“You’re late,” my husband said behind his newspaper, not bothering to look up. With the sun glaring through the glass dome, splashing the kitchen with prisms, the dust motes around him shimmered as though he were a saint.
“Sorry. I’ll get dinner ready right away.” I shut the door gently and squeezed around the table. Whispers of candied pecans and coffee tugged at me. What was left of the chocolate praline cake I baked last night sat on his plate. A sliver. Impressive for something he deemed tasty as a toilet brush.
He grabbed my hand. “Why?”
“Clinic was crowded.”
“Carrying my son yet?”
He huffed, tossing his paper. The Southern Alliance’s crest, twin infants hugging inside a heart-shaped womb, filled the front page. Their eyes were closed, but I still felt their stares, questioning, accusing. A liar stood in their midst.
“Unlike most husbands, I allow you to run errands without my shadow. Should I be worried, my dear?” He spat out the term of endearment like he’d gargled with urine.
“That’s my girl. Now, get supper going. I’m starving.”
He released, and my fingers prickled as the blood flow recommenced. I shuffled off. I’d have twenty minutes before he dug into his whiskey. If the food wasn’t prepared by then, I was as good as Fallen.
“Oh, Briony?” He crammed the remaining cake into his trap.
Hope you choke on it. “Yes, my darling?”
“I’m sweating like a wife on her last infraction.” His chocolate-glazed sneer dropped to my belt. “Use the stove outside.”
Rich salmon light swam over my neighbors’ domed homes. Even at dusk, every breath scorched my lungs. The wind smacked me with sand and stink: composting sinkholes riddled the horizon like vast beehives. They were especially foul today. Or maybe that was just my mood.
The catfish nuggets sizzled and popped on the grill, their juices hissing as they splattered the flames. Saliva pooled my mouth. My husband’s food always smelled so delicious. Far better than my vitamin loaf. Perfectly blended for fertility, the doctor promised. Easy for him to say. He didn’t have to force it down.
A door slammed, and I flinched, pulse chiming my ears. Not twenty minutes already? Movement blurred from the adjacent patio, and I sagged. Just my new neighbor Dahlia. Sweltering inside, her husband must’ve kicked her out too. What gentlemen. The population boom in the mid-twenty-first century—attributed to lax immigration and reproduction laws—led to rolling blackouts and extreme rationing. Only the wealthiest could afford air conditioning.
It was her grin that struck me first. Bold yet guarded, as though she knew a secret that wasn’t in the least bit funny. When her husband slipped back inside, she wrinkled her nose, and I smirked. Grateful for the distraction. As soon as the door sealed, she rendered it a middle-finger salute and tossed a bowl of what must’ve been his dinner in the garbage.
“What the ever-living—”
Her gaze met mine, and she winked. I jerked away. But not before noticing the slash of red across her midsection—the second belt of infraction. Like mine.
Smoke singed my nostrils, and I yanked open the grill. Only black lumps remained.
I jumped, clanging the lid shut. Amused eyes glinted through the haze.
“Suppose I don’t have to ask how you earned your belt.”
“Nor I, yours.” She giggled, waving at the charred remains. “Briony, right?”
“Yes, but my husband will be out any moment—”
“I have a plan.” Dahlia patted the small satchel at her hip.
“Have more catfish in your purse?”
She snorted. “Something better.”
“Chocolate cake?” I’d always wanted to try it.
“Perhaps if you come with me.”
Dusk prowled over the valley, and the solar lanterns dotting the walkways activated: orange orbs floated amid the navy expanse. Dahlia nodded at a monstrous structure that slithered beneath the bruised sky.
I’d been wrong. She wasn’t mysterious. “You’re insane.”
“Better insane than deluded, like the rest of the Stepford wives here. You have two choices. Stay and get tossed in with the Fallen or flee with me. There’s a risk of getting caught, yes. But we could also escape.” She blew a kiss and strode off.
Neither option inspired much confidence. But when my front door cracked open, a scythe of light razoring the porch shadows, terror made a knee-jerk decision for me. I sprinted after the madwoman, heart in my throat.
“Hey. What’s a Stepford wife?”
“You’ll soon find out.”
Night had spilled over the Southern Alliance by the time we reached the Ramparts. Crickets chirred, matching the cadence of my racing pulse. Powder crunched beneath our slippers as we climbed a section under reconstruction from the final Civil War. Fought over bodily autonomy, it had severed us into the Divided States. A North and South. A sentry tower jutted out to the east, and it took all my willpower to drag my eyes from its predatory glare and focus on the task at hand—grabbing tangles of rebar instead of imagining what would happen if they caught us.
“Don’t wives spend half their time at the gym?” Dahlia hoisted me atop a ledge. “Must keep the menfolk pleased, yeah?”
“You say that like you aren’t one,” I said between ragged breaths. My dress clung to my ribcage and thighs.
She just grinned, fiddling with her satchel.
Already tired, terrified, hungry, I was about to snap at her when my stomach growled. My eyes leapt to the tower.
“Here.” She pressed a bottle into my shaky hand. “Should help.”
“Doesn’t look like cake.” Hours since I’d had a vitamin loaf, though, I accepted. The liquid seared my throat, my nostrils. My eyes watered as I choked down a cough. “Tastes like a flaming juniper tree.”
“Close. It’s gin.”
“How dare you,” I hissed.
“What?” She shrugged like we hadn’t just broken one of the most sacred laws. “Men drink all the time. Eat better than us too. Ever tried a bootleg burger?”
All talk, this one. World War III only ended after the mass annihilation of livestock. A failed attempt to save the ozone layer. Finding beef now was as likely as locating a woman who could read.
“Men aren’t carrying the next generations.”
She paled. “You’re pregnant?”
Fighting the sting behind my eyes, I twisted away, grabbed the lip above, and pressed on, losing myself in the scrape of my slippers. Joints juddering and muscles whining, I was beginning to fear I’d never reach the top when the wind ruffled my hair.
“Wow.” I mopped my face. Though the library’s stained-glass arches tempted me, I never trespassed nor explored beyond my husband’s prescribed route: home, maternal school, clinic, gym. So now, I was out of my element. It seemed the stars had showered over the Northern Alliance. Every building winked with brilliance. “Is that…”
“Electricity,” Dahlia whispered. “Everyone has it in the North.”
My throat welled up. It was a stark contrast to the South—a valley of darkness, save a few leaders’ mansions and the beast of a building AmazNet, where my husband worked. Where most men worked. The fifth pandemic knocked out all companies, save two. They merged.
“Women have choices in the North. Have jobs. Don’t have to marry or pop out babies if they don’t want to.” Her eyes caressed my belly. “Of course, they’re not trying to breed an army.”
“What?” I gasped. “You’re lying.”
“Am I? You never wondered why they treasure children beyond all else? Not because they value life. They’ve conquered the South. Aim to conquer much, much more.”
“Why are any wars fought? Behind their valiant façades, they all serve one purpose: to make the rich richer, the poor poorer. Power’s like a bootleg burger, I figure. Once you take a bite, you always crave more.”
Her words packed more punch than my husband’s fist. “Thought the North was worse off than us. That I had it good. A house, food, a husband to provide for me. That a child was a small price to pay for security. Still. I’m not maternal. Never wanted children. And now, to learn they’ve only seen me as a soldier mill?”
“You and me both. Got my second belt when I told my husband no.”
“How did you not end up—”
“Fallen?” She scoffed. “He wrote me up for two infractions instead. A warning. Moved me here. Reckoned the sinkholes’ stench would change my mind.”
“What do they have to do with anything? After a third infraction, we’re sent west to drill for freshwater.”
“Hah! If only. I’d have already kneed my husband in the gonads and secured swift passage. The desert’s temper is likely more lenient. But no. Ain’t parfum de la compost that’s been greeting you every sunrise. Doesn’t cost taxpayers to chuck us into sinkholes, alive. But with the heat, most don’t last more than two days. Keeps the regime’s hands clean and the greenhouses fertile.”
“I thought, with all the sentries,” bile soured my tongue, “keeping us at a distance, they were protecting us from falling in.”
“They were protecting themselves. And it’s time for us to do the same.”
Heat scalded my chest, writhing my hands. I wanted to shout, to hit something. To release twenty years of blistering fury I’d been forced to swallow. Everything had been a lie.
My eyes fell to the warped base. Wires and twisted planks scattered the ground like skeletons. The sheer drop nipped at my feet and, more so, my resolve.
“Sure we can make it?”
Defiance embossed her cheeks, and shadows billowed down her shoulders like a cape.
“Alis volat propriis.”
“What does that—”
A spotlight blinded us. A sentry with dead eyes clamped a chain around Dahlia’s neck, pulling her back.
“Go!” she gurgled.
“Not without you!” I grabbed her hand.
“Every revolution needs her leader.” She pushed her satchel into my chest and shoved. Hard. I tumbled over the side. Rock scraped my knees, my chin. Something hot, metallic, oozed around my tongue. The last thing I heard before a black wave crashed over me was, “why not you?”
“There you are.”
I squinted at white walls, rubbing my aching temples. Antiseptic stung my nose.
“Where am I?”
“Northern Alliance Sanctuary Hospital,” said a man with kind eyes.
“The guards only found you.”
I tried to sit up, but pain exploded in my belly.
“You took quite a fall. It’s a wonder you didn’t break any...bones, that is. A sprained ankle, some bruising. Unfortunately, you’ve also miscarried. So very sorry.”
Relief and shame swaddled me, threatening to pull me under. I jolted up, ignoring my bawling womb, the wavering ceiling. “Please. Don’t throw me into a sinkhole. It was an accident. I—”
“Good god! What’ve they…never mind.” He squeezed my hand. “You’re safe here.” Unlike my husband, his touch was warm, reassuring. “We found your bag. Has your ID, which will ensure asylum, Mrs. Dahlia Hawk. And this.” He dropped a locket in my hand.
“A family heirloom,” I lied, opening it. A striking bird with tawny wings dove through one side. A hawk. An inscription glittered on the other. “Never could read it.”
“Right.” His brow furrowed. “Alis volat propriis, it says in Latin.” Dahlia’s words from the Ramparts. “Means, ‘she flies with her own wings.’”
I clenched the locket. “Am I free to go?”
“Even a hawk must rest before she can soar.” He winked. “Hungry for any—?”
“Chocolate cake?” I blurted. “If it’s permitted?”
“Permitted?” He jerked like I’d slapped him. My face burned, and he smoothed his shock into a smile. “A dose of cake is the perfect remedy, especially chocolate fudge. Be right back.”
When he padded away, I slipped on the necklace but waited to remove the IV. Dessert first, then adieu. Dahlia had saved me for a reason. I had much work ahead if I planned to lead a coup.