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Authors: Heather Crews

Psychopomp: A Novella

BOOK: Psychopomp: A Novella
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Psychopomp

 

Heather Crews

 

 

Psychopomp

Heather Crews

 

Copyright © 2016 by Heather Crews

 

All rights reserved.

 

 

ALSO BY HEATHER CREWS

 

Unchanged

A Dark-Adapted Eye

Dreams for the Dead

Prince of Misery

 

 

For Jess

 

1. los acantilados

We walked along the cliffs, Pell and I, water lapping at the sheared rock just a few feet below the edge. The wind stirred clouds of dust at our feet and lifted the hair from our shoulders. I kept away from the edge, fearful of strong gusts that would push me right into the deep water.

There were no beaches in Marshwick. In years before anyone could remember, long before I was born, these cliffs had been much higher, with the water way down low. That was before all the ice melted during the last climate change, causing the seas to rise.

But, I remembered, millions of years ago the sea had covered the ground beneath our feet, littering it with the shells and fossilized animals Pell collected. I’d read that once. Since its beginning, the earth had changed in so many ways. Until the end, it would continue to do so.

And yet it seemed, to me, nothing ever changed.

“Any boats?” Pell called.

I glanced back to see her examining a shell she’d found. Then I turned to scan the pale horizon at the edge of the ocean, though I knew it was empty. “No.”

My brother was out there, somewhere on the sea. Anden. I dreaded his return, like always. Living was much easier with him away. The bruises on my arms faded and I didn’t have to listen to him yelling at me for leaving dishes in the sink or laundry on the line.

I’d never found much to like about belonging to a fishing family. It was all I’d ever known, though, because Papá had fished and taught my brother everything he knew before a swell took his best boat and him with it.

It had been almost five years since then. I didn’t really miss him. If Anden drowned in the middle of the ocean, I wouldn’t miss him either. But Pell would. Every day she went to the docks to watch for my brother’s boat in the muggy heat, even though he’d never given her the time of day. He was too self-absorbed for that.

At my feet I spotted an unbroken half of a shell, a beautiful orangey color, dark brown at the edges. I picked it up as Pell approached.

“I think I have enough for today,” she said. The bucket she balanced against her hip was half full.

“Here.” I dusted the sand from the orange and brown shell and handed it to her.

“Thanks, Marlo. That’s a good one.” She dropped it in her bucket and brushed a piece of blue-black hair from her forehead.

The sun was beginning to rise. We couldn’t really see it through the haze, but the light gained intensity and the air grew fractionally hotter. We’d set out early this morning when the air was almost cool.

Marshwick was a gray-brown line to the north. The town curved along the cliff edges, hugging the harbor. And north of that, just beyond the metal forest, was the city in its glistening blue splendor. Cizel shone, its roads and rails curving elegantly around the glass buildings. Pell was more familiar with Cizel than I was, since she loitered at its edge every night.

As we turned to head back, I caught movement from the corner of my eye, a flash of dark against the flat, pale brown landscape to our left. A cloud of dust rose and a vehicle appeared from it. A truck, an old one that ran on gas.

“Look,” I said.

The truck stopped and the dust cleared. A man got out, tall and thin and dark, but too far away for me to see anything else about him, except for his white coat. Pell clutched my arm, her face pale. There was nowhere to hide. We didn’t move, afraid, for unclear reasons, of the man seeing us. But he never once glanced our way.

Silent and curious, we watched as he walked toward something. He stopped, looking down at the ground, hands on his hips. Then he bent at the knees, his arms reaching out, and hefted something up over his shoulder.

“What is that?” I murmured.

Pell’s fingers tightened on my arm. “What do you think?”

Then I knew there was only one thing it could be, out here on the flats, where nothing lived because it had all died in the drought. It was a person. A body.

I had never seen a dead body before, even from such a distance as this. Pell had, once, when a man she was servicing died suddenly. But that was a fresh death and she’d run from the room instantly. This death was surely several days old, at least. The dead man must have come out here for reasons similar to ours: to gather whatever supplies he could for his trade. Who knew how he’d died. He’d have lain undiscovered for weeks if not for the man who now placed him in the back of the truck. That was a man who must have made it his business to gather bodies from where they’d fallen. He would not harm us, we now knew. The man in the white coat was only collecting the dead.

Psychopomp
, I said to myself. This man took the dead elsewhere, like a ferryman, or an angel of death. In a way, he was just like those mythological beings that guided souls to the afterlife.

Once he’d driven away in a fresh cloud of dust, Pell and I continued back home without speaking.

The air in Marshwick always smelled of fish and salt. Narrow alleys ran between tilting homes, the asphalt perpetually shiny with the moisture of sea spray. Misty clouds hung low most days, but they rarely shed rain on us. Ours was a poor town where people squinted, frowning in dissatisfaction, and didn’t talk much. Fishing was our livelihood. Our callused hands clung to the slippery rocks of the harbor for survival.

Sometimes it seemed nothing more than a strong wind would make us lose our grip and drown.

 

2. la llama

We parted ways. Pell headed to the lane where she sold her handmade jewelry every morning alongside other hawkers, and I went to the plasma center. My arm was still sore from last time, but I had to donate three days a week so Anden and I would have enough credits to keep ourselves fed. The credits were all that sustained me when he spent months at sea.

The center was at the edge Marshwick, near the desalination plants. Once, when it was new, the area had been quaint and pretty. At least that was how I imagined it. Now the buildings were nearly in ruins, run-down and weather-stained, all the paint faded long ago. The changeless haze was like a low ceiling that made people bow their heads.

It was always busy at the center, but today the line stretched outside. People came early to avoid the worst of the heat and the long wait. I joined the line as the doors opened. The sun beat down through the dust and I shuffled forward step by step.

Since they didn’t screen the donors as strictly as they used to, the line moved quickly. An hour later I was propped up in one of the beds arranged in numerous rows, my arm out as I waited. Attendants walked up and down the lines, monitoring plasmapheresis machines and making sure no one had fallen asleep.

It was another forty minutes before an attendant came to me, staring down at the handheld device that would prove I’d donated so I could get credits. Kev, I thought his name was. Getting stuck never felt particularly good, but he always made it hurt worse. Without a glance at me, he took my information and scanned the number on my bed.

“Can someone else stick me?” I asked hesitantly, pulling my arm back toward my body. “John, maybe?”

“Not today,” Kev said, folding one hand around my wrist. He tapped at the vein in the crook of my arm. “Shorthanded.”

The needle bit through my skin. I felt it enter my vein, stinging, burning, aching. My eyes were wide, my jaw set, but I didn’t move. The hurt should have faded in seconds, but it lingered. I could never decide if Kev liked causing pain or if he just had a heavy touch. I’d have a bruise for days afterward.

I didn’t like the idea of this, giving a part of my body to some unknown entity. The process was so impersonal. But my plasma would supposedly save a person’s life, and I needed the credits.

I lay there, repeatedly squeezing my hand into a fist so the blood would flow quickly. Everyone around me did the same. We stared at the far walls, where large screens played footage from the latest ambassadors’ addresses. They always talked about how well our soldiers were doing in the fight for water. According to them, there was never any reason to worry that we’d go without, but even so, they warned us to be careful with our rations.

My eyes drifted from the screens. An ambassador stood across the room, hands behind his back. I’d never seen one in person, but I recognized the gray uniform with black stripes on the collar from the screens. Slim and straight, the man surveyed the room with a dark gaze. He spoke to the attendant next to him, who kept shaking his head. The ambassador kept speaking and finally the attendant nodded.

I hoped there wouldn’t be a problem with the credits. Maybe the government had decided to decrease them. It had happened before.

My flow was slow that day because I’d been a little dehydrated. The machine took my blood and separated the plasma, then gave the blood back. It took a couple hours. Shivering as the saline entered my bloodstream at the end, I waited for an attendant to come take the needle out. Then I left, holding my bandaged arm protectively against my body.

Outside, the line had dwindled to a few stragglers. I nodded to some I recognized from the docks. They stared at me, faces solemn. Warm air settled around me, lessening my shivers.

The afternoon had nearly gone. I was short of breath, as I often was after donating. It would pass, as it always did.

Hungry. I didn’t think I’d eaten breakfast. Definitely not lunch. I planned to stop by the mercado on the way home and put my newly earned credits to use. Anden wasn’t home to tell me what to buy. I dreamed of rarities like fresh tortillas and salsa casera. Strawberries so tart they would make my mouth water.

Without realizing it, I’d stopped to lean against a wall. A generator hummed. A faint orange shimmer rested on the surface of the sea.

As I stood there, trying to catch my breath, I noticed him—the ambassador who’d been inside. He stood at the entrance of an alley, seemingly waiting for someone or something. He noticed me, too. All I saw were his gleaming eyes. They weren’t dark, but yellow. Like a predator’s. Like a flame.

I felt it burning me.

~

I blinked. Men and women, weather-beaten and time-hardened, swirled in ever-moving masses on the gently swaying docks. Their clothes stuck to their skin. They had boats to clean, fish to gut, wares to sell, children to feed.

Only I stood still, staring at the horizon. The diffused orange light of the sinking sun bled into my eyes.

The harbor was murky with jellies. I thought of the things this water must hide. Sunken ships. Flooded cities. Forgotten shorelines. The fossils of a dead, decadent civilization.

I blinked again and wondered how I’d gotten here. My mind was strangely blank.

“Who do you look for?”

The voice stirred me. I turned to see a young man with close-cropped blond hair and eyes that crinkled with his smile. His skin, dripping with sweat, was tanned from long hours on the docks, day after day. His cheeks were ruddy with health. Dark eyes twinkled kindly.

“Excúseme?” I said. I became painfully aware of my body, an allover ache. I caught my breath, stopping tears.

He coiled a thick rope in his hands. “I seen you out here before. All you do is watch the horizon. You waiting for your boyfriend?”

“Mi hermano.”

“Ah.” The guy nodded and gave me a slow, white grin. His eyes flicked down my body and lingered there.

“I have to go,” I said.

“All right. See ya.” He backed away, still looking at me, then turned to join the crowd. After a moment, it had swallowed him up.

It was time to go home. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been there. I walked slowly the whole way because it was too painful to walk fast.

We lived in a little blue house streaked with rust stains and surrounded by pavement. The house of my and Anden’s childhood. I hated it and so did he. Ever since the sea took Papá and Mamá wandered off with a failed farmer, there wasn’t anything left within these walls for us. But it was where we stayed because there was nowhere else to go. I’d tried to scrub out the bleak past by keeping the walls clean and hanging bright handmade curtains, but in the corners lurked the smudges of memories we’d have liked to forget. About the only thing Anden and I had in common was a desire for a new life.

“Un día, Marlo,” he often said to me. “We’ll get out of here and show them all.”

I didn’t know what exactly he wanted to show anyone. And that one day never seemed to come.

Blanca was home when I got there. She was the girlfriend of Anden’s partner. It had been my brother’s idea to have us all under one roof. The extra bodies in the household would increase our credits, and he could mete them out however he wished. He could withhold them as punishment if one of us made him angry, but only I ever angered him. And I was the only one who never complained.

I heard Blanca’s sobs coming from the tiny room she shared with Harkin. She looked up when I stopped in the doorway, her flyaway blonde hair messier than usual. The skin around her liquid dark eyes was splotched with pink.

“I’m pregnant!” she wailed.

I sat on the bedroll beside her. “Have you told anyone else?”

“Who? Harkin’s off with Anden. But it doesn’t matter,” she said. “They’ll both want me to get rid of it.”

Her deep sobs alarmed me. I didn’t know what to say.

“Where’ve you been?” she asked after a few minutes.

Glancing down at my arm, I saw the bandage over the needle stick was gone. I didn’t remember having removed it. “Uh… getting drawn.”

She studied the bruises covering my exposed skin. “For three days?”

“Three days?” I echoed. For a moment, it seemed my heart stopped.
Three days?

“I thought you were dead.”

“No.” I forced a smile so she wouldn’t worry. “I’m fine.”

That night, I sat up on the flat part of our sagging roof, as I often did, and gazed north toward Cizel. It sparkled with such bright, colorful lights. I could imagine the people living at the heart of those tall, gleaming buildings in homes where they never had to ration electricity or water. They’d be plump and sleek-haired with easy laughter and shiny clothes. They’d go to parties and sleep in air-conditioned rooms.

A dense band of artificial trees separated Marshwick from Cizel. The white lights of the mansions hidden within the forest illuminated the long teal branches and silver metal leaves. That was where Anden wanted to live someday, when we were rich.

Un día.

I’d begun to feel lightheaded again. Sometimes it took a while to feel normal after giving plasma. Downstairs, I scrounged up a dinner of seaweed crackers and tinned fish. I fed some to the stray, half-starved neighborhood cats, which I could only do when Anden wasn’t around to yell at me for wasting rations. They curled their bony bodies around my legs and devoured the shreds I left them. Then they scampered off into the narrow alley behind the house, recycling bins clattering in their wake.

 

BOOK: Psychopomp: A Novella
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