Below is an excerpt from Fuse, Book II in the Pure Trilogy. Scroll down to read an excerpt from Pure.
Lying on a thin coat of snow, she sees gray earth meeting gray sky, and she knows she’s back. The horizon looks clawed, but the claw marks are only three stunted trees. They stand in a row like they’re stapling the ground to the sky.
She gasps, suddenly, a delayed reaction, as if someone is trying to steal her breath and she’s pulling it back into her throat.
She sits up. She’s still small, still just a ten-year-old girl. She feels like she’s lost a lot of time, but she hasn’t. Not really. Not years. Maybe only days, weeks.
She tugs her thick coat in tight around her ribs. The coat is proof. She touches its silver buttons. There’s a scarf tucked down into the coat, wound twice around her neck. Who dressed her? Who wound the scarf twice? She looks at her boots – dark blue with thick laces, new – and her hands fitted into gloves, each finger encased in a taut cocoon.
A curl of her dark red hair sits on her jacket, her hair shining. The end of each strand is thick and perfect as if newly cut.
She pulls up the sleeve of the coat, exposing her arm. Just as it was under the bright light, the bone is no longer warped. There are no thin plastic ridges bubbled along the skin. She isn’t stippled with shards. Not even a mole or a freckle. Her skin is white – white, the way snow should be, maybe even whiter than that kind of snow. She’s never seen really white snow with her own eyes. The light veins ride blue beneath the white. She touches the soft inner skin of one wrist to her cheek then her lips. Smooth skin on smooth skin.
She looks around and knows they’re close; she can feel the electricity of their bodies filling the air. She remembers what it was like when they first took her from the other strays; motherless, fatherless, they slept in a handmade lean-to near the markets. She isn’t sure why she was chosen, lifted into the air, clutched. One cradled her in its arms and hurdled across the rubble while the others bounded around them. Its breath chugged, mechanically. Its legs pumped. Her eyes teared in the wind so that its angular face was blurry. She wasn’t afraid, but now she is. They’re here, their strong bodies buzzing like massive bees, but they’re leaving her. She feels like a child in a fairytale. In her mother’s stories – she had a mother once – there was a woodsman who was supposed to take a girl’s heart back to an evil queen, but he couldn’t. Another sliced open a wolf to save the people eaten by a wolf. The woodsmen were strong and good. But they leave girls in woods sometimes, girls who then have to fend for themselves.
Light snow falls. She stands slowly. The world lurches as if it’s suddenly grown heavy. She falls down to her knees and then hears voices in the trees, two people walking. Even from this distance, she can see the red scars on their faces. One wobbles from a limp. They’re carrying sacks.
She tugs the scarf up over her nose and mouth. She’s supposed to be found. She’s a foundling; she remembers this word was used in the room with the bright light. “We want her to be a foundling.” It was a man’s voice, quavering over a speaker. He was in charge, though she never saw him. Willux, Willux, people whispered – people with smooth skin who weren’t fused to anything. They moved easily around her bed, surrounded by metal posts where clear sacs of fluid were clamped and dripped into tubes, among little beeping machines, and wires. It was like having mothers and fathers, too many to keep track.
She remembers the wide light in the room, its brilliant bulb, so bright and close it kept her warm. She remembers how she first ran her hand over her skin and when she touched her stomach, it, too, was smooth. Her navel — the thing her mother always called the button of her belly, and what the voices in that room called her umbilicus — was gone.
She reaches up under her coat and shirt and runs her hand over her stomach. Like before, there’s only a stretch of skin and more skin.
“Healed,” the voices said behind white masks, but they were concerned. “Still, a success,” they said. Some wanted to keep her for observation.
They will take more like her to be healed?
She starts to open her mouth to call to the distant figures carrying sacks, but her mouth doesn’t open all the way. It’s as if her lips are slightly stitched on either side – the edges sealed.
And what would she say? She can’t think of any words. The words whirl in her mind. They’re furred. She can’t line them up or utter them. Finally she calls out, but the only words that form in her mouth are, “We want!” She doesn’t know why. She tries again, to call for help, but again she shouts, “We want!”
They walk up, two young women. They’re pickers; she can tell by the warts and scars on their fingers. They’ve touched a lot of poisonous bulbs, berries, morels. One of them has silver prongs, like those on an old fork, in place of two of her fingers. She’s the one with the limp, and her face, though seared a deep red, is strangely pretty. Mostly because of her eyes, which glow a golden orange like liquid metal – stained by the brightness of the bombs themselves. She’s blind. She clutches the other picker’s arm and says, “Who’s you?” It sounds like a birdcall. The girl heard birds in the bright room, recorded and piped in by the unseen speakers. Cooing, the girl thinks, and then she hears other birds in the woods. These birds have the kinds of calls she grew up with – not clear sweet notes as in the bright room, but scratches and rattles.
The two young women are scared of her. Can they already tell she’s different?
She wants to tell them her name, but it’s gone. The only words in her mind are Fire Flower. That’s what her mother used to call her sometimes; born from fire and destruction, she took root and grew. She’s never known her father, but she’s pretty sure that he was lost in the fire and destruction.
And then her name appears: Wilda. She is Wilda.
She puts her hand on the cold ground. She wants to tell them that she’s new. She wants to tell them that the world has changed forever. She says, “We want our son.” The words startle her. Why did she say this?
The young women look at each other. The blind one says, “What was that? Who’s son?”
The other who has a ropey scar running down one cheek as if she’d had a braid fused to her face now covered in a layer of skin. She says, “She’s not right in the head.”
“Who’s you?” the blind one says again.
This time the girl says, “We want our son.” These are the only words that she can say.
The pickers look around suddenly, even the blind one. They hear the electrical synapses now, firing through the air. The creatures who took her are restless. “There’s many,” the one with the braided scar says, wide-eyed. “They’re protecting her. Can you feel ‘em? They been sent by our Watchers to look over her.”
“Angels,” the blind one says.
They start to back away.
But then Wilda pulls up her sleeve and exposing her arm – so white it seems to glow. “We want,” she says again, slowly, “our son returned.”
The lobby at O.S.R. headquarters is dotted with a few glowing lamps – handmade oil lamps strung from the exposed beams of the high ceiling. The survivors are bedding down on blankets and mats, curled together to keep warm. Their bodies hold a collective humid heat despite the fact that the tall windows haven’t been boarded. Their bare casements are fringed with the gauzy remains of curtains. Snow starts to flutter and gust, flutter and gust, in through the windows as if hundreds of moths have been lured in by the promise of lit bulbs to bash themselves against.
It’s dark outside, but almost morning, and some of the early risers are waking. Pressia’s stayed up all night again. Sometimes she gets so lost in her work that she loses track of time. She’s holding a mechanical arm she’s just made from scraps that El Capitan brings her — silver pincers, a ball bearing elbow, old electrical cord to cinch it, and leather straps that have been measured to cuff the amputee’s thin bicep. He’s a 9-year-old with all five fingers fused together, almost webbed – useless. She whispers the boy’s name hoarsely, “Perlo! Are you here?”
She makes her way through the survivors who shift and mutter. She hears a sharp mewling hiss. “Hush it!” a woman says. Pressia sees something writhe beneath the woman’s coat and then the silky black head of cat appears at the side of her neck. A baby cries out. Someone curses. A song rises up from a man’s throat, a lullabye …The ghostly-girls, the ghastly-girls, the ghostly-girls. Who can save them from this world? From this world? The river’s wide, the current curls, the current calls, the current curls… Pressia stops and listens. The baby goes quiet. Music still works, music calms people. We’re wretches but we’re still capable of this –
songs rising up inside of us. She’d like the people of the Dome to know this. We’re vicious, yes, but also capable of shocking tenderness, kindness, beauty. We’re human, flawed but still good, right?
“Perlo?” she tries again, cradling the prosthetic arm to her chest. Sometimes in crowds like this she now looks for her father – even though she doesn’t remember his face. Before Pressia’s mother died, she showed Pressia the pulsing tattoos on her chest – one of which belonged to Pressia’s father, proof that he’s survived the Detonations. Of course, he isn’t here. He probably isn’t even on this continent – or what’s left of it. But she can’t help searching the faces of survivors looking for someone who looks a little like her – almond-shaped eyes, black shiny hair. She can’t stop her eyes from searching, no matter how irrational it is to believe she might one day find him.
She’s made it all the way across the lobby and comes to a wall plastered with posters. Instead of the black claw, which once struck fear in survivors, this is a poster of El Capitan’s own face – stern and tough-jawed. She looks down the row of posters, his eyes all lined up, his brother Helmud a small lump behind El Capitan’s back. Above his head, it reads: Able and strong? Join up. Solidarity will save us. El Capitan made that up and he’s proud of it. At the bottom, fine print promises an end to Death Sprees – the teams of OSR soldiers assigned to cull the weak, collect their dead in an enemy’s field – and mandatory conscription at sixteen. For those who volunteer, El Capitan promises Food without Fear. Fear of what? OSR has a dark history. People were captured and hauled in, untaught how to read, used as live targets…
All of that is over.The posters have worked. There are more recruits now than ever. They show up throughout the day, wandering up from the city, ragged and hungry, burnt and fused. Sometimes, they come as families. He tells Pressia that he’s got to start sending those back.
“This isn’t a welfare state. I’m trying to build an army here.” But, so far, she’s always talked him out of it.
“Perlo!” she whispers, walking along the wall, letting her hand slide over the rippled edges of the posters. Where is he? The curtains kick into the room. The snow is drawn in as if the large room is drawing in a deep breath.
One family has propped a blanket on a stick, creating a little tent to block the wind. She used to make little tents in the back of the burnt-out barbershop when she was little, with a chair and her grandfather’s cane to prop a sheet, playing house with her best friend Fandra. Her grandfather called them pup tents and she and Fandra would bark like puppies. He’d laugh so hard the fan in his throat would spin wildly. She feels a pang of loss – for her grandfather and Fandra who are both dead, and her childhood which is dead too.
Outside the windows, guards keep watch at fifty foot intervals surrounding O.S.R.’s headquarters because Special Forces, released by the Dome, are multiplying. A few weeks ago, they were spotted bounding through the woods — their hulking figures bulked with animal muscle, their skin covered in something synthetic and camouflaged. They’re agile, nearly silent, incredibly fast and strong, and well-armed; their weapons are embedded into their bodies. They dart over the rubble fields, sprint among trees, light down alleys – quiet and stealthy, making routine sweeps of the city. They want Partridge – Pressia’s half brother – most of all. Partridge is being protected by the Mothers, along with Lyda – who is Pure, like Partridge, sent out of the Dome and used by the Dome as a pawn — and Illia, who was married to the top leader of the OSR, her twisted husband, whom she killed. They get bits of information from sketchy reports sent in from OSR soldiers who all deeply fear the Mothers. One report noted that the mothers are teaching Lyda to fight. She’s just a girl from the Dome with no preparation for the ashen wilds, much less life with the Mothers, who can be loving and loyal but also barbaric. How is she holding up? Another report mentioned that Illia wasn’t holding up. She’d been protected in the farmhouse all these years, and now her lungs are struggling with all of the ash.
Everyone who was there at the end of Pressia’s mother’s life has to be careful. They’re the ones who know the truth about Willux and the Dome, and perhaps they have something that Willux is still after — the vials. Bradwell and El Capitan stripped as much as they could from her mother’s bunker after she was gone. Partridge has the vials now and, hopefully, he’s keeping them safe. They would mean a lot to Willux – with these vials and another ingredient and the formula of how to put them together, he could save his own life. Her mother’s vials are potent yes, but, out here, they’re too dangerous and unpredictable to be of use. They’re beautiful and useless souvenirs.
How long can the Mothers keep Partridge hidden? Long enough for Partridge’s father to die? This is the great hope – that Ellery Willux will die soon, and Partridge can take over from within the Dome itself. Sometimes Pressia feels like they’re all held in a state of waiting, knowing that something is bound to give. She feels like she’s waiting for the future to take shape.
Freedle flutters in the pocket of her sweater. She slips her hand inside and runs a finger down the robotic cicada’s back. “Shhh,” she whispers. “It’s okay.” She didn’t want to leave him in her small bedroom, alone. Or was it that she didn’t want to be alone?
“Perlo!” she calls. “Perlo!”
And, finally, she hears the boy. “Here! I’m here!” He scuttles over to her, weaving around survivors. “Did you finish it?”
Pressia kneels. “Let’s see if it fits.” She tucks the leather cuff around his upper arm, tightens it into place by the electrical cord laces. His fused hand can make a tapping motion. She tells him to apply pressure to a small lever.
Perlo gives it a try. The pincer opens and then closes. “It works.” He opens and closes the pincer quickly again and again.
“It’s not perfect,” she says, “but it’ll help, I think.”
“Thank you!” he says so loudly he gets hushed by someone on the ground nearby. He whispers, “Maybe you can make something for yourself,” he says, looking at the doll head. “I mean, maybe there’s something…”
She tilts the doll so its eyes blink – one is slightly gummed with ash and so it clicks more slowly, out of sync with the other. “I don’t think there’s anything that can be done for me,” she says. “But I get by.”
The boy’s mother whisper-calls for him. He whips around, raising the arm in the air triumphantly, and he darts off to show her.
And then there’s a far-off gunshot, its rippling report. Pressia crouches instinctively and reaches into her pocket to protect Freedle. She lifts him and holds him to her chest. Perlo’s mother pulls her son in close. Pressia knows it was probably an OSR soldier taking aim at shifting shadows. Errant gunshots aren’t unusual. But that doesn’t stop her chest from tightening around her heart. It’s Perlo and his mother and a gunshot – the mix of it all and she remembers the weight of the gun in her arms, lifting the gun, taking aim. The gun went off in her arms. Even now her ears ring and she sees the bloody mist rising. It fills her vision. Red blooms before her eyes like the bursting flowers that shoot up in the rubble fields. She pulled the trigger, but now she can’t remember if it was the right thing to do. She can’t get it straight in her head. Her mother’s dead. Dead. She pulled the trigger.
She walks quickly, sticking to the edges of the lobby, the posters stretching on and on. She cups Freedle gently. When she comes to a window, she looks out, carefully.
Wind. Snow. The clouds like clods of ash scuttling across the sky, she can see one bright star – a rarity – and below it, the edge of the woods, the brittle trees huddled and stooped. OSR soldiers are standing at fifty-foot intervals on the sloping hill. She can make out their uniforms, the occasional glint of a gun, the thin veils of their breath rising in the cold. And then she sees her mother’s face lying on the forest floor and then it’s obliterated. Gone.
Beyond the soldiers, her eyes stuttering through the trees. Is something out there – something that wants in? She imagines Special Forces hunkered down in the snow. Do they even need sleep? Are they, in part, cold-blooded, their skins covered in thin scrims of ice? It’s quiet, eerily so, but still there’s a certain coiled energy. It snowed three days ago – a fine dusting at first, it turned heavy – and now the lawn is iced, dark and glassy, in three-inches or more and snow is flitting down.
She feels someone grab hold of her elbow. She turns. It’s Bradwell, the double scars running up his cheek, his dark dark lashes, his full lips chapped by the cold. She looks at his hand all ruddy and rough. His broad knuckles are scarred and beautiful. How can knuckles be beautiful? Pressia wonders. It’s like Bradwell invented them.
But it’s not like that between them anymore.
“Did you hear me calling you?” he says.
She feels like he’s talking to her from underwater. Once, while the farmhouse burned, she had the courage to make him promise to find a home for them, but that was only because she didn’t actually believe the moment would last. “What is it?”
“Are you okay? You look dazed.”
“I just had to get an arm to a boy, and there was a gunshot. But it was nothing.” She wouldn’t admit to seeing bright red bursting before her eyes anymore than to her fear of falling in love with him. This is one thing Pressia knows is true: everyone she’s ever loved has died. In light of that fact, how could she ever love Bradwell? She looks at him now and the words drum in her head: Don’t love him. Don’t love him.
“Have you been up all night?” he asks.
“Yes.” She notices his hair standing up messy on his head. They both have the ability to disappear for days. Bradwell gets devoured by his obsession with the six black boxes that tunneled up from the char and rubble of the farmhouse and holes up for days on end in the old morgue where he now lives in the headquarters’ basement. Pressia gets wrapped up in making the prosthetics. Bradwell is still bent on understanding the past while she has devoted herself to helping people, here and now. “Have you been up all night too?”
“Um, yes. I guess so. It’s morning?”
“Yeah, then I was. I had a breakthrough with one of the Black Boxes. One of them bit me.”
“Bit you?” Freedle flits nervously in her hand.
He shows her a small puncture wound on his thumb. “Not hard. Maybe just a warning. It likes me now, I think. It started following me around the morgue like a pet dog.” She starts walking down the hall and Bradwell follows. “I’ve taken them all apart, put ‘em back together. And they contain information about the past – as far as I can tell – but they aren’t wired to transmit. They aren’t spies for the Dome or anything like that, which I had to rule out. If they ever had those abilities, they’ve been lost.” Bradwell is on a tear, but Pressia isn’t interested in the black boxes. She’s tired of Bradwell’s desire to prove his parents’ Dome conspiracies right, his version of the truth, shadow history, all of that. “And this one, I can’t explain it – this one is different. It’s like it knows me.”
“What did you do to make it bite you?”
“I was talking.”
“I don’t think you want to know.”
She stops and looks at him. He shoves his hands in his pockets. The birds in his back flutter their wings, agitated. “Of course I want to know. It’s how you unlocked the box, right? It’s important.”
He takes a deep breath and holds it for a moment. He looks at the floor and shrugs. “Okay then,” he says, “I was rambling about you.”
She and Bradwell have never talked about what happened at the farmhouse. She remembers the way he held her, the feel of his lips on hers. But can this kind of love survive in a world bent on survival? Love’s a luxury. He looks at her now, his head bowed, his eyes locked on hers. She feels heat drill through her body. Don’t love him. She can’t even look at him. “Oh,” she says. “I see.”
“Nope, you don’t see. Not yet. Come with me.” He leads her down another hallway and then turns. And there, sitting by the door, waiting patiently, is a Black Box. It’s about the size of a small dog, actually – the kind her grandfather used to call a terrier, the kind that likes to kill rats.
“I told him to stay and he stayed,” Bradwell says. “This is Fignan.”
Freedle noses up from her palm to see for himself. “Does he know how to sit and shake hands?” Pressia asks.
“I think he knows a hell of a lot more than that.”
Here is an excerpt from PURE, Book I in the Pure Trilogy
There was low droning overhead a week or so after the Detonations; time was hard to track. The skies were buckling with dark banks of blackened cloud, the air thick with ash and dust. If it was a plane or an airship of some sort, we never knew because the sky was so clotted. But I might have seen a metal underbelly, some dull shine of a hull dipping down for a moment, then gone. We couldn’t yet see the Dome either. Now bright on the hill, it was only a dusky glow in the distance. It seemed to hover over the earth, orb-like, a lit bobble, unattached.
The droning was some kind of air mission, and we wondered if there would be more bombs. But what would be the point? Everything was gone, obliterated or swept up by the fires; there were dark puddles from black rain. Some drank the water and died from it. Our scars were fresh, our wounds and warpings raw. The survivors hobbled and limped, a procession of death, hoping to find a place that had been spared. We gave up. We were slack. We didn’t take cover. Maybe some were hoping it was a relief effort. Maybe I was too.
Those who could still stagger up from the rubble did. I couldn’t—my right leg gone at the knee, my hand blistered from using a pipe as a cane. You, Pressia, were only seven years old, small for your age, and still pained by your wound raw at the wrist, the burns shining on your face. But you were quick. You climbed up on top of some rubble to get closer to the sound, drawn to it because it was commanding and coming from the sky.
That was when the air took shape, a billowing of shifting, fluttering motion—a sky of singular, bodiless wings.
Slips of paper.
They touched down, settling around you like giant snowflakes, the kind kids used to cut from folded paper and tape to classroom windows, but already grayed by the ashen air and wind.
You picked one up, as did the others who could, until they were all gone. You handed the paper to me and I read it aloud.
We know you are here, our brothers and sisters.
We will, one day, emerge from the Dome to join
you in peace.
For now, we watch from afar, benevolently.
Like God, I whispered, they’re watching over us like the benevolent eye of God. I wasn’t alone in this thought. Some were awed. Others raged. We were all still stunned, dazed. Would they ask some of us to enter the gates of the Dome? Would they deny us?
Years would come to pass. They would forget us.
But at first, the slips of paper became precious—a form of currency. That didn’t last. The suffering was too great.
After I read the paper, I folded it up and said, “I’ll hold on to it for you, okay?”
I don’t know if you understood me. You were still distant and mute, your face as blank and wide-eyed as the face of your doll. Instead of nodding your own head, you nodded the doll’s head, part of you forever now. When its eyes blinked, you blinked your own.
It was like this for a long time.
PRESSIA IS LYING IN THE CABINET. This is where she’ll sleep once she turns sixteen in two weeks—the tight press of blackened plywood pinching her shoulders, the muffled air, the stalled motes of ash. She’ll have to be good to survive this—good and quiet and, at night when OSR patrols the streets, hidden.
She nudges the door open with her elbow, and there sits her grandfather, settled into his chair next to the alley door. The fan lodged in his throat whirs quietly; the small plastic blades spin one way when he draws in a breath and the opposite way when he breathes out. She’s so used to the fan that she’ll go months without really noticing it, but then there will be a moment, like this one, when she feels disengaged from her life and everything surprises.
“So, do you think you can sleep in there?” he asks. “Do you like it?”
She hates the cabinet, but she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. “I feel like a comb in a box,” she says. They live in the back storage room of a burned-out barbershop. It’s a small room with a table, two chairs, two old pallets on the floor, one where her grandfather now sleeps and her old one, and a handmade birdcage hung from a hook in the ceiling. They come and go through the storage room’s back door, which leads to an alley. During the Before, this cabinet held barbershop supplies—boxes of black combs, bottles of blue Barbasol, shaving-cream canisters, neatly folded hand towels, white smocks that snapped around the neck. She’s pretty sure that she’ll have dreams of being blue Barbasol trapped in a bottle.
Her grandfather starts coughing; the fan spins wildly. His face flushes to a rubied purple. Pressia climbs out of the cabinet, walks quickly to him, and claps him on the back, pounds his ribs. Because of the cough, people have stopped coming around for his services—he was a mortician during the Before and then became known as the flesh-tailor, applying his skills with the dead to the living. She used to help him keep the wounds clean with alcohol, line up the instruments, sometimes helping hold down a kid who was flailing. Now people think he’s infected.
“Are you all right?” Pressia says.
Slowly, he catches his breath. He nods. “Fine.” He picks up his brick from the floor and rests it on his one stumped leg, just above its seared clot of wires. The brick is his only protection against OSR. “This sleeping cabinet is the best we’ve got,” her grandfather says. “Just give it time.”
Pressia knows she should be more appreciative. He built the hiding place a few months ago. The cabinets stretch along the back wall that they share with the barbershop itself. Most of what’s left of the wrecked barbershop is exposed to the sky, a large hunk of its roof blown clean off. Her grandfather stripped the cabinets of drawers and shelves. Along the back wall of the cabinets he’s put in a fake panel that acts like a trapdoor, leading to the barbershop itself, a panel that she can pop off if she needs to escape into the barbershop. And then where will she go? Her grandfather has shown her an old irrigation pipe where she can hide out while OSR ransacks the storage room, finding an empty cabinet, and her grandfather tells them that she’s been gone for weeks and probably for good, maybe dead by now. He tries to convince himself that they’ll believe him, that she’ll be able to come back, and OSR will leave them alone after this. But of course, they both know this is unlikely.
She’s known a few older kids who ran away—a boy with a missing jaw, then two kids who said they were going to get married far away from here, and a boy named Gorse and his younger sister Fandra, who was a good friend of Pressia’s before they left a few years ago. There’s talk of an underground that gets kids out of the city, past the Meltlands and the Deadlands where there may be other survivors—whole civilizations. Who knows? But these are only whispers, well-intended lies meant to comfort. Those kids disappeared.
No one ever saw them again.
“I guess I’ll have time to get used to it, all the time in the world, starting two weeks from today,” she says. Once she turns sixteen, she’ll be confined to the back room and sleep in the cabinet. Her grandfather has made her promise, again and again, that she won’t stray. It’ll be too dangerous to go out, he tells her. My heart won’t take it.
They both know the whispers of what happens to you if you don’t turn yourself in to OSR headquarters on your sixteenth birthday. They will take you while you’re asleep in bed. They will take you if you walk alone in the rubble fields. They will take you no matter whom you pay off or how much—not that her grandfather could afford to pay anyone anything.
If you don’t turn yourself in, they will take you. That isn’t just a whisper. That’s the truth. There are whispers that they will take you up to the outlands where you’re untaught to read—if you’ve learned in the first place, like Pressia has. Her grandfather taught her letters and showed her the Message: We know you are here, our brothers and sisters… (No one speaks of the Message anymore. Her grandfather has hidden it away somewhere.) There are whispers that they then teach you how to kill by use of live targets. And there are whispers that either you will learn to kill or, if you’re too deformed by the Detonations, you’ll be used as a live target, and that will be the end of you.
What happens to the kids in the Dome when they turn sixteen? Pressia figures that it’s like during the Before—cake and brightly wrapped gifts and fake, candy-stuffed animals strung up and beaten with sticks.
“Can I run to the market? We’re almost out of roots.” Pressia is good at boiling certain kinds of roots; it’s mostly what they eat. And she wants to be out in the air.
Her grandfather looks at her anxiously.
“My name isn’t even on the posted list yet,” she tells him. The official list of those who need to turn themselves in to OSR is posted throughout the city—names and birthdates in two tidy columns, information gathered by the OSR. The group emerged shortly after the Detonations, when it was Operation Search and Rescue—setting up medical units that failed, making lists of the survivors and the dead, and then forming a small militia to maintain order. But those leaders were overthrown. OSR became Operation Sacred Revolution; the new leaders rule by fear and are intent on taking down the Dome one day.
Now the OSR mandates that all newborns are registered or parents are punished. OSR also does random home raids. People move so frequently that they’ve never had the ability to track homes. There’s no such thing as addresses anymore anyway—what’s left is toppled, gone, street names wiped away. Without her name on that list, it still doesn’t feel quite real to Pressia. She hopes that her name will never appear. Maybe they’ve forgotten she exists, lost a stack of files and hers was in it.
“Plus,” she says. “We need to stock up.” She needs to secure as much food as she can for them before her grandfather takes over the market trips. She’s better at bartering, always has been. She worries what will happen once he’s in charge.
“Okay, fine,” he says. “Kepperness still owes us for my stitch work on his son’s neck.”
“Kepperness,” she repeats. Kepperness paid up a while ago. Her grandfather sometimes remembers only the things he wants to. She walks to the ledge under the splintered window where there’s a row of small creatures she’s made from pieces of metal, old coins, buttons, hinges, gears she collects—little windup toys—chicks that hop, caterpillars that scoot, a turtle with a small snapping beak. Her favorite is the butterfly. She’s made half a dozen of them alone. Their skeletal systems are built from the teeth of old black barber combs and wings made from bits of the white smocks. The butterflies flap when they get wound up, but she’s never been able to get them to fly.
She picks up one of the butterflies, winds it. Its wings shudder, kicking up a few bits of ash that swirl. Swirling ash—it’s not all bad. In fact, it can be beautiful, the lit swirl. She doesn’t want to see beauty in it, but she does. She finds little moments of beauty everywhere—even in ugliness. The heaviness of the clouds draping across the sky, sometimes edged dark blue. There’s still dew that rises from the ground and beads up on pieces of blackened glass.
Her grandfather is looking out the alley door, so she slips the butterfly in the sack. She’s been using these to barter with since people have stopped coming to him for stitching.
“You know, we’re lucky to have this place—and now an escape route,” her grandfather says. “We were lucky from the start. Lucky that I got to the airport early to pick you and your mother up at Baggage Claim. What if I hadn’t heard there was traffic? What if I hadn’t headed out early? And your mother, she was so beautiful,” he says, “so young.”
“I know, I know,” Pressia says, trying not to sound impatient, but it’s a well-worn speech. He’s talking about the day of the Detonations, just over nine years ago when she was six years old. Her father was out of town on business. An architect with light hair, he was pigeon-toed, her grandfather liked to tell her, but a good quarterback. Football—it was a tidy sport played on a grassy field, with buckled helmets and officials who blew whistles and threw colored handkerchiefs. “But what does it mean, anyway, that my father was a pigeon-toed quarterback if I don’t remember him? What is a beautiful mother worth if you can’t see her face in your head?”
“Don’t say that,” he says. “Of course you remember them!”
She can’t tell the difference between the stories her grandfather’s told her and memory. Baggage Claim, for example. Her grandfather has explained it again and again—bags on wheels, a large moving belt, security circling like trained herding dogs. But is it a memory? Her mother took the full brunt of a plate-glass window and died instantaneously, her grandfather has told her. Has Pressia ever really recalled it or only imagined it? Her mother was Japanese, which explains Pressia’s black shiny hair, almond-shaped eyes, and her even-toned skin, except for the skin that’s the shiny pink crescent-shaped burn, curved around her left eye. She has a light dusting of freckles because of her father’s side of the family. Scotch-Irish, her grandfather calls himself, but none of these things means much of anything to her. Japanese, Scotch, Irish? The city where her father had been on business—the rest of the world, as far as anyone could tell—was decimated, gone. Japanese, Scotch, Irish—these things no longer exist. “BWI,” her grandfather says, emphatically, “that was the name of the airport. And we made it out of there, following the others who were still alive. We staggered on, looking for a safe place. We stopped in this city, barely standing, but still here because it’s not far from the Dome. We live a little west of Baltimore, north of DC.” Again, these things mean nothing. BWI, DC, they’re just letters.
Her parents are unknowable, that’s what kills Pressia, and if they’re unknowable, how can she know herself? She sometimes feels like she’s cut off from the world, like she’s floating—a small lit fleck of swirling ash.
“Mickey Mouse,” her grandfather says. “Don’t you remember him?” This is what gets him the most, it seems, that she doesn’t remember Mickey Mouse, the trip to Disney World that they were just returning from. “He had big ears and wore white gloves?”
She walks to Freedle’s cage. It’s made of old bike spokes and a thin metal sheet that serves as the cage’s floor and a small metal door that slides up and down. Inside, on a perch, sits Freedle, a mechanical-winged cicada. She fits her finger between the thin bars and pets his filigree wings. They’ve had him for as long as Pressia remembers. Old and rusty, his wings still sometimes flutter. He’s Pressia’s only pet. She named him Freedle when she was little because when they let him flit around the room, he had a squeaking call that sounded like he was saying, “Freedle! Freedle!” She’s kept his parts working all these years, using oil the barbers once used to keep the shears running smoothly. “I remember Freedle,” she says. “But no oversize mouse with a thing for white gloves.” She vows one day to lie to her grandfather about it, if only to put the whole thing to rest.
What does she remember of the Detonations? The bright light—like sun on sun on sun. And she remembers that she was holding the doll. Wasn’t she too old for a doll? The doll’s head was attached to its tan cloth body and rubber arms and legs. The Detonations caused a shearing blast of light in the airport that flooded her vision before the world exploded and, in some cases, melted. There was the tangle of lives and the doll’s head became her hand. And now, of course, she knows the doll head because it’s part of her—its blinky eyes that click when she moves, the sharp black plastic rows of eyelashes, the hole in its plastic lips where the plastic bottle is supposed to fit, its rubber head in place of her fist.
She runs her good hand over the doll’s head. She can feel the ripple of her finger bones within it, the small ridges and bumps of her knuckles, the lost hand fused with the rubber of the doll’s skull. And in the lost hand itself? She can feel the thick, dulled sensation of her good hand touching her lost hand. That’s the way she feels about the Before—it’s there, she can feel it, the light sensation of nerves, just barely. The doll’s eyes click shut; the hole within the pursed lips is dusted with ash as if the doll itself has been breathing this air. She pulls a woolen sock from her pocket and covers the doll’s head. She always covers it when she goes out.
If she lingers, her grandfather will start telling stories of what happened to the survivors after the Detonations—bloody fights in the hulls of giant Super Marts, the burned and twisted survivors battling over camping stoves and fishing knives. “I’ve got to go before they close up their stalls,” she says—before night patrols. She walks to where he’s seated and kisses his rough cheek.
“Just to the market. No scavenging,” he says then lowers his head and coughs into his shirtsleeve.
She has every intention of scavenging. It’s what she loves most, picking up bits of things to make her creatures. “I won’t,” she says.
He’s still holding the brick, but it strikes her now as sad and desperate, an admission of weakness. He might be able to knock out the first OSR soldier with it, but not the second or the third. They always come in packs. She wants to say aloud what they both know: It won’t work. She can hide in this room, sleep in the cabinets. She can pop off the fake panel whenever she hears an OSR truck in the back alley and run. But there’s nowhere else to go.
“Don’t be gone long,” he says.
“I won’t.” And then, to make him feel better, she adds, “You’re right about us. We are lucky.” But she doesn’t really feel it. The people in the Dome are lucky, playing their buckled-helmet sports, eating cake, all connected and never feeling like lit flecks of swirling ash.
“Remember that, my girl.” His throat fan whirs. He’d been clutching a small handheld electric fan when the Detonations hit—it happened during summer—and now the fan is with him forever. Sometimes he labors to breathe. The spinning mechanism gets gummed with ash and spittle. It will kill him one day, the ash mounting in his lungs, the fan chugging to a halt.
She walks to the alley door, opens it. She hears a screech that sounds almost bird-like; then something dark and furred scurries over nearby stones. She sees one of its moist eyes, staring at her. It snarls, unfolds heavy, blunt wings, and scuttles upward, taking to the gray sky.
Sometimes she thinks she hears the droning engine of an airship up there. She catches herself searching the sky for the slips of paper that once filled it—oh, the way her grandfather described it, all those wings! Maybe one day there will be another Message.
Nothing is going to last, Pressia thinks. Everything is about to change forever. She can feel it.
She glances back before stepping into the alley, and she catches her grandfather looking at her the way he does sometimes—as if she’s already gone, as if he’s practicing sorrow.