Authors: Steven Dos Santos
Tags: #teen, #Young Adult, #Dystopian, #Speculative Fiction, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #sci/fi, #Military, #totalitarian government, #male protagonist, #sci-fi
© 2013 by Steven dos Santos.
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E-book ISBN: 9780738735610
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To my beloved mother, Gladys dos Santos, culled from this world way too soon. Not a day goes by that my heart doesn’t ache for your warmth and encouragement, Mom. If I could have chosen, you’d be here with me now. Love you always …
I’ve been chasing sleep for hours and finally accept the fact that I’m never going to catch it. Even if I could afford black-market meds and was willing to risk Cole’s life, as well as my own, no amount of anti-anxiety drugs will quell the unease poisoning my blood.
Not on the eve of the Recruitment.
My palm presses against the cold windowpane of the box-like tenement we call home, wiping away a swatch of condensation. A spark of orange stains the dark sky, silhouetting the smokestacks from the Industrial Borough, hissing puffs of black death into the stars. That same lethal smoke birthed the cancers that devoured both of my parents’ dignity before leaving two brothers with only each other.
And before this day is through, maybe not even that.
The floorboards creak. Probably another damn rat. That’s three this week. I grope for the oil lamp on the nightstand, careful not to turn the flame too high, so as not to wake up Cole, asleep on the cot beside mine.
Too late. He’s propped up on his elbows, his big chocolate eyes staring at me through the flickering light. “Did you have a scary dream too, Lucky?” he asks.
It used to bother me when Cole nicknamed me Lucky, instead of calling me Lucian, until I realized just how aptly it described the way I felt about having him in my life. And it’s a h
ell of a lot better than
I move to sit beside him, ruffling his hair. “What are you doing up, big guy? No school today, remember?” There’s never school on this day. Or work for that matter. The Establishment makes sure that everyone participates in all Recruitment Day activities.
Cole reaches out a warm, pink hand and grasps one of my own. “I can’t sleep, Lucky. The monsters’ll get me.”
Can he sense what’s coming?
Leaning in close, I smile. “Nothing’s going to hurt you, Cole. I won’t let it.”
He lets go of my hand and throws his small arms around my neck, burying his face in my chest. I enfold his trembling body in a tight embrace.
“Can you read me the story?” he whispers in my ear.
I pull away, staring at him. “I’ll read it if you promise to go back to sleep.”
He lights up. “Promise!”
I shake my head, rise, and walk over to the small dresser in the corner of the room, sliding it aside. I stoop and pry up one of the floorboards with my fingernails. Reaching into the dark crevice, I ease out a few sheets of blackened paper.
Cole’s been fascinated with the story ever since I discovered it a few months ago, hidden in the basement archives of the Parish library, just after I started working with old Mr. Croakley. When anyone turns sixteen in the Parish, they’re assigned an apprenticeship until they’re drafted into the standard military—or recruited. I’d lucked out. I could have pulled sewer duty.
This particular tale was hidden inside a dusty book, part of a collection that ranged from astronomy to poetry. I must have devoured the entire compilation in a matter of weeks.
I sink into the creaking mattress beside Cole. “Now remember. You can’t tell anyone about the story. I
it. It would get us both into trouble and they could take you away from me. You don’t want that, do you?”
His eyes widen. “No, Lucky. I won’t never ever tell.”
I hate to scare him like this, but it’s the only way to protect him. The Establishment has very strict guidelines about what it deems appropriate reading in its schools, and fairy tales just don’t make the cut. But I think a four-year-old deserves whatever happiness he can squeeze out of this life and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to give Cole whatever I can.
Picking up the pages, I begin to read. Well, pretend to read actually. Most of the text is illegible, either burned or torn away. But it’s the drawing that excites Cole.
So I’ve made up the tale, using a few of the key phrases that I can decipher. If Cole notices that the words vary with each reading, he never says. It’s the ritual that seems to cast its spell—me reading, him listening.
And the drawing.
“There once was a beautiful queen that ruled over the land of Usofa,” I begin.
For the next fifteen minutes, I go on and on about the benevolent Lady, how she reigns over the City of Sparkling Lights, tweaking this version here and there for dramatic effect. You’d think it was Cole’s first time hearing this story, based on all his questions: Does the Lady protect the people from the monsters? From illness? Does she give them plenty of food, read to them?
Keep their parents alive?
As I patiently address each and every question, I know
it’s not answers he’s looking for, but something far greater … something I’m not sure I can really give …
“And they lived happily ever after,” I finally finish, acting as if I’m going to put away the pages.
“The picture! The picture!”
I smile. “All right, buddy. Take it easy! Here it is.”
His face is a mixture of awe and joy as he studies the drawing on the page I’m holding out to him. It’s a regal woman, wearing a crown emitting the sun’s rays, torch held high in her right hand, a large bound book in the other. Her face seems serene as she stares at the magical city before her, lit up like the constellations.
“She’s almost as beautiful as Mommy was,” Cole whispers.
I smile. How can he remember that? He was too young when she …
An image of our mother floods my brain. The wheezing, gasping for breath, her eyes rolling up into their sockets—No. Not today. “Yep. She almost is.” I pull the page away. “Now you promised you’d go back to sleep.” I re-tuck him in, before he can protest.
He leans forward and kisses my cheek. “I love you, Lucky.”
As I stare down at him, he suddenly becomes blurry. “I love you, too, Cole.”
I plant a kiss on his forehead and snuff out the lamp’s flame. In a few minutes I can hear the soft sounds of his rhythmic breathing. Hopefully, the dream monsters will be kept at bay, if only for a few hours. Why couldn’t it be this simple with the real monsters?
Plopping down on my own bed, I can’t get the image of the old sketch out of my mind. A beautiful city watched over by a noble Lady. A place where people were free. Free to express their ideas, live their lives without fear. No wonder Cole likes the story so much. A place like that would be paradise compared to our lives in the Parish.
Surely, it had to be a fairy tale. If such a place ever existed it’s completely gone now, destroyed by the Ash Wars untold ages ago, replaced by the all-knowing, ever-present monster: the Establishment.
The monster that will decide in just a few hours whether or not I’ll be responsible for my little brother’s death.
The rusty key won’t budge. I have to jiggle it a few times before the tumblers surrender and I’m rewarded with an anemic
. It stinks having to trust Cole’s safety to a corroded piece of metal, but if I don’t risk this outing, the thought of what could happen to him terrifies me even more. Hopefully I’ll be back before he wakes up and finds me gone. Besides, he won’t be totally alone.
Brushing away a few paint flurries that drift from the door onto my sleeve, I creep down the dim corridor, side-stepping mounds of trash, none of which is ever edible. Food, regardless of freshness level or olfactory appeal, is
thrown out. Period.
Something squishes beneath me. The heat of whatever it is soaks through my soles. I scrape the mystery onto the warped floorboards without bothering to look.
It’s better not to know.
Finally, I’m at the end of the hallway, in front of Mrs. Bledsoe’s apartment. It used to say No. 15 above the door, but the five had about all it could take years ago, just like Mr. Bledsoe had when their only daughter, Dahlia, was recruited. Now there’s only the 1 left, both inside and out.
I’m about to knock when the sounds of a motor struggling to putter into existence on the other side cement me in place. Only it’s not a motor. It’s organic. The wheeze of tortured lungs repelling an invader, and only succeeding in hawking up tissue and darkness.
Reaper’s Cough, as it’s known in the Parish.
My eyes squeeze shut. Mrs. Bledsoe’s always been there to help out. She was a rock for Mom when Dad passed. Then she’d practically adopted Cole and me when Mom couldn’t hold on any longer. Now she’ll be lucky if she sees another summer.
I open my eyes and take in the filth surrounding me, barely visible in the meager light, courtesy of the extra hour of electricity the Establishment so graciously provided us with on this oh-so-festive occasion.
Maybe Mrs. Bledsoe’s the lucky one after all.
My knuckles meet the door.
The whooping becomes muffled, as if a hand is trying to suppress it before being betrayed by the next determined assault. Then the unmistakable sound of feet shuffling across the floor, pausing just beyond the door.
I tap softer now, leaning in close. “Mrs. Bledsoe, it’s me, Lucian.”
A long breath hisses free. No telltale phlegm this time. Relief, not Reaper.
The bolt squeaks its way across its housing, freeing the door, which creaks open about six inches. A set of eyes peers up at me, one bloodshot, the other encased in a grayish shroud. They find my own, and the wrinkles surrounding them relax. “Lucky? Oh, thank goodness it’s only
The door opens all the way, exposing a short, thin woman, gray hair matted around her skull, concave cheeks on a face the color of flour. Her hands are dry and cracked, like the walls.
Is this what I’ll look like when
I tear my eyes away before she realizes I’m staring. “Sorry to bother you so early.”
Her lips curve, showing as little of her yellowed teeth as she can get away with and technically call it a smile. “Like anyone could sleep, today of all days.” Her words may be referring to today’s event, but her liquid eyes are all about Dahlia on this loathsome anniversary. I can’t help but feel guilty, intruding on her memories.
“Well, don’t just stand there, boy.” She steps aside and waves me in. “Come in and let me fix us some breakfast.”
I almost chuckle at the lunacy of the idea that she’d have enough food to feed me, let alone the both of us, if it weren’t for the sincerity swaddling her words. I stoop under the doorway and enter.
She cocks her head to peer behind me. “Where’s my little Cole?”
“Mrs. Bledsoe, I can’t stay. That’s why I’m here. I need you to keep an eye on him while I’m out.”
She shuts the door. The trenches dissecting her forehead deepen. “Where can you possibly be going at this hour of the morning? You know there’s a curfew until Recruitment is underway. If you’re caught by any of the Imposers without the proper authorizations … ” She erupts into another hacking spell. Turning away, she pulls a ragged piece of cloth from a frayed pocket, clutching it to her mouth.
My hand finds her trembling shoulder, squeezing it until the convulsions peter out. “You need to see a doctor right away. Maybe I can barter for medical services in exchange for some labor until I can cover the rest of the fees.”
I barely make enough money working at the library to feed Cole, with a few scraps left over for myself, but I’ll find a way, even if I have to cut down on sleep and take a side job. No one should have to suffer like this. Especially Mrs. Bledsoe.
She shakes her head. “No need. I’m all right, dear. It’s just a little hay fever. It’ll pass.”
The splattering of bright crimson on the rag she stuffs into her pocket says otherwise.
Why do we even bother to cling to this hell we breathe in, day after day?
Then I see Cole’s shiny face in my mind’s eye.
“Can you watch him for me, please? I promise I won’t be long.”
“Tell me you haven’t gotten involved with … ” Her voice drops to a whisper. “With
and their crazy notions. I hear the word on the streets. And so does the Establishment. Rumor has it they’re starting to make notes, take names … there’s even talk there was a raid down at the Roarkeshire Farm. I’m scared of what’ll happen next.”
It’s more than just idle gossip. I watched it unfold, hidden in a tree in a neighboring field. The entire place burned to its foundation. No one ever came out. I can still smell the roasting flesh. But I can’t worry her. “It’s nothing like that.” I shrug. “Besides, could it really get any worse than it already is?”
A hand shoots out and grabs my chin. “Oh,
. It most definitely can.
you forget it.”
Her intensity claws through me like icy talons. I shrink in her gaze. “I didn’t mean any disrespect.”
The grip on my chin relaxes, evolving into a pat on the cheek and then a mussing of my hair. “Forgive me, Lucky. I just worry about you and your brother. You’re … you’re all I have left … ” She steps back, appraising me now, ice melted.
“Did you get a chance to see her yesterday during the Ascension Ceremony?”
She stifles another cough. “Just for a few moments. Right after the Prior gave the benediction. I can’t believe she’s been promoted to First Tier already.”
Just one step away from becoming a full-fledged Imposer …
“It seems like just yesterday she was recruited.” Her good eye clouds over, too. “She looked so grown-up in her uniform. Not like my little Dahlia. I tried to get her attention as she left the dais, but
… she must not have seen me.” She wipes her eyes.
“I’m very sorry. I know it’s been a long time.”
like her. The same wavy dark hair … that olive skin she got from her father … ” Her voice chokes off.
Being recruited tears families apart. That’s why I have to risk what I’m about to do.
Clearing her throat, Mrs. Bledsoe places her hands on her hips. “Only
too thin, boy! We need to feed you better. When you get back from your errand, I’ll have some breakfast ready. And then the three of us will sit down and eat before heading off to the opening ceremonies. Like a proper family.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Bledsoe.” I turn before she can see the gratitude streaking from my eyes.
“And Lucky,” her voice calls after me, “your mother and father would be very proud of you.”
Without turning back, I walk out and shut the door, leaning against it to catch my breath. I wonder if she’d feel the same way if she knew that not only am I planning to break curfew, but I’m going to make sure I get caught by the Establishment in the process.