Tariq’s screams wake me.
I jerk up in a daze, colliding headfirst with the frame of the top bunk. The whole wooden bed trembles in rhythm with Tariq’s thrashing body. It wouldn’t surprise me if he rolled out of bed and hit the floor. Poor kid. This is the third cold he’s had this month.
It’s no wonder why. The fire is a smolder. Nothing but ashes burns in the belly of the furnace across the room. He’s probably freezing to death up there.
“Cassidy, are you up yet?” Mama shouts. Her voice quavers from the other side of my bedroom door when she knocks. She’s catching a cold too.
We’re all on the same schedule for cold season this year. It’s not unusual these days. Born and raised in southern Arizona, none of us have gotten used to planet Nyx’s everlasting winter. But it’s a sacrifice we had to make to keep from perishing on Earth with the others.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m up.” But I’m not. I remain in bed, basking in the small ray of warm light casting a gleam onto the dull hardwood floors. Tariq gasps again, this time, crying out as his coughs amplify.
On my tiptoes I look onto the top bunk. There, my little brother lays cocooned in the tattered quilts, shivering, but sound asleep nonetheless.
“Hey, little bug, are you okay?” I coo. He doesn’t move. I lean in, wondering if he’s even still breathing. “Tariq? Come on, it’s time to wake up.”
He rolls over and I note the purple tint in his brown cheeks and the yellowing hue of his eyes. This doesn’t look like an ordinary cold.
“Tar, wake up.” He doesn’t answer. I put my hand to his forehead. “Geez, boy, you’re cold as ice. Are you okay? Answer me!”
There’s a pause then a gasp and he coughs, spraying blood through his teeth.
“Oh my god.” I unravel him from the sheath of blankets and tote him down the narrow hallway into Mama’s bedroom. She’s all ready for the day and fixing her hair into a bun when I stop in her doorway, knocking on the frame.
“Mama, something’s wrong with Tariq.”
She sighs. “This weather is getting the best of all of us, isn’t it?”
“He’s not breathing,” I say and she scurries over, snatching him out of my arms to rest him atop her sunken burlap cot. In a matter of seconds, she checks for a pulse then vitals, putting all of her previous nursing school training to good use.
“Get me water and a towel,” she says. “Hot water, now, Cassidy!”
I rush out, grabbing a tin bucket from the hallway cupboard, full speed from the hut, neglecting a coat or even a pair of socks. The moment my toes touch the snow outside, my feet burn with blisters as the dry ice cooks the skin.
The wind collides, knocking against my featherweight body so hard that I topple over, forced to crawl the rest of the way. If the wind were any stronger it’d sweep me into the air as I forge against it toward the pump behind our hut.
The rusty thing squeaks when I wind the handle and flushes nothing but brown droplets of water from the faucet. Crap. Of course. It’s only 5AM. They don’t turn on the water until eleven.
They don’t even crank up the underground generators for electricity until noon. All that talk from before about “conserving our provisions” from Earth was pointless on a planet that is subzero ninety percent of the time.
I need to think fast. Let’s see…the Strip opens at six. Around that time, there’ll be a crowd of colonists already outside the gates fending each other off for the best lumber.
Water isn’t an option for five more hours. Venturing into the forest for wood isn’t forbidden, but inadvisable if you have no idea what you’re doing. Whether I like it or not, braving the inevitable pandemonium at the Strip is all I can do. I rush back inside.
Mama hovers over Tariq in the den, cocooning him in blankets on the floor in front the last flame of fire smoldering in the furnace.
“Where’s the water?” she asks. “Cassidy, he’s freezing!”
“There’s no water,” I say. “The pump is dry until eleven. I’m going to the Strip for firewood, okay?”
“There’s no time for that!”
“We don’t have a choice, Mama! I have to go. I’ll be back. Keep Tariq as warm as you can. I promise you, I will be back. Okay?”
She nods. I hurry to my bedroom and slide a large plastic storage bin from beneath the bottom bunk and pick out my best coat along with a pair of mukluks, hand-me-downs courtesy of my older brother, Lonnie.
I dress fast and rush out onto the porch. The first thing that hits me is the wind. It hits me so hard that it dries my face. I lick my cracked lips and taste the fleck of dried blood down the center of a cut. I stuff my hair in handfuls beneath my snowcap, neglecting the stray strands peeking from under.
Before descending the wooden porch stairway, I make sure to click close the padlock on the hut door and check all the windows for locks as well. It’s better this way to keep others in the colony from getting any ideas.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house isn’t exactly a practiced commandment around here.
I follow the gravel pathway downward, around the bend of the block. More turf huts dot the edges, separated, padlocked and boxed into little sections by rusty wire fences. None of them have smoke in their chimneys which means that either they’re still asleep or heading to the Strip to wait in line with the rest of us.
I’m hoping for the former. The longer they sleep in, the fewer people I’ll have to deal with for the day’s portions. This would be a worthwhile venture it if the wood they threw at us through the shafts were any good.
Every once and a while there’s at least one sadistic woodsman that doles out a fine piece of wood that people swarm over until someone is either shot to death or beaten into submission.
I’ll take whatever I can get right now. Even if it’s scraps, I’ll make do with it for Tariq’s sake. After all, we’ve lived off less. So long as it’s enough to spark a decent flame, I don’t have a problem with accepting second best today.
Halfway down the path, I see the usual grey smoke signal through the thorny treetops. Sometimes, when Nyx’s fog is too thick, the smoke transitions to purple to help fellow colonists see their way into the Heart.
After landing on Nyx, the only things we learnt when the schools were built were trades that would only benefit the colony.
Things like firewood, crop picking and smoke signals are amongst the curriculum for graduation, insisting we learn the exact potion formulated for changing the color of smoke to fit specific situations. Red is for danger. Blue is for weather advisories. Purple is for times like this when seeing is the utmost importance and pink is an SOS.
It’s amazing what a dash of food coloring, potassium chlorate oxidizer and lactose can concoct under the right conditions. I follow the purple smoke in, rounding the gravel pathways further into the most populated part of my colony, Cere –- the Heart.
Further in, past the horizontal rows of unmarked huts, the lone Quonset amongst a fleet of wooden shacks sits in waiting with the purple smoke signal seeping out from its tin chimney. I smell the fire raging from inside and covet the heat like a dying flower craving water. I rub my hands together, peeling the dead skin rolling off my palms.
These daily windburns have done a number on my skin and caused so much of my complexion to fade in patches of dry cardboard colored flesh. Once, I was blessed with a brilliant brown complexion that’s now sallow beige.
If you’d look at me now, you could almost never tell that I was once teased for being the blackest girl with the kinkiest hair at school in Arizona. I’m a ghost of my former self in this weather and on this planet.
I’m not the only one sucking my cracked lips to keep them from chapping in the wind. There’s already a small huddle of people gathered before the Quonset. The frosted windows are still barred shut and the tin log chutes jutting out its sides are clearly inaccessible.
Nonetheless, there are already people lying outside the place in makeshift sleeping bags and heavy coats. The huge sundial hanging from the Quonset’s hood is around forty-five after five. In a cluster of maybe ten or fifteen people, I figure, I’ve made some good time.
I can handle a crowd this small. I think. There aren’t many people here to fight. I remind myself to not underestimate the company. I stay behind the crowd, burrowing my hands inside my coat pockets, wondering which strategy I’ll go with from here.
I could make a run for it as soon as the chutes open, but that would take some quick feet not to mention some tricky footwork to keep out of the crossfire of others who will be tempted to do the same thing.
Or I could stay back and out of the way until the trampling starts. By then wood will be flying from people’s arms one log at a time. I’m small for my age. I could squeeze into the crowd unnoticed and retrieve the dropped lumber before anyone catches me.
Yeah, that’s best. It’s best not to push my luck by getting too cocky. I’ll stay out of the way and pick up whatever is dropped. As the crowd thickens, I wonder more and more how possible that plan is. What started as a crowd of fifteen is now a twice the number and growing by the second.
I don’t have much wiggle room to maneuver through. I can’t see over the heads of the taller people blocking my view of the chutes. Still, I stand as far away as I can to wait with everyone else as dawn casts light over the colony sundial’s sixth hour. The chutes unlock and the first batch of wood shoots out like torpedoes.
People have to duck to keep from getting hit. I dodge behind the biggest man I find to shield myself. The first batch incites the usual brawl. Two men battle it out over one huge log that’s big enough to fuel a continuous fire for at least two weeks.
The rest of us scatter. We know better than to get in the way of this once the knife is drawn. I make a beeline for the opposite direction, dodging the log that flies at my head. Someone jerks me around. I get out of their way and fall all-fours to search the ground for dropped wood. Overhead, I watch a nice piece of timber burst from another one of the chutes.
It’s right in my path, aiming for me like it’s meant to be mine. I open my arms to catch it then something hits me from the left and takes me down in a tackle that knocks the wind out of me. I sit up wheezing as a boy intercepts the wood midair, looks down at me chuckling then says, “Oops. Better luck next time?”
“What was that?”
Holding my stomach, I prop myself onto my feet. “I called you an asshole.”
“It’s not my fault you’re slow with poor reflexes.”
“Whatever,” I say. “Take the wood and get out of my face.” I dust myself off, bruised from limb to ego. All I want to do is disappear even if it’s with nothing, but my tail between my legs so I try, but he sidesteps and blocks off my path.
“Wait…you take it,” he says then shoves the wood at me. “Go on. It’s yours. Take it before I change my mind.”
“I don’t need your charity.”
“You also don’t need that attitude either, but we’re all forced to deal with the cards we’re dealt, right? Besides, there’s no way you’re getting past these other vultures for anything better. Take the wood.”
Again, he shoves the wood in my direction. I step back. He steps forward.
“Take the damn wood and stop being so stupid. I’m fast and a good jumper. I can easily catch another piece of wood.”
“I can catch my own wood,” I say, determined to do just that. “Now move!”
A second log whizzes over us. It hits the snow as me and two others scurry toward it. The girl who reaches it first draws a pocketknife and waves it at the rest of us to keep us at bay.
As we stagger back, the man behind her grabs her by the neck and snaps it with one quick motion. In a matter of seconds, he swipes the wood and rushes off. I stand still holding my breath. The boy steps in front of me and drops the log into my arms.
“Here,” he says. “Someone has gotta show some humanity around here.”
I don’t reply. I watch as he disappears back into the crowd. With him gone, my eyes return to the girl in the snow. I bet she’s no older than Tariq and died over a stupid piece of wood.