Size / / /

Dr. Hansen presses the cold bell of her stethoscope against my chest, and I watch the lines in her face deepen. It's dark in the room, and the watermarks in the ceiling's cracked plaster look like continents, like places I've never been marked on a map I've seen once, and forgotten. It's daytime outside, and the cold light of early spring filters in pale and weak through the newsprint she keeps taped over the windows.

Most people don't know this, but Dr. Hansen is the kind of doctor that helps people, too. She used to work in a hospital like other doctors, and wear a white coat, and frown over her patients like she frowns over me now, in a broken down old house outside the city's walls.

When I talk to her out loud I call her Josepha, but in my head I still think of her as Dr. Hansen, the way I first heard it on the radio five years ago. Her face is different now than it was in the photographs. Her nose is different, and so is the line of her jaw.

She says the pains in my chest might be from little growths called polyps. She says that it isn't uncommon for kids born in the year of the worst chemical spills, like me, when the poison gasses left the forests outside of Wawanosh dead and leafless.

Since it happened, she says, some of the biodegradable components of those chemicals have broken down and become harmless. Others circulate through the water cycle, coursing through rivers and clouds of condensation in the stratosphere, gradually making their way to the north and south pole, concentrated by the cold there. She tells me it's the same as what happens when you leave a bottle of beer outside in the snow in the winter and forget it's there, and when you go out to get it all the pure alcohol has separated and risen to the top.

She gives me analgesic pills, an inhaler full of generic bronchodilator. Dr. Hansen has people inside the hospitals who give her things even though they aren't supposed to.

She sits beside me on the edge of the narrow cot, and lays her dry, cracked hand against my cheek. The pads of her fingers are hard and smooth, silvery white with scar tissue. I touch my own fingers sometimes, and wonder how much it must have hurt.

Doctor Hansen's eyes are blue, their edges creased with fine lines. She tries to smile when she looks at me, but instead her lips just press together.

"I'm going to try to get you some better drugs," she says, and she wraps her hand around mine and squeezes.

Jean-Marc accosts me before I'm even back to the compound, walking up behind me on paw-silent feet so that I startle when he puts his hand on my shoulder.

"I was in the city today," he tells me, and his smile is wolfish. The day is bright and cold, and his breath makes clouds of steam in the air, his chest heaving like he's been running. His hair has come loose from where he keeps it tied at the nape of his neck, the short pieces hanging down in his face in greasy hanks.

I always tell him that next time one of the kids gets lice he's going to have to shave his head like everybody else, teasing him with the wooling shears, saying I'll chop it off while he's sleeping like that story I read in one of the Bibles we found in a crate at the dump site. We'll see, he tells me, like he has any choice in it.

"I robbed a man," he grins, and I notice how he's hiding his hands behind his back.

I try to lean around him to see what he's got, but he darts and turns away from me, taking another step backward.

"What is it?"

"Something you'll want." He laughs, and shows me a little package wrapped in brown paper. "Coffee." ?I try to grab it out of his hand but he jumps out of my reach again and his hands go behind his back.

"Share!" I tell him, taking another step forward, and he laughs and tells me that sharing is conditional.

"On what?" I ask, still advancing as he retreats, and he raises one of his eyebrows and his face becomes smug.

"Does this condition apply to everybody who wants some?" I ask, and he shakes his head and says no, just me.

I try to tackle him around the waist, but he seems somehow heavier, more solid than last time we fought, until it occurs to me that it's just me who's gotten weaker. He tries to pin my arms behind my back but I get myself free and run down the potholed road until he catches up. Once, he would have pulled me to the ground and we would have rolled around slinging dirt in each others faces, laughing and choking on the dust until one of us admitted reluctant defeat. But this time he lets his hands fall from my shoulders and then puts them back, a gesture of consolation this time rather than a challenge.

"Mina," he says, and he puts the package in my hand and closes my fingers around it. We're still standing close to each other, and he smells like stale sweat and stale tobacco and unwashed hair, laced with some other smell I don't recognize, some alien city smell, chemical and sharp.

We walk down the road together, its packed dirt flanked with ratty shrubs and Queen Anne's Lace, new green buds.

"You were with the doctor?"

"Yes," I say, and I show him the painkillers in their little plastic bottle. He nods, and doesn't say anything else.

When Jean-Marc first showed up at Eleutheria he was all lean muscle and bruise-coloured eyes, a feral city thing. He had a kind of violent sadness coming off of him, a toxicity of constant fear.

His face looks softer now, even though he's older. From certain angles you can almost see what he would have looked like as a child, if a place like the city would even allow a childhood for someone like him.

We walk all the way to the place where Eleutheria's compound used to be, the wrecked carcass of the old prison with its big ragged hole opening into what used to be the north wing, all jagged with twisted pieces of rebar and steel I-beams sticking out everywhere like teeth in a mean, hungry mouth.

I came to the prison alone last week, the day it rained all morning and the ruins smelled like wet concrete and wet ashes. I'm not sure what I was doing there. I found a dead sparrow right by the bomb-blast's steel-toothed mouth, lying with its wings spread on the ground. Its neck lolled, limp in my cupped hands, and I thought to myself, there is softness in everything.

There is softness in the sunless world inside the old prison, and in the smell of old, old ashes that comes back up out of the ground after it rains. Some of those ashes are the burnt-up bones of the men and women and little kids who were trapped inside after the bombs, and back when the compound was still at the ruins sometimes I would find little pieces of bone in the buckets of ash I brought out for the gardens.

Whenever that happened I would keep them in my pocket and bring them up to third hill after I was done, the highest one where you can see into the junk yard and what used to be the highway. I would dig little pits, deep enough that the rain wouldn't wash them up, and say a few words to the bone pieces as I scraped the dirt back over them and packed it down. Sometimes I would pull out some of my hair or make little cuts on my fingers and squeeze drops of blood out so they would know I hadn't forgotten why they died, why the prison and all the places around it were empty for us to build our home in in the first place.

For days I would feel the little pin-pricks on my hands where I'd cut myself, whenever I was washing the dishes or cutting potatoes or chopping wood. The pain would remind me of the bone pieces, and the fire I was too young to remember, and there was softness in that as well.

Jean-Marc and I stand beside each other in the prison's jagged mouth, our hands not quite touching, looking into the dark. My eyes scan the ground for the sparrow's little body but it's gone now, carried off by some animal.

The flat field behind us is still surrounded by a high, high fence, although there have been torn-up bits for as long as I remember. Some of the older people like Sarah and James and Yehuda tell me that it was a yard where they would let the prisoners exercise, way way back when the place was a normal prison. After everything changed, they never let anybody outside.

"There are people in the city who want to help us," Jean-Marc says, still looking into the dark.

My face tenses up when he says it, and he notices.

"They're not rats. Not this time."

I don't say anything. My hand leaves my side and traverses the space between us, meaning to touch him, although it stops short of contact and falls again, numb and heavy.

At the compound there's an old mirror nailed to the door of the building that used to be a barn, and I catch my own eyes reflected in it as I'm closing the door behind us. I look worse; I look the same. Everyone can tell. No one can tell. I'm imagining it. I'm imagining everything.

Jean-Marc wrote a sign that says you're ugly and nailed it above the mirror, because he was sick of people looking at themselves. I see it, and smile as I latch the doors back shut again. The children assail us before we've taken our boots off and my smile widens at the small hands searching my pockets, the laughing voices. I close my hand around my bottle of painkillers and Flora's tiny, hot fingers try to pry it open again, wanting to know what I have.

After the sun goes down everyone goes outside where scrap wood from the dump site is already piled for the fire. It will be summer soon, and there will be music and fire and laughing voices every night. I leave without speaking, and go up to the top floor of the third building where I sleep, in a room which is really just one of the hall closets from back when the compound was a farm with a house made for three or four people, not thirty.

In the dark, I think about Dr. Hansen. Her soft, crackly voice telling me I should be more careful, her scarred-up fingertips brushing the hair out of my face, pinning it behind my ears. I dream she lets me lay my head on her stomach while she combs my hair. My mind drifts, pacified by the fantasy.

When I open my eyes, she is not her anymore. She is dead, like the people on the propaganda leaflets that Jean-Marc showed me, lurid photos showing the atrocities of the Regime. Bloated faces, a woman's pregnant belly slit open like it's been unzipped. Her intestines are laid in a slick-membraned knot on her chest and you can see the baby inside, no longer protected by the cradle of her pelvic bones. Layers of dissected tissue pinned and ruched like paper roses, flesh petals, curved bone.

I startle awake when Jean-Marc kicks open the door. He shuts it again as quietly as his panic will allow and darts into the corner beside where I'm lying.

"Shhhh," he says, and I can hear things banging downstairs, angry words being exchanged. There's an edge of laughter in his voice, and I know he's done something really stupid but part of him is proud of it. The stairs creak with heavy footsteps, and I can tell from the sound of the hard-soled shoes that it's Mason he's infuriated this time.

"He's got a knife," says Jean-Marc, close to my ear. "I can tell by the way he's walking. He's walking with confidence."

The footsteps thud past us. Mason has been drinking. He yells Jean-Marc's name twice, and then there's just silence. Then a noise of frustration, and he hurls something solid and heavy against the wall, near where we're hiding. Jean-Marc's hand wraps around mine in the darkness, but once Mason goes back downstairs again he breaks out into the laughter he's been holding back the whole time. His wine-smelling lips press against my cheek and then he disappears again, probably leaving through one of the upstairs windows that leads onto the roof.

In the morning Yehuda looks exhausted, awake before everyone else, peeling a mound of potatoes into one of the big plastic washtubs. A pile of broken tinder that used to be one of the chairs lies gathered into a neat pile by the wood stove. He smiles when he sees me and I sit down beside him and take the knife off my belt and start peeling, thinking that's the best way I can tell him I'm sorry. Not for anything I've done wrong, just for the way things are in general. He doesn't say anything, but I know he understands.

Sometimes, I think Yehuda is my father. Everyone takes care of the kids together at Eleutheria, feeds them and sews their clothes and teaches them how to mix bread dough and plant tomato seedlings and feed the chickens. But sometimes Yehuda looks at me in a special way, kind of sad and searching, and I think he's trying to find pieces of my mother in my face.

"Did you see the helicopter yesterday?" he says eventually, and fear jabs its sharp beak into my chest.

"No." I say, and I know what he's thinking: that we have to leave soon, we have to go north to where there's still places to hide, jagged mountains where helicopters can't land.

Brooms of dried nettles and mother-wort sway from the ceiling rafters, newly risen sun spilling in through the crack in the door that's been opened to let the spring air in. Home, the illusion of permanence.

James comes down the stairs with two of the kids, sad dark-eyed Matthias asleep in his arms while Aretha straggles behind them, thin and rangy, her small face serious. ?He eases himself onto the bench beside Yehuda and they sit with their knees touching. Yehuda puts his arms around James and Matthias and they stay like that for a while with their eyes closed. It makes me sad for some reason, and I try not to look.

"Mina, what do you think we can do for Jean-Marc?" James asks me.

I look at the potato I'm peeling and shrug my shoulders at him. "For? Don't you mean about?" They both laugh, although they try not to.

"He's not here, and nobody knows where he's gone. Please, Mina. You seem to know him better than anyone else does."

I do know Jean-Marc better than anyone else, I want to tell him. And that's the reason I really don't care what happens to him.

"He'll be back," I tell them instead. "He doesn't know how to take care of himself out here where there aren't any rich people to rob."

Aretha pulls at my sleeve and frowns. She wants us to stop taking about it.

"I'm sorry, 'Retha. We won't fight," I say, and I wrap my arm around her narrow shoulders and pull her onto the bench beside me.

I know I shouldn't do it, but I go to Doctor Hansen anyway, after the sun's gone down and my work for the day is done. The way there is mostly through the forest, so I tell myself the helicopters wouldn't be able to see me anyhow. If they knew how to see into the forest, they wouldn't have to drop the bombs filled with poison gas that strip every tree to its bare white skeleton. If they knew how to see into the forest, they wouldn't have to chop it all down and burn the stumps. The way there is long, but I push my aching body.

When I get to her house there isn't any light, but she's lying awake inside with her eyes open, just looking out into the dark.

"You have to leave soon," she says when I crawl into bed beside her. "I have to leave too."

She puts her arm around my shoulders, and I tell her the same thing I've told her so many times. That I love her, that I'm in love with her, that I want to kiss her on her mouth and on the scarred-over tips of each of her fingers, that I wish more than anything I could take the pain out of her memories and out of her tired, broken body.

"I love you as well, Mina," she says, and kisses the side of my head. I know she doesn't mean it the way I mean it, and I tell myself that's almost better, that's the way it should be between us.

We don't say anything for a while, and I wonder for a moment if she's gone to sleep. I curl myself around her thin body and lay my head on her shoulder. In my pocket I can feel the packet of coffee that Jean-Marc gave me. A heavy wind shakes the house, making its wooden rafters sigh, and it's then that I know I will never see Jean-Marc again. He has been killed, or else crossed some other boundary just as unbroachable as death, lost again in the bowels of the city where he came from.

"Do you think any of the forests have grown back?" I ask her. "The forests all around Wawanosh."

"It won't ever be like it was before," she says after a minute, her voice ruffling my hair as it drifts into sleep. "But some things are hardy, and don't die like the rest. Clover, I think. I think the clover still grows wild in Wawanosh."

The clover still grows wild, I repeat to myself, and I close my eyes listening to the sound of our breath, and the rattling in my chest, and the noises of the first birds waking up outside as the gray morning light weeps in through the windows, through all the small spaces where the tape has peeled away.

Kelly Rose Pflug-Back's fiction, poetry and essays have recently appeared in journals such as This Magazine, Counterpunch, Ideomancer Speculative Fiction and Goblin Fruit, as well as anthologies such as The Moment of Change, The Monster Book For Girls and Imaginarium 2012. Her first book, These Burning Streets, is forthcoming from Strangers In a Tangled Wilderness. She is an undergrad student in the Human Rights and Human Diversity program at Wilfrid Laurier university and a contributing editor for Fifth Estate Magazine, America's longest-running anti-authoritarian publication.
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20 May 2024

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