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Eleven years earlier ...
I pull the lever of the cage, switching the tunnel onto a different track, trying to confuse the mice.
I know exactly how the future will play out, of course. I know which mice will fall down the trap and which ones will smack into the see-through glass wall. I know which mice will get hopelessly lost. I even know which ones will run the maze correctly on the very first try.
I like watching them anyway. They wriggle over one another like worms, and their whiskers twitch when they're at a corner between two paths. But what I like most is how they come to me when I call.
Picking up a mouse, I run my fingers over its soft fur and warm body. It looks at me with unblinking pink eyes, and I think it could be my friend.
Of course, I can see which mice will come, so I know which ones to call. Rodents are predictable like that. Humans, not so much. They have too many wants, too many feelings. I don't see any one future for people. Rather, I see them all — every single pathway their futures might take, flickering before my eyes.
So I have to guess which of my human classmates will want to play with me. Most of the time, I guess wrong.
"Are you bothering my mice again?" a little boy's voice says. "Fates, Livvy. How many times do I have to tell you? Leave them alone!"
Startled, I let go of the mouse and look up at Tanner Callahan, the other six-year-old who hangs around the scientists' labs. I'm here because my mom's the head of the Future Memory Agency, or FuMA, and he's here ... I guess 'cause he has nowhere else to be.
He's got black hair that pokes up in the back, and his skin sticks too closely to his bones. I thought this meant he wasn't eating enough, but MK, our child-minder, said that grief over his parents' deaths had burrowed holes through his resources.
This makes me think of the mice digging through the straw, and my chest aches. I flash forward to his futures. He still has hundreds of branches remaining, but in most of them, one thing is the same: he will be sad and lonely until he kisses our classmate Jessa ten years in the future.
I don't know why kissing should change anything. But I do know how it feels to be lonely and sad.
We don't have to be like this. I could be his friend. I just have to figure out the right thing to say.
"Jessa and I are going to rule the world one day." It can't hurt to bring up the girl he smushes lips with. Maybe if he thinks she and I are friends, he'll like me, too. "You know Jessa, right? The girl with the teardrop eyes? She's my best friend." Not true. I think Jessa only talks to me because she's nice. But he doesn't have to know that.
"Oh yeah? Well someday, I'm going to be the inventor of future memory," he shoots back. "And then we'll see who's more important."
I bite my lip. That wasn't what I meant. I wasn't trying to brag or compare or compete. The futures containing our friendship begin to fall away, one by one. I guessed wrong once again.
My thoughts whirl as I search for something else to say, but then I hear a pair of heels clicking against the tile outside the lab. My stomach drops. The door swishes open, and there stands my mother, Chairwoman Dresden herself.
Her hands go to her hips. Her short hair looks like icicles; her eyes are lumps of hail. "Tanner, what are you doing here? Get back to work before another one of my self-driving pods malfunctions." Tanner suddenly looks like the tuft of hair on his head — all quivering and out-of-place. His parents died in a freak pod accident. That's probably what's gotten him so upset. "Th-this is where I work, Ch-chairwoman —"
She swishes her fingers through the air. "Does it look like I care? Be gone!"
Without another word, Tanner tucks his head down and scampers out of the room.
The door seals shut, and her shoulders droop. "I've had a rough day," she moans, covering her eyes. "I think we've found our key to future memory, but she won't cooperate. She won't send a simple memory to her sister. They say I'm so cruel. They think I'm a monster who tortures children. But what else am I supposed to do? How else can I make her comply?"
The words ring through the room and fall to the carpet. She's not expecting an answer, and I don't dare offer one.
She peeks at me through her fingers. "Come give Mommy a kiss, Olivia. You love me, don't you? You don't think I'm a bad person, do you?"
Obediently, I cross the floor and press my mouth against her cheek. A bit of powder comes off on my lips. It tastes bitter. I hold my face tight, but the grimace sneaks out anyway.
She goes perfectly still. "Did you make a face after kissing me?"
My blood runs cold. Colder than my feet when they stick out under the covers. Colder than the breath that puffs out in the winter air. All her futures flip through my mind, and over ninety percent of them end in the exact same way.
Still, I try.
"No, ma'am," I say haltingly. "I didn't mean to make a face. Your powder came off on my lips, and it tasted bad. Stale and bitter, like poison."
"I taste like poison?"
I wince. Clearly I'm not any better at guessing when it comes to my mother.
"No, ma'am. Not you. The powder —"
"Why must you look at me with those solemn eyes, Olivia? Children are supposed to be carefree and innocent. They're supposed to love you unconditionally. Just once, I'd like to come home from a hard day at work and take comfort in my flesh and blood. Instead, I'm greeted, night after night, by a daughter who stares at me like she sees every single one of my sins."
I do see all her future sins. And all her potential goodness, too. Which path she takes is up to her.
But if I say that, she'll just get mad at me for being precocious.
"I don't mean to look at you." Maybe she'll calm down if I change the subject to something more childlike. If I act more like the daughter she wants. "I had one of those visions again. You know, the ones you call nightmares? It was awful. People were dying. Everywhere I looked, people were confused and disappearing and dying."
A sharp glint leaps into her eyes. "Did you tell anybody? Did you tell Tanner?"
I shake my head. "Not yet. But maybe I should. Maybe, if he knows that I've seen horrible things, too, he'll want to be my friend —"
Her hand slashes across the air and lands squarely against my cheek.
Ow. The futures blow up, and stars blink in front of my eyes. I stumble, trying to find my feet.
"How can I get through to you? How do I make you understand? Nobody can know about your nightmares. You have no idea what will happen if the wrong person hears." She slaps me again. More explosions. More stars.
I cry out, even though I know it will only make her madder. The blows rain down on me. I scream, kicking out my legs, punching forward with my arms. Not because I'm trying to fight her. Not because I'll ever win. But because. It. Hurts. So. Much.
And then, all of a sudden, the walloping stops. Her heels click-click-click out of the room, and the door swishes shut. I collapse to the floor. My body aches in places I didn't know could ache. The skin between my toes. The muscles behind my knees.
My mind, however, is not still. It races ahead, sifting, sifting, sifting through my futures until I find the one I want. The only one that will make this pain go away.
Closing my eyes, I live that vision as though it were real.
The door opens. My mother pads back into the room, but she is barefoot this time. She places her hands under my arms, lifting me to my feet. "Come on, Livvy," she says nicely, so nicely. Her voice is as light as a breeze blowing against my skin. As soft as a moth landing on my shoulder. "Let's get you on the couch."
"Can't move," I mumble against the tile. I taste dirt and chemicals and linoleum. "Don't think I can ever move again."
"It'll hurt for only a few moments," my mother says. "And then you'll be much more comfortable. I promise."
Because she is gentle, because she is kind, because all I've ever wanted is for her to love me, I try.
I stand and wince. Every movement shoots pain to my jaw and my legs, my stomach and my teeth.
My mom wraps an arm around me, and together we hobble to the couch. The fabric is coarse, but I melt into it as if it is the softest, most luxurious material in this time.
She rubs a salve into my face, kneading my aches with her fingers. From the past, I know that the salve is practically magic, and that tomorrow, I'll feel infinitely better. "I'm so sorry, Livvy," she says, tears strangling her words. "Can you ever forgive me?"
"Why should I?" Anger curls in my stomach. "You hurt me."
Her throat ripples. "I can't explain it to you. But believe me, it hurts me more than it hurts you. Every strike I lay on your body I feel in my heart tenfold. One day, you'll know the truth. One day, you'll understand why I have to be so hard."
"Tell me now," I beg. "You said yourself, I'm the most precocious little girl you've ever met. If you tell me, I'll understand."
"No." Her voice thickens, even as her hand moves lovingly down my arms. "You already have enough of a burden on your too-thin shoulders. If you learn the truth now, it will scar your soul forever. Just know this. Everything I do is because I love you."
"Do you mean it, Mommy?" I am sobbing now, although I don't know why. I bury my face in her lap, wetting her skirt with my tears. "Do you really love me?"
"With all my heart. With all my soul."
She continues to apply salve to my skin. I close my eyes. The fabric of the sofa scrapes against my arms, and the synthetic fiber of her skirt feels like sandpaper against my cheek.
But you couldn't move me if the world were coming to an end.
I open my eyes. Slowly, the real world comes back into focus. The cages full of mice, the cold linoleum floor, the bright white light shining above me. My pain.
My mother didn't actually apply salve to my aches. She didn't actually cuddle me in her lap and tell me she loved me. That was just one version of the future, a path that she could've picked — but didn't.
It doesn't matter. I wrap the vision up and hold it tightly against my heart. This is the way it's always been. All my life, it's like I'm being raised by two moms. The person Marigold Dresden actually is.
And the woman she could be.
Present day ...
Across the control room, technicians stand at their com terminals, their hands moving busily over keyballs as they monitor the memories being transmitted from the future, right at this very moment. Right in this very building.
It's like we've gone backward in time, to the way our lives used to be eleven years ago. Once again, every seventeen-year-old in North Amerie is ushered into a government building on his or her birthday. Once again, the teens are instructed to open their minds in order to receive a memory from their future selves. Once again, these visions serve as an all-knowing guide for the recipients — and as a guarantee for everyone else: employers, loan officers, even prospective spouses.
It's as though Callie Stone never stabbed a syringe into her chest, as though the invention of future memory was never threatened. As though I didn't go into isolation for the last decade.
Nothing's really changed ... except for one thing. Jessa and I are now part of the system.
I look across the room at Jessa Stone — Callie's sister and, more importantly, my ally. She wears the same crisp navy uniform as me, but hers has three golden bars across her shoulders to indicate that she's the personal assistant to my mother, Chairwoman Dresden.
It's been six months since Jessa betrayed her family in order to gain my mother's trust. Six months since my mother asked me to come out of my cabin in the woods, where I had sequestered myself for ten years, so that I could follow Jessa around and determine her loyalty.
I didn't want to. Isolation is safe. Isolation doesn't bombard you with a million people's futures, with tragedies that you're helpless to change. But I set Jessa on this path. I convinced her that she would be the one to stop my mother's future plans of genocide. Of course, Jessa believes that the chairwoman is the ultimate bad guy, that she's nothing but pure evil. I don't agree. I know my mother. I've lived a thousand of her alternative visions, and I'm absolutely convinced she's got her reasons for making such bad decisions. They may not be good reasons — they may not justify or excuse anything — but in her mind, she's doing what's right.
I don't tell Jessa any of this. I doubt it would go over very well. But after dragging her into this situation, the least I can do is be her shadow.
That's what the FuMA employees call me when they think I'm not listening — Shadow. It makes sense, I suppose. I'm the strange girl who spent ten years by herself in the woods. I'm the meek employee who trails after Jessa from room to room, never acting and barely speaking. It's what I do best, what I've always done best: observe.
It's just too bad that I finally have a nickname from someone other than Tanner, and it turns out to be "Shadow." Jessa wanders over to me. "Want to take a break?" Her tone is so warm that I can almost convince myself that she likes my company. That we're not simply forced to work together. That she's actually my ... friend.
I peek at grown-up Tanner, the third FuMA official in the room and the only other person who knows our true mission. "In fifteen seconds, Tanner will be joining ..."
... us, I finish in my head. Ugh. Again? Six months ago, right when I rejoined society, I picked up this terrible tic of dropping the ends of my sentences. Not on purpose. My therapist at the Technology Research Agency, the one my mother forces me to see, thinks it's because I secretly think that my words are unimportant, that no one could possibly be interested in what I have to say. I don't know if she's right, but it's a habit I've been trying to break, without much success.
It's only because these are the first words I've spoken today, I reassure myself. I'll be better once I get a little warmed up.
"You think?" she murmurs, eyes brightening. "He's in the middle of a session. He can't just drop everything."
Five seconds ... four ... three ...
Sure enough, Tanner glances up from his terminal and then swaggers toward us. Instead of a navy suit, he wears a white lab coat over his black thermal shirt and cargo pants — his unofficial scientist's uniform. Reaching us, he kisses Jessa on the cheek.
Almost without realizing it, I curl my shoulders forward and I back up one step, two steps, three steps, until I'm standing behind an empty com terminal.
"You're so predictable," Jessa says to Tanner.
"Well, of course I'm predictable." The black hair flops over his forehead. "You're standing with the only true precognitive of our time." He flicks a glance at me — or at least, what he can see of me, since I'm mostly hidden by the metal structure. "She can see my future!"
"Correction," Jessa says mildly. "She can see the many different paths your future could take. She has no more knowledge than anyone else which path you'll actually choose." Her lips curve. "But it's nice to have proof that you can't resist me."
"You can't resist me." He grabs her waist, tickling her, and she shrieks with laughter.
I drop my eyes to the floor and try to make my body even smaller. Not because I want Tanner for myself — Fates, no. I've known him since before he knew how to make his hair lie flat. But because when I look at them, my chest aches.
This is what I want. What I've always wanted. Someone to love, and someone who loves me.
But for some of us, love exists in only a few measly twigs in the branches and branches of our possible destinies. I'm not like Jessa. I don't know how to open my heart to someone. Maybe I don't even have a heart. The only affection I've ever known is from a phantom mother who doesn't exist in this timeline. And my father? I don't know if I ever had one. Even as a child, I heard the snickers and gossip that the chairwoman's baby was externally incubated. Who would blame the world for finding me unlovable?
Not me. Not in a single one of my futures.
"So, what's your excuse for interrupting your work?" Jessa asks.
Tanner sobers. "I actually have one this time." He untangles himself from her but keeps a hand on her hip. "We've had another case. The third one this week. Like the others, the girl's fine when she's receiving her future memory. But afterward, she's confused. Mumbling to herself, walking into walls. Talking to people who aren't there." He moves his shoulders. "I don't know how to explain it."
Excerpted from "Seize Today"
Copyright © 2017 Pintip Dunn.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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