My name is Alexandra Jefferds and I’d like to introduce to you my novel, Earlier Heaven.
Earlier Heaven takes place in Hearth, the Earth-like afterlife of people who have died untimely deaths. In Hearth, people eat, sleep, go to work, and raise families. However, because everyone in the world has died, no children are born there and all families are built by adoption.
There are several characters with disabilities in the story. Among them are Theresa, a thirteen year old who uses a wheelchair due to spina bifida, and Jamie, a gender-bending actor and linguist who has severe asthma and a brain injury.
I published Earlier Heaven in 2008 (the easy part) and since then have worked to publicize it (the hard part). Because you all have an interest in disability, I’d like to share the book with you. I’m going to post the first few chapters on this site. If you enjoy them, please tell me, and I just might post more!
(c) 2008 Alexandra Jefferds
All rights reserved
“A happy family is but an earlier heaven.”
– John Bowring –
“Next New Year’s Eve, I need you to be out in the graveyard at midnight,” Ray had said, and like a good granddaughter, Theresa had agreed. Corina wasn’t pleased that her daughter and father-in-law had conspired without consulting her, given how cold it was bound to be and the fact that some locals had been up to no good lately with their homemade fireworks. But Ray had provided for the family since his son’s death, so when the snowy night arrived, the least Corina could do was make sure Theresa was bundled up properly.
“Take my coat, too. You’re going to be sitting around for a while.”
“Mine is fine. That’ll be too bulky.”
“I don’t want you getting cold. You have to go back to school in a few days. You can’t be sick when the new semester starts.”
“Come on, I’m not going to be out that long. Ray just said ‘midnight.'” Theresa squirmed in her seat as she gave in to her mother’s forceful offering of additional layers.
“Well, be back as soon as you can.”
“Mom, it’s not like I’m going to drop dead just from going outside for a few minutes.” Bad choice of words. Bad, bad, choice of words.
“Make sure you light some candles for your sister,” answered Corina, taking a partially burned pair from a shelf in the mudroom and dropping them onto Theresa’s lap. “But don’t leave your gloves off for too long.”
“I know, I know.”
Theresa shoved open the door and skidded down the salty ramp to the snow-covered path below. Corina, who was always conscious of the heating bill, had already closed the door by the time Theresa realized she had no matches. Fortunately, she spied Quentin Chamberlain shivering outside his house. He had one lit cigarette in his hand and another behind his ear.
“Hey,” she called as she wheeled toward him with effort. Her tire treads were already filled with snow. “Can I borrow your lighter?”
“No way in hell,” he spat. “Wanna cigarette?”
“No! I just need to borrow your lighter for a few minutes. I know you’ve got millions on you. I need it to go light some candles for Melissa.”
“For Melissa, huh?” A brief, dreamy look crossed his face. “Fine.” He reached into his pocket and tossed her a red lighter. It bounced off her heavily-gloved hands and landed in the snow. “Get that back to me ASAP, all right?”
“Yeah, thanks!” She picked up the near-empty lighter and headed out to the cemetery.
Theresa felt no fear as she rolled past the dark graves. If her grandfather wanted her here, then she was certainly safe from all beings living and dead. Besides, Ray had told her certain stories about the dead that made her regard the inhabitants of the graves as nothing more than neighbors. And she was too old to believe in ghosts.
She lit twin candles and affixed them to the top of her sister’s gravestone with wax. She decided that the second candle was for her father, since his body had never been found and he had no grave of his own.
She inserted her hands back into her gloves. Her nose dripped slightly in the cold, and she wiped it on her sleeve. As she sniffled, the bridge of her nose wrinkled and betrayed an old scar between her eyes. She leaned forward to examine the six year old lettering on her sister’s grave, making shallow boot prints in the snow in front of her wheelchair’s footrest.
“Melissa, I hardly knew you. I guess you were busy doing stupid teenage stuff and I was busy doing stupid kid stuff.”
It seemed colder now, but Theresa remembered her promise to stay until after midnight. The promise was especially important now because Ray had not been able to make it home; snow had hung up his truck somewhere in western Montana.
Suddenly, a sound like a gunshot echoed across the rolling hills of Petroleum County.
I should go, she thought wildly, but I can’t yet! What time is it?
Theresa looked about, the night seeming darker after she had stared at the candles for so long. A deer scampered by. Suddenly, the air was much warmer, the snow was gone, and the sky was filled with a glow much brighter than moonlight. She thought that the Chamberlain brothers must have let loose their full complement of fireworks, but as she stared at the light, she saw the enormous shape of a woman in a white dress superimposed against the stars. The woman held out her hand and cried. The tears ran down her arm, and by the time they had hit the ground, they had become people. The newcomers stood there, silhouetted against the figure above. Orange, blue, and purple flowers formed a carpet around their feet.
Enraptured as Theresa was, she was distracted by the sight of a flaming kitten in front of her. She yanked off her gloves, then struggled out of her coat and threw it over the tiny animal. The fire did not go out. The flames seeped through the coat, but the fabric did not appear to singe. The kitten wriggled out from under the coat and stared at her as though asking for a nice scratch. Its entire body was engulfed in fire. Theresa reached down and felt no excessive warmth around its body, so she cautiously dipped her hand into the flames. They did not burn her. She picked up the kitten by the scruff of the neck and put it, still blazing like a Yule log, on her lap.
The creek was only a few yards away, and she wheeled in that direction, her casters catching on the thick tangle of lorelia brush that had sprung up in the last few minutes. At the creek, she placed the kitten on the ground and then slipped off the front of her seat, letting her knees buckle under her. She lay on her stomach and grabbed the kitten again. She held it over the creek and splashed water on its gray fur to no avail. She dunked the tiny ball of fur entirely under the water and stared agape as it emerged—still aflame. Apparently, there was nothing she could do, so she put the kitten back down on the creek bank. Only then did the fire go out. The kitten licked itself a few times and then trotted into the night.
Theresa was wide-eyed. She was about to climb back into her wheelchair when a pale, patrician hand burst from under the water and caught her wrist. Her adrenaline spiked, but her strength was nothing compared to the iron tug of the slender fingers. Mud smeared across her front and Melissa’s special spiral necklace broke away from her neck as she was pulled down into the shockingly cold water.
The bright sun shone down on the blue, orange, and purple flowers that were everywhere. The air was silent except for the twittering of a few birds. One landed on the park bench where Theresa sat.
“Ha-ha, hello there,” said a voice, and a well-built man in a burgundy and green velvet jumpsuit materialized, hanging upside-down on a nearby arbor. He swung up and around the beam twice and then landed cleanly on the pebbles below.
He bowed very low and said, “I am exceedingly pleased to meet you, not a moment too soon, Theresa Towne.”
“Towne-Taylor,” Theresa corrected as she slipped her hands between her bottom and the hard bench. “Where am I? Who are you? Where’s my wheelchair?”
“All in good time. Isn’t it a lovely day?”
Theresa, who was still in all her layers except for her mother’s coat, thought it was rather warm.
“Bring me my wheelchair!”
“Please keep your voice down.”
In a flash, both of them were indoors, Theresa sitting on a woven placemat on a table in the middle of a room. The cottage looked as if it had been decorated by someone who ran an Americana shop, except that the dish towels, the flower pots, the clock, and the knickknacks didn’t quite look American. Sunlight poured in the windows and made the varnish on the table slightly sticky.
“The army will be pleased to know you’ve arrived.”
“The army? What? Where am I?” Theresa tried to tap him on the shoulder from her spot on the table, but she couldn’t reach him.
“Please use an indoor voice. Twyla Lawrence is coming soon. You’ll love to meet her.”
“Tell me where I am or I’ll scream.”
“All right, all right. My name is Link, custodian of the death process, and you are in Hearth.”
“Hearth? I can’t be dead!”
“Of course you’re not. While most people in Hearth have indeed died untimely deaths, I brought you here as a special guest. I’m sure you’d rather stay with your own kind while you’re here, so I’ve arranged for the army to take care of you. Twyla should be here very soon.”
Link darted around the dining room, doing various types of chores with his elegant hands. He watered plants, wound a tall clock with twenty-eight numbers on it, and brushed the soot off of a gray kitten, which licked and then bit him with its very wide mouth. The air was full of floating particles lit by the warm sun. Theresa began the task of stripping off her excess layers. She slid back on the table, attempting to get in a position where she could squirm out of her snow pants, and in the process knocked over an intricately-painted salt and pepper shaker set.
“What army?” she asked again.
“Your father’s army, of course.”
“My dad has an army?”
“Had an army, unfortunately. That’s why you’re here.”
Link was interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Come in, Miss Lawrence.”
A stocky woman marched in the door. She had a small Caucasian face with brown, almond-shaped eyes. Despite her wild, artificially red hair, she carried herself very conservatively and wore a business suit. She addressed Link in a language Theresa couldn’t identify.
“Please, let’s speak English for Theresa’s sake.”
“All right,” Twyla said. “Hello, there. I understand you’re the daughter of Emile Towne. Welcome to Hearth. It’s so good to have you here at last. Why don’t you come take a little walk with me and we’ll chat?” She had an accent that sounded vaguely Japanese.
“Um, well, I would, but I can’t really get off this table. Link doesn’t want to give me my wheelchair.”
Twyla’s eyes narrowed. “My lord,” she said, sounding as though the phrase put a sour taste in her mouth, “why did you deprive Emile Towne’s daughter of her wheelchair?”
“It was hard enough to transport her. We’ll find her a wheelchair here.”
“I want mine,” Theresa said.
Twyla nodded. “Everyone else who has a wheelchair comes with it. Why not her?”
“You didn’t bring her here without killing her, did you?”
“In short, yes.”
“If Lady Death finds out!”
“Miss Towne is a Storm Anchor. I have to send her back to Earth soon.”
“I’m a what?” Theresa asked, but she was ignored.
“All right,” Twyla said, “but if she’s going to come with me now, she’ll have to have her chair. And please put her in something other than those snow clothes. It’s not the season.”
“Have it your way.” Link rolled his eyes, and a moment later, Theresa was sitting in her wheelchair next to the table. She wore only her jeans and t-shirt, and she had been given a pair of sneakers to replace her snow boots.
Theresa followed Twyla out the door, into a residential neighborhood full of wood houses with stone foundations. Blooming lorelia vines climbed the tall trees that lined the street.
Twyla kept looking over her shoulder. Suddenly, she put her hand on Theresa’s back and told her to go very fast. The urgency in her voice convinced Theresa to comply, and Theresa immediately outpaced Twyla on the flat, brick-colored sidewalk. They ran for about two blocks before Twyla called out to Theresa and explained, “I saw Lady Death approach Link’s house.” She was more out of breath than Theresa.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s unfortunate enough that she’ll eventually find out you’re here, but if she sees you, she’ll know instantly that you’re not dead.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll keep you safe.”
Here and there, Theresa could see Hearth residents going about their daily lives. A teenage boy trimmed a large bush while a woman—presumably his mother—returned home after walking the dog. Farther down the street, a pair of men argued over the best way to clean out a blocked sewer. At the corner, Theresa almost collided with a girl her own age who was rollerblading down the sidewalk.
“Kekhutfmael!” exclaimed the girl before crossing the street.
“She said she was sorry,” Twyla translated.
Across the street was a corner store, its dark wooden façade patterned with geometric carvings. A rotund woman with curly blonde hair stood outside and waved at them as they crossed the street. Twyla got out her wallet and handed Theresa some money.
“Here’s 100 Gril. Why don’t you go inside and buy yourself a snack?”
The store had a mellow, shaded feeling about it even though it was lit sufficiently. The windows were old and had cracked paint on their frames. The floor was concrete and a wall-length refrigerator stood in the back of the store. Theresa found herself an interesting-looking bottle of pop. The label, like most in the store, was in a script she couldn’t read, but it had a picture of strawberries on it.
Next to her were two young boys discussing the candy rack. They looked so alive and normal even though Theresa knew that they were dead. She had heard about Hearth from Ray, but it had always seemed very far away, more like a secret family story than anything else. Before today, Hearth had been a fairytale afterlife whose name rhymed with “Earth” simply because Ray had little imagination. It had been years since Theresa had truly believed the place was real.
Yet here she was, taking her drink up to the counter and buying it with foreign currency. She couldn’t understand the cashier either, but she relaxed a little bit after he handed her 60 Gril in change. The fact that they used money here was a comfort; the idea that life in Hearth consisted of mundane activity agreed well with her teenage sensibilities. She had been seven years old when her sister had died in a motorcycle crash, and it had been then that Ray had told her about Hearth. Back then, the details had gone in one ear and out the other and been replaced by fantasies about magical realms with talking horses and exploding flowers. Year by year, however, the practicalities of growing up had caused those magical notions to fade from Theresa’s mind. Nothing in particular had replaced them, and eventually she had come to laugh at Ray’s stories most of the time. Now she was relieved to find that Hearth was an everyday place agreeable to a girl who tried very hard to be normal.
Outside, Theresa handed the change back to Twyla and opened the bottle. The beverage was fizzier and more acidic than what she was used to, but it was good.
“Theresa, this is Fiona. You’re going to be staying with her.”
“I have to go,” Twyla interrupted. “I will see you both at the council tomorrow. Good day.” She strode away and disappeared down a side street.
Fiona said, “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Theresa. How old are you now?”
“Thirteen.” Theresa slipped her bottle into the net below her wheelchair seat and followed Fiona down the sidewalk.
“What a wonderful age. You must have a fulltime job keeping the boys off of you. We have to go this way to the bus stop. There’s only one bus that runs out here, but according to the schedule, it should be here in the next five to ten minutes. Now, have you ever ridden a bus before?”
“No? Well, you’re in for a treat, then, I guess. I prefer them over driving. The traffic in this city is horrendous.”
“I guess a bus is better for the environment, too.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Fiona. “Everything in this city’s powered by electricity from the hydroelectric dam. We only have a teensy bit of air pollution, and that’s from industry.”
When the bus arrived, it opened its front door, and a ramp hinged to the floor unfolded. As Theresa wheeled up the ramp, she saw the driver go back and fold up a seat, making space for her. When she was settled, he hooked several straps onto various parts of her wheelchair and tightened it to the floor. Then he pulled a wall seatbelt across her and secured it at the floor behind her chair. Fiona dropped bus fare for two in the box and sat down on the bench across from her.
A few of the signs were written in the Roman alphabet, but Theresa couldn’t read anything. She saw the phrase “Río Inodoro” in several places.
“Oh, that’s the name of the city,” said Fiona. “It means ‘Odorless River’ in Spanish. The signs are in Khaich, Hearth’s official language.”
“If I was dead, could I understand it?”
“Oh, no, no. Everyone has to learn it when they arrive. We’ll have you up to speed in a couple of months.”
“A couple of months? How long am I going to be here? What am I doing here?”
“Don’t worry, but we shouldn’t talk about this on the bus. You’ll learn more at the council tomorrow. It’s nothing that serious. We just need your help.”
“I can’t do anything for you. I don’t know anything about Hearth. I’m not dead…”
“Shh. You’ll understand soon. Don’t worry.”
An airplane banked as it approached the airport, bringing the ground into view. A young man who sat just in front of the wing caught a glimpse of the Hinton Dam. He shuddered at the sight of the wild Río Inodoro upstream, the lake with traces of white capped waves, the arc of concrete, and the unremarkable flow downstream. Long ago, Jamie had come to understand that the dam was necessary. Without it, there could be no affordable electricity. At home, in his comfortable house with his family, this fact was acceptable. But every time he flew home from Daikonopolis, for a brief moment his blood would stir at the sight of the dam. It seemed somehow wrong to capture the water, to force it through tiny apertures, to sap its energy until it could not fight.
Jamie pushed up his sleeve to look at his watch, exposing his medical alert bracelet in the process. He moved quickly enough that the nosy passenger next to him, who had been trying to read the bracelet all flight long, was again disappointed. Jamie folded his arms and turned his head away from the window to relieve the cramp in his neck that had developed over the course of the last ten hours.
Everyone was ready to get off the plane. There was more hair out of Jamie’s braid than in it, and his nose was itchy. He tried to stretch in his seat, but his arm hit the window as he arched his back. Around him, a few knuckles were white as passengers imagined that landing was a likely time for the plane’s mechanical weaknesses to become apparent. But the flight attendant sounded bored as he gave final landing instructions, and soon the plane hit the runway with a mild thud.
Jamie was home. As the plane taxied to the gate, he licked his finger and rubbed it across his eyelids to remove the last traces of the eye shadow he had worn the day before.
Fiona’s apartment building was five stories tall, and it had neatly clipped grass out in front. Four boys played soccer in the driveway and said hello to Fiona as she and Theresa went by. Fiona returned their greeting and said something about Theresa to them.
One of them commented in heavily-accented English, “Hey, newlydead. Welcome to Toilet River.”
Fiona had the kind of apartment that someone would have only if they could also afford to buy a house. It was very spacious with white walls and short, cream-colored carpet. Rooms branched off in both directions from the entry hall, and the living room had tall windows showing a view of the city. There were tan leather sofas, a large TV, plants, and several short bookcases full of paperbacks and videos.
“It’s beautiful. You must be rich.”
In fact Fiona’s apartment was on the fancy side for Río Inodoro, but even if it had been smaller and less elegantly decorated, Theresa would have been impressed. Theresa had grown up in a small one-story house with sofas that had been purchased used twenty years prior, no dishwasher in the kitchen, sink taps with mineral deposits on them, and windows that had to be taped with plastic in the winter. Theresa’s own room was barely large enough for her to navigate in her wheelchair (a task made even more difficult by her mysterious inability to keep the floor tidy). Theresa had once asked her mom whether she could be allowed to move into her sister’s old room—after all, Melissa was never coming back—but the question had brought Corina to tears and Theresa had never dared to bring up the topic again.
“Well, I’m doing all right,” said Fiona. “I run my own women’s gym.”
Theresa suppressed a snicker at the rotund woman’s statement.
“I know what you’re thinking, girlie. I gave up the fight against fat years ago. There’s more to health than simple weight.”
“Tell that to my mom. She obsesses about her weight and mine.”
“You look fine to me.”
“Hey, where’s your bathroom?”
“Down the hall there. Do you need any help?”
She looked into the bathroom and was amazed by its spaciousness. “No, I’m ok.” She washed her hands in preparation for using the toilet, and then reached around to open her backpack. It wasn’t there.
“Fiona! I don’t have my backpack!” she called. “Link never brought it.”
She slipped out of the bathroom and pointed at her bare push handles.
“What’s the matter? What do you need?”
“A catheter. About this long.” Theresa formed the length with her hands. “Flow rate 12.”
“Oh, is that how you go? Do you need a prescription for that?”
“I don’t know. My mom gets them at the hospital back home. Do I?”
“I’ll call a medical supply store and ask. You sit tight. Oh, I feel bad. I hope you’re not uncomfortable.”
Theresa considered the bathroom once again. It was probably good that Corina wasn’t there right now. Theresa didn’t think she could handle the fit her mother would throw upon finding out that her daughter wasn’t being taken care of properly.
She did know an alternative method. It wasn’t as safe to do regularly as catheterizing, but she could pee if she pressed on her bladder in a particular way. It had been hours since she had gone, and she decided to give the method a try.
She normally didn’t transfer to the toilet but instead simply inserted a catheter into her bladder, letting the urine flow through the thin tube into the bowl. This time, however, she had to get on the toilet. She had enough leg control to place her braced feet on the floor and lean against the counter. The lowest of her ribs contacted the counter as she stood there. With a quick motion—before she lost her balance—she pulled down her jeans. With one hand on a sturdy towel rack and another on the toilet seat, she sat down.
Theresa emerged from the bathroom twenty minutes later, quite satisfied with herself, though doubtful that she was completely empty. At least she needed to go less urgently than she had before and would spare herself an embarrassing accident. However, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to get any catheters. She couldn’t imagine what it had been like before children could use them. Theresa had been born at the very beginning of the age when modern medical interventions made it feasible for the majority of people born with spina bifida to survive.
“The store I called sells them over the counter,” Fiona said, “so I’m going to run out and pick you up a box. Do you need anything else?”
Theresa relaxed and wrote down a short list of things.
“Ok, I’ll see you in a while.”
It was long after midnight, Montana time, and Theresa had been awake for almost twenty-four hours. She tumbled onto the couch, yanked her shoes and braces onto the floor, and was asleep within minutes. She was physically exhausted and could almost feel herself sleeping as she slept. It was dark when she awoke. The lights of the city glinted beyond the balcony.
“Good evening,” Fiona said. “I made some spaghetti and meatballs. Do you want some?”
“Yeah. What time is it?”
“I didn’t want to wake you. It’s about nine o’clock.”
“Ok.” Theresa reset her watch to Hearth time. She went to the bathroom again the normal way—much easier with the catheter, and then approached Fiona’s glass dining table.
As she ate a meatball, Theresa asked, “So, why are there cows in Hearth?”
“Same reason there are humans. Cows die untimely deaths when they’re slaughtered, and they end up here.”
“And they get eaten again?”
“There are two schools of thought, really. Some people say we should only eat the cows that were killed for meat on Earth because that was their fate to begin with. Others say we should let those cows enjoy the rest of their lives in peace and only eat cows that have been bred here. It’s legal to eat either type as long as they’re slaughtered humanely, yada, yada.”
“Are there people born here?”
“Oh, no way. I don’t know what keeps the actual, um, spark of life from taking hold. But no, no one gets pregnant here. That’s not to say they don’t try, if you know what I mean.”
Theresa smiled cautiously.
“So, anyway. This must be quite a shock to you, arriving here. Did you know about this place?”
“Yeah. Ray, my grandpa, told me a little bit. But I don’t know what that was last night, with the lights and the woman in the sky. I think Ray was going to tell me more when he got to The Town, but his rig got stuck somewhere and he couldn’t make it.”
“So, you anchored the Storm on your own?”
“What does that mean?”
“You were there in The Town when people were resurrected.”
“I was? They were?”
“That’s what happens during a Storm. People leave Hearth and return to Earth.”
“Is that what the Storm is?”
“When I was growing up, I always heard that dead people came back to life in 1934.”
“Yes, that was the last Storm. They’re supposed to happen every twenty-eight years, but the one in 1962 was cancelled.”
“Your father and grandfather were probably Storm Anchors before you.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Anchor is the person who absolutely has to be in a Storm Point—your town—so people can be resurrected there. I bet it’s in your family line. I’ve heard these things tend to be passed on through the generations.”
“Oh, I see. Yeah, I think Link said I was the Storm Anchor.”
“Congratulations, then. And it’s good to see you’re so level-headed. I probably would be running around screaming if Link brought me here like he brought you.”
Theresa had done a lot of screaming in her childhood, especially on the occasions when her stuffed animals had acted up on her. It had gotten old.
“I figured Ray wanted me to do something special.”
“You seem good and smart. Do you like school?”
“It’s ok. I’m pretty stupid really.”
“Aw, come on. Don’t say that. What’s your favorite subject?”
“I like gym, especially when we ride horses and swim.”
“Well, it’s good you like school, because we’re going to get you started with a Khaich tutor pretty soon. Maybe the day after tomorrow. Tomorrow’s the big army meeting, you know?”
Theresa was wide awake after her long nap, and sat in the living room all night watching Hearth TV. Most of it was in Khaich, but she found an English news station. She wasn’t normally the type of girl given to watching news, but it was all that she could understand, and there was something innately fascinating about seeing routine news about the world of the dead.
Winnie Alexander was chairwoman of Abalone Province, a region to the south of Río Inodoro. She was a very tall, elegant woman who looked as if she could have stepped from an episode of Japanese animation. She had thick black hair, sensual green eyes, and earrings that were shaped like a sun and a moon. She wore a Chinese-style scarlet dress over black pants. A gold sash adorned with countless medals and ornaments declared that though she might not look like a typical politician, she was very much in power. At her side, her husband General T. Davitts wore similar attire, though it was trimmed more militaristically.
Alexander and Davitts led a ceremony (taped earlier in the day) to honor a number of soldiers who had been killed several months before in an encounter with a rebel faction known as the Revolutionary Democrats. The ceremony was very long and boring, and Theresa flipped to one of the Khaich channels. The Khaich news was playing tastefully shorter snippets of the same ceremony interspersed with information segments about the dead soldiers. The images were very violent, and Theresa was surprised that they were on TV. One video segment depicted a man being escorted in handcuffs by police, and then being shot by an off-camera gunman as he exited a hotel.
The next morning, Fiona and Theresa took another bus to the outskirts of town and then walked several blocks to a small house surrounded by overgrown vacant lots. Fiona rang the doorbell and talked for a few minutes with the man who answered. To the right of the foyer was a descending flight of stairs. Two young men emerged from downstairs, picked up Theresa in her wheelchair, and carried her to the basement. The room smelled of mildew and housed several shelves of expired canned goods, gardening supplies, a ping-pong table, and old picture frames. Theresa looked at Fiona for an explanation, but her confusion lessened when one of them men pointed to a door behind the stairs. She opened it slowly and found herself looking into an auditorium that was submerged beneath the house and lit by long fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling. It appeared to seat about 100, and the chairs were indeed filling up. There were aisles flanking the seats and a low stage in front. On either side of the auditorium were several doors leading to other rooms.
Behind her, Fiona explained, “People have been arriving for about a week now, in little clumps here and there to avoid suspicion. We get the royal treatment by arriving today and not having to sleep down here for a week.”
“Hey!” A young woman with pure white hair bounded up to Fiona and hugged her. They gossiped in Khaich for several minutes before Fiona realized suddenly that she had been ignoring Theresa.
“I’m sorry, this is Chuntao. She does accounting for the army.” Fiona introduced Theresa in Khaich, and Theresa thought she caught the name “Melissa” in the conversation.
Chuntao leaned over and whispered to Theresa in rough English, “No trouble for you, not like your sister.” She winked a pale blue eye as Theresa gave her a quizzical look.
An hour later, Theresa sat in the back of the auditorium, feeling as though people were aware of and intrigued by her presence. Her desire to be at this meeting, which had never been particularly strong, dwindled a little more each time someone turned around to look at her. She wanted to be home and wished this were all a dream. She slouched forward, staring vaguely at her bright yellow shoe laces as Twyla Lawrence brought the meeting to order.
“Thus convenes the fourth annual meeting of regional officers of the Revolutionary Democratic Army. Second of January, 1990. Welcome everyone.”
Twyla gave an introduction in Khaich and then repeated herself in English. She looked at Theresa as she translated, clearly asking her to pay attention. Theresa was already wide awake after hearing the name of the army.
“Yesterday, the government honored the Lelkchenzitoar dead in a six-month anniversary ceremony. Today, we will honor our own dead and discuss the direction our army will take in a world that is without our brilliant leader, kind visionary, and dear friend, Emile Towne.” Twyla seemed unaccustomed to making sentimental speeches and rushed through the last several words.
The ceremony was longer than it should have been, but fear rather than boredom made Theresa wish it would end. Could this be the army that had killed so many people as to warrant a memorial service conducted by the chairwoman of Abalone Province? She looked at the crowd. One man was diligently writing on a yellow notepad, holding the pen like an elementary school boy. The woman next to him kept turning around to look Theresa’s way. She wore several rings on hands that kept making involuntary quizzical, anticipatory gestures.
Just to the right, in the row in front of Theresa, Chuntao perused her meeting agenda—a special one for her with oversized type. She wore beaded earrings, and her colorless hair was held up by a turquoise scrunchie. After a while, she started to nod off, periodically catching herself and snapping her eyes open again.
Fiona sat in the front row, her plump face nodding every time Twyla or someone else made an assertive statement. The meeting secretary had a casual, droopy look about him, and he wore a yarmulke clipped in his thick brown hair. He typed the minutes on a very small, fancy-looking computer plastered with bumper stickers much like the ones Theresa had peeled off her spoke guards in an effort to look less the American newlydead.
They didn’t look like murderers. In fact, they didn’t look much like an army at all. But somehow they were making trouble in Río Inodoro, and Theresa didn’t like it that they wouldn’t tell her why she was here.
Twyla retook the stage after a series of other speakers. She said in English, “We have had the good fortune to have with us today a person who we anticipate can help us unlock the enrollment files that have been inaccessible to us ever since Emile’s death. Sitting in the back row is Theresa Towne-Taylor, Emile’s daughter. You all know that we have been at a severe disadvantage ever since Emile passed on.” Twyla scowled slightly. “All of his passwords were encoded under the protection of certain parts of his DNA sequence. While we are all grateful for the security this has given us in the past year, we must access those files to modify our main member database. Theresa is Emile’s only child; his only other living relative—his father—is seventy-seven years old and is soon to be completely ineligible for Hearth. It would have been unwise to bring him here. But Theresa is young…”
“Wait a minute!” Theresa shouted, “I have a sister, Melissa. I’m not an only child. She’s even dead, so why not use her?”
The room was filled with chattering as those who understood translated for those who didn’t.
“I’m sorry, I should have been more clear,” replied Twyla. “You are your father’s only biological daughter, not to mention the fact that your sister took the Storm just yesterday and is now back in Montana.” From somewhere in the room, Theresa heard the word “traitor” muttered conspicuously in English.
Back in Montana! Oh, no! Theresa had not seen her sister in six years, and now they had just crossed paths without meeting? Theresa was sure Melissa had returned to Earth to be with her family, not as a “traitor,” and so Twyla’s derisive tone bothered her. Perhaps Melissa couldn’t help the army because she didn’t have the right genetic makeup, but Theresa remembered her as a wonderful big sister.
“Theresa, dear, you are our only hope of getting us back on our feet, operating at full strength again. Please help us. Will you?”
Two hundred eyes stared at Theresa. Theresa stared back.
Fiona said nothing to her until they were back on the bus that afternoon.
“Everyone’s counting on you. Why didn’t you answer her?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was a lot of pressure having everyone looking at you like that. There’ll be a much smaller group over at my place for dinner in a couple of weeks. You won’t need to feel so shy then.”
“I’m not shy.” Theresa cast an obstinate glare out the window. She wasn’t bothered by attention—in fact she often craved it—but Twyla had struck a nerve.
“Could’ve fooled me.”
It was past two now, and Jamie sat on the edge of his bed, staring into the darkness. Working on the other side of the world was not good for him anymore. He had enough trouble sleeping and didn’t need jetlag complicating matters. What had started as a temporary job to get him back into the entertainment industry had become a bad habit.
He touched a soft blanket to his forehead, wishing he could lie down, knowing he could not. Right now, his lungs were being too temperamental for that, and he listened enviously to the gentle snoring behind him. Jamie was motionless except for the heaving of his chest and the fidgeting that betrayed how terrified he was. Other men played with fire; Jamie played with air.
Jamie wanted to get through the night without using his inhaler, just to prove he could. Tonight would be different. If he had once survived ten minutes without any oxygen, couldn’t he last a few more hours like this? A trickle of sweat ran down his back.
Recently, he had come to the realization that he was doing all of the things that marked him as a productive member of society. He was a loving husband, father of two, gainfully employed again—finally—and no longer involved in any subversive activities. It felt strange to be on the inside again, rather than on the fringe looking in at what only other people had. Once, he had been a fought for a normal life and for his country. Now that he had the former, the latter had grown distant to him.
The clock changed to 2:17 and suddenly everything fell apart. An invisible vice crushed Jamie’s chest and the air became like syrup in his throat. He coughed violently as he swept his hand across the bedside table in search of his inhaler. He found it, brought it to his lips, and squeezed the canister expertly, barely noticing the vapor’s familiar bitterness.
His experiment had failed. Tonight was no different. But at least the uncomfortable vigil was over. He hung his head in relief and felt a warm hand caress his hip.
“I think so,” Jamie panted, reeling at the sudden influx of oxygen to his brain. With a flick of his mildly spastic fingers, he dropped the inhaler back on the table.
“Have you been up all this time?”
“Uh-huh.” He tumbled backward onto the mattress as sleep overtook him. Cascades of long, long black hair scattered on the sheet all around his bony shoulders. The bed felt like heaven. It seemed that lately, complacency had become the easiest way to deal with both his medical and political concerns. Yet he was still sick, and the city was still in danger of being destroyed by ambitious women. Winnie Alexander wanted Golden Province for its immigration station, and Twyla Lawrence drooled over Alexander’s power. Given a choice between those two, no wonder Jamie had lost his taste for revolution.
The promised dinner came three Thursdays later. Theresa was on the floor of Fiona’s living room, staring at rows of videotape boxes, when the doorbell rang. Fiona answered the door and Chuntao stepped into the room. She carried a large salad and tried to wave at Theresa while holding it.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
“I watched ‘Maju, jab fra ar kiora goh dl?‘ and now I don’t know where the box is.”
“It should be a blue box.”
“Fiona taped it off TV.”
“Ah, I see. Could you understand it?”
“Most of it. I’m getting better at Khaich.”
“I can tell. Keep it up. It’s not a very hard language, really.”
Eventually, Theresa lay down on the carpet and discovered that the tape box had been pushed under the TV stand. As she returned the video to its proper place, another guest arrived. It was the man she had seen typing at the meeting. Chuntao took the tub of food he had brought, opened it, squealed with delight, and ran off to the kitchen with the dish. The man shrugged, then gave Theresa a shy nod as he tossed his coat on the end of the couch. He watched Theresa climb onto a cushion nearby.
“Can I give you a hand there?” he asked in English.
“I’m ok.” She pulled her wheelchair close to the couch, locked the brakes, and slid into the seat.
“Uh, I’m Theresa.”
“I know.” He put his hands in his pockets and looked at his shoes. “Colin Miller. I’m the army’s technology supervisor. I keep its computers running and free of viruses. I program firewalls, crack databases, and help Twyla use the internet, which is the most frustrating part of my job. I’ve been with the army for five years now.”
Colin sat down on the couch and pulled a computer magazine from his coat. Theresa watched him read for a few minutes and then asked, “Can’t you open the files Twyla wants?”
“I’ve tried,” he answered, barely looking up. “The problem is that I’m the one who encrypted them, and at the time, I made sure that I couldn’t break the cipher. The key is your father’s DNA, and we don’t have access to that anymore. It’s a Romanova-Romanova cipher, the gnarliest kind in existence. It was invented here in Hearth by two sisters. Leave it to women to make a code impossible to crack.”
“Why did you use it, then?”
“About a year ago, Emile’s ophthalmologist got his hands on a DNA sequencer, and I was itching to try it out on something.”
“Dr. Satin has recruited more army members than anyone. About fifteen percent of his patients are Revolutionary Democrats. Twyla doesn’t like him because on the whole, his recruits don’t see very well and she’s fed up with confidential memos printed in 36-point type. But she can shove it as far as I’m concerned. Wallace is a good man.”
“Ok.” Emboldened by Colin’s dig at Twyla, Theresa asked, “Why are you fighting? I don’t see anything wrong with the way things are here.”
“No one’s told you our purpose?”
“Fiona’s hardly told me anything.”
Finally, Colin put down his magazine. He glanced at the kitchen with a hint of frustration on his face and then turned to Theresa. “I don’t know why not, unless they think you’re not old enough to understand.”
“I’m old enough.”
“Of course. What we’re fighting for is to defend ourselves against Abalone Province. Winnie Alexander already captured western Golden Province, and she wants the east as well.”
“Oh, so you’re trying to keep the province free.”
“Yeah. But there’s an even bigger issue at stake. If Alexander takes eastern Golden Province, she’ll control the hemisphere’s immigration station. She has this notion that only young children should be allowed to enter Hearth.”
“She believes that people who die at an older age are so bogged down by Earth prejudices, nationalism, racism, and so forth that they can never become ideal citizens of Hearth. She thinks she can build a utopia by admitting only people who aren’t old enough to have learned how to hate.”
“Why is that bad?”
“It’s bad because it excludes people. There’s already a place for what Alexander wants, and it’s called heaven. This is not heaven. Hearth is a second chance for everyone who dies an untimely death—me, you, your father, your sister, and all our friends and enemies. Everyone from Anne Frank to Adolf Hitler. See what I’m saying?”
“I guess so.”
“And so here we are.” Colin put his hands on his knees. “We do our work even with the government of our own province on our tail.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Revolutionary Democrats want the same thing that the government does—freedom for Golden Province. But the government hunts us because your father’s mission went beyond keeping out invaders. He wanted true democracy for the province, and that’s a threat to the people ruling now.”
“You want to overthrow the government?”
“It’s what revolutionaries do. It’s what your father was aiming for.” He leaned forward. “But I’ll tell you one thing. Twyla’s army is not your father’s army. Twyla will keep Alexander out of Golden Province, but if she ever gets a chance to overthrow the government, she’ll seize power for herself. It won’t be any democracy then.”
“Why do you help her?”
“Because she’ll never succeed at the second part of her plan. She doesn’t have it in her. But the Abalone threat is real and she’s keeping the army together.”
“So… why you want to open the files?”
“I don’t. Twyla does. There’s a difference.”