Last time we saw MARA… (click for recap)
Mara has been off her medication for a while now. Her emotions are running high, and her mind is clear. She hopes the clarity of mind will sharpen her visions so that she can find and save the dying man before she is taken in for Adjustment. But time is running out. As she is out with Zoe one night, she meets Jason: a man she’s been having disturbing visions of. While he is not the dying man, he is dangerous in her visions, and she isn’t sure why. He attaches himself to her and her friends and begins spending more time with her. He gives her a key to his apartment, a sign of trust, and his trust scares her. While going home one night, Mara has a vision of the boy at the local bakery offering her a Burn. But when the time comes, the vision does not come true, and she wonders why not…
Mara had the more-than-a-dream again, but this time it was different.
The wet, shining blackness on his hands was blood… the hands kept reaching. She raised her head from the bloody hands to see who they belonged to—she needed to see who was reaching for her and dying and—
A fountain covered in snow.
She awoke drenched in sweat and struggled to breathe. Her throat felt too small, like breathing through a thin straw. She sat with clenched fists, trying to calm her heart and breathe, but all she could think about was the fountain covered in snow.
For the past three nights, the vision of the dying man had been sharper and brighter and in more detail than ever before, but each time it ended with darkness. This time she saw a fountain. And the fountain terrified her. It filled her with a sense of finality and dread. That fountain meant it was over. She wasn’t sure how she knew that, but she did.
It was over. She knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt when she reached that fountain, her journey was at its end. It ended with a fountain covered in snow. She had tried her best to find the dying man, but the little transmitter in her wrist had been sending back readings to the Analysts for weeks now, and that would mean Adjustment for sure. They’d be coming for her any minute. She sat in her bed waiting for them to come and take her away, surely it must be tonight. The fountain meant the end. So it must end. And cowardice’s heavy hand sat on her shoulder.
But nothing happened. No one came to take her away.
She wondered why they hadn’t come for her—surely they should have by now. But if they hadn’t… maybe she still had time. Maybe she would have one more day. She would like that. She would like to see another sunrise. The sun would be up soon, and she would feel better then. The sun always made her feel better. But if the sun was up, and they hadn’t come for her, then she should be at her Work Obligation.
She could stay home and try and work this out, figure this out once and for all, and find the dying man, but cowardice held out a hand and pulled her up out of bed. She wasn’t brave enough to skip work for a dream that could get her killed. Groggily, and with shaking hands, Mara got dressed, ate breakfast, and stepped out into the dark hallway looking for Zoe.
Maybe she would know what to do. With her one last day, she would tell Zoe everything and ask for help. It was time.
But Zoe was not there. She was not leaning against the wall waiting for her with a sleepy grin. Thinking Zoe would then be waiting for her at the bottom of the stairwell, Mara walked down to the lobby.
Mara went outside and stood staring up at the building, the windows like deep mirrors in the gray before dawn. Mara wondered where Zoe was but turned and went to work anyway, hoping Zoe would come by for dinner. If they hadn’t taken her in by then, she would tell Zoe about her visions.
She went about her day, anxious and starting at every sudden sound, her heart racing as cowardice laughed at her. But no one came for her. That night after Work and Continuing Education and Volunteering and Social obligations, Zoe did not come by for dinner. And Mara ate alone and went to bed.
She raised her head from the bloody hands to see who they belonged to—she needed to see who was reaching for her and dying and—
A fountain covered in snow.
Mara awoke with a start, gasping. She looked out the window, hoping to calm herself with the light of the moon, but clouds had rolled over the city, hiding away any natural light. A heavy feeling settled over her, and cowardice twisted his fat lips into a smile.
She needed to talk to Zoe—that fountain terrified her, and she had to know what it meant. She would tell Zoe everything—Zoe could help, Zoe would know what to do. She jumped up and ran for the door, not even bothering to dress or put on shoes. In nothing but her underwear and a t-shirt, Mara took the stairs two at a time up to Zoe’s floor, the eighth floor, and entered the long hallway lined with doors black in the darkness.
So many doors… so many possibilities. They were the same doors as those in her doctor’s office and the ones in her own apartment. Normal, everyday doors. Doors you can’t know not to open. Doors that hide things. She knew there were stories and people and sadness behind them all, hidden away from her, and their infinite possibilities frightened her.
Her heart skipped, and she slowed. Someone was up ahead.
Mara paused, realizing she was near naked and vulnerable. She should have dressed. But the shadowed figure stood in front of Zoe’s door. She wondered if it was Zoe and walked slowly down the long hallway towards the stranger. She walked past all those closed and menacing doors, cognizant of each one as it passed her and watched her back, but she grit her teeth and kept walking.
Door after door after door after door.
As she approached the figure, she realized that it was Paul. He was just standing there. Something was wrong.
She began running. The bones of her feet ached against the carpet-covered cement.
Paul turned, saw her running towards him, and fled in the opposite direction down the hallway. At the end of the hall, he slammed through the door to the stairwell and disappeared.
“No, Paul, wait!”
But his pounding footsteps faded down the stairwell. As his echoes died away, she wondered why he would run.
Then her heart began to race.
Up ahead, Mara could see Zoe’s door. She sprinted the last few paces and slammed herself into the door to stop herself. Mara pushed back from the door, staring at the paper tacked to it. Her heart fluttered. An Adjustment Notice.
“Oh, no. Zoe….”
The notice of eviction for Adjustment read:
The tenant(s) of this home has(have) been evicted for Adjustment. For their safety, the safety of the public, and the good of the people, they have been removed from the premises to be treated and adjusted as necessary. The tenant(s) will be returned when their Adjustment has been completed and finalized.
The Department of Health and Safety.
“No, please, no.”
Mara tried the handle. It was locked. The sick smell of disinfectant slipped under the door. Mara’s heart skipped a few beats—Zoe was gone.
She slowly walked back down the long dark hallway past all those mocking, grinning doors and down the stairs, trying to keep her own heartbeat steady. A part of her hoped that Zoe was still alive, unburned, and remembering, although she knew it was probably already too late. She entered her apartment and locked the door. She dressed and put on her shoes with unsteady hands and ate breakfast because that is what you do in the mornings. You dress. You eat. That’s normal. She needed normal, if even only for a moment.
Why would they take Zoe? She wondered. There was no reason to take her. Zoe took her pills. Zoe worked hard. Zoe completed all her Obligations with joy—we are safe, we are fed, we are forever free. Our Eternal Mother, may she reign forever! She was the perfect citizen—in everything except being friends with Mara. Panic began to rise in Mara like a flood, tumbling and churning her thoughts. There must have been some mistake. They shouldn’t have taken Zoe. They should have taken… her.
The wall grated her spine as she slid down to the floor. This was her fault. She knew that as deeply as she knew her own heartbeat hammering away behind her ribs. If this was her fault, and she had to make it right.
She ran through all the possibilities in her head. She could go to her doctor—no. He’d only ask questions and turn her in. She could go after Paul—no. He was clearly shaken, and besides, he owned an antique’s shop, what could he do? Maybe she could ask her boss for help? Not a chance. Even being associated with an Adjustment could mean she’d be taken in. Or….
Of she could turn herself in. Yes, that was her only real chance of saving Zoe.
But they’ll Adjust you, cowardice tutted. And they’ll take away all your memories, and you’ll never save the dying man. Cowardice clumsily lowered himself to the ground next to her. Of course, she couldn’t turn herself in. But fat, stinking cowardice reminded her: there was one person yet who could help her. One person who might have contacts high enough to save Zoe. One person who cared enough about her to make sure she didn’t get Adjusted in place of Zoe.
With no one else to help her, she realized she had only one option to save herself and Zoe. Only one person might be able to help her: Jason.
Mara took her usual train, but she did not get off on the usual stop for her Work Obligation. She rode her usual train over the river, past the main station, past the capital glinting in the dawn, to the north side of the city. As she bumped along, she read the address written on the tag on Jason’s key over and over again. The first hints of sunrise warmed the winter sky with pink, and the cityscape around her turned from high-rises to small brick buildings with little yards, all green and lush. She tugged at her jacket, knowing she looked out of place. Poor. This was a wealthier side of town. No broken windows here. Zoe was right: James didn’t work for the Office of Transportation.
While she didn’t trust Jason, he was the only one she knew who could help her. She was a Burner and was still learning this strange new city, but Jason understood how things worked. He might know how they could get Zoe back. Even if he couldn’t help get Zoe back, she knew that he cared about her and would try to save her friend. Cowardice put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it away. Cowardice only laughed.
It was early, but if she got there in time, she could catch Jason on his way to work. Wherever it was he really worked. Outside the station, after pausing on a lonely street corner to get her bearings, Mara began walking. Twenty minutes later, a square, red brick with ivy strangling the walls and groping its way up the clean brick came into view. She found unit #8, and its a dark, shining, red door on the shadowed side of the building.
It was the kind of door she knew not to open. It was the kind of door with bad things on the other side. Cowardice tugged at her arm, pulling her away from the door she shouldn’t open. But she ignored the tug and knocked timidly.
No answer. She tried again.
Still nothing. Thinking he was still asleep or showering and could not hear her, she took out the silver key he had given her and opened the red and the shining and the door.
His apartment was larger than hers but still small. It was a useful apartment, with the bare essentials, nothing lovely or soft or bright, just like her apartment, just like all the other apartments in the city. But each thing, necessary and practical as it was, was well made. Sturdy. Higher quality than the same necessary and practical things in her own apartment.
She walked slowly around the main room. It held a loveseat, a table with a single chair, and a dresser. On top of the dresser, the Eternals portraits seemed to watch her as she moved. She tried not to let their eyes unnerve her and turned from them to the rest of the room. There was even a rug under the loveseat. And it wasn’t faded and stained. In the kitchen, the chairs were wood, not plastic. And there were two of them. The counters tops were some kind of stone, not the peeling facade on her own. His curtains were not faded and pocked with holes. She stood in the center of the apartment in silence.
“Jason?” she called, although she knew that the apartment was empty—the bathroom door stood open. Empty. And the bedroom, with its exact folds and sharp creases, open to her left, was empty too.
She turned in the living room, pondering what she should do next, taking in every detail she could, and her eyes latched onto the dresser. She wondered what secrets he had stored inside. Maybe if she understood him, she would no longer fear him. As she put her hand on the knob, she felt the Eternals watching her. She wanted to turn their faces away, but cowardice stayed her free hand. So she tried to pretend they weren’t watching her. When she opened the drawers, one by one, she found nothing unusual. Just knick-knacks and manuals and winter sweaters and coats and socks. He had extra clothes. So many that he had to store them here. He must be wealthy. As she opened the last drawer, the bottom drawer, she paused. A cold feeling settled in her throat like thick and heavy snow.
The bottom drawer held only a cardboard box. Mara took the box out and lifted the lid. Inside the box were dried leaves and flowers and buds picked before their time. A box of dead things. She gently lifted them out, one by one, and dropped them to the floor, examining each one before letting it fall. The crinkling forms felt ready to shatter like glass beneath her fingers. She sat, dropping little dead things around her. The dry leaves scratched against the wood as they tumbled across the floor.
Once the box was empty, she stood, surrounded by the dry and dead things. With a sinking feeling, she realized that she finally understood him. She turned to leave, but a scratch on the floorboards under the coffee table caught her eye. She brushed the leaves away, scraping them across the wooden floor like cracked fingernails, and pushed the coffee table aside, revealing the scrape. Her fingers moved around the thin grooves in the wood, feeling for any abnormality or fault line. The board was loose.
Carefully she pried the board up and laid it aside. Inside the hole in the floor were several files. She lifted them out and flipped open the first. Her gut went hollow when she saw the photo: Zoe.
The file was thick with data, numbers, print outs of biometrics in squiggling lines, and photos of her friend. With trembling fingers, she closed the file and set it on the table. He shouldn’t have this information. No one should. Why would he have pictures and numbers and data and….
A sick feeling bubbled in her belly as she realized who Jason was: Jason was an Analyst.
She didn’t know much about Analysts, but what she did came flooding through her mind in an instant.
Analysts were dangerous.
Analysts watched your heartbeats, your temperature, your lungs breathe in and out.
Analysts could Adjust you.
Analysts had the proof to Burn you.
Worst of all, you gave them that proof with every heartbeat and flush of your own cheeks. No wonder Jason had lied about his Work Obligation. The Agency and its Analysts were hated, and their identities kept secret for their own safety. And Analysts were paid too well—compensation for the spying and lying and killing of their friends and neighbors.
And Jason was one of them.
The thought sent waves of nausea through her. Jason must have been the Analyst watching Zoe. She shivered at the thought. Had he turned Zoe in? Maybe. Probably. But why would he have her file hidden under the floor of his home? If he truly was an Analyst, he had access to all of this already—he didn’t need to hide it. So why was he hiding it here under his floorboards?
She put those questions aside and opened the next file. It was thicker than the first one. Her own face stared up at her from the pages, and her heart fluttered. The file held her own ID number, data, print outs of her biometrics in jagged lines, and photos—so many photos. She thought she might vomit. While she knew that she should read the file to learn what Jason knew about her, all the images short-circuited her brain. She sunk down to the floor, crushing the dried leaves beneath her, and stared at the file. Her breath was coming short and shallow.
If Jason had all this data about her, the information from her transmitter, photos, everything, then he knew something was wrong with her—how could he not? But if he knew something was wrong with her, that she’d stopped taking her medication, so why hadn’t he turned her in?
A rancid, rotting smell filled her nose, as dread, with his cold and rotting body, stood close beside her and watched. Jason was dangerous, so what did he want?
She stood to go. To run from the dry and the dead things around her. But as she scrambled to her feet, the last file fell from her hand to the floor, and a photo fell out. Mara froze. The cat-eyed woman from the wages window looked up at her. She picked up the cat-eyed woman’s file and flipped through. Her name was Amelia. She was around twenty-five years old, Burned once, worked in a textile factory on the other side of town. She lived close to Mara and had transferred to Windrose only three months ago (the same time Mara did) from… nowhere, it seemed.
She was from nowhere. But how could that be? Everyone came from somewhere, didn’t they? But she went cold when she couldn’t remember where she had come from. She opened her own file to see. She, too, before she had been Burned, had come from nowhere.
How was that possible? It wasn’t possible. She had come from somewhere… surely….
Mara had to find this other woman from nowhere. Maybe she knew why Jason had these files and why the three of them were important enough to be secreted away under floorboards. She gathered up the files and photos with trembling hands and ran out of the apartment, leaving the dead and the dry flowers covering the floor.