Author: Lindsay Cummings
Behind me, in the city, the Night Siren wails. It starts low, then whoops higher and back down again. Everyone on the beach hurries into the shadows, knowing all too well what happens when the sun goes down.
It isn’t safe anymore. I call out to Peri again. “It’s time to go!”
She holds up a tiny hand and gives me the signal: two grubby little fingers held high above her head.
Two minutes. It is always two more minutes with her.
The sun is sinking, a massive orange ball melting into the sea. It sets fire to the sky, and everything is dancing in colors. Reds, oranges, yellows. It reminds me of blood, it reminds me of my mother.
Peri comes running up to me, kicking a spray of sand behind her. “I found a periwinkle!” she squeaks, sounding like a startled seagull. “Like me!”
“Yeah? Let’s see it.” I cast a glance over my shoulder, at the few people who still litter the beach, before kneeling down to her level. Peri’s big gray eyes, the color of sea foam, widen as she places the tiny shell in my outstretched palm. It’s twisty and fat, with a sharp point at the top. A mollusk sticks out. Though it has barely enough meat for anyone to eat, I’m still tempted to shove it into my pocket. But somehow the Initiative would find out. As sure as the tide comes and goes, the Initiative will always discover our secrets.
“It’s a good one,” I say, smiling down at her. “But we can’t keep it.”
The thick black numbers tattooed onto her forehead crease in frustration. 72050. Peri’s Catalogue Number, just one number different from mine. Our barcodes show the Initiative where we are, who we are, every moment of our lives. As Peri grows, it will grow, and it will never fade or wrinkle because of the healing nanites we all have in our blood.
“Tell you what.” I point the tip of my dagger toward the shell. “We’ll mark it. That way, next time you find it, you’ll remember.” I etch a small heart into the side of the shell. It’s crooked, and hardly legible. I drop the mollusk on the sand, let the waves take it away. Peri smiles triumphantly. She’s a miniature version of me. Silver hair that hangs in loose curls to her waist. Like our mother’s.
“Okay, time to go.” She grabs my hand and tows me along the sand, humming the tune to an old lullaby under her breath. Soft, so no one but the two of us can hear it. Peri knows the value of silence in the Shallows.
At the far end of the beach, a jetty of large rocks juts out into the ocean. Waves crash on the rocks, and we get soaked, but it doesn’t matter. The heat of the summer clings to me like fog.
Peri goes first, clambering on hands and feet up the jetty and over to the other side. I climb down after her and my breath catches in my throat.
They’ll do anything for extra Creds. The Initiative pays them to guard the shore and take care of minor problems, as well as find and report the citizens who break the four Commandments of the Shallows.
Commandment One: Honor the Initiative.
Commandment Two: Thou shalt not attempt to cross the Perimeter.
Commandment Three: Honor the Silent Hour.
Commandment Four: Thou shalt not harbor useful items from the days Before.
“Pay up,” one of the Pirates says. He stands from his spot by a blazing campfire. They are cooking fish.
We could never afford an entire fish. Whatever we gather is sent to the Rations Department, and mixed and pureed with other nutrient-rich foods for distribution.
“We don’t want any trouble tonight,” I say. I press Peri closer to my side. “We just want to get to our boat.”
The Pirate laughs, and the two men with him join in. They are all covered in tattoos. One of them has an Initiative tattoo—an open, unblinking eye—on his neck, just below his chin. “You want to go to sea, little girl, you gotta pay.”
My hand finds the dagger on my thigh. There are only three of them. If I were alone, I could end this at once. But Peri tugs on my shirt, and I see the fear in her eyes. I cannot risk her safety. Not now, when the Dark Time is so close. And I have nothing to give the Pirates, nothing to buy us passage.
But Peri does.
She wears a pair of too-large tennis shoes, and the laces are still intact. Something like that is precious, and it kills me that I will be the one to take them from her.
“I’ll give you the laces,” I tell the Pirates, pointing at Peri’s feet. “Then you’ll let us go.”
The largest man lets out a whistle. His breath is rotten. “I’m feeling generous tonight, little girl. Next time, you better come prepared. Understood?”
I nod my head. “Next time you might not get away with your life.”
He thinks it’s a joke.
I stoop to untie the laces. Peri frowns, but does not cry.
She’s strong, my little sister.
The Pirates snatch the laces and go back to their fish, laughing. Peri and I pass safely and run down the beach. We yank the palm fronds and seaweed from our boat. It is a tiny dinghy, large enough for only two people. I quickly untie the line, push the boat into the waves, and we leave the shore behind.
“Meadow? Will we eat tonight?” Peri asks me as I row, weaving through the maze of waste and litter. The wind blows her hair back from her face, and I notice how her cheekbones stick out, how her eyes are slightly sunken. She’s losing more weight.
“Yes.” I nod, looking away. The way she’s studying me, as if I am the only thing in the world worth loving, makes my heart fill with guilt. If she only knew what I do to make sure she can eat. To make sure that all of us survive.
Two miles from shore, I stop and stare out at the black sea, feeling my shoulders burn from the effort of rowing. The dinghy bumps up against our houseboat. It is quiet here, a still night, the waves lapping the boat, the same way they always have. When my mother was murdered, I thought the world would end with her. But it goes on.