This story is by Lisa Yew and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Allora reheated some vegetable scraps and gave herself until the ding to plaster hope onto her face. She brought the slush to her mother’s mouth. Tendrils of blood vanished from her cheeks, for she saw their green-grey color echoed in her mother’s skin; just as her father’s had been before he stiffened. She had to make some semblance of going to work, but there were no rats. Allora wondered if someone, somewhere, was thwarting their efforts to survive.
‘I’m that close to cracking your genome, ‘ she said, ‘Three rats, five max to test my cure.’
Her mother’s flaking lips widened. ‘Always… had… knack.’
Walking to work, Allora’s tear ducts no longer released a comforting trickle. She wished for just one rat to clone; she wished the diseases would stop multiplying; she wished the population would exceed 500. But wishful thinking makes you crazy.
A shadow scuttled through a doorway. Flexing her wrist, the rat net in her utility band ready, Allora followed it into the lab. As usual the lab was packed with researchers. If any of them found the rat, they’d get first clones, and first clones are always best.
Any moment the rat could scamper out of sight. Any moment someone could see it. Marcus oogled her wrist like a kid with a triple ice-cream.
Allora veered away from him.
‘Give us a clone, will you?’ he said, ‘There’s a new outbreak. My uncle- just started yelling at … no one. Please, it’s family.’
Allora addressed the room.’Listen up. There’ a new outbreak. Let’s eliminate the infected to preserve the healthy.’
Someone agreed with her. Marcus objected, and was engulfed by the debate. Allora knew she’d been despicable, but it got rid of Macus. Besides, she’d make some clones, start on her tests, and offer the rat before they reached a desperate consensus.
Thankfully the shadow was still there. She shot the net, but missed the rat; only, it wasn’t a rat, but a knobbly little man. He was feeling the air, which shimmered like a blind.
The words were out and Marcus turned. Allora froze. He couldn’t see it. His face twitched and he fingered his gun.
‘How do I know you’re not infected?’
The little man pulled up the blind revealing a lush countryside, as if through a window. He raised his palms. Gold lightning arced towards Allora as she shot the net. Allora captured him, but he zipped through the window. Tethered to the net, Allora jerked through after him, her shoulder dislocating.
She lay on bright moss; a symphony of bird calls nourished her ears; the air itself dripped with life. A teenager arrived beside her. The girl exuded such tenderness.
‘Can’t you hear me?’
‘Say Welma.’ Her teeth danced in merry smiles.
Allora wondered why Welma?
The girl laughed. ‘Because it’s my name!’ She knocked on Allora’s head. ‘Not dumb, just empty.’ She bound Allora’s shoulder with strips of bark. ‘Let’s find out about you. Come on!’
It was exhilarating to run on the spongy grass. Welma streaked ahead until she was a dot, then returned, brows knitted. She tapped Allora’s elbows, looking at her tongue and inside her nose.
‘What happened to you! You’re dying!’
Welma scooped up Allora and sped to a spinney which enclosed a steaming bath. She lowered Allora into the water.
‘How long do I have?’ asked Allora.
‘First I’ll fortify your mind.’ Leaves and flowers lifted into the water, at Welma’s command.
The ambrosial bouquet worked on Allora’s mind and her sensitivities sharpened. Allora looked around the spinney. Every tree was breathtaking, but she basked in one resplendent beauty. It’s gnarled trunk was clothed in glittering red leaves. Allora obsessed over the tree, longing for just one leaf.
‘Manners Allora. Ask the king before taking from the Sacred tree.’
‘That tree wants to help me live, doesn’t it. Didn’t you say I was dying?’
‘Yes. Untreated you have 120 years, max.’
Allora groaned and threw a stick at Welma.
‘You’re happy with that!’ Welma said.
‘Of course not. I expect to make it to 300. You?’
‘I don’t know. I stopped counting after 30,000.’
Allora’s memories swam then clarified. She screamed. She writhed. There wasn’t enough air. For five minutes of unbearably intensity she cried. She remembered her mother, the fate of her world, her fate. Death. Why?
Welma chanted words of comfort. ‘Ask the king for a leaf. He is generous,’ she said, ‘He is kind,’ she said; but then Allora remembered what she’d never known. It’s the king who condemns her world.
Vicious determination seized her, and she focused on a red leaf. It zoomed down. Welma snatched it, but not before the very tip touched the water. Instantly Allora’s shoulder was healed, and her muscles grew strong and limber. Allora knew in her mind that she had angered the king. Guards, little men, were coming for her.
She leaped out of the water, thrust her hand deep into the glittering foliage and pulled a fistful of leaves. Hiding them all over her person, she streaked to the window to her world. Welma followed.
The guards were coming. They were there. They penetrated her mind. They left.
Allora jumped through the window and faced Marcus.
‘Wait! This will help your uncle, everyone.’ She reached into her pocket; her back pocket; down her socks. ‘The leaves! Welma, where are they?’
‘The guards took them.’ Welma said. ‘I’m really sorry. This window will shut. They are coming.’
The window disappeared. Allora swiped at the air and cried out.
Marcus took aim. ‘Eliminate the infected.’
Allora snatched his gun, shoved his finger up his nose and dashed home before he realized what she’d done.
Allora saw her mother motionless, lifeless, dead. She ran to her.
‘I’ll save you ‘Mother, I’m that close to the cure.’ Allora crumpled, sobbing into her hands.
Something caught her eye; something lodged under her utility band; something she hadn’t hidden and the guards hadn’t taken.
A glittering red leaf.