Issue 65 Oct 2018
Taking the long way home was the least of Toby’s worries that warm June afternoon. The drugstore faced the parking lot -- the school bullies’ favorite hangout. But Aunt Annabel needed her refills, and he was going to get them for her.
Creeping up to the parking lot, he scanned in all directions. No ruffians in sight. He sprinted to the drugstore as fast as his limp allowed and almost hit his face against the sliding doors.
“Hi Toby,” the man behind the counter said. “How’s Annabel doing? Are we keeping her headaches at bay?”
“She’s fine now,” Toby said, gasping for breath. “She had a headache yesterday, but the stronger painkillers helped.”
“Here you go.” The man handed Toby five white paper bags. “Give your aunt my regards.”
Toby stuffed the bags in his backpack, and took a worried look out the window. He left in a hurry. At the same time, from the bubble tea shop next door, his nemesis stormed out. It was none other than Cody Sylvester, the sixteen-year-old who was taking grade nine for the second time. His younger buddies followed.
“Well, lookit! It if ain’t the limping nerd! Dinnit I tell ya I don’t wanna see ya in my hangout, Flynn? Dinnit I tell him boys? Dinnit I?”
Toby tried to get away, but Cody grabbed the handle of his backpack and pulled him down. They carried him to the far end of the parking lot and dumped him in the ditch, face down.
The tree was an anomaly. It stood, a lonely sentinel, in a world that no longer welcomed it. They say there used to be forests, dense with growth. Communities of saplings, shrubs, and climbing vines. But that was so long ago, it felt more like folklore than truth. Pictures in books depicted trees with jewel toned foliage. Their crowns spread broad and proud. They blossomed, bore fruit, and were things of beauty. The stunted relic outside my window was a nightmare tangle of twisted limbs and dagger sharp brambles. The leaves were ashy, green-grey spikes covered in fuzz. It never grew fruit, but it did flower. Once.
“Eliot! Let's go. School.” Mom hollered from the base of the stairs.
I hated my name. It was just one more thing that alienated me from my classmates. Eliot -- that weird girl with a boy's name. Not that I was interested in what they thought. Idiots.
“Eliot. Move it.” Her voice was stretched thin with impatience. “And don't forget to change the filter in your gas-mask.”
I clattered down the stairs and rummaged through the front closet. I sighed. The box of filters was nearly empty. Money was tight now that Dad was gone. At least school was ending and I would start my apprenticeship. Take a little pressure off Mom. I hesitated and then put the new cartridge down. I could stretch it a few more days. She didn't need to know.
“Mom, I'm going to be home a little late after classes today.” I didn't meet her eye as I finagled a thick, tattered volume -- Agriculture in the Twenty First Century -- into my overstuffed rucksack.
“No problem. Are you doing something with your friends? Or a boy, maybe?” Her voice was a shade too nonchalant. “There are still a few days before marriage contracts have to be submitted.”
“Gross.” I groaned and rolled my eyes. “I’m sixteen, Mom. I have no interest in being a Breeder. Ugh.” The slang word tasted bitter on my tongue.