll-like, so wild.
“Where’s Daddy?” she shrieks.
I turn around and bolt to the crowd of medics surrounding the rest of the wreckage. Our bags have exploded around the scene. My underwear and Dyl’s new pink dress lie on the ground, trodden upon by rescue workers. Huge pieces of the magpod shell are scattered everywhere. I push into the throng, when I see two people pointing at something. A bloody rag lies several feet away from the crowd, right on the magnetic strip of the street. A shiny glint of gold peeps through the red.
My head swims. No. It isn’t a rag. It’s a hand. A man’s mangled hand wearing my father’s wedding ring.
Breathe, Zelia. Breathe.
But I can’t.
I can’t, because I’m screaming.
The coffee dispenser is out of coffee.
Every hour, the silver boat-like machine with its garish sign, drip ship, floats by the rainbow of frosted glass doors of the ICU. Every hour I’ve run for a refill after being kicked out when Dad’s glass wall darkens to blue—a sign that no visitors are allowed in. I circle the Drip Shipand press the coffee button again. The walk-the-plank output tray stays empty.
Click, click, click, click. My finger is getting sore now.
I spin around to see a young doctor approaching. She has a kind face, with dark shadows under her eyes and brittle, brown hair. We could battle royally over which of us looks more exhausted.
“You can come back in now. Your father is waking up.” She motions to his room door, now glowing pink.
“Let me get my sister.” I sprint into a waiting cubicle ten feet away. Dyl’s head rests over her folded arm on a white desk. She seems so tiny in her chair. Her monitor shows my father lying in his ICU bed, hiding under a million tubes and wires. There’s a pink microphone on the monitor so you can whisper nice things into the speakers by Dad’s head. But as far as I know, Dyl hasn’t uttered a word since the accident seven days ago. She’s also been too upset to go to his bedside, but I keep trying anyway.
“Dylia. We can go back in now.”
Her only response is to turn her head to the wall. A damp tear darkens her sleeve. I head back alone to the ICU.
In a long archway, colored lights zap the harmful bacteria off my skin and clothes before I can step into Dad’s room. I lean on the edge of the bed and peer at him. Half his head is covered in bandages, including his eyes. One arm is missing, leaving an angular stump wrapped in beefy red, artificial skin, “curing” under a special growth light. No legs. During the hysterical first three days, I could barely force down the bile that rose when I saw him. Now I only feel heaviness inside my stomach. After seven days of this, it’s a cold, pure sensation. Distilled sadness.
“Zel,” he croaks.
“I’m here.” I put my hand on his cheek, the closest part of him that’s not covered. My fingertips tremble, either from the caffeine or my sleep-deprived state. The oval ventilator buckled around his chest emits a low hum. It’s helping him breathe, since he can’t do it himself.
I don’t ask him how it feels to be like me, for the first time in his life.
Dad seems to fall asleep, and I let my rib cage rise and fall in unison with his. I’ve done this every minute I’ve spent with him, refusing to sleep so I can breathe alongside him. I can’t stop thinking irrational thoughts, like maybe if I breathe hard enough, I’ll do the work for two and he’ll get better. Then again, Dad has a machine keeping him alive, which is infinitely more reliable than a daughter.
Normally, I’d take comfort in the science of his condition. The percentages, the statistics of his body fluid measurements. Normally, I’d have Dad tell me what it all meant. But now? Science and numbers don’t hold my hand while I stand watching him, alone.
The tubes and IV lines rustle and part to make way for his good hand, which moves toward me. He can’t yank out his tubes; they are embedded with motion-sensors and are too smart for him. His clammy hand lands on mine.
“Promise,” he whispers between breaths.
“Okay,” I say reflexively. I’m used to agreeing with whatever he asks of me. But this time, I don’t know what I’m agreeing to. I lean forward, my lower lip already trembling. Tears blur my vision until they fall over and sluice down my cheeks. Every time he’s spoken, I’ve turned into a walking puddle.
It takes several breaths before he can utter anything else. “Take care of yourself.” I wait for the corollary to his request. Take care of Dyl. But he doesn’t say it. He shuts his eyes, remembering something. “Stay safe, no matter what.”
“Of course, Dad.” His hand jerks and claws into mine. I am surprised by his strength, by the pain he inflicts. His nails dig in hard, as if he’s trying to imprint his message into my body.
“Safe,” he gasps. A few more ventilator breaths and he chokes on his saliva. “But you—I have to tell you—” He swallows the words that come next.
“What, Dad? Tell me what?” I ask, when I notice his nails aren’t hurting me anymore.
On the screen at the foot of his bed, white lines of his heart rhythm turn crimson and zigzag all over the place. The monitor alarm sounds like a horn.
“Dad!” I turn around and scream, “Help him! Somebody!”
Four doctors and nurses rush to his bedside and I am pushed away, my hands clamped over my mouth to keep myself from wailing. Already the bedside pharmacy bot, a black mushroom-shaped machine with tentacles attached to my dad’s body, is clicking like mad, sending liquid medicines into his IVs, trying to reverse the inevitable.
As the workers become more frantic, I feel the fingernail marks where Dad squeezed me. I stare at my hand, because I can’t see Dad behind the wall of people. The little crescents are pinkish, shallow, and perfectly curved.
They fade quickly. By the time the doctors leave his room one by one, heads hanging, there is hardly a shadow of a mark left on my skin.
But I can feel the sharpness he’s left behind. The memory is still there. Even after the last doctor pats me on the back and tells me he’s sorry, so very sorry for my loss, I can still feel the pain.
I don’t move for almost an hour. I don’t know what to do.
I know he was hardly around in my life. Sometimes he’d work so hard that a week would go by and I’d barely seem him. The relative difference is slight, but the absolute difference—Here versus Nowhere—is enormous. I waver on the chasm between the two, barely able to stand.
Finally, a young man in a crumpled tie and shirt gently ushers me into a pink room down the hall. “You need some privacy,” he says quietly, his gray eyes still and unemotional. We brush by a group of people clustered by the colored doors.
Of course. The hospital doesn’t want me to disturb the tenuous hope of other families milling about. I am so jealous of every one of those people who have a mangled, tube-filled family member in the ICU.
And then I remember. Oh no. Dyl. I push the man aside and run to find Dyl, still in her white cubicle. She stares stony-faced at the screen, which shows an empty, cleaned bed. No more miles of tubing. The pharmacy bot is shut down, tentacles neatly coiled on its dome, quietly awaiting the next patient. There are no traces of Dad.
Dyl watched the whole thing.
“Dyl,” I say, and sit down next to her. I put a hand on her arm but she shrinks away. I try to scoot a little closer. The world outside the space we occupy just got ten times more enormous. It’s just us and no one else anymore.
“Come, let’s go.”
Dyl doesn’t turn around. Under my hand, her shoulders start to jiggle. For a crazy second, I think she’s laughing at me, until I realize she’s sobbing. Her cry is quiet but high-pitched, sharply etched with despair. I know this sound. If you drained the blood out of my heart, it would be the sound left over, echoing in the chambers.
Dyl turns and pushes her head into my stomach, and I just hold her while she convulses with sobs. I can’t remember the last time we hugged like this. And yet, here she is, needing me again. Just like when she was littler, when I knew I was a good thing in her life.
Footsteps approach, then pause, waiting. I ignore the presence for as long as possible.
“Girls, you both need to come with me. You can’t stay here any longer.” The man stands outside the room, but his foot taps impatiently. He doesn’t step any closer, keeping us both at arm’s length, as if grief is a dangerous contagion. He tilts his head, watching us carefully.
“You’ll get through this.” He offers the words with a confidence that startles me. I’ve already forgotten what that must feel like, to possess certainty about anything. “You’re going to be okay.”
I want to laugh bitterly at his words. Nothing will ever be okay. Because the one person who held us dear, despite our limitless faults, is gone forever.
I don’t know where we’re going, but I’m more than willing to follow him. I vaguely hear him introduce himself as a social worker. The words safety and concern are pitched out to us. I don’t really care. I’m just relieved someone knows what to do right now.
Dyl and I follow him to a bleak room where we sign some forms by pressing our fingertips into the electronic pad. Our F-TIDS, or fingertip IDs, are the summary of our very existence—our identity, bank accounts, and medical records, shoe size, even our newly orphaned status—everything.
Afterward, the man takes us to his office down the hall. For the first time, I notice his brown hair badly needs a haircut, and he’s much younger than I expected—maybe in his early twenties. His dull clothes and dull reassurances give him the illusion of age. He sits in the center of a round desk and computer screen that almost completely encircle him. On a happier day, I’d joke that he’s got a bad Saturn complex.
“Sit down, ladies.”
I cringe. I hate it when people call me a lady. I’m anything but, so it feels like an insult. I sit down in a corner chair. Dyl pauses to wipe a wet eye and surveys the empty seats along the wall. She could sit far away, as she’s been apt to do this year, or in the chair beside mine. I feel like I’m about to win or lose some big prize. I hold in a deep breath, waiting.
Dyl shuffles closer and plops down next to me. My chest shrinks with a glad exhalation. As we try to cover up our sniffles, tissues sprout from the armrests of our chairs. Apparently we are not this room’s first weepy clients.
The social worker starts touching the screens around him, ignoring us.
I blow my nose, then sit forward on my chair. “I’m sorry. What’s your name again?”
“John. I’ve been assigned to your case. I am truly sorry for your loss, but right now my main concern is your safety.” He smiles at us with only his mouth, while the gray eyes remain hard as cement. It’s as if he’s only been given a one-feature allotment of sympathy. “Your F-TIDS again, please.”
Dyl’s on her fifth tissue already. One tumbles onto the floor, and a small four-armed bot shaped like a beetle picks it up, sprays the carpet with disinfectant, and fetches her an incinerator trash can from the wall.
“Thank you,” she whispers. Her nose is so congested from crying it sounds like “Dank you.”
A black shiny square pops up from our armrests and we press our fingers against them. The screens around Social Worker Guy (John is way too human a name) burst into various colors. He starts spinning around in his chair, searching the data. He coughs loudly, not bothering to cover his mouth.
“I see. Your mother died from influenza. Missed her annual vaccine packet. How irresponsible.”
It happened when I was only four years old. I barely remember her. Mom dumped our family when she couldn’t handle Dad’s moving-target jobs, then forgot her vaccines in the excitement of her newfound freedom. My resentment conveniently blots out any remaining memories. I’m even proud that I can’t recall her hair color.
Social Worker Guy does another nauseating spin, fixating on a new section of screen. “Yes, your uncle died two years ago. You have a third cousin in . . . Oh, no. That’s by legal fusion.” Hardly anyone calls it marriage anymore. Who’s fused to whom is always the newest stuff on gossip holo boards. Social Worker Guy keeps drawling on. “So, not a blood relative. Doesn’t count. Your grandparents had no illegitimate children, nor did your father, it seems . . .”
The guy commands the screen to turn off, and it transforms to a frigid scene of winter snowfall. How warm and fuzzy of him.
“Well. I guess it does look like it’s the two of you.”
Two. A hopelessly small number.
He stands up and opens the door. “Come, we don’t have much time. Are either of you hungry? Thirsty? I’m going to get myself a Vitalyte anyway.”
We stand up to follow him obediently, shaking our heads. He walks us to a nearby capsule-shaped transport, where we all grab safety handles sprouting from the beige-colored walls. The door closes seamlessly. We speed up, left, right, and down through several buildings.
The doors open onto a dim concrete hallway. I wonder what café is in this dreary place. We pass by twenty closed doors, all the same gray color as the hall. Even the ceiling is gray. I start to wonder if I’ve gone color-blind or if this building is just pathetically devoid of color.
Social Worker Guy stops at an unmarked door and presses his finger onto a wall pad. The door clicks open. Inside is a room with a scattering of century-old rickety chairs and a plain desk. An elderly lady sits at the desk, scowling at the solitaire hand on her holo. A blond boy and a girl sit in a corner pair of chairs. The boy looks my age, and the little girl is probably ten. They both glance eagerly at us. The girl gives me the up and down, then goes back to staring at the floor, the buoyancy in her face now gone. Clearly we’re not who she wanted to walk through that door.
“Is this the café?” I ask, confused.
“Of course not. Have a seat. The assistants will be with you in a moment.” He rummages inside his shirt pocket and pulls out something. “Here, this is yours.” He drops Dad’s wedding band in my hand. I’m shocked to see it perfectly intact after the accident that tore my father to pieces.
Dyl looks at the ring but hesitates. I hand it to her, and her eyes water at the offering.
“Are you sure?” she whispers. I nod. After spending a week with dad in the ICU, it seems unfair that I’ve got memories she doesn’t. She needs something real to hold on to. Dyl sits in a rickety chair and turns the gold circlet in her fingers. The corners of her mouth pull down so far, I wonder if I’ll ever see them change direction. In the corner, the blond boy has his eyes fixed on Dyl. No surprise there. Even in her misery, she’s so pretty. I want to smack his glance away.
Social Worker Guy turns to leave. I’m afraid to ask him, but I force myself.
“Please. What are we doing here?” I ask.
“This is the New Horizons Center of West Omaha.” I must look as stupid as he thinks, because he enunciates his next words very slowly. “So you and your sister can be placed with a new family. A foster family.” He gives my arm an unreassuring squeeze, so he can push me away to click the door shut.
I back away from the door. Foster family? Each day this past week, I doggedly assumed Dad would recover. I never considered that the sky would fall, or that the earth would stop rotating. And here I am, detached, orphaned, and missing that person who used to tether me to the world. My bones feel loose and disconnected beneath my skin at the thought.
The old lady at the desk finally switches off her holo game and serves us a prunish smile.
“Names please,” she orders. I step forward and quietly give her our information. She bobs her head, telling us to sit and wait.
After only a minute, a door opens in the back of the room. Two guys wearing ID badges around their necks walk in. One of them—tall, with broad shoulders and an aquiline nose—scans a list of names on his holo. He points at us while speaking to his younger coworker. “Take them to level F. There’s a vacated double there. I have to find singles for these two,” he says, motioning toward the brother-sister pair.
The younger guy steps closer to us. He’s wearing dark jeans and a black sweater. His short hair is perfectly mussed, exactly the way that Dyl likes. She takes notice, pocketing Dad’s ring and wiping her nose. I don’t even think she’s consciously doing it, but her posture straightens out.
Though I know she’s still sad—it’s in her face—it must be some innate reaction she’s been born with that only showed up a few months ago. The ability to react to cute guys like this. I am clearly missing this gene, because the reactive posture I have right now is an I’d rather be anywhere but here schlump.
The guy in black nods his head, acknowledging us. His light-brown locks splay across his forehead. “Come with me.”
Dyl stands up briskly to follow him. I shake my head. I want to follow because I want someone to take me away from the horror of the last two hours. Dyl wants to follow him because he’s cute. I want to tell her to be wary, but now is probably not the time for a lecture on the dangers of teen heartthrobs.
The guy lopes down the hallway. His holo is on now, and though I can’t see the face, the voice on the other end tells me it’s the same guy from the other room.
“Get them situated. The director will talk to them herself once all the data is in.”
“Shall I order the usual?” our guy asks. His voice is surprisingly soothing and calm.
“Yes, but let them rest first. Tomorrow we’ll do the tests.”
“Excuse me?” I interrupt, as politely as possible. “What tests?”
He stops and turns, and for the first time, we both get a better look at him. He’s pretty tall, towering over Dyl, who shifts her feet from side to side. She does this when she’s nervous. He stares down at her with a pair of warm amber-brown eyes, and smiles, then gives me an equal serving of perfect white teeth. There’s one dimple on the left. From the melting expression on Dyl’s face, I’m guessing that, for her, dimples equal trustworthy.
“It’s just standard stuff, to make sure you guys are healthy and find a suitable family. Nothing to worry about. Everybody gets it done.”
“Everybody?” Dyl says, her eyes wide. She hates needles, even the microneedle patches that you can hardly feel.
“Actually, I got tested too. I was in your shoes five years ago, so I know what it’s like.”
Both of us shut our mouths, feeling bad. He turns and leads us to a transport. Before long, he’s showing us into a bare-bones apartment with two beds, a table, and a bathroom. On the wall is a small metal door—an old but apparently functioning food service efferent, preloaded with food supplies so we can have fresh meals at the touch of a few buttons.
My caffeine buzz is wearing off, only to be replaced with a spectacular pounding headache. Combined with the lack of sleep from the past week and the realization that our new home doesn’t include Dad, I’m feeling pretty horrific now. I must look green or something, because the boy puts his hand on my arm.
“Are you okay?” His hand is so warm, it sends a strange tingle in my skin and I step back, embarrassed at the redness in my cheeks.
“Not really.” It’s not his problem. In two seconds when he leaves, he’ll forget us.
He studies me for a moment. “Every day gets a little easier. You’ll see.”
The canned feel-good line does nothing for me, but it works on Dyl and she practically liquefies, crying fresh tears. The guy closes the distance to pat her back, and she melts right into him. I don’t know whether to be jealous or disgusted. After way too long, they pull apart, and Dyl wipes her eyes.
“I’m sorry. Thanks,” she says, and edges closer to me. I put a protective hand on her shoulder. The guy doles out another kind smile.
“Hey, you have nothing to be sorry about. I was in worse shape than you two when it happened to me.” His smile disappears for a fraction of a moment, but soon his face returns to its normal beatific state. “Well, rest up. You have an allotment of three meals and three snacks from the efferent. I’ll come get you guys in the morning. There’s a ton of screenwork to do tomorrow.”
“And the tests.” Dyl can’t hide the crinkle above her nose, as if she can smell the needles from here.
“You’ll be just fine.” He smiles at us both. “I’m Micah.”
Dyl opens her mouth to respond, but he cuts her off before she can introduce herself. “I know you both, Dylia and Zelia Benten. Your names rhyme.”
Normally, I hate that. Dyl and I are more than a singsong-y, awful poem. But Micah says it in a way that is a hundred percent complimentary. Finally, he takes a step closer to Dyl and hovers next to her for a moment. Her eyes glaze over, and she’s in some faraway place where there’s no Dad to mourn, no nagging sister.
“Freesia. Nice.” And with that, he’s gone.
And from the look of her puppy-dog eyes, so is Dyl.
After a scorching hot shower, I pull on the scratchy generic loungewear provided in the room. There’s even matching granny underwear. How thrilling. The bed is the best thing I’ve seen in days. I reach around my neck to put on my necklace, the black box pendant dangling heavily at my throat. In a second, my chest wall rises and falls without my permission. I’m so ready for this box to take over so I can pass out.
Dyl showers too, but won’t wear the clothes. Instead, she keeps her skimpy towel wrapped about her. Without the makeup and trendy clothes, her age shows for once. She’s lovely and fragile. Like the girl who used to climb into my bed, press her cheek against mine, and watch cartoons with me on my holo.
“You look nice without makeup,” I say between the regimented breaths of my necklace.
“Please, Zel. No lectures,” she says, combing her damp hair with her fingertips.
“I’m not lecturing you.”
“It’s a sneaky lecture. You’re an expert in those.”
“Okay, okay,” I concede, sulking a little. Dyl hops over to my bed, sending foggy, shampoo-scented air my way. Her hand touches my arm. It’s not a hug, but I’ll take it.
“I’m not mad,” she says.
“I know. Not mad, just crazy,” I quip, and she smiles at our inside joke.
“You were crazy first. By birth order.”
I lie down on my bed, and Dyl goes back to hers, pinching on her holo.
At first, the truth of her criticism won’t let me sleep. The bad feeling bounces around my insides, so I turn on my holo to scroll through my favorite cell bio sites. If I had a rock in my hand, I’d drop it just to make sure gravity still worked. I like the reassurance that some universal things don’t change, even on the worst days of my life.
And then I freeze. Dad didn’t want me to immerse myself in science stuff anymore. I can’t disobey him now, not after today. I search for States history channels, but the sites unmoor me. I drift around, not knowing what I’m looking at, or looking for. I wish Dad would tell me where to start. When a yawn threatens to unhinge my jaw, I click off my holo and drift toward sleep. I am half conscious when the murmurs of Dyl and Micah make me open an eye.
They’re deep in a holo conversation. Dyl whispers, “I’m . . . um . . . nearly a thirty-two B, I guess. Why? . . . Oh. Clothes? That’s so thoughtful of you.”
Ugh. Did I forget to give her the lecture on not discussing bra size with strange guys, under any circumstances?
I turn to the wall and wish for a moment that I didn’t have to be the new police, mother, dietician, and chief financial officer of the family, all at the same time. And then, as soon as the thought comes out, guilt floods me.
I let the box around my neck do its job and punish my chest with its unmerciful push and pull.
“This is so medieval. Where’s the testing bot? There’s always a bot.” Dyl gnaws her nails so viciously, I’m afraid she’ll hit bone before long.
“It’ll be over soon,” I say, trying to be soothing but failing spectacularly. There’s nothing soothing about this room. Dyl won’t stop staring at the antique-grade blood testing equipment on the rickety table before us, as if the needles will jump up to stab her eyeballs if she looks away for a millisecond.
Micah opens the door and we both flinch.
“Hey,” he says, smiling at us.
We don’t smile back.
“Glad the clothes fit,” he says. Dyl’s wearing a sky-blue, flowing skirt and a feminine, snug white tee that clearly shows he picked the right-size bra. I’m in my usual troll-wear of baggy, dark clothes, so he really did get it right. I try not to be freaked that Micah knows my bra size too, which exists in the micro-XS end of the spectrum.
“Okay, just some questions.” He sits astride a chair and pulls out a data tablet. “So Dyl. Any health problems?”
She brightens. “No.”
“No illnesses recently? Strange symptoms?”
Micah gives her a smile and Dyl returns the favor. Like a prize racehorse, she’s even showing teeth in perfect, pearly order. She’s passing with flying colors. He studies the electronic tablet. The answers glow, automatically, from her verbal answers. “Your periods are regular?”
At this, she blushes. Not exactly first-date-type conversation material.
“Okay. Now, Zelia. How about you?”
Oh god. Yes, yes, and I’m a mess. Gah.
“Which question?” I squint at him.
“Any health problems?”
I tell him about my breathing. I should have died as an infant. If Dad hadn’t been a doctor, it might not have been picked up. I could have died within a day of being born. Micah pushes out his lower lip, impressed with my flaw.
“And otherwise your health is . . . ?”
“Fine, fine.” I’m starting to get nervous, because what if a nice family rejects both of us because of my imperfections?
“And your periods?”
Damn. “I, uh, haven’t gotten my period yet.”
“This month?” he asks helpfully.
“No, I mean not ever.”
Micah looks truly confused now. He looks down at his tablet, and back at us again.
I shrink into my chair, but there is nowhere to hide from the fact that I am the unequivocal runt of the family.
“Did you ever get tested to find out why?”
“Yeah. They told me that my eggs and ovaries are . . .” God. Don’t make me say it out loud.
I can’t look him in the eye. “They’re undeveloped. I have some minor hormone deficiencies . . . no big deal, really.” I mumble so incomprehensibly that Micah has to ask me to repeat myself. My face boils with embarrassment. “I’m deficient, okay?” I snap.
Micah nods at me, the eggless monstrosity who might die at a moment’s notice. Finally, he stands up and smiles, hiding his thoughts from us.
“Okay. I’ll send the tech in for your labs. It will only take a little while.”
“What about a bot?” Dyl fairly squeaks out her plea.
“Or breath-chem tests?” I add. Dyl nods eagerly at my suggestion.
“Oh, that. Well, New Horizons can’t afford breath-chems. And our lab bot has been down for a while. We’re going old-fashioned today.” He scoots out the door pretty fast, as if he anticipates our coming protest.
The next fifteen minutes are a comedy for me and torture for Dyl. The lab tech looks about a hundred years old, with an IQ of a moss-covered pebble. He jabs us with needles, once, twice, and finally gets the blood flowing into the collection capsules, all the while marking down stuff on the e-tablet, which he drops twice because his gnarled hands are so clumsy. By the time he’s done, Dyl is a stunning shade of greenish white, and I’ve got my arm around her.
“The bruises will fade,” I tell her. Dyl shivers under my arm, until I realize she’s not cold, and she’s not crying.
“It’s not that. I have a bad feeling, Zel.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Look, let’s get something to eat. You’re probably just faint from hunger. And that vampire grandpa with bad aim didn’t help.”
The smile I hoped for doesn’t come. Dyl’s quiet despair is almost physical, blanketing both of us as we walk back in our room. She curls up on my bed and lets me tuck her under the sheets.
I punch in an order for some food at the efferent. Hydroponic chicken salad, hot peas with butter, and steaming mini-loaves of cheddar sunseed bread. But she won’t touch any of it. After a few more hours, Dyl is still half catatonic on the bed, and she doesn’t complain when I rub her back gently.
I wish I knew what to do. We’re both afloat in our own brand of uncontrolled misery, and I can’t make it go away. There’s no protocol in my lab files for dealing with grief.
“Come on. Why don’t you listen to some music on your holo. Cheer you up,” I suggest, and she nods. I squeeze her foot under the covers, and she wriggles back in acknowledgment.
I chew the inside of my cheek to distract me from that black hole of a feeling, the absence of Dad. He said to take care of myself. But all I can think of is Dyl. I have never seen her so withered, in such a dark place. While Dyl chooses some quiet, depressing music, I flick on my own holo. I can’t look at cell bio sites, and the thought of political science channels makes me ill, so I stare instead at a blank screen.
Suddenly, my holo screen goes fuzzy and matching static fills the air.
“Clear,” I command, to reset the holo. My stud is an older model I keep forgetting to update, and occasionally it’s too slow to handle the information. But the holo stays fuzzy. I reach up and pinch the earpiece, turning it off.
“My holo just died,” Dyl says, pulling the thick silver stud out of her earlobe. She walks to the bathroom, where she can examine it under the brighter light, checking the pin-sized battery in the core. I start to pull my black one out too.
“Weird. Mine did too—”
But before I can finish my sentence, the door opens.
Two strangers walk into our room. In the hallway behind them, a fancy electrostatic hoverchair bobs, as if waiting to serve a disabled person. One of the strangers is a young woman dressed in black. She wears her paper-white hair in a sleek ponytail, and her eyes are so pale blue they look white too, as if she dunked her whole head, eyes wide open, into a bucket of bleach.
The other guy is heavyset with a baby face, curly orange hair, and a scattering of scruffy beard. He withdraws a handful of black jelly beans from his pocket, popping them one by one into his mouth and chewing like a cow. For some reason, he keeps a wide distance from the woman. ?A bored expression flattens his features.
“Can I . . . help you?” I ask timidly. Dyl peeks from the bathroom.
“Your foster family is here to pick you up,” the girl says, but not kindly.
This is not what I expected. Now? It feels wrong in every way—her tone of voice, the way her eyes won’t look at me, the chubby companion and his black candy.
I shake my head. “But we only just did our tests today. I thought—”
She ignores me and beckons to my sister. “Come with me.”
Dyl looks to me, fear entering her eyes. She doesn’t move forward, instead whispering so low that only I can hear her.
“Zel, stay close to me.”
I give her the tiniest nod, and turn to the pair. “Where are we going, exactly?” I ask.
“Not both of you, just her.” The woman sounds irritated, and I can feel the blood pounding in my chest. I start breathing faster and faster to match the demand of my heart. They’re going to separate us, after I just silently promised my sister. I stand my ground in front of Dyl, like a guard. A tiny one.
“Can I confirm this with Micah? Or maybe the New Horizons director?” I say, failing to keep my voice steady. I pinch my holo on. “Micah? Can you—Micah?” My screen is still fuzzy.
A tidy smile stretches the strange girl’s face. Her teeth are tiny—pearly and sharp-looking. She pulls out a short sickle-shaped knife and twirls it in her fist. “Come on, Dylia. It’s time to go.”
When neither of us moves, the guy pockets his remaining jelly beans and crosses the room. Three of me could fit into his body. Before I can even flinch, he grabs my arms and I’m sailing across the room, landing on Dyl’s unmade bed in the corner.
“Zel!” my sister screams. I’ve only bounced on the bed, a trifle joggled and not hurt at all. But . . . holy shit. I just got attacked.
The white-haired girl hisses at the boy. “Ren! I don’t need any drama. I need quiet.”
Ren sticks his blackened tongue out at her and gives me a horrible smile. He saunters over to my corner, and I cower away from him, scrambling over the bedsheets. There’s no way in a million years I could fight this guy.
But . . . I can still breathe, and I can still scream.
The white-haired girl walks calmly into the bathroom where Dyl has retreated. There’s no other door. She’s trapped. Dyl pulls her arm back and aims a perfect punch at her attacker. The girl staggers once, holding her jaw.
“You little bitch,” she says, and shoots out a hand to Dyl’s throat. She holds the knife to Dyl’s face, when the guy hollers out.
“No blood! We need to keep this a clean scene. She’s worth nothing if her DNA is all over the goddamn place.”
The girl clicks her knife shut and shoves it into a pocket, keeping her free hand on Dyl. My sister isn’t that small compared to this girl. She could tear that skinny hand off her neck. Dyl tries, encircling the white wrist with her hands. But Dyl lets go almost as soon as she touches the girl’s skin. And then to my confusion, her attacker releases Dyl’s neck. Not to strike my sister, but to embrace her.
It’s the gentlest hug, her arms slipping up Dyl’s back, their knees touching. One. Two. Three seconds go by, and the girl steps away to survey her work.
Dyl slumps against the wall, like a marionette cut free of the strings. Her eyes blink unseeing, and as her head slides onto the floor, she vomits yellow liquid down her chin, staining her pristine white shirt.
I’ve never felt this pain before. Dad being hurt in the accident was one thing, but to see my little sister attacked, so utterly helpless and alone—it crushes me. I take in the biggest breath I can muster and let it out in a rush.
“Get away from her! Somebody! Help, please!”
“REN! I said keep it quiet!” The white-haired girl points to “it,” meaning me.
Before I can utter another scream, Ren grabs my arms and lifts my entire body, slamming me onto the floor. My head bounces against the hard surface for good measure and white light bursts under my eyelids. I’m in too much pain to even whimper.
“Don’t worry. Just breathe, honey.” His voice is crackly and I want to shriek, but I can’t because he’s clamped my jaw shut. I inhale frantically through my nose, trying to get enough air in my lungs when I realize what he’s doing. Ren’s mouth is inches away, and he’s blowing out his breath right into my face.
Violated. It’s the only word that can describe how I feel, inhaling his spent air. He purses his lips like a child begging for a kiss from a kindergarten sweetheart, but it’s not remotely innocent. His breath smells of licorice mixed with something earthy and spoiled. I’d vomit if I could only open my mouth.
Out of the periphery of my vision, I see something that can’t possibly be here. What the hell? A tendril of pale green vine, so lush and beautiful, curls into my field of vision. It sprouts orange flowers, the color of a grand sunset. One of the vines curls around my ear to tickle my neck.
Ren lets go of my face. I swat at the vine, which is now encircling my leg. A new bloom, the size of a dinner plate, bobs over my face. It’s beautiful but menacing.
“Stop. Go away,” I say, but my words are coming from a far distance. Holy shizz, I can actually see the letters, crawling along Dyl’s bed. Stop shimmies under the covers in a lump and Go away floats over the floor and squeezes a hasty exit under the door.
“She’s so gone. Let’s go.” The words shimmer in gold, retreating behind the bloom still dancing over my head.
The distorted flower is almost painful to behold, wringing out my brain that’s so used to all things logical. It hurts. It tells me to stop fighting, stop resisting, stop everything and just worship.
Has it been minutes, or hours, or weeks? My eyes grow dry and weary from the adoration, when one of the petals simply disappears. Where did it go? I turn around, trying to see where it’s fallen. Around my body, the green filaments begin to disintegrate, blurring into a pale smoke and then nothingness. The vision is gone.
Suddenly, there is pain. The back of my head, throbbing. And silence. I shake my head and try to look around the room. Reality is back. The two strangers are gone.
And so is Dyl.