Well, I got a couple of emails already asking about what happened with Greg and Lizbet. It just so happens that I wanted to know, too. While I was writing Dark Till Dawn, I was also writing their story and I've just finished the first draft of it.
I'm calling it, "Flying Season of the Mis-Recorded". If you've read Dark Till Dawn then at least part of that title should sound familiar and be understandable. It's too different to put into the book and too short for a book of its own. It's about 18.6K words long as it stands now. Not quite a novella and not a short story but somewhere in the fuzzy area in between.
So, without further ado...here's the first chapter. Remember, it's a first draft! What do you think? Continue with it or ditch it?
Flying Season for the Mis-Recorded
Lizbeth shoved the last of the trays into the freeze drying machine and slammed the door home with a little extra force. The hinges needed to be worked on but until it actually quit shutting reliably, it would remain on the work list. There were always other broken things moving past the not-quite-broken items on the lists. She hit the buttons that set it to work and listened for the fans and compressor to kick on.
When the buzzing whine seemed stable she turned to inspect her work area. Nothing on the floor, no forgotten trays of cut vegetables, packing tables clear and clean. The vacuum sealer in the corner was cleaned and ready for the next day, its stack of buckets and bags neatly arranged and waiting. She gave a nod of satisfaction then sniffed her hands and arms. Not too bad today. She was lucky it was carrots and not onions. No amount of scrubbing would get that smell off and she didn't have a lot of time to waste tonight.
At the door she squared her shoulders and made sure her face was without expression, the familiar flush of anticipated embarrassment making a hot spot in her belly. She raised her chin just enough to seem unbothered, but not so much as to seem proud, and opened the door.
Second shift was in full swing in the vegetable processing room and a dozen pairs of eyes followed her as she strode past. Knives and cutters and scrapers all stilled and she could feel their eyes on her back like little points of pain. She pushed through the swinging doors and kept walking toward the door that led to the safety of the compartments.
Like always, the pressure eased at about ten paces away and she sucked in a deep breath of relief. One more day gone. Going to and leaving from work were the two worst moments of her day and she counted each one completed without incident a victory. There was no one in the hallway leading to the single compartments so she pulled the kerchief from around her head and let her hair fall free after being confined all day. Her hair actually hurt when she let it fall, a sore tugging on her scalp. The tight binds of her kerchief bent the hairs and the roots protested when the weight came back. It happened at the end of every work day and she’d grown to like the soreness. It was the same kind of pleasant discomfort that came from stretching in the morning after a deep sleep.
Her room was the last in the hallway, with the further space of an empty room between her and the next occupied compartment. Though it was never said specifically, she knew no one wanted to even risk sharing a wall with her. Especially not while they slept. She even had her own bathroom so that nothing of hers would touch anyone else, even obliquely. She didn't mind. She might as well have some benefit from being nearly untouchable.
Inside her room, she stripped the sweaty coveralls off and scrubbed her skin till it hurt. She sniffed her arms again and detected the faint dirty sweetness of carrots but she didn't think it was too bad. It was almost nice. Tonight was a big night and she wanted to be perfect.
The tunic she had finished sewing hung from the front of her closet. It was daring and of her own design. It wouldn't just raise eyebrows, it would drop jaws. Dyed the darkest color she could find, it looked purple in the light but black in dim light. Small bright blue spots were sewn around the bottom of the hem in the back, yellow spots on the front. The bottom half was short enough that it barely reached past her shorts and the top half wasn't much of a half at all. Two wide strips of cloth were anchored at the front waistline of the skirt and crossed over her chest, crossed again in back and were sewn onto the skirt at the sides.
Small orange ribbons kept the crossed bits in place and held all her parts where they should be. She smiled and ran her hands down the supple cloth. It would fly when she moved and her feet tapped in anticipation of the music to come.
She changed into her dancing shorts, a ribbon run through the hem at the bottom and tied around her thigh to keep it snug no matter what she did. Today the ribbons were appropriately red. She slipped the dress on and smiled at her reflection. Perfect.
Pulling the coveralls over the dress was tricky and she was left with a little bulge around her hips. It would tell anyone who looked carefully where she was going and what she was up to. Then again, hundreds of other teen shadows would be taking the stairs in the same state, so that didn’t matter much. She shoved her sandals into her satchel, added a quick spray of scent and a smudge of charcoal around the rims of her eyes. She was ready.
There was a shadow in the butterfly garden as she passed. It should have been empty and the door was cracked open so she peeked in. Marcus, the farmer who had sponsored her and acted as her reluctant caster, was bent over the patch of parsley and looking intently at something within.
"Something wrong, Marcus?"
He started at the sound of her voice and rose too quickly, stumbling backward. She reached out to catch him but he jerked his arm back. She pulled away, expression carefully neutral. Marcus may have sponsored her and he may have been the only person who seemed comfortable speaking with her alone, but he was no different than anyone else when it came right down to it.
"I didn't mean to startle you. I was just passing by and saw someone in here," she explained, looking down at a butterfly on the ground near her feet. It was wafting its wings slowly and canted a little to the side. This one wouldn't fly again.
"Ah, don't worry about it, Lizbet. I'm an old man and startle easily. I just came to see them." He waved a hand at the litter of dead and dying butterflies on the plants and ground. "It's getting toward the end of flying season."
She murmured an assent and bent toward the canted butterfly. The larger blue spots among the yellow and black meant this was a female. She laid a finger on the ground in front of it and felt the tickle of its tiny legs as it crawled up her extended digit. She knew it was silly, but when she did this, she imagined they felt relief to be off the cold floor. She carefully transferred the weakening creature to the parsley and let her crawl off at her own pace. Only when it was safely away did she speak. "But flying season will come again for them."
Over the years of her life, Lizbet had become expert at looking at people without actually looking at them. She saw Marcus stiffen a little, the posture one that spoke of concern.
She had said it too expressively, she thought. She rose again, gripped her satchel in front of her and lifted her eyes for the barest second to meet his. "They'll be back. Everything that is of us— everything good— is born again to the silo. Nothing is wasted. Not even souls." She gestured at the struggling butterfly and said, “Not even their souls.”
They said nothing more for a moment. Lizbet was conscious of each moment passing her by. She really wanted to go but Marcus wouldn't have been here just to see butterflies. He must want to say something to her. The farms were dark for the night and farmers at home. If he was here it was for a reason. She wondered who had complained about her now.
"Listen, Marcus. I've been doing what I'm supposed to. Keeping to myself..."
He raised a hand to interrupt her. "Oh, Lizbet. It's nothing like that. I..." He stopped and cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday. Since you're off tomorrow and everything."
She flushed and tried not to smile. "Oh, thank you. Thank you for remembering."
He shuffled his feet and cleared his throat again. "Well, it's a big one, isn't it?" He pointed at her satchel and the red tag hanging from the strap. "You’re going for one last dance?"
Lizbet spun the matching tag around her wrist and said, "One more and then I age out."
He laughed and said, "I remember that day. Turning twenty felt like the end of the world. Well, now you'll have to settle down like the rest of us." He stopped abruptly, realizing what he had said and how absurd it was. He reached out a hand and came within a hair's breadth of her shoulder. His gaze fell for the briefest moment on the ridged circle of scar tissue on her cheek, her own personal and permanent ‘O’ carved in flesh.
"You know what I mean,” he added quietly.
They both knew there would be no "settling down". There would only be the unending solitude she had now except that it wouldn't be broken once a fortnight inside the walls of 25 Drums, where all were the same and all were welcome. It would just be this ceaseless shoveling of food into and out of machines and a meal she picked up to eat alone in her room. And dreams of how it should be different, of course. Always the dreams.
"It will be okay, Lizbet." He knew. He was saying goodbye.
"Yes," she said, her tone as flat as ever. "It will be okay."
She looked down again. He was uncomfortable once more. He shuffled to the door of the enclosure, his back bent with age and decades spent over a spade in the soil. "Have fun tonight. I'll see you," he said as he left the enclosure.
When he was gone, Lizbet saw that there were two more butterflies on the ground that wouldn't make it. After six years of shadowing inside the farms she had come to know their motions well. She could tell which ones were resting and who was finished with their duty to life and simply waiting to die.
It was precious time she was using, but she let each crawl to her fingers to be returned to the parsley. They had no expressions—no communication—but they seemed content there. Tomorrow their little bodies would be plucked away but for now, they could be where it was familiar and safe.
The screen door sign read, "Close me!" in emphatic letters. They were such efficient farmers and harvesters that these poor creatures had been made almost extinct within the silo. Kept here, in their own enclosure with their own plants to put their eggs on, their numbers were sound. But they were caged. They fluttered their wings and rested on the screen like bright sparks of color. She could almost feel their inborn desire to get beyond it.
She pulled the door closed behind her and stopped. It was the end of flying season. There would be more than enough eggs laid by now to ensure another year. She looked around the darkened room and saw no one, no profile among the plants and no sound of rustling leaves from an evening stroll. The door opened again without a squeak and she strode quickly away. The current of wind created by her swift departure made for an easy path and wings fluttered in her wake.