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The Secret Under My Skin
By Janet Elizabeth McNaughton
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2000 Janet Elizabeth McNaughton
All right reserved.
The Grand Hotel
At night I listen while some of the kids whisper their stories, from before. When they had families and homes. One after another. "I had a mother and she loved me. . . ." "My father had a job. He used to bring us candy. . . ." "My grandmother sang this song. . . ." And I believe them because kids who hit the streets too young never make it here.
We sleep in the basement of the grand hotel. It had a name once, but no one remembers now. The warders call it the Model Social Welfare Project. We call it the work camp. But the walls keep out the rain and snow. We sleep on beds. I don't have to beg or lift scrip cards or satisfy the stranger whims of strangers to earn my food like I did when the Tribe had me, when I lived in the Core.
The others talk about the past, but I don't. Not ever. If asked, I say I don't remember. But that's not true. I keep my memories to myself because they aren't like anyone else's. Not comforting. Not beautiful. Others cling to the past like shreds of an old blanket. My memories are more like shards of glass. I drift off to sleep tonight hoping I can take the others' memories with me to make my dreams. Hoping I will not fall into the same loop of haunting shadowsthat cannot be understood. But tonight is no different from any other. Once again, I'm in the strange city. The air is hot and breathless. We are at the edge of a green field enclosed by fine buildingssome made of stone. One has a rounded, green roof. I look around without straining because my head is resting on Someone's arm.
Suddenly I'm in another place. Darkness crowds the circle of bright light that holds me. There is music and noise. I am captivated by a yellow bowl on the table in front of me, bright in the unfamiliar lights of nighttime. Without warning, arms rip me from my chair. I hear a woman howl after me, a wordless wail. Then only darkness and the sound of running. I wake with a jolt.
Those are my memories. If I told them, who would believe me? What do they mean? I only know that I was once held by Someone. Who? If I could just shift my gaze a few centimeters, what would I see? When my heart is quiet again, I lie awake wishing I knew. If I had a memory of Someonea mother or a fathermaybe I would be someone too. But I am nothing. Just a voice inside my head. I only know that Someone once held me safe, even if I got lost after. Even if I was left behind. And Someone gave me my Object, the only thing I've managed to keep with me all this time. Whatever it is.
As I lie thinking, a sound creeps into the darkness. It grows until I recognize the hum of a fuel cell. The lights of a vehicle sweep past the frosted basement windows. Who would come here so late? But the sound doesn't stop. It continues up the hill. The only house up there belongs to a Master of the Way. I've never seen a vehicle go there before. A little kid whimpers. Before anyone else hears, I slip out of bed and find her. She's sitting up, her eyes wide. "The lights," she whispers. "Are they coming for us?"
I smooth the sweat-flattened hair off her face. "No. Don't worry. Lie down."
She shakes her head. "I'm scared."
"Lie down," I say again. "I'll stay, all right?" She nods. After a few minutes, her eyes start to close. She puts her thumb in her mouth and goes to sleep, but I stay with her. Just in case.
Excerpted from The Secret Under My Skin by Janet Elizabeth McNaughton Copyright © 2000 by Janet Elizabeth McNaughton. Excerpted by permission.
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