(c) 2008 Alexandra Jefferds
All rights reserved
Theresa had difficulty getting Colin’s words out of her head. She said very little during the dinner, but later pressed Fiona for information in private, in an attempt to hear Colin’s explanations from a second person.
“I want to know what I’m helping, if I’m going to help,” Theresa insisted.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Fiona replied, “the details are very complicated and Twyla would like to keep them as confidential as possible. Remember, you’ll be helping your father if you help us. Don’t be worried. It’s entirely up to you.”
Theresa wondered how long she had before her period of free will expired.
Her pestering must have convinced Fiona that she needed some recreation, because that Saturday, Fiona gave her 500 Gril and suggested that she investigate a street a few blocks away that had a nice assortment of pet shops, art galleries, cafés, and bookstores. Theresa decided to make the most of her opportunity, and went out Fiona’s door with a backpack full of toiletries and spare clothes. She wanted to be prepared in case she found the courage to run away. Her rising fear of what the army might want from her was already pushing her strongly in that direction.
Though it was winter in Montana, a very long summer was just beginning in Hearth. Theresa wore a red baseball cap with the name of Fiona’s women’s gym on it. The five 100 Gr. notes—chetzra, as they were called in Khaich—were in her wallet. She breezed along on the pavement, roughly clocking her speed at four miles per hour based on the regular intervals at which her aluminum casters hit expansion cracks. She became reckless on the downhill, competing ruthlessly for space with bikers and baby carriage pushers. The neighborhood sidewalks had an interesting feature that Theresa had never seen before coming to Hearth; at each corner was a built-in ramp that sloped down to the street. These little ramps made it possible for her to cross streets without hopping the curb or finding a driveway.
A billboard hanging above an old apartment building displayed an ad for a phone company—no, an internet service provider—with the slogan “Anfugel, Apoazchiekel, Azrael.” From an early Khaich lesson on verb tenses, Theresa recalled that this was a common Hearth proverb about understanding through doing.
Runoff from a watered garden flooded the sidewalk ahead, and Theresa’s wheelchair left four streaks after she had passed through it. A frenzied dog behind a fence startled her soon after. A young man walked past bearing a jug of detergent and a hiking backpack full of laundry. Theresa paused to peer into a tiny temple that appeared to be dedicated to a statue of Lady Death dancing on Link’s chest.
The city stretched out for miles all around her, infinitely larger than her tiny Montana town, offering the promise of possibilities. Now she was more convinced that she didn’t want to return to Fiona’s.
She stopped, and with a neat rearward tug on one wheel, turned to look back the way she had come.
She still hadn’t made up her mind. The idea of running away was tempting, and she was glad she had packed her things. But even though she was frightened of the army and of what it wanted from her, she had no place in Hearth. Terrible things could happen if someone found out she wasn’t really dead.
What did it mean to be dead? she wondered as she spotted the main street ahead of her and cruised toward it, the wind streaming in her hair. Her Khaich tutor was strict and demanding, but from what he had told her, he was a competitive cyclist, a singer, a family man. At home, her teacher Bert Sutherland did nothing but drink several cups of coffee, lecture in front of the class, and then go back to his house. In The Town, Emilia Donner screeched damnation at just about everybody using a Bible she had found in the attic, tossed up there by a father who hadn’t bothered to go to church since his oldest son died. Here, Theresa could not count the number of religious and ethnic affiliations she saw every day in people and their signs, shops, churches, temples, mosques, shrines, and community centers.
On the main street, Theresa immediately found a small bookshop that looked appealing. Books were stacked high in the window displays, and a bell tinkled when she entered. A man sitting next to an antique cash register gave her a cursory, pleasant nod and then went back to reading the Río Flying Ledger. She slipped behind a bookshelf, her chair fitting with just millimeters to spare between the rows. Luckily, she saw an English language section not far away. She stared at the titles. Some were familiar. Some were not. She pulled down a copy of Oliver Twist and noted that the title page said “certified transcribed” on it. This was a fancy edition whose text had been independently written down by two people with perfect photographic memories who had read the book while on Earth.
But she wasn’t interested in Earth literature. She crept out from behind the bookshelf and asked the store owner, “Excuse me, can you recommend a good book in English that was written here?”
“A good book in English? Got something against Khaich?”
“No, sorry. I’m just not very good at it.”
“I hear you. You must be new here.” He got up from his chair to examine the English section.
“What kind of books do you like?”
“Nothing stupid and cute. Please.”
“Would that be a kid or an adult book?”
“Well, I want something kind of long, so maybe an adult book. But not too boring.”
“Do you like books about witches?”
“Low High Lorraine is a classic. You might like it. Some people think it’s a rip-off of The Mists of Avalon, but I haven’t read either book so I couldn’t say. Got a couple of Khaich copies too, if you want to compare side-by-side. I’ll let you have both for the price of one so you can learn more Khaich.”
“Okay. Thanks a lot.”
As she was leaving with the books, the man called after her, “Be careful on the crosswalk out there, young lady. Río drivers are crazy.”
At the counter of Larson’s Apothecary, a man stood watching his son do a dramatic reading of nasal decongestant ingredients.
“Phenyl…ephrine,” said the boy to his younger sister, who seemed more interested in the space between the shelf and the floor tiles. The man’s blue eyes smiled behind thick glasses. He glanced over the counter to where the pharmacist gathered prescriptions.
The customer was not particularly tall, and his ears were folded slightly by the cloth cap he wore to hide the thinning of his sandy brown hair. His stomach hung over a worn leather belt, and his corduroy pants made a brushing noise as he crossed his feet and leaned against the counter. He wore a gold wedding ring and a large, inexpensive analog watch.
“Here’s everything, sir.”
“Oh, good.” He pulled out his wallet and searched through various cards. “No, that one’s mine,” he muttered. “Here’s the correct one.”
He put the paper bag into his backpack as the pharmacist swiped the prescription allowance card and examined the list of authorized users.
After signing the receipt, the man said, “come on,” and took his daughter’s hand.
“Have a nice day, Mr. Donner.”
As they exited the pharmacy, the man noticed a disturbance down the street. There was a crowd of people filtering in between cars whose drivers had begun honking. The demonstrators chanted in rhythm, waved signs, hoisted banners up and over cars, and banged on every trash can they passed. As they came closer, their chanting became comprehensible as, “We remember Kurtz, we remember Jarillo, we remember raindrops.”
The man swore loudly, causing his children to giggle. He shook his head.
“Kids, it’s time to go home.”
“But you promised we’d go to the pet store after this,” said the boy.
“We can’t now. We’ll go see the animals when it’s safe.” He hurried his reluctant children down the sidewalk. Seconds later, two police cars arrived and double parked nearby. Several officers and dogs emerged and established a line. When the wave of protesters met the police line, the dogs barked ferociously and one of the officers informed the crowd that they were protesting in the capacity of a banned organization.
“We’re not safe?” the girl asked.
Her father replied, “We’ll stay safe together by going home. Excuse me, miss, I wouldn’t recommend going that way. That’s a Raindrops Resurrection protest. It could get really nasty.”
He had brushed the shoulder of a teenage girl in a wheelchair wandering toward the disturbance with a look of curiosity on her face.
“They’re a banned organization that’ve had some violent run-ins with the police lately. I wouldn’t chance it, honestly. You should go home.”
“Oh. My home is that way.” She pointed in the direction of the protesters.
“Why don’t you come along with me, then? You can stay the afternoon if you want.” He didn’t expect her to agree, since he was a stranger and most children knew not to follow strangers. But he had to try, given the danger down the street.
Theresa’s willingness to follow the man stemmed from two different sources. The first was that she had grown up in a very small town where advice was given in terms of specifics such as “don’t go into Mr. Decker’s house” rather than “don’t trust strangers.” The second reason was the fact that the idea of returning to Fiona’s apartment appealed to her even less. She didn’t have very much to lose by accepting an invitation from a man who looked friendly enough and had kids.
“This house is accessible,” she commented as the man unlocked the front door.
“Of course. You must be new here. Do you live in the Tenth District transition house?” It was precisely the topic Fiona had warned her not to discuss.
“You do have a family, then.”
“I understand. Sorry, I haven’t introduced myself. My name’s Gabe, and these are my kids, Dao and Oskar.”
A second man strode out from a doorway in the back of the living room.
“Hey, I wasn’t expecting you back for another hour or so.”
“There’s a confrontation with some R.R. supporters going on out there. Police cars, dogs… I thought it was time to come home.” Gabe dropped his backpack on the floor and drew closed the tall living room blinds.
“Yeah, good thing you came back. Who’s this?”
“I met her down in the shops. Thought it would be best if she came back here until the protest disperses. Her name’s…”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Jamie. Sorry, my hands are dirty right now or I’d shake.”
Theresa held up her grimy palms in response. The children settled down on the floor and started pushing blocks around noisily. Gabe threw his cap under a tottering, overburdened coat rack. Theresa got the sense that Jamie was staring at Fiona’s hat, so she followed Gabe’s lead and placed it at the base of the rack.
“Do you need to make a call?” Jamie asked. He indicated the phone with slimy fingers. “You really should let your parents know you’re safe.”
“Um…” said Theresa.
“Oh, are you still in transition?”
“No, but I don’t think they’re home.”
“Why don’t you give it a try anyway?”
Theresa leaned back and pulled her wallet out of her jeans pocket. She found the slip of paper with Fiona’s number on it. She hated to call, but it would look very strange if she didn’t try.
The phone rang and Fiona answered. Theresa said nothing. Fiona hung up.
“I got the answering machine,” Theresa said. “They never check the machine, so there wouldn’t be much point in me leaving a message.”
“Right. You can try again later if you want,” said Jamie. “Well, welcome to our house. Make yourself comfortable. I don’t know how long the trouble outside is going to go on, but you’re welcome to stay for dinner if you need to. Excuse me, I was chopping up chicken. I should get back to that.”
Theresa was left in the living room with the kids. It was a spacious house, but not a fancy one—typical, as Theresa had come to understand, of a world with a low population density but strict economic policies that made luxury a thing for only the truly wealthy. Additionally, any pretension of grandeur that a house like it could have had was hidden by scattered sheets of music all over the piano, stuffed bookshelves behind the couch, model airplanes hanging from the ceiling, and a pile of audiotapes in a corner by the front window. Theresa could hardly navigate the hardwood floor without squashing stuffed animals and crinkling paper. The house reminded Theresa of her own room, except that it was bigger and had exponentially more stuff filling it. The overall ambience was rather appealing; this place was a true home.
Jamie returned from his dinner preparations, wiping wet hands on his jeans.
“Would you like anything? I have some apple juice.”
“No, I’m ok.”
“Ok.” Jamie sat down on the couch and smiled slightly as he eyed Dao and Oskar, who were building a precarious tower of blocks. He was an extremely thin man with dark hair in a ponytail who wore small hoop earrings and a striped flannel shirt that was several sizes too big for him. He had deeply-set gray eyes around a sharp nose and a wide mouth full of jammed teeth. When his face twisted into any kind of expression, vertical lines appeared on his cheeks.
He yawned stiffly and used his middle finger to remove a small piece of crust from the corner of his eye. “Did Gabe introduce you to our kids?”
Our kids. “Yeah.”
“Good. I’m glad you came back here with him. It really isn’t safe out there right now. You sound new to Khaich. Do you speak English, by any chance?”
“Yeah. What’s so dangerous out there?”
Jamie switched to English and Theresa heard in his speech that he was American. “The Raindrops Resurrection was a hate group that was very active through World War II. They petered out after that, but they’ve seen a revival lately. I’m not up on their whole doctrine, but they’re either really far right or really far left. I’m not sure. They hate Winnie Alexander and free immigration at the same time. I don’t really understand it, but their encounters with the police have been pretty bloody in the past, so we steer clear of them.”
“That sounds pretty dangerous.”
“Yep. Some days I think Hearth is a great place, other days I’m not so sure. It’s not too bad, though. I’ve been here for a while.”
Gabe came downstairs.
“Did you get all the errands run?” Jamie asked him.
“Most of them. Your refills are upstairs.”
Seeing Gabe and Jamie together, Theresa was struck by the differences between the two men. Gabe was on the short side, and though he was overweight, everything about him seemed small and compact. The fingers of his pale hands were stubby, and when he opened his mouth, he gave the impression of still having his baby teeth. His thick glasses were hooked around diminutive pink ears. Gabe focused firm, gentle attention on whomever he spoke to, and he stood in a quiet, centered way. He was about fifty years old.
Jamie was significantly younger than Gabe. He was also taller and much slimmer, and he stood in a jittery, uncomfortable manner that suggested that a small touch might either knock him over or send him darting in an unpredictable direction. While Theresa had not seen a smile or frown from Gabe, Jamie had a much more open face. His emotions seemed to range between nuanced concern and a sly, intimidating grin. Jamie could have been attractive if not for orthodontic problems that by contrast made Gabe’s teeth seem too perfect to exist. Jamie had one upper incisor that might have been well-placed, but it was difficult to be sure because the one next to it protruded in front and overlapped the first by almost half its width. It was chipped on the corner. Jamie’s left canine was angled such that it rested on his lower lip when his mouth was closed. The surrounding teeth were delegated to various uneven rows in front and behind each other. Theresa was not surprised that Jamie had never had them fixed, because they looked as though they would be difficult—if not impossible—to correct with braces.
No one in the family appeared to be disabled, and so it struck Theresa as odd that the house was wheelchair accessible. Not only was the front door at ground level, but the two floors were connected by a long ramp that wrapped around the back of the building. All of the doors and faucets had lever-style rather than round knobs.
Later, Theresa sat at the kitchen table sorting blueberries while Jamie checked the chicken in the oven and collected salad ingredients. With his long arms, he could have reached anywhere, but Theresa observed that most of the cabinets were low enough for her to open.
“Does someone here use a wheelchair?” she asked. “Everything’s so accessible.”
“It’s all building code,” Jamie replied.
“You mean it’s just there?”
“Yeah. The regulations come from the Pandora Children themselves.” He chuckled. “And who are we to argue with Lady Death and her siblings? Basically, since the death process doesn’t filter anything but deadly airborne contagions and the condition that directly killed a person, the Children feel responsible for taking care of Hearth residents with disabilities. Golden Province requirements are actually the strictest on the planet—in building codes and socialized health care policies—so you’ll see a lot of disabled people here, taking advantage of that.” There seemed to be a sardonic undercurrent to everything Jamie said, but it was so benign and pervasive that it conveyed no particular intent on its own. He spoke briskly and with a hint of extra effort in his enunciation due to his teeth, not quite rushing but certainly eager to reach the numerous breathing pauses he allowed himself.
“So, how’d you die?” he asked. Theresa was a bit taken aback by the conversational attitude of his question, but she had heard that line of small talk before since arriving in Hearth.
“Oh, not fun.”
“What about you?”
“It was an accident involving farm equipment.”
“You grew up on a farm?”
Jamie switched off the sink’s water heater. “No, actually. It was the middle of Montana, but my father was a doctor. I was just being a stupid teenager and got myself killed.”
“Hey, I’m from Montana, too!”
“Really? What part?”
“It’s a little tiny town called The Town.”
Her host leaned on the counter and laughed.
“I know it’s a stupid name,” continued Theresa. “It’s short for…”
Jamie turned around and gave her a piercing stare from keen gray eyes, one corner of his mouth creeping up over a crowded eyetooth.
“Theresa’s been telling me about herself,” said Jamie over dinner. “She speaks English, for one thing.”
“Oh. That makes everything easier,” said Gabe, switching over. He had an accent that Theresa couldn’t place. He grabbed Dao’s wrist gently to stop her from whacking her mug with a fork.
“Tell him where you’re from,” prompted Jamie.
“Montana.” Theresa was not about to repeat the name of her town. She already suspected it had been a mistake to mention it.
“Really? Did you know my husband’s from there, too?” Theresa picked up a trace of British Isles in the way Gabe inflected the question.
“Yeah, he told me.”
“Do you want to try calling your parents again after dinner?” Jamie asked.
“Ok,” Theresa said grudgingly. “I don’t know why you keep saying ‘parents,’ though.” The term unnerved her not only because she was alone in Hearth, but because she had only her mom and grandfather on Earth. She always felt like an outsider when people assumed she had a real family.
“Sorry, I guess it’s a little late to start thinking of your guardians as that. They will be worried about you, though, especially if they heard about the protest this afternoon.”
“Was that a knock?” Gabe asked.
“I thought I heard a knock on the door.”
Gabe went to peek through the portal. Jamie followed him. Through the kitchen doorway, Theresa heard Gabe say, “I’m not going to answer that. It’s Twyla Lawrence.”
Theresa threw down her fork and bolted for the bathroom, scattering living room papers as she sped behind the couch and bookshelves. The thin bathroom door was on a slider which wouldn’t lock, but she held the door shut with a strong hand. She heard a pounding on the front door.
“I guess we should answer it,” conceded Gabe.
“I’ll deal with her.”
“Jamie!” It was a familiar voice. “Have you seen Emile’s daughter? She’s been missing since around noon today. Fiona received a call from your number this afternoon, but no one was on the line.”
Was everyone in this city a Revolutionary Democrat? Theresa had run away from Fiona’s, and now it appeared that she had simply arrived at the house of more army members. She couldn’t believe it. There was no escape. Theresa was certain Jamie was going to turn her in to Twyla.
However, Jamie said, “I may have punched in the wrong quick dial by mistake and then hung up.”
“Didn’t Melissa take the Storm?” Gabe asked.
“No! Emile’s other daughter, Theresa. She’s thirteen years old, confined to a wheelchair. I’m not sure why.”
Theresa snarled silently.
“Oh, hmm,” said Jamie. “Theresa is in Hearth now?”
“Are you sure you haven’t seen her?” Twyla pressed.
“I’ll keep an eye out for her if you like. Now, we were having a nice dinner before you arrived, and I’d appreciate it if you let us get back to it.”
“Where did you get the hat?”
“The hat for Fiona’s gym.”
“Oh, um, I’m not sure. She must have left it here last time she came over. I should give that back to her, I guess.”
“I can take it to her.”
“Ok, if you want.”
“I’ll be watching your house very carefully.”
The tension at the front door seemed to escalate in an instant.
“You like threats?” snapped Jamie. “Here’s a few. If you don’t leave me and my family alone, I’ll call the police. First I’ll tell them that I’m being harassed at my door. Second, I’ll mention that you were at Lelkchenzitoar. They’d be very interested to know that.”
“Let her go,” said Gabe.
“Third, I’ll give them the addresses of every army facility I know of, including the conference house.”
“And incriminate yourself in the process? I doubt it.”
“I might if it meant taking you down with me.”
“You wouldn’t destroy everything you helped create.”
“I don’t have to. You did that the minute Emile died.”
Jamie slammed the door. He locked the doorknob, the deadbolt, and the chain. Theresa didn’t come out of the bathroom. She heard Gabe’s voice outside the door.
“Did you know she was Emile’s daughter?”
“I was waiting for her to say something first. I didn’t want to press her if she was intimidated by the army.”
“Why didn’t you tell her I was here?” Theresa squeaked.
Jamie said, “We were in the army until your father died. But we don’t agree with what they’ve been doing since then, so we left. Personally, my loyalty was more to Emile than anyone else because I knew him in The Town.”
“You’re from The Town?”
“Wait… are you Jamie Bishop-Donner?”
“Wow. I’ve heard of you. You died a month before I was born.” Theresa was too old to still believe the gruesome urban legends surrounding Jamie’s 1976 death, but every child in The Town knew his name.
She said, “I was really scared you were going to turn me in to Twyla.”
“Don’t worry. Do you have guardians here at all?”
“No, Link brought me here about three weeks ago, the night of the Storm.”
“Oh, you must not… even be dead then?”
“Like Emile,” said Gabe.
Theresa slid the bathroom door open and stared at him.
“What do you mean he’s not dead?”
“Sorry. He is now. He wasn’t when he arrived in Hearth.” Gabe freed a corner of his shirt and wiped his glasses with it. His eyes, soft in gaze beneath delicate lashes, turned outward slightly in the absence of the heavy lenses. “Link brought him here, too.”
“Yep,” said Jamie. There was a clatter in the kitchen. Gabe pushed his glasses back on and slipped away to check on the kids, tucking his shirt in hastily as he stepped over a pile of construction set pieces.
“How did my dad die? Here, I mean.”
“He was shot.”
Jamie pulled a crate of papers off a shelf next to the ramp that went upstairs.
“There’s some interesting stuff in here. I think I have Melissa’s ID, for example.” After much finger licking and rummaging through folders, he held up a small tan booklet.
“Can I see? Wow.” She hadn’t seen a new picture of her sister in six years.
Then Jamie found a particular sheet of paper. It read:
You have been a good friend to me, and I trust you with my secrets. I’m going on a very dangerous mission to consult with Agent Paisley, and though we must have an update from the agent, I am afraid for the security of my army in the event that I do not return. I have locked my passwords and the main member database behind an encryption with my DNA code as the key. Only Link has a copy of my sequence, and I trust that he will not let it fall into the wrong hands.
“This is the last letter he sent to anyone. Agent Paisley was your sister, who was working undercover in Winnie Alexander’s offices. Emile went into Abalone Bay to meet with her in a hotel, but one of the bellhops recognized him from a mug shot and called the police. They arrested him, and as they were leaving the hotel, a sniper shot him. I don’t know which province’s government did it. Right after that, Twyla took the army’s activities to a much bloodier level.”
Theresa shuddered. “I didn’t help them.”
“Good. What did they want from you?”
“Figures. But if Emile encrypted those files so heavily, then it’s not Twyla’s right to have them, and she’s a fool to think your DNA would crack the code.” Jamie yanked the tie out of his hair, shook his head, and then redid his ponytail. “DNA is huge and even father and biological daughter only match partway.”
“Then why would Link have brought me here? The note even says that he has a copy of my dad’s code.”
“He’s trying to pull you into all of that.”
“All of what?”
Jamie sighed. “In addition to the army, your dad was involved in a project with Link. I don’t know the details, but that’s why he was brought to Hearth in the first place. I think Link’s trying to drag you into that now.”
Theresa was trembling slightly, and she had her index fingers in her mouth.
“You must have been through a lot recently. Would you like a hug?”
She started to shake her head, but he knelt down in front of her, and she was surprised. This close, she saw clarity and not shadow in his intense eyes. Freckles and chicken pox scars softened the contours of his sharp cheekbones, and his teeth made for a rather endearing smile.
Jamie leaned over the side of her push rim and put his arms around her shoulders. Theresa noticed he was a noisy breather. She thought she ought to feel funny hugging a stranger, but Jamie’s confidence and kindness set her at ease. He said, “You’re safe here. We won’t let them find you. They don’t need your help at all.”