****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ******
There was danger.
The moonlight ran like tracks down the wall, spread in straight lines from the blinds. At the doorway, Frances could see that all of Med-Cab’s office was like that: organized, split. Hundreds of syringes of all ages, makes, and sizes draped like hanged men from the walls. Where had Med-Cab gotten them all? The needles jingled when someone walked overhead, becoming the bizarre children of a tool rack and a wind chime. Why were things gray and blue in the dark? Shouldn’t the color stay the same? Maybe not. The syringes glittered and jittered like cold insects, watching. To young Frances Waters, they were a lot of things.
The room seemed to shiver with her yawn, even though she tried very hard to catch it in her hands.
It was late and far, far past her bedtime. The office itself, now that she and the curie were past the door, had the kind of coziness that was only summoned in closets and cedar chests. Where was all the room? A desk and two shelves managed to cohabitate here by bare inches, and she edged in between them with no breath inside her as the curie moved her further into the room. Dark woolen cloth had been spread across all surfaces at clean right angles. Did Med-Cab live here? She always seemed to be here, but there was no bed, only two normal chairs and one that tantalizingly appeared to be a rocker. Did Med-Cab ever sleep? If anyone didn’t sleep, it was her.
“Sit down, Frances,” Med-Cab, the old doctor, said. She did, but why? Why did people sit sometimes but not others? When she asked about why people did things, they just spoke loud and told her to stop. Now the young girl craned to see the two adults beyond the desk edge. Why should she sit if she could hardly see them? Maybe they don’t want me to see them. She was dressed unremarkably, as were they. “Marie?” Med prompted, her voice slow and deep.
Curie Barlow shook her head. There was danger.
Med-Cab seemed all the more skeletal in her armor tonight, and, as always, much more intimidating looking than the Marie Barlow could ever be. The Curie was all curves under soft yellow hair, yellow like the painted ceiling fan above (they lit a candle), or the walls, or the whites of Sam’s eyes. The two women didn’t act that differently, though.
And really, Barlow called the shots.
Wide-eyed and blank-faced, the Frances shuffled her feet beneath her chair. She wasn’t tall enough to reach the floorboards, so there wasn’t any noise to it. It was hard to pull her eyes away from the few strands of hair in the corners of everything, or how the shadows were crushed by the feet of those who bore them, or the way ceilings came just short of untouched.
The floor could be ground. The adults shared looks she did not notice. What if everything was real? She didn’t really know what she’d do differently, though.
“You wanted to handle it,” Barlow muttered, fiddling at the lamp. There was danger.
But tiredness dug at the insides of her face, and those thoughts were more than enough for tonight. She just wanted to go to her blankets.
Barlow crossed her arms under her chest and looked jagged, somehow. The lamp apparently was not in the stars. There was danger.
“Here,” Med-Cab said. The doctor craned over her desk, looking inky in the candle-skewed darkness, her hair fuzzy rings the size of nails. After a few clicks and patches of heat, the room distractingly shifted from cool to warm colors. All of the mysterious sparkles of reflected light vanished, and Frances blinked painfully.
At her desk, Med-Cab folded one hand around something black and squeezable, while Marie Barlow wrapped a leg around the corner of her desk. The curie’s hands held her flowered skirt too much, even after she hoisted herself up safely. They had owl faces, faces without moving anything. It would make sense, but--
“Frances,” said the doctor, taking all her attention. “Tell me where you were.”
Frances stared. It took her a while to realize what was meant by that. After a long moment, but right before Barlow opened her mouth, she began talking.
“The backmires,” the child stated. “The one with all the spaces in the trees.”
No movement. Med-Cab never moved much if she didn’t have to—not her face, not her body, not her mouth. The light in the cramped office with the syringes hanging like hanged men and the nice dark cloth on the chairs was still not very bright, and Frances wrapped her arms around her back. It wasn't enough.
“Who was with you?”
“Annely took us.”
“Who was us?”
“Oh. Uh…” Frances looked down in apology and tried to put names to the figures who didn’t matter. “Sam, Eln, Sea, the Erika Twins. Hesus came. He joined another group.”
“What happened in the backmires?”
She began speaking quietly, trying to communicate the situation. Somehow, she knew, it was very important she do so. The room almost shook with the importance of this moment, and yet the syringes on the wall listened with their hollow glass ears, very quiet, very still.
“Sea and the Erikas found a lot of shamblers. We were near the deep swamp and they came out of the water and they were all under water so we couldn’t see them. Annely took us to the backmires to find scrap because there wasn’t any in the Shells or Oldtown and Hesus left. She said it’s been too long since we had a flood. So she took us to the backmires and shamblers were caught under—”
“Did the shamblers get Sam?”
Barlow answered before she could, saying, “We need to talk about what we’re going to do about her.” There was danger. Frances moved her feet in discomfort, still an inch from the ground. Discomfort made its home in her clothes.
“Give it time,” the doctor responded, and Barlow looked at her. “It matters, Marie.” The look subsided, somewhat, but Frances saw the tight ropes of muscle under Barlow’s skin. The curie, Frances realized, was furious. She was stiff and talked loudly, as if trying to beat the dark back with her voice. The girl’s ears seemed to hurt in retrospect, and there was danger.
Annely said to apologize when people were mad.
“I’m sorry,” the child announced clearly, matching her eyes to Med-Cab the way she had been told. The doctor shook her head. Barlow outright laughed. It wasn’t a happy laugh, and Frances felt a fluttery pressure begin to build in her ribs.
“Did the shamblers get Sam?” Med-Cab repeated.
This was her home. Everywhere else would kill her. What happened when people died? The pressure grew.
“No.” The little girl shook her head, too, so Med-Cab was sure. “Two of them ran fast. And they knocked Erika over—”
“Yeah. And they knocked Erika over, but she just twisted her ankle and got some cuts so she was alright. We ran away, but lot zed had got stuck in backmire fence and they heard us and they came too. Annely and Sea tried to make a path.”
“What does this have to do with Sam?”
“He found something he said was his mom’s and he wouldn’t leave. He kept trying to get it out of the roots. So I killed him with my knife and Eln was mad.” Wait. Something was worse. “My knife got stuck in his head…” If zed came again…
Her hands could feel the roughness of the chair cloth very sharply. She had to be able to take care of herself.
“How sad,” Barlow said. What was wrong with the curie’s voice? Why was everything shifting? Frances looked at her in confusion, and she started to feel like she was cold. Barlow’s eyes were a warm kind of honey brown, pretty with her soft blond lashes, but something was wrong. There was danger. Could she leave? She shook her head. No, Med-Cab would yell at her.
“You what?” Med-Cab asked quietly. Frances suddenly realized something was wrong in both of them. Bad. Jagged edges stuck out of their movements, even though they didn’t move enough. “Why?”
“I don’t give a shit right now~,” Barlow noted. “Her father was insane, and this is what happens. You know what? He’s still alive, isn’t he?”
Med-Cab caught her drift—Frances struggled to internalize the sudden change of topic and breathe at the same time. The reaction was visceral. It always was when when they talked about that thing. Blank-faced and wide-eyed, hide, hide, hide. To watch until the threat got tired. Make it go away. I could, if I was careful. She remembered the red-faced boy with the curly yellow hair, and she was suddenly certain he had hidden long ago.
“I liked Bern,” the doctor said. “He was a loveable idiot. Class clown. He can’t take care of anything now.”
And there was something burning in her pressure. Because she shouldn’t have to hide. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She disliked, disliked so much, when people mentioned the dragging, crying thing from her nightmares. A father.
“Bern was fine when he wasn’t a melodramatic villainous nutcase, but you know that was at least half the time. He had issues, Med."
"Dangerous issues, and--."
“And she’s mine. She's young, yet.”
“I don’t know that she should be yours.” Barlow sighed. “I’m sorry. We’re guided by Savannah in all that we do—the fittest survive. I’m not fucking dealing with this. You don’t get okay kids who murder someone at five years old and don’t give a shit about it. You just don’t. Right now, I’m looking at a girl with her father’s freckles, probably the worst of his mental issues, and—Light of Darwin—in a few years, maybe his psionics too. Worthless.”
Frances felt as though someone had thrown hot water in her face. A sound left her that had no meaning. It came from that place behind her head, drawn into her lungs. Somewhere in her lungs it left, as the corners of her eyes went cold with tears. The heat stained the inside of her ribcage and her shoulders tightened until she felt like all the strings inside her would all snap.
She didn’t speak, and the women didn’t notice.
“If that’s all true, may be she’s the fittest to survive,” Med-Cab said with a dark laugh, ignoring the rest. Annoyance flickered across Barlow’s face, but it was followed by something pained. She spoke slowly in her natural cadence, a priest and leader of man, keeping her gaze on the commander.
“Sometimes, Med, people go wrong... Look at me. Sometimes they’re born wrong. Savannah has shown us the way. We lived because we gathered, all of those deserving. We live together or not at all.”
“Everyone has to sleep.”
“Right, exactly. It’s the only way to stand up to a horde—It’s the only way to stand. I said look at me, and answer me honestly, because for fuck’s sake you’re going to have more dead kids if you answer this wrong. We live together or not at all. Do you think she’ll ever be able to do that?”
Frances’ eyes followed them as they spoke and as the silence settled. She didn’t feel like she was here anymore. Fear rang in tremor bells, and she took a small corner of the wooly desk blanket in between two fingers like a safe hand. Maybe his psionics too. Visceral. She wanted to pull away from those words the way she pulled away from the rotted deer in the water, the one with flies pouring from its mouth. Why wasn’t anyone talking? Everything shifted around her, and she just wanted to go to her blankets and sleep. Looking at the way their clothing moved when they moved was enough to make her want to throw up, and she couldn't ignore the sickness in them.
Med-Cab did not answer.
“I’m calling rank on you,” Barlow said. “You care, that's good. But you have enough to take care of. You never sleep anymore. You've taken on too much, and you're not seeing a lost cause. I’m pulling her into the water and letting the grave mind decide if she’s fit to survive. You don’t even have to see it.”
She watched that heart-shaped face condemn her, watched Barlow’s sores stretch over her exposed cheekbone as she frowned in the dimness. Why was everyone standing? Should she stand too? There was danger.
“You in the Civil Corps building, curie. I make my calls on my soldiers.”
Why was no one talking? Were they all thinking that hard? Finally, Barlow grasped the desk with one hand as though trying to keep it from escaping.
“You’re really not going to let this happen,” the curie said, shaking her head. “Alright. Alright, fine. I’m not going to excommunicate you, Med, but I am not happy about this.”
“That's okay. Thank you,” the doctor said. There was nothing weird in Med-Cab’s voice then. It seemed small, almost, which was weird for Med-Cab. For whatever reason, that sign of weakness seemed to make Barlow relax, and the curie grimaced. The room seemed to breathe for the first time. She let go of the desk and looked away toward her bags.
“...I thought you didn’t want kids,” Marie said, gathering up her armor for the long walk back to the home of the faithful. A painting of different types of stitches behind her made it look as though she were swimming with a bunch of fuzzy red and black centipedes.
“Does it look I’m raising kids?” Med-Cab asked. The doctor shook her head, disappearing for a moment as her eyes shifted. “You can go on, now, curie. I have to handle the rest of this. Smiles? Still listening?”
Frances bristled, staring at her savior intently. There was no point in saying how much she disliked the name. When the doctor spoke again, it was low and harsh, the words grating into her head.
“You don’t decide what to do in group. You don’t decide who to keep and who to kill. Ain’t your job. Most commanders would kill you or send you out for what you did. How is it? You want to be dead? Back with your dad? On the streets?”
Frances stared at her, thinking no, I don’t want to be dead. I don’t want to be a zombie. I don’t want to be with the man who bleeds from his head and his eyes and his ears even when he don’t. I don’t want to be a psion. I don’t want to be dead. She glanced at Barlow blankly, trying to piece together the woman's face. First rule: You don’t live without a group.
The priest seemed to have had enough, commenting dryly, “Med, I feel it’s a late abortion when the kid doesn’t even have the common sense to be afraid during a murder trial.” The doctor ignored it, not looking away.
“Answer me, Frances.”
The child blinked and flushed. They wanted her to reply. To do so, she shook her head. No, she didn’t want those things. What did Med-Cab want in asking? Some things must want to be dead. Every crack in the wood, in the walls, in the frames of things, could hide those dangerous things that didn't care if they lived or died, and she accepted them as part of the world she was trying to know. I don't want to die. Try and take me.
Barlow wrenched the door open; the swollen wood always screeched against the floorboards, and Frances cringed back into the wooden chair as far as she could go at the sound. The curie pushed her heavy hair out of her armor strap and looked back, not noticing. There was no danger, now.
“I’m going to go talk to Annely so you have time to get some rest,” she said, “She was the Watch Parent, right? What about Sea? Him too?”
Med-Cab had settled down into her chair again.
“He’s eleven. Still has another year to go, and with Sea I might give him two. He ain’t ready. Better if he replaces Annely when she turns eighteen.”
“Barlow? Make sure you’re honest with them. Friends die. Family dies. It won’t be the last time it happens, even if Smiles learns how to act.”
“Parent of the year, Med.” Barlow paused at the door, angry and awkward and full of words she couldn’t say, but the doctor held up a hand from its place on the desk.
The doctor touched her nose in a deadpan way, saying, “You’d prefer if I didn’t come home tonight.” If anything, the curie seemed relieved by the statement.
“I’m fucking pissed. Just give me some space. Dinner… tomorrow?”
“We’ll work it out.”
As Barlow departed with another earshattering screech of wood, the doctor picked a willow switch from the corner bin. (There were several there, which always had confused her. It’s not like Med-Cab would ever use more than one at once. Would she? …or maybe, maybe if one broke?) The girl closed her eyes and room became black, even with the lamp.
Things people don't like:
Insides on outside
Outsides on inside
“Why am I going to whip you?” the voice asked outside her self-imposed darkness.
“I made Sam die,” Frances whispered, and the candle went out in the corner, unnoticed by all of them.
“What was wrong with it?”
“I should have asked Annely first.”
She thought she heard Med-Cab mutter something. Something about time? “Good enough. Frances Waters, you’re relieved from all duties tomorrow.” Frances allowed the room back into her eyes. “Won’t be able to move.”
****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ******
Long time ago, thought I was surrounded
By the symptoms of a grave-borne illness I didn't share.
Headsick, rotbrained, them all.
Even then, I was wrong. I am a watcher.
Largely asymptomatic. Not immune.