by Laura Anne Gilman
The man’s voice was hoarse, impassioned, and it filled the living room like the smell of rain and brimstone.
“And the LORD did send a PLAGUE upon us, for our SINS! But we did not SEE it, and allowed the plague to GROW. And now it is UPON us, the cost of our inactivity, the WAGES of our DAMNATION, that our CHILDREN must suffer it, and WE shall suffer for our inACTion at their hands!”
“Turn that crap off.” Steven’s father paused in the hallway, drawn by the noise.
“I’m watching!” Steven protested, sprawled out on the carpet, chin on hands as he stared up at the screen.
“Turn it off!”
His father never used that tone, not about something as stupid as a ‘net program. The Thumper telepreacher paused to gather another breath, and the cablenet winked off, replacing him with a blank screen.
“I was watching that,” Steven said again, sulky, tossing down the remote.
“In God’s name, why?”
A half-hearted shrug. “Dunno. Nothing else on.”
His father shook his head, exasperated. Pointing out all the things his son could be doing on this clear Sunday afternoon would be a waste of both their time: Steven knew, and chose not to do any of them.
Steven let his chin sink a little more into his palms, feeling the carpet rub under his elbows, and rolled over onto his side. He didn’t know why he was being such a brat; he just woke up in a funk this morning and couldn’t get out of it.
His father’s eyes were deep-set and heavy-lidded, making him look as though he were always about to fall asleep, even when he was totally alert. Steven had learned to watch his dad’s body, not his face, for clues. Body language said he was exasperated, but not pissed. Not really.
“If you’re that bored, we could move the schedule up and paint your little sister’s bedroom this afternoon,” his father suggested with the air of someone imposing a chore.
His mother was seven months pregnant and they had finally decided, without any basis except the way the baby was kicking, that it was a girl. Not that it made any difference – they were still going to paint the nursery pale green, same color they had used when Steven was born. Same furniture, too.
All his old stuff, reused. It should have been weird, or pissed him off, but instead it gave him… he didn’t know, some kind of connection to the baby. Like it was his, too. Like he was part of the whole process, instead of just hanging around on the sidelines.
Steven knew when he was being manipulated. His parents were smart that way. And he was smart enough to see it, and not mind it. Much. Painting was something he was good at – he had the patience to do it right, and a steady hand for the details, and he enjoyed the results. He didn’t get much chance to do it anywhere else. School and sports kept him too busy, and anyway, it wasn’t like he was going to be a professional artist or anything. But this was his gift to his baby sister.
Her room was going to be perfect for her.
He grinned at his father, his earlier funk shaken off that easily, and unfolded his legs to stand up. And up, and up: at fourteen, he was already taller and broader in the shoulders than his dad. “I’ll do the ceiling.”
“Wiseguy,” his dad said, his voice still sharp. But now he was grinning, too. They’d all been grinning a lot, at really stupid things, since his mom got pregnant again. The news had smoothed the lines in his mother’s forehead, tempered his dad’s moods; even the weather seemed better.
The telepreacher was an idiot, Steven thought, following his dad out into the garage to get the paint and drop-cloths. Babies weren’t suffering, or a plague, or anything like that. They were great.
It took them two weeks to finish the room to Steven’s satisfaction; he kept going back in to add one more detail, one more finishing touch. “Gilding the lily” his mother claimed, but his dad seemed to understand, shooing his mother off to rest, or pick out yet another pair of onesies. The baby was going to have a wardrobe like crazy.
During dinner that Thursday, around sevenish, his mother’s water broke. One minute everything was fine, and then his mother turned pale, and started to laugh, a weird, high-pitched laugh like Steven had never heard before.
His dad had, though, based on the way he moved.
“Steven, don’t just sit there gawping! Get the bags!”
Bags? He stared at his father, who was busy trying to haul his mother out of her chair, then at his mother, who was laughing and crying, and patting her tummy with one hand like she was soothing it, even as his father was lifting her…
Bags. Suitcases. Baby. Now.
By the time his parents were to the car, Steven had already loaded the overnight bag and thrown in his mother’s favorite pillow and a couple of books from the nightstand too, just in case. She was still a month from being due. But that would be okay, right? Eight months and a week were long enough for the baby to be okay?
He didn’t dare ask.
“Good boy, Stevie,” his mother managed to say in-between the gasping and laughing. “I’m sorry, I think I made a mess in the kitchen….”
He couldn’t believe she was worrying about that, now. “I’ll program the ‘bot to clean up, and follow you to the hospital.” They only had the one car, and the rail didn’t get all the way to the hospital yet, but Steven could walk fast and not get tired. ‘Don’t do anything important until I get there!”
His dad laughed, but his mom wouldn’t promise anything.
By Sunday, there wasn’t any more laughter.
His cousin Josh found him sitting on the outcrop of stones a mile from the housing complex where they lived. The other boy stood for a moment, waiting for an invitation. When none came, he folded himself compactly, curled his legs under him and sitting down on a nearby rock. They looked out over the road, two dark figures against the white rock. Traffic passed sporadically below them, the sound of engines competing with crickets’ chirping.
Steven stared out over the highway, the stone cold under his ass. “Yeah. That’s one way to describe it.” He didn’t believe in breaks. If he did, he might believe he had jinxed everything, they had all jinxed it by being happy, by thinking there was something good coming.
“What’re they going to do?” his cousin asked.
“Haven’t a clue.” Steven shrugged. “Maybe send her to Aunt Marty. We’d be able to see her, then, at least.” Marty was his mother’s half-sister, and had always kept in touch with his mother, when the rest of the family showed their disapproval of his father by not returning calls or inviting them to family gatherings.
Josh was his cousin on his father’s side. Everyone on his father’s side was Changed.
Dusk deepened further into a royal blue before Josh replied.
“The Wishnen’s did that. Send the baby to relatives, I mean. Kid told them not to come back, when he was old enough. Not a good scene.” Josh played with the frayed end of his jeans. A Jesusfreak had dragged him into a rehab booth last month, left red paint handprints all over his new pair of jeans. His mom was still pissed about that, like it was his fault or something. “You think you’re doing a good thing but you’re not. Not really. Everyone ends up hating everyone else.”
Steven’s hands curled, his fingertips leaving white indentations in his palm. “What do you suggest, then, huh? Drop her at a trash can and pray someone finds her in time?” He forced his hands open, then took off his sunglasses and stared at Josh. The clouded white pupils of his eyes were red-rimmed with stress and exhaustion. “She’s my sister, Josh. I sang to her, every night before she was born. I promised her I’d teach her how to climb trees, and ride a bicycle.” He swallowed hard. “I wish my folks had agreed to the amnio scan. I wish we’d known, from the very beginning.”
Knowing would have kept things from getting better, because better ended up worse.
Josh gestured helplessly, not knowing what to say. His wings were furled tightly at his back, giving him a hunchback shadow. The last time they had stood on the rocks together, they had been spread out to catch the first autumn breeze. He had looked like a human kite, spindly bones and translucent webbing. He had been laughing like a madman, and Steven had pushed him over the edge, just to see him soar up into the sky, and hear that laughter trail behind him like a tail.
“Come on, man.” Josh touched his arm gently, as though his thin fingers could make an impression on Steven’s skin. “Let’s go home. Your folks need you.”
“Yeah.” And that was the worst thing of all. Parents were supposed to be the strong ones. But he was the one who was strong. “Yeah I know. I just…give me a minute, okay? Tell ’em I’ll be there soon.”
He heard his cousin get up and leave, but the smell of his worry remained. Like anything could happen to Steven out here, anywhere. Unlike his sister, he could take care of himself.
Finally solitude and silence returned; leaving him alone with the thoughts that had driven him out here in the first place. Thoughts that chased each other in futile circles: never flagging, just… running around in circles until they exhausted themselves.
“Oh, Bethie,” he finally whispered. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair, baby. I was gonna teach you so much, so many things…”
He couldn’t teach her anything she needed to know. He didn’t walk in the world she was going to have to live in.
Eventually he got up and went home. The lights were out, except in the kitchen. He went up the stairs in the darkness, avoiding the step that creaked, and paused outside the closed door, the one with the twining roses painted on it, like something out of a fairy tale.
He had painted vines along the top of the walls and across the ceiling that day, tiny rosebuds and tinier thorns peeking out from under the leaves. The window had a tiny dragon perched on the edge, and a gnome waited by the closet door. His mother had laughed, and his father had shaken his head – “what if the baby’s a boy?” he had asked.
“Then I’ll paint a bigger dragon on the ceiling, eating the roses,” Steven had said.
There would be no dragons for Bethy. Not now.
He went down the hallway and into his own room, closing the door firmly behind him.
He woke up feeling like he hadn’t slept. The house was still quiet, and he didn’t hang around to make any noise, grabbing a cereal bar to eat on the way to school.
He met up with Josh and Susan on the front steps, same as always, like nothing had ever changed. Josh met his gaze then looked away. Susan hugged him, hard, but wouldn’t look him in the eye.
At least they were there. He nodded, not saying anything, and they went inside.
The entrance hall was a total scene. Mondays were like that, everyone had to tell everyone else about their weekend, the ones who’d spent the weekend together talking louder than everyone else. Josh dodged a freshman, who, jittered by the noise, accidentally released his knees too high and hit the ceiling, coming back down with a meaty thump.
“Man, that’s gotta hurt,” someone said from behind them.
“Not really,” the freshman said cheerfully. “Mostly you just feel stupid.” He bent down to rehinge his knees, testing them by bending forward and back, blocking the hallway.
“Frogger.” Josh looked back as they walked around him, eyes narrowed in amusement. “Haven’t had one of those around for a while. Bet Coach has a few words with him before Thanksgiving.”
“No takers,” Susan said, shaking her head. “He’s been looking for another Jumper since Maz graduated.” Froggers – Jumpers, if you were being polite – were a clarified Change; you knew what you got when the kid came out. No secondary surprises, like Josh, who had developed grappling hook-like claws on his wings when he hit puberty.
Steven turned while walking to watch the kid, surrounded by his friends while they waited impatiently for him to finish resetting his knees. The Frogger might be coach’s darling for a few seasons, but unless he was really good it wasn’t going to help him in the long run. College recruiters were coming after Normals, not the Changed. ‘Minority recruitment’ they said. “Government requirements,’ they said, and Steven’s father went on another rampage about quotas and how he was going to sue the colleges, who were they to keep his son from getting a scholarship….
Steven figured his grades were good enough to get him wherever he was going. And if not, that Army recruiter kept giving him the eye. They wanted his Change, bad enough to pay for it.
Someone careened into his path, colliding violently against his bulk. “Watch it, man,” he said in irritation, shifting the book bag slung over his shoulder and glaring at the offender. Josh’s wings flared slightly at the commotion, an involuntary reaction that made the other student back up, stammering excuses.
Steven pitied Normals for their useless, unChanged bodies, hated them for their reactions to the Changed, ranging from fear to curiosity to too–intense fascination, worried about them, for being so easily breakable. But mostly he avoided them. Ignored them.
But that was before. Before his little sister was born. So pink and tiny and helpless in her cradle. It was a physical pain to think of her. So perfect. So Normal.
Homeroom was its usual pointless exercise. Steven and Josh and his lady Melly sat in the back. So long as they didn’t cause trouble Mr. Babcock pretty much left them alone
“I’m so sorry,” Melly said. “Josh told me.”
Steven shot his cousin a glare of toxic proportions.
“Sorry man, but it’s not like you’re going to keep it a secret. People gonna talk. That’s the way the world is.”
“The world sucks,” Melly said, her hand reaching out to curl around his in commiseration. Her skin was slippery–rough, like a snake’s, and she shimmered faintly when sunlight touched her. A minor Change, but enough to mark her.
“Yeah, suckage, there’s a news flash.” She’d gotten jumped, back when they were in junior high. Group of Jesusfreaks, wanting to see if she’d regrow a limb if they cut one off. She still carried a scar on her leg, a long ugly slice. The docs tried to get her to repair it but she wouldn’t. “A reminder,” she’d said. Steven hadn’t understood it then, didn’t now. Wasn’t the kind of thing you ever forgot, was it?
Jesusfreaks and Thumpers, and government regs about minority recruitments, they were all trying to turn the world back into what it had been before.
Steven didn’t remember a world Before. Neither did his parents. The Dragon Virus was, simple as that. It had been around for generations, digging itself deeper into their DNA, making Changes, and if nobody knew what caused it, they sure as hell weren’t going to figure out how to stop it.
Every generation, and fewer and fewer Normals being born.
So why them? Why Bethie?
A week went by. Steven stayed out of the house as much as he could, missing dinners, leaving early for school. His parents didn’t question him, barely even noticed. The lines were back on his mother’ forehead. His dad’s temper was even quieter, like he was walking on eggshells inside.
Contrary to Josh’s prediction, nobody asked about his new sister. If they had, he couldn’t have answered them. He didn’t go into her room, couldn’t stand to be near her.
When the telepreacher’s show was piped over the system at their favorite hangout, he got up and left.
It was like that for two weeks. Two godawful weeks of pretending everything was…normal.
“Did you hear?”
They were lazing in the sunlight outside during lunch period. Susan, Josh, Melly, Steven, and Wicker. Steven sat off to the side, picking at the bread of his sandwich. Wicker had the news, dancing up and down on his skinny–bone legs.
“Pauly and whatshisname, the guy he hangs with. Couple-five Norms jumped ’em after school.”
That go everyone’s attention, and Josh stopped playing with Melly’s black braids long enough to roll over on the table and look at Wicker in disbelief. “You’re shitting me!”
“‘So help me, s’true. Pauly says he was just walking home and they came howling at him and – Terrence, that’s his name.”
Steven recalled Terrence then – almost as skinny as Wicker, no obvious Change until you looked into his eyes and your own reflection looked back. Silvered eyes, could see in pitch black even better’n a cat. His dad grew up with a bunch of Internals like that, but that was the old days, when they still tried to modify the obvious mutes, or hide them.
“What do you think happened? Three’ are still in the hospital. Cops are calling it self-defense.”
“Well duh, it was.” Susan dismissed the news and went back to her California roll.
“They don’t get the fact that we’re stronger than they are,” Melly said sadly.
John curled his hand back into her hair and pulled her to him for a kiss, while Steven looked at Wicker, who was still dancing with joy of having had gossip first. Some day they will, he thought suddenly. Some day they will get it. And god help us all, then.
Friday, there was nowhere else to go. He came home reluctantly, walking into the aftermath of another argument. Ugly weight in the air, the echoes of crying, shouting. The scent of exhaustion heavy everywhere. Nowhere to run, no way to get around it.
“You’re going to do this, aren’t you?” He tried not to sound accusing, but his mom flinched anyway.
“Steven. Please. My sister can give her a better life than we can.”
“Bullshit.” His voice cracked. “If we’re going to do this, be honest about it. You don’t want to look at her and think-”
“And think what?” his father interjected, his temper rising like a snake. “That she’ll grow up to hate us? That she’ll blame us for being different?”
Steven looked up into his father’s face; the years of living in a Normal world etched on a face that otherwise hid his Changes underneath. Anger repressed until it exploded, or ate him from within. Steven couldn’t afford anger.
“Or that we’ll grow to hate her,” he said quietly, instead. “Hate her for being different.”
Bias crimes were on the rise. He’d checked in the library after school that day, after his moment of clarity, idle curiosity that came back now to haunt him. A 48% jump in the past three years. It was getting worse. Lines were being drawn; the ones who used to pass, like his parents, being forced to choose when they were outed by former friends, disowned by family on the other side of the line.
And in the background, when you really read what was going on, you saw wars brewing, a Science race to find the cure, eating up everything else the money might have been doing. Other countries, without the money, without the media, not treating their Changed even half so well. Telepreachers everywhere, spewing bile the Normals fed on, even as the number of Changed grew.
“China…” he started to say, when his mother interrupted him, her voice sharp and low. “Don’t talk about China. Don’t even think about it.”
Denial. His parents were heavy into denial. Don’t talk about it and you can pretend it’s not staring you in the face. All the stuff going on, all the stuff coming down.
His social history teacher had been the only one who would talk to him about it. She was sixty if she was anything, and she looked like a turtle with her narrow neck, sharp nose, dry-looking skin. But she was honest. Painfully so.
“The first generation was extreme, but almost all of them died. The virus was a dead end, so they could afford to be kind to the children who lived. And then when the second and third were minor and survivable – It’s almost like it learned. Slow down, let people get used to it, then wham!”
“Yes, you.” Her turtle eyes were sad.
“Sucks to be us.” It would hurt, he thought, if it wasn’t so funny. We’re the freaks, but the Normals are the ones who’re protected.
“It won’t always. Suck to be you, I mean.”
That sounded like the usual teacher spew. “You really think there’s a future? Honestly?”
“Honestly?” She paused to consider it. “Humanity has always adapted. That’s what you are, an adaptation. The fact that there are clarified Changes, that a doctor can identify a specific strain on a birth certificate, can treat and diagnose and predict treatment for specific Changes…
“There’s always a future, Steven. We just never know what it’s going to look like.”
He left his parents to their argument and went up into his room. He couldn’t stand it any more, the silence and the fighting and the knowing what’s coming and not admitting it, not acknowledging it, like there was some way to turn it all away.
There’s always a future.
Nobody ever said it wasn’t going to suck.
A Thumper telepreacher – not the one on tv, a smaller, meaner one – came to town that weekend. He had a permit, a tour bus, and a platform they built quickly out of prefab wood, stringing lights and a speaker to it with practiced ease. Stirring up trouble was what he was there for, him with his bus load of followers, waving signs, thumping their Bibles and getting into peoples’ faces, hogging the camcrews that showed up to cover the scene.
But things didn’t go the way the telepreacher wanted. Maybe the camspeaker didn’t ask the right questions, show preacherman the right deference. Or maybe he just got into the wrong face at the wrong time. Steven wasn’t there, he was in school, he didn’t know. The newsfeed that night just showed the aftermath: bodies flat on the pavement, blood pooled and signs broken. A riot, they said. A brawl. An unfortunate incident, but even the crazies have their right to speak in public.
Seven dead: preacherman and four of his followers, two locals who joined in. A cop and one of the camcrew were being treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
The dead were all Normals.
The general feeling in school the next day was that they got what was coming to them. Anyone who felt different stayed low and quiet.
A quiet that you could feel burn the air.
Steven sat at his desk in homeroom and let the gossip wash over him. His left hand played with a gel-pen, tapping it against the desk until the teacher, disturbed by the noise, made him stop.
Sunlight came in through the window, touching the mint-green paint and turning it the color of spring grass. Tiny mica sparks glinted in the roses, and made the dragon’s eye seem to glow.
The baby lay in the crib, pale pink fists clenched over the blanket. Three months old. Her face was scrunched, her scalp covered by a faint dusting of pale brown hair. Steven touched one fist, watching in astonishment as the perfect little fingers uncurled and curled again. His hand looked so rough next to hers, the hard, weathered skin making her seem even more delicate. He had trimmed his nails close before coming in, and he still moved carefully, afraid of scratching her pinkness.
“Hello, Bethie. Remember me?”
One scrunched up eye opened, pale blue staring up at him as though he could actually see and recognize him. She was perfect. Utterly, astonishingly perfect. She could be the poster child for the old Pure Gene Law, from her tiny toes to her sweetly rounded ears.
Steven picked her up, carefully cradling his sister’s head in the crook of his arm, and rocked her gently.
“Five farmers went to market, to market to market. Five farmers went to market, o, with a pig under their arms…” He had sung that song to her while she was in the womb. Blue eyes blinked sleepily, and he could almost swear that he saw her smile at him.
Walking around the room, he kept singing. “The pig went to table, to table to table. The pig went to table and the farmers had none.” They were standing by the changing table when he finished, and his gaze lifted almost against his will to the mirror on the wall.
“The troll and the princess” he said softly. His strain was called the Rock Change. Tough enough that the army would add a pay grade if he’d enlist when he graduated.
“Troll” was his nickname in grade school, where he was the only Rock in his year.
At the hospital, when they put Bethany in her bassinet, behind glass for everyone to watch but not touch, Steven saw four Rock Change babies in the rows next to her.
Thumpers said he was damned, said they were all damned, all the Changed.
Maybe the Thumpers were right, and this world was already hell, humanity descended into wolfpacks, fur smelling of brimstone, ready to tear at each other for one small patch of land, some small claim to being top dogs, the only real dogs….
“And now it is upon us, the cost of our inactivity, the wages of our damnation, that our children must suffer it, and we shall suffer for our inaction at their hands!”
He put his sister down and risked touching her perfect pink forehead with his lips.
“I love you, Bethie. Remember that. Always remember that.”
Wolves took care of their own, the old and the sick, the weak and the doomed. Wolflings should do the same. So he picked up the tiny pillow, and did what had to be done.
Laura Anne Gilman is the author of the Cosa Nostradamus books for Luna (the “Retrievers” and “Paranormal Scene Investigations” series), a YA trilogy for HarperCollins, and the forthcoming Vineart War books from Pocket, as well as almost thirty short stories, including “Illumination,” forthcoming in the anthology UNUSUAL SUSPECTS (12/08).Laura Anne lives in New York City. Find her on-line at suricattus.livejournal.com and www.sff.net/people/lauraanne.gilman
Story © 2008 Laura Anne Gilman. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish