A truck with an odd wench set up in the back pulled up. I stepped to follow Carmine but he arched his eyebrow and said, “Uh uh, not this time Gurl. I want you to go with Sally. Believe it or not she’s a real doctor. That cough is still not good and you need to get rid of it before really cold weather kicks in. You aren’t sleeping right as well as you should and still can’t put on any weight.”
Doctor. A real doctor. A real female doctor. I wondered if she’d have the equipment to be able to tell what I was. I would have outright refused if Carmine hadn’t added, “She’s family. Her mother was my grandfather’s sister.”
“I’m fine Carmine. I’m a lot better than I was and I’ll be …”
Carmine sighed. “Don’t make me make you Saloli. I don’t like being doctored on either but this time it’s necessary. If you get sick again before you get better … I don’t want to lose you again. Third time is the charm but will it be a blessing or a curse? That’s up to you.”
Something about the word blessing triggered a memory inside me and I once again saw my parents saying my sister’s and brother’s deaths had been blessings but with hindsight came understanding that they had been trying to convince themselves as much as they wanted to believe it. It struck me then that Carmine really cared for me and he was really concerned that I wasn’t going to get well … that he might be saying “it was a blessing” at some point trying to convince himself so it wouldn’t hurt so much.
I knew Carmine was overconfident if he thought he could force me to see this Sally. I had fought the best and most of the time, even with a pile on, they had been forced to sedate me to get me into the clinic for the regular and invasive check ups that we all hated. In the end they simply would catch me as I walked between classes, put it in my food, or gassed me in the elevator. I learned to be constantly alert, constantly ready to avoid and escape. I might not have been as hardened as I once was – gotten out of the habit which was probably a mistake – but it hadn’t been all that long ago and my sense of people was still strong. I looked at Carmine and I could read his thoughts as well as if they had been my own. He knew he was pushing the envelope and it bothered him, caused him some fear that he was pushing too hard, but still he did it because I meant more to him than his being able to hold me to him did.
I looked at Sally who was standing about six feet away. She was trying to keep her face blank but I sensed real surprise and caution underneath it. It had something to do with Carmine but with me as well. What I didn’t sense from her was any intent to hurt or trap me.
It was in that moment that Bina ran up. “Hey, I’ll come hold your hand if you want. I don’t like doctors either but Grandmother is different; and she is good.” She pulled her braid aside and pointed behind her ear and added, “Look how she fixed me up. Father took it out as soon as he rescued me but it got infected. I nearly lost my ear and would have looked plenty strange but Grandmother was able to save it and my hearing too.”
The world narrowed and I looked at Bina and she at me and there was an instant connection though she was too young to really understand what it was. The scar was not as fresh as mine but it wasn’t any older than eighteen months. I looked a question at her and she responded without thinking.”
Artlessly the girl said, “Mother got tired of what she called being a nomad and took my sibs and I to work in the Outlands.” She shrugged. “She wasn’t any happier there and the day before E-do-da found us to take us back SEPH swept the area. They took me. He didn’t give up and he and my uncles ripped SEPH a new one and took me back.”
Sally said, “Bina!”
“Well they did Grandmother. You didn’t get to see it but, really, there wasn’t much left to see after they got through with them.”
I could see Sally was winding up for a good lecture but I beat her to it and gave Bina something to think about. “You shouldn’t say things like that, especially to people you don’t know. Even the wind could carry it someplace it shouldn’t. SEPH has a long memory and an even longer reach. Don’t boast even if it is about something worth boasting over … someone could use it against you … or your family.” Sally and Carmine both went still as did Jerry and several other people standing around. “SEPH is the enemy Bina. Don’t do anything to give them any advantage. Not a crack or ledge to use to climb and find you and yours. It’s better to be completely silent than give one little squeak for them to follow the sound of. Never assume you are safe enough or far enough away that the danger has passed … not until the whole organization is nothing but grave dust. Don’t even let death take your secret from you.”
A boy of about fifteen walked up and put himself between me and Bina and said fiercely, “Don’t scare my sister like that.”
Ignoring his attempt to be intimidating – he was already bigger than me – and pushing Carmine back when he would have stepped up beside me I told the boy, “She needs to be reminded. If fear is the only thing that will do it then so be it. The last thing you and your family needs – the last thing I need – is for SEPH to get overly interested in the people of the Wastelands. Right now most people are convinced this place isn’t anything but an atomic waste with diseased and genetically damaged scavengers wandering around waiting to die. If they start thinking that we might be resources for them to harvest, the last half way free place will disappear as fast as a nuclear flash.”
Jerry and an older man walked over and Jerry put his hand on Bina’s shoulder but he looked at me. “How long did they have you?”
I swallowed, “Two years and a piece. Had Bina been taken East you would never have found her no matter how hard you searched.” Shadows grew around my eyes as the memories began to crowd me as much as the people around were starting to. “There aren’t just fences and walls and people there; there are gun towers, laser sights, mine fields, and the best enforcers waiting for an excuse to execute the strategies they plan and practice on a daily basis. There’s gas and drugs to keep you in line until you learn to hide just how much you hate them. There’s punishments for the smallest infractions; painful, degrading and all in the name of the continuation of the human species as they view it should be continued. They weigh and measure you not on actions and thoughts but on DNA and psychological evaluation scores. Once in their control you are no longer a person until they say you are; you’re just a commodity – a resource – to be exploited and used as they determine to be the most advantageous. Socioeconomics are no longer a determining factor of where you go in this life; it’s all in your genetic code and their arbitrary interpretation of it.”
The boy, still unwilling to budge from his position both figuratively and literally said with a sneer, “They must not be such a big deal. You escaped.”
I showed him my dead lights and he gasped involuntarily and I saw Jerry reach out and pull him backwards. I told him, “Not even I escaped while SEPH still had my leash. It wasn’t until I was in the Outlands did the control get lax enough that I slipped the noose. Don’t underestimate your enemy. Ever. Because as soon as you do, you’re dead … if you’re lucky. If you have any value to them as a commodity you’ll wish yourself dead so many times over that you’ll lose who you used to be just to make the pain the pain bearable.”
My skin felt like it was going to come off and run away without me if I didn’t move. I fought and held still for as long as I could then looked at Carmine trying to tell him with my eyes that I was sorry and then I turned. I was able to walk for a few yards but then I was jogging. Once I had started jogging it was easy to lope and once I had started that I ran until the cold air burned my lungs.