WIND RAKED at Gabi’s cheeks and infiltrated her heavy layers as she slipped down the buckled sidewalk toward home. With its blanket of late winter snow, her house was even harder to distinguish from any of the others in the bland residential neighborhoods of suburban Alder, but Gabi could find it blindfolded. It was the only home she’d ever known, and she was glad when her father insisted they stay in this section despite his growing influence in the fellowship. Most executive councilmen moved closer to the temple complex where the houses were newer and more spacious, but the single-story ranch was where Sam and Therese had first made their home together after meeting on a mission trip to Madrone. “It’s important to stay connected to one’s fellows,” Sam always said. “The truth comes through us all.” But Gabi suspected her father’s loyalty to their humble dwelling had more to do with the traces of her dead mother that lingered in the shabby wall-to-wall carpeting and the colors she’d chosen for its small rooms.
As she trudged toward home, Gabi pondered the homey touches left from the early days, when her parents hung wallpaper, chose fabrics, and picked out tiles for the downstairs bathroom that was now Grammy Low’s domain. She pictured the limp hanks of Gram’s knee-high stockings hanging from the shower rod, and the ghostly tombstone teeth she kept floating in a jelly jar on the bathroom counter at night. The pastel soaps Gabi’s mother collected from abandoned resorts on her mission trips to the Southwest had long since been replaced by Grammy Low’s squirt bottle of Naylor’s Pro-Bac. “Sometimes offense is the best defense,” Gram would say, lathering suds up to the elbows and scrubbing under her blunt fingernails with a bristle brush until they shone pink.
Gabi turned onto her street, the sign that read “Cambium Terrace” obscured by a thick cake of snow that glittered in the fading light. She knew her brother, Mathew, would come along in an hour or so after tutorial and knock the snow from the street sign with one well-aimed ice ball as he ran past. Mathew was always running. Sometimes Gabi wondered if the reason she could never seem to get enough air was that Mathew used more than his share rushing headlong into everything. She didn’t resent it, though. Mathew was just better.
The kitchen windows of the Lowell’s house glowed in welcome, and Gabi quickened her pace, already tasting the warm apple cake Grammy Low baked on Fridays for the other Minders at the Care Center. She always put three pieces aside for Gabi, Mathew, and Sam, and the house never lost the sweet, spicy smell from one Friday to the next. Almost there, Gabi coached herself. Just a few more yards. Maybe they’d finally gotten bored and moved on to someone else.
No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than the skin on the back of her neck prickled. She tugged at the actual scarf around her neck as the invisible one cinched tighter. The metallic tang of snow and the complex gases exhaled by each of the houses along Cambium Terrace mingled with a waft of greasy-hair smell. Gabi’s nose filled with the stench of unwashed bodies fueled by hormones and the need to hurt. The swish of nylon accelerated toward her. The air was too thin for her to contemplate trying to run or yell for help even if she could manage it. Working adults and kids occupied with after-school activities meant Cambium Terrace was deserted when Gabi reached it each afternoon. Her only after-school activity was this. Surviving them.
Bradley Fiske first started following Gabi home after school six years ago, which coincided with Mathew’s first day of seventh grade when her brother began doing after-school tutorials and stopped walking Gabi home. The first attack broke slowly, unlike the swift assaults they would later become. Bradley trailed behind her most of the way, calling the occasional insult and whipping small pebbles at her back. Gabi had no idea how to handle it at the time, just tried to walk faster despite the rattle in her chest. Her passivity enraged him, and just as she stepped onto her driveway, Bradley tackled her and sat on her back. His weight pressed the air out of her, and she started going under, but that wasn’t the worst of it. There on the ground, with Bradley Fiske’s chunky thighs squeezing her rib cage, Gabi lost all control of her bladder and peed her pants.
Frightened by her loss of consciousness, but by some stroke of luck unaware that she’d wet herself, Bradley left her there in the yard. When she awoke, Gabi was too embarrassed to consider telling anyone what had happened. Gram was late coming home from the Care Center that day, so Gabi snuck inside, stripped off her soiled clothes and washed them as she bathed, using her entire water ration for that day and the next. What Bradley had done to her, and would keep doing for many years to come, made her feel ashamed. Something about her incited Bradley to violence, and she suspected it was the same thing she loathed about herself. She was a weakling—a drain on precious resources.
The only advantage Gabi had during her after-school encounters was that she always knew Bradley Fiske and his two thuggy friends, Geoff Morehouse and Noel Sutton, were near before she saw them. Geoff was more scared of Bradley than Gabi was. She could hear it in the high mosquito whine of his voice and see it in the way he caved in from his midline whenever Bradley spoke. He would do anything to keep the red rage in Bradley’s eyes pointed away from him. Gabi used to think that Noel had a crush on her back in third grade when he sat behind her in class and passed her knock-knock jokes. Now he glared at her in the hallways as though her mere presence was a personal insult.
There was no place to hide, no trees to climb even if Gabi were strong enough, and no concealing dips or features in Alder’s flat, postage-stamp–size lawns. The Great Strain had taken care of that. They were lucky to have the meager patches of biograss, a synthesized algae frozen into a dull green crust beneath the toxic snow, to break the monotony of asphalt and concrete. At least she could prepare herself. Gabi turned to face the fumes that preceded the gang just as they rounded the corner onto Cambium Terrace. She closed her eyes and willed herself away through the hatch in the corner of her mind. Beyond that hatch was nothing but space, and all the air she needed. Each strand of hair on her head became a straw through which she sipped the rich brew of oxygen sparkling with stars. Gabi’s version of space was not an airless void. It was heaven, inhaled.
All the boys wanted was to play their favorite game, she reminded herself to quiet her galloping heart. It would be over quickly, which was why they loved to play it. Instant gratification. Bradley rocketed into her and pinned her arms to her sides. He was far stronger than she, and Gabi couldn’t run or thrash, but it was part of the game. The air crackled as the boys drew in tight around her. Bradley would be the one to do it, of course, but letting the others feel a part of things was important. The boys’ leader knew he had to give them something to keep them interested.
“Hold her arms,” Bradley yelled, his voice breaking in his excitement. Geoff’s hand encircled Gabi’s right arm in a meaty cuff. Noel was gentler with her left arm, Gabi noted from the velvet envelope of her faraway place, but clamped his other hand hard at the back of her neck for good measure.
Bradley drew off one glove, grimy from his sweaty palms, and pinched Gabi’s nostrils closed with his fingers. His other glove he left on, the better to seal off her mouth. The air in space grew a fraction thinner, but she wasn’t worried. She felt as though she could last out there forever, but the boys liked it better when she struggled. Not fighting made Bradley angry and more prone to drawing things out. Gabi kicked out blindly with one foot, catching the padded ankle of Bradley’s boot.
“Whaddya think, fellas?” Bradley sneered.
“I’d give her ten seconds,” Geoff said.
“Nah, she’s never lasted that long.” Gabi drew deeper into the dark as the stars began to sing. From outside herself, Gabi saw her eyes roll back in her head as she fell backward.
“Now!” Bradley screeched, and the three boys released her. Falling well was important, even with the cushion of snow. Gabi tucked her chin so she wouldn’t bash her head on the ground. “Yes!” Bradley cheered. He kicked a tuft of snow over Gabi, and it sifted down onto her like the precious ration of cinnamon sugar Grammy used to dust her apple cake.
“Hey, I think we’re good here,” Noel ventured. “It’s not even dark yet, and this is Brother Lowell’s house.”
“I say when we’re good, Noelle,” Bradley sneered. “We’re doing Brother Lowell a favor, not to mention the fellowship. No one else can stomach culling the weak from the herd, but it still needs to be done.”
“Yeah,” Geoff echoed, kicking a heavy clump of snow onto Gabi’s chest. “The chosen do the choosing, guided by the Will, like the translations say.” The front porch light of the Lowell house flickered on, causing all three boys to startle and dart back down the street as though flushed by gunshot.
The yellow light shone through Gabi’s closed eyelids and drew her back through the hatch into her body as she opened them. Grammy Low stepped into the circle of light on the porch, clutching at the thin cardigan of her Minder’s uniform as arctic air barreled into the house behind her. Her legs were chapped above the woolen knee-highs she favored in the cold months.
“Hello? Who’s there?” Gram called, her voice raw from the chronic cough that had dogged her since the Strain. Gabi knew that Gram would come out searching for her among the drifts, risking pneumonia or a fall or worse if Gabi didn’t drag herself to the house on her own. Her head throbbed, and her spindly arms were sore from the boys’ rough handling, but nothing was broken.
“It’s me, Gram, I’m here,” she answered, her breath barely making a wisp of fog in the frozen air.
“What on earth, Gabriela?” Gram fretted as Gabi limped onto the porch. “Get yourself inside before you catch your death!”
Gabi attempted a smile and patted her grandmother’s creased cheek. “Stop fussing, Gram, I’m fine. I’m way too slow to catch anything, death included.” Grammy Low smelled of yeast and butter and another thing that radiated from beneath Gabi’s own clothes—the vinegar tang of someone who knew herself to be alone. Grammy Low’s friends were all gone, and Gabi had never had any. Gram pulled Gabi into her cushioned warmth and left a streak of flour in her dark curls as she smoothed the hair from her granddaughter’s face.
“Go put on something dry while I put out your pills with some tea and cake. It’s already thirty minutes past time.” Gram’s hair stood out in white shocks from her head, adding drama to the urgency in her voice. When it came to the pills, every minute mattered. Taken as a powder mixed into formula when Gabi was a baby, then swallowed whole with water when she was old enough to manage pills, the medicine was a fact of Gabi’s life. The pills, her father explained, were the only things keeping Gabi’s lungs working. According to him, missing a dose or taking one too late could cause her entire respiratory system to shut down, like sealing a whale’s blowhole shut and holding it deep underwater.
Gabi took her first relaxed inhale since leaving the house that morning and released it on a sigh as she entered her room and shut the door behind her. The walls were painted in blended shades of blue and green, an abstract rendering of seaweed-swirled water. Her books, hundreds of them, were crammed into bookcases and milk crates and stacked into wobbly towers that deterred anyone but Gabi from entering for fear of triggering an avalanche. She was not a hoarder, Gabi insisted when her father and brother ribbed her for her trove of books. She was simply starved for information. Sometimes she thought she would rather have words than air.
As she peeled off her dripping socks and leggings, Gabi’s gaze wandered to the carefully marked books on cetacean biology piled within easy reach of her bed. She had been eating, sleeping, and breathing whales in preparation for her presentation that day, certain that if she just knew her subject matter well enough, the words would flow effortlessly out of her. She was wrong.
Whales were a peculiar fascination for a girl who was afraid of water. The mere thought of being close to more than a bucketful of the stuff was enough to make Gabi shake, a phobia her father didn’t discourage. Recreational swimming had been forbidden since before Gabi was born anyhow. Water resources were scarce, and every available drop that fell or condensed was immediately sequestered for purification and municipal use. Anyone who violated these practices risked heavy fines and even imprisonment. Immersion in water was illegal. All bathing was done from a small ration delivered in measured containers three times weekly around Alder, just as it was in every other branch of the Unitas Fellowship.
The fellowship had no real need to deter residents from collecting their own water stores. Thanks to years of unchecked emissions and nuclear meltdowns during the Great Strain, which attacked technologies as well as life-forms, no one dared use or ingest water before trained professionals treated it. Though she gobbled up any small morsel of information she could about the mysteries of marine biology, Gabi couldn’t imagine actually seeing the ocean, watching it swell and threaten to consume her. But something drew her back to her books time and again and compelled her to recreate her own dry-land version of the sea in her tiny bedroom.
Alder was many days’ drive from the coast, and there was always talk among councilmembers of moving its boundaries even farther inland as more coastline succumbed to the poisoned oceans each year, turning what had once been sprawling continents into precarious islands forced to make do with their own limited resources. It was hard to know when the moment to stand and accept the Will would come. Even the executive council didn’t know, at least not yet. The messages still focused on conversion of the Tribes, redemption through the union of all faiths, and preparation for the Rapture. According to the doctrine, the seas were lifeless graveyards of toxic debris, utterly inhospitable and useless to humans. There weren’t even any Unitas branches along the coast, only Tribes.
Gabi tugged off her bulky sweater and the plain T-shirt underneath and looked at herself in the full-length mirror on the outside of her closet door. Purple bruises were already beginning to form blotchy tattoos around her upper arms. They resembled pictures she’d seen of what used to be the Great Lakes, linked by the riverine veins tracking beneath her skin. On good days Gabi imagined that, against the backdrop of her underwater walls, she glowed like a slice of milky moonlight on the waves. On bad days she reminded herself of the slick blue fetus that had slid out from between the woman’s quaking, blood-smeared thighs in the video her health teacher made all the eleventh-grade girls watch. Facing her reflection was hard, but Gabi made herself do it every day, just to prove to herself that she wasn’t some sad ghost haunting the world of the living.
Out in the world, she was an alien, someone whose very existence was improbable. The most natural things were a trial for her. Breathing. Speaking. Doing. She didn’t seem to fit or belong anywhere or with anyone, except maybe Gram. Gabi knew her father and Mathew loved her, but they lived in a world of hale bodies and hearty spirits that she could only dream of inhabiting. Yet somehow here, in the manufactured murk of her bedroom, she looked like she belonged. She looked, if nowhere close to strong or beautiful, at least a little more right, and she badly wanted to understand why this was so. Maybe if she could learn enough about the aquatic world that fascinated her, perhaps she could learn something about herself, like why the Will had determined that she live despite her total unsuitability for life. But nothing in the mountains of books she amassed brought her any closer to an answer.
Gabi picked up a textbook from her bed and thumbed through it, as though some new insight might have magically appeared since she’d put it down that morning. But the thick bars were still there, blacking out more than half of every page. What little was left after Corrections had its way was the same thing she found in every text. Behavior, movement, feeding, and mating. Anything that could not withstand the scrutiny of correction had been concealed so as not to corrupt the fellowship.
Old Science, Unitas declared, was the equivalent of guesses and fairy tales and had failed as a means of preventing catastrophe. What was behind the black ink in her books, Gabi’s teachers assured her, wasn’t worth knowing. Inside the front cover of each of her marine biology texts was the same quote from the Book of Revelation on an embossed sticker: “And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.”
Whales were extinct, along with every other form of marine mammal. Their habitat had been rendered a hell of poisons, as predicted by the original doctrine. Revising every book with links to Old Science in all branches of Unitas was an arduous task, and until such time as new texts could be written, the corrected texts would have to suffice. This meant Gabi’s reports would continue to read like shallow blurbs, and whatever the oceans had to tell her about herself would remain a mystery. It made her want to punch someone.
“Gabi. Pills,” her grandmother shouted from the kitchen. Gabi tossed the text onto her bed and opened her bedroom door, looking back at the towers of books. Suddenly the narrow towers looked like prison bars encircling the messy refuge of her bed. Was it possible that by surrounding herself with books filled with blanks and incomplete facts, she had erected a barrier between herself and the truth she sought? Gabi had seen a copy of one of the new texts her father brought home for review and stole a quick peek through its pages. It looked just like the old one, only much skinnier. Nothing beyond pieces of scripture had been added, and nearly two‑thirds had been taken away.
The only thing that ever made Gabi feel strong was what she learned from books. She may not have been able to do things, but she could know things, and every time she learned something new, she wasn’t at the mercy of anyone, even Bradley Fiske. Those heavy reference books, though their pages had been marred by the Correctors’ ink, at least held the promise of knowledge. The pamphlet was like a deflated balloon, a shapeless husk without substance, which was exactly how Gabi felt. But perhaps there was a way to learn the whole story. Maybe Old Science held the answers Gabi sought. She shut her bedroom door hard, heard a couple of the towers topple behind it, and smiled to herself. If her cove of useless books was a prison, it was one of her own making, and she would have to be the one to break herself out.