“There was once a twelve-year-old girl living in a very sad world. Her name was Finley,” whispered my mother the night of my twelfth birthday. She blew out the candle to my right, and a single beam of moonlight slipped through my blinds.
“A sad world?” I asked as I nestled under the covers.
Mother lovingly rubbed my cheek with one finger. “So sad that Finley and her mother lived in a tiny shack in the woods. It was made of wood that had long ago warped from the sun.
“Where was her father?” I asked.
“Her father died during the Civil War of 2022,” said my mother with a frown, and then she cautiously peered through the blinds of my window. “And though her father was well respected for his service in the army, her mother was forced to move after he died.”
“Because only essential personnel were allowed to stay. The world was battling a virus that had come from China. During this war, those who didn’t do what the government asked were ridiculed and viewed as if they weren’t part of the human population anymore.
“That’s… really sad.” A tear slipped down my cheek, but mother couldn’t see it.
“Finley knew there was a divide in the world, especially when people from other territories looked clean and stout. They gazed at her as if she was nothing more than the dirt beneath their feet. She and her mother ate home grown vegetables and freshly hunted meat, but living in a shack in the woods had its disadvantages like the absence of running water.”
I stifled my yawn to try and stay awake. “What happened if they confronted someone from another territory?”
“Both would likely be shot for their indiscretion.”
“Indiscretion?” I asked with a fervent curiosity.
“The indiscretion was that they had chosen not to receive the vaccination for the virus of 2019. The people who had received this vaccination thought Finley’s mother was incompetent for not having Finley vaccinated in 2021 when it became a mandated law.”
“Why wasn’t Finley’s mother arrested for breaking the law?”
“Do you think she should have been?” she asked cautiously.
I thought about what life would be like if her mother had been arrested. “No,” I replied, “I don’t think any single mother should be taken from her daughter.”
“You do understand this is the world we live in right now, don’t you, Harlow?”
“Mother?” I gazed around my dark bedroom in confusion. I had nice things.
“Finley’s mother had a secret she didn’t share until the night of her twelfth birthday.”
I sat up and wiped the sleep from my eyes. “What was it?”
She reached inside her shirt and pulled out a gold and ruby locket. It gleamed under the beam of moonlight. “This is what is called a family heirloom. My great grandmother gave this to my grandmother on her twelfth birthday, and then it was passed down to my mother on her twelfth birthday. My mother passed it along to me on my birthday, and now that it is your twelfth birthday, the locket will be yours to keep until you have a daughter.”
I couldn’t help but rub my finger over the center. “What did you keep inside of it?”
“I kept an old picture of my mother with a letter she had written to me inside it.”
I smiled up at her as she placed the necklace around my neck. Its weight soothed me.
“This is to remember me by in case something happens.”
My smile drooped to a drown. “The world we live in seems safe.”
“Does it?” she asked with a hint of disdain. “When was the last time we went outside? When was the last time you were in school? How have we been living since your father died?”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
“Are you sure you want to know what the secret was?”
I nodded again and pressed the heavy locket to my chest.
“Then you must get up and dress, quickly. We only have so much time.”
She left my room and came back with winter attire for both of us to wear. “It’s only safe to travel in the darkness, and since its winter, we must dress to keep warm.”
I tucked the locket inside my shirt and put on the rest of my winter clothes. “Mother,” I said, alarmed that she thought it safe to leave. “Why would we go anywhere this late at night?”
She gently patted my head. “Because this is the secret Finley’s mother shared on her twelfth birthday, and since you are twelve now, it only seems fitting for me to share it too.”
I had been outside from time to time and seen Dr. Malcolm when I was ill. I was also well-versed in all that a mother could teach a daughter about living a life without a father, but after he died, I never went back to school. I wasn’t allowed to go to the park, and mother was always cautious about visitors. Our home wasn’t a shack in the woods, but after father died from a virus in the hospital, we lived in the seclusion of our small city home.
The secret life Finley and her mother lived suddenly reflected my own.
She handed me two rectangular cards. “The wrong person will know they are fake.”
I held the cards under the moonlight and saw an ID with my face and a CDC record with my name, birthdate, date of both vaccinations, and Dr. Malcolm’s signature.
“I’m not vaccinated. Is this why I can’t go to school?”
She nodded. “We must hurry before the guards make their rounds.”
“Where are we going?” I followed her down the hall.
She pulled two backpacks out of the hallway closet and handed me a set of keys. “Put this on and keep these in your pocket. You must stay low to the ground and stay close by my side.”
My body started to shake with a real fear, but I didn’t speak as she took my hand and led me from the warmth of our home into the darkness of the cold city.
We ran up a dark street and took a sharp turn down an even darker alley. We crouched behind a dumpster as a group of armed guards marched by, laughing. A minute passed before she decided we were in clear, but then a man with a bottle stumbled from the shadows.
He tried to wave hello to us and dropped the bottle instead. It shattered on the ground.
The guards reacted simultaneously and aimed their rifles directly at him.
The man glanced from us to the guards and back again.
Mother lifted one finger to her lips in a silent plea to not give us away.
“Identify yourself,” ordered a guard.
“I am no one,” the man slurred and directed his full attention to them.
“Show me your vaccination record,” said another guard.
The man rubbed the bald spot on his head and shrugged, “I don’t have one.” And then without a single thought on arresting him, the guards each put a bullet in his body.
I almost screamed, but mother was quick to fasten her hand over my mouth. She pulled me back and flattened us against the wall behind the dumpster.
One of the guards sauntered up to the body and kicked it really hard. “Dead,” he said the word as if he said it often. “Let’s move out.”
They marched away, laughing again as if they hadn’t killed a human being.
“Mother?” I choked as I looked down at the man. “I want to go home.”
“Home isn’t safe anymore. Let’s go.”
“Why isn’t it safe?”
“Harlow!” she growled in the tone she used when I was in trouble.
I crossed my arms over my chest, like the child I still was. “Why?”
She came close until her nose almost brushed mine, “Dr. Malcolm faked our vaccination records and someone found out. We have to leave!”
“Did you guys hear something?” asked one of the guards in the distance.
“Come on,” mother growled in my face and pulled me into a run alongside her.
She took off bent at the waist and low to the ground. We ran for twenty minutes before the city was behind and the tall wood in front. Our feet crunched over sticks and leaves, though mother didn’t seem concerned about the noise. Finally, an old wooden bridge with a small stream below appeared.
It sat forty yards away. “We should make sure no one followed,” she said, and I dropped to the ground in a heap. “Drink some of this water,” she said and handed a bottle to me.
“Something is moving over there,” a man’s voice echoed; the sound of feet crunching over sticks and leaves came with it.
“Stay low,” she said as she climbed into the thicket and got stuck in the vines.
“Hold it right there,” the man’s voice was near and aggressively deep.
“The bridge,” mother whispered as she tried to wiggle out of her confines. “Use the keys.”
“Not without you.” I tried to pull her free.
“You must go before they kill us both.”
“Go,” she said, “and don’t come back for me.”
“Mother…,” I cried as I crawled away.
“I love you,” she said before I disappeared into the next thicket of bushes and hid.
A single shot rang and echoed through the trees.
I stayed for hours, waiting, but I had to go without her. As I neared the bridge, I fell into the cold stream below. I was unaware of what to look for, but I took the keys and searched the entire bridge until I found a large camouflage panel with a keyhole.
“Please, be it,” I said while I fumbled with the keys until one slid in and turned.
The panel opened to the left and the tunnel inside was black; I climbed in anyways and pulled the door shut. I rested my head against the cool metal and tried calm my nerves.
“Turn the handle,” a kid said from only inches away from me.
A hollow scream escaped me.
“Quiet! We can’t make noise in here. Follow me.”
I turned the handle and it locked back in place.
The kid thumped through the tunnel, and I followed on my hands and knees.
It ended abruptly and we both fell down a hole and hit a mattress at the bottom.
He pulled me up and shoved a kerosene lamp in my face.
“This way,” he said with only a trail of light from the lamp to follow.
We reached a locked metal door.
“Do you have the key?”
I nodded and slid the key inside.
The door opened and there stood Dr. Malcolm.
She frowned. “Harlow, where is your mother?”
My knees buckled where I stood, and I cried.
Dr. Malcolm caught me before I hit the floor and held me until my tears vanished.
“Is this the secret?” I asked.
“Open your eyes and see,” she said and let go.
I opened my eyes in a room with at least seventy people of mixed ages. Adults were cooking, eating, and laughing while kids eating, playing, and getting ready for bed.
“Your grandmother created this place after your grandfather died in the Civil War, and then when she died, your mother took over and created a haven. Welcome to Finley’s Safe Place.”
My heart stopped at ‘Finley’, and I remembered the locket around my neck.
Dr. Malcolm handed me a plate, and as I ate the first meal of my new life, I opened the locket to find a picture of my mother with a folded note inside:
My name is Finley, and I am your mother…
It dawned on me that mother hadn’t told me her name for a reason. To keep me safe.