Squire’s Isle Created by Geonn Cannon

Rock Paper Scissors

Summary: A woman who can’t stop moving forward and a woman who has nowhere else to go collide in a fortress in the middle of nowhere.

The sun blasts heat off the desert, rising from the sand in waves that seem to break around the beak of her cruiser. The slits on either side of the cockpit let in the blistering air that feels cool due to its movement but does nothing to evaporate the sweat on her brow or upper lip. The cruiser is wide and takes up most of the cracked pavement. Its large wheels apply pressure to the crumbling outer edges of the road and tiny pebbles plummet down into the ditches on either side. Far ahead on the veldt she can see buildings dancing in the heat, mirages that she hopes will solidify into something more substantial when she gets closer.

 

She lifts one hand off the wheel and reaches over her shoulder to take down her canteen. It’s nearly empty, but there’s another jug in the cargo. It won’t last her long so she hopes for somewhere to fill up the empties. The town solidifies and she slows enough to examine the storefronts she passes. The windows that aren’t boarded over have been coated with dust from within. Occasionally she sees a handprint or a smear in the dust where someone was thrown or had fallen.

 

Hope fades as she passes through town only to reignite as she passes a waist-high stone wall. She nearly misses it, the tall pump obscured by a thick barrier of scrub. She parks and opens the hatch, letting the superheated air sweep across her to swirl into the cabin as she listens for sounds of anyone else nearby. The world remains silent so she rises, wrapping a scarf around her neck so that both ends dangle over her chest. She pulls the loop up over her nose so she won’t breathe in blown sand, lowering her goggles into place to protect her eyes. She pulls on a pair of black leather gloves and steps back to cargo.

 

She removes two empty jugs and places them at her feet. A quick glance reveals the pump is tangled in a thick chain to prevent thieves, so she adds a bolt cutter to her gear. She slams the cargo access and strolls around the prickly bushes. The chain is snipped and coils to the ground like a beheaded snake. She places the mouth of the first jug under the spigot and begins to work the handle.

 

It’s hard work in the heat, and soon the beads of sweat on her exposed skin explode into rivulets that darken her scarf and the collar of her leather vest. Her hair is free, whipping behind her like a long black leash. The muscles of her arm grow weary soon, but she still has another jug to fill. She ignores the scent of the water, something she’d always taken for granted Before. The sweet scent of refreshing, clean water is so potent and ignites a need in her that she’d been ignoring for the past eighty kilometers.

 

When the second jug is filled she pulls off her glove and cups one dry hand under the spigot. The water rushes over the skin and forms a diamond in her hand. She takes down her scarf and slurps up her handful, eyes closed as she holds it in her mouth and slowly lets it trickle down her throat. She won’t take any more, though. She spilled too much getting her handful, and the two jugs will be more than enough. She returns to the cruiser and puts a new chain around the pump to impede future thieves. She takes the broken chain, drapes it over her shoulder in case it comes in handy later, and lifts one jug in each hand to carry them back to her cruiser.

 

She’s halfway there when the bullet parts her hair, a bumblebee sting that stops her in her tracks. When the thick blood pours down over her right eye, her legs give out and she falls backward onto the hard dust, arms out to either side as she stares through the fogged lenses of her goggles at the blue-gold sky above. Not a cloud in sight. Blood makes her hair wet, thick and warm, and she turns her head. Her hands are cold and she realizes the jugs have spills. Twenty liters of water pour over her wrists and hands and cascades onto the ground. It pools around her but soon gets swallowed up by the thirsty rocks.

 

#

 

The lamp has a floral shade, and it casts colors onto the desk. She opens her journal and smoothes down the first blank page before lifting a pen. She checks on a piece of scratch paper to make sure it has enough ink before she begins to write. She puts the date at the top next to her name, and then she puts “Western Wall, Water Pump.” Underneath she fills in the details.

 

Woman, black, early thirties. Gunshot wound to the head. Not a fatal wound, but a bleeder. Blood staunched and wound mended. Confiscated one cruiser with contents to be itemized at a later date.

 

Underneath she put the details of the shooters. Two men, white, stank of moonshine. Fatal gunshots to throat and abdomen. Time to die: instant and +23 minutes. Confiscated one shotgun (long-range), one pistol, one bandolier ammunition (various weapons, to be categorized at a later date), one VW bus, full contents of which to be itemized later. Nude female prisoner handcuffed to the steering wheel released and given sanctuary.

 

Finished with the records she stands and walks to the bed, pausing to look down at the cruiser’s owner. They don’t have the spare gauze, so her head is covered by a makeshift bandana tied at the base of her skull. They stopped the bleeding and cauterized the wound, the pain of which was probably worse than the actual shooting. She isn’t surprised the driver is still unconscious. She checks her vitals and is pleased to see that she’s a little less dehydrated than when they dragged her inside.

 

She pats the woman on the shoulder before leaving the room, leaving the patient to her recovery. In the next room, the woman rescued from the shooter’s van is still picking at her food. She’s clothed now, her blonde hair still unwashed but pulled back in a loose braid. Her skin was originally pink but has been burned nut-brown by too many hours in the sun. The right side of her body seems a shade or two darker than the other, indicating she spent most of the day’s hottest hours behind the wheel. She looks up with haunted eyes when she hears footsteps and shies away from her savior.

 

“You’re all right. I just wanted to see how you were doing. My name is Cecilia. You have a name?”

 

The prisoner stares at her without speaking.

 

“You know those men are dead, right? The ones who made you drive the bus, and… well, I’m sure they made you do all sorts of things you weren’t keen on. But they’re gone. And you can stay here until you’re ready to move on. You’re not being held here against your will, but you also can’t stay here forever. I can’t support that. But I can take care of you. Lord knows you’ve had enough of a hard road so far. Least I can do is offer you a bit of comfort. How is your food?” Silence. “Well. That’s all right. I speak enough for the both of us. Just shout if you need anything.”

 

Cecilia doesn’t close the door when she leaves, walking down the hall. The kitchen has a swinging door and she pushes through, trying to remember what was in the icebox and if there was enough to feed all her patients. Her mind is holding the image of a plate with pork chops when she feels the rectangular barrel of a weapon pressed against the back of her head, pressing her dark hair against the base of her skull. She hears the whine of the weapon as it charges to fire, and she closes her eyes.

 

Lord, don’t let my dying thought be about a pork chop.

 

“Where’s my shit?”

 

A woman’s voice, so she takes a chance. “You the one driving that cruiser? The one who got herself shot trying to steal my water? Seems like if you are, you owe me for not just leaving you to bleed out into the rock. At the very least you owe me better than a gun at the back of the head. So why don’t you put that down and we can have a seat and talk about this?”

 

The gun remains where it is for another moment, then drops. Cecilia steps forward and turns to face her patient. Her skin is ashen, her hair hangs on either side of her face like straw, and her eyelids look to weigh several pounds. Her outer garments – a threadbare uniform blouse and patchwork trousers, were removed earlier and had left her in an old sleeveless T with a faded Unification logo on the breast and a pair of white shorts. The shorts allow Cecilia to see that the muscular legs are practically vibrating with the energy required to remain standing.

 

Cecilia pulls out a chair and points. “Sit. You got a name?”

 

“Corrine.” She hesitates and then shuffles forward one step to take the seat she’s been offered. “You the one who shot me?”

 

“No. That was a pair of unsavory fools who are no longer burdening the world with their presence.”

 

“You killed them?”

 

“They wanted my water.”

 

“So did I. Why’d you kill them and nurse me back to health?”

 

Cecilia pours her a glass of water from a jug in the fridge. When she turns back she can see Corrine’s mouth is watering at the sight but she tries to hide it. Cecilia sets the glass down in front of her and Corrine acts nonchalant as she picks it up. Her charade is ended by the way she drains the entire thing in one swallow, wiping her forearm across her lips and placing the glass back on the table.

 

“Another?”

 

“You didn’t answer my question.”

 

Cecilia refills her glass and takes a seat. “You were taking my water to survive. To drink it or for your car’s engine. You took what only you needed, and then I noticed you even replaced my chain. Now, sure, I suppose you could have asked. But you had no idea who lived behind this stone wall. No idea what I might ask in return for the water. So you just took it. In your position, I would probably have made the same choices.

 

“The other men, though, the ones now providing a nice evening meal for the local birds and stray animals… they are a different story. They’d have taken whatever they could get, and then they’d come see what I had inside the house that was worth stealing. Then when they see me, what do you think they’d consider?”

 

The question is rhetorical. Cecilia stands as tall as most men, broad-shouldered with an explosion of russet curls that are held out of her face with a black band. Even under the shawl she wears draped over her shoulders, it’s obvious that her body is wiry with muscle and blessed with curves. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what the men who shot Corrine would have done with her.

 

“So yes. I shot them. They had already proven they would do violence if given the opportunity so I saw no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

 

Corrine nods. She drinks her second glass of water more carefully, taking her time and making it last. When she finishes, Cecilia moves to refill it once more. Corrine stops her with a sideways cut of her hand.

 

“You’ve given me enough. I’ll just take my things and be out of your hair.”

 

“You’re in no condition to drive.”

 

She’s pushed her chair back and starts to stand. “It’s never stopped me before.”

 

Cecilia stands as well and moves as if to catch her. “You leave now, you’re gonna run that cruiser off the road within ten kilometers. I have a responsibility for you now. Take some time and rest, and you’ll leave when you’re ready. Then you’ll be strong enough to get wherever it is you’re going. I’ll even refill those jugs that got spilled when you got clipped.”

 

“Why? Why are you doing this?”

 

“Because the lady who ran this place before me did the same when I needed help. She took me in, gave me shelter and water, and she saved my life. She let me stay here and when she passed on, she left it in my care with the provision that I help those who are worthy of receiving it. So what do you say, Corrine? Have I made a mistake?”

 

Corrine looks at the glass, and Cecilia can see the question in her eyes. How? How is it all possible, how could she afford to be compassionate in the modern world? How has she managed to have clean drinking water and a food supply? Cecilia is ready to answer the question, if it’s asked, but Corrine drains the last drop of water from her glass and stands up.

 

“I suppose I should lie down.”

 

Cecilia nods. “That would be prudent. I’ll wake you so that you don’t miss supper.”

 

#

 

She hates the voices. The ones that sound like she used to, the ones in her head that tell her she should be driving. If they want to reach Kaapstad on schedule she should be driving, she should have her foot to the floor, we’re going to be late. She knows the men are dead. The Woman walked her past their bodies when she brought her to this place. She still can’t believe the story is true, can’t allow herself the luxury of belief, because if it’s a lie or a test, oh god she needs to be driving.

 

She stands and walks to the window. She stands on her toes but she can’t see the bus, can’t see beyond the wall, which rises above head-height at the back of the building. She’s not a prisoner here? Yeah, right. She’s been a prisoner long enough to know when the shackles are on, even if they’re not real. She’s a prisoner, and The Woman is her warden. Cecilia? Yes, she said that was her name.

 

She has to think about what her own name is. Odile. Odile Weston. It’s been so long since she required a name that it takes her a moment to remember it really belongs to her. Giving it up was her choice, her conscious decision, when she became a Thing. Immediately after the Purge it seemed like an okay idea. It was a way to survive, to ensure she would be taken care of. She found a man and gave herself to him. He gave her food and water and kept her safe and, in return, she did things for him that she otherwise might have done anyway. Probably. Perhaps. She had no shame in giving herself in order to stay alive.

 

But then he ran into trouble, and she became an item. A thing to be bartered, traded, given away. She was taken to a room and she paid his debt. She was a commodity. The new man took her with him when he left, and she never saw the first man again. She can barely remember his face now. In the years since there have been many. Far too many, and all of them eager for the same thing. But in the end everything is bearable. Because she is alive, and she knows that however bad her current owner is, he will soon get bored with her and the next one could be better. She has to hold out hope for the next one.

 

Now there is no next one. Her owners are dead and she has no tether for the first time since the Purge. If ever there was a time to run, she is in it. She is dressed in clothes the woman gave her. Just a shirt with billowing sleeves and a pair of snug black slacks. The sides are cut, and strips of leather hold the front to the back. She assumes this assures a better fit no matter who wears them, and she adjusts the straps to give her a little more breathing room.

 

Alone, she searches the room where the woman, Cecilia, has left her. She hears Cecilia speaking with someone in the other room – she hears the name Corrine and assumes – and knows she’ll be alerted if someone is coming to catch her. She finds knitting supplies and tosses them aside. Wait. Needles? She considers them but decides the tips are too blunt. Still she sticks them into her belt loops and continues her search. A needle and thread, sharp but too small. Shears, again too small. But then, aha! Fabric scissors, one blade longer than the other and looking as long as her forearm.

 

She grips the handles, pressing them against her palm as she conceals the weapon against her hip. She moves to the door and listens to the movement in the kitchen. Her feet are bare on the hardwood, don’t make a sound, and she inches toward what she hopes is the front of the building. Suddenly someone – not Cecilia, so Corrine? – steps into the hallway from the kitchen. She looks half-dead, bone-thin in her underwear, and she looks up startled by the other wraith haunting the hallway. They consider each other for a moment, Corrine’s eyes dropping to the wicked blade in Odile’s hand. She recognizes it as a weapon and simply reacts. She knocks the weapon aside and throws her weight against Odile, twisting to press her against the wall. She grips Odile’s wrist and savagely wrenches it so that the fingers convulse and her pathetic weapon drops to the ground.

 

Suddenly Cecilia is there. She grabs Corrine by the hair and pulls her back, knocking her to the ground and keeping her there with one foot on her neck. She spins and puts her arm against Odile’s throat, pinning her to the wall with darkness in her eyes.

 

“This I will not abide. Not in my home. Am I understood?”

 

Odile manages a nod. Corrine’s answer comes in the form of a demand to be let up. Cecilia lets them go, and Corrine picks up the scissors by their blades. She holds the handle out to Cecilia.

 

“Maybe you ought to keep her away from weapons until she’s tamed. Until then you should keep your pets locked up.”

 

Odile bares her teeth, but Corrine ignores her and walks away, back to the room where she had been taken to recuperate.

 

Cecilia looks at Odile. “Can you speak?”

 

Physically? Yes, she is capable of speech. So she nods.

 

“Go to your room and lie down. God knows what you’ve spent the last few years doing, but I’m sure you could use a rest from it. Sleep.”

 

Odile reluctantly turns her back and goes into her room. She moves a stool from the tall table in the corner and wedges it under the knob, then she takes off the borrowed clothes and lowers herself to the floor. She scoots under the bed – creating a slightly larger challenge for anyone who comes looking for her.

 

Eventually, she sleeps.

 

#

 

When Corrine sleeps, she is twenty again.

 

Mikayla from her Sociology class finally agreed to a date, so Corrine skipped her last class of the day to make sure everything was ready. They ate pasta and drank wine in the cramped off-campus apartment, then watched a movie on the couch. Corrine went in for a kiss, but Mikayla pulled back and asked for a little more time. She called herself straight, said that she’d never been with another girl and wasn’t ready. Corrine settled for an arm around Mikayla’s shoulder and an enjoyable evening. When the movie ended, she let Corrine give her a kiss on the cheek at the door. Corrine waited until she was sure Mikayla was out of the neighborhood and then went on a walk to dispel some of her unspent adrenaline.

 

At the end of the block, people were protesting. The police were trying to hold them back but the crowd was too huge. Corrine saw her date for the evening walking back toward her, redirected by the police, and Corrine lifted her hand to wave. Mikayla held her hands out helplessly. “Can I stay at your place tonight? All the roads are–”

 

Mikayla dropped hard to the pavement, and only then did Corrine hear the sound of gunfire. The police had been overwhelmed, the protesters with their torches and truncheons surging past the roadblocks. Corrine shouted Mikayla’s name but knew she had to run if she didn’t want to meet the same fate. So she left the girl on whom she’d harbored a ten-week crush lying in the street with a bullet in her head and ran. She never went back to her apartment, never went to another class. The university was shut down the next morning and never reopened; it was just never safe enough again.

 

Corrine wakes with the memory of Mikayla’s body dropping still repeating in her mind. There was no blood that she saw, no gory explosion, just a sudden stop. No more speech, no more focus in her eyes, and then she was falling forward on the ground. Corrine has remembered the scene so many times in the past decade and a half that she sometimes wonders if the details are true or just embellished in a faulty memory.

 

She pushes down her borrowed blankets and finds her clothes on the floor. She dresses and looks in the burnished silver of the mirror, lifts the corner of the bandana to check her wound. She knew that if Cecilia hadn’t come along, she would have died in the dirt. Poetic justice, maybe, for leaving Mikayla lying in the street the way she did. She replaces the bandana and leaves the room. She listens to the sounds of the house, trying to hear if the scissor-wielding woman is up and about, but all she hears is a melodic humming in the kitchen.

 

She finds Cecilia at the stove. “I don’t take breakfast orders,” Cecilia says, as if cued to speak by some unseen director. “You’ll eat sausage and eggs or you’ll go hungry until lunch.”

 

Corrine’s mouth floods and she’s forced to swallow before she speaks. “You have sausage?”

 

“A gallant swine gave his life for this breakfast, so I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. Someone who would appreciate his sacrifice.” She looks over her shoulder. “Are you–”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Okay, then. Set the table.”

 

Corrine opens the cabinet Cecilia indicates, then finds silverware in the drawer. She sets two places, but Cecilia corrects her and asks for three. By the time she’s finished the sausage smell has driven her into a near-frenzy. Cecilia puts a plate down in front of her and then goes to retrieve the other guest. Corrine grabs the fork and prepares to jab it into the still-sizzling meat like it’s a living thing that must be killed, but then she stops. The tines hover over the dark brown food, and they shake with her eagerness to take a bite. But she stops.

 

She stares at the misshapen ovoid of meat, smoke rising from it in white waves. She inhales the scent, closes her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispers. Part of her feels ridiculous, but she knows that it’s right. “Thank you for feeding me, and for the strength your sacrifice has given me. Thank you. It was not in vain.”

 

She opens her eyes and sees Cecilia in the kitchen doorway. She nods once, and Corrine uses the fork to cut off a triangle of meat. She lifts it to her mouth, rests it on her tongue, and closes her eyes. It could possibly be the most exquisite thing she’s ever tasted. Reluctant to swallow, she tenses and holds herself as still as possible. Finally, she chews the meat, enjoying the way it feels against her softened teeth, and swallows.

 

Cecilia takes a seat to Corrine’s right, draping a napkin across her lap. She cuts her sausage into smaller pieces, then does the same with her scrambled eggs and mixes the two together into a mélange. As she’s mixing, the tanned blonde creature emerges from the corridor and lurks in the door. She eyes the plates with eager desire. Corrine can hear the girl’s stomach growling from across the room.

 

“You’re welcome to join us.”

 

“Or you’re welcome to not,” Corrine adds. Cecilia looks at her sharply, and Corrine shrugs without taking her eyes off the prisoner. “Seems like she might need the choice. It’s your decision. Come in and eat, or go back to your room and be hungry. We’re not going to make you do either.”

 

Cecilia watches Corrine for another moment before swiveling her head back to watch what the blonde does. After a moment she takes a hesitant step into the room. She moves to the nearest seat, pulls it out, and folds herself into it. She draws the plate close to the edge of the table and hunches herself forward over it. She picks up the sausage but Cecilia snaps her fingers. The blonde looks up with wide, terrified eyes.

 

“Use the silverware. You weren’t born an animal; we were all born civilized. Act like it, darling.”

 

The blonde rubbed her bottom lip against her top, then tentatively picked up the fork. She used it alternatively like a saw and a shovel, getting the food into her mouth like someone long out of practice. She occasionally gave Corrine a wary sideways glance, but Corrine ignored her. It seemed to be the right tactic, for soon the blonde marginally relaxed and focused entirely on her meal.

 

“So Corrine. Where are you heading?”

 

“Kaapstad.”

 

The blonde lifts her head suddenly. Her cheek bulges with food, her lips glistening with the juices of her sausage patty, and she wipes the back of her wrist across her mouth. Cecilia takes a breath to admonish her, but doesn’t say anything. The blonde points to Corrine, then jabs a finger at herself. Corrine watches for a moment and then looked at Cecilia.

 

“Why can’t she talk?”

 

“She claims she can. I haven’t heard her say anything. One moment.” She stands and leaves Corrine alone in the kitchen with the mute girl. Corrine meets the girl’s stare for a moment and then goes back to her meal.

 

Cecilia returns with a pad of paper and a charcoal pencil. She places it next to the blonde, who stares at them like foreign objects as Cecilia retakes her seat.

 

“If she doesn’t want to speak with us, maybe she’ll be willing to write.”

 

The blonde considers it so long that Corrine is finished eating before she finally, tentatively, picks up the charcoal. She turns it over in her hand a few times, then pulls the pad closer and presses the sharpened edge to the page. She writes slowly, taking care to form each letter, and then pushes the paper over to Corrine. She picks it up and reads the childlike chicken scratch.

 

“Her name is O-deal Weston. Going to Kaapstad.” She puts the paper down and shakes her head. “I don’t take passengers. I don’t have the room in my cruiser.”

 

“I looked at your cruiser,” Cecilia says. “You could carry a passenger from here to Kaapstad without much hassle.”

 

Corrine stares at her without anger or guile. “Fine. Then I won’t bother to make the room in my cruiser. You might want to spend your life doling out charity, but I’m out for myself. I have been since I started. I’m sorry O-deal, but you’re going to have to find another way to Cape Town.”

 

“O-dee-lay,” the blonde whispers softly.

 

“I’m not taking you anywhere.” Corrine wipes her mouth on a napkin and stands up. “Thank you for the meal, Cecilia.”

 

As she leaves the kitchen, she hears Cecilia say, “Welcome to my home, Odile.”

 

#

 

Cecilia remembers the time before, when people protested for peace unaware of just how peaceful their modern world would seem in just a few years. Her husband was an advisor to the Prime Minister, and he called to warn her to flee to the country home with the children. The roads were packed with people trying to escape, desperate for somewhere the rioters couldn’t reach. On the radio, the brief period it was still broadcasting, she heard reports of identical attacks happening throughout the world. Then the signal stopped, and the world became an abstract concept for the first time in modern history. If it couldn’t be reached on foot, it wasn’t worth thinking about.

 

Cecilia had two children, a son and a daughter. Colin was thirteen and determined to be the man of the family until his father came back. One night he set off in search of food and other provisions his mother and sister needed. Cecilia called out to him all through the night, jumping every time there was a gunshot or she heard someone scream – there were so many people screaming in their roadside hell – until dawn broke and she realized her son wasn’t coming back.

 

The people around her eventually decided the congestion wouldn’t clear up and set out on foot. The military had moved in to deal with the rioters, and rumors began to swirl about precision strikes from the Unites States and its allies. It was a new World War, but this time it was the government versus civilian agitators. She discounted it as idle gossip until the city behind them erupted in flames and she was forced to count her husband as a casualty as well.

 

Thirteen days after they set out, her six-year-old daughter Delia fell ill with a fever. She was unable to provide food, let alone medicine, and the girl died in her arms. She buried her by the side of the road, as there was no other choice, and continued on with the rest of the group. They didn’t even have the luxury of tents, so they made beds out of what they had and slept under the stars. It wasn’t long after Delia’s death that she woke to find someone’s hand over her mouth, their body pressing her down into the grass. At that point, she offered little resistance; why shouldn’t they be allowed a little pleasure in the middle of this hell?

 

Soon they came to her every night as soon as the sun went down. She lay with men and women both, sometimes together, and she let them do anything they wanted. She didn’t care, and it made them happy. By providing that happiness, she felt as if she was accomplishing something in the middle of the world’s end.

 

They began giving her things. Creature comforts like chocolate or teabags. A part of her knew that this recompense was effectively turning her into a prostitute, but there were worse things to be in this new world. She stopped waiting until sundown to begin her transactions, often having sex with men in full view of anyone who happened by. Occasionally the voyeurs became aggressive, and she was forced to participate far longer than she would have liked, but eventually they would leave and she would brush the grass from her clothing, and they would march on.

 

It ended when the man pulled a knife on her. She saw the flash of the blade and simply reacted, knocking it away from him and taking it up herself. She attacked his weakest point, at that point also the hardest spot on his body, and his screams as it was severed drew people from all over the camp. Several men shouted their belief that “the whore finally lost it,” and she wondered when exactly she’d gone from her high station – wife to the Prime Minister’s highest aide – to the nameless whore of a band of homeless vagabonds.

 

They beat her, raped her, cut her, and eventually abandoned her. She was shocked to be left alive when they continued on in the morning. She didn’t know if she was grateful. Death would have been an easy out at that point. Eventually she stood and started walking south. The only destination she had in mind was a vague image of waves crashing against the shore. She wanted to walk into the ocean. She knew if she walked a straight line long enough she would find it.

 

Monica found her before she ever got close to the water. She took her inside and cleaned her, took care of her wounds, fed her. It was from Monica that Cecilia learned about the Purge. Military and police were withdrawn from the major cities, allowing the occupying civilian forces to think they had won. Their victories were short-lived as the planes came in. Bombs were dropped on the enemy strongholds, entire cities engulfed with flame from above. The Enemy was too large to be defeated, so the militaries of the world had simply wiped them out like a scourge. Cleansing fire, now known as the Purge. Nearly eight million people across the world were killed in the single most massive military engagement ever conceived.

 

In the aftermath, society teetered on broken legs. The internet, used to recruit and coordinate the Enemy, had been crippled. With the threats eliminated, the military quickly discovered it couldn’t be fixed with a simple patch. As they strove to repair it in order to restore normalcy, public outcry began to call it “the first war won by the bad guys.” A new wave of instigators rose up to take the place of those wiped out by the last resort, and hostilities began anew.

 

“I think we’re all going to keep going until we’ve all killed everyone.”

 

“What will the last person standing do?” Cecilia asked.

 

“Kill myself,” Monica said. “At least, once I get done everything I need done.”

 

Cecilia smiled at that, her first real smile since hanging up with her husband so long ago. Monica invited her to stay in her fortress and she agreed. They became friends quickly, though making the leap to lovers took a bit longer. Cecilia had only been with women as a necessity, for an exchange of services. She’d never made love to another woman. But soon her feelings for Monica became undeniable, and she tentatively took the first steps toward making their relationship romantic.

 

Five years after arriving at the fortress, the first group tried to take it from them. She and Monica fought them off fairly easily, but they came back a month later with reinforcements. Monica snared their leader from one of the towers, dragged him inside, and told Cecilia to hold the others off while she ‘did some work.’ When she was done she shoved the man through the gate. When his friends saw what she’d done to his body, they turned and disappeared in a wave of dust.

 

“What did you do to him?” Cecilia asked.

 

“The same thing I wouldn’t hesitate to do to the rest of ’em. And they knew that.” She wiped her hands off and turned, her dress swishing around her legs so quickly that Cecilia couldn’t tell if she saw blood on it or not.

 

They raised animals in a central courtyard, and they grew food in an indoor arboretum. They had to keep their bounty hidden from scouts that flew over in ultralight planes or hang gliders. Monica would occasionally shoot them down if she felt like spending the ammunition, and she almost always hit her mark. Afterward Cecilia would trek out to the remains – always giving them just enough time to pass on from their injuries or the elements – and scavenge the body for anything they might need.

 

When she got back from one such excursion, she saw that the doors to the fortress had been forced open in her absence. She ran inside and found Monica had somehow been taken by surprise. The intruders had overtaken her in the front courtyard, one holding her down as the other pulled a bloody knife from her stomach. They were distracted by Cecilia’s anguished wail and turned. Monica, even in her weakened state, grabbed the knife they had just killed her with and twisted the blade. She used the man’s own hand to shove it into his chest.

 

Cecilia threw herself into the other man, knocking his skull against the stone wall until it stopped feeling like a man’s head in her hands. She kicked his corpse once more for good measure, then went to her lover. Monica lauded her actions, but Cecilia could barely see her smile through the tears. As she held Monica in her final moments, she knew why Monica hadn’t seen the attackers coming; she’d been watching Cecilia’s back. Making sure she made it safely to the body and back.

 

When Monica finally passed, Cecilia buried her in the garden as per her wishes (“Even if I’m dead, at least I’ll be feeding the plants.”). Cecilia thought it was morbid, but she couldn’t ignore her last request. The attacker’s bodies would have made for acrid food, so she dragged them outside and set them on a pyre.

 

Three years after Monica’s death, Cecilia watched through a telescope as a woman climbed out of a beat-up cruiser and began stealing water from her pump.

 

#

 

She touches her throat when she’s back in her room, still trembling at what she did. She spoke without permission! The last men, the men who told her to drive, whore, damn it, would have beaten her for opening her mouth. Corrine and Cecilia were both surprised by the meek outburst, but neither had raised a hand to her. After Corrine left, Cecilia tried to entice her to further conversation, but Odile couldn’t make the vocal chords work. Eventually Cecilia patted her hand, told her it was all right, and left her alone in the kitchen. Odile stared at the sharp utensils she’d been left with – potential weapons, every one – but then stacked them on her plate and carried all three dishes to the sink. She scrubbed them and left them on the plastic rack to dry before retreating back to her room.

 

She sits on the edge of her bed and stares at the wall. She keeps the window in her periphery, hands on her knees. She’s still wearing the clothes Cecilia gave her the day before, but she doesn’t mind; she’s worn worse things for much longer. She feels the draw of the road. She knows that she should be driving before the sun gets too hot. They have to make good time. The men will be angry if she delays them. She stands up suddenly, almost unwittingly, and then slowly lowers herself back to the seat. She presses her lips together, rubs them from side to side, and rubs her palms hard against her thighs.

 

Odile can hear the other women in the rest of the compound. Cecilia is singing in the center of the building. The song is probably a spiritual, some ancient hymn to the gods: “Ooh, child, things are going to get easier. Ooh, child, things will get brighter. Some day now, we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun…”

 

She was eighteen when the Purge happened. A freshman in college, stupid enough to join her friends when they went down to protest the government. They weren’t violent, they were just angry and loud. They banged drums and they held signs, and they tried to make their voices heard. The government had spokespeople, so they decided to be the voice of their peers. Somehow things got out of control. A few bad eggs made their way to the head of the movement and tried to change tactics. They were the first to bring guns, the people who decided to evict the government from office.

 

Odile left when she sensed things were spiraling out of control. She avoided being caught in the Purge by three days, the city where she’d lived in a tent for eight months suffering a direct hit. She had nothing, no home to return to and no way to get there even if she did. She met a girl who mentioned that “us girls always have something to trade. You just gotta decide if it’s worth handing over.” Odile knew she wouldn’t survive on her own, so she found someone capable of protecting her and went into his RV to earn her passage.

 

She doesn’t regret the decision. She knows that without making that choice she would be dead now. But what kind of life is it, really? She looks at the palms of her hands. She was a person once. She could put her fingerprints on something, and people could look up her name in a file and know everything about her. Name (Odile Weston, she tells herself), birthday (it’s in the winter, but she can’t remember the exact date), address (such an abstract concept to her now that she almost doesn’t remember it as an identifier). Now her fingerprints are just swirls that leave smudges on things when she’s sweated too much.

 

Odile stands up and stretches her legs. I don’t have to drive today. I will not drive today. She goes to the dresser in the corner, looks at herself in the mirror, and then examines the items laid out in front of it. A comb and a brush, small bobby-pins… she idly touches them, as if they were relics in a museum, and tries to remember the last time she washed her hair. It hangs down in strands in front of her face.

 

It occurs to her that there’s a bathroom, and there will be a shower. Cecilia assured her that she can avail herself of all the amenities but it still takes a force of will to get up and walk to the bedroom door. She will find the bathroom just to confirm it has bathing facilities, that she could partake if she wished, but she will not take a shower. Water is too precious a commodity to waste on cleaning her body.

 

Cecilia’s voice travels through the corridors as she conducts a search. “Some day now, we’ll get it together and we’ll get it all done, some day when your head is much lighter…”

 

She finds herself humming the melody as she searches. Finally she opens a door and finds a bathroom. Actual functioning facilities. She stands on the cool tile for a moment and simply stares, taking in the wide, narrow mirror over the sink and the fogged glass that separates the shower stall from the rest of the room. In a cabinet under the sink she finds a towel and a chunk of soap.

 

Odile holds the soap to her nose and breathes deeply. Her body goes through the motions without thinking, her clothes left in a pile on the floor behind her as she steps over the lip and into the egg-shaped stall. She bends forward and twists the faucet, and ice-cold water hits her back like a slap. She cries out in surprise and straightens up, making the spray trace along her spine, over the top of her head, and finally onto her chest. She leans forward until her face is pelted by the droplets.

 

When the initial glee wears off, she brings up both hands to gather water in her cupped palms. She runs them over her upper arms and chest, marveling at how the water glistens and turns her skin from dark brown to a shade of lighter tan. She tries to remember the last time she’s had so much water to waste on something as simple as cleaning her skin and she can’t do it. She brings one foot up, resting it against the opposite knee, and uses a sponge to scrub the filth from the sole. She works her fingers between the toes and closes her eyes, shocked at how good it feels.

 

She washes the other foot in the same manner, then straightens and turns toward the door. She sees the other woman, Corrine, lingering in the doorway. She’s eyeing the shower, lustily looking up at the shower head, but she is already starting to back away realizing she’s been caught. Odile holds up a hand, then pushes the fogged-glass door open a little wider. She meets Corrine’s eye and then goes back to washing herself.

 

After a few seconds of internal debate, Corrine comes into the bathroom. She undresses, her clothes draped across Odile’s, and she steps into the stall. Odile turns so that the spray falls onto them both, and watches as the water cuts streams across Corrine’s dark skin. It makes silver lines over her arms as she holds her hands up to the spray, and it pools in the hollow of her throat before trickling down over her chest. Corrine’s nipples respond to the cold, rising in pebbled peaks.

 

There’s enough room for both of them to stand comfortably in the stall, but Odile has to make sure she’s not blocking the spray from reaching Corrine. She steps back so the water falls between them, and it’s a happy compromise. They scrub themselves until suddenly Corrine reaches out, her fingers tightening on the back of Odile’s neck and pushes her forward and down. The spray hits the back of Odile’s head and she starts to panic, wondering what is about to happen. To her surprise Corrine’s fingers turn tender and begin to stroke her hair, working the knots out of the tangled strands until it hangs all around her face like tendrils of a weeping willow.

 

When she stands again, the water courses down her back like fingertips tracing her spine. She shivers and hunches her shoulders at the cold, but she motions for Corrine to turn around. The bandana covering her hair is already soaked, so it clings to their skin as she undoes the knot and peels it carefully away. She examines the wound, tenderly brushes the skin around the stitches, and then drapes the bandana on the edge of the tub.

 

Corrine is a little taller than her so Odile has to stand on her toes to finger-brush her hair, straightening it until it runs straight down the middle of her back. It’s much longer than it appears in braids, and she’s amazed at how much of it there is. She is careful around the wound but manages to remove some of the blood that has crusted in the strands of her silky black hair. She loses herself in the repetitive motion, then lets her fingers stray to Corrine’s shoulders.

 

She’s had sex with women in her life since the Purge. When the woman wanted companionship, or when it was what the husband wanted to watch. She flattens her palms and smoothes them over Corrine’s shoulders, spreading the water in an even film across the dark skin, then bends down and kisses the curve. She parts her lips and drags the tip of her tongue up, not noticing how Corrine is cringing until she reaches her neck. Corrine twists and puts a hand on Odile’s shoulder, pushing until her shoulder is up against the cold, beaded tile.

 

“Don’t do that.” Her voice is strangely hollow, echoing off the tile and the glass.

 

Odile averts her gaze in subservient apology. The stiff arm relaxes, and Corrine steps forward so that her feet are between Odile’s. Odile looks up, and Corrine lightly brushes their lips together. She doesn’t know if it counts as a kiss, but her heart soars at the tenderness of it. She still has her lips and eyes open when Corrine retreats, feeling as if the kiss has only just begun when it ends. Corrine drops her hand and steps back.

 

“Don’t do anything because you feel you have to, little one. Do it because you want to.”

 

With that she backs away, reaching up to push her hair out of her face as she leaves the stall. Odile watches her, still under the showerhead, and watches as she brushes her hair in front of the mirror. A choice. Corrine offered her a choice earlier, too. It’s a foreign concept to her, the ability to say no, to choose what she wants to do. Before she doubts she would ever have been with a woman. But after? Anything is possible after.

 

She steps out of the shower, leaving wet footprints on the tile as she approaches the mirror. Corrine watches her in the reflection, tensing slightly when Odile stands behind her. Odile holds her hands out to bracket Corrine’s hips, less than a breath of space between them, and moves them forward to her stomach. Corrine breathes in to make her stomach more concave but Odile makes up the difference. She’s shorter that Corrine and her lips are lined up perfectly to kiss Corrine’s shoulder, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t close the distance to actually touch her, simply surrounding Corrine with her arms like a thin layer of atmosphere.

 

Odile watches Corrine’s face in the mirror, and sees Corrine watching her. She drops her hands and rocks back on her heels retreating to the wall without ever actually making contact. The tension visibly drains from Corrine’s body, and Odile crosses both arms over her chest as if suddenly ashamed of her nudity. Corrine runs the faucet and cups her hands, splashing the water onto her face. She turns to look at Odile for a long moment and then nods.

 

“Your choice, little one. Yours.”

 

Odile nods that she understands. Corrine nods at her, and then stoops to pick up her clothes. Odile watches her, still pressed against the wall as if trying to blend in with the pattern. She waits until Corrine is gone and she hears the bedroom door close down the hall. Then she picks up her own clothes and pulls them on over her still-wet skin. She tiptoes past Corrine’s room and then hurries on to her own room to hide until Cecilia comes for her to tell her something else to do.

 

#

 

For a brief time after the badness started, when identities still mattered, she remained Corrine Church. She had always gotten through her various life crises by envisioning a time afterward. She would get through her surgery because she could imagine herself in the hospital bed afterward and was already composing her blog post about how it had gone. She would survive the hurricane because she already saw herself at the hardware store and working in the muggy heat to repair the windows and replace lost shingles.

 

But for the first time in her life, she couldn’t even imagine tomorrow. Going back to school and keeping a schedule already seemed like elements of a past life. She saw desperate people doing horrible things just to survive and she knew they wouldn’t wash their faces and go back to work in the morning. This wasn’t a moment of brief insanity, this was the end of the world. This was when the globalization of life took its bad turn. In the past, the Romans fell and the British Empire collapsed, but it was just a single country that suffered. This time, everyone was connected to everyone, and one failure meant civilization buckled.

 

She stopped for gas and was grabbed by a man in a red hat. She was dragged into a field next to the gas station and thrown down. Another man came up behind her abductor and stabbed him three times in the neck. Her would-be rapist went down like a manikin, her savior wiped the blood off his knife and walked away as if ashamed of what he’d nearly witnessed. Corrine had run back to her truck and jumped in without removing the nozzle from the gas tank.

 

Years after the Purge, the remaining federal governments unified in an attempt to corral the disparate and scattered civilians back under the aegis of control. Unification Officers were sent out to peaceably disband any clans that had popped up in the years of anarchy. Most of these patrols were sent back beaten or bloodied, if they were sent back at all. Some simply vanished. Soon UO armor began to pop up on the black market, no questions asked and no explanation given.

 

Corrine found the UO cruiser parked outside of a hovel where several families had set up squats. She went inside hoping to find shelter and maybe a little food, but instead she found carnage. She found the Officer on the top floor, shouting at him to stop as he killed the last man and let the body fall to the dusty floor. The Officer had taken off his helmet, as the top floor was hotter than the rest of the building, and she saw the resignation in his eyes. She knew the massacre was something he’d been ordered to do, and knew he had no choice but to follow orders.

 

She brought her hand up and shot him between the eyes. She scavenged the pockets of his armor for anything that might come in handy, then stripped him. His clothes were sweaty but they could be washed. The breastplate was too big for her but it would stop bullets or knives. She liked the way his gloves felt. In the pocket of his boot she found five candy bars, and it took a tremendous force of will not to stack them on top of each other and eat them like a slice of cake. But she saved them, and she still has three of them in her pack.

 

Downstairs, she slipped into the seat of his cruiser and checked to see if she could operate it. The controls were fairly self-explanatory. She drove the truck the three blocks back to her truck and unloaded her supplies from it to her new ride. The old truck was on its last legs, but she was still sorry to see it go. She patted the hood, then climbed behind the wheel of her new bulletproof cruiser and set out again.

 

By the time she stole the cruiser, she’d dropped her surname. There was no point to keeping it, not really. Others she met on the road were going by assumed identities anyway; the Marauder and the Vagabond, or names from popular fiction like Darth Vincent or Voldemort. Names and identities were the easiest things to change in the new world. Choosing a name informed the way people reacted to you. Heathen K brought more respect than Eric Kaplan, for instance. Corrine played with the idea of a new sobriquet, something to make sure people kept their distance, but in the end she stuck with just using her first name. It had gotten her this far, after all.

 

She wonders if Cecilia was ever tempted to take on a new moniker. The Caretaker, perhaps, or the Matron. Gaia. She smiles at the thought of the last one, as it seems to fit her character. Even now she can hear her singing out in the garden. Some old Chicago soul, she thinks, and she finds herself tapping her foot along with the melody. She remembers hearing it long ago, on the radio, and closes her eyes to hum along.

 

Corrine thinks about Odile and their interlude in the shower. She’s seen women like Odile before, in Johannesburg and Pretoria. She almost got one of her very own, if she’d been willing to part with have of her provisions in exchange. She refused on principle; people weren’t items to be bartered or exchanged. She’d had a moment of weakness when she saw the woman’s eyes and knew without a doubt she would be trading up. But Corrine had refused and walked away. She couldn’t save everyone in the world from their own bad decisions, and trying would just drown her.

 

She can’t claim she wants Odile. She’s only heard the girl say one word, for Christ’s sake. And no matter how much Odile might claim to have wanted to go further, Corrine didn’t trust that the feelings were true. As good as it felt to be touched and wanted, she knows what happened in the shower happened at least in part because of Odile’s recent past as a commodity. The girl is feral, lashing out with sharp objects and scarfing down food with her bare hands because she’s forgotten better. And she responds to Corrine with sexuality because that’s the only response she knows. Corrine refuses to take advantage of that no matter how good it would feel.

 

Her last lover had stayed behind in Francistown, having decided against an uncertain life on the road. Didiza had lost her right leg in a car accident before the Purge and, while Corrine assured her it wasn’t a handicap, she was always afraid of slowing her down. When they came across an all-female commune just outside of Francistown, Didiza tried to convince Corrine to remain behind. Corrine couldn’t bring herself to stay, even though the commune extended an invitation to them both. She bid farewell to Didiza – a private ceremony that lasted well into the dawn – and then loaded up her cruiser to continue south.

 

Cecilia knocks on the door, waking her from a sleep she hadn’t realized she was falling into. She sits up, aware that she’s still wrapped only in a towel after her shower. Cecilia says, “I’m going to do a quick circuit of the defenses. If you want to lend a hand while you’re here, I can give you the full tour.”

 

“Yes. Give me a moment to get dressed.”

 

Cecilia nods, and then turns sideways in the door to lean against the jamb. Corrine waits to see if she will step out and, when she doesn’t, decides not to care. She drops the towel and opens her pack, searching for relatively clean clothes. “Odile and I discovered the shower. I hope you don’t mind us wasting your water.”

 

“This compound has an abundance of water thanks to an underground well. No one else is close enough to tap into it, so I’ve bottled water from it in case it ever runs dry, and we can draw on it for hydroponics, irrigation, bathing, cleaning… it’s one reason I have to be so vigilante about guarding this place. If people knew how valuable this spot is, I would be overrun in a heartbeat.”

 

The implication of trust is apparent, so Corrine nods. “You saved my life. You earned my silence.”

 

“I had no doubt.”

 

Corrine dresses in a lightweight top and baggy tan trousers, an outfit that will allow her to spend long hours in the sun without succumbing to the heat, and ties a clean bandana over her hair to protect her injury. She stands and pulls on a pair of woven sandals. Sensing that she’s almost ready, Cecilia straightens and faces her again.

 

“If we’re attacked while you’re here, I don’t expect you to fight or die to protect this place. It’s not your home.”

 

“It’s as much a home as I’ve had lately,” Corrine says. “If you hadn’t come along, I would have died out there in the scrub. Maybe that’s why the gods spared me; so I would be available to give my life the next time you need a fighter. I’m taking your medicine, your water, your food, and I’m living on borrowed time. Whatever goes down, I’m here for you.”

 

Cecilia nods. “Thank you. Come on. I’ll show you the defenses. I hope you never have to use them.”

 

Corrine takes the gun out of her own pack, slipping it into the waistband of her pants. “Lead the way.”

 

#

 

The house has a single turret that rises above the level of the exterior wall, with cantilevered windows that looked out to the north, south, and east. The room at the top of the tower was originally meant to be a bedroom but Cecilia has transformed it into an arsenal and watchtower. Corrine bends forward to look through the eyepiece of the telescope and sees the crumbling road she traveled down to reach this place, turning it until she spots the abandoned ghost town a few kilometers to the east.

 

“So you and Odile are both heading to Cape Town. Anything in particular drawing you there?”

 

“The harbour.” Corrine straightens and squints into the sunlight. The wall provides a wide courtyard between it and the house, and each corner is topped by a multi-faceted crown. She sees gun slits in the metallic faces. “How the hell do you manage to defend this place all by yourself? The way I see it, you need at least five people on rotating shifts.”

 

“Three is actually the recommended minimum. It helps that I can mostly ignore the south and western exposures. People in that direction find it easier to just stay where they are or move on to Cape Town like you. It’s still a very popular destination but I’ve never had the opportunity to ask why. I was hoping you would enlighten me.”

 

Corrine notices that her question is still unanswered. “People say there are boats out there. Cruise ships. We’ve seen them on the horizon sometimes, riding along the tip of the world. They’re out there beyond the reach of marauders or pirates, just building their own little society on these one-time pleasure crafts. Floating Cities…” She taps her finger on the telescope and swivels to examine the weaponry. “Every few months a supply ship goes out. If you know who to bribe, and if you have the timing right, you can hop on one of the supply ships and get a ride out there. The Floating Cities are only close enough to shore two or three times a year. I knew someone once who figured out the schedule. If I’m in Cape Town eight weeks from now, I can trade the cruiser and some of the cash I managed to scrounge up for passage.”

 

Cecilia considers the story. “You’re not concerned that it’s a ruse? People take your belongings, take you out to sea, and then just murder you and dump your corpse overboard?”

 

Corrine smiles. “That’s why there’s not a mass exodus to Cape Town or other harbours. There’s no communication between the mainland and the ships, other than the captains and the people operating the supply ships. It has to be kept secret so they aren’t overwhelmed.”

 

“So how do you know it’s not all just a big trick?”

 

“Faith.”

 

Cecilia is too stunned to speak for a moment. “I’m sorry. You just don’t strike me as the kind of person who would consider that a worthy response.”

 

“Normally I don’t. Faith is usually little more than a bedtime story people tell themselves to sleep at night. But you have to believe in something, and this is mine. I couldn’t just wander around aimlessly any more. I needed a goal. So I’m going to Cape Town, and I’m going to investigate. I’m going to see how it feels. If no red flags go up, I’ll take the passage.”

 

“And if they deceive you? If you’re out on the open ocean and they attack you?”

 

Corrine smiles. “Then I’ll kill them and steal their boat and come back to shore.” She sees something in the courtyard out of the corner of her eye. Cecilia steps forward to see what she’s watching and they watch as Odile walks outside. She pauses just below them, looking left and right before she starts walking forward. She passes Corrine’s cruiser, which had been brought through the gate and parked just inside the wall, and approaches the door.

 

“You sure she was only traveling with those two men?” Corrine whispers.

 

“I saw their vehicle. No one could have been hiding on board.”

 

After a few minutes of struggling, Odile gets the gate unlocked and pushes it open. Corrine notices that Cecilia becomes instantly tense once the perimeter is breached. She twists at the waist and picks up a rifle, checks to make sure it’s loaded, and then aims it at the back of the blonde girl’s head. Corrine watches her prepare to fire but doesn’t make a move to stop her. The fortress is her home, and she can’t afford to take chances. Besides, if Odile tries to run she would succumb to the heat in less than an hour. A bullet to the brain now would be a mercy.

 

“She could take your cruiser,” Cecilia says, seeming to read Corrine’s thoughts with alarming accuracy.

 

“If she does, I’ll point out the weak spot. You can disable it from here with that elephant gun in the corner.”

 

“Why not tell me the weak spot now?”

 

Corrine doesn’t justify that with a response, sensing that Cecilia doesn’t really expect one. They watch silently as Odile stands just outside the wall, staring off into the distance.

 

“She’s not going to run,” Corrine finally says.

 

“More of that faith you were talking about?”

 

“A theory supported by the facts.”

 

Cecilia’s aim doesn’t waver. “And what facts would those be?”

 

“You brought her here. Led her inside and shut the door behind her, just like the men who made her such a jumpy little thing.” Corrine gestures with her chin. “She’s making the choice to stay.”

 

Minutes pass. Finally Odile steps backward and turns around, stepping back inside the wall and pushing the door shut. She fumbles with the locks but manages to get them all back in place.

 

Cecilia lowers the weapon but tracks Odile with her eyes like a lioness regarding her prey. “I’m going to go down and check those. Make sure she put them back right.”

 

“Only smart thing to do,” Corrine admits.

 

Odile glances up, her attention drawn by their quiet voices, and stops when she sees them watching. Corrine is grateful Cecilia has already put down the weapon.

 

“Welcome to my home,” Cecilia calls down.

 

Odile looks cornered, but then nods once and moves quickly back into the main building. Corrine pushes away from the wall and stands up straight.

 

“You did a good job stitching me up. I appreciate it. I think if it’s all the same to you, I’ll just take the rest of the medicine you’d be giving me otherwise and head out tomorrow.”

 

“You shouldn’t drive under the influence of those drugs.”

 

Corrine smiles. “Think I’m going to cause accidents? Cautious driving went out with the rest of civilization.”

 

“You could still pass out behind the wheel and roll your vehicle. I’d rather err on the side of caution when it comes to your safety.”

 

“Is that what you’re doing?” Corrine asks. “I thought maybe you had another goal in mind. ‘Three is the recommended minimum,’ right? You need three people to effectively protect this place from anyone who might take it from you. Well, you got three now. I think you’re trying to convince me to stay.”

 

Cecilia rests her arms on the window ledge and looks down. “Would it be so bad? Would it really be that much different from the promised Floating City you believe to be just over the horizon? You would be just as safe here. We occasionally have marauders, the ships most likely contend with pirates from time to time. At least here you’re guaranteed of safety. You know this place exists. Your faith brought you this far. Maybe this was your destination all along.”

 

Corrine goes down the stairs. “Nice spiel. Hope you have better luck when you try it with Odile.”

 

#

 

Odile remains in her room until dinner. She can tell from the sounds that Corrine and Cecilia are avoiding each other, both of them occupying different parts of the house. Odile ignores them and searches her room. She finds items from previous tenants, those who had come and stayed and left before her. Clothes, mostly, along with some personal items that were too worn or threadbare to be packed again upon departure. Or maybe they died before they could pack them up and it was all just left behind.

 

Choice. Options. She still doesn’t believe she has either, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Earlier she searched the entire complex for Cecilia and Corrine only to find them missing. Over the past who-knows-how-many-years she’s fantasized often about how it would feel to have a clear path to an unlocked door. She couldn’t resist the draw and walked outside into the sun. She took the security off the outside gate and stepped outside. Miles and miles of empty landscape stretched out in front of her. She could see the mountains far in the distance, the hard ground between her and them dotted with small squat bushes made up of dry twigs.

 

She knew she would die if she started walking, and didn’t trust herself to steal the cruiser. She didn’t even really want to steal Corrine’s car. Corrine was the one who extended a choice in the first place, so to steal from her would darken part of Odile’s soul. So she came back inside, locked the gate behind her, and started back to the house. She was almost there before she heard the whisper – “…smart thing to do.” – and looked up to see Corrine and Cecilia watching her.

 

Odile recalls the terror of that moment. Neither of them looked angry, but there was a moment where she didn’t know if they were angry at her for opening the door. Finally she hurried inside, and neither of them made an attempt to stop her. She heard Cecilia go outside earlier to make sure the gate was properly latched, which she was glad for, but otherwise there had been no repercussions from what she’d done.

 

She’s sitting on the floor next to her bed with her legs out in front of her, a picture book open on her lap, when there’s a knock on the door. It comes twice more before she realizes whoever her guest is wants permission to come in. She’s unused to the idea of privacy, so it takes her a moment to put aside the book and stand up. She walks to the door and twists the knob just as Corrine lifts her fist to knock again. The pose is aggressive and Odile winces despite herself as the arm drops.

 

“Dinner is almost ready. If you want to share it with us, you should probably help tonight.”

 

Odile stares and then nods slowly. Corrine returns the nod and moves to walk away. Odile wants her to stay, but doesn’t know why. She doesn’t know what she will do if Corrine does stay. All she knows is that it’s what she wants. She steps out into the hall and looks at Corrine’s back, opening and closing her mouth a few times before she speaks.

 

“Tell me what to do.”

 

Corrine stops and looks back at her. Finally she shakes her head. “I can’t do that, little one.”

 

“Please. You have to tell me what to do. Tell me to go in my room and lie down, or tell me to help with dinner. Don’t just give me the option.”

 

Corrine walks back to her. “You want someone to replace those men Cecilia shot? Keep looking. I won’t do that. I’m not in the market for a pet. I know that you became this thing to survive, but you don’t have to do it anymore.”

 

Odile blinks away her tears. “It’s the only thing I know how to do. It’s the only way I can survive.”

 

Corrine looks around as if she’s been trapped and wants an escape route. “You can stay here. I know that she needs help protecting this place. You’ll be safer here than anywhere else in South Africa. Hell, probably safer here than in most of the world right now. But if you want her to agree, you have to earn it. No more of this hiding in your room and sneaking around. You know how much shit you could have brought down on her by opening that door? You could have gotten us all killed.”

 

Odile looks away, but Corrine hooks a finger under her chin to force her head back up.

 

“Cecilia is looking for a partner. You show her you can be that, show her you’re not a liability, and she’ll let you stay here as long as you want.”

 

Odile says, “Are you going to stay?”

 

“No. I got something different I have to do.”

 

“Let me come with you.”

 

“No.”

 

Odile steps closer, desperation in her eyes. “But that’s my choice.”

 

“Having a choice doesn’t mean you always get what you want. If nothing else, this new shitty world of ours should have taught you that.” She bends down and presses her lips to the bridge of Odile’s nose. “Cecilia’s in the kitchen if you want to help her with dinner. I think she needs some potatoes peeled.”

 

She drops her hands and walks away, leaving Odile alone in the corridor unsure of which way she should go.

 

#

 

“Hello.”

 

The voice startles her, and Cecilia spins to see Odile standing in the kitchen doorway. She blinks in surprise and then nods. “Hello there, Odile.”

 

“Corrine said I should help with dinner. Potatoes…?”

 

“Yes.” She moves to pick up the bowl off the table. “Wash these and then peel the skins. Be careful not to take off any skin with the peeler. It’s good to hear your voice.”

 

Odile ducks her head shyly and moves to the sink.

 

“Save the peelings. I use them for mulch in the garden. Plus they make good snacks.”

 

“Okay.” She fills the bowl with water and begins scrubbing the potatoes. When she hears Cecilia back at the other counter she risks a look over her shoulder. She doesn’t know if she wants to stay in this place or not. The very fact that it’s up to her is foreign. She remembers Before, when she would make thousands of little decisions every day. The human mind makes thousands of unconscious course corrections when just walking down the street, and the conscious choices she used to make at the drop of a hat – what to wear, what to eat, when to go to sleep – now seem like daunting hurdles.

 

Her first year as a Thing, she had to be trained to remember she wasn’t human anymore. She reached for her owner’s food, planning to just take one grape. He’d calmly taken her wrist, turned her hand palm up, and dragged the blade of his knife across her palm. When she cried out at the pain he slapped the back of his hand across her cheek so hard that she fell down. That was when she realized she couldn’t want. That was when she realized choices belonged to a lucky few people. She just had to go along and be quiet.

 

“Corrine… said I could… stay here. If I helped you with defense.”

 

Cecilia looks at her. “It’s not her place to extend invitations to my home. But she’s right. I could always use an extra pair of hands if you’re willing to fight to protect it.”

 

She honestly doesn’t know if she can.

 

“Why were those men making you go to Cape Town?”

 

Odile almost begins speaking but then clamps her mouth shut again. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Something swells in her chest at how simple it was. She refused, and her refusal was accepted. She focuses on the potatoes, placing the peels carefully on a bowl that has painted vines twisting along the border. She doesn’t think of her former destination as Cape Town because the men always called it Kaapstad. She had almost forgotten it has a name in English. They knew someone in Kaapstad, but they were careful not to talk about him when she was in earshot. She picked up bits and pieces of their conversations, though. The man was a trader of people, and they hoped to exchange her for a newer model. By that time she’d stopped thinking of herself as a person. She only idly wondered what new hells another owner would visit upon her. A part of her doubted anyone could be worse than her current owners, but there was always another step down.

 

The peeler grazes the heel of her hand and she drops the blade in surprise. She doesn’t realize she’s made a noise until Cecilia is standing next to her, examining the wound. It’s minor, and the skin is barely even broken, but Odile finds herself trembling as Cecilia tenderly treats the wound and then bandages it with a strip of tape and a ball of cotton.

 

“You can’t get that wet, so why don’t we switch jobs? I’ll take over with the potatoes and you can keep an eye on the meat?”

 

“Okay. I’m sorry.”

 

“You don’t have anything to be sorry about, sweetheart.”

 

Odile says, “Corrine calls me little one.”

 

Cecilia smiles. “I know. But that’s hers, so I think I’ll just let her keep it.”

 

Corrine comes into the kitchen a little while later, sweaty from being out in the sun. Her shirt is sleeveless and Odile tries to watch from the corner of her eye as she moves through the kitchen. She reports that there haven’t been any “rooster tails” of dust on the horizon to indicate people on the road, and the karoo all around them remained barren while she was on watch. She excuses herself to wash up before her meal. When Cecilia’s back is turned, Odile slips out of the kitchen and follows Corrine to the bathroom.

 

She’s at the sink with her shirt off, bent forward to hold her hands under the water and then rubbing them against her face. It takes her a moment to feel Odile’s eyes on her, and she glances at the door with only minor interest before she continues wiping away the sweat with cooler water. It drips from her chin and jaw as she uses her shirt to daub at her skin.

 

“What if I choose to come to your bedroom after dinner?” Odile asks softly.

 

Corrine uses her shirt as a towel for her hands. “What are you doing?”

 

“I want to know before I make my choice.”

 

“After everything you’ve been through, I would probably tell you to go back to your room.”

 

Odile looks down at her feet, her toes resting on the threshold between the hall and the bathroom. “Three weeks ago, I was used to get food and other supplies. I sat on the ground, naked with my hands in my lap, while my owners and the man with the food argued over how much I was worth. Do you want to know what they settled on?”

 

“No. Please don’t tell me.”

 

Odile nods slowly. “It’s all in how people look at you. Once people stop seeing a person when they look at you, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re not one. Cecilia might have saved me, but you saw me as a person. Treated me like one. That door was wedged shut, but you shoved it open. I’ve been through a lot and I’ve had a lot done to me. I don’t know where I’m going after this. I’m not ready to make a decision that monumental right now. And since I don’t know what’s down the road, I don’t know how long it’ll be before I find someone else I can trust. So right here and right now, looking at you, knowing how you make me feel like a person for the first time in… ever… I know that I want to choose you. If you’ll have me.”

 

Corrine pulls her shirt back on, the wet spots forming odd misshapen blobs all across her torso. She steps forward and stands in front of Odile. She stares for a moment, and Odile resists the urge to look away.

 

“If you come to my room, little one, I’ll let you in.”

 

Odile wets her lips and nods in acknowledgement and gratitude. Corrine starts to move past her but Odile stops her with a hand on her upper chest. She stretches up and wets Corrine’s lips with a quick pass of her tongue, and Corrine puts a hand on the back of her head. They kiss, with Odile on her toes and Corrine bending forward slightly to make up for the difference in their heights.

 

Odile has of course been kissed since becoming a Thing. Rough kisses, demanding kisses, kisses of possession and ownership. She’s discovered that a thrusting tongue can be as much of a violation as a penis. She’s lain with people who pulled her hair to guide her movements like she was a doll. But she parts Corrine’s lips with her tongue and dips it inside, just a quick tickle of contact before retreating. Corrine’s hand is tight on the back of her head but not demanding, and Odile knows she can twist away if she wants.

 

“Don’t hold me down,” Odile says when they step apart. “Tonight. Whatever else happens we can deal with in the moment, but I don’t want you to pin me down.”

 

“I’ll remember.”

 

Odile nods. It’s the one thing she wouldn’t be able to bear under any circumstances. So she steps back and touches her lips, as if to see whether Corrine has left a mark, and she moves aside so Corrine can leave the bathroom. Corrine glances back before she goes around the corner, and Odile smiles as she shuts the bathroom door. It’s difficult to wash her hands and face without getting her bandage wet, but she manages a one-handed scrub that leaves her feeling more or less clean. As she flicks the excess drops from her fingers she looks into the mirror.

 

She may not yet be fixed, and she may still be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome of her time as a possession. All she knows for certain is that if she’d been offered to Corrine as a trade, she would have hoped as hard as she could that Corrine had something her owners wanted. She knows that she would gladly have become Corrine’s if the opportunity came up. Now she has the option to give herself to someone she wants in return. She holds her hands in front of her face, watches the fingers trembling, and she squeezes them into fists until they become still.

 

#

 

When Corrine was sixteen, a girl brought her a flower. They sat together under a tree, near a duck pond, and Corrine smiled at how good it felt to be handed such a simple thing. There were thousands of flowers in the field just a few steps away, so what difference did it make that Maryanne had plucked one up and carried it over to her? It wasn’t even a pretty flower; it was missing one of its thin white petals. Somehow that made it appeal to her even more than if it had been perfect, and she brought it to her nose to see if it had a smell. It smelled like grass and dirt, but she still smelled it again.

 

“Can I kiss you?”

 

Corrine remembered the heat in her cheeks. She never said yes, but she never said no, and then Maryanne’s lips were pressing against hers. It lasted maybe three seconds, or maybe just one, but she remembered it all night. Hell, she remembers it now and it’s been over two decades. She and Maryanne went out with friends but they never dated. They kissed, learning with each other how it should be done, but they never went farther. Her parents were wary enough that she was friends with a white girl, she couldn’t imagine their reaction if she revealed they were doing romantic things to each other.

 

Over dinner Cecilia notes that Corrine seems stricken with Odile’s mutism. It’s true that she’s hardly said two words since coming back from the bathroom, but she’s had a lot on her mind since then. The kiss, the inquiry, the way Odile keeps stealing glances at her from across the table… Corrine shrugs it off saying she has a lot on her mind, but she notices that Odile is smiling shyly at the comment. Corrine can’t help but smile as well and focuses on her meal.

 

Afterward Corrine and Cecilia wash the dishes together. Cecilia hums an old Etta James song, and Corrine finds herself mildly hypnotized by the sounds. Perhaps that effect was intentional, for at her most distracted Cecilia stops mid-note and softly asks, “Are you and Odile planning a rendezvous this evening?”

 

Corrine blinks her eyes back into focus. “Is that allowed?”

 

“You’re both adult women. I just want to make sure you’re not taking advantage of her. The things she’s been through–”

 

“I went over that with her. It’s her choice. Trust me, I have no interest in thrusting against a brain-dead object. You know how many times on the road I was offered women?” She brushes the food from the tines of one fork with her thumb. “Strange, isn’t it? The world fell down and somehow women became its most useless item and its most hotly-traded commodity. We were worthless and priceless at the same time. You could buy anything with a woman pretty enough and debased enough to do what you wanted.”

 

Cecilia’s hair covers her face. “Not all of us are as strong as you were, Corrine. Not everyone had the same opportunities to survive on their own. We– women who became objects did so because the other option was to just die by the side of the road.”

 

“So instead they choose to die inside? That’s not living; it’s just existing. There’s a big difference.”

 

“Is that why you’re always on the move? Searching for something, anything different? Why you’re risking your life to go out on some boat that may not even be waiting for you?”

 

“Better than spreading my legs for anyone willing to pay for the pleasure. Better than sitting in a cage and shooting at anything that gets close enough to see how scared I am.”

 

“How dare you.”

 

“How dare you?” Corrine asks. “All I’m doing is questioning the choice you made, which is what you’re doing to me. I don’t know you, okay. I don’t have to live up to whatever lofty expectations you may have. Whoever you think I am, whoever’s example you think I have to live up to? That’s not me. I’m going to be true to me, and what I want. Odile and I are going to spend tonight together. It was her choice. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure she doesn’t regret it, even for a second.”

 

Cecilia steps away from the sink and dries her hands on a towel. Corrine angrily finishes the dishes and drains the water out of the sink, dries her hands, and turns out the light. She plans to lie down for a while so she’ll be rested whenever Odile comes calling. She spots the bag on the floor in front of her room and, for a moment, is certain that Cecilia has packed her things in a none-too-subtle request for her to leave. But she kneels and opens the top of the bag to find it full of various sexual aides. She remembers some of them, but a few are foreign to her.

 

She supposes the bag is a peace offering, Cecilia’s way of making amends for their argument, and Corrine accepts the gesture by taking the bag into the room with her. She doesn’t know if Odile is ready for any kind of penetrative intercourse, but she decides it could be nice to have the option available.

 

#

 

Odile washes her hands and face in the sink, pushes her hair back and holds it in place with small barrettes, and pulls on a simple sheer gown that she found in Cecilia’s wardrobe. It drapes her breasts and hips, and she stares at her reflection for a long time as if trying to get used to it. Once a man woke her by grabbing her arm and hauling her out of bed. She used her mouth and hand on two men whose faces she never saw and, when they were finished, she was left behind to crawl back into bed. Instances like that were easy to pretend as nightmares, things that her mind conjured to torture her while she slept.

 

She hasn’t given herself to anyone since college. Timothy, sweet and kind and maybe a little soft around the middle. Not like the guys she pursued in high school, but a better choice all around. He’d been nervous, his first time, and she promised she would show him how to do it. This feels like that evening, only this time she’s the nervous virgin who isn’t sure what’s going to happen. She trusts Corrine as much as she can, given the circumstances, and she knows that she wants this. But her body has become trained to view sex as something that must be endured.

 

Eventually she realizes that the longer she delays, the more likely it is Corrine will think she’s not coming at all. She turns off the light and walks down the hall on the balls of her feet, careful not to make a sound. For some reason she doesn’t want Cecilia to know what’s happening, even though she’s sure she already knows, and she stops in front of Corrine’s door. She reaches for the knob but then knocks her knuckles lightly against the door frame.

 

“Corrine?”

 

“It’s open.”

 

She twists the knob and pushes it open just wide enough to slip inside. When the door closes behind her the room is cast into darkness. After a moment her eyes adjust, and she sees Corrine sitting on the edge of the bed. She’s dressed in a plain white T, and her legs are bare. She has both hands flat on the mattress, and she turns to look at Odile.

 

“I wasn’t sure you were coming, little one.”

 

“I had a lot to think about.”

 

Corrine nods. “Come on over here. Sit down by me.”

 

Odile complies, and Corrine moves her hand so that Odile can take the spot next to her. “We stop when you want to stop. There isn’t a point of no return.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Corrine leans in and their lips brush together again. This time neither retreats and the kiss quickly becomes deeper. Corrine explores tentatively with her tongue, and Odile parts her lips to allow her inside. Their tongues twist, and Odile slides her hand over the curve of Corrine’s hip to twist her fingers around the material of her shirt. Underneath Corrine is only wearing a thin pair of panties, she can feel them against the back of her hand as she leans forward to push Corrine down onto the mattress. Corrine lets herself be arranged and the kiss breaks as Odile lifts her legs up onto the bed. She straddles Corrine and moves her hand underneath the shirt, stroking Corrine’s belly and breasts.

 

“I choose this. I choose to be with you, Corrine.”

 

“Thank you,” Corrine says.

 

The words are so unexpected that Odile is almost shocked to stillness. She never realized that no one thanked her, no one appreciated her ‘services,’ and to hear the phrase uttered so casually… Odile kisses Corrine again, and together they get the T-shirt up and off. Odile drops her head and kisses Corrine’s throat and breasts, taking one dark nipple into her mouth and sucking until it stands against the flat of her tongue. She uses her fingers with the other, taking a moment to wet it with her tongue before going back to the first.

 

Corrine runs her hands through Odile’s hair, and her breath ratchets up with every passing moment. Odile moves a hand between Corrine’s legs and squeezes her thighs, gasping as she moves to kiss Corrine’s stomach. Her fingers find the crotch of Corrine’s panties as her tongue slips in and around her navel, teasing there as her fingers mimic the movement. Corrine writhes and drops back to the mattress with a grunt of pleasure.

 

Odile balances with her knees on either side of Corrine’s hips, perched on top of her like a predator as she works her fingers around the barrier of cotton underwear. She touches Corrine fleetingly, a quick brush with skin still wet from the bathroom faucet, and Corrine presses her shoulders into the pillows to lift her lower body to Odile’s touch. Her middle finger pushes inside and she lifts her head to watch Corrine’s reaction. The hair on the back of her neck stands up when she sees Corrine’s face, and she drops her head back to the tight plain of Corrine’s stomach. The soft hairs tickle her lips as they skim up toward her breast, and she seeks with her thumb until she finds Corrine’s clitoris.

 

“Yes, Odile…”

 

“‘Little one’,” Odile says against Corrine’s breast.

 

“Yes, little one…” She puts her hand on the back of Odile’s head, then instantly lifts it. “Is that okay?”

 

“Yes, Corrine.” She lifts her head and Corrine’s hand slides across her hair, and she uses her tongue to make figure eights between Corrine’s breasts. Corrine grips her hair tightly, something Odile used to be ashamed of liking, but something about the way Corrine does it makes it feel right. She bares her teeth and rests her cheek against the curve of her new friend’s breast. She guides her hand by thrusting her hips, and Corrine lifts to meet her.

 

“I’m coming, little one.”

 

“Say it again,” Odile whispers against Corrine’s chest.

 

This time Corrine’s voice is barely a grunt. “You’re making me come.”

 

Odile lifts her head to watch her face in the darkness, the side away from the window shadowed but the other awash with moonlight, and she stretches up to capture Corrine’s lips. Corrine curls her fingers at the nape of Odile’s neck and thrusts her tongue into her mouth, moving against her with decreasing intensity as her climax fades.

 

Before Odile can process what’s happened, Corrine pulls back. “Are you wearing underwear?”

 

“I– no,” Odile stammers.

 

Corrine slides down so that she’s flat on the bed, and she runs her hands down Odile’s back. She pulls up her nightgown and motions impatiently for her to scoot up her body. Odile does as instructed until she’s straddling Corrine’s head, her hands flat against the wall as she looks down. Corrine’s head is completely draped by her gown, so there’s no warning when the kissing begins. She gasps and goes rigid so she doesn’t close her thighs too tightly on Corrine, afraid of crushing her, but coherent thought is fast becoming impossible.

 

Corrine uses lips and tongue on her, penetrating and then teasing, tasting and stroking. Odile crosses her arms and leans forward to rest her forehead against them. She’s only aware she’s crying when she feels the tears dripping onto her arms, and she only knows she’s about to come seconds before she’s grinding down on Corrine’s searching lips and tongue. Afterward she gives a mighty shudder and cries out suddenly, clapping a hand over her mouth as she falls backward.

 

She lies on Corrine’s body, her hair pillowed on Corrine’s knobby knees, and she stares at the ceiling. Corrine continues to stroke her legs, moving higher until she cups Odile’s sex.

 

“Don’t.” Odile jerks and twists away, reaching down to block Corrine with her hand.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“No. I-I’m just too sensitive. It would be more hurt than pleasure.”

 

Corrine moves her hand to the outside of Odile’s hip and massages it. “Are you okay?”

 

“Mm-hmm.”

 

“You’re crying.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Okay.”

 

They lay in silence for a long time until Odile finally pushes herself up. “Thank you.”

 

“Sure. It wasn’t exactly a self-less endeavor.”

 

Odile blushes and looks down. She covers Corrine’s hand with hers and draws it up to her breast. Corrine takes the hint and massages through the thin gown, pinching the nipple when it becomes erect. Odile hisses through her teeth and lifts her chin.

 

“Is that okay, little one?”

 

“No.” She covers Corrine’s hand to keep her from taking it away. “Harder.”

 

Corrine twists and Odile gasps, wrinkling her nose. She nods, because she doesn’t trust herself to speak, and Corrine sits up to pinch harder. She draws Odile to her, and Odile presses her sex against Corrine’s stomach. They kiss, and this time it feels more natural to slip her tongue into Corrine’s mouth as she rocks her hips forward. When she pulls back Corrine closes her lips and captures her tongue, sucking gently before she lets it go. In that moment, Odile makes a decision.

 

“Pin me down.”

 

“You said–”

 

“I want to feel you on top of me.”

 

Corrine shifts her weight, lifting Odile and gently laying her on the mattress. Odile closes her eyes and braces for the shock of it. She fears flashbacks and trauma-borne reflexes to kick in, but Corrine’s weight is soft and easy to bear. Odile strokes Corrine’s breasts and down under her arms, resting on her ass, digging her fingers in as Corrine presses her knees into the mattress for leverage and begins to thrust.

 

Odile buries her face against Corrine’s neck as she comes for only the second time since the Purge, her eyes squeezed shut, her entire body trembling as Corrine once again gets her off. Corrine pulls back and gently brushes the hair out of Odile’s face before kissing both cheeks and her lips.

 

“Are you okay, little one?”

 

Odile makes a cooing sound, eyes closed, lifting her head to bump her nose and forehead against Corrine’s. “Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

“Don’t let me go. Not yet.”

 

Corrine nods and kisses her again before settling against her. Odile tries to catch her breath, feeling overheated and weary but ecstatic at what just occurred. She wants to do it again, but she knows her body needs time to recuperate. Corrine apparently feels the same, as her breathing quickly becomes steady and even. Odile strokes her hair, careful of the still-tender flesh around her head wound, and waits to follow her into sleep.

 

#

 

Corrine lies awake long after Odile falls asleep. The poor girl is so exhausted that she doesn’t stir as Corrine lifts her, rearranging her position until her head is on the pillow. She draws the blankets up to her hip and then sits cross-legged on the mattress to watch her sleep. Blonde hair falls across her face like spider webs, her lips parted so that they drew ever-so-slightly inward with each inhale, and then puffed slightly out with her exhales. Her fingers are still wet, so Corrine gently wipes them on the pillow case and then kisses the tip of each one.

 

She thinks about the cruise ship she believes is waiting on the other side of the horizon. She knows people, people she trusts, who swore the boats were really out there. She sat on a cliff for thirty-six hours once for a glimpse of one. A flicker of sunlight on something, either a trick of the eye or a whale momentarily breaching… or the glass of a boat that’s staying just out of sight? She’s always believed that people see what they want to see, so she exhausts the possibilities one by one. She refuses to believe it until all other explanations are exhausted. She knows in her heart that there are boats, and she knows that if she’s in Cape Town in eight weeks time, she can arrange for passage to one. And then she’ll be safe.

 

She reaches out and strokes Odile’s hair. She lets her hand drift further down, to the marks she hasn’t let herself examine until now. Odile became a thing, an object, a toy, and boys treat their toys badly. She doesn’t know what humiliations and degradations the woman lying in front of her has faced, and she knows she couldn’t bear the knowledge. If she knew specifics, with the way Odile has wedged her way into her heart, she would have to go back and kill every one of the men who treated Odile poorly.

 

She knows she can do it. She’s killed before, and she has no ghosts lingering in her mind over the men she’s killed. They were rapists or murderers or something worse. They all chose a path that ended with violence, and she was the violent end they deserved. She has killed men with her bare hands, with blades and with bullets. She’s killed men who never saw her face and didn’t see Death coming for them. She’s strong. She’s survived all these years wandering, and the protection of the cruise ship is meant to be her reward.

 

After a long moment she slips out of bed and puts her clothes back on. She finds her shoes and laces them, moving cautiously through the dark so she won’t disturb Odile’s sleep. The corridors of the house are dark, with only a few lights illuminated at the terminus of hall and in the corners so visibility is retained. She moves swiftly through the house, out the front door, and crosses the courtyard to her cruiser.

 

She’s still digging through the material at the back when she sees movement from the corner of her eye. Cecilia is watching her, arms crossed over a nightgown made of thick interwoven straps of cotton that leaves the occasional diamond of bare flesh exposed. Corrine pauses just long enough to appreciate the older woman’s curves and then goes back to her search.

 

“If you leave now, it will devastate that girl.”

 

Corrine stops what she’s doing.

 

“She’s put all her faith in you. You’re the one who brought her out of the cage. If you’re just going to disappear, it would be kinder to put a bullet in her head before you go.”

 

“I’m leaving in three days,” Corrine says. “That should give me plenty of time to heal and still make Cape Town on schedule if I speed up a little and don’t make as many stops. That’s not why I’m out here.” She pulls a heavy bag from the back of her cruiser, checks it, and then gingerly lowers it to the ground. “Open that. Carefully.”

 

Cecilia moves forward and crouches. She unzips the bag as Corrine frees another identical bag from the cargo hold. Cecilia removes a wide, flat square of metal. The olive-green paint is chipped, and the block letters are stamped in ink too faded to read. She tries to deduce what it is but finally gives up and looks curiously at Corrine.

 

“U-issued land mines. They aren’t primed yet, but they’ll work. I figure if you can’t keep an eye on the southern exposure, you ought to have some sort of security out there. Tomorrow we’ll work up a grid and I’ll help you plant them.”

 

“Thank you.” Cecilia examines the mine more closely now that she knows what it is. “But why give them to me? You could probably get a nice penny off these in the black market. UO gear is always in high demand.”

 

“You need some way to watch your back if it’s just going to be you out here. Can’t have someone sneaking up on you and taking all this away just because you can’t be in two places at once.”

 

“I thought you were going to convince Odile to stay.”

 

Corrine shakes her head. “She’s not a fighter. She’d never survive the first confrontation, let alone…” She rubs her face. “She’s not built for this world. Fighting to get whatever you need, and then fighting to keep it. She can’t do that. She’s still the same person she was before the Purge. That’s kind of precious, when you think about it. Something that oughta be preserved in case we ever want to try that civilization thing again. So when I leave here, I’m taking her with me. I’m going to find a boat, and I’m going to get her onto one of those cruise ships where she’ll be safe.”

 

Cecilia raises an eyebrow. “That’s risky. If their population is as strict as you said, they might refuse to take two.”

 

“I’m not going to ask them to take two. I couldn’t afford the passage for two people even if I whored myself out to everyone in Cape Town. So if the boats exist, I’ll buy Odile passage and then I’ll find my way back here. The mines are to make sure you can hold down the fort until I get back, no matter how long it takes.”

 

“You’d give up your own dream of paradise for her?”

 

Corrine shrugs and runs her hand over the cruiser. “I’ve survived this long. But Odile… she can’t live like this much longer. She needs to be rescued. I can wait a little longer for paradise.”

 

Cecilia watches her for a long moment. “That’s chivalrous.”

 

“It’s fucking stupid,” Corrine says sharply. “This world is supposed to be selfish. It’s the only way any of us survive. Giving up protection like that is… Heh.” She shakes her head. “If I leave her here, Odile will die. If I send her away, Odile will die. The only way she can be safe is if I put her on a boat.”

 

“You love her that much?”

 

“I look at Odile, and I feel things I marked as extinct a long time ago. I’m not doing it for her, I’m doing it for that feeling. Because if I can still feel that way, then maybe there’s hope for everything else.” She hoists one of the bags onto her shoulder. “Come on. We shouldn’t leave these out in the open. Could get hot in the morning, and I don’t want to know what happens when these things are left out in direct sunlight.”

 

#

 

The next evening, Cecilia takes out her journal and smoothes down the spine so it will lie flat on the desk. Before she begins writing she examines the map on the desk next to her writing space. It shows the positions of all twelve mines, their spacing a hotly contested topic at that evening’s supper. In the morning Corrine has agreed to help her bury them, and the map will be officially marked so there won’t be any unfortunate accidents. She’ll also put up a fence with signs posted warning about the hazards. She doesn’t want any innocents to try passing around her property only to get blown up for their kindness. And while the fence won’t stop any potential intruders, it will stop animals from wandering into danger.

 

Sound carries in the house, and as she wets the tip of her pen with ink, she hears Odile cry out in pleasure. She smiles and lowers the nub to the page. She writes details of the minefield, distances from the east and west walls to the first mine, depths, and specific instructions for how to navigate the deadly spots of her backyard.

 

Cecilia wants to write about Corrine’s revelation the night before, but she can’t find the proper words. The sacrifice Corrine is preparing to make is staggering. It’s akin to someone crawling through a burning house, and then pushing someone else through the open door knowing it will slam shut behind them. The boats have been Corrine’s goal for only-she-knows how long. Cecilia doesn’t know if she would be able to make a similar sacrifice. She thinks of her husband and child and knows what she would surrender to make them safe, and she understands Corrine’s decision a little better.

 

She turns back to the page where she wrote about Corrine’s arrival in the compound. She lowers the pen and adds a sentence: “I saved the right life.”

 

She brings the book closer to her face and blows until the ink is dry, and then she closes the cover. Tomorrow’s work will be long and tedious, and it will have to take place in the harsh light of day if they want their measurements to be accurate. But it will be one day, and in the end her fortress will have a new layer of security between it and the outside world. A little heat will be a small price for the peace of mind the explosives will bring.

 

Cecilia almost extinguishes the lantern, but then she turns and carries it to the china cabinet in the corner. The glass is dusty and, in one place, cracked and patched with masking tape. Through the walls she can hear Odile’s cries increasing in pitch as she nears orgasm, flushing as she tries not to think about what Corrine is doing to elicit such noises. She takes out a small bauble, something she’s carried with her since leaving her home before the Purge, and she holds it in her palm as a memory of her husband as she walks back to bed.

 

She crawls under the covers and finally kills her light. In the darkness she can hear Corrine and Odile’s voices, and she brings the bauble to her lips and begins to whisper as if her husband can hear her through the heirloom. She imagines his voice responding to her, can almost see the blue glass of the gemstone glowing with his presence. She falls asleep with a smile on her lips, remembering some silly story he once told her as his ghost follows her into slumber.

 

#

 

Corrine doesn’t want Odile handling the explosive once it has been primed, and Cecilia is quick to agree. So she takes the easiest part of the task and marks out the grid. It’s hard work, but it reminds her of the time Before and calms her. Making love to Corrine has also helped her mind slip back on the right tracks. For the first time since frantically fleeing the cities, she feels like she’s herself again. She’s the woman who likes jazz and cries when people fall in love in a movie, even if she hasn’t seen a movie since college.

 

She wears a hat with a wide and floppy brim as protection against the sun, her eyes hidden behind glasses that remind her of eggplants. The hem of her sleeveless shirt is bound under her breasts to leave her abdomen exposed, and she’s wearing trousers with the pants-legs split to ventilate them. Corrine has forgone clothes entirely for the most part, standing topless at the edge of the field and marking the grid. They use wooden pegs with dental floss to mark the boundaries, and Cecilia – in a lightweight dress that keeps getting whipped around her body by the breeze – takes careful measurements so she will be able to find the mines in the future.

 

Once Odile finishes the grid, she’s sunburned and parched. She walks back to where Cecilia and Corrine have started digging for the first mine and takes a bottle of water from their pack. She drinks and holds the water in her mouth, then touches Corrine’s shoulder. When Corrine turns, Odile stretches to press their mouths together and pushes the water into Corrine’s with her tongue. They swap it back and forth until every drop is either swallowed or absorbed into their cheeks and tongues, then Odile breaks the kiss and drags her thumb over Corrine’s bottom lip before sucking it dry.

 

“I’m thirsty, too,” Cecilia says.

 

“Get your own bottle,” Corrine replies.

 

Cecilia smiles and crouches to carefully deposit the primed explosive into the nest they’ve just dug for it. Odile takes her bottle of water and walks to the next task: taking the post-hole maker to dig holes for the fence posts that will keep animals from needlessly blowing themselves up on Cecilia’s new security system.

 

They stop working when the sun is low on the horizon, adjourning inside to cool off and find something to have for dinner. Corrine takes Odile’s hand, kisses her temple, and spits at the salty-sweaty taste the kiss leaves on her lips. “We’ll have to take a shower.”

 

“I’m too tired to have sex,” Odile says.

 

“That’s okay. I just want to get clean.”

 

Odile’s mind still reels at that. Closeness and intimacy without sex. For too long she’s lived in a world where only the opposite is true, where she couldn’t afford to trust. She squeezed Corrine’s hand, then lifts it and kisses the thumb.

 

“I love you, Corrine.”

 

Corrine looks down at her. “I love you, too, little one.”

 

Odile smiles. For years she’s allowed herself to be owned by people who didn’t know her name, who refused to call her by anything other than diminutive nicknames. “Little one” ought to belong in that lexicon, and her skin should crawl every time it passes Corrine’s lips. But for whatever reason – the tone or the tenderness in how the word is spoken – it reaches straight to her heart. She is Corrine’s little one. The other names were attempts to dehumanize her. Corrine’s nickname does the opposite. It appoints her as something special and provides her an identity in Corrine’s world.

 

She decides it’s an identity she’s happy to assume.

 

#

 

The night before they leave, Odile penetrates Corrine from behind. They move slowly, with Corrine facedown and Odile on top of her. She feels the slender fingers shaking against her buttocks, easing the tip of the shaft against her sex, and she rubs her cheek against her shoulder. “Take your time. There’s no hurry now, little one.”

 

Odile’s sweat is slick on Corrine’s back from their last lovemaking session. In the afterglow Odile spoke of the men who had taken her, how they used their cocks to declare possession. Conversation turned to the bag of toys Cecilia left for them, and Corrine watched from the bed as Odile carefully examined each and every trinket. Finally she brought a dildo back to the bed and held it with both hands, gazing at it before lifting her eyes to Corrine.

 

“Do you want me to use this?”

 

“No. I want to use it on you.”

 

Corrine can hear in Odile’s voice how much it hurts her to say those two words: “I want.” Even now, Odile thinks it’s a sin to want, to desire, but she can say it without stuttering. Corrine nodded and then assumed the position.

 

They move slowly, and Odile constantly whispers her apology as she withdraws to drag the wet tip along Corrine’s inner thigh. And Corrine constantly shakes her head and tells her there’s nothing to be sorry about. Each time she gets closer until finally she twists her wrist and the detailed head of the fake prick pushes inside of her. Corrine inhales sharply at the surprise insertion, straightening her elbows and gripping the pillow with both hands.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Mm-hmm.”

 

“Don’t let me hurt you.”

 

“You won’t hurt me, little one,” she whispers. “Fuck me…”

 

Odile starts to move, then pauses. “Say please.”

 

Corrine smiles. “Please, little one. Fuh–” She’s cut off mid-word as Odile suddenly thrusts the full length into her. “Oh, fuck.” She growled and lowers her head, moving her legs wider apart. Odile settles behind her, arches her back to put the base of the dildo against her mound, and begins to thrust. Soon they’re both crying out, and Corrine slaps her palm against the wall as she comes. Odile slumps against her back, Corrine’s hips fitted perfectly into Odile’s lap, and Odile kisses whatever she can get her lips to. She finds a wave of black hair and closes her mouth around it, biting down on the strands and listening to them crackle under her teeth.

 

“Next time you can pull my hair,” Corrine gasps.

 

“Okay.”

 

Corrine reaches back and flattens her hand on Odile’s buttocks, pulling her closer together before twisting to kiss her lips. They both end up with hair in their mouth, which causes them to spin and pinch at their tongues until they start laughing at the utterly unerotic end to their coupling. Corrine twists with the toy still inside of her, her hands on Odile’s shoulders, and drags her little one down to the mattress with her.

 

They kiss again, and Corrine traces a line down the middle of Odile’s cheek. “I just want you to be safe,” she whispers. “Later, if you get angry at me or if you hate me, just remember that my only goal is to keep you safe.”

 

“Why would I hate you?” Odile asks.

 

“Just promise me.”

 

Odile nods. “I’ll remember.”

 

Corrine kisses her and pulls her in for an embrace. With everything she’s done to reach Cape Town, every torturous step that’s led her to this place, she knows the hardest thing to do now will be to walk away and leave Odile behind at the docks. Even if it is for the greater good, she doesn’t know if she’ll survive the heartbreak.

 

#

 

In the morning, Cecilia prepares a final meal for them. Chicken and rice made for an unusual breakfast, but it is somehow fitting for their farewell. Odile leads the prayer of thanks and gratitude before eating. Cecilia packs a small box of provisions for them, only what she could spare she assures them, and takes it out to the cruiser while Corrine and Odile wash the dishes. Corrine admits to herself that she’ll miss the domestic aspect of the compound. Feeding the animals, tending to the garden, washing dishes. She finds a zen calmness standing beside Odile and running a wet cloth over their plates. Occasionally Odile catches her watching, smiles, and Corrine can’t resist smiling back.

 

When they leave, Cecilia hugs them both and wishes them well on their journey. Corrine notices that there are tears in her eyes behind her sunglasses, but neither of them wants to acknowledge them. Cecilia kisses both of Odile’s hands and hugs her tightly before helping her into the trundle seat of the cruiser. Corrine makes sure she’s strapped in well and then climbs behind the wheel.

 

Cecilia waves goodbye to them from the gate, and soon she and the compound are both lost in the dust being kicked up from the cruiser’s back tires. Corrine keeps her eyes on the crumbling road that stretches out on the hardpan ahead of them, forcing herself not to be emotional. She’ll be back once she’s gotten Odile to safety. She’ll be back, Odile will be safe, and that will count as a win. A great win, a victory in this hellish world, and she knows she’ll take it with her to her grave as the one good thing she’s done with her life.

 

The position of Odile’s seat means that her legs frame either side of Corrine’s head. She can see Odile’s knees in her periphery and occasionally, when her attention isn’t wholly required on the road, she rocks her head back to rest it against the crotch of Odile’s pants. Sometimes Odile reaches down to stroke her hair. When she first does it, Corrine fears it will be a distraction. But she quickly grows to like it and smiles every time she feels the slender fingers threading through her strands.

 

She glances at her odometer and her good cheer fades. It counts down the kilometers, eating them up one at a time as she draws closer to her destination. For months she’s dreamt of seeing Cape Town rising up in front of her. But now, with everything her arrival in that town will bring, she can’t help but feel a finger of dread running up and down her spine.

 

They travel at night, even though it’s more dangerous due to marauders and carjackers that haunt the byways. During the day they find squats and abandoned hotels where they can hide their gear and get some sleep. Sometimes they make love, sometimes they are both too exhausted from the drive, or simply too hot to do anything but curl up together and sleep. Corrine sacrifices one morning teaching Odile how to drive the cruiser at the girl’s request, and soon they’re able to take shifts. While Corrine appreciates making better time, she’s saddened that the new development means they’ll have to part ways even sooner than she expected.

 

During the drive, Odile blossoms. She smiles, laughs without warning, sings to Corrine while she drives… when they make love, she whispers in Corrine’s ear as they come. The life returns to her eyes and Corrine realizes she only thought they were beautiful before. She was seeing a shell-shocked and battered Odile before. Now she sees a vibrant human being, and it breaks her heart to know their time is limited.

 

A few kilometers outside of Cape Town, Corrine kills two men. She searches their gear but doesn’t find anything worth the space it would take up on her cruiser and leaves their bodies for the scavengers. Odile doesn’t ask why the men had to die; she can assume the reasoning all too well. She waits until they’ve been on the road for a while before she cups her hand and pours some water into her palm. She tilts it, letting the water trickle down over Corrine’s neck and down into her shirt.

 

“Ahh. Thank you, little one.”

 

Odile bends forward and kisses the top of Corrine’s head. “Thank you, my love.”

 

They arrive in Cape Town on schedule, three days before the next supply ship goes out to the Floating Cities if Corrine’s information is accurate. They find a place where they can stay, and Corrine begins asking questions in the right corners of the city. She whispers code words she learned with a knife’s blade to an informant’s throat. She passes coins to people who mutter a piece of the puzzle that guides her deeper into the city. One man only asks for her to use her hand on him, and she slips into the booth beside him as he unzips his pants.

 

“Okay. I can help you,” he says, his voice rough.

 

Corrine squeezes and he grunts. “How much?”

 

“Expensive. Cripes. But you knew that. Come on, don’t stop.”

 

She gestures at the window and moves her hand again. “You see that cruiser out there? You get me passage to the boats, and it’s yours.”

 

“And everything inside it?”

 

“Give me a chance to clear out my personal shit, and you can have everything.” She leans in close, dropping her voice to a seductive whisper. “Weapons. Ammunition…” Her lips brush his cheek. “Water.”

 

He makes a tremulous sound in his throat and marks the underside of the table. Corrine grimaces and wipes her hand on his filthy trousers. When he’s caught his breath and tucked back into his underwear, he clears his throat and runs his hands through his greasy hair.

 

“Yeah. That sounds like a doable offer. Little more than doable, actually. You’re paying for the premium.”

 

“Is it enough for two tickets?” Corrine asks, doubtful but unable to resist asking.

 

He smiles. “Cruiser will buy a lot, dark meat, but two tickets? Sorry.”

 

She put her hand on his crotch and squeezed, digging her nails in until he yelped. “Never, ever call anyone ‘dark meat’ ever again. Do you understand me?”

 

His answer is squeaked, but she gets the gist and releases him. “Let me go get my stuff.”

 

He nods and cradles his jewels, treated so well and so brutally in such a short period, as she climbs from the booth. She has no idea how she’ll break the news to Odile. A part of her wants to pretend she’s arranged for two tickets and then just act like she missed the boat. No. Odile deserves a proper farewell, at the very least. Just the thought of it hurts her heart, and she knows how difficult it will be to convince her to get on the boat alone. But it’s the only way.

 

Corrine opens her bag and stuffs everything she wants into it. Most of the crap can stay, items accrued during her trek across the karoo, but there are a few things she’s grown attached to. She stuffs a glass bottle and a broken music player into her bag. She opens the compartments and finds a small stuffed koala bear that she found in an empty tavern that kept her company for the past few hundred kilometers. She keeps a watch with a thick leather band that she thinks look good even if the timepiece doesn’t work. And…

 

A blue sapphire the size of her palm in a gold setting.

 

She stares at it, her body cold despite the sun beating down on her, and she wonders if Odile stole it from Cecilia. No. Impossible. But where in God’s name did it come from? She searches the compartment from which she’d extracted it and finds a wadded up piece of paper. She recognizes Cecilia’s handwriting and sags against the seat when she reads the simple message she’s written out.

 

“No one should have to wait for their paradise.”

 

Corrine presses her fist against her lips, trembling from the effort of holding back the tears. She bites down on the knuckle of her first finger and, when she pulls back, she sees indentations from her teeth embedded in the skin. She wipes at her cheeks and climbs out of the cruiser. The sun feels refreshing now, and her heart and lungs race to be the most overworked organs in her body. She struggles to breathe normally, her heart pounding in her ears so loud that she can barely hear as she walks back to the booth.

 

“Get everything?” her ticketmaster says. He looks up and frowns. “What happened to you?”

 

She holds up the jewelry so he can see it, but keeps it hidden from the rest of the bar. His eyes widen and she instantly knows it’s enough for what she needs.

 

“I’m buying another ticket.”

 

#

 

Cecilia walks the edge of her territory with a gun slung across her back. The compound has been so silent in the past few weeks, so empty and barren without Corrine and Odile. She’ll get used to the silence again. She always has in the past. She thinks about the gemstone she hid in their cruiser and hopes that Corrine found it in time to make a difference. If it was meant to be, then she did. Her husband gave her the necklace when he proposed to her and told her it was a gateway necklace. “This will take you wherever you are supposed to be,” he said. These days she was precisely where she wanted to be. Corrine needed the gem more than she ever did.

 

Occasionally cars will pass through the town that once crowded up against her home. She’ll track their progress through her telescope, and she’ll dissuade them from getting closer if she must. She has developed a keen intuition on whether people are good or bad intentioned from the way they treat their vehicles. Sometimes she’ll see a UO cruiser and thinks Corrine is coming back. She always has mixed feelings with these sightings, but she’s always glad when they turn off and drive off into the distance.

 

The sun is setting earlier these days. It’s behind her now, and she looks toward Cape Town. The curve of the Earth prevents her from seeing the ocean, but sometimes she pretends she can see all the way to the middle of the Atlantic. She used to see it all the time so she can envision it well. She closes her eyes and smiles as she thinks about the sharp line between sea and sky. Sometimes she sees a flash there, a flicker of movement that skeptics would dismiss as a whale fluke or a trick of the eye.

 

But Cecilia smiles, because she knows the glint of sunlight on glass when she sees it.

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