“She is thinking. Looking at my outstretched hand, half the palm twisted upwards by disease that has ruined my family. Is ruining. Has ruined. I don’t know. She is thinking, I presume, about the power she holds over me. The power I gave her over me.”
Finally. After three years of being the only one free, finally. She seems willing. How willing, though, is what I am going to test right now.
“Do you trust me?” I start, like I’ve started with the other twenty.
“No. But I trust that you like me. And I trust that you would be a valuable friend, and a terrifying enemy. So, if you are asking a favor, yes, I trust you to not stab me in the back.”
She is the tenth to understand the question.
“Do you trust, in any way, that I would never break the law?”
“At all? No. But more than you needed to? Never.”
Perfect. Should I show her now? No. She would be scared, more than she should be. But I must ask her. I am the only one left to ask her. We need to. I need to. My hand comes out of my pocket, slowly. She has never seen it for more than a second, but now I purposely slow my movements. Purposely letting her see the red blisters covering the sides of my twisted hand.
“You have one of the last few cures.”
She does not balk, but watches, transfixed by my hand. The one that has thrown so many knives now that I cannot remember who they hit.
She doesn’t back down. Stubborn. Like I am. Was. Am. I don’t know. She is confused by my pause.
“What of it?”
“You could take it, become more powerful than me. You could take my knives and rule the streets that I have taken. You could let me become just another victim of the plague. Or you could give it to me, and we could be unstoppable.”
Her fingers, in her left pocket, touch the syringe. She is thinking. Looking at my outstretched hand, half the palm twisted upwards by disease that has ruined my family. Is ruining. Has ruined. I don’t know. She is thinking, I presume, about the power she holds over me. The power I gave her over me. She takes it out. Looks at the drug that reminds me of red mercury liquid in its steel and glass package. She injects my hand. The pain starts to dissipate.
I need to know. What power does she want from me that is greater than ruling the streets of this metropolis’ underground?
“You are a formidable enemy now. Not only could you have killed me in seconds WITHOUT the cure, you could have then gotten it from someone else. I trust you as a partner, but the moment that ends, I do not trust you as a friend.”
She’s learned me well in these two weeks.
The room we share is in disrepair. I bought it from an underground retailer, like she did her home. But her home is dead. Mine isn’t. I’m not sure why she didn’t get the cure herself. She doesn’t seem the kind to want an ally in this cruel line of work. She seems like the one that sleeps only when surrounded by barbed wire. We are polar opposites in style, also. She is one to throw, hitting every one of her targets in the back of the neck as if she were mere inches away. I am one for poison and venom. Both are silent, but neither of our styles gives off a scream. She is in her head, never seeing anything but possibilities and traps. I am the one that is able to figure out how to get out of any of these traps. I am the one that will walk right into one to create chaos. She is the sniper, I am the liar. Maybe that’s why she wanted to work with me. I wouldn’t know.
One thing that I’ve gathered from her stance is that she has siblings. You can always tell when somebody has siblings by the way they stand, trying to take up room so that the other people can’t. Some call me obsessive over details. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessive, just overtly aware. I know to duck when somebody is throwing a knife. That is survival, not obsession. There is a difference for me. Sometimes, when she thinks I’m not listening, she’ll speak strange sounds, like another language. Just below a whisper, so I wouldn’t normally be able to hear. Almost the way you would expect a rock to speak, grating, harsh, and clipped, but then morphing into water’s speak, soft, lulling, and continuous. Like she’s speaking to the entire earth, except that it ends as suddenly as it began.
She notices me in the room. She notices everything in the room: the window, the walls, the two beds, the old rotting bookcase in the corner of our one room apartment, and the sky outside the window. She looks at it as if she has never seen the sun, and is blinded by its beauty. She speaks with a serpentine accent, almost as if she is stuck on the s’s of the English language. She takes breaths between letters in words. Like she’s from somewhere else, somewhere where nobody has been before.
It’s one o’clock when we get home. Neither of us seems to be tired. Me noticing, her thinking. Her eyes, large on her face, her hair, short, cut so that it is almost like feathers, mottled and brown. But one cannot describe her as owlish. She seems to be trying to portray herself that way, but nobody would think of it. Once every so often, she looks directly at me. Looks directly into me, that’s what it feels like. We are both sitting cross legged on our beds. She is next to the wall, I the window. Her body is never completely still: a finger tapping, a bang being brushed away, a leg bouncing, as though if she stilled she would die. We have both given up pretending to sleep.
I check my watch. Half an hour has passed. She gets up to explore the other parts of the room, looking behind the curtains that serve as walls, the only thing that makes it count as a three room apartment. Her head is constantly cocked to the right. She rolls it occasionally, for no apparent reason. It is late. I will pretend to sleep some more. I rarely actually sleep. I wouldn’t want to miss something that might mean the difference between life and death. However, one can close their eyes and keep watch as effectively. I close my eyes and curl up, my feet against my edge of the wall, both my ears listening for every sound. The vibrations from the wall show she’s done with her inspection, and is heading back. She sees me, and lays in her bed. Her back is to the wall. I hear her rustle a bit, then lay. I continue to pretend to sleep. She sits up and looks at me. She waits a moment. She calls my name softly. I don’t respond. She hesitates, but then she begins to speak in the other language. It is a string of unintelligible sounds. I pick out something confusing from the jumble of sounds.
“Ane cuegra, sepafe popere- Sevaa’adu.”
That word – it wasn’t a word. I puzzle over it till dawn. The word she said, it was almost exactly her name.
I know that tomorrow I must fulfill my promise to my family. How I will do this, I don’t know. I can tell that Firna does not trust me. She was awake when I said my prayers last night. She shifted at one of the parts that I added. I hope she did not understand it. The night was long, but the morning is peaceful. When I woke she was almost asleep. She is too scared to sleep. That I can tell. Always ready to flee, like an animal that fears it is being hunted. It is ten past 7 a.m. on her watch when I am woken by the light.
The sun was shining a brilliant saffron when it rose and slowly developed to white. Firna doesn’t notice this. She doesn’t wake, and I don’t wake her. I find dry water jugs and empty paper bags in the cabinet of what she calls “the kitchen,” but is more of a section of wall with cabinets and a rice boiler that is half broken. There are also three dented teapots. The first is labeled P, the second V, the third T. She is suddenly standing beside me, picking up the pot labeled T, dumping oatmeal and water in the boiler, and at the same time telling me that I should never drink out of the other two teapots. she busily fills the teapot, and stacks it on the boiler where the lid is supposed to go. She turns it on. Minutes pass, and the kettle shrieks. She jumps and turns off the boiler, takes the teapot off, and steam comes out of the boiler.
“Oat mush and tea made at the same time means less things to clean,” she explains. I don’t understand that logic, but I’ve never actually made food.
We eat in silence. She stares at me the entire time. I stare back. If either of us is disturbed by this, neither shows it. At some point, she stands. We walk down the over-crowded halls of the apartment building, ignoring the people around us. I am still puzzling over how to introduce my reasoning for the alliance, when she beats me to it.
I’m not even sure how she knows I’m going to say something about the people I came here with, but I’m not going to debate it now that the topic is up.
“She isn’t my sibling, but yes.”
“Whatever they are to you, you want them out.”
She seems to be reading my mind. How does she know this much about me? Does she speak the language? I try a test.
“You know this because of my people’s history?”
She doesn’t respond to my muttered question. She doesn’t know Quixeu.
“How do you know about me?”
“You don’t hide, Sevaa’ane. You don’t hide anything at all, not from me.”
I pretend to look dismayed, as if she might have found something important.
“Stop acting. I know you didn’t hide anything physical.”
So she reads people. That explains it.
“So what if I want them out? How does it benefit you?”
I am blunt, to take her guard down.
“No direct benefits of course, but you will be more willing to not kill me.”
She is smart. Doesn’t trust me worth a feather-weight. I wouldn’t trust me worth a featherweight either.
“You know where they are?”
I am asking, not for any real reason. I am curious. She is more a mystery to me than I will ever be to her.
“She would be where you were. Hospital on 56th?” So she can’t read everything about me. Just the obvious ticks.
“The prisoner hospital?”
“What makes you think I’m not a prisoner?”
“What makes me think you’re honorable enough to not kill me when I’m sleeping?”
“You didn’t sleep. Not last night. You listened to my prayers. Why?”
She looks at me, searching. I realize that I had reverted to speaking Quixeu. Shoot.
“I don’t know you well enough to know whether I should be scared of you, or laugh.”
Her response is both reassuring and terrifying.
“If you knew me, I would kill you.”
“I don’t know you?”
“You know Sevaa’ane.”
“I know that you are not Sevaa’ane.”
“I am. Just not how you might think.”
“And if I knew how you were Sevaa’ane, I would die.”
She understands some part of me now. I think. “Yes. If you know me, you die. But I don’t kill you.” She laughs now, throws her head back and laughs at my statement.
“A riddle to answer an answer. We are insane!”
“Do you think I’m a prisoner?”
“No. I think you are a girl.”
“I think you might have been, at some point. I don’t know, Sevaa’ane. Whoever you are, you probably got on somebody’s nerves, and they got you arrested.”
“If I was a prisoner?”
“You are not in jail now. You probably went to the prisoner’s hospital because the other one didn’t want foreigners.”
She has hit much too close to the truth for me to be comfortable. But no matter – she is helping me get my only true relation out of her cage. If she is letting me do this, I shouldn’t care how close to the truth she gets. But I do care. We aren’t going to go back. We shouldn’t have to go back. I realize I should say something to break the silence.
“For everything you have done with me. For everything we might do later. And I’m sorry if you never know my name.”
“You don’t need a true name to be a person. If I always call you Sevaa’ane, you will still be the same person.”
“We are insane.”
“Yes, we are.”
I look at Firna, so small, and yet so stubbornly strong. I like her. She is like I was. Am. I hope I am.
“Stop giving me the ‘older sister look’ and let’s just do this already!”
Yep. Exactly like I was.
The walk is short. Sevaa’ane seems lighter now. She’s probably been trying to get the cure for her family for years now. I don’t know if I’d hold out that long. I probably would. If my family wasn’t dead already, I mean. And if I wasn’t, you know, one of the only people with enough influence, power, and manipulation to own four cures. I don’t think anybody has enough hold over people to own five. Scratch that, I HOPE nobody has that kind of power. It is a short walk to the 78th street hospital/prison that has been here since before the plague. I think it’s the only non-profit hospital that has stayed relatively open. I can tell why just from the outside. The place is creepier than hell. Sevaa’ane walks to the gate. I have given her two of the syringes, under her coat. She smiles at me, and walks through the rusted metal bars. She looks back at me, a sly smile on her face.
“You gonna come, or do you want to wait?”
I shudder a bit, and she smiles brighter.
“It’s fine, I was joking. I wouldn’t force anybody in here.”
She goes up to the second set of doors, which are not only rusted, but thick and massive as well. She lugs one open, then has gone in without a glance back.
I lean on the chalky crumbling brick pillar by the gates. I know this might take a while, so I sit on the ground next to one. I pull out the notebook I bought and try to sketch a few of the pigeons on the sidewalk. Oh well, at least I have something to do.
The inside is just as I remembered it. I was alone in my “room” when I was here, but I know she won’t be. She’ll be with my dad. I bite my tongue as the smell of the place hits me again; rust and blood covered up by cleaning product is a hard smell to forget. Nobody is at the desk, but I sign in anyway. Only three people have come since my sister and I checked in eight years ago. One came two days before I checked out: my father. I search the walls for any indicator of where they might be. I know the plague quarantines are to the left-most hallway. But they should be healed by now, so I look past that one. The right-most is labeled “staff.” The middle hallway’s sign is tarred and graffitied over, but I as I trace my hand over it, I can feel engraved words spelling “recovery rooms.” I follow the painted over walls down to the doors. There are two, with the little windows hanging broken in the thick cement doors. Only now am I tall enough to look through them.
The first room is empty except for the remnants of a beer bottle. The second holds three huddled shadows, covered with blankets. I cautiously try the doorknob. It is unlocked. I open the door after quite a bit of effort and a few choice words. The first two shrouds have huddled towards each other, and it occurs to me that the smaller one is two children. The third person just sits, their back to the wall. I crouch down.
“Father?” I call, not in the language we were later forced to speak in, but the Quixeu we spoke in our house, when we cursed the bad TV and the metal springs in our beds. The first two shades draw back at the different-ness of my voice. Though I am cured, the rasp will never leave me, I suppose.
The third makes a slight noise in response. A groan? He speaks louder, again, looks up at me. I crouch down. The floor is covered with gravel and soot. It stains my fingers black, like his. He speaks, Quixeu like me. My father.
“Don’t call me that.”
“I thought you left.”
“I did. Where’s Derma. Where’s my cousin?”
“Why did you come back?”
“Where’s Derma? I came back for Derma.”
“I don’t know. How did you know I was here?”
“I didn’t come for you. You are beyond my compassion. Tell me where my cousin is.”
“She went to the other room. I don’t know. Please, Rosa…”
“There is no one in the other room. I came to get my cousin. Where is she?”
“Rosa, I didn’t mean to. I thought we would be better…”
“I came for Derma. Where is she?”
“She’s gone. I don’t know. The other room.”
“Let me explain why I did it! Let me explain to you what happened!”
“You are beyond my compassion. I’ll ask you one last time. Where is my cousin?”
“Gone. I don’t know. The other room.”
He points, his hands shaking with age and cold, to the door.
“I don’t understand.”
“She went into that room. They took her.”
They took her. But they couldn’t have. No. No, no, no. They would have taken Father, not Derma. Not Derma.
“I’m not. Rosa…”
“DON’T! I’m not Rosa anymore! I am not your daughter anymore!”
“You said it yourself.You said that night to choose my fate. I am not your Rosa anymore.”
I rock back on my heels.
“One last chance. One last chance to have me back. Tell me where Derma is.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
“You had a chance to ask? You had a chance to save her?”
“No, you don’t understand! You’re a child, Rosa…”
“DON’T CALL ME THAT!”
I stand. He looks up at me, pleading. I look back, and deny him.
“I’m so sorry. I did everything I could.”
“You did everything wrong.”
“We were safe.”
I wish I could feel any emotion other than hatred for this man. Honestly, I can’t anymore. Not since what happened.
“Are we safe now? Is everyone safe and sound and happy just like you thought we would be? Look at us! You’re locked freezing in a prison room, Derma’s gone, and I can’t muster enough compassion to get you out! Is that what you wanted?”
“I never said we would be happy. I only said we would be safe.”
“Safe. You injected me with the freaking PLAGUE for God’s sake! That’s SAFE?!”
“No. That’s necessity.”
“Screw you. I don’t know who you are, but you aren’t my father.”
I kick his arm against the wall. He moans, but makes no moves to stop me.The other bundles have scooted against the opposite wall. I can see they are scared. I slowly walk over to the bigger bundle, who I assume is the mother of the child in the smaller. A slight whimper escapes her. I take out the two cures from my bag. Place it at her feet. She looks at me, shocked. I smile slightly.
“For your family.”
She nods her head in gratitude, too confused to acknowledge it at the moment.
I open the door and walk out. In the freezing air, all I can think of are the words my father said, echoing in my skull like a rude taunt. Derma’s gone. That was necessity. Derma’s gone. Didn’t ask.
I sign out at the desk like I did eight years ago. I didn’t come out alone like I did eight years ago. But this time Firna is waiting for me. She sees me, and runs to embrace me. I gently shrug her off.
She doesn’t need any more explanation than that. We walk home in silence.
As soon as we get home, Sevaa’ane starts to speak. Without regard that I’m in the room, she rants, screams in the other language. After a second I hear that it doesn’t seem to be one language. But as soon as I start to recognize one language, she switches, sometimes halfway in between words. But soon it settles into a rhythm of sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard.
“M’paer, paer ro t’vie hermater. T’ete ah hermater ieh m’yoje. Derma, Derma m’hermater…”
She’s staring at the wall, sitting cross-legged now. Suddenly something clicks. Those words. They must be words. I write down the sounds.
M’hermater. Rebincaret. Paer. Wait. Paer. I know that word. I learned that word. Isn’t that…?
I duck from under her gaze. She blinks. I walk slowly backwards, making sure she’s still unaware of me. I run out. I know this language. Some of it at least. In some coffee shop, a high-end one, one pricey enough to still have working wifi. I download a translator for Quixeu. How did I not know that? Enable the microphones I installed in my bedroom. The rant slowly loads into a story that I didn’t know could exist.
On the translator in her phone
I remember you were smiling the night before, you can still smile can’t you, and you were laughing. I forget what you were laughing about. Was it something I said? Something we shared?
I’ve changed my name like you said we should. I said no, but now I get why you said that. It’s jarring at first, to have a number instead of a name. But I needed to. For you. I’m calling myself your number now. I remember that your birthday was one day after mine, the seventy-first day of the year. Mine was seventy, and you were always so jealous that I was only 293 days older than you and would get the duties of the older sibling.
Oh, Derma. Where are you now, what are you now?
I tried, tried to get you out of there.
I wish I knew what happened to you. No. Scratch that.
I wish I didn’t.
Rosa, March 15, 2186, Kingdom of Agayirhet, formerly known as Colony D53 in Bolivia
Father is standing next to our stepmother. She is smiling serenely, but Father looks straight ahead. Why won’t he acknowledge me, his only family now? What does he see in the crowd that is more interesting than his daughter in chains? I feel tears trying to pull themselves out of my eyes, but I dig my nails into my wrist to keep them from coming out. Derma is next to me. She can’t see that this is hopeless. Her hand reaches mine. She slips something into it. It is a knife. I look at her. She looks at me, and then nods to our stepmother. Why couldn’t our government turn out to be a republic? Why are we criminals? Father led the rebellion. Why are we dying? I look at the knife in my hand. Kill the Queen? Sure, why not. Only one more account of treason for my thirteen years of life.
I run through what could happen, and what we’ll need to do. Derma and I will get branded. After that, we will be taken to the jail. But before we are branded, I will kill Stepmother, and Derma will get Father. After we escape we will catch the illegal train in half an hour, and hide in one of the cars like the treacherous people we are. We will go from here to Nuevo Sucre, and from Nuevo Sucre to La Paz, and from La Paz to New York City. I can fight for a living, and Derma will forage the streets. Father will stay home, because he’ll be recognized as a rebel. We will go forth with the plan as if it wasn’t the most ridiculously flawed thing we ever imagined. We will get out. I stare daggers at the cameras that will televise a mandatory screening of our branding. They will see we are stronger. We will escape. I suppose you could call us rebels as well. But not by choice, really.
Stepmother is stepping up to the microphone so that she can announce the punishment. Father stands a few feet back from her, his eyes glazed over like they always are now. I still cannot believe he will not acknowledge us at all. Maybe he’s drugged? Maybe he just doesn’t care? I don’t really want to know. They reveal the torture table, and I crane my neck to see the burning steel shapes. But I don’t see any branding irons at all. All I see are syringes. What? I am not as good as Derma at speaking the new language that has been forced on us, but I see her pale. I squeeze her hand, trying to tell her that we’ll be alright. But her chains are yanked, and we are ripped apart. She screams. Screams my name, not in Quixeu that we usually speak, but in English.
She is dragged before the table, where she collapses and begins to sob at Father’s feet. He doesn’t look at her, acknowledge her. Stepmother calls serenely for Derma to choose something. I don’t understand. We were to be branded, me first and then Derma. What is happening? They unshackle her arms, and she sobs louder.
“Here, would it help you if your sister chose first?”
Stepmother cruelly chides her. Anger builds in me. How dare she condescend to her; How dare she insult Derma. I walk to the table. I refuse to be pulled. Derma tugs at the sleeve of my tunic, trying to tell me something without speech. I delay with her for a second, and an understanding passes between us. She will run, and I will fight.
Counting down the seconds until I can get a good shot with my knife, I walk steadily to the table. On it are three choices. A syringe with contents that look like the consistency of half-dried tar but is a metallic copper. The other syringe is blood-red and the consistency of mud. Next to the two of them is a loaded gun. I cannot tell what the syringes contain, but I know the gun means sure death. You cannot survive a shot to the head, but you can survive a disease. My hand wavers over the syringes.
Derma grabs at my shoulder, pulling me back before my hand can settle. She is doing something I didn’t think to do. As she cries, she talks, not to me but to the cameras that are focused on me. She talks in English, displaying the unfairness of our situation to every other person in Agayirhet. She begins to scream. As she thrashes, her hand barely brushes the copper syringe. A guard pulls her back and Father blankly injects the copper sludge into her arm in a matter of seconds. The moment it is finished, she stops crying, as if the tears were a faucet of water. Her eyes glaze over. Her back straightens. Her entire being shifts into a not- quite-human form. She stands stiff and still, saluting to Stepmother.
“There, that wasn’t that hard, was it, honey?”
As Stepmother leans in to taunt Derma, I take my chance and throw. It pierces her under the chin perfectly. She falls from the balcony, shrieking. I try to pull Derma away, but she doesn’t move. She continues to salute to the atrocious sight of the twisted woman tumbling from a height. Father stares blank-eyed. I try to get him to move, but he doesn’t. Both their eyes are like glass, seeing nothing in front of them.
“Derma, wake up! Come on, we have to get out of here! Derma! Father! Anyone!”
A guard shouts for me to be held back. Derma practically jumps into my arms, trying to pin me down. I suddenly realize what the syringe was: Soldier solution. I’ve heard people say how the wires take over your brain, killing you, but I didn’t think to believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. But Father, something breaks in him. He grabs the other syringe and forces it into my throwing hand. The pain is immediate. It is such a stark, harsh feeling that I almost collapse because of it. But I have to carry Derma.
So I grab the gun. It is loaded, and by the weight I would guess I have about ten shots. I carry Derma over one shoulder, point the gun with the other. I aim for the guard shouting orders. I miss and he ducks down. Father is chasing me through the streets towards the train. I can’t really jump, not with the weight of Derma and the near crippling feeling shooting through my body. The train is about to leave, just as I arrive. I toss Derma in first, and her leg hits hard, breaking. I wince. I didn’t mean to. Derma is trying to struggle up, trying to obey the orders to hold me still. Father is almost next to me as I haul myself in. The train begins to move before my legs are even fully in the car. Derma clutches me, her eyes blank. Father is clawing at the train-car behind mine, trying to reach me, to tell me something. I turn away. Clutching Derma so she doesn’t fall out of the car, I huddle into the straw that layers the floor.
The other people stare at me, their eyes processing the two strange girls holding onto each other, one with dead eyes, the other with a loaded gun. They are scared. I am not. I feel as dead as Derma looks. Holding the gun for dear life, I fall asleep. This is not how it was supposed to end. This is not how we are supposed to leave. This is not how… I am asleep and dreaming of injustice before we even get outside of Bolivia, and don’t wake until we’ve crossed the border to America.