“The Springwood Shelter for Genetically Modified Animals” by Verity Lane
Mel got off the bus just in front of the Springwood Shelter for Genetically Modified Animals. A sign arched over the entrance, bearing the name and a peeling picture of a smiling family flanked by smiling pets: a dog, a tiger, a tiny elephant and an eagle. The smiling eagle was particularly creepy, Mel thought. Mel wasn’t smiling. She was doing her “good” face. It was face designed to express bland, willing helpfulness. Mel had been taught it at age five. After twelve years of practice, she still wasn’t very good at it. Today she couldn’t mess it up though. Graduation was too close.
She walked up the brick path to the shelter reception. A statue of a monkey held a donations scanner. It was covered in a thin layer of dust. Mel entered the lobby quietly, just as she had been taught to. “Neither seen nor heard, just helpful” was the motto of the Matherson Children’s Home. Someone sat behind the reception desk, but her face was hidden by a computer screen. Only her greying blondish hair was visible over the top. She was talking to a short woman in dark red overalls with a dark braid slung over one shoulder. Mel could hear them talking. “…a new work placement kid from the Matherson Home today. I want you to take care of her, Anita,” said the woman hidden behind the desk.
Anita, the dark-haired woman, pinched the bridge of her nose. “Can’t you put Ross in charge of them? They always give me the creeps.”
“We put up with a weird kid for a few weeks and Matherson Corp gives us a nice big donation. And we get the warm glow of knowing we’re helping the little freaks prepare to help the community. Anyway, I thought you liked taking care of things that need a little love.”
“If I’d wanted to deal with stray kids I wouldn’t be working at an animal shelter,” said Anita.
“Just set her up with some easy duties and keep an eye on her, all right,” said the woman behind the desk. She swung her screen round so it cut the space between herself and Anita. This gave Mel her first good look at her. Her face had lines worn into it and her mascara made her eyes look like two spiders floating in a bowl of milk. Mel scolded herself for thinking such a thing. But she let herself think it anyway, since they were talking about her. At least she was keeping her not very nice thoughts on the inside of her head.
The blondish woman said, “I don’t want to argue with you, Anita.” It was at this moment that she noticed Mel.
Mel tried to make it seem as if she had just come in by letting go of the door handle. Anita’s face flushed with embarrassment and her jaw tightened with irritation. Mel knew that look. People often showed it to kids from the Home.
“Hello.” The woman behind the desk smiled. “Are you…?”
Mel walked forward. “Hello, I’m Mel. From the Matherson Home. I’m here for a community work placement.” Mel did her “good” face really hard.
“Oh yes!” The woman behind the desk stood up. “I’m Lomas, the deputy director here at Springwood.” She held out a hand, but Mel didn’t shake it. Home children weren’t meant to touch citizens. Citizens like Lomas often forgot. Mel never did. Lomas blushed, embarrassed to have forgotten. “And this is Anita. She’s our chief animal technician and she’ll be taking care of you.”
“I look forward to working with you,” Mel said.
“Likewise.” Anita kept her arms folded.
Silence settled in between the three of them. Lomas broke it by sitting back down, making her chair squeak. “Great, great. You were just going to start the feeding, weren’t you, Anita.”
“That’s right.” Anita turned and walked through a door marked STAFF. Mel followed after her.
The corridor didn’t have the same cheery decor as the lobby. It just had blank grey walls with a health and safety poster tacked up on one side. It reminded Mel of the Home. They turned left through a red door. The sign said FOOD PREP AREA. Beneath it was a notice reading WASH YOUR HANDS.
“So, this is where you’ll be spending a lot of time,” Anita said. “We’ve got nearly two hundred animals here at Springwood and they almost all need feeding every day. That means we have to prepare a lot of food.”
She pointed at a board on the wall above a metal table. “This is the chart that shows who eats what, when and how much. Each of the different companies that make the animals put in different diet requirements. That’s so they can sell the owners their own brand of food. If you mix up the foods, you’re going to have some very sick animals. That’s why we colour-code it. Got that?”
“Triangles are for herbivores. Circles are for meat eaters. We make a lot of our own food on-site so that we don’t have to pay company prices. Every year or so they tweak the recipe, so that’s what the numbers mean. Then the colours show which company made each animal.” Anita ran her finger down the list of colours. “Red for Genepets, yellow for Exanimals, green is BioBoutique, and blue is for Francis Co.”
Mel nodded again. It seemed clear enough.
“Each pen has a symbol like the ones here that shows what kind of food each animal needs. If in doubt, ask me or one of the other technicians. We don’t want any mistakes. They are expensive and hard to clean up. And you will be the one doing the cleaning up.”
Mel nodded again, trying to do her best “good” face. It didn’t seem to be working. Anita just seemed more and more irritated.
Anita looked at Mel for slightly longer than Mel found comfortable. “The ones with gold stars mean that we haven’t been able to formulate a replacement food that is close enough to the premium brand. That’s mostly limited edition pets, or ones from small, independent companies. We feed them with the premium stuff, but we keep that elsewhere. You won’t be dealing with it. Now, wash your hands and I’ll show you the meat room.”
Mel washed her hands in the big metal sink. The soap was pink and gritty. It stung a little.
“It’s a good thing you’re already in overalls,” said Anita, looking Mel up and down. “I don’t think we’d have any that would fit you.”
Mel kept her face passive, not sure if she should reply. If in doubt, stay silent. That was another Matherson motto.
“You’re pretty tall for a Home kid.”
“Yes.” Mel tugged down the sleeves of her grey overall, which were slightly too short.
“Our last work placement was a tiny little thing. I kept thinking he’d just shrink up inside his overalls and disappear. But you, you’re lanky, aren’t you.”
“Goddamnit, that’s what pisses me off about you Home kids. You’re just meat robots. Why don’t you get angry? I know you heard us talking about you when you came in. Why can’t you just act like a normal teenager? It’s creepy.”
“I am sorry,” said Mel.
“Stop that! That’s making it worse.” Anita threw up her hands with a great sigh. “Can’t you see, I’m the one being a jerk. I should be apologising to you.”
Mel wasn’t sure what to say. She wasn’t used to people behaving like this. At all of her other work placements, she had been treated like a helpful but invisible force, like a pleasant ghost. Or people had shown the usual suspicion that she’d been used to ever since she first put on the grey uniform that marked her as belonging to the Matherson Corporation Home. She’d never had any instruction on how to deal with people apologising to her. All the training the children received was designed to make them useful to society. They were meant to give back as much as they could in exchange for the care and funding the Matherson Corporation provided.
Mel felt her good face slip. Her eyebrows wrinkled in confusion.
“Aha! There! I knew you kids could have expressions. That weird mask face is so creepy.”
Mel frowned. She thought she’d been doing so well with her “good” face today.
“Okay, I can work with this,” said Anita. “I just can’t stand people who aren’t honest. Animals are much easier to understand. But if you can wipe that creepy expression off your face, I think I’ll be able to work with you. Okay?”
“Um… Okay.” The Mel that Mel kept on the inside was just as confused as the Mel on the outside. Usually she reserved her inner right to think awful things about the people who treated her and the other Home kids badly. But now she wasn’t sure what to think about this woman.
“Sorry about the lanky thing. Just my Napoleon complex talking.”
“I am tall,” said Mel.
Anita looked up at her. “Well, you said something in reply; it’s a start. Let’s go look at the meat room.”
Mel followed her into a warm room lined with stacks of trays. There was a faint hum of electricity and a rhythmic creaking noise.
“Ever seen these before?” Anita asked, pointing to one of the towers of trays.
“Yes,” Mel said. Then she remembered that Anita wanted her to speak more. “We have them at the Home, to grow meat.”
“They feed you on this stuff too? Yeesh. It gives me the creeps. That’s why I’m a vegetarian. Do you know how to operate the tray?”
Without speaking, Mel slid the metal tray out. Inside was a grey mass that pulsed faintly. Mel took the spatula that was hanging on a hook on the side of the tower. She slid it along the sides of the grey meat mass, severing the connections that twitched the muscle strands. The rectangle of meat fell still. Mel slid the tray all the way out.
“See the red circle on the front? That means it goes in a red bucket.” Anita pointed to a stack of coloured buckets by the door. Balancing the tray with one hand, Mel pulled a red bucket free. She steadied it with her feet and slid the meat into the bucket. It landed with an unappetising slap. A few drops of excess cell starter fluid dripped out.
“Used trays go over there to be washed,” Anita instructed without moving to help. “Do you know how to set up a new tray?”
“Good. We’ll be doing that later. But first we have to give the animals their breakfast. Get the rest of the red marked trays into buckets and we’ll go do that.”
Mel filled six buckets while Anita worked on another tower of meat trays. The smell in the room was deeply unpleasant. It reminded Mel of working in the Home kitchens. She always hated kitchen duty. At least here, she only had to slide the meat into buckets, not touch it trying to make it look like real meat. That always felt like a pointless exercise. Mel had never seen real meat and neither had most of the other Home kids. As she worked methodically, her mind wandered to what real meat was like. Perhaps it was better than this. Perhaps it was worse.
“Get those buckets onto the trolley and we’ll go serve breakfast. Don’t mix up the red and green ones,” Anita stacked the used trays and sprinkled enzyme powder on them before leaving them to soak.
Mel had to lift the full buckets with both hands. The trolley creaked as she loaded the last few. Wiping her forehead with her sleeve, Mel looked to Anita for her next instruction.
Anita opened the door. “Bring the trolley. Be sure not to spill anything.”
Mel had to put her whole weight behind the handle to get the trolley moving. But then she found it almost impossible to stop. Luckily Anita was moving fast through the hallways, stopping only to hold the doors open for Mel.
In the distance, Mel could hear strange sounds. They didn’t sound like human sounds. Anita pushed open the last door and said, “Say hello to our guests.”
Mel was pulled through the door by the weight of the trolley as she tried to slow it. With a squeaking of her shoes against the floor, she stopped it. Now she was able to look around. They were in another corridor, but this one was lined not with doors, but with glass. On both sides there were pens holding more kinds of animals than Mel had ever seen in real life. The only animals Mel usually saw were the ubiquitous AdPigeons with their colourful, commercial wings. But here there were all the animals she’d only seen on screens. Mel walked up to the glass of the closest cage. A tiger, more orange, more black and bigger than Mel could believe, was lying on a blanket. Seeing her, it raised its great head. The yellow eyes were so bright, they seemed to glow. Mel put her hand on the glass as the tiger walked forward. Mel crouched so their heads were level. She felt something inside she couldn’t have put into words, something big and slightly tingly. Mel and the tiger looked at each other. Mel found she couldn’t look away. She didn’t want to.
The tiger’s head swung to the left. Mel looked too, seeing Anita entering the cage through the door. The tiger jumped up, wide-open mouth showing sharp, cream-coloured teeth. Mel’s hands leapt to her mouth, certain she was about to see Anita be killed. The tiger fell on Anita, but not with a killing bite. It was licking her. Anita tickled under the huge beast’s white fluffy jaws. Mel found she had been holding her breath.
Anita emerged from the cage. “You don’t have much experience with pets, do you?”
“I thought it was going to eat you.”
“Oscar couldn’t eat me if he wanted to. And he doesn’t want to. He’s just a big kitty cat. Actually, he’s even less dangerous than a kitty cat. Anything in him that could be dangerous has been engineered out. Come in and pet him.”
Mel wanted nothing more than to bury her fingers in that fur. Anita beckoned her. But at the same time she had to fight down the primal part of herself that was filling her body with adrenaline and telling her to run. She stepped into the cage. Oscar padded towards her.
“Hold out your hand so he can sniff it,” said Anita.
In Mel’s mind an image formed of her hand being gnawed into a bloody stump. Her hand shook as she held it out towards Oscar’s twitching nose. He sniffed her two times then surged forward to rub his head against her legs. There was a deep rumble that passed from him and into Mel. She touched him, just brushing the tips of his fur with her fingertips. Oscar kept rumbling.
“Scratch him behind the ears. He likes that.”
Mel touched Oscar’s ears. They flicked back and forth at her gentle touch. Mel petted a little harder. Oscar’s rumbling intensified. Mel kept scratching.
“Oscar is one of the second generation of Genepets’ tigers, a long-term inmate. No one wants an old model like him. The newer models have lots of improvements. They eat less for one thing.” Anita tipped four cubes of meat from a red bucket into a bowl in the corner of Oscar’s cage. “And the early models were very dependent on human contact. Oscar really needs to be with people to be happy. He doesn’t do well with other pets, but he loves people.”
Oscar flopped over onto his back. Mel crouched down and rubbed her hands all over his tummy. Oscar squirmed in delight.
“But why would someone give him up?”
“Maybe they got bored of him. Maybe they wanted a newer model. Maybe the kids grew out of him. Maybe they wanted to go on holiday. Maybe they couldn’t afford to feed him anymore. There are lots of reasons pets end up here. Oscar probably won’t be adopted. Not a big, old cat like him. So we keep him fed and try to spend as much time as we can with him. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough time for all the animals here.”
Mel put her head down close to Oscar’s. She whispered, “That sounds familiar.”
Anita was putting the empty bucket back on the trolley. “Pardon, what did you say?”
“Oh… Just… it’s sad.”
“Yeah, a lot of sad stories here. But they are always happy to see us. It’s written into their DNA. And it’s hard to be sad when you’re petting a tiger. Come on, we’ve got other mouths to feed.”
Mel didn’t want to leave Oscar. She’d never felt quite so peaceful. As she looked back at the tiger’s face behind the glass, she wondered why she’d whispered anything to him at all. He was just an animal. He couldn’t understand her.
Anita was already opening the door to the next cage. This one held three wolves. Anita held the bucket up and the wolves sat down.
“Good boys,” she said as she tipped the meat chunks into three bowls. “These guys are basically dogs in wolves’ clothing. Wolves were one of the first modified animals.”
“I’ve never seen a dog either,” said Mel.
“Oh well, they are like these guys but smaller usually.”
Anita petted the back of one of the eating wolves with one hand and threw Mel a ring of keys with the other. “Go unlock the next door. Give Pascal two cubes of meat. He’ll want more, but he’s on a diet.”
Pascal was a polar bear cub. Mel opened the door and Pascal waddled up to her. Despite being fat, he only came up to her knee. The meat cubes were still warm and slimy. Mel picked up one and dropped it in front of Pascal. He ate it with a snuffling enthusiasm. She cringed as she picked up the second cube of meat. Pascal finished it quickly. His white head with its big dark eyes swung up to look at Mel for more. He made a small squeaky noise.
“Don’t be fooled by that cute look,” Anita said from behind Mel. “He’s no starving cub. Pascal here is seven years old. His previous owners didn’t know how to say no. Once he’s slimmed down a bit, he has a good chance of getting adopted.”
“But he looks so young,” said Mel.
“Permanently cute baby animals are becoming more and more popular.”
“He is very cute.”
“Cute and greedy. In his edition, they hadn’t solved the problem of matching the natural calorie needs of a cub with a body that doesn’t grow. When he finds a new home, they are going to have to be strict with him for his own good.”
When they had finished feeding the animals and restocking the meat trays, Anita led Mel to the break room. Mel had never been invited into a place like this at her other work placements. She usually ate alone, from the meal provided from the home.
Anita said, “Sit down and have a piece of cake. It’s Louisa’s birthday and she brought us this chocolate monstrosity.”
Mel looked down at the cake on the table. It was a huge rectangle of shiny brown with twirly, swirly bits and little white chocolate blobs. Mel’s mouth watered. She’d seen cake before. On Mr. Matherson’s birthday all the kids celebrated and each was given a piece of cake. But that cake was pallid compared to this.
“Don’t be shy. Cut yourself a piece,” said Anita.
Trembling, Mel picked up the knife. A large chunk of the cake was already missing from the top left corner. Mel inched the knife in a little and cut herself a thin sliver.
“A proper slice. Look at you, it’s like they don’t feed you up at that place.” Anita grabbed the knife and Mel’s hand with it. At the touch, Mel stiffened all the way from her hand up her arm and into her body. Anita didn’t stop. She guided Mel’s hand and the knife to cut a larger piece of cake. As the cake slice fell free from the rest of the mass, Anita let go of Mel’s hand. The knife dropped out of Mel’s stiff fingers.
Shaking slightly Mel lifted the cake onto a plate. “Thank you,” she said automatically.
“There are forks by the sink.”
Fork in hand, Mel looked at her piece of cake. She speared one of the chocolate swirls of icing. Even before she tasted it, she could smell it. When she placed it in her mouth, it was like switching her brain from standby to on. She shivered all over. Mel wanted to cram the whole thing right into her mouth as quickly as she could. But she also wanted to taste each part separately. There was a layer of dark purple jam that she hadn’t noticed until the cake was cut. She cut out a layer of it. It tasted like things she knew, only much, much better. Unable to restrain herself, Mel finished up the rest of the cake very quickly. She didn’t even care that Anita was staring.
“Watching you is like watching an animal approach a new treat.” Anita laughed. “Leave your plate in the sink. It’s time to go start the cleaning.
Mel’s mind was swimming in sugar. She could feel her heartbeat thumping away. She licked her lips as she followed Anita down the hallway. This really was the best placement she’d ever had. Even if she had to scrub every cage, it was worth it for the animals and the cake. There was never cake at the sewage works.
Anita handed her a scrubbing brush and pointed to a bucket. “You need to scrub the walls and floors of all the empty bays in the quarantine block. I’ll be back in two hours to check on you.”
This was much more like the work Mel was used to. She sighed as she picked up the bucket. This was not as fun as feeding the animals.
There were only two animals in the bare concrete quarantine cells; a pig who did nothing but sleep and a miniature mammoth. The mammoth held its trunk to the glass as Mel walked past. She put her hand on the glass and the mammoth shook its tail. Mel smiled. At least she wasn’t completely alone here.
Mel started at one end of the cellblock and scrubbed each cage down. It didn’t take long for her back to start aching. Her fingers stung from clutching the scrubbing brush and the gritty pink cleaning fluid stung her eyes with its fumes. When she reached the far end where the mammoth was, she took a moment to look at him. The mammoth looked back. They waved at each other through the glass for a few moments. When Mel stood up to start cleaning the other side of the cellblock, the mini-mammoth made a sad squeaking noise.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got to finish this.”
The mammoth started squeaking as soon as she stopped talking.
“Please, please be quiet. You’ll get me in trouble.” Mel imagined how angry Anita would be to find she had disturbed the animals. “Shush, shush.”
The mammoth quietened as Mel talked. “Oh, you like the sound of my voice. Okay, I’ll keep talking.” Mel slowly backed away, continuing to speak. “I’ve just got to go scrub these cages. Is that okay? Yes. Good. Don’t worry, I’m still here.” Mel picked up the scrubbing brush again and started narrating her actions, unsure of what else to say. The mammoth made a happy trumpeting noise.
“Now I’m dipping the brush in the water. This water isn’t very nice. All dirty already. Now I’m going to start scrubbing. Scrub, scrub, scrub. Scrub, scrub, scrub.” Mel scrubbed and talked. The mammoth watched her from his cage. Mel was still talking and just finishing scrubbing the walls of the last cell when she noticed Anita was watching her.
“Oh, so you can say more than one sentence at a time. Good to know,” said Anita.
Mel dropped the brush in surprise. She brought her hands up to cover her mouth, but lowered them again as she smelled the cleaning fluid.
“It looks like you entertained little Gumbo here.” Anita pointed at the mammoth, who was wiggling his whole bottom with excitement at seeing two people. “The animals down here in quarantine get even less attention than the ones up in the viewing blocks.”
“Yeah, it is. Come on, grab your bucket. We’ve got the west block to do next.”
The west block was almost full. Mel saw rabbits, miniature rhinos, a flock of birds in every colour of the rainbow, and a snow leopard with a soft tail as long as its body. There was even a pile of fluffy round creatures that Mel had never seen on her school screens.
“What are those?” she asked Anita.
“Those are My First Pet: Puffle (TM).”
The creatures didn’t seem to have any legs or mouths. They were just balls of fluff with huge, dark eyes that were all looking at Mel.
“They’ve got some guinea pig DNA, a bit of cat, some hamster, but mostly it’s just cooked up in the Exanimals lab. I’m not sure what they used to make them purple.” Anita unlocked the cage. She grabbed a puffle and threw it to Mel. “Give it a good, hard squeeze.”
Mel squished the puffle gently, afraid she would hurt it. The creature thrummed with pleasure.
“Don’t worry. You literally can’t hurt it. Puffles are basically impossible to kill. They have no pain receptors. A perfect pet for a kid who hasn’t been taught how behave around animals.”
Mel squeezed the puffle harder with both hands. It closed its eyes and the happy thrumming got louder. It made Mel feel relaxed.
“Okay, that’s enough.” Anita plucked the puffle from Mel’s hands and threw it back into the pen. “There is cleaning to be done. Empty all the litter trays into a black sack. Then put in fresh litter. That’s in the blue bag. The sacks and the litter are in the supply cupboard at the end of the hall. The door with Supply Cupboard on it, got it?”
“Okay. There might be people coming in here to look at the animals. Will you be all right with that?”
“Yes,” said Mel.
“Right. Here are the keys to the supply cupboard. I’ll be back in an hour.”
Again, Mel was left with just the animals. As she went into each cage they all rubbed up against her legs or bounced around, wanting attention. Mel petted them as she worked. At first it was fun, but after entering the fourth cage the consistency of the animals’ affection for her became disturbing. They didn’t seem to have any choice but to love her. Mel still petted them anyway.
As she was putting the new litter into the cage with the miniature rhino, Mel heard a door open. Anita was leading a family, a mother and three children, into the viewing block. Mel stepped back, away from the glass, just as the rhino rushed up to it. Mel wanted to be like air, present but not visible. She kept working, trying not to remember the times when she was younger and had been put on display for adoption, much like these animals. No one had taken her then. Her status as a permanent resident of the Matherson Home had been made clear to her by the age of ten when they had stopped inviting her to viewings. Next month was her graduation from the Home. If she was lucky, she would find a job, most likely working for Matherson Corp until she’d paid off her debt. That’s why she needed to do well at this work placement. Without a good work record, her debt would be sold to a labour farm. Her mother had given Mel up when she chose to be plugged into a labour farm. Mel would rather die than lose control of her mind and body at a labour farm. Mel began to work faster.
By the time Mel reached end of the row of cages, the family had selected the snow leopard. As Anita led them and their new pet out of the block she turned and smiled at Mel. The mother turned to see what Anita was looking at. When she saw Mel in her grey overalls, she turned away. The door closed behind them and Mel was left alone again. She let out a deep breath. In the quiet Mel heard something new. It sounded like crying. Mel tilted her head, trying to pinpoint it. It was coming from a pen at the end of the hall. It had heavy beige curtain on the other side of the glass. Mel had thought it was empty.
She paused. Anita hadn’t told her to go into the covered pen. But neither had she told her not to. Mel put her ear to the glass. She could hear the crying more clearly. The first key she tried in the lock didn’t fit. She tried the key to the supply closet next. That one went in, but wouldn’t turn. Mel tried the last key on the ring. There was a solid noise as the lock clicked open. The crying on the other side of the door stopped. Mel looked behind her. The block was still empty. She pulled the door open, just enough to move the curtain aside and look inside. She could see a small chair, the kind a child might use. The light was soft and warm.
Something grabbed Mel’s knee. She startled and looked down to see a small child holding a fistful of her grey overall. The child looked up at her with big, wet eyes that looked just like those of the puffles.
“Have you come to play with me?” the child said, pulling at Mel’s overalls.
Mel opened the door and stepped into the room. The child didn’t let go of her knee. Mel crouched down so her head was level with the child’s. The yellow dress the child was wearing indicated she was a girl, but it was hard for Mel to tell otherwise. The child had a heart shaped face that was exaggerated to be almost cartoonish. Fine wisps of hair stuck out in tufts across her head, but most of her scalp was bald.
“What’s your name?” asked Mel.
“I’m Eva,” said the girl. She let go of Mel’s knee and grabbed her hand instead. “Have you come to play with me?”
Mel nodded and the girl smiled, showing overcrowded teeth in a narrow jaw. She hugged Mel, stretching both arms as far round her as she could. Mel stayed still for a moment before patting Eva on the back the same way she had petted Oscar the tiger.
“Let’s play colouring.” Eva pulled Mel over to a corner of the room. Paper and fat crayons were scattered across the floor. Mel looked around the room. There were signs that someone had tried to make this pen pleasant for the child. There were pictures of animals that had been cut out of old Genepets catalogues and stuck up on the walls. Eva sat down on a soft rag rug. Mel sat next to her.
“Who usually plays with you?”
“Lots of people.” Eva shuffled over and sat in Mel’s lap. She pulled a piece of paper towards herself and started scribbling. “I’m drawing an elephant.”
Mel could only see a blue blobby shape, but she said, “That’s a nice elephant. Is one of the people at the shelter your Mommy or Daddy?”
Eva shook her head and kept drawing. Mel had taken care of younger children at the Home enough to know the way this child was behaving was not normal. She had a chilling thought.
“Eva, how long have you been here?”
“I don’t know. Will you draw an elephant too? Here, next to my one.” Eva pressed the crayon into Mel’s hand.
As Mel drew an elephant, or at least what she thought an elephant looked like, Eva snuggled her back into Mel’s chest. She turned round and looked up at Mel.
“I love you,” said Eva.
Mel didn’t know what to say. So she patted Eva on the back again. Eva seemed to like it as she hugged Mel tighter.
They looked up at the sound of Anita coming through the door.
“Oh, shit,” Anita said, closing the door behind her.
“Nita!” Eva jumped off Mel’s lap and ran to hug Anita round the legs.
“Hi, Eva,” Anita said, petting the girl’s head while looking straight at Mel.
Mel stood up, keeping eye contact with Anita.
“Eva, Mel and I need to go talk about something really quick. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Okay?”
“No, don’t go.” Eva’s voice rose up into the crying pitch Mel had heard earlier.
“Hey, can you draw me a tiger. A big orange tiger? I’d really like that,” said Anita.
Eva nodded and went back to her drawing corner. She started scribbling in sad, slow orange strokes.
Anita opened the door. “After you.”
Eva waved as Mel left and Mel waved back.
In the corridor Anita faced Mel.
“I wasn’t supposed to go in there, was I,” said Mel.
“Who is she?”
“Eva is special.”
“The kind of special that’s illegal? Human modification special?”
“Is she yours?”
“Mine? No! I would never… That’s sick.” Anita’s face flushed. “I just look after her.”
“How old is she?”
“We think she’s about thirty. It’s hard to tell. The people who commissioned her aren’t around to answer any questions.”
“Her mother and father?”
“If you want to call them that.”
“And I’m guessing that she’s Springwood’s secret.”
“What are you going to do?”
Mel realised that Anita was scared. Her arms were tightly folded as if she were hugging herself.
“I could tell…” Mel said half to Anita and half to herself. The penalty for human modification or harbouring a modified human was steep. If she alerted the Matherson security forces they might reward her. She might be able to clear her debt, maybe even buy citizenship.
“What do you want?” asked Anita.
“I want a job. When I graduate from the Home next month, I want a job. A real paying job. Here.” The words felt strange in Mel’s mouth. She’d never made a demand before. “I would work hard, of course. I would,” she added, hoping that Anita would see the same solution she did.
Anita let her arms drop to her sides. She looked at Mel for longer than Mel found comfortable. “I think… I think we can make that work.” She held out her hand for Mel to shake.
Mel looked at Anita’s outstretched hand. She reached out and folded her fingers around Anita’s. Anita smiled and gave Mel’s hand one firm shake before releasing it. “Okay, let’s introduce you to Eva properly.”
About the Author
After growing up in the UK and living in Japan, Verity Lane now finds herself in Ottawa, Canada, where she writes and works. She doesn’t mind if you call her an International Woman of Mystery. Her articles on Japanese culture can be found at Tofugu.com and she blogs at veritylane.com.