I push my face into the pillow, trying to muffle the sound of my sobs. I don’t want to cry, but it’s hard when it feels like someone’s ramming a hot fork through my temple. In an angry outburst I kick at the sheet draped over me, sending it sliding off the bed. I don’t know whether it’s because I can’t stand the feeling of it sticking to my sweaty skin or that when I’ve had these headaches, night after night, sometimes for weeks, I get so neffing sick of them my frustration boils over and I’ve got to let it out somehow.
I wrap the foam of the pillow up over my ears and groan. If I’m too loud Uncle Art will hear. He’ll come in and sit on the edge of my bed. He’ll ask me if I want any painkillers. He’ll stroke my back and tell me everything will be okay. I don’t want that. I’d prefer if he just left me alone.
Even buried in the pillow I hear the rumble of a plane flying over our house. It’ll be one of those big grey military planes coming in to land inside the N.E.Z. carrying whoever from the government has secret dealings with the Crabs. The military, scientists, politicians – everyone wants something from the aliens. Humans have become the scrawny little orphans begging please-sir-can-I-have-some-more, as if we’ve forgotten what they brought with them.
Lifting my head, I shove the alarm clock so I can see the display. The harsh red glow of the numbers reads 2:36 am – still hours until I need to be up for school. I roll onto my back, the pain in my skull stabbing in time with my pulse. My room is full of that middle-of-the-night kind of dark, the kind where everything looks blue. The world is quiet and still, until the silence is broken by the telephone.
Uncle Art will answer it. It’ll be for him anyway. They’ll be calling him into the Alpha Compound to cover a shift or something. Just his lucky night I guess.
Sure enough, the sound is cut off mid-ring and the muffled bass of Uncle Art’s voice floats through the wall. I can’t make out what he’s saying, but the conversation is short, and a second later there’s a knock on my door. Three gentle taps. The door creaks open, just enough to spread hallway light across my face, and Uncle Art pokes his head in.
“Molly,” he whispers. “Are you awake?”
“Mmmm,” I mumble, as if Uncle Art has woken me and I haven’t been lying awake crying with pain for the last hour.
“Sorry, I’ve got to go in.”
“Ok,” I say, rolling over, turning my back to him. “Have fun protecting the Crabs.”
Uncle Art hovers at the door like maybe he wants to say something else. There’s nothing he can say though, nothing he’s ever been able to say, and after a moment the door clicks shut.
I lie like that for a while, staring at the wall, running my eyes along the crack that appeared in the plaster during a heatwave we had two summers ago. It stretches from the roof to the floor, zig-zagging through the faded pink paint like a tear in the world. I asked Uncle Art to fix it but he said it didn’t matter, that it was just cosmetic damage. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me. Uncle Art doesn’t try to fix things that are broken.
I step off the bus onto the cracked, uneven sidewalk. The sound of another military plane rolls overhead. I don’t look up. My headache has eased slightly, but there’s no way I can deal with the bright morning sky. I look down the road. It stretches off into the ass-end-of-the-Earth that is Little Basin, Nevada. Once just a tiny blip on Highway 50 with a faded sign reading “Gateway to Little Basin National Park”, Little Basin has grown into an actual town now and not because of the national park – this place is famous for something else.
You know when people talk about being in the middle of nowhere? They only say that about other places because they’ve never been to Little Basin. Houses, shops, schools, supermarkets – a whole town dropped into the desert and surrounded by nothing but miles of dry scrub, sandy earth, and rattlesnakes. I’ve lived here for more than four years now and I’m still not used to it. It’s so empty. Plus, the heat. Man. The heat. The way the highway shimmers in the distance and dust just hangs in the air because there’s not a breath of wind. It’s stupid hot.
Urgh. I really don’t want to be here today, and not just because it’s hot and my head feels like it was used to make a gravel milkshake. Today is test day.
Jesse Hill, my best friend – more or less my only friend – is standing on the path, smiling his goofy smile. Jesse has a warmth about him, a genuineness that can disarm even the coldest person. He managed to become my friend, after all. We’re a neffing strange pair, though. Me with my ginger hair dyed black, wearing my black Doom Sisters t-shirt and black jeans with the pockets torn off, and him with his pastel-colored polo shirts and beaming smile. Everyone thinks Jesse’s my boyfriend. He’s definitely not.
“Did you remember it’s test day?” Jesse asks.
“Yeah, of course.”
“And are you going to tie yourself to a tree again?”
“No,” I say, as we walk toward the front of the school. “I’m just going to show up and not try.”
The Test. Pretty much every teenager on the planet knows what those words mean. One day a year we have to sit through hours of jank testing so we can be graded for possible admission to the Institute for the Betterment of Humanity. Neffing stupid name. Supposedly the world’s best and brightest go there to learn about advanced science and technology from the Crusties.
“You’re smart, Molly,” Jesse says. “You might get in if you try.”
“Even if I wanted to go and live with the Crabs, which I don’t, what do you think the chances are? They test everyone in the world, and how many people get in? A hundred? Two hundred maybe?”
“Well, I’m going to try. Imagine having aliens as teachers. Don’t you think that would be awesome?”
I see Mrs Bowls, our overdressed monster of a principal. She’s standing at the front door with her wiry hair pinned back and too much make-up plastered on a face it can’t help.
“I think we already do.”
Jesse chuckles. “Hey, did you hear last night’s announcement about integration?”
I stop. “No. What do you mean, ‘integration’?”
“The President and this guy from the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs made an announcement on TV last night. They’re going to let the Crusties live outside the N.E.Z., side-by-side with humans.”
“That’s a neffing stupid idea.”
“Well,” I say, trying to think of a reason other than me hating the idea, “it’s too dangerous isn’t it? What if there’s another plague?”
“I’m sure people have thought of that. They’re going to have to let them out eventually. They’re not going anywhere.”
“If they’re not going anywhere then I will be.”
“Your uncle works for the SECPOL, Molly. He can’t just get a job somewhere else.”
“He’s a glorified security guard,” I say. “Of course he can get a job somewhere else. Anyway, what makes you think I mean with him? I’ll go on my own. You’ll see. I’m going to get as far away from the Crabs as I possibly can.”
I walk up the concrete steps and into the front of the school. Jesse hurries to catch up.
“Good morning Molly,” Mrs Bowls says as I pass. “Just so you’re aware I’m expecting no hijinks today. I’m not sure you’ve got the brains for the Institute, but I expect you to behave and do the testing regardless, just as is mandated for every student.”
I stop and look at Mrs Bowls. A hundred different comments fight their way along my tongue, any one of which would probably get me suspended again. Nasty old cow. She does it on purpose. Tries to bait me. Luckily, Jesse takes my arm and leads me through the doors before I say anything stupid.
“They’ve been here six years Molly,” Jesse says. “I know you don’t want to admit it, but the Crusties are doing good for people.”
I shoot Jesse a cold look. He should know better than to start this argument with me. “Everyone always talks about the advances the Crusties are making for humanity. Why don’t they do something useful and figure out how we can permanently change our hair color? That way people wouldn’t have to live with ginger hair their whole neffing lives.”
“I’m being serious, Mol. My Nan is getting better because of them. Imagine if no one died from cancer anymore.”
“I don’t care, Jesse.”
Jesse’s not smiling anymore. “I’d never say something like that to you.”
Oh jank. I’m not good at this.
“You know, most people are excited, happy about what’s happening in the world,” Jesse continues. “You don’t have to be so angry all the time.”
“People are stupid.”
“You think I’m stupid?”
“About the Crabs? Yes, I do.”
We walk in silence until we reach my locker. Our all-too-familiar disagreement hangs in the air. I stop, but Jesse keeps walking. I’ve annoyed him. Again.
“Jesse,” I call, but he doesn’t turn around.