I spend my first day in prison sitting in the corner on my haunches, my back pressed against the wall. When my legs are so tired they can’t hold me anymore, I slip to the icy, pock-marked floor where the cold concrete seeps through my uniform and penetrates to the center of my body. I rock to keep warm in the frigid air, standing occasionally to stretch my cramped limbs. There is no bed; there are no other prisoners; there is only me, my school tunic, a slot in the floor for my waste, and three icy walls of endless gray.
I look at my hands. My fingers are dry and dirty. My skin is still a pale brown, but without the sun, it’s losing color quickly. I’m afraid it will turn gray like everything else around me. I pull my hair over my shoulder, and the strands hang in stringy black ropes. The braids came out right after I was arrested, and they took the bands holding them. Sometimes I pull a few hairs out, just to make sure it hasn’t started to grow in gray at the roots. So far it’s still black. Even though I’m young, I don’t know how long that will last.
I’ve lost weight, too. I’ve always been within regulated weight and height proportions for my age, but if they weighed me now, I would certainly be assigned more food rations. Squeezing my arms around myself, my ribs press back as I try to muster any warmth I can draw from my own body. I shut my eyes, but it’s nearly impossible to sleep when I am cold, hungry, and not sure if I will live or die—especially when death is not the worst possibility.
As sleep eludes me, my mind wanders to the same memories over and over again. Me as a child. Maybe six years old—ten years ago now—I hold my mother as tight as my too-small arms will let me. Tears creep down my face like rain drops on the window of our family pod, wetting the rough shoulder of her gray tunic. Her deep brown hair is as long as mine, but it’s tied in a knot on the back of her neck. Her warm cheek, wet with her own tears, presses into the top of my head. Her hands, strong and deft from years of factory work, run the length of my spine, pausing to pat me as she whispers, There, there. I know how hard it is.
I long for those arms now. I long for warmth. I long for death.
Maybe I am already dead.
Our pod was a slick white dome like all the other energy efficient buildings in our community. They sat in rows along the grid of streets and paths like sleeping maggots lining a dull carcass, their mouths opening and closing to let us pass. Family pods were smaller, community pods larger. The dirt roads were lined with flowering plants of every color favorable to pollinating insects. Everything else was gray: our clothing, our dishes, our shoes, our readers. Color outside of nature was not of use and, therefore, not allowed.
My family pod lay on the last path of the community, backed against the bamboo forest. Since bamboo grew quickly and was easily cared for, the Leaders decided it would be our main source of lumber. My community was designated for logging and farming for the rest of society. Mother worked in the textile mill and Father in the forest and wood mill. It was hard work, but there were advantages to living in the country. We had access to fresh produce nearly year round. We weren’t monitored as heavily as those in the cities were, auto-eyes on every corner. Our auto-eyes were only in our homes and randomly spread throughout the settlement.
My days ran by the community schedule, each one bleeding into the next, until Mother got sick. Normally, in the mornings, I would stumble from my room into a bright, warm serving area. The air would be thick with steam from hot cereal on the cooker, and if they were in season, berries would be lingering in a clay bowl on the counter. That day, the kitchen was cold and dark. I ran my fingers through my damp hair and stepped into the dim silence of an empty room and hesitated—Mother was still not well.
Brother entered from his side of the pod and flipped the light switch unceremoniously. His dark brown hair was wet from his own morning shower. His gray tunic had been pressed; no doubt he woke early to conquer every wrinkle. He had his school satchel in one hand, and his gait was brisk, considering our small living quarters.
“Where is Mother?” I asked.
“She’s still in bed.” He didn’t meet my gaze as he set his bag on a chair and opened a cabinet, pulling out his rations for the morning. The scar on his hand from the accident during last year’s apple harvest was clearly visible.
“Still?” I didn’t leave the doorway. The light seemed false. The air too thin. His words weren’t correct. I was most likely still sleeping.
“You should have realized this was inevitable,” he said as he opened his bag and pulled out a reader.
“She seemed fine last night.”
Her cheeks lost their color over a month ago. Her gait slowed. Then she began to cough. I saw her pinch her lips together and turn away from the auto-eye whenever a spasm caught her, or she’d dash to the bathroom and cover her face with a towel, the sounds still unmistakable.
I knew she was sick, but I kept thinking it would pass. It was nothing. She would be fine. She had seemed a bit better the night before.
“You might as well get your own meal. She’s not joining us today.” He took a bite of bread left over from supper, considered it studiously for a moment, then added a slice of cheese.
“Brother, she must join us.” My whole life felt frozen in this moment. Mother had to get up and join us.
“According to the regulations, she does. But I doubt she will. You should have been preparing for this.”
His nonchalance about the situation turned my hungry stomach to cement. I took my first step into the kitchen, toward her room, determined to see her myself. The cold white floor, icy on my bare feet, sent bumps up my legs. Each tile, chilling and smooth, was free of dirt and food. She had cleaned the night before. Did she do too much?
I met Father coming from their shared quarters before I made it inside.
“Where is Mother?” I asked, searching his face for a sign that this was a misunderstanding.
“I tried to tell her she wasn’t coming out today,” Brother said without looking up from his papers.
Father hesitated, his face unreadable. Then he spoke. “Daughter, she is ill. She is not getting up today.”
I pushed past him and into her room. I would get her up. She must get up. If the auto-eye surveyors saw her lying in bed today, they would intervene.
Inside the sparsely furnished room, she lay on her side amidst the gray pillows and blankets of her bed. Her deep brown hair, much lighter than my black strands, was matted with sweat and clung to her forehead in odd patterns. Her eyes were underlined in dark purple crescents. The lids were closed, but as I drew closer, she opened them and smiled.
“Daughter4254,” she said.
I hated when she used my official name, but I knew it meant that I should look at her and listen carefully; it meant she was serious and needed me to pay attention.
“There is so much I should have told you. I thought a child only needed to know they were loved.”
I looked instinctively to the black blob on the ceiling. Her impromptu words of emotion were illegal, and I could only hope that no one was looking at her in this moment—ill, failing, and ranting about love.
“What are you talking about?” I whispered. Each night when I was a child, she would stand behind me as I scrubbed at my teeth in the bathroom—the only room in the house where we were free of the auto-eye. She told Father and Brother she was making sure I did a thorough job, but when I was done spitting and before we opened the door, she would gather me into her arms and tell me how much she loved me.
She’d never spoken openly like this before. Maybe she felt if she couldn’t hide her sickness from the Leaders, then she shouldn’t hide her emotions anymore either.
“They sent a summons for you, Mother. You have to get up and go to work.”
“I know.” She closed her eyes.
“Then how can I help you? Tell me what to do. I can help you get up, get dressed. I can prepare the meal for supper tonight. You can beat this, Mother.”
She made no effort to hide her coughing fit from the auto-eye now. It was thick and hacking and shook her whole body. She was fifty years old, beyond the age of medicines. We all knew what this meant.
Father and Brother had continued their routines the past two days, pausing briefly to shake their heads over her bed, helping somewhat with the household duties. This was their way. I was expected to behave in a similar fashion—acknowledging a person’s weakness or illness denied them their dignity. I left the house on the first day with reservations. I didn’t want to go, but I knew it was better for all of us. Today, I knew I couldn’t leave her.
Father entered the room and paused, silent, watching. He kneeled by the bed and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. The gesture was so foreign and ritualistic, the air caught in my throat, and I thought I might start my own coughing fit. Was this his way of saying goodbye?
Only he didn’t say anything to her or to me. He left for work early that day.
As I lingered at her side before we were to leave for school, Brother poked his head in and spoke much too loudly from the doorway, refusing to enter her room. “It is required that if you are ill and not able to care for yourself, no one else should care for you. She is beyond the age of medical care; she is only of use as long as she can perform her duties and care for herself.”
The way he emphasized the words of use made my skin crawl. His favorite pastime had always been reminding us of the laws. I rose and dragged him from the door by the forearm.
He was stronger than me, but I was fifteen and had caught up to him in height, if not bulk. His arms were large and strong from taking extra assignments in the fields. His hair was cut at regulation length, in short spikes over his head. It was the same roasted nut shade as Mother’s. I envied him this connection to her. But his eyes mirrored Father’s. It felt good to look him in the eyes today. My hazel to his brown. Mine brimming with moisture, his calm and void.
Once we were back in the kitchen, I whispered harshly, hoping Mother would not hear. “She is your mother. Don’t you care about anything but rules?”
“It has nothing to do with who she is. It is a law, and I will not be punished for missing my assignment because she is close to final use. I’m sure the government workers will come collect her today anyway.”
“She is only fifty years old.” I was losing my control. It was getting hard to breathe, hard to think. His words seethed from his mouth like poisonous gas filling the air.
“And thus, beyond the age of medical care.”
My chest continued to tighten. I hissed under my breath, my face inches from his. “I would take a thousand punishments for one more day with her. Go to school without me. Enjoy your perfect record.”
I turned on my heel and walked away, not able to hide the disgust in my voice but not willing to let him see the tears fall from my eyes. I shut the bedroom door quietly and sat at the end of her bed, listening for the front door of the pod to open and close. When it did, I sighed in relief, trying to slow my heart. Mother was sleeping. The commotion hadn’t seemed to bother her. I lay my head down on the coverlet, away from the auto-eye and let the tears slip silently down my face as I watched her labored breathing. In and out, up and down. She was still alive. We could figure this out.
My eyes eventually closed, and I dreamed of a day we spent working in the orchards together. There was an old stone wall, and when we were alone, she sat on the wall and taught me the lines from an ancient poem. She made me swear not to repeat it to anyone but her. Poetry was not of use.
“He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees,” I repeated after her.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” she said, emphasizing the last few words with care and weight.
Although I didn’t understand them, they etched themselves in my brain.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” I echoed.
I woke sprawled at the foot of her bed. I don’t know how long I had slept, but she was coughing again—worse than that morning and much worse than the day before. I went to the kitchen to get her a drink, cursing myself for not having something ready beside the bed.
“Daughter4254.” Her voice cracked, no longer my strong mother’s voice at all.
I came back to her, setting the water on her bedside table, then I helped her sit to drink. She tried to speak again.
“Don’t, Mother. Just drink. Tell me what else I can do for you. Is there an herb or berry I can use? Anything at all?” Medicines were rare and strictly controlled by the government. She sipped a bit, then continued.
“I was not always your mother. I was not always a factory worker. I had a different assignment.”
“Mother…” I couldn’t stand to hear her ramble nonsense.
Her cheeks were flushed and her body radiated heat. I was afraid her mind had started to slip with the onset of fever. She echoed my thoughts.
“I am not losing my mind, Daughter. I’m trying to tell you something I should have told you long ago.” She held my eyes, and I knew she was still with me, telling the truth, as wild as it may sound. “You have never been comfortable here, and neither have I. But I thought that if I loved you enough, guided you, it would change things for you. My parents were too afraid to show their affection, and it drove me to make the choices I made. But you…I thought I could make it better for you. I was wrong.” She took a labored breath, slowing herself down before she whispered, “You must follow my instructions, but I can’t tell you here and now. It’s too dangerous.”
This was not how I had pictured my last moments with Mother. I had spent my entire life worrying about what I would do when I was without her—my one and only safe place in the world. She was the only one who accepted me when the school labeled me Neurodeficient. When I came home from lessons in tears from ridicule, she taught me how to hide my emotions. How to fit in. At least, she tried to teach me. She never forced me to conform. She merely showed me how to keep from being punished.
Though I’d always known the day would come, I had pictured myself much older when I was summoned for her final rest ceremony. I’d steeled myself for the possibility ever since I was little and saw the men in gray smocks and gloves wheeling people who were no longer of use into the shop—nothing but boxes coming out. I never dreamed she would be in pain, and I would be the only one with her while she related fantastic stories and secret instructions.
“Mother, I don’t understand.” I said it gently as I brushed her hair away from her lined face, her brows knit in concentration, her mouth parted and panting. Her hair was normally straight like mine, at least we had that in common, but the sweat and many hours in bed had teased it into waves and knots. I opened the drawer in her bedside table and retrieved her favorite kerchief. It was the only thing she owned that was not completely gray. A light blue embroidered spider lurked on one corner, very small but still visible if you knew to look. She had used it countless times to wipe away my tears when I was struggling as a child. I used it now to wipe the droplets from her forehead.
She reached up and took the kerchief, spreading it out in her lap. She pointed to the spider. “Watch for this, my girl, and you will know it comes from me. Keep these things safe and keep them hidden. Mind your temper and don’t let it get the best of your intellect. You are smart and so much stronger than I ever was. You will do what I could not.”
She laid her head back against the pillow and closed her eyes, struggling to breathe, still gripping the kerchief. Even though I’d never seen anyone die before, some primal instinct told me her time was coming soon. I watched her drift back to sleep. Her chest was rising and falling with great effort, her forehead fiery and beaded with sweat, even though I’d just mopped it. I wanted to ask her a million questions. I had to keep her awake. I couldn’t let her fade away. I took her shoulder in my hand and gently shook her.
“Mother!” I felt frantic but tried to control my voice. “You can’t say things like this to me and then leave!” Anger started to grow in my chest. I’d never felt this way toward her before; to the world, the teachers, my father and brother, all of them, yes, but I had never been angry at Mother. I’d never had a reason until now.
“Mother!” I shook her harder. She was still breathing, short shallow gasps, but she was unresponsive. I heard a noise at the front of the pod. The door was opening.
The government workers wheeled in a stretcher and pushed me out of the way, cold and efficient. I knew they would come today. They had been watching and counting the days just as I had, but I wasn’t ready.
“She’s still alive. She just needs medicines,” I begged.
They ignored me and began gathering Mother up. They placed her hands across her chest and loosened her bed sheets. One steadied the gurney as the other two hoisted her, bedding and all, onto the cold platform. One of her arms slipped from its X on her chest and hung off the side. I tried to reach for it, but the worker pushed me back.
I screamed and punched the closest one I could reach. But they were much too strong and much more in control than I was. They took her away, but not before they methodically issued me a punishment for missing school and impeding official duties.
Her final rest ceremony was the next day and the letter, marked with a light blue spider, found me at the edge of her grave.
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