Authors: Penny Publications
Tags: #Asimov's #453 & #454
I squirmed through the opening and heaved myself over the slippery well wall onto the front lawn. Then I ran—or, really, hobbled, because of my stiff knees. I stopped for a minute at the end of our block to take off the helmet and air mask. The night air smelled sweet, like burnt sugar. None of the streetlights were on, so I used the flashlight. Of course, I could find my way to the park blindfolded, but petal muck covered the sidewalks. The flashlight helped me avoid big pools of it.
I slipped anyway. In places the muck felt tacky, like tar, but then there would be long slicks of it. Skidding across those was fun, until I lost control and fell. So I moved slowly, picking my way around the big slicks.
Halfway along Palmer Lane, I glimpsed the park. At the end of the block a line of trees loomed, darker than the sky. Their branches rustled in the still air. I paused to listen and heard a car on the next street. It swung around the corner and blinded me with its headlights. Then blue lights flashed, and I tried to run. A crackling loudspeaker commanded me to stop. I hobbled off across a lawn and got bogged down in the muck.
The car pulled over and two cops jumped out, looking super-sized in their extra-insulated coversuits and egg-shaped helmets. They forced my arms behind my back and escorted me into the backseat like I was some kind of juvie. I'll bet they figured I was a boy, because of the baldness.
"All right, kid, what's your name?" said the smaller cop. I hadn't expected a woman, but the voice on the overheads was female.
"Don't you know it's dangerous out here?" said the other cop, a man. "How old are you?"
I peered at them from behind the plastic quarantine barrier that separated the front and back seats. A red light flashed—the retina scanner.
The woman cop checked the car's vidscreen. "Maxine Belucci," she recited. "Age 14.
The database gives two addresses: one on either side of the park. Divorced parents."
"So where are you going, Maxine? Running away?" said the man.
"Yeah." I hung my head. "Does that mean you'll have to take me home?"
"Either home or the station—your choice," he said.
"Oh please," I whined. "Don't take me back to Dad's house, not after I came all the way through the park to get here. I want to go live with Mom!"
The cops snickered.
"All right, Maxine," said the woman. "You don't have a record, so we'll give you a break. Your dad's place is closer than the station, so we'll drop you there and file a warning. But if we catch you again, things will be worse."
Trying to look resigned, I nodded and slumped against the seat. But I felt like singing. Imagine what Clare would say when I told her I fooled the cops into chauffeuring me to Dad's house!
They took the long route around the park instead of going through it. I closed my eyes and listened to them chatter over the voicecom system. Not everyone was so survival-ready as Mom, I guessed, because the cops kept talking about people leaving their houses in search of food. For a second, I wondered if Dad and Becca had left any food in the house. But then the cops pulled into the driveway. My heart raced to see their bungalow, especially the porch, where Becca and I used to sit on the swing and trade secrets.
The woman cop escorted me up the brick steps to the front door. She rang the bell, but nobody came.
"Don't worry, ma'am. I can let myself in with the access codes," I said. "I don't want to wake them up."
"I'll bet you don't," she said through her helmet's speakers. "They won't be happy when they find out you tried to run away."
"Exactly," I said. I tossed my helmet, air mask, and the flashlight on the porch swing, punched the code into the keypad, and took off my right glove to follow with my thumbprint.
The cop grabbed my arm. "Maxine, I'm obligated by law to leave you with a parent or guardian. If no one's here—" she paused, tilting her head to listen to a message on her helmet's com system. "Copy." She held my arm out and examined the three butterflies on the sleeve. "Yeah. We've got her. Nobody's home at the father's place. Tell the lady we'll be there right away."
I tried to bolt, but she gripped my arm and marched me back into the car. As the cops pulled out of the driveway, I scooched my knees onto the seat and stared out the back window, to keep the house in sight as long as possible.
The cops took the same route back: the long way, around the border of the park. I kept shifting from one side of the backseat to the other, especially once I noticed that the petal gunk on my coversuit rubbed off everywhere. Then I had to pee. I tried to get the cops' attention, but they darkened the plastic barrier between the front and back seats. When I shouted into the overheads, the woman cop snapped on the com-line and told me to sit tight.
I fidgeted, wishing the car would get a flat tire or slip on the petal muck and crash into a tree. I stared at my bald reflection in the patrol car window. Maybe Mom wouldn't be so hard on me if I put on my helmet and air mask again: I could pretend that I had them on the whole time. I looked around, but couldn't find them.
"Hey," I said, pounding on the barrier. "Hey! We've got to go back—I left some of my gear on Dad's porch."
But the cops ignored me.
They made a big production of returning me to Mom, blipping their siren and flashing their blue lights as the patrol car approached the house. If they meant to rouse Mom, they were too late. She stood outside, in full gear, waiting beside the door.
Both cops escorted me up the walk. When we got to the door, Mom shook their hands. She always made a big deal about keeping her gear pristine, so I was surprised to see petal muck all over the front of her coversuit. She and the cops talked through their helmet voicecom lines—I could see their lips moving—and then the cops handed me over and stood on either side of the door while Mom ushered me inside.
She claimed she wasn't angry anymore, just concerned. After the home bioalert alarm sounded, she had checked the system pod and notified the cops that I was missing. Then, in full gear, she mopped up the basement ooze, sealed the door from inside the laundry room, and climbed backward out the window to seal that, too, so she wouldn't contaminate the house. Standing next to her, I saw that her coversuit was smeared—front and back—with even more muck than mine!
She pointed toward the bioshower.
"I can't," I shouted. "I won't."
She pointed again, with emphasis. I pushed up the right sleeve of my coversuit to show her my bruised arm. The tiny vein tendrils had thickened. Two of them curled all the way from my elbow to my inner wrist.
Mom grasped the wrist and gently turned it to expose the topside of my arm streaked with muck, which must have rubbed off from the sleeve. Her muffled voice leaked through the helmet's visor. "Please," she said, stroking my hand. "Please." She sounded like she was going to cry.
So I caved and went through the ultravac. I expected the machine to tear off the delicate hair that had begun to grow back all over my body, especially the pale fuzz on my head. But along with the hair, the vac ripped papery layers from my arms, belly, and thighs. I gripped the handholds so hard I thought my fingers would break, but I didn't scream. I refused to give Mom the satisfaction.
Instead, I squeezed my eyes shut and tensed my muscles. When the drying jets shut off, I stepped into the dressing room and glanced down as I reached for a tunic. Tiny pink tendrils crisscrossed my right arm in patches where the layers of skin had torn off. More tendrils, purple and magenta, rippled across my belly and thighs. Red dots flecked my left arm, as if the machine had sprayed blood instead of chemicals and water. But the dots were
the skin, spiraled tight like fern heads. I lifted my arm to examine them. Two of the bigger dots prickled and began to uncoil.
Then I did scream, but Mom was in the ultravac and couldn't hear.
I tossed the tunic on the floor and scrambled naked through the airlocks. In my room, I flicked on the glowscreen and peered at my skin in its soft light. I watched in fascination as new dots surfaced and unfurled along my knees. Then I felt sick to my stomach. My skin tickled and itched, like it was pierced by tiny needles. I lay clutching the edges of the bedspread and tried to sleep. But then the rain started. I heard the drops drumming on the skylight, first gentle, then hard and steady. And the needles in my skin seemed to answer, pricking and pulsing in time with every drop.
The rain continued all night long and on into the day. The pain came in waves. Mom knocked at the door, and I told her I wanted to sleep in, and she said okay. At noon she set a bowl of chicken noodle soup outside the door, but I couldn't get out of bed. She came back an hour later and tried to coax me out the old-fashioned way, by talking to me through the door. That was nice of her, because she could have just opened it up with the system control pod or screeched into my earplants. I told her that I had one of those headaches, like hers, and she said she understood and left me alone.
Sometimes, I caught whiffs of the burnt sugar smell and wondered if the brown ooze that spilled into the basement had leaked into the ventilation system and stunk up my room. I slept for the rest of the day and all through the night.
I woke late the next morning and knew: the smell didn't come from the basement or my room. It came from me. My joints throbbed and lines spiraled everywhere on my skin. Purple tendrils twined down my legs and curled along both arms, patterned like the filigree silver Becca loved to wear.
I ran my hand across my belly, and the sugary smell grew stronger. The rest of my skin itched like crazy. When I scratched, thumbnail-sized pieces of skin floated to the floor, like wings detached from a housefly. I grabbed my tweezers and plucked at a loose bit fluttering on my left shoulder. The bit lengthened to a strand, unspooling down my arm. I picked and pulled at other places until the itching stopped. After twenty minutes, translucent skin strips littered the room.
The light changed. Through the window, I could see sunlight and patches of blue sky. I stretched out my arms underneath the skylight, but the sun didn't feel right. My skin began to prickle again. Real sun, that's what I wanted, not the filtered kind.
Then Mom's voice—soft and calm—sounded in my earplants. "Maxie, are you awake? The rain washed away all of the petal residue, and the ecotechs have called the all-clear! Rise and shine. Quarantine's over!"
"Yeah," I replied, and felt dizzy. "I'll be right down, Mom." I knelt and pushed the skin strips under the bed, and then pulled my fake fur rug to cover the smaller pieces stuck to the floorboards. I couldn't let her know. She'd ground me for the rest of my life and never stop saying "I told you so."
In the bathroom, I hung a towel over the mirror because I didn't want to see how awful I looked. I rubbed creams all over my body and stole a tube of Mom's foundation from the make-up drawer. Only after I smeared it on my face and head did I dare peek in the mirror to make sure I hadn't missed a spot. I pulled on a long-sleeved plastic tunic and baggy pants. With my lumino-kohl pen, I zigzagged lightning bolt eyebrows on my forehead and spider web patterns all over my hands to hide the tendrils. I rummaged in the closet and found a hat from Mom's collection with a brim huge enough to cast my face in shadow.
When I came downstairs, Mom complimented me on the hat and pointed out the front window. No more petal muck! The grass was vivid, like the day-glo paint I used in kindergarten. And there were people outside! Neighbors paraded around like it was the Fourth of July and kids were turning cartwheels on the opposite lawn.
But Mom insisted we stay inside. She gave me a glass of instant orange juice and called another summit. We sat at opposite ends of the dining room table and listened as the neighbors set off firecrackers.
Mom took off her tri-cornered hat and set it on the table. I left my hat on and hunched in the chair.
"Now that the quarantine is over, we need to agree on a plan. I've gotten word from school that they'll reopen in a few days. And I have to return to work. So I've decided to cut a deal with you."
My arms and hands began to prickle. I could feel those pink tendrils gouging through my palms and into each finger, up as far as the cuticles.
"Are you listening?"
I nodded and sat on my hands.
"I'll allow you to return to school on two conditions. First, you must promise to stop drawing lines all over yourself. It's not funny, Maxie."
"Xam," I said. "Call me Xam."
"Second, despite the all-clear, I don't think it's safe outside. It may never be safe. The ecotechs can't know the full effects of those petals."
I imagined hordes of ecotechs kidnapped by spiders, and Becca with waist-length tendrils instead of her long red hair.
"Maxie? Are you listening?"
"I've been reading on the Eco-Smart newsgroup that those photos on the gossipvids may not have been a hoax after all."
A firecracker burst outside. I flinched. My skin prickled, and I felt the tendrils swirl all over my body.
"I know that this month must have seemed like forever to you, but in the grand scheme of things, it's really nothing."
I inched my right hand out from under my thigh and picked at the thumbnail with my index finger. The cuticle throbbed. Probing around the edges, I loosened the thumbnail.
"I'll allow you to return to school—and even to have limited com privileges again—"
"What about Dad and Becca?"
"Can I talk to them? Isn't it their turn to take me for a week?"
Mom slumped a little and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "Honestly, honey, there's been no word yet from Brazil. I'm sure they'll contact you as soon as they return."
"I don't believe you."
"Fine. You can call them yourself when we're done."
"So I can go back to school?"
you agree to wear your gear, not just on the quarantine bus, but during classes, too."
Perfect! I could finally escape the house, and the coversuit would hide my skin. Plus, I could smear foundation on my face, so that I'd look normal behind the helmet's faceplate. After school, I could ditch the bus, cross the park to see if Dad was back, and tell Becca about all the changes I was going through. "Yes," I said. "Sure, that would be great."