“Lux, come look. It’s a dog.”
I press my face up to the small window, three-panes thick, iron-barred, and clouded with condensation. Outside, a scraggly looking dog trots across the snow, leaving a trail of paw prints behind it. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a land-critter.
“Lux,” I say again. “Wake up. Yer missing it.”
In her bed, Lux lets out a low groan. “Let me sleep, Wyn,” she mutters.
She tugs the threadbare cover up to her chin, and turns her back on me. The bed frame screeches metallically beneath her. I shrug — ’suit yerself’ — and turn back to the window.
It’s high up in the dormitory wall, so I have to stand on my bed on my tippy-toes to see out. The snow’s still so deep after last week’s blizzard it reaches right up to the frame. What’s that — ten feet deep? Twelve? It’s the worst snow-in I’ve seen in all my fifteen years of life.
On the other side of the glass, the scruffy dog sniffs about. It’s looking for something to eat. Ain’t we all?
“Yer won’t find anything,” I tell it. “We’ve been drinking nothing but tallstrunt for weeks.”
Boiled pine needles. It’s the only source of vitamin C in our snow-covered world. When the roads are clear and the deliverers can reach the orphanage, the drink’s thickened up with blubber; sea lion, whale, ocean-critters big enough to cut through the ice-slush but not smart enough to avoid a harpoon. But when the roads are closed like now, we have to make do without. Means our stomachs growl from dawn till dusk, and right on through the night as well. That’s why I’m up before bell-clang. I’ve never been a good sleeper, and it’s worse on an empty stomach.
Speaking of bell-clang…
The low gong sounds, making the kids in the beds around me stir. They groan, just like Lux. Bones creak. Muscles cramp. Cold and hunger and fatigue make waking up the most miserable part of our miserable existence.
“Lux, c’mon,” I say, hopping from the bed to the cold floor. “Bell-clang.”
She moans. Always been a reluctant waker, has Lux. Even though she works less than anyone else in the orphanage, and gets an extra spoon of rations, she’s always complained the loudest at bell-clang. She gets away with it though, cos of her good looks. Funny. No one likes me even though I get my work done quietly and efficiently, while Lux can whine like a toddler and still gets treated like a goddess.
I go over and pull back her cover, exposing her skinny, pale body to the cold. She coils up, knees to her chest, and whimpers.
Straight away, a streak of red catches my eye.
“Oh no. No. Lux,” I gasp.
Her eyes ping open, crystal blue, so clear they’re almost unearthly, and she swivels in the bed to look at me. Her gaze follows mine down to the streak of blood on her mattress.
“It’s started,” she says.
Such a simple statement for a moment so momentous. Not at all as I imagined it.
The panic sets in right away.
“Wyn, help me,” Lux pleads, her eyes suddenly glazed with tears. “He’ll be coming for me. He’ll be coming.”
“Get up,” I command.
I’m usually soft with Lux — she’s the only person I am soft with — but now isn’t the time for gentleness. Now’s the time for action. If anyone realizes Lux has crossed the threshold from girlhood to womanhood they’ll tell Miss Moleskin who’ll send for Mr Partridge, Lux’s wealthy benefactor, who’ll come and whisk her away in his fancy reindeer-drawn sled to his fancy city manor house so he can finally make her his wife just like he’s been waiting to do since he first clapped eyes on her at the age of five. I’ll die before I let that happen.
“Hurry,” I bark.
But Lux’s not moving. She’s frozen with shock.
“Lux,” I say, sternly. “We’ve planned for this. So get up.”
She shakes her head of pale, near-silver hair. “It’s too late.”
“No it’s not,” I say, sharply. “We’re snowed in. The road’s blocked. No food in, no messages out. We’ve got time. But yer got to help me, okay? Yer got to act same as normal. And normal right now is yer getting up and going to breakfast. So.Get.Up.”
I say the last bit through my teeth. It’s enough to startle her to life. She leaps to her feet. A trickle of blood snakes down the inside of her pale leg and onto the cement floor. She stares at me, her eyes round and hollow.
I can’t look at those eyes, they’re like daggers in my heart, so I turn from her quickly and grab one of the rags I use for my own monthlies. I move deftly, before anyone notices, and shove it at her. She stuffs it into her pants.
“What about the mattress?” she whisper-cries.
Her voice is small. Suddenly, she seems so much younger than fourteen. Ironic, considering her body matured over night. The final, ultimate betrayal.
“I’ll flip it.”
“Someone will see.”
“Not if I go last.”
Lux pins me in her terrified, blue-eyed gaze. She knows being late to breakfast will bring its own terror upon me. But the terror of one of our roommates finding out she’s reached mothering-age and telling Miss Moleskin is worse, and so she nods reluctantly. I can take a backside-beating for her. What I can’t take is her being taken from me.
She pulls her hessian dress over her head of white-blond hair, and scurries across the dormitory, joining the back of the queue of girls as they trudge out through the large steel door, single file, heads bowed. Lux turns her head back over her shoulder, flashes me one last mournful look, and then she’s gone.
I spring into action. I’ve rehearsed this moment a thousand times in my mind.
I tug the thin mattress off its metal frame and flip it, before sliding it back in place and throwing her threadbare covers and pillow back onto it. Then I grab my own hessian sack dress and slip it over my head of dark, tangled, wavy hair, before bolting for the door.
And that’s when I see it. Eyes. Hazel-colored. I’m not alone. I’m being watched.
I halt, and stare at Talison lying in her bed, fetal position, shivering even though the covers are right up to her chin. She’s a landgrubber girl, like me, sharing the same colorings I do — brown hair, brown eyes, our blessing and our curse. There’s a layer of sweat on her forehead. She’s sick, feverish, too ill to get out of bed, but not too ill to witness my misdeed.
The door flies open. A guard storms in. Miss Moleskin’s little army.
“What’s going on in here?” he demands.
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