This story is by Karen Crawford and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Where. Did. You. Come. From?” His lips were so close to my ear, I could feel the hot blasts of air punctuating each word.
I stared straight ahead at the two-way mirror in the interrogation room, stifling the urge to shiver from the heat in his breath.
“I’ll ask you again, where did you come from, young lady? And what did you do with the boy?” His voice was low and hypnotic as he circled around me, brushing his fingers across my face and grazing the nape of my neck.
I put my head down on the table, feeling nothing like my name. Hope. All I’d had to do was lay low, until the total eclipse when the sky got dark.
Why, why, why did I freeze?
Weary, I lifted my head and answered with words as thin as thread, “The townies were chasing him. He ran up to my gate, but I didn’t let him in. I’m pretty sure they dragged him away.”
“That’s not what the boy’s caretakers said. They said he never came home.”
Bristling at the word ‘caretakers,’ I avoided his gaze, tugging at my sleeve as I wiped it across my face, willing my eyes to remain dry.
Lying was hard.
My palms began to sweat, as the events of the past year played out in my mind.
Part of it was true. The boy had run up to the gate. I’d come out because I thought my mom had finally come home. Instead, it was a wretched looking child, with a stampede right on his heels. Fear filled his eyes as he rushed the iron bars. I’d turned away stone cold. Nothing was going to alter my plan.
Until he whispered, “please, let me in.”
I cracked the gate open, a smidge and yanked him inside. The townies gave up and ran away.
“Why were they chasing you?” I demanded.
He opened his jacket and inside his pocket was a cowering black kitten.
“They were trying to hurt it,” he said in the smallest voice I had ever heard.
I gave him a once over and noticed dirt under his nails, blisters on his hands, and his frame, well, it was pure skin and bones.
The boy mustered up some courage through a quiet lisp. “Are you a monster?”
“Do I look like a monster?” I was not amused. “Monsters are ugly.”
He shifted his feet and shrugged. I eyed him again. He didn’t appear to be a bad kid and, he was saving a kitten. Regardless, I couldn’t let him leave, now that he had seen me. He would have to stay until morning. By then I’d be long gone.
“So you believe in monsters, huh? How old are you anyway?” The boy held up six fingers, then immediately put his hands behind his back.
But not before I saw it.
“What is that, little guy?” He tried to pull his sleeve down as I reached for his hand, and turned it over, careful to avoid the blisters. I stared at the mark on the inside of his wrist. It was a small tattoo of the letter O.
O for Other.
“Where are you from?”
Humiliation washed across his face. “I don’t remember.”
“What’s your name?”
“My caretakers call me boy. But in my dreams my name is Angel.”
Angel. I felt my armor cracking, with a sudden urge to pull him close.
I rolled up my sleeve, held out my palm, and showed him my wrist. My mom had drawn wings around it, but the O was unmistakable.
His eyes widened, “You’re an Other too?”
I nodded with a sad smile. I hadn’t seen an Other since I’d been rescued by my caretaker, the woman I’d learned to call mom.
I took his hands in mine. “Are there a lot more?”
The Boy withered under my touch, “Yes. But we aren’t allowed to talk to each other.”
His eyes narrowed, “Where is your caretaker?”
I hesitated, not sure how much to divulge.
“She went to work weeks ago and never came back. I’m worried something happened to her.”
I ushered him inside and patted the couch. He sat down with apprehension until the kitten jumped onto his lap. Then he sank into the cushions, relishing comfort for the first time. His eyes fought to stay open but sheer exhaustion outweighed his unease.
I felt the ugly twitch of anger. Life for this boy had been unkind.
I was thirteen when I came here a year ago with my father. The town had lured workers to build a great fence. Border security they called it. We were separated at the checkpoint where I was branded an Other. I stood in a receiving area with all the ‘Other’ kids who weren’t ‘from here’ to await our fate. Salivating caretakers walked the room, surveying the merchandise. Each to be awarded their very own child servant. I closed my eyes praying to be invisible and was whisked away by an employee when no one was looking. She was my savior.
After the fence was built, they sealed the borders. Nobody came in, and nobody went out.
I never saw my father again.
I watched the boy as he slept. “Can you keep a secret, Angel?” I whispered. “My name is Hope, and none of the townspeople know I’m here.” Saying it out loud felt good.
“My caretaker treated me like a daughter. She was gonna take me back home to the other side of the great fence, just down the hill out back. She said unlike here, everyone was welcome there, no matter where you came from. She told me that’s where my father was.”
I glanced at my watch, brushing away tears. “We were supposed to leave today, and in one hour when the moon hides the sun, I’m gonna sneak across and find him.”
Angel sat up rubbing his eyes, “Hope? Can we come with you?”
The kittens’ ears perked up at the sound of footsteps right outside the house. I’d forgotten to lock the gate. The townies were back for the boy. Panicked, we ran out the back door and started our trek down the treacherous hill, our ticket to freedom looming in the distance.
With the kitten safe in Angel’s pocket, I clutched his hand, and together we fought the hostile terrain until we reached a clearing at the bottom. We took cover under a tree surrounded by brush, and I pulled a pair of tiny binoculars from my back pocket. I could see a pile of rocks at the foot of the fence, just as she’d described them, to cover the small opening. The hole was big enough to scoot under, she’d said. I handed the binoculars to Angel, “If we get separated, promise me you’ll move those rocks and go under that fence no matter what, Ok?”
Angel wrapped his arms around me tight. “I’m sorry I thought you were a monster, Hope. But I know they’re real, because, the caretakers, they’re all monsters.”
Except for mine, she’d been an angel.
The sky was taking on a faint eerie hue. I glanced at my watch, five minutes until dark. All of a sudden, the kitten jumped out of Angel’s pocket and scurried away. I grabbed his arm and shook my head, my finger to my lips, but Angel leapt up and took off after it. I froze as doubts ran circles in my mind. It was too risky. Stick to the plan. There wasn’t enough time.
I should have run after him. Instead, I just froze.
I heard the sound of twigs snapping behind me, for a split second, I thought it was Angel, until, I saw him in the distance carrying the kitten. He held her up when he saw me, then stopped in his tracks. Townies. I held my breath with fear in my throat as rough hands grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around, but not before I saw Angel dart under the fence. Then the sky went dark.
“I’ll ask you again.” He whispered, “ Where did you come from and where is the boy?”
I sat very still, while the man stood behind me, pressing down on my shoulders, blowing hot air on my dampening neck. My breath quickened as he reached for my hand and placed it on the table palm up. I stared straight ahead while he stroked my tattoo with the tips of his fingers, playing music on my skin. This time I didn’t avoid his gaze. I was taken with his handsome face.
Our eyes met in the two-way mirror, and he smiled. His teeth, fluorescent white, blinding me until my face stung. He lifted my palm towards the glass, pulling it up high, claiming his prize. Then his smile widened into a monstrous grin, and he hissed into my ear with the voice of a beast.
“I’m your caretaker now, girl.”