This spring’s round robin is Red, a young-adult dystopian story about a mysterious young girl…
The red-haired girl came to me in my dream again last night. Like before, the sight of her was terrifying. Flaming hair curled and blew in the wind, like fire reaching into the night. Unnatural. Unholy.
At least, that’s what the elders said. The child borne of fire will be the destruction of the Fifth Society.
It was always the same. She ran through the dark woods. Branches reached for her, like the bones of the dead grasping for some spark of life.
I was always a specter in these dreams. She fled past me. Her chest pumping in and out, face flushed, the smell of the sun captured in her long hair as it whipped my face. This time, it was different.
She stopped right in front of me, her deep green eyes shining with tears. My throat constricted and my fingers went cold. Within her eyes I could see panic. She reached out, lacing her fingers through mine.
“I need you, Ezra,” her voice husky despite the fact that she couldn’t be older than sixteen. “Find me.”
She clasped her free hand on mine, enveloping me in her touch. Images flooded in rapid succession, chopped bits of what they used to call movies, swirling in a discordant array of pictures. She released me and continued her flight.
I sat up in bed, gasping for air. My hair clung to my forehead and I broke out in goose pimples when the winter air hit my bare skin. The window to the east was still dark; it would be several hours before it was time to check on the cattle. A snore rattled from the far corner of the room. At least my nightmare didn’t wake my twin brother Asher.
But was it really a nightmare? No matter what legend tells us, I never felt afraid of the red-haired girl. Quite the opposite. I felt drawn to her.
The wet pillow greeted my head when I sank back into bed.
I tried to talk about the dreams once to my Grammy. Thunderstorms raged outside while we hunkered down in the root cellar. Asher shook with each rumble of thunder, and she told us stories of the old days to distract us.
“When my grandmother was a little girl, people lived in huge cities with skyscrapers nearly touching the sun,” she said, her voice taking on the sing-song quality of a child. “And there were so many people.” She dropped her voice to a conspirator’s whisper. “My Grammy even claimed to know a red-haired, but she swore us to secrecy. You know how the elders get worked into a lather over these things.”
She made it sound like something as simple as spilled milk. Grammy dismissed the elders’ prophecy as something she called “malarkey,” but others held their breath at each birth, praying that the child is born with a head full of dark hair. If she’s born bald, mothers nurse their babes with tears in their eyes, fearing that at the slightest hint of the red hue their child will be ripped from their arms and sacrificed to the gods.
I rolled to my side, watching the orange light creep to the window.
How did she live this long? And, how do I find her?
Asher hunched over the breakfast table, spooning small mountains of scrambled eggs into his mouth as if he’d just come home from a three day fasting pilgrimage to the temple of Saint Palin. A mug full of milk, fresh from our morning chores in the barn, disappeared in a series of quick gulps, and Asher refilled it from the stoneware pitcher Momma had set next to him on a yellowing crochet doily.
I wasn’t hungry. Last night’s dream had left me with anxious nerves and an unsettled stomach. Flashes of fiery red seemed to dance just beyond the edges of my peripheral vision, and I couldn’t help but feel like there was something important I’d forgotten to do.
Momma reached out from her constant spot over the stovetop and ran her fingers through Asher’s hair. It was a routine gesture, my brother was the youngest after all, but she’d never touched my head like that and watching her pull the dark curls away from his eyes always made me feel like an outsider. I was born first. Asher came minutes after, smaller and feeble. Momma called him her miracle – her blessing, and she’d fussed over him for as long as I could remember.
“What do you boys have planned for today?” Grammy settled herself down slowly into the chair next to me. Momma handed her a cup of hot tea, and Grammy thanked her.
“Goin’ into town,” Asher mumbled through a mouthful of buttered toast. “Elder Thomas found a crate of artifacts when he was plowing his north field last week, and Billy Thomas is gonna show us what was inside.”
“Is that so now …” Grammy wrapped her hands around the honey jar and twisted, but her knuckles were swollen with arthritis and her grip slipped. I took the jar and opened it for her. “Isn’t that something,” she smiled.
“We’re going to Elder Mitchell’s place,” I looked at Asher hard until he looked up and met my gaze. “You know we promised to help with the chores until he’s back on his feet.”
Asher groaned and kicked at me under the table.
“Now there’s Ezra,” Grammy winked at me. “Always helpin and leadin the way. Just like his Daddy. Don’t you think so Mary?”
Momma stilled over the stovetop, her hands hovering uncertainly in mid-air. She turned her profile to me, nodded once, and then turned away.
When Asher and I made it into town, the square was crowded with people pressing in, breaths smoky in the cold morning air, for a better view of something I could not see. Small children sat on their father’s shoulders, and one of Billy Thomas’s little brothers scampered up a nearby lantern post and clung tightly with his bare feet. Somewhere nearby, a woman was weeping.
Elder Thomas rose above the crowd and began to speak.
“My Brothers. My Sisters. We know we must always be watchful.” His voice was grave and the pit of my stomach suddenly seemed to fill with lead. “Evil has once again crept in among us.”
Beside me, Asher craned his neck. “Is it a burning?” He tugged at the sleeve of the Grandfather standing next to him. “It’s a burning, isn’t it?” The old man nodded somberly.
Somewhere ahead, the woman’s crying rose to a breathless keening.
“The evil that seeks to destroy our way of life,” Elder Thomas’s voice rolled over the silent crowd. “The same evil that seeks to destroy the very fabric of our Fifth Society is relentless in its greedy desire to find its way in to our paradise. Do not let your hearts be weakened. The destroyer cloaks itself in the disguise of a child, but it is no innocent babe. It is the poison that will choke you.”
Murmurs of assent swept through the crowd. Behind Elder Thomas, a cloud of black smoke began to rise and the scent of burning timber filled the air.
“It is the poison that will annihilate everything that you’ve struggled so hard to protect. It is the snake that slithers in the quiet of the night to murder your children. Brothers! Sisters! Join me in protecting our way of life!”
Someone lifted a bundle to Elder Thomas’s hands and a shock of fine red hair flashed to the crowd. Cries of terror rang out.
“Join me in putting an end to this abomination! Raise your voices in prayer to the gods that watch over our Society. Let our offering be proof of our devotion – proof of our worthiness!”
The crowd cried out as one, and Elder Thomas raised the white bundle high over his head.
My stomach rolled. This wasn’t my first burning, but suddenly the act seemed all wrong and a foulness closed in on me. I turned to Asher, ready to pull him into a quick escape, but his expression stopped me cold. His eyes were afire, his lips quivering with zealous fascination.
“Asher.” I took his hand. “Let’s go home.”
“Wait.” He shook me off.
Ahead, the woman began to scream, and I ran away.
I ran till I thought my chest would explode. Asher gave chase yelling at me. The adrenaline from the burning and the stark vision of those shocks of crimson locks and those tiny green eyes peering out from the tiny blanket, made me run like a hunted gazelle in the throes of desperation with a lion snapping at his hindquarters. Faster, faster, faster.
There in the clearing, beyond the highway I could see the forest that led to Elder Mitchell’s place. Maybe redemption or relief or just some sense of justice for the deed just witnessed, came in the form of helping Elder Mitchell. His place seemed like an attractive sanctuary and respite from the nightmarish vision of an infant’s tender flesh, shamrock green eyes and flash of red hair… frying alive.
I reached the edge of the forest.
As I looked back at Asher breathing hard and giving a valiant chase, I saw the plume of light gray smoke billow up toward the daunting sky. The baby was burning. I heard a strange song in my head.
Red Skies At Night. I heard the strains of the ancient melody my Grammy once sang to me; a song from a generation lost long ago to time and hate. I wished longingly that I could have heard that song and the lyrics my Grammy knew so well, knew by heart, knew the meaning. Somehow I heard the music.
A red dawn awaits, I mused as I stared skyward at the dissipating smoke; from a world gone wrong because of a puzzling mistrust and misunderstanding of color.
I heard a collective nauseating gasp and the contented sigh of an entranced crowd of “reddist” onlookers, staring in dismayed splendor and horrified gratitude at a baking baby. Fright and bliss. Why?
Elder Thomas gazed out over the landscape of humanity and burning flesh. He raised his hands and arms slowly, palms up, eyes squeezed tightly, mouth pursed, nose flaring with the pride of power over the mass of sheep that watched the infanticide of carnage.
Asher caught up to me at the edge of the dark forest.
I turned and started to run again but paused. The thick trees and dense underbrush would not allow a dead sprint. I decided against the pointless fleeing from the burning flesh and my trusted brother. He breathlessly wobbled closer to me, weaving and panting with oxygen deprived lungs. Having been the second child, he always had trouble with movement, dexterity and coordination. I took pride in the fact that I was stronger and faster than he. But he is kin, my brother and I love him dearly. I dare not flaunt my prowess.
“Ezra, we have to go back.”
“No!” I roared. “Never. I will not be part of the “reddist” propaganda we have been force fed all our lives. I cannot bear witness to the elders’ prejudice, nonsense and lies anymore. They are trying to control us Asher, not make a point or help us. It’s “reddism” Asher, and I’m tired of it. It must stop.”
“Well…” Asher had both hands on his knees, panting. “I don’t…” he gasped again. “We have to… I…”
“No!” I interrupted, turned and ran into the forest but slowed when I heard the body thump of Asher’s collapse. I looked back at him lying face down in the dirt, leaves and brush.
“Asher. Asher what’s wrong?” I moved back out of the trees slowly and walked toward him.
“Get up Ash, we gotta go to Elder Mitchells.” I grabbed his arm and looked at his sallow ashen face. He struggled to breathe, coughed, then wheezed, then spat. His eyes had sunk back under his eyelids. His body trembled, twitched and then the tremors began. He shook more and more violently as I stood staring in helpless horror at my baby brother.
“Ash, c’mon. What’s wrong.”
He stared up at me for a second. His eyes peeled back into his skull again.
I looked back for help at the town crowd now beginning to dispel from the flesh burning feast for the eyes. The people were walking away quietly and quickly and I thought briefly of running back for help.
“Asher, please.” I shook him. “Get up. Please get up!” I gasped and tried to think but the sensory overload of this and the red flames I had just witnessed made my head spin and swirl in confused anxiety. I could feel the panicked tears beginning to stream down my cheeks. No crying. Nope, not allowed.
Too late. My mouth was wide open but my brain was closed for business.
I grabbed Asher, who was now lying on his back. I began to hug him tightly on the ground in panicked hysteria when I heard the soft, breezy voice.
“Is he ok?”
I looked up and let go of Asher and gazed around.
“I can help him.”
Again, I heard the voice but couldn’t find it. Where?
“He really needs help.”
Nothing. I froze.
“He’s not breathing.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“It’s ok. I will help him.”
I turned around. It took a second of shock and awe to process what I saw. This time it was no dream and I was no specter. There she stood right in front of me. Real this time. Her.
I looked into sapphire eyes that made my heart skip.
Ezra. The boy from my dreams.
He said nothing as his gaze darted from me to his brother. “Help,” he whispered.
I needed to move.
It’d been foolish to come out into the open. There had been nothing I could do for the baby, anyway. But my heart broke nonetheless.
I’d watched helplessly amongst the crowd, cloak as wrapped as tightly as I could get it, the small spell disguising my hair color—which was a death sentence just as it had been for the tiny child the Elders murdered before my eyes. I’d prayed to the Goddess over and over that my magic would hide me.
The babe’s mother howled, on her knees next to the pyre, but she did nothing to stop the Elders. Magic could have helped the poor mother, but the Goddess wouldn’t have liked it if I’d helped the woman who’d failed to save her child.
Never in my wildest dreams had I fathomed running into my savior this day.
Mother’s visions always spoke of the greatness Ezra would be responsible for. The changes of our world he would fight for. The very basis of the Fifth Society would be overturned.
How could it be possible?
The blue eyes and mussed dark hair held a rakish innocence. And he was no older than my own seventeen years.
Right now, panic and grief—and disbelief was all I could sense as he stared.
That I could do something about with forbidden magic.
I could save his brother.
“Please…” Ezra whispered.
I knelt and rested a hand on the boy’s chest. Asher lay far too still on the ground. I knew his names from my dreams.
He was my savior’s twin, though shorter, thinner. His hair was the same dark hue as the older twin, but curly where Ezra’s was straight.
They had the same startling blue eyes.
I concentrated, calling the magic from the air. My chest tightened as I forced open Asher’s lungs, took his pain.
Struggling for breath, I panted as my own lungs refused the air I needed.
Asher sat up and fell into a coughing fit.
My knees gave out and I landed on my rear end. The wind kicked up, Mother Nature’s very real protest that I still couldn’t breathe. As one of her daughters, she needed me to live.
“Asher!” Ezra’s shout—part panic, part relief—made me fight even harder to heal.
I couldn’t die before I got the chance to help my savior. In order for Ezra to achieve his destined greatness, I had to be at his side.
The goddess had spoken. Mother and I always listened.
Warm calloused hands cupped my face and I raised my lashes to meet Ezra’s sapphire eyes. His cheeks were flushed pink and my belly flipped.
Odd. What does that mean?
Mother always used the word fated when she spoke of me and Ezra, but I’d never fully understood it.
“Are you all right? I don’t know what you did. You…saved my brother’s life.”
“Heretic,” Asher spat.
Alarm washed over me and I shoved Ezra’s hands away from my face. I needed to get up. I needed to run.
“Ash,” Ezra spat, ignoring my protests. He gripped my upper arm and hauled me to my feet before turning to his brother. “She saved your life, brother.”
“Magic is forbidden.” Asher crossed his arms over his thin chest, a frown firmly in place.
Standing side by side, the boys looked like an older and younger version of one another, even though I knew them to be twins. Their faces were the same, but Asher appeared more thirteen than his true age.
“Asher.” Ezra’s voice was hard.
“I’m going to Elder Mitchell’s.” The younger twin turned on his heel, starting to cross the vast field that led to the vast farm across the way.
Only the barn was visible from where we stood at the edge of the woods.
“Asher,” Ezra called. “Don’t tell Elder Mitchell what happened!”
Tremors chased each other down my spine when the ungrateful boy didn’t even glance over his shoulder.
“Goddess,” I whispered. Panic clawed at me from the inside out.
If he tells, I’m dead.
Ezra turned to me. “I don’t know how to thank you for saving my brother. He is my momma’s light. If he was taken…”
I panted, unable to process the words coming out of my savior’s mouth. Couldn’t speak. My tongue was thick, glued to the roof of my mouth. Clutching my cloak around me, I chanted the spellwords that made my hair appear as dark brown as Ezra’s.
Venturing from the caves was a mistake. I cannot be discovered.
“Hey.” His voice, deep for a boy of sixteen or seventeen, had my eyes shooting to his face. When Ezra’s hands landed on my shoulders, I didn’t pull away. I couldn’t. “He won’t tell. You don’t have to worry.”
I forced a nod.
“Thank you for saving him.” Ezra shook his head. A smile played at his lips and my heart fluttered. “I keep repeating myself. Sorry. And I don’t even know your name.”
“Edana.” The truth fell from my lips. A soft breeze caressed my face. The Goddess herself approved. It should’ve made me feel better.
Ezra’s face paled. The apple of his throat bobbed and the grip on my shoulders tightened. “My dreams.”
Shock washed over me and my pulse pounded in my temples.
Ezra has been dreaming of me, too?
Conflicted feelings of anger and gratitude shot through Asher’s veins like the heat and cold of a fever, something he was far more used to from years of suffering health. For as long as he could remember, he watched his twin run and play with the children of neighbors while Momma fussed over him, running her fingers through his hair and admiring him as one would a porcelain doll, fearing irreversible damage at the slightest force.
He pushed the wheelbarrow of grain to the animal pens, eyes staring longingly at the ax imbedded in the chopping stump. The bigger chores always went to Ezra. “Man’s work,” the elders called them. Even Elder Thomas, who had always taken a shine towards Asher.
Lacking the physique of his twin, Asher worked diligently in his studies, desperate for any piece of old-world literature his fingers could find, eyes could caress. The way his peers would stare at the budding figures of females, he would admire the written word of a world long destroyed.
Ezra still hadn’t joined him by the time the animals had been fed and the wheelbarrow returned to the shed. His eyes lingered on the forsaken ax, an irrational urge to prove himself causing his heart to beat a bit faster. Tongue flicked dryly across his lips, eyes darted left and right in search of opposition. None being found, Asher approached the ax, loving the way his fingers slid across the friction-worn wood of the handle.
Letting a long-held breath escape his lips, he pulled he ax from its resting place, tested its weight, then held it high above his head.
“Put that thing down before you hurt yourself, boy! That’s man’s work.” Elder Mitchell stood at the end of the field beside a smirking Billy Mitchell. The older boy delighted in Asher’s constant berating in the eyes of the elders and family. “Billy, go handle that for young Asher and send him to retrieve the wash.”
As if I can’t hear him for myself, Asher fumed.
Billy met him at the chopping block, set a large piece of wood on top, and took the ax from Asher. “Let a man show you how it’s done,” he leered before lifting the blade high and bringing it down in a clean slice through the block. “Just like that, kid.”
Satisfied with the show, Elder Mitchell turned and headed back into the farmhouse. Billy watched him leave, then thrust the ax forcefully at the Asher’s mid-section, knocking some wind from the smaller boy. Placing another block atop the stump, he stepped back and said, “Alright, Ash. Swing away.”
The excitement returned. Ax in hand, he raised it high and brought it down, just as he had seen Billy do. Just as he had watched Ezra do time and again, always imagining it was him. The swing ended in a hard thunk. The head of the ax was buried in the block, but hadn’t broken through. He looked questioning to Billy.
“Swing again.” He did as he was told. The blade went deeper, but still didn’t split. “One more time. Good and hard.”
Asher brought the block-weighted ax above his head and swung down with all of his might, turning his head at the last second as a splinter of wood came flying for his face. When he looked again, the block lay in two pieces on either side of the stump. “I did it,” he laughed to himself, smile plastered across his face.
“Yeah, yeah. Good for you. Don’t go getting’ a big head or nothin’,” Billy teased, taking the ax back from him. “Now run along and fetch the laundry. The sooner we get done here, the sooner I can show you some of the stuff we found in the field.”
That was enough to get him running. Excitement from more old world objects, hopefully a new book, distracted him from the stinging in his palms. It was almost enough to make him forget the girl. Almost.
He reached the clothesline and started plucking the laundry from the line, folding each article neatly before laying it in the wide wicker basket. It wasn’t the girl that bothered him so much as the scene itself. He’d had asthmatic episodes before, but not like this one. It was far too sudden to be normal. It even had a smell to it, like the scent of burning licorice intertwined with some unfamiliar but pungent herb. Worse was the darkness. Not the cold darkness of night or of restless sleep. There was heat in it. Searing fire. Choking smoke.
And then it was magically lifted. Brought back from the clutches of death by some girl. A girl using forbidden magic. A girl with a head full of dark hair, but the most vibrant green eyes he’d ever seen. A girl who just happened to be there when he was struck. A girl who had already stolen the attention of his brother.
Fire burned through his veins as he pieced events together. Looking up, he realized he’d already collected every last bit of laundry. Asher scooped the basket and darted off to where Billy would be waiting for him. The only person who would understand. The only person who would believe him. The only person who shared the dreams.
The Goddess that nearly destroyed civilization was returning despite the sacrifices. No. Not returning. Still here. Now she was seducing his brother. And Asher would bet his secret stash of books that she was looking to finish what she started.
The next time Asher saw Ezra, he was hiding in the edge of the woods, eyes pleading. Did you tell? Asher shook his head, and relief spread across Ezra’s face.
“She’s gone,” Ezra whispered to him as they walked home. “I told her to go far away, and she left.”
I know you too well, brother, Asher thought. You can’t lie to me.
That night, Asher lay still in bed until Ezra arose and snuck out into the midnight darkness. Fully dressed, Asher flung the covers away and followed as quickly as he could behind Ezra’s dim lamplight. He knew exactly where Ezra was going.
Asher stopped when he reached the edge of the clearing where they’d seen the girl. His brother stood in the center, whistling towards the far trees. In moments the girl emerged.
Lights floated around her like will-o-wisps, illuminating dew on the ankle-length grass like tiny diamonds. She grasped Ezra’s hands tightly and spoke too softly for Asher to hear. They laughed, then turned and walked hand-in-hand in the direction she’d come. Before they disappeared into the gloom, Ezra bent and kissed her, and she melted in his clasp.
It’s always the same, Asher thought. She looks at him like all the girls do. Like Maggie does. Maggie looked at Asher with pity, like a sick child. His heart pounding, Asher came to a decision.
The next morning after chores, Asher practically ran to the home of Elder Thomas. The elder looked up from his holy book as Asher approached.
“Young Asher, what can I do for you this morning?” Elder Thomas always welcomed his company. Unlike the others, he had patience for Asher’s endless questions.
“Who are the reds?” Asher asked through heavy breaths. Please, don’t happen now. Elder Thomas waited as Asher fought for control, until the air again passed normally into his lungs.
“Why, you know that, Asher,” the elder said, studying him through narrowed eyes. “They’re an affront to God, demons put on the earth to assail us.”
It’s now or never. Asher breathed in deeply, leaned towards the elder and whispered, “I know about the sacrifice.”
Elder Thomas regarded him in the same way teacher did when he’d answered her question in an unexpected way. Asher waited, breathless, knowing he’d just admitted to reading forbidden books.
Endless moments passed before Elder Thomas nodded and rose from his chair. “Close the door behind you,” he said, and stomped inside.
Asher followed, and the door was barely shut when the elder spun around and snarled, “What do you know?”
Shaking, Asher replied, “just that sometime after the fall, the reds came and wiped out most of the remaining people. We gave them children, and they stopped.” It was all he could risk saying.
Elder Thomas paused as if considering his options, then his features relaxed. “You have some of it, but not all. You are unique among your peers, Asher. It’s time you knew the full truth.”
Asher stood at attention as the elder sat in front of him.
“They came a few years after the fall. Maybe they caused it. They’d raid our villages, taking our children and killing any who fought back. Our weapons were almost worthless against them – arrows always fell off mark, even from our best archers. And even if you killed one, they’d rise minutes later as if the very air around them had brought them back to life. The only way to make sure they were dead was to burn them.”
Asher’s mouth broke into a feigned O, as if shocked. I already know this. I read your journals. He hardly dared look towards his true interest, staring at the ground and concentrating at the edge of his vision. There, on the floor. The rug hangs down just a little bit.
The elder continued, oblivious to Asher’s intentions. “When my father was just a little older than you, they came, but this time they issued an edict: give them a hundred children younger than ten as a sacrifice to their goddess, and we would be preserved. We don’t have a hundred, we pled, but they laughed at us. So we stole children from the neighboring villages. We gave them to the reds, and they have not returned since.
“But the children have.”
Asher’s widened eye’s shot to meet the elder’s. This, he hadn’t known.
“They use their dark magic to cloud the minds of our women, pretending to be their husbands, and then join with them in unholy union, the offspring sharing both their magic and the red hair of their captors. This is why we must kill every red-haired child.”
Asher’s jaw tightened at the news, and Elder Thomas returned a pleased look at his reaction. Placing his hands on Asher’s shoulders, the elder gazed down on him and said, “You’re a clever boy, Asher. One day, you will have my position. The reds will return and it will be up to you to protect the rest.”
“And what can we do?” Asher asked, holding his breath.
“We will be ready for them this time,” The elder said, reflexively glancing towards the spot on the floor for a split second. I was right.
Elder Thomas led Asher to the door, stopping right before he opened it. “Tell no one of this,” he ordered.
Asher walked away until out of the elder’s sight, and then broke into a run. He was breathless yet again by the time he found Billy.
“I need your help,” he gasped.
An hour later, he hid outside Elder Thomas’s house as Billy led the elder out into the fields. He snuck through the front door as no one was looking and found his way to the mysterious spot on the floor. Pulling the rug back, he was disappointed at first to find only floorboards, but after some investigation found a loose spot. He lifted one board, and then another until the hidden cache was revealed. About four feet deep, it was filled with ancient artifacts, but these he had never seen. Long, cylindrical items leaned against the side, elsewhere were stacked boxes marked “U.S. Army”.
One box sat just within reach. Asher fumbled with the unfamiliar latches until they snapped open and gazed at its contents. A dozen silver objects, handle on one end and the other a slightly flared openeing. Asher gasped. Just like I read in the books. He lifted one and stuffed it under his shirt, then quickly closed the box and replaced the boards and carpet. Quietly, he peered outside, making sure nobody was watching, and dashed out.
Slowing down to not arouse suspicion, he made his way back towards the village center. He’d left just in time. Billy and Elder Thomas passed him on their way back from the fields, the latter’s face clenched. “You’re a fool, Billy Mitchell,” he grumbled.
“I promise, I saw that cow stuck in the fence, I don’t know how he got out,” Billy whined, tossing an unmistakable glance towards Asher. This had better be worth it.
After the village had fallen into sleep and Ezra had again stolen out to visit his forbidden love, Asher and Billy met beside the dwindling light of the communal fire. Asher pulled the object out and showed it to a wide-eyed Billy.
“What is it?” Billy asked.
“An ancient weapon. A plasma gun.”
“What does it do?”
Asher pointed it out into the darkness, one eye closed. “It burns.”
Billy stared at Asher, eyes full of awe and fear. Asher turned and studied the gun in the dim light, reflections of flames filling his eyes as if he was watching the entire world burn.
“They are brothers,” Malik said turning to the child at his side. Abena stared out the kitchen window, her blue eyes focused on the line of clothes flapping in the wind.
So like her mother, Malik thought. Like Tessia, Abena had a sprinter’s body, lean and muscular. At sixteen, she could run faster and longer than just about anyone in Sandstorm. Her hair, plaited from her crown in one fat braid, lay at the nape of her neck and flamed red like her mother’s. Unlike Tessia, whose smooth flawless skin was the color of espresso, like his own, Abena’s skin was café au lait, coffee with lots of milk.
“The skin color goes last,” Tessia had warned. “We are changing, becoming like them.”
But they would never become like them. Not if he had an ounce of strength left in his body. He dipped the plate in the clear water and handed it to Abena. She wiped the blue stoneware with a cloth until it squeaked.
His stomach muscles tensed, “Why do you ask about the brothers? “You are never to go there again, understand?” Her eyes widened and she looked away. He had frightened her. He had frightened himself. In a calmer voice, he said, “It’s too dangerous, Abena. Best you forget them. Best you forget all about that vile village.”
“They are not like the others, Papa. I felt it, especially from the older one.” Abena placed the dish in the cupboard and with long fingers, lifted the platter from the dish drain and wiped it vigorously. The village was all she thought about, that and saving the babies. Her dreams had begun a month ago. A red-haired girl visited her and asked for her help. The boys were somehow involved.
Malik’s brow furrowed. He knew it had been a mistake to take her to that village, the village of savages. Barbarians who killed their own children! Barbarians who stole other people’s children and killed them too! Heat rose in his face. He blew out his breath. Instinctively his gaze drifted to the two rocking chairs that sat in the corner near the dining table. Tessia had painted them blue and had sewed two teddy bears by cutting a pattern from his old blue flannel shirt and stuffing them with rags. Each chair held a bear instead of a child. Not now, he thought. Don’t go there now.
Abena watched her father. She saw him steal a glance at the toddler-sized rocking chairs: Kayin and Obi. Stolen from their beds before she was born and thrown in the fire like they were kindling. They had been two. She had not known them. She had not known her mother.
Malik dredged the soapy water bringing up a fistful of silverware. He dipped them in the clean water then placed them in a glass. After he dried his hands he ran them over his dark locks now entwined with gray.
“Sister Grayce has asked to see me tonight.” He walked through the kitchen to the living room and sat in the largest of the three chairs he had made. “She says it’s urgent. Do know what it’s about?” He picked up his flute from the rack on the wall and blew a few tentative notes. Embers danced in the fireplace.
Abena walked into the room and sat in the chair facing him. “She wants to ask you if I could start midwifery training.”
Malik’s fingers floated over the keys as he blew into the mouth hole. The fluid sound reminded Abena of swimming under a waterfall. He stopped playing. “You have one more year of school. Why the rush?”
“I can still finish my studies. I’m far ahead of all the other kids. Teacher and Miss Grayce said they would help me. I’d need to go to the special school.”
“Why am I just hearing about this? You spoke to everybody before coming to me?” He frowned at her. Why had he taken her to that village? Selling his tables, chairs, cutting boards and other things took him past the village every six weeks. Why did he stop this time?
Abena stood and put her arm around him, resting her cheek on the top of his head. She breathed in the smell of sandalwood from the oil he rubbed on his skin. “Papa, I was just thinking about midwifery. I wanted to get all the facts before coming to you.”
He patted her arm. “We’ll see, young lady, we’ll see.”
Abena woke to the sound of hushed, angry voices. She crept out of bed, the wood floor cold on her bare feet. She squatted near the door and cracked it open. The butterflies on her nightgown fluttered. “Shush!” she whispered and the wings stopped beating, the butterflies fading back into the cotton of her gown. She pressed her ear to the small opening in the door, listening as the adults talked.
“You’ve got to let her go.” Grayce turned from the fire, her dark eyes focused on him. She wore the head wrap and the blue, loose-fitting robe of the priestess. Malik felt her heat, but knew she wouldn’t resort to magic.
“Abena is my child. I decide what she will do.” He stood at the door, arms at his sides.
“No brother. The Goddess has decided.” Grayce lowered herself in the chair across from his and motioned for him to sit as well. Since she arrived and told him her business, he had stood near the door probably in hopes of ushering her back out. He clenched and unclenched his fists, but sat as she commanded.
“Abena is part of the plan. She knows it and so do you. Today midwifery means more than delivering babies. It means saving them.” She lowered her voice, “Another baby was killed in Windstorm.”
Malik held his head in his hands. “I cannot lose her. I cannot lose another child. Here she is safe.” Do you know what that means to a parent of a red-headed child?” He met her gaze. “Our compound is impenetrable. I want to keep her here.”
“You won’t lose her.” Grayce placed her hand on Malik’s back. “We’ll train her to fight. She’ll live at the school. What’s more we’ve found a protector for her. Gideon. He’s young, but fearless. She will survive and she will make a difference.”
Part 8: Aaron Kurz
Billy’s eyes opened wide, he thrust his pelvis in the air and jerked his head against a pillow. He screamed in a high pitch wail, “Reeeeeeeeeeeeeed! Re-reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed! Red everywhere! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed!”
Steps pounded against the wood floor outside. His door burst open and banged against the wall. His mother’s graying hair flew behind her. She ran to him and placed her hand on his forehead.
He sucked in air to yell again of the massive horrors in his nightmare.
His mom spoke softly, “No Billy, no. No reds here. Just me. Just the dreams again. The red witches can’t hurt you. The sacrifices weaken them, you know that.”
Billy exhaled as sweat ran down his cheeks. His eyes danced around his room, and then rested on his mom. She smiled lovingly and moved her hand from his head to his fingers. He clenched it.
“It’s okay Billy, it’s all over now. Let’s sing the song Saint Palin taught us all.”
He nodded and waited for his mom’s lips to move to match her tune, “Driiiiiiiiiiill. Drill baby driiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiill. Driiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiill, baby driiiiiiiiiiiill. Drill baby drill, keep the flow going! Drill baby drill, keep the flow goinnnnnng. Driiiiiiiill baby driiiiiiiiilllll.”
Billy pretended the comforting song put the sleep in his eyes like it normally did. But it didn’t work this night. He didn’t let it. He couldn’t ignore the horrors in his dreams anymore. Not with what Asher has read. Not with what Asher has saw. Not with the reds out there, ready to strike.
He waited patiently for his mother to return to bed before tip toeing to the window and crawling onto the seal. He crouched there, listening for movement in the night. He knew quenchers patrolled the village.
His ears reached out into the darkness and heard nothing but the chirping of bugs. He leapt from the window. A pinch of fear shot through his mind as his feet didn’t touch ground. His legs trembled as he landed hard from the underestimated jump. He squatted to avoid falling over, and remained there as he soaked in the surprise.
Intensity and fear gripped him as he lost his feeling of the empty night. Behind him, leaning against his house, a dark figure loomed. Billy slowly stood and turned toward the shadow.
It said, “You had the dream again too.”
Billy closed his eyes and tried to think away the pain of the vision. “Yes, but worse. Far worse. The time is nigh.”
“Yes. We must stop them. And, I know where they are. Ezra can’t trick his own brother.”
Billy nodded at Asher, feeling a little surprised at the feeble youngster’s strange confidence.
Asher patted something hard in his shirt. Billy held his breath. The weapon of fire.
A young man’s voice interrupted his thoughts, “Boys! What are you doing up!”
Billy glanced to see the curved hats of two quenchers standing in lamp light far away.
He grabbed his smaller friend, threw him over his shoulder, and ran for the trees. His legs pumped like a maid churning butter to avoid lazy-girl whippings. He slowed down slightly after he blew past the first trees.
Asher stuttered out from Billy’s back, “Turn left .”
The older boy, grimaced slightly at the weakling telling him what to do, but they had more important goals than keeping babies in their places. He ran left.
His mind flared at full alert, watching for any brushes or roots that would send them tumbling to the ground.
Billy turned and sprinted through the darkness for a moment longer.
He stopped, leaned Asher off of him, and glanced the way he came to see if anyone followed. Nothing but black filled his vision.
Asher’s steps crunched on the forest floor. “My brother, this way.”
The boys walked through the midnight forest until flickering light in the distance lit their path. As they approached, Asher crouched low. Billy followed suit. A deep female chuckle sounded from the fire.
They sneaked forward until they saw their targets. Ezra held both his hands in front of him, curling his fingers around a girl’s hand. Billy smirked. Ladies man.
Her gorgeous black hair hung curled from her head. The two of them stared into each other’s eyes. They leaned their faces toward one-another.
Billy glanced at Asher, who quivered angrily while stroking the plasma pistol through his shirt.
A sudden change forced Billy’s eyes back toward the couple. His brain floated high as his mouth gaped open. Her hair, it’s… it’s…
Asher whispered, “Red.”
He leapt toward them, “Red!”
Ezra and the girl jerked their heads toward the weak boy.
Asher yanked out his ancient weapon.
The girl took steps backward. Ezra stepped toward his brother. “Asher! What is that!? What are you doing here!?”
The youngster trembled, “I told you attention from the girls would lead to temptation. I never knew it would lead to the greatest temptation of the before times. The temptation of the books. The red lure!”
Strong fingers wrapped around Billy’s shoulders.
“Ah!” He flung an elbow. A crack and spray of blood came from behind. He leapt away and turned to see his attacker.
A quencher’s wavy hat shook in the air as the man grabbed his nose and jumped around in pain.
Behind him three more quenchers and Elder Thomas stepped out of the forest’s shadows.
From the corner of Billy’s eyes, Asher spun around in surprise.
A flash of fire and a terrifying high pitch noise burst from Asher. The injured man’s stomach exploded in flames of blood and fire. He fell to the ground. Asher shoved the weapon under his shirt. The other quenchers bravely ran forward, the elder behind them.
The front quencher yelled, “A fire witch has killed a defender of the Fifth Society!”
Thomas croaked, “Kill the red! Kill the traitor! Burn them both!”
Ezra’s spirit went from floating on air with the literal girl of his dreams, to the dark depths of his gut as he dreaded death or banishment.
A swoosh of air blew behind him. A red trail of hair flew in the wind. Like a muskrat dashing for the safety of a log, he sprinted after fiery hair.
The adrenaline pumping through his veins and the fear striking through his heart dampened the audio and vibrations of the deep rumble in the sky.
In the dark of the night, he saw nothing but the flickering of her hair. He followed it like a guiding light.
Her mutterings caught his ear, “Gideon, oh Gideon. By the red of the Goddess aid me.”
Ezra kept running through the great pain in his side.
Something small as a raccoon, but black as night leapt toward them. The red stream swung downward, hanging in perfect coils. Ezra struggled to stop himself from slamming into her.
She looked down into the darkness in front of her. Ezra dared to peak around her shoulders.
Billy covered his ears and stared at the tree canopy above with the other men as the reds fled. A deep roar traversed the sky.
A quencher yelled, “Wha-what is it!?”
Billy glanced at Asher. Fear jittered in his eyes.
Billy knew. This moving thunder had terrified his ears before. In his dreams. It was the rumble before the storm. The storm of red death.
Part 9: Christine Brodersen
“What is that?,” Ezra asked still clinging to the girl’s shoulders for safety. The sound of crunching leaves and snapping twigs had been replaced by a rumble longer than any cold front produced. They both felt the earth shake underneath them.
“It’s a feral cat.”
“Then they are real.” Ezra regarded the critter with a mix of fascination and horror.
Edana glanced behind her. “It’s all real, but it’s not all true. And if we get caught near this filthy thing we are surely going to be burned.” She leapt over the small beast and started running again. Ezra stumbled and twigs snapped back at him like whips. He was not accustomed to dashing through the woods. Edana leapt and duck effortlessly as if the woods were a well worn path instead of a tangle of branches and thorns. “Your brother is too far gone to save, Ezra. If you wish to go with me you must accept that.”
The words tripped him, slowed him. Abandon his brother? Turn on him? What would Momma and Grammy say? A branch stung his face and he felt warm wetness on his cheek. He saw the flash of blood on his fingertips where he wiped his eye and how it matched the flaming red trailing behind her. Could he trust her and not her brother? Was he being manipulated as the Fifth society claimed was the favored weapon of the reds? Could he be a victim of her magic? He could not otherwise explain the way her touch made him feel.
But Ezra’s feet did not question her motives, they kept pursuing her. Run, his body urged. Run to safety. The image of the Elders standing by with shoulders straight back and heads held high when a babe free of sin screamed until the heat melted its lips and smoke suffocated its useless lungs made him trust this girl he barely knew more than the village that nurtured him with fear and judgment. His heart pounded in his chest. Finally he was close enough to pull her shoulder.
“Stop. Where are we going?”
She bent over hands on her knees sucking in air, “I don’t know.”
They both laughed.
“I feel a lot better now,” Ezra teased.
She put her fingers to her lips to shush him and listened. Cicadas chirped and a crow squawked. Nothing human. She took both his hands in hers. We have to hide. They will get the dogs and if they don’t rip us to pieces then Elder Thomas will. You don’t know what he does to the girls he doesn’t burn.”
“Then let’s walk in that stream. It will disguise our scent.”
“Good thinking Ezra. We just might survive this.”
She smiled at him and it spread joy from his chest outward like a ripple in a lake. But when he digested her words, he got scared. The idea that he wouldn’t survive hadn’t occurred to him until now.
Every bird that darted from the canopy made them crouch. Edana scolded him for making too much noise. Don’t pick your feet out of the water. It makes too much noise. Ezra obeyed and kept his feet in the cold and stream.
“Where should we go?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Ezra couldn’t hide his disappointment. She didn’t turn around to see his face. She knew the look so well. So many times she visited the mothers after a burning to lay violets on their pillows at night. Their frocks soaked with undrunk milk. Their faces no longer youthful but marred by despair and loathing. Sometimes she thought these helpless wives were her only hope.
Ezra followed mimicking her steps. She was better at determining which rocks were steady and which were not slippery.. After a while he offered,” I think I know where we should go.”
She stopped and faced him.
“I’m not sure how to get there, and I’m not sure how I know this, but she sometimes visits the village her name is Abena.”
Edana dropped to her knees in the stream. Her dress flowed around her and tiny whirlpools formed around her frayed smock. Ezra thought he had never seen anyone so beautiful.
“Ezra it is you. You are the chosen one. The time has come. The Goddess will prevail.”
The sky darkened. A grey cloud of metal like neither of them had ever seen before rumbled Ezra cowered and covered his ears. Edana held her hands to the sky embracing the faceless giant beast that had the skin of an armadillo and the roar of a lion.
A fireball flew past Edana. And snuffed itself out on the damp bank. Ezra forced Edana down. Water splashed as they both scampered to the safety of some reeds.
“Brother, come back , come back!” Asher and Billy barked from the forest. Billy lost his balance and rolled down the embankment. Asher stumbled after him half sliding on his backside.
The relentless chants of the quenchers were not far behind.
Ezra and Edana fled. Only once did Edena turn around to face Ezra, “I know where to find Abena.”
Ezra took one last glance at his brother, muddy and scratched, and what he saw was the stuff that Asher described in his fits. From the grey cloud above creatures with black faces, shiny pupil free eyes, and elephant trunks tucked back unto themselves lowered down on single strands of web.
Next up: The conclusion!