Last time we saw MARA… (click for recap)
After being Burned and Processed, having her memory erased, Mara learns her name. In Windrose City, she climbs to the top of an abandoned building and wonders why she yearns to see the stars. She begins to have strange and all too vivid dreams about a dying man and wonders if she remembers her past before her Burn. But remembering after the Burn is impossible… still, her dreams are too vivid to be dreams, they’re more-than-a-dream, and she wonders who she was before her Burn: a question Burners are not supposed to ask. On her way home one night, she has a vivid, more-than-a-dream, just like the one of the dying man, of an encounter between two people before it happens. But what could that mean?
Dreams are dreams are dreams are dreams… aren’t they?
Mara sat on the low couch and folded her sweaty hands in her lap. She disliked this office. The clock ticked too loudly, and the plant on the desk was wilting. It needed more water and light. Every time she saw it, she wanted to tell Dr. Regan to take better care of it—it would bloom if he just gave it what it needed: water and light. But each time that heavy hand, stinking and damp, and belonging to some nameless emotion that plagued her, would stop her mouth. Was it fear, she wondered? Or terror? No, that wasn’t quite right. She knew this emotion, but he was hiding just out of sight in the shadows.
She had seen Dr. Regan twice a week for… as long as she could remember, but that wasn’t very long at all. Even though she’d sat in that office twice a week for the past few months, she still felt exposed under his gaze. That intimacy was supposed to be good. Helpful, they said. Be open and honest. But she only felt naked.
Mara slowed her breathing and smiled, thinking it best that Dr. Regan did not find out about her discomfort. Dr. Regan sat on a thin metal chair opposite her and flipped open her file. He was a large and doughy man with glasses and a too-thin braid trailing from thinning gray hair. With his head bent over her paperwork, she could see his bald spot. Thin, pale hairs swept over the shiny scalp in an effort to hide his bare head, but light still reflected off his oily skin.
“You’re doing well,” he said, looking up at her.
She twisted her slick fingers together in her lap and smiled. “Yes, I am. And I am so very thankful to our Eternal Mother for everything,” she added quickly, as she knew she should.
He glanced at her nervous fingers for a moment, and she stilled them. He blinked. “And the volunteering?”
“It’s wonderful. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my country and her people.”
“You’re volunteering at the Rearing Center, aren’t you?”
“And you like it?”
Mara fought back a real smile. “Yes. I enjoy working with the children,” she said in the same monotone voice she said everything in.
“And how are you sleeping?” he asked, casually, but Mara detected something in his easy question. His eyes flicked to her hands. She fought to keep them still, but the more she thought about keeping her fingers still, the more they itched to move. His question unnerved her.
She had not been sleeping well. The more-than-a-dream came almost every night now, and she was still no closer to figuring out what it meant or see the face the hands and the blood belonged to. She had wondered if it was a memory from before she was Burned, but that was impossible. However, it was so real, filled with things she had never seen before, not with her waking eyes, that it had to be a memory. Yet it couldn’t be, but she wasn’t sure what else it could be.
Memories from before a Burn were impossible. And if it wasn’t a memory, what was it, and what did it mean?
For a moment, she wondered if she could tell him and ask for his help, and she almost did. Maybe he was kind and did want to help her.
“How are you sleeping?” Dr. Regan repeated, his eyes focusing on her.
She opened her mouth to answer, thinking she would be brave and ask why she had been having dreams and seeing hands. And blood. Maybe he could help her figure out what was going on—but the world tinged green and gold.
A shrill voice rose from the door behind her. Mara turned to stare at the closed door.
“No, please, don’t Burn me again. I want to remember, I want to remember him! I have to remember him!” A woman’s voice begged and pleaded beyond the door. Her voice wailed through a scuffle and faded down the hallway. The sound of a door slamming somewhere down the hall—
She blinked. Her eyelids stilling themselves.
Dr. Regan didn’t lean forward. He didn’t ask if she was all right, and he didn’t repeat his question. He just sat very still, watching her. And fear smiled at her over his shoulder. And Mara recognized fear, a too-tall woman with too-red lips.
“Sorry, sometimes my mind wanders,” Mara said with a small smile. She reached up to rub her neck, but then her hand went to her pendant.
“Where does your mind go?” he asked.
“Nowhere serious, of course. Just thoughts about my Obligations and Privileges. I am so proud to serve. So proud of my decision to dedicate my life to our Eternal Mother.”
“And how are you sleeping?”
A shrill voice rose from the door behind her. Mara turned to stare at the closed door.
“No, please, don’t Burn me again. I want to remember, I want to remember him! I have to remember him!” A woman’s voice begged and pleaded beyond the door. Her voice wailed through a scuffle and faded down the hallway. The sound of a door slamming somewhere down the hall.
Mara stared at the door to the hallway behind her. It was an ordinary door, brown wood, a metal knob glinting in the dim light, but the sounds behind it frightened Mara. If it had been an imposing door, large and dark, maybe she would not have been so scared—she knew enough not to go through a door like that. But this door was a normal door. One she had to go through, had already been through. A normal, everyday door was so much more frightening. If evil happened behind normal, everyday doors, ones you walked through without even thinking, how were you to know which doors not to open?
“I’m sorry about that,” Dr. Regan said. He rose and went to his desk.
“Some people don’t want to be helped. Look at this,” he said, gesturing to the plant, but his eyes held steadily on Mara’s face. “No matter what I do, it doesn’t seem to grow. Now, I won’t ask again, Mara, how have you been sleeping?”
“Fine, just fine,” Mara said without hesitation.
“Paper?” the paper seller asked, extending a paper to her.
Mara shook her head. “No, thank you,” she said and continued walking home. But the paper seller stayed in her mind, as did the voice in the hall. And she wondered. She had seen the paper seller and the young man argue before it happened. She had heard the woman screaming in the doctor’s office before it happened. But how was that possible?
Her building loomed in front of her, and she stared at the front door. It was a large glass door, smudged and dirty, her reflection a ghostly, pale outline. But she could see straight through the glass to the lobby behind it. Beyond the glass, a woman struggled with a bag of rations. She dropped the bag, and apples went rolling across the floor.
Then Mara had a startling thought. What if wasn’t a memory? What if the man who dies in her more-than-a-dream, the man with the hands and the blood, what if he hasn’t died yet? What if she was just looking through time like she was looking through the glass door? She reached out and touched the glass. What if she could stop it, what if she could save him? Maybe she could if she knew who he was, but she had never seen his face. How could she save him if she didn’t know who he was?
Back in her apartment, she flopped on her bed and tried to work out the puzzle. She needed to complete the more-than-a-dream, but her mind felt… clouded. It was those damned pills: the Calm. They clouded her thoughts. But maybe, if she stopped taking them, she could find out more. Maybe she could stop whatever it was she was seeing. Perhaps she could save the man with the bloody hands.
The other problem was the chip in her wrist. If the Analysts noticed her unstable emotions, the Agency would turn her over to the Watchers for sure. But how hard could it be to keep her emotions in check? How difficult could it be to stay calm and serene, just for a little while, until she finished the more-than-a-dream? Surely it couldn’t be that hard.
She found the little bottle of rose-stamped pills and rolled it over and over in her hand, thinking about the paper seller and the screaming woman and the dying man with the blood and the hands. But that heavy, meaty hand rested on her shoulder, and she finally named the emotion: cowardice. Cowardice is a fat man with heavy, stinking hands, and a wide smile. He put a finger to his soft lips, smiled, and made a shushing sound. She should take her rose-stamped pill and go to sleep. She should forget about the hands and the blood, that was safest, that was best.
But could she ever forgive herself if she let that man die?
Bravery is a small child with skinned knees. Just once, Bravery nodded his tousled head to her.
With a deliberate motion, Mara set her pills down on her nightstand and shut her eyes. Soon she fell into a deep sleep. She dreamed of hands. And blood. And she tried to see more. She tried to see if she could stop it somehow.
Mara and Zoe stood in line at the wages window. The line, stretching out the door and down the street, was always long, but it moved quickly and efficiently. Zoe yawned.
“What’s with you?” Mara asked.
“Up late,” Zoe said.
“Yeah,” Zoe said with a smirk and examined a nail.
She perked up. Zoe never stayed out late. “Paul?” she asked. Zoe had been spending a lot more time with Paul recently. They’d been friends for years, and Zoe had always blushed a bit at the mention of him, but they’d become something more than friends over the past month. And Zoe’s blush had turned into a smirk.
Zoe smiled. “Maybe.”
Mara tried to keep her heartbeat steady. She had been off the Calm for a few days, and already she felt the difference. Her emotions surged and rose and fell. Even something like happiness for a friend felt new and, at times, overwhelming. Her heart beat faster, and her face flushed more readily. She felt warmth, not just on her skin, when she saw the sun.
While she knew that going off the Calm was risky, she had flushed her pills anyway. The little chip in her wrist would transmit all the data to an Analyst who would soon recommend that she be Watched. She knew she would get a knock on her door eventually and be taken in for an Adjustment. But she had to try and save the man if she could.
Now that she was off the Calm, she didn’t just see the man in her more-than-a-dream at night: she saw other things now, too, and she saw them wide awake. She saw a fountain. Mountains in gray clouds. A young man, a stranger, with a thick braid like a vine down his back with a knife in his hands. It came in a jumble, pictures and sounds and feelings all rolled into an endless tangle of images.
The image of the man with the vine braid especially confused and frightened her. She didn’t know who he was or who he was after, but she knew he meant to kill someone with that knife. It was strange though: she wasn’t sure if he was vicious or protecting someone—it was all so unclear. She wondered if he was after or protecting her. Or someone else entirely?
These visions frightened her, and cowardice would put his hand on her shoulder, trying to steer her back to the Calm and safety. But then she would resolve to find the man with the hands and the blood anyway, and cowardice would lumber away, taking his stench with him.
Somehow saving him meant saving herself.
Despite her new purpose, her life had to continue as usual. That meant Obligations keeping her friendship with Zoe as normal as possible.
She put on her best face and smiled at Zoe. “Paul is very secure. Very level and steady,” she said, parroting the common compliment.
Zoe leaned closer to Mara to whisper, her breath on Mara’s ear, but Mara felt the oncoming vision wash over her, and everything went green and gray and gold, like shadows under a tree.
A woman with a white scarf over her eyes, a staff in her hands. She sang a song of sorrow and sea billows—
Her eyelids stilled, snapped open as Mara came back to the present. Zoe’s breath was still on her cheek, but she hadn’t heard a word Zoe had said. Her heart pounded, and fear was suddenly at her side, fear with her milky white eyes and her cold fingers. She glanced around to see if anyone had noticed, but a commotion at the wages window held everyone’s attention. Even Zoe had turned to look as a woman yelled at the wages window.
“That’s it? I worked my ass off for this? Hey, I want to talk to your manager—I want to talk to someone!”
The man behind the window stared calmly, almost bored, as the woman pounded the palm of her hand against the glass and yelled at him.
“This isn’t enough, I worked hard—I deserve more than this!” The woman’s short dark hair stuck up all over her head and caught the light, giving it a red tint.
Mara’s heart beat faster, and she tried to slow her breathing, but this screaming woman was drawing too much attention. They would send soldiers or worse if this woman didn’t calm down. She shrank behind Zoe, hoping to become invisible as she stilled the chaos inside her. If Watchers came, they would notice her emotions. Her vision had left her anxious and frightened, and if the Watchers noticed that she was unsteady and nervous, she would be taken in for sure.
“Ma’am, take your wages and go. Or you can talk to the manager. Our guards can escort you to his office,” the man behind the glass said smoothly to the raging woman. Four armed guards approached the woman, their blank eyes locked on her. As the lanky guards surrounded her, the woman put her hands up casually, like she was playing at surrender.
“Fine. I’ll take my money and go. No need to send the drones.” She swiped at her wages from the counter, the papers flashed blue and red as she shoved them into her pocket and started for the door. As she passed, Mica caught her eye. The woman’s face was feline, and her still wild eyes were dark and flecked with amber. Mara watched the woman sulk out the door and out into the street, disappearing in the bright sunlight.
“Freak,” Zoe said under her breath. “They’ll be Adjusting her for sure.”
“Yeah, she needs an Adjustment for sure,” said Mara.
As she reached for her pendant, someone else caught her eye. A man with a thick braid like a vine snaking down his shoulder stood outside the wages building. He stared straight at her. Mara slowly lowered her hand and looked away as fear filled her up like cold water.