Five Good Things About Meghan Sheedy
By A.M. Dellamonica
28 April 2008
Part 2 of 2
The back compartment of the armored limousine was a smallish aquarium, so Dinah—dressed in human clothes once more—had to get in next to the driver. She had barely sat down when Chamon thrust a tentacle through the waterproof membrane that separated back from front. It recoiled distastefully as it touched her.
His voice came through a speaker. "You're covered in chemicals."
"I can't go without deodorant among my own kind," she said. "If you like, I can still walk."
"No, no." He latched onto her wrist, trolling a sticky feeler up the exposed line of her jaw but remembering to avoid her mouth and eyes. "Earthly clothes, too." His touch, so much a part of her day-to-day life, was harder to accept outside the Tank.
Her contact lenses were itchy and she let that be her excuse when she let the emotions in, just for a minute: tears welled and the pain—on the surfaces of her eyes, at least—eased.
Deep breath, she thought. It's hardly anything, bearing this too. You can't let him suspect anything. . .
"I've tasted this garment."
"It's what I wear to funerals."
"You're incredibly anxious today." The tentacle was lodged behind her ear now. Another had wandered below the collar of her dress, closer to her breasts than a smock would have allowed. "Dinah, what's the matter?"
Shuddering, she curled her fingers into an approximation of an apology knot, pressing it against the roving pseudopod and stopping its downward wander. "I shouldn't be seen arriving with you, Chamon."
"Of course. We'll drop you off someplace discreet."
The limo pulled into a secluded parkade. "Will this do?" Chamon asked.
Dinah glanced around, saw nobody, and all but leapt out of the car. "Yes, thanks."
"See you at the Institute," he replied, and the car drove on.
Twenty years earlier the Institute had been an orphanage, a safe haven for kids whose parents had died in the hot zones—the killing grounds of the Eurofront and the Texas invasion. Run by a religious order of Kabu pacifists who called themselves recluses, the idea was to raise the children somewhere safe, where they wouldn't have to face subsequent rounds of horror and loss.
The school had taken in Dinah and Meg, teaching them to read, to write and speak American English and Kabuva too. The recluses taught them the world could be a good place—that it would be, once the Democratic Army showed the Fiends that they couldn't win the war, couldn't truly seek to control the whole world. The Institute teachers had given them hope for a bright tomorrow.
They had lied.
Seattle had been safe, but only for as long as it took Dinah and Meg to grow up and start families of their own. Now it too was a hot zone. The school and its orphans had packed up and gone to Northeastern Canada, where it was still hopeful, still safe. Where a new generation could be deceived, Dinah thought bitterly.
When the recluses abandoned the Institute a handful of their students had reorganized it as a private school, charging exorbitant tuition to anyone who could afford it and taking students of former graduates, like Meg and Dinah, for free.
Dinah's face warmed as she stared up at the familiar brick building, the safe haven of her childhood. Tears threatened again, but this time she fought them by allowing a sense of her own weariness to seep into her consciousness. As the fatigue flooded in, the emotion drained away, leaving her dull and spiritless—calm, to all outer appearances.
Then she went around to the back.
The dust bomb had been concealed under the steps of the infirmary, just on the edge of the playground. Dispersal had spread it like a ball of seeds from a dandelion, and now the infirmary was missing a perfect quarter-sphere of its structure. Radiating out from the damaged corner of the building was the rest of the circle of destruction: soil carved out of the ground, filled at the bottom with four or so inches of rainwater.
Metal shards of playground equipment jutted at the edges of the blast radius. The distinctive blood-and-burnt-sage odor that dust left behind still hung in the air.
There were bouquets and gifts everywhere: flowers, photos, stuffed animals, notes of condolence. Some of the offerings had slid to the bottom of the bowl-shaped depression in the playground, soaking up the puddle. Others were laid carefully around its edges.
It was easy to imagine the kids here: the boys playing on the swings, Gwynne reading on the bench that was now gone. Dinah and Meg all but owned that bench, years before, had exchanged everything from dreams to locks of their hair under the shade of an oak tree that still stood, perversely unharmed, at the edge of the zone of destruction.
Jesse ran past, chasing another kid but—for once—not shouting. Silent and subdued, the boys ran as if the ghosts of dead friends were with them.
It could have been him, her precious boy.
When he circled past again she stopped him. "Where are your—where are the others?"
"Classroom," he said. "Couns'ling session."
"Why aren't you there?"
"Mine's finished," he said, avoiding her gaze. He'd ditched, then. Eight years old and already skipping class.
"Show me where?" she asked. He nodded, leading the way.
Meg turned up just as her kids were filing out of the counseling session. She passed Ben over to Dinah without a word, leading a silent procession to the auditorium. As they sat, Gwynne made a production of squeezing in next to Dinah, eyes flashing over the heads of the younger kids as she fired a furious glance at her mother.
Mercifully, the service began on time. As the gathered humans stood and fumbled their way through an off-key Anglican hymn, Dinah closed her eyes and remembered other funerals she'd attended in this same hall. Kabu ceremonies were humid and sensual. The air was weighted with hot brine mist, the floor sticky with sugared mourning stones that crunched under bare feet and rolling tentacles. She thought of the ritual knotting of fingers—performed imperfectly by students with their bony fingers—and of mourning wails led by the recluses, loud and hair-raising shrieks that mingled Kabu and human voices for hours.
Meg sat through the service stone-faced, staring at the small circle of coffins even when Gwynne threw herself against Dinah's chest, sobbing.
The eulogies went on forever. Shattered parents spoke, as best they could, of their lost children. A minister read meaningless Biblical verses. Finally the principal, Arnold, led a prayer for peace. Patiently he coaxed a few students up to the front, where they clung to the podium and squeezed out broken sentences about their murdered friends.
Gwynne's tears soaked through her dress, and Dinah put an arm around the girl, rocking her, feeling distantly as though she was being forced to participate, not for the first time, in Gwynne's ongoing rejection of her mother.
As soon as the memorial was over Dinah gave Gwynne one last squeeze and then stood, scooping Ben up.
"Where are you running off to now?" Meg demanded.
"Ben needs a change," she said in a low voice. At the front of the assembly in the visitor's aquarium, Chamon was surfacing for a walkabout.
"I just did him, Dinah."
"He's wet," she snapped, and Meg's brows came together. Dammit, she needed to be away, invisible . . . if they made a scene now . . .
"I need a break from Chamon," she lied in a rush. She pointed; her boss was already tasting the air for her. Sounding desperate was easy. "I didn't know he'd be here . . . I had to ride with him."
Meg handed her the diaper bag. "Go."
Dinah strode away, fleeing them all, and made her way to the basement of the school, to the hatch that led to the mourning grotto.
Kicking off her shoes, she waded down the spiral walkway as Ben tugged her hair and gaped at the phosphorescent markings on the damp ceiling. "It's okay, baby," she said, but it was no good. Not even the sound of water gurgling through rocks could soothe her nerves now. Her belly ached with stress.
The grotto was a smallish island, covered in exotic plants and encircled by a deep moat. Humid and lush, its overhead lights had dimmed to create an artificial twilight as soon as Dinah passed through the hatch. The air remained hot.
She followed the path to a specific bench and stopped in shock. Mouth numb, she glanced at her watch to confirm the time.
Nobody here. She didn't know whether to be relieved or upset. Rather than deciding, she checked Ben's pants. They were dry.
The baby chewed on his bottle and eyed her with a wary reserve. Last time she had taken him away from Meg, he'd screeched for an hour.
"Auntie Meg and I planted this," she said, letting him stroke the soft red leaves of a miniature maple that was planted next to the bench. It had leaned out over the surface of the pond as it grew, so that the undersides of its leaves were reflected in the still waters. At its base was a plaque bearing the name of Meg's husband.
When Chris came off the missing list, Dinah would plant something here, she and the kids together. Something evergreen, she had said once. Meg had promptly screamed at her for giving up hope.
But Chris had been at the front in Las Vegas. There was no chance.
Splashy footsteps sounded behind her.
Dinah did not turn, keeping her gaze on the water, trying to look calm even as her heart stuttered with fear.
It was just the principal, Mr. Arnold.
Ben reached out. "Bada Clath," he said, and then, questioning, "Bada Clath?"
"He's asking if you're Santa Claus," Dinah said, and Arnold smiled.
"Happens all the time with little ones." He offered a finger and Ben clamped it in his undernourished fist.
"It's all right for an old student to be down here, isn't it?" she asked, listening for anyone else on the path down. "I came down here to think."
"It's time you stopped thinking and decided who your friends are," Arnold replied.
Dinah flinched. She pried her son's sticky hand from around the man's finger, moving him off to her other hip, so her body was between them. Ben whined angrily, craning around to stare at Arnold.
A teacher. Something sour came up from her stomach, coating her mouth. She'd known, intellectually, that anyone could be a Fiend, but a teacher . . . "What do you people want from me?"
"To liberate you, of course." His tone was ironic.
She laughed harshly. "Liberate, blackmail . . . it's all so similar."
Arnold took a contact lens case from the pocket of his slacks. "All we ask is that you wear these to work from now on."
"I'll be caught."
"No. Just replace your regular contacts with these and forget all about it. Don't worry, they match your regular prescription."
She did not take the offered case, staring as though it was a poisonous spider.
"I wear these . . . and what? You'll see what I see?"
"Exactly. There's a lot of intelligence to be mined out of the citizen complaints office." When she didn't move he took her hand forcefully in his, pushing the case against her palm and folding her fingers over it.
Pulling loose, Dinah let the case fall into the water.
It sank to the pebbled rim that divided the shallows of the pool from the drop-off to the depths. She stepped in after it, moving so her toe was right there, ready to push. Water ran between her foot and her sandal, blood-warm but strangely soothing.
Arnold froze. "How long do you think you'll live if you destroy those?"
"We haven't discussed payment," Dinah said. Don't show weakness, she thought. Be like Meg. Meg is strong. Meg protects the children fiercely. Meg doesn't back down or compromise. Meg wouldn't risk everything just because this bastard threatened her. Meg . . .
Her breath rasped painfully as she failed to think of a fifth good thing about her friend.
"Payment?" Arnold scoffed. "Who told you to keep the children home on Monday? Who might not warn you next time?"
"That's stick, Fiend," she said, trying desperately to believe she had a choice. "I want carrot."
Under the snow-white beard, his face pinkened. "Payment would cause attention. You're no good to us if you're on the Watch list."
"I don't want money."
"Get Meg a new place to live. Something close, in that new complex they've just finished near my place."
He shook his head. "Impossible."
She laughed faintly. "But you're Santa Claus."
"Ms. Promislow . . . "
"You say you're everywhere, you say you have power. If you can't do this one little thing without getting us all busted, I'd be crazy to deal with you."
"You'd be crazy not to."
She nudged the plastic case a hair closer to the edge. "The Kabu will drown me if they find these gadgets of yours."
"The squid are losing the war. Seattle's all but ours."
"If the outcome's inevitable, you don't need me."
He glowered, and she wondered if he would kill her right now.
"I'll put these on the minute Meg moves into her own place," Dinah said.
"Be reasonable. This woman, after so many months together you suddenly can't live with her—"
She cut him off. "Do you even remember what the word friend used to mean? If the Kabu dust my house because I'm working with you, Meg dies too."
"I'm supposed to think you're a saint, then?"
"Okay, try this—Meg knows me. Living together . . . she'll figure out what I'm doing."
"She won't turn you in."
"Look, getting her out protects you as well as me."
"Fine," he sighed. "That's your price?"
"That's my price for the first three months," Dinah said. Arnold stepped closer, towering, trying to stare her down. She kept her gaze steady, holding her child and letting the branches of the maple brush her back. Show no weakness.
Meg'll move out, she told herself. She'll move, but we'll take turns with the kids like we used to. She and Gwynne will work out their differences and Ben will remember I'm his mother. One day we'll be out together and I'll hear Meg laugh again. She could almost see it: the five of them eating protein marshmallows in the sunshine, on a real lawn. She'd say something about the Tank and Meg would let it slide without eviscerating her.
And if doing this gets me killed, Meg can take the boys . . .
"This price is too high," Arnold said at last. "Wear the contacts for a week; then we'll arrange it. It makes no sense for us to deliver before you've proven you're willing to betray the Tank. My position is vulnerable too. You could just turn me in."
"When she moves out, not before," Dinah said firmly. "As for betrayal . . . " Digging in her pocket she drew out a tiny plastic bag of saline containing the dataglob. She had smuggled it out of the Tank in her mouth. "Here's a new candidate for the Watch List. Anyone who beFriends him will die."
He turned away and Dinah tried to believe he wasn't communicating with others, that he wasn't about to be signal-tapped and get them both busted and dusted.
"Done," Arnold said finally. "Welcome to the Liberation, Friend."
We are not friends, Dinah thought. You are a killer of children and if I dared turn you in . . .
She held the words in, bending to rescue the contact lens case, setting the tepid water a-ripple.
Arnold patted Ben's head once, deliberately, without affection. "You're going to need friends, woman. The Kabu are losing."
With that he left, leaving Dinah and Ben in the ankle-deep water next to the red maple tree.
"They are losing, aren't they?" Dinah whispered to the mourning grove. She had never said it aloud before.
She changed Ben slowly, hoping to slow her heartrate before she had to face Chamon again. Finally she climbed out of the grotto, step by step, making her way back to the auditorium and hoping her absence hadn't been too obvious. Before she went inside she rubbed her eyes hard with her fists, hoping they'd think she had run off to have a cry. She needed one. God alone knew when she'd get it.
She found Chamon and Meg side by side, with the kids gathered around them. Meg was smiling as the offworlder's tentacles roamed her arms and those of the children; she seemed—and probably smelled—perfectly at ease.
Good company manners, Dinah thought, and that was a fifth thing, wasn't it? Whatever she might say at home, Meg never behaved badly in public.
"Meg is gracious," Dinah murmured, managing a smile as she fished out a tissue for poor angry Gwynne, as she stepped into the circle of her family.