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         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 26

 

  He knocked on her classroom door before entering and found her at the blackboard that had been lowered so she could write on it from her chair. Mrs Crowe stopped erasing yesterday’s lessons, turned and beamed at him.

  ‘My boy,’ she croaked. She waved with the eraser to beckon him closer. A chalky haze filled the air. ‘My boy, my boy. ’

  ‘Hello, Mrs Crowe. ’ Mission passed between the handful of desks to get to her. The power line for her electric chair drooped from the centre of the ceiling to a pole that rose up from the chair’s back. Mission ducked beneath it as he got closer and bent to give the Crow a hug. His hands wrapped around her, and he breathed in her smell – one of childhood and innocence. The yellow gown she wore, spotted with flowers, was her outfit for Wednesdays, as good as any calendar. It had faded since Mission’s time, as all things had.

  ‘I do believe you’ve grown,’ she said, smiling up at him. Her voice was barely a whisper, and he recalled how it kept even the young ones quiet so they could hear what was being said. She brought her hand up and touched her own cheek. ‘What happened to your face?’

  Mission laughed and shrugged off his porter’s pack. ‘Just an accident,’ he said, lying to her like old times. He placed his pack at the foot of one of the tiny desks, could imagine squeezing into the thing and staying for the day’s lesson.

  ‘How’ve you been?’ he asked. He studied her face, the deep wrinkles and dark skin like a farmer’s but from age rather than grow lights. Her eyes were rheumy, but there was life still behind them.

  ‘Not so good,’ Mrs Crowe said. She twisted the lever on her armrest, and the chair built for her decades ago by some long-gone former student whirred around to face him better. Pulling back her sleeve, she showed Mission a gauze bandage taped to her thin and splotchy arm. ‘Those doctors came and took my blood away. ’ Her hand shook as she indicated the evidence. ‘Took half of it, by my reckoning. ’

  Mission laughed. ‘I’m pretty sure they didn’t take half your blood, Mrs Crowe. The doctors are just looking out for you. ’

  She twisted up her face, an explosion of wrinkles. She didn’t seem so sure. ‘I don’t trust them,’ she said.

  Mission smiled. ‘You don’t trust anyone. And hey, maybe they’re just trying to figure out why you can’t die like everyone else does. Maybe they’ll come up with a way for everyone to live as long as you someday. ’

  Mrs Crowe rubbed the bandage on her withering arm. ‘Or they’re figuring out how to kill me,’ she said.

  ‘Oh, don’t be so sinister. ’ Mission reached forward and pulled her sleeve down to keep her from messing with the bandage. ‘Why would you think such a thing?’

  She frowned and declined to answer. Her eyes fell to his near-empty pack. ‘Day off?’ she asked.

  Mission turned and followed her gaze. ‘Hmm? Oh, no. I dropped something off last night. I’ll pick up another delivery in a little bit, take it wherever they tell me to. ’

  ‘Oh, to be so young and free again. ’ Mrs Crowe spun her chair around and steered it behind her desk. Mission ducked beneath the pivoting wire out of habit; the pole at the back of the chair was made with younger heads in mind. She picked up a container of the vile vegetable pulp she preferred over water and took a sip. ‘Allie stopped by last week. ’ She set the greenish-black fluid down. ‘She was asking about you. Wanted to know if you were still single. ’

  ‘Oh?’ Mission could feel his temperature shoot up. Mrs Crowe had caught them kissing once, back before he knew what kissing was for. She had left them with a warning and a knowing smile. ‘Everyone’s so spread out,’ Mission said, changing the subject, hoping she might take the hint.

  ‘As it should be. ’ The Crow opened a drawer on her desk and rummaged around, came out with an envelope. Mission could see a half-dozen names scratched out across the thing. It had been used a handful of times. ‘You’re heading down from here? Maybe you could drop off something for Rodny?’

  She held out the letter. Mission took it, saw his best friend’s name written on the outside, all the other names crossed out.

  ‘I can leave it for him, sure. But the last two times I stopped by there, they said he was unavailable. ’

  Mrs Crowe nodded as if this was to be expected. ‘Ask for Jeffery, he’s the head of Security down there, one of my boys. You tell him that this is from me and that I said you should hand it to Rodny yourself. In person. ’ She waved her hands in the air, little trembling blurs. ‘I’ll write Jeffery a note. ’

  Mission glanced up at the clock on the wall while she dug into her desk for a pen and ink. Soon the hallways would begin filling with youthful chatter and the opening and slamming of lockers. He waited patiently while she scratched her note and scanned old posters and banners on the walls, the ‘motivators’, as Mrs Crowe liked to call them.

  You can be anything, one of them said. It featured a crude drawing of a boy and a girl standing on a huge mound. The mound was green and the sky blue, just like in the picture books. Another one said: Dream to your heart’s delight. It had bands of colour in a graceful arcing sweep. The Crow had a name for the shape, but he’d forgotten what it was called. Another familiar one: Go new places. It featured a drawing of a crow perched in an impossibly large tree, its wings spread as if it were about to take flight.

  ‘Jeffery is the bald one,’ Mrs Crowe said. She waved a hand over her own white and thinning hair to demonstrate.

  ‘I know,’ Mission said. It was a strange reminder that so many of the adults and elders throughout the silo had been her students as well. A locker was slammed in the hallway. Mission remembered when he was a kid how the rows and rows of tiny desks had filled the room. There were cubbies full of rolled mats for nap time, reminding him of the daily routine of clearing a space in the middle of the floor, finding his mat, and drifting off to sleep while the Crow sang forgotten songs. He missed those days. He missed the Old Time stories about a world full of impossible things. Leaning against that little desk, Mission suddenly felt as ancient as the Crow, just as impossibly distant from his youth.

  ‘Give Jeffery this, and then see that Rodny gets my note. From you personally, okay?’

  He grabbed his pack and slid both pieces of correspondence into his courier pouch. There was no mention of payment, just the twinge of guilt Mission felt for even thinking of it. Digging into the pack reminded him of the items he had brought her, forgotten due to the previous night’s brawl.

  ‘Oh, I brought you these from the farm. ’ He pulled out a few small cucumbers, two peppers and a large tomato, bearing a bruise. He placed them on her desk. ‘For your veggie drinks,’ he said.

  Mrs Crowe clasped her hands together and smiled with delight.

  ‘Is there anything else you need next time I’m passing by?’

  ‘These visits,’ she said, her face a wrinkle of smiles. ‘All I care about are my little ones. Stop by whenever you can, okay?’

  Mission squeezed her arm, which felt like a broomstick tucked into a sleeve. ‘I will,’ he said. ‘And that reminds me: Frankie told me to tell you hello. ’

  ‘He should come more often,’ she told him, her voice aquiver.

  ‘Not everyone gets around like I do,’ he said. ‘I’m sure he’d like to see you more often as well. ’

  ‘You tell him,’ she said. ‘Tell him I don’t have much time left—’

  Mission laughed and waved off the morbid thought. ‘You probably told my grandfather the same thing when he was young, and his father before him. ’

  The Crow smiled as if this were true. ‘Predict the inevitable,’ she said, ‘and you’re bound to be right one day. ’

  Mission smiled. He liked that. ‘Still, I wish you wouldn’t talk about dying. Nobody likes to hear it. ’

  ‘They may not like it, but a reminder is good. ’ She held out her arms, the sleeves of her flowered dress falling away and revealing the bandage once more. ‘Tell me,
what do you see when you look at these hands?’ She turned them over, back and forth.

  ‘I see time,’ Mission blurted out, not sure where the thought came from. He tore his eyes away, suddenly finding her skin to be grotesque. Like shrivelled potatoes found deep in the soil long after harvest time. He hated himself for feeling it.

  ‘Time, sure,’ Mrs Crowe said. ‘There’s time here aplenty. But there’s remnants too. I remember things being better, once. You think on the bad to remind yourself of the good. ’

  She studied her hands a moment longer, as if looking for something else. When she lifted her gaze and peered at Mission, her eyes were shining with sadness. Mission could feel his own eyes watering, partly from discomfort, partly due to the sombre pall that had been cast over their conversation. It reminded him that today was his birthday, a thought that tightened his neck and emptied his chest. He was sure the Crow knew what day it was. She just loved him enough not to say.

  ‘I was beautiful, once, you know. ’ Mrs Crowe withdrew her hands and folded them in her lap. ‘Once that’s gone, once it leaves us for good, no one will ever see it again. ’

  Mission felt a powerful urge to soothe her, to tell Mrs Crowe that she was still beautiful in plenty of ways. She could still make music. Could paint. Few others remembered how. She could make children feel loved and safe, another bit of magic long forgotten.

  ‘When I was your age,’ the Crow said, smiling, ‘I could have any boy I wanted. ’

  She laughed, dispelling the tension and casting away the shadows, but Mission believed her, even though he couldn’t picture it, couldn’t imagine away the wrinkles and the spots and the long strands of hair on her knuckles. Still, he believed her. He always did.

  ‘The world is a lot like me. ’ She lifted her gaze to the ceiling and perhaps beyond. ‘The world was beautiful once too. ’

  Mission sensed an Old Time story brewing like a storm of clouds. More lockers were slammed in the hallway, little voices gathering.

  ‘Tell me,’ Mission said, remembering the hours that had passed like eyeblinks at her feet, the songs she sang while children slept. ‘Tell me about the old world. ’

  The Old Crow’s eyes narrowed and settled on a dark corner of the room. Her lips, furrowed with the wrinkles of time, parted and a story began, a story Mission had heard a thousand times before. But it never got old, visiting this land of the Crow’s imagination. And as the little ones skipped into the room and slipped into their tiny desks, they too fell silent and gathered around, following along with the widest of eyes and the most open of minds these tales of a world, once beautiful, and now fairly forgotten.

  34

  • Silo 18 •

  THE STORIES MRS Crowe made up were straight from the children’s books. There were blue skies and lands of green, animals like dogs and cats but bigger than people. Juvenile stuff. And yet, these fantastic tales of a better place left Mission angry at the world he lived in. As he left the up top behind and wound his way down, past the farms and the levels of his youth, he thought of this better world and was dismayed at the one he knew. The promise of an elsewhere highlighted the flaws of the familiar. He had gone off to be a porter, to fly away and be all that he wished, and now what he wished was to be further away than this world would allow.

  These were dangerous thoughts. They reminded him of his mother and where she had been sent seventeen years ago to the day.

  Past the farms, Mission noted a hint of something burning further down the silo. The air was hazy, and there was the bitter tinge of smoke on the back of his tongue. A trash pile, maybe. Someone who didn’t want to pay the fee to have it ported to recycling. Or someone who didn’t think the silo would be around long enough to need to recycle.

  It could be an accident, of course, but Mission doubted it. Nobody thought that way any more. He could see it on the faces of those on the stairwell. He could see by the way belongings were clutched, children sheltered, that the future of the silo hung in the balance. Last night’s fight seemed to prove it.

  Mission adjusted his pack and hurried down to the IT levels on thirty-four. When he arrived, there was a crowd gathering on the landing. It was mostly boys his age or a little older, many that he recognised, a lot from the mids. Several stood with computers tucked under their arms, wires dangling, jostling with the throng. Mission picked his way through. Inside, he found a barrier had been set up just beyond the door. Two men from Security manned the temporary gate and allowed only crumpled IT workers through.

  ‘Delivery,’ Mission shouted. He worked his way to the front, carefully extracting the note Mrs Crowe had written. ‘Delivery for Officer Jeffery. ’

  One of the security men took the note. Mission was pressed against the barrier by the crush behind him. A woman was waved through. She hurried towards the proper security gate leading into the main hall, smoothing her overalls with obvious relief. There were crowds of young men being given instructions in one corner of the wide hall. They stood to attention in neat rank and file, but their wide eyes gave away their obvious fear.

  ‘What the hell is going on?’ Mission asked as the barrier was parted for him.

  ‘What the hell isn’t?’ one of the security guards answered. ‘Power spike last night took out a load of computers. Every one of our techs is pulling a double. There’s a fire down in Mechanical or something, and some kinda violence up in the farms. Did you get the wire?’

  Mechanical. That was a long way away to nose a fire. And word was out about last night’s raid, making him self-conscious of the cut on his nose. ‘What wire?’ he asked.
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