Jayla pushed the knife out of her way and mixed a bucket of mortar. She couldn’t do masonry with the blade against her chest, but she couldn’t take off the sheath either. They were out there, watching and waiting.
She spread mud on a brick and set it into place on the damaged wall. Their section to repair had a hole about fifteen feet long, where a tornado had thrown a truck through it, and the Commander’s directive made it a priority to close it up. She and her sister had been out here at dawn for two days, and now they were behind on their main job of sewing clothes for the enclave’s elite. Jayla sighed.
“What now?” Kiren gave her a playful push. “You’re hungry, right?”
“Always.” Jayla touched the apple chunk in her shirt pocket, saving it for later. “That’s not it though.”
“Oh right. It’s your last free birthday.”
“Yah. The pressure will start soon.”
“Maybe you’ll be barren like me.” Kiren laughed, pleased to be single.
Jayla tried to sort out what she was feeling. “I want to have a child, but I’ve never met a man who’s like me.”
“And you never will.” Kiren laughed. “You’re a freak. All that empathy is self-destructive.”
“I can’t help it.” They were supposed to stay angry and afraid—that’s what kept them all alive. But Jayla struggled to feel the rage she was supposed to keep in her heart. Fear, however, was her constant companion. She glanced around. She and Kiren were alone out here in the early daylight, but they could never be too careful about the Savages.
Kiren dropped her trowel and punched Jayla’s arm. “I’ll toughen you up yet.” Her sister would always be taller and stronger, but they both had their mother’s heart-shaped face.
Jayla bit her lip and resisted the urge to rub the sore spot. She grabbed another brick and went back to work. The sun was already heating the air, and she could smell its pungent effect on the weeds around them.
A few minutes later, her sister swore.
Jayla tensed. “What?” The Guards did their best to patrol the perimeter, but as citizens, they all had to be vigilant.
“I have to pee.” Kiren set down her tools.
“Run back to the house or maybe to the creek bed.”
“That’ll take too long.” Kiren stepped over to a section of crumbled wall and scooted through.
Jayla’s heart skipped a beat. “What are you doing?” She darted toward the hole where her sister had disappeared.
“Looking for the nearest tree.” Kiren called over her shoulder as she ran across the field.
“No! It’s not safe,” Jayla whisper-shouted, trying to keep her voice from attracting attention. Her sister was too stubborn to listen anyway. Kiren was confrontational sometimes too, which had landed her in juvie detention once. But not Jayla. She never questioned the Commander or his directives.
What was Kiren thinking?
Terrified, Jayla focused on her work.
Time seemed to stop. Silence and stillness enveloped Jayla like a blanket, and she chewed the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. Finally, she checked her phone. Nine minutes. Her heart beat so hard, Jayla thought she would die of anxiety. What was taking Kiren so long?
The intense sun, rising in the sky, beat down on her pale face. She would have to go back inside soon. Where was her sister?
Jayla couldn’t take anymore. She went to the hole, peeked around the edge of the brick, and called out, “Kiren? Are you okay?”
The only noise in the sultry air came from the chicken farm down the lane. By now the day was bright enough for Jayla to see the sparce patch of oaks clearly—but no signs of life. “Kiren!”
Panic flooded her chest, and Jayla struggled to breath. Please, let this be one of Kiren’s tests to make her stronger.
A muffled cry sounded in the distance.
No! She glanced through the opening again and didn’t see anything but a scrubby field, and beyond it, a quiet grove of trees. No squirrels, no crows, no Kiren.
Jayla jogged past rows of identical cottages, dirt brown from the wind, and saw only one other person, her neighbor Marlene who was also rushing home to get out of the sun. It was late in the year so the worst of the heat was almost over, thank gah, but storm season had already started. Jayla scurried into her house and splashed cold water on her face, then rubbed aloe vera into her burned skin, fighting back tears. She’d waited for Kiren, laying brick as long as she could without getting heatstroke, but her sister hadn’t returned. The Savages had probably killed her, and Jayla would have to accept it, like a good Loyalist. Yet she clung to a sliver of hope that Kiren had dashed through the woods as a shortcut to another area of the enclave. Jayla knew she had a secret friend somewhere, but her sister never mentioned him. Or her. Jayla suspected Kiren preferred girls, but nobody talked about that sort of thing. The directives didn’t allow it.
They didn’t allow her to slack on her job either. In her sewing closet in the hall, she extracted the bolt of purple fabric that had been dropped off and laid it out on the kitchen table, then pinned the jacket pattern that had come with it.
“Where’s Kiren?” Her little brother had come out of his bedroom.
“Uh, she went to see a friend.” Jayla forced a smile.
“But it’s work time.” Toby looked confused.
The boy was eight, but he had mental disability. No one ever talked about that either. When shaming and group conditioning at the childcare center hadn’t cured him, Central Authority had declared him a Sub and let them care for him at home. But the sessions had traumatized him, and Toby had retreated into himself, as though afraid to speak. His silence and sad eyes broke Jayla’s heart. Now she might have to tell him Kiren was dead. He’d already suffered so much.
“I know, sweetie. I’m worried about her too, but it’s best not to think about it.” Jayla patted his shoulder. “Want to help me for a while?”
“Can we eat your birthday treat first?”
Jayla cut him a piece of the sweet apple-loaf Kiren had made, but couldn’t bring herself to have any. She was too stressed to swallow. As Toby wolfed his down, she went outside and left a small handful of peanuts on the shady side of the shed.
“Snack time, Ziggy.” Jayla stepped back and waited. A few seconds later, a brown squirrel darted out from his burrow under the shed. While he munched the nuts, she squatted down and petted his head, glancing around to make sure neighbors weren’t watching. Feeding non-food animals wasn’t specifically against a directive, but keeping a pet was. They carried viruses. Jayla hurried inside, realizing their small cottage was soaking up the noon sun. She closed the heavy drapes and turned on the fan.
Toby had returned to working on a big puzzle, one of the few mental tasks he could do, so she sat down at her sewing table again. Before picking up her scissors, she checked her phone to see if Kiren, by any miracle, had contacted her. She hadn’t, but the digital display reminded her that it was almost time for the noon directive. Jayla pressed the mute/unmute button on her phone and looked over at the flatscreen monitor in the living room.
Desi, her favorite Influencer, was at a broadcast desk, her shiny blonde hair perfect, as usual. Her snug purple dress made Jayla feel dumpy in her baggy gray scrubs. She’d made that dress right here at her kitchen table, but would never get to wear anything like it.
Unlike other Influencers, Desi sometimes offered practical advice in addition to news updates and directives. At the moment, she was listing ways to keep class-three homes cool: “Leave your windows open at night and your drapes closed most of the day. And remember to only run your fans intermittently, meaning twenty minutes on and twenty minutes off.” The pretty woman wagged her finger. “Pace your electric consumption so you don’t run out before the sun goes down. It’s your responsibility and your problem if it does.”
Nothing Jayla didn’t already know. She’d been living in a C-3 home since her mother died giving birth, and they’d been forced to move. She and Kiren had learned to be creative about everything—storage, minimizing their grid use, and making easy meals. She felt prepared for most extreme weather events, but she missed her mom dearly and wondered why the closure she was supposed to experience had never manifested. She said the word again softly, liking how it felt and sounded. Nobody else ever used it, but she’d learned it from the old, battered dictionary she’d found as a kid. Her mother had cautioned her to keep the book and the big words to herself.
“No cooking outside and no fires of any kind,” Desi warned from the monitor. “Your neighbors will report you, and you’ll be dealt with accordingly.”
Jayla shuddered. People who were “dealt with” rarely came back from detention.
Desi reported on a truck accident in Fairview, and Jayla tuned out, waiting for the noon command. They were always unexpected, and that was the point, to prepare them for anything.
“Now for today’s directive,” Desi announced. “And it comes straight from the Commander himself.”
The old man appeared on the screen, his face weather beaten and smug. The camera panned back to show his son, a younger version, standing next to the seat of authority, an oversized, high-backed chair adorned with gold and jewels. They both wore long white robes with gold trim.
“Greetings from the office of the Commander. I hear it’s hot today.” The old man pulled his lips back, but it wasn’t a smile. “The heat is not your fault. The Savages did this to you. They tried to take our freedoms and force us to live like them. Now the atmosphere”—he looked up and gestured at an imaginary sky—“no longer protects us. But we can’t weaken or give in. Go stand outside, right now, for five minutes. As you sweat and your face burns, remember who did this to you. Remember why we hate them and why we have to maintain the wall. They can never be allowed to control us again!”
His son, the Major General, raised an arm and bellowed, “Go now! Shake your fist and chant.”
The screen flashed, and the men in white were gone. Desi’s pretty face reappeared. “You heard him. Go outside, stand in the sun, and scream your anger.” She raised her fist and shouted, “Damn the Savages! Death to them all!”
Jayla’s shoulders slumped. Her least favorite kind of directive. Many made no sense—like wearing their scrubs inside out or being silent for hours—but at least those weren’t emotional. Still, compliance was mandatory. She walked over and touched Toby’s shoulder. “I’m just stepping out for a few minutes.”
He scowled. “Have you ever seen a Savage?”
“No, sweetie. They’re not allowed inside the enclave.”
“What do they look like?”
Good question. Jayla shook her head. Sometimes the Majors slipped and referred to Savages as people, but most of the time, the elites called them animals. “I don’t know, but don’t worry about them. You’re safe here.” She grabbed a bandana and tied it around her sunburned face. Was that cheating? She hoped not.
She stepped outside and stood on the concrete porch, facing the sun. Her neighbor on the left—Nate, who worked a night shift somewhere—was already on his identical front step, arms raised. Jayla set the timer on her phone for five minutes, then lifted her fist and shouted, “Damn the Savages! Death to them all!”
The heat quickly overwhelmed her. She’d been out too long already that morning. But she continued to chant, her voice and legs growing weaker by the minute. Finally, a ping sounded. Relieved and soaked with sweat, Jayla dashed inside. She splashed cold water on her face again, then finally started sewing. As she handled the soft beautiful fabric, so unlike the stiff scrubs she wore, her thoughts drifted into despair. Kiren was gone, and her own life had become even more pointless and lonely.
A few hours later, she completed the jacket and stood to stretch. The door burst open, and two Enforcers rushed into the house. Dressed in dark pants and red uniform shirts, the men were pale, overweight, and damp with sweat. The taller one shouted, “We’re here to inspect!”
Jayla, trembling, moved to stand in front of Toby. “Why?”
“Do not question!”
Oh fuck. She hadn’t meant to say it out loud. “I’m sorry. Go ahead.”
“This is the home of Kiren Callaway?”
“Yes, but she’s not here.”
“Show us her things.”
Jayla stepped into the short hall that led to the bedrooms, then pointed at the one she shared with Kiren. “Have you seen—” She caught herself and stopped.
The men strode into the room. Jayla watched, chewing her inner cheek, as the red-shirts searched their meager belongings, digging through a drawer full of scrubs and rifling the pages of a Homestead manual.
What were they looking for? And where was Kiren? Had her sister been picked up by Enforcers instead of Savages? She pleaded with fate for that to be true.
The tall man turned to her. “Are there any other books or journals in the house?”
She’d never seen a journal. No one used paper anymore. “I don’t think so.” Jayla’s heart fluttered. She’d just lied to an Enforcer. Some people believed Enforcers could read minds, so she tried to keep hers blank. It didn’t work. She visualized the dictionary under her mattress and squeezed her bladder to keep from wetting herself.
“Hand me your phone.”
Jayla pulled it from the special side pocket in her pants and held it out. Please let them return it. Central Authority would issue her another one—because the Commander required adults to carry one at all times so he could communicate with them. But Admin would dock her pay, and she would lose her photos. She would also have to reconnect with her SoNet friends.
The tall Enforcer plugged her phone into his, cloned it, then handed it back. “You’d better hope you have nothing to hide.”
Not on her phone, anyway.
“Freedom forever.” They pressed their fists into their chests as they spoke.
Jayla repeated the ritual, trying to sound strong.
They moved toward the door, and Jayla’s body slumped with relief.
Abruptly, the younger man turned back. “Fix your hair. It’s ugly.”
Jayla touched her dark roots. Damn. She hadn’t had time to dye them, and she was already behind on her work. Shaking, she sat down to cut out another pattern, but she couldn’t focus. What the hell was going on?