(Determined by a random story idea generator)
The story features a woodsman, who can be cold, and a pickpocket, who is prim.
It’s a magical realism story about broken dreams. It kicks off in an echoing cavern with a prayer being thrown up to the winds.(Note that: someone in the story has a reputation to salvage.) And there’s a twist! (Which I will keep a secret, for now.)
The near future.
The old man knelt in the cave’s entrance, knees and shins pressed against the hard rock floor. His head was lowered in prayer and he mumbled a few soft words only he and his god could hear.
He started every day with this plea to the universe, but it wasn’t for forgiveness. Emil had no use for the shallow, meaningless gesture. It was easy for man or god to say I forgive you, one only had to ask for those words and they were given. But that wasn’t enough.
Emil prayed for opportunity.
This pose—head down, eyes closed, hands folded—lasted some minutes. Orange light skipped across his stooped figure as the sun beyond the cave slowly rose. Emil prayed with sincerity and conviction, but little hope. For when his god answered, he ordered Emil to leave his hideaway and go into the world he so feared. It was the only way.
Every morning Emil also begged for another.
The sunrise broke free of the horizon; its light glowed behind Emil’s eyes. He opened them, raising his head and his hands at once. He imagined his words pooling like rainwater in the palms of his hands and flung them into the air. The wind carried his prayer away.
Give me an opportunity to do good, the message begged.
Then words of forgiveness wouldn’t need to be said, because the deed would speak for itself.
He left the cave and walked the well-worn path to his cabin, as he’d done every morning for fifteen years. As was habit, when he made the gentle turn left and downhill and came upon the view of the cabin nestled cozily by a small pond, he thought of Anna.
This had been their summer retreat; he still saw it that way. After the revolution, she didn’t come back here, but that wasn’t a surprise. Everyone would’ve denounced their old lives and the cabin was associated with a traitor. Still, Emil had long ago planned his escape: a secret room that led to a twenty-foot long tunnel, which snaked from the cabin to the woods. Just in case the authorities came to visit. He’d never used it.
The rest of the morning passed quaintly. Emil had his breakfast and fed the birds, chipmunks, and one shy fox, greeting each with the name he’d given them. He sat on his porch and whittled what would, eventually, be a white-tail deer. As he carved, the sun yellowed and climbed the sky. The trees that ringed the pond were still bare, the reeds dry and withered, but a veery thrush sang its otherworldly trill from a distant tree, announcing to Emil’s ears alone that spring had arrived.
In these solitary activities, Emil was at peace. His only chore for the day was to till the garden. Life was simple, quiet. It didn’t extend far beyond his own thoughts, and the little pond and its cabin, and the woods around it. So accustomed was he to his own company that he felt the presence of another person like a gust cutting through the trees.
Emil glanced up from his whittling to scan the lawn, expecting to find someone standing there. He was, as he had been, alone. But he felt her, somewhere, and not far way. He listened. The veery chirped. A second presence joined the first.
A man and a woman. Where could they have come from? He was miles from any town. He put down his whittling knife and the nascent deer.
Then came proof of his instinct: for the first time in fifteen years, he heard a human voice that wasn’t his own.
And it was a girl, screaming.
He leapt off his rocking chair and it thunked against the floorboards. Down the steps, around back of the cabin, into the woods. Old leaves cracked under his boots and she screamed again, her voice closer this time, her presence in his mind stronger.
They were near the river where he fished brook trout every summer. He could picture them there and he saw the girl in danger and knew she believed herself doomed.
The river flowed through a shallow ravine. This time of year, the narrow passage choked snow melt into a foam of rapids. He knew this part of the woods intimately—every rock in the river, every tree on its bank. He stood on high ground over the familiar spot, irrationally afraid.
Emil had never seen people there. They looked out of place, when he set eyes on them—the man and the woman.
Seeing them, Emil suddenly felt foolish for coming; he should’ve stayed at his cabin. He hadn’t considered the risks; now someone would know where he was. And who knew what this man would do? A quick glance told Emil the man had a gun, so he ducked, but too late. The man had already seen him.
Emil stood straight. He looked not at the man, but the tiny, elfish blond girl wriggling under his grip; her face was small at this distance, but vivid. It would be easy to run away and let this man do what he wanted to do, but that face told him to stay and save her. Instinct whispered that she was worth it.
“What are you doing out here, gramps!” The man barked up at him. “This isn’t a residential zone!”
Emil showed him his hands and made his way down the slope, boots skidding on leaves and soft ground.
“Just taking a walk,” Emil said.
“That’s against the law, too.”
It was unwise to question this man. He spoke with authority; he held a gun to the girl’s head and he enforced rules Emil didn’t understand. There was a flatness to his eyes that frightened him and beyond what he could see, an unnerving lack of patience.
The girl, too, was outwardly emotionless, but for different reasons. Composed, yet angry, she scowled at Emil, judging his appearance. He had a villainous look—a deforming scar on his left cheek that offset his mouth, obsidian eyes, slanted, winged eyebrows. And he was dressed like a beggar.
Emil smiled, though he knew the effect wasn’t pleasing. “Let the girl go.”
The man snorted. “You, get down on your knees, and put your hands on your head.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
With the gun, he tapped an emblem on his shoulder; Emil now noticed that the man wore a black uniform with gold trim. The set included trousers, tall boots, a long coat, and beret; the emblem on the shoulder of the coat was a modified version of one Emil had seen fifteen years ago, back when he still lived in the city. Over the course of a decade, it had been spray painted on buildings, then marked propaganda, and, in the end—just before he was declared traitor—adorned flags.
An eye, nestled in the outstretched wings of an eagle.
Emil dropped to his knees; he didn’t want to be shot for disobeying. If he was shot, the girl’s fate was sealed, whatever it may be. The man squeezed her shoulders tighter and she suppressed a whimper. Her eyes gave away nothing, but Emil could tell what she was. Tomboyish, her hair was cropped short and she had a plain face with a soft complexion. Long limbs gave her the illusion of height; her small size, the illusion of youth. She wore frayed clothes, originally a size too big for her—possibly hand-me-downs from a brother, given the masculine style—but showed signs of being hemmed to fit. A bag was looped around her shoulder and it bulged.
“Who did she steal from?” Emil asked. It wasn’t a guess.
The uniformed man’s flat eyes sparked. He drew himself taller, flicking up a sharp-tipped nose. “A Commander. She pilfered a jewelry box from his summer home. I’ve been tracking her for miles.”
To extenuate the injustice, he wrenched the girl’s arm behind her back.
Emil extended his hands. “She’s clearly in need. If this Commander is as wealthy as he seems, surely he can part with one trinket. She needs it more than him.”
The man’s thin lips flattened. “What are you suggesting?”
“Just a simple act of charity.”
“Charity!” The man spat the word loudly and it pinged off tree trunks. “Suffering elevates Sinners to Saints! Would you deny this Sinner,” and he wrenched the girl’s arm again; a faint whimper spilled from her lips, “the opportunity to earn a better place?”
Spittle dripped from the man’s lip. Emil had heard such talk before, but back then, only a handful of people spouted such dogma. They had been powerful and persuasive and it seemed their ideas had crystallized and spread.
Emil longed for his cabin and the simple thoughts of the chipmunk and chickadee, but he sensed those things were in his past. Something new had arrived and he trembled before it.
“Put your hands on your head! When I am through with her, you are next,” the man said, but his voice was fading into the background, even as it increased in volume. “The Watchers will be most interested to meet a beggar living illegally in the woods, freely sprouting prohibited doctrine.”
A second voice, commanding and clear as a bell, slipped into Emil’s mind.
Come on, old man, do something…
The girl wriggled under the man’s grip. Her eyes glanced down, at her boot.
Distract him… her thoughts pleaded.
It had been so long so he’d read a mind, Emil had almost forgotten what it was like. Her thoughts dizzied him and he felt himself sever from his surroundings.
But he recovered quickly as it all came back to him—the gift he’d spent fifteen years desperately avoiding.
Go out into the world, his god said. Foolish of him not to listen. Pointless, really. Emil refused to comply, and so the universe brought the world to his doorstep.
Come on old man! The girl thought. What are you doing?
Her face gave away nothing. Only the eyes—wide and burning like tiny fires—revealed her desperation to any observer. Emil looked to her boot, measured the distance between himself and the uniformed man, and then looked to the sky.
And then, he took a step.
Emil had no doubt the girl wanted to kill the soldier. The fire in her eyes told him so. She’d be quick and he wouldn’t expect it. The man was focused on Emil and she was small and weak, not a threat. She had the element of shock on her side.
Emil took another step and put up his hands. The girl’s thoughts shot off in rapid fire, quickly muffled by a mingling of anger and fear and frustration. If each thought was a raindrop, emotions were the puddle.
“No one has to know we’ve met here today,” Emil said softly. “Let’s all just go our own separate ways. You know this crime is a trifle and not worth her life.”
The soldier snorted; fear passed through his mind. Fear, and nothing else.
“You must be soft in the head, gramps.” A tremble sneaked into his voice. “The Watchers always know.”
Emil shook his head and met the girl’s eyes—now blazing. He sensed a single raindrop before it joined the puddle: you dumb old sonofabitch.
She believed there was only one choice available to her—kill the soldier. The soldier, in turn, believed he, too, had only one choice—capture the girl. I had no choice was a dangerous thought. It always started with small choices, to test the waters. Tattling on a neighbor. Looking the other way. Accepting an unjust law. Little choices prepare you for the bigger ones. Watching your neighbors herded into ghettos. Shooting an innocent man in the head. Latching the door while an accomplish lights a match.
And if people think they don’t have a choice, well that makes everything so much easier. It takes a clever, brave person to see another way out.
So while the girl wanted kill the soldier, she shouldn’t. And the soldier didn’t have to die. Emil didn’t think his god would put him here, in this moment, to kill someone. Even if that someone wore that emblem on their shoulder. Emil was afraid of this decision, but thought of one thing to keep him steady.
What would his god want him to do?
The soldier had dropped his gun slightly; it was pointed at the girl still, but his wrist rested lazily on her shoulder. The soldier was young and strong, his foes a puny girl and an old man.
Arrogance made him careless.
Emil lunged, crossing the distance between them in seconds. His old bones protested the journey—his right knee snapped, his left hip locked—and when he threw his body at the soldier and dropped, heavily, to the soft earth on top of him, his shoulder cracked like a dry twig.
The gun flew through the air and softly swished into a bed of leaves. The soldier grunted his shock, his limbs flailed. A knee sunk into Emil’s gut and he dry-heaved. The pain made him angry and he thwacked the soldier hard in his temple with his fist. The man fell, dazed. Emil stood over him, breathing heavy now, pain numbed by adrenaline. Then his feet were cut out from underneath him and his back slammed against the earth. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe and the sensation made him panic and the panic made him angry. Emil gasped for breath and the soldier was on top of him and cracked his fist against his jaw and the anger boiled hotter. He kicked and punched and was kicked and punched in return. He felt bone and flesh and muscle beneath his fists and knees and heard the soldier yelp and grunt and cry. Emil landed a blow on his side and that was enough. With an agonized groan, the soldier tumbled off Emil and sprawled on the ground beside him.
The soldier rose to his knees. Emil scrambled to his, the pain returning to every joint, and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, pinning him to his chest. Emil rammed the other arm against the man’s trachea.
“Enough of that,” Emil said, dismayed to hear the fatigue in his voice; he felt his age suddenly.
Dry leaves crackled. It was a small sound, but made Emil flinch, because he knew what it meant. Both him and the soldier stared down the barrel of the gun, pointed at the latter’s forehead. The girl held the gun steady, but her mind told Emil the truth. That she was scared and sick and knew she couldn’t kill him.
She didn’t have to. No one had to die. Enough people had died already, and probably more since he’d been gone.
The soldier stared up at her, chuckling. “You don’t know how to use that thing.”
To her credit, the girl didn’t waver. The way her jaw was set and her arm straightened without shaking, one would think she’d killed a hundred men.
Coward, she told herself. You useless coward.
No, she wasn’t a coward, she w—
Do it, girl, came another voice. This was the soldier, limp in Emil’s arms. He was still filled with fear, and within that fear, a hundred fleeting, desperate thoughts: that he’d be punished for this and his family, too, and if he escaped, he knew someone who could send for them and maybe they could be free together. A wife, two sons, a daughter. That was foolish, he thought. Kill me—then no one will ever know. Kill me, goddamn you!
Emil told himself he had no choice. The girl couldn’t kill him and the man wanted to die. And if he escaped? As he said, the Watchers would know. The girl wouldn’t do it; shouldn’t. Maybe Emil’s god had no part in this. Sometimes his children had to make their own choices.
The decision weighed heavily. Emil closed his eyes and placed his hands just so—to crack the soldier’s neck—but he hesitated. He didn’t want to—
A small farm came to life behind his eyes. Three children and a lovely woman in a yellow dress ambled through a verdant field. Then the soldier himself in civilian clothes, sitting on a porch. Emil understood it was a fantasy, his fantasy. And if such a thing were possible for this man…
The girl scowled at him, drew the gun closer to the soldier’s head. Just kill him, she silently pleaded. Emil loosened his grip and dropped his mouth to the soldier’s ear.
Draw away Matilda’s attention so she doesn’t see the gesture.
Softly, he whispered, “Run. Send for your sons and daughter, your wife. Be free.”
The soldier shot quickly to his feet. He looked down at Emil, astonished and understanding. He made a swift, funny movement—a hand signal with a bow—turned and ran up the other side of the ravine.
The girl swiveled the gun in his direction, let off a shot as he climbed. Torn yellow leaves flew into the air. The soldier sprinted the rest of the way, then vanished. The girl made to run after him, but Emil stopped her by flinging out his arm.
She stared at the place where the soldier had climbed. I’m dead. He’s dead. They’re all— The girl dropped to her knees, cheeks crimson from holding back tears.
“Why did you do that?” she said, her voice forceful, composed.
“Because it was right.”
He’s going to get caught. He’s going to get caught and the Snoops will know what happened and what I stole and about the old man and they’re going to track us here and kill us, or worse. Oh my God, oh my God…Mama and Papa… Maybe they’ll send me to Camp 33, too… No, no… Okay, think… Gate’s closed…that’s twelve hours? That’s more than enough time for the Sn— No, no… Lie low. They’ll come soon if they’re coming at all… Stupid old fool. ‘Because it was right.’ Right for who? You shoulda kil— Yeah, right. Coward. Mother f—
“Tea is ready.”
Emil didn’t really need to make this announcement; the act of placing two cups on the scuffed wooden table where the girl sat spoke for itself. But he needed her mind to quiet. She was giving him a splitting headache.
“Chamomile and bergamot—grown in my garden last summer,” he said and sat down.
Steam rose in swirls above their cups. Emil sipped his tea, but she didn’t touch hers. She wouldn’t look at him and her mind still chattered away along the same narrative. He studied her, fascinated—her wide jaw framing a long mouth, high cheekbones, large eyes with sparse lashes, squat nose. But it wasn’t her features that enraptured him. He’d never met someone whose thoughts and facial expression were so mismatched. She had the noisiest mind he’d ever heard, and the calmest face he’d ever seen.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She answered by looking out the window at his pond.
“You weren’t going to do it. You had the chance and you didn’t take it.” He blew the steam away from his tea. “And it’s not exactly polite, asking a stranger to do your killin’ for you, is it?”
Finally, she looked at him. Those eyes were the windows into her frazzled mind. In their black depths, he could see her torture, as well as hear it.
“That’s not the point.”
“I’m afraid it is to me. I’m not a killer. Never have been, never will be.”
She closed her eyes and two faces drifted into his mind; people he’d never seen before. A man and a woman, and the man looked a lot like the girl sitting across from him.
What kind of a daughter am I? Coward, coward, coward…
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t waste my tea,” Emil said, cutting off the girl’s train of thought.
She shot daggers at him but sipped, then gave him an appreciative nod. “My name is Matilda Gambrell. And yours?”
Emil extended his hand over the table; she shook it firmly. “Emil Jacobi. It’s a shame we didn’t meet under better circumstances. Are you hungry?”
“I don’t want to be a burden.”
“You already are. Why stop now?”
Emil piled the remainder of that morning’s breakfast on a chipped ceramic plate and poured more tea. She ate primly, taking small bites, chewing quietly, large eyes sweeping around the small cabin, changing it with her gaze, her presence. Emil had been the only one to see any of it for fifteen years, so for all he knew, everything could’ve been in his imagination. But here she was, looking at his things, making them real. He wanted her to make other things in his life real, too—like the animals he’d named and the sculptures he’d carved in their likenesses and his memories of Anna, and the story of how he came to live here—but stopped himself.
Emil hadn’t forgotten why he’d avoided people in the first place. People took bites out of each other and didn’t put them back. And once Matilda learned he was telepathic—a “Snoop,” a “Watcher”—she’d ditch him, to hell with his stories and the tea and his kindness. In the world he’d left behind, people like him were suspicious, untrustworthy, villainous. It was clear that this girl had grown up in a world where they were also feared. They’d been the enemy her whole life. He tried to guess her age. Twenty? He’d been gone a lifetime.
Matilda scraped the last bits of breakfast off the plate and washed it down with more tea.
“Forgive me for asking, Mr. Jacobi, but how is it you’ve been able to live all the way out here? I thought they purged this region a long time ago.”
It was strange to hear the girl speak of things in the past tense. For Emil, the revolution, the Watchers, the Purges were eternally present tense, with unknown circumstances. He saw the Purges begin—the emptying of towns and shipping of people to segregated ghettos, the walling of the city. He heard the justification: “to keep everyone safe and under a watchful eye.” This girl was the result of that beginning.
“I escaped before the revolution. And I’m very good at hide and seek.”
Liar. Matilda’s pale brow arched, the only gesture to betray the thought.
“What do you do with the things you steal?”
“I sell them.”
“What’s the money for?”
Matilda bristled; she stood taller in Emil’s chair. “Sir, that is my private bus—”
“Young lady, I’ve saved your life, given you shelter, and fed you. I’ve done so at my own risk. Give and take.” Emil raised his winged eyebrows. “It’s your turn to give.”
She studied the empty plate, grinding her jaw.
“There’s a man in my ghetto who does favors for people. He requires advance payment.” Matilda spoke like a much older woman; her voice was unapologetic and mesmerizing. “I hired this man three years ago and, since then, I’ve paid twenty-five percent of my bill. These jewels will raise that percentage to forty, if my estimate on their worth is correct.”
Emil was surprised Matilda would agree to such terms. She seemed far more discerning than that. The job, then, must be difficult, dangerous, or vitally important. Or all three.
“What’s he going to do for you, when your bill is paid?”
Matilda tapped her index finger on the table top. A vein bulged in her neck; she was holding back tears. She swallowed hard, then said, “he’ll help my parents escape from a prison camp.”
Emil recoiled at the words. Prison camp? He hadn’t seen the beginning of such a thing, hadn’t heard it spoken of when he still lived among people.
“Why are they in a prison camp?”
“Officially, it’s a re-education center,” she told the table top, blinking fiercely.
Emil leaned forward. “Why were they sent there?”
Through the windows of Matilda’s eyes, he saw pain and failure and hopelessness. He didn’t need to read her mind to see it.
“They had the wrong thoughts.”
Emil turned away from the girl, this living embodiment of everything that had happened after he left. The face of everyone who suffered after the last revolt against the Thought Laws failed. After the new government took over. He’d stayed just long enough to see the flags fly—the eye and the eagle. And Anna…
It was so much worse than he’d imagined it could be. And here he’d been, whittling and growing chamomile. Safe, with no watchful eye to keep track of him.
How privileged he’d been.
He asked his god how to help Matilda and got an answer instantly. He pressed his eyes shut against it, feeling the terror well, arguing with the universe that he’d be seen by someone who remembered him and what he’d done. How much could he help her if he was arrested the minute he walked through the city gates?
Emil looked up at the girl. She’d been watching him with those eyes, which threatened to spill over.
I’m doomed… Her thought dripped into a puddle of sadness, regret, anger. I’m so sorry mama and papa.
The gate wasn’t a gate at all. It was roughly three minutes.
Three minutes when no one was looking, when the night watchman replaced the day watchman in a quiet part of the city where little trouble happened and so a little less attention was paid.
Three minutes. That was it. Matilda timed the journey precisely, permitting only one stop along the way. Emil envied her energy and the lithe, liquid movement of her limbs. His muscles were stiff as dried meat, locking his left leg straight and his right hip out of socket.
Two miles from the wall, she grew quiet and crouched like a cat. Emil did his best to emulate her and they crept like this all the way to a storm drain and slipped into semi-darkness. They ran for an anxious hour until finally, Matilda stopped and pointed up at a manhole cover. She righted herself and checked her watch again with a deep sigh of relief.
“Ten minutes to spare,” she said.
Emil’s vertebrae were frozen in a crouch and he unfolded himself with difficulty. He felt Matilda’s eyes on him, heard her skepticism, disgust, impatience. And, beneath that, terror. Her voice betrayed nothing.
“This manhole is in a blind spot, but the second you start moving, hide your face,” she said with authority. “There are two facial recognition cameras on this street. Walk—don’t run, running will only set off their alarms—across the street. Head for a building slightly right of the manh—”
“How do I know it’s the right one?”
Matilda’s specific, commanding instructions and the insulting prattle in her mind made Emil nervous. At his insubordination, she pursed her lips.
“There’s a marker—second floor, far left window—in the form of a red rag, hung in the window. Got it?” Matilda didn’t wait for his answer. She climbed a ladder, her boots making soft metallic echoes on each rung. When she reached the top, she glanced down at him. “Keep your wits about you, alright?”
She slid the manhole cover open with surprising ease and slipped up into syrupy shadow, but Emil remained on the ground, clutching the cold metal rung, chiding himself for being a coward while this girl defied her government so bravely. It wasn’t really bravery, though. It was the naivete and ignorance of youth. Life had handed her only one hardship, not a barrage of them, and only with time and repetition did you understand what the world could really do. He had a feeling she’d learn that cruel fact soon.
Emil took a deep breath and climbed the ladder on shaky legs, then pressed his head, shoulders and torso into the shadow and cool air of the street.
His eyes had difficulty adjusting to the hard, straight lines of Matilda’s world. No green, no buzz of insects or lap of water, just distant sirens and people shouting from deep within a city without lights. Slightly right. He turned, finding a squat concrete building in that direction. Second floor, far left window. His heart jumped. There was the red rag. Matilda was gone. With any luck, she’d slipped into the building already.
Emil pulled his sore body up and into the street and replaced the manhole cover. A flash of color caught the corner of his eye. He had to drop his head back to look up at it, as through prostrate, and he supposed that was the point.
It was a portrait, floating above the gray city. Crisp light beams sliced across the man’s painted face, which gazed benevolently down upon the city. Trust in Father Joseph—he knows all, he knows best. Emil was entranced by the sheer spectacle of it, the narcissism, knowing that this man wasn’t benevolent at all.
It was so obvious, in hindsight, what had been happening in those hectic days before the revolution. With the keen eye of an old man, Emil saw the signs now, though some good it did him. Back then, he was young, naive, ignorant. He didn’t know yet what the world could do.
He looked around—this is what the world could do.
The darkness and quiet squeezed his chest and neck and he sucked in a ragged breath, coming back to himself. How long had he been standing there? He shook his head, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to stop the memories now that he was here. Everything would remind him of the time before, and of his mistakes.
Emil steeled himself, grinding his jaw. Doing as Matilda told him, he dropped his face and shimmied the collar of his moth-eaten coat up past his jaw line, walking casually across the street even though he desperately wanted to run.
Five other people made it through the gate that night. A man in the building with the red rag gave each one different directions for getting onto the street. Emil and Matilda got their orders last; they traversed a dark staircase into a basement, which took them five minutes to cross, then climbed another set of stairs. This ended in a heavy metal door, which Matilda pressed her body against.
“Keep your head down until we reach the corner,” she ordered.
She popped the door open a crack, but he still couldn’t see her face.
“Why don’t you just stay out there, outside the city?” Emil asked.
A soft, annoyed breath shot from her nose. Dumb old fool, she thought.
“It’s a wasteland,” she said, as though this were common sense. “No farms, towns, or people. Just prison camps and factories, some summer camps. The roads are monitored. Anyone found out there is shot on sight.”
“You weren’t shot today, were you?” Emil barked, annoyed because she was probably letting other people’s words come out of her mouth. “It’s not as they say.”
Her mind said nothing, but her voice whispered from the dark, “At least in here I won’t starve.”
The truth probably never occurred to her, or, perhaps, anyone, but Emil remembered a time when there was more than one idea. He remembered his own neighbors, his own family, spewing his words. How if God approved of gays and mixing races and abortion, why did he bring us the three pandemics in a generation and wildfires and gang violence. If God approved, why were we so unhappy and so many of us hungry and poor, and why were terrorists threatening to kill us around every corner.
God hates what we’ve done with His world and this is our punishment! That was Father Joseph’s answer. Emil could still see the bold letters, proclaiming this and other absurdities, emblazoned on posters and pamphlets, then newspapers.
He wondered if Matilda believed it.
She held the door open for him and they both stepped out into an alley and he followed her with his head down, watching her boots smack against the wet pavement.
“This way,” came her voice, and her boots veered right.
Matilda was taking him to see the man who did favors for a price. Emil slipped his hand in his coat pocket, where he’d secreted the only thing of value he owned—his father’s solid-gold pocket watch, encrusted with diamonds and engraved with his family crest. Emil hadn’t meant to flee with it fifteen years ago. He’d always hated the watch and what it stood for, but perhaps his god had seen its future purpose—the good it would do a young girl who’d only just been born.
Surely this heirloom would cover the balance of her bill, if this man could do what he promised. And if not, Emil had another plan.
One of them had to work.
The city passed by Emil in confusing vignettes. Though his mind easily grasped the posters and their tidy, commanding phrases, surely meant to embed in the collective brain.
Suffering elevates Sinners to Saints! As if to justify the shacks built one on top of the other along narrow maze-like streets, and the dirty people with suspicious faces, peering out of windows and cluttering sidewalks.
The eagle and the eye was emblazoned on clinics, grocery stores, schools, community centers, churches, and newspaper offices, so that no aspect of life could be performed without Father Joseph’s guidance. Mind your thoughts, for they form character. Generic and noble-looking Watchers stared out from posters, bold letters proclaiming them Divine Soldiers or Moral Guardians or God’s Agents.
Let us save you from yourself.
And they did this with cameras mounted on buildings and street signs. With a police station on every corner and checkpoints everywhere—between ghettos, or to enter a government building, or for no purpose at all. Noble Watchers picked people seemingly at random to beat with clubs. Miscreants were locked in stockades. Others hung dead from gallows erected at intersections.
The eagle and the eye were everywhere, just as Father Joseph had envisioned and Emil had feared. Though this was worse; he never expected to live a day when he would be afraid of a Watcher picking him from the crowd to string him up.
But Emil feared the masses more. They had listened to Father Joseph and believed him, they let all of this happen. He felt the familiar urge to do something, but they had no more reason to rally against Father Joseph than they did to stop his ascent.
Matilda had led them to a narrow alley, where she stopped, knocking Emil into the present. Buildings surrounded them on all sides, but she was pointing to the right, at a blue door and small window.
“This is it,” she said. “When do we meet your friend?”
Emil shrugged. Bertie could be dead. He could refuse to see him. He may not be a sergeant in Public Works anymore or a spy. People often chose the easier life and maybe he did, too. But Matilda didn’t need to know any of that. Hopefully, the man behind the blue door really could do what he promised and that would be the end of it.
“I have to signal him. Chapel Street. There’s—there was—an old postal service box there. I leave a note there, wait at…well, it was The Vengeful Eagle.”
Matilda’s jaw clenched. You might as well have no friend. “The box should still be there. Not so sure about the Eagle. You never made it clear how your friend can help.”
The pleading in her eyes, the desperate please, please give me something thrumming through her mind, made Emil wary of making promises. Or, even, a vague speculation.
“Fifteen years ago I could tell you. Now, I’d only be guessing.”
Matilda’s disappointment was acute and she kept her dark eyes on him as she knocked at the blue door; footsteps thumped from inside.
“His name is Felix.” She looked up him and down, sighing. “Let me do the talking.”
Felix was a handsome young man. Maybe thirty. Emil could easily see how he’d gotten into the favors business, for no one would doubt his easy smile and flirtatious eyes.
“Sit,” he said, motioning to a chair at a small wooden table. Matilda didn’t budge and that told Emil to stay put, too. Felix flashed that smile and sat himself, spreading his arms and legs wide. “What can I do for you, Tilly?”
Just in time, the young man thought. There was restlessness, too—an itch, an urge, a need. Emil had a bad feeling.
Matilda lied about why she had jewels and not cash—the house had an alarm system, they’d be flagged as stolen—and then waited for his price. Felix eyed her lustfully, smirking, thinking there are other ways to pay, girl. He pretended to ruminate on the value of the jewels, but he was doing another form of Math.
Five hundred would get him two grams of Supernova. Enough for a few days. Emil saw the dealer’s face—bloated and ruddy—and then felt that itch again.
“I’ll give you $500—
“What? They’re worth three times that!”
“The risk lowers their value, darling.”
Matilda reached into her satchel for the jewels. Emil looked between her and Felix. Poor girl. How many other desperate people had he swindled? How many other people in this ghetto clung to some ridiculous, impossible fantasy, some unachievable goal to simply survive the hour, the week, an entire damn life?
Emil latched a hand around Matilda’s wrist. Wherever there was suffering, there were people like Felix and his easy smile. Do something, his god told him. It isn’t just for her…
“Matilda tells me you can help her parents escape from a prison camp,” Emil said. “How on earth do you manage that?”
Shut up, old man. Matilda shot daggers up at him and finally, her thoughts matched her spoken words. “I told you to keep quiet.”
“I have allies in the system, with needs only I can fulfill.” Felix sat back in his chair, smiling, proud of his lie “Call it a trade.”
“What are their names? These allies?”
“That’s confidential, I’m afraid,” Felix said, a scowl denting his smooth forehead.
Emil nodded, offered his own, lopsided smile, knowing how unnerving it appeared to others. “That’s a shame really, because I’m in the trade business myself, and I had a very alluring offer. One that would keep you out of prison.”
Matilda clutched Emil’s arm. “What are you—?
Emil shushed her, feeling panic bubble like bile in each of their throats.
“What do you mean, keep me out of prison?”
“It’s too late now, son, since you say you’re bound by confidentiality.” Emil forced authority into his voice. “I’ll have to ask you to stand up, put your hands above your head.”
Emil snorted. “I’m arresting you.”
“Emil!” Matilda screamed. Don’t, don’t… Emil saw her parents behind his eyes again, and this time, Matilda was imagining them crouched in a cell in rags. There were too many emotions in the room—Felix’s panic and Matilda’s despair and anger, and Emil had a hard time keeping his own thoughts in a straight line.
“For bribing state officials. Yours is the only name we have, so I’m afraid the bulk of the punishment will fall on you. If we knew who you’d bribed, well, then, we’d have something to talk ab—”
“I didn’t bribe anyone!” Felix sprung to his feet. “You’ve got the wrong man! I don’t know anyone in the prison system. I swear to God, I don’t. Please don’t send me to the gallows, please, please…”
Matilda turned her rage to Felix now. There were so many thoughts roiling in her mind, Emil couldn’t keep track. He saw the physical effect only—a flush across her neck and cheeks, clenching fists, bared teeth.
“You’ve been taking this young woman’s money. You just admitted to me that it was for—”
“I lied. It was for Supernova.”
“Drugs! You took all my money for so you could get high!” Matilda roared. She wanted to strangle him to death, but knew she couldn’t. She wanted to scream at the top of her voice and spit and kick him, but it wasn’t proper. Seven years! was all Emil really heard, and that she blamed herself, not Felix, for believing such a fantasy.
He’d been there before and it was a dark place Matilda was falling into now, and he had to catch her before she went too far. Because his other plan may still work, and the sooner they both knew either way, the better.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, and clasped a hand around her skinny arm and only then did he grasp her true youth and frailty. She was only a tiny thing, but with the heart of someone much bigger, and it was hard to watch her fall apart, crying and and screaming inaudibly as he dragged her from that dingy apartment and back into the street.
Her grief, however, was much worse on the inside—a great, sucking blackness that stretched out to Emil and threatened to pull him in, too.
“Keep your wits about you,” he said as she kept crying and he shook her. “Take me Chapel Street. It’s not over yet.”
Father Joseph says—it only takes one mistake to ruin your life.
His flat eyes stared out from the poster at the patrons of the Vengeful Eagle. It had kept its name, but no longer served alcohol.
Emil hated the dictator’s picture the more often he was forced to see it, wondering if it had the same effect on the people who lived here. Or was it the opposite, and eventually the sayings made sense and became a part of your own moral code.
Matilda glanced at her watch for the hundredth time. “Is he late?”
They sat at a corner table and had just finished a meager supper. Emil wished Matilda would take a break from thinking; her impatience and skepticism, her grief and anger, were wearing him thin. To an outsider, however, she looked perfectly content. It was astounding how she could do that.
“Not technically. That is, if there’s still someone checking the post office box.”
That sharp gust of breath shot from her nose again. It was her only tell.
“Are you a spy?” she asked. “Only spies make secret signals to meet unnamed people in places like this.”
It felt dangerous to answer here. The eagle and the eye even decorated the glassware.
“Not a spy, exactly.”
“Then what? Were you a detective then?” She narrowed her eyes. “How else would figure out Felix was…”
Emil rubbed his scar, a memento of that time. He felt the pain of the knife again, and the flames around him and the screams of the dying. He was meant to be one of them, and that hurt worse than the cut through his cheek.
“Back when the Watchers were coming to power, I was part of a group that was trying to stop them. We had to communicate secretly, but…” He heard a door slam and a barricade slide into place. Then came the fire, hot on his skin. “We were discovered.”
She nodded and leaned forward. “What was it like, before all this?”
Emil’s gaze shot around the room, landing on Father Joseph’s face again, hanging beside a TV flashing a state news program. He thought back, to a past that seemed to belong to someone else.
“Everything was a mess. Can’t blame someone for trying to fix it. I tried, like a fool. But the Watchers blamed the wrong people, and everyone else was desperate for an answer and believed them, and that led to the wrong solution…” He locked eyes with Father Joseph’s painted ones. “It just grew too fast. One minute, people were fractured and arguing, and the next, they were all saying the same th—”
The tavern door popped open and Emil was struck dumb. For a moment, he thought his memories had come alive before him, but no, Bertie Cristo was real and walking toward Emil and Matilda’s table.
Someone had been checking the post office box, all these years later.
“Is that him?” Matilda asked.
“Explain his uniform, right now.”
The waitress appeared, he supposed to bring their check, but flinched at Bertie in his uniform, so close to the table. She bowed and scurried away.
“It’s not what you think,” Emil said quickly.
Bertie took his hand and pulled him in close, whispering “Emil Jacobi” warmly in his ear and patting his back. Emil closed his eyes, relishing the warmth of a human body against his and being near a fellow telepath, whose mind was mercifully closed to him. And he was so grateful to see an old friend, who remembered who he was, that Emil found himself tearing up.
“Sergeant Bertie Cristo,” he croaked.
Matilda’s thoughts burst in—A Snoop? A fucking Snoop!—as his old friend corrected him.
“Commander General now, in charge of Agriculture.”
Bertie pulled Emil away by the shoulders. He now saw how his friend’s uniform had changed. It was still black with gold trim, but he had ornate braiding along his shoulders, a series of stripes and medals pinned to his breast, and a brimmed hat, which he took off.
“You’re an old man, now, Emil.” He eyed the scar. “But you’re supposed to be dead.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
Emil gestured for him to sit and they both did. Matilda hadn’t gotten up at all; she was breathing hard, her hands clasped above the table. It’s a trap, she thought. How could I be so stupid? Her eyes darted to the door, plotting her escape.
“How’d you get out?” Bertie asked.
“A story for another time, my friend. The signal wasn’t for me. It’s for this young lady. Bertie—this is Matilda.”
She made the same funny signal that the soldier had made in the woods. A signal, Emil now understood, of reverence and obedience to Watchers. Otherwise, she didn’t speak. Bertie studied her and Matilda looked away, as if this would keep him from reading her mind.
“My goodness. I’m so sorry, young lady.” He turned to Emil. “This man, Felix, where does he live?”
Matilda flushed, as if the Commander General had seen her naked. And in a way, he had. Emil described the shabby street.
“He’ll be dealt with, I assure you.” Seeing that Matilda wouldn’t engage with him, Bertie continued talking to Emil. “It won’t come back on either of you.”
“You’re still in, then?”
Bertie nodded. “I haven’t been signaled in months, though. There aren’t many of us left. There have been raids recently. Our old fr—”
“Is what Felix promised Matilda even possible?” Emil interrupted, wanting to keep this secret from Matilda, guilty for being able to when she couldn’t hide her mind from anyone.
That black pit opened below Matilda again and she was ready to fall in forever. She bit her lip, nodding, ready to bear it. Bertie spun his hat in his hands.
“Quite impossible, I’m afraid. But here’s what I can do, Matilda…” Bertie continued and Emil felt her leap of hope. “I can get a letter passed between your and your parents, nothing more. Regular letters, too, but infrequent. Too many too often and it’ll raise eyebrows.”
Matilda formed a fist and raised it to slam against the table, but looked around and thought better of herself and rearranged her face into something more calm. Emil had made no promises, but by simply telling her something was possible, her mind had clung to that dream and hoped despite itself. This wasn’t what she imagined.
Her potent grief manifested as anger. Her dark eyes smoldered, first at Emil, then at Bertie.
“You’re a Commander General. How can you not do more? Or do you not want to?” she hissed. “How many people are in those camps for no greater crime than having an opinion, a free thought, saying wrong words heard at the wrong time?” She sucked in a deep breath and it fluttered between shaking lips. “You know what my parents did? They expressed sympathy—in their own home—for the boys in our ghetto who had taken up arms against the Snoops. Secret police were embedded nearby at the time and everyone was terrified. One of these terrified people overheard my parents. That’s all it took. And they vanished, like hundreds of other people that summer.”
She turned away. At eye level, posted on the wall beside her, was the eye and the eagle, listening to her testimony.
“I—” Bertie began.
“I don’t want to hear your platitudes or your sorries. They mean nothing.” She glanced at his medals with a sneer. “This continues, will continue, because the people who don’t agree, and who could stop it, won’t.” She pounded her breast. “I am powerless. Absolutely powerless.”
Though he was well over sixty and a Commander General and a wealthy man, and she a child and a thief and a street urchin, Bertie quailed. They stared at each other awhile and Emil furtively glanced around the tavern to make sure the waitress or anyone else wasn’t watching them. The Commander General’s expression shifted—something was dawning on him.
“You don’t have to be powerless, Matilda,” he whispered as the tavern door opened again. “Join us. And you, too, Emil, if y—”
But Emil’s attention was drawn away again by the arrival a second familiar face. Emil wasn’t pleased to see this one, because he knew what her presence here meant.
“Anna,” he whispered.
It felt wrong to speak her name. He’d so often said it with love and he had none left for her. He hadn’t truly known that until now, seeing her strut toward him in her state uniform. It was less ornate than Bertie’s, but more so than the soldier in the woods. He should’ve guessed this was where she’d end up, right in the inner circle. A true believer.
She stood by the table and glared at them each in turn. Emil stared not at her face, but the emblem on her shoulder, to remind him who she really was.
“What are you doing here, Commander General?” she asked.
“Why does anyone go to a tavern, Madame Kemmerling?”
“Many reasons, and not all of them acceptable.” Anna turned to Matilda. “Who are you?”
“Never mind who she is,” Emil snapped.
But Matilda was already reciting her name meekly, with her eyes directed at the table top.
“What is your business here?”
“Ease up, Anna,” Emil growled. “Is it against the law for three people to eat a meal tog—”
“Seeing as you’re undocumented, yes, in fact, it is against the law.” Her gaze shot back to Matilda, but the question was for Emil. “How did you get into the city?”
“Who says I ever left?”
Anna’s eyebrow arched and wrinkles rippled to her hairline. Emil tried to slip into her mind, but she’d learned long ago how to keep him out because he’d taught her. It was a condition of their marriage. He looked over at Matilda, quailing before Anna because she had the power to send her to the gallows simply on a suspicion, and had an idea.
“Father Joseph wants to see you,” Anna said.
Father Joseph… came Matilda’s thoughts, and a sinking feeling, the slap of another betrayal.
“So that’s why you’re here,” Emil said. That, and the soldier from that morning must’ve been captured and his mind had given up its secrets. He was probably dead now. And his family? “Tell him I have no interest in a reunion.”
Anna snorted. “Let me rephrase. Father Joseph has demanded to see you. Now.”
“To talk about the past. Why you’re here.”
“Why I’m here has nothing to do with him.”
“Everything has to do with him.”
“How do you know Father Joseph, Emil?”
It took him a minute to realize Matilda had spoken the question aloud. She looked at him with those pleading, transparent eyes that told him he was a liar and a swindler. No better than Felix with his flirtatious smile.
And like Felix, he’d been forced into telling the truth, rather than give it freely.
“We grew up together,” Emil said, hating this association and all of the things it suggested about him. That he’d had a part in birthing this regime because some of these ideas were his. That his complacency had allowed Joseph to grow his following, right under his nose. That he was no better than the dictator himself. “We shared ideas about how to make the world a better place. He stole the ideas that suited him and warped them into this.”
Matilda’s lips parted in shock and she sat back against her chair and shook her head, eyes welling, thoughts racing. I’m alone… It’s over, it’s all over. Mama, papa… And she pictured the gallows at the intersection and her own body hanging above the passing crowd—
“A public criticism of the state. Commander General, are you hearing this?”
Oh my God, oh my God. Matilda’s face was calm. She didn’t fidget or move to get up. Nothing matters… Not a damn thing I do… Goddamn you, old man. Fucking liar, just like the rest—
“Yes, Madame, I bear witness to this treason,” Bertie said, catching Emil’s eye apologetically.
A new energy forced its way in. Not Bertie or Anna, whose minds were secrets, or Matilda’s, whose thoughts were as familiar to Emil as his own by now. Or the collective buzz of those in the tavern.
No. This energy was outside. Five separate minds. Men. Men with few thoughts of their own. Men who followed orders.
And that suggested one thing—he’d been right about the soldier in the woods.
In one single, swift motion, Emil shot up from his chair, grabbed Matilda, and dragged her across the tavern to a door that, in the old days, led down to a basement and an escape.
He took the steps in slow motion, Matilda wriggling in his grip, her mind resisting him, too. Around them, the tavern was quiet, patrons burying themselves in their drinks and conversation. Just another confrontation with Watchers they had to pay no mind or else they be involved by accident.
The door burst open. The men who’d been outside were now in, shouting, their sharp voices cracking against the walls. The secret passage was close. He slipped inside, Matilda following behind, and there was silence.
Though for a telepath, there was never really silence. In the darkness of the passage, Emil heard Matilda’s ragged breath but her thoughts were so much louder. Accusing him, cursing him, hating him. Her mind was so busy, so angry, that he only heard one word, over and over.
Snoop! Snoop! Snoop!
Emil dove into a column of darkness, dragging Matilda behind him, plotting the route by memory, hoping his memory and reality were the same.
The last time he took this passage, five hundred of his fellow patriots were still alive. The handful of men who met in the Eagle that last night believed they would overthrow a nascent government with dangerous ideas and everything would go back to normal. Emil saw their faces painted across the darkness, heard their voices in the silence. Doomed, every last one of them. That night, they lived the last hours of their lives, and their ideas died with them. Hope was already gone, while they still spoke of revolution.
It all seemed so foolish to Emil now, so pointless, when Joseph Linnauer had been watching the entire time. His friend. His partner in debate, a man with whom he’d shared lofty plans and philosophies and fantasies of a better world.
One man’s better world was another man’s nightmare. He wished he’d known that back then.
The passage veered right, as Emil remembered. Matilda’s small hand was writhing in his, sweaty, her finger bones sharp against his palm. Her mind and her voice bellowed the same protest—to let her go, to leave her there, that she’d rather be captured than go wherever he was taking her.
Footsteps clambered over their heads, voices chased them down the passage. If Emil’s memory was right, they’d come to a small chamber in a few steps. Two passages snaked away from this chamber; one led to a neighboring building, the other to the street. They’d need to take the one to the street. From there, he didn’t know. He couldn’t make it through the city and beyond the wall without Matilda’s help. It seemed she was about to abandon him and these past few hours had been Emil’s last.
He sensed the air, opening up around them. The chamber, as he’d remembered.
“Let me go!” Matilda cried,
Emil gripped her wrist tighter. If he let her go, she’d run into the darkness and be captured. He didn’t care if that’s what she wanted. He stopped, found her face in the dark and slapped his hand over her mouth.
“Quiet!” he hissed.
“Where are you taking me?” she mumbled beneath his palm.
“Nowhere. I don’t know. Away from those soldiers. I’m trying to save you.”
“Save me? You set me up!”
Emil scoffed. “If I was a Snoop, wouldn’t I hand you over to them?”
“Then you have some other plan.”
That was the problem with this world— suspicion and distrust. It kept allies from finding each other and plans from being hatched. It stifled revolution.
“How the hell would I?” he growled. “When I haven’t stepped foot in this city in fifteen years?”
“You lied!” she shouted beneath his hand. “Everyone lies—everyone! I’m alone, you’re alone, everyone is alone! There’s no one to help, to care, to fix anything. It’s over! Can’t you see that? Let them just take me!”
She writhed under his grip, moving away from him, toward the sound of the pursuing soldiers, and he grabbed her pencil-thin arms and held her still.
“Is that how you want to go out? Whining, giving up, feeling sorry for yourself? That’s who you are?” He shook her, violently. “I thought you were a fighter!”
“I thought you were going to help me,” she whimpered.
Emil’s heartbeat slowed; sadness, defeat, helplessness, threatened to topple him.
“If you were his friend, even for a minute, this hell we’re all in is your fault!” She collapsed in his arms, strength leaving her. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
He was struck dumb a moment, because what she said was true, what she asked was fair. But only pieces of it. Hearing someone else blame him made him see the fault in that blame, and the spaces in between the bare, cruel facts that allowed for understanding, maybe forgiveness.
“Because I didn’t see it. We wanted to save the word, Matilda. I wanted to save it, by seeing into people’s minds, finding what was broken and sad and angry and hateful and fixing it. It was a good idea, in the beg—” tears choked his throat. “I believed telepathy was a curse for a long time, then I believed it was a gift from God. I thought He wanted me to stop bad things from happening…” and Emil laughed at this, glad for the darkness hiding his tears. “But Joseph saw it a different way. I didn’t mean for it—”
And he found himself buried in Matilda’s shoulder, sobbing, and her arm was draped along his back and her mind grew calm and pitying and even more confused than it had been.
“I didn’t see it,” he bawled. “Their blood is on my hands, Matilda. All of them… I can’t wash it off. I can’t w—”
A footstep echoed behind them, closer than a moment before. Voices followed. Emil sucked in his tears, fear making him sober again, and stood straight. He found Matilda’s hand in the dark and reoriented himself. She took his hand more willingly this time, allowed herself to be steered out of the chamber.
Emil ran forward, knowing where the passages were because of where they’d been. They needed to veer right, but first, he unwound a moth-eaten scarf from his neck and tossed it to the floor, just inside the entrance to the left passage. Maybe it would throw off their pursuers.
With angry shouts vaulting out from the shadows behind them, Emil dragged Matilda down the passage without knowing where it would end.
The street was as dark as the passage they’d come from.
They couldn’t run or turn around to see whether the soldiers had followed them. Emil and Matilda simply walked as if this night was like any other, past oil lamps glowing in grimy windows, two children digging through a dumpster, a man hanging limp in a stockade, a street preacher shouting praise for God’s Agents on Earth.
Three minutes. That’s all they needed. Three precious minutes.
The gate would open in four hours. They were six blocks away. The building with the red rag in the quiet part of town seemed the best place to hide. Matilda led the way; she held Emil’s hand, threading him surreptitiously through narrow alleys, cutting through abandoned houses, always calm, always with her head down.
She was considering what he told her and whether believing him made her naive. As they moved through the city she asked herself why she was heading for the gate to help an old man who betrayed her. What was her life, now that her dream was gone? Why propel forward when all she wanted to do was stand still and let the Watchers come? She didn’t know. She just kept going. And Emil followed because an idea had taken root and it would give her the purpose she so n—
The world spun around in streaks of gray and black shadow. He was slammed against a building and a strong arm wedged below his chin, pinning him there. His boots scraped cobblestones in a futile attempt to steady himself. Hot breath against his cheek and a voice— “You can’t hide in my city.”
The face was too close to discern details. Emil only knew the Watcher was his height, hadn’t shaved in a day, and had recently drunk alcohol. With his free hand, the soldier rifled at something on his hip; a metal clinking told Emil it was handcuffs.
He slammed his chin down on the Watcher’s arm, squeezing it away from his throat. The man was distracted, just enough for Emil to rap the man sharply in the kidney with his fist. He grunted, lost his grip, stumbled back a step.
Where there was one, there was bound to be another. Quickly, Emil surveyed the street, finding only Matilda, staring at him with mouth agape. Her instinct told her to run, to leave Emil there and head for the gate alone. Another voice rooted her to the spot.
The Watcher caught his breath; he dropped the cuffs and went for his radio instead. Emil lunged at him, cutting his feet out from under him and he cracked down on the cobblestones with a grunt. Emil kicked him hard in the stomach and he turned over, then buried his boot between the man’s ribs and he coiled up like a dead spider. On the next kick, the Watcher grabbed Emil’s ankle and twisted it sharply, and Emil lost his footing, tail bone smacking against the hard ground.
The Watcher was over him. His cheeks were flushed, sweat dripped down his forehead. Emil landed blows in the man’s temple and solar plexus, undercut his jaw, slammed a fist in his groin. The Watcher only flailed, stunned by this old man’s mania as much as he was dazed with pain. Then he roared, angry. Something hard rammed between Emil’s legs. Pain flared from his testicles into his stomach. He sputtered, vomit threatening. For a moment he couldn’t see.
A fist cracked his jaw once, twice. A sharp pain in his side. Emil flailed, hand slapping the air. He kicked, boots scraping ground. The pain in his side merged with the pain in his groin. Stars punctured the darkness behind his eyes.
Then the Watcher was gone. His weight, the sour smell of him, the incessant rapport of fists, vanished.
Emil lay there a moment, finding his hands defensively framing his head, conscious of his breathing again. He didn’t want to open his eyes, but he didn’t need to.
Oh my God, oh my God… The sensation of nausea, panic, and—somewhere beneath all of that—exultation, adrenaline, surprise.
Finally, Emil opened his eyes to see Matilda with her mouth still agape. Her telltale eyes were large and she held a long, heavy object over her shoulder on an upswing.
The Watcher lay beside Emil, unconscious, a ribbon of blood snaking from the back of his skull, puddling between the cobblestones.
Matilda tossed her weapon to the ground, walked over to Emil and held out her hand to help him up.
They sheltered in the dark basement. A narrow window let in some dirty moonlight so that Emil could just see Matilda’s form, sitting on the floor next to him.
They had been silent in the dark for an hour. They understood quiet would keep them safe, but there was also the release and shock of what had just happened and the tension as they waited for the gate to open, which rendered them both mute.
But Emil’s world was never silent. He absorbed Matilda’s emotions and was surprised by them. Regret and fear, of course, but also pride. As if she had passed a test she’d set for herself. And that pride brought on disgust, a feeling of being soiled and wrong. There were no thoughts. Sometimes the mind was too overwhelmed to form any.
“Whose blood is on your hands?” she asked.
Emil cleared his throat. He’d never told anyone this story, because there had been no one to tell. It happened, he ran, and he was alone for fifteen years. Leaving pain unsaid, unexplored, untouched, only made it deeper. That’s what he told his patients in the old days. Is that all he needed, to say it aloud?
“The blood of my friends. Allies. People who trusted me,” he said. “We—Joseph and I—we’d been recruiting people for years. We thought a citizen’s private thoughts shouldn’t be monitored by the state, or used against him, to control him or to prevent what he might do, someday. I only ever meant for it to be a tool, not a weapon… But the way I envisioned it wasn’t enough for Joseph. It didn’t stop the Union Square Massacre. You know it?”
Matilda nodded. “My father told me. There was some refugee settlement out west. Chinese, right? Fighting us over water rights, blocking our food supply. My father told me a suicide bomber slipped into the city, Christmas Eve—”
He bit off her words. “No, girl. It was retaliation. Nativists had slipped into a refugee camp, two weeks before, in the dead of night and slaughtered two hundred women and children! Refugees, seeking political asylum. Innocents!” Talking hurt his side and he clutched it, wincing. “Your father didn’t tell you that part, did he? How could he? He didn’t know. No one did. That’s how it started. Joseph and I couldn’t stop the Nativists, despite all our lofty ideas. And if we had, Joseph’s wife wouldn’t have been killed that day.”
Emil dropped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, even though he couldn’t really see with them open. He needed to shut out the rest of the world completely to face the memory.
“I don’t know the particulars. We spent years recruiting people to resist the Nativists. Secretly, one hesitant person at a time. You form friendships with people, get to know them, their families. We gave them a better future to dream about, while the world was crumbling around us. It was a bunch of little groups, really, at first, communicating through coded messages. Like the one I dropped at the postal service box.
“It was Joseph who suggested one big meeting. No one thought it was suspicious, why would they? We’d gained their trust, these groups trusted each other. Bonded by a common purpose, you know. It was meticulous on Joseph’s part—he was really in it for the long game. So patient. Making promises to these people, as a friend, a leader. And all the while…
Emil took a breath. He needed a minute. The story had lived so long in his own mind, it was like it never happened, like a nightmare he had when he was a child. He was sure Joseph had spun some narrative to explain what happened and that this narrative is what lived in Matilda as part of her history, as the truth. Would she believe this? She had to, if there was any hope for her, and the country’s, future.
“We met outside the city in an old church. I think it was chosen because there were no windows—they’d broken some time before and someone had boarded up the holes with plywood.” Emil swallowed hard, not ready for that part yet. “The point of the meeting was to escalate our mission from rhetoric to action. We were going to decide what kind of action.”
Doomed, every last one of them.
“We all piled in. I can still hear all of their voices humming, excited. Joseph even set out drinks and food and people were milling around like it was a party.”
Emil’s breathing quickened; he had a harder time forcing out his voice. The scenes of that night flashed across his mind in stills of the most critical, damning, difficult moments.
“Joseph came up, asked me a favor. ‘We’re running out of drinks. There’s more in the van. Can you get them? And close the door—I don’t want the heat to escape.’ It was a cold night, but that’s not what he meant.
“I went outside, closed the door. I never got to the van. Two steps out, I heard something heavy against the door, then another noise I didn’t understand. I grabbed at the handles. It was barricaded shut. Everything seemed normal. The mood inside hadn’t changed. I just stood there, trying to figure out what was happening and why and who was doing it. I was so confused. I walked around to the side of the church and that’s when I saw Joseph and a handful of others, coming out a side door.
“The mood inside changed. It started small, then spread as the people inside saw the flames, one by one, and understanding came. Orange light seeped through the cracks in the church. Then smoke. People inside were screaming, like I’d never heard people scream before. Trampled each other to the door. Banged on it and on the boarded-up windows. I could feel them all, terrified and dying in pain.
“Joseph came up to me. I was looking up at him. Must’ve fell to my knees, but I don’t remember. I had no words. I didn’t ask him why. I didn’t need to. It was obvious. His plan was brilliant really. He spent years luring in his opposition, waited until there was enough of them that killing them all in one shot would send a clear message to anyone else thinking of opposing the Nativists. And, of course, it eliminated those who’d challenge his ascent to power.”
His ascent from leader of the Nativists to leader of a new group that took the worst of their ideas and the worst of Emil’s and adopted the eagle and the eye as its symbol of fear.
“He wanted to kill me face to face.” Emil traced the scar on his cheek; Joseph had aimed for his neck. “There was always tension between us. The rich kid and the poor kid. He resented me for what I had. I should’ve fought him, taken the knife away and stuck him with it, but I ran. I ran home to my wife, but she was lost to me, too.”
Emil stopped, spent. He didn’t feel better, but maybe a bit lighter, and his throat was sore from talking. He pictured Anna as he knew her before, in their cabin, and as he’d seen her only an hour before in her uniform with her title. Matilda’s thoughts drifted in. She was thinking of Madame Kemmerling, too, and the soldiers, convinced they’d eventually find her. She pictured herself in rags in a cell in Camp 33 and she didn’t seem afraid of the image.
If he couldn’t stop them… They’re too powerful… A sucking dread swirled around her thoughts. What’s the po—I don’t care anymore. Oh my God, oh my God… so tired. Let them get me. Maybe it’ll be quick. Hope now, however dim. Maybe they’ll put me with Ma and Pa. Anything is better than this…
Emil reached out blindly, grabbing her arm. “Than what? Being shown how the world really works? Death is better than that? Coward! ” Emil suddenly roared. “I couldn’t stop them because I didn’t really know anything. I only had dreams, ideas. And for all my gifts, I didn’t see what was right in front of me.” Matilda wriggled under his grip, whimpered, her despair turning to hot anger. “I only thought the world was falling apart, but I grew up in an easy time, I had an easy life. Someone like that doesn’t know how to fight! But you—what you’ve seen, what you’ve endured—you can do it. You can f—”
Despite the darkness, she found his cheek in the dark and slapped him hard.
“GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT!”
Her arms flailed, tiny fists striking his arms, chest, and his sore side, which made him bellow in pain. He caught one fist midair, then the other.
“Do NOT read my mind! FUCKING SNOOPS! I hate you all! I hate you!” she shrieked, all composure gone.
More words followed these, but they were shrill and unintelligible. Emil let her scream and hit him, but he didn’t let go of her in the dark, just let her drive herself into exhaustion until she collapsed and she melted into him and he wrapped his arms around her. She didn’t resist his touch. Her thoughts melded with his—being alone in this world and without hope, with more bad memories than good.
“Anna didn’t like it either,” Emil said, breathless and weak from holding Matilda at bay. “I can’t stop it, you know. I had to teach her to close her mind. I can teach you, too.”
And once Anna had learned, there was no breaking through her mind again. Emil never tried because he’d vowed not to, so he never knew she’d been seduced to the Nativist movement. He still didn’t know why she was.
Matilda came back to herself and peeled out of his arms. He could just see the curve of her cheek, catching light, and he laid his wrinkled hand over it.
“I need you to do something for me.”
“Why should I do anything for you?”
He shook his head, let go of her cheek. “Don’t just die. If that’s what you want, then good, you’re ready. Because what I ask—you have to give up your whole life, dedicate it to this one thing. Forget your parents, your old life, who you are. Those things don’t matter. What you want doesn’t matter. It’s not about you. It’s about everyone else.”
“What are y—”
“If I teach you what I taught Anna, you have to teach others. And if you teach enough people…”
The spark of revelation burst through Matilda’s mind, blazed through his own. She gave it voice: “We take away their power.”
The spark burned away all of Matilda’s other thoughts. She had another dream to pin her thoughts on, another hope. Today was dark and empty, but tomorrow could be anything.
Tomorrow was a goal.
“You have two hours till the gate opens. Teach me everything.”
Emil brought the last of the supplies to the tunnel. Matilda had enough food and water for two weeks, blankets, an oil lamp. The last of it was a box of books, to keep her occupied while she waited for the Watchers to stop looking.
He dropped the box to the earthen floor with a thump. The race from the gate and through the woods, back to his cabin, and this movement of supplies, had drained him. That stiff hip ached and his bad knee creaked, but there was another pain in his side, duller and deeper.
Matilda had lit the oil lamp and sat beside it, curled up like a small child. She’d grasped the techniques easily, but mastering them would take time. He could already see the transformation. To evade a telepath, she had to replace a thought with one that wasn’t true, but believe it as if it were real.
Her placid, inscrutable face was meant for it. It was the eyes she had to work on. Sometimes, they gave away too much.
Emil crouched over her in the small space, reached into his pocket and drew out the watch engraved with his family crest. Something to remember him by. “Mark the days with this.” She took it in her small hand. “Two weeks. Let them think this place is abandoned. Then Bertie will get a message to you. The gate may not be safe, for a while. Logistics will need to be sorted o—”
She nodded. “Only if Blackjack drops the signal. I don’t know him that well.”
“If he’s willing to man the gate, he’ll be willing to do this. But you’re right not to trust him completely. Don’t trust anyone.” Emil lowered himself to the ground with difficulty. Pain shot through his side and he thought he’d pass out. “It’ll take a long time. Years. The people will come in a trickle at first. Don’t get discouraged. And never go back in.”
She nodded, grinding her teeth. Fear chilled her. “I feel like a coward, staying out here, asking others to go back and risk their lives.”
“I get it. But you’re sacrificing just as much. This isn’t an easy life, being out here alone. But you’re not a coward. You’re doing something.”
Training others to resist the Watchers. Sculpting them into a movement. Promoting them to an army. It wasn’t nothing.
“It may take more than your lifetime, but even if you aren’t around to see the world changed, it’s still your dream,” he said. “It still means something. And make sure it doesn’t die with you.”
Emil sat their awhile, as long as he dared, until his body told him the time had come and he had to be alone, once again. He got back to his feet and stooped over Matilda, giving her tiny shoulder a squeeze.
“Be brave, girl.”
Emil knelt in the cave’s entrance, knees and shins pressed against the hard rock floor.
His head was lowered in prayer and he mumbled a few soft words only he and his god could hear. Words of gratitude, others that asked for consolation and forgiveness. Begging words. A tear trailed down his cheek. The blood on his clothes was cold and heavy, the wound below only an ache now.
Orange light skipped across his stooped figure as the sun beyond the cave slowly rose. He sensed someone there—not his god, come to get him—but a man. He looked up.
The sunrise silhouetted a tall figure, moving toward him, footsteps brushing across the cave floor, chuckle snapping in his throat.
“What’s so funny, Joseph?”
He knelt before Emil. Joseph Linnauer had grown old, too, and age had hardened his cruel features, wrinkles carved permanently to mark expressions of derision and hate and anger.
“Just at what you’ve become. You used to be so grand, remember? Now you’re a pauper, like I was.”
“I never saw you as a pauper.”
Joseph looked down his nose at him. “How’d you get into my city?”
“I told Anna I never left. You just didn’t know where to find me.”
“How did you get out here, then?”
“I climbed over your goddamn wall,” Emil growled. “What does it matter? I’ll be dead in a minute.”
Joseph’s thin lips curled. “I know you were stabbed. I know some girl killed one of my Agents. Who is she?”
“That doesn’t matter either.”
“I’ll decide what matters.”
Joseph’s voice was like ice. This was not the man Emil knew, so long ago.
“Why did you meet in the Vengeful Eag—”
“Jesus Christ, Joseph, can’t you leave a man in peace in his final minutes?”
“Why did you meet in the Vengeful Eag—” He shouted, voice bouncing off stone.
Emil feared Matilda had been right again. The Watchers were too powerful; perhaps they’d stop her and Bertie and Blackjack before they had a chance to do anything. Unless he could replace the truth with something just as believable.
“She’s my daughter. Obviously, not with Anna. I wasn’t faithful. The girl heard I came from money. That’s what she wanted.” Emil scoured his memory for more lies. “She was addicted to Supernova. Your Agent caught her with it. Okay?”
Emil looked up at his old friend, seeing for a moment the boy he had met at university. Hate had filled Joseph’s heart then. Now, he laughed at Emil’s misfortune.
“Justice hounds the immoral. She is relentless and her sentence unwavering.” Joseph stood. “This is your punishment, Emil. I am glad to have witnessed it.”
Joseph left the cave and Emil held on long enough to see him go, so that he could die in peace, dreaming of a better day he’d never see. He raised his hands, imagining his words of blessing pooling like rainwater in the palms of his hands and flung them into the air. The wind carried his words away.
Fight them, Matilda. And win.