by Simone Einhorn
Astrid rolled over in her bed, the orange and pink quilt that lay over her was inadequate for the cold that was seeping through the tiny window in the bedroom that she shared with her sister. The frigid air swept across Astrid's forearm leaving a trail of goosebumps. Astrid opened an eye and clenched her cold toes, she knew that if she got up to close the window the creaking floorboards would betray her and awake Reinette. Astrid glanced at Reinette still sleeping under an identical quilt, her long blond hair splayed across the pillow. Astrid glanced at the clock between their beds, it was 6:27, the bell was going to ring in three minutes anyway. Astrid cautiously wrapped herself in her blanket and tip toed across the cold, creaky, wooden floor. Her quilt caught on an exposed nail in the floorboards. Astrid fell to the ground, hitting her head on the windowsill.
The bells began to toll, echoing in the tiny apartment. Astrid internally winced at the noise which seemed doubly loud this morning. Collecting herself Astrid opened her eyes and tried to stand, only to stumble and trip on the blanket. A tiny laugh reverberated across the room. Reinette, her blond hair mused was sitting cross legged on the bed trying to muffle her laughter.
"I'm sorry" giggled Reinette "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine" responded Astrid crossly as her face contorted in pain. Reinette stood up to go assist her sister. Reinette's milky skin seemed almost translucent in the sunlight that the tiny window emitted as she stepped across the tidy room. Reinette had always reminded Astrid of a swan. Where Reinette was graceful, Astrid was clumsy. Where Reinette was tall, Astrid short and pudgy. Reinette had a lovely cadence to her voice when she spoke that no matter how hard Astrid tried to emulate it just ended up sounding pretentious or condescending. The only features that were recognizable between the sisters were their identical grey-blue eyes which reflected like a pond on a cloudy day.
"It's fine, I can get up." Astrid pulled herself up onto the bed, her head throbbing.
Workers are expected to be present in the hospital in fifteen minutes.
The inhuman voice chorused throughout the dormitories, each voice varying slightly depending on the occupation of the listener. The hospital, the school, the farms, the laboratories, all the workers getting ready for the day.
"Shoot!" exclaimed Reinette, their breakfast delivery had failed to be on time and Reinette still had to get dressed and get to the transportation module. The squeaky slot in their door opened and two bowls of oatmeal were slid through, along with two mugs filled with lukewarm 'coffee'. Reinette scrambled about the room, her silken hair billowing behind her as she leapt about the small apartment. Astrid crawled back under her blanket with a sigh. She didn't have an assigned job. She wasn't good at being a nurse or a teacher, she couldn't even imagine having to be a farmer. Heading into your farm everyday and having to see row upon row of beef growing, just thinking about it made her stomach churn. The smell alone would be enough to make her quit, the bloody raw meat stench that surrounded the farms was distinct on those who worked there. Reinette kissed Astrid's forehead and set their breakfast down on the small table between their beds.
"I haven't got time for breakfast, see if Jam is outside and give it to him." Astrid weakly nodded, her sister seemed to be doubling and tripling in her vision. Four Reinettes stood over her. "Got to go! See you!" they all called in unison. Astrid clenched her eyes shut, immersing herself in darkness. Slippery darkness washed over her like waves of an ocean. At least that's what she thought an ocean would do, she'd never seen one. Oceans were really only rumors. Non-existent probably. Why would the government waste so much water just for a pretty sight? Astrid remembered ponds though. There was a pond in the small park they'd had when she was in school. She was sure that they'd dried it after the accident. Suddenly the darkness began to fade. Astrid was chasing her best friend Luis around a park blanketed in snow.
"Come and get me, Alla!" called Luis, using his pet name for her. When they'd met in kindergarten Luis couldn't say Astrid properly. Astrid laughed, her now short hair was shoulder length then and was windswept around her rosy face. Her eyes glittering Astrid called back jokingly.
"Get over here idiot! The head teacher's bound to notice we've gone missing." Luis grinned as he tore off through the snow and toward the pond.
"Last one there is a rotten egg!" he called back towards Astrid. Astrid rolled her eyes and began running after him. Astrid was by no means a good runner, after falling down twice she made it to the pond. Luis was already there, sliding around on the frozen ice in his snow boots. He was like a child, gleefully skating around without a care in the world. Still out of breath, Astrid smiled.
"Care to join me, slowpoke?" suggested Luis. Astrid hesitated, they weren't allowed on the ice. "C'mon! It's fun" Luis called. He skated closer, holding out a hand. Astrid reached out eagerly and was pulled out onto the ice. Her heart fluttered. Maybe she should tell him now. Should she? Lately Astrid had felt a bit more than friendship for Luis but didn't want to ruin anything by telling him. Luis's hand suddenly grasped hers, she looked over questioningly. Luis's hazel eyes were filled with terror. Then the cracking. The ice began to crack. Astrid would never forget that noise. The horrified look on Luis's face as they both went under the ice cold water. Only one of them came out of that water alive. Luis had kicked and thrashed, trying to swim to the surface but only succeeding in pulling both of them down further. His lips were blue. She let go of his hand. She swam up. She let him die.
Astrid awoke with a start, her chest heaving. Her blanket lay on the floor, tossed off in a moment of panic. The breakfast still lay at her bedside uneaten. She pushed the thoughts of Luis away and began to eat the now cold oatmeal. After a few bites she stopped. The oatmeal lay heavy in her stomach, she pushed away the bowl and got up to open the window and give the rest to Jam. A wave of dizziness swept over her, she clutched the bedpost and opened the window letting in the soot and smog from outside. Astrid coughed. The stench was unbearable.
"Jam" called Astrid weakly "Jam" A molted tomcat jumped in through the window, and began to lap at the coffee in the mugs. Astrid closed the window and sat back down. Her head was killing her. If it was a bruise or a cut she'd just request some pain meds but since it was her head she couldn't risk it. She couldn't get sent to the hospital. Once you went to the hospital for any reason other than child birth you didn't come back. It was always 'complications'. In all reality it was because the government couldn't afford to house and feed those who couldn't work. Once you'd reached the age the government determined for you at birth you were sent into retirement and after a few months you'd have an accident. Maybe you'd fall and break a bone, maybe you'd become ill, either way it would be your end. It didn't happen quite as often to those who hadn't reached their retirement age, but it still happened. Astrid winced as she felt a sharp pain behind her eyes.
Workers are expected to be back in their dormitories in fifteen minutes.
The inhuman voice droned. Anyone caught out past this time would be punished. Astrid looked over at Jam eating the oatmeal. Why couldn't her life be that simple?
The sun's last luminescent rays streamed through the window. She'd better let Jam out before they came to collect the breakfast dishes and distribute the dinner dishes. Being caught with a pet was almost as bad as being caught out after curfew. As Astrid opened the window she looked outside. The blood red sun cast a scarlet film over the landscape. Most of the buildings were obscured by blood red smoke that leaked from the twin smokestacks near the farms.
"Hey Astrid" said Reinette with a yawn. She'd slipped in silently without Astrid noticing. Astrid turned around, her sister had bags under her eyes and the red light cast angular shadows across her white nurse's uniform.
"I ran into the food cart in the hall so I grabbed our dinners" smiled Reinette as she motioned towards the bowls of some sort of stew.
"How's your head?"
Astrid choked on a chunk of stew. "Fine. It's fine." she sputtered.
"Just double checking, I'd hate to have to bring you to work with me" joked Reinette. Astrid offered a weak smile. Her head pounded viciously, reminding her with each bite that there was something wrong with her. Something that she couldn't fix. "Why haven't you finished your stew? Anything wrong?" asked Reinette with concern when her sister's appetite diminished after a few bites.
"I'm fine. Just tired." replied Astrid warily.
"Really? You haven't done anything all day, I came in during my lunch break to check on you and you were still asleep." Astrid gulped nervously. Her stomach was uneasy. She felt nauseous. Astrid tried to stand but her legs betrayed her as she fell to the floor. Reinette laughed, her voice rang like a delicate bell. "You know we can't have people who can't work, Astrid. I knew after I heard your head hit that windowsill this morning that it was the end." A flash of sadness crossed Reinette's face but it was gone as soon as it came. "I hoped maybe you'd of gotten better while I was at work. I guess not." Reinette bit her lip. "I'm sorry Astrid." Astrid looked up in a panic. This had to be some sort of cruel joke Reinette was playing. Astrid tried to stand, black dots began swarming in on her vision. Reinette laughed again, this time a cruel edge bled through her laughter.
"Reinette, please!" Astrid pleaded, her words were slurring together. Had Reinette put something in the stew? Everything was going black again. The slippery tendrils of the ocean dragging her down. Down towards Luis's icy body at the bottom of the pond. His face frozen forever in terror. Reinette's face smiling cruelly down at her. Blue lips. Shadows the color of blood.
"I promise, it won't hurt a bit."