‘If I were a mushroom,’ said Ellie, twisting a blade of grass between her fingers, ‘I’d be a Jack-o’Lantern. I’d glow in the dark and show lost kids the way home.’ She twisted on her belly to face me. ‘What’d you be?’
I grunted. I knew what she was doing and I didn’t like it. Instead I squinted at my hand, held above my face, the sunlight blazing round its edges. I opened and closed my fingers, feeling the heat beat against my palm.
‘Gemma!’ Ellie flicked the grass at me.
‘Fine. I’d be a Death Cap. I’d get in the soup and kill all the Sisters.’
She gasped. ‘You can’t say that!’
I let my hand fall. ‘It was your stupid question.’
Then the bell cut across us, and we fell silent as the Sixth filed out of the living quarters. Ellie pushed herself up and I propped myself on my elbows to watch. The Grand Sister led them, starched white robes flapping round her ankles, while three other Sisters brought up the rear, faces hidden under respirators, arms cradling rifles. Between them, the Sixth trailed with pale, pinched faces. They walked in tidy pairs, their white shirts tucked in and their black shoes polished to a shine. The other children in the courtyard watched them too. A football, forgotten, rolled over the grass and rocked to a halt near the climbing frame.
‘Gemma—’ said Ellie.
‘Ssssh,’ I said. But I took her hand as the Sixth filed round the corner of the cafeteria, two by two, vanishing from sight as they were led to the front of the compound. A couple of the other kids edged round to follow them, but the Sisters at the back shooed them away. We were never allowed to watch the Sixth ‘move on’, as the Grand Sister always put it. And we never, ever saw them again.
At least, not like that.
‘If I were a geometrical shape,’ Ellie whispered to me during math class, ‘I’d be a circle. Because then I’d never end.’
I pulled a strand of sweaty hair from my neck. The Teaching Sister was writing on the whiteboard, pen squeaking. It seemed cruel, to me, to make us do maths. The Grand Sister said it was all part of our preparation, that routine was crucial, that keeping our minds neat and orderly would help us when we ‘moved on’. I didn’t see how. In another year we’d be in Sixth, and then… Well, we wouldn’t need geometry after that.
‘Gemma,’ Ellie hissed.
‘What?’ I muttered.
‘If you were a shape.’
I ground the point of my compass into the tabletop. The vinyl yielded grudgingly, leaving a small divot of exposed plywood. ‘A triangle,’ I conceded. ‘Then I could poke out my eyes and get out of maths.’
Ellie’s giggle turned into a snort. That made me smile despite myself, and we both had to duck our heads as the Sister looked round, frowning.
‘If I were a bird,’ said Ellie.
We sat on the flat roof of the living quarters, our legs dangling over the side, sharing a cigarette. Henry had shown me the way up here, after I’d kissed him behind the P.E. block. The Sisters didn’t know about the roof, he claimed, but I found that hard to believe. Maybe they just let us have this small rebellion. Maybe they even thought it helped us prepare.
Being in Sixth was strange. The Sisters didn’t treat us like kids any more, but they still didn’t treat us like adults. We had a separate common room now, with a stereo and a stack of CDs, and they let us mingle with the boys at weekends. But we still had to go to class and wear our uniforms, and we still couldn’t leave the compound. So instead, we snuck up here. Some of us, anyway. Some didn’t want to; didn’t want to think about what lay beyond the boundary fence. I understood that. But I came up here anyway.
The fence was a mess of tangled wire about a hundred feet from the front of the compound. It stood at least twice as tall as the tallest Sister, and stretched out endlessly both east and west. A pair of gates, chained and padlocked, was the only break in its monotony. Beyond lay the Waste.
It wasn’t called that officially, of course. Officially, it was ‘Biome 2’, closely followed by ‘designated area of international concern’. At first glance, it looked like normal countryside, hills and streams and trees. But after a few moments you realised the colours were off: too bright, too sickly, a kind of fever-sheen to them. And then you realised that everything looked slightly wrong, too. A little crooked, a little twisted, a little strange.
Just as we would be.
I squinted against the sun. Occasionally – very occasionally – I’d caught sight of something moving out there. Nothing clear: just a glimpse, a suggestion, of a contorted, monstrous form. But staring into the Waste for too long made me feel queasy, and just as soon as I saw something I always felt compelled to look away.
‘…I’d be a seagull,’ Ellie finished.
I pulled air through my nose. Not again.
She waited for me to ask why. When I didn’t, she continued. ‘Gulls can always find the sea,’ she said. ‘I’d love that. To see the sea. Imagine it. All that water. And the breeze!’
A breeze did sound nice, I had to admit. My underarms and back were sticky with sweat. But that was the problem with Ellie’s wishes. They always sounded nice. And what was the point of that?
‘And you? If you were a bird?’
‘Stop it, Ellie!’ I stood up, flinging the cigarette over the edge. ‘Just stop it, OK? We don’t get to choose.’
I didn’t look at her, but I could imagine the hurt in her eyes as I stormed away.
On the day of our ‘moving on’, the Sisters lined us up in the hallway of the living quarters: neat and orderly, two by two. They’d insisted we look our best: shoes polished, shirts tucked. My scalp hurt from where the Duty Sister had pulled my hair back into a tight bun. Beside me, Ellie tugged at her shirt cuffs.
They led us through the courtyard. The other children stopped to watch, just as we had stopped to watch, all those times before. Too young yet to be taken out and fed to the strange landscape that had crept over the land; public opinion would not permit it. Yet the Waste required children. Adults were too mature, too inflexible, to stop its advance. So here we were: old enough to be offered up, yet young enough, malleable enough, to feed the Waste’s demands.
I could not bear to look at the younger kids’ faces as we passed by. Instead I looked ahead, chin high, over the top of the Grand Sister’s head as she led us round the corner of the cafeteria. And then all I could see was the fence, looming before us, bigger and bigger, until finally the Grand Sister turned and put up a hand, stopping us before the gates. Another Sister scurried forward, presenting her with a microphone. Behind them, two Sisters in respirators fiddled with the padlocks.
The Grand Sister’s words washed over me.
Specially selected, she was saying. Prepared for this, she added. Neat and orderly minds, to resist the Biome’s, ah, worst effects. And, finally, Your bravery will keep us all safe.
Beside me, Ellie started to cry. She stuffed a hand in her mouth but couldn’t stop.
I reached out and found her other hand. She clutched my fingers and I clutched back. Then I leaned over and put my lips to her ear. Her fresh-scrubbed skin smelled of soap.
‘If I were a monster,’ I said. ‘I’d never leave you. We’d be friends forever, even in the Waste.’
Ahead, the gates squealed open.
Ellie didn’t reply.
The Sisters stepped aside. The Waste stretched ahead. Polished shoes scuffed in the dirt as the line began to move.
A blister of fear expanded in my chest. ‘Ellie?’ I whispered.
‘If I were a monster,’ Ellie said. ‘I’d never let go.’
Together, we stepped out. ∎
Jess Hyslop is a British writer of fantasy, fabulism, and science fiction. Her short stories have appeared in venues such as Black Static, Interzone, and Cossmass Infinities. Jess can be found online at jesshyslop.com. Offline, she resides in Oxford with a number of slowly decaying houseplants.
Become a member of the IZ Digital Ko-fi for exclusive epubs, previews, classic Mutant Popcorn film essays by Nick Lowe, and an invite to the IZ Digital Discord server. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated.
You can also subscribe to the bimonthly print Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered directly to you. Postage free, planetwide.
Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of independent, small press magazines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!