Olivia was more anxious than she’d thought she would be. She’d walked to the Test as a way of stopping her restless nerves. But her stomach hurt and she felt she could not walk fast enough. Take a breath, she thought. Slow yourself.
She was close to the building, close to feeling calmer, when she saw the child. It was a small, dirty thing with matted hair. A boy or a girl, she couldn’t tell, curled up under a bench. There was no adult in sight, no-one on the street at all and certainly no-one sitting on the bench. Olivia stopped and crouched down. She still had a few minutes. She had time.
‘Hello,’ she said softly. The child did not respond. Olivia reached out, patted a small arm. The child flinched away, quickly glaring at Olivia with a dirty tear-stained face. She thought she glimpsed a cut of some kind, blood perhaps, but it was hard to tell; the child had curled back into itself.
‘You’re late. Are you coming in?’ An old woman stood at the entrance to the Test building. She had the appearance of a malevolent, fossilised statue. But she could not be ignored. ‘You’re sitting the Test?’
‘Yes,’ replied Olivia, ‘but this kid—’
‘Is unlikely to be helped by you. Do you wish to fail?’
‘No.’ Olivia was still crouched in front of the child, but now she wavered, half stood, unsure. She could reschedule, she supposed. Ask to sit on a different day. And the child—
‘You have no time. Your Test is today. Come in or not as it pleases you.’ The woman turned and walked away, disappearing into the building faster than Olivia would have thought possible.
Olivia reached out again for the child. The little thing wriggled as far away from her as it could. ‘Maybe I could help you,’ she said, but even as she spoke she turned her head to watch the rush of people walking from the trolley stop to the building and darting inside. It wouldn’t take that long, the Test. It was crucial, necessary. She would come back, see if the child was still here when she finished. A man came out of the building, looked around and grabbed the door. Olivia stood, still uncertain.
‘Coming in?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ said Olivia. She hurried up the stairs, giving the man a half smile in thanks.
He closed the door behind her and ushered her into a large, open room. Olivia found a desk and sat, waiting with the rest of the candidates. Perhaps there had been no need to hurry after all. But she was here now. She could not go back. This was important.
The room was old, made of stone. At the front was a small stage, where the woman who had hurried her inside was sitting, head down, scribbling. There were two statues, one on each side of the stage, just in front of the curtains. They looked to Olivia like angels. Ferocious, terrifying, ugly angels, bent in agony with wings spread and arms hugging their bodies. Their mouths were a tangle of ... something: pain, fear, rage. Maybe surprise. A large, old-fashioned clock was attached to the overhang above the stage. Its hands weren’t yet moving.
Olivia had expected to see faces she recognised. Everyone her age sat the Test. She knew you weren’t allowed to sit it with friends, or even people you’d known at uni, or school, but she’d thought she might recognise someone. No. The desk in front of her had no paper or pens and she worried that there was something she was meant to bring. But no-one else had anything either. Everyone’s bags were stowed under their desks.
The screen in front of her was blank. A touch screen, she supposed. She hated that, it was so easy to get something wrong, for the screen not to respond as you’d meant it. No, she told herself, it would be okay. She’d practised and practised for this. There were rumours. People who’d never come back from the Test, but she didn’t think that was true. Her mother said that every year it was different, that there was nothing she could tell her that would help, but Olivia had made her tell the story of her time over and over. Nothing difficult, nothing demanding. Probably things were different then. Her father refused to speak about it. They say I passed, but I think I failed, was all he would say. He’d tried to talk her out of it. They can’t make you, love, he’d said. But Olivia had insisted. Nobody, but nobody, was excluded from the Test. You couldn’t work without it, not a proper job. Some friends of hers had already done it. You’ll be fine, they’d said. Don’t worry about it. But they hadn’t told her more and that kind of scared her.
There were a few older people in the room. Immigrants, she guessed, people who hoped for decent jobs, but mostly the candidates were people her age, twenty-five, not that long graduated from university or trade school. They gave you every chance, they said, for your brain to mature and develop, but at twenty-five, there could be no mistake: you were a fully formed adult. Her hands began to shake a little. The right one with the small half circle scar was the worst. Olivia clasped them together and took a deep breath.
The fossil on the stage reached out an ancient hand and pressed a bell. There was a swift, quiet, ringing sound and the clock’s second hand began to move. The screen on Olivia’s desk lit up. She entered her ID. A question appeared on the screen and underneath were two buttons. Yes on the left, No on the right. Olivia slowed her breathing, made herself concentrate. She read the question:
Do you believe that it is acceptable for an animal to be euthanised if it is in the terminal stages of a disease?
Yes, she thought, that was okay. Not nice, or pleasant, but possibly the best thing. There were no more details, no other options.
Some of the questions she had seen before, or something like them. Survivors in a lifeboat. Would you steal drugs to save your desperately ill loved one? Hypotheticals with a moral dimension. She knew how to answer these questions. They all did. It was hardly stretching.
Olivia looked around. The invigilator was sitting quietly, scribbling with a pen and paper. But then her head came up and the fossil stared right at her. A look of knowledge, malevolence. Just for a moment, then she returned to her writing. She hates me, thought Olivia. She doesn’t even know me and she hates me. At one desk close to the stage, Olivia saw a supervisor approach one of the candidates. A man with curly, brown hair. He reached under his desk for his bag and followed the supervisor out of the hall. Had he finished already? So soon? Did they have different questions? Olivia tried to bring herself back to her screen, back to the Test.
The person sitting to your right is cheating. He will fail this Test if discovered. Will you report him to the invigilator?
Olivia looked at the man sitting to her right. He was bent over his screen, having arranged his body in such as way that nobody could see his answers. Purposefully? His long, black fringe flopped down one side of his pale cheek. How could you cheat in an exam like this?
She pressed no. If they knew he was cheating, they didn’t need her.
It is imperative that this Test is conducted in an exemplary manner. Will you report your neighbour to the invigilator?
Olivia looked around. She could see a number of other people were leaving. An older man, two young girls. But most people were still here and some, she saw, were looking at the stage or at their neighbour. It can’t be true, she thought. Nobody is cheating, it’s impossible to cheat. This is the Test. One of the supervisors stood beside the invigilator and whispered something to her. The old woman nodded and began to write again. It’s up to them, thought Olivia, it’s their job to know if we are cheating. And we’re not. She pressed no.
It is better for him to be stopped from cheating now than to fail this Test. Will you report your neighbour to the invigilator?
No, she would not. She would report nobody to that horrible woman.
Her Test continued, the questions reverting to the type of morality problems she had expected and could deal with. More people were leaving. Olivia tried not to look, to concentrate on her screen, but the room was emptying out. She looked up at the clock. Wouldn’t they warn them if time was running out? Two guards were standing beside the old lady now, looking out at the remaining candidates. Not directly at anyone. The invigilator continued to write.
Olivia continued on. It wasn’t long before the only people left in the room were her and the man beside her. He remained huddled over his work, even when one of the guards came and stood close by him, on the opposite side to Olivia.
Will you report your neighbour to the invigilator?
Olivia looked up at the stage. The old woman looked down at her and smiled. A knowing, terrible smile. I’m going to fail, thought Olivia. Everyone else has left and I’m going to fail. I must be wrong. I ...
Yes. Olivia pressed the screen. Yes.
The invigilator looked directly at Olivia.
One of the supervisors moved quickly to Olivia’s side and asked her to take her belongings and leave. Olivia fumbled for her bag and followed the woman. Halfway across the hall, she turned back. Her neighbour was laughing, talking with the guard. On the stage the invigilator was gathering her papers from the desk, unconcerned. The second guard could not be seen.
The supervisor opened a door. ‘In here, please,’ she said. Olivia walked through, expecting the woman to follow. Instead, the supervisor shut the door and left her alone in the small, unfurnished room. Thin, high windows let in a little light. She could see rooftops, not much else. One wall was almost covered by a blank screen. But otherwise nothing. She paced up and down a little, beginning to worry.
The invigilator entered. ‘Olivia Marano, candidate 53869?’
‘Your ID, please.’ The invigilator held out one clawed hand. She seemed stronger now, up close, just as old, but not as frail. Olivia hunted in her bag for the ID. She could not find it, it must be there, it must. She found the plastic card and handed it over. The invigilator looked at it closely and gave it back to her.
‘You have failed the Test,’ she said.
‘I ... I ... everyone else left earlier than I did.’
‘You do not need to concern yourself with everyone else. You have failed. Concern yourself with nothing else.’
Olivia felt like slumping to the floor. How could she have failed? Even when she changed her mind, how was that so bad? She looked up at the old woman and took a breath, ready to state her case.
‘You have a choice,’ said the invigilator. ‘The Test is not compulsory and neither is the penalty. You may leave now if you wish.’
‘I ... I can just go?’
‘You are free to leave.’
Olivia picked up her bag. ‘I’m not a bad person,’ she said. ‘There’s been some mistake.’
‘No mistake,’ said the invigilator. ‘This is not the first time you have been observed. You realise that.’
‘So you expected me to fail. You set me up.’
‘Not at all. We hoped we were wrong.’
‘Let me sit it again.’
‘You have sat countless Tests. This was merely the final hurdle. But you are free to go.’
‘And if I stay here with you?’ Olivia whispered her question. Her fight was gone. The knowledge that she had long been considered as possibly, probably flawed had collapsed her.
‘Separation from society, transformation.’ The invigilator’s voice filtered through to her slowly as if through a field of static.
‘Not as you think of it. But your life will be changed.’
‘Can I go home, think about it? Say goodbye?’ But already the questions seemed foolish, belonging to the girl who had, only this morning, decided to wear her favourite blue blouse for good luck.
‘If you leave, you have made the choice. You may not return. You will be, always, a fringe dweller.’ The woman shrugged and grimaced. ‘Or perhaps the Greers appeal to you.’
‘Are you sure? Completely sure?’ asked Olivia.
The woman did not reply straightaway. She had small, bright eyes. Dark brown in colour. She looked, Olivia thought, like a bird made human. An eagle, or even a vulture. ‘We can offer you only one thing. It is difficult: brutal, but redemptive.’
‘Then I could go back to my old life?’
The woman shook her head. ‘No.’
‘I can’t leave my family.’
‘Yet you are still in this room.’
Olivia bowed her head. She thought of ways to tell her mother that she had failed the Test. Her mother ... her mother would believe that it was her own fault. Her father would believe that there had been a mistake, an injustice. But then they would start to doubt. They wouldn’t trust her. They would remove themselves, just a little, from her life. And a job, she could never have a proper job. And Ras ... she could not bear to think about Ras. She could not ask him to ... She felt the tears sliding down her cheeks.
‘The Test is there for a reason. You believe in it – you came, today. You thought you would pass. Easily, am I right?’
‘It has revealed something which we suspected but of which you were not aware, an wickedness at your core. A fundamental flaw. This has not manifested itself, you say. A happy childhood, a loving family, a boyfriend?’ Olivia nodded again. ‘And you have done nothing to hurt them, nothing particularly bad or harmful.’
‘No,’ said Olivia. ‘No, I haven’t.’
The woman shrugged. ‘It is possible that you will be able to live out your whole life in such a manner. If you are sure of that you should leave.’
‘But I failed.’
‘Yes, the difficulties have now begun. Already, you are not the person you thought you were.’
‘Couldn’t I sit the Test again?’
The woman shook her head. She waited, watchful. Olivia could feel the force of her expectation.
‘Good. A wise choice. Perhaps there is hope for you.’ But the way that she said it, the look in her eyes, made Olivia regret her decision. She wanted to change her mind, ask for more time, beg to resit the Test. She knew she could pass it, but the woman had already opened the door.
‘It is better,’ she said, ‘to do this straight away. Better not to wait.’
Olivia walked through the door and the invigilator followed. One of the guards was standing close by. He nodded at the invigilator and fell into step beside Olivia. They walked in silence down the corridor. Olivia turned, but the woman was walking stiffly back the other way.
The guard opened a small door at the end of the corridor. He held his hand up for Olivia to wait and took a step outside, looking around. He beckoned her forward and they entered a small paved courtyard, sheltered on three sides by the building. A car, nondescript and ordinary, was parked in the courtyard on the right hand side. It was only a few feet away, but the guard quickened his pace and Olivia felt his urgency. She followed him, a couple of paces behind. As he opened the car door, she felt someone, something roughly grab her elbow. She found herself being pulled away. The guard looked up, opened his mouth, but then he was burdened with his own assailant. Olivia was guided quickly out of the courtyard to an alcove on the side of the building. They were beside a gravel driveway which separated the building from the gardens opposite.
‘You don’t want this,’ said the kidnapper. ‘We can get you away, somewhere safe.’ The woman was wearing strange, dark clothes. She was nervous, urgent, curiously afraid. But Olivia nodded, putting her life in the hands of this stranger. She did not really consider why. She seemed, for now, to have given over her life to whoever wanted it. They took a few steps out into the driveway, hurried but not running.
Olivia heard a door creak open.
‘Come on,’ urged the kidnapper. ‘Over here.’ But the old woman, the invigilator, was already standing in their way. She’d always be there, from now on, thought Olivia. She could not escape her, this strange, foreboding conscience.
‘You have proved my point,’ said the invigilator. ‘Flawed.’
‘She’s done nothing wrong. She doesn’t have to stay with you.’ The kidnapper’s voice shook and as soon she spoke she looked around as if seeking support.
The invigilator granted the kidnapper a savage look and then turned and began to walk down the driveway towards the courtyard and the car.
‘Come on,’ said the kidnapper.
Olivia stood still, as if stunned.
‘You don’t deserve this. Please. Come with us.’
Olivia looked at her kidnapper’s outstretched hand, found herself still frozen. ‘I failed,’ she told the kidnapper. She could hear the guard’s footsteps on the gravel, stronger and steadier than those of either the invigilator or her kidnapper.
‘You should get out while you can,’ he said quietly. But he took her arm.
‘Don’t go with him,’ pleaded the kidnapper. She grabbed Olivia’s other arm and tried to draw her away, across the road. Olivia thought she could see someone waiting by a large gate. She shook her head and let the guard lead her back to the courtyard and the waiting car. The kidnapper followed, pulling at Olivia, trying to get her to stop. The guard was hurrying now, deaf to the kidnapper’s entreaties. They skirted a figure lying on the ground and Olivia felt the kidnapper withdraw. The guard opened the back door of the car. The invigilator was already sitting in the front seat. Olivia climbed in and put her seatbelt on. She had delivered herself into their hands.
The car pulled up in front of an old building. It had not been a long drive, but they were no longer in a part of the city Olivia recognised. This had to be a neglected section, a stronghold of the Greers. But it can’t be, thought Olivia. Not if I am here. The building was older in style, even older than the Test centre. The outside steps were dirty and covered in leaves, but the wooden doors opened easily with a key held by the invigilator. Inside was a large, open room with a dirty floor. It was tiled, though many of the pieces were missing. At the end of a room a bifurcated staircase led to the next level. The back wall was a faded, peeling blue.
The invigilator marched up the staircase, leading the way to a mezzanine floor. The guard followed, expecting Olivia to do the same. Instead, she paused on a small landing at the end of the first staircase and before the beginning of the divide. Olivia turned and looked at the building. It was beautiful. Even as it was now. And with some care, it could be glorious. The invigilator and the guard waited at the top of the left hand staircase. Olivia followed at last, thinking she would be led to a room on the first floor. Instead, the flights of stairs continued, leading up and up through increasing levels of neglect, up to a small walkway bordering the square of the building.
The invigilator nodded to the guard and he sat on the top step, grateful that the climb was over. But the old woman showed no signs of distress. She led Olivia out into a small room which opened to the sky.
‘Take a look,’ invited the invigilator.
Olivia walked out to the balcony. Here it was no less dirty than the rest of the building, although it seemed somehow used. But the view across the city was recompense, if dizzying. A thin, small railing was Olivia’s only protection and it was loose and broken in parts. She stepped back, suddenly aware that the old woman may want her to step over the edge, perhaps even push her.
But no, the invigilator remained in the shadows of the room. She sat, waiting, at a desk in the far left corner. Behind her was a bookcase, filled with bound volumes. Olivia walked back to her and sat on the empty chair on the other side of the desk.
‘You are in shock,’ said the invigilator, ‘and have not asked what will become of you.’ She appeared kind, now, in this room. A grandmother, dispensing wisdom from her aerie. ‘You still have time to back out, to ask questions, if you wish, although you will not like the answers.’
‘Can I become good?’ asked Olivia.
‘You can try,’ said the invigilator. She pushed several pieces of paper towards her. ‘Sign, if you wish.’
The papers were formal, written in legalese. They talked of transformation, change, admission of need. They were vague, but Olivia signed anyway. She felt, as far as she had collected her feelings or her thoughts, that this was the only way out of her wave of shame. She had failed, in the most complete way that you ever could.
‘What will you tell people?’ she asked.
‘Your parents, your friends, your lovers?’
‘Only one lover,’ Olivia said quietly. ‘Only Ras.’
The invigilator raised an eyebrow. ‘An ordinary, contained life is no proof.’
Olivia nodded and a tear fell down her cheek.
‘We will tell them that you have elected to put yourself under our supervision. They will know you are safe, that you have chosen a different path. No details. We will not say that you have failed the Test. There will be no shame for them.’
The invigilator looked across at Olivia, looked at her until she lifted her head and met her gaze. ‘Are you ready?’
The invigilator opened the side drawer of her desk and withdrew a small bottle and a packaged needle. ‘Roll up your sleeve.’ She stood and walked to Olivia’s side, expertly injecting her and then gently wiping away a small drop of blood.
The woman waited, just off to the side, watching Olivia closely for a moment. ‘You are alright?’ Olivia nodded. ‘I will leave you then, for a while.’ The woman placed the signed papers into one of the folios, gathered together the detritus of the vaccination and left, closing the door behind her.
Olivia felt nothing, not changed in any way. Perhaps she does want me to jump, she thought. She heard two sets of steps moving down the stairs. Olivia turned her chair so that she could see out of the room, out across the city and through the sky. She sat for a moment and then walked to the balcony. But not right to the edge. She had no intention of leaving this spot. She thought she could see the car with the guard and the invigilator driving away. But that was likely just her imagination. She was too high up, too far away, to have seen that.
Olivia could feel her hair on her shoulders. It shouldn’t be this long, should it? Sometimes Ras had longer hair than she did. She liked the way it looked on him, vaguely wild, hinting at something carefree and untamed. But Ras was true and constant. She could lean into him and trust that he’d be there. Truer than she deserved. She shouldn’t have accepted the ring that he’d given her. It had been too beautiful to say no and the moment too perfect and the look on his face too ... hopeful. Too easy to hurt. She thought maybe that she loved him, but ... That didn’t make her bad, did it? That she wasn’t sure.
Olivia found herself on an external staircase. It was metal, without a handrail and it twisted sharply around a long pole running beside the building. Why, or how she had arrived here, she didn’t know. She stood close to the building and put a hand out to steady herself. The steps were wide. There was no real danger, but Olivia’s heart was beating hard and loud. Had she come up or down? Down, she must have, the balcony was at the very top of the building. Perhaps, if she continued down, she could escape. Or perhaps she was expected to go back to the balcony room. Surely they could not mean for her to stay here, on these stairs. There was something falling, floating down just below her.
‘Here, this way,’ said a tiny voice.
Olivia looked around, seeing no-one. The sky was darker than she remembered. It was early evening, but still light enough to see.
Olivia carefully turned her head, and then shifted her body, exchanging one steadying hand for the other. There was a stone ledge along the side of the building. It would be easy to step from the stairs onto the ledge and walk along. Though it was not clear where, if anywhere, it went. On the ledge, a few steps away from the stairs, was a small creature Olivia couldn’t identify, perhaps the size of a large cat or even a small balonwa. It looked hunched, wrong in some way. In the evening light it appeared to be a mottled green. Two small horns stood on top of its head and its eyes were a dark, bright yellow. A small emissary from hell. Not something to trust, or follow. Olivia smiled a little and shook her head.
‘Can’t walk down. Will fall,’ said the being.
‘The ledge doesn’t look very safe, either.’
‘Is safe for you.’
‘No,’ said Olivia. ‘I don’t think so.’
The creature grimaced, then sighed. ‘Look at feet.’
Olivia looked down. She saw first that there was hair, whole hunks of hair covering the steps, but then she noticed that her shoes were gone, and her feet were a similar colour to the creature’s, huge and grotesque with long clinging toes. Only her feet, the rest of her was ... her clothes ... her clothes were gone.
‘Has started. Not much time. Will die there. Follow.’
‘What has started?’
The creature turned quickly on the ledge, in what looked to be a precarious move even for something of its size. ‘Move while still can,’ it said and began to move itself, quickly scrabbling over the ledge.
Olivia took a step with her new, ugly feet. It will be brutal, but transforming. She had not thought the explanation would be so literal.
‘Quickly,’ called the creature.
Olivia followed, pressing her hands against the stone of the building, her new feet almost betraying her. Her back hurt, ached with the strain of holding on. She felt compelled to keep on, now that she had stepped off the stairs, and she did not understand why except now that she was out on the ledge she really had no other choice.
‘Should not be awake,’ she heard the creature mutter. It had waited for her at the corner of the building. The ledge continued along the next side, but the path was more difficult, and blocked with small shelves. The creature moved quickly to the third of these, hurrying her along. ‘Wait, rest,’ it said.
Olivia sat on the small shelf. Her feet would not rest easily in their normal position and she found herself tucking them behind her. The creature gently patted her back and she lay down on the shelf, her body resting on its cold surface, her arms crossed underneath it to keep her safe. Her back still ached, but the creature continued to pat it. She felt as if a stone wall was falling behind her eyes. Her feet sought the security of the building and her arms held the shelf tightly. The creature sat on her back now, rearranging her limbs, smoothing, folding, placing her to his liking. She looked out over the city, over the small lights and the tiny people and the clouds and the tree tops. The creature was right. She would rest here for a while.
Fran stood below, looking up, trying to see. She knew you shouldn’t go. Not just because it was dangerous: the building belonged to the Institution, though it was deep in forgotten area. You shouldn’t go because it would be distressing. She wanted it to be distressing: she hadn’t caught the girl and she wanted to face that. She had to know. She brought up her binoculars and scanned the west face of the building. She found the older gargoyles and the empty shelves quickly enough. She moved her sights slowly to the left until she found the occupied shelf. Yes, there it was, the shelf was still in place. They would withdraw it soon, she had been told, leaving the stone to contract in on itself.
The face of the new gargoyle was peaceful. That surprised her. She’d expected the face to be terrified, settling in from human to stone. The faces of the older gargoyles were harder to read. They were shaped by the stone, rather than by expression.
She glimpsed something on the new gargoyle’s back. She shifted, refocused her binoculars. There, a baby gargoyle it looked to be, but moving, patting the back of the new one. It shifted quickly to one side, as if it knew it was being watched. But no, Fran could see why it had moved. A metal column was slowly advancing from the wall. It found a place on the gargoyle’s back, pushing in. The gargoyle must be almost formed by now, fully stone at least, if only soft stone and malleable. There was no blood, no sign of trauma. She saw the metal extrude from the gargoyle’s mouth, forcing it wide open. She found her own hand covering her mouth, an involuntary no expelled from her throat. There was no magic that could make you recover from that.
She had hoped the rumours were true, that the gargoyles could be brought back, returned to human form and set free. The details had always been vague and the stories untrustworthy, but she had hoped that there was some truth in them. Some people said that there was a night, one a year, in which they came alive. But which night, when? No-one had ever seen it. The Institution had no magic; this was not a curse but a fundamental reworking of your basic nature. Scientific and cruel. And, Fran thought, not at all reversible.
The girl had been so accepting, in shock, ready to follow whoever took her hand. How easy it was to convince someone to forget themselves, to lead them away to destruction, on the basis of one failed Test. Did they know what would become of them? Were they so stunned they would agree to anything?
Fran watched until the shelf retracted, until the metal column retreated into the building. The little creature hopped around fussing, patting, licking. If there was any hope, thought Fran, it was there, up on the ledge, tending to its new cousin. She brought out her polaroid camera – an old thing Tim had found for her, but it still worked – and tried to take a picture. She was too far away for anything good.
Fran had strung up as many lights as she could in her room. It helped her to feel alive. She was careful not to use too much power, but the Greers had become clever at siphoning energy and at installing turbines or stolen solar cells. There was usually enough not to worry. Her windows were covered with curtains, lengths of fabric that covered blinds which had stuck shut long ago. Even without the covers, the windows would not open and were probably so dirty that the coverings made no difference, but most Greers liked to hide. Fran had inherited this room from someone else, an old who had left the earth. Some of the old’s fears had remained behind.
There’d been a moment this afternoon when Fran had felt strong and hopeful. She’d loved that Linten hadn’t been there, that Mattie and George had gone home, that she would be the one to free the girl. She’d imagined running with her. But she hadn’t even taken three steps before she’d been stopped. And how strong, how brave had she been then? Stopped by an old woman. She’d tried to pull the girl away, persuade her, but the sight of Michael lying on the gravel had destroyed her resolve.
Fran tacked the fuzzy picture of the new gargoyle on her wall. All of the gargoyles on the west wall represented failure, the ones the Greers hadn’t managed to snatch. But this one was her failure. Perhaps she shouldn’t think like that, but she did. She wanted the picture to force her to be stronger, braver.
When she was sure it was well into nightfall, she went downstairs and met the others. Tim was there and he came over and hugged her fiercely. He didn’t say anything. Tim wouldn’t, he understood. This room, the dining room, was only dimly lit – some didn’t like it bright, even here in the safety of the forgotten, with guards to protect the door. The room was deep inside; they would be trapped in there if ever there was trouble. But being deep inside was comforting for most.
Fran sat down with Tim at the end of a long, communal table. There was plenty, as there usually was lately. She found she was hungry and ate despite herself. Some made an effort to be kind, and that was difficult, but some didn’t really approve of the catchers’ actions, didn’t approve of anything that brought the Greers out into the open. Some, probably most, just didn’t want to know. Tonight would be the worst, and after tonight only she would really remember. She had to face up to tonight so that she could keep going.
After eating and discussion and help with washing up, she snuck away with Tim to the common room. They sat in a corner on an old, faded couch that used to be deep red with engraved patterns, used to be beautiful, but now was barely functional. It wasn’t truly a private spot, nowhere in this room was, but most would not intrude.
‘There was a baby there today,’ Fran said almost as soon as they sat down. Tim’s face opened in disbelief and she put a hand quickly on his arm to stop him. ‘A baby gargoyle. There, on the ledge, sort of comforting the new one.’
Tim smiled. ‘You sure? Never heard of that before.’
Anyone else would have made Fran bristle with the “you sure”, but not Tim, somehow she knew Tim didn’t doubt her.
‘That’s what it looked like. I don’t think it really was a baby gargoyle, it was moving around, but that’s what it looked like, just like one of them, same colour, same shape, and up there on the ledges with them.’
‘You take a picture?’
Fran shook her head. ‘I don’t know what it was, but it was something.’
‘Asked any of the other catchers?’
‘No,’ said Fran. ‘This one was mine, and I let her through. They don’t want to see my pictures.’
‘They’ve all let ones through,’ said Tim. And he quickly squeezed her fingers. So quick, so cautious. She did not understand why there wasn’t more, but that was how it was.
A shifting and creaking of the couch made her look around. Samuel, a grizzled old, sat down and offered them tea. He was a founder, but most thought him mad now. Harmless, gentle, but foolish. He’d obviously been listening to their conversation.
‘I’ve seen the creature you’re talking about. Not a baby gargoyle, no.’
‘Do you know what it is?’
Samuel shook his head. ‘Not many as would believe me.’
‘I saw something.’
‘It’s only at dusk, in the evening you can see it. So most don’t. Most aren’t looking.’
‘Because that’s when it comes out, only at that time?’
Samuel shrugged. ‘Maybe, maybe that’s the only time they’re visible.’
‘Did the insties make it?’
‘Ha! The Institution don’t know about it. You think they would make something that looked so ugly? They like things to look good, even if they’re not good, you know that, girlie.’ Samuel took Fran’s hand and shook it, formally, as if passing on a message. ‘You let one through?’ he asked.
‘And this one will suffer because of you.’
‘Yes.’ Fran looked away, but Samuel waited until her eyes returned to his.
‘The creature soothed it, yes?’ Samuel’s eyes glowed.
‘Doing your job for you.’
Tim shifted, ready to put an end to the conversation.
‘No harm meant,’ said Samuel quickly. ‘But she knows it, I know it. She needs someone to tell it true.’
‘I’ll catch the next one,’ said Fran.
‘That you will, girlie, that you will.’
In the morning Fran found herself awake early, drifting down to the shared rooms, alone and restless. The kitchen was half lit, the only shared room to have an outside wall, though its double curtains were drawn and its back door was bolted tight. It was a small space, considering that it fed something like eighty, and now, all by herself, Fran was caught by an imagining of living in the outside world, getting up early for a cup of tea before work. She’d heard others talk about their former lives, people that had walked away from the insties. She didn’t really know what it was like, but she imagined it anyway. She would wear clothes without holes, something new every day, something patterned and clean. Her hair would be brushed and pulled back in waves. And there would be no tattered gloves, because she would always be warm, in the sun. She curled one hand around a mug and the other reached up to twitch back the curtains, just for a moment.
‘Is there water enough for another cup?’
Fran quickly let the curtains go and turned.
‘Couldn’t sleep?’ asked Linten. ‘Neither could I.’ Fran did not have it in her to reply, but she made Linten a cup of tea in the cleanest mug she could find and handed it to her. Linten smiled her thanks and they stood, wordless in the half light, warming up, waking up.
‘See you by the front door in a half hour?’ asked Linten. A request that could hardly be refused.
Fran nodded and Linten left, taking her tea with her.
Linten did not believe in hiding. When they were out, she stood in the sunlight and dared people to approach. Even when someone yelled, she didn’t run. It’s not illegal to be us, to live like us, she kept reminding them. It’s not illegal to try and take those that failed the Test. It’s all about choice, that’s what they say, just don’t expect them to like it when we choose differently.
They walked in silence to the gargoyle building, Fran thinking all the way that she would be asked to leave the catchers. It was fair, it was what she deserved. Linten wanted to tell her on her own, in person, but the shame of it made it hard. Their walk took them to the courtyard in front of the north wall. The gargoyles here were older, grimier and, Fran thought, more twisted and tortured.
‘That’s mine, that one there, second from the right, the last one before they started on the west wall.’
‘The one I didn’t catch.’ Linten paused for a moment, let it sink in. ‘And then look, look at how many in between mine and the new one from yesterday. You can’t feel responsible; I should have never have left so few. And where the fuck was Omar?’
‘I had her, and then, she just ...’
‘She didn’t know what she was choosing. I watched her become stone.’ Fran whispered the last sentence to the ground.
‘Me too. I watched too.’
Linten abruptly walked away from the building. Fran thought they would return to the house, but they went in a different direction, through unknown streets and into a park with an open paved area. The pavings were covered by a mass of birds, all feeding eagerly on something. Linten walked right through the middle, birds scattering at the last possible second. Fran followed her through the wave, a parting of a feathered sea.
At one end of this open area was a high, brick wall. At its centre was a fountain, a decaying lion’s head barely trickling water. The wall was old, but repair work had begun at one end, although nobody was working on it today.
‘This is the next site,’ said Linten. ‘When they fill the shelves on the building, they’ll come here next. That’s what I’ve been told.’
‘That’s ... that’s worse somehow.’
Linten shrugged. ‘It’s all cruel, does it matter where it happens?’ A curious bird crept close to their feet, looking at them as if it, too, had an opinion on the gargoyles’ fate.
Linten turned away and they walked back to the house in silence. She never waited, thought Fran, she never stopped, just to think. Fran would have liked to have stayed in the park, breathed it in. They saw no-one on the way back: it was still too early for most inhabitants of the forgotten area to be out. A few steps from their front door, Linten stopped and pointed up.
‘My room’s on the top level, up there, can you see?’
‘You don’t have curtains.’
‘And every night, I look and remind myself.’ She did not look at Fran but continued to the front door. They knocked twice, and guards let them in. Linten nodded at Fran and began walking up towards her room.
‘Thank you,’ Fran whispered. She did not want to call it out, up the stairs, in front of Bartholomew and Harris, though they were moving back to their guard posts now: little more than two chairs beside the door and endless cups of tea. The guards were old, finicky men and they would not be able to stop anyone who really wanted to come in. But who would? A nest of mice, that was all they were. A nest of mice in a forgotten place.
Fran took the stairs two at a time. Her room was on the fifth level, the third door on the left once you reached the landing. She shut her door, went straight to the windows and tore at her curtains. The top layer came away easily – it was only tucked in. The second layer had been tacked to rods which were attached to the wall. Sometimes it would rip away quickly, leaving Fran sneezing from the dust. In other places, she had to find a chair, reach up and release the fabric, persuade it away from the tacks. It was a bigger job than she’d imagined, climbing up the stairs. Dirtier and more time consuming. But eventually the coverings lay in dusty, mouldy heaps. Her room was lighter, but still dim. If she pressed her face to the window, she could make out shapes. It would be impossible to clean outside, but inside?
Fran grabbed a bucket from the cleaning closet and waited impatiently outside the bathroom. Sometimes there was water, Fran didn’t know why or how, other times you had to haul buckets up from the bottom floor. Mattie came out, towelling her hair and she grinned. ‘Good idea, get in while you can. Won’t need that: shower’s working great.’
The walls of the bath room were mouldy and grungy, though most tried to keep the bath clean. It was a faded cream with rusty feet and a huge crack high on one side. It didn’t matter, there was never enough water to fill it that far. Shower heads had been installed above the bath. It was rare that they worked, but there was also a hose than could be detached and used to wash your hair. Fran shoved the bucket under the taps, turned on the water and hunted for something to clean with. There was a kind of generic shampoo that one of the Greers made stored in the bathroom in big tubs. People tried only to use it for emergencies, but it would do for washing windows. Fran poured some in. Maybe too much, the bucket foamed and sudsed, almost overflowing. She hauled it back to her room.
‘Spring cleaning?’ asked Michael. Fran smiled. He had a black eye, but otherwise he seemed fine. Martha had looked him over last night. He wasn’t really expecting an answer; he was already on his way down the stairs, tying back his long hair as he went. But she was glad she hadn’t left her door ajar; this was just for her.
Fran used the first layer of curtains as wash rags. They were the least filthy but they didn’t stay that way for long. She washed over and over, cleaning the dust away from the sill until the bucket was full of black water. But there it was: one window, streaked and as clean as it could be on the inside. And she could see out. Fran continued along the wall. There were five sets of windows in all, each one requiring a bucket of fresh water and an increasingly hazardous trip down the hall. She was almost done – dirty, wet, arms exhausted – when someone knocked. Fran put the bucket carefully aside and opened the door a little. She was surprised, most did not visit others in their rooms.
‘Sorry,’ said Tim. ‘I was looking for you and Mattie said you were up here, doing something strange. I’ll go. I shouldn’t have—’
‘Come in,’ said Fran. She quickly opened the door, almost pushed him inside, then shut it behind him. She was glad he was here, she wanted to show him, but she also felt exposed and awkward. But Tim wasn’t paying her any attention. Instead he moved from window to window, looking carefully out of each one, as if each offered a different perspective, a different view altogether.
‘It’s a brave move,’ he said after a while.
‘I don’t think we should hide anymore.’
Most won’t like it and Martha won’t approve, especially at night with lights on.’
‘Linten has no curtains.’
‘Linten is Linten.’
Tim looked up at the garlands of lights strung around the room.
‘I won’t need so many now,’ said Fran.
‘I guess not. What made you do it?’
‘Linten showed me her gargoyle, the one she was meant to catch. She can see it from her window.’
‘So you want to torture yourself.’
‘No, I want to be stronger.’
Tim walked back to the last window in the wall. ‘Can you see it? The building?’
‘I think so, hang on.’ Fran found her binoculars and brought them over to Tim. ‘You know what it looks like?’ Tim nodded. ‘It’s kind of right at the edge.’
Tim moved the binoculars, searching for the building. ‘I’ve found it, but you need something more powerful than these if you really want to see the gargoyles.’
Fran shrugged. ‘I just want to know it’s there.’
‘So you’re not trying to find out more about that baby gargoyle?’
‘No. I wouldn’t be able to see it from here anyway.’
She wished that she was in better clothes, or at least less wet and dirty ones. And her room. The new light showed how neglected it was. But she was pleased to have Tim here, sitting on her one and only chair. Fran sat on the floor, hugging her legs to her chest, content.
‘I found this,’ said Tim. He reached into his backpack, brought out a large ceramic mug and handed it to Fran. The mug was heavy, brown with glints of green. Opposite the handle was a face. Something very like a gargoyle, although there were no horns and the mouth was closed. On each side of the mug was a wing pressed to the sides and on the bottom, level with the base was a pair of hooked feet. ‘Beautiful and ugly at the same time, I thought you might like it.’
‘Thank you,’ said Fran. She traced the outline of the wings with her fingers. They were the beautiful part, though the face made her feel more sad than scared. It was peaceful, perhaps even wise, but it made Fran remember the girl changing from human to stone.
‘It’s a gargoyle, don’t you think?’ asked Tim. ‘Or something like them.’
Fran nodded. ‘But who would make it? Unless it’s a Greer thing.’
‘No,’ said Tim. ‘Well maybe, but I don’t know of anybody. It’s just something I found.’ Fran looked up at him. ‘I’ve got it wrong, haven’t I? I didn’t want to make you sadder ... the baby gargoyle... it made me think of you.’
‘I like it,’ said Fran. She stood and placed it on her shelf with her books. It was only a piece of wood lying on top of the brackets that had already been in the room. She’d tried to sand the wood back a little. There was a candle there too in a chipped stand and a box of matches ready for nights without power. She could see the layer of dust on top of the books, on top of everything, and she wiped some of it away with a finger.
‘I should go,’ said Tim. Fran turned. She wanted to ask him to stay, but there seemed nothing to offer to keep him here. ‘Keep something to cover the windows at night,’ he said.
‘I guess,’ said Fran. ‘Thank you, for the mug. See you at lunch, maybe?’
‘Yeah,’ said Tim. He stood at the door, one hand on the latch, but still facing into the room. Fran came over to him and quickly reached up and kissed him on the cheek. ‘It’s lovely,’ she said, stepping back a little.
Tim ducked his head and opened the door, and was out and into the corridor in one quick movement. Fran shut the door behind him. She went to the shelf, took everything off, found a rag and brushed the dust away. She cleaned the books and placed them to one side, then put the mug beside them so that it acted as a kind of bookend. The candle stub and the matches were out of place, but she liked them there and she knew how to walk to this spot in the dark.
Underneath the shelf was an old suitcase, the one her mother had left. Fran wiped that too, but she didn’t open it or lift it up. She folded some of the curtains and placed them on top of the case. The rest she bundled up, ready to use as rags, or to sneak down to the bins.
‘Steady, steady,’ said a low voice. ‘Let it flow through you, don’t try and fight it.’
If she’d had her old body, Olivia knew she would be crying. She would be shaking, she would be drowning, gagging, maybe even throwing up. She was not sure this new body was any different.
‘You’re not you anymore,’ said the voice. ‘You are Amala. You are stone. Let it flow.’
I am stone, thought Olivia. No, not Olivia. Amala. That’s what they’d called her. Amala was stone.
‘Let it flow,’ added another voice.
The sensation of drowning, of gagging, left her. She was stone.
‘Let it flow,’ chorused the ledges. A deep, thrumming sound, vibrating into the night air. Amala had never heard them speak before, but dared not try to find her voice. It was all she could do to let the water flow through her. She could feel it entering her back, roiling through her and then gushing, tumbling out of her mouth. It was dark at first, full of dirt and dust, mould and soot. But then it cleared, a clean torrent. Amala thought her tears were joining it, but that could not be. It was simply that the waterfall of rain falling over her, cleaning her of bird droppings and dirt, had found a small crevice to trickle into.
The rain eased and she could feel the drops of water finding their way through her. She found she could move her head, just a little, and she looked at her companions for the first time. Each was essentially the same as her, an elongated, horrific creature with an open mouth and terrified eyes. She tried to smile at her nearest neighbour, but could not. That she could move her neck at all was something of a miracle. It was slow, slow, but she could manage something like a 180 degree arc across. And perhaps move her head down a little.
There were a few of her fellow creatures that had managed a little more: uncrossed arms, eyelids that slowly blinked. How had they spoken? There was no indication that lips and tongue and teeth had moved. None spoke now; the rumbled chorus had quietened. On the corner of the roof she could see an older, horned gargoyle covered in lichen and blackened despite the rain. As the downpour cleared to all but the lightest of drops it spread its stone wings with a fast, creaking swoosh. Amala could see the lighter stone inside the unfolded creases. She waited for it to spring from the wall, watched for its legs to bend and leap away, but the figure remained where it was.
‘Soon,’ the gargoyles called. Amala found she could join them. Her voice rumbling up from she did not know where, a place woken by the water deep inside her. ‘Soon,’ she called, though she did not know how or why, and she did not know what it meant. ‘Soon.’
Linten and Fran were on the trolley, making their way towards the Test building. They sat on the outside seats, the way they always did. They didn’t pay, and no-one had ever asked them to. Omar and Michael had walked, leaving much earlier in the morning. Mattie and George were following on the next trolley. Linten liked them to be seen, liked people to know that there were Greers around. All of them tried to wear clothes that wouldn’t stand out in the city, but it was hard. You still needed something you could move around in, move quickly. City dress at the moment tended to frills and bows and, for women, skirts and heels. Mattie had clothes like these, though she never wore them in the Greer house. She’d offered some to Fran once and Fran had tried them on, but she’d felt wrong: awkward and somehow not herself.
It doesn’t matter what we wear, Linten said. They know, there’s something about us that gives us away. And why should it matter? But they never sat on the inside of the trolley. And no-one ever sat beside them.
The building they were heading to was right beside long established gardens. The Test was always held here, Fran didn’t know if they used the building for anything else, they probably did, there was lots of space on the upper levels. They got off the trolley one stop early and went into the gardens. They had plenty of time, the Test took most of the morning and anyone who failed was not brought out until later in the afternoon. The gardens were open on all sides except for the one, the one beside the Test building. This side was bounded by a hedge and a brick wall. At one point, about halfway along, was a pair of iron gates, made of tight metal curls. They were meant to be locked, but George always managed to open them. Once they hadn’t been locked at all, still open from the last time they were there. ‘See,’ George had said, ‘nobody uses these gates but us. That’s why it’s right that I have the key.’ George’s key was a handmade thing, which looked to Fran like a jumble of rusty, twisted metal. But he’d never failed to get the gates open.
There was a time of waiting, of hoping that no-one would come out, wondering if they would be successful in catching them if they did. No-one truly relaxed, though Mattie and Michael often seemed to. Linten would find a spot, sit, watching, but she was tense. Fran imagined she would sit on top of the fence if she could, perched on one of the brick pillars like an eagle. George and Mattie were always by the gate, standing, sitting, shifting around, laughing. Michael and Omar usually made their way over to the building early. It was their job to apprehend the driver and they had found several concealed spots close to the car park. Michael joked that the drivers knew them by now, gave up without a fight as soon as they showed their faces. But he didn’t make that joke today.
They met, as they always did, at the iron gate. George had unlocked it easily enough, but somebody had threaded a linked steel band through the curls, tying the two sides of the gate together no matter if it was locked or unlocked.
‘We could always climb over,’ said Linten. But no-one made a move to do so.
Mattie put down her bag, extracted cutters and set to work.
‘What are those?’ asked George, jokingly affronted by her preparedness. ‘Mini bolt cutters for the modern woman?’
‘Just something I have on me, for emergencies.’ Mattie waved the cutters expressively and grinned.
‘Will they work?’ asked Omar. He stepped closer and examined Mattie’s progress.
‘Slowly, maybe. The handles are too short.’
‘We have plenty of time,’ remarked Linten.
‘Please,’ said Omar stretching out a hand. Mattie handed him the implement, flexing her fingers to soothe the cramp.
Omar placed the beaks of the cutters on the steel and gripped the handles with both of his sizeable hands. He squeezed, twice, the links broke apart and the chain flopped down. Omar handed the cutters back to Mattie and George ceremoniously stepped forward and opened the gate. He waved Michael and Omar through and they crossed the drive and disappeared into the building.
Linten held the end of the broken chain in her hand. ‘Perhaps we need to think of a different approach.’
‘Could be coincidence,’ said Mattie.
‘Could mean they’re worried,’ remarked George.
Linten shook her head. ‘Doubt it.’
George pulled the chain through the gap in the iron gate, swinging it so that it wrapped around one hand. ‘Could do something with this.’
‘What, exactly?’ asked Mattie.
‘Hide it somewhere,’ said Linten. ‘If you want it, you’ll know where it is. We don’t want it found on us.’
‘Not that search crap again,’ said Mattie.
Linten shrugged. ‘They chained the gate, they might go back to their old ways.’
‘What were the old ways?’ asked Fran. It was more of a thought than a question, but she said it out loud.
‘Terrible times,’ said George over his shoulder as he went off to hide the chain.
‘They used to be all over us,’ said Mattie. She’d squatted down beside the gate, half turned towards the building. ‘They’d raid the house. That’s why the guards are there, not that they’d stop anybody. And if they saw you in the street, they’d have a word.’
‘But that was a while ago now. Now, they’re working hard on the appearance of peaceful, accepting and loving,’ said Linten.
‘Perhaps they’re meaning to fail some more,’ said Mattie. ‘Fill up that new wall.’
‘Maybe,’ said Linten.
‘So the Test isn’t real?’ asked Fran.
‘You don’t believe in it, do you?’ asked Mattie.
‘She doesn’t know anything about it,’ said Linten. She turned to Fran. ‘Some think the Test is a cover. The insties need scapegoats, and they choose some from time to time.’
‘The Test is a legitimate method of discerning a person’s true nature,’ quoted George.
‘Hhmph,’ remarked Mattie. ‘What’s worse: choosing someone to be made an example of or choosing someone because you believe them to be evil?’
‘We have ... the caught ... some live in the house, don’t they?’ asked Fran.
‘Yeah, and there’s no-one evil there,’ said Mattie. ‘Strange, weird, anti-social, creepy. But not evil.’ She smiled.
Mattie was so normal, thought Fran. She wondered why she didn’t live in the city. She wasn’t scared of the outside like most. She could fit in and live happily.
A car made its way up the gravel driveway. A car didn’t necessarily mean that someone had failed the Test, but it could. Fran saw Linten nod to Michael. He was standing in the shadows of an alcove directly opposite the gate. Everyone was being especially careful today. Omar would be somewhere near the car, but not with Michael. If one of them was found, the other should still be able to apprehend the driver. George and Mattie kept watch by the gate. They were backup if anything went wrong, but also the escort for any of the caught. They blended in. It was Linten and Fran who caught the failed Test subjects, Linten mainly, though in theory they were all catchers, any one of them could, should, do it if they had the chance.
The car park ate a rectangle into the building, and on the far side, directly opposite the gates, was a pair of heavy, ornate doors. They had been painted a deep blue and were covered by swirls of copper that matched the iron gates of the gardens. There must have been a time, thought Fran, when people would open those doors, walk to their car, and then drive away, into the gardens through the gates. The paths through the gardens were wide, wide enough for a car to drive on, though none ever did. The gardens were for picnics and walking and fun. Fran loved them; even the insties were relaxed and more accepting here. Not if you go up and talk to them, Omar would say, but no-one really glared the way they did on the trolley. There were small buildings dotted through the gardens where parties would sit, rest and chat. Fran wished she could do that. Just once.
Fran thought she saw Omar, or at least glimpsed a movement near the car. The driver, just a man, not anyone important, went inside. Sometimes the driver waited in the car – that was usually a sign. Today, he’d gone in. There would be ages to wait, in any case, it was still early in the afternoon, no-one ever came out so soon. There was a small door near the car. That was the door that was always used, that was the door everyone was watching.
Linten ran, moving across the driveway into the car park. Michael joined her and then so did Omar. Fran looked at Mattie and George. They were as confused as she was. Standing up, but not knowing what to do. It was their job, anyway, to stay here, to stay by the gate. Fran’s job was to catch, but there was no-one there to help. Nobody except the Greers, standing exposed on the gravel. Fran moved through the gap in the gate, hovered on this side of the driveway. Linten turned, shook her head, held up a warning hand. Omar disappeared, back to his alcove, no, he was waiting by the car, standing by the far passenger door. Michael and Linten approached the building. Fran saw them hesitate, just for a moment look at each other and then Michael pounded on the small door. They stood, waiting, exposed, but why, Fran had no idea. The building breathed its silence. They tried the ornate, blue doors, banging on them, calling out. She expected the doors to grind open, for Linten and Michael to be hauled inside, never seen again, but nothing. Michael shrugged, Fran could see it from across the road, and then he went back to the car and stood with Omar. They were looking at it closely, looking at something inside. Linten waited for a moment longer, then ran back through the car park and across to the gates.
‘We need to get the car open. George, can you do it?’ George nodded and ran across the driveway.
‘There’s a kid in there,’ said Linten.
‘It’s the driver’s kid,’ said Mattie.
Linten shook her head. ‘It’s ... distressed. And in rags and ... there’s something wrong.’
‘A trap,’ said Mattie. ‘It’s a trap, they’re fucking testing us.’ She yelled something at the three men and then ran across to join them.
Linten put a restraining hand on Fran’s arm. ‘Stay here. There’s no point in us all being exposed.’ They watched as George opened the passenger door. Mattie waved the men back, away from the car, and then she crouched down, talking to the child, trying to coax it out. George leant into the car and then he crossed the driveway, a small ragged figure in his arms. Michael and Mattie weren’t far behind. Omar looked around the car park and up at the building, closed the car door then followed. The five Greers stood, looking at the child. You could hear her rough breathing, her struggle for air. Was the child a girl? Fran couldn’t truly tell.
‘We must take her to hospital,’ said Omar. ‘It’s not far. I will carry her.’
Linten nodded and George handed the bundle to Omar. He strode off immediately with Michael beside him.
‘What now?’ asked George.
‘We wait,’ said Linten.
‘And if there’s someone to catch?’
‘Then you have the driver.’
‘We’ve kidnapped a child,’ said Mattie.
‘We’ve taken a distressed and possibly ill child to hospital. We tried to attract attention, but we couldn’t,’ replied Linten. Her voice was calm, but it was deliberately so.
‘We should have taken her into the building, disturbed the Test,’ insisted Mattie.
Linten shook her head. ‘She was struggling for air. We’d waited long enough.’
‘There’s something off about this,’ said Mattie.
‘Of course there is. It’s a new game and we don’t know the rules.’
‘Then we find out the rules,’ said George.
Linten shook her head. ‘No instie rules are worth worrying about.’ She lifted her head. ‘Back,’ she said. ‘I don’t want you two seen.’
The small side door opened and the driver stepped out. He stood on the first step and looked around, pointed his keys at the car and opened it, then swiftly walked to it and hopped in without checking the back seat. He started the car immediately and drove away, putting the windows down as he did so. Fran could see his face clearly as he moved up the driveway. He was middle-aged, and a cap sat on top of his thin hair. The driver must have known they were there, but he looked determinedly ahead, remained determinedly impassive. His face seemed sad to Fran.
‘So that’s that,’ said George. He picked up his coat, his concession to city wear, a long, flouncy thing that covered most of what he was wearing and blended him in.
‘No,’ said Mattie. ‘That’s just the beginning.’
They waited the rest of the afternoon, the four of them. They began to hear people leaving the building, first a trickle and then whole groups. People who had passed the Test, who were now confirmed citizens of the Institution. Chatter and laughter drifted up to them but gradually a silence descended over the building. The light was beginning to fade. George put on his coat.
‘Go,’ said Linten.
‘I don’t know,’ said Mattie. ‘It still seems ...’
‘Yes, wrong,’ replied Linten, ‘but go. I’m more worried about Omar and Michael than anything that might happen here.’
‘We’re off,’ said George. He folded the cloth wrap of his tools into one of the inside pockets of his coat. Mattie put her shoes back on and they walked back into the park, melding with the other couples who were languidly finishing their day.
‘They fit in,’ said Fran.
‘Maybe,’ replied Linten.
They both watched and waited until it was completely dark. There was one light on inside, that they could see, high up on the far left. A tiny room at the back of the building.
‘Let’s go,’ said Linten.
‘To the hospital?’
‘No, to the house, home. I’m hoping that’s where they’ll be.’
Fran was eating dinner – spiced lentils with potato and rice – when the child was brought in. Michael was carrying her, but Omar remained close beside him, as if to claim joint ownership. Both men stood tall and still. Omar’s close-cropped curls and his thin scar somehow matched with Michael’s long, dirty blonde hair.
The table gasped, then silenced and then was overtaken by talk. Some took their children out of the forgotten area, sent them across the bridge if they could. Fran had been a child here, in the Greer house, and so had others, but there were no children living here now. This child was soon surrounded by the curious, people who wanted to touch, or hold, or just see.
Fran stayed where she was.
‘You rescued a kid today?’ Tim asked her.
‘I guess,’ said Fran. ‘I thought they were just taking it to the hospital.’
‘You cannot keep that child here.’ It was Martha that spoke. She was not so old, fifty possibly, but she was bent and scarred. Kind, usually, but now direct and unflinching.
‘It places us all in danger,’ said another voice.
‘The guards should never have let you in.’
Omar stepped forward and the crowd around the child dispersed a little. ‘This is not the place for a child, I agree. But the hospital refused her entry and this is our home. We ask for one night.’
A chorus of agreement sprang up, mostly from those who had gathered around Michael and Omar.
‘What are they doing with a child, Linten?’ asked Martha.
Linten sat at the end of the table, not far from Fran. George and Mattie weren’t there; they still hadn’t returned. More likely than not they were out, having fun.
‘Is she hurt?’ Linten asked Michael and Omar.
‘We were right to get her out of the car,’ said Michael. ‘An asthma attack. It took time to get her breathing back to normal.’
‘They would not admit her,’ continued Omar.
‘And we were there. The only ones willing to claim her,’ said Michael. He shrugged. ‘She is fine now, just tired.’
‘That child has parents, someone concerned,’ said Martha.
‘You can’t know that,’ replied Omar.
‘But neither can you know that she doesn’t. What if she is ill again?’
Michael held up a clutch of medicines. ‘One night,’ he said. ‘That’s all.’
‘We’ll speak after dinner,’ said Martha.
‘Have you eaten?’ asked Linten.
Michael shook his head.
‘I’ll watch her,’ said Fran. She hadn’t known she was going to say that, wasn’t sure that she even liked the child.
Omar smiled at her. The first time she had seen him smile all day. ‘Come with us now. We’ll take her up to Michael’s room.’
Fran pushed her plate aside, stood and followed the two men out of the room. They walked in silence up the stairs. Michael lived on the same level as her, five floors up, but his room was on the other side of the building. The stairs became darker as they trudged up, though some candles had been lit on corner posts at landings. Whatever lights might once have been in place no longer worked. Omar opened the door to Michael’s room and the three of them walked inside. It was completely dark but Michael kept walking, sure of his way to the bed. Omar found candles just inside the doorway, lit two and gave one to Fran. They walked into the room and found Michael smoothing back the child’s hair. She was tiny in the large bed.
‘We call her Evangeline,’ he said.
‘But she may have her own name,’ said Omar, perhaps not for the first time.
‘Food,’ said Omar. ‘Food and then a long discussion with Martha.’
‘Linten will back us.’
‘Thank you, Fran,’ they said one after the other, Omar in his deep formal way, Michael’s voice lighter, happier.
‘We’ll be back as soon as we can,’ added Michael.
They left, closing the door softly behind them.
The child was cleaner than Fran remembered. Someone at the hospital had found her new clothes to wear. She was completely asleep, oblivious to her new surroundings and the great love bestowed on her. She was no longer a baby, but still small. Maybe two, maybe three Fran thought, though she hadn’t ever had much to do with children. She watched her breathe, her small mouth open, her face beautiful. Fran still wasn’t sure if she liked her. Especially if it meant that Michael and Omar would have to leave. They wouldn’t stay with the Greers if the child was not permitted; Michael wouldn’t part with her. All it had taken was one afternoon.
A knock on the door brought Mattie and George. Tim followed in their wake.
‘Back early,’ said Mattie.
‘More exciting things happening here, believe it or not,’ said George.
‘What’s going on downstairs?’ asked Fran.
Tim sat down on the end of the bed. ‘It’s hard to know. Michael and Omar are with Martha. Not even Linten is part of the discussion.’
‘But lots of people want their say, right?’ said George.
‘Yeah, it’s very noisy downstairs,’ said Mattie. ‘Can almost hear it on the street.’
Fran wondered why Tim was so comfortable with the child. He hadn’t lived with the Greers as long as she had, but for a while, about ten years, since he was an older teenager. Maybe he’d had younger brothers or sisters. Maybe ... there was no point wondering. Most came to the Greers without explanation. And if they didn’t reveal their reasons or their background, you weren’t to ask.
‘It’s very noisy up here too, all of a sudden,’ replied Fran.
‘The kid won’t wake up,’ replied George.
‘And you know this because?’ asked Mattie.
George shrugged. ‘Kids don’t. Not when they’re out to it like this.’
‘Didn’t realise you were the expert.’
Tim turned to look at them all. ‘They won’t make her go will they?’
‘Probably,’ said George, suddenly serious. ‘They’ll not think it worth the risk.’
‘Kind of an obvious plant,’ added Mattie.
‘So the whole accept whoever seeks sanctuary philosophy just goes out the window?’ asked Tim.
‘One life against many,’ answered George. ‘Not saying it’s right, just saying that’s how they’ll think.’
‘They want to stay hidden,’ said Mattie. ‘Most do, that’s a fact. And with good reason.’
‘It’s not right,’ said Tim softly.
‘We don’t know who this is,’ replied Mattie. ‘This kid. Why she was left in the car, what was going on, why the hospital wouldn’t keep her ...’
‘What Michael and Omar thought they were doing bringing her here,’ added George.
‘It’s their home,’ said Fran. ‘They shouldn’t be asked to leave.’
‘But we will.’ Omar stood in the doorway. ‘Michael is still arguing with Martha, but we have lost. He wishes to keep her and so we will move.’
‘Away from Anise?’
‘No, we will stay in the city. Find another place to live. Close by, although not too close, perhaps.’
‘Just like that,’ said George.
Omar shrugged. ‘It is not difficult to find an empty place.’
‘No,’ said Mattie, ‘but ... to live by yourselves ...’
Omar smiled. His face became, for a moment, gentle rather than stern. ‘There are many that live by themselves. It is not for most, but ... not impossible. And I will have Michael and this child.’
‘We could help you look,’ said Fran. The idea terrified her, living apart from the Greer community. It was strange enough walking through the instie world in the daylight, in the company of others, but there was always someone to come home to, the community, the nest.
‘Thank you,’ said Omar. ‘Would you mind staying for a while longer? Michael ... I do not wish our ties with this community to be completely severed.’
‘We’ll come with,’ said Mattie.
‘Back up,’ added George.
The room quietened as the three of them left.
‘Would you do it?’ asked Tim. ‘Live away from the Greers?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life,’ said Fran.
‘But you’re not troubled by the outside.’
‘No, but I come back. I always want to come back. Maybe, maybe I could live somewhere else. Not by myself.’ Fran looked at the child. Was this small creature worth it? ‘Do you think it’s a trap, this kid?’
‘Probably,’ said Tim. ‘But maybe it’s a trap you have to fall into.’