What on earth was mine?
Our underground domicile’s concrete walls mapped with veins of mold and ice, the drip-drip-drip of dirty melt from the ceiling into four rusty pots, the gray shapes the water made when we flung it out against the frozen drifts. The pissy lemon tree I grew from seed that squeezed out one dumb lemon—no more, never more—every two years. Dad always made us eat it all, even the bitter peel. We kept a single seed from each lemon and traded the rest and felt a little bad about it, knowing from experience that they were mini-pissies and wouldn’t ever sprout. But you never could know for sure, Dad said, and anyway we needed the ration tickets.
The fire in the living room on months we weren’t conserving wood, the way the heat expanded inside you until you were sure you’d never felt more satisfied in your life. My two pelts, a short and a long, both sewn by Vee from the matted fur of the last bison Dad shot before the die-off. My leather boots. The strings I used to tie the ends of my paltry braids, one white, one red. The hand mirror in the plastic frame with smiling black-and-yellow blobs Dad called black-eyed Susans molded into its corners.
The glossy PlanetCorps brochures and applications and sundry additional paperwork, the application questions annotated by yours truly, all stacked up under a rotting book called The Secret in the wooden crate next to my mattress.
Three pairs of long woolen underthings. Six pairs of socks, three per day in the harshest months. Two holey woolen sweaters and two synthetics that Dad said must be more than 200 years old, trace remnants of embroidery spelling OLD N VY clinging to one of them. (Here comes Old Envy, Vee would always say when I wore it, rustling up in me a poisonous feeling of recognition. By all logic, it was Vee who should have envied me. I was the strong and brave one, the loud and shrewd one, the one who safeguarded our futures. And yet.)
The pictures of Mommy, shrunken already with the sickness by the time I was born. In my favorite, Mommy’s sitting in bed and smiling down at me (a thin, tall infant with the blank black eyes of a startled bat) and Vee (at two, a solemn beauty with a heart shaped face) on her lap.
We had in our possession six Mommy pictures: Two for Vee, one for Dad, and three for me. Because I am the baby, and everyone knows the baby is spoiled.
The day the ConstructCorps boys came back from Auxiliary 23, Vee was mixing wax in the smaller of our two pots on the Bunsen and Dad was outside blowtorching a layer of ice two feet thick from the outside of the underground domicile. This was the story of my young life circa 3076: Dad forever fighting the ice, my sister waging painful war against her facial hair. Everyone I loved hacking away at something wild and unsavory with weapons that were not up to the job.
It was obvious to me by then that there was no hope of winning. Because no kind of spring was expected to sufficiently melt the ice, and Vee’s follicles were unstoppable and unrelenting. But believing myself to be a good daughter and sister, I played along.
“Leora. Torture time.” Vee flashed the dull pearls of her teeth and beckoned, the scuffed red bowl cupped in her hands, the hot wax billowing steam. Her hair fell in shining black tangles around her shoulders and I could imagine someone wanting to wind it around his fingers, a ConstructCorps boy who was small and hirsute like her and who would overlook her shadowed face and see her pretty eyes, her softness. “You ready?” she said.
I grunted my assent and moved to the kitchen window to check on Dad, steeling myself for what was required. Out the melted center of the glass, the stand of fossilized spruce trunks shook in the bright morning freeze. Beside them was our papa in his black welder’s mask, blowtorching the ice wall with herky-jerky arms, his yak pelt dripping from the spray and flapping against the knobs of his knees. His legs in their holey woolens were thin enough now that whenever I focused on them, a certainty whooshed through me having to do with the gravesite he’d marked off with two metal poles next to Mommy’s.
I couldn’t see a future that didn’t involve me and Vee dying out here, either from starvation or from our lungs filling up, the sickness blooming in our cells.
This was when the thing in the sky announced itself. It spun across the blankness of the Forever Winter sky, the flame red as love.
A flare! My breath stopped. None of us tundra folk could cut a gash like that into the sky. Our town supply had run out years ago. Only the government had flares now. I looked for the source: A half-mile along on the plowed road that snaked through the low hills, a covered military truck idled. Uniformed boy bodies unloaded enormous packs. Their pointed green caps marked them as ours.
“They’re back,” I said. My fingers tingled with the immanence of our future rising up to claim us.
Twice monthly for the past few months, Vee and I’d been getting letters from PlanetCorps about our acceptance and how vital we were for the initial population of the Auxiliaries. The new planets were nearly done, the letters claimed. If ConstructCorps was back on earth, it had to mean the auxiliaries were ready for settlement. And if ConstructCorps was back, Dexter Delff would probably be among them.
Vee joined me, straining on tiptoe to see out the window. My tiny big sister’s head didn’t quite reach the top of my shoulders. She shuddered with a suppressed cough. “Looks like.”
“We’re next up. It’s our time.” I grabbed Vee’s shoulders and shook her until she wrenched herself away.
“Great.” She was a master un-enthusiast, my sister.
“23, 23, 23,” I whispered, removing the binoculars from Vee. I licked my fingers, crossed them, scrunched my face and implored the leaky ceiling. “Please let it be 23.”
I had just turned 14. I had the right to be dramatic.
Vee’s right eye twitched. “I’ll lay down,” was all she said. “Get the muslin.”
In my heart, exploding nukes of joy. Dexter Delff—assigned eight months ago to the Agriculture and Waterways Division of ConstructCorps, Auxiliary Planet 23—had returned before starting Phase 3 of the settlement. I could feel him here. In my heart, under my woolens, earthbound and throbbing with boy-ness. Phase 3 was Population Production. Had two weightier words ever been printed side by side in a brochure? I couldn’t imagine it.
Vee didn’t bother to clear our morning porridge bowls from the table before arranging herself prone on top of it. A thick tendril of her hair landed in the dregs of one of the bowls and I watched it absorb the porridge while I thought about tomorrow night, which was the first Tuesday of the month. First Tuesdays were town meeting nights in the warehouse behind the BP station where Crazy Bert lived.
Normally, the meetings were a boring chore me and Vee did in Dad’s place. But tomorrow, instead of the usual haggling over not enough tubers, the buying and selling of elk meat, the divvying up of government sacks of vitamin gel, the meeting would turn into a welcome-home party for our boys.
Crazy Bert had a brother high up in BluStat Governance. She might have word of what was coming next.
Vee wasn’t like me. She didn’t get excited about the PlanetCorps letters, not even the one embossed with the military seal announcing we’d received clearance. She didn’t like discussing our future on the Auxiliaries, beyond saying how suited I seemed to space life, which I suspected was just her way of calling me stupid.
In my defense: An optimistic outlook is not only patriotic, it is essential, said the brochures. Families will be in constant communication. Once the initial colonies are operational, older family members may be able to make the trip and join the settlements.
How many times had I recited these words to Vee before she snapped and said I’d believe anything I was told if it had a seal on it? Dozens, dozens.
I picked up the rubber spatula to begin the hair removal process, a violence so intimate we didn’t speak about it. I ran my fingertips over her fuzzy cheeks. I scooped the hot wax with the rubber spatula, blew on it, and spread it in small sections on Vee’s chin, pressing the muslin to her skin and yanking the hair away with incalculable precision and patience, like a military nurse during the wars. What would you do without me? I thought. Poor shadow girl, one and a half years older but eight inches shorter, too meek and cautious to survive alone? Who would wax my sister’s face, if not me? Who would ensure she’d find her place, her population production partner, the vital Blustat optimism it would take to survive?
I luxuriated in my own saintliness and marveled at the unfairness of hair. For all I wanted was more of it on my patchy scalp, but every hair in the world seemed to be located on the canvas of the pointy face before me on the table. Even her forehead had follicles that produced.
After I’d shaped her brows as best I could into two horizontal commas and de-furred her cheeks, a bad tug of muslin along her jawbone left a bleeding welt.
Her eyes watered but did not spill over. “You do it on purpose,” she hissed.
“I do not!” I said, wondering if maybe, unknowingly, I did.
“Well, you’re bad at it, then.”
Looking at the overall hamburger-meat effect on Vee’s tender skin, I remembered the strand of her hair laying in the porridge and removed it from the bowl. I dipped it in a water glass and tried to rinse it, but Vee only twisted away.
After, I filled a bowl with snow from outside and held some of it against the raw skin of her face, dabbing here and there with a moistened cloth at the bloody bits. “It’ll heal before the meeting,” I said, hoping it was true. “We’ll dress up. We’ll look pretty.”
“Did you see him?” she finally asked. Him meant Dexter. Our nearest neighbor. A boy we’d known our whole lives, and with whom I’d had a relationship of a romantic nature since age 11.
“Too far away to tell.” But the tingling in my groin didn’t lie. I knew he was among us.
We returned to the window and Vee stepped on a crate to see better. I stood behind her, my chest hammering. The truck had gone. The cadets had moved down the far-off snow bank and now walked in a perfect line in their military-issued snowshoes. It was impossible to tell who was who from here, but we agreed one of the taller, springier ones was probably Dexter.
“They’re really into the cadet thing,” Vee said.
“The observance of military order is crucial to the Auxiliary Settlements.” I recited from the BluStat Auxiliary Settlers Training Manual we’d been sent. Vee hadn’t even opened hers.
“You’ll be great up there.” Vee patted at her welt. “With your enthusiasm.”
I squinted, certain now that I could make out a flash of Dexter’s orange hair under his cap.
“There are so many positives. We have to embrace it. It’s silly not to.”
Also, we had no choice.
“I hope you love it up there. I hope your hair grows in.”
I shot my sister a look filled with hatred. The snow she’d pressed to her cheek had melted and now dripped, pink with her blood, down her arm. “I will, and it will.”
I didn’t like to talk about my bald patches. We all had our medical crosses to bear, with the crappy Forever Winter and stupid lack of vegetables and the endocrine disruptors in the water and the air. Endocrine disruptors will no longer be an issue on the New Planets, one brochure had said. Their air and water continually test at 99.6 percent purity.
But there had been so many brochures. Twelve, specifically. The information sometimes conflicted. Human molecular structures will be permanently altered by the accrued radiation from the journey to the Auxiliary planets. Many settlers, particularly female settlers, will not be able to endure the return trip to Earth, a recent one said.
Thinking about all of it, the radiation and the pumped-in oxygen and the water flown in from the science settlements on Mars, that sickening whoosh of Dad-related panic in my stomach returned.
Don’t bitch out now, I told myself. You need this. Because I couldn’t see a future that didn’t involve me and Vee dying out here, either from starvation or from our lungs filling up, the sickness blooming in our cells.
A short list of my father’s regrets:
Waiting too long to do everything, including but not limited to: having kids; taking my mother to the BluStat Army Base in the Cherry Hill Mall for treatment; moving South where the roadway jobs were, so that, by the time he was ready, the quarantine laws prevented it and then there wasn’t any more work left that paid currency. He took these regrets out on: the ice wall, working himself to the point of exhaustion, butchering meat in the smokehouse.
What have you learned from your elders? the Auxiliary Settlement applications asked. Never wait for anything. Do not delay. Take everything offered. I see an elk, I kill the elk. I watch its blood spray on the white snow. I do not hesitate.
I had filled out our PlanetCorps questionnaires in three drafts, spending weeks getting it right. I’d explained it all to Dad. Got him on my side.
Dad wanted what was best for us, but there was no best anymore. Just a dwindling supply of elk (following the bison die-off, the elk came down from Canada and survived on frozen oak and sycamore bark) and greenish potatoes like dusty turds that cost us dearly. Cost us more than we could spare for much longer. Also, Dad was probably dying and he did not want us to watch him die. I suspected me and Vee leaving Earth was his way to die in private.
“I’m feeling strong,” Dad’s voice bounced across the snow as I kneeled beside the cooling elk I’d shot after waxing Vee. In the stunned-open blue eye of the animal, I saw my head reflected, ringed by sky. “I told your sister to stay home. Let’s load it up.”
We worked wrenching the animal onto the sled. Dad fell over repeatedly each time his hands lost purchase on the flank. A few years ago, my papa could drag even a mature bison for miles all by himself. Now I worried my skinny elk could put him in bed for a week.
On the new planet, we would throw away our pelts forever and bask in uranium heat.
It was cold enough so grains of ice lodged in your eyes if you didn’t blink, but by the time we got the carcass most of the way on, my body was slicked with sweat. Dad stooped, grabbed a leg, and began to rope it down. His breath was labored.
“Supposed to go to up to 15 tomorrow,” I said, just to fill the air with something other than his wheezing.
Dad made a noise of ambivalence.
“I love 15, I can live with 15. It’ll feel like summer, practically.”
This was all it took for him talk about a long time ago, when there were two seasons. Old as he is—nearly 70—even he can’t remember when there used to be three.
“The heat back then,” he said as he roped the elk, his voice thick and cracking. His palsied lips trembled, the rim of his right eye was drooping and pink, seeping a white fluid. I made myself look, unflinching, for as long as I could manage it. He was my father and I wanted to remember all of him. “It was like a kiss.”
“Sounds pretty good,” I said. “Not that I would know much about either.” I leaned into the snow and lurched the sled forward a few feet. The carcass held and we began to drag it.
Then Dad launched into his usual rant about how it was unspeakably upsetting that we would never know the warmth of real sunlight, never understand seasons, never taste fish, and on and on. How it made him want to die, when he thought about it.
“Dad, you could not be more wrong,” I said. “I know sunlight. When the sun is out, sometimes I tip my face up and I can definitely feel it, like, touching me.”
“But that’s just it, Leora, that’s winter light. There’s no warmth there. You’re standing in the snow.” His palsy was pulling side of his mouth up and I began to worry I was letting him get too worked up.
“Okay, but heat is heat. Sun is sun, if you don’t know better.”
He grunted and went quiet. It was his way, not wanting to argue.
We had to rest a few minutes and when we started off again Dad was in front, bent over in a way that looked painful. He had the harder job, pressing deep footprints in the powder that I tried to step into. I pushed the splayed elk on the sled as he pulled and it was far too strenuous to speak.
The Auxiliary Planets with their uranium suns would be positively verdant, I told myself. Verdant: a word from another time, found by Vee in one of her moldy books from the crawlspace. On the new planet, we would throw away our pelts forever and bask in uranium heat. Electricity. Food. No more shooting our dinner. No more sprays of blood from the tops of elk heads onto the snow. No more dragging the carcass home, gutting it, the whole process taking hours, lasting well into the night. No more hanging the meat on hooks in the smokehouse, your stomach so empty and growling that your mouth watered and the scent of the meat made you half-crazy.
Were we Patriots? The applications wanted to know. Were we prepared to populate a future BluStat? The answers were easy: yes and of course.
It was all going to work out. I would procreate for the good of BluStat with Dexter Delff. I had never wavered on this detail. Vee would find a nice hirsute boy. We would succeed. Because we were Patriots, because we were fertile, and because we deserved it. When you try hard and believe in yourself, things always work out. That’s just logic.
Sweat stung my eyes as the house came into view. Dad was breathing hard. “You okay up there?” I called.
He didn’t turn around. Just kept on leaning hard against the wind, pulling the carcass with a strength I didn’t know how he still had. Some time later, he said something I didn’t catch. “You’re a good girl,” maybe.
The next afternoon, Dad ate two and half bites of elk stew with me standing there watching him, claimed to be “stuffed,” then took a pill and passed out in the rocking chair in the center of the living room with a thread of drool snaking from his open mouth to his pilled blue sweater.
With the sun sinking in the sky at 3:45, we sisters left for the party. I wore my festive red hat with the pompom on top and my cleanest woolens and my OLD N VY fleece over a crusty felt tube I’d turned into a skirt. Vee’s face was considerably de-puffed and I made her dress up, which for her was a button-down shirt of Dad’s with several rips in it and a rope around the center of her body like a belt.
Walking out into the ice-swirly air, I shivered with the anticipation of seeing Dexter Delff. This might be the last time I saw him until we met again in space. Assuming we would all be sent to Auxiliary Planet 23, which was the crapshoot upon which all my plans hinged.
Vee and me trudged through the snow along the road, our Bison pelts growing damp and gamey. I wondered if the Delffs might already be there. They lived down the road a half a mile. They were an unruly family of six and our closest neighbors. Dexter was the eldest son, and Mr. Delff had died of the sickness even before Mom, and Vera Delff was always calling Dexter “the man of the house.”
Dexter had a gummy smile, a funny way of bouncing on the balls of his feet when he walked, and thin, spasmodic limbs. Everyone said the uranium-powered sun construction had occasional glitches, and rumor had it that radiation had changed some of the boys. I hoped Dexter remained just as he always was. I wanted him to still be the weird tall boy with blood-red eye whites who sat and played stick-dollies with me for weeks in his chicken coop when I was ten (I still remember some of our scenarios: “Dad Dollie takes over the military, moves doll family to the mall,” “Dollie sisters weave blankets for the entire town out of their own hair and are appointed sister-Queens and given a thousand pieces of buttered bread,” “Dollie boy goes into the woods and brings back a magic rock that makes houses warm and tastes like maple syrup snow.”) To still be the boy who paid me two dollars to pull down my woolens in his chicken coop when I was eleven. When he’d left for PlanetCorps six months ago, he gave me a hug I still clung to. A hug that went under my shirt. I’ll be sure and make it a pretty planet for you, he’d said.
A military truck passed by. The men hooted. Tundra girls! We heard them shout. For that was what we were. Jersey Tundra girls. BluStat girls, formerly of the USA, if you want to go back that far, to when there were three seasons.
And there he was. In his pressed uniform and looking molecularly unchanged and not radioactive at all.
One of the soldiers tossed a beer can in front of us. It landed hard on a boulder and began to spray. I ran to it and lunged, pressing my mouth against the puncture and savoring the metallic, yeasty tang of the beer a moment before I passed it to Vee, who nodded her thanks.
“Are you excited?” I asked. I couldn’t stop myself. It was like I craved the disappointment. “You don’t seem it.”
Even through the snowfall I could see her eyes roll. “Just thinking about Dad.”
“Well, don’t. Tonight’s for celebrating.”
“Don’t ask me questions if you don’t want to hear my answers.” Her imperiousness of bearing and posture didn’t make her any less short, but it did make her a little scary and a lot annoying.
The BP station where Crazy Bert had her domicile came into view at the bottom of a low hill, and behind it the large metal warehouse, the closest thing the town had to a meeting hall. It looked like a little planet itself, all alone in the dark expanse of snow with light blazing from cracks in its boarded-over windows.
The PlanetCorps brochures, when they arrived, had pictures of ovular white buildings that were strangely shiny—all Auxiliary outpost centers are made from plant-based materials, they said. Behind them, fields of farmland. Fruit bulging on vines. “The windows are round!” I’d said to Vee, as if this proved what a good idea it was to sign up. “Maybe we can eat the walls,” I’d said.
“Or maybe they’ll just shoot us in the head when we get to the training facility,” Vee had shrugged. “I heard a rumor they were doing that.”
Another military truck passed by and sprayed snow on my legs.
“You just can’t ever be happy for us, even now,” I spat. “It’s sad. I’m sad for you, honestly.”
“How about just shutting up and being sad then?” Vee threw the beer can into the drifts. We did the rest of the walk on opposite sides of the road.
The fire in the meeting hall was made from young wood and smoked something awful. Still, it was warm inside. We took off our pelts and stood with twenty of our neighbors in our festive attire, everyone’s wet wool and body smells mingling with the fire and the roasting elk and the reek of the grain alcohol Mr. Wong made at home and was now passing out in metal cups.
I let myself imagine everyone looking at me when I took my pelt off, and I threw my shoulders back and actually twirled, right there in the dust. You had to take advantage of every ounce of possibility, was what I thought about it.
“Nobody’s looking, Leora.”
“Never said they were.” I glared in her direction but had no appetite for more bickering. Vee’s face looked pretty good by now. Not great with the scabs, but good enough. Many people in town were hirsute, it wasn’t like she was the only one. If Vee only knew how much time I’d devoted to her face problems, how difficult and expensive it was to procure the wax! But I’d been a good sister and kept all that to myself.
People around the fire were discussing the army roundup, which Crazy Bert claimed was immanent. “It’s happening, girls,” she hooted, goosing me with her arthritic fingers so that I jumped. “They mean to round up all of you for the new planets any day now. My asshole brother wrote, said the deadline was end of the month.”
“We are so excited,” I yelled because she was 90 percent deaf, stepping back because Crazy Bert had only one tooth in her mouth and it stank.
“Maybe it’ll be nice there. That’s what the asshole says,” Bert shouted back. “Something to do, right? They’ll feed you, at least.”
Vee nodded thoughtfully.
It was a lot to think about.
We were next to the fire sharing an elk kabob and drinking Mr. Wong’s grain alcohol when the atmosphere in the room changed. I looked to the door and through the smoke I saw Dexter’s cross-eyed littlest sister Winsome.
And behind her, the glint of military bars. A BluStat uniform. A group of the recently returned boys spilled into the meeting hall, all excitement and straight postures and arrogance, because they’d been to space and back again and were alive and fed and fit and wearing awesomely clean clothes.
And there he was. In his pressed uniform complete with triangular green cloth hat and looking molecularly unchanged and not radioactive at all. The reds of his eyes may have glowed a little. He smiled and did the heel-bounce thing he always did and his canines flashed in the firelight.
My hand shot up before I could help it. I sucked in my stomach and my ribcage filled with air, accentuating my bosom, or so I hoped. Over here, I thought. See this, Dexter. See me and my want of ravaging. And then he did. He waved back, kind of. Or swatted at the air. There was definite movement.
From across the room, I could almost see a glowing line connecting his eyes (glassy, pulsating with vitality) and mine (as small and raisin-colored as human eyes can be). What I’m trying to say is, the magic was still there for me.
He moved toward us and I had a feeling of inner shrieking, of utter mortification where all I could think was I should have taken pills. Then he was close enough so I could see they’d replaced his two missing lower teeth at the Cherry Hill Mall Cadet Training Facility. I wondered how much radiation he’d absorbed on the journey, what molecular structures in him were forever changed. Every part of me hummed with curiosity.
“Hi, Dexter.” It came out normal-ish. My mouth froze in a half-open smile/pained grimace.
“Leora. Violetta. You two still crazy?” Dexter looked at a spot directly to the right of where my face was but animated his expression as if we are making real eye contact, his eyebrows raised expectantly.
Vee cleared her throat next to me. “How was it up there?”
“Awesome,” Dexter lowered his gaze to her, something flickering around his mouth, an odd smile. “Hot. No winter up there, and so much to eat. Like, too much. You have to say to yourself, stop eating, Self. Because if you eat everything they have, you puke. You’ll love it.”
“We can’t wait,” I gushed, the grain alcohol and his nearness having loosened something in me. “Some nights we just stare up at them and sigh from the way the planets twinkle up there.”
“Leora can’t wait,” Vee corrected me. The smoke from the fire plumed out thickly and I was grateful, as I was sweating profusely under my festive cap since I did not dare to take it off and allow Dexter to view the giant white stripe of my scalp where my braids parted. “She’s memorized the brochure.”
Dexter nodded and seemed to be about to say something when a trickle of blood began to leak from his nose and I didn’t know if I should tell him, but then he kind of laughed and pawed at the blood so that it smeared.
“I need a drink,” he muttered and moved past us toward Mr. Wong’s cooler of hooch, his body listing diagonally, which the brochures said was a harmless symptom of radiation.
I walked outside with knives of pain twisting in my skull, knowing but not knowing.
The Auxiliary civilizations would be plant-based and bio-replicated, everything powered from the light of a uranium-powered sun they’d built. Synthetic quick-growth forests had already been planted to create oxygen. All they needed now were bodies to live and toil and set down roots there. And assuming the radiation didn’t foul up our reproductive organs, we’d obviously probably want to make some babies.
The brochures had made it seem like that part was optional.
After more drinking, a group of us went outside. The moon was impossibly huge and bright in the sky. Dexter pointed at one of the blinking blue stars. “That’s it,” he said. “Good old 23. We dug all these trenches on the farmland. Laid a bunch of road. Built sewers. All kinds of big-deal foundational stuff like that. Did I mention how warm it is? You girls are not gonna believe it.”
I looked up at 23 and tried to imagine farmland. From here, it was just a star with an on/off switch, a remote blue dot in the black bowl of the sky. It was impossible to think of it as any kind of a home, determined though I was. “It’s beautiful,” I lied. “Even from here. Don’t you love it, Vee?”
She shrugged. Her shoulders so slight, she’d blow away if the antigravity they pumped into the Auxiliaries ever malfunctioned. “I’ll love it when I know we’re on the list for it,” was all she said.
“Doubt it all you want.” Dexter did a hair-flipping chin move even though he had a buzzcut. His hat fell off, and he scooped it up and put it back on. “Deal’s a deal.”
A tiny part of me took in an imperceptible narrowing of Vee’s eyes. A new wave of color on her already-angry skin. But it was a small enough part that I ignored it.
My hands poured sweat. “Deal?”
“Don’t worry about it, Leora,” Vee smiled her best, realest smile. The one that said I was her most important person, and she was mine. “He just means you got what you wanted.”
I nodded, confused. What did I want? And what did Vee want?
We went back in and the party rolled on and on and on. The alcohol sloshed in my stomach. I weaved through the smoke, dancing to the bucket drums two kids were playing.
I knocked against Dexter Delff in the smoke and gathered up my considerable drunk-girl courage. I leaned in and kissed him. He kissed me back. So rough and hard that it was like the best kind of dying. But then he pulled away and said something I didn’t quite hear above the ump-shh-ump-shh- ump-shh of the drumming.
Something like Pissed her.
But then Crazy Bert was there and handing me an envelope of pills for Dad and Dexter was gone and very quickly things went south for me, alcohol-wise. I went to a corner to throw up. Which took a while.
After many minutes of emptying the contents of my stomach, I wound my way through the party where the few other young people from the far side of town were whooping around the fire or intensely nestling together at the dark edges of the room.
I walked outside with knives of pain twisting in my skull, knowing but not knowing. I moved into the forest, leafless, skeletal, passed two wild dogs eating a strip of cooked animal fat, swiping at each other.
I kept walking and there were so many twinkling stars, so many new and supposedly beautiful planets that were really just stupid blinking star-things, and then at last I came to a clearing and the low Delffic voice wafted through the air.
I moved silently until I made out Vee leaning up against a tree, her scowling puffy bloody face pointed up to the sky, her eyes squeezed closed like she was getting waxed. Dexter’s face buried in her neck, one of his hands gripping the tree trunk, his other hand inside Dad’s ripped shirt and moving in a circular motion on Vee’s bosom. He was moaning. And moving a little. And then I followed the line of Vee’s bison pelted arm and noticed it was also moving, a lot. “23.”
“Say it,” she said. Steely and calm in a way I’d never heard her sound before.
“Both of us. Promise.”
Muffled against her neck and hair, he said it.
She smiled in a way I’d never seen before. Like a satisfaction that had always been known to them both was now in full flower. Like her most true and secret self had slipped out for a brief airing. She kissed his cheek.
A thousand future settler babies shot in a thin white stream across the flat expanse of snow. The continuation of our species stalled right then in a gnashing silence that I experienced as a spasm of disgust violent enough to bend me over at the waist.
After Dexter kind of collapsed into her, Vee held him. I marveled at the sureness of her hands as they encircled his waist. As if she’d done it a thousand times. A moment later, she turned away and began to cough. This was Dad-style coughing, deep in her chest. It went on a while, and Dexter tenderly stroked her back as she sprayed blood into the snow. My quiet, careful, hirsute sister.
I snapped a twig and Vee heard it. I noted the wet, red penumbra haloing her mouth. Her eyes blinked, seeing me. “LeeLee.”
I didn’t wait for more. I shook my head and retreated, crashing through the woods like an animal. When it became clear she wasn’t following, I settled into a rhythm and trudged back toward the party, biting the insides of my cheeks and not giving in to whatever half-assed consolation crying might bring. I stalked around the warehouse for a while, inhaling the smoke so that it burned my nostrils. Did everything shatter inside me? Was I forever ruined? No and no. Futurists adapt. Eventually I unclenched my fists. There were still a million ways I could win.
The trucks rolled in two days later. We’d packed our meager belongings into packs. We wore all our woolens since we didn’t know what the uniforms would be like at the Training Center. Dad stood stooped and shivering on the road with us, trying to pretend the army men with clipboards weren’t real, that the crowd of young people wasn’t belligerent and their voices not increasingly desperate. He put on as good a face as he could with the palsy and the silent tears he pretended were not streaming down his cheeks.
He’d given us box cutters to keep on our person at all times, forever no matter what they said at the center. Implored us to take them on the spacecraft. You never know, girls. My strong girls. May life be beautiful for you and may the sun they built feel magical on your skin.
The last time I hugged my father I felt every notch on his spine. The knife of his shoulder blades, so delicate and thin it seemed I could break one off in my hand.
“It’s no big deal. You’ll meet us there soon,” I said, channeling vital optimism. “I’m going to know all the right people on 23 and find ways of making them owe me one, and I’m going to make sure you come.”
“You’ll be in charge up there before you know it,” he said, and I told him I would.
When we were instructed to board the cloth-covered army trucks, I whispered goodbye to Dad and turned toward the vehicles, ignoring my tears. Behind me, I heard Vee utter words to our papa that were so tender and true that I choked back a sob. I moved forward a step into the mass of bodies, and hoped I would hear no more.
There were only two trucks and eighty-odd people. A cadet with terrible acne had a list, and clearly not everyone was on it. The air crackled with anger.
Then Vee’s hand found mine, and together we plummeted into the crowd. I’m tall and determined and I know how to push. I pushed until I found the lip of the truck and stepped on, whooshing panic fizzling into an unexpected rush of power. Every human body in the back of that truck was pressed fully against the rest of them and we were all going somewhere. I’d never really been anywhere but the woods in years.
“Leora.” Vee was still down below. Her hand had been in mine just a moment before. There was such a commotion. So many angry people, all storming the trucks. And my sister’s face, her scowl, her pointed chin still with a scab where I’d messed up. Vee looked up at me from the wild crowd, expecting help.
The army men began barking. Load the fuck up, Tundra trash. I’d gotten one of the last slivers of space on the truck, wedged between bodies. And here they were, pushing hangers-on off of the truck, pushing those already on away from the edge.
“Help me up.” She was still calm, refusing to get excited even now. Her hand flexed, waving, waiting for mine. I reached down, because I believed myself to be a good sister, and grabbed.
The truck’s engine roared to life.
“Jump up,” I said so only she would hear. I pulled her up so that she was on the edge of the truck and it began to roll. Her feet scrambled for purchase. So many people stood beneath her, people I didn’t imagine even lived near here, people I’d never seen before. So many bodies underneath her, yelling wait god damn it and I’m on the list, trying to grab on now that the truck was moving. I’ll always remember looking into Vee’s eyes and smiling beatifically, the strong martyr saving the smaller and weaker.
Vee, my shadow. Always following, though she was older. So soft. So gentle and small. After our mother died, Vee didn’t talk for a year. But when she did she was mostly sensible, outwardly kind. Nobody would suspect the machinations that lurked under all that hair.
“Too many. No room. We can’t breathe as it is.” Someone behind me, someone bigger and more determined than Vee could ever be, jostled her feet from the bumper just as the truck hit a bump.
And my hand slipped. Or hers did. I am certain that I tried to pull her back. That I did not, in that eyeblink of a moment, decide to free my shadow. That in the annals of history, at the moment Vee fell off the truck and onto the ice-caked road, I was on the side of right.
As I prepare to start the day’s farm work under the blazing uranium sun, I still think of it and am stunned by my patriotism in not jumping off the truck. I still shake my head at how hard I tried to do right by her, at what a tragedy it was that we were separated. One little slip, and you end up swimming in a gulf of aloneness so total that if you weren’t such a strong, fertile, and vitally optimistic person, it could annihilate you.
Even if Vee’s face crumpled in shock and horror when she landed on the road, even if she cried out what are you doing? and I couldn’t think of what words to say before the truck sped away, the fact remains I tried. Even now, I can say with close to 100 percent confidence that I embodied the spirit of cooperation upon which our new republic rests. Vee was just destined for a different path, one that would probably lead her to the life she always wanted. And I was destined for this place, with my future stretched out before me like a soy field before the harvest, healthy and lush. Like the shiniest, most perfect head of hair.
Dexter says once I get used to it here, I’ll start to like being on my own. Pretty soon, he says, I’ll hardly think of Vee at all.
Amelia Kahaney is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. Visit ameliakahaney.net to read more of her work.