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We live the Old Way. Our house, constructed of wood timber and roofed with asphalt shingles, straddles the boundary where the wasteland and the northernmost edge of the Western Population Corridor meet. This land was once my great-grandfather’s farm. Once was. Hasn’t been for a long time.
Every morning, my brother and I rise before dawn, make the trek to the mag-station, and ride into the Corridor to attend school, where we plug into the etherstream via the chip in our forearm. By law, our chip-traces can’t display any information about race, religion, or sexual orientation, but our classmates have always known that Paul and I are Others, of aboriginal descent, marked by the precious Plague antibodies in our blood.
Every afternoon, we make the return trip, riding the mag-train to the end of its line before walking back home along the old dirt road. Behind us, smog from the Corridor reaches north, stretching its ugly yellow fingers as far as it can as it tries to snatch up the last of the habitable land. Not long ago, a reserve was here, lodged in the Corridor’s throat, but all that remains now is our home. We are the only ones who have stayed, clinging to what little is ours, defiantly living as we always have, without computers and etherstreams and data-nets in our home, without food gels, without central heat. This is our choice. This is what it means to live the Old Way.
Today the walk seems longer than usual, because Paul isn’t talking to me. He got into a fight earlier in the day, but it’s not his split lip or his gashed knuckles that have me so worried. Paul’s on disciplinary action for fighting and truancy as it is, which is tough on both of us. Why can’t you be more like your sister? the teachers always say to him. Why can’t you help your brother? they say to me. We’re twins, Paul and me, but we’re not alike—not anymore, at least. Paul’s always had a short fuse, but lately it’s gotten shorter.
Now he walks beside me, slump-shouldered as his battered raven flies next to him. The raven is Paul’s shade, his spirit animal, and it always shows up after something bad happens to him. Today it was some kid who was looking for a scapegoat to blame for his brother dying of Plague. The rest who joined in? Well, no one in the Corridor needs an excuse to stick it to an Other.
Paul notices me watching him. “What’s wrong?” he asks as his shade casts him in the wavering light where spirit and flesh merge. The raven looks as beaten and bruised as Paul.
“Your raven. He’s back.”
Paul glances over his shoulder, but there’s nothing there for him to see. Only I can see the shades, even though I don’t seem to have one of my own. Paul’s gifts run a different path. “Well,” he says with a sigh, “at least it’s here and not at school.”
He’s right. When shades come to me, they sometimes take me under into the twilight world of spirit. More than once, I’ve been trapped there, unable to find my way back to my body. I fear that one day I’ll drown in the heavy darkness of the other side. But not today. Today I watch Paul’s raven and worry, for there’s one thing I know: When a shade comes to visit, something is about to change.
We round the last corner of the road, and the moment our house comes into view, Paul’s raven takes flight, leaving my brother lighter, unfettered. Paul may not like it here, but this place is good for him. Under the watchful eyes of the old windows, my brother is whole. He races inside to change out of his school clothes, the old floorboards creaking under his movements. It’s not long before he pounds back downstairs and flies through the kitchen, grabbing the last biscuit from breakfast before disappearing outside.
I always leave the last one for him.
I wait until I hear the sound of Paul’s ax striking wood before I go inside and close the door, leaning against it to seal the Corridor, school, the Band, the entire world outside. We have made it through another day. Our family is still together, if not whole.
For one complete minute, I allow myself to pretend we’re safe. The minute ends, as it always does, and reality sets in. Time for chores, but first I need to hide the contraband in my schoolbag: twine, twigs, old pencils, paper clips, elastic bands, tossed-away shirts, a red ribbon, a bundle of rusted keys. The family magpie, my father calls me. He doesn’t like that I take castaway items hiding in the school basement or in the lost-and-found, forgotten, homeless. No one may want them, but it’s still stealing, he says.
I do it anyhow. One day I might need an elastic, or a scrap of leather, or a length of wire. That’s what I tell myself, but most of these things, ancient and obsolete, will end up in a weaving, or a basket, or a dream catcher for Paul. This is how I pass my time when the night falls and we’re left in the dark, because I don’t need to see to work with my hands. I need only to feel.
The twine and paper clips and the other cast-off junk spill onto the table the moment I unbuckle my school bag. Sunlight glints off the keys, and for a moment they seem to wriggle like bright blue herring, a fresh catch, ready to be devoured.
I blink and they are keys again.
The Old Way is a way of work. We have no electricity, no running water, no garbage collection. Our luxuries are born of our own hands. The Old Way keeps us honest, my father says. It keeps us connected to the earth.
That doesn’t stop me from thinking about a day, a week, a lifetime in the Corridor. Even with the rolling blackouts, they have heat in the dead of our brutal winter. Their bones don’t ache when the rains come, nor do they have to haul in wood when squalls descend from the north, blanketing the world with snow—not to mention it’s a lot easier to hide from the searchers among the millions in the Corridor. Here, we’re exposed, and there’s not much stopping them from coming to gobble us up.
In the Corridor I would find a job, and with the money I earned, I would buy my father a new armchair so he had somewhere comfortable to sit after a hard day of work. I would buy myself a new wool coat and a pair of boots to keep my feet warm in the winter.
And for my brother?
For Paul, I would buy peace of mind and freedom from the dead, except that’s not for sale in the Corridor. That’s not for sale anywhere.
But we don’t live in the Corridor. We live here, on this farm, with its aging roof, its slumping porch, its sorry, sorry garden that I go outside to tend. Paul and my father have no talent for coaxing food from the depleted soil, so the task is left to me. I weed, I till, I plant, I nurture, and if I am lucky, the earth rewards me with a meager bounty in the fall: some squash. Apples, if the spring was warm enough for bees. Turnips, cabbage—there’s always enough of those. But not like the old days, when this land was among the richest on earth. The rivers ran so thick with fish a man could walk from one shore to the other without ever getting his feet wet, they say. Bears gorged themselves on berries until they were food-drunk. Sweet rain fell like manna from heaven.
Now our squash vines are stained with white mildew. Tomatoes won’t grow. Potatoes do, sometimes, if blight doesn’t get them first. But still, we stay. This is our land. This is home.
Our father refuses to supplement our diet with nourishment gels. Only whole food, real food for us, he says. The UA-distributed stuff will rot our guts, rot our souls.
I agree with him on that, at least.
Our father returns home after dark. The table is set, dinner made, the fire stoked even though it’s the beginning of June. The chill stays later and later each year as the earth dies her slow death.
Paul gobbles down his dinner while our father washes the ash and dirt from the plastics refinery off his body. This is a clever ploy on Paul’s part, because if he’s not here, my father can’t ask him about the swollen eye that Paul still won’t talk about.
I spoon stew onto my father’s plate and then my own, sitting down at the table, ignoring Paul’s empty spot. The stew was Paul’s idea. I wanted to make soup, which isn’t as filling but stretches the food remaining from last year’s harvest further. We argued about this earlier, and in the end, Paul won out. As my father sops up the thick, heavy stew with a piece of biscuit, I can’t help feeling that Paul was right and I was wrong. My need to be thrifty, to dole out our lives in careful measures, would have prevented my father from enjoying tonight’s dinner, and goodness knows my father can use every little bit of enjoyment he gets.
“I have good news,” my father says as he chews. “I might be up for a raise.”
“That’s great, Dad,” I whisper. I refuse to look at him. He is an unabashed romantic, my father, always holding on to hope, whistling that song about the bright side of life despite the fact that sunlight is a murderer and poison rain her accomplice.
A hand reaches out to take mine, and I resist the temptation to flinch. It’s covered with sores and burns. It couldn’t possibly belong to my father. “Maybe there’ll be enough money to take a vacation,” he says. “Just you and Paul and me. Somewhere nice. What do you think?”
“Maybe.” That’s the best response I summon up, because it’s only a matter of time until my father’s position at the plastics refinery is rendered obsolete. They don’t know he’s an Other. I’m not sure how he’s concealed it, but he has. Sooner or later someone will catch on, and my father will be entered into the UA inventory too. Either that or a machine will replace him.
It could be worse, I suppose. It could always be worse.
Later, long after my father has fallen asleep, I creep through the dark, searching for Paul. Our house was built back in the days when fertility rates were still high. It has four bedrooms. Mine is at the back, overlooking the garden. My father sleeps on the old, threadbare sofa downstairs, and Paul? Well, Paul has always been a wanderer. I never know where I’ll find him.
His voice drifts out from what was once my parents’ bedroom. “I’m in here. Put out the candle and come look at the stars.”
I take a seat beside him on the windowsill and stare at the sky, stained gray by the Corridor lights. “There isn’t much to see. Too much smoke.”
“No, look. There’s Orion’s Belt.” He points. “Mintaka, Alnilam, Alnitak.”
“Sure, I see them.” But I don’t—not really.
But then the clouds shift and a few stars appear, along with the half-full moon. Her thin light illuminates Paul’s face. Our faces share the same sharp planes, Paul and me. Both of us have hair the color of dark honey. Our teeth are white and straight, a reminder of what our father has sacrificed for us. Our father’s teeth are brown around the edges now, and sometimes I see him spitting blood.
“Dad’s talking about a raise again,” I say.
“You know he won’t get it.”
Paul turns. His eyes are dark and I see a raven’s wing drift through them. “You would have to say something like that.”
“Someone’s got to be the voice of reason in this family.”
“Naysayer, you mean.”
“Truthsayer.” I toy with the hem of my nightgown and shiver, suddenly cold. “But no one ever listens.” I don’t want to leave my brother here alone, but unlike him, I’m no good without sleep. So I rise and creep to the door, but when I turn to say good night, Paul’s already forgotten about me. His eyes are fixed on the night sky. His head is tipped to one side, as if he’s listening to something only he can hear, and I wonder—not for the first time—if the stars talk to Paul. He’s never mentioned it. I’ve never asked, but what I do know is that when my brother’s like this, deep in communion with something I’ll never hear or see, I worry for him—even more than when I see his raven, because when Paul enters that world, he does so alone.
And one day I fear he might not come back.