“Language, Eliot!” She frowned.
Mom hated that I wanted to work. I wouldn’t have the choice if someone bid on my contract, but with three days until the deadline I was feeling hopeful. Seriously, who would want a skinny bookworm as a wife? The thought made my stomach churn and I changed the subject.
“I just have to return some books to the library.” I tried to ignore her look of disappointment.
Mom didn't share my interest in history. Dad had though. My happiest memories were pouring over old texts with him. He’d been like a little boy, exclaiming over antique contraptions -- microwaves and cell phones. We had spent the entirety of school break one year drooling over a wildlife compendium. The fragile, glossy photos brought the extinct creatures to life. We amused ourselves for hours speculating on what it might've been like to meet a real live hippopotamus. Or see a blackbird on the wing. We drowned ourselves in exotic whimsy.
Mom just didn't get me. It was exasperating, but she tried her best. I got it, the past was painful for her. But it wasn't my fault I was so like Dad. I even looked like him, rail thin with glasses resting on a snub nose. Mom's only contribution was a thick mane of black hair. Her curls were perfectly coiffed. Mine refused to behave. I didn't try that hard to subdue them. Like Dad, I was more interested in books than appearances. Mom would steal mournful glances at me when she thought I wasn't looking. She missed him so much. We both did.
I gave Mom a guilty peck on the cheek before slipping on my gas mask and pulling the straps. Too tight -- one snapped off at the base. “Damn.” I'd have to make do. Hoisting my bag onto my shoulder I headed to school. Two days and counting.
A dry wind toyed with the dust, making the road undulate as if alive. Instead of foraging into the swirling grit, I checked to see if anyone was watching. Sometimes lookie-lou's came to gawk. The tree used to be famous, being the last of its kind. Eventually the novelty wore off. It didn't do anything but grow there and people expected more of their oddities. They didn't seem to recognize that the act of growing in the poison air was a curiosity in itself.
The street was deserted as I slipped around the corner, where the gnarled behemoth grew alongside the house, sheltered from the baking sun. I pushed back the rubbish piled around the base of the trunk. Beneath the trash the soil was cool -- a hint of dampness, but drying. I unscrewed the top of my water bottle and dribbled a narrow stream across the roots. The branches above my head rustled in the breeze, a sigh of relief. I shook the bottle dry before draping a plastic bag to disguise the darkened earth. If my mother discovered I was wasting even a drop of my water ration on the knotted tree she'd eviscerate me.
Satisfied that my handiwork was hidden, I patted the trunk. The wrinkled bark was rough under my fingers. It was familiar. Companionable. Sometimes I talked to it, words muffled by my gas mask. It started after Dad's accident, pouring out my grief where no one could hear. It became habit. The tree knew all my secrets. It was the only one who listened, without judgment. Its steadfast silence was absolute. As I turned away, a breeze bent a lithe bough down to skim my cheek with a gentle nuzzle. The kiss of the downy leaves tickled my skin and I smiled. “See you later, friend.”
The Maester’s afternoon lecture on supplement composition was excruciating. Two days until graduation, and they were still force feeding us minutia. I kept losing focus, thinking about the old fashioned farms I'd been reading about the night before. Back when food was grown, not synthesized. The bell rang, jolting me out of a pleasant daydream about fields of golden wheat.
Lunging from my seat in the back row, I snatched my bag from the coatroom. Cramming on my mask, I jabbed the airlock button before any of my classmates could filter in. They'd have to wait for the heavy steel doors to reseal before getting their own things. It gave me a head start, sparing me from the unwelcome company of my peers. It was hard to ignore their jibes. They didn’t bother to whisper.
There goes Zealot Eliot again, off to the library.
I heard she's obsessed with The Historian.
Gross, he's so old – I bet he's almost thirty!
Nah, she likes books better than people.
They weren't wrong on that last one.
The public library was in disrepair. Grey stones were etched by gritty wind. Acid rain had eroded the two carved lions by the front steps, their frozen roars crumbling. Inside, I waited a slow thirty count before slipping off my mask and hanging it on a hook. It took awhile for the door to seal. It was temperamental. The Historian, Geoff Siegfried, had stopped petitioning for even the most basic repairs. The Committee never granted him funds, claiming ‘low priority’ and ‘limited resources.’ Geoff had paid for several essential upgrades out of his own pocket.
I strode through the main floor, ignoring the workstations and vid screens. Nowadays everyone had remote login to the main database. However, Dad had insisted that we only use the public computers. He had been convinced The Committee was spying on everyone's home networks. It was probably true, but no one else seemed to care. Convenience over privacy. For them, the only reason to visit the library would be to read the paper books. Since most of those were restricted, almost no one bothered coming in anymore. My boot heels squeaked on the polished tile, echoing in the empty room. I drank in the solitude.
Stopping in front of a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only,” I tapped a four digit sequence on the keypad. Geoff had given me my own code to the off-limits area months ago. It made me feel special. He was going to offer me an apprenticeship after graduation and decided he would get a jump on my training. The screen flashed a stern warning -- Access Denied. Clumsy fingers. I tried again and frowned when console remained red. Confused, I lifted my hand to the door. Before I could knock, it slid open with a labored whine, leaving me with an awkward hand in the air.
“Oh. Hello. I didn't realize you were coming today.” The Historian looked distracted.
“Hi Geoff! My code's not working.” I gestured to the keypad, still flickering its denial.
A look of regret crossed his face, deepening the lines around his dark eyes. He schooled his features into a studious, bland mien. It was an odd replacement for his usual wry humor. “Maester Siegfried, if you please Miss Donahue.”
The admonishment stung. We had been on a first name basis for years -- he’d been Dad's best friend. I wondered what I’d done to offend him. Ducking my head to hide my pained expression, I dug around in my satchel. “I brought back the books I borrowed last week.”
The Historian took the volumes and gathered them to his chest. He was protective of his charges. Paper books were rare. “If that will be all?” He turned to go.
“Geoff -- I mean Maester Siegfried -- wait!” He paused and glanced down at me with a sigh. I wanted to ask what was bothering him. After his cool reception, I didn't dare. “I thought I'd borrow something else. Maybe the book on democracy that Dad had been reading?” I tried not to sound hopeful. I'd been asking every week since Dad had died, and Geoff had never let me borrow it before. I doubted in his current mood he'd relent. Still, I had to ask.
“Miss Donahue.” His face softened in pity. “Eliot. I know you want to feel close to your dad. I miss him too. But I can't let you read that book. It's seditious. Full of radical, antiquated concepts that would only lure you into trouble.” He hesitated before adding, “Look where it got your father.” His voice cracked.
“What do you mean?” I leaned forward, eager to know more.
Geoff shifted his feet glancing over his shoulder. “Nothing. Forget it.”
I took a deep breath and changed the subject. If I pushed it would make it worse. My apprenticeship started next week. There would be time to puzzle out what he knew about Dad’s death. “Ok. How about one of the wildlife compendiums then?”
“I'm sorry.” His flat, cultivated look was back. “I don't think that's a good idea. Books aren't really supposed to leave the library.”
A seed of worry sprouted in me. Bending the rules had never bothered him before. “But as apprentice, I thought I got special permission?”
“The Placement Ceremonies aren't until next week. Someone could still make an offer on your marriage contract.”
I groaned. “Yuck. You sound like my mother. Don't worry about it. I guarantee no one wants 'Zealot Eliot' as a Breeder.” Doubt niggled, but I refused to face the possibility.
Geoff choked, face flushing pink. Embarrassed at my crudeness. He waved in dismissal and retreated into the restricted section. I could still hear him clearing his throat as the door slid closed.
“Eliot! Let's go. School.” Mom sounded stuffy. She stood on the bottom step, watching me with red rimmed eyes. “Last day. My baby's all grown up.” She fussed over me, making my favorite breakfast, trying to smooth my unruly hair. I indulged her, trying not to squirm under her ministrations.
When I finally escaped out the door, I checked the time. Late. Running attracted attention, but I decided to risk it. I arrived at school with a stitch in my side. My throat stung and I tasted sulfur as I gasped for breath. I should have changed the filter. As soon as the door sealed behind me I ripped off the mask. That's when Dustin Weller found me just inside the coatroom airlock. Gulping tinny, canned air like a fish out of water. Before the lakes and streams dried up they were so polluted nothing lived in them. But prior to that, fish and turtles and all sorts of things swam around. At least that's what the books say.
Dustin leaned against the door frame and leered at me. He had started school late and was a year older than everyone in the class. His parents had money -- mountains of it -- and had paid to keep him inside an extra year. Wealth bought health. The extra year, exposure free, had made him tall and strong. He was handsome, with his broad shoulders, square jaw, and straight, even teeth. Freakishly so, if you asked me. No one did. Most of the girls giggled and sighed when he flashed his dimples. All I could see was the cruelty glinting in his eyes.
Bordering on an obsession, I was Dustin's favorite plaything. It started when we were small children -- he'd yank my pigtails and laugh as I cried. If anyone else came near me, he'd beat them up. He was impossible to stand up to. No one else dared to touch me, but I didn't have any friends either.
Over the years his taunting took on a coquettish tone. He wore a masque of flirtatious banter. The other girls, jealous of his attention, hated me for it. I would have traded places willingly. When it was just the two of us, he fed me glimpses of his true self. The hunger to control, to gorge on the pain that he promised in his wordless stares. It was terrifying.
The coatroom was too small for the both of us. Looming over me Dustin shook his head and flipped back his russet hair. He pierced me with a calculating gaze -- a predator measuring up his prey. Silence stretched between us. He stood too close. In the quiet, the blood rushing in my ears was deafening. Suddenly my ragged breathing had nothing to do with a spent filter cartridge.
“You're late, Curly.” Dustin reached out and tugged on a lock of my hair. It skated the line between malice and tenderness. I jerked, in an attempt to put distance between us. I only took one step before my back hit the wall.
“If I am, so are you.” I made my voice hard, trying to cover the retreat. The instinct to flee didn't serve me well; fear only encouraged him. Still, I measured the distance it would take to escape.
“You haven't heard. No classes today. The water's out. Everyone's already gone home.” He reached out and placed a hand against the wall, angling his body between me and the door. “Whatever should we do with the free time?” His splayed fingers grazed my shoulder, stolen intimacy. I shuddered at the touch. He simpered, enjoying my discomfort. I tried pushing past him, but his arm was a stone wall. Unmovable.
“Not so fast, sweetheart.” Dustin leaned forward, crushing me against the wall with his body. He whispered with dry lips, rasping against my ear. “I have a surprise for you.” His breath was hot against my neck, but I only felt a cold band of foreboding tighten around my chest. He lingered, body pressed against mine. The seconds dragged out. It was unbearable. When he finally stepped back the air whooshed out of my lungs all at once, like burst balloon.
Dustin's gaze locked onto me as he fished something from his pocket. His eyes were unusual -- a delicate, crystalline blue. Like the pictures of ancient glaciers, long since melted. He sniggered, as if amused by his secret. The thought of whatever he might find funny sent shivers up my spine. He pressed crisp paper into my trembling hand.
I tore my eyes away to study the smooth, creamy envelope. Paper was expensive. This was extravagant. I slid my thumb under the flap and drew out an official looking document. It bit, a parchment viper. A drop of blood splashed down to leave a crimson blotch on the page. The words were drafted in a sprawling, formal hand.
Dear Mr. Dustin Colin Weller,
After careful consideration of genetic records and the complexities of socioeconomic diversification, The Committee is pleased to accept your bid for the marriage contract of Miss Eliot Faith Donahue. Contracts will be executed on the fifth day after graduation during the Placement Ceremonies. It will be your responsibility to contribute a minimum of two (2) offspring to the populace.
May I be the first to offer congratulations.
Arthur Allen Peabody
Chair, Population Management
The paper fell from numb fingers, floating to the floor. Revulsion burned, acrid in the back of my throat. I swallowed hard, trying not to lose my breakfast. Dustin drew a long, self-satisfied breath, as if inhaling my horror. He grinned, watching me squirm.
“You should be flattered. My family paid a fortune for you. That fool Siegfried wanted you as Historian.” He gathered the letter off the floor and trailed a finger through the droplet of blood. A gruesome caress. “What a waste that would have been.” He licked the ruddy smear off his fingertip.
Rage clashed with terror. I opened my mouth to scream my denial, but nothing came out. The angry torrent was dammed in my throat by a bottleneck of words. I snatched up my bag, jammed my gas-mask on, and fled through the airlock. Dustin's laughter chased me out the door.
I huddled at the base of the tree, tears fogging the goggles of my mask. Actually, it was Dustin's. I had grabbed his in my haste to escape. Wearing it made my skin crawl. At least the cartridge was fresh. I hope he suffocated wearing mine. It was all so unfair. The dam broke and angry words flooded out.
Above me the greyish canopy rustled, whispering condolences. Assurances. All will be well. “How can I bear it?” Shhhhhh. “I'm trapped. He'll twist me, hurt me. It's all a sick game to him.” Have faith, child. “I'm so alone.” No, I'm here. “People used to have choices. The Committee didn't control everyone's lives. They were free. Dad showed me in a book the day before his accident.” It wasn't an accident. “Oh God. If I don't get my apprenticeship, how will I ever find out what really happened to Dad?” It'll all turn out.
Branches shivered. A sprinkling of vegetation showered down. Caught in a mini whirlwind the leaves twirled around me. I choked back my sobs, fascinated. A hundred dancing fronds coalesced into a fluttering embrace. For that one moment the panic was held at bay.
The breeze died and the leaves dropped like stones.
“Curly.” Dustin's voice intruded and I jumped, my moment of peace shattered. His voice was muted by the charcoal filter, but to me it sounded like a roar. “I thought I'd come round and we could give your mom the happy news.” I couldn't see his mouth, but his eyes smirked. Closer. The tree quivered. Dustin moved to grab my arm and I recoiled, backing against the trunk. His blue eyes twinkled as I withdrew. Slow motion pursuit, seasoned with intimidation, was his favorite game. Closer. He took a step.
“There's nowhere to go.” Backed against the tree, a thrill of terror rippled up my spine. I realized he was right. He took another step and the wind kicked back up. A cloud of dust filled the alley, isolating us from prying eyes. “I always get what I want.” Above, a gust tossed the canopy, hissing a warning. Dustin reached out and gripped my shoulder. Hard fingers bruised me as he pinned me against the tree. I whimpered.
Faster than thought, a serpentine branch reached down, twining around his arm. It yanked, tearing me free of his grasp. A tentacle of root whipped around Dustin's leg. He yelped, eyes wide in shock. The sound didn't carry. I leapt out of the way.
I watched, unbelieving, as more branches reached down, tangling in Dustin's hair. The tree bound him, weaving a cocoon of bark and leaves. He struggled, but his efforts were no match for the cords of root and limb. His face purpled as a questing tendril slid under the mask. He opened his mouth to scream and the root slithered down his throat, stopping the sound. He gagged. Pale blue eyes latched onto me, bulging in horror. I stared, paralyzed. Unable to look away.
A broad fissure appeared in the trunk, exposing heartwood so deep red it was nearly black. Sticky sap glistened like saliva. The living bonds heaved -- once, twice -- pulling Dustin into its craggy maw. His struggles grew feeble. Slowly the cleft began to close, swallowing its twitching victim. The moment before the rift closed, the gas-mask tumbled free. Belched out as inedible. It rolled to a stop at my feet, staring up at me with empty eyes. Dustin was gone.
“I can't believe they closed the inquiry.” Mom hung her head, devastated. “How could he vanish without a word? You were supposed to be getting married.” The final word came out in a wail.
“Mom. I have to go. I'll be late for my first day.” Whenever Dustin's disappearance came up I changed the subject. It's not like she would believe the truth. It was too unbelievable. I set the thought aside. Today wasn't a day to waste even a moment on the likes of Dustin Weller.
I waved to Mom and slipped outside. Excitement thrummed through me. I wondered, now that I was officially his apprentice, if Geoff would finally let me read that book on democracy. It held answers. About the past. About Dad. I could sense them dangling, just out of reach.
I stepped out onto the road, but hesitation dragged my feet. A flash of guilt knifed me. I hadn't visited the tree since the afternoon it had gobbled up Dustin. I wasn't afraid. I knew I was safe with my old friend. I just didn't need the solace anymore. I glanced down the alley.
My bag dropped, nearly lost in a puff of dust. Inside my mask my jaw went slack. Nestled in the wispy canopy, two vast flowers bloomed. They were a unique shade of glacial blue, like a pair of crystalline eyes. A breeze rustled through the treetop and the blossoms shivered. Winking. The branches waved at me. I waved back.
I smiled and slipped my bag back over my shoulder. I had my future and answers to find. The Historian was waiting.