Rice and beans.
With such a vibrant economy and all the people in the country working so hard, you’d think that there would be more to show for it than rice and beans. But you were thankful for what you got. Double portion because you were a tall, young male working a manual labor job. You pitied the small, old women who got a quarter of what you did. Maybe a quarter. But it was supposed to be fair, so it probably was. What did you know anyway? You were just a Burner.
The distribution center had been busy, as usual, but this time it had made you cranky. After pulling an extra-long shift, attending your weekly Educational and Service Obligations, there wasn’t much time for waiting around in line. But it had to be done. You had to eat. If you got home in time, you could cook some rice before your Social Obligations. Lyra didn’t like it when you were late.
You tucked your week’s rations under your arm and started for home. Your assigned distribution center wasn’t far from your apartment, but it was far enough that the neighborhood felt different. Dirtier. More like you had to watch your back, keep your rations hidden, and not walk past open doors. You’d seen too many people get mugged here and their week’s worth of food stolen. But you’re a big guy, a real workhorse. You swung a hammer all day. You knew how to throw a punch. You weren’t worried about losing your food to thieves, so you walked with your head held high.
You worried about what Lyra had planned for tonight’s Social Obligation—maybe dancing. She was a fan of dancing. You aren’t. Lyra, little Lyra, with her petite frame and boundless energy, was sometimes too much to keep up with. But she was kind to you. More than that, Lyra understood the vast and foreboding nothingness in your mind behind your first memory at the processing center because she was a Burner too.
Lyra had found you just after you’d come to Windrose. She had spotted you in a crowd as you had been fulfilling your Social Obligation with some co-workers. They had invited you dancing with them, and you had gone, wondering if you liked dancing or not. You learned very quickly that you didn’t. But Lyra had noticed you and had befriended and attached herself to you. You didn’t mind. It was nice to be noticed.
A figure crouched by a dumpster looked up at you as you passed. In the half-light, you couldn’t tell if the figure was male or female. A long, bright braid fell over the figure’s shoulder. It turned pink in the glow of the red light above the window, and you wonder what Lyra would look like with a long, historical braid.
You, with your freshly shaved head, Lyra with her short and spiky and white-blonde hair, you both blended in and looked like every other face in the crowd. Burned. Incomplete. But together, somehow, the two of you seemed to make up a whole. It was like two of you made one complete person despite the vast and unknowable emptiness in your memories. But in that void behind your first memory, something bright flickered, something always out of sight, always too quick. And you wondered what was hidden in the emptiness of your self.
Your mind barely registered the footsteps behind you. You were too lost in thought to care and too large and strong to fear.
Lyra didn’t seem to mind the fact that there was a whole part of yourselves that was gone. But you did. Sometimes, in the deep of the night, when you should be sleeping, you wondered who you were and why you gave up your life to serve. Lyra would only laugh if you ever told her you wondered that. So you don’t. She’d just shrug and say, “maybe it’s better this way. We won’t ever know, so why bother worrying about it?”
Maybe she was right. She probably was. She usually was.
But something follows you, that something bright and small from your emptiness, and you can’t shake it, and you wonder if you’ll ever figure out what it is.
“Rations,” a voice behind you said.
The footsteps stopped, so did you.
You hadn’t even noticed that the street was empty. Well, empty save for the poor soul you were about to beat the crap out of for trying to steal your rations. That was your food, you were cranky, and you didn’t want to go dancing tonight. It was the wrong night to mug you.
“What about ’em?” you asked.
“Hand ’em over.”
You turned around. Something small and bright scampered away to the edges of your vision, again unseen. Before you stood the figure from the dumpster: a woman. A tall, very tall, young woman with a long, blonde braid and a scar down her face that pulled at her lip. She held a knife. For a moment, you were confused. You had not expected a woman to try mugging you, especially a pretty one, even if she was tall. You really didn’t want to fight her, but you couldn’t give her your food either. Lyra didn’t have enough to share.
But something shifted in the young woman, and a dozen different emotions winked across her face at once.
“Will,” the young woman said and lowered her knife.
“No. Andrew,” you said. You thought she must have you confused with someone else, and you started to say that, but she walked up to you and wrapped her arms around you. She was so gentle, so graceful, and sure when she reached her arms out for you that you didn’t even try and fight her. She didn’t even have to stand on her toes to reach your neck, not like Lyra did.
And she was crying.
You stood confused, unsure, but let her embrace you. When a pretty girl hugged you, you didn’t argue, especially if she had a knife. You didn’t want to upset this stranger any more than you already had, but you didn’t even know why she was upset. You didn’t know her.
“I found you,” she whispered in your ear, her breath warm on your neck, and your hair stood on end. When she pulled back, her cheeks were wet with tears.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know you,” you said, and you tried, and you wanted to believe that was true, but you understood what was going on. Her reaction was too raw to be anything else. Unless she was playing a very strange con and was planning to grab your rations and run. But you didn’t think so.
“I know you don’t remember me. But you did know me. Before they Burned you,” she said.
“Are you… sure?”
She laughed, and it was a deep and gravelly laugh. “Of course. I’ve known you my entire life.”
And she told you things about a life belonging to someone else, someone she loved. You took each and every word and placed them gently in that void in your mind, in that empty place behind your first memory. You tried to fill that empty with memories, just to see what it felt like, but those memories and stories belonged to someone else, a stranger. And there, under red lights and invisible stars, you longed to be that stranger, in that life, loved.
“You were going to marry me,” she said and showed you her hand. There was a thin, tarnished band on her finger.
You only stared at her.
She wiped her nose on the back of her sleeve. “You have a scar down your left calf,” she said. She told you about your own body. Scars. Birthmarks. How your knee didn’t work quite right and how it ached in the rain….
But you weren’t thinking about any of that, although she was right about everything, and that should have frightened you. Instead, you were thinking about how different she was from Lyra. They were like completely different species. Lyra was small and light, like a songbird, hopping here and there, constantly moving. Always busy, always filling herself and her time with things as beautiful and ephemeral as flowers.
This woman before you was tall, almost as tall as you. She moved slowly, like she had complete control of herself—sure and precise. No movement wasted. And there was a stillness about her. She was deep. She was shadow. She was a wolf, and you wondered how far she’d wandered to find you.
“Will,” she said. “Do you want to know who you really are?” She extended her hand to you, and her fingers trembled. She looked so scared. This solid and strong woman looked like she was on the edge of something, and a single breath would be enough to send her over the edge into nothingness.
But that bright something on the edge of your vision stepped into focus. And you caught a glimpse of that something, that bright and small thing that flickered in the emptiness behind your mind: hope. Hope is a child who looks like you.
You took her hand, and she leads you somewhere new.