The Cure by Hannah Holmes

Prompt: Forbidden Places | Word Count: 1800 | Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction

Adeline traced a path on top of the wall with her feet, like an artist tracing a picture. Her mother had told her about artists. Mama said that you had to be safe to have time for that.

Adeline and her mother didn’t have time to do anything but survive. No one did, in this city. Maybe there were still artists in other cities, ones not under Quarantine. Mama didn’t think other cities were under Quarantine. Theirs only was because of Eric. Other people called him Mr. Sarento, or even Senator Sarento, but Mama only ever called him Eric. Adeline couldn’t remember a time before him, a time before Quarantine.

Adeline’s head bobbed. The water licking up one side of the wall was bright purple, and Adeline could smell it. A smell like fire, and chemicals. She shivered and put a hand over her face.

It would be slower to weave through the city streets, but Mama would kill Adeline if she knew she was running up on the wall just before a storm. It was the worst possible place to be. Hell, Mama would probably kill Adeline anyway, just for being out now. Adeline rolled her eyes, bunched the muscles in her legs, and leapt off the wall.

She landed with a slap of bare feet against pavement. She felt the vibration run up the bones in her leg, but her skin didn’t even twinge. She had lost feeling in her feet long ago, almost before she could remember. They were covered in a thin, hard, transparent layer of scales. She could walk on them just fine, but they were scarred and burned.

She weaved through the city streets now, between abandoned buildings and occupied piles of rubble. She skirted the places she knew to avoid, ticking them off in her mind. Drugs, gang, drugs, drugs, brothel.

Her and Mama’s “house” was right in the middle of the city. It was a room that had crumbled off a larger house, and the barbed wire fence that ran around Eric’s factory headquarters stood smack in the backyard.

Adeline pushed aside the sheet of metal that covered the splintered hole in their wall and poked her head inside. Mama stood square inside the door with both hands on her hips. Oh, Lord.

Adeline squeezed herself past the metal and settled it back in place. She stood with one foot hiding behind the other ankle.

“There’s a storm coming.”

Mama shook her head. “Oh, I hadn’t noticed. Thank you very much for bringing the news. Quite a worthwhile thing to risk your life over.”

“I didn’t risk my life over that, Mama.” Adeline shook her head. Mama was so smart, but sometimes she just acted crazy. “I risked it for this.”

She held up a can. It was a little dented, but the lid hadn’t popped up. The sardines inside should still be good. Moist and salty. Adeline licked her lips.

Mama snatched the can out of her hands and cradled it, looking around like someone might come out of the corner and fight her for it. “Where did you find this?”

Adeline traced a circle in the dust on the floor with her toe. “Oh, you know. The old aquarium.”

Mama caught her breath. “Lord, Adeline.” She pressed her hands on her face. “You really are going to get yourself killed one of these days.”

Mama was getting sucked into a whirlpool of worry. Adeline could sense it, as sure as she knew a storm was coming when the waves turned lavender and smelled like Sulphur. She didn’t know how to stop it, except to remind Mama of the truth.

“Yes, Mama, I am going to get killed one of these days.”

The scales had almost reached her neck. Her chest worked hard under the extra weight. Scales on her neck would make breathing even harder, but she would survive until they grew up over her mouth. That might take another two years; just past her thirteenth birthday. No one lived longer than sixteen now, unless they had already been a grown-up when Quarantine had happened.

Adeline watched Mama’s throat fight with a sob. Mama won and swallowed. She scooped Adeline up and carried her to the mattress in the corner. They laid down, and Mama stroked Adeline’s hair.

“You are not going to die.”

Adeline nuzzled Mama’s neck and spoke into the soft skin there. “I am, Mama. It’s alright. I’ve always known I am.”

“No. There’s a cure, in the basement of the factory. We’re going in, tomorrow.”

Adeline stiffened and shook her head beneath Mama’s kiss. “We can’t.”

“There’s no reason not to.”

Adeline’s heart slipped. Mama had been talking about going into Sarento Factory since the scales had advanced past Adeline’s waist, years ago. Her words made Adeline shudder inside. She wasn’t afraid of Eric. But she was afraid of the chemicals he had unleashed on the city. They were born in the factory, and Adeline couldn’t imagine anything else living there.

*  *  *

The stuff that caused the scales was in the city’s water. Apparently, it’s source was the Factory basement. Mama had been “researching” the factory for as long as Adeline could remember, talking to people who had escaped it just before the Quarantine, offering them whatever they wanted for information. Mama was prepared for a trip in. Adeline didn’t think that would change anything.

No one else was outside the next morning. The city still festered in the slime the storm had pulled out of the factory. Mama and Adeline wore masks and picked around metallic looking puddles. They walked around the fence until Mama found a weak spot. She took the shears she had scavenged just for this out of her bag and pressed them against the metal. She leaned her weight into them, and the fence gave way. Mama held it back for Adeline. They both glanced from side to side, but no one tried to stop them. The factory was forbidden, but no one wanted to go there, anyway. Adeline had never heard of anyone breaking in.

They couldn’t avoid the puddles here. The yard around the factory was covered in slick, rainbow colored water. Mama set her jaw and stepped through it in her boots. Adeline slogged after her. She couldn’t feel the wetness, just the pressure of the water pushing against her scales.

Mama pulled Adeline up gray steps to the front door, and they pushed through yellow caution tape that sagged in front of it. Mama used the shears to break the lock off the door, and Adeline helped her push until it opened with a squeal that made them both cringe.

Adeline blinked. She followed Mama over the threshold, their feet squelching onto tile floor. Mama pulled a flashlight that she had been saving for years out of her bag and flipped it on. Adeline jerked her head away from the light, and felt Mama grab her hand.

Adeline strained to see the strange shapes surrounding the room, but Mama kept tugging her forward, to a door on one side of the room That door screamed when they opened it, too. When that echo faded, all Adeline could hear was a distant dripping. She decided the factory must be empty after all.

Mama and Adeline’s shoes thudded down the stairs. Adeline counted the floors. Twelve. At the bottom, Mama headed straight for the door, but Adeline hung back.

“Mama. What if we can’t get back up?”

Mama turned to look at Adeline, but Adeline didn’t recognize her eyes. They were too hard. “You will get back up.” She crouched down in front of Adeline. “Promise me that, no matter what happens, you will run back up as soon as we get the cure.”

I won’t leave you, Adeline said in her head. She nodded, because she couldn’t argue with Mama now, but Adeline didn’t speak the promise, so she didn’t have to keep it.

Mama pushed through the door, holding Adeline behind her back. A pale blue light surrounded them. Adeline peered around Mama and saw that it came from a vat of liquid sloshing in the center of the room. Tubes and pipes ran away from the vat like snakes. The water hissed and steamed.

“Is that the cure?”

Mama just shook her head and pulled Adeline forward, across the room, past the vat. The smell of it made Adeline’s stomach clench. She looked at the place where the pipes raced out of the room. Oh. This was where the scales came from.

Mama’s hand tightened on Adeline’s arm. “As soon as we grab the cure, we’re destroying this place.”

Adeline didn’t know how Mama planned to do that. She didn’t ask. They made it to the other side of the room, to a row of beakers filled with black liquid. She wrinkled her nose as Mama shoved one of the beakers in her face.

“This is it. Drink it.”

“What-.” Adeline choked as Mama tipped the beaker into her open mouth, letting the liquid crawl down Adeline’s throat. Adeline tried to force it back up, but it was too heavy. She had to swallow it and let it sink towards her gut so that she could breath.

When the liquid hit her stomach, she doubled over and screamed. “Mama, it hurts.”

Mama picked her up, and they ran to a corner of the room. Together, they barreled through a door that Adeline hadn’t seen; the pain blurred her vision. When Mama put her down, she crumpled.

“You have to run, baby. I’m sorry, I know it hurts, but you have to go, you have to get out of here.”

Adeline opened her mouth to ask why, but all she could do was cough. She felt a weight lift off her chest. Her legs itched, and her feet burned. She stared at the white flakes that littered the floor around her, like the old skin of a lizard.

Mama shoved a beaker of the cure into Adeline’s hand and turned back to the door. Past her, Adeline saw a figure, holding up a light. She shrank backward, almost spilling the beaker.

Mama jumped forward and slammed the door shut before Adeline could see anything else. She set down the beaker and flung her body at the door, but it wouldn’t open. She heaved her whole weight at it again, and again, but it didn’t give.

Adeline heard a crash, a shout, then a boom that shook the whole building and knocked her backwards. She went back to the door, but it was too hot to touch. Adeline crouched next to it and sobbed once. Then she turned and fled up the stairs, gripping the beaker, careful not to spill a drop.

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4 thoughts on “The Cure by Hannah Holmes

  1. I really enjoyed the pace of this piece and the way you ease into the descriptions. A very credible mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary; a girl on the wall worried that she would get in trouble with her mother and the fact that the water was purple and then that she had scales on her feet. (Incidentally, you might like to check, for continuity, in the part that says ‘ Mama and Adeline’s shoes thudded down the stairs’ when you have taken such care to show us that Adeline does not wear shoes!)
    An interesting tale that left me wanting to know more; why does the mother refer to the guy as Eric? Does she know him personally? How does she know her way around the factory so well? Is Eric the girls father perhaps? Why didn’t she break into the factory earlier?
    Well done and thanks for sharing.

  2. I enjoyed your story and the build up of suspense was perfect. The only hiccup was where you wrote her and her mom’s shoes thudded on the steps, when just before she was barefoot.
    It was such a satisfying story, I would like to read what happens next. 🙂

  3. Very cool! It reminded me a little of the book “The Girl With All the Gifts”. I wonder, how did Mama know where to find the cure? What kind of research did she do/who was she talking to? Very curious.

    I spotted one small detail that you might want to alter:

    “What-.” Adeline choked

    You can get rid of that period, and add an additional dash, ie: “What–” That way, it indicates that a character was about to say something but was cut off/distracted/interrupted, etc.

    Good work! Great characterizations, and excellent job creating a realistic-feeling dystopian world.

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