The plague might end Eden’s life before he even gets to take the Trial.
Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. Eden would never have to stand outside our door on his tenth birthday, waiting for a bus to take him to the Trial stadium. He’d never have to follow dozens of other children up the stadium stairs and into the inner circle, or run laps while Trial admins study his breathing and posture, or answer pages and pages of stupid multiple-choice questions, or survive an interview in front of a half circle of impatient officials. He’d never have to wait in one of several groups afterward, unsure which groups would return home and which group would be sent off to the so-called “labor camps.”
I don’t know. If worse came to worst, maybe the plague would be a more merciful way to go.
“Eden always gets sick, you know,” I say after a while. I take a large bite out of the bread and cheese. “He almost died once when he was a baby. He caught some kind of pox, and had fevers and rashes and cried nonstop for a week. The soldiers came close to marking our door. But it obviously wasn’t the plague, and no one else seemed to have it.” I shake my head. “John and I never got sick.”
Tess doesn’t smile this time. “Poor Eden.” After a pause, she continues. “I was pretty sick when you first met me. Remember how grimy I looked?”
Suddenly I feel guilty for talking about my problems so much over the last few days. At least I have a family to worry about. I put an arm around her shoulder. “Yeah, you looked pretty awful.”
Tess laughs, but her eyes stay focused on the downtown lights. She leans her head on my shoulder. It’s the way she’s leaned against me since the very first week I knew her, when I’d spotted her in an alley in Nima sector.
I still don’t know what made me stop and talk to her that afternoon. Maybe the heat had made me soft, or maybe I was just in a good mood because I’d found a restaurant that had thrown out an entire day’s worth of old sandwiches.
“Hey,” I called out to her.
Two more heads popped up out of the garbage bin. I flinched in surprise. Two of them, an older woman and a teenage boy, immediately scrambled out of the mess and ran down the alley. The third, a girl who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, stayed where she was, trembling when she saw me. She was skinny as a rail, with a tattered shirt and trousers. Her hair was short and blunt, cut off abruptly right below her chin, and red in the sunlight.
I waited for a moment, not wanting to scare her like I had the others. “Hey,” I said again, “mind if I join you?”
She stared back at me without a word. I could barely make out her face because of all the soot on it.
When she didn’t reply, I shrugged and started walking toward her. Maybe I could salvage something useful from the bin.
The instant I got within ten feet of the girl, she let out a strangled cry and darted away. She ran so fast that she tripped, falling onto the asphalt on her hands and knees. I limped over to her. My old knee injury was worse back then—and I can remember stumbling in my rush. “Hey!” I said. “Are you all right?”
She jerked away and held up her scratched hands to shield her face. “Please,” she said. “Please, please.”
“Please what?” Then I sighed, embarrassed by my irritation. Already I could see tears welling up in her eyes. “Stop crying. I’m not going to hurt you.” I knelt down beside her. At first she whimpered and started to crawl away, but when I didn’t move, she paused to stare at me. Both of her knees had the skin ripped right off them, and the flesh underneath was scarlet and raw.
“You live close by?” I asked her.
She nodded. Then, as if she had remembered something, she shook her head. “No,” she said.
“Can I help you get home?”
“I don’t have a home.”
“You don’t? Where are your parents?”
She shook her head again. I sighed and dropped my canvas bag to the ground, then held out a hand to her. “Come on,” I said. “You don’t want two infected knees. I’ll help you clean them up and then you can be on your way again. You can have some of my food too. Pretty good deal, right?”
It took her a long time to put her hand in mine. “Okay,” she whispered, so softly that I could barely hear her.
That night, we camped out behind a pawn shop that had a pair of old chairs and a ripped-up couch lying in its alley. I cleaned the girl’s knees with alcohol stolen from a bar, letting her bite down on a rag so she wouldn’t shriek and draw attention to us. Other than when I was tending to her scrapes, she never let me get near her. Whenever my hand accidentally brushed her hair or bumped her arm, she would flinch as if burned by steam from a kettle. Finally I just gave up trying to talk to her. I let her have the couch, while I laid out my shirt as a pillow and tried to get comfortable on the pavement.
“If you want to leave in the morning, just go,” I said to her. “You don’t have to wake me up or say good-bye or anything.” My eyelids were growing heavy, but she stayed wide awake, staring unblinkingly at me, even as I fell asleep.
She was still there in the morning. She followed me around as I scavenged in garbage bins, picking out old clothes and edible bits of leftover food. I tried asking her to leave. I even tried shouting at her. An orphan would be a huge inconvenience. But although I made her cry a few times, when I looked over my shoulder she’d still be there, trailing me a short distance away.
Two nights later, as we sat together by a crude fire, she finally spoke to me. “My name is Tess,” she whispered. Then she studied my face, like she wanted to guess my reaction.