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By Baggott, Julianna
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Baggott, Julianna
All right reserved.
There was low droning overhead a week or so after the Detonations; time was hard to track. The skies were buckling with dark banks of blackened cloud, the air thick with ash and dust. If it was a plane or an airship of some sort, we never knew because the sky was so clotted. But I might have seen a metal underbelly, some dull shine of a hull dipping down for a moment, then gone. We couldn’t yet see the Dome either. Now bright on the hill, it was only a dusky glow in the distance. It seemed to hover over the earth, orb-like, a lit bobble, unattached.
The droning was some kind of air mission, and we wondered if there would be more bombs. But what would be the point? Everything was gone, obliterated or swept up by the fires; there were dark puddles from black rain. Some drank the water and died from it. Our scars were fresh, our wounds and warpings raw. The survivors hobbled and limped, a procession of death, hoping to find a place that had been spared. We gave up. We were slack. We didn’t take cover. Maybe some were hoping it was a relief effort. Maybe I was too.
Those who could still stagger up from the rubble did. I couldn’t—my right leg gone at the knee, my hand blistered from using a pipe as a cane. You, Pressia, were only seven years old, small for your age, and still pained by your wound raw at the wrist, the burns shining on your face. But you were quick. You climbed up on top of some rubble to get closer to the sound, drawn to it because it was commanding and coming from the sky.
That was when the air took shape, a billowing of shifting, fluttering motion—a sky of singular, bodiless wings.
Slips of paper.
They touched down, settling around you like giant snowflakes, the kind kids used to cut from folded paper and tape to classroom windows, but already grayed by the ashen air and wind.
You picked one up, as did the others who could, until they were all gone. You handed the paper to me and I read it aloud.
We know you are here, our brothers and sisters.
We will, one day, emerge from the Dome to join you in peace.
For now, we watch from afar, benevolently.
Like God, I whispered, they’re watching over us like the benevolent eye of God. I wasn’t alone in this thought. Some were awed. Others raged. We were all still stunned, dazed. Would they ask some of us to enter the gates of the Dome? Would they deny us?
Years would come to pass. They would forget us.
But at first, the slips of paper became precious—a form of currency. That didn’t last. The suffering was too great.
After I read the paper, I folded it up and said, “I’ll hold on to it for you, okay?”
I don’t know if you understood me. You were still distant and mute, your face as blank and wide-eyed as the face of your doll. Instead of nodding your own head, you nodded the doll’s head, part of you forever now. When its eyes blinked, you blinked your own.
It was like this for a long time.
PRESSIA IS LYING IN THE CABINET. This is where she’ll sleep once she turns sixteen in two weeks—the tight press of blackened plywood pinching her shoulders, the muffled air, the stalled motes of ash. She’ll have to be good to survive this—good and quiet and, at night when OSR patrols the streets, hidden.
She nudges the door open with her elbow, and there sits her grandfather, settled into his chair next to the alley door. The fan lodged in his throat whirs quietly; the small plastic blades spin one way when he draws in a breath and the opposite way when he breathes out. She’s so used to the fan that she’ll go months without really noticing it, but then there will be a moment, like this one, when she feels disengaged from her life and everything surprises.
“So, do you think you can sleep in there?” he asks. “Do you like it?”
She hates the cabinet, but she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. “I feel like a comb in a box,” she says. They live in the back storage room of a burned-out barbershop. It’s a small room with a table, two chairs, two old pallets on the floor, one where her grandfather now sleeps and her old one, and a handmade birdcage hung from a hook in the ceiling. They come and go through the storage room’s back door, which leads to an alley. During the Before, this cabinet held barbershop supplies—boxes of black combs, bottles of blue Barbasol, shaving-cream canisters, neatly folded hand towels, white smocks that snapped around the neck. She’s pretty sure that she’ll have dreams of being blue Barbasol trapped in a bottle.
Her grandfather starts coughing; the fan spins wildly. His face flushes to a rubied purple. Pressia climbs out of the cabinet, walks quickly to him, and claps him on the back, pounds his ribs. Because of the cough, people have stopped coming around for his services—he was a mortician during the Before and then became known as the flesh-tailor, applying his skills with the dead to the living. She used to help him keep the wounds clean with alcohol, line up the instruments, sometimes helping hold down a kid who was flailing. Now people think he’s infected.
“Are you all right?” Pressia says.
Slowly, he catches his breath. He nods. “Fine.” He picks up his brick from the floor and rests it on his one stumped leg, just above its seared clot of wires. The brick is his only protection against OSR. “This sleeping cabinet is the best we’ve got,” her grandfather says. “Just give it time.”
Pressia knows she should be more appreciative. He built the hiding place a few months ago. The cabinets stretch along the back wall that they share with the barbershop itself. Most of what’s left of the wrecked barbershop is exposed to the sky, a large hunk of its roof blown clean off. Her grandfather stripped the cabinets of drawers and shelves. Along the back wall of the cabinets he’s put in a fake panel that acts like a trapdoor, leading to the barbershop itself, a panel that she can pop off if she needs to escape into the barbershop. And then where will she go? Her grandfather has shown her an old irrigation pipe where she can hide out while OSR ransacks the storage room, finding an empty cabinet, and her grandfather tells them that she’s been gone for weeks and probably for good, maybe dead by now. He tries to convince himself that they’ll believe him, that she’ll be able to come back, and OSR will leave them alone after this. But of course, they both know this is unlikely.
She’s known a few older kids who ran away—a boy with a missing jaw, then two kids who said they were going to get married far away from here, and a boy named Gorse and his younger sister Fandra, who was a good friend of Pressia’s before they left a few years ago. There’s talk of an underground that gets kids out of the city, past the Meltlands and the Deadlands where there may be other survivors—whole civilizations. Who knows? But these are only whispers, well-intended lies meant to comfort. Those kids disappeared. No one ever saw them again.
“I guess I’ll have time to get used to it, all the time in the world, starting two weeks from today,” she says. Once she turns sixteen, she’ll be confined to the back room and sleep in the cabinet. Her grandfather has made her promise, again and again, that she won’t stray. It’ll be too dangerous to go out, he tells her. My heart won’t take it.
They both know the whispers of what happens to you if you don’t turn yourself in to OSR headquarters on your sixteenth birthday. They will take you while you’re asleep in bed. They will take you if you walk alone in the rubble fields. They will take you no matter whom you pay off or how much—not that her grandfather could afford to pay anyone anything.
If you don’t turn yourself in, they will take you. That isn’t just a whisper. That’s the truth. There are whispers that they will take you up to the outlands where you’re untaught to read—if you’ve learned in the first place, like Pressia has. Her grandfather taught her letters and showed her the Message: We know you are here, our brothers and sisters… (No one speaks of the Message anymore. Her grandfather has hidden it away somewhere.) There are whispers that they then teach you how to kill by use of live targets. And there are whispers that either you will learn to kill or, if you’re too deformed by the Detonations, you’ll be used as a live target, and that will be the end of you.
What happens to the kids in the Dome when they turn sixteen? Pressia figures that it’s like during the Before—cake and brightly wrapped gifts and fake, candy-stuffed animals strung up and beaten with sticks.
“Can I run to the market? We’re almost out of roots.” Pressia is good at boiling certain kinds of roots; it’s mostly what they eat. And she wants to be out in the air.
Her grandfather looks at her anxiously.
“My name isn’t even on the posted list yet,” she tells him. The official list of those who need to turn themselves in to OSR is posted throughout the city—names and birthdates in two tidy columns, information gathered by the OSR. The group emerged shortly after the Detonations, when it was Operation Search and Rescue—setting up medical units that failed, making lists of the survivors and the dead, and then forming a small militia to maintain order. But those leaders were overthrown. OSR became Operation Sacred Revolution; the new leaders rule by fear and are intent on taking down the Dome one day.
Now the OSR mandates that all newborns are registered or parents are punished. OSR also does random home raids. People move so frequently that they’ve never had the ability to track homes. There’s no such thing as addresses anymore anyway—what’s left is toppled, gone, street names wiped away. Without her name on that list, it still doesn’t feel quite real to Pressia. She hopes that her name will never appear. Maybe they’ve forgotten she exists, lost a stack of files and hers was in it.
“Plus,” she says. “We need to stock up.” She needs to secure as much food as she can for them before her grandfather takes over the market trips. She’s better at bartering, always has been. She worries what will happen once he’s in charge.
“Okay, fine,” he says. “Kepperness still owes us for my stitch work on his son’s neck.”
“Kepperness,” she repeats. Kepperness paid up a while ago. Her grandfather sometimes remembers only the things he wants to. She walks to the ledge under the splintered window where there’s a row of small creatures she’s made from pieces of metal, old coins, buttons, hinges, gears she collects—little windup toys—chicks that hop, caterpillars that scoot, a turtle with a small snapping beak. Her favorite is the butterfly. She’s made half a dozen of them alone. Their skeletal systems are built from the teeth of old black barber combs and wings made from bits of the white smocks. The butterflies flap when they get wound up, but she’s never been able to get them to fly.
She picks up one of the butterflies, winds it. Its wings shudder, kicking up a few bits of ash that swirl. Swirling ash—it’s not all bad. In fact, it can be beautiful, the lit swirl. She doesn’t want to see beauty in it, but she does. She finds little moments of beauty everywhere—even in ugliness. The heaviness of the clouds draping across the sky, sometimes edged dark blue. There’s still dew that rises from the ground and beads up on pieces of blackened glass.
Her grandfather is looking out the alley door, so she slips the butterfly in the sack. She’s been using these to barter with since people have stopped coming to him for stitching.
“You know, we’re lucky to have this place—and now an escape route,” her grandfather says. “We were lucky from the start. Lucky that I got to the airport early to pick you and your mother up at Baggage Claim. What if I hadn’t heard there was traffic? What if I hadn’t headed out early? And your mother, she was so beautiful,” he says, “so young.”
“I know, I know,” Pressia says, trying not to sound impatient, but it’s a well-worn speech. He’s talking about the day of the Detonations, just over nine years ago when she was six years old. Her father was out of town on business. An accountant with light hair, he was pigeon-toed, her grandfather liked to tell her, but a good quarterback. Football—it was a tidy sport played on a grassy field, with buckled helmets and officials who blew whistles and threw colored handkerchiefs. “But what does it mean, anyway, that my father was a pigeon-toed quarterback if I don’t remember him? What is a beautiful mother worth if you can’t see her face in your head?”
“Don’t say that,” he says. “Of course you remember them!”
She can’t tell the difference between the stories her grandfather’s told her and memory. Baggage Claim, for example. Her grandfather has explained it again and again—bags on wheels, a large moving belt, security circling like trained herding dogs. But is it a memory? Her mother took the full brunt of a plate-glass window and died instantaneously, her grandfather has told her. Has Pressia ever really recalled it or only imagined it? Her mother was Japanese, which explains Pressia’s black shiny hair, almond-shaped eyes, and her even-toned skin, except for the skin that’s the shiny pink crescent-shaped burn, curved around her left eye. She has a light dusting of freckles because of her father’s side of the family. Scotch-Irish, her grandfather calls himself, but none of these things means much of anything to her. Japanese, Scotch, Irish? The city where her father had been on business—the rest of the world, as far as anyone could tell—was decimated, gone. Japanese, Scotch, Irish—these things no longer exist. “BWI,” her grandfather says, emphatically, “that was the name of the airport. And we made it out of there, following the others who were still alive. We staggered on, looking for a safe place. We stopped in this city, barely standing, but still here because it’s not far from the Dome. We live a little west of Baltimore, north of DC.” Again, these things mean nothing. BWI, DC, they’re just letters.
Her parents are unknowable, that’s what kills Pressia, and if they’re unknowable, how can she know herself? She sometimes feels like she’s cut off from the world, like she’s floating—a small lit fleck of swirling ash.
“Mickey Mouse,” her grandfather says. “Don’t you remember him?” This is what gets him the most, it seems, that she doesn’t remember Mickey Mouse, the trip to Disney World that they were just returning from. “He had big ears and wore white gloves?”
She walks to Freedle’s cage. It’s made of old bike spokes and a thin metal sheet that serves as the cage’s floor and a small metal door that slides up and down. Inside, on a perch, sits Freedle, a mechanical-winged cicada. She fits her finger between the thin bars and pets his filigree wings. They’ve had him for as long as Pressia remembers. Old and rusty, his wings still sometimes flutter. He’s Pressia’s only pet. She named him Freedle when she was little because when they let him flit around the room, he had a squeaking call that sounded like he was saying, “Freedle! Freedle!” She’s kept his parts working all these years, using oil the barbers once used to keep the shears running smoothly. “I remember Freedle,” she says. “But no oversize mouse with a thing for white gloves.” She vows one day to lie to her grandfather about it, if only to put the whole thing to rest.
What does she remember of the Detonations? The bright light—like sun on sun on sun. And she remembers that she was holding the doll. Wasn’t she too old for a doll? The doll’s head was attached to its tan cloth body and rubber arms and legs. The Detonations caused a shearing blast of light in the airport that flooded her vision before the world exploded and, in some cases, melted. There was the tangle of lives and the doll’s head became her hand. And now, of course, she knows the doll head because it’s part of her—its blinky eyes that click when she moves, the sharp black plastic rows of eyelashes, the hole in its plastic lips where the plastic bottle is supposed to fit, its rubber head in place of her fist.
She runs her good hand over the doll’s head. She can feel the ripple of her finger bones within it, the small ridges and bumps of her knuckles, the lost hand fused with the rubber of the doll’s skull. And in the lost hand itself? She can feel the thick, dulled sensation of her good hand touching her lost hand. That’s the way she feels about the Before—it’s there, she can feel it, the light sensation of nerves, just barely. The doll’s eyes click shut; the hole within the pursed lips is dusted with ash as if the doll itself has been breathing this air. She pulls a woolen sock from her pocket and covers the doll’s head. She always covers it when she goes out.
If she lingers, her grandfather will start telling stories of what happened to the survivors after the Detonations—bloody fights in the hulls of giant Super Marts, the burned and twisted survivors battling over camping stoves and fishing knives. “I’ve got to go before they close up their stalls,” she says—before night patrols. She walks to where he’s seated and kisses his rough cheek.
“Just to the market. No scavenging,” he says, then lowers his head and coughs into his shirtsleeve.
She has every intention of scavenging. It’s what she loves most, picking up bits of things to make her creatures. “I won’t,” she says.
He’s still holding the brick, but it strikes her now as sad and desperate, an admission of weakness. He might be able to knock out the first OSR soldier with it, but not the second or the third. They always come in packs. She wants to say aloud what they both know: It won’t work. She can hide in this room, sleep in the cabinets. She can pop off the fake panel whenever she hears an OSR truck in the back alley and run. But there’s nowhere else to go.
“Don’t be gone long,” he says.
“I won’t.” And then, to make him feel better, she adds, “You’re right about us. We are lucky.” But she doesn’t really feel it. The people in the Dome are lucky, playing their buckled-helmet sports, eating cake, all connected and never feeling like lit flecks of swirling ash.
“Remember that, my girl.” His throat fan whirs. He’d been clutching a small handheld electric fan when the Detonations hit—it happened during summer—and now the fan is with him forever. Sometimes he labors to breathe. The spinning mechanism gets gummed with ash and spittle. It will kill him one day, the ash mounting in his lungs, the fan chugging to a halt.
She walks to the alley door, opens it. She hears a screech that sounds almost bird-like; then something dark and furred scurries over nearby stones. She sees one of its moist eyes, staring at her. It snarls, unfolds heavy, blunt wings, and scuttles upward, taking to the gray sky.
Sometimes she thinks she hears the droning engine of an airship up there. She catches herself searching the sky for the slips of paper that once filled it—oh, the way her grandfather described it, all those wings! Maybe one day there will be another Message.
Nothing is going to last, Pressia thinks. Everything is about to change forever. She can feel it.
She glances back before stepping into the alley, and she catches her grandfather looking at her the way he does sometimes—as if she’s already gone, as if he’s practicing sorrow.
PARTRIDGE IS SITTING IN GLASSINGS’ World History class, trying to concentrate. The classroom’s ventilation is supposed to increase based on the number of bodies present at any given time, and academy boys—all of those rambunctious engines of energy—can make a room stuffy and warm if not kept in check. Luckily, Partridge’s desk is situated not far from a small vent in the ceiling, and it’s like he’s sitting in a column of cool air.
Glassings is lecturing about ancient cultures. He’s been going on about this subject for a month solid. The front wall is covered with images of Bryn Celli Ddu, Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth, the Durrington Wall, and Maeshowe—all Neolithic mounds dating back to around 3000 BC. The first Dome prototypes, as Glassings puts it. “Do you think we were the first to think up a Dome?”
I get it, Partridge thinks, ancient people, mounds, tombs, blah, blah, blah. Glassings stands in front of the class in his taut suit jacket with its academy emblem stitched in place and a navy-blue necktie, always tied too tightly. Partridge would rather hear Glassings’ take on recent history, but that would never be allowed. They know only what they’ve all been told—the United States didn’t make the first strike but acted in self-defense. The Detonations escalated, leading to near-total destruction. Because of precautions taken by the Dome experimentally as a prototype for sustainable living in the face of detonations, viral attacks, and environmental disaster, this area is likely the only place in the world with survivors—the Dome and the wretches just outside of it now governed by a flimsy military regime. The Dome watches over the wretches and one day, when the earth has rejuvenated itself, they will return to take care of the wretches and start anew. It’s kept simple, but Partridge knows that there’s much more to it, and he’s pretty sure that Glassings himself would have a lot to say on the subject.
Sometimes Glassings gets caught up in a lecture, unbuttons his suit jacket, walks away from his notes, and looks at the class—his eyes locking onto each boy’s for just a moment as if he wants them to understand something he’s saying in a deeper way, to take some ancient lesson and apply it to today. Partridge wants to. He feels like he could, almost, if only he had a little more information.
Partridge lifts his chin and lets the air cool his face, and he remembers, suddenly, his mother setting out a meal for him and his brother, glasses of milk with bubbles that clung to the edges, oily gravies, the airy, soft innards of bread rolls. Food that filled your mouth, that sent up puffs of steam. Now he takes his pills, perfectly formulated for optimal health. Partridge sometimes swirls the pills in his mouth, remembering that even the pills he and his brother took back then were tangy-sweet and gummed in your teeth and were shaped like animals. And then the memory is gone.
These quick visceral memories are sharp. They come at him these days like sudden blows, the collision of now and past, uncontrollable. It’s only gotten worse since his father stepped up his coding sessions—the strange mix of drugs coursing through the bloodstream, the radiation, and, worst of all, being trapped in body casts so that only certain parts of his body and brain are exposed during a given session. Mummy molds. That’s what some of Partridge’s friends started calling the casts after one of Glassings’ recent lectures on ancient cultures that wrapped their dead. For coding sessions, the academy boys are lined up and taken to the medical center, shuttled into private rooms. There, each undresses and fits himself into a mummy mold—confined in the hot suit—and then, after, they get back into their uniforms to be shuttled out again. The technicians warn the academy boys that as the body becomes accustomed to the new skill sets, they can expect some vertigo, sudden losses of balance that will subside as strength and speed take hold. The academy boys are used to it—a few months off from the sports teams because they’ve become temporarily ungainly. They tip and fall, sprawled on the turf. The brain will be just as uncoordinated, hence the strange sudden memories.
“Beautiful barbarism,” Glassings says now about one of the ancient cultures. “Reverence for the dead.” It’s one of those moments when he isn’t reading from his lecture notes. He stares at his hands spread open on his desk. He isn’t supposed to make asides—beautiful barbarism, that kind of thing could be misinterpreted. He could lose his job. But he’s quick to recover. He tells the class to read aloud from the prompter, in unison. “The sanctioned ways of disposing of the dead and collecting their personal items in the Personal Loss Archives…” Partridge joins in.
A few minutes later, Glassings is talking about the importance of corn to ancient cultures. Corn? Partridge thinks. Really? Corn?
That’s when there’s a knock at the door. Glassings looks up, startled. All the boys stiffen. The knock sounds again. Glassings says, “Excuse me, class.” He straightens his notes and glances at the small black beady eye of one of the cameras perched in the corner of the room. Partridge wonders if the Dome officials got wind of his comment beautiful barbarism. Can it happen that fast? Will that do him in? Will they haul him away, right now, in front of the class?
Glassings steps out into the hall. Partridge hears voices, murmurs.
Arvin Weed, the genius of the class, who sits in front of Partridge, swivels around and gives him an inquiring look, as if Partridge must know what’s going on. Partridge shrugs. People often think Partridge knows more than everyone else. He’s Ellery Willux’s son. Even someone that high up must let things slip now and then, that’s what they figure. But no. Partridge’s dad never lets things slip. That’s one of the reasons he got to be high up in the first place. And since Partridge has been boarding here at the academy, they rarely even talk on the phone, much less see each other. Partridge is one of the boys who stays year-round, like his brother, Sedge, who went through the academy before him.
Glassings walks back into the classroom. “Partridge,” he says, “collect your things.”
“What?” Partridge says. “Me?”
“Now,” Glassings says.
Partridge’s stomach lurches. He shoves his notebook into his backpack and stands up. All around him, the other boys start whispering. Vic Wellingsly, Algrin Firth, the Elmsford twins. One of them makes a joke—Partridge hears his name but can’t make out the rest—and they all laugh. These boys all tend to stick together, “the herd”; that’s what they’re called. They’re the ones who’ll go all the way through training to the new elite corps, Special Forces. They’re destined. It isn’t written anywhere, but it’s understood.
Glassings tells the class to pipe down.
Arvin Weed gives Partridge a nod, as if to say, Good luck.
Partridge walks to the door. “Can I get the notes later?” he asks Glassings.
“Sure,” Glassings says, and then he pats Partridge on the back. “It’ll be fine.” He’s talking about the notes, of course, keeping up with the class, but he looks at Partridge in that way Glassings has, a deeper meaning, and Partridge knows that he’s trying to set his mind at ease. Whatever’s coming—it’ll be fine.
In the hall, Partridge is met by two guards. “Where to?” he says.
They’re both tall and muscular, but one of them is a bit broader than the other. This one says, “Your father wants to see you.”
Partridge feels cold suddenly. His palms are clammy, so he rubs his hands together. He doesn’t want to see his father; he never does. “The old man?” Partridge says, trying to sound lighthearted. “A little father-son time?”
They walk him down the shiny halls, past the oil paintings of two headmasters—one fired, one new—who both look pasty, austere, and somewhat dead, then down to the academy basement, which is on the monorail line. They wait in the airy underground, silently. This is the monorail that takes the boys to the medical center, where Partridge’s father works three times a week. There are floors in the medical center reserved for those who are sick. They’re kept cordoned off. Sickness is treated very seriously in the Dome. Contagion could wipe them all out, and so the slightest fever can result in short-term quarantine. He’s been to one of those floors a few times—a small, boring, sterile room.
The dying? No one visits them. They’re taken to a floor of their own.
Partridge wonders what his father wants with him. He’s not one of the herd, not destined for anything elite. That was Sedge’s role. When Partridge entered the academy he wasn’t sure if he was better known for his father or his brother. It didn’t matter. He didn’t live up to either reputation. He never won a physical challenge and he sat the bench during most games, regardless of the sport. And he wasn’t intelligent enough to go into the other training program—brain augmentation. That was reserved for the smart ones like Arvin Weed, Heath Winston, Gar Dreslin. His grades have always been borderline. Like most of the boys going in for coding, he was clearly garden-variety, basic overall enhancement to better the species.
Does his father just want to check in on his garden-variety son? Maybe he was struck by a sudden desire to bond? Will they even have anything to talk about? Partridge tries to remember the last time they ever did anything together for fun. One time, after Sedge’s death, his father took him swimming in the academy’s indoor pool. He remembers only that his father was an excellent swimmer, he slid through the water like a sea otter, and when he came up for air, toweling off, Partridge saw his father’s bare chest for the first time in as long as he could remember. Had he ever seen him only half dressed before? His father’s chest had six small scars on it, on the left side, over his heart. It wasn’t from an accident. The scars were too symmetrical and tidy.
The monorail comes to a stop, and Partridge has a fleeting desire to run. The guards would hit him with an electrical charge to his back. He knows that. He’d have a red burn spread down his back and arms. His father would be told, of course. It would only make matters worse. Why run anyway? Where would he go? In circles? It’s a Dome, after all.
The monorail delivers them to the entrance of the medical center. The guards show their badges. They sign Partridge in, scan his retinas, and walk through the detectors into the center itself. They wind the halls until they come to his father’s door. It opens before the guard has time to knock.
A female technician is standing there. Partridge can see beyond her to his father, who is lecturing half a dozen technicians. They’re all looking at a bank of screens on the wall, pointing out chains of DNA coding, close-ups of a double helix.
The technician says “Thank you” to the guards and then ushers Partridge to a small leather chair to the side of his father’s massive desk, which is on the opposite side of the room from where his father and the techs work.
His father is saying, “There it is. The blip in the behavioral coding. Resistance.” The techs are all darty-eyed geese, terrified of his father, who’s still ignoring Partridge. This is nothing new. Partridge is used to being ignored by his father.
He looks around the office, notes a set of original Dome blueprints now framed and hung on the wall over his father’s desk.
Why is Partridge here, he wonders again. Is his father showing off, trying to prove something to Partridge? It’s not like Partridge doesn’t know that his father is smart, that he commands respect, even fear.
“All of his other types of coding have gone so well. Why not the behavioral coding?” his father says to the techs. “Anyone? Answers?”
Partridge taps his fingers on the arms of the chair, glancing at the wisps of his father’s gray hair. His father looks angry. In fact, his head seems to shake with anger. He’s noticed anger flaring up like this in his father ever since Partridge’s brother’s funeral. Sedge died after his coding was complete and he’d made it into Special Forces, the new elite corps made up of only six recent academy graduates. “A tragedy,” his father calls it, as if giving it a proper name makes it acceptable somehow.
The technicians look at one another and say, “No, sir. Not yet, sir.”
His father glares at the screen, his brow knotted, his fleshy nose reddened, and then he looks at Partridge, as if seeing him for the first time. He dismisses the technicians by waving them off. They leave hurriedly, scuttling out the door. Partridge wonders if they are flooded with relief each time they leave his father’s presence, the way he is. Do they all secretly hate the old man? Partridge wouldn’t blame them.
“So,” Partridge says, fiddling with a strap on his backpack. “How are things?”
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve called you in.”
Partridge shrugs. “Happy belated birthday?” His seventeenth birthday was almost ten months ago.
“Your birthday?” his father says. “Didn’t you get the gift I sent?”
“What was it again?” Partridge says, tapping his chin. He remembers. The gift was a very expensive pen with an illuminated bulb on top. So you can study late, his father wrote him in a little note attached to the gift, and get an edge over your classmates. Does his father remember the gift? Probably not. Was the note even written by his father? Partridge doesn’t know his father’s handwriting. When he was a kid, his mother used to write riddles to help them find where she’d hidden presents. She told him that it was a tradition his father started when they were first dating—little rhyming riddles and gifts. Partridge remembers this because it struck him that they’d been in love at some point, but weren’t anymore. Partridge doesn’t remember his father even being there for his birthdays.
“I didn’t call you in for anything birthday-related,” his father says.
“So I guess next comes a fatherly interest in my schooling. You’re going to ask, Are you learning anything important?”
His father sighs. Does anyone else speak to him this way? Probably not. “Are you learning anything important?” he asks.
“We weren’t the first to invent Domes, I guess. They’re prehistoric—Newgrange, Knowth, Maeshowe, et cetera.”
His father sits back. The leather of his seat creaks. “I remember the first time I saw a picture of Maeshowe. I was a kid, fourteen or so. I saw it in a book on prehistoric sites.” He stops speaking and raises his hand to his temple, which he rubs in a small circle. “It was a way to live forever, to build something that lasts. A legacy. It stuck in my mind.”
“I thought having kids was a man’s legacy.”
He looks at Partridge sharply. “Yes, you’re right. And that’s one reason I’ve called you in. There’s some resistance to certain aspects of your coding.”
The mummy molds. Something is wrong. “What aspects of my coding?”
“Sedge’s mind and body took to the coding so effortlessly,” his father says. “And you’re close to him genetically, but—”
“What aspects?” Partridge asks.
“Oddly enough, the behavioral coding. Strength, speed, agility, all the physical aspects are going well. Are you feeling effects? Mental and/or physical? Lack of balance? Unusual thoughts or memories?”
The memories, yes, he’s thinking of his mother more, but he doesn’t want to tell his father this. “I felt really cold,” he says, “right around the time I heard that you’d called me in. My whole body, really cold.”
“Interesting,” his father says, and maybe for a split second he’s injured by the comment.
Partridge points to a framed wall hanging. “Original blueprints? They’re new.”
“Twenty years of service,” his father says. “A gift.”
“Very nice,” Partridge says. “I like your architectural handiwork.”
“It saved us.”
“Us?” Partridge says under his breath. They are the only ones left now, a family shrunken down to an embattled pair.
And then as if this marks a natural segue, his father asks questions about Partridge’s mother before the Detonations, the weeks leading up to her death, a specific trip to the beach that she and Partridge had taken alone, just the two of them. “Your mother made you swallow pills?” his father asks.
There are people on the other side of the wall-mounted computer screen, most likely. It has an observation mirror’s blank stare. Or maybe there aren’t. Maybe his father’s waved them off too. They are being recorded, though. They have to be. A beady-eyed camera is mounted in each corner.
“I don’t remember. I was a kid.” But Partridge remembers blue pills. They were supposed to make the flu go away, but they seemed to make it worse. The fever made him shiver under the blankets.
“She took you to the beach. You remember that, right? Just before. Your brother didn’t want to go. He had a ball game. They were in the championships.”
“Sedge used to love baseball. He loved a lot of things.”
“This isn’t about your brother.” His father can barely say his brother’s name. Since Sedge’s death, Partridge has kept count of how many times he’s heard his father say it—only a handful. His mother died while trying to help survivors get to the Dome on the day of the Detonations, and his father used to call her a saint, a martyr, then slowly he stopped speaking of her almost completely. Partridge remembers his father saying, “They didn’t deserve her. They took her down with them.” There was a time when his father used to talk about the survivors as “our lesser brothers and sisters.” His father used to call the leaders in the Dome, including himself, “benevolent overseers.” Language like this still comes up from time to time in public addresses, but in everyday chatter the survivors outside the Dome are called “wretches.” He’s heard his father use the term many times. And Partridge has to admit, he’s spent a lot of his life hating the wretches for taking his mother down with them. But lately, in Glassings’ World History, he can’t help but wonder what really happened. Glassings hints that history is malleable. It can be altered. Why? To tell a nicer story.
His father says, “This is about your mother giving you pills, making you swallow something, during the dates of your absence.”
“I don’t remember. I was eight years old. Jesus. What do you want from me?” Even as he says it, he remembers the sunburns they both got though it was overcast and how, when they were sick, his mother told him a bedtime story, a swan wife with black feet. His mother, he sees her in his mind often—her curly hair, her soft hands with their bones as fine as a bird’s bones. The swan wife was a little song, too. It had a tune. It had words that rhymed and hand motions. His mother said, “When I tell you the singing version of the story, hold this necklace in your hand.” He gripped it tight in his fist. The edges of the swan’s flared wings were sharp, but he didn’t let up.
One time he told the story to Sedge. This was in the Dome, a day when Partridge missed his mother sharply. Sedge said it was a girl’s story. It was for kids who believed in fairies. “Grow up, Partridge. She’s dead and gone. Don’t you see that? Are you blind?”
His father now presses him. “We’re going to have to do more tests on you. Batteries of tests. You’ll be poked with so many needles, you’ll feel like a pincushion.” Pincushion—it’s one of those words that no longer mean anything. A cushion for pins? Is this some kind of a threat? It sounds like one. “It would help us out if you could tell us what happened.”
“I can’t. I’d like to, but I don’t remember.”
“Listen to me, son.” Partridge doesn’t like the way his father says the word son, as if it’s a rebuke. “You need to get your head screwed on right. Your mother…” His father’s eyes are weary. His lips are dry. He seems to be talking to someone else. He’s speaking in a voice that he uses on the phone. Hello, Willux here. He crosses his arms on his chest. His face goes slack for a moment as if he remembers something. There’s the shaking of his head again. Even his hand seems to quiver with anger. He says, “Your mother has always been problematic.”
A look passes between them. Partridge doesn’t say a word, but his mind keeps repeating. Has always been. Problematic. Has always been. This isn’t the past tense. This isn’t the way you talk about the dead.
His father recovers. “She wasn’t right in the head.” He rubs his hands on his thighs and then leans in. “I’ve upset you,” his father says. This is strange too. He never talks about emotions.
His father stands up. “Let’s get someone in here to take a picture of us. When was the last time?” It was probably at Sedge’s funeral, Partridge thinks. “Something you can have in your dormitory so you’re not homesick.”
“I’m not homesick,” Partridge says. He hasn’t ever felt like home was home, not here in the Dome, so how can he miss it so badly that he’s sick?
His father calls a tech in anyway, a knobby-nosed woman with bangs, and tells her to get a camera.
Partridge and his father stand in front of the newly hung blueprints, shoulder-to-shoulder, stiff as soldiers. There’s a flash.
EVEN A BLOCK AWAY, Pressia can smell the market—spoiled meat and fish, rotted fruit, char, and smoke. She can make out the hawkers’ shifting shadows, and she knows them by their coughs. This is how death is sometimes measured. There are different kinds of coughs. They rattle crisply. They begin and end with a wheeze. They begin and can’t end. They churn up phlegm. They end in a grunt—this is the worst kind, her grandfather tells her. It means the lungs have taken on fluid—death by infection, drowning from within. Her grandfather rattles by day, but at night he makes the grunting cough in his sleep.
She sticks to the middle of the alley. Passing the lean-tos, she hears a family fighting, a man’s loud bellow, something metal banging against a wall. A woman screeches, and a child starts to cry.
As she reaches the market, she sees that the hawkers are closing up. They’ve dragged metal signs in from the highway for rusted roofs and lean-tos. They shutter stalls with waterlogged pressboard, load their wares in gimp pushcarts, drape their stalls in ragged tarps.
Pressia passes a whisper clutch—a circle of huddled backs, hissing, an occasional hoot, then more whispers. She glimpses their faces mottled with metal, shiny glass, rippled scars. One woman’s arm looks sealed in leather, cuffed at the wrist where it meets her skin.
She sees a group of kids, not too much younger than she is. Two of them—twins, both with mangled, rusty legs exposed a bit below their skirts—are swinging a rope for a third with one whittled arm who hops between them. They chant:
Burn a Pure and breathe the ash.
Take his guts and make a sash.
Twist his hair and make a rope.
And use his bones to make Pure soap.
Washy, washy, washy. One two three.
Washy, washy, washy. Pure is me.
Pure is the name for those in the Dome. Children are fixated on Pures. They’re mentioned in all of their childish rhymes, usually dead. Pressia knows this rhyme by heart. She skipped to it when she was little. She’s wished for that soap, stupidly. She wonders if these kids do, too. To be Pure—what would it look and feel like? To erase the scars, to have a hand again, not a doll?
There’s a little boy with eyes too far apart, eyes lodged almost on the sides of his head, horse-like, who’s tending a fire in a metal barrel with two spits of charred meat balanced on it. The beasts on the spit are small, rodent-size. These children were babies during the Detonations, hardy ones. Kids born before the Detonations are called Pre and those born after are Posts. Posts should be Pure, but that’s not how it works. The mutations caused by the Detonations settled deep into the survivors’ genes. Babies aren’t born Pure. They are mutated, born with traces of their parents’ deformities. Animals too. Instead of starting anew, the breeds only seem to get more convoluted, a mix of human, animal, earth, objects.
But there’s an important distinction that the people her age make—those who remember life before the Detonations and those who don’t. Sometimes after an introduction, kids her age will play I Remember, exchanging memories like currency. How intimate the memory is proves how willing you are to be open to this person—a currency of trust. Those who were too young to remember are both pitied and envied, a hateful mix. Pressia catches herself pretending to remember more than she does, borrowing other people’s memories and mixing them with her own. She worries about it, though, afraid that she might build on other people’s memories so much that her own are untrustworthy. She has to hold tightly to the few she has.
She looks from one face to the next, the fire casting strange shadows, glinting off shards of metal and glass in their faces, lighting up bright scars, burns, and knots of keloids. A girl looks up at her, one she recognizes but can’t fix a name to, and says, “You want pieces of a Pure? All toasted to a crisp?”
“No,” Pressia says, louder than she meant to.
The kids laugh, except for the boy minding the fire. He twists his spit, his fingers small and delicate like he’s working something that winds up, a kind of instrument or an engine. His name is Mikel. He’s not like the other children. There’s something steely about him. She can tell he’s seen a lot of death, his parents long gone. “You sure, Pressia?” he says, very seriously. “Just a little before you get took for good?” Mikel has a mean streak, though it’s not usually directed at her because she’s older. So the comment surprises her.
“Nice of you to offer,” she says, “but I’ll pass.”
Mikel looks at her with a sad expression. Maybe he’d wanted her to yell that she wasn’t ever going to be taken. In any case, she feels sorry for him. His cruelty has always made him seem vulnerable, which is the opposite of the impression he’d like to give.
Up ahead, she sees Kepperness, the man her grandfather mentioned. She hasn’t run into him for a while. He’s the age she imagines her father would be. He’s slinging empty crates into the back of a handcart with his sleeves rolled up, exposing glass-encrusted arms, thin and sinewy with muscle. He looks at her and then away. He has a few dark tubers left in a basket. She dips her head forward to cover the scars on the side of her face. “How’s your son doing? Is his neck all healed?” she asks, hoping he’ll feel that he still owes her something.
He stands and stretches his back with a grimace. One of his eyes glows with a golden-orange film, a cataract from the burn of radiation, which isn’t unusual. “You’re the flesh-tailor’s kid, right? Granddaughter? You’re not supposed to be around anymore. Too old, right?”
“No,” she says defensively. “I’m just fifteen.” She pretends to huddle against the wind, though she’s actually trying to look smaller and younger.
“That so?” He stops and stares. She focuses on his good eye, the only one he can see from. “I risked my life for these tubers. Dug ’em up right near OSR’s woodland. Got a few left.”
“Well, what I’ve got is a one-of-a-kind item. Something only someone with built-up wealth could afford. You know, not for just anyone.”
“What is it?”
“A butterfly,” she says.
“Butterfly?” he snorts. “There ain’t many butterflies left.” It’s true. They’re very rare. In the last year or so, Pressia has seen a few more, small signs of renewal.
“It’s a toy.”
“A toy?” Kids don’t really have toys anymore. They play with pig bladders and knotted rag dolls. “Let me have a look.”
She shakes her head. “No use looking at it if you can’t pay for it.”
“Let me just see it.”
She sighs and pretends to be reluctant. She pulls out the butterfly and holds it up.
“Closer,” the man says. She can tell now that both of his eyes were seared by the Detonations, one far worse than the other.
Pressia says, “You used to have real toys as a kid, I bet.”
He nods and says, “What’s it do?”
She winds it up and sets it in his pushcart. The butterfly flaps its wings. “I wonder what it was like to grow up when you did. Christmas and birthdays,” she says.
“I believed in magic as a kid. Can you imagine a thing like that?” he says, tilting his head and staring at the toy. “How much?”
“Normally, I charge a lot. It’s a remembrance of things past. But for you? Well, just the rest of your roots, those left over,” she says. “It’s all we need.”
He hands her the basket and she rolls the roots into her sack, then picks up the butterfly and hands it to him.
Kepperness says, “I’ll give it to my son. He won’t last long.” Pressia has already turned to go. She hears the ticking of the windup mechanism, and then the wings fluttering. “This will brighten him up some.”
No, she thinks. Keep walking. Don’t ask. But she remembers his son. He was a sweet kid. Tough too. He didn’t cry when her grandfather stitched his neck, even though there was nothing for the pain. “Has something else happened to him?”
“Attacked by a Dust. He was out past the fields, near the desert, hunting. He saw its eye blink up from the earth, and then it pulled him down into the sand. His mother was with him, saved him. But he got a bite somehow. It infected his blood.” Dusts are those who fused with the earth; in the city, they fused with the blasted buildings. Most of them died shortly after the Detonations—no means of sustenance, or no mouths, or mouths with no digestion. But some survived because they became more rock than human, and others proved they could be of use, working in conjunction with Beasts, those who fused with animals. When Pressia scavenges in rubble, she watches for Dusts that can reach up, clasp a leg, and pull her down. She’s never been out of the city where the boy was grabbed. She has heard that land is filled with Dusts. She’s heard that lots of the survivalists who thought they saw the End coming, before the Detonations, and moved out into the woods were swallowed into the trees.
She’s heard that a bite is an awful way to die. The child sometimes foams at the mouth and seizes. Pressia reaches into the sack for the tubers. “I didn’t know,” she says. “Look, keep the tubers and the butterfly.”
“No,” Kepperness says, putting the butterfly in an inner pocket of his coat. “I seen your grandfather not long ago. He’s not doing well either, is he? We all got someone. Deal’s a deal.”
She’s not sure what to say. He’s right. Everyone has someone who’s died or dying. Pressia nods. “Okay,” she says. “I’m so sorry.”
He’s back to loading his cart again and shakes his head. “We’re all sorry.” He unfolds a heavy piece of cloth and pulls it down over his wares. While he isn’t looking, she upends her sack and a couple of tubers roll back into the basket.
She turns quickly and starts walking. She knows she couldn’t have eaten all of them, not with Kepperness’s son dying, and having charged him more than she usually gets for her work.
But still, now she has to scavenge. Kepperness was right. Her grandfather isn’t well. He won’t last. What if she gets taken or has to run soon? She has to make as many creatures as she can so that he can use them to barter with and survive. She presses on.
When she comes to the end of the market, she stops. There, posted on a low brick wall, is a new OSR listing. It flutters in the cold wind. Some hawkers are rolling carts down the street, a loud clattering echo. She waits for them to go, then walks toward the listing. She presses the paper flat. The print is small. She has to get close. Her eyes flit down the page.
And then she sees it.
The name PRESSIA BELZE and her date of birth.
She runs the tip of her finger over the letters.
There’s no denying it now. There will be no lost file with her information in it. Here it is. Real.
She backs away, stumbling over some upturned bricks. She turns down the first street she comes to.
She’s freezing now. The air is damp. She pulls her inner-layer sweater up to cover her neck, then her stretched-out sweater sleeve down over her doll-head fist, still covered by the sock, tucks it under her other arm, and then crosses both arms on her chest. This is a habit really, something she does when she’s outside in public, when she’s nervous. A comfort, almost.
Amid the ruins on either side, there are buildings that still have their skeletal structure, and people have made makeshift homes inside them. Then she passes a building that’s fully collapsed. These are the best for digging. She’s found beautiful things in the rubble before—wire, coins, metal clasps, keys—but the rubble is dangerous. The more human-like Dusts and some of the human-like Beasts who have dug out homes in the rubble keep them warm with fires, cook what they’ve hunted down, creating trails of smoke. She imagines Kepperness’s son out in the Deadlands, an eye in the sand at his feet—then a hand shooting up from nowhere, pulling him down. She’s alone. If she’s grabbed and pulled down, they’ll feed on her until there’s nothing left.
She doesn’t see any smoke and so she steps up on a pile of wobbling stones, carefully picking her way along, looking for glints of metal, small bits of wiring. She knows it’s pretty much picked clean, but she manages to find what might have once been a guitar string, some pieces of melted plastic like parts to an old board game, and a thin metal tube.
Maybe she can make something special for her grandfather too—a gift worth holding on to. She doesn’t want to think of the word memento because it reminds her that she might soon be gone, but there it is in her mind. Memento.
When she heads home by way of the market, all the stalls are closed. She’s late. She should hurry now. Her grandfather will start to worry. At the other end of the market, she sees the boy with the wide-set eyes again, Mikel. He’s cooking another beast now over the kettledrum. This one is very small, nearly mouse-size, barely worth the meat.
There’s a little boy beside him. He reaches up to touch the meat. Mikel says, “Don’t! It’ll burn you!” He shoves the boy to the ground. The little boy is barefoot. His toes are only nubs. He scrapes his knee, screams at the sight of the blood, and starts to run to a darkened doorway. Three women step out—all fused—a tangle of cloth hiding their engorged middle. Parts of each face seem to be shiny and stiff as if fused with plastic. Groupies, that’s what they’re called. One of the women has sloped shoulders, a curved spine. There are many arms, some pale and freckled, others dark. The one in the middle grabs the boy’s arm and says, “Shut up. Hush now. Shut up.”
The woman with the curved spine who seems the least fused to the others, barely hanging on, shouts at Pressia, “You do this to the boy? You do this?”
“I didn’t touch him,” Pressia says, and she pulls on her sleeve.
“Time to come in,” the woman says to the boy. She looks around as if sensing something in the air. “Right now.”
The boy twists from her grip and runs down the street toward the empty market, crying harder now.
The one with the curved spine glances back over her shoulder, raises a bony, knuckled fist, and shakes it at Pressia. “See what you done?”
Then, behind her, she hears Mikel yell, “Beast! Beast!”
Pressia turns around and there’s a wolfish Beast, this one more animal than human. It’s furred, but with glass embedded along its ribs. It runs on all fours with a limp, and then it pauses and rises up on its haunches, nearly the height of a full-grown man. It has clawed feet but no muzzle—instead a pink, nearly hairless human face with a long, narrow jaw and long teeth. Its ribs rise and fall quickly. Across its chest, there is embedded chain link.
Mikel climbs on top of his oil drum and scurries up a metal roof. The Groupies in the doorway dip inside, covering the door with a slab of wood. They don’t even call to the lost child, who’s still running down the street alone.
Pressia knows the Beast will take the child first. He’s smaller than Pressia, a perfect target. But of course, it could attack both of them. It’s surely big enough.
Pressia holds tight to her sack and starts sprinting, her arms pumping and legs moving swiftly. She’s a fast runner, always has been light on her feet. Maybe her father, the quarterback, was fast. Her shoes are worn through on the balls of her feet, so she can feel the ground through her thin socks.
With the market closed up, this street looks foreign. The Beast is bounding down toward her. She and the little boy are the only ones out now. The little boy must sense that something’s changed, danger in the air. He turns and his eyes grow wide with fear. He stumbles and, terrified, he can’t get up. Closer now, she can see that his face is scalded near one of his eyes, which shines whitish blue, like a marble.
Pressia runs to him. “Come on!” she says, grabbing under his arms and lifting him up. With only one hand that’s good for gripping, she needs the boy’s help. “Hold tight!” she says.
She’s looking wildly in every direction for something to climb. Behind them, the Beast is closing in. There’s only rubble on either side of her, but up ahead she sees a building that’s only partially collapsed. It has a barred gate on its metal door—a door to a shop that once had a plate-glass front, like the barbershop. She remembers her grandfather telling her it had been a pawnshop and explaining how people looted them first because they had guns and gold, though gold eventually became worthless.
Its door is slightly open.
The kid is screaming now, loud and shrill, and he’s heavier than she expected. His arms are clamped tightly around her neck, choking off her breath. The Beast is so close that she can hear its panting.
She runs to the door of metal bars, throws it open, swings around and slams it shut, the child still holding on. The door locks automatically.
They’re in a small bare room, just a few pallets on the floor. She covers the kid’s screaming mouth with her hand. “Quiet,” she says, “just be quiet!” and she backs up to the far wall. She sits down with the boy in her lap in the darkened corner of the room.
The Beast is at the door in an instant, barking and clawing through the bars. This Beast has no speech, no hands, despite its human face and eyes. The door rattles loudly. Frustrated, it crouches and growls. And then it turns its head, sniffs the air. And, distracted now, it runs off.
The boy bites her hand as hard as he can.
“Ouch!” Pressia says, rubbing her palm on her pants. “What was that for?”
The boy looks at her wide-eyed as if it surprised him too.
“I was kind of expecting a thank-you,” she says.
There’s a loud bang from the other side of the room.
Pressia gasps and turns. The boy looks too.
A trapdoor has been slapped open and a guy’s head and shoulders have popped up from a room below. He has mussed hair and dark, serious eyes. He’s a little older than Pressia. He says, “Are you here for the meeting or what?”
The boy screams again, as if this is the only thing he knows how to do. No wonder the woman told him to shut up, Pressia thinks. He’s a screamer. And then he runs to the barred door.
“Don’t go out there!” Pressia says.
But the boy is too quick. He unlocks the door, shoots through it, and takes off.
“Who was that?” the guy asks.
“I don’t even know,” Pressia says, standing up. She can see now that the guy is standing on a rickety, folding ladder leading to a basement. There’s a roomful of people down below.
“I know you,” he says. “You’re the flesh-tailor’s granddaughter.”
She notices two scars running up one side of his face, maybe her grandfather’s stitching. She can tell that the stitching isn’t very old, only a year or two. “I don’t remember meeting you.”
“We didn’t meet,” he says. “Plus I was pretty banged up.” He points to his face. “You might not recognize me. But I remember seeing you there.” He looks at her in a way that makes her blush. There’s something familiar maybe, just in the dark shine of his eyes. She likes his face, a survivor’s face, a sharp jaw, his scars long and jagged. His eyes—there’s something about them that makes him seem both angry and sweet at the same time.
“Are you here for the meeting? Seriously, we’re starting. There’s food.”
It’s her last time out before she turns sixteen. Her name is on the list. Her heart is still pounding in her chest. She saved the boy. She feels courageous. And she’s starving. She likes the idea of food. Maybe there will be enough so she can steal some for her grandfather, unnoticed.
There’s a howl not too far off. The Beast is still near.
“Yes,” Pressia says. “I’m here for the meeting.”
He almost smiles, but stops short. He’s not the kind to smile too easily. He turns and shouts to those below, “One more! Make room!” And Pressia notices a fluttering motion beneath the back of his blue shirt, rippling like water.
She remembers him now, the boy with birds in his back.
ALL THE BOYS FROM GLASSINGS’ World History class are quiet, which is strange because field trips usually bring out the worst in them. Only their footsteps clatter and echo up and down the alphabetized rows of metal boxes. Even Glassings, who always has something to say, has gone mute. His face is taut and flushed as if he were choking on something, grief or hope? Partridge isn’t sure. Glassings shuffles off, disappearing down one of the aisles.
The air in the Dome is always dry and sterile, a static presence. But in the Personal Loss Archives, the air feels faintly charged, almost electrically. Partridge can’t put his finger on it. Of course, he tells himself, it’s not possible that the items of the dead stored here are different from any other molecular arrangement of items, but still it seems almost as if they are.
Or maybe it isn’t the personal items of the dead or the air. Maybe it’s the academy boys who are charged, each looking for a specific name. All of them lost someone in the Detonations, like Partridge did. If, out of that person’s entire life, some artifact of their existence survived, it was put in a metal box, labeled, alphabetized, trapped here forever—to be honored? And then there are those boys who know someone who’s died since the Detonations in the Dome itself. Partridge has someone like that too. When you lose someone in the Dome, though, not much is made of the loss. These losses are to be taken in stride. In the face of such great global losses, how can anyone take a personal loss too personally? And serious illnesses are rare, or maybe more accurately well hidden.
Glassings has put in the request for this field trip many times over the years. Finally he got the okay, and here they are. A recorded voice-over narration kicks in overhead on unseen speakers, a woman saying, “Each person who dies is afforded one small metal box of personal items. Bodies are cremated because space is at a premium. We must reduce each footprint. This is what’s allowed until the land is habitable again and we regain our rightful place as full participants and re-creators of the natural landscape.”
“Can we open the boxes?” Arvin Weed calls out. “I’ve found an aunt.”
“Auntie Weed!” one of the other boys shouts, mockingly.
“Yes,” Glassings says, distracted by his own search, no doubt. “It’s not every day you get access like this. Be respectful. Don’t touch anything.” This means that if Glassings finds the metal box he’s looking for, he’s opening it. Partridge assumed they wouldn’t be allowed to open anything, that he’d only see rows of metal boxes. His heart beats harder in his chest. He walks faster, before Glassings changes his mind, before one of the docents comes in and tells them not to. He’s almost running. He feels dizzy. It seems like all the boys are almost running now, skidding around corners, teetering due to the coding’s effect on their equilibriums.
He makes it down the long rows to the end of the alphabet—Willux. He finds his older brother’s name—SEDGE WATSON WILLUX—and his dates, so final and finite, in tidy print. He runs his fingers over the raised type. The ink isn’t faded like some of the others. Sedge has only been gone for a year. In some ways it seems like forever and then, in almost the same moment, it’s as if he’s still here, and there’s been some kind of clerical error. He remembers the last time he saw him. They were at his induction dinner. Sedge and the five other newly graduated academy boys were the first of the new elite corps. Sedge was wearing his uniform. The coding was in full effect. He was taller, broader, his jaw thicker. He told Partridge that he was too skinny. “Double up on the protein bars,” he said, and there was a moment when he looked at Partridge and said, “You remember the stories you used to tell? Fairy tales?” Partridge nodded. “I think about them sometimes still.” Sedge laughed. And then, just before he left, Sedge hugged Partridge and whispered in his ear, “Maybe this won’t happen to you.” At the time, Partridge thought it was a mean thing to say, like he wasn’t man enough to make it through the training. But after Sedge was found dead, Partridge wondered if it was a sincere wish, a hope.
Partridge doesn’t know what happened to the other five boys inducted that day. He’s heard rumors that they are in intensive training and their families only get letters from them. Partridge assumes that their families don’t complain; they have to be relieved that their kids are still alive.
Partridge fits his fingers in the handle, but for some reason he can’t bear to open the box. Sedge is gone. In the small print below his name, a line reads CAUSE: GUNSHOT WOUND, SELF-INFLICTED. Unlike life before they lived in the Dome, suicide doesn’t have as dark a stigma. Resources should go to the healthy and those with a strong will to live. The dying aren’t given many resources; that would be impractical. One day, hopefully not too far off, they will all return to the world outside, the New Eden, as some call it, and they’ll need to be hardy. Sedge’s suicide was tragic because he was young and strong, but the act alone of taking his own life was a sign of defectiveness, and there was something admirable in the act—or so that was the rhetoric thrown at Partridge—that Sedge saw this defect in himself and spared himself for the good of the whole. Partridge hates this kind of talk. My brother is dead, he wants to tell them. He was the murderer and the victim. We’ll never get him back.
Partridge doesn’t want to see what his brother has been reduced to. The contents of a metal box. He can’t bear it.
His mother’s box is next—ARIBELLE CORDING WILLUX—and he’s surprised that she’s allowed to exist here at all. Unlike Sedge, Partridge will take any memory of her he can find, fitted into a box or not. He pulls the small metal handle, unhooks the box, and carries it to the narrow table in the middle of the row. He lifts the lid. He hasn’t asked his father many questions about his mother. He can tell that it makes his father uncomfortable. Inside the box, Partridge finds a birthday card with balloons on the cover without an envelope written by his mother to Partridge on his ninth birthday—but his ninth birthday hadn’t happened yet—a small metal box, and an old photograph of him and his mother at the beach. What shocks him is how real these things are. She must have moved them into the Dome before the Detonations. Each of them was allowed to bring in a few small items that were special to them. Of course, their father said it was just in case of emergency—an emergency that he said would likely never happen. These were things from the box his mother must have brought in with her.
She existed. He thinks of his father’s line of questioning. Had his mother interfered with his coding? Had she fed him pills? Did his mother know more than his father had given her credit for?
He opens the card and reads her handwritten message. Always walk in the light. Follow your soul. May it have wings. You are my guiding star, like the one that rose in the east and guided the Wise Men. Happy 9th Birthday, Partridge! Love, Mom.
Did she know she wasn’t going to be with him on his ninth birthday? Was she planning ahead? He tries to hear the words in his mother’s voice. Is this the way she talked about birthdays? Was he her guiding star? He touches her scrawl, written so hard that he can feel the grooves her pen made.
He picks up the small metal box and sees a small windup tab on the back, next to the lid’s hinges. He opens the lid. A few plinking notes rise up—a music box. He shuts the lid quickly, hoping everyone was too engrossed in their own finds to notice.
Hidden under the music box, Partridge finds the thin chain of a necklace and pendant—a swan made of gold with a bright blue stone for an eye. He picks up the chain, and the swan pendant spins. He hears his father’s voice again, “Your mother has always been problematic.” Has always been.
Partridge knows he has to get out to the other side. If she exists—if there’s the smallest hope—he has to try to find her.
He looks up and down his row—empty. He picks up each small item and slips them, quickly, one by one, into his blazer pockets, then fits the box back into its slot, the sound of metal against metal and then a clunk.
THE MEETING ROOM IS SMALL and cramped. It holds only a dozen people, all standing, and when Pressia descends the ladder, they shift and sigh, annoyed that she’s here taking up room. She figures they’re mad that there’s another person they’ll have to share food with. The room smells like vinegar. She’s never had sauerkraut but her grandfather has described it, and she wonders if that’s what they’ll be eating. Her grandfather has taught her that it’s a German food.
The guy who appeared from the trapdoor moves to the back wall. Pressia has to inch around the group to be able to have a clear view of him. He’s broad and muscular. His blue shirt has a few tears. The elbows are worn through. Where the buttons are missing, he’s punched holes in the fabric and tied them with string.
She remembers the first time she saw him. She was heading home down the alley from a day of scavenging and heard voices through the window. She stopped and looked in. She saw this boy—two years younger than he is now but still strong, wiry—lying on his side on the table while her grandfather worked on his face. The scene was blurred by the splintered window, but still she was sure that she saw the small quick wings of birds—rumpled gray feathers, a quick glimpse of a pair of small orange claws tucked up under a downy belly—lodged there in his back. The boy sat up, put on his shirt. Pressia walked to the door and stood just out of sight. The boy said that he could bring her grandfather a weapon as payment. Her grandfather told him to keep the weapon. “You need to protect yourself. Plus,” he said, “one day you’ll be stronger, and I’ll only be older, weaker. I’d rather you owe me a favor.”
“I don’t like owing favors,” the boy told him.
“Too bad,” her grandfather said. “That’s what I need.”
The boy then left in a hurry, and when he turned the corner he ran into Pressia standing there. She pitched backward and he grabbed her arm to steady her. He was gripping her arm with the doll-head fist. He noticed it and said, “Sorry.” For bumping into her or because of her deformity? She pulled her arm away from him. “I’m fine,” she told him. But she was embarrassed because he probably knew she’d been spying on him.
Here he is now, the boy who doesn’t like to be indebted but owes her grandfather. The boy with birds in his back.
He starts the meeting. “There’s a new person with us.” He points to Pressia. Everyone turns and looks at her. Like everyone else, they have scars, burns, large red knotted tissue, almost rope-like. One of the faces is connected to a jawline that holds a drape of twisted skin, so textured it almost seems like bark on a tree. She only recognizes one face—Gorse, who disappeared a few years ago with his little sister Fandra. Pressia looks around for Fandra, who had fine golden hair and a shriveled left arm. They used to joke that they were perfect for each other—Fandra had a good right hand and Pressia had the left. But she doesn’t see her. Gorse catches her eye and looks away. The sight of him makes Pressia giddy. The network of the underground—maybe it not only exists but actually works. She knows now that at least one has survived, and all the people in the room look older than she is. Is this the underground? Is the boy with the birds in his back the head of it?
And what do they see when they look at her? She tucks her head to her chest, turning the crescent-shaped scar away from view, and she pulls her sweater sleeve down over the doll head. She nods at the group, hoping they’ll look away soon.
“What’s your name?” the boy with the birds in his back asks.
“Pressia,” she says and then immediately regrets it. She wishes she’d used a fake name. She doesn’t know who these people are. This is a mistake. She knows it now, clearly. She wants to go, but feels trapped.
“Pressia,” he says under his breath, as if he’s practicing it. “Okay,” he says to the group, “let’s get started.”
Another boy in the crowd raises his hand. His face is partially disintegrated from infections where the metal on his cheek, something that once was chrome but is now rust-mottled, meets the puckered skin. There’s a ridge of angry festered skin. If he doesn’t get antibiotic ointment, he could die of it. She’s seen people die of simple infections like this. The medicine is sometimes sold at certain stalls in the market but not always, and it’s expensive. “When are you going to let us look in the footlocker?” he asks.
“After I’m done, like always, Halpern. You know that.”
Halpern looks around, embarrassed, and picks at a scab on his cheek.
Pressia sees the footlocker now for the first time. It’s pushed up against a wall. She wonders if that’s where the food is kept.
Pressia notices the girls in the audience. One has exposed wires in her neck. Another has a hand twisted solid with the handle of a bike, the metal sawed off and poking up from her wrist like a protruding bone. She’s surprised that they don’t hide these things. One could wear a scarf, the other a sock like Pressia does. But their expressions are tough, self-possessed, proud almost.
“For those of you new to the meeting,” the guy with the birds in his back says, glancing at Pressia, “I’m one of the dead.” This means he’s listed among those dead from the Detonations. OSR isn’t looking for him. It’s a good thing, all in all. “My parents were both professors who died before the Detonations. They had dangerous ideas. I have the remains of a book they were working on together, which is where I get a lot of my information. After they died, I was sent to live with an aunt and uncle. That’s where I was living when the Detonations hit. They didn’t survive. I’ve made it myself since I was just about nine years old. My name is Bradwell and this is Shadow History.”
Bradwell. She remembers hearing whispers about him now, some conspiracy theorist, evangelizing out by the Rubble Fields. She heard that he challenged a lot of the ideas about the Detonations and the Dome, especially those who worship the Dome, having confused it with a deity, a benevolent but distant god. Even though she wasn’t a Dome worshipper, she immediately hated the idea of him. Why have conspiracy theories? It’s over. Done. Here we are. Why spin your wheels?
As he launches into his talk, pacing with his hands in his pockets, she starts to hate the reality of him, too. He’s cocky and paranoid. He spouts off his theories about the Dome officials, stating that he has proof that they caused total destruction so that they could wipe out all but a fraction of the world’s population while they were Dome-protected, that the Dome was designed for this purpose—not as a prototype for a viral outbreak, environmental disaster, or attack from other nations. They wanted only the elite to survive in the Dome while they waited for the earth to renew itself, at which point they’d return. A clean slate. “Did you ever wonder why we’re not experiencing a full nuclear winter? Well, because it was orchestrated to avoid one. They used a cocktail of bombs—the Low Orbiting Focused Enhanced Radiation Neutron System satellites known as LoFERNS, and the High Orbiting Focused Enhanced Radiation Neutron System satellites, or HiFERNS, with electromagnetic pulse—EMP—magnification.” He discusses the difference between atomic and nuclear bombs that were also used in the cocktails, and pulses designed to knock out all communications. “And how did Dusts come about? The bombs disrupted molecular structures. The cocktails included the distribution of nanotechnology to help to speed up the recovery of the earth—nanotechnology that promotes the self-assembly of molecules. The nanotechnology, speeded up by DNA, which is an informational material but also excellent at the self-assembly of cells, made our fusing stronger. And the nanotechnology that hit the humans trapped in rubble or scorched land helped them to regenerate. Even though they couldn’t completely free themselves, the human cells of the Dusts grew powerful and learned to survive.”
He explains one conspiracy after the next, linking them so quickly Pressia can barely understand him. But she isn’t sure that she’s even supposed to understand the theories. The talk isn’t designed for newcomers. This is a group of those already converted. They nod along, like this was a bedtime story, and they have it memorized so they can pass it on to others. Pressia recites the Message in her head: We know you are here, our brothers and sisters. We will, one day, emerge from the Dome to join you in peace. For now, we watch from afar, benevolently. And then the old cross, the one her father called an Irish cross. It may not be word from the benevolent eye of God, as so many have thought of the Dome, but it’s certainly not the Message of an evil force. Their sin is that of surviving. She can’t blame them for that. She’s guilty of the same.
It dawns on her that if she’s heard of Bradwell, OSR has to know that he exists. Panic pricks across her skin. It’s dangerous for her to be here at all. Bradwell is almost eighteen and even though he’s listed among the dead, he has to be a prime target for OSR. As he talks, a few things are clear. He hates OSR, which he sees as feeble, weakened by their own greed and evil, incapable of taking down the Dome or effecting any real change. “Just another corrupt tyrant,” he says. He especially despises that there’s no transparency. The names of the highest-ranking officials in OSR are unknown. They let the grunts do their dirty work in the streets.
If anyone heard him talking this way, he’d be shot—probably publicly. They all would be considered enemies of OSR, punishable by death. She wants to go, but how? The ladder to the trapdoor in the ceiling is folded up. She’d have to make a scene. She’d have to explain herself. But what’s worse? What if there’s a raid and she’s stuck down here with these people?
At the same time, she desperately wants to know what’s in the footlocker. The guy named Halpern obviously wants to get into it. It must hold valuables. Where’s the food? Mainly she wants Bradwell to stop speaking. He’s talking about the things no one ever speaks of, the Detonations and their effects—the updrafts and downdrafts uprooting houses, the cyclones of fire, the reptilian skin of the dying, bodies turned to char, the oily black rain, the pyres to burn the dead, those who died days later, starting with a nosebleed and later decaying from within. She tries to will him to shut up in her mind. Please stop! Stop! Now!
He starts to glance at her as he speaks, and moves closer to her side of the room. He squints like he’s tough, but as he gets angrier—talking about how the political movement called the Return of Civility, overseen by the national military arm called the Righteous Red Wave, was all part of the lead-up to the Detonations, the rule of everything in the name of fear, the massive prisons, sanatoriums for the sick, asylums for dissidents, their remains sprawling in every direction once you left the gated suburbs—his eyes are teary. He’d never cry, she can tell that about him, but he’s complicated. At one point he says, “It was sick, all of it.” And then he pokes a sarcastic dimple in his cheek and says, “You know God loves you because you’re rich!”
Is this what it was like back then, really? Her father was an accountant. Her mother had taken her to Disney. They lived in the suburbs. They had a little yard. Her grandfather has drawn her pictures of it all. Her parents weren’t professors who had dangerous ideas. So what side were they on? She steps back again toward the ladder.
“We have to remember what we don’t want to,” he tells them. “We have to pass down our stories. My parents were already gone, shot to death in their beds. I was told it was intruders, but I knew better, even then.”
And now Bradwell speaks as if he’s talking to her alone, like she’s the only person in the room. His eyes hook on to hers and hold her there. It’s a strange feeling, like being tethered to the earth—not a fleck of ash at all. He tells his story—his I Remember.
After his parents were shot, he was shipped to live with his aunt and uncle in the suburbs. His uncle had been promised three spots in the Dome, had been told a route to take into the Dome when the alarm sounded, a private route that wound around the barricades. He had tickets even. He’d paid good money for them. They stocked the car with bottled water and cash.
It happened on a Saturday afternoon. Bradwell had walked far from home. He wandered a lot those days. He doesn’t remember much—only the bright flash, the heat coursing through his body, like his blood was on fire. The shadow of the birds rising up behind him… And so that is, in fact, what she saw two years ago when he was being stitched up on the table. Ruffling beneath his shirt, they are wings.
Bradwell’s body was burned and blistered, raw. The birds’ beaks felt like daggers.
He made it back to his aunt and uncle’s house, amid smoldering fires and air thick with ash, people crying from rubble. Others wandered, blood-covered, their skin melted away. His uncle had been working on the car, making sure it was in tiptop shape for the special route around the barricades. He was under the car when the Detonations went off, fused with the engine. It lodged in his chest. His aunt was burned, suffering, and afraid of Bradwell’s body, his birds. But she said, “Don’t leave us.” The smell of death, burned hair and skin—it was everywhere. The sky was gray, clotted with ash. “There was sun but the sky was so clouded with dust, day looked like dusk”—that’s what Bradwell said. Does Pressia remember this simple thing? She wants to. After sun on sun on sun, it was dusk, day after day.
Bradwell stayed with his aunt in the garage, which was scalded, rickety, but strangely intact—lined with charred boxes, the fake Christmas tree, the shovels, and tools. His uncle was nearly dead, but he tried to explain to his wife how to get him free. He said things about bolt cutters and a hanging pulley that they could rig to the ceiling. But who could his wife go to for help? Everyone was either gone or dead or dying or trapped. She tried to feed her husband, but he refused to eat.
Bradwell found a dead cat on the charred lawn, put it in a box, and tried to bring it back to life, uselessly. His aunt was hoarse and winded—a little insane by then, most likely. She was dazed, weak, tending to her own burns and wounds, watching her husband slowly die.
Bradwell stops talking for a moment, looks down at the floor and then back at Pressia. He says, “And then one day, he begged her. He whispered, ‘Turn on the engine. Turn it on.’ ”
The room is silent and still.
Bradwell says, “She held the keys in her hand and shouted at me to get out of the garage. And I did.”
Pressia feels light-headed. She puts her hand on the cement wall to steady herself. She looks up at Bradwell. Why is he telling them this story? It’s sick. I Remember is supposed to be a way of giving people gifts, small sweet memories, the kind Pressia likes to collect, needs to believe in. Why this? What good does this do anyone? She glances around the room at the others. They don’t seem angry, like she does. Their faces are, if anything, calm. Some have their eyes closed as if they want to picture it all in their minds. This is the last thing that Pressia wants, but she does see it all—the flock of birds, the dead cat, the man trapped under the car.
Bradwell goes on, “She turned the key. For a few moments, the motor chugged. When she didn’t come out to get me, I went in. I saw the blood and my uncle’s waxy blue face. My aunt curled in the corner of the garage. I packed up the bottled water and put cash in a bag and taped it to my stomach. And I went back home, to my parents’ house, burned to char, and found the footlocker they’d hidden in a protected room. I dragged the footlocker with me back into the dark world and learned how to survive.”
His dark eyes flit across the crowd. He says, “We each have a story. They did this to us. There was no outside aggressor. They wanted an apocalypse. They wanted the end. And they made it happen. It was orchestrated—who got in, who didn’t. There was a master list. We weren’t on it. We were left here to die. They want to erase us, the past, but we can’t let them.”
That’s the end. No one claps. Bradwell simply turns around and pops the lock on the footlocker.
Silently, they form a line and, one by one, with reverence, they go up to take a look inside. Some reach into the footlocker and pull out papers—some colored, some black and white. Pressia can’t tell what they are. She wants to see what’s in the locker, but her heart’s pounding in her chest. She has to get out. She sees Gorse talking to people in the corner. It’s great that he’s alive, but she doesn’t want to find out what happened to Fandra. Pressia has to get out of here. She walks to the back of the room and pulls on the rickety ladder. It unfolds from the ceiling. She starts to climb up. But there’s Bradwell at the bottom. “You didn’t come for the meeting, did you?”
“Of course I did.”
“You had no idea what it was about.”
“I have to go,” Pressia says. “It’s later than I thought. I made this promise and—”
“If you knew about the meeting, then what’s in the footlocker?”
She says, “Papers. You know.”
He pinches the frayed cuff of her pants and gives a little tug. “Come and look.”
She gazes up at the trapdoor.
“The latch locks automatically, both ways, once it’s shut,” he says. “You have to wait for Halpern to unlock it anyway. He’s got the only key.” He holds out his hand, offering help, but she ignores it and steps down on her own.
“I don’t have much time,” she says.
There’s no longer a line. Everyone is holding the papers and talking about them in small groups, Gorse among them. He looks at her. She nods, and he nods back. She has to talk to him. He’s standing by the footlocker. She wants to see inside it. She walks up to him.
“Pressia,” he says.
Bradwell is behind her. “You two know each other?”
“We did,” Gorse says.
“You disappeared and you’re still alive,” Pressia says. She can’t hide her amazement.
“Pressia,” he says. “Don’t tell anyone about me. Don’t.”
“I won’t,” she says. “What about—”
He cuts her off. “No,” he says, and she understands Fandra is, in fact, dead. She’s thought that Fandra was dead ever since they disappeared, but she didn’t realize how hopeful she’d become since seeing Gorse that maybe she was alive, that maybe Pressia would see her again.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
He shakes his head and changes the subject. “The footlocker,” he says. “Go have a look.”
She steps toward the locker, people on either side of her, shoulder-to-shoulder. She feels shaken. She peers inside. It’s filled with ash-smeared folders. One labeled MAPS. Another labeled MANUSCRIPT. The top folder is opened and inside there are pieces of magazines and newspapers and packages. Pressia doesn’t reach in. She can’t touch them at first. She kneels down and grips the edge of the footlocker. There are images of people so happy they’ve lost weight that they’ve wrapped their stomachs with measuring tapes; dogs in sunglasses and party hats; and cars with huge red bows on their roofs. There are smiling bumblebees, “money-back guarantees,” little furry boxes with jewelry in them. The pictures have some wear and tear. Some have burn holes, blackened edges. Some are fogged gray with ash. But still they’re beautiful. This is what it was like, Pressia thinks. Not all that stuff Bradwell has just told them. This was it. These are pictures. Proof. Real.
She reaches down and touches one. A picture of people wearing glasses with colored lenses in movie theaters. They watch the screens, laughing, and eat from small colorful cardboard bins.
Bradwell says, “It was called 3-D. They watched the flat movie screens but with the glasses on, the world jumped out at them from the screen, like real life.” He picks up the picture and hands it to her.
When she holds it, her hands start to shake. “I just don’t remember it in detail like this. It’s amazing. I mean.” She looks at him. “Why do you say all that other stuff when you’ve got these pictures right here? I mean, look at these.”
“Because what I said was the truth. Shadow History. This isn’t.”
She shakes her head. “You can say what you want. I know what it was like. I have it in my head. It was more like this. I’m sure of it.”
“Don’t laugh at me!”
“I know your type.”
“What?” Pressia says. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“You’re the type who wants it all back the way it once was, the Before. You can’t look back like that. You probably even love the idea of the Dome. All cushy and sweet.”
It feels like he’s scolding her. “I’m not looking back. You’re the history teacher!”
“I only look back so we don’t make the same mistakes again.”
“As if we’ll ever have the luxury,” she says. “Or is that what you’re planning with your little lessons? A way to infiltrate OSR, bring down the Dome?” She shoves the picture at his chest and walks to Halpern. “Unlock the trapdoor,” she says.
Halpern looks at her. “What? Does it lock?”
She looks over at Bradwell. “You think that’s funny?”
“I didn’t want you to go,” Bradwell says. “Is that so wrong?”
She walks quickly to the ladder, and Bradwell does too.
He says, “Here, take this.” He holds out a little piece of folded paper.
“What is it?”
“Have you already turned sixteen?”
“This is where you can find me,” he says. “Take it. You might need it.”
“What? In case I need a few more lectures?” she says. “And where’s the food anyway?”
“Halpern!” Bradwell calls out. “Where’s the food?”
“Forget it,” Pressia says. She pulls the ladder down.
But as she puts her foot on the first rung, he reaches up and slips the piece of folded paper into her pocket. “It can’t hurt.”
“You know, you’re just a type too,” she says.
She doesn’t know what to say. She’s never met anyone like him. The birds on his back seem restless. Their wings shiver under his shirt. His eyes are brooding, intense. She says, “You’re a smart boy. You can figure that out.”
As she climbs the ladder, he says, “You just said something nice about me. Are you aware of that? That was a compliment. You’re sweet-talking me, aren’t you?”
This only makes her angrier. “I hope I never see you again,” she says. “Is that sweet enough for you?” She climbs high enough to give the trapdoor a shove. It flies open and cracks against the wood. Everyone in the room below stops and stares up at her.
And for some strange reason, she expects to look into the room overhead and see a house with flowers stitched into the sofa, bright windows with wind-swelled curtains, a family with measuring-tape belts eating a shiny turkey, a dog smiling at her in sunglasses, and outside, a car wearing a bow—maybe even Fandra, alive and combing her fine golden hair.
She knows that she’ll never forget the pictures she saw. They’re in her mind forever. Bradwell too, with his mussed hair, his double scar, and all the things that poured from his mouth. Sweet-talking him? Is that what he accused her of? Can that even matter now that she’s heard the Detonations were orchestrated, that they were left to die?
There is no sofa, curtains, family, dog, or bow.
There’s only the room with the dusty pallets and the barred door.
PARTRIDGE’S ROOMMATE, SILAS HASTINGS, walks to the mirror attached to the back of the closet door and slaps his cheeks with aftershave. “Don’t make this one of those things where you have to study right up to the last minute. It’s a dance, for shit’s sake.” Hastings is a clean-cut kid. He’s bony and way too tall, and so he’s all arms and legs and always looks oddly angular. Partridge likes him all right. He’s a good roommate—fairly tidy, studious—but his one flaw is that he takes things personally. That, and sometimes he’s a nag.
What’s made things tense is that Partridge has been avoiding Hastings, saying he has to study more, complaining about pressure his dad’s put on him. But in reality, he’s been trying to find time alone—when Hastings is shooting hoops or goofing off in the lounge, things Partridge used to do with him—so that he can study the blueprints from the photograph taken in his father’s office, the one his father sent to Partridge’s academy postal box. Sometimes he winds up the music box and lets it play itself out. The music is the tune to a little song his mother used to sing about the swan wife, the one she taught him on that trip to the beach. Could that be just a coincidence? He feels like it means something more. This is what he’s hoping to do for a few minutes once Hastings is gone, listen to the song and study the blueprints while all the other boys are arriving at the dance.
Right now Partridge is stalling. He’s still wrapped in a towel, his hair wet from the shower. He’s got his clothes laid out. Partridge blew up the picture of him and his father so that he could see the details of the blueprint. He found the air-filtration system, fans built into tunnels at twenty-foot intervals. After lights-out, he illuminates the blueprints with the small dim bulb that sits on the top of the special pen his father gave him as a gift for his birthday. It came in handy after all.
He’s been blowing Hastings off too because his father made good on his threat. There have been lots of tests, batteries of tests, just like Partridge’s father said there would be. Partridge has become a pincushion. He has a new understanding of what that means—he feels perforated. His blood, his cells, his DNA. His father has scheduled a test so invasive that Partridge will have to be put under—another needle in his arm that will be taped down and made into a shunt, connected to a clear bag of something that would render him unconscious.
“I’ll be there eventually,” Partridge says. “You go on.”
“Have you looked out on the commons?” Hastings asks, leaning up to the window that overlooks the grassy lawn dividing the girls’ dorms from the boys’. “Weed is sending messages with his laser pen to some girl. Can you imagine that dork asking out a girl dork via laser-pen messages?”
Partridge glances out at the lawn. He sees the small sharp zigzags of a red pinpoint moving through the grass. He looks up at the lit windows of the girls’ dorms. Someone over there knows how to read this stuff. It’s amazing how inventive they have to be to get a chance to talk to girls. “Everybody’s got to have an angle, I guess,” Partridge says. Hastings has no angle with girls so he’s really in no position to judge Weed on this one, and he knows it.
“You know,” Hastings says, “it breaks my heart that you can’t even walk down to the dance with me, your compadre. Little by little, you’re killing me.”
“What?” Partridge says, trying to play dumb.
“Why don’t you tell me the truth, huh?”
“You’ve been blowing me off because you hate me. Just say so. I won’t take it personally.” Hastings is famous for saying that he won’t take personal insults personally, and he always does.
Partridge decides to tell him a little truth, just one, to appease him. “Look, I’ve got a lot weighing on me. My dad is bringing me in for a special mummy mold session. All the way under.”
Hastings touches the back of his desk chair. His face goes a little pale.
“Hastings,” Partridge says. “It’s me. Not you. Don’t take it so hard.”
“No, no.” He flips his hair out of his eyes, a nervous habit. “It’s just, you know. I’ve heard rumors about these kinds of sessions. Some of the boys say that this is how you get bugged.”
“I know,” Partridge says. “They can put lenses in your eyes and recording devices in your ears and you’re a walking, talking spy whether you know it or not.”
“These aren’t just your typical chipping devices so some high-strung parents know where their kid is at all times. These are high-tech. The sights you see and things you hear are monitored on full-color high-definition screens.”
“Well, it’s not going to be like that, Hastings. No one’s going to make Willux’s kid a spy.”
“What if it’s worse?” Hastings says. “What if they put in a ticker.” A ticker is supposedly a bomb that they can plant in anyone’s head. It’s controlled via remote. If you suddenly become more of a risk than your value, they flip a switch. Partridge doesn’t believe in the ticker.
“It’s just a myth, Hastings. There’s no such thing.”
“Then what do they want to do to you?”
“They just want biological info.”
“They don’t need to put you under for info. DNA, blood, piss. What more could they want?”
Partridge knows what they want from him. They want to alter his behavioral coding, and for some reason they can’t. And it has to do with his mother. He’s told Hastings more than he wanted to. Mainly, he can’t tell anyone that he’s planning to get out. He knows how to get out of the Dome. He’s done the research, the calculations. He’s going to go out through the air-filtration system. There’s only one more thing he needs, a knife, and he’s going to get it tonight. “No need to panic, Hastings. I’ll be fine. I always am, right?”
“You don’t want a ticker, man. You do not want that.”
“Look, you’re all dressed up, Hastings. Don’t worry about it. Go have fun. Like you said, It’s a dance, for shit’s sake!”
“Okay, okay,” Hastings says and lopes to the door on his long legs. “Don’t leave me alone down there forever, okay?”
“If you’d stop bugging me, I could go faster.”
Hastings gives a salute and shuts the door.
Partridge sits down heavily on his mattress. Hastings, that idiot, Partridge says to himself, but it doesn’t help. Hastings has freaked him out, talking about the ticker; why would officials want to off their own soldiers? He could have told Hastings that he should watch out for himself. Hastings’ behavioral coding has probably already been altered a little. It might even be one of the reasons why he doesn’t want to be late for the dance. Punctuality is a Dome virtue.
Partridge can’t imagine how it would feel to start acting differently, just in the littlest of ways. “It’s just like growing up. A maturation.” That’s what parents think of the behavioral coding—for boys at least. Girls don’t get coding, something about their delicate reproductive organs, unless they’re not okayed for reproduction. If they aren’t going to reproduce, then brain enhancements can start up. Partridge doesn’t want to change at all. He wants to know that what he does comes from himself—even if it’s wrong. In any case, he has to get out before they find a way to mess with his behavioral coding or else he’ll never do it. He’ll stop himself. He might not even have the impulse to get out anymore. But what’s outside the Dome? All he knows is that it’s a land filled with wretches, most of whom were too stupid or stubborn to join the Dome. Or they were sick in the head, criminally insane, virally compromised—already institutionalized. It was bad back then; society was diseased. The world has been forever changed. Now most of the wretches who survived are atrocities, deformed beyond human recognition, perversions of their previous life-forms. In class, they’ve been shown pictures, stills frozen from ash-fogged video footage. Will he be able to survive out there in the deadly environment among the violent wretches? And it’s possible that once he’s out, no one will come looking for him. No one is allowed out of the Dome for any reason—not even for reconnaissance. Is this a suicide mission?
Too late. He’s made up his mind. He can’t afford any distractions right now—from Hastings or himself. He hears the ventilation system click on and checks his watch. He stands and climbs the short ladder to his bunk. He pulls out a small notebook wedged between the mattress and the railing. He opens the book, notes the time, shuts it, and pushes it back into its spot.
Wherever he is now, whether he’s lying there in his mummy mold undergoing radiation or waiting for another vial to be taken from him or during his classes or in his dorm room at night, he studies the patterned hum of the filtration fans—the dull whirring that vibrates throughout the Dome at timed intervals. He makes notations in a book he’s supposed to use to keep track of his assignments and his coding sessions. He barely noticed the sounds before. But now that he’s begun, he can sometimes anticipate the quiet tick just before the motors kick in. He knows now that the air-filtration system leads out of the Dome and that the fan blades turn off at certain times for a period of three minutes and forty-two seconds.
He’s going out because his mother might exist. “Your mother has always been problematic.” That’s what his father said, and ever since Partridge stole his mother’s things from the Personal Loss Archives, she’s felt even more real. If there’s a chance she’s out there, he has to try to find her.
He gets dressed quickly, pulling on his pants and shirt, looping and tightening his tie. His hair is so short it doesn’t need a comb. Right now he has to concentrate on one thing: Lyda Mertz.
WHEN LYDA HELPED DECORATE the dining hall with streamers and gold-foil stars glued to the ceiling, she hadn’t yet had a date. There were a few people she would have been willing to go with, but Partridge was the only one she wanted to ask her. When he did, standing by the small set of metal bleachers out by the athletic fields during a rare moment when she wasn’t being corralled by one of the teachers, Lyda had thought, Wouldn’t it be nice if it was a little chilly and we were both windblown and the sky was blustered, like a real fall day? But of course, she didn’t say this. She only said, “Yes, I’d love to go with you! That sounds great!” And she fit her hands in her pockets because she was afraid he might try to hold one and her palms were now sweating.
He looked around after she agreed, as if he was hoping no one had heard them, as if he might take it back if someone had. But he said, “Okay then. We can just meet there.”
And now here they are, sitting next to each other at the skirted tables. Partridge looks perfect. His eyes are such a beautiful gray that whenever he glances at her, she feels like her heart might burst. Still, he’s barely glanced at her even though they’re sitting side by side.
They’ve piped music in overhead, all the oldest songs on the sanctioned list. This one, swirling now, is a melancholy but kind of creepy song about someone who is watching every step and every breath someone else takes. It makes her feel a little paranoid, overly scrutinized, and she’s self-conscious enough about the dip of her dress’s neckline.
Partridge’s roommate is leaning up against the far wall, talking to a girl. He looks over and sees Partridge, who gives him a nod. Hastings smiles goofily and then turns back to the girl.
“Hastings, that’s his name, right?” Lyda says. She’s trying to make conversation, but also doesn’t mind lingering on Hastings, maybe to hint that she and Partridge could be sitting closer, whispering.
“That’s a small miracle,” Partridge says. “He doesn’t have a natural way with the ladies.” Lyda wonders if Partridge has a natural way with the ladies but, for some reason, isn’t turning on the charms for her.
Because it’s a special occasion, their food pills—bullets, as the academy boys call them—have been replaced by cupcakes sitting on all the tables on small blue plates. She watches Partridge fit large forkfuls into his mouth. She imagines that it must feel like near suffocation by eating—a rarity. Lyda nibbles her cake, savoring it, making it last.
She tries to start up the conversation again. This time she talks about her art class, which is her favorite. “My wire bird has been chosen to be in the next display in the exhibit in Founders Hall—a student art show. Do you take art classes? I’ve heard they don’t let the boys take art, only things that have real-life applications, like science. Is that right?”
Excerpted from Pure by Baggott, Julianna Copyright © 2012 by Baggott, Julianna. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
Original and masterfully written, Pure features great characters and a story that is, from page to page, startling, harrowing, and touching. I recommend it wholeheartedly. (Jeff VanderMeer, World Fantasy Award winner and bestselling author of City Of Saints And Madmen)
Pure is a post-apocalyptic thrill ride, filled with wildly inventive characters whose journey of struggle and revolution manifests as a fast-paced narrative full of promise and hope. As visceral and kinetic as it is socially relevant, Pure is bursting with imagination and epic adventure. Baggott is here to stay. And we are all the beneficiaries. (Steven Schneider, producer of major motion pictures Paranormal Activity I and II)
A great gorgeous whirlwind of a novel, boundless in its imagination. You will be swept away. (Justin Cronin, New York Times bestselling author of The Passage)
A boiling and roiling glorious mosh-pit of a book, full of wonderful weirdness, tenderness, and wild suspense. If Katniss could jump out of her own book and pick a great friend, I think she'd find an excellent candidate in Pressia. (Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake)
This new novel of Julianna Baggott's is so bizarre and wonderful and transportingly self-contained and yet so resonantly rich that I truly forgot where I was or who I was. . . . I was profoundly enchanted. . . . Pure is not just the most extraordinary coming-of-age novel I've ever read, it is also a beautiful and savage metaphorical assessment of how all of us live in this present age. This is an important book, for adults young and old, by one of our finest writers. (Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain)
Pure is a dark adventure that is both startling and addictive at once. Pressia Belze is one part manga heroine and one part post-apocalyptic Alice, stranded in a surreal Wonderland where everyone and everything resonates with what has been lost. Breathtaking and frightening. I couldn't stop reading Pure. (Danielle Trussoni, bestselling author of Angelology)
Julianna Baggott's Pure is testament to the might and beauty of Grimm-dark imagination. The devils of the human psyche will not be quelled, and this book, like the best of Poe, intrepidly confronts what our bad clan is capable of, the fragility of all human feeling, and the possibility that hope can redeem the wastelands we've made. A sublime novel by one of our most important storytellers. (William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters)
Julianna Baggott has created a mesmerizing, nightmarish apocalyptic world, populated by denizens who suffer out bleak existence bearing the literal marks of what was closest to them in their previous life. The story that emerges from the ashes shines like a jewel on a dark horizon, and this tale about family, the power of faith, and the search for love is sure to haunt the imagination of readers for a long, long time. (Matt Bondurant, author of The Wettest County in the World)