Authors: Jennie Bates Bozic
“Maybe…” I begin, but my voice trails off.
George says nothing. I want him to finish the sentence. I want to know that someone else is dreaming on my behalf. I want to know I’m not the only person who envisions a life for me beyond this place.
Maybe I’ll make friends. Maybe I’ll get a degree. Maybe I’ll finally be able to make clothes for other people the way I’ve always wanted.
“Maybe I can find a college without a lot of birds,” I blurt out.
George laughs, but the worry creases in his forehead remain. “It’s not so bad here, is it? What if you have to stay for a while?”
I give him a dirty look. “I’ll see you later.”
He nods and sighs as he flips open his wristpad to look at his calendar. “Dr. Christiansen has just now scheduled me to fix her computer in fifteen minutes.”
I snort. “She probably forgot to turn it on.” She doesn’t enjoy looking stupid in front of the real IT guys, so she bothers George instead. As if he doesn’t already have enough to do as my trainer and the resident veterinarian.
George kisses his index finger and brushes it against both of my cheeks in turn. His hands are rough and calloused, but he’s so gentle he barely touches me at all. He devised this greeting and farewell because he can’t kiss both of my cheeks according to his custom. It always makes me smile. I give his finger a big smooch, and he grins at me before taking himself and his falcon to the aviary.
I turn and face my forest. When I watch the sun filtering through the treetops, I almost forget I’m in a cage. My bars are transparent filaments that form a dome-shaped cocoon over the entire compound and forest. In 2065, the year I was born, the filaments were state-of-the-art, just like everything else in the Lilliput Project. Now, almost sixteen years later, the technology has yet to be updated. Sure, the fence has been mended, loose wall siding has been nailed back into place, and the software has been regularly patched, but the entire place suffers from the disease of shabbiness. I never noticed until I saw pictures on the internet of buildings with fresh paint, gleaming floors, and modern computers. Now, Lilliput reminds me of a dilapidated Gold Rush town in a Spaghetti Western.
Dr. Christiansen was the one who proposed the Lilliput Project to the Danish government when the energy crisis was causing infrastructure breakdowns across the planet. At that point, several civil wars had broken out in Europe, but no one knew how deep the societal cracks went. Governments were still hopeful that they might be able to find a solution before all hell broke loose. Global warming was really starting to get ugly, and farmers were fighting a losing battle to grow their crops. It was clear humanity was entering the worst crisis since the Black Death and when you’re facing the threat of worldwide hunger, the idea of creating tiny people suddenly doesn’t seem so crazy. The regulatory tape was thinner than ever, and since then, Dr. Christiansen has kept the project as small and close to the earth as possible.
Lilliput is sustainable, intimate, claustrophobic.
I was the only one created, and Dr. Christiansen treats me as though the world depends on her raising me perfectly. She calls herself my mother; I call her my jailer. She controls the vast majority of my life, and I’m sure she’d keep me here forever if she could.
I think she was born with a soul full of bleach. She looks like it, too.
That’s why her silence over my upcoming emancipation is making me more than a little nervous. I’ve seen the articles online hinting that there will be some big reveal. I can only assume they’re talking about my photograph, which the world has never seen before. Every detail about my sequestered life in this compound has remained a closely guarded secret.
I pull my bush of tangled hair away from my face. It makes me look like a rock-and-roll princess and there’s nothing I can do about it. Hair ties won’t stay in because of how fast I fly, and no one makes rubber bands for someone my size.
I unfold my wings and take off through the trees. Mr. Coxworth, the resident botanist, lives in a cottage along the forest path. To the uninitiated, it’s a dilapidated wooden shack that’s only one strong wind away from extinction. To Dr. Christiansen, it’s an accident waiting to happen. To me, it’s a cozy wonderland of plants and odd smells. While all of the buildings on the grounds are environmentally friendly, Mr. Coxworth’s house manages to be
of the environment.
I slip through the crack under the door, along with several ants, and fly up to sit on the pincushion Mr. Coxworth has always reserved for me. Then I wait for him to notice I’m here.
The cottage only has one room. The glassless windows are partially rotted, and the door is designed to keep out people but not small animals and insects. It looks more like an old gardening shed than someone’s home. It’s a mash-up of sinks, flower pots, dirty dishes, broken jars, and dusty books. Some of the volumes are rare editions, but Mr. Coxworth does not discriminate. They are all piled haphazardly, each of them only as valuable as its usefulness. Dried and drying plants hang from the ceiling rafters by thin wires so the mice can’t climb down and chew them.
A rickety twin bed sits squeezed into the narrow alcove. Right now, Mr. Coxworth is stretched out on top, hands folded on his chest, eyes closed. His gray dreadlocks are squashed against the pillow. His two pet mice scurry up his arm to his face.
“No, Disney,” he murmurs in his British accent. The white one runs along Mr. Coxworth’s arm and collides with the other mouse, Munch. They chitter and roll together onto the mattress and then scramble to the floor before disappearing into the shadows under the bed.
Mr. Coxworth opens one eye and then the other. “Fee fie fo fum, I smell a girl as tall as two thumbs.”
I laugh and fly over to his nightstand. He’s greeted me this way since I was the size of one thumb. He’s had to adjust his rhyme over the years.
“Good morning,” I say with a smile.
“Is it?” He scratches his head. “Seems a rather average morning to me.”
“Fine. Be ornery then.”
“Well, now that I have her majesty’s permission…” He sits with a grimace, then swings his legs over the edge of the bed, resting his wrinkled feet on the floorboards. He smells of old sweat, garlic, and lemon soap. “I suppose you’re here for your pay.” He nods at the nightstand drawer.
“Yep. You’re going to make me work even harder for it, aren’t you?”
He grunts and grabs his water glass from the nightstand. There’s a leaf floating in it, but he doesn’t seem to notice as he gulps down the liquid.
I fly to the knob, wrap my arms around it and push against the nightstand frame with my feet until the drawer pulls open a couple of inches. Inside, I find a drawstring pouch just small enough to fit in my arms. It’s full of the best tobacco money can buy on the black market. While George has always been my friend and protector, Mr. Coxworth is more like a partner in crime, and I’ve never been completely confident he wouldn’t squeal on me if it would benefit him.
Mr. Coxworth raises his eyebrow. “Don’t smoke it all at once. Your head will explode.”
“Oh, it’s not for me.”
“As far as I know, it’s you who smokes it. But I can’t judge. Smoked worse stuff myself when I was your age and it didn’t hurt me a bit.” He looks at the glass in his hand then fishes inside it for the leaf. He pulls the limp bit of green out with a flourish and holds it up. “How did this get in there?”
“I guess it was thirsty.”
He flicks it onto the packed dirt floor.
“The tobacco really isn’t for me, though. Gotta buy a favor!”
“Good. Don’t tell me what it is. If you’re up for it later, I’m going to need more moss.”
This is our trade-off. I fetch him samples of the moss that grows at the top of the trees, and he gives me tobacco. Then I bribe George with the tobacco whenever I want something I’m not allowed to have. I have an online date with Jack on my birthday. It might even be our last one. I push that thought out of my head.
He’s pulling on his socks. “Yes?”
“What happens to the people who come here for food? Isn’t there anywhere else they can go?”
“My. my, Lina. I haven’t even had my coffee yet,” he says, but he sets his half-socked foot back down on the ground. “That isn’t part of my research.”
“That isn’t really an answer.”
He laughs, but it has a brittle edge to it. “You’re very perceptive. My best answer is that I don’t know for sure, but you needn’t worry about it. Lilliput is committed to the wellbeing of the world.” He gestures vaguely in the air, as if the world is a pesky fly to be swatted.
I try really hard to be comforted by that explanation, but the starving man’s expression when he realized he had been caught isn’t an image I can easily dismiss. Still, I know I’m not going to squeeze out any more info today.
He points to the pouch I’m holding. “Don’t get caught with that, love. Although there’s more where it came from if you want to scavenge for me again soon.”
I blow Mr. Coxworth a kiss and wave goodbye as I fly toward the door. “Maybe later!”
I look furtively in all directions before flying out into the open. I have no intention of getting caught today. All of the workers are busy at the main buildings at this hour, so I hold my bag of contraband snug against my chest and take off toward my house.
I stare at the forest floor below me as I fly, looking for exceptionally colorful leaves to use for decoration. Summer has only recently rolled into autumn, but some of the trees have already begun to turn orange and red and yellow. Not many have shed their leaves yet, but there are still a few gems littering the ground.
Green, muted yellow, pale orange, brown. White tennis shoes.
I dart to hide behind a tree and lose my grip on the pouch. It plops right on top of a pair of brilliant red leaves. Just my luck.
“Good morning, Lina.” Dr. Christiansen’s tone is laced with ice, per usual. She’s a snow queen in a lab coat, all white and blonde and pale. She could have been pretty if she’d ever cared about such things.
I desperately want to retrieve the tobacco, but I’m hoping she didn’t notice it and the last thing I want is to draw attention to my precious stash.
No such luck. She walks over and kneels to retrieve the pouch. Her fingers give it an exploratory pinch.
“Now, what is this?” She holds it to her nose and frowns. “Tobacco? Where did you get this?”
I clamp my mouth shut.
A blizzard forms behind her eyes. “Lina, did one of the interns give this to you? I won’t allow this on the grounds. The chemicals interfere with natural development and impede my observations.”
Her voice is like plastic scraping against packed snow. Why does she always have to talk to me as though I’m utterly stupid?
I fold my arms. There’s no way I’m giving her any information. She won’t be returning my bag, and I worked almost every day for a month to get that stupid pouch.
She cocks her eyebrow at me. I cock mine right back. We’re locked in yet another nonverbal gun-slinging contest. First one to speak loses, and it’s not going to be me.
“Well.” She flares her nostrils triumphantly. “I’ll confiscate this, take it to the lab, and run the fingerprints. I’m sure that will reveal your accomplice.”
And I’m sure Mr. Coxworth already thought of that and used gloves, but nice try!
“We’ll speak later, Lina. After I determine which of your privileges to take away.”
I try to think of something snarky and clever to say but decide against it. Best not to push my luck any further today. She walks past me, clearly not expecting an answer. I take a deep breath and continue on toward my house.
Now I’m going to have to think of some other way to get out of that party. In a perfect world, I would be able to just ask George for favors, but since I’ve already put his job into jeopardy several times, I can’t keep a clear conscience and continue asking without giving him something in return. Something he really wants.
Something that is now in the doctor’s pocket.
I dive down until I’m gliding along the ground so I can give the leaves several good kicks. And then the path opens into the clearing which surrounds my little home.
My treehouse is at the center of the woods, far from the other living quarters. The house itself wraps around the trunk of one of the oldest trees—a gnarled beech, but you probably wouldn’t even notice it at first glance because it’s covered in moss and tree bark. It’s my own forest refuge.
I fly through the garden below the house to check on my herbs. They don’t get a lot of sunlight here, so I have to give them extra love to help them survive. The beech’s roots serve as handy section dividers between my basil, lemon balm, and spinach. I also grow blackberries, even though they tend to choke out the other plants and their thorns are a pain. But nothing’s better than a blackberry for dessert, so I think they’re worth the hassle.
I also have a little landscaped section with lily of the valley, mushrooms, moss, and…weeds. When I first planted the garden, weeds didn’t last a day if I could help it, but I have grown to appreciate their unruly wildness. It’s nice to have some part of my life not under strict control. I love to sit in my flower garden on the stone bench George carved for me and watch the weedy stems curl around the flowers until the whole thing is a big bed of green and white and purple.
I dig my hand into the rich brown to inspect the soil underneath my basil. It rained last night and everything is still damp. That’s a good sign. I pat one of the beech’s roots.
“Don’t hog all the water,” I whisper before flying up to my porch, which resembles an alien mushroom landing pad. I unlock the door and step inside.
I stand there, listening. I hear nothing but the wind tugging at the branches of my tree. The wood floor rocks with gentle motion under my feet, and I breathe in deeply. The asthma attack has passed, and my lungs feel brand-new.
I wipe my bare feet off on the rug. I rarely ever wear shoes because no one makes decent ones this small. In fact, I sew the majority of my clothes, but I can’t get the shoes right quite yet. Instead, I wear several layers of stockings when it’s cold. Dr. Christiansen says they considered engineering me with insect legs instead of human ones but decided against it in the end. Thank goodness.