The is the second short installment of Timeless, the first one is here.
An empty cot holds the place of the thirteenth girl. Lights out is half an hour passed but none of the others are curious where Cassandra is at. They know. At thirteen she is almost a full year younger than the other Shelter girls. One of the youngest to get put into service. Cass developed quickly. Her body is years beyond her mind and when it comes to sex, men don’t care. The shit-for-brains dogs that run our township don’t care.
I sleep in the bunk above Cass and most nights I lay awake staring at the ceiling tiles that are yellowed and sagging. Tonight is only slightly different. I don’t have my friend below me talking about the awesome day or how pretty flowers can be or how we should wear our hair tomorrow. Things I don’t care about. The building we live in must have been very well built to withstand the last thirty years. The world fell apart, 90% of the humans are dead or went away in the Leaving, but this building still doesn’t leak. The tile above me is covered in dots that remind me of stars across the sky. I have looked at them long enough that I have my own constellations. I wish I could be part of the stars instead of this black hole.
The door ekes open and a faint triangle of light moves across the room. I hear the sniffle of an almost-cry and a girl moves slowly across the room. She is holding herself with her arms lapped at the elbows and when she gets to our bunk she drops face down on her top blanket and sobs. No one says a thing. Most of the girls pretend to be asleep.
I want to be asleep too but the sobs shake my bed from below. What is there to say? We are all old enough to know how the world works. Shelter girls are seen as a burden in the township. Orphaned as children, most are regarded as stray cats. We are considered “littles” until we are twelve and then we move into the middle-ground. Our purgatory. Eric calls our room the Orchard since we come here to ripen and then he picks which one of us to sell. We spend the days trying to forget but our bodies betray us by growing into temptation for the men. The last year has passed in moments. Poor Cassandra, only thirteen.
I have to say something so I ask, “You okay Cass?” Stupid question.
“No.”, she says. I can picture her blue eyes leaking tears. She has an unbearable cry face. I feel like a helpless jerk.
“I know. It’s not right.” That much is true.
Tonight, Eric picked Cassandra and took her on her first “date”. He says that we should be thankful we aren’t sent out into the world unprepared. When he takes me I will imagine cutting his throat. Maybe I will actually kill him. Fucker.
On the wall behind our bunk is a metal grate that used to be part of the air conditioning system. I hear a tapping on the grate and I look down. My favorite visitor. I listen for the familiar sequence; the one screw holding it in place falls to the floor, the grating pops as it is moved out of place, a scraping on the concrete floor, then…. I hear my name.
I lean over the edge of my bunk, “What do you want Elias?” I see the outline of a smooth boyish face and the shadowy waves of his sandy brown hair.
“Come out. I need to talk to you.” He is trying to whisper but is terrible at it.
“Not tonight.” I need to be here in case Cass wants to talk. She is still crying and he doesn’t seem to notice.
“Hi Cass.” He whispers towards the bottom bunk.
“Hey Elias.” she mutters.
“Katie. You really need to come out. This is serious.” He pauses a moment and adds, “I found it.”
I jump down from the top bunk and land in front of the grate. I put a hand on Cass and ask, “Do you want to come with us? You can if you want to.”
“We are going to find a way out of this Cass.”
“Of course it does.” I’m not sure that I believe me either.
“Not to me. Not anymore.” She said it with finality. I hear the tears stop and her voice strengthens.
“Was it really that bad?”
“It was worse. No one will ever do that to me again. I won’t let them.”
“I’ll be back soon. We are going to find a way. I promise.” I start to leave and Cass stops me with a question.
“Do you love me?”
“Yes. Like a sister.”
“Good. I love you too.”
I think she is going to be okay. I move towards the opening in the wall and Elias disappears into the shadow. I follow.
Unseen things crunch under our hands and knees as we crawl through utility spaces behind the walls. Years of abandoned rat nests and spider webs try to slow us down but Elias and I have used this route hundreds of times since I arrived two years ago. It smells like old wood and rat piss. I look forward to this familiar air because it means escape.
Elias is older than me by a year and he lives on the boy’s side of the Shelter. Boys grow up to fill a different role. Boys are strength. They are the security. The warriors. The providers. The fathers – if they have favorable traits for the society. A shelter boy has many of the same opportunities as a family child. Elias is training for scouting and he will be good at it. No matter how many times we maneuver the maze out of the shelter, Elias is always faster. He hears things I can’t when we are moving through the woods. He has a memory like an elephant.
In under a minute we are slipping through a loosened metal panel on the backside of the shelter. From there we run across a field of tall grass that glows in the full moon. A fog hangs over the top of the field and makes me feel like we are running into an enchanted forest. The thought of bubble bath comes into my mind but I don’t think it is my thought. Just a remnant idea from another life. There is an electricity to the night but not in a good way. More like the feeling that one wrong move will get you struck by lightning. We run into a hole in the undergrowth at the woods edge and spill over onto the ground into a bed of pine needles. Our own private alcove.
We rest for a second to catch our breath before Elias asks, “What was wrong with Cass?”
“Eric decided she was ready.”
“Shit. That sucks.”
“I didn’t even see it coming. I could have done something.”
“What could you do?”
“I don’t know. Something.” We sat another moment in silence. “He came and got her during dinner. Came right over to our table. I knew something was up.”
“Why do you think he did it so soon?”
“Same reason he does it at all. He is a piece of shit.”
“Well, we don’t have to worry about him for long. I found a map in the old library. The place is north of here along the mountains. About thirty miles.”
“How are we going to make that?”
“Easy, the same way an ant eats an elephant, one bite at a time.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“It means we just have to do it. Besides, I have already checked it out. Where do you think I’ve been the past week?”
“It is real. The machine. The power works. I brought some things back to read.”
“Where are they? Let me see.”
“They are back at the library with the map and my gear.”
“Oooh big scout man has gear now huh?”
“Yeah something like that…”
A sharp pop echoes across the field. It sounds like it came from inside the shelter. The sound is unmistakable. It was a gunshot.
I jump up and run towards the shelter with Elias close on my heels. I squeeze too fast past the metal panel and slice a shallow cut in my arm. I barely feel the burn as I bend and twist through the utility space back towards my room. I run out of hole in the wall so fast that I fall into Cassandra’s empty bed. Elias is beside me pulling me to my feet. The youngest girl in the room, Angie, is looking at me with big round eyes.
“Where did Cass go?” I demand.
Angie points at the open doorway and says, “It came from the office.”
We race out the door and into the dimly lit hallway. Candles flicker as we run past them to the open door of the office at the end of the hallway. I hear another door open behind us and more footsteps following. I burst into the office to find a candle burning beside a hand written note. There is a splash of blood on the wall and a short brunette named Cassandra on the floor. My hands are shaking and my eyes are full of tears. How do you touch someone who isn’t there? I reach and remove the gun from her lifeless hand and the blood smears on my fingers. I feel my chest tighten and my mind goes red. I scream the scream of a mad woman. I scream at life and at this stupid fucking town. People are worth more than this. Cass was worth more than this.
A few more people have gathered at the door and are looking into the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him.
He has a robe thrown over his naked body and his glasses are crooked on his nose. Probably just got out of bed. He has a stupefied look that I decide suits him. In one slow but fluid motion I raise the gun and fire. I watch in slow motion as the bullet spins through the air and forces its way into Eric’s brain. The wall behind him lights up in a pink explosion and the expression on his face is frozen for all time. I drop the gun and look down at my hands. They are blood soaked and shaking. Just like the rest of me. Elias pulls me close and we edge towards the door. The other girls are in shock so they just stare and move out of our way.
This time we run right out of the front door and down the street. I don’t know exactly where we are running but for the first time in a long time, I know exactly why.