The train passes every year. Boys and girls gather around the tracks to see it. They throw parties in its absence, like a rain dance, and hope that this time it will slow to a stop.
It doesn't every year, but I noticed that it always stops when the flax is golden, right before the first lilac flowers pepper the fields like stars. So, I cut my hair short when the buds appear, and I keep myself cooped up inside and stuff my face with sugar sweets so as to spoil my complexion.
You might find other boys and girls bathing in the river; tanning their legs under the hot sun, and staining their hair with strawberry juice. Their biggest dreams are to be whisked away on that train and taken to the glittering city to start a new life.
But not me.
I don't want to be taken, so, I stand over the basin and admire my hair one last time. It never manages to grow past my collarbones, but when it sits like this just skimming my shoulders it makes me think of Mum, and how she looked before she was taken. Her golden curls used to reflect the firelight as she bent down with a goodnight kiss, which she always planted on my forehead.
She used to send me off with just one, but when Dad got taken away - two years before she did - she added another kiss right between my eyebrows, and told me it was from him. As she bent over me I used to watch as her spiral pendant fell from her shirt and flickered in the firelight.
At this length, my hair looks so similar to hers, and I can even see hints of mousy brown; that's Dad's genetics shining through. I sigh, and lob off my curls in uneven scruffs.
I look adequately ridiculous.
There's a cake baking in the oven. The butter wafts through my small wooden home and carries with it a year's worth of smuggled sugar. I learned how to cook from my parents. Dad's favourite treat was always something drenched in butterscotch, so I avoid it at all costs now. I'm baking blueberry muffins instead, and a sweet apple tart for the woman next door.
I tap on her door, "Andri!"
She yanks the door open after only a second; she's been waiting all Spring for this pie. She breathes it in before acknowledging me, and then looks up and can't contain a hearty laugh, "you look ridiculous."
I grin, and saunter in a circle so that she can appreciate me in all my glory. I'm wearing a floor-length speckled skirt - very unflattering - and a turtleneck blouse the shade of dishsoap. "Thank you very much," I say, and I drop deep into a curtsy.
She shakes her head. "Come on," she says, beckoning me inside, "before someone sees you."
I fake a gasp."Are you ashamed of me? I thought you admired my unique fashion sense."
"Fashion sense?" She says with a scoff, and filters her fingers through my hair, "is that what you call this?"
"Well it does the trick, doesn't it? Keeps the boys away." I place the tart on her kitchen bench, next to the photograph that permanently lives by the window. It's a picture of her children with her husband before he was taken away. I don't stare too long; I don't want to remind her of what she's lost, especially around this time of the year.
"Speaking of boys," I mutter, "boys! desert it ready!"
I hear a muffled squeal from across the other side of the house, followed by a pounding of footsteps. Two young boys barrel down the hall and burst into the kitchen. They plummet into my skirts,and almost knock me over in the process. I ruffle their hair, "I don't think you two need any more sugar," I say through a laugh.
"Sugar!" The youngest boy jumps in place, then stands on his tiptoes so as to get a good view of the steaming desert.
"Alright, alright, calm down you two," Andri shoots me a halfhearted glare as she dishes up four small slices, and we set ourselves around the coffee table.
"What else did you make?" enquires the youngest of the boys.
"Well, I made this special for you," I say, indicating the tart, "and then I made some blueberry muffins." The eldest boy wrinkles his nose in a show of disgust. I bonk him on the knee with my spoon, "and a chocolate cake, which I might share with you, if you're nice."
The sour look drops from his face, and he replaces it with an expression of perfect angelicness. "Yes, Aunty Liv," the boys recite in unison.
"-Aunty?" I turn my gaze towards Andri - puzzled - but she just shrugs. "What?" I insist.
"You're starting to show your age, darling," she admits, looking a little shy. "How long did you think you could hide under that hair and those clothes." She gestures to my blouse, which is now covered in crumbs. A smile, tempered with a look of distant pain, tugs at her lips. "You look more and more like your parents every day."
My stomach drops. I didn't want to admit it, but I knew she was right. I'd been growing into my body for two summers now, and try as I might, I couldn't hide my features any longer. I slump deeper into my chair, and swallow, hard. "What will I do?"
Andri places a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. "What you've always done, love. Stay inside, keep up the bad attitude," she says with a smirk, "and hope that it's enough to keep them from noticing you."
There's nothing I can do, and we both know it. If they want me, they'll take me. Even she was at risk - being a parent didn't protect you - I knew that all too well, and in a few years her eldest boy would be ripe for the picking, too. I glance back at the photograph of her husband. He'd been gone for three years now, and she'd never told anyone why they took him, and I had never had the courage to ask.
She follows my gaze to the frame in the kitchen and clears her throat. "You want to know why they took him?" The words come out with practiced candour, and her boys look up in surprise; a spoonful of apple drops from the eldests fork, and onto his trousers. "It's okay," she continues, although her wavering tone suggests otherwise, "you must be curious."
I was curious. Jeremy was one of the few townsfolk who no one had ever expected to be taken. He wasn't particularly tall, or muscular, and he didn't have a penchant towards any particular skill that the poachers might want. I'd been eager to know, but was always too terrified to ask.
I simply waited, hoping that Andri would fill the silence.
"Jeremy was... well, he was always special." She said, finally. "He was just really good at hiding it, like you." She offers me a smile, but it's more a look of pity than pleasantness, and a cold chill runs through my body. She continues, "he wasn't beautiful, like your parents, so we didn't have to worry about them taking him for that, but he was always exceptionally clever."
I look at her boys - the youngest has moved his attention back to his desert, but the eldest is hanging on to every word. I wonder, with a pang of fear, if he will turn out to be brilliant, too.
"Jeremy was always fixing things... coming up with little creations. He kept them just for us; me and the boys, but somehow word got around of his genius. The poachers found out, I don't know how... and they took him on sight. Turns out the city needed a new inventor."
"They took him on sight?" I ask, astounded.
Usually, the poachers didn't know who they were looking for, just what. Their near annual wandering through our little town had them scouting for the next lucky star to whisk off into the big city. Sometimes this meant that a beautiful child would be taken, and we'd see them years later starring on the big screen. Sometimes, it was a family prodigy, and their families would receive letters and a fair share of the wealth.
But more often than not, the poachers were looking for someone they could use. Be that for their labour, their skills, or their bodies. No one really knew what happened to the people who were taken against their will, so some parents prepared their boys like oxes and their girls like starlets so that they'd want to go of their own volition. Meanwhile, other families kept their children cooped up in the metaphorical cellar.
Aside from the families who wish to be taken, the rest of the village is very private. Our wish to stay at home is respected by those who wish to leave, and the only way that someone like Jeremy would be taken on sight was if someone had discovered his gifts, and sold the information to the city. In other words, he, Andri, and the boys had been betrayed.
I feel like throwing up.
"Andri." My voice comes out croaky, "I'm sorry," I whisper.
She leans her head against mine, "me too."
We stay like this for a moment until she brushes me off. As she stands, she feigns an air of ease, and carries the dirty dishes to the sink. Her boys have started chattering tirelessly, and I can already tell that she's going to be in for quite a night dealing with their sugar rush. I try to mimic her ease and force out a giggle. "Sorry about the sweets," I say. She doesn't respond. "Andri?"
She's standing in the kitchen, gaze suspended out the window.
"You might want to start on that blueberry pie, Liv," she says, "the flax is starting to bloom."
I go to bed with a stomach ache, and with tender spots forming around my jaw. I'll look adequately adolescent in the morning and the spots will be enough to distract from my blossoming body. I decide to sleep with my window open tonight so that I can enjoy the soft chatter and shuffling of the folk who live around me.
Even though my heart aches from what Andri has told me, I can't help but smile when I think about the boys bustling through the house, working off their sugar. The crickets are singing. It's so peaceful here in the country... I fall asleep with a smile.
I'm woken by the sound of screeching train tracks in the morning. I shoot up like a stalk in my bed, and a cold sweat is already trickling down my forehead. They're here. My twang of anxiety is in stark contrast to the smiling face that's peering at me through my window.
"Morning Liv!" A beautiful girl close to my own age - Sharnie - is standing by the windowsill.
"Sharnie!" I rub my forehead, "that's not creepy at all..."
She giggles. She's been trained for a decade to be a movie star, so she's always in high spirits when the poachers arrive. I try to focus on my breathing, in an attempt to slow my heartbeat, but it doesn't work, and my arms start to shake.
"Sorry Liv," she says, "but you really should get some curtains." Her cheery tone softens as she notices the uncontrollable shake in my body. "It's okay Liv," she says gently, "they've only just arrived, you've got plenty of time to make it to the fields."
I nod. She knows my routine by now; that I like to wait in the fields as the poachers roam the town. Even when they've found me there in the past, they've not been interested in a scraggly girl who's only good for picking vegetables. "Thank you Sharnie," I say. I'm truly grateful for people like her. We couldn't be more different, yet she respects that I want to stay, and I respect that she wants to go, "good luck today."
She smiles sweetly at me, acknowledging my yearly haircut. "You too," she says.
I spend an hour or so in the fields, gathering crops for a hearty stew, and sowing seeds for the Summer. When I'm finished my nails are covered in dirt, and my skin is hot and sweaty. I can't wait to have a cool bath, and the poachers should be gone by now. I plow back to my house, and I hear the familiar tones of Andri's boys whispering amongst themselves.
"Hey," I call out playfully, "what's going on over there!" I press myself against the wall of the house and shuffle on silent feet. I'm planning on jumping out to surprise them when suddenly, I hear another voice amongst the throng.
"I-" Andri's eldest responds. "I, umm... I think she's sixteen, maybe fifteen, even."
"Don't play dumb with me, kid. This baker you two mentioned, what does she look like?"
My hand shoots to my mouth.
"Oh, she doesn't really bake," says the oldest, "her food's very bad, really."
I can feel the pulse in my neck.
"What?" chimes in the youngest, "you love Liv's cooking."
"Enough," chides the third, much deeper voice. "You two find her, and bring her to me, okay? The city could always use more bakers - we didn't know this town had a prodigy."
Bullshit, I think. The city has never cared for cooks, no matter how talented. I don't know what they want me for, and I don't intend to find out. I press myself flatter against the wall and scan the area for an escape. I could make a run for the fields, but there's no guarantee that I wouldn't be seen. I evaluate the space where my stairs connect to the backdoor. There's a small hovel that I might be able to squeeze into. It's tight, but I'll fit. As I lodge myself inside, folding like origami, a booming voice freezes me in place.
"No." Before I can stand to defend myself there are rough hands grabbing at my neck and hauling me to my feet.
Faces appear around me. Andri, and her boys, all three of them streaming with tears. Her eldest sobbing, and I can make out the words, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Sharni sprints around the corner, and she leaps at the poachers, trying to paw me out of their grasp. I don't even have time to say goodbye before I black out, and the world turns dark.
There's a soft humming - like a honey bee - that lulls me out of sleep, and a strange motion that I can't explain waking me in gentle jolts. It's like I'm riding a horse that's too precious to make the jump.
"Hmph," I giggle, "just do it... you can do it..."
"She's waking up."
A warm voice carries across the room, and when I open my eyes I realise that I'm not on a horse; I'm sitting stock still, but the scenery around me is moving. I shoot upwards, and immediately fall back down as I'm overcome with a wave of nausea. I'm on a train.
A woman rushes toward me. Trailing behind her is a stern looking man, who throws me a wary expression. The woman sits beside me with an earnest expression, "hey," she coos, "it's okay."
I don't think I know who this woman is. I look around, searching for anything familiar."I-" There's a bitter taste in my mouth that I don't recognise. I suck on my tongue, and try to identify it.
"Here." The woman reaches into her coat and pulls out a butterscotch candy. My eyes widen.
"My favourite!" I exclaim. This makes her laugh, and I grin back at her as I chew emphatically. The taste is familiar, but not in the regular way; it feels almost as if I'm chewing a memory, and the thought of that makes me giggle - it doesn't make sense. The man - who is still standing - rolls his eyes at me, but I don't know what for. "What's his problem?" I ask.
It comes out louder than I thought it would, but the woman doesn't seem to mind. "Oh don't mind him, she says with a grin, "he's not good with strangers."
She nods, and holds out a rucksack for me to see. It's beautifully embroided, and filled with books, papers, and small tokens. There's no train ticket inside, and that makes me wonder how it is that I got here. "This is yours," explains the woman "We found it on you - you'd been knocked out cold. Do you... do you remember any of what happened?"
I analyse the pieces laid out in front of me. Mine? I don't recognise any of this stuff, but I suppose I might have liked to own one of the books. I shake my head, "none of this is mine," I admit, "I mean it might be if I could afford it."
She scoffs. "Don't be silly, you're from the city, aren't you? Like us?"
The city? I look out the train window. We're hurtling past towns where I can see long fields of wheat and rows of cherry trees. I thought I'd be from someplace like that - I swear I was - but the train shows no sign of slowing down. "Here." The woman pushes a passport toward me. It's my face, but the hair is longer. I hold a hand to my short curls. What happened to my hair? I scan the passport for more information; Gloria. My name is Gloria, and I'm from the city.
"What am I doing all the way out here?"
The woman shrugs, but her shadowy companion speaks for her. "We found you," he says, bluntly, "when we were assessing the towns for new citizens. You were locked up and unconscious. Being kept in some baker's house."
My jaw drops. The woman raises from her seat and stalks to her companion. "That's enough," her voice laden in venom. "Some tact, please, Gabriel?"
"Fine," he quips back, although there is no softness in his voice - no sympathy for my plight, and he throws his hands up in mock defeat. "You deal with her then." The woman glares as Gabriel storms out of the carriage, and I frown after him, as well.
"Strange way to treat a stranger," I comment, allowing myself to seethe. "You didn't have to rescue me!"
The woman conceals a guffaw under manicured hands. "You have quite the attitude," she says, with a hint of admiration. That sounds familiar... but I can't remember where I last heard it. I feel myself getting drowsy again, and now that the butterscotch has fully dissolved the strange bitterness on my tongue is returning. The nausea causes my head to loll from side to side.
"Come," says the woman, "let's lay you down." She helps me up, and I'm too dizzy to protest as she walks me to another carriage. Inside, there's a single bed, don in dark blue linen. Black curtains hang over the window, and block out the sun. "Lay down for me." I climb under the covers, and the warmth radiates through my bones. I take a deep sigh, but force myself to stay awake as I watch the woman shuffle around the room. She takes a surreptitious glance out the door before closing it behind her.
"Is everything okay-" I start to ask, but I'm interrupted by her hush.
"Ssh," she says, "everything's fine."
Her voice is lilting, and my natural instinct is to fall asleep to the soft tones. I allow myself to relax, and say through a yawn, "will you wake me when we get home?"
"Yes," she says. "Goodnight, Liv." Liv. Why did she call me that? I search my memory for the name, but nothing comes up. I try to correct her, but she pays no heed as she brushes a curl away from my eyes, and leans over top of me. She plants a kiss on the centre of my forehead.
"What-" I try to tell her again. I'm Gloria. A wave of anxiety rushes over me as I reiterate to myself that I don't know who this woman is, or why she feels so familiar that she can kiss me. She hovers over me, suspended in her kiss, and fear freezes me in place.
In my frozen state, I can move nothing but my eyes. I scan the room for a weapon; anything to defend myself with, but a shaft of light from a crack in the curtain draws my attention back to the woman, and the gold chain that hangs around her neck.
She bends down lower, and brushes another kiss against my skin - this time between my brows - and a pendant falls from her shirt. It's shaped like an icicle; glittering, and dark blue. The twisting shape looks familiar to me, like a dream. "Ah!" I let out a cry of pain as a stark rod of heat shoots through my head, and suddenly I feel awake.
I know who I am. I am Liv. I am seventeen years old. I am not from the city. My mother and father were taken, and now I have been taken too.
And I know what they want me to do.
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters