The sweet melody is stuck on an endless loop in my head. I scrub absently, lost in the beauty of it. Though music is forbidden and could get me in big trouble with the Ministry, I am at a loss when it comes to controlling my quietly rebellious streak.
Singing to myself while doing housework is one of the small pleasures I can revel in, in a world where our lives don’t always feel as though they are our own.
I’m always careful though to keep my voice soft and low so no one outside our modest home hears me. I might be rebellious, but I’m certainly no dummy.
Resting on my knees, I sing softly as I hunch over, scrubbing away at the dirt coating the floor in grime, my long skirt getting wet where it touches the dampened wood.
I ignore it, continuing to scrub and sing, scrub and sing.
“Jaelynn Rose!” I jump, my heartleaping into my throat, a strangled sound erupting. I hadn’t heard anyone come in.
I sit up quickly, heart pounding, an energy surge coursing through my body as my gaze flies to the front door and my brain scrambles in an attempt to identify the voice scolding me from out of nowhere.
“What song are you singing now? Where’d you come up with that one?”
I slump, relief rushing out on a tiny huff of air, hands trembling with ebbing adrenaline as Irecognize Mama’s voice and see her worn face peering down at me from where she stands in the doorway on the other side of the room.
Gaze drifting skyward, I mouth a quiet thank you. To what or whom, I don’t really know. Holding a fist against my chest in an effort to slow my heart’s pace, I’m only thankful it isn’t my father— or anyone else connected with the Ministry for that matter— stopping by to see my parents and catching me.
Still, my mother tends to scold me for singing because she knows I’m not supposed to be doing it. It’s against the Rules. When she’s not scolding me, she switches to asking questions I can’t really give her suitable answers to, often frustrating us both.
“They came to me in a dream, Mama,” I murmur nonchalantly, repeating the same answer I’d given her time and time again, though I know it never does any good.
“A dream? You’re still having those?” My mother shuffles intothe room, sits down at the table and smiles at me tiredly. “Come on up here, child. Rest for a bit, get off the floor. Your knees must be black and blue by now.”
Hiding a fond smile at her fussing, I move to do as I’m told. It’s not often I get to sit down with Mama and just chat. Rising to my feet, I stretch, wincing at the kinks I can feel pinched tight in my back. I ignore them, knowing my discomfort has to be mild compared to my mother’s exhaustedstate.
“Here, let me make you some tea, Mama.” I move toward the cupboards, taking long, deep breaths to slow down my still racing heart.
“Do we have some of our rations left?” she asks.
I nod, but do a quick mental inventory of what little food still remains. There isn’t much as far as actual nutrition goes, which is why lunch today consists of tea. Not the most filling of meals by a long shot.
My stomach takes that moment to grumble loudly, and I slide my gaze in Mama’s direction, feeling a little guilty and hoping she doesn’t hear it. Unfortunately my lunch had been tea as well.
Looking over our rations, I realize we do have some rice and beans— just enough for dinner tonight, but that’s about it. Thankfully I can pick up our next month’s supply of food tomorrow night, perfect timing for tomorrow’s dinner. But for breakfast and lunch, tea it will be. Again. I grimace, a pang of hungerpelting my belly at the mere thought.
Grabbing the teakettle from the cupboard, I ignore my vocal belly, fill the kettle and setting it to boil over the fire, quietly humming to myself as I work.
When the kettle begins to squeal, signaling the water is ready, I set about steeping the tea. My mother can’t stand the stuff, always says she’d prefer to drink regular old water, but I enjoy it. Even if it is bland these days. I wrinkle my nose. Good tea is hard to find. Itprovides a bit of flavor during those times my stomach gripes for food, so there’s that.
“How was work today?” I ask as I pour some of the warm liquid into a cup. “I’m surprised to see you home so early.” I look to my mother, studying her face for a moment before I turn my attention back to the task at hand, and before she can catch the worry I know is reflected on my face.
Dark shadows have formed circles beneath her eyes and she looks weary. Once upon a time, my mom had been a beautiful woman. But now just she seems weathered. She isn’t even that old. She had me at a young age of course, but her youth and beauty, alongside our home, had deteriorated a lot over the last several years, more than it should have for her age.
“Tiring,” Mama replies, stating the obvious. The bags under her eyes never go away anymore, not even when she’s able to get more than a few hours of sleep. “And I have to go back in later tonight. Theysaid I could have a few hours to rest before pulling the all-night shift.”
My mouth tightens a little at that, but I remain silent. It’s just the way things are, so getting upset about it only serves to waste energy better put to other uses. But it doesn’t stop me from secretly resenting the toll my mother’s job takes on her, both physically and mentally.
My mother and father both work for our government as security officers. They guard the Ministry, and aretwo of the few people in Silogh Valley still allowed to carry weapons. My father has held the same job for as long as I can remember, but my mother was only promoted a few years back— once I was old enough to be left safely on my own.
It’s been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it affords us more food rations— though even with improved rations we still usually have too little— as well as a higher status in society.
It’s a curse too, because it requires a willingness to work twenty-four hour days. Life as a government employee puts you at the beck and call of the Ministry. I often imagine it must be similar to slavery, but I’m careful never to put that notion into words. Especially within hearing distance of my father.
“I’m sorry, Mama.” I blow gently at the steaming liquid in my cup, and then take a careful sip of tea. I can’t help the concern lacing my voice. “Perhaps you should get some sleep then? I’llfinish cleaning up around here.”
Mama smiles wanly, and then shoots me a pointed look. “Just promise me you won’t sing anymore Jaelynn,” she pleads. “I couldn’t handle it if something happened to you.”
I sigh, gingerly taking another sip of tea, studiously eyeing the floor, avoiding my mother’s tired, albeit sharp gaze.
“I can’t promise I won’t ever sing again, Mama,” I concede finally, giving the same response I always givewhenever we have this conversation. “But I’ll promise to be more careful. Okay? You couldn’t hear me outside coming up, could you?”
My mother shakes her head. “I couldn’t. But remember, if a window is open, it’s different. It’s much easier to be heard, especially with that beautiful voice of yours. It carries, sweetheart. And it’s going to get warmer later in the day and you’ll want to open the windows. Just remember that please, is all I’m saying Jaelynn. And be careful.”
Her brow is creased with worry, so I do my best to alleviate it. “I know, Mama,” I soothe. “I’m always careful, I promise. No one ever hears me.”
“Good girl.” My mother stands up, taking a last sip of tea and stroking two fingers along my cheek before walking toward her bedroom for some much needed rest.
As soon as she is tucked safely away in the back of the house, I get back down on the floor, pick up my brush and continueto scrub, first humming, then softly singing the lyrics still doggedly stuck in my head. Some days it feels like the only way to get them out of my head is to sing, to let them out into the world.
After cleaning the floor as thoroughly as I’m capable, I remember there are some tomatoes growing in the garden outside I need to check on. I know there probably won’t be much, but if they are ready to be harvested, it might add a little something extra to the evening’s sparsedinner.
Brightening up a little, I can already imagine biting into a juicy, ripe tomato, despite knowing better than to get my hopes up. A decent harvest these days has become more of a scarcity than ever, although I’m always grateful for whatever our garden yields.
Though ours is incredibly small, I know it’s still much more than some folks have. Living in Silogh Valley affords some benefits those living in the city don’t get. A little extra room to garden and marginally more privacy are among the top two.
I know I wouldn’t be able to get away with the half of the stuff I do now if we lived in Silvah City. If we lived there I’d have to seriously curtail my singing. Who knows who might overhear me?
Stepping out into the garden, worn, comfy knee-high boots protect my legs from the sticks, thorns and branches of the brush. My lips curve as unbidden, thoughts of biting into a ripe juicy tomato stray into my mindagain.
But when I reach the tomato plants, my heart drops like a rock. All thoughts of fresh produce for dinner go poof. Rain has been sparse of course, but nevertheless I’d remained hopeful that somehow, some way, my precious vegetable plants would grow.
Now that hope is as dried and shriveled every bit as much as the poor excuse for a tomato dangling from the vine.
Frowning, I poke at the shriveled brown skin and sigh, realizing there’s no way it can beeaten. I glance at the meager handful of other tomatoes on the vine, still a light green in color.
“And of course none of the others are ready either,” I mutter.
Nor would they ever be if we don’t get some rain. Soon. Looking up at the stubbornly cheerful sky, I silently beg it to rain and to rain hard. We desperately need it in the Valley, otherwise the current food shortage is only going to get worse.
Shoulders slumping, I turn to head back into the house. Just then I hear a sound coming from the road right outside my garden fence. I jump, gaze flying to the road, seeking out the strange sound.
Drawing my brows together, I tiptoe toward the road, but then backpedal quickly toward the house, tightening my hands into fists at my sides, my heart thumping audibly inside my chest.
Fear battles with curiosity. Squinting my eyes against the brightness of the sun, I can just make out a tall man with shaggy brownhair, walking up the road, carrying something in one hand, the other swinging loosely at his side.
I don’t recognize the young man, which is surprising given the fact that in the Valley, most everyone knows everyone else.
Strangers are a rare occurrence.
Standing up on my tiptoes, I wave, trying to catch the stranger’s attention. “Hi there!” I shout out to him, without budging from where I’m standing.
“Hi yourself,” he callsout. “I’m Noah, just passing through. I’m so sorry if I startled you.” The stranger walks closer and then stops, stepping near to the fence, reaching out and resting his free hand along the top of it as he smiles.
I smile back, somewhat shyly. I’m certain my pale green eyes are glowing with curiosity, but I can’t contain it. I’m not used to strangers, much less strangers as handsome as this one.
Brushing the dirt from my skirt a little self-consciously, I tear myself away from the spot I’d been frozen in, and walk toward the fence to greet him properly, fear and shyness evaporating quickly as my curiosity grows.
“My name is Jaelynn,” I say, sticking out a hand, offering to shake his.
The man named Noah looks at it somewhat quizzically, as if he is unsure of what to do with it. He smiles awkwardly, but after a few minutes reaches out and accepts my proffered hand in his, squeezing gently.
I stareat our clasped hands a little dumbly. His completely swallows mine, and feels firm yet soft. Except for his fingertips. His fingertips are rough and calloused. Feeling a little awkward myself, I find myself at a loss as to what to say next.
I clear my throat. “Do you do any gardening?” I ask. I gently tug my fingers free. He lets go immediately, but his expression still looks a little puzzled.
“Oh no,” he says as he drops his hand. “Why would you askthat?”
“The callouses on your fingers,” I reply, fighting a weird urge to reach out and touch them again. I’ve never felt anything like it. “What do you do?” I ask instead.
Setting the foreign item he’d been carrying down on the ground, he grins. “Well… I don’t really do anything,” he says.
I laugh, giving him a funny look. “What do you mean you don’t do anything? That’s absurd. Everyone does something. Like me for instance. I keep the house up for my parents. I also do the gardening and the cooking.” Feeling a teeny bit off-kilter all of a sudden, I shrug and trail off with, “It may not sound like much, but it’s what I do.”
Noah’s lips quirk again in a ghost of a smile as he stares at me, one hand resting possessively on top of the thing he’d been carrying.
I eye it again, wondering how it makes the odd noises I’d heard as he approached moments ago.
“Well, Isuppose you can call me a drifter then,” he says, lowering his eyes to the ground as he runs his other hand through a mop of unruly dark hair. “I take odd jobs where I can find them, so, I guess I do a lot of things. I do what I have to do to get by, you know? But I don’t do any one thing.”
This time it’s his voice that trails off, as he looks back up at me. Unable to help myself, my gaze wanders back to the item sitting in the dust at his feet. I have to literallyfight a compulsion to reach out and touch it.
Sliding my hands behind my back, I ball them tightly in the folds of my skirt. Something about the object is tickling the back of my mind, but I can’t put my finger on why. I want to run my hand down the length of it, touch the strings that run across it, but I know I can’t just touch his possessions without his permission.
“What is that thing?” I blurt out, curiosity at last getting the best of me. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.” I feel my face heat, torn between staring at Noah, and staring at the thing resting gently against his feet.
Noah glances down to the item he’d been carrying, looking surprised that it is still there. Somehow though, I know he’s not.
“Oh this old thing?” he asks, his gaze drifting back and forth down the road, like he’s making sure no one is close by. He shrugs nonchalantly. “I found it alongside the road back there. Ithought maybe someone had left it.”
Noah didn’t look me in the eyes when he spoke, and I remember hearing noises coming from it right when I first saw him. Narrowing my eyes, I merely quirk a brow, mildly offended he’s not being entirely truthful with me.
“I heard a noise from it,” I insist. “A noise I’ve heard before too, I just can’t place it.” Crinkling my nose, I struggle to remember where.
Noah finally looks back up at me, meeting mygaze, his own eyes now alight with what looks like curiosity. “Really? You’ve heard that sound before?”
“I have,” I concur, and suddenly I remember where I’ve heard it. Eyes widening, I feel a frisson of unease. This time it’s my turn to make sure no one is listening. Stepping forward, I lean closer to the fence, closer to him. Lowering my voice, I whisper, “Though I probably imagined it. There’s no way I could have heard what I think I heard… right?”
I straighten, and start to back away from the handsome stranger, that uneasy frisson now settling like a ball of lard in the pit of my stomach. Looking back toward my house, I feel a sudden urge to run. Suddenly, all I want to do is get back inside, away from this man named Noah, away from the mysterious noisy object he carries with him, and away from the peering eyes of my neighbors.
My feelings escalate when Noah reaches across the fence and grabs my wrist, causing me tojerk backwards, my heart pounding in sudden fear. Despite knowing I’m probably overreacting, I yell, “Let me go, mister! My Mama is in the house right now, she’s a Ministerial officer. And if you hurt me, she will kill you on the spot.” Twisting my arm, I try to break his grip.
Still, Noah doesn’t let me go. He loosens his grasp on me a bit, but still holds my arm firmly. “Jaelynn,” he says. “Calm down, I’m not going to hurt you. I just think we should talk.Alone.” He whispers the last part.
His voice is gentle, soothing. Calm, even. I look up into his dark eyes, and instantly, all the fear in my body dries up like those poor withered tomatoes on our vines.
I don’t know why, but I feel compelled to stop, look, and listen to him. When I do, somehow, I just know he isn’t going to harm me. The tension in my body flees as quickly as it erupted, making me feel weak and jiggly.
“Where did you hear these sounds?” he asks, still gripping my wrist from across the fence.
My eyes scan the area around us, and I’m relieved to see nobody seems to be watching us. For that at least, I’m thankful. I step close to the fence again, motioning for Noah to lean in.
A bemused smile crosses his face as he obliges.
When he’s close enough that I feel confident no one can overhear, I whisper into his ear, “In my dreams.”
As soon as I say it, hisbody stiffens and he drops my arm like I’m on fire. He nods and gives me a crooked smile before pulling back, a strange, wild look in his eyes. He suddenly looks as though he wishes he was anywhere but standing here with me in this moment.
“I see,” he states carefully. Then in an upbeat tone that sounds forced, he continues, “Well, I think I’ll be on my way. Need to get some work done for Mr. Stanton on up the road there, but if you find you need more help with yourtomatoes, just let me know. I’m always happy to be of service.”
Reaching across the fence again, he tucks a slip of paper into my hand and without another word, the mysterious stranger is off, casually tossing the odd item he claims he “found” over his shoulder as he walks.
Stepping up against the fence, I grip the edge and lean over it, feeling a sharp prickle of anxiety. “Noah?” I yelp, making him turn back around.
Understanding comes to me in a flash, and all at once, I know exactly what it is he’s been holding all this time. Squeezing the old wood of the fence tightly, I bite my lip and meet his gaze, concern making my voice thick. “Be careful. Please. Don’t let anyone see you with that— thing.” I point at it.
He merely gives me an easy smile, not a bit of concern clouding his expression. “I’m not worried, Jaelynn. Not for me at least. But thank you for looking out for me.”
And withthat cryptic remark, he winks and takes off again. I stare down the road after him, watching his back become smaller and smaller. It takes me a few moments to remember the slip of paper crunched in my hand.
Opening it up, I see the writing is barely legible. It looks as though it was written years and years ago, and is extremely faded. But it isn’t handwritten. It’s printed.
Feeling thoroughly puzzled, I stare at the printed words. Except for the government, noone has printers anymore, so I instantly think it must be important, something “official”.
Once I read the words though, a lump rises in my throat, and I know it’s not from the Ministry. The words are not their words, and the message is not something they’d send.
‘Only the chosen ones can hear.’
In that second, I know Noah will be back. I know it isn’t a matter of if I will see the good looking young man again, but only a matter of when. I don’t know how I know this, I just do.
And the next time I see him, I will be prepared, I vow to myself. I tighten my lips determinedly as I stare down the now empty road, lost in thought.
And next time I will know to ask the right questions.