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David D. Levine has sold over 40 science fiction and fantasy stories to all the major markets, including Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy. He's won a Hugo Award, been nominated for the Nebula, and won or been shortlisted for many other awards as well as appearing in numerous Year's Best anthologies and the revised version of Wild Cards Volume I. His web page is www.bentopress.com/sf

You've got to hold to your priorities, Michelle Fletcher. That's what you tell yourself as you scrub and scrub and scrub at the crusted black grit in your one saucepan. You've got to remember what's important. Your nails are short and bare of polish, ragged and splitting where they clutch the rusty steel-wool pad, and the skin of your hands is red and rough and raw. You have to hope the constant ache in your joints is just from the never-ending effort of staying alive, and not the beginnings of arthritis. There are no decent doctors here.
You've only yourself to blame, 'Chelle. You got distracted again, got thinking about what you would have done with a nice salmon filet back in the Heron Point house, and let the rice burn in the pan. Oh, you managed to save most of it, and gave the least-burned bits to Tom and Janie, but the part you kept for yourself tasted of charcoal and shame. A fitting punishment for letting your mind wander. You have to stay on your toes if you're going to keep your family alive on a pitiful half-cup of rice per person per day.
They said there might be beans next week.
But Janie's been getting so thin....
This can't go on, you tell yourself, tears plinking into the brown wash water that stinks of rust and char. This situation simply cannot be tolerated for even one more day.
You've tried everything you could think of. You prayed, and you petitioned and pleaded and demanded, and when that didn't work you prayed some more, and when that didn't work you just placed your trust in God and waited for Heaven.
Now you look at your hands, soaking in the brown-black water, and you remember that God helps those who help themselves.
You focus again on the image of Janie and the Iranian boy, sitting side by side on the crate behind the medical tent, their hands entwined. You saw it only briefly, you tell yourself, but the shame and degradation of it burned the image into your mind's eye.
Did she kiss him? Did she... do more?
You haven't decided. What to tell Tom. How to break the news. Whether to break the news. You've been sitting on this image, letting the idea of it fester beneath your sunburned scalp, for three days now. You've gone back and forth a hundred times, staring into the unsleeping dark, listening to the low incomprehensible mutters of Iranian voices and the occasional, distant howl of a coyote beyond the razor wire. To tell or not? To let the whole hideous thing go, dismiss the image from your mind, let your beautiful daughter live her life as best she can in this hellish situation? To speak, and set in motion something that, no matter how necessary it is, you know you will regret for the rest of your life? Or just to throw yourself in front of a water truck, let yourself be crushed and ground forever into the dreadful brown grit of this place, out of shame at the very idea?
No. You haven't the guts to kill, not even yourself.
You have to tell Tom. You have to tell him now, before you lose your nerve again.
You leave the ruined pan and take the lantern with you. You'll need it to see your husband's face.
Tom is sitting on his cot, the way he usually does in the evenings, hands hanging limp between his knees, staring at the stained olive drab fabric of the tent wall as though it's one of the seventy-inch Sony screens at the Antioch branch. Fletcher Furniture, Five Showrooms of the Finest Furniture in the Sacramento River Delta. He'd always been so proud of Antioch's audio-video department, stocked with the latest and priciest tech to tempt the "winery people" into the showroom, where they might be upsold to a cultured-maple entertainment center or even a whole ten-piece suite. All under water now, of course. Vanished with the rest when the Carquinez Levee failed.
You should have gotten out when the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed, like Ted and Margaret and so many of your other friends did. But Tom had been so certain... and even as the water levels rose and rose, his faith in the Corps of Engineers had seemed justified. But then came the Fourth of July Storm, with the highest winds to hit the Bay Area in three hundred years. You remember again the last glimpse you had of the Heron Point house, chairs and end tables bobbing in the black water as you slogged head-down into the pounding rain. Rain that smelled of salt.
You force that image away as you have a million times before, replacing it with another one. Janie and the Iranian boy.
Can you do this?
You have to.
"Honey," you say, laying a hand on Tom's shoulder. His flimsy donated shirt is soaked with sweat. San Jose Sharks, it says, cheap polyester souvenir of a sports team that no longer exists. He looks up at you, the gray eyes that grabbed and held your heart thirty-one years ago now red-rimmed and creased. Brown grit from the camp's dirt streets has gathered in the corners.
You want to look away. But you don't.
"Honey," you say again, proud that you manage to keep your voice level, "we need to talk."
He doesn't speak.
"It's about Janie."
Now the eyes change, brightening and softening at the name of his jewel, his treasure, his precious only child. "Nightmares again?"
"No." Your eyes flick to the flap of cloth that divides the tent into two rooms, but the only sound that filters through it is the girl's even, sleeping breaths. "It's... it's about a boy." This will have to be handled delicately. You know exactly how he's going to react when he hears the name. "Tariq."
Tom's eyes harden again. Janie's mentioned the boy several times. "What about him?"
You close your eyes. This is going to be the hardest part. You clutch the image tightly. It's all you have. "I saw her... with him. They were talking. They were... holding hands. His skin so dark next to hers..."
Tom's hands bunch into fists, the shoulder under your hand stiffening as he starts to rise. "Now, honey," you say as you press him back down, "I'm sure there's nothing... serious going on. But I thought you should hear it from me before you hear it from, you know, someone else."
Tom lets you push him down to the cot, but the shoulder does not relax one iota. "I gave her explicit instructions...."
"Of course you did, honey, and she's a good kid. You can trust her." At the word "trust" Tom tries to rise again, but you keep him pressed down. "But there aren't many other kids like her around here." He knows what you mean by "like her." Fourteen. Female. White. "Maybe we should, you know, cut her a little slack." You pause. "Under the circumstances..."
Mentioning "the circumstances" makes Tom surge to his feet, rushing past your restraining hand like water over a broken levee. "Nothing has changed!" he roars, raging around the tiny circle of the tent's open space. "No matter what 'circumstances' we may find ourselves in, we are still God's people and we still keep the Commandments, and she will respect my wishes!"
Hisses and cries of "hush!" come from the tents so close all around, but Tom's off on one of his rants now and he pays them no heed. "Some things are constants, 'Chelle! Faith in the Lord! Husband and wife! America! And no amount of 'circumstances' is going to change those eternal, fundamental, truths." He emphasizes each word by prodding your shoulder with a finger.
You're going to have to handle this very, very carefully. You know his moods, his tempers. Though he's never struck you or Janie, you've seen him lash out, even draw blood.
"Times have changed, honey," you say, and you drop your eyes to your folded hands. "We won't be able to control her forever."
"She's only fourteen, 'Chelle!" He grabs your chin and tilts your head up. You can tell from his face he's trying to hold himself together, but his strength is the strength of concrete and steel... against a three-hundred-year storm and a billion billion tons of water. "We have to protect her!"
"We can't do that forever, Tom. She has to learn to protect herself. Maybe that means finding friends among the... locals."
Tom's fingers tighten painfully on your chin. "The day a Fletcher has to depend on foreigners for protection..."
"They know so much more than we do about how to survive in the camp." The Iranians had come to America six years earlier, fleeing the post-war chaos in their home country. Tom had railed against "that God-damned Democrat President" for his "lavish hospitality," but even by comparison with roasting in the desert in a broken-down car, Camp Independence doesn't seem all that lavish to you.
"We'll get out of here soon, 'Chelle. And until then we've got to hold to our priorities."
Priorities. You steel your resolve. Trust is a big issue for him. "You've got to trust her, Tom."
"Trust her?" he roars. "She's fourteen!" He whips aside the cloth flap. "Trust has to be earned, and I know what teenagers are like. I've been one."
Janie is sitting up, clutching the thin blanket to her chin, eyes wide and white in her dirt-streaked face. You all know she's heard every word of the argument; the tent's far too small to escape it.
The lovely girl you carried in your womb for nine months is now nearly a woman herself. How did this happen?
Tom strides toward Janie and points a finger in her face. "Is it true?" he says. His voice holds firm, but it could crumble without warning. "Did you hold this boy Tariq's hand?"
"No, Dad, I swear!" Janie looks at you, her eyes pleading. "Mom, whoever you saw with Tariq, it wasn't me!"
This is even harder than you'd thought it would be. "Do you think I don't know my own daughter?" Your voice cracks on the last word and you have to stop for a moment before continuing. "I saw you behind the aid station. Holding hands. I will never, ever forget that sight.... it's burned into my brain.... your hand so pale in his..."
"No!" Her eyes glisten in the lantern light as they dart from you to Tom and back. "How can you lie about a thing like that, Mom?"
Tom's face, already stormier than you've ever seen it, darkens still further. "Don't you dare question your mother, young lady." His fists clench at his sides, and his voice trembles with barely-contained rage.
"I've never even touched him! I swear!"
Tom grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her. "You wouldn't deny it so fervently if it weren't true!" Everything in you cries out to rush to the defense of your only child, but you do nothing. Your husband must be allowed to have his way. No matter how much it hurts you, it is necessary.
"You have to believe me, Daddy!" she sobs. "Mom's lying!"
Janie cries out as Tom smacks her hard across the face.
You cannot act. You must not raise a finger. But you can speak.
Everything depends on this moment.
"Wait, Tom! Maybe... maybe I was mistaken. She's your own daughter, Tom!" You blink away tears to see his reaction. He's on the verge of cracking. "You have to trust her!"
The dam bursts. Tom roars in incoherent rage as his hands tighten on Janie's delicate throat. She thrashes, her little hands beat on his shoulders, the cot crashes to one side, but no sound emerges from her mouth as the life is choked out of her.
You want to rush in. You want to turn away.
You've got to keep your priorities.
Standing and watching your husband strangle your beautiful child to death is the worst thing you have ever experienced in your entire life. Worse than watching your house collapse under the rushing waters. Worse than being swept up in a torrent of desperate refugees. Worse than two days in the baking desert after the car broke down. Even worse than your first sight of dust-choked Camp Independence, and the realization that it would be your home for the indefinite future. Janie squirms and struggles in Tom's relentless grip, her eyes bulging, a dark stain spreading across her pants. All your motherly instincts demand that you save her.
Your mouth fills with the hot iron taste of your own blood, as you bite your tongue to keep from screaming.
It takes a long, long time. But eventually, after an endless, thrashing, quivering aeon... it is over. Janie's body lies lifeless on the overturned cot, Tom crouching above her, panting with rage and exertion, eyes blank with tears.
Janie's head rolls back, the whites of her open eyes stained blood-red, and you smell... dirty diapers. She's soiled herself.
This sweet innocent girl, the tiny baby you bore from your own body. You watched over her all her life. You changed her diaper so many times. You were so glad when that phase of parenting was over. And now...
Now, you tell yourself, your precious Janie is in Heaven. No more foul inadequate rations and pounding sun and the sweaty attentions of dark malodorous boys. No more worry about what new horrors the future might bring. Instead she is in Paradise, and when your time comes you will be reunited, and then you will explain it all to her.
The thought doesn't comfort you nearly as much as you'd thought it would.
Days pass. Days just like those that came before, and just like those that will come. You stand in the interminable line at the food tent, the same as every Tuesday, the same broiling sun hammering on the same soiled dishrag you've tied around your head. When you get to the head of the line you hand over your identification cards and say "two adults, one child," the same as every week before, and it's not until the words escape your mouth that you realize what you've said.
The line has to keep moving, but one of the Japanese aid workers gives you a box to sit on until the sobbing stops.
There are questions about Janie's death, of course... forms to be filled out, interviews across a "desk" that's nothing more than a door laid atop sawhorses in a dark and sweltering tent. But once it's determined that she didn't die of disease, malnutrition, or gang activity, the questions stop. People die all the time here, but the only deaths that merit investigation are those that threaten the camp as a whole.
You and Tom don't speak to each other. You still share your tent, but the rough flimsy cots have always been separate.
Janie's cot lies right where it fell.
She's in a better place, you tell yourself.
More days pass, all the same.
At night you stifle your sobs with your thin sweaty pillow, so as not to wake Tom.
During the day you barely see him. He joins you for meals, a pitiful gritty cup of boiled rice with perhaps a handful of lentils, and then leaves the tent again, without even a thank-you. You want to stop him, demand that he acknowledge your existence...
But you're afraid of what he will say if he speaks. So you let him go.
And then one day--it must be a Tuesday, because you're carrying a five-pound sack of rice--you find him waiting for you in your tent.
He's not alone. He has two boys with him. Each of them is dark and thin and filthy, with huge white eyes.
Tom's hands rest on the boys' shoulders.
They all just look at you, silently. The boys' expressions are neutral, the same dead exhausted stare you've seen on every other face in the camp for months. But Tom... something about Tom's gaze makes you clutch the rustling bag of rice to your chest as though it were your precious lost daughter.
He does not speak. He just stares, with murderous intensity.
Finally his relentless gaze forces the voice from your chest. "Tom, who are these boys?"
Tom's gaze does not falter. "You tell me."
And you know immediately who one of them must be. Oh, dear Lord. "I don't understand."
"I looked for him for a week. I... I wanted to..." His voice chokes up and his whole face clenches as though a horrible spasm of pain is passing through his body. "I don't know what I wanted," he half-sobs. Then he pulls in a hissing breath through his nose and continues in an approximation of a normal voice. "Maybe I wanted to... to finish what I started. Maybe I just wanted to meet him, to see what she'd seen in him. But as I asked around, as I finally talked to... our neighbors..." He shakes his head slowly. "They're just people, 'Chelle. People like us, in the same place, in the same situation. And once they saw that I understood this, they led me to him."
He seems to expect you to say something. "Tariq?"
"Yes. Tariq." Now he smiles, but it's not a pleasant expression. "And his friend Yousef. But which one is which?"
Your throat tightens as your eyes flick from one dark grimy face to the other. They're both about Janie's age, but you'd never mistake one for the other. The taller one has a long face, the shorter one a crooked nose. "I... it was dark, Tom." You feel the bag of rice trying to slip down your belly.
Tom's face begins to cloud over. "You said you could never forget the sight. That it was burned on your brain."
You try to hang onto the bag, but it just keeps creeping downwards. "I knew it was Janie, of course... a mother knows her child... and the boy, the boy she was with... it, it had to be Tariq, you remember how she always talked about him...."
Tom holds your gaze for a long moment, then turns to his left. "Tariq, did you ever hold Janie's hand?"
The boy on the left, the one with the long face, just shakes his head.
"But Tom... he... he'd... of course he'd deny it!" You shift your grip on the bag--how can such an inadequate quantity of rice be so heavy?--but it's no good. It keeps sliding downward. "Surely... surely you can't take his word over mine?"
"I don't have to take just his word. I had Janie's. I should have listened to it when it could have made a difference."
The bag of rice slithers out of your grasp and lands with a thud on the canvas floor. Brown dust hangs in the air like an accusation.
You have no response.
Your husband turns and shoos the two boys out of your tent. When he turns back to you, his expression is darker even than it was on the day Janie died. It's like a storm cloud, heavy with rain, brooding with thunder.
This is a man who believes in constants, in firm unchanging certainties, and now the foundations of his world have been broken.
For a long time you just look at each other.
Finally he speaks one word. "Why?"
You hold firm for one last long moment, and then the truth comes flooding out on a river of tears.
"I couldn't bear to see her suffer any longer," you sob. "To live in this... this, hellhole, for God knows how many more years... and even if... if we ever manage to get out... what's left in this world for her? Floods, storms, war, famine..." You fall to your knees, tears making dark circles on the canvas at Tom's feet. "I thought I'd be happy knowing she was in Heaven. So I lied. I... I pushed your buttons. I worked you up until you couldn't not kill her." You look up at his hard, unforgiving face. You have just one chance now. "After thirty-one years," you sneer, "I can play you like a violin."
He raises one hand high above his head.
You wait, trembling, for the blow to fall. For the blessed release you crave but which you are not brave enough to take for yourself.
But Tom does not strike you.
"You were a fool to trust me," you prod. Trust has always been a big hot button for him.
Tom's face convulses in betrayal and rage....
But then the hand drops limply to his side.
"You're right," he says, and wipes his eyes.
"So kill me!" you scream, the words breaking through the dam you've built inside yourself, a three-hundred-year storm of anguish and self-loathing.
"No." He turns his face from you. "You're going to have to live with what you've done."
The tent flap falls softly shut behind him as you collapse to the floor, the packed earth beneath the canvas hard and unyielding beneath your sobbing cheek.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 25th, 2011

Author Comments

I wrote this story at the Taos Toolbox workshop taught by Walter Jon Williams, prompted by the sad state of the world both politically and environmentally. It was a hard story to write and many people find it a hard story to read. I hope it makes people think.

- David D. Levine
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