YA Gothic Thriller with Sci-Fi Elements
Dying children can’t shock me.
Whether I’m stabbing them with a kitchen knife or they’re burning in a house fire. Whether it’s me or a disease or a natural disaster doing the killing. It happens every day in the dark corners of my obsessive mind.
Though I’m ninety-nine percent sure I would never act on these thoughts, for a few seconds I see myself suffocating my six-year-old sister instead of helping Mama wrestle her into the kitchen chair. The medics stand by patiently, waiting to fill a vial with her blood.
“Let me go!” Theresa shouts, bucking like a wild animal.
I gasp for breath as her bare foot wallops my gut.
“Theresa Marie Thomas, you cooperate right now,” Mama says in a voice that could freeze the sun.
My sister must be more scared of Mama than the needle because she stops thrashing. Once the tip pierces the crook of her arm, her hazel eyes widen. The thin red stream shooting up into the glass is beautiful.
After the medics release Theresa, I avoid Mama’s eyes and mouth a prayer, then tap the back of the chair four times. Not because I want to, but because I can’t stop myself. That way it won’t be my fault if she tests positive for The Sickness, a disease no natural remedy can cure.
Sarah’s next. Nearly nine, she’d rather live in a chicken coop than let anyone see she’s scared. She jumps into the seat, jaw clenched and lips mashed together. When the vial’s full, she pivots toward me, beaming.
“Sixteen’s too old,” I say, my shoulders twitching. “They don’t want my blood.”
“You get out of everything,” she says, marching off while I rock baby David in his cradle. My smallest brother has cheeks like sacks of flour you can’t help poking. In another year, he’ll be old enough to be tested—it’s too soon.
Josh is the last one to be poked. He slides into the chair before anyone notices, then addresses the quiet women in blue: How’s the blood labeled? How’s it stored? Where will it go? I don’t know any other eleven-year-olds like Josh. The medics glance at each other.
“Don’t fret,” says the older one.
“But what’s the blood for?
“Josh.” Mama shakes her head. “That’s enough.”
He frowns. There’s no way he’s buying our story about needing to update blood type records.
I grunt, then tap four when Josh gets up, and again when the medics leave our cabin. My family’s so used to my compulsions, they pay no attention.
David starts wailing. Without a word, Mama hands me a bottle of milk and goes back to her dinner preparations. With the kids scattered to other parts of the cabin, it’s like the medics were never here and there’s no illness top researchers want to come here to study. But that feeling won’t last. The worry is a parasite suctioned to our hearts.
“Evie, can you make sure that pot doesn’t boil over?” Mama asks, once David’s done eating. “I want to get a few more jars of peaches from the root cellar. I promised these kids some cobbler for their bravery.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I say as she steps through the back porch door. After dinner, there won’t be one bite of her cobbler left, though I know I won’t have any appetite. Mama’s got to be one of the best cooks in the Blue Ridge Mountains, even without a modern stove and fancy kitchen.
In the iron pot, water bubbles rise and pop around big white potatoes. When the boiling slows, I grab a poker and nudge the wood inside the stove until the flames lick higher. Like the water in the pot, there’s a new obsession bubbling in my head, one that no tapping seems to lessen—a simple string of numbers. I saw them being used to enter a locked part of the library.
Tasting like licorice and smelling of burnt leaves, the numbers aren’t painful, but they won’t stop whispering. If I don’t find a way to make peace with them, they may drive me more insane than I already am.
Mama sweeps back inside with four jars of canned peaches in her arms, then stands in the middle of the room and wrinkles her nose. There’s a new odor in the air. She turns her head toward the cradle, then back at me.
“I’ll change him,” I say, already moving toward my brother, happy to do anything that might blot the annoying digits from my head.
Trudging in moonlit darkness past oversized trees, I’m vaguely aware that weeks have passed since the blood draws. My mind feels sluggish and my tongue heavy. Josh tromps beside me. The scene is oddly familiar. Maybe Sarah was here the last time. Josh and I near an opening in the trees where the land drops off suddenly, as if cut by a knife. As we approach the cliff, curious about what lies below, the biggest eagle I’ve ever seen swoops out of nowhere and swipes at my brother, pushing him to the edge. When I try to pull him back, my hand changes into a needle-tipped syringe. My brother loses his balance and plummets into the darkness, his face a dwindling stone.
My eyes snap open. Not again.
I wait for my heart to slow, then climb down from my bunk, tapping the headboard four times. As my feet hit the floor, a long whine and three short yelps push to leave my throat. I don’t bother to suppress the tics because almost nothing wakes Theresa and Sarah.
Mama clatters in the kitchen, starting breakfast. Any minute, Papa will stomp through the back door from the Solar Center, where he manages the flow of energy from our generators. These are the morning sounds I love. But today is not a school day or a gardening day or a worship day. It’s a day for saying goodbye to another child, the latest victim of The Sickness.
I take my time tugging on a fresh skirt and tunic, then shake my sisters in their bunks until they stir. Soon, everyone’s at the table except for Josh. When I enter his room, I trip. Books clutter every surface. He’s sitting in bed, hunched over a volume about steam trains, his skin pearly in the soft light, his orange hair a mess. He must have forgotten about the burial ceremony. I poke his side, then reach above his bed to straighten a wooden carving of The Healer’s thin body branching into a towering oak.
“Planning a trip?” I ask.
“Can I come?”
“Sure. Where should we go?”
I rest my finger on my chin. “How about the seashore?”
His eyebrows shoot up. “Could we?”
“Sure. The Chincoteague settlement’s open. But if we go now, we’ll turn into icicles, so please come to breakfast.”
He smiles. “Even if it’s snowing, I want to go.”
Ten minutes later, Josh sits at the table. I barely notice, since I’m looking over Papa’s shoulder at the news sheet. Besides listing weddings, births, and crop yields, it asks for prayers for the ill and says medics are working to treat several sick children in the name of The Healer and with God’s help.
It’s the same thing the Elders say every time:
With God’s help.
I know Mama’s seen the news too, because her eyes looked boxed in. Papa glances at her face as she pours his juice, his expression unreadable, then goes back to his scrapple and eggs.