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By Denise Getson
CBAY BooksCopyright © 2011 Denise Getson
All rights reserved.
I glance at the sky, but there are no clouds. There are never clouds. I know what clouds look like only because of the digital images in our lessons at school. I know someone who has been north, to the mountains, and swears she saw clouds. Perhaps she's telling the truth, but I doubt it.
I take my book to a spot I like, a quiet corner behind the shed. There's shade here. The ground is hard and cracked, separated into rough-edged shards that can pierce the skin, but I bring a cushion with me.
I'm reading a book about flowers. I don't have much personal experience with flowers. It's against the law to have unauthorized vegetation on private property. Plants require so much water, you see, that every kind of gardening or agriculture must be approved by the proper agencies.
Naturally, we don't have much in the way of plant life here at the orphanage. We have cactus, the tall and the short kind, creating an obstacle course of pincushions throughout the property, and a tomato patch was approved after proper petitioning by Matron. When the fruit's ripe, we have fresh tomatoes with every meal, which is a treat.
But flowers are considered a frivolous use of water. Flowers — the purely ornamental kind — are non-essential. However, I've discovered a flower tucked into a small patch of earth behind the shed. No one ever comes here but me, and I don't think it's been discovered. It should have died by now since summer is full upon us and the heat is fierce, but I've been watering it in secret.
Every night, instead of drinking my last ration of water, I save a swallow in my mouth. Discreetly, I slip out of the dining room. I go to our sleeping quarters and spit the water into a small, covered dish I keep beneath my bed. Every few days, when I have a break from my studies and my chores, I take the water to the shed and pour it out onto the ground.
The flower's beautiful. The blossoms are small and pink and clustered together like tiny bells. The petals are softer than anything I've ever felt in my life. I touch one now, for the pure pleasure of it, before getting comfortable on the cushion and opening my book.
I want to find out what kind of flower I have. The book hints it might be a variety of bluebell, except that my flower is not blue, or even purple, as most bluebells were. It is clearly pink.
"What are you doing back here?"
I freeze, my breath catching at the back of my throat. Carefully, I lean back until I'm sure no part of the flower can be seen. Placing one finger on the page to hold my spot, I glance up.
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
I'm not in the habit of making nice with Mary Castle, but neither am I in the habit of being deliberately difficult. I try for casual disinterest and gaze at my intruder with what I hope is just the right mixture of impatience and preoccupation. Looking at Mary always makes me feel impatient, anyway. She's too perfect, too put-together. Whenever I see her, I want to rumple her up.
Mary studies the book in my lap then raises one snooty eyebrow. "You're wasting your time studying flowers," she snorts. "You might as well be studying Latin or some other useless thing."
"It's my personal time. I'll read whatever I want."
"Matron wants you inside. Visitors are coming tomorrow. You and Sheila have floors."
I hide my dismay. No one wants floors. Matron insists we get on our hands and knees, running a cloth over every hard square inch. I know I'll be aching from it tomorrow. Still, I won't let Mary see that I care one way or the other. She's probably the one who suggested me for the stupid job in the first place.
"What are you waiting for?" she snaps. "Let's go."
I hold my position, keeping my gaze on hers. "I'll be there in a minute."
"Matron doesn't like to be kept waiting."
Mary narrows her eyes, looks as though she's going to say something then shrugs. With a wrinkle of her delicate nose, she heads back to the house, leaving me alone in the shadow of the outbuilding.
I exhale as tension seeps from my body. Slowly, I close my book, listening for any sound that indicates someone else might be nearby. I pick up the dish lying on the ground beside me and stand, peering around the corner. All's clear.
I turn, startled, as Mary steps around the opposite corner. Darn that girl for a sneak! My mind's racing, trying to think of a way to divert her attention.
"I told you to beat it!" I growl, getting in her face, my free hand fisted and ready to swing. I honestly don't know if Mary can take a punch, but we're about to find out.
"Why are you always hiding back here?"
"I'm not hiding. It's just ... I like it. It's private." I stare at her pointedly. "Most of the time that is."
"In your hand."
I glance at the dish in my hand, then down at the lid lying on the ground next to my flower.
"What've you got in there?" She reaches, grabbing the small bowl from my grasp. I swing my arm to take it back, but she holds it just out of reach. She tips the container up and catches the lone, last drop onto her face. "It's water." She turns accusing eyes to mine. "Where did you get this? You've been stealing!"
"I have not! I mean," I struggle to keep my voice even, "that water was my water, part of my ration. I've just been saving a bit to ... uh ... so I could have a sip when I'm out here reading, that's all. It gets hot." I hold out my hand. "Now, give it back."
She looks at me suspiciously, but slowly, her arm comes down and with it my bowl. I step forward to take it from her and at that moment, something happens. Mary's eyes shift from mine to a space just beyond where I was standing.
The dish falls into my hand, but Mary's already pushed past me, her eyes wide on the ground by the shed. My heart sinks. I turn around, silent.
"Is that a real flower?" She lifts her face to mine, her features stark with amazement.
I watch as Mary turns astonished eyes back to the ground. She bends down and puts out a finger to gently tap one of the soft bells. I want to shout and grab her arm. It's my flower! But, I wait. I watch as she strokes the delicate pink, then looks at me with damp eyes. Ah, geez. Is she crying?
"I won't tell a soul, Kira. I swear."
My jaw drops open in disbelief and I close it with a snap. Does she mean it? After a minute, I nod slowly. She gives me a hesitant look.
"Do you think it would be alright if I come out here sometimes? I mean, I know this is your special place, but ... when you're not using it, you know. I could maybe save some of my water, too."
My first instinct is to tell her to get lost. This is my spot. But, I can't undo her knowing about the flower. Clearly, I have to get her on my side. Besides, with two of us watering it, there might be a chance to save it. Who knows? Maybe next spring, we'll have two flowers.
"I guess that would be alright," I say finally, rocking back on my heels. I try for just the right touch of nonchalance. "But don't be obvious about it. I don't want Matron getting suspicious."
"I promise." She gives me a watery smile, glances at the flower, then leaves.
As soon as she's gone, I sink down onto my cushion with a trembling breath. I can't believe it. Mary's going to help me take care of the flower. That's a surprise. Still, I have to be careful. One of the other girls might wander back here and not be as good about it as Mary was. I shake my head, still trying to wrap my mind around what's happened. She seemed honestly moved by the flower.
Of course, water's going to be a problem. Even with Mary and me saving our spit, the hottest weather's still to come.
I bend over the tiny blossoms. "I wish I could make it easier," I whisper. "I wish I could make water for you, right here; right now."
Then, it happens.
I don't see it at first. I'm concentrating on the flower, placing a finger against the arc of the stem to test its strength. My eye is caught by a small patch of dirt that's suddenly darker than the rest. I put my finger to the ground and feel. It's damp. As I watch, a small puddle appears. Water trickles up out of the ground. The puddle spreads to the base of the flower then stops.
I blink slowly, pressing my hand to my head. I'm not sure what just happened. I stand up, still staring at the ground. The sun's hot today and I've been out for awhile. I don't think I applied my sun block as thoroughly as I should have. Mental confusion and hallucinations are common sunstroke symptoms. Every school child knows that. Sunstroke. That must be it. I need to get out of the heat and hydrate. Leaving my cushion and dish, I head back to the house in a daze, shielding my face from the sun.CHAPTER 2
"Hey, Kira, is it true your mother was a freak?"
I stop in my tracks, glad the girl behind me can't see my skin flush. I don't have to turn around to know who's taunting me. Casually, I relax my body into a fighting stance.
"Hey, Crystal," I respond softly. "I heard your mother's still alive. You're here because she didn't want you."
The hiss behind me has my hands clenching. I twirl, just in time to meet Crystal's right hook. I'm momentarily stunned, my eyes filling with unwanted tears, my head snapping from the impact. I should have been prepared. Crystal always goes for the right hook. A red film drops across my vision, and then I'm barreling into the other girl, my punches aimed at the soft targets I know will hurt her more and me less. Immediately, there are a half dozen girls joining in the fray. I feel my fist connect with bone — I'm not sure whose — and hear the sudden "oomph" of air being expelled when I lower my head and ram into someone's gut.
I'm not unhurt. In a vague, distant sort of way, I'm aware of the taste of blood in my mouth and something's not right with my left leg. Has it been kicked or twisted? It doesn't matter. I know the pain will come later.
My lungs are empty of air, and it feels like I've been fighting forever, but it's probably only minutes before Matron strides over, grabbing ears and arms and peeling bodies apart.
I never get the chance to tell my side of the story. Six sets of fingers point at me along with a chorus of "Kira started it." Matron puts a tight grip on my shoulder and propels me into her office. I turn and rake Crystal with one last scorching glance. "My mother was not a freak," I whisper for her ears only. Then I shrug off Matron's hand and march inside.
Matron's office gives me the creeps. Well, it's not her office so much. It's the painting hanging behind her desk. The Garner Home for Girls is just that — a home for girls. Even the staff is all female. So, the portrait of the large mustached man that dominates Matron's office seems out of place.
"Do you want to explain yourself?"
Matron's voice has me pulling my eyes away from the painting to the woman behind the desk. There's nothing matronly about her, certainly nothing maternal. She is stiff and stern, and her voice is gravelly when she speaks.
Her fingers drum on the tabletop, creating a matching rhythm inside me. I want to grab her hand and smash it flat, but I force myself to sit quietly.
"I'm running out of punishments, Kira, and I'm running out of patience. You know, there are other places for people like you — places which would treat you a lot less kindly than we do at the Garner Home."
My fingers twitch on the arms of my chair. "What do you mean 'people like me?'"
She looks momentarily at a loss, but recovers. "You're touchy, Kira. You take things too personally."
"I do not!"
Matron gazes at me mildly.
I blow my bangs in frustration. "I just take things personally when they're meant personally, that's all."
"Kira, you have to learn to get along with others. I'm giving you one more chance to improve your behavior. If you can't shape up, I'm going to suggest you for a transfer to one of the vocational homes."
I stay silent, refusing to cave in to her intimidation. I know I'm not like the other girls, and I don't care. I don't like to do the things they do. I don't care about the same things. But, I'm not a troublemaker. At least, not intentionally. I keep my face blank.
"Fine," Matron mutters, becoming businesslike. "For the next two weeks, you can help Cook in the kitchen. You'll be responsible for breakfast and dinner."
"Geez Louise! Breakfast and dinner!"
"I can still add lunch, if you like," she says calmly.
I cross my arms, biting my tongue so hard, I'm sure to have permanent teeth marks. Immediately, I begin plotting how I can sprinkle ash on Crystal's seaweed, in place of pepper. The image of Crystal gagging on her first bite has me feeling better.
"I don't know what you're smiling about, young lady, but whatever it is, I'd rethink it if I were you."
Matron's eyes are narrowed on my face. Quickly, I compose my features into an expression of meekness. She raises one disbelieving brow and, with a tired wave of her hand, motions me out of the room. I jump up, eager to get back to my own quarters.
The girls at the Garner Home live in long sleeping rooms according to our age group. At sixteen, I've recently graduated to the upperclassmen's quarters. In a year, I'll have to decide whether to apply to one of the technical schools or get a work assignment, but I'm in no hurry. It can be foolish to think too much about a future that's uncertain. Better to take things one day at a time.
The sleeping quarters are silent. At this time of the day, everyone's in the main building, doing homework or doing chores. I slip my hand beneath my pillow and pull out a small photograph. Stepping over to a mirror on the wall, I hold the picture beside my face. The familiar image stares back at me through the glass. There's a resemblance. Round grey eyes stare into round grey eyes. But where my hair is cropped and smooth and red in the light, my mother's is dark and wavy, capturing the light and holding it.
I don't know where the rumor about my mother started, but it's been floating around as long as I can remember. Maybe Matron knew her before she died, but she's never said, and I refuse to ask. My own memories are thin and wispy, hard to hold onto except in that moment just before waking.
I stick out my tongue at my reflection, then turn and slip the photo back beneath my pillow. I have a meal to prepare. I smile briefly in anticipation before leaving the room.CHAPTER 3
Mary's true to her word. I'm skeptical at first, but soon I realize this flower is a small miracle, and it's made a miracle in our lives. She and I make peace, working together to create a schedule of times when we'll water the flower.
We take turns carrying our small containers of water out back. Although there're now two of us watering the flower, it's getting harder to keep it alive. The sun creates tiny heat explosions in my head every time I walk outside. One hundred and fifteen degree days are not uncommon. Even with a lavish layer of sun protection, I wilt in the summer heat. I don't know how my flower bears it.
I understand why the flowers disappeared. After the Devastation, a lot of things disappeared, or they changed into something unrecognizable from what they'd been. People saved some things: vines that flowered and turned into squash or beans or melons. They were saved. Agricultural production became limited to Biospheres only, where soil and air conditions could be closely monitored.
Of course, everyone has a mail order algae tank, complete with rotors and evaporation shields and solar panels, algae being one life form that has no problem growing in the harshest of environments. The harvesting cycle for algae is less than ten days, so we never run out. I don't know if we could survive without a constant supply of the stuff.
Flowers, however, are another matter. Flowers that were just flowers — flowers that didn't turn into food — gradually vanished. It's as if they sensed they were no longer appreciated and collectively decided to disappear from the earth.
I hear stories. Travelers come through and tell us about places where things still grow, even without human intervention. One old man said he'd seen roses. They hadn't smelled like much, he said, not like you'd expect a rose to smell, but they were roses all the same. I'd like to see roses.
Of course, wanting to see roses is impractical. I know that. And above all, the Garner Home for Girls is a very practical place. The staff are real nuts-and-bolts types, determined to teach us the lessons we need to get by in a dying world.
Excerpted from Dry Souls by Denise Getson. Copyright © 2011 Denise Getson. Excerpted by permission of CBAY Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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