I wake with a gasp, the dream still gripping me with irrational fear. I see myself in a dark hallway, at once frightening and familiar. I’m searching for something, but I’m afraid to open the doors that line the walls, afraid of what I might find behind them. Instinctively, I know what I’m searching for is not behind any of the doors. I’m searching for the life I knew as a child, for a time when the hall was lit by sunlight and rang with Mother’s singing and my brothers’ laughter.
I lie in bed hearing chuck-will’s-widows calling back and forth in the dark, and I will myself to be a bird, free to fly from branch to branch and free to make my own choices of what to do and who to marry. I feel trapped by the cinderblock walls of the compound, but at the same time I am grateful for the safety they provide.
The world I wake to is not so different from the nightmare. Nothing will ever be like it was when I was a child. Father and my brother Jason are hundreds of miles away working in a factory, and my life is getting ready to change in ways I can’t imagine. I turn fourteen today, and I have to register. Everyone is required to register so that matches can be made. Since there are no schools and no way for girls and boys to meet, the only way to find a partner is to have everyone register so that matchmakers can go to work negotiating the best marriages.
On the one hand, my head is filled with images of being discovered by a man as wealthy as a prince and of being swept into a world of gowns and jewels and glittering parties. On the other hand, I fear I could be engaged to a brute who I don’t even like and who doesn’t care for me other than to brutalize me. That possibility is worse than any nightmare I can imagine because there would be no waking up from it. There would be little anyone could do if I found myself in a bad marriage. The cost of trying to free me would be prohibitive, financially and socially. My parents would be required to pay for my room and board while I had been in my husband’s care, and they would be labeled as troublemakers. Who knows what consequences that might bring for them?
I clench my fists, furious at being powerless. Suddenly, I throw back the blankets, slip on socks and trousers and tiptoe to the door. I open it slowly so it won’t creak, and I creep down the stairs, careful to avoid the treads that squeak. I pull on my boots in the mudroom, and I’m out the screen door, careful to close it as gently as a moth’s wing.
I run across the yard and slip in the side door of the barn. Beauty snorts and whinnies when she hears me. I run to put my hand on her long flat forehead to hush her. If her whinnies wake my mother, she will stop me before I am out of the paddock. Beauty pushes against my hand, her brown eyes liquid and warm as syrup, happy to see me, excited at the prospect of our run. Her thick black lashes curl gracefully, the envy of any girl.
The night is cool and dark, the sky just beginning to grey, with a hint of purple rising behind the trees at the far end of the pasture.
“Shush,” I warn Beauty as I lead her across the yard, past the garden to the back gate, which groans as I open it. I stop, frightened someone might wake, but I will myself into motion and lead her quickly out. I turn my face to the house and mimic the call of the barred owl, hoping the call will cover the groan of the gate as I close it.
I am not supposed to go outside our compound alone. The TV warns of Raiders and Slavers who supposedly roam the countryside, but I’ve never seen one. I’ve seen pictures of gangs of raiders on motorcycles, guns slung on their backs. They are scary, but who knows how many of them are out there? And anyway, they would stick to the roads. They aren’t going to venture up an overgrown gravel drive. They would stick to richer, easier pickings.
Leaving the back gate unlocked while I am out is another of my transgressions since it leaves my family vulnerable to attack. But again, who is going to be up here bothering with us?
The gates wouldn’t hold off much of an attack anyway, even though they are made of two thicknesses of wood run in opposite directions. They would discourage the errant band of refugees, but not a concerted attack by raiders with guns.
I lead Beauty to the block of wood that allows me to mount her. When I put my hand on her warm, quivering flank, an electric current sweeps down her body, rippling across her dark back and twitching down chestnut flanks that gleam like silk in the moonlight. Her black tail swishes, thick like my hair, but as straight as mine is curly.
With the slightest nudge of my heels, she moves silently across the back pasture and over the first hill that will hide us from the house. Another nudge and she breaks into a canter and then a gallop. I lean low, hanging on to her mane, my knees gripping her sides, my head beside hers, my hair blown back with hers. I don’t need a bridle or bit. Beauty responds to the slightest pressure of my right or left knee. We understand each other.
It is only on Beauty that I feel truly free, free of gravity, free of the endless round of chores, the never-ending obligations of the house. It’s just me and the purpling sky and the cold air biting my cheeks, reminding me I am alive. Me and Beauty, the warm mass of her rippling beneath me. She is as excited as I am to be running toward the dawn, free of the stall, free of the harness and the plow. She is no draft horse. She is a quarter horse and Indian pony mix, which makes her fast and agile and smart. She does her time plowing the garden because we all must do our part to survive. But it doesn’t stop us from dreaming of freedom, of a world in which we could choose our own path.
My parents would never make me marry a man they thought would mistreat me, but they might be fooled. I might be fooled by a handsome man who is a sweet-talker in public but cruel behind closed doors.
I tighten my knees on Beauty, determination rising. I will not marry anyone who I don’t love or think I could love.
But that’s not the real world. In the real world, I may not have a choice. What if I have no offers or only offers from middle-aged, dried-out men with factory jobs? I shudder at the thought. Beauty and I would run away and live in the forest.
I hate that my life will be determined by the man I marry. It’s not fair. Men’s lives are not determined by the women they marry. Men don’t have to marry. They can work and stay single their whole lives if they choose.
Not so many options are open to women.
If I don’t marry, I’ll be a burden to my parents. By twenty-five, I’ll be considered an old maid, and I’ll be given a factory job and assigned an orphan to raise. Only, from what I’ve heard, the children are not all orphans. Some are liberated from poverty and violence in ghettos to be given a better chance at life. If I don’t have children of my own, giving a foundling a better life would be a noble calling. For an instant, I see myself as a sacrificial figure, a nurse draped in robes, moving from bed to bed, checking on children.
As momentarily satisfying as that vision feels, I don’t think I’d like living it. I wouldn’t want to be around sick people all day. I wouldn’t want not to have a life of my own.
I turn reluctantly to the barn, knowing the breakfast bell is not far off. The end of my world is fast approaching. I feel it reaching toward me like darkness from the tree line. I cannot stay here on my family’s farm forever. I am being pushed toward another life, a life as someone’s wife.
That life fills me with dread. I fear being a prisoner in a stranger’s house, prey to the whims of every member of his household. The one freedom, the one joy I have now, riding Beauty, will be taken from me. If I have to leave the farm, what are the chances I can take Beauty with me or that I will have the freedom to ride her?
The breakfast bell rings as I dismount and lead Beauty back to her stall.
My mother plants her hands on her hips when I slide into the kitchen to wash my hands at the sink.
“Where have you been, young lady?”
I sigh and turn to her with my practiced patient look. “I went out for a ride. There is no danger of slavers wandering up here, especially not at this hour.” She’s heard my arguments dozens of times before.
“Even if the likelihood of raiders wandering the foothills is low, your being out is still against the law. We could never afford the fine if you got caught.” She sees me start to object that the likelihood of a soldier appearing in these woods is even less than that of a Slaver, and she cuts me off. “There’s always a chance that a drone could catch an image of you.”
“They’re not bothering with drones in the middle of nowhere. And if they did, who’s going to bother trying to identify a random girl on a horse in the middle of a national forest? I’m not a threat to anything or anyone.”
Suddenly, my mother’s face collapses. “I can’t bear the thought of losing you.” She buries her face in her hands, and I feel terrible for having upset her. “Haven’t I lost enough?” she asks through her hands.
I put my arm around her thin shoulders. She has lost more than any woman should have to bear. Dad and Jason have been working in the Tidewater Factory for years now. They send money twice a month; otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to survive, but they have left Mom alone to take care of the farm. She is not a farmer, as she has said often enough. She used to be a researcher at the Innovation Institute at the university, but that was before I was born, before any of us were born.
I can’t imagine my mom in a white lab coat, young and pretty and smiling, not worn down by the daily grind of farm work and housework and cooking and baking and canning and trying to make sure we get an education after the work is done. She’s exhausted by dinnertime. The responsibility for raising Alex, me, Derrick, and Andy, the baby, has fallen squarely on her shoulders. I know I should try to lighten her burden rather than worrying her.
“I’m sorry, ma. I just want to ride Beauty while I can. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to.”
She looks up at me curiously. “Why wouldn’t you?”
“When I marry, I may not be able to take her with me.”
Her face relaxes. “You don’t have to worry about that anytime soon. You’re much too young to marry.”
That may have been true in her time, but I know the stats. Fifty percent of girls are married before their seventeenth birthday. Another forty percent by the time they’re twenty. The remaining ten percent will never marry but become perpetual foster parents for the state.
When Alex plops down at the table beside me, I say. “Don’t forget, you have to take my picture today.”
He looks at me sleepily. “What?” He must have been out again last night. I don’t know where he goes when he slides down the rope he drops out his bedroom window, and I don’t ask. I trust him to be smart and take care of himself. I haven’t told Mom because she has enough to worry about. Worrying about losing Alex would turn her hair completely white.
“I have to upload a picture when I register today. Don’t tell me you forgot.”
He looks confused for a minute, and then grins. “Happy birthday, Sis. Some birthday present, huh? Having to register?” He shakes his head. “I’ll do it when I get back from town. I promise.”
To supplement the money Dad and Jason send each week, Alex sells vegetables, eggs, and milk from our farm at the market. He’s our sole emissary to the outside world. After the Protection of Women Act was passed, women are not allowed out without a male guardian, so if we need anything—flour, sugar, oil, or money from the bank—he has to go and get it.
When Alex gets home, he looks worried, but he won’t tell me what’s wrong.
“Let’s get this over with,” he says. He takes me outside and makes me stand in the pasture with the evening sun just above the tree line. He’s borrowed Mom’s communicator and taps the photo app so he can focus and tinker with settings.
I know what these photos are supposed to look like. I’ve seen a million of them. The girls who can afford it pull out all the stops, wearing designer dresses that look like they cost a million dollars, their hair done up in elaborate structures. The goal is to stand out, to make an immediate impression. Most of the girls have hired Registry teams to style their photos.
I’m wearing a sweater and a shawl I knit myself, so I guess you could say I’m wearing designer originals, too.
Alex takes one look at me and says, “Take your hair out of the ponytail.”
I let it loose and feel the wind lift tendrils that fall over my shoulders. Hey, at least it’s clean.
“Walk toward me,” Alex commands.
“I’ll never get any attention,” I say. “I can’t hold a candle to the city girls. They all have, well, everything.”
“They don’t have everything,” Alex says. “They have a very circumscribed life. At least you’re free. I wouldn’t be in any hurry to get married if I were you. From what I’ve seen, there are some very unhappy women stuck in frightening marriages where they are little better than their husband’s property.”
I shiver. “I couldn’t live like that.”
Alex frowns. “They can’t either, but for lots of them, there is no way out.”
Alex helps town women who have no one to escort them to the market. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, he spends the mornings in the market and the afternoons driving our cart around town delivering to women who have no one else.
But he’s not supposed to interact with the women. “How do you know so much about what women out there feel?”
He stands up quickly and rubs his palms on the back of his pants. “I hear things in the market,” he says evasively.
I nod. It makes sense that he might hear their stories there. “You’re not getting involved?” I ask hesitantly.
“No, no,” he shakes his head. “I just hear things, and it’s hard not to care, that’s all.”
“You be careful,” I say. “Don’t go getting yourself in trouble.” Alex is maybe a little too attractive for his own good. I can see unhappy women throwing themselves at him.
He waves me away. “Not to worry.”
The way Alex is standing reminds me suddenly of Dad, and I’m overwhelmed by the loss of a time when we were together as a family, a happier time.
“Got it,” he announces, closing down the photo app and striding back to the house.
“Hey, can I see it before you post it?” I hurry after him.
I alternate between telling myself it’s no big deal that I have to register. Nothing HAS to happen as a result. My other mode is total panic attack. I know that the moment I press submit on my registration, the wheels will start turning. Programs will go to work tallying my answers and matching me with potential suitors based on all the variables—income, height, weight, parents, and location. From what I’ve seen, people tend to get matched with someone of their own social standing. The exceptions are the really beautiful girls. They can rocket out of their sphere in a nanosecond.
Inside, Mom looks up from the kitchen table where she is chopping vegetables. I can smell the bacon sizzling in the frying pan, and my stomach growls.
“What time is dinner?” Alex asks. “I’m starved.”
“What else is new?” Mom walks to the stove, dumps her cutting board of vegetables into a pot and flips the strips of bacon.
“Let me see,” I demand at Alex’s elbow.
“Hold your horses,” he says, pulling away. He taps the app, focuses, and my headshot fills the twelve by fourteen inch projected screen. The light glints off my hair, making it look reddish-gold. My expression is pensive, almost sad, making me look too young, I think, too young and a little wild. I look like a feral mountain child. I study the picture, trying to imagine how people will see me. With no makeup and my dark brows unplucked, I look a little fierce and difficult to control.
It’s a photograph that will scare off more than a few candidates, which suits me fine. It can scare them all off as far as I’m concerned. I have absolutely no interest in leaving our compound for another world I know nothing about and one where I am guaranteed not to be as free as I am here.
This is the image that will represent me to the world, the image that will determine my fate.
“Ma, you want to see?” Alex asks.
She wipes her hands and comes to stand at his shoulder. When she sees the image, she turns away as if someone has slapped her. “I can’t stand that you have to do this,” she says, her voice choked with emotion.
“It’s no big deal,” I say. “Everyone has to do it, right?”
Her eyes are haunted by fear and anger at her own helplessness.
“Probably it won’t mean a thing,” I add. “No one is going to notice. There are thousands of girls registering all the time.”
“Somebody is going to notice,” she says flatly, turning away. “I’m not ready to deal with inquiries or feelers or negotiations. I’m not ready to lose you.”
“We don’t have to accept any of the offers, do we?”
She shakes her head slowly. Then her eyes soften and I can see how much she loves me. “On the other hand, you don’t want to live with your parents forever, do you?”
Her words throw me into confusion. “No, not forever, but I’m not ready to go anywhere yet.”
“Of course not. And you won’t have to.”
“Done,” Alex announces.
“I posted it.”
My knees go weak and I sit down at the table. “I wasn’t ready,” I say, sounding pathetic.
“Like that matters,” Alex says. “You gotta do it, and it’s done. Let’s hope we don’t hear anything more about it.” He glances at Mom by the stove. “How long till dinner?”
She looks up, her eyes worried. “Where are you going?”
Alex snorts. “To feed and water the animals for the night.”
When Mom turns back to the stove, I can’t stop myself from picking up her communicator and walking into the living room with it. I tap the Registry app and an image of an old-fashioned bride and groom from the top of a wedding cake appears. Then the image dissolves into a real couple, glamorous and gorgeous, their hands joined and gazing into each other’s eyes adoringly. The bride is radiant, her honey-gold hair swept up in an elaborate hairstyle beneath her crown. Her dress is a ruffled cascade of white beaded lace. The groom is a dreamboat in a dark tux, his broad shoulders towering above his petite bride.
Who wouldn’t want that fairytale love? Even though I don’t believe it’s real, I can’t help falling for the fantasy every time I see the image. I want to be that girl. I want to be discovered by an amazing, cool guy, who I fall madly in love with. I want to be transported into a world of beautiful dresses and parties and the possibility of love and intrigue around every corner. That’s what hooks us all, the possibility that it could be any one of us.
“Jazz.” I turn to see Mom standing in the door watching me. “Come help with dinner. Don’t get sucked into the royalty thing,” she warns as I follow her into the kitchen and set the table. “It’s all a big show, a lot of smoke and mirrors and glitz intended to distract people from the elections.”
I don’t know what the big deal about elections is. We can’t vote. Only people in the city-centers and factories can vote, and from what I gather, not many people bother. Lance Oren has been president for as long as anyone can remember. He’s like a piece of familiar furniture, and no one who can vote wants to rock the boat.
My mind wanders to who my suitors might be. It’s not likely to be someone my own age. Most men can’t afford to marry until they’re in their late twenties or early thirties. Even with the bride’s dowry, which is required unless she is extremely desirable, it takes two to afford the down payment on even a modest apartment in a factory or city.
I have no dowry other than a hope chest full of my mother’s good linens and the promise of a share of the farm produce each year, which could amount to a sizable contribution to a family’s income.
I can’t imagine ever leaving this compound to go and live in a factory city or one of the protected city centers.
How could I leave Beauty behind?
When Mom isn’t watching, I sneak peeks at my profile. My heart sinks every time I see zero Likes.
By the time I go to bed, I have one Like.
The next morning when I come downstairs, Mom’s communicator sits on the table in front of the TV. I can’t stop myself from sneaking a peak. I have two Likes, which gives my heart a little bump of electricity. Two guys out there have seen my picture and liked it. I’m not invisible. Two guys know who I am and like me. I feel suffused with a rosy glow until I look at the candidates.
One is a forty-five-year-old and the other is a fifty-year-old, both uglier than sin. Yuck and double yuck. There’s no way I’m talking to either of those stubble-faced old perverts.
When I look at other first day entries and see that some girls have over a hundred Likes in the same period of time, I feel an inch big. But it makes sense. Those girls live in cities and know lots of people and have lots of friends, so of course they would have lots of Likes.
I scroll through the follow-up pictures some of the girls have posted. You are allowed to add one picture a day. Some of the girls post pictures of themselves in prom dresses or being crowned princess at one cotillion or another.
Let’s see, what can I post? A picture of me feeding the chickens?
That would be a big hit.
No one else is up, and I seize the opportunity for an early ride. Outside, I am swept by a wave of freedom. The morning is cool and I climb the ladder to the catwalk along the interior of the compound wall to scan the fields and woods for any sign of intruders. Nothing. The mist clings to the fields like smoke, making the tops of trees appear to float on clouds.
I am here now, and I don’t have to care about how many votes I or anyone else is getting online.
Then I’m down the ladder and beside Beauty’s stall. I rub my hand up and down the white blaze on Beauty’s head. “You don’t care about Likes, do you, girl?”
Beauty jerks her head with pleasure at my touch. Her lip curls back in a smile.
Two minutes later, I have her saddled and ready to go. I would prefer to ride bareback, but I’m later this morning, and if I run into any trouble, I need the control a saddle gives me. If I have to, I can ride on one side of Beauty, hidden from view, my hand gripping the pommel. Not that I’ve had any trouble, ever.
We are out in the back pasture before the mist has burned off. When I ride her down into the cleft between two mountains, I ride into a cloud, the white enveloping us.
Just as quickly, we are up on the other side of the valley and out of the mist, the sun’s rays golden on the long grass.
The back pasture is five fenced acres with one quadrant fenced off for the garden planted in neat rows of corn, squash, beans and carrots, the fall broccoli, pumpkins, and spinach coming along nicely. The forest circles the pasture, hiding it from view if anyone did venture up our mountain.
My mother inherited Hilltop from her parents. What in their day had been a frame house and barn sitting on a cleared knoll surrounded by forests is today a cinderblock compound surrounded by ten acres of pasture itself surrounded by electrified wire fence. Inside the compound, mountains of logs await Alex’s splitting maul.
When I am particularly angry, I go out to the woodshed, grab a log, set it on the block and raise the axe over my head, bringing it down with all my might. If the axe wedges in the log, I have to lift both log and axe and bring it down a second or third time to complete the job. One wedged axe and I quickly wear myself out. My fury spent, I can return to the house to help Mother with whatever chore needs doing, making dinner, pedaling the bike that charges our batteries, or watching the baby.
Every time father calls, he asks about sightings of Raiders. He has threatened to move us to the university if we are in danger, but in all honestly, it’s hard to say where we might be safer. At the university, we would be surrounded by the protection and support of a community, but then we would also be more of a target than we are here, perched on the top of a mountain by ourselves.
Mom shakes her head when I come in, her eyes fearful but resigned that she cannot keep me from going out. “I hope you took the stun gun with you.”
“Always,” I say as I slip it back on its hook by the door.
She sets a bowl of oatmeal in front of me. When I barely touch it, she asks, “What’s wrong?”
I look up, surprised that I’ve given myself away. Then I slump, leaning my head against one hand, elbow propped on the table. “This whole Registry thing is going to be excruciating.”
Mom studies me and nods.
“Just don’t think about it. Put it out of your mind. That’s the only way not to let it have power over you.”
“If only it were that simple. You won’t believe how many Likes some girls have that posted their pictures yesterday just like me. It doesn’t seem fair. They already have everything, and now they’re going to win this too. They’ll be in the top twenty Likes, and they’ll get invited to the Registry Royalty contest in New York, and then they will marry Prince Charming.”
“My advice is don’t look at the scoreboard,” Mom says.
I glance up, uncertain what she means.
“You can’t care what the score is if you don’t look at the scoreboard.”
I take a breath and nod. ”I’ll try.”
Mom disappears and returns, clamping the communicator on her arm. “This way you won’t be tempted to check the score every hour.”
“Thanks.” I feel as if I’ve been released from the thrall of some spell. I smile for what feels like the first time in days.
“Go wake Alex, would you? It’s not like him to sleep late.”
When she says it, I remember hearing him drop the rope ladder out this window last night and clamber over the roof. Who knows how long he was out or what he was doing. No wonder he has trouble getting up in the morning.
When I open the door to Alex’s room, his bed is empty, the sheets mussed as if he has just gotten up to take a leak and will be right back.
I step to the window and my heart sinks. The rope ladder still hangs over the roof, which means he didn’t come home last night. Now I’ll have to tell Mom and catch hell for whatever he’s doing. As I clatter down the stairs, I’m pissed and vowing revenge, but by the time I get to the kitchen, my anger has been overtaken by cold dread. Where is he? Why didn’t he come home last night?
“He’s not there,” I say, staring at my scuffed work boots.
Mother goes still. “What do you mean, not there?”
“See for yourself,” I say, not wanting to be responsible for any of the fallout that is about to happen.
She rushes up the stairs, and I follow at a distance, not wanting to have to answer questions.
She stands in the open window, the rope ladder in her hands. “What’s the meaning of this?” she asks, her voice like ice. “Do not lie to me. This is too important. His life could be in danger. Did you know about this?”
I nod miserably, but I can’t bring myself to look at her. “I’ve heard him go out.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she demands.
I shrug. “He would have killed me if I told, and I trusted him to not get in trouble. He’s smart.” I look up desperate for my excuses to sound reasonable.
She collapses on the edge of his bed. “Where is he?” she asks the floor. Then she looks up, her eyes pinning me to the wall. “Was he seeing a girl?”
I shake my head. “I don’t think so. He never said anything about a girl.”
“Then what? Where was he going?”
“He talked about some of the women he delivers groceries to having a bad time.”
She looks at me fiercely. “Do you think he was trying to help one of them?”
“I don’t know,” I say, glad I really don’t know.
“Oh, my God,” she says. “This is my fault.”
Mother calls Dad and tells him about Alex not coming home. She is afraid it may be her fault since she got him involved in delivering groceries to women who couldn’t go out. Then she listens to what he has to say and gasps, “No.” It sounds like worse news, but I can’t imagine anything worse than Alex not coming home.
“Yes,” she says, her face grim. “Yes, all right.”
When she hangs up, she shakes her head, her face pale. “Jason got himself fired. He’s on his way home.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” I ask hopefully. “He can go look for Alex.”
She shakes her head slowly. “We have no idea how dangerous it is out there.” She sits down heavily as if her legs have given out.
Suddenly, I realize how precarious our situation is. With no one to sell our vegetables and pick up what we need in town, we will be as helpless as the women Alex was helping.
She takes a deep breath, summoning her strength. “He could be home as early as tonight. The trip should only take a day, but Dad told him to be careful and travel at night if he had to.”
“Does he have a key?” I ask.
She nods and I am reassured. He can let himself in even if it’s the middle of the night.
Derrick wanders into the room, rubbing his eyes sleepily, and Mom rallies for his sake. She pats the couch and does her best to explain the situation without alarming him. “Alex has gone out. We’re not quite sure where. Jason is on his way home. Until he gets here, we all have to pull together to get the work done.”
Derrick gives me a wide-eyed look like What’s going on? But he seems to know better than to bombard Mom with questions.
She busies herself making breakfast, but neither she nor I has any appetite, and our oatmeal goes back in the fridge.
“Derrick, can you help me take care of the animals?” I ask, aware that we have to pick up Alex’s chores.
As soon as we’re out of the kitchen, he asks, “Where is Alex?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “He went out last night and he didn’t come back.”
He looks so scared that I say, “He’s OK. I’m sure he’s OK. Let’s get these chores done.”
He feeds the hogs and gathers the eggs and lets the chickens out to forage while I milk the cow.
When we finish the chores, I send him back in the house to help Mom, and I climb the ladder to the walkway inside the wall. I want to be the first to spot Alex or Jason if they show up.
I keep my vigil most of the day, except when Mom needs me to water the garden or help Derrick with his reading or math. My books are beside me on the platform, but I can’t concentrate, not with so much of our lives in jeopardy. It’s late afternoon when I spot a figure approaching. I call to Mom and Derrick. By the time they join me on the platform, the figure is close enough that I can see he’s too small to be either Alex or Jason. “It’s a boy,” I say, handing the binoculars to Mom.
The boy ducks between strands of barbed wire in the outside fence and heads straight for the compound.
He is small, dark-haired, and dirty, his clothes too large, his pants held up with a rope in place of a belt. He could be anywhere from ten to sixteen. When he is twenty feet away, I call out, “Who are you? What do you want?”
He stops cold. He had not seen me on the wall. “I’m JJ. I come to work for you.” When we are silent, he says, “I heard you need help.”
Before I can stop her, Mom is down the ladder and opening the gate. She draws him inside and crouches down so that her face is the same level as his. She takes hold of his arms gently, as if he is a child she knows and cares for. “What did you hear?”
The boy shrugs as if he has been accused of something. “JJ listens. JJ hears things.”
“What did you hear?”
“I hear the women in the market say they are afraid something’s happened because of what he did to them.”
“To them?” my mother asks in alarm. “Or for them?”
“To, for, what does it matter? They say he is gone because of them.”
My mother sinks back on her haunches, her worst fears confirmed. Her eyes stare blankly as if she has been told Alex has been taken and is more than likely dead.
I step forward and try to comfort her but she doesn’t seem to hear my words.
“Go away,” I say to the boy, trying to shoo him away.
“Please, miss. JJ needs work. You need JJ. I can sell vegetables in the market as good as him.”
He acts like he’s applying to replace someone who was fired. “Shut up,” I hiss. “He’s my brother.”
When he shrinks back like a dog that has been hit, I feel bad. “Who are you?” I ask more kindly.
He is barefoot, his clothes dirty and torn. “JJ,” he asserts.
“Where is your family?”
He shakes his head. “No family.”
“What do you mean no family? Don’t you have a mother?”
He shakes his head. “Men took her. I was,” he holds his hand waist high, “little.”
I fall silent, horrified.
“Where do you live?”
“By the market.”
“You live in a house? With others? By yourself?”
“JJ lives in his own car,” he says proudly. “All alone.”
My mother has roused herself and is listening, shaking her head sadly at what she hears. “How old are you?”
The boy looks at her blankly and shrugs.
“Poor boy,” she says, her voice thick with emotion. “You can stay for now.”
His face brightens and he grins. He is not a bad looking kid when he smiles.
Mother says, “I can’t pay you, but we can feed you and get you some clothes.”
JJ’s face drops in disappointment.
“First, you need to wash.”
JJ recoils as if she has threatened him.
“You can’t stay if you don’t clean up. I’ll get you some of Alex’s old clothes.”
I’m about to protest that Alex’s clothes would swamp this scrawny kid when she turns to me and tells me to go into the closet where there is box of clothes from when Alex was a boy. “Pick something that will fit him.”
When I deliver the clothes to the kitchen, the water is running in the bathroom. Mom disappears into the bathroom, leaving her communicator on the table.
I can’t help myself. I take a look at my Registry page.
I can’t believe my eyes. I have vaulted into the top one hundred new registrants based on my Likes for the day. A half-dozen inquiries have come in, one from the son of a deputy chief of the Tidewater Factory where Dad and Jason work. I look again, thinking there must be a mistake, but the comments are about me, how different I look, how fresh and new my look is, as if I were trying to set a trend.
My elation is short-lived because Mom comes out of the bathroom and gives me a look that says, you can’t seriously be thinking about the Registry at a time like this.
JJ follows her out, cleaned up and dressed in Alex’s old clothes. A wave of fear ripples through me that he is trying to replace my brother.
“We need to get dinner on the table,” Mom says, reaching for the communicator and scrolling to see if there are messages from Alex or Jason. Her expression falls, and for a moment, I think she might break into tears, but she looks away and gets control of herself.
“Where is JJ going to sleep?” Derrick asks, and I realize how uncomfortable I would feel with this stranger in the house. We don’t know who he is or how dangerous he might be.
“I saw an old car in the yard,” JJ says. “I could sleep there. In town my house is a car.”
Mom looks to me and Derrick and we nod. “OK,” she says. “Now let’s eat.”
I know what Dickens meant when he said, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. My emotions war between excitement that I have been noticed on the Registry, which I still can’t believe, and guilt that I could think of something so superficial when two of my brothers may be in mortal danger. Mother has her communicator firmly clamped on her wrist, so there is no checking my Registry Profile. I have to assume my popularity will be short-lived, a by-product of my difference from the other girls. I will have sunk into obscurity when I have the chance to check again, I tell myself, so it’s best to forget it. Still, there were inquiries, one from the son of a deputy chief in Dad’s factory, and for a moment I allow myself to float on a cloud of daydreams. The son of a powerful man falls in love with me, and through him, I manage to find and rescue my brothers. I know it’s foolishness, but it allows me to fantasize that my popularity could be useful.