Below is a holiday fiction piece that steals a few characters from one of my larger works in progress. This one is longer than any of my other posted works, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s a short story with developed characters and a dystopian holiday plot, so I hope you take the time to read and enjoy it. Happy holidays, everyone, even though it’s a bit late.
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“Fel!” I call through the thickening crowds. I would hate to lose her in this mess; who knows what kind of trouble she’ll get into?
Advertisements flash in shop windows, declaring the latest research and sales that make their product best. People bustle in and out of the shop doors along the streets. Everyone has places to be and people to see, but the one person I want to see is invisible. Sometimes her powers for disappearing could rival even the most talented magicians, I swear.
I shout her name again, but she doesn’t respond. She might not be able to hear me above all the noise of the people, the buzz of electricity, and the clattering of bells at storefronts all around the intersection. I’m afraid to move in case she returns.
“She’s not a kid, you know,” Nemus says beside me. I half-expected him to be with her. I’m not sure which way I prefer it.
The day, sunny this morning, has turned cold and dreary, like any good holiday in the city. No snow here, though. I doubt half the residents even know the word. There’s been such little communication from the other cities for so long that knowledge of other climates and cultures has passed beyond common knowledge. I know what it is because Tessian, Nemus’s father, took it into his head to give all of us orphans what he considered a proper education. From him, I know that snow used to be expected on this holiday. Even the holiday’s name has been lost to time, but people still celebrate.
“She could fool me most days,” I respond to Nemus. He chuckles and doesn’t argue.
“Maybe we could try a new approach?” He asks with a shrug. My idea is to throw him into the crowd and see how long it takes Fel to react to his cries of alarm. He wouldn’t be hurt, and she would come faster than anything. Before I act on that, Nemus points across the road.
“There,” he says, and I see her walk into a shop. No vehicles speed on the roads today, just the thick throngs of people through the four major intersections. It’s the day before the biggest holiday of the year. People are so concerned about getting proper gifts that the city authorities blocked off the streets around and through the popular shopping centers to prevent as much harm as possible.
I was afraid to come out with Fel and Nemus today because of all the crazy people. Per usual, Nemus is finished with his shopping early, but Fel has yet to buy most of hers. I only have a few more gifts to buy, most of which can wait until the holiday party outside the city. The others I need by tomorrow.
Nemus grabs my elbow and walks toward the shop Fel just entered. Her short blonde hair stands out among all the people wearing hats against the forty-five-degree weather. She claims she doesn’t feel the cold, so we’re lucky she conceded to wearing a jacket. No matter how she feels about the cold, none of us need people taking too long of a look.
Nemus doesn’t rush in front of me to get to Fel like he normally does. With one hand grasping my elbow, he keeps himself at my back and pushes me onward. When we arrive at the door, however, it takes only a look inside to see that we were wrong.
A woman with hair like Fel’s stands at the front of the store inspecting a group of scarves and purses. She could have been Fel’s twin except for her age lines and the deep tan that marks her as a gardener in the science center.
I don’t think. Instead, I shake off Nemus’s hand and the warnings I lived by the past three years.
This is Fel’s mother–there’s no mistaking it. We call ourselves orphans, but that’s only because it’s dangerous to look for or contact our parents. This is a chance and a reminder. It’s a reminder of what this city tried to do to us and what it did to our parents, as if living in hiding isn’t a constant reminder in itself. It’s a chance to reunite my friend with the mother she’s always wondered about.
All the warnings in my head tell me to back away and run. What I’m about to do is far beyond Tessian’s rules for city conduct. I glance once at Nemus to see if he’ll rat on me, but he’s as confused and intrigued as I am. Is that encouragement I see?
“Excuse me,” I say to the woman as I approach. “But could I talk to you for a moment?”
She looks up in shock but says nothing. Her look of expectancy is remarkably like Fel’s. Her green eyes look wiser, more guarded and wary, but no less inquisitive.
“First, can I get your name?” I ask. If for some reason she doesn’t want to answer my questions, I want to give something to Fel to track down. She’ll do it recklessly and she’ll likely get caught, but maybe this one time it will be worth it. Tessian and Nemus would save her.
“Sure,” the woman says, and her voice sounds like a more mature Fel. Everything about this woman is Fel except for her subdued nature. Was this woman always like this? Did living under the Council make her like this? Or is Fel’s disposition her father’s? “My name is Gen Malders.”
I whisper the name to myself and look around the store. Nemus is still at my back, looking around the store as I am, searching for listeners. The store worker at the back talks with a couple of customers and the other people in the store are too far away to hear our conversation.
“What about your names?” she asks. Her question distracts me from my thoughts.
“Um, sorry,” I say when I look back at Gen. She seems confused, and why shouldn’t she? This must be a strange encounter for her. She’ll remember my face and talk to someone about it as people do. This was a bad idea. “Maybe we could talk outside?” She shakes her head and stands firm.
“Your names first.” The intrigue on her face turns to warning, and the quick anger and strong stubborn side of the woman–and of Fel–shows itself.
“Nemus and Terra,” I say, glancing around again. “Can we go outside now?”
Gen Malders nods.
Outside isn’t better. People are everywhere and any one of them could hear a strand of conversation, take a snapshot of us with a comm device, and turn us all in to the city guard. Nemus might make it out of that one, but Gen and I would be killed or exiled.
I turn to Gen. “Do you know of any quiet, private places we could go?” I’m trying not to sound like a criminal who’s luring her away to be robbed or worse.
“This way,” she says and points down the road. “Let me buy you some dinner.”
It isn’t lunch yet. Nemus and I glance at each other. He knows what I’m trying to do but doesn’t stop or scold me, for which I’m grateful. He would normally be right there with me telling Fel not to do something rash. The sounds in the space around me cover up the nervous beating of my heart and dull my realization that I don’t know Gen’s ability or whether Nemus can best her if she turns on us.
I hate being paranoid, but there’s no other way for a Defective to live in the city. If you’re not paranoid, you die. Unfortunately, I’m not the best at being paranoid.
Gen leads us to a small restaurant around the corner from some of the larger stores. It’s deserted, but she seems to know the owner. He waves at her when she enters and she returns the gesture with a smile.
“It’s good to see you, Gen!” The man says from the far end of the room. “I was wondering if you would stop in today.”
“Just here for a bite to eat, Yansen.”
He nods and slips through a small swinging door that I assume leads to a kitchen area. The rest of the restaurant is decorated in a simple style with solid booths, tiled floors, swinging metal lamps, and black and white signs on the far wall declaring the daily menu.
“We won’t be disturbed here,” Gen says like she knows we have secret business. What kind of life does she lead? My worry doubles with another realization: I know nothing about this woman except her name and that she looks like my best friend. And maybe she’s a gardener.
“What is it you wanted to discuss?” she asks, sitting in a nearby booth and folding her hands together above the table. I mimic her movements in an attempt to be as innocuous as possible. Nemus doesn’t have to try. He slips in beside me and stares openly at the woman, his innocence without question.
“My friend,” I say and stop. I’d decided on the short walk over that being direct would be the best approach, but now I reconsider. Maybe the best course of action is a reunion between the two? Otherwise, she might not believe me. “You look a lot like one of my friends.”
“Why does this require secrecy?” she asks.
“My friend is…” I look around and shrug at Nemus. “She’s off somewhere right now, but I wondered if you might want to meet her.” A terrible idea occurs to me, and I add, “Later.” It’s too early, but I ask anyway. “Maybe you could visit tomorrow for our holiday party?” Gen looks at me in incredulity. I ramble, as I do when I get nervous. “It’s a delicate matter, see, and I promise I don’t mean any harm, but she never had a mother, and I–“
Gen interrupts. “You think I could be your friend’s mother?” She stands to leave but sits when Yansen walks out with a tray full of glasses for us and a bowl of something–probably soup–for her. “Why are you so secretive?” Her skepticism rises with her eyebrows, but when Nemus and I glance at each other again, she understands. After Yansen sets the glasses in front us and leaves, she asks, “You’re Defective, aren’t you?”
Neither of us says anything. We can neither confirm nor deny her suspicions, or it could mean the end of us. It could mean the end of us already, and it’s my fault.
“Leave,” Gen says with urgency but not hostility. “Before I call the city guard.” We nod and stand, but I write quickly on a napkin and slip our address to her across the table before I leave. I’m risking exposure. The more I say, the more I risk, but I came out today to find Fel a holiday gift, and I think I just did.
“Tomorrow after dinner, if you can make it,” I tell her. Without a specific time, I hope she can find a way around her own schedule, which I’m hesitant to ask about. As I walk out the door, I silently hope that she had a Defective child and that I’m not talking to someone without sympathy or relation to Fel.
My sleep that night is fitful and full of nightmares about the city guard breaking down our door and slaughtering all of us. I should have given Gen a different address and then set a time to meet up. It’s too late now, though. I can only hope Gen is who I think she is and that she is as curious as Fel is.
Morning dawns with the crisp, white light of winter skies and the clean scent of frost. Sometime during the night, it snowed for the first time in centuries. On the apartment lawn three stories below, I hear children scream in glee and surprise at the fresh blanket of mysterious white.
I roll out of bed and catch my fall–barely. With a groan and great effort, I stumble into the kitchen for a holiday morning eggnog.
“It’s Holly Day!” Brigit sings in the living area. “Happy Holly Day, everyone! And look! Snow!” She squeals and launches out the apartment door. I look at Henna beside me, hunched over her own cup of eggnog and coffee.
“She’s still in her nightclothes,” I say. Henna sighs and shrugs, oblivious to the world beyond her caffeine. She draws a large sip and hums, content.
“Has anyone seen Nemus?” Fel asks from the bathroom across the apartment.
“He hasn’t arrived yet,” Henna mumbles to me. “He won’t come until after lunch and she knows it.” She turns to the counter and refills her coffee and eggnog concoction.
That leaves the morning for us to get the apartment ready for our party tonight. With the four of us in the apartment and five guests coming–maybe six–we don’t need to clean too much. Brigit does a lot of that on her own time, singing and dancing throughout, so there’s not too much for the rest of us to do while she’s outside in her nightclothes enjoying the snow.
I’m sure the parents have called their kids in because all I hear now is Brigit shouting about the fluffiness of the snow and it’s temperature and the miracle of it melting. No kid screams rise to our kitchen window like they did minutes earlier.
“How long do you think she’ll stay out there?” I ask Henna. She shrugs again, refills her drink, and walks out of the kitchen to the living area.
I follow her without my drink. Fel lounges on the couch at the center of the room. The screen on the wall facing the couch is tuned to Fel’s favorite show.
“Shut it off, Fel,” Henna orders. “We need to tidy up.”
Fel glances around the room and turns back to Henna. “It’s tidy.”
“The apartment is more than this room,” Henna answers. She picks up a few things on the floor as she crosses the room: a navy couch pillow, a few discarded candy wrappers, scissors and tape from gift wrapping the night before, and an abandoned talkie on the floor behind the couch–probably Brigit’s. “The bathroom could use some care.”
Brigit enters the apartment a few minutes later. Henna sets her to work on cleaning the kitchen and prepping for the dinner tonight. If any of the rest of us cooked, we’d burn it. Guaranteed.
It takes about an hour to clean up. Nemus arrives thirty minutes later and joins Fel on the couch, watching her favorite show again. I should have guessed her show would have a marathon today. Not only is it one of the most popular screen shows, but it depicts what life on the outside might be like, something this holiday reminds everyone in the city. We have a history outside these city walls, even if we don’t remember when, why, or how.
Two hours and four episodes later, Rubin, Nan, Des, and Port arrive from the floor below. They’re all Defective, too, though a few years older.
When Port enters, he stares at Nemus on the couch.
“I thought this was a Defective only party,” he says after he closes the door.
Brigit snorts and answers, “We all know Nemus is an honorary Defective.” She stands from the couch that we all huddled onto and gives Port a long hug. “Don’t you love your brother, Port?”
He grunts and accepts the hug, but he doesn’t move farther into the room until his younger brother stands and approaches him with a hug of his own. The brothers release each other and stare.
“Mom missed you today,” Nemus says in a clipped tone.
“Port!” Brigit scolds beside them. “You didn’t go to your family’s holiday?” She hits him lightly on the upper arm. “Shame.”
He smiles tightly and walks past Nemus and Brigit to stand at the back of the couch. “We’re all here,” he says to the rest of us. “Aren’t we going to eat?”
We eat. Brigit prepared a small but adequate spread of food for us, including a small ham, fruit sauce–I think it’s apple cranberry–various potato dishes, a green bean dish, and fresh bread rolls. We eat in the living area, some of us on the couch and some of us on the ground. Someone shuts the screen off and we circle up to eat and play a game Nan brought for us.
I sit between Rubin and Henna on the floor. This game is one that the four older Defectives made up at the abandoned hotel outside the city, where we all grew up. When the four of us girls moved into the city, Tessian placed us close to the other group so we could have easy contact with each other. Every Wednesday night, the older Defectives come up a floor to play this game with us. It’s tradition to play on Holly Day, as Brigit calls it.
We play for a couple hours. The whole time, my gaze is half on the door and half on the game. Maybe that’s why I never win. Rubin comments on it halfway through a round, when I play a diamond six instead of my better-suited card, the clover alpha.
“Where’s your concentration?” he jokes. “Normally, you’d be pinning all of us to the wall with winning moves.” The others laugh with him, all except Nemus, who has kept a close eye on me all night. Fel notices.
“What is up with you two?” she asks, sitting up and out from under his arm. “You’ve been strange since the party started.”
“Distracted, I guess,” I say and try to get the game started again, but the focus is still on me.
“I’ll say,” Fel agrees. She looks at Nemus. “What about you?” Her anger rises when he doesn’t respond. “Nothing?” She begins to stand, but Nemus pulls her down again.
“Maybe we should finish this round and start the gift exchange?” He’s a master of misdirection. Normally, Fel would let him get away with it, but not today.
“Why are you two so distracted?” She steams across the circle from me. Her glance between the two of us is mixed ice and fire, and I don’t like it at all. Does she think Nemus and I are…? Her look says yes.
The door buzzes.
Everyone stops, thoughts of the brewing argument gone. I’m sure images of city guards and councilmen flash through their minds as I stand to answer it.
“Did you invite someone else?” Henna asks. “You should have told us, Terra. We don’t have enough food for someone else.”
It’s true. The food is gone, but that’s why I told Gen to come after dinner.
I reach the door after long moments and stare through the motion screen at the woman on the other side of the door. Our door light is off, so I can’t see her face, but I know it’s her. Gen Malders, Fel’s mother, forced to give up her child as all Defectives’ parents were. Now she’s been given a chance to meet the daughter she thought was lost to the guard.
Her hands are behind her back, but the hall is empty behind her. I take a deep breath and whisper a wish for all to be well before I open the door and let her in.
She nods to me in relief and spares a hug for me. Her hands come out from behind her back to reveal a few small presents. Her gaze scans the group by the couch, stalled in the middle of our card game and wary of the new, unexpected guest.
“Who is that?” Fel asks and leans around the couch to see. The moment the two see each other, the room stills further and again. Behind her, Nemus stands and pulls her to her feet.
“It’s your mother,” he whispers to her. He walks her to the door. I close the door behind Gen, but she refuses to walk farther into the apartment.
“Gen Malders,” I say for all in the apartment to hear. “Meet Fel Harker.”
“Fel?” Gen asks in a shaky voice. She reaches a hand up to touch her daughter’s cheek. Mirror images of each other, almost, there’s no denying their relation now.
Fel whispers, “Mother?” Her voice wavers, too. “Are you really my mother?”
Gen nods and says, “I named you Resa.”
Fel whispers her real name, too stunned to do much else. “Resa Malders.” Her mother nods, tears streaming down her face. A glance at the couch shows several tense faces and a few shocked.
Without warning, Gen pulls Fel into a hug. Gen whispers in Fel’s ear, “I fought so hard for you.”Fel is still too stunned to react with more than a few repeated words. “You fought for me?”
I look away, toward my other friends. Only Nemus and Port look at the reunited mother and daughter. Everyone else exchanges looks and shrugs. We all think the same thing, but none of us say it. Would our parents be excited to see us? Maybe someday we’ll run into them ourselves and find out.
But not today. Today, we celebrate with Fel and Gen. I’m about to walk back to the couch when Fel pulls me into a hug alongside Nemus. She whispers to each of us, “Thank you.”
It’s the first time I’ve really been reckless. No one reprimands me. No one lashes out at my foolishness. None of the others say a thing against me or my decisions. Even after the party that night, no one says anything. They ask Nemus about how we did it, but no one scolds me.
Maybe recklessness pays off sometimes. Or maybe they understand a simple idea that never occurred to me: no one expects to find Defectives until they’re face to face with people who are trying too hard to hide something.
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