Birthmarked Page 15

"What happened to it all?" Gaia asked.

He put a hand on his hip and arched backward briefly. "The cool age ended when the fuel was used up, and it was too late for the masses to adjust, I guess. Crops failed. Some illness. A few wars. They couldn't move around what little food they could grow, I guess. It takes a lot to feed people, Gaia. We for' get. We're lucky here. There are smart people running the Enclave, and we don't do so badly ourselves outside the wall."

"Do we have to worry about running out of food?" she asked.

He smiled at her. "Not really. We'll hatch a couple more chickens."

"No. I mean all of us."

Her father wiped his forehead and resettled his hat. "I don't think so. We had the wheat ruined by hail once, but even then, there was plenty of mycoprotein."

"Emily told me mycoprotein is a fungus."

"She's right, really," he said. "They discovered it and re fined it back in the cool age. They wanted to have a food they could grow even in the dark, in case some catastrophic event covered the world in clouds. Now they grow it in the Enclave, in those big fermentation towers you can see."

She looked up the hill, over the wall, to the right of the obelisk and Bastion towers until she found a row of orange silos. "So, as long as we get along with the Enclave, those of us outside are safe, too," she said.

Her father leaned over and tugged her braid. "You re quite the worrier today, aren't you? All because we lost a couple chickens."

As she used to do as a little girl, she squinted to measure the white obelisk against the height of her outstretched thumb.

"What are you doing?" her father asked.

She lowered her hand. "I do it for luck," she said. "My thumb's the same size as the obelisk."

He flicked the brim of her hat. "Let's head back. Your mother should be up."

The winding path through the boulders and shrubs of the unlake was steep in places, and rarely wide enough for two. Gaia scampered ahead.

"Is Mom okay?" Gaia asked.

He nodded, following after her. "Your mother's fine," he said. "She just had a tough night."

"Did she advance another baby?"

"She did."

"Has there always been a baby quota?"

"No," he said slowly. She loved how he always answered her questions, no matter how involved they might be. "It was a gradual thing, I guess. Back when your mother and I were children, there were some new families who came to Wharfton. They weren't used to our ways, and they were rough. The parents drank, and I'm sorry to say it, but sometimes they neglected and hit their kids. People in Wharfton asked the

Enclave to do something about it, so the Enclave took the worst abused children to raise inside the wall."

He passed a big berry to her. She held it on her open palm while he talked, watching the pale bloom of blue slowly warm to a deeper, shiny purple in contact with her skin. "That sounds okay" she said.

"It helped. A lot," he agreed. "But then, some people, especially families who were struggling to feed their kids, started wondering why some of their children couldn't go inside the wall. It didn't seem fair to them that the irresponsible parents were, in a way, being rewarded for abusing their kids."

Gaia understood that. It seemed, from the Tvaltar specials, that the girls inside the wall had everything she wanted, like books and pretty clothes and friends. "So then what


"Well, the Enclave discovered it was better to take children who were very young. They adapted better. So they offered to take in babies who were just a year old, and they compensated the families, too." He rubbed his fingers together, signaling money. "It was all voluntary at first. But then, just a few years before your oldest brother Arthur -was born, the Enclave started requiring parents to bring their one-year-olds to special selections four times a year. It was a kind of competition, and the Enclave would take the strongest, liveliest babies."

Gaia wrinkled her nose. She scrambled up on a nearby boulder and swung her legs to dangle over the edge. "Didn't some of the parents mind?"

"Some did, of course. But others saw it as a great opportunity. You know, Gaia, in a way, each baby belongs to the community that supports its mother, whether that's a poor mother -with a bad temper, or a loving mother with patience to spare, or an ambitious mother who wants the best opportunities for her child."

"I don't know," she said. "It kind of sounds like people in Wharfton were selling their babies to the Enclave."

He shook his bucket, looking inside. "It never really felt like that," he said slowly. "When Arthur and Odin were chosen to be advanced, it was a duty and an honor to advance a baby. We knew our boys would never lack for anything. And most important, they told us the advanced babies could come home to us when they turned thirteen if they wanted to."

"I didn't know that," Gaia said.

"That's because nobody ever has. They all choose to stay in the Enclave. The advanced children are genuinely happier with their adoptive families there."

Gaia gazed out at the horizon. "Arthur and Odin stayed, too, didn't they?"

Her father nodded slowly. "Later, maybe a couple years after you were born, the Enclave made advancement random, with a quota of the first babies born each month. It was more fair, and it's been like that for the last decade. I have to admit: in many ways, it works better than taking the babies when they were a year old. People are used to it now. And they still get compensated for each baby, too. It helps out the rest of the family."

"So you got paid for advancing Arthur and Odin?"

"We did."

Gaia glanced up at her father. "Do you miss them?"

He gave a lopsided smile. "Every day. But I have you."

"So why didn't Mom have more babies?"

"She's tried to, actually. But it looks like you're it for us."

Gaia pulled up a stalk of grass and broke off the bits of seed at the end. "Is that why she had a tough time last night? Does she not like delivering babies when she can't have any more herself?"

He took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair before putting it on again. "I don't know how to answer that, Gaia. Your mothers a very strong woman. I know that much. Last night, your mother and Old Meg went to help Amanda Mercado. She had twins."

"Twins!" Gaia said.

"Yes. Twins. Two boys."

Gaia's smile fell. "But, did she advance both of them?"

Her father inhaled deeply, and then sighed. "That's the thing. Amanda needed to keep one and advance the other. The quota this month is two, and your mom had already advanced one baby."

"So what happened?"

Her fathers lips compressed in a thoughtful line. "This must be confidential," he said. "Do you understand that?"

"I'll never tell," she promised.

"I don 't want you even to talk to your mother about it, not unless she brings it up first. Don't nag her with questions."

"I wont. I promise." With a mix of pride and curiosity, she clutched her bucket tightly in both hands.

"Your mother let Amanda choose which baby to keep," he said. "Both babies were small, but the first one born weighed a little more and looked a little stronger. The second was a tiny little frail fellow. Guess which one Amanda decided to advance."

Gaia closed her eyes against the sunlight and pictured two small newborn baby boys wrapped in identical gray blankets. Their eyes were closed, and they were waiting peacefully for a decision. The only difference was that one -was slightly bigger and rounder. She opened her eyes.

"Amanda kept the littler one," Gaia said.

Her fathers lips curved in a sad smile. "You re right. Why?"

"She thought-- " Gaia struggled for the right words. "She figured the bigger boy would do all right in the Enclave, but the little one, even if he doesn't make it, she can care for her' self, with all her love."

Gaia's father lowered his face and drew his hand over his forehead so that she couldn't see him well. For a moment he stayed there, unmoving, until Gaia worried that she'd said something wrong.

"Dad?" she said.

He lowered his hand and his smile was even more lonely than before. With his thumb, he gently brushed the tender, scarred skin of her left cheek. He had a way of making her feel like she was even more precious to him because she was ugly, and it always twisted her up inside.

"You re a wise little girl, Gaia Stone," he said gently. "I wonder what will become of you when you grow up."

She relaxed her hands on the bucket. "Do you think Amanda's boy in the Enclave will ever know he has a twin brother outside?"

Gaia's father leaned back on one hand. "I doubt it. They'll tell him he was adopted from the outside, that's no secret, but they won't know anything about his family out here."

"Did Mom give him the freckles?"

"She always does, to every baby she delivers."

Gaia glanced down at her own left ankle and saw the four faint brown marks.

"In honor of Arthur and Odin, right?" she asked.

"That's right. You've kept that secret, haven't you?"

She murmured her agreement. She hadn't even told Emily when she saw the same freckles on Emily's ankle, and she never would.

"Did you ever think I might get advanced?" she asked.

"It was a possibility."

"Until my accident?"


Gaia looked at the freckles again. "I wonder if those babies will ever grow up and compare freckles and wonder why they all have the same ones."

"It isn't very likely," her father said.

"Why does Mom really do the freckles then?" Gaia asked.

Her father turned his face in profile, up the hill toward Wharfton. "It makes her feel better, I suppose. The same reason we light the candles at dinnertime."

"Do I have a twin inside the wall?"

He laughed. "No. Sorry. Just Arthur and Odin."

Gaia liked making her father laugh. "Do they know about me?"

"I don 't see how they could. I'm sure they'd like you if they knew you, even though you ask a lot of questions."

"I still don 't get what the problem -was for Mom last night," she said. "The bigger baby was the first one out, right? So she followed the law by advancing the second baby born this month, just like she was supposed to."

Her father held out a hand to help her jump down from the boulder. "True. But your mother gave Amanda the choice. That's the difference. For your mother, it was an opening in the law, and your mother normally follows the law to the letter. If she bends it even once, even a little, it makes her question the whole thing. Come on. Let's go."

Gaia led the way up the path again, thinking deeply. She liked that he thought she was wise, that she was trustworthy with secrets. She was pulling the threads of their conversation together into one, weighty question. When they reached the lip of the unlake, she turned to her father. "Did last night make Mom question whether it was right to advance Arthur and Odin?" she asked. "As if she had a choice?"

For the first time in her life, her father turned his back to her. He took a step toward the horizon and stayed there, silent.

His fingers twisted in the seam of his pants and twitched there, as if he might absently fray a hole into the cloth. Gaia faltered, wishing she could take back her question.

"I'm sorry, Dad," she said quietly.

As he turned slowly to face her again, his eyes retained a lost, ashy glow. "You always have a choice, Gaia. You can air ways say no." His voice was strangely hollow. "They might kill you for it, but you can always say no."

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