IN THE girls’ building of the New Orleans Rehabilitation Center for Children, or NORCC, we were all sisters. I don’t mean that we loved each other like siblings—most of us kept to ourselves, and those who didn’t had cliques who had their back but would stab anyone else’s—but that we physically looked alike. From our gaunt faces to our brown skin to our raggedy hair, we were all children of the great tragedy that had befallen our world before we were even born.
Our caretakers called the drug morphoid. We called it The Urge, The Itch, Smoke, Big M, Mo-D, or a slew of other terms we’d picked up on the streets of the inner city. Like a mantle around a planet’s core, the Outskirters, or Outties, lived a life free of the toxic Mo-D that pervaded every breath of air in the center of the city, and none of that air got out. It couldn’t—fifteen years ago, our Outskirters had put a dome around the people in there, and now that wasted space pushed its polluted paw prints against the glass so dirty you couldn’t see the city inside.
The kids who came from abroad told us the same thing was happening everywhere. Morphoid had consumed city after city like a dog following a trail of bones, and when the crime and poverty that came with a whole population of druggies scared the Outskirters, they simply boxed it up and put it away, along with the addicts, or Addis, inside.
But the children, the nicer Outskirters had protested. We have to save the children.
So there we were. Dirty, addicted, alone. Packed into rooms too small to be college dorms but used to house six to ten of us. Perpetually shaking, cold, and desperate to score some Mo-D.
When one of us smuggled something in, fights broke out and mass chaos consumed the center until the drug was either used or found.
When one of us miraculously kicked the habit, passed the tests, and impressed an Outtie family, we were adopted. This happened only rarely, because morphoid wasn’t just a drug, it was a way of life.
Even without The Urge, we were still Addis on the inside.
“HAVE YOU seen the new girl?” my best friend, Arla, asked before spooning a large portion of mush into her mouth. In the bowl below, bloated raisins floated like fat Outties in their private pools.
“I haven’t been down to the third floor in, like, a month. Why, is she cute or something?”
I pushed my bowl toward Arla, who whip quick lashed out her arm and pulled the second helping of mush close. We called her Disposal because she ate all our leftovers when a particularly bad meal turned our stomachs, and because, as the largest girl in our room, she disposed of people who tried to bother us. After years of this extra feeding, she was the only healthy-looking Addi in the building. We all had expected her to be the first one adopted, but apparently she looked too much like an Outskirter to be interesting. After all, how could they show her off to their Outtie friends at book club or potluck Sunday if she looked like one of them?
“No, not cute, but it was hard to tell through the dreads and dopey eyes. All the new Addis look the same to me… except this one. There’s something different about her.”
“Different?” I tried my bread, but when I couldn’t break off a piece with my nails, the roll went into the mush bowl across from me. “Different how?”
“I don’t know how to put this….” Arla let her mouth hang open while she thought, a habit from her morphoid days. “She looks like you.”
“Like me?” I glared at her. “I thought you just said she was ‘not cute.’”
“Right. I mean… she isn’t. It’s just….”
Listening to this was painful. Every time someone scored and decided to be generous with their baggie, I reminded myself that this was what morphoid turned me into.
“Spit it out, Arla.”
“Her eyes. They’re the same as yours.”
My fingers went to my baseball cap, pulled low over my dirty-blonde bangs, and then the eyes they hid from view. White irises, unlike any other Addi or Outtie I’d ever met.
“Positive. The color of a brand-new undershirt, or at least they would be without the red veins.”
Violently, I scraped my chair back from the table. Downcast heads turned up at the sound, but when nothing interesting happened, they returned to their breakfast. One hundred unwanted Addis—plus however many had been brought in that week and caged like animals on the third floor until the doctors and psychologists could determine if they were viable adoption candidates—all fed the same slop day after day.
Technically we weren’t supposed to leave the mess hall before 9:00 a.m., when classes started on the fifth and sixth floors, but I slipped past the sleeping guard and into the empty hallway without notice. After spending twelve of my seventeen years in NORCC, the longest stay by one kid in all the facility’s history, I knew every cracked tile and every flickering light bulb like the scars on my arms. One year left and I would be sent to work for the Army—unless I was adopted, of course. But what Outtie family wanted a kid with white eyes who looked more like a ghost than a rescued child?
In the elevator I punched the security code only the guards, teachers, and doctors were supposed to know: 6-6-7-2-2. The headmistress wasn’t very creative, and the numbers spelled out NORCC on a telephone keypad. Arla and I were the only two kids with the code, and we used it to smuggle in supplies from the outside world or get a look at the new kids before Authorities released them into our midst. That’s how we ruled NORCC with every batch of new recruits.
I pressed 3 and waited for the jolt of the ancient box as it descended to the restricted floors. When the doors opened, I crouched out of sight of the lab windows and crept to the farthest one, where I peered over the edge of the windowsill.
Behind the glass was a cot covered in sanitary paper that crackled with every movement. On top of the cot sat a girl in a dirty coat so smudged in filth that it looked more brown than green, and jeans two sizes too big held up with a piece of frayed rope. She had her hood up, but her dreads fell out of each side and almost down to her waist.
Her room had all the usual tools laid out on the doctor’s table: stethoscope, script pad, tongue depressor, reflex hammer, and sterilized containers for the first of many drug tests. Her urine would come back positive for three months, even without a fresh supply; once morphoid had you in its claws, it held you tight.
As if she sensed my presence, the girl looked up. Her face was long and gaunt, much different than my heart shape, and her lips were thin to the point of invisibility because of her frown. While I looked thin but athletic, she looked wiry to the point of sick. Still, she looked like me, if parts of my cheeks and lips had been wiped away with an eraser and my hair had been darker and rough as a Yorkshire terrier’s.
Most importantly, she had my eyes. White as vanilla icing on a birthday cake, back when the birth of a child was something to be celebrated and not feared.
The girl itched under her coat sleeves, giving me a glimpse of brown skin patched with needle marks and bruises. I’d never seen so many scars; then again, children rarely made it to their late teens without being seized by Authorities. She must have been very crafty to evade the sweeps for so long, I thought as I watched her scratch. Crafty or stupid.
She noticed my stare, and her eyes rose to meet mine. Her head tilted to the side questioningly, and then recognition bloomed across her face.
“Jayla?” The glass muffled the sound of her voice, but I knew my name when I heard it.
“Do I know—” I started to ask, but a door closed somewhere in the back halls of the medical facility. Then the girl’s door opened, and a doctor in a blue lab coat entered. I ducked just in time, and the man never noticed my head as I peeked back over the side to watch what happened next.
“How are you feeling, Jo?” the doctor asked in a soothing voice. He had the smooth, flawless skin and thick hair of an Outtie, well-fed and well-groomed since birth.
“Like shit,” the girl said, each word a punch of anger.
“Do you want more antimorph?” the doctor asked as he pointed to her drip, which I knew from experience was flooding her system with a drug that counteracted the morphoid in her body. The drug was painful and would increase the scratching for several days before it began to fade.
“I want to go home.”
Home. The word echoed in my head. For most Addi kids, home was just a concept we read about in books or, when books were scarce, invented in our nightly stories. Home was not inside the dome. Home was nowhere.
“You are home,” the doctor said without blinking.
“No, I’m not.”
“Sure you are. Here you’ll be fed, clothed, and housed until you find an even better home with an Outtie family who will love you.” This dialog was scripted, and every new recruit heard the same lines.
“Or thrown into the Army and used for target practice,” Jo grumbled.
“Spare me the lines, Doc.”
“Fine. But I’m turning up your antimorph. Lie down and close your eyes; this might hurt for a while.”
Jo lay back on the cot and did as she was told. Maybe she’d run out of steam, or maybe the antimorph was too much for even a raging lion like her, but her eyes closed and her limbs relaxed into a sleeping position almost instantly. The doctor checked her vitals, then went out the way he’d come.
Her arm fell off her chest and hung like a pendulum swaying in a slight breeze. There, on her wrist, was the same silver bracelet that I wore around my own. So that I’ll always find you, a voice repeated in my head, though I didn’t know whose voice it was.
Maybe, when she woke up from the nightmares brought by antimorph, Jo could tell me.