Authors: Brenda L. Harper
So she walked in whatever direction the mysterious taps told her to.
Several hours passed. Each time the breeze came, Dylan waited for the tap that inevitably followed. She found herself hoping that wherever this thing was leading her it was not a trap, not a painful end to her short life. A part of her was quickly losing her fear of death. Although she did not want to die, it was more of an apathy than a real fear. She understood now that she was not meant to survive this test. Who could? Nothing in her education had prepared her for such a thing. She knew how quickly her body would shut down without moisture. But she knew nothing about this landscape, about how to go about finding water. She was wandering in circles. Even if she survived the three days, she would never find the rendezvous point.
It was over and she knew it.
Yet she continued to walk. Even as the sun disappeared from the sky and the moon took its place. Even as the coolness of the night air caressed the same pain she had felt the night before on her face, her arms. Even as she attempted to lick her bleeding lips, to offer some relief to the cracks that bled each time she moved her mouth.
One more tap to her shoulder, and Dylan found herself stumbling across a thin layer of grass that had sprung up under her feet at some point. She couldn’t remember when the trees began to appear, either. But they were there, a few blocking her path here and there. She walked around them, tripping over the vines that grew at their bases, catching herself with her sore hands against the rough bark of a tree.
Then the vines, the trees, gave way to yellow sand that was marked here and there with boulders, darker sand, and grass that was longer and thinner than any she had seen before. And the moon shining on the earth.
A reflection, she realized.
A reflection on water.
Dylan could not believe her eyes. She blinked several times. The breeze came over her, settled over her head, and a gentle touch pushed her forward. She dropped her bag and walked to the water, walking into it until it came to her waist. And then she began to cry.
“Thank you,” she whispered. She wanted to scream, wanted to cry up to the heavens, but a whisper was all she could manage. “Thank you.”
She fell backward and let the water catch her. As it rushed over her head, her face, she opened her mouth and let it run inside. She swallowed a few times, but then needed air. She straightened just enough to raise her upper lip above the water, drank in air through her nose. Then she opened her mouth and let the water just sit on her tongue. So sweet and cool. She had never felt anything so amazing in her life.
She drank until her belly sloshed with each step she took. On the shore, she slipped from her odd coveralls and draped them over tree limbs she cut from the trees with her knife. And then she moved back into the water, unable to get enough of either the taste of the water or the feel of it on her sore muscles.
The moon was high in the sky when the cold finally began to seep into her bones. She climbed out of the water and wrapped the short piece of clothing around her shoulders. It occurred to her to start a fire, but exhaustion hit her like a bomb, going off in her head until she could not keep her eyes open a moment longer. She curled up on the coarse sand and was asleep before she had settled completely on the pillow of her arms.
She must not have moved much in her sleep. Her arms and legs ached when she woke, stiff along the edge that had pressed hardest into the sand throughout the night. She sat up, surprised to see a small fire beginning to go out in the sand a few feet from her. She did not remember lighting a fire, but thought it possible she had done it in the semi-conscious state of exhaustion. She must have. How else would the fire have appeared?
She crawled back into the water as soon as she was on her feet, allowing the soothing coolness to relieve the ache that seemed to be the reality of her body now. As she ran her hands over her arms, her legs, she could feel new muscles where they had not been just a few days before. And her belly, suffering a lack of the good, rich food Cook had often given her on the days she came to work as her assistant, smaller than it had been. It made her budding breasts feel so much fuller, her new curves more rounded than before. She could imagine she was beginning to look like Davida, minus the dark curls and the intense hazel eyes. Dylan had always admired Davida’s appearance. Her coloring was so much more interesting than Dylan’s whitish, blonde curls and her pale blue eyes.
No one else in D dorm had eyes like Dylan’s. She always felt like an oddity, always admired the brighter colors of Davida and Donna’s amazing eyes.
But envy was wrong. So she hid her feelings.
She hid so many things.
She swam for a few minutes, drinking her fill before she climbed out of the water in search of food. She still had the full box of carbs, crackers that provided her energy and vitamins, if not flavor. She chewed a few, making a face as she did. Spoiled by Cook, she knew. Milk was a special treat, especially with honey added to it. Cook let Dylan have a glass every night after they did the dishes. It was a flavor that Dylan’s tongue nearly ached to taste.
And potatoes cooked so tender that they melted in the mouth.
And chocolate cake that disappeared the moment it landed on a fork.
And strawberry pie and blueberry muffins and vanilla mini-cakes…
So many treats.
Dylan had to force herself to stop thinking about them.
She filled her water bottles, drinking one down completely in seconds to wash away the graininess of the carb crackers. She knelt beside the river to fill the bottle again when her odd, but familiar, breeze suddenly washed over her. She looked up, searching the blue sky for some sign of her invisible friend. Still she couldn’t see anything, couldn’t prove to her rested mind that it was real.
Last night was such a blur. She remembered so little of it. Only the gratefulness when she found this place, the thought that some being had brought her here. The lack of concern about the safety of the water, despite everything they had learned in history lessons about the radiation that destroyed the prior society. Remembered thinking it would not have brought her here if it were dangerous.
She hesitated a moment with the bottle in the water, wondering if she had poisoned herself. Exchanged one death for another.
The breeze came again. It pushed her, roughly, making her fall back on her haunches as she continued to kneel beside the river.
“What are you doing?” she cried as the bottle slipped from her fingers and spilled into the dry sand.
She picked up the bottle and dipped it again into the water. She needed water. Poison or not, she needed it. The bubbles had just begun to appear at the narrow mouth of the bottle when the breeze came again, knocking her flat on her back this time. She cried out in surprise, picking up a rock and tossing it into the sky as though she had a chance of actually hitting something.
“Stop it!” she demanded.
Dylan jumped to her feet, searching the ground for her knife, her heart pounding at the sound of another voice, a deep, unfamiliar, human voice. Too far away. Her knife lay shining in the sunlight, close to the branches that still held her drying clothes. And behind that, closer to the weapon than she, stood an odd-looking stranger.
“Who are you?” she demanded, her eyes flicking once again to the knife.
The stranger followed her gaze, a slow smile slipping over full lips.
“I could ask you the same question.” Blue eyes, as deep and clear as the sky, slipped over the length of her bare body. “Not wise to walk around naked in this place.”
A dark eyebrow cocked, rising high on a deep bronze forehead. “Because someone like me might come along.”
Dylan shrugged, allowing her eyes to move over the stranger as those blue eyes had moved over her. The first thing she noticed, next to the alluring blue eyes, the strong, heavy jaw, and the long weapon strapped over a breastless chest, was a lack of curves, of the rounded hips that marked most girls of her age. The stranger’s hips were straight, thick, a belt that held yet another weapon lying there without the tight cinch of a waist. The stranger had to be her age, or maybe a year or two older, if height told her anything. But there were none of the signs of maturity that marked a high-level adolescent’s body.
“What’s wrong with you?” Dylan asked, real curiosity in her voice.
The stranger stepped forward and reached toward the knife. Dylan stepped back slightly, her heels sinking into the moisture of the sand at the water’s edge. She had nothing with which to defend herself, nothing to keep the stranger from using her own knife to end her life. Her heart began to pound, and she felt the odd breeze settle over her again, stirring the heavy, wet strands of her hair. Together, Dylan and her invisible friend waited to see what the stranger would do. Instead of touching her knife, the stranger picked up her clothing and tossed it to her. “Get dressed,” the stranger said as he moved back toward the trees, “and we’ll talk, Genero.”
“How do you know I’m from Genero?” she asked.
“Because…” He turned and gazed at her for a moment longer, his eyes lingering on her hips, her breasts. “You’ve never seen a man before.”
“What is a man?” she called as he disappeared into the trees.
“Get dressed,” he called back.
Dylan stared at the trees for a long time, confused. A man. She tried the word out on her lips again, tasted it in a way that turned it into something exotic, something so foreign that it felt awkward in her mouth.
A memory niggled at the corner of her mind.
Don’t let them take him.
Is this what that woman, the one in the Administration building with the grossly swollen belly, had been talking about?
The breeze had not left Dylan. She could feel it over her head, could feel the soft disturbance of the air in her hair, on her skin. “Do you know what that is?” she asked it as she slowly began to pull on her clothes.
Don’t trust him.
The words simply appeared in her head. She looked up, staring at the empty air above her head. “Why not?” she asked.
Men cannot be trusted.
“Does it always take you this long to dress?” the stranger called from the trees.
“Are you always this impatient?” she called back.
A chuckle was her only answer.
Dylan pulled the top of her broken coveralls over her head and slipped her arms into the final piece of clothing as she crossed the sand and snatched her knife off the ground. As she struggled to shove it into one of the strange loops around her waist, the stranger came out of the trees.
“You shouldn’t put it there,” he said.
Dylan looked over at him. “What do you know about it?”
“I know that it would take you a full minute to pull it free if it takes you that long to put it in there. And, when faced by a wild animal or…” He hesitated over his words as he watched her, as though afraid of revealing something important to her. “You just might need it faster than that would allow.”
“Then where do you suggest I keep it?”
He walked toward her, his strides long and confident. He pulled the knife from her hand. Dylan stepped back, fear slicing through her. But instead of using it against her, he turned it slightly and shoved it, blade first, down the edge of the waistband of her broken coveralls so that the coolness of the blade rested against her hip.
“Pull it out,” he said, stepping back slightly. “See how much faster you can get access to it.”
Dylan laid her hand on the handle, but she didn’t move the knife. “What if it cuts me?”
“Twist it slightly,” he said. He held up his fist, as though he were holding a knife, and turned it. “Keep the sharpened edge away from you.”
Dylan did as he said. The first time, the blade snagged on her broken coveralls. But the second and third time, the knife slid out without any resistance at all.
“Better,” she said.
He shrugged, turning slightly to survey her camp. “I don’t know how you girls ever make it out here alone,” he said with scorn, and maybe a little pity, in his voice.
“You’ve seen others?”
He shrugged. “Not usually this far west.”
A thought slipped through Dylan’s mind, more image than thought. Memory that was not her own. Bodies curled into the fetal position, their lips cracked and bleeding, their tongues so swollen they no longer fit inside their mouths. Blonde girls, brunettes, redheads. Girls of all shapes and sizes. Each alone. Each dead.
Tears came to Dylan’s eyes.
“They die,” she said quietly.
The stranger’s head came up slightly, his intense gaze moving slowly over her face. “All of them.”
He shook his head. “They weren’t what the council of Genero wanted.”
“And what’s that?” she asked.
His eyes moved to the ground. “You should come with me,” he said after a moment, that hesitation in his voice, his movements. “You won’t make it out here on your own.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
He gestured widely around himself. “Do you have other options?”
That gentle breeze fell down over Dylan again, ruffling her hair so suddenly that the stranger’s eyes widened slightly. Words again appeared in Dylan’s mind.
Don’t trust him.
Dylan studied the stranger, studied the weapons strapped to his body, the muscles that rippled under the thin, unmended clothing that hugged his body. Something about the intensity of his gaze, about the angle of his jaw and the power that seemed to hum just under the surface of his skin, made something funny happen to the steady rhythm of her heartbeat. She wanted him to stop looking at her. At the same time, she wanted him to stare at her, and only her, for the rest of her life.
It was a conflicting emotion that made the ache in her muscles seem like nothing more than the annoying buzz of a chattery girl in comparison. It made her belly ache, made her breathing less automatic and more of something she had to remember to do.