By Jane Maree
I scrub some of the dirt from between my fingers, trying to ignore the furious beating of my heart as I hobble across the pavement. My arms sting with small nicks and scratches from hours of scrabbling through the ruins, but all for nothing. I didn’t unearth a single tiny root.
Not even a hint of green.
And now I’m late again.
The apartment door looms up in front of me, the scanner glowing a soft blue. I lay my hand beneath the sensor. If I slip in quietly maybe Venys won’t notice.
“Good evening, Michayla.” The automated greeter registers my identity and swings the door open for me.
“Clover Glyn,” I whisper. How long had it been since Father remarried and Venys reprogrammed the greeter to omit my middle and last name?
One week. Maybe two.
I tiptoe into the hallway, placing each step tentatively against the cold boards. The floor vibrates with the heavy bass blaring from the parlor, but the laughter that accompanies it is still audible over the sound. I clamp my hands over my ears, inching toward the nearest door.
A regal figure swishes out, blocking my path. “You.” Her voice rings with triumph.
My heart lurches against my chest. “Please, I didn’t mean to be late. I couldn’t get home fast enough because—”
She slaps me across the cheek, and I fall to my hands and knees, the world reeling beneath me.
“I have told you over and over again to stop scavenging in the dirt. You’re wasting your time.”
I gasp in a shuddering breath, squeezing my eyes shut.
“Look, Michayla.” Mother splays my fingers open and gently places a slim stalk of green onto my palm. “Just imagine that covering this entire plateau.”
I stare at the grass for a moment and then lift my eyes up to the red-brown clay of the plateau. For an instant, I can picture it swaying with green stalks. Like the world before the sickness.
The world that Mother talks of—the world of hope and life.
“When I say to come home before five, I expect you to obey,” Venys snarls. “Do you understand?”
Tears pool in my eyes and I bite my lip to stop its quiver. “I…understand.”
“Good girl.” A sneer forms on her lips, making me feel like the freak she thinks I am. “Although you’ve never earned that phrase,” she adds.
I curl my arms around me, sheltering myself behind them like a bird cowering from a lashing wind.
“Also, don’t bother my husband with any silly tales of your activities. Get up and out of my sight before he sees you.”
Her husband. But he’s my father too.
Footsteps scrape down the hallway, and I clamber to my feet. I don’t want Father to see me on the floor. Not because it would upset him, but because he wouldn’t do anything about it, and I couldn’t bear that.
Father peers around the corner, and Venys spreads her arms and runs to him. Her hand slips up the back of his neck and ruffles his hair, mussing it from his normal neat appearance.
“Are you almost ready?” she asks, tipping her face up toward his.
Father’s lips lift at the corners. The smile he used to give me. “I’m afraid so.” He smooths his hair down with a quick pat, and I feel self-conscious of my dark mass of bouncing springs. On anyone else I might call them ringlets, but in my own possession they are far too dirty and bedraggled to own such a title.
I reach up, tucking a curl behind my ear. Maybe he’ll notice me this time. Maybe he’ll say my name.
Instead of his deep voice, it’s the shrill demand of one of Venys’s daughters. “Honestly, child, have you been playing in the dirt again? How can you polish my watch with your hands that filthy?” Her bottom lip pushes out into a pout.
The door crashes open and the second stepsister totters in on stilt-like heels. “Oh Michayla, how dreadful you look.”
I study the dirt crammed beneath my fingernails, a fine layer of gray coating my dark skin from my fingertips to my elbows. And still no sign of life.
One day I will find something. One day I’ll find a speck of grass, or a hint of moss. A linger of green somewhere, buried from the sun, hiding from the trampling feet. Growing. And living.
One day I will find my patch of clover. Or even a single leaf.
The clock on the wall bleeps as it hits the half-hour mark.
“Oh, Ace.” Venys scrunches her eyebrows together. “I don’t know if you ought to leave.”
Father straightens his shoulders. “It’s the Testing, and I must be there.”
“But what if they take you?” I whisper.
“The Testing has been occurring every season’s turn for a year now, and he hasn’t been taken any of the other times,” my eldest stepsister hisses, glaring at me. “Every man between twenty and forty years of age has to go; it’s a one-in-a-billion chance. Of course Papa will return.”
I clench my teeth, suppressing the words that yearn to tumble out. I don’t want him to leave again and come home with sickly pale skin and dull eyes. Whatever they’re doing to him, it’s wrong.
“Don’t go,” I breathe.
No one responds or even acts like they hear.
Father pats Venys’s hand. “I’ll bring you a gift as usual.”
My stepsisters squeal and mob him with frills and lace. “I want a new hair dye, a very bright color.”
“Buy me the latest release from the clothes department—”
“And me too!”
I try to resist the urge to cover my ears. How can Father bear it?
He just laughs, although even that sounds unnatural. Venys is changing him with her poisonous words day by day.
“I’ll get one for each of you,” he declares, extracting himself from their reach.
I catch my breath as his gaze touches mine and doesn’t pass over as if I don’t exist. “Michayla?” His voice is still the same, and I long to shut my eyes and imagine how close, how happy we once were.
“Yes, Father?” I manage.
A titter comes from behind him, and I stiffen, but he continues anyway. “What about you? What do you want me to bring back?”
I swallow. “Me?”
“Yes, you,” he replies. “What should I bring back for you?”
All I can hear is his voice saying my name. Michayla Clover Glyn. Michayla Clover.
“You see, Michayla? The second leaf of a clover stands for faith. The third stands for love.”
“And the first leaf?” I ask the question again, even though I know the answer already. “What does the first leaf stand for?”
“That leaf is my favorite.” Her arm squeezes my small waist tighter, and she points to the first leaf on the sketched drawing. “It means hope.”
“Clover,” I blurt out before I can stop myself.
Father’s eyes widen, and I can almost see memories flashing across his vision. But then Venys intrudes.
“Child,” she says, her voice wobbling. “Do not speak that name here. Your mother is gone—may she have peace forever.”
“I—I meant—a leaf of clover.” I attempt to back away, but I’m already huddled against the wall. Shivers prickle through my body and I wrap my arms around myself. It’s like I have a glass sphere inside me, shielded in my heart.
The jealousy in Venys’s gaze hits me, and I wish I could disappear.
But I also detect fear. Fear that Father will remember the past, that he’ll realize what is happening, that he’ll abandon her. If she’d only allow me, I could be her friend. If she would just let me past the mask. It’s not too late yet. It doesn’t have to be this way.
When she at last moves away from Father, I hardly recognize him. His eyes harden as he looks down on me, and a laugh breaks through his lips. “A leaf of clover?” he snorts, pulling himself up into a strong figure once again.
I open and shut my mouth without uttering a word. What is happening to him? How can he close himself up like this?
He leans over me. “Clover doesn’t grow in places like this, nor does anything green. No one cares about green anymore.”
Small cracks spread along the sides of the glass globe hidden inside of me, but all I can do is stare as he quickly embraces the others and disappears through the door.
“Clover indeed.” Venys turns on me, smirking. But she can’t hold my gaze for long, and the thin lips she’s forced into a fake smile quiver a little.
I scramble out the door, my eyes stinging. Their laughter follows me as I half run, half limp into the empty street. The pattern of shadows and stains are scattered across the pavement like crumbling ruins. I collapse to my hands and knees a short distance from the building, sobs shaking my shoulders.
It’s over. He’s forgotten me. He’s forgotten Mother. He’s forgotten the beautiful world of green we showed him.
Clover doesn’t grow in places like this. No one cares about green anymore.
Five days later
I drag myself up from the floor, almost stumbling because my leg is stiffer than normal. Dirt clings to my hands, and I brush it off on my skirt.
“Hurry up, freak.” My stepsister snickers as I limp into the other room.
I barricade myself, refusing to let the words pierce me. But they still hurt. I almost want to forget, like Father. But I can’t forget the green.
Venys sits at her normal place, mesmerized by the blinding screens along the wall that display the Net channels flickering past. “Child, has there been news of my husband yet?”
“He’s my father,” I whisper, but she hears.
“What?” Her perfect eyebrows arch upward on her equally perfect face.
I lift my chin higher, balling my hands into fists even as sweat beads on my skin. “He’s my father. Not just ‘your husband.’”
“Your father?” she repeats, and I nod firmly. She laughs. “That would imply you were somehow related to me. And that couldn’t be true. I couldn’t be related to a wretched child like you.”
My legs buckle beneath me and I’m dizzied by a sudden lightness in my head. I stumble backward, her words like an invisible force tearing at me. They replay over and over, taunting me. Wretched child.
I feel dirty and empty like the barren plateau high above the city. Just a deformed nobody who is far too easy to forget.
You are more than what they say you are. Mother’s words echo in my mind.
My leg sends me pitching awkwardly to the side, but I steady myself on the wall and keep going. Why did I pretend that hope was real? It doesn’t even exist anymore. Like clover plants. Or any plants at all.
I stagger down the hall and slump against the front door, fumbling for the scanner at the same time as the sensor announces an unidentified man.
“Answer it, wretch,” Venys growls, stomping into the hall.
I slip my hand out and the door opens. The man is framed against the city outside, a figure of silence for a passing second.
“I am here to speak to the mistress of the house,” he begins, smoothing his jacket.
Venys shoves me aside. “Yes?” Her monotone reminds me of the automated greeter.
“I have news for you.” The man’s gaze doesn’t lift above the level of her shoulders, and he drops his voice a little. I can’t hear anyway. The pulse pounding through my ears drowns out everything else.
News. Father. What has happened? What have they done to him?
“Your husband, Ace Damian Glyn, has been selected in the Testing.”
Time freezes around me, but the man drones on as if reciting a script. “He has been chosen to serve the people. This is a great honor for your entire family.” The way he emphasizes “honor” makes it sound false.
Father’s gone. They’ve taken him away. I’ll never see him again.
He holds out a thick stack of paper notes. “Ma’am, all those who are selected in the Testing receive funds for—”
Venys grabs the papers and twists them as if trying to rip them to pieces. With a wail, she tosses the handful into the man’s face. Money flutters everywhere like butterflies with broken wings. The man takes a startled step backward in the midst of the flurry.
Venys sinks to her knees. Sobs rack her shoulders as she raises her hands to cover her face.
I realize she actually did love him.
The man bows his head and turns to leave. Stumbling forward, I manage to grab his sleeve. “Please, wait, there must be a mistake.” My voice comes out desperate, like a small child pleading for a sweet. I need to know that there is something other than despair in the world.
“The Testing doesn’t make errors.” He jerks his arm free, but then he pauses, scrutinizing me up and down. “You’re his daughter, aren’t you?”
I tense, but a weak nod bounces the springs of hair about my face.
“I wasn’t going to bother, because it’s pointless but…he said to give you this.” He dips his hand into his pocket and pulls out a thin scrap of something.
My fingers tremble as I stretch out my hand, carefully grasping the item.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice low so only I can hear. Then he walks away into the dimness of the gray evening as I stare down at the tiny slip of green in my hands.
It’s a clover leaf.
I stumble back into the wall, clutching the tiny sprig in both hands, holding it close to my heart. My knees weaken and I slide down the wall to the floor.
He’s gone. They’ve taken him away.
The room blurs around me. I blink, trying to banish the watery mist in my eyes, but the tears spill from my eyelashes anyway. My fingers tighten around the stalk of green, wilted though it may be. The faintest hint of the leaf’s scent wafts up to me. Closing my eyes, I can imagine it growing stronger.
He found my gift—a remnant of the life he said no one cared about anymore—and he got it to me, even though they were taking him away.
He remembered me.
I can’t let them keep him trapped away. I won’t forget about him. I don’t know how, but I will find him and break him free. Somehow. Because I know how it feels to be given up on.
And I haven’t given up on him.
Jane Maree is a quirky, fun-loving fifteen-year-old from the eastern side of Australia. She started writing by accident, but since the very beginning has loved the enchantment of words on paper. She went to school for ten weeks of kindergarten, got all the funny stories she needed, and then switched to homeschooling and has stuck with it ever since—along with her five siblings.
Aside from crafting worlds using only twenty-six letters, she is a songwriter, an adventurer, and a musician, and she considers it her official job description to make people laugh.