Flashes of memory of our old house. The kitchen table, shoving pieces of corn cake into my mouth. Jinnah next to me. Mom clutching the counter with both hands as if it’s holding her up. I finish my cake and I’m still hungry. I’m always hungry. I am four, five, and six at our old house. Before we moved to the Center, a place with walls and doors and streets the color of stone. Thousands like us—poor, starving. Everything we own stuffed in a suitcase. At the Center, we eat government-issued bricks of formed soy protein with a mound of beige spread that is supposed to add flavor but doesn’t taste like anything at all.
One cloudless day, Mom urges us, “It’s time. We have to go now.”
Dad’s been rushing around our unit all morning, checking and rechecking our bags, organizing and reorganizing our documents.
The bunk beds are made up, with sheets tucked tightly under thin mattresses. Mom is wearing her dress with the tiny purple flowers, and Dad has his tie on and best shoes, polished shiny over scuff marks. Our suitcases bulge, and I’m hopping from one foot to the other, unable to contain myself. The silver ship will take us home.
Home. Mom’s been telling Jinnah and me about it, painting pictures for us with her descriptions, answering our endless questions, laughing.
“Yes, we’ll have food. Every day. And jobs. And you’ll go to school—a real school with books and papers and pencils and teachers.”
It sounds like Heaven to Jinnah and me.
The man in the security uniform takes our paperwork, staring at my father’s for a long time.
“Everything is in order, as it should be. Tiptop. A-okay—” Dad chatters away until Mom quietly puts a hand on his arm.
The guard looks us up and down, stopping at Mom. “Step back,” he instructs, with a sharp nod, motioning her to the side of the check-in area.
I spin around, and she waves me off. “It’s fine, Rindy. Don’t be such a worrier.”
But her face has lost its color, and I feel the anxiety running through me, spreading like fire, until I can’t catch my breath. After an endless wait, the guard waves us through, and we strap ourselves into our seats. All four of us. I brace for takeoff, pins and needles of energy.
Home. We’re going home.
We have a little red cottage, and yellow-orange curtains in the kitchen. Jinnah and I share a room, but our house is bigger than anything we’ve ever lived in and perfect in every way. Our neighborhood is laid out on a grid of neat houses, and our school sits in the middle of the grid where I am placed in sixth year, Jinnah in seventh. Mom and Dad work shifts at the hospital. Our air is clean, and our neighborhood has pets, although we haven’t gotten ours yet.
This world is like our old world before wars and famine and pollution–that is what they tell me. This world is hope, and promises that Jinnah and I will go to university. Everything is perfect. Except Dad has dark rings under his eyes, and Mom is getting thin again. Doors close in front of me for private conversations.
“What’s wrong?” I plead with Mom every night when she tucks me in, just as she has each day of my life.
“You worry too much, Rindy. Everything is fine.” She strokes the side of my cheek, her hand is cool, comforting, and I try to believe her.
Jinnah shrugs off my worries. He never stops long enough to think about anything. He practices his chess, playing endless matches with his electronic game. He’s obsessed.
The whispered conversations continue, though, and one day, I stop eating.
“Rindy, please. Just one bite,” Mom begs, gently holding the spoon to my mouth. The soup dribbles down the side of my face.
“She needs to be hospitalized. She can’t go on like this…” Dad’s voice fades.
Mom is crying, and the last words I hear are, “She could die.”
The brightness hurts. I hear the voices of an unfamiliar language. Blinking sand away, I see a man and a woman, dressed in white. They rush over, speaking words I don’t understand, shining a light into my eyes, feeling my wrist, placing gloved fingers against my neck. Their faces hover close, bombarding me with questions. I shake my head and whisper, “Mom. Where is my mother? Where is my father?”
I follow the tube in my hand and see that it is attached to a metal pole next to me with several hanging bags of different-colored liquids.
A young man with slick black hair, and the same color skin as my parents and me, pulls up a chair.
“Rindy, my name is Gavan.”
I feel the wave of anxiety bubbling through me. He looks into my eyes and clears his throat.
Don’t say it. Please, don’t say it.
His face softens, and he takes a breath. “Your parents have been sent back. Their papers were—their papers were not in order.”
“And Jinnah? Where is my brother?” I manage to croak the words through the dust in my mouth.
“He’s with them. He couldn’t be here alone.”
“Why didn’t they take me?” I cry out.
“Fortunately, you couldn’t be moved in your condition. You’re one of the lucky ones, Rindy. You’re a ward of the State now.”
It takes a second for his words to sink in. Everyone I love is millions of miles away, back on Earth.