Marla remembers three things from the before part of her life.
1: The world ended forever a few days after she turned eight.
2: There was still some leftover cake in the fridge. The cake had been chocolate, with sickly sweet vanilla frosting and tasteless colored sprinkles. Twelve years later the cake reminded Marla of her life: A rich, delicious base with some embellishments that were maybe too wonderful, and some extra things that didn’t really matter.
(What she wouldn’t give for cake now.)
3: Marla lived in New Mercy, a town in the Appalachian Mountains, in a country formerly known as the United States.
(It was now called the United Coalition of Territories. It was originally called this when the oceans devoured enough land for many of the eastern states and western cities to vanish.)
The mountains were close to the edge of the water, but they still stood high above the waves. High enough for there to be many cities and towns. Marla’s town was small, but it was self-sustaining and had a school and adults who nurtured the small number of children.
Global warming had affected many places in the world, but Marla’s town had stayed wonderfully safe and mostly normal. They definitely weren’t as safe as the towns that were rumored to be covered in domes or underground to stay away from the chemicals in the air and the entreating oceans, but it was safe enough. The mountain air was clean(ish) and the oceans had no chance of getting high enough to flood Marla’s mountaintop. Her town was rich enough that they were able to make Marla a chocolate birthday cake for her eight birthday.
Marla’s birthday occurred a few days after the third quarter of school ended. Marla had straight As and a teacher’s recommendation for skipping a year of school. Her parents were extremely proud of her; their Marla was just that smart.
(In fact, if Marla had taken an IQ test, than it would have been revealed that she had an IQ of 134.)
But a few days after Marla Brown turned seven, everything changed.
The Territories of Maine and Vermont had been in a war with Quebec over territory. Everyone had assumed that this war was something that would stay isolated in that region. After all, it was just a petty land battle that didn’t concern anyone out of those territories.
They were wrong. Because damn them, Maine nuked Quebec. Since the first bombing back in 1945, scientists had worked on the nuclear bomb until it didn’t kill as many plants if dropped. However, nuclear chemicals traveled on the winds all around the world. The oceans weren’t really a problem any more. The chemicals in the air were now much more pressing.
Marla could remember when her parents told her. (Well, they didn’t really tell her. She eavesdropped on one of their conversations and saw how upset and scared they were, and heard what they were talking about.) And suddenly, it didn’t matter how smart Marla was. She was going to slowly waste away along with everyone else in the town of New Mercy.
During school one day (the adults were trying to simulate normalcy for the children) there was a loud, roaring sound from outside. Marla looked out the window, along with everyone else in the class, and was amazed to see what looked like a helicopter, right here on her mountain.
“Ms. Glass, can we go outside?” Marla’s best friend Omidella Aster asked. (Her strange name had been given to her as a combination of her parents’ names, Omi and Della.) A few other kids nodded in agreement.
“Not right now,” Ms. Glass answered. “After school, though, ask your parents. If they say yes, then you can look at it. We have math to get through.”
“Please?” Tommy Kowalski begged. “It’s so cool! When else are we going to see a helicop—a helicopter?”
“I’m sure that they will still be here after school,” Ms. Glass assured Tommy. “A helicopter wouldn’t come here unless they had serious business. If you’re good, maybe they’ll take you for a ride!”
Tommy looked disappointed, but he closed his mouth.
Marla looked back at her bar graphs and tried to think about how to space out the numbers on the Y-axis equally. Without counting, she could tell that there were exactly 24 lines. It only took a little effort for her to deduce that 8 children in 24 lines was intervals of 3 lines.
The exact thing she was graphing was how many children were in specific grades in school. She remembered because as she was in the middle of graphing it, a knock came on the door to the classroom. She and everyone else in the class looked up to see two people, a man and a woman (the man had dark hair and a mustache, while the woman was blonde with freckles) standing there.
The man briefly conferred with Ms. Glass, who paled. Ms. Glass whispered something back, and the man shook his head.
“Marla?” Ms. Glass said. “Could you please come up here? Get your things, these people need to talk to you.”
“Oooohhh…” the rest of the class chorused.
Marla ignored them and stood up. She grabbed her graph (no use leaving something unfinished), picked up her folder, and walked to the front of the classroom. On the way, she grabbed her jacket. Marla didn’t have a backpack.
“Okay, honey,” said Ms. Glass, leaning down, “These nice people are going to take you home. Go with them. I just—” her voice broke. “I just want you to know that you are one of the most gifted students I’ve ever had. It’s been a pleasure teaching you.”
Smart, perceptive Marla suddenly got scared. “Ms. Glass, what’s going on?”
“Nothing!” Ms. Glass forced out. She said it quickly. “Absolutely nothing. Everything is fine.”
(Years later, Marla realized that Ms. Glass knew she was going to die.)
The nice people took Marla home, past the helicopter, past hundreds of rocks and pebbles and grasses that Marla had seen all of her life. Marla managed to tuck her graphing sheet into her folder so that it wouldn’t get ruined by all of the dust blowing around outside. Marla thought that it seemed as though the dust whipping around her face was a little sharper, a little faster, and that the grass seemed more sickly than the last time she had been outside.
A few minutes later, they were at Marla’s house. The man knocked on the door. With a jolt, Marla realized that the expression on his face had stayed the same since Marla had first seen him.
Marla’s mother, Gwendolyn Brown, had opened the door. She had been surprised to see the two people standing there. “Hello,” she ventured, “How can I help you?”
“We’re here to talk about your daughter,” the woman said. Her voice was high and hard.
“My—I’m not quite sure I understand.”
“Ms. Brown,” the woman said firmly, “I’m sure you’ve noticed that your daughter is quite gifted. We’d like to take her to a place where she can hone her abilities. May we come in?”
“I—well—I mean, of course,” Gwendolyn stuttered. “Please come in.”
Marla led the two people through the door of her house. Her mother signaled that she should go to her room. Disgruntled, Marla went into her room. Luckily, her sleeping space was right next to the kitchen, where her mother and the two strangers were convening. Marla pressed her ear to the door and listened.
“—dear, you better come over here,” Gwendolyn said. No response came, and then Gwendolyn spoke again. “Yes, it’s about Marla. They want to take her away.” Marla realized that her mother must have been talking on the telephone.
Gwendolyn hung up. “Can I offer you anything while we wait?”
“Just some water,” came the male voice.
“Alright,” said Gwendolyn. She clattered around the kitchen, getting two glasses for water. “Let me introduce myself. I’m Gwendolyn Brown, although of course you knew that. Would you mind telling me your names?”
There was a brief silence. “I’m Katrina Lerner,” said the female voice. “You can call me Agent Lerner. I work for the Citizen Protection Agency, or the CPA.”
“Mark Johnson,” said the man. “I don’t have any such credentials, but I work as a helicopter pilot.”
A door opened and slammed. Noah Brown was home. “Would anyone mind telling me what this is about?” Noah blustered.
“I’m sure that you know about the bomb that was dropped,” said Agent Lerner. “It’s having a rather…problematic effect on the atmosphere. And while you might not know this, we expect that most humans who are living in exposed areas will die within the next five years.”
Marla jerked her head away. She had no idea the magnitude of this bomb! She had assumed that there would be some rough years, but that humanity would make it through as it always did.
“I didn’t know about the extent of the bomb,” Gwendolyn said quietly. “I knew that it was dangerous, but not like this.”
“Yes. Well, that is the truth,” said Agent Lerner. “But the CPA has been working overtime to try to move humans underground. Obviously, prominent public officials and other people such as scientists have taken first priority—”
“WHAT?” Noah yelled. “So basically, all you’re doing is saving the rich and famous and leaving the rest of us to die? Get out! Get out of our house!”
“If you will let me talk, Mr. Brown,” Agent Lerner said sharply. “Bluntly stated, yes. That is what we are doing. However, I prefer to think of it as a way to make sure that humanity endures. It is important that at least some people make it through this crisis. The human race is more likely to survive if scientists, political leaders, doctors, those types of people make it through.”
“Then why are you here?” Gwendolyn asked. “No one in New Mercy has those credentials. Are you just rubbing this in our face? I’m halfway to throwing you out of my home right now. At least let us die in peace, without you high-faluting government types laughing at us!”
“We have come here because we believe that your daughter is a genius! All grades are put into a central computer that the CPA has access to. From these grades, we have come to believe that your daughter is the type of talented individual that we would want to survive,” Agent Lerner said, standing up and slamming her fist on the table.
“You want to take our child?” Noah asked. “That’s it. Get out.”
“I’m sure that you want the best for your child,” Mark Johnson spoke up. “We’d be giving her the best chances of living.”
“Please call her out here,” Agent Lerner said.
“Marla! Could you please come here?” Gwendolyn called. She then whispered something to Noah that Marla couldn’t hear. Marla opened the door and ran to the table.
“So you’re Marla?” Agent Lerner asked. She smiled down at Marla. “I’m Agent Lerner. I’m here to see if you want to come away with us.”
Marla remembered that she wasn’t supposed to know what was going on. Her parents would be angry that she had eavesdropped, and Marla only wanted to make them proud.
“Why would I have to go?” Marla asked.
“Honey,” Gwendolyn leaned forward, “There’s no easy way to tell you this. But apparently, it’ll be much safer for you if you go with them.”
““But…I’d have to leave,” Marla said. “Can’t you come with me?” She addressed Agent Lerner. “I’d go if they could go with me.”
“Look, kid,” said Mark Johnson, “You’re what, seven? You’re smart, but not vital to the community of survivors. We have no obligation to take you with us.”
I’m eight! Thought Marla. You expect me to go with you when you don’t even know that I’m eight? There was no choice for Marla, then. Marla loved her parents, and loved her town. There was no way that she was going without them.
“No,” Marla answered.
Agent Lerner and Mark Johnson exchanged a surprised glance. Marla could read the confusion flitting across their faces at her answer. For a moment, Marla felt fleeting pity. She wouldn’t want to be so grown up that she thought life was the best thing, over family and love.
“Marla,” whispered Marla’s mother, “we want you to go with them.”
For a moment, Marla was uncomprehending. “But why?”
“You’ll live on. You’re gifted, honey. And we’re your parents. We love you. We want you to make it through this.”
Marla turned back to Agent Lerner and Mark Johnson. “I’m sorry. I do.”
“You can bring three things. No more, no less,” said Agent Lerner. “We leave in half an hour.”
What to bring?
Marla stood in her small room. For once in her life, she couldn’t think. She was leaving, leaving her family and her home and her friends. She couldn’t fully comprehend it.
Except for one thing. Her parents wanted her to survive. She was being given this opportunity when no one else was. She had to honor everyone else in New Mercy by being smart and responsible and living. So Marla started packing. Only three things.
The first thing was an obvious to Marla. It was a clear plastic pocket that contained two pictures. The first was a picture of Marla’s class. It had her best friends and Ms. Glass and even Timothy, who she didn’t like but was amused by. The back side showed her parents when they were younger, before Marla was alive and before the world was ending for the second time. Marla placed it on her bed and looked at her room again.
The second thing was less obvious to her. She had choices between some of her books, or more pictures. With only three things to bring, making a decision was hard for her.
In the end, she picked up a set of colored pencils that she had gotten for her birthday. It was given to her by the town as a whole, so all of her friends and family had a hand in it. The multiple colors were also very handy in organization and creating line graphs. Organization was something that Marla liked.
Surveying her room once more, Marla realized that she still had the graph. No sense in leaving anything unfinished. Marla picked up the graph, the pencils, and the pictures and walked out of her room.
Marla’s mind couldn’t—wouldn’t—wrap itself around the fact that she was leaving her home and her family forever. That her family was going to die and that she, through some fluke of fate and talent, was the one that was surviving. It was overwhelming.
But she still left and got on the helicopter and she never saw New Mercy again and that was the last that she remembered of her home.
The government had a refugee center. That was where Marla went to and where she lived for years. She even made a few friends, all as talented as she was. (Of course they were, that was why they had been rescued.)
And there were around 3 things that Marla was still sure of.
1: Most of the people she loved were dead. Marla had a few friends, but nothing came close to replacing her dead parents or Omidella.
2: She hated Agent Lerner with a passion that didn’t go away over time. Quite the opposite, actually, Marla’s hate festered and fermented and was added to with every insensitive comment that Agent Lerner made. If Marla had a gun in her hand and no one around, then she might have been able to kill her. Agent Lerner represented every bad thing about the Agency that had saved her. Agent Lerner reminded Marla of the insensitive numbness that the Citizen Protection Agency had displayed when abandoning those who weren’t talented enough for them.
3: Marla wants to start a different Agency, once dedicated to protecting all people rather than the few who were considered talented.
She’d call it something to remind herself of her dead friends, her dead parents. Maybe that would at least remind the Agency people of what they had done.
Yes. Maybe she would name it after her dead best friend.