The girl paused at the entrance, a hand resting against the wall and eyes surveying the broken panes, cracked floor, and dust coated counters where tiny prints crisscrossed the elevated desert. Beside the sink dishes awaited cleaning.
“Anna, have you washed those dishes yet?” The rough, distant voice walked near to a cough and stumbled into throat clearing.
A heavy exhale preceded lowering her hand and grimacing. Anna wiped her hand on her threadbare jeans. “I’m about to, Mama.”
Rolling her eyes and tipping her head back, Anna shook her head and waited for several breaths to cycle through her lungs. She increased her volume. “Right now, Mama!” At the sink she shoved the handle back on the faucet. Brown sludge resembling oil gushed into the sink and aging pipes rumbled unseen. “Damn…” Sometimes the water cleared if she let the tap run. Sometimes.
Both hands shoved dark hair behind her shoulders. Beyond the soil-collecting sill and cracked pane, dirt blew across the tortured property and carried away the last needles clinging to the stunted evergreen. Words once heard, the source forgotten, tumbled through her mind like the trash passing her vision: A wasteland where once there was abundance. The drift was another inch taller behind the house next door…at least, what was left of the house. Watching the home burn was an early memory conjured each time the charred, collapsed roof came into view.
Why clean-up the debris when so few need homes? She wordlessly recited the official explanation, an explanation her brother often cited, an explanation she tried to adopt, but the words turned to dust on her tongue before they became sounds.
Movement to the right. Anna leaned left. Dar was sitting on the crumbling curb in front of the destroyed rental, his feet set wide and his head low, the wind to his back, his collar raised. She narrowed her eyes and reached to the glass to clear her view.
“Anna!” Her mother lashed out and shut off the water. “What’ve I told you about wasting water?” The woman, a shorter, plumper version of her daughter with graying hair, leaned on the counter while unseen debris rumbled in her chest and her lungs fought for air.
Her mother’s tone softened, her volume slipping towards exhaustion. “You need to understand that things cost money, especially water.” The woman closed her eyes, sighed, and seemed to count the seconds until her shoulders relaxed. “If I can’t count on you to wash the dishes then the least you can do is study.”
Nodding, Anna stared into brown eyes like her own grown darker, eyes retreating deeper into the prison cells they occupied. She dropped her gaze. “Yes, Mama.”
“With good grades you might get on at V.I.L. like your brother.”
Anna, still focused on the jagged cracks on the floor filling with dirt, reached for the name she’d once learned. It was the name her brother’s employer possessed before it became the impersonal V.I.L. and digested its competition. It was the name their landlord once possessed. It was the name her teachers never uttered. The name followed the pine needles to an unknown destination.
She wet her lips. “My grades are good, Mama…nearly the best. I’d much rather do something more interesting. You know, science…”
“Science?” The woman rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Even if you could find work, do you want to live like this for the rest of your life?” Her hands spread wide.
“V.I.L. needs few science graduates. There simply isn’t any need. Who put that foolishness in your head? That teacher of yours?”
“He’ll not have a job if someone at V.I.L. gets wind that he’s talking like that.”
“No, it wasn’t…”
Again the woman closed her eyes. When she reopened them she clasped Anna’s hands between her own, her voice seeking a bond. “Was it that boy, Dar?”
“No, Mama…” Her meek voice trailing off, Anna looked away.
“He’s trouble, Anna. I’ve heard talk. Poor grades in recent years. Caught out after the curfew. Even the V.I.L. store won’t take him at this rate. He’ll end up working for some rundown independent. That’s no life.”
Anna glared. “He’s smart!” She winced, the outburst unretrievable and still screaming her heart’s longing long after she’d pursed her lips and clenched her jaw. Her chest was heaving and her hands trembling in her mother’s grasp.
“Listen to me, Anna. He’s not for you. You have a future, a chance to get out of here, a chance to move into the city and live beneath the dome where there are doctors, beautiful homes in the towers, parks, and wondrous technology you can’t imagine.” Smiling, the woman released her hands, hugged her, and stepped back. “There’s talk your brother will be promoted.”
“Really?” Anna’s smile returned, her eyes brighter.
“Yes. Nothing is certain yet, but either in Finance or as an aid.”
“Yes, working for the V.I.L. representative at the capital.” Shaking her head, her mother laughed. “Here, I’ll do the dishes while you study.” She turned back to the sink and leaned forward. “Whatever were you looking at outside?”
Eyes wide, Anna blurted out, “The tree.”
The woman turned. “The tree?”
“Grandpa claims he helped plant it when he was little. Has the family rented here that long?”
Her mother rubbed the back of her neck and returned her attention to the dishes. “You know better than to listen to your grandfather. When your brother’s promotion comes through we’ll be able to place him—elsewhere.”
Anna opened her mouth to object, but instead nodded and left the kitchen unwilling to flirt with defiance again. In the hallway she eyed the crooked front door, glanced back at her stooped mother setting dishes in the sink, and took soft steps to the entrance. A few feet away, her balding, white-haired grandfather’s frail body was molded to the lone padded chair. A broken brick propped up one corner. Yet again, he was barefoot, unkempt, and staring straight ahead.
Her mother insisted the man lived in the past, but Anna had come to believe he instead mourned it.
The girl eased the creaking door open, then froze when the old man turned his head her way. “My father owned this house before V.I.L. took it. Whole neighborhood was home owners, forest all around, children everywhere…all gone…”
Lips parted, but not responding, Anna held her breath. The lone sound escaping the kitchen was running water and, thankfully, not her mother’s approaching footfalls. “Is that when you planted the tree, Grandpa?”
“There abouts…” His depleted body shifted. Easy to imagine the dry wind having carried away the vitality. Maybe it still would? Yet, despite the hollowness, it was possible to discern the long-suffering spark crying out behind his eyes. “Before the hover patrols, before the fences and walls, before people quit trying.” His hands slid off the chair arms and dropped onto his lap.
Anna swallowed hard and slipped outside.
The sun’s glare hurt even after she squinted. There was dust on the wind, but on the home’s east side it alighted on her shoulders. She tousled her hair, lowered her hand, and brushed at her hair again.
To the right, weathered, faded homes disappeared in the filthy haze. Many were abandoned, one or the other breadwinners having fallen sick. There was a clinic, but seeing a real doctor was prohibitively expensive. As soon as an illness became longterm V.I.L. or one of its subsidiaries would seize the home and move the family to what Dar called dungeon apartments. It was what her brother called a redistribution of assets, what V.I.L. called RID, Relocation of Inoperative Debtors.
A few years after the house next door burned, her best friend, who lived on the other side, was relocated. Anna scowled, the memory never failing to gnaw in her stomach when it awoke. Her mother called it moving, but was it moving when a RID craft landed on the fractured street and armed V.I.L. employees forced a woman and child inside? Wiping beneath her eye, she recalled holding the other girl while she cried over losing her father to an unexpected stroke days before RID came.
And then, in the middle of the night, while a second craft shone searchlights on the crumbling home, she was gone.
Would Anna have been collected after her father died shortly before she was born if not for her grandfather? All who knew refused to explain despite her often desperate efforts to learn the truth. A crumpled picture showing a man with her mother once mysteriously appeared in her room and she’d long cherished it—until her mother discovered it, declared it wasn’t her father, and destroyed it.
Her heart said the road that led to the truth about her father started with the picture.
*Please join me for the conclusion of this story tomorrow!