I watch the girl through the window her floppy hat conceals her face. Somehow, I think she is smiling as her fingers dig into the compost and she plants up the pots with autumn colour. She places them around the terrace. As she stands her eyes connect with mine and a smile graces her lips as she raises a hand and waves at me.
I wave back. I would like to garden, I think. Mother would never let me. I can almost picture the look on her face as she contemplates compost and just dirt in general. No, she would not allow that. I close my eyes as my body lets me know it agrees as another wave of exhaustion and nausea cripples me.
My third move since his loss. I remember the day vividly. We had been playing out in the meadow. Too young to be milked our day our own. Adam had found an old map and it indicated there was a cave across the bridge. He was so excited to find it. I agreed even though I felt a bit off. The cave was amazing in its enormous cavern with stalactites and stalagmites. Adam was completely enraptured. By the next day we were both sick in his bed curled around each other. Until Mother came and took him away and I never saw him again. I was moved two days later.
Tiredness is all that paints my days the exhaustion I have grown used too as I struggle against the contaminant. The contraceptive drug that was supposed to save humanity was our destroyer. Preventing male births and those like me constantly sick if we survive at all. Hidden within Gen-Corps solution.
Even though they try their best to screen my food and water it is not enough and eventually my body has to purge it. I am laid in my bed as the shivers wrack my body. Closing my eyes, I try to rest.
‘He is sick again do we need to delay moving him?’
‘No stick to the schedule,’ my Mother’s voice as she paces the room her heels making a tapping sound on the wooden floor. Turning she smoothed her dark hair although it is in its usual neat bob not a stray hair out of place. Her face perfectly made up as her blue eyes rake over my shivering form.
‘We need to get him to Tribe their scientists know how to care for him,’ my mother moves to the bed she smiles as she takes my temperature.
‘How are you doing sweetie,’ she murmurs, and I attempt to smile. Sitting on the bed her skirt rides up her thigh slightly. Two other people enter the room one walks to the bed and scoops me up wrapped in my blankets. I feel a fission of fear envelope my body until common sense kicks in.
Laid concealed in the back of a wagon around me are bolts of cloth and barrels containing pretty much everything? Since leaving the last home I have been smuggled halfway across the country. I think we are in Scotland now if the soft brogue of the accents I hear is any indication.
We are staying here the weather to rough to make the crossing my mother says. We are heading to what used to be Scandinavia but for now we will have to stay here for the winter. If I am honest, I am glad. My health has improved for the first time in months. Some places are more contaminated than others and Scotland is relatively clean.
Standing in the corridor I turn the map in my hand. I am lost biting my lip I try to keep it together. The threat of tears are burning my eyes as I want to give in to the frustration hating feeling helpless. I have a moment as I think about him how much I miss him. This all started after he died. Someone is after me that much I know I hear things see the way my Mother is always anxious.
Pushing that all away I glance at the map again while running a hand through my blonde hair biting my lip as I survey the doors along the corridor.
‘You lost?’ a boy with dark hair and pale eyes grins at me as he walks toward me.
‘Yeah,’ I say in explanation.
‘You the sick boy?’ he peers at me and looks me up and down and yeah, I know I am small and delicate to look at I certainly don’t look the seventeen years I am supposed to be more like bleeding twelve.
‘Yeah,’ why deny it.
‘George,’ he holds his hand out for me to shake.
‘Aaron,’ I smile as he studies my timetable.
‘Ah looks like you are with me, English this way,’
‘Thanks,’ I follow him to class why we need to learn this stuff is beyond me. Adam used to say to keep us occupied while giving them a feeling of moral obligation. He was full of theories like that. I push thoughts and memories of him away.
English passes in its usual mind-numbing way. I sit at the front at an empty desk. Trying to ignore the curious looks aimed my way. I sigh at the thought of starting again trying to make friends I don’t need or want but I need to fit social norms. The end of the lesson a relief as I wait for the room to clear before leaving my seat.
Ambling along the corridor I miss the group of boys hanging about. My focus on the timetable and map in my hand as I make my way to my afternoon class. I have decided to keep to myself as much as possible can’t see the point of making friends as I will be gone in the spring. Surprise isn’t an emotion I show as they surround me forcing me to stop.
‘Well what do we have here if it isn’t the weakling,’ a large boy with black hair steps forward. He would be handsome if his features weren’t twisted in a sneer. ‘I heard he is so pathetic they don’t even milk him,’ the group snigger as he pushes my shoulder making me stagger back only to be pushed hard forward.
‘Looks more like a girl to me,’ another brown-haired boy remarks knocking my books from my hands.
‘Shall we check boys,’ I shake my head and try to move away.
‘Please don’t,’ I am pinned to the wall and I can’t see a way out.
‘Oh, and how are you going to stop us,’ the first boy raises a brow as he gets up close.
‘Like this,’ I pull him close catching him by surprise as I bring my knee up. He immediately drops to the ground groaning as I sweep my things from the floor and run. Darting around a corner I desperately try to find an unlocked door as the pounding of footsteps closes in behind me. Out running them isn’t an option as a door finally opens, I slip inside and lock it. Leaning against it closing my eyes as I get my breath back slumping as they run past.
‘Watcha doin,’ startling I open my eyes to see one of the serving maids.
‘I was being chased,’
‘Why?’ she steps closer and I can see she is very young not much older than me. She is small with pale blue eyes that are surveying me intently. Her pale hair swept up in a bun exposing the delicate bone structure of her face. My eyes open wide as I realise, she is beautiful like us not ordinary like the rest of the staff or even some of the Mothers but perfect. On closer inspection she isn’t dressed as a maid as I first thought. She just isn’t dressed as a Mother either.
‘I…because…,’ giving up I shrug walking further into the room I pull a chair out and sink onto it. ‘They don’t like me,’ I mutter eventually.
‘I don’t know because I am different,’ I reply frustrated with her questions.
‘Well you are small, and you are quiet. I have noticed that about you,’ she says looking me over. ‘You look like a girl as well that can’t help,’
‘Well thanks,’ I grumble, and she laughs. She has noticed me do I stand out that much?
‘I like you,’ she says between giggles. ‘Rita,’ she holds her hand out to me.
Glancing at it a moment I grasp it. ‘Aaron,’ smiling I shake her hand. ‘Um you aren’t meant to talk to us,’ frowning I let go of her hand.
‘Yeah I know and to be fair most the time we just don’t want too, I don’t really like the other Adams they are snotty,’ bursting out laughing she looks offended.
‘Come on I had better return you to your Mother,’ she takes my hand and unlocks the door pulling me out behind her. Unfortunately, it isn’t we deserted, and a group of boys are waiting for me.
‘Damn,’ I mutter.
‘Yeah,’ she pulls me back into the room. Letting go of my hand she moves to the far wall and feels along the wood panelling until she pushes one and an audible click fills the room.
‘Come on,’ she grins as she pulls open a door. Curious I follow a grin on my face. We creep along and I am trying not to make a sound. Eventually she pushes open another doorway and we step into the back of the library.
Its hockey this afternoon, I like hockey, I am relatively good at it and some the other boys like having me on their team. Because of the rain we are playing indoors it’s faster this way and I love it. The boys that attacked me are on the opposing team and I am sure this isn’t going to end well. Up until now I had managed to avoid them mostly.
I stand waiting, anticipation grips my stomach as I bend slightly poised ready with my stick. I see George he has the ball and is running toward me, his control of the ball, precise, he glances up and catches my eye. I see a corner of his mouth twitch up ever so slightly; I smile and start to run, as the opposition start to converge on him. I get into place as he swiftly passes the ball. I hear and feel the thud, as it connects with my stick. I control its momentum and run as George gets into position, as I pass it back and drop back as George passes it forward, our teammates knowing where they should be, moving as a smooth machine. So, absorbed in the game I don’t see the boy run into my side swiping his stick against my legs the flare of pain the first clue as I am tripped up and sent sprawling to the floor. To late to avoid the second boy and his stick as it connects with my head.
I wake in my bed a bandage around my head. On seeing I am awake my mother sits on the edge of my bed.
‘I tripped, it was an accident,’ is all I mutter.
‘You seem to be having a lot of those,’ she sighs. ‘Aaron you are not to play anymore sport,’
‘Okay,’ no point in arguing it will just lead to more questions and more trouble for me. She stands and gazes at me for a while before leaving the room.
Now I am alone I let the tears flow. Wallow in myself pity. A friend would be nice but that isn’t going to happen even George avoids me and I know why. The big boy the one I assaulted is top dog around here. He makes sure no one befriends me. George had a black eye after he helped me and I know he didn’t trip.
Afterward I curl up on my bed and sleep the rest of the afternoon away. A pleasure taken by stupid selfish boys.
The tiredness that has dogged me my entire life consumes me. I know I won’t be matched or sold, no they will euthanise me once I am twenty. Even now I don’t get milked as often. I have long resigned myself to that fate. My life that much duller now.
‘Aaron are you awake?’ her quiet voice has me turning over.
‘Yeah,’ pushing up as she walks through the door backwards carrying a tray.
‘I brought you something to eat,’ she places the tray on my knees and removes the coving with a flourish. ‘Sorry it’s just soup and a sandwich,’ she giggles.
‘Thanks,’ smiling I tuck in. ‘How did you get up here?’
‘The servants passage the house is riddled with them found them a week after being here,’ she grins.
‘I saw what they did,’ she looks at me waiting for my answer. ‘Why haven’t you said?’
‘What’s the point,’ I shrug.
‘I can show you the passages,’
‘Can’t believe you boys haven’t found them,’ she shrugs.
‘My brother would have if he had been here,’
‘You had a brother? That’s rare,’ she looks at me closer.
‘Identical twins…he is dead now,’ I explain putting the tray on my bedside table.
‘What was he like?’
‘He was amazing always questioning never happy with our life. Spent all his time exploring the grounds or reading books on adventure or looking at atlases of the world telling me all the places we would go. How we would leave this place and travel having adventures of our own. How we would fall in love not any love but an all-consuming love that would consume our souls.’ I smile. ‘He read a lot of Bronte you know,’ I say in explanation.
‘That’s so romantic,’ Rita breathed.
‘Yeah, he was always the romantic. I was just me, the quiet one, dragged along in his wake,’ I chuckle.
‘You miss him a lot, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, I miss him reading to me while I am sick or tired or both. He was different they didn’t mess with his genetics. He was really smart, and he wasn’t polite you know like Adams are meant to be. He was an experiment or something and I wasn’t meant to be,’ I give a tired sigh. ‘Sometimes he just got his sketch book out while I slept but always there protecting me,’ a tear slips down my face as the grief consumes me once more. I don’t notice Rita leave. My Mother’s voice soothing as she brushes my hair her familiar perfume drifting around me giving comfort.
‘Honey I need a sample this morning,’ my Mother bustles in with a tray I hope is my breakfast.
‘Yeah sure,’ I answer pushing up as she passes me a hot mug of tea. Sipping it as her hand pushes the duvet down and then proceeds to reveal me. Her hand is warm as it runs up my thigh.
‘Concentrate sweetheart this is important,’ she cooed
‘Oh why?’ that has piqued my curiosity.
‘It’s for Tribe they need to check a few things usual tests,’ she answers and the way she says it makes me think it is anything other than normal. I listen to her voice as I have been trained the timber of it getting me excited as her hand moves gently but methodically. Finally, I lay back panting after the release. Watching as she places each container in the medical bag to be sent to the laboratory to be catalogued.
‘Good boy,’ she leans over and places a tender kiss on my head. ‘You will be happy there they will find you a girl let you breed, and you won’t be sick all the time,’ she says before leaving the room. Not sure I want a girl certainly not keen on the breeding bit. Reaching for my breakfast I just recover.
Once I was allowed out of bed Rita showed me all the passageways so I could avoid the boys that seem intent on making my life a misery. More importantly I had a friend and that improved my life immeasurably.
Today I am down by the stream that runs along the bottom of the vast grounds. I am not alone Rita is laid on the grass with me. She spends a lot of time with me and somehow no one seems to mind I suspect my Mother has had a hand in this and I love her even more for it.
Rita sits up startling me as she turns to look at the house.
‘Can you hear that?’
‘No what am I listening for,’
‘Vehicles, why are vehicles here?’
‘I don’t know,’ I am sat up now. ‘Maybe it’s a delivery?’ I answer unconcerned. Rolling over to lay on my stomach so I can observe the house. It all appears quiet the sound of the lunch bells the only disturbance. Rita brought our lunch with her I reach for a sandwich as I sit up.
‘Come on let’s go back,’ Rita starts to tidy up our picnic. I climb to my feet. Slowly I amble after her certainly not feeling the agitation she is displaying. As I walk along the woodland path. I can hear noise. Stopping I listen not sure what it is I am hearing. Rita comes hurtling along the path and grabbing me she pushes me into the bushes.
‘Rita,’ I complain as her hand clamps over my mouth.
‘Gen-Corp are here, they are emptying the house they are looking for someone,’ her warm breath teases my ear. We creep nearer and I can see all the boys being loaded into coaches with there Mothers each being scanned as they enter.
‘I have to find my Mother,’ I whisper.
‘No, you stay here I can’t see her,’ Rita places her hand on my arm stopping me from moving. She takes my hand and pulls me toward the servant’s entrance. Two armed guards are now patrolling the gardens.
I notice a girl stood to one side she pushes her glasses higher up her nose as she taps her foot in an impatient gesture.
‘They are all accounted for madam,’
‘Where is he then?’
‘Maybe he wasn’t registered,’
‘Well obviously,’ she sneers in disgust.
‘Excuse me,’ the boy that has been bullying me for weeks approaches the woman.
‘What,’ she turns on him as he stands in a submissive posture.
‘The new boy is missing,’ he answers, and I glance at Rita.
‘What new boy?’ she lifts his chin and smiles at him.
‘Aaron is his name he arrived a few weeks ago but he is sickly so was kept away from us,’ I hate him more than I did already.
‘Damn why the hell is she here,’ Rita mutters as she pushes me through one of the concealed doors. Climbing the stairs, we emerge up on the bedroom floor creeping along the corridor. Rita pulls me into an empty room as a group of guard’s march past. With them is my Mother. Rita places her hand over my face so I can’t make a sound.
‘I don’t know where he is,’ my Mother’s voice pleading.
‘You are his Mother how can you not know where he is,’ a gruff voice demands.
‘He has a nurse she took him out into the grounds for fresh air,’ my Mother answers her voice calmer now.
‘Why would he need a nurse what is wrong with him?’
‘He is an Echo,’ she says, and I have no idea what she is talking about.
‘You are lying to stop him being euthanised for being substandard you Mothers always get too attached don’t you. Now where is the sickly creature so I can end his existence,’ the guard drawls her voice menacing.
‘I am not lying why do you think Madame Ramsbottom is here? Please don’t hurt him,’
‘Shut it,’ I hear the sound of a slap and a scuffle before the guards march out. ‘Search the grounds he has to be here,’ There booted feet fade as they leave this floor of the house.
Rita pushes my bedroom door open and stops her posture ridged. Peering around her I see my Mother laid on the bed blood leaks from her mouth and I don’t need to be a genius to know she is dead.
Stepping back, I lean against the wall feeling lightheaded from the shock why kill her what had she done. Slow tears run down my face. Rita is in the room filling a small bag with my things. Re-emerging she grabs my hand and drags me back into the concealed passages.
‘Why kill her?’ I mutter as shock sets in. ‘What is an Echo and how am I one?’ I look at Rita.
‘You are special that’s why you get sick so much,’
‘Oh, great they have made a boy with sickness as his superpower,’ I answer my voice full of sarcasm.
‘Right from now you stay with me okay,’ Rita peers at me in the gloom.
‘What why you are just a girl, no offence,’ I point out my voice full of indignation.
‘None taken and as of now I am the best chance you have at surviving this situation,’ she states.
‘Um how I could just turn myself in,’ I raise a brow.
‘Are you mad they killed your Mother doesn’t that tell you something,’ Rita says her hands on her hips. She has a point, but I honestly don’t know what to do and I am scared. Biting my lip, I gaze at my feet.
‘Aaron,’ she gently lifts my chin. ‘Ester would want you to go with me,’ she takes my hands and looks into my eyes before leaning forward and plants a kiss on my lips. ‘I will protect you promise,’ slowly I nod my head. To be honest still reeling from the kiss.
The house is weirdly quiet as we make our way to the kitchen. The coaches had long since left and now everywhere is deserted.
‘Why can’t we stay here?’ I am struggling with all this.
‘People will come,’ Rita says as she rummages through the fridge and cupboards. She has a backpack that she is filling with food and bottles of water. I have my coat on now wrapped up against the Scottish weather.
‘People that will either kill me and abuse you or kill me and take you to abuse and sell take your pick,’ she is zipping up the bag. ‘Right let’s go see what’s in the stables,’ she purposely leaves the kitchen and I trudge behind her. I feel really inadequate right now.
‘Rita, sorry,’ I say as I enter the stable.
‘What for,’ she looks at me.
‘I have upset you,’ shoving my hands in my pockets I don’t know what to do and all I really want to do is cry.
‘Oh, Aaron sorry,’ she is wrapped around me holding me tight. ‘It will be okay I promise,’
‘How though, Mother is dead and I have been left behind what do I do where do I go,’ the tears come and I don’t care I have never been on my own and she is dead what do I do without her.
‘I have a plan and I will keep you safe I promise,’ her hands clutch my face, so I have to look at her. ‘Now help me with the horses. Then get changed,’ she throws my riding boots and jodhpurs at me.
This feels like flying as we gallop across the countryside. Horse riding is something I excel at and thoroughly enjoy. The wind in my hair blowing in my face. The feeling of this magnificent animal beneath me. I have no idea where we are going but I trust Rita to keep me safe. We finally slow and Rita comes alongside me.
‘Village up ahead it is mostly abandoned but we can overnight there and rest the horses okay,’ her pale eyes rake over me as a smile twitches her lips.
‘Where are we going?’
‘I know of a farmstead where you will be safe until we can cross to Europe. I will get you to Tribe I promise,’ her voice is so sincere I smile.
‘I know you will Rita I trust you,’ her beaming smile is reward enough. I do trust her, and I reckon between the two of us we could get to this place called Tribe.
The house is run down but intact enough. The horses are in an equally dishevelled barn, but it will do. Sniffing the air my nose wrinkles at the musty smell. Mould is growing up the walls that can no longer keep the damp Scottish weather out. Following Rita up the stairs she has organised a room we can sleep in. she has a fire going in the grate and now it is warm it doesn’t seem so bad.
‘Here,’ Rita hands me a sandwich as I sit cross legged next to her. Rummaging in my bag I pass her a bottle of water.
‘How far to the farmstead?’
‘A day’s ride if we don’t run into any trouble,’
‘Trouble what sort of trouble?’
‘The desperate kind of trouble you are very valuable,’
‘Oh,’ swigging my water.
‘Right I want an early start, so I suggest we sleep now and start again at dawn,’ Rita has already unpacked our bedding looking at it I realise we will be sleeping together.
‘Your horsemanship is excellent,’ Rita murmurs as we lay snuggled up to each other.
‘My Mother thought it would be useful and I like horses and animals in general,’ Rita is snuggled into my front, I think this is called spooning and it is quite nice. ‘Rita have you been to Tribe?’
‘Yes, I come from there,’ she turns I can see the light reflected from here eyes. Reaching up she brushes my hair from my eyes. ‘You are so beautiful,’ I snort.
‘Yeah even though I look like a girl,’
‘No, you don’t,’ she mutters her lips brush mine so soft I close my eyes to savour the sensation.
‘Mother said I would have to breed there,’ my voice barely above a whisper.
‘Does that frighten you?’
‘I don’t know how, and I would have to meet people talk to them be…intimate,’
‘You managed that with me?’ her body is pressed against mine and it feels nice, soft, natural.
‘I…you are different you are my friend…you have no expectations from me,’ she chuckles. ‘You sort of forced me to be your friend,’ I smile.
‘I did no such thing,’ her indignation is amusing.
‘Yeah you did, you were everywhere I had a choice either complain to my Mother or accept you into my life,’ I chuckle.
‘Well I take offence to that and now I am stuck with you,’ she grumbles but I can hear the smile in her voice.
‘I think it is me that is stuck with you,’ leaning forward I plant a kiss on her lips. My eyes widen as she kisses me back pushing her tongue into my mouth making a small growl in her throat as she pulls me closer her leg hooking around mine. My hands drift under her top feeling her ribs and the indentation of her waist. My belly seems to coil in anticipation as she rubs against my groin and I can feel my excitement. ‘Rita,’ I manage to gasp. She pushes my clothing down revealing me pushing me back I gasp as her mouth takes me. My release has me saying her name panting for breath.
‘Go to sleep Aaron,’ her voice soft as she tucks me back in and snuggles against me.
A shiver shakes my body the sun low in the sky and a mist shrouding the vegetation. I talk softly to my horse as I do up the strap for the saddle pulling it as tight as I can. I don’t know what to make of last night and Rita hasn’t mentioned it, so I haven’t either.
Slipping my foot into the stirrup I bounce once and mount getting comfortable I grin at Rita. She leads us out the village and urges her horse into a gallop. Quickly I follow the exhilaration pulling a smile onto my face.
When we slow, I have chance to admire the countryside the vast expanse of the heather moors kept in check by the herds of deer that roam grazing. The only sign that people once lived here are the crumbled remains of crofts their roofs long ago collapsing in on themselves. I can hear the surf and smell the salt in the air. Rita turns and slows to a gentle trot I ride alongside her she turns and grins at me and I can’t help but smile back. Last night seems to have changed our relationship it is more relaxed as if the final barrier between us has come down. My attention shifts as the farmstead comes into view. We stop at the crest of the hill and I can see fields laid out before us the tiny figures of people and there with the sun glinting off it the sea. This captures my gaze I have never seen the sea and it fascinates me.
‘Race you,’ Rita shouts as she urges her horse into a gallop down the hill. Laughing I urge mine forward he seems to know what is expected and we rapidly catch Rita up. Jumping the hedges and gates as we careen toward the buildings the people stopping their activities to watch our spectacle.
By the time I trot into the yard Rita has dismounted and is laughing I leap down and grab her twirling her round while we both laugh finally kissing her jumping apart when her name is shouted.