Above me, the citadel’s irrigation turned on, sending a silent mist down onto the arbor. I tracked wet footprints to my room and wedged the desk chair under the doorknob.
I fell into a fitful slumber, but woke to an unchanged room. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees. Had I imagined it all? Somehow, that thought was less reassuring than the alternative. I got up, but my hands hesitated to remove the chair from the door. What if the fox or Kenn were waiting for me? What if they weren’t? I cursed my indecision. I was tired of being afraid, tired of being alone, and tired of being tired of everything.
I pushed the chair free and headed to the cove. It was time to find some answers on my own. I slowly eased myself into the warm water. My black hair fanned out around my shoulders as I took a deep breath and dived. The fish scattered at the intrusion. I patted down the walls in search of an opening, but it was clear after several attempts that it was far deeper. I clung to the pavestones at the cove’s edge as I caught my breath. I didn’t relish swimming beyond the light’s reach, but I had come this far. It seemed silly to quit.
I kicked off from the wall to propel myself into the depths. As the light dimmed, I felt around blindly. My hands scraped against rocks and tangled in weeds as I pulled myself deeper and deeper. I soon realized my folly. In the darkness, I had no way of knowing which way was up. I turned around and frantically pulled myself in the direction I thought I had come, but the water grew no lighter. My lungs screamed. Had the shadows finally caught up with me?
Kenn’s sinuous form suddenly coiled around me and hauled me to the surface. I greedily gulped air as he swam me to the pavestones. His arms held me there for mine were leaden.
“What were you thinking?” ask Kenn, his tone a mixture of concern and anger.
“I was looking for the entrance.”
“It’s deeper than you can swim on your own,” he said. “Promise me you’ll never try that again.”
I gave him a sideways glance. His expression revealed nothing, but the yellow of his eyes had swallowed the green.
“I have no desire to die like my little brother,” I said.
“He took his own life,” I said as I stared at the pavestones in front of me, “rather than fight in the war that killed our older brother and my husband. He was barely 16.”
“You were married,” stated Kenn, his tone inquiring yet tinted with a note of surprise.
“For two months, before he went off to fight,” I said. “A month later, I was a widow. And now there’s no one left.”
“You’re still here.”
The angry scrapes on my hands glared accusingly at me. “I’ve come so close to death so many times. I’m beginning to think even it doesn’t want me.”
“Then perhaps there is something you still need to do.”
I snorted. “I’ve done everything that was ever asked of me. I have nothing left to give except my life, and I thought I had already given that. Yet here I am.”
“Jianna, why did you want to find the tunnel?” asked Kenn. “You know how dangerous it is outside these walls.”
I shrugged. “Just in case.”
“In case what?”
I bit my bottom lip, glad he couldn’t see my face. “In case you didn’t come back.”
Kenn shifted in the water to move beside me. “I would never abandon you here.”
The sincerity in his voice made me feel guilty for doubting him. I met his gaze.
His eyes darkened to green again. “Did something happen?”
“You were gone for so long,” I said. “I thought I must have offended you in some way.”
I awoke to the day I died, which was more than I expected. Pungent blades of grass tickled my cheek. I inhaled its moist earthiness, but feared it would disappear and I would be back in the hell I had left behind—along with my life.
Steeled for disappointment, I rolled onto my back, but my eyes were met by blue sky. A small bird flew overhead, followed by another and then another. I sat up. There shouldn’t be birds. Not anymore. Had I truly found my way to heaven? Not only were there grass and clouds and birds, but tree leaves rippled in the breeze and wildflowers speckled the meadow in which I laid.
I had to be dead for I knew no place like this existed anymore. Not where I came from. Not where dust choked the atmosphere on the best of days and dimmed the sun even at midday. Not where we eked out a miserable existence trying to nurture what could not grow without water or light or insects.
This had to be heaven though I doubted my worthiness. Perhaps my last act had delivered me here. The dark cloud had rushed toward me behind a percussion of wind. I knew it would mean my death for there was nowhere to go. I had trapped myself outside the bunker to manually seal it, the remote locking mechanism fouled by the constant dust. I knew the price. My life was the only thing I had left to lose, unlike those huddled inside.
And yet I was alive and unhurt. If the bunker or the scorched earth ever existed here, both were now gone, hidden perhaps by the life around me.
Wood snapped with ominous volume from the nearest stand of trees. A flock of the birds erupted into the sky and a lone deer bolted into the clearing soon after. My inner voice screamed at me to flee from anything that would approach with such disregard. I resisted until a motley group of animals burst through the tree line. They were larger than any animal should be, and their eyes held an eerie, cruel intelligence that told me their intentions were no more admirable than those who had killed me the first time. I ran.
I managed to stay ahead of them, but just. I dodged and darted between trees, not unlike the deer, and with the same urgency. The same fear. A downward slope sped my feet until it leveled out at a wide river. My frayed skirt floated on the water’s surface as I waded in. The river was too swift for me to cross or swim, but I desperately hoped my pursuers would fear it for the same reason. I was wrong. They stepped into the water, forcing me deeper into the grip of the current where something slid against my leg. It occurred to me then that, unlike the dead rivers I knew, this one might be home to creatures far more dangerous than the animals. I prayed the river would take me first.
Instead, the lengthy, undulating body of a serpent surged toward the animals. They fled as if water had turned caustic. The serpent’s bone-pale body coiled back on itself in the shallows as it raised its horned head above the water to survey the prey banished to the shore. And then it spoke.
“If you wish to live, you must come with me.”
The serpent retreated back toward me. As it did so, the animals waded into the water again.
“Hurry,” urged the serpent as it circled me in the water.
I grabbed the horns on either side of its head and dragged myself onto its ridged back, my legs hugging its sides as it surged forward with the river current. The animals were not so easily deterred. They raced along the shoreline, but the serpent easily out-paced them. The land soon fell away as the river emptied into a broad bay.
“You need to take a deep breath and hold on tightly,” said the serpent, looking back at me. “Can you do that?”
Winter was long that year. The snows piled high around the outside walls, shutting in the broken houses out front so that only the thatch showed, piling nearly a man’s height on top of the walls before tilting and falling inward, to leave little melting patches in the summer garden. Ice lashed the trees and cracked their limbs, and sleet drove against the locked front gates. Nobody traveled, and even in the forest, the animals stayed in their dens, huddled and freezing.
Winter was long, but the Beast was glad, for every snowfall lengthened the time Cecilia stayed in his company. He liked that. It mattered nothing to him that he must eat alone and quickly, gulping down his meat and lapping up his drink, away from the dining room and at late and early hours. It mattered nothing that he must stay hidden, walking silently and standing at the ends of halls and huddling outside doorways to speak. It mattered nothing that Cecilia knew little of lords’ affairs, and nothing of government, and spoke only from the ignorant view of a land-worker. All that mattered, to the Beast, was that she was here, and that she walked in his halls and spoke to him.
She still fairly lived outside in the gardens. Early in the enchanted gardens’ Spring, Cecilia went out to each of the rose-bushes and gathered the dried, curling-brown hips. She returned to the house and cracked them open, piling the seeds by color, and the next week she dug up several long troughs of earth in a square, in a grassy area west of the house, away from the main gardens. The Beast watched bemusedly, and asked her what she did, but Cecilia only smiled and said, “watch.” So the Beast watched as she finally finished, and then as she went around, rose seeds in one hand, dipping down to push them into the ground and push earth over them. She planted the whole square with rose seeds, and when she finished she stood, and wiped her hands, and said, “now we wait.”
They waited, and as the garden was enchanted, it took only a week for the first sprouts to show. Cecilia went out every day to look, and she brought out water, and tobacco-juice to kill the aphids, and asked the Beast to send the servants with fertilizer, that she spread thinly around all the sprouts.
They waited another week and the sprouts were knee-high. Another week and they were up to Cecilia’s hip. She brought out long thin branches she had whittled and stuck them in the earth between certain blooms, and curled the vining roses’ stems about them; she had the servants bring a stone bench and place it inside the square, and there she sat nearly every day after, working her stitching or tending to the roses. The Beast could not come close – there was nothing nearby to hide behind – but he lurked by the castle’s wall and spoke across to Cecilia, and in the evenings when she went in, he had the servants bring torches while he lay on the stone bench and surveyed her garden.
In a prosperous country where fairies and men still lived beside one another, there was once a king who had three sons. The two older ones were everything a king could want in princes: upright, diligent, attentive to their duties, and honorable in every way. The oldest was set to inherit, the middle to be a great duke and adviser to the first, and the king was in every way satisfied with them.
But the youngest, oh, the youngest! The king had tried to have him raised in the same manner as the elder two, but something had gone terribly wrong, and the youngest prince was not at all like his brothers. He was diligent, so far as it suited him – but the moment he tired of study, nothing could induce him to remain sitting, and he ran wild about the palace. He had the semblances of honor when in court – but when not under the king’s eye he broke his promises, insulted the character of others, and showed himself to lack integrity. He was impatient with both man and beast, striking his servants and his animals when they did not obey him exactly, and he was discourteous in both speech and manner. Worst, he was ungenerous, and though the king provided him with any manner of riches, he hoarded them jealously, and would not part with a single golden cup of it.
This distressing behavior continued for years, and worsened as the prince grew. His older brothers looked on in concern, and the king as well, for how could he, in good conscience, trust the rule of any part of his kingdom to such a prince?
The queen, though, had a plan. She was of a mixed line, her mother being fairy and her father being human, and so in her blood ran the fair folk’s love for pure and perfect justice. The prince’s failings had long rankled her inhuman side, and she thought perhaps to test the prince, and if he failed, to teach him a harsh lesson.
So she explained her plan to the king, and he agreed reluctantly, for he did not want his son to fail. That autumn he sent the young prince to a remote castle, with instructions to care for the lands surrounding, and to guide the people through the winter. It was a tall order, but the elder two princes had been doing such things for years, and the youngest prince had clamored long that it should be his turn, too. The prince was delighted at the appointment and left without even a goodbye to his family.
The queen waited a fortnight. Then, one day, she called on her fairy blood and transformed herself into an old, old woman, and went to the young prince’s lands to see how they fared.
Well, it was just finishing up harvest, and so they did not fare too poorly. The people were still gathering their grains and storing them, milling them, and preparing for the winter. There was some little complaint that the prince rarely heard their charges, and dispensed justice indifferently. Very well, the queen thought to herself, and went to see the prince.
She petitioned at the door, calling herself a traveler and hoping for a place to stay. She waited in the courtyard for perhaps an hour before servants led her to the kitchens and gave her a meager bowl of soup and a crust off a two-day-old loaf, then told her to sleep in the corner. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was asked.
And the next morning the queen left, and went home, and told the king what she had found.
A month later, as winter was properly coming on and the trees were losing the last of their leaves, she changed herself again, and went again to the prince’s lands.
Now, the people were discontent, for there was less grain left from the harvest than they had hoped: the prince had taxed them highly, just before winter, and kept his own stores full while the people outside could do nothing but hope there would be enough to last winter through. He listened still more rarely to the cases put before him; people petitioned him and waited hours before admittance, where, if they were allowed speech, their charges were dispensed with quickly and sharply, with no consideration of the actual case. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.
She waited long at the door before finally being admitted to the courtyard, where she saw servants sitting about and talking, or sleeping, and a very few running frantically to their actual tasks. She waited another long while before being admitted to the kitchens, handed a five-day-old crust, and then being ordered to the stables to sleep. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was told. The next morning the queen left. She went home, and told the king in anger of what she had found.
A long, cold month later, she changed again, and went again to visit the prince.
This time it was hard midwinter, and the people suffered. The prince had levied a second tax – smaller, certainly, than the first, but enough to keep himself in comfort and his kitchens full. He never heard petitions now; the mayor returned from the castle with edicts, and people complained in taverns about the prince’s disinterest and his gluttonous manner. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.
She was not admitted. No one stood at the back gate, and, finally, with a bit of magic, she let herself in, and wandered the courtyard. The servants lounged in the stables or stood about the kitchen, talking or playing at dice and cards. Finally one shouted to the others – where had this old woman come from?
Lonely, the ghost of Autumn leaned against her tree and stretched her legs along the edge of her grave. A breeze sipped uselessly at her warmth, though she still tucked her arms into her dress. Her bones clawed from the earth, brown with the rot of years. Autumn envied them. Her eleven years remained untouched by the passage of time.
She prayed most nights, when the stars were out and the animals scuttled by in small packs. In the beginning she prayed for life. Then, as the years rolled by and she began to know the animals by name, she prayed only for a friend. She prayed for anyone to know she was there beside the tree. Anyone other than the devil-man who had put her there.
That October day, with her arms tucked in her dress and her eyes scanning the fogged horizon, a boy answered her prayers. At first she thought he was the devil-man, but his feet fell lightly and without malice. She dared to peek around the tree and saw that he was young, her own age at most. He had scraggly brown hair and boots that looked too big for his feet. He had red lips that looked pretty in the setting sun.
The boy saw her and Autumn was very nervous. She stepped timidly around the tree, her hands clasped at her waist. She wished that she could change her clothes. Her dress was tattered, her flesh grimy with dirt. Her hair hung in a mess of knots and bugs.
“Hello,” said the boy.
Autumn had not spoken in many years. “Hu-low,” she managed.
The boy stared at her, scrutinizing. He wore a striped shirt and torn jeans and had a long stick in his hands. “Are you lost?” he asked.
“No,” she said curtly. “Are you?”
“I’ve got a compass,” he said. He showed her his compass.
Autumn stepped softly toward him, but not so far from the tree that the shadows would come.
“I heard you crying,” said the boy.
He went to her, swishing his stick high and low. Up above, a squirrel scurried along a branch. “Why are your clothes so dirty.”
“Because I live in the woods.”
The boy smiled. “Nice place to live. Do you get cold at night?”
He extended a hand. “My name’s Davie.”
Autumn liked his name and politely told him so as they shook hands. Dirt crunched out when their palms met.
“It’s really David,” he said. “But I like Davie better.”
“Me too.” She pushed her hair behind her ears. “Would you like to sit with me?”
Davie hesitated and then leaned upon his stick. “Are you sure you aren’t lost? I live just outside the woods.” He pointed into the distance. “You can’t see it from here, but off that way.”
“I’m sure,” she said.
Davie looked at her doubtfully, and Autumn feared he might leave.
“Please, stay,” she said hurriedly. “Just for a few minutes?”
Empty farmland and the occasional rambler: that’s the usual view from my bedroom window of a weekend. That’s why I noticed her; even wrapped up in a thick winter coat and a daft purple bobble hat, the way she moved dragged me to the window to get a better look. She was patting her coat and repeatedly checking the pockets. I knew that dance. I grabbed my own coat and went out to be of assistance. She looked up. When she smiled I realised she was quite a bit younger than me. Hound-on-the-prowl to dirty-pervert in a heartbeat.
“Saw you from my window,” I said. “Over at the farmhouse. You lost something?” I kept my distance so not to worry her.
She was on her knees scrabbling about in the grass at the foot of the stile marking the start of the Meriden-Blythe footpath. “Yes,” she said. “I think I dropped some keys around here.” There was a trace of something local in her voice, it bubbled beneath a dominant Kent accent.
Her car was parked up on the opposite embankment, the driver’s door open into the road. “Shall I shut that for you?” I asked. “There’s not much traffic comes through here but what does comes hurtling through like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Thank you,” she said.
I went over and when it slammed shut I said: “Wouldn’t want you damaging your car and losing your keys now.”
I climbed over the stile and looked in the long grass clumped there, crouching so as not to get my knees dirty. “Am I looking in the right place?”
She looked up at me and shrugged with her eyebrows. “I opened the car with them when I got back from my walk so they can’t be far. They must have fallen. Honestly, I’m not normally like this. I’m usually the one shaking their head and tutting at other people losing—”
“Don’t blame yourself; things are always wandering off around here. I’ve seen people before doing just what you’re doing. Patting themselves down and all that.”
She laughed politely. She struck me as the sort that maybe did lots politely.
“I’m not even joking either,” I said. “The bloke that used to live in the house across from me–”
“The white cottage?” she asked.
“That’s it. He used to call round here the Birch Lane Triangle. His stuff was always going walkabout.”
“There’s a lot of space around to here to lose things in,” she said. And then added: “It’s so lovely.”
“Two miles either side of us and I’m the only one living here at the moment,” I said.
“No one’s in the white cottage?”
“Not at the moment. Not since Rog went.”
“Rog who loses things.”
“That’s the fella.” I shuffled along a bit to look in another bit of grass, moving like some sort of man-crab.
“Have you ever lost anything in the Birch Lane triangle,” she asked.
“Only my heart and soul,” I said. “But that’s divorce for you.”
Another laugh from her: polite.
“No, seriously,” I said. “I don’t have enough stuff to lose. I’m only renting that place up there while I get on my feet. What I’ve got is all in a garage down in…” I shut myself up. “Don’t worry, we’ll find them. Rog used to say things always turned up eventually.”
“I hope he’s right,” she said, and we carried on the search in silence.
Felt like ten minutes had gone by when she said: “I wish I’d brought my gloves today.” She blew hot air into her cupped hands.
“You cold?” I asked. It was a stupid question. My hands were already numb. Not expecting a yes, I asked: “Do you want a cup of tea or something? My kitchen’s just there and maybe we can warm up and come back out in a bit.”
“Yeah, go on then.” I can’t say for certain, but it didn’t sound like she was just being polite.
We didn’t talk on the short walk to my place; I might’ve believed she wasn’t standing next to me at all.
The veranda steps groaned as the movers dragged our things into our newly-purchased, sprawling, dilapidated house. I stood in the shade by the car, drained by the heat. My head throbbed, my feet ached, and I felt fat, sweaty, and resentful. The baby kicked, and I glared down at my distended stomach. I wished I was back home, with air conditioning and a cold cocktail.
John rushed back and forth, giving instructions and grinning like an idiot.
I took a long drink from my water bottle. It was blood-warm.
Motion fluttered in an upstairs window. A teenage girl with dark, elaborately curled hair frowned down at me. She was wearing a filmy, white dress that seemed to flow into the thin curtains. Her eyes met mine. She mouthed something–I’ve never been much of a lip reader–then she vanished.
Chills cut down my sweaty back, and I dropped my water bottle.
John was at my side in an instant. “What’s wrong, Donna?” he asked.
A moment ago, I would have given him a list. “N–Nothing,” I stammered. “Just my imagination playing tricks on me.”
He kissed my forehead and laid a hand over my belly. “Maybe you should sit down. I had them put your rocking chair on the porch. I’ll get you some more water.”
He filled my bottle from the tap. It was only a little cooler, and it tasted like iron.
‘Always thought she was the cat’s mother, that one,’ my mom says, and across the road I can see Mrs. Trent dangling the bloody bed sheets out of the bedroom window, showing off because her dumb, lanky daughter’s become one.
My mom shuffles me inside and shuts the door; stomps through to the kitchen and back to making tea, flicking the radio on to drown out all the cheering and clapping and back-slapping. I don’t know why she bothers, the band will be here soon, making a racket with their horns and their trumpets; half-deaf old codgers in red suits and brass buttons, playing hymns over the screaming as the lord does his work.
It’s cold in the kitchen, and there’s a right bitter breeze coming in from the broken window -our Sal ripped the cardboard out when she forgot her key- and I almost ask mom if we can light the fire but I know that she’s saving the last of the coal until we’re near freezing.
“Put another jumper on,’ she says, as if reading my mind, snapping the radio off when Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ starts playing. I watch as she mashes corned beef and potato together and shapes in into wonky blobs, ready for frying. I do that, usually. I like the squish and squelch of it around my fingers, and nobody can make a neater circle than me, but I know better than to say anything. She’s the same every time it happens, her face gets that look and she’ll go off on one if you even dare breathe near her.
She melts lard in the burnt frying pan, and lights the nub of a cigarette, and stares out through the garden window as the hash crackles and browns, as the flames hiss as water from the pan of smelly cabbage bubbles over.
The front door slams, and I hear our Sal before I see her.
“That bloody Maggie Trent?” She shouts, and barges in and throws her bag on the table, her dark hair all over the place and her nose pink with cold.
“Watch your mouth,” my mom says, nodding with her head at Sal to move her bag so that she can put the plates down. My sister throws it on the floor, and a bottle of nail varnish skids out, and a new purple scarf. She must be nicking again, as she spent all her wages on those stupid platform boots that she can’t walk in. She picks them up before mom can see, and looks at me as if to say, and you keep your big mouth shut.
“I can’t believe he picked that Maggie,’ Sal says, ‘pissy knickers we used to call her at school, dopey mare.’ When nobody replies she slumps down into the chair with a sigh and starts biting her nails.
“And stop that filthy habit,” Mom says, sliding the plates across.
“Christ! Can I do anything?!”
I pick up the cutlery and put my drawing to the side, before mom starts on me. It’s an angel, just like the one that has been coming for the girls, and I’ve given it bloody fingers and sharp teeth and black eyes that I coloured in so hard that I nearly ripped the paper.
Boring hash and mouldy vegetables, again. We’ve had the same thing for days, since that grumpy old cow in the shop up the road stopped mom from putting stuff on the slate. “And I’m Bo bleeding Derek,’ she said, when I told her that mom would pay her next week.
We eat in silence. The cabbage is mushy and the hash is burned, but I’m so hungry I don’t care. “Eat us out of house and home, you will,” my mom used to joke, when I was a little girl, but that’s when she was seeing that fella who got that money off his gran. She doesn’t say it now. It isn’t a joke now.
I look up to lick the last of the mash off my knife, running my tongue over its blunt edges, and I see that mom’s staring at our Sal across the table, the way a cat looks at a bird in the garden, her puffy eyes like slits.
“Wha-?’ Sal mumbles, through a mouthful of food.
My mom’s eyebrows come down, and then she gets up; the chair pushed back so hard that the cheap lino crumples around its legs. She races over to Sal; grabs her and pulls her hair back, like she’s going to tie it into a ponytail.
“What’s this?” she says, pointing at what looks like a bruise on her neck, and my sister goes as red as ketchup, jerks her head back and tries to pull her hair back over it.
“It’s nothing,” Sal says, trying to get up, but my mom’s bony fingers are in her shoulders, keeping her pressed down on the seat.
“That’s how it starts you soft sod, are there any more?” She asks, grabbing Sal’s chin and jerking it up.
“Get off, mom,” Sal says, struggling, but mom’s strong and I think any minute now I’m going to hear our Sal’s neck crack.
“They leave signs, they do, before they come-”
“Let me check Sal, around the back-”
“It’s just a lovebite, a bleeding lovebite, get off!”
My mom jumps back like our Sal’s slapped her.
“From whom?” She says, speaking all cold and posh like the Queen all of a sudden; her face all twisted like she’s sucking a lemon. She stares at Sal like she doesn’t even know who she is, and our Sal just looks at her feet. In the quiet I can hear the Hallelujahs outside, and the cymbals crashing, but it feels noisier inside; inside my head.
“Tommy,” Sal says, at last, the word only half out of her gob before my mom jumps on her.
“That Baxter boy? Jesus Sal, don’t you want more for yourself?”
“I’m not going to marry him or nothing!”
“Just going to make a tart of yourself, then?” my mom shouts and our Sal flinches, but mom’s just getting going so she won’t be able to stop her now. ‘You need to be different, Sal, you can’t be getting your drawers off for any Tom, Dick, or Harry, you need to respect yourself, get a good man, shit sticks around here, my god, shit sticks…”
“And you’d know,” our Sal says, her voice rising, her cheeks burning, and I want to tell her to shut up, because I know she’s going to get it, but she carries on, “which of your fancy men is coming round tonight? Bob? No, he packed you in, didn’t he. Mike? Oh no, he cleared off too, Ray? Maybe –” and then it all goes off and mom’s cracked Sal around the face and she’s calling her a cheeky bitch and telling her to get out of her house and Sal’s shouting and crying and the table’s going and there’s milk all over the place and then the doors are slamming so hard that the whole house rattles and I sit with my head in my hands as all the noise goes up the chimney, and into heaven, and into the ears of an angel.
Sariah Williamson was born purple and blue but not because she wasn’t breathing. She leaked colors, warm colors when she was happy and cool when she was sad. The nurses cleaned her up cautiously and handed her to her mother, and Sariah’s skin sweat shades of orange as she nursed at her mother’s breast.
Fearing their daughter’s life would be under a microscope somewhere, the Williamsons fled. They found a back country town few people wanted to visit and made a home for themselves. And Sariah would have grown up happy there had it not been for her mother’s discovery.
One morning when Sariah had soaked her cloth diaper, Sariah’s mother stripped her of her clothes and placed her naked on the newspaper. As her mother went about doing the laundry, Sariah leaked happy colors onto the paper. When her mother returned, she found a wonderful masterpiece under her daughter’s bum. She took it into town to show a friend and a passerby bought it on the spot. “It’s just so beautiful,” he had said.
From that day on, Sariah’s mother would place her down on a canvas to nap, and as the naked babe dreamt, the canvas would fill with colors that dazzled her parents and art collectors alike. And soon these paintings were sold all over the world.
Sariah grew older, creating masterpieces from her sweat and tears. Her parents built her a studio where she would strip her clothes off and ponder the day’s emotions over a canvas. She’d think about her poor brothers and sister who were constantly criticized by their parents for not being as gifted as her. The canvas would swirl in blues and greens. Sariah would think about learning to drive in secret, for she was the only Williamson child forbidden from doing so, and the canvas would soak in oranges and reds.
After the piece was finished, Sariah would promptly then take a picture and send it to her agent who would then find a buyer. The Williamsons grew wealthy and their little cabin in the woods became a mansion with four wings, a high fence, and an Olympic-sized pool within it, though Sariah didn’t swim in it often because she’d dye the water for a week.
But lately, Sariah’s paintings were growing dim. “I think I’m running out of soul,” she explained to her mother.
“That’s ridiculous. How does someone run out of their soul?”
“I don’t know,” Sariah said. “I just feel really tired all the time, all dried up and spent.”
“Well, you can’t take a break. Perhaps you should drink more water,” her mother said.
Her father wouldn’t let Sariah take a break either. “How will we pay for all our things? Would you have your brothers and sisters wear hand-me-downs?” he asked.
Two roiling suns scorched the desert landscape as the gaunt man stumbled toward the bivouac site. Commodore Tina Morales wiped the sweat off her brow and took another glimpse through her binos. More bone than man, the colonist seemed almost feral. His shredded and grimy olive drab coveralls hung from his skeletal frame like a parachute.
The commodore had planned to send an expedition out to New Roanoke within forty-eight hours. She’d wanted to go sooner, but her command team had needed time to analyze the probes’ data.
Keying the comms device secured around her right ear, she said, “Reaper Six, this is Falcon Six, SITREP. Over.”
“Falcon Six. Reaper Six. Wait one,” Colonel Carlson replied.
She rolled her eyes. Space marines. Any chance they had to assert their authority over a fleet officer, they took it. Still, she was the highest-ranking officer on the expedition. Her only crime was she wasn’t a space marine, but she played along, because she needed them more than they needed her. “Reaper Six. Standing By.”
“Falcon Six. Identified male survivor at five-point-zero klicks and closing. Permission to engage with lethal force?”
Carlson had always been trigger happy, but this request was absurd. She was convinced he was the wrong man for this mission. She needed a ground commander who saw the world in shades of gray, not through a black and white prism.
She keyed her comms device. “Negative. Stand down. Acknowledge.”
“Negative. Contact could be infected. Over.”
An alien pathogen was a logical hypothesis. Over the last fifty years, something had reduced the colony’s population from the two hundred and fifty souls on the original colony ship’s manifest to fewer than ten.
What Morales found even more intriguing were the thousands of heat signatures remote probes had detected beyond the eastern mountains, but remote DNA spectral analysis had determined there was no human genetic material there, so Admiral Chu had limited operations to within fifty klicks of New Roanoke.
The intel was a one-time deal. The United Earth Ship Eldridge would be moving on toward the nearest star in twenty-four hours. After that, the expedition would be on its own and Morales would be in charge.
“Reaper Six. Engage with stun weapons only. Acknowledge.”
A long pause followed. “Acknowledged.”
“Reaper Six. Give me a SITREP in fifteen minutes. Out.”
Two six-wheeled mobiles carrying a space marine platoon streamed past. The marines seemed frisky this morning, almost too frisky. They’d never operated in a one-point-one gee environment before, and she worried their bodies might break before their enthusiasm did.
Morales surveyed the horizon. She still couldn’t get over seeing two suns in Alpha Centauri Prime’s sky, and knowing that somewhere out there laid the answer to the great mystery that had spurred her parents to leave Earth in an interstellar generation ship forty-four years earlier. Three quarters of the crew had been born in space, and this was the first time most of them, including her, had ever set foot on a terrestrial surface.