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Her good mood evaporated.
The lantern’s light swept the interior. Details crept into the glow. It wasn’t her imagination. Something was wrong. One of the kitchen cabinets was open; it was where she kept extra dry goods, when she had them—tinned crackers and oats. It had been raided, and left empty. In the middle of the floor, in front of the big leather chair, a small piece of metal glinted when it caught the edge of the candlelight.
“Zeke?” She tried once more, but this time it was less a question than a gasp.
She picked up the bullet and examined it; and while she stood there, interrogating the small bit with her eyes, she felt exposed.
Not like she was being watched, but like she was open to attack.
Like there was danger, and it could see a way inside.
The doors. Down the short corridor, four doors—one to a closet and three to the bedrooms.
Zeke’s door was open.
She almost dropped the lantern and the bullet both. Blind fear squeezed at her chest as she stood riveted to the spot.
The only way to shake it loose was to move, so she moved. She shuffled her feet forward, toward the corridor. Maybe she should check for intruders, but some primal instinct told her there weren’t any. The emptiness was too complete, and the echo too absolute. No one was home, not anyone who should or shouldn’t be.
Zeke’s room looked almost exactly like it had when she’d peeked inside the day before. It looked unclean but uncluttered, by virtue of the fact that he owned so little.
Only now there was a drawer sitting hollowly in the middle of the bed.
There was nothing inside it, and Briar didn’t know what it once might’ve held, so she walked past it and on to the other drawers that remained in their place. They were empty, except for a stray sock too riddled with holes to cover a foot.
He owned a bag. She knew he did; he took it to school, when he deigned to attend. She’d made it for him, stitching together stray scraps of leather and canvas until it was strong enough and big enough to hold the books she could scarcely afford. Not so long ago, he’d asked her to repair it, so she knew he still used it.
And she couldn’t find it.
A quick thrashing of the small room failed to turn it up, and failed to reveal any sign of where the boy or the bag might have gone… until she dropped to her knees and lifted the edge of the bedspread. Under the bed, there was nothing. But under the mattress, between the frame and the pressed feather pad, something left an odd and geometric bulge. She jammed her hand through the bedding and seized a packet of something smooth that crackled between her fingers.
Papers. A small stack of them, various shapes and sizes. Including…
She turned it over and checked the front, and back, and the fear was so cold in her lungs that she could hardly breathe.
… a map of downtown Seattle, torn in half.
The missing half would’ve indicated the old financial district—where the Boneshaker machine had caused a catastrophic earthquake on its very first test run… and where, a few days later, the Blight gas had first begun to ooze.
Where had he gotten it?
Down one side, the map had a tidily torn seam that made her think it had once been part of a book. But the city’s small library had never reopened outside the walls, and books were scarce—and expensive. He wouldn’t have bought it, but he might have stolen it, or…
It smelled funny. She’d been holding it for half a minute before she noticed, and anyway, the smell was so familiar it almost went unremarked. She held the scrap of paper up to her face and sniffed it hard. It might only be her imagination. There was one good way to find out.
Down the hall and into her own room she dashed, and she dug around in her tall, creaky wardrobe until she found it—a fragment of lens left over from the early days, the bad old days… the days when the evacuation order was fresh and vague. No one was sure what they were running from, or why; but everyone had figured out that you could see it, if you had mask or a set of goggles with a bit of polarized glass.
At the time, there had been no other test. Hucksters had sold lenses on street corners at ridiculous prices, and not all of them were real. Some were pulled from broken industrial masks and safety eyewear, but the cheaper knockoffs were little more than ordinary monocles and bottle-bottoms.
Back then, money hadn’t been an object. Briar’s palm-sized piece of tinted lens was real, and it worked as well as the goggles she’d left on a shelf back at the plant.
She lit two more candles and carried them into Zeke’s room, and with the light of the lantern added, she held up the scratched bit of transparency and used it to scry the things she’d found in the mattress. And all of them—the map, the leaflets, the shreds of posters-glowed with an ill yellow halo that marked them as clearly as if they’d been stamped with a warning.
“Blight,” she groaned. The papers were filthy with its residue.
In fact, the papers were so thoroughly contaminated that there were precious few places from whence they might have come. She couldn’t imagine that her son had acquired these strange slips from within the sealed city with its seamless, towering wall. Some of the local shops did sell artifacts the townspeople had evacuated with, but they were often costly.
“Goddamn his stupid friends and their stupid lemon sap,” she swore. “Goddamn every last one of them. ”
She scrambled to her feet and went back to her bedroom again, this time retrieving a muslin face mask. Around her nose and mouth she wrapped and tied it, and she spread the contents of Zeke’s mattress out on his bed. The assortment was strange, to say the least. In addition to the map, she found old tickets and playbills, pages pulled out of novels, and clippings from newspapers that were older than the boy was.
Briar wished for her leather gloves. In lieu of them, she used the lone holey sock to touch the papers, sorting them and running her eyes across them—catching her own name, or at least her old name.
AUGUST 9, 1864. Authorities searched the home of Leviticus and Briar Blue, but no insight into the Boneshaker incident was found. Evidence of wrongdoing mounts as Blue remains missing. His wife cannot provide an explanation for the testing of the machine that nearly collapsed the city’s foundations and killed at least thirty-seven people, three horses.
AUGUST 11, 1864. Briar Blue held for questioning after collapse of fourth bank on Commercial Avenue, disappearance of her husband. Her role in the events of the Boneshaker calamity remains unclear.
Briar remembered the articles. She recalled trying to muster an appetite for lunch as she skimmed the damning reports, not yet knowing that there was more to her nausea than merely the stress of the investigation. But where had Ezekiel gotten such clippings, and how? All of the stories had been printed sixteen years ago, and distributed in a city that had been dead and closed for nearly that long.
She wrinkled her nose and grabbed Zeke’s pillow, tearing off its case and stuffing the papers inside it. They shouldn’t have been too dangerous, crammed underneath his bedding; but the more she covered them the better she felt. She didn’t want to simply hide them or contain them; she wanted to bury them. But there wasn’t any real point.
Zeke still hadn’t come home. She suspected that he had no intention of returning home that night.
And that was even before she found the note he’d left on the dining room table, where she’d walked right past it. The note was brief, and pointed. It said, “My father was innocent, and I can prove it. I’m sorry about everything. I’ll be back as soon as I can. ”
Briar crushed the note in her fist, and shook until she screamed out in one frantic, furious blast that no doubt frightened her neighbors, but she cared so little about their opinion that she did it again. It didn’t make her feel any better, but she couldn’t stop herself from shrieking a third time and then picking up the nearest chair and fling
ing it across the room—into the mantel over the fireplace.
It broke in two against the stone, but before it had time to tumble into pieces on the floor, Briar was already on her front porch and running down the stairs with a lantern.
She tied her hat back on as she went, and pulled her overcoat tighter as she ran. The rain had mostly stopped and the wind was as harsh as ever, but she charged against it, back down the hill and along the mudflats to the only place she’d ever been able to reliably find Ezekiel on the odd days that he’d stayed gone long enough to make her worry.
Down by the water, in a four-story brick building that was once a warehouse and then a whorehouse, a contingent of nuns had established a shelter for children who’d been left parentless by the Blight.
The Sisters of Loving Grace Home for Orphans had raised an entire generation’s worth of boys and girls who had somehow found their way past the gas and into the Outskirts without any supervision. Now the very youngest of the original occupants were getting old enough that they’d soon be compelled to find homes of their own or accept work within the church.
Among the older boys there was one Rector “Wreck’em” Sherman, a lad who was seventeen if he was a day, and who was well known as a distributor of the illegal but much-desired lemon sap. It was a cheap drug—a yellowish, gritty, pastelike substance distilled from the Blight gas—and its effects were pleasant, but devastating. The “sap” was cooked and inhaled for a blissful and apathetic high, until chronic use began to kill… but not quickly.
Sap didn’t just damage the mind; it turned the body necrotic. Gangrene would catch and sprawl, creeping out from the corners of mouths and eating away cheeks and noses. Fingers and toes would fall away, and in time, the body might fully transform into a parody of the undead “rotters” who no doubt still shambled hopelessly through the walled-up quarters.
Despite the obvious drawbacks, the drug was in high demand. And since the demand was good, Rector was ready with a full assortment of pipes, suggestions, and tiny paper-wrapped packets of lemon sap.
Briar had tried to keep Zeke away from Rector, but there was only so much she could do to restrain him—and, at the very least, Rector did not seem interested in letting Zeke sell or abuse the sap. Anyway, Zeke was mostly interested in the community, the camaraderie, and the chance to fit in with a batch of boys who wouldn’t throw blue dye on him or hold him down and write terrible things across his face.