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How do you find sweet syrup at the end of the world?
For Amma: a thimbleful to pour over her bowl of sour yoghurt. There were six other dishes on the table, their last meal before they left home. The children were dressed as if for school, in white shirts, navy shorts, navy socks, and black shoes.
A plate of melon slices for Sabel.
A towel of warm bread for Reya.
A foiled bit of chocolate for Theri.
A bowl of plain cold rice for Verlane.
A cup of black olives for Appa.
A cup of pitted cherries for S’Jin.
A bowl of sour yoghurt for Amma.
A thimble of sweet syrup.
They held hands.
No one said anything after that.
Someone had to say something.
Otherwise, it would be just another day, albeit with each of their favourite foods, a few of them miraculously found, and the children wearing their school uniforms for the first time in a long while. But still, just another meal. They would eat, as usual, while listening for the sounds of planes, of trucks, of when it was time to go back down into the cellar and wait in the dark with candles until the sounds stopped. Then see if there was still an upstairs.
But, this time, this meal, they were listening for a new sound too. This sound was terrible too.
No, not terrible.
Remember, children, what we are doing, where we are going, is because we are hopeful. Amma and Appa kept saying this, as if to believe it themselves. They ate in the big cold kitchen where they also slept these days, the one room of their house that still felt like a room of their house. Along the western side were smashed-in walls, a caved-in section of roof, and debris from the bomb that had dropped nearest to them. So far.
The night the bomb dropped, Amma and Appa had emerged from the cellar and felt a strange cold wind come down the stairs. They argued about whether the house was a target. They lived so far from the city. There were no other houses near them. Be hopeful, but be careful whom you trust. Touch only those you are committed to for the rest of your lives.
“Maybe it was meant for the capital,” said Appa. “Maybe it was an accident.”
“How could this be an accident?” said Amma.
“It was an accident. It had to be an accident.”
“Why had to be?”
“They already got the president. Why kill his doctors now?”
“Can someone bigger than me go close the door upstairs?” asked Theri. “The wind makes me . . . ”
“Scared!” teased Verlane.
“Verlane, go upstairs and close the door,” said Sabel.
“No. I’m scared.”
Someone, say something.
No one spoke after the prayer. No one was eating either. If they started, they would finish, and after clearing the table, it would be time to leave. Instead, they looked at one another. Everyone’s hands kept going up to scratch behind their ears, to rub the backs of their necks.
Late afternoon the day before, Amma and Appa had called each child behind the house, below the ash-covered trellis wrapped in dead vines. Birds were still singing in the far field. Beyond that, on a clear day, you could see the capital. Buildings like white, silver, and black streaks against the sky. Mostly black, by now. But, from here, the city looked peaceful.
How could the last safety in your life deceive you like that?
As easily as this:
Amma turned the metal garden chair in the other direction, toward the sloped side of the gully where the river still ran. She made each of them sit in the chair, wrapped a towel around their shoulders, and gave them identical haircuts, very short, sporting-day short. They were four girls—fourteen, twelve, ten, eight—and a little boy, nearly four. After cutting everyone else’s hair—Why, Amma?—Sit still!—Amma sat down and called Appa over. Everyone watched and stifled their giggles while Appa cut Amma’s hair. Then Amma went to the mirror in the kitchen and cut it again.
“I thought you had the hands of a surgeon?” she teased.
“I used to,” Appa replied.
“We all look like soldier boys now,” said Sabel.
“Send him your hair in the mail,” said Reya.
“What mail?” asked Appa. “Who?”
“You haven’t sent mail, have you?” Amma turned from the mirror. “From here?”
“She likes him! She likes him!” Reya sang.
“Did you give someone our address?” Appa demanded.
“Sabel,” said Amma.
“Amma!” Sabel cried.
Amma picked up the thimble. She marvelled at it. She looked at Appa, as if to say: melons and fresh bread, fine—even the chocolate was probably hiding somewhere close—but how on earth did you find sweet syrup at the end of the world?
He looked back: I found it for you.
She smiled, he smiled back, then she poured it slowly into the bowl of yoghurt. She licked her thumb—what daring!—and wagged a finger at the children. Do as I say, not as I do.
With both hands, she picked up the bowl and tilted it toward them. The dark syrup made circle after circle in the yellow-white yoghurt. The circles began to fall into one another and onto her fingers. They began eating like never before, offering and accepting and laughing and talking about what next.
They finished and got up to take away the dishes.
“Leave them. Never mind the cleanup,” said Appa.
“Never mind? Never mind the cleanup? Appa?”
“Sit down. All of you, sit down. There is something we have to say. You will understand when you understand. From now on, your brother is your sister,” said Amma.
“I don’t have a brother. Or is Amma having a baby?” asked S’Jin.
“No, S’Jin, you have sisters,” said Appa.
“I want a brother. I don’t even get to play with Tric anymore.”
“Listen, S’Jin. From now until I tell you otherwise, you are their sister.”
“Appa?” said Sabel. “Amma?”
“Sabel, you are the oldest,” said Amma. “You have to help them understand.”
“I can help too, Amma,” said Reya.
“Yes, you too, Reya. Both of you.”
“Sabel! You have to!”
“No, Amma, listen,” said Sabel. “Everyone, listen. Listen!”
They were here.
A black school bus pulled up in front of the house, red dust sprayed along its sides. Two men stepped out, dressed all in black, black-strapped visors, red dust on their boots, mirrored sunglasses, and thick short beards like smudges of paint. One had a white scar that ran from cheek to cheek and stood out against his beard like tracer fire. They didn’t have guns, at least not showing.
“Time to go,” the scarred one said.
The scarless man took their bags—little sacks each had promised they would be able to carry by themselves.
“Children, you go first,” said Appa.
No one moved.
“Girls, get on the bus!” said Amma. “Sabel! Reya! Take your sisters and get on.”
No one moved.
“Okay, Amma. I’ll go first.”
S’Jin went in. He had to use his hands to climb the stairs. He stood at the front, beside the driver, who looked the same as the other men. The driver stared ahead, tapping the steering wheel. S’Jin clapped the dust from his hands, waved to someone at the back, and walked the length of the bus.
Then Appa let something out. It was the worst noise. It was a screaming, raging, crying, sobbing sound, all of it choked, bubbling up in his throat, seeping through clenched teeth. He turned away from them.
Not Amma. She had the steady hands. She took each of her children by the shoulders and guided them onto the bus. Her hands, they noticed, were sticky. The syrup. Then the two men climbed in, the door closed, and they drove away, Amma and Appa disappearing in the dust.
Do as I say, not as I do.
Sabel didn’t cry. She didn’t ask any questions, at least not aloud. Surrounded by sobbing and pleading, she looked out the window, combing over their final days at home, what Amma and Appa had done and planned. What they had-really been doing and planning.
Amma and Appa, figures in the back window, getting smaller and smaller in the red dust of the world.
S’Jin didn’t cry either. His friend Tric had been on the bus when it came for them. They hadn’t seen each other in months. Two rows back from the sisters, they talked and talked: recently seen animals, dead and alive; the best and worst places they’d slept; and the remains of their marble collections. The bus sped past abandoned houses, burned-out cars, skinny cows, masked and bandaged people running to the road at the sight of a vehicle, any vehicle, and others running away. All the old blockades and checkpoints were twisted metal on the side of the road, and gone were the men who used to stand in front of them and ask questions.
“Why are your sisters crying?” asked Tric.
“My haircut makes me cold,” said S’Jin.
They took the main road to the capital until it came to an end in a T. They turned right. This was also new. When they used to go back and forth from the city to their house in the countryside, they had always turned left. Where were they going?
“There’s a man on the bridge,” said the driver.
Up ahead, an old man stood in the middle of the lane, facing the bus.
“That’s the judge,” whispered Verlane.
“Ask him! Ask him when they’re coming!” said Theri.
Amma and Appa knew the judge. When they had all lived in the city, before the store windows were smashed and pictures of the president torn down, the judge would come over some nights, take a small strong drink on the veranda, and talk about what was happening, what was next. His daughter had married a colonel stationed in a far province. The colonel had sent her and their children, twins, a boy and a girl, to stay with the judge when things had started to go bad against even people like them.
Now the twins were standing on the side of the bridge with their bags.
“What do I do?” asked the driver.
“Drive,” said the scarred man.
He drove. The judge didn’t move. The bus reached the bridge, its tires rumbling on the steel. The old man stood his ground. The children were screaming.
Sabel lurched out of her seat, ran to the back of the bus, and pulled S’Jin and Tric into her, covering their eyes. Reya did the same for Verlane and Theri.
“Okay, okay, stop. Stop!” shouted the unscarred man.
The bus shuddered and stopped a few metres from the judge. The two men got out. One stayed by the door and the other went to speak with the judge. He kept his distance. The judge pointed to his grandchildren and brought his hands together. A prayer. The twins looked tired and embarrassed.
“How did he know we were coming? That’s not supposed to happen,” said the driver to the unscarred man.
“He must have applied but didn’t qualify.”
“We need to move. We can’t be stopped like this, on a bridge,” said the driver, leaning over to look up at the sky.
“Okay,” said the unscarred man.
He pulled a pair of blue rubber gloves over his black gloves, walked over to the scarred man, and spoke into his ear. The scarred man didn’t bother with extra gloves. They grabbed the judge, taking an arm each, and dragged him to the side of the road. The judge took a step forward, still begging and gesturing at the children. The unscarred man shoved him in the chest with an open hand and the judge fell backward. He looked about to get up when the unscarred man took a step forward. The judge stayed down. The twins cried out and ran over to him. The children watched from the windows of the bus. The unscarred man peeled off his blue gloves and dropped them on the bridge. They drove on.
The children had never been to this place before. The city they had known, the capital, was clean and new and wide open, all gleaming fountains and bright, clipped greens. Until it was all of that but charred and empty. Until it was none of that.
But this was the old city—it had always been as it was now. There were no walkways or roads, just winding narrow lanes of worn-out brick. The buildings were small and made of painted stone. It had been a long time since the colours were vivid and bright. In front of the buildings were barrels and vendors’ stands and carts blocked on both sides of each dusty wheel. The barrels, stands, and carts were mostly empty. The market men and women still stood and sat beside their few faded wares. They wore chains and charms from unknown times and places. At their feet stretched dogs and cats, idle and taut as fallen bows and arrows. The people were very old, all of them, their faces shrivel-led like found grapes. They watched the bus drive by.
There were dwellings everywhere. People lived on top of the buildings and beside them and behind them. These were made of old wood and scrap metal, their roofs waterproofed by the orange-and-blue tarps that had covered the shipments back when the shipments were still coming: they had stopped long before the boulevard trees burned, when the north had been emptied and smashed in, when the first cities fell. The tarps rolled like waves in a storm.
Here, few followed what were considered rich-people rules. People were everywhere, close together, many barefaced. But they were all moving in the same direction as the bus: to the harbour, to boats waiting in the harbour.
Sabel walked to the front. The two men were sitting in the first seats after the driver. They were looking straight ahead, not at all the people looking at them.
“Can you tell me where we are going?” Sabel asked.
“You will find out on the boat,” said one of the men.
“Go sit down,” said the other man.
“Sabel!” said Theri, coming up behind her. “Sabel, give them this.”
Sabel turned. “Go sit down. Go stay with Reya until I come back.”
“Give them this,” Theri insisted, holding out her hand. The foiled bit of chocolate, which she had saved. “Give them this to tell us when Amma and Appa are coming.”
“Both of you, go sit down,” said the scarred man. “We are almost there.”
Sabel turned and put her hands on Theri’s shoulders, but Theri slipped down and squeezed past her. “Here! You can have this, all of it. Tell us when our amma and appa are coming.”
The men didn’t look at her. The chocolate fell under a seat. Sabel picked it up, grabbed Theri, and led her to the back of the bus.
“What did they say?” Reya asked.
“That we’ll find out on the boat.”
“We’re going on a boat?” S’Jin asked.
“We had a boat,” said Tric. “My appa once caught a shark, and I helped reel it in.”
“For Reya’s birthday, we swam with dolphins,” said S’Jin.
“Shark,” countered Tric.
S’Jin slumped down, defeated, in his seat.
“You should eat your chocolate before it falls in the water,” said Verlane.
Instead, Theri put the chocolate back in the little pocket sewn into her bag. She looked to the back window, again, to see if Amma and Appa were following the bus. That must be it, she thought. A second bus for the ammas and appas. Theri had been looking back the whole time. There wasn’t anyone behind them.
“What are you going to tell them when Amma and Appa are not on the boat?” Reya whispered to Sabel.
“I don’t know.”
“Why did they keep saying we had to be hopeful? How is this hopeful?”
“I don’t know.”
The bus stopped. Ahead were the harbour docks and, off to the side, the shallows. At both, people were climbing onto vessels of all sizes. People making their way to the departing ships were in front of the bus and all around it. Everyone seemed to be moving, but no one was gaining ground. They were the only ones in a vehicle.
The driver honked. No one paid any attention. He honked many times, then opened the door so one of the men sitting behind him could lean out and shout at the people to move out of the way. No one paid any attention. The driver honked, the man yelled. Then the crowd gave way, and four young men with big grey rifles walked up to the bus. They were dressed in jeans and sneakers and jackets over white T-shirts. Apart from the guns, they looked like they could be going to watch a game at the presidential stadium. Before it became the overflow prison. Before it became a big stone bowl of rocks and chairs.
“Checkpoint checkpoint checkpoint,” S’Jin sang. Tric joined in for a verse before Sabel shot them both a look and they quieted and shrank down. The other children had already ducked into their seats and were peeking out the windows. They watched the two men on the bus speak with the other men through the open door. There was a lot of pointing, by both sides, at the docks.
To the children, the men on the bus were no longer the mysterious and terrible men who had taken them away from their parents a few hours earlier. Now, they were the mysterious and less terrible men who would protect them from these mysterious and more terrible men wearing big long guns. Did the men from the bus have guns? Where were they? Shouldn’t they get them out?
One of the men took something out of a bag under his seat. It wasn’t a gun. It was a bundle of coloured papers that he counted out, putting most of it back into the bag. He went back outside and gave the papers to one of the militia men.
“Ghee,” said Verlane. She took great pride in knowing poor-people slang for money.
After Amma and Appa’s papers with the presidential seal had become things to burn, not show, they had had to give money, many times, to the armed young men setting up blockades. Should one not have ghee to give, the men would begin shouting, fingers on triggers, and then others would come, guns and knives ready—maybe even the same group that had dragged the president from his bedroom.
Or so Amma and Appa had heard from fellow survivors of the president’s staff—cooks, lawyers, the presidential zookeeper—who had visited them in their country house after they moved there for good. While the adults had whispered in the kitchen, the children had played under the trellis and made up stories about why no one was allowed to go down to the gully. When they ran out of games and stories and finally accepted that the zookeeper’s children weren’t going to tell them what had happened to the animals, they had nothing better to do than to sing their newest song.
Checkpoint checkpoint checkpoint.
They began to move, slowly, with two militia men out in front, clearing the way to the harbour.
“Which one is our boat?” Theri asked. “I don’t like the big ones. They look like shark heads.”
“No they don’t,” shot Verlane.
“She’s right,” said Tric.
“Which one of us is right?”
Tric just nodded wisely.
“Then what do they look like, Verlane?” asked Theri.
“They look like floating morgues.”
“Verlane!” Reya hissed. “How do you know that word?”
“Everyone, stop!” Sabel cried.
The bus stopped. For a moment, all of the children, Sabel included, were amazed and reassured that she suddenly had such command over the situation. But the men weren’t looking at her. They were watching their militia escorts turn and walk away.
“Where are they going?” asked the scarred man.
“No idea, but we’re not going anywhere until they come back,” said the driver.
The crowd filled in the space around the bus. The people looked the same as those the children had seen in the old city. Tattered, bundled, tired, limping to the harbour wearing and carrying and pushing and pulling everything they had left. Children sat on shoulders and babies were wrapped and strapped to chests and backs. It was an inky, cloudy day, but everyone looked like they were squinting against the sun.
“Someone else needs their help,” said Reya. “Look over there.”
The children followed her pointing finger. Outside, the militia men were walking toward a tighter crowd that had formed within the crowd. Someone was being held in the middle.
“Children, go to the other side of the bus,” said the driver.
Their old lives had come to an end, then their new lives had come to an end, but they were still just children.
The militia members reached the person being jostled and beaten at the centre of the throng. A young man. They handed out a few coins and dispersed the crowd. The young man stood up and faced them. He would either accept their recruitment offer and be taken or refuse, be made to accept their recruitment offer, and then be taken. He coughed and spat at them. Visors were lowered. Truncheons were out.
“Children, go to the other side. Now!” shouted the driver.
“Is that why S’Jin is now our sister?” Reya asked Sabel. “Would they make little boys fight too?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Eventually. It depends how long it goes on.”
“What goes on? The war or the sickness?”
Sabel just nodded. Reya crept back a few rows to speak with Tric and S’Jin. To make sure they understood. The driver started honking again. A new set of militia men walked up to the bus, insisting they knew nothing of the earlier arrangement. More money came out of the black bag.
“Gee,” said Theri.
“It’s ghee,” shot Verlane.
Theri rolled her eyes.
Sabel didn’t know if she should be grateful for her siblings’ bickering. Their old lives had come to an end, months ago, and then their new lives had come to an end, hours ago, but they were still just children. How much longer could they stay the same?
Why wouldn’t Amma and Appa have told her? Just her, at least. She would have understood. She would have kept the secret. She had kept other secrets for them, about them, about what they had learned about the sickness. About what the president had allowed the country to know, after he cut off communication to the outside world, and what he hadn’t.
What could be better and more hopeful than being together?
Being alive. Being alive and well.
If they were being sent to live, what about those left behind?
Sabel shuddered, shutting the thought away in her head like an upstairs room. She didn’t want to know. She would ignore the wind.
When they were close enough to see the foaming, dark-blue water, their second set of escorts waved at the driver and walked away. The crowd was parting here on its own, moving toward either the big ships by the docks or the yellow rafts floating in the shallows along the shore. The bus drove ahead slowly, as if it were going straight into the water. A man on the dock ahead motioned them forward. He was standing beside a control panel. The vehicle dipped and rocked side to side. They were on a floating platform.
“We’re here,” said the driver, turning off the engine.
“Where?” asked Theri. No one answered.
The man from the dock walked around the bus, bending down here and there. The children watched his progress from their windows.
“He’s probably checking for bombs,” said Tric.
“We’re not a bomb,” said S’Jin.
“How does he know?” asked Tric. “How do you?”
“Is he going to give us the fever test?” asked Theri.
“We’re not sick!” said S’Jin. “We have haircuts!”
The children were quiet for a moment. Then Sabel stood up and marched to the front. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“Go sit with your sisters. Masks!” said the scarred man.
“No,” Sabel said. “You know where you’re taking us. Our parents have given you money to take us somewhere, and you are going to tell me, now, where we’re going.” She pressed her hands into the back of the seat so the men wouldn’t see them shaking. They stared at her. The scarred one had a funny smile. The unscarred one looked irritated.
“Answer me, now,” said Sabel. “Answer me, please.”
Then came a roaring sound, and the bus shook and began to shift on the bucking platform. The children screamed and took cover. From down in her crouch, Sabel saw that the two men hadn’t flinched. She stood up and looked outside. The crowd was still moving toward the ships. A few were watching them, in their bus on its platform, now motoring out over the breaking waves. A couple of boys threw rocks at them, which fell short and disappeared into the sea.
The floating platform was moored against the side of a very big ship. The children lined up in the aisle of the bus, fiddling with the loops around their ears. This could have been a field trip to an ancient ruin or a patriotic museum. The men motioned for everyone to come forward. They stepped down from the vehicle onto the platform, steadying themselves against the roll of the waves. The man at the control stand smoked and watched.
A bright-orange rescue boat was lowered from the ship to hang just above the floor of the platform, knocking against the hull. S’Jin took Sabel’s hand. Without a word, the scarred man picked up each of the other children and put them and their bags into the boat.
“Sabel, one of us should go up with them,” said Reya.
“Go,” said Sabel. “I’ll wait with S’Jin for the next one.”
The unscarred man pounded twice on the hull and the rescue boat went up. S’Jin waved to the rising children. From where they were standing, he and Sabel couldn’t see what happened next, but they didn’t hear any commotion or cries for help.
Sabel looked at S’Jin, who was still looking up at the now empty rescue boat knocking against the side of the ship. She suddenly noticed how windy and loud it was on the open water. She wiped the spray from her neck and stopped. It felt like someone else’s neck, the short hair. S’Jin was also covered in spray, his school shirt dotted and damp. He squeezed her hand tightly, staring at her. She was staring at the men.
The unscarred man said something into the ear of the scarred man, who nodded, threw away his cigarette, and moved across the platform toward them.
Why was the rescue boat not coming back down?
Couldn’t they all have fit?
And where were they going, anyway?
The scarred man’s hands were out in front of him, spread wide like a dog catcher’s. Sabel took a step back.
“Stay where you are!” he shouted.
She kept moving back, pulling S’Jin.
Sabel saw the other two men look up from their work and rush toward them. The driver carried a coil of rope. She turned to call for help and was knocked over by the rescue boat on its way down. S’Jin stumbled back, let go of her hand, and fell into the water. Sabel screamed. The scarred man dove in. The unscarred man lay flat at the edge of the platform while the driver stood beside him, ready to throw the rope.
For the longest, longest time, nothing happened.
Then the driver threw the rope, the unscarred man grabbed hold, and both pulled. Sabel went to the edge and saw the scarred man holding the rope and kicking water and holding S’Jin, who was kicking water and kicking him.
The unscarred man pulled S’Jin out of the water and dumped him into the rescue boat. Giving a wide margin, Sabel climbed into the boat and sat down. She took S’Jin close to her, jumping at how cold he was, and held his shivering body closer.
The back of her neck tingled.
She felt someone come near, close behind her. It was the scarred man, also soaking and shivering and breathing hard. He was very close by now. She didn’t turn.
“Do you think someone saves my children? Turn around, you goddamned sugar diamond, you—”
“Come on!” called the unscarred man from the bus. “We’re late for the next pickup.”
The scarred man didn’t move.
Sabel held S’Jin, cupping her hand on his jaw and squeezing so that he couldn’t turn. The scarred man spat and banged his hand against the hull and was still vowing terrible things when the boat went up and blue-gloved hands reached out and took the children away.