Chapter 4 — In the shadow

4 05 2009

Ash wakes up in a room full of whispers.

He’s suffocating under the heavy blankets and a flannel sheet, because he’s kept his head under them all night so no one could hear him crying.  Now his head throbs with every breath and his nose is stuffed and sore.  He wants to go back to sleep but the whispering is too insistent.  There’s rustling, too, and the sound of many socked footfalls on a wood floor.  He inches the blanket down from his eyes and sees, through the sheet, sunlight streaming in through the window beside his bed.

His head throbs again.  There’s no going back to sleep now.

He pushes the blankets off his head and sits up in the cold, clear morning light.  There’s frost on his breath and he can make out the figures of boys putting on heavy clothes and boots.  The older-looking boys are scrambling, throwing on their clothes and stamping their feet into their boots, while the younger ones – some even younger-looking than Ash – move slowly, hesitantly, like they’re not sure what they’re doing.

“Alert five-six-one!” calls a deep voice.  The younger boys freeze and the older ones grab everything they can and run together to form a rough crowd near the door.  “Five-six-one,” the voice repeats.  “Alert!”

“Loud and clear, Barky!” someone yells from the crowd.  Ash focuses on a tall guy wrapping a bright red scarf around his neck.  “Quit yelling in an enclosed space.  We can all hear you just fine.”
“Is this the real deal or what, Barky?” someone else asks.  “It’s so early.”

“Can’t answer that,” says the first voice.  Ash sees him now: a remarkably skinny kid holding a long brown and silver stick.  Barky?  The name sounds too ridiculous to be real.  “So shut up.”

“Oh come on…”

“I don’t know, ok?  They don’t tell me anything.”

“Yeah, right,” says red scarf.  Ash notes that the littlest boys are all looking at this one with close-to-open-mouthed awe.  He gestures with his own brown and silver stick.  One end is big and squared off, but the other tapers to a fine silvery cylinder.  “Move out?”

“Move out!” Barky confirms, and the older boys stumble and shove their way out of the door.

Red scarf hangs back until the rest have gone and then looks directly at Ash.  “You’re the new kid?” he asks.  “Ash?”

Ash manages to keep his voice relatively strong and deep.  “That’s me.”

“Boys,” red scarf says to the rest of them, “you look out for your new brother today.  He’s from across the waters.”

“He doesn’t look like it,” says a dark-haired boy.  “I’m from there.”

Red scarf rolls his eyes.  “How do gravity and orbital rotation shape bodies in space, Trong?”

“Holt!” calls another boy.  “I know the answer, Holt!”

Red scarf – Holt – doesn’t stop staring at Trong.  “Ok, tell me, Rob.”

“It makes them into rough spheres!”

Holt is so cool that he doesn’t even directly acknowledge this.  “And Trong, now that Rob’s let you off the hook, why don’t you answer my next question,” is what he says instead.  “If the Earth’s a sphere, and we’re on land, and we go directly west across a lot of water, and then hit another landmass – but that landmass isn’t connected to the land we’re on right now – then what do you think is to our east?”

Trong shrugs.  “More big waters, and then more land, I guess.  Whatever.  But that guy looks just like he’s from the coastal cities or something.”

Holt rolls his eyes.  “Dispersal of peoples in times of plenty,” he says.  “Basic rule of civilization.  Look jerks, I’m going.

Try not to get into trouble while we’re out.  Get yourselves down to breakfast and don’t kill anything on the way there unless it is absolutely begging you to kill it.”  He starts out the door and then half-turns and looks at Ash again.  “Don’t let these guys drive you nuts, ok?  Check in with Vanessa at breakfast.”

Ash nods his head and watches Holt go out the door.  The other boys are moving around, putting on clothes and picking up stuff.  Ash climbs out of bed and puts his feet on the freezing floor.  He remembers a phrase from a series his mum liked to watch on the box: “This is the first day of the rest of your life.”  He’s never been really sure what significance it could have – after all, wasn’t every day the first day of the rest of your life? – but all of a sudden he has the feeling that he knows exactly what it means.

This is the first day, and there’s no point counting anymore, because this is the rest of his life.

It’s the worst realization he’s ever had.

Ash meets Vanessa at breakfast, and she brings a little girl with her named Daisy who is going to show him around to his classes.  As the days go on, he doesn’t know why Vanessa bothered – they are in the same year group of lessons and all of the children in that group travel in a pack all day anyway.  There are nine of them, six boys and three girls, and all of them go out of their way to help Ash and make him feel welcome.  Daisy gives him extra cake at dinner and on his sixth day there Sean and Toby show him the sort-of top-secret route to the geothermal springs where everyone likes to bathe on cold days.

Weeks and then a month pass.  Ash barely knows that time is passing; instead every day blends into the same numbing routine as the day before: rise at sunrise, small meal, exercise outdoors, breakfast, classes, late lunch, work outdoors or at indoor chores, small meal, classes, dinner, time to do any work leftover from classes and also hobbies, bath time, forty-five minutes with candles lit in the dormitory intended for non-school-related reading, sleep.

Ash usually spends those forty-five minutes staring up at the wooden slats of the bunk above him and thinking about his past life.  Sometimes he thinks about a particular room at home, and sometimes he tries to remember a specific event.  He’s memorizing every tiny detail, filling in colors and sounds that he might have missed the first time around.

Ash isn’t making any friends; instead, he’s struggling just to keep his head above water.  Sometimes Holt will come into the library when he’s working and ask Ash if he wants help, but Ash always turns him down.

There’s something dangerous about Holt – he’s charismatic and slavishly worshiped by the other eight kids in Ash’s year group, and Ash is scared by it.  He’s never seen Holt do anything bad – he, Barky, and Vanessa are the obvious stars of the school from Ash’s point of view, because they look after the younger kids with a mix of affection and annoyance that is absolutely winning – and that makes it even worse.  He wants to trust them so he has to keep telling himself that he shouldn’t.  Ash hasn’t seen Zabe since that night in Lady Vallance’s office, but he thinks a lot about the conversation they had on the helicopter and he doesn’t want to be a fool again.  He’s not going to trust anyone at the school except her if he can help it.

So Ash works, and works more, and never seems to get ahead, and never talks to anyone even though they all still act like they want to talk to him.  He broods and sleeps too much and when he’s doing anything that doesn’t require full mental power – when he’s repairing the fence that protects the livestock from wild animals, or standing in the river in waders fishing, or cleaning the baths, or shaping wax into candles, or doing any of the other hundreds of tasks that constitute afternoon work and that keep the school going – when he’s doing anything but classwork, basically, and sometimes when he’s supposed to be doing that too, he just opens his mind and remembers everything that came before that day when the rest of his life started.

Zabe comes to him one evening as he’s sleeping in the library, his head on the desk and his essay on solar power underneath it.  She’s wearing normal clothes with a badge for the youngest year group and she looks unbelievably healthy compared to how she looked when he first met her.  Ash sits up when he sees her coming and feels his stomach lurch.  She’s going to know what he’s been doing, he’s sure of it, and she’s not going to approve.  Zabe – the best friend he’s built up in his mind version of her, anyway – would never brood.

She sits down next to him and props her chin up on her fist.  “Ash, how are you?” she asks.  She’s still got that crazy accent.  He’d forgotten about that.

“I’m all right,” he lies.  “I haven’t seen you in ages, Zabe.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve kind of been in trouble a lot.”  She shrugs.  “Just testing out the rules around this place.  That kind of thing.  You know?”

Ash does not know.  “How are the rules?” he asks.  “Besides well-tested.”

“Pretty strict,” she says.  “There’s so many places we can’t go, and we have to follow the schedule, at least until we get older.  I mean, they’ve really got the place locked down.  You try to escape and go into the hills and they’ll have you back before you even get to the river.”

“Do you want to escape?” Ash asks, startled.

“Not particularly,” Zabe says.  “I don’t think there’s anything for a thousand miles in any direction.  Vallance said that the first night, remember?”

Ash nods.  “But you tried anyway.”

“Sure,” Zabe says.  Another shrug.  “I’m not happy here, Ash.”

“Me either,” he confesses.  It feels like a big thing to say.  “Everyone else is though.”

“I don’t know about that,” Zabe says.  “I guess they were younger when they came.  They got used to it faster, maybe.  But I don’t think everyone is.”

“Well, I’ve been feeling pretty alone,” Ash says.  He’s not really sure why he says it and it sounds stupid when it comes out of his mouth.  “I mean, just because everyone’s already such good friends.  Brothers and sisters and all that.”

“Yeah,” Zabe says, “well, that’s what everyone wants us to believe.  And some of them believe it so much that they make it come true.”  They pause for a few seconds and then she shrugs again.  “Anyway, like I said, I’m not happy here, so I tried to escape.  But not really, because I knew it was stupid.  So when I came back I kind of… re-evaluated my situation.”

“What does that mean?”

“I thought about it again, except different this time.  I thought that running away would make me happy but then I realized that it would just make me dead, which I don’t think would really be happy at all.  There’s the virtue of dying young but it only applies when the death has a meaning that’s good for many of the people.  So says the saying of… well, I won’t bore you with that.  Anyway, so then I thought about what was making me so unhappy and I realized that the thing that is the worst – I mean, absolutely the worst, totally unbearable – is that I’m in with this group of kids who are so much younger than me.  And I know that I’m smart enough to be in your year group, and that it’s not really my fault that I’m not.  So anyway, I thought that you could help me.  Can you help me?”

Ash pauses and lets his brain try to decipher what she’s said.  Finally he says, “How can I help you?”

“I’ve been reading all of the books up to this year – Vanessa got a list for me – but I don’t get the math at all.  I’ve never taken a math class until now.  Holt said that you could probably help me because you’re really good at math.”

Ash is fairly sure that he’s the worst in his entire class but his mind is churning over other things.  “You’ve been talking to Vanessa and Holt?”

“Yeah.  Why?”

“Do you trust them?”

“Well, they’re being nicer to me than Vallance was.”

“What do you mean?”

“I asked her if I could move up and she said absolutely not.  Then I got Vanessa and Holt to talk to her and she said that if I sat this exam in a month and I passed I could.  Then Holt suggested that I talk to you.  And he and Vanessa aren’t lying to me.  They both say that they don’t think I can do it but that they want to help me.”

“I just don’t know if I trust them, that’s all,” Ash says.  “I mean, all the little kids worship them.”

“Aren’t we technically the little kids?” Zabe quirks her head and smiles at him.  “You’re not out of afternoon classes yet.”

“What?”

“When we’re sixteen we’ll get let out of afternoon classes so we can do other things,” Zabe explains.  “Things like hunting and exploring.”

“Oh,” Ash says, feeling stupid, “well, I guess I haven’t really been paying attention.”

Zabe rolls her eyes.

Ash hesitates.  “I was really… sad.  I mean, I am.”

“So why didn’t you try to change it?”

He raises his eyebrows.  “It’s not that easy!”

She shrugs back at him.  “Why not?  If something makes you sad, fix it.”

“I can’t…” he pauses, looks around, and lowers his voice.  He knows enough to know that this isn’t something you admit to around here.  “I can’t make my parents not dead.  That’s not something I can fix.”

Zabe is silent for a long time.  Finally she says, “No, I guess you can’t.”

“But I want to remember them,” Ash feels the need to explain.  “I never want to forget what it was like before this.  So I’ve been spending all my time just trying to remember.”

“Why do you care so much?”

Ash is aware that they are whispering fiercely, their faces inches apart.  The conversation has gone from normal to intense in about ten seconds.  “I don’t know,” he hisses at her.  “Why don’t you?”

“Because it doesn’t matter what happened back then.  We’re here now,” Zabe says.  “We can’t escape.  And my plan is to be the best at everything here.  And then people will like me the way they like Vanessa and Holt, and I’ll get to do what I want.  I’ll get to know everything.”

“So why are you hanging out with me?” Ash asks.  “I’m the exact opposite of that.”

Zabe does the shrug again.  It’s a strangely elegant gesture for an eleven year old: a cock of the head, a roll of the shoulders, her hands still on the table in front of her, all synchronized.  “I didn’t know that, did I?  Anyway, you’re the first person I ever met here.  You untied me on the helly-copter.”

“And I can help you move up to my year,” he says, not sure if he’s bitter or what.  His perception of Zabe wavers between transparency – her actions are all stated up front, her motivations laid on the table – and a dark opacity where her real character theoretically lies.

“Yeah, well, I hope so. If you’ll do it.”

Ash sighs.  “Ok, I guess so.  I could do with the practice too.”

“Ash.”  He looks up at her and she darts out a hand and just touches the edge of his sweatered arm, just for a second.  “Thank you for the help,” she says in the stilted grammar of the formal Standard tongue.  “With all of the stars above the Golden Mountain, may I help you too, so that you are no longer sad.”

It’s a strange thing to say, but Ash figures it’s the most sincere she can be.  He lets it pass.

She finds him every day after that, and yanks him unceremoniously out of whatever mood he’s in and headlong into her world.  Zabe speaks in erratic bursts of thought, like water from a broken fountain.  Then Ash has to spend several minutes deciphering what she’s said, while she sits in silent contemplation of her work.  It’s a strange routine, but it keeps him occupied.

At first he’s not sure how to teach her – she can barely count, as far as he can tell – so he tries practical lessons.  Zabe displays a remarkable ability to get herself wherever she wants to be, whenever she wants to be there, and suddenly the youngest group seems to be doing a lot of chores in the same place as Ash’s group.  Within a few minutes, Zabe will sidle up to him and they’ll start doing chores together and he’ll know that it’s lesson time.  He starts off by having her figure out how many new stock animals will arrive in the spring if all of the females get pregnant with two babies; she resorts to counting on her fingers.  He teaches her about multiplication and she quickly grasps division, but it takes an additional week for him to realize that she has no idea about addition and subtraction.  They move beyond natural numbers – “if two portions of the fence need mending, and there are eight sections in total, then what percentage of the fence will need new barbed wire?” – and Zabe works diligently, memorizing tables and methods seemingly overnight.  She starts to ask him about the way that other things work too, things in books that they are reading.  He explains the geology of the valley and why they have geothermal springs and why there’s a big covered pit in the ground near the Western Building – the people who were here before mined for gold – and Zabe comes back every day with more questions, so many that Ash has to spend his free time each night before bed researching the answers.

The end result of all this enforced learning is that he suddenly starts to succeed in the school.  Each group has a solidified stratigraphy of intellectual and technical rank for every subject and practice that they do, and Ash was at the bottom in everything, but suddenly, across the board, he’s moving up.  Now teachers ask him what he thinks, and he surprises himself by having opinions.

Midsummer comes, and daylight holds onto the edge of the valley for as long as possible, following the reflective band of the river and flowing west towards an unseen sea.  Ash knows that he and Zabe came to the valley in spring, because he remembers his first day, standing outside and learning about the animal pastures, stroking the soft, grass green buds on the pine trees.  They’ve become dark, prickly needles.

Zabe’s month of grace ends, and she goes to sit the test in Lady Vallance’s office.  Ash waits for hours, but doesn’t see her.  It’s a hot day and it fades into a surprisingly warm night.

Then Holt comes to him and invites him to go shooting.

“We don’t normally take out the little kids,” Holt explains, “but you’ve really been standing out, and we thought it would be a good opportunity to get to know you better.”

“Why do you want to know me?” Ash asks.

Holt whistles.  “You’ve been hanging out with Zabe too much, my friend,” he says.  “That girl could be suspicious of a rock.”

Ash refuses to be swayed by the Holt charm.  “The question stands,” he says.

“I guess it does,” Holt agrees.

They sit in silence for a few minutes.  They’re out on the porch of the building where the students live – the girls live upstairs, in a bigger room, because there are slightly more of them – and even though all the windows are wide open and most people are inside getting ready for bed, the river is still the loudest thing they can hear.  The silence isn’t tense – in fact, Ash thinks he might go so far as to call it companionable – so he lets it go on for a little bit.

Then Barky comes out onto the porch and says, “What’s the verdict?”

Holt shakes his head.  “Our man Ash here is undecided.”

Barky sits on Holt’s other side, picks up a rock that was lying on the porch, and starts playing with it.  “What, are you anti-violent or something?” he asks.

“What do you mean?” Ash says.

“Well, why don’t you want to learn to shoot?”

Ash is startled.  He hasn’t really connected shooting with violence.  He doesn’t really know much about the silver and brown sticks at all.  They aren’t something he remembers from his home.

“He wants to know why we want him to go shooting with us,” Holt explains.

“Oh,” Barky says, “you’re thinking like Zabe.”

“Do you spend a lot of time with Zabe?” Ash asks.

Holt and Barky exchange a glance but Ash can’t read it.  Barky says, “Zabe is a little firecracker, if you know what I mean.  Somebody’s got to look out for her, or she’s going to get into serious trouble around here.”

“Why’s that?” Ash asks.

“Because she hasn’t quite figured out how to filter herself yet,” Holt explains.  “Zabe is not doing so well right now.  She annoys her teachers and makes Lady Vallance want to throw her out of the school.  So we’ve been trying to watch out for her, make sure things go easier for her with the people who think they’re in charge.”

“You mean the teachers and Lady Vallance.”

“Yeah.”

“Aren’t they in charge?”

“Sure, in lots of ways they are.  But this school doesn’t run without people like me, and Barky here, and Vanessa, and a few of the other students.  Keep that in mind, Ash.  You have to make yourself indispensable.”

“Either that or just be so smart that they would be idiots to throw you out,” Barky adds.

Holt grins.  “But that’s not us.  So we’ve just made ourselves useful to everyone, and that way we can break the rules a little bit and not get in trouble.”

Ash thinks about this.  Finally he asks, “Do you want me to go out shooting with you because you think I could be like you?”

Holt gives him a rare smile.  Ash pictures his entire year group swooning but manages to keep it together.  “Something like that,” Holt says.  “Don’t get cocky.”

Ash looks at the rock in Barky’s hands.  Barky is rubbing at a smooth spot on it.  “What about Zabe?” Ash asks.  “Do you think she’s like that too?”

Barky laughs and tosses the rock off the porch.  It lands in the dirt and buries itself in a cloud of dust.  “I think Zabe’s one of the smart ones,” he says.  “But she’s annoying the teachers so much that they’re trying to ignore it.”

Ash is vaguely insulted.  “I taught her most of what she knows,” he says.  “She’s pretty smart, but…”

Barky laughs again.  Holt says, “Don’t worry about it, Ash.  If I were you, I wouldn’t want to be smart like Zabe is.”

“Why not?”

Holt shrugs.  “Lots of people are going to want to pull her in lots of directions.”

“When she grows up, you mean?” Ash asks.

“Yeah.”

Ash hesitates, and then asks a question that has been worrying him for some time.  “What happens here, after?  When we grow up, I mean?  Do students just become teachers?”

“No,” Barky says.  Holt is looking at the ground, so Barky, not usually the talker of the pair, continues.  “We reach a certain age – usually around twenty-one – when the teachers think that we’re done, and then we leave.  They give us a placement somewhere – you don’t get to find out where, usually, until you’re on your way – and that’s… it.”

“It’s like the people who leave are dead,” Holt says.  “They’re gone and then we’re not allowed to think about them anymore.  Most age groups leave together for that reason.”

“How old are you?” Ash asks.

“We’re twenty,” Barky says, and Holt adds, “One more year to go.”

“When you get out, where will you go?” Ash asks.

“Wherever they send us,” Barky says.  There’s a sharp edge to his voice but Ash doesn’t know why.  “It’s not really something we can predict.”

“I’ll go home,” Ash says.  “I don’t care where they send me.”

There’s a short silence.

Then: “You can’t ever go home again,” Holt says.  “But I think you’ll figure that out.”

Ash looks up at Holt, but his face is blank.  “What does that mean?  Did something happen to my home?”

“I don’t know anything about where you’re from, Ash,” Holt says, “and I have no idea what the geopolitical or for that matter environmental condition of the place is.  But you can’t ever go home again doesn’t mean physically.  Somebody famous said it.  Even if you could travel back there from here – which is a pretty big if, in some cases – then when you got there, it wouldn’t be home anymore.  Ten years will have passed.  Everything will be different.”

Ash shakes his head.  “I don’t care if it’s different,” he says.  “My parents are dead.  I could go to their graves.  The graveyard would still be there.”  On the last sentence, his mouth goes wrong, and then his throat aches for tears.

Barky looks away from them but Holt doesn’t hesitate.  He puts one arm around Ash’s shoulders and pulls him in close, so that their sides are touching.  “Hey, Ash,” he says, “listen to me, ok?”

“Ok,” Ash says, miserable and trying not to get snot all over Holt’s shirt.

“I’m sorry they’re dead, ok?  I remember.  But you have to stop feeling like this.  You’ve barely been a functional human for as long as I’ve known you because you’re too wrapped up in being, well, in having grief.  And it’s not helping your future.  You have to give yourself something new.”

Ash takes a deep, shaky breath against Holt’s shoulder.  “I don’t have anything new.”

“You know, Ash,” Holt says, “they brought us here because we would have died in the outside world.  That’s why the school did it.  We would have been picked up by a government or a gang or someone else with bad intentions and used until we were dead.  People like us – people who are smart in the right ways – are not very common outside of this school, and the people in charge know that we’re necessary assets if they want to get ahead.  But the school can’t protect us forever.  You have ten years, and then you’re being thrown out in it.  Holt sounds angry.  His fingers dig into Ash’s shoulder.  “Stop wasting your time and learn as much as you possibly can.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Ash sees Barky stand up.  Holt releases him and stands up too.  They are both staring at something.  Ash wipes his eyes and nose on the back of his sleeve and puts his head down on his crossed arms.

“Zabe!” Holt says somewhere to his right.  “Give me your hand!”

Ash sits up, bleary-eyed, and focuses on Zabe, who is trying to scramble up onto the porch.  Holt and Barky each grab a hand and haul her up before dropping her unceremoniously onto the wooden floor beside Ash.  Her hair is half down and swells behind her ears in big curling clouds.

“Well?” Holt demands.  “What happened?”

“I watched her mark it,” Zabe says, sitting with her legs crossed.  “So she could not cheat.”

Barky and Holt wince.  “I’m sure she appreciated that,” Holt says.

“She did not wish to discuss it with me,” Zabe says.  “But at the end, she had to admit that I belonged in another year group, at least, in her words, ‘in terms of scholastic ability.’”

They ask her about the test for a while, and then Vanessa comes and they have the conversation again, while Ash sits with his chin resting on his arm and watches Zabe talk.  He’s thinking about what Holt said about Zabe: that she’s one of the smart ones, but that she needs looking after.  As little as Ash wants to admit it – he’s always been able to explain away a bad grade by telling himself that if he’d just tried harder he could have easily done better – he suspects that Holt is right about her, and about him as well.

Ash waits until there is a lull in the conversation, and then he says, “Holt.”

“Yeah?”

“I will come with you,” Ash says.  “Shooting, I mean.”

Zabe looks startled.  “You’ll take him, but not me?” she asks.

Holt rolls his eyes.  “I doubt that Ash here has even held a gun.  Am I right?”

“Um, we don’t have them where I’m from.”

“You’re from here now,” Vanessa says, but then she smiles slyly at him.  “But… almost everyone here is originally from a place where shooting is pretty common.”

Ash glances at Zabe, who nods.  “Well,” he says, “then I guess someone should teach me how to shoot.”

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