It was a house like all houses. She was a girl like all girls. From the picture window, Daisy could wave at Nina. But Nina had stopped waving back.
“Mommy, may I please visit with Nina after lunch?” Mommy turned from the Provider with a bad smile, two plates in hand.
“No. Look! It’s your favorite. Strawberry.”
“Why not?” The bad smile was stuck on her face like a sticker.
“The Hendersons are sick,” Mommy said. She pushed one plate to Daisy, who groaned at the sight.
“That’s the wrong strawberry!”
“Please don’t complain, Daisy. It tastes the same. It just looks different.” She picked up one of her square cubes and bit in.
“I like the round ones better,” Daisy grumbled.
“Take it up with the Provider,” Mommy sighed. She smiled. It was a good smile. “Are you feeling better now?” Daisy nodded. She really was. She didn’t feel bad about Nina anymore. She didn’t feel so bad about the square shape, either.
But as the afternoon wore on, Daisy watched Nina and her Mommy play in their garden. They didn’t look sick. They were laughing and tickling each other, jumping around and whooping. The Hendersons had the ugliest garden in the neighborhood. All the other houses had topiaries carved into shapes. Her own bushes were shaped like hearts. Nina’s garden was too big, with leaves all tangled up and too much dirt. They hardly had any lawn left.
Daisy liked to look at the Henderson garden, even if it was weird. It reminded her of a maze she saw once on her tablet. She liked playing tag with Nina between the long rows of plants, poking at the colorful bulbs and tubes that sprouted up like Christmas ornaments. From her picture window, she watched Nina and her Mommy touch their plants. Daisy wanted to touch them too. But it would be very bad to get sick. Maybe she could go play the next day, she thought. No one was ever sick for very long.
On Monday they had Neighborhood Activities. Everyone met in the rotunda, smiling and shaking hands. Daisy saw the Hendersons standing to the side. No one was shaking their hands. Were they still sick? She tugged at Mommy’s skirt.
“Mommy, may I please say hi to Nina?”
“No,” said Daddy. “Did you tell her she could talk to the Hendersons?”
“Of course not,” Mommy scoffed. “I told her they were sick.” Daddy knelt down.
“We have to stay safe, Daisy. It’s important to remember that.”
“Yes, Daddy. But Nina is my friend.”
“Not anymore,” he said. She wondered why Nina wasn’t her friend anymore. Had she done something bad?
The Activities began. This time, Daisy’s family was in charge of packing baby boxes. They had to put all the things that babies needed into boxes for the hospital. It was her first time doing this Activity, and she liked it. Everything was cute and small and soft. Babies needed these things to stop crying, she knew. It was very important that the babies had what they needed so they could grow up and stay calm.
“Oh, shoot.” Mommy looked at two pieces of paper in her hands. “We’re going to have to do this all over again. We were packing the Winter boxes by accident, but they need Summer boxes.”
“Are you kidding me?” Daddy said loudly. “We’re already late for lunch.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, Kevin. They were in the same folder.”
“Ok, well we need to eat.”
“We need to finish this!” Mommy was getting loud too. She turned to Daisy. “Go home and get us lunch from the Provider.”
Daisy felt a shiver. It was a long walk back home, and she didn’t do much alone. “I don’t wanna.”
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Daddy said. His eyes were squinting. “It’s time for lunch, Daisy.”
“You’re a big girl,” Mommy said. She pushed Daisy to the door. “Go act like it.”
The Neighborhood seemed big and empty. She could see most of the people through their picture windows, all eating their lunch. Only a few were still doing their Activities, and they were all going very fast and looking at Daisy like she was doing something bad. She hurried along. She was almost there. She could see her house, and the Henderson house across from it. Just before she reached her gate, she tripped on a curb and sprawled across the pavement.
Her knees got all cut up and her hands were hot. Blood started leaking, and Daisy couldn’t stop it. She started crying like a baby. Everything was so unfair. Why did she have to do this alone? She was hungry and tired and hurting. She didn’t care about getting lunch for her parents anymore. They were being so loud at her. She curled up on the pavement and let the tears fall down. She felt a soft hand on her back.
“Daisy, what happened?” Mrs. Henderson was there. She rubbed Daisy’s back. “Did you take a tumble?” Sniffling, Daisy nodded. Mrs. Henderson was being very good, but she still wished that no one could see her.
“Accidents happen. Can you walk? Let’s get you bandaged up.”
Mr. Henderson was reading an old book inside. There was a plate with weird green and orange tubes in front of him. Daisy hadn’t been in their house for a while, and she was surprised to see how much it had changed. Everyone had white tables and square chairs, but the Henderson’s new furniture was dark and curvy. She saw the long table had dings and scratches all over it.
“What have we here?” he asked, looking up from the book.
“Daisy fell on the pavement.”
“Mommy told me I had to get lunch from the Provider,” Daisy said. “I tripped.” The Hendersons exchanged a look. Daisy was a little worried that Mrs. Henderson wouldn’t have a wound care box, seeing as everything in their house looked so different. But sure enough, under the sink there was a white box with a red cross. Mrs. Henderson was smoothing ointment on her scratches when Nina came running down the stairs. She saw Daisy and her eyes got squinty, like Daddy’s.
“What is she doing here?”
“She needed help,” said Mrs. Henderson. “Can you be nice to her with me? She’s very sad.” Daisy thought about that. She supposed she was sad. It had been a bad day so far.
“Yeah, ok,” said Nina.
“I miss you,” said Daisy. “Why don’t you wave at me anymore?”
“Waving’s really boring. Why don’t you just come over and play?”
“My Mommy said you were sick.”
“That’s a lie!” said Nina. “I’m not sick even a little bit! You’re just boring and quiet and I don’t wanna play nice anymore.” She stomped away. Daisy started crying again. Twice in one day? She must be broken. She cried harder. Mrs. Henderson gave her a hug.
“You’ll have to excuse Nina, Daisy,” Mr. Henderson said. “You might notice we’re a little different from other families in the neighborhood. Mostly, this.” He gestured to his plate, then grabbed some of the weird stuff and put it in his mouth. “We decided to stop using our Provider.” Nina’s jaw dropped.
“Then what do you eat?”
“What we grow in the garden. Things from the forest or Outside, too.” Mrs. Henderson shushed him. He laughed. “Please don’t tell that to your parents, Daisy. About Outside. You know, we’re not supposed to take anything from there.”
“I know,” said Daisy, but she didn’t. What was Outside? But that felt like too big of a question. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer. So instead she asked, “What’s wrong with your Provider?”
“Nothing, dear,” said Mrs. Henderson, tidying up the wound care box. “We just got tired of it, I suppose. Now, didn’t you have something to do?”
“Oh. Yes.” Her stomach felt like it sank to her toes. Lunch. Her parents.
“Can you manage it by yourself? You’re very brave to do it, you know. And to get over your fall! Your parents will be so proud of you.” Daisy glowed with the compliment. She felt ready to go.
“Can I come back sometime? I want to try that stuff.” She pointed at Mr. Henderson’s plate.
“Anytime,” he said. “But you should probably ask your parents first.” Daisy sighed. She had a feeling that wouldn’t go over well.
When she got back to her parents, she heard them before she saw them.
“Oh my god. How dumb can you get? It says right here, right here! Seven cotton onesies. Not five, seven. Are all the boxes like this?”
“Shut up, Stacey! I can’t think with you screaming like that.” They stopped talking when Daisy entered the room.
“What happened to your knees?” Mommy asked. Her voice was like a whistle. Daisy felt tears welling in her eyes again.
“I f-f-fell.” Daddy rushed over and grabbed his and Mommy’s lunches.
“We’ll talk about it after lunch.” Lunch was chicken in triangles. They all ate. Daisy’s tears dried up. She felt calm again, and her hands stopped stinging. She peeked under a bandage and saw that her knees were starting to grow new skin. Mommy smiled at her. Daisy felt a little of the sad come back. She missed Mrs. Henderson’s smile, which was crinkly at the edges and very warm. It went away with another bite of chicken.
“Now, what happened?” Daddy asked. He leaned against the pile of boxes, breathing slowly and rolling his shoulders. “You said you fell?”
“I tripped. Mrs. Henderson helped me.”
“What?” Mommy put her lunch down and came over, inspecting Daisy head to toe. “You didn’t eat anything there, did you?”
“No,” said Daisy. “They said I had to ask you first.”
“The answer is no,” said Daddy. “We don’t eat like they do. We eat from the Provider. Don’t go over there again, ok? That’s a rule now.”
“Ok.” Daisy wanted to feel sad again. She liked the Henderson house. But it was hard to remember how to feel it now.
Daisy waved at Nina from her picture window every day. Sometimes Nina waved back, which Daisy liked. If Mr. and Mrs. Henderson were there, they always waved to her, which she liked even more. She didn’t try to go to their house again. She had to follow the rules.
One day, while she was looking at the new diamond shape of the bushes in her garden, she heard a voice from behind the shed.
“Psst!” Nina whispered. “Daisy! Come here!”
“What are you doing here?” she asked, running to the back of the shed. Nina held out her hand. On top of her palm sat three fat red bulbs.
“I brought you these. They’re real strawberries!”
“Those aren’t strawberries, they’re all lumpy!”
“Oh, don’t be a bore. Try one.” Looking over her shoulder to make sure that Mommy wasn’t outside, Daisy stuffed a whole one in her mouth. Nina laughed.
“Silly, you’re supposed to take the tops off first, like this.” She demonstrated, ripping a leafy green bit away from the red. “What do you think?” Daisy couldn’t answer. Her mouth was overwhelmed by sensation. The strawberry was firm and juicy, filling her mouth with sweet water. There were little crunchy bits that crackled between her teeth. It tasted like sunshine. It tasted like rain. It was nothing like strawberries from the Provider. Nina offered her the other two, and Daisy savored every bite.
“Thank you,” she said. “That was the most beautiful thing in my life.” She was crying but she felt happy. Nina drew her into a big hug.
“We’re leaving tonight,” she whispered in Daisy’s ear. “Don’t tell anyone, but we have to go Outside. I’ll miss you. I’m sorry I was mean to you before. It wasn’t your fault you couldn’t play with me, I know that now. It was the Provider’s fault.”
“Daisy? Where are you? It’s time for lunch!” Her mother was shouting from the door. Nina pulled her sleeve up over her palm and roughly drew it over Daisy’s face, wiping up the strawberry’s sticky juice.
“Go,” she smiled. Like Nina’s happy tears, the smile had some sad mixed in. “You have to eat your lunch.” Daisy ran inside.
“Look! It’s your favorite,” said Mommy. “Round strawberry.”
“That is my favorite,” Daisy agreed. She beamed. She bit into the sphere and couldn’t help but feel unsatisfied. It tasted nothing like strawberries. It was too soft and had hardly any juice. There was nothing sour to tickle her tongue, nothing crunchy between her teeth. She pushed the plate away.
“I don’t want any lunch today, actually,” she said. Mommy, halfway through hers, grew a bad smile. An angry one, Daisy thought.
“The Provider made this especially for you,” she said through her teeth. “It’s so you can grow up and stay calm. Don’t you want to do that?” Daisy shook her head. She didn’t. She knew, she just knew, if she finished that plate she wouldn’t taste another strawberry ever again. She wouldn’t get to see a smile like Mrs. Henderson’s again, or ever know what Outside was. “You ungrateful brat,” her mother said. Her tone was flat like their white metal table. “Fine. See how you feel in an hour. You’ll come running back to finish this up.”
Daisy held her strong front through dinner. After he ate, Daddy sat her down and had a stern talk with her about how good the Provider was. He told her about how when he was little, they didn’t have anything safe to eat because the Provider hadn’t been invented yet. People were eating poison from the ground. People were dangerous and did bad things to each other. Didn’t she want to eat safe food? Didn’t she want the people in their Neighborhood to be safe? Didn’t she want to grow up and stay calm? Every time one of her parents asked her that, she got angrier. No! She didn’t want to eat the stupid food! She didn’t want to grow up, and she didn’t want to stay calm! She ended up screaming and kicking on the living room floor until her parents sent her to her room, where she could stay until she was ready to eat.
From her picture window, she watched the Hendersons drive away in the deep of the night. She was so hungry she couldn’t sleep. Under the moonlight, the shiny leaves of the ugly garden beckoned her. Barefoot, she snuck quietly out of her house. The air was chilly but the pavement was still sun-warm under her toes. She ran through the Henderson garden, fingers outstretched to rattle the leaves. Finally, behind the house, she saw a dense cluster of green and red close to the ground. Kneeling, she filled the lap of her nightshirt with all the red bulbs she could find. Peeling off the leafy bits the way Nina showed her, Daisy stuffed strawberry after strawberry into her mouth.
When they were all gone and she was fuller than she’d ever been, Daisy lay on her back and stared at the moon and stars. Her nightgown was stained, her face and fingers too. She could have worried about what her parents would say, but instead she felt a curious shoot of excitement. Nothing they could do would be as bad as this moment was good. Everything was glorious.
If this was anything like Outside, it was beautiful.