“Laura, do you know how lucky we are?”
“Millions died, tribes were destroyed, and food nearly reached the brink of extinction… but we have finally found our place of rest… yeah, I’m grateful to be alive,” She agreed.
He pulled open a window curtain. “Just look at that greenhouse.” He coughed. “Twenty years have passed since the outbreak, and we’ve led a simple life.”
She smiled. “That’s the way we liked it. You love to fish….”
He kissed her hand. “And you love to garden. Most of all…”
Their eyes locked. “We love each other.”
The sound of footsteps broke their eye contact. “She must be awake,” She whispered.
He nodded. “Sixty years strong, there’s no marriage sturdier than ours…different as we are.”
He turned on the radio. “In today’s top stories, opponents of the floating meat index are once again pleading with tribe leaders for stronger regulations and transparency, nest junkies are seeking rehab in droves, but we begin with outrage from the public as benefit cuts for veterans leave many seeing red….”
She changed the station. “I don’t like listening to the news before having coffee. Music is a better choice to release dopamine and start the day more upbeat rather than going straight to the stressors.”
He placed his shaky hands in his pockets and walked out of the living into the kitchen.
They lived in a small cabin in the city of Iris, happy to be far away from all the commotion of Carmelita, the vibrant capital of Purlextina, with their young granddaughter. It was there that Jaime felt most at ease. A proud surviving soldier of the Battle of Cotovious Ridge, he witnessed the bloodiest conflict in recorded history. As proof, he remained haunted by the nightmares of war.
It was a topic he avoided at all costs.
“Want to talk about it?” Laura always asked him; he refused every time.
She affectionately filled the cabin with candles made of elderflowers whenever she witnessed him having a trauma trigger. Something about that scent soothed him. Life had been so different before the Great Meteor Crash, the battle, and the chaos that followed thereafter.
By no fault of his own, the sound of a motorcycle’s engine revving induced his shell shock. Indeed, this was the perfect place to live, away from all the city’s flashing lights and busy sounds. Cabin life meant a quiet life.
Tomorrow, however, wouldn’t be one of the noiseless days. Jaime checked the kitchen cupboards. “We’re running low on flour. I’ll buy a cake.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is.”
He frowned. “This won’t be an ordinary birthday for Sasha. She’s taken every opportunity to remind us that she’s growing up. Don’t you remember the other day? She added several books advertised in the arts section of the Tribal Flair to her requested reading list. She even circled the thirteen and up labels with hearts.”
Laura exhaled loudly, “Yes, I remember, but I know she will argue with me when you leave.”
“I trust you will be able to handle any situation that arises from debating her.” He grabbed his keys and dashed out to the garage.
She locked the door behind him.
They found her excitement endearing most of the time, except whenever she asked permission to go outside. It was a bothersome request that led to many arguments.
Sasha heard just about every excuse under the moons, but she couldn’t understand how her elderly grandparents could withstand the germs better than she.
As far as family tiffs, they were all the same. She liked to test the waters hoping to expand her freedom in the cabin and greenhouse. “Can I help you clean the fishes Grandfather caught?”
Laura passed her the butter knife. “Sure thing, Sasha.”
“Can I go fishing next time with Grandfather?”
Sasha tried again on another occasion.
“Can I help with the vegetables in the kitchen?”
“You may,” Laura replied.
“Can I help with the flowers in the greenhouse?”
In fact, of all arguments, that one was the most exasperating. In her current standings, it was precisely three hundred noes for her request to go outside.
At some point, it became a game of verbal quickdraw. She once attempted to tire her grandmother out. It failed.
Sasha started the match. “Please?”
“No,” Laura replied with lightning speed.
Sasha aimed again. “Can I—?”
There was simply no budging on the topic.
Sasha recalled an evening from her childhood and pinpointed the moment tension rose.
“Why can’t I go outside?” she asked during dinner when she was six years old. “I heard you and Grandma talking…she said I can’t go.”
Laura’s spoon dropped out of her hand. She turned to face Jaime, her eyes filling with tears.
He calmly replied, “Where would you go?”
“I want to see Chi Chi’s treehouse.”
“Ha!” He smiled at the child. “You love that book, don’t you?”
Sasha grinned broadly. “Yep!”
“Your beloved chipmunk doesn’t live in Iris,” he said. “There is an outbreak going on outside, and we are safest here.”
“Why tell her that?” shrilled Laura.
“Because she needs to know this is the safest place for all of us to be.” He patted Sasha’s head. “Especially her.”
Laura’s eyes narrowed. “Well, I think she’s far too young to be told about the outbreak. Want to start by explaining germs or death?”
Jaime pulled Sasha closer and placed his hands over her tiny ears. “Hush, now. You’ll frighten the poor child.”
Laura crossed her arms across her chest. “Maybe she needs to be frightened. Maybe you both do.”
Sasha became reclusive and hardly ever left her room. She was allowed to study, but only with books. Jaime had set up a computer in her room, but Laura caught her veering from the learning plans too many times.
“We can’t trust her with a computer, Jaime!” she protested.
From that moment on, Sasha spent her days in front of books and nights secretly on her tablet, which her grandfather gave her on the sly. She learned to write computer codes but felt her natural talents lay in hacking.
She headed above to grab a bite to eat. She was usually an easy-going child. But not today; she was ready to negotiate and had every counterargument she could think of ready to go. She was eager to leave the cabin and felt confident it would soon happen. “Starting tomorrow, I go from kid to teenager.”
Laura turned her glance from the Tribal Flair. The caption on the cover read: “Peril in the woods: The case of the missing terraflippers.”
“Are you hungry?”
Sasha nodded. She was not very talkative when she sensed that Laura was annoyed. There was something about her icy glare that always rendered her speechless.
“Go on, then.” Laura pointed to the kitchen. “Your breakfast isn’t going to cook itself.” She sipped her black tea. “It’s just so hard to wake up before the middle of the day, isn’t it, deary?” she spoke in an uncompromising, don’t test me tone.
Sasha looked over at the bird clock on the wall; it was well beyond the time Laura found it acceptable to be dining. Her stomach grumbled.
Searching through the cabinets she found slim pickings and sighed heavily. “Krutzie pie it is.” She grabbed a can opener and put together her wet and dry ingredients.
As the heat built inside the wood fire oven, she crumbled vegetable fat into the flour and kneaded it to form a dough. She rolled it out to create the crust of her pie. She opened a canned mixture of common edible worms and lightly seasoned them with her unique blend of ginger, cinnamon, and cumin before adding it to the crust. She weaved a lattice top for her pie.
She cleaned the kitchen as the pie cooked in the oven. She was used to doing chores around the cabin and never complained as long as she could do things independently. And most of all, away from Laura’s judgmental glances.
She loved trying new recipes, especially on Tuesday nights when she watched Cobalt on tv with her grandfather. The hobby kept her mind busy while keeping his belly full. It was a pleasant change from the usual pace of life with raw vegetables and the occasional Krutzie pies.
She dreamed of traveling and becoming a foodie someday. Her ultimate fantasy was to try the elusive bovine meat that rich people raved about.
Laura entered the kitchen; Sasha figured it was to snoop on her. “Your grandfather should be coming home any moment now with our supplies and your cake.”
She ran a finger across the kitchen counter.
The sudden intrusion irked Sasha. “Scanning for crumbs?”
“I do hope we can celebrate without any incident,” Laura jeered.
Sasha played it cool. “Of course, we can. We’ll have cake, take photos, and then go out for a little stroll.”
Laura, though silent at first, was quick with a comeback. “Don’t start! I don’t care that your birthday is tomorrow. The answer is no.”
Sasha continued, “If you are afraid of germs, I read about these newly improved hazmat suits….”
Laura drew closer to her. “Where did you hear about the suits, Sasha?” She stood tall like an attorney that was granted permission to cross-examine.
“I saw them in the Tribal Flair in section—”
Laura’s glare was icier than usual. “Don’t lie to me.”
Sasha’s eyes widened in surprise. “I’m not. I could show you the advertisement if it hasn’t already been turned into compost. Let me see if I can find a copy in—”
“Sasha, you were trying to hack again!” Laura interrupted.
“What?” Sasha’s tone leaped into a higher register. “No, I found the suits in last week’s Tribal Flair ads,” she countered. “I have no way to get online.”
Laura retrieved the newspaper she had left on the side table. “You were up late last night, which is why you’re eating breakfast in the middle of the day. You were searching for videos about the Great Meteor Crash. Again! How many times have I told you not to do so?”
Sasha bit her bottom lip. “You got it all wrong. You took away the computer, remember?”
Laura pulled out a small tablet from her cardigan sweater. “Liar.”
She glared at her. “You were also looking at online recipes, clothing stores, makeup tutorials, and Cobalt merchandise. I have remote access to everything online in this cabin. I saw what you were doing.”
Sasha frowned. The tablet was covered with Chibi cat stickers and undoubtedly belonged to her. Checkmate.
Laura put the tablet away. “Looked familiar, right? Consider it confiscated.” She looked out the window. “I’m going to have a little chat with my darling husband upon his return.”
She huffed. “I said no computers, and he got you one behind my back.”
“I stole it,” Sasha blurted. She wasn’t going to let her grandfather get in trouble, too.
Laura picked up the newspaper and rolled it up tight like a baton. “Where did you get it?”
Sasha pointed to the garage. “I found it in the garbage and used spare parts from other broken machines to fix it. I read about repairs in Sarvisik Mechanics: A Guide to Old and New Technology.”
Laura raised and dropped the paper weapon into her other hand. “You lie and steal? We have failed your parents!” she wailed. “Good thing they are not here to see how you turned out. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Sasha felt every word with the same intensity of a punch to the gut. “I feel trapped, grandmother. I yearn for more freedom than you can offer. A chance to feel the breeze run through my hair, to see the other tribes, and taste new dishes. Even a trip to the general store sounds like a wonderful adventure. And I’m pretty sure these super germs you’ve been talking about all these years are nothing but crap.”
Laura struck Sasha with the rolled paper. “You think you’re a bacteriologist? Don’t question what we have already told you! You are not strong enough to go outside.”
She tapped the rolled newspaper in her other hand. “E. coli ganae, Foaurry’s Skin Disease…no makeup tutorial could show you how to fix that. Leryila forbid that you should contract Staphylococcus Warith!” She gestured her hand over her torso in self-blessing. “If infected, you could die in a matter of days.”
Sasha pouted. “Fine, I’ll take my chances and enjoy the little time I have left to live.”
“How could you say that?” Laura raised her arm again.
Sasha caught Laura’s paper midair and wagged her finger. “Grandfather promised.”
Laura pursed her lips. “Promise? What promise?”
Sasha released her grip. “I was told I’d have permission to go outside when I was older.”
She pointed to the calendar on the table. A heart was drawn over her birth date. “I am older now, and I want to go outside.”
Laura cracked her knuckles. “Such tough talk from a little girl who bawled over a bellyache. You’re an easy target for germs!”
Sasha couldn’t stand it when her grandmother cracked her joints but felt more disgusted that she had just mocked the time a food allergy landed her into an extended hospital stay. “What didn’t kill me made me stronger. I’ll take my chances outdoors.”
She assumed she couldn’t leave the cabin due to her young age. Her confusion in all of this started during the Cobalt Tribesmen Cup four years prior, when she was nine.
Growing up, she had always asked about her parents. She knew they were dead, but her grandparents were tight-lipped. The topic upset Laura more than Jaime. She was naturally curious to want to know more about them but eventually stopped asking because it always returned to the same automated response—germs are bad.
On the last day of the cup, Jaime had been drinking fire vodka since sunrise, and the effects appeared during halftime.
Sasha looked at the photos on the fireplace mantle that showed a glimpse of a past life where her grandparents appeared nothing like those she knew. A once voluptuous woman, Laura was now tall and slender beyond recognition. Though the same could be said about her then-athletic grandfather. Nowadays, the mighty stallion tattoo that gloriously adorned his tanned, muscular biceps appeared more like a sad discolored donkey.
“Grandfather, could you tell me something about my parents? What were they like?”
He wore a bittersweet smile. His lips always looked dry and cracked, covered in fine, thin wrinkles cemented on his face after decades of smoking cigarettes. “They were good people. I’m sorry you did not get to meet them,” he lamented. “I have something for you.”
He pounded his chest and burped a fireball. He pulled something small from his pocket. “Close your eyes… Okay, you can look now.”
He gave Sasha a puzzle key necklace. The chain was platinum, and the bronze key had a puzzle piece for a handle coated with a brown patina. “This key belonged to your father. Whatever it opened is gone, so I turned it into a necklace. I’ve had it for many years, and now I’d like you to have it.”
She smiled brightly. “I love it, grandfather, thank you.”
“Your mother and father died during the outbreak,” he said as he tied the jewelry around her slender neck, “but someday, when you are old enough, we will visit their resting place. That’s a promise.”
She stopped glancing at the necklace and looked up at her grandfather. “Really? You mean I could…go outside?”
He gazed at the excited child and gently touched her shoulder. “I do have one request. Sasha, you must keep this a secret between only the two of us.”
He tensed his body under the gravity of that last sentence. “I mean it! No one can ever know that you have this. Not even your grandmother. No. One. Do you understand?”
She happily nodded and stuck out her pinky.
He wrapped his pinky around hers, sealing their pact. “Good girl.” He scratched his protruding belly. “Always hidden, and make sure to keep it in a safe place if you are not wearing it!”
She smiled. “It’s our secret.”
“And try not to be so hard on your grandmother,” he continued. “The outbreak took our daughter. I don’t think she will ever recover from that.”
She leaned in closer to listen to her grandfather.
“The outbreak took more lives than we were prepared to handle.” He rubbed his eyes. “Sasha, no parent ever wants to bury their child.”
Her smile faded after seeing the despondent look in his eyes. “I will try harder.” She was elated that he opened up to her and did not want to ruin the moment with the sorrow that crept in.
His sadness seemed to fade. He smiled at her and gave her a big hug. “This must be confusing, but never forget that your grandmother and I are here to take care of you.”
“I know,” she said. “Thank you,” she quickly added. She pulled out the necklace again to examine it.
“Sasha…” He chimed.
She put it away. “Sorry.”
“Remember to always keep it hidden,” he warned again. They continued watching the rest of the game as if nothing had happened.
The promise to see her parents’ graves calmed her curiosity, but no one would leave the cabin while the outbreak was still happening. She, however, never forgot that Cup match or the kindness her grandfather showed her.
She kept the necklace hidden as a bookmark in a locked notebook and his promise in her heart. She didn’t want to have a favorite grandparent, but it was clear that she and Jaime had a special bond.
The oven beeped, pulling her out of her reverie. The pie was ready, but Sasha had other concerns. She pleaded with her grandmother once more. “Please, may we go outside?”
Laura rubbed her eyes. “I’m tired of this argument. Don’t be so burdensome.”
“Why not?” Sasha insisted. “Why can’t we go?” she whined.
She placed her feet on the chair, slumped her back, and brought her knees to her face. “What is the big deal? You and grandfather go out all the time. Why can’t I?”
“The big deal, Sasha, is that you are not immune. You haven’t been vaccinated,” Laura snapped. “The Nuer18 injection can’t be given to small children. The shot series starts when a person reaches adulthood.”
Now, Sasha was the one looking out the window in search of backup. “So, say, five years? Could I go out then? When did grandfather leave?”
Laura followed her. “Earlier today, despite my wishes to get you a cake for tomorrow. I don’t see why we couldn’t make one here ourselves.”
The idea of a cake created from scratch by Laura made Sasha retch. She never forgot the time Laura made a frosted caramel cake by scraping caramelized onion bits from her pan and mixing it with sugar and vegetable shortening. “Caramel…caramelized…what’s the difference?” she said as Jaime and Sasha scrapped their tongues with their napkins.
She felt relieved, guessing that Jaime probably didn’t want to try another one of Laura’s master creation desserts. “He was probably in search of something edible.”
Laura jutted her chin. “He needs to be home resting, but he insisted on going into the city alone, with all those noises and flashing lights. Why can’t you appreciate what we do for you?”
“I do appreciate your efforts, grandmother…I just—”
Laura cut her off. “You don’t appreciate anything.” She counted her points on her fingers. “Which is why you insist on wanting to go outside when you know that you shouldn’t and why I keep busting you doing what you are not supposed to be doing. You have these wild fantasies, child, but you don’t want to know what is out there.”
Sasha exhaled loudly through her nostrils. “This is so unfair!”
Laura snarled at her. “You want to know about fairness? I’m alive, and your mother isn’t. You are alive though your mother isn’t. Why was she taken instead of me? Or instead of….”
She placed her hands over her mouth and stopped talking.
Sasha was disturbed by her grandmother’s outburst.
Does she hate me because I survived the outbreak and my mother didn’t?
Sasha had difficulty understanding her grandmother and couldn’t tell what she was thinking. She was under the impression that she was permanently depressed based on her lack of appetite and physical appearance, but she would never have guessed that she could be so dark.
“Have you no shame?” Laura pressed. “Knowing that an old, injured war veteran cannot rest in his home? I shouldn’t fight you on this and let you go outside. If you’d happen to perish, then your grandfather and I could finally retire in peace.”
Sasha felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. She hid her face behind her knees and held back tears. She rose from the chair and put on the most stoic face she could muster. “Was there ever a time in your life when you were warm-blooded?”
She walked away but turned to face Laura. “Threatening your granddaughter. Am I the one who should feel ashamed?”
She headed to her bedroom and slammed the door. She sat on the floor against the door with her knees in front of her face. Every year it’s the same thing.
She recalled every excuse that she had previously been given. There’s a recall on masks. It’s not safe to travel now due to the weather. Not today because the tribes are sparring. Wild forest animals are attacking people in the area under the command of a titan-sized cat. They have always had dumb excuses to prevent me from going outside. But why?
Laura knocked on her door, but she refused to respond.
“Fine!” she shouted. “Be that way. To think that my life revolves around raising a kid at my age! Let me tell you something—”
They had gotten into this argument before. Sasha put on her headphones and drowned her out with the loudest artist she could find on her player: The Crying Ponies.
Dinner that evening was awkward.
Jaime grabbed the bowl of roasted potatoes in the center of the table and dropped a large scoop on his plate. “What did you do today?”
Sasha stared at her plate; the vegetables were cold and soggy. “I focused on my studies,” she lied.
Her upcoming birthday felt lousy now, and she would feel worse retelling her side of the story in the day’s events.
“That’s great, Sasha,” he replied and grinned broadly. He seemed unaware of the earlier argument. “Make sure that you don’t fall behind.”
She sighed loudly and tapped her plate with the fork.
He reached for the carrots and placed a few on his plate. When Laura turned her glance elsewhere, he wrapped them with his napkin and tossed them underneath the table. “You must keep high scores on your exams,” he continued. “Always aim to be the best if you want to survive in this world.”
She nodded, bemused by his rhetoric.
Does he ever turn it off? They make me study economics, biology, and law, and I’m grilled randomly on the seven tribe languages for proper grammar and pronunciation. They won’t let me go outside, yet he presses on my studies as if I’m about to take on the world alone. How would I launch an attack from my underground prison cell?”
He pointed his index finger towards the sky. “Remember what I always say…never give up!”
Annoyed by his nagging, she abruptly stood up. “You are right.” She never wanted to upset her grandfather, who, unlike Laura, was always kind to her. “Please, excuse me while I return to my studies.” She rinsed her plate in the kitchen sink.
“Wait, Sasha, dear. Leaving before dessert?” her grandmother asked with a raised eyebrow.
She forced a smile. “I’ll reward myself later after I’ve completed my tasks.”
Laura sneezed. “Just don’t eat it in your room. Please keep it tidy.” She sniffled.
“Huh?” Jaime was gleefully shoving his cheeks full of potatoes.
Laura rubbed her nose with a napkin. “Her room was dirty, so I sprang into action. While cleaning it, I found an empty fruit cup with a little cockroach living inside.” She looked directly at Sasha. “I had to crush the insignificant little bug.”
She let out a laugh. “At least, I thought I did. At my age…my vision is so poor that I probably missed, and it ran away to cower somewhere.” She kissed him on the cheek. “These things happen, right darling?”
He continued to shovel food into his mouth, wearing a carefree grin. “Very good. I’ll spray for bugs in the morning.”
He stopped Sasha as she was heading downstairs. “Let’s watch the game later.”
“I’ll finish my studies and tidy up.” She got her grandmother’s message loud and clear. “See you then.”
Oblivious to the tension, he added. “If they win against the Ivory Cranes, they’ll be in the finals against the Fire Koi.”
She pumped her fist in the air. “Go, Frost Bears!” She kissed him on the cheek, skipping her grandmother, who appeared unaffected.
While walking past the living room, the tribe anthem played, and she rushed to turn off the radio. I don’t want him to hear a military ad.
She then headed down to her room and remained there until it was time to watch the match.
Later that evening, Sasha returned to the living room with a tray of sandy burnt cookies and caught a sight that always grossed her out.
Laura raised the radio volume. “I’m not the one from way back when…will you…still love me then?” They sang together.
Sasha rolled her eyes whenever the two busted out singing like off-key love birds. “Nope.” She headed to the kitchen.
They Lindy-hopped, following her.
She gagged whenever they broke into an impromptu dance. “Knock it off, you two.”
They stopped dancing. He raised his arms above his head and stretched, exposing the bottom of his protruding belly. Laura immediately tickled his flesh. “Okay, stop.” He pulled his shirt down.
“I couldn’t resist.” She smiled and walked over to the coffee maker.
“Second half must be starting. Let’s go, Sasha.” He led her out of the room.
They sat on the living room sofa, watching the game.
The score was tied. They sat on the edge of their seats; he chewed on a cuticle during the commercial break. “Player four called for a time-out, but it will be tough to come back with ten seconds on the timer.”
An army ad came on. The men in fatigues waved, sitting on top of a tank riding through a parade. Confetti fell from above while the crowd cheered and clapped, chanting the word hero.
He tensed up; she guessed the obvious that he was most likely thinking of the horrors rather than the glamorous side portrayed in the commercial.
She wasn’t sure how to change the subject, but she knew she had to say something before the silence grew longer.
“Grandfather, why don’t you try my almond cookies? I want to know if I’m improving.”
He looked down at the plate on the coffee table. “You probably want to know how I survived?” He put down his beer. “Have you read about the Onions yet?”
She nodded. “In the chapter that covered the Battle of Cotovious Ridge. They were an elite group of Purlixtenian Spies under the branch of the Royal Flowers that arose from the global war.”
His shell shock crept up. “They were fierce fighters that came from the shadows…down from the trees…up from the oceans…one never knew where the ambush came from. Their speed was terrifying.”
His mouth appeared dry; he reached for his beer, took a large gulp, and crushed the can in his hand. “Seeing one face to face meant there was no chance of survival. They were ruthless killers.”
She could see in his eyes that a panic attack was imminent. “I’ll fetch the candles in the kitchen.” She bounced off the couch.
He grabbed her hand and breathed loudly through his nostrils. “I’ll be all right.”
She sat back down but was worried that his breathing exercise might not be enough to calm him.
He cringed. “Did I ever tell you that I fought the Onions?”
She grabbed a cookie. “No, but I’m guessing you are far stronger since you are here today.”
He lowered the volume on the television. “Me, stronger? I’d say probably luckier than anything.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I don’t understand. Who could have been stronger than you, grandfather? I’ve seen the photos on the mantle. You were buff.”
He laughed out loud. “I might have been built like rock-ox, but one needs more than brute strength to survive in battle.”
He reached for a notepad and pen inside the drawer of the corner table. He composed a few sketches of the tall and lanky creatures.
“Their body composition is unique, primarily composed of water and plant-based materials.”
She was befuddled. “Aren’t humans also primarily composed of water?”
He booped her on the nose. “One discernible difference is that they do not have noses; they also lack tear ducts.” He pointed at different parts of the Onion’s face on the sketch.
It was unclear to her why he decided to open up about his time in battle. Usually, when a military ad popped on, he cracked open another drink and sat in quiet contemplation like a monk. She knew it was a subject Laura couldn’t crack, hug after hug and candle after candle, but she was sure of one thing…booze always loosened his lips.
She touched her face. “No tear ducts or noses? Why couldn’t they get that fixed with cosmetic surgery?”
He flexed his biceps. “That is what gave them the advantage. The spies passed secret messages written in Aydia Onion Ink, the most vicious odor in the world.” He pinched his nose.
She smiled. “They used stinky ink to pass secret messages? Why couldn’t someone spray an air freshener before reading?”
His shoulders tensed. “Do not underestimate the danger. The ink was highly tear-inducing, and excessive exposure was known to cause severe eye bleeding. Most creatures could not be near the ink in any capacity; most cried, bled, or puked. In severe cases, it caused convulsions. Years ago, I met a man who lost an eye.”
Her eyes widened while her smile faded. “That’s awful. They carried secret notes with this ink to fight off their enemies?”
He burped. “No, only to pass information since the ink posed no threat to them.”
He scribbled hard on the notepad and drew barbs inside circles. “Note the black pores speckled throughout their bodies. This is how they fought.”
She took another glance at the sketch and back at her grandfather.
He pointed to the drawing. “When attacked, they release thorny, poisonous spikes hidden under layers of their skin to pierce the aggressor.”
He rolled his cargo pants up to his knees and exposed the lower half of his legs. The skin was scarred and necrotic. “Fatima Razz was the leader of the Royal Flowers and the most sadistic Onion. She often expressed more delight in toying with her victims than completing her tasks on time…at least that was what she told me.”
The game had already returned from commercial, but neither one of them had paid any attention. She had seen her grandfather’s ankles once before but never dared to ask him what had happened. She knew better. “How did you escape?”
“I didn’t give up.”
She gave him a sideways glance.
He unrolled his pants back to normal. “Hear me out; I know that may sound cliché, but I didn’t want to die without fighting as a soldier. The only problem was that this was the first time we had ever seen these creatures, so we had no advantage. She kicked the gun out of my hand and tore the flesh off my legs. I was severely injured and feeling the poison. I needed to find a weakness…any weakness fast.”
Her breath quickened in anticipation. “What did you do?”
His skin blanched. “She lunged towards me with her spikes exposed. I used the little strength of energy left in my legs and nudged out of the way. In the process, I somehow manage to trip her. She fell face down in the dirt. I used my upper body to push up and land on her head. It was the one place I noticed without spikes. I then elbowed the back of her neck until it snapped off her body.”
She was not expecting her grandfather to be so graphic, but in the end, she did not mind after so many years of wanting to be treated less like a kid. This moment made her feel more grown-up than ever.
He put the notepad away and grabbed another beer. “That’s why I call it luck. If she hadn’t tripped, I’d probably be dead right now. I know that I can be hard on you, but this is why I always tell you not to give up. The world may lead you into pickles I can’t even imagine, so I quiz you and encourage you to do your best. The chips may fall, and times may grow dark, but against it all, you must never give up. Do you understand?”
She hugged him. “It must have been painful to talk about the war… I will fight hard just like you.”
He pulled open the shades. “What a clear night! Look, there’s, Ulina. Do you see her?”
She gazed up at the constellations. “That’s her sword, and there is her tail.”
He patted her head. “She’s a mermaid just like you.”
He closed the shades. “Someday, the stars will take you all over the tribes.”
He addressed the elephant in the room. “I heard that you argued with your grandmother again.” He rubbed his knee. “We are not going to live forever, you know.”
She felt embarrassed whenever she thought she had disappointed him. “I know; I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me, Sasha. Tell her and head for bed. It’s late.”
He jerked his head in the direction of Laura. She was sipping a cup of coffee while reading the Tribal Flair: Has Colossal Paw been spotted?
“One more thing,” he whispered.
He handed Sasha a new tablet along with hers. “Make sure they look identical. Do you still have those bear stickers?”
She laughed. “They are cats.”
He signaled her to lower her voice. “Whatever, make sure they look the same, right down to the stickers.”
She was surprised he gave her another tablet, especially after all the trouble and arguments it caused.
He lifted an eyebrow. “Empty fruit cups weren’t the only thing she found while cleaning. She said she plans to destroy it. I told her to deal with it how she saw fit. I claimed that we were low on supplies, which is why I was able to go to the store early in the morning. It was to get you a duplicate.”
She was touched by his gesture. “Are you sure this is okay?” She inspected the new tablet.
He lifted her chin with his hand. “I won’t be able to help you if she finds this again. You know that, don’t you?”
His look was stern. “Then don’t get caught.”
“Why are you helping me?”
He stared at the tablets and frowned. “Because it’s unfair; books can only get you so far. You can say that your grandmother and I agree to disagree, but it’s a conversation I no longer want to have with her. I think you’re old enough to know that now. Happy early thirteenth.”
She hugged him and put the tablets away.
He cleared his throat. “The night is full of stars, yet the land is dark….”
She raised an eyebrow and scratched the back of her head. She downright hated his tribal language pop quizzes because he spoke too fast, which made her nervous enough to mess up. She took a guess. “With…the…exception of you. The one…I call my spark.”
He held his hand up for a high five. “Very good. Your Karleethian is still crude, but I’d say you’ll be fluent in no time.”
She apologized to her grandmother before heading to her bedroom for the night.
Jaime and Laura cleaned the kitchen. “It’s getting harder and harder to keep her indoors, Jaime,” she said while handing him a wet dish.
He used a small towel to dry the plate with little attention. The clean stacked ones on the countertop were streaked with droplets of water. “I know that.”
“What are we going to do about that?” she sternly asked as she grabbed another plate to scrub. “We’re running out of excuses, Jaime.” She handed him another wet dish.
“I don’t know, Laura.”
She stopped washing and put the dish in the sink. “You got a problem?”
He threw the towel down on the kitchen counter. “You know it always drives me nuts when you finish sentences emphasizing my name. You are such a nag!” He jutted out his hip. “We’re running out of excuses, Jaime.” He mocked the way she spoke.
He placed both hands on the counter. “If we only had a little more time, I—”
There was a knock at the door before either of them could say another word. Jaime went to answer. “Good evening,” he said.
“Do you have it?” the man asked. He was a tall thick-necked bruiser with slicked-back black hair, sunglasses worn at night, and a security guard uniform.
“Not yet,” Jaime replied. “She went to sleep about twenty minutes ago. Please, come in. May I offer you a glass of...” He slowly opened the door for the man.
The guard looked impatiently at his wristwatch. “No. I came for the samples. You got ten minutes.” He walked back to his car.
“Friendly guy,” Jaime muttered under his breath as he closed the door.
“Laura,” he called out. She popped her head out of the kitchen door. “Get the samples. I’ll be back.”
She headed downstairs as Jaime stepped outside to speak with the guard. He knocked on his car window. The man unlocked the passenger door, and he entered the car.
“She is starting to ask too many questions. They’ve trained us for this, but it still feels like a struggle to pull off. We’ve used every line we could think of, every line we were taught, but she won’t stop asking about her parents,” He spoke passenger side as though he had stepped inside a confession booth. “And, of course, her hunger to explore the world has no satiety.” He put his head in his hands.
“Hmm,” the guard inattentively replied as he flipped through pictures on his phone.
Jaime continued, “She is curious about the outside world like any kid her age. She’s never left the cabin in all of these years. If we could take her outside for...”
“Listen.” The guard grinned. “I have no business with you; I just came here to get the samples. If your job as a watcher is becoming too hard to handle, call the Institute and work it out with them, not me.” He returned to glancing at his phone and laughed. “That’s my Rottweiler.” The dog also wore dark sunglasses.
“Understood,” Jaime said. “Let me get that for you.”
The guard raised his phone and took a picture of Jaime. “Your wife’s name is Laura, right?”
“What was that for?”
“New protocols from the top,” the guard said. “Scanning the box ain’t enough proof these days for accepting the goods. I need to report that all watchers are present.”
Jaime walked towards the cabin as Laura opened the door. She handed him a tiny biohazard box.
He brought it over to the guard. “Sorry about the talk earlier.” He showed signs of embarrassment for having said anything.
The guard, however, seemed relaxed and unfazed. “See ya.” He sped away.