“Go jump in a boiler,” Alora mutters in utter shock, eyes almost popping out of their sockets.
“Did you just cuss?” I ask her, almost as stunned as she is. A Favorable dared to utter a word considered cursing? As surprising as it is, I find her all the more alluring for it.
“You’re joking, right?” she inquires, ignoring my comment.
“You know what that means, right?” I request. I know she’s smart, she has to be if she was given a Favorable grade for her Bleeding Rite, thing, but I have to make sure she understands what she said
“Yes,” she raises her voice. “I know that it has the same connotation that ‘go fuck yourself’ had on Earth-that-was, shut your mouth. You can’t know my brother. It’s impossible. He’s been missing for six years.”
“I’ve been Unfavorable my whole life,” I remind her, “and working in the Boilers since I was 10. The past nine years, now. Is it really so hard to believe our paths may have crossed at some point?”
“Yes,” she states, her tone almost a whisper.
“Follow me,” I wave, standing up and walking to the cave entrance.
I pass her swiftly, smelling soap mixed with a scent of early spring on her skin. How can she smell like spring in the middle of summer? Soap outside Geha doesn’t have a smell attached to it, but maybe they do inside? Either way, it draws me to her. I have to keep myself from veering off course on my way to the exit.
“Where are we going?” Alora questions, watching me carefully.
“I’m taking you to your brother,” I announce, stopping at the entrance and looking back at her. “Are you coming?”
“You’re not serious.”
“There’s only one way to find out.”
She hesitates but follows. I gesture for her to go first, and I exit behind her. The boiler room is on the left, to the northeast of us, but we’re going southeast. Neither of us speak as we walk, so there’s plenty of time for my mind to wander. It’s difficult not to think of this girl, but I’m more curious about why I brought her to the cave. It’s a great spot to talk secretly, but I’ve never even brought Axe there. As far as I know, I’m the only one who knows about it. I used to spend time here when I was younger and couldn’t control my anger as much. I still do. It is my hiding spot where no one can bother or judge me. So, why in Leda did I immediately think to bring her there?
I look back at her a moment, thinking it might gleam some insight. It doesn’t. She’s on my left, only a step behind me. She doesn’t seem to notice me look. Instead, her gaze is focused back on the plant life we pass. It’s like she’s never seen a tree before. Every now and then she stops to touch a leaf or blade of grass, testing its tangibility. I’m beginning to think she’s going to pick a bouquet and take it back to Geha with her. I find it cute, even though my upbringing tells me nothing good will come of being around this girl, a Favorable. She’s so sweet, though, there’s no way she could bring trouble. She just wants to find out what happened to her brother, and things will go back to normal. I don’t think it’s possible for her to cause problems. I’ll help her and she’ll go back to Geha. Hopefully, she’ll visit once in a while…
It’s midafternoon when we reach my village, the closest one to Geha. Alora doesn’t even notice us approaching until we join a crowd on the outskirts. Most villagers are still out working, but those that are too old or too young to work are moseying around. Trading posts are set up down the main stretch of the village where food, clothing, wooden furniture, and other commodities can be purchased. There are even a couple stands that have handcrafted and hand carved toys for children.
“Where are we?” She asks, looking around. Her nose is wrinkled, like she smells something rotten. Not a surprise since a lot of people don’t have easy access to bathing water or soap to clean themselves with. I’ve grown accustomed to the stench, but I’ve seen that look more than once on a new Unfavorable face.
“This is Landow,” I answer. “My home.”
The further into the crowd we get, the closer Alora is to me. She even slips her small, right hand into my left to keep herself from getting lost as we walk. Knowing that the hut I’m looking for is still several minutes away, I stop at a stand selling fruit from the orchard. Most of it goes to Geha, but we are able to hang onto some to keep ourselves healthy enough to keep their food stores in order.
I dig around in my right pocket, not letting go of her hand, and a few coins clink together inside – I should have just enough to get her something to eat. After all, it’s past noon. She has to be hungry. I pull my hand out of my pants to look at my savings.
“Where did you get that?” Alora squeaks, only loud enough for me to hear. Her free hand goes to mine, examining the coins.
“I earned it,” I explain, confusion crinkling my brow. “The jobs I work don’t earn me much, but this is part of the wages I earn. Why?”
“I’ve seen them before. In one of the museums in Geha.”
“That would make sense,” I concur. “These are very old. The city may not need them anymore, but we still use it out here. The Loyals use the leftover currency that Geha no longer uses to pay the Burners, Drudges, and Harvesters.”
“Harvesters I can guess,” she whispers, “but what’s a Drudge and Burner?”
“Let me get you something to eat and we’ll talk in a bit.”
She nods and grabs a light blue apple off a pile, studying it closely. I pay the owner of the stand and direct Alora further down the main street, pushing around crowds as she munches on her treat. I let her finish before answering her question. We’ve walked for several minutes, and the market is coming to an end. The crowd diminishes, and soon it’s just us walking along the dirt road toward the edge of the village.
“Okay,” I start. She turns her head so she can watch me as I explain the different jobs the Unfavorable have to take on. “Harvesters are anyone who works on the farms or orchards gathering the fruit and vegetables. Burners are the people working in the boiler room. Drudges are people like me, who fix the piping and do other menial tasks that others can’t. They don’t teach you where your food comes from?”
“No,” she admits. “I didn’t know that our food was given to us off the labor of others.”
“Well, it isn’t free labor,” I offer. “We get paid for our services, even if it isn’t completely fair value.”
“I suppose,” she mutters.
“Where did you think it all came from?”
“I don’t know,” she admits, shame clouding her features. Though, it doesn’t make her less appealing, it simply makes me wish I could take the feelings away from her. Carry them for her so she doesn’t have to feel it. “I guess I assumed, with all the technological advancements we’ve made in Geha, that it was simple to create and store food somewhere.”
She turns her attention to the path in front of us, her mind buzzing about with the new knowledge, still holding my hand even though there’s no way for her to get lost. I sigh heavily, doing the same. There isn’t a whole lot to say and it isn’t much further before we reach our destination anyway. My boots fall heavily on the dirt, echoing my heartbeat. I’m anxious to bring her to the man that helped me learn everything I know. She might not come back if she knows he’s here, in Landow.
Unfortunately, I can’t stall any longer. I step up to the door of a small hut on the right side of the path, letting my hand fall from Alora’s and hoping beyond logic it’s not the last time I get to feel her skin against my fingertips. I even rub my fingers together in an attempt to preserve the feeling in memory, but the softness of her skin fades quickly. I knock my knuckles against the sticks making up the door and wait to hear movement inside. My stomach drops. There’s no sound coming from the other side of the door. He must still be out in the orchards with the rest of the Harvesters. He didn’t know I would be bringing someone by, I didn’t even know I was, so why would he have thought to stay home today?
I knock on the door again, on the off chance he didn’t hear my first one. I don’t have high hopes, but I’m not sure what else to do at this point. Still no answer or movement inside. Now I know I screwed up – I should have thought about this possibility before dragging her all the way out here. Anger pumps through my body with every second that passes while I think of what to tell Alora. Nothing comes to mind, and she speaks before I can make up an excuse.
“I knew it,” she chides.
I stare at the door in an attempt to control my anger. I’m not sure what I’ll say with my frustration increasing with every breath. Clenching my fists, I dig my nails into my skin to try and compartmentalize my anger.
“You’re messing with me,” she continues after a breath. “I let myself be clouded by emotion and threw away reason. Take me home.”
She stomps back towards the market, almost as enraged as I am. I have half a mind to let her go. To walk aimlessly through the woods and get lost. Accuse me of pranking her when I’ve risked my own neck and reputation to help her? She can go jump in a boiler for all I care, if she’s going to act like that. Still, I can’t ignore the reason I brought her here. I don’t owe her anything, but Micah I owe my life. I can’t let his younger sister go off alone. He would never forgive me, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
With a savage growl, I hurry after her. Jogging, it only takes me a few strides to catch up with her. Going back through the market, the crowds have dissipated and the stand proprietors are packing up their goods for the day. Everyone is preparing to welcome home those that have been out working all day. I would be one of them if I hadn’t gone against my better judgement and decided to help this pestering Favorable.
The walk should be awkward, but it isn’t. In fact, the quiet that ensues is refreshing and allows my anger to subside. We’re minutes from being able to see the opening into the Boiler room when I take the chance to look up at Alora. It’s a risk, because it could bring back all the anger she solicited an hour ago, back at the front door of her brother’s hut. With deep breaths, I can keep calm. In a sense, anyway. She’s still angry, walking quickly and stomping her feet unnecessarily hard on the ground. What bugs me the most, is how she doesn’t look at anything around her. Not one tree or bush. The things she found so amazing just a couple hours before mean nothing now. Knowing that I upset her like that causes guilt to siphon through my veins like poison, along with confusion about why I care so much. It’s unlike me.
I’ve had women before. I’ve courted them with the rest of the boys my age. The difference for me, though? I never thought about finding a wife like my friends did. I didn’t think twice about whether I want to bring children into this world. The life we lead, as Unfavorable, isn’t as clean, organized, quiet, prosperous, or even as gratifying as what the Favorable are given – literally, handed – in Geha. Children shouldn’t have to grow up to work for people on a hill that they will never see and will never even receive a thank you from.
I’m not saying that I want to have kids with this girl, I still don’t want to put a child through this life. There’s just something about her that I want more from. More than anything I had with…well, anyone else. Even if she pisses me off. It’s the fiery, passionate, daring side of her that made me want to her help her in the first place.
Lost in thought, I didn’t see the Boilers come into view. I only notice because Alora suddenly picks up her pace. The only thought that passes through my mind seeing that, is panic about never seeing her again.
“Wait,” I cry, a little louder than is probably necessary. She doesn’t flinch or miss a beat in her step. Scurrying after her, I practically face plant in the dirt trying to get her to stop and listen to me. “I’m sorry, okay?”
“Don’t talk to me,” she advises me. I let out a low growl and move in front of her. She finally stops and glares at me.
“Let me talk for a second,” I request. She doesn’t look too pleased with it, though.
“Get out of my way,” she grumbles forcefully.
“I didn’t think before bringing you to his hut,” I attempt to explain. “He didn’t know you were coming so he wasn’t there to see you. He works in the orchards during the day. Come back tomorrow.”
“No,” she states, a warning in her eyes. She tries to walk around me, but I move in front of her enough to block her path.
“Please,” I implore. “I’ll make sure he’s there tomorrow. I promise.”
“Get out of my way.”
She pushes passed me and I let her go this time. Even though there’s no guarantee that she’ll be back, I’m going to make sure Micah is around tomorrow. For some reason, her opinion of me matters more than my reputation. There’s no way I’m going to let her think I’m an asshole like the guys I grew up with. I’m not that kind of guy, and that won’t be her last perception of me, if I have any say in it.