“Really!?” he choked, “a heart shaped locket?!! You’ve got to be kidding! Give it to me!”
“No!” she clutched it and jerked her hand away. “You think it’s stupid. You’ll break it!”
“Noo I won’t!” he yelled. Grabbing for it with one hand and pushing her back with the other. “I’ll be careful! I promise-”
“NoooYOU!” She yelled straight into his left ear just as he leaned within reach of her determined and dirt stained face. From years of experience she knew he was lying. He’d broken many delicate things growing up and it wasn’t going to happen this time.
Before he could bring his hand up to muffle her, as if falling into a powertool left running on a bench, his face, at first only surprised at the power of her scream, now contorted into excruciating pain as somehow even the chirp of his own whimper arose from a place still below conscious awareness. She had already, like a vise, clenched the outer three, smaller fingers of his shoving hand and was wrenching them backwards... Hard. While, at the same time, pulling his whole hand forward with his momentum… actually, just like their mother taught them.
Graceful as a child leading a cat with a toy, she simply rolled with his energy, yet stepped out to her left and drew her brother right in the direction he was already going: straight into her and up after the locket. Yet by adding just a little spin to her left, and a little more push to the hand now pinned against his body, instead of basically flying over her to victory, as he was accustomed to humiliating her when taking things, this time found himself rotated until almost perfectly flat on his back, looking upwards, with somehow, just enough time to admire the broken ceiling tiles. Then, just as he realized it was her leg, not a soft fence, he was somehow backwards and half-way over, the support disappeared as she forcefully swept his feet up and away from any attachment they still had to ground. Grasping, he found himself plummeting away from the notable tiles as the Earth rose to meet him with a breath-squishing and tile-crunching thud.
His whole wrist, aching, was gripped firmly from above. A booted leg stepped around, wrapped his arm, and threatened to step on his face. At the top of it all, shielded by the fireman’s-mask-turned-survival-suit, slightly hidden under a wisp of the dark hair he loved and brushed so many times, was the sweet expressive forehead of his beloved sister. Eyebrows raised as usual, yet with a clear, new, and… calm expression.
Her face was familiar from somewhere but hard to look up into. Yet it clearly stated, “I’m ready to go further… are you?”
Gasping as a little of the toxic dust clouded around, he managed to cough out “uncle!” as she immediately let go and stepped away from him with a grunt.
“Disgusting! I hate it when you call me that!” She didn’t see him smirk, but was sure he did.
“Uncles must have been the worst,” she scorned and stepped away seeking a safe place to examine the first really important (not because it was important to her... but because it might have been important to someone) thing she found in a long while. She took off running.
“What’s in it?” he impatiently yelled from behind, as though his urgency would have any sway over her now. He’d be stuck readjusting his mask and going through the purge procedures before she was done making herself difficult to find. As long as she didn’t leave too many tracks.
She had soundly defeated him, when it mattered, and without really hurting him. The spirit flowing through her in that moment of calm, grounded power flowed still and invigorated every agile, quiet step away from him as her older brother became like the child now, in the distance, trying to influence her like one of the “tag along tykes” who chased them the first mile or so out of the village… always out of breath, pleading to be brought back something just for them or their “mothers.” As if any of them had their own.
She felt a little sad he was just like one of those orphans now, right after they became too tired to keep up the blistering pace, always at least a few hundred yards before they reached the end of the mushroom fields keeping the village somewhat insulated from the toxin zones still, almost, everywhere. Right now was just like the moment before they would leave the safety of the mushrooms, when they could delay donning their masks no longer. Their precious supply of fresh air, taken from the center of the center of the village, where the vegetation was the thickest and the breezes engineered by their “Village Planners” to be the stillest, had been saved up till the very last minute.
Always with the breeze at their backs, they would don their masks, actually primitive rebreathers with earthen materials and algaes to help clean some of the stale air, just as the mushrooms were fading and the childs’ voices fell into the distance.
That was how he sounded at this moment, but instead of the rhythmic breathing normally filling her ears for hours, sometimes days, as they mutely slid among and between the pockets of immense dead; now her mind was slowly filling with, or was it being swallowed by, sounds she never heard and flashes more vivid than the life she knew. The locket, caged in her gloved hand, burned through to her skin as if a tattoo from the ideal, imagined past, was being imprinted with searing light straight from the heart of whoever, she imagined, had worn it last.
Every moment she held it, her mind went further from her feet who, confidently doing just what they knew how to, kept going as fast as was perfectly safe, navigating each and every moment, obstacle, sharp object or change in terrain with grace, calm and… detachment. Her autopilot was set, and with hardly a thought about the things around her she again faded from the world. Except now, through the portal forming in her palm, backwards through time, hopefully right to the place her heart and her soul, and hopefully everyone else’s, though they rarely talked about “it,” except on late nights when no one was listening, longed desperately to return to.
Like very few others in the village, “it” seemed more openly important to her and she knew it annoyed them. “It” was the “past,” and the Village Planners, barely “adults” themselves, really hated talking about “it.”
“I guess when you’re in charge, you don’t like being reminded how little you actually know,” she would often rationalize, trying to be compassionate for these poor souls, in charge only because they were the most mature.
None of them could have kids anymore and would all likely be in enough pain to take themselves out in a few years. So, they each lived for the moment. And who could blame them? They could Love safely now. And since the tykes were theirs to care for while the teens raised babies or got used up doing the work that everyone, including her, would inevitably hurt too much to do, the VP’s were free to use all the plant medicines for mood and pain they wanted.
Talking to one of them about the locket was already going to be like talking through a fog, but talking to the Council, about bringing back anything “emotional,” would surely just be “bringing the vibe down,” whatever that meant, and it would be taken from her and melted. Or, as she’d already experienced once, if they were in a poor mood when they decided to call her in, then she might also have to spend an hour or so of silence while each of them mumble-riffed off of each other about why only “now” matters and how it was attachment to “things” that got us all here. Hilariously tearing her apart in their own humourless language, with words she was sure they didn’t even completely understand themselves, was a sport she could actually endure again because, ironically, it was one of the most loving experiences she’d had in some time as her birth parents, who she rarely ever saw, slipped her little smiles or winks between laughs at her expense. Yet, the worst possibility was one she truly did fear.
It only happened a few times since she was old enough to be called to witness; but the prospect of being “The Village Example,” where each of the VP’s would be free to rant endlessly while swaying and condescending right past her, as if speaking to a version of “she” who lived only in their addled brains, and apparently slightly to her left, trigger her back into her stride and the pain of hot metal trying to impatiently etch every feeling it ever absorbed straight through to the skin.
Panting more than normal yet smiling upon realizing it, they all took their final steps together to hide in the sun, just behind some bushes and a wall to block any breezes... or sounds. Just in case she cried. Though she doubted that would happen again.
She had just won a rare victory over her much stronger brother, and had scurried away so successfully she hadn’t even looked back with a second thought. Now, taking extra care to calm herself, and being mindful not to kick up any more dust, she held her breath to listen, as best she could between thundering heartbeats, and peaked out to see if he followed.
Ducking back and drawing a few rapid breaths to balance her oxygen deficit, she dug out a cloth and fervently cleaned the locket. She wanted to take off just one glove, since it would be so much more real when it finally touched the textures of her skin, and she wanted to feel it as they had, without the residue of this toxic world getting between them.
Carefully pulling off the glove of the hand already intimately acquainted, she carefully passed the locket, definitely heart shaped, from the cleanest part of the cloth back into her sweating palm. It’s surface was covered in even more little heart shaped wisps which segmented the sun’s reflection into tiny unnatural patterns that must have made some small person ecstatic years ago. The sweat increased the effect as she turned it over in her hand. The clasp on the side was broken off. So was the knotted chain, which looked gray, with bits of rust eating into most of the links.
“Not gold,” she thought, disappointed at her own practicality. “But is there anything inside?” her mind demanded of the trinket. “Who’s tone is that?” she thought, remembering it didn’t matter what was inside, what mattered was the connection, the lesson she could learn, the lesson they all could learn through her if she could only learn it herself first.
She closed her eyes.
“What’s inside?” her mind asked again.
“It doesn’t matter!” she snapped, impatient with her own impatience. “Damnit,” her curiosity wouldn’t be silenced.
Time was short for a proper mental escape, so she pried.
“Do you even open?” She yelled at the two rusted strips wrapping her heart to the hinge.
“No point.” - her brother spoke in the gentlest tone.
She dropped it, forgotten, and turned. Somehow he was close, his arms out a little. Tears sprung instantly from her eyes and she cried, “This can’t be the last time!”
His chest convulsed too as she stepped in, silently sharing the felt truth of what they’d hated: she was to be a mother and after now, today, would have to be protected, kept separate, from the dead world, forever.
They turned, touching for a few more strides, before beginning her final run home in a familiar mute rhythm.