Garnet refused to look back to see if anyone was following her. She simply didn’t have the time to be paranoid right now. The long walk stretched before her like a math problem, one with four thousand simple steps, four thousand opportunities to make a mistake and destroy all the subsequent calculations.
She walked for hours before reaching the edge of the city. It was surprising how much energy a non-athletic person such as herself could find in times like these. As she walked, she thought of her children, and felt exhausted. Surely this couldn’t be the end. Surely a business trip couldn’t result in never seeing them ever again. She hoped they had stayed together. Timothy could be selfish, she knew, but she had every faith that her son would be the rock his sister needed in these desperate times. They would take care of each other, she knew. She just wished it didn’t have to come to this.
She should have never left them. And her sister. She missed Carmella, too. She hoped Timothy and Olivia were being good to her. Hopefully they had found the TV dinners she had left in the freezer, in case there was a time they couldn’t go to the grocery store. Hopefully Carmella remembered that the dog couldn’t go out after dark, or he would fight his way loose and run off. Garnet missed home like she would miss her heart or lungs if they were removed.
It was almost twilight before the city was out of sight. She had no idea where she was going, only that she had to do something. She didn’t have any food, or water, or even an extra sweater to sleep on. Only the backpack with the vitamin tablets, her useless phone, and her sunglasses. She would probably starve to death, or dehydrate, or get eaten by wild dogs. Or Canadian geese. But at least she would die in the fresh air, she reasoned. With the peaceful sounds of the night rocking her into endless slumber.
At last, she could not go on anymore. There were lights in the distance, she noticed, but it was probably just a mirage, urban pollution. She collapsed in the long, soft grass, allowing her body to absorb the chilling spirit of the earth.
She remembered falling into a well when she was younger. Although she had been afraid at first, it had only taken a minute for the water to pull all her worries out of her body. She had floated, free of light and heat, and as the hypothermia overtook her, she felt that she was fully somebody, nobody, a body. And now, she lay in the grass and waited for the sword of night to fall on her and end the aching.
She thought she could hear the earth breathing. It sounded like the whirring of an aerotram, or a fan. And the heartbeat. A thwack, thwack, thwack. This must be what babies felt like. What little embryonic Timothy and Olivia must have gotten to hear, for nine precious months. No noise of traffic, no ringing phones, no television. Surrounded by the rhythm of life of the person who loved them more than anything. Garnet burrowed her fingers in the soft, warm womb of the ground. There was something nestled there, hard and knobbly like the hand of an old man. Words nudged her mind. Apple of the earth.
She was so tired she knew she must be dreaming when the man appeared above her on the floating throne. He held a scepter in his right hand that glittered in the moonlight. It must be the Allsaint, Garnet reasoned, from stories her grandmother had always told her. Garnet had never been much for religion even before the Global Secularity Act, but the man on the throne made her feel as though some sort of truth had finally settled in her veins.
“I’m ready,” she whispered, closing her eyes.
“…never thought about it before, but it makes sense now.”
Something popped in her head, and Garnet realized the man was talking to her. She tried to reply, but he didn’t hear her murmurs.
“Honey? Can you get up?”
She forced her eyes open. The man’s chair drifted closer, and she could see his face a little now. Old eyes, crinkled skin. He was in a levitating wheelchair, and he held a long rod for beating something. He was talking to her again, but she couldn’t hear. There was water in her ears.
While she was thinking about the water, a strong hand grabbed her arm. She tried to pull it away, but another hand grabbed her left leg under the knee. Suddenly she was pulled up, away from the warm, soft earth and into the cold, harsh wind. “No…” she groaned.
The old man cradled her over his legs, one arm around her back, one hand holding a radio. “…someone in the field…refugee from the city…barely responsive…run a bath…”
Bath. Garnet smiled. It had been so long since she had had a bath. She held on tight to his arm as the chair whirred off.
She must have fallen asleep, because the next thing she knew was the smell of coffee. Opening her eyes, she saw a kindly looking old woman standing over her, the mug grasped in her gnarled hands.
“Rise and shine, sweetheart,” the old woman chirped. Garnet was spread on a sofa, pillows propping up her back and head.
“Where am I?” she asked, reaching for the coffee.
The woman snatched it away, though. “Uh-uh! This was just to wake you up. Here, drink this.” She handed Garnet a different mug, this one filled with strangely coloured milk. It smelled like cinnamon and peppermint, and had the faint taste of honey. Sitting up, Garnet took another careful sip and looked around.
Instantly, she thought of her grandparent’s house. There were pictures in actual frames hanging on every bare inch of wall space, and strange statuettes were on every cabinet and tabletop. And there was glass and wood furniture everywhere. And knitting was draped or thrown over everything. The air smelled like flowers and leather.
“What happened, anyway?” Garnet asked. The old woman laughed.
“Well, ever since the invasion we haven’t been able to check on the fields except at night, so those Googly Eyes can’t see that we’ve still got potatoes. Birch sure wasn’t expecting to find such a pretty young thing ripping them up!”
“What?” she vaguely remembered that she had left the airport, finally, and wandered and wandered all evening. She was pretty sure she had died once or twice, since she had seen the Allsaint appear on his throne.
The old woman bustled around her, adjusting pillows and blankets. “Don’t worry about it, dear. They were almost ready to come up anyway. How are you feeling? Do you want to try eating a bit of oatmeal?”
Garnet almost laughed. “Oatmeal? I haven’t heard of that since I was six!” Vaguely, she thought she might be acting a little rude, but she felt so frazzled she was surprised she was still conscious. “Where am I? What happened?”
The woman paused, a sympathetic expression settling on her face. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Let me introduce myself. I’m Ava Young, and this is my brother’s home. Oh, I wonder where he went? He was supposed to bring some chocolate cake up from the cellar.” The woman hurried away, and for a moment, Garnet was alone. But then, from another entrance to the room, the man with the hovering wheelchair appeared.
“How are you feeling, girl?” he asked in a gravelly voice. He played with some controls, and the chair settled to the carpeted floor.
“Why don’t you just hover all the time?” she asked curiously.
He smiled faintly. “It wastes battery. Did you see my sister?”
“She just left, looking for you. She said something about cake.”
The man reached into a compartment under the seat and produced a container. Through the cloudy plastic, Garnet could make out the cake inside. “She will be back soon enough, I suppose.” The chair wheeled towards the sofa, and the man extended his hand to Garnet. “I’m Eli Mundell. My friends call me Birch. You can call me Mr. Mundell.”
“A pleasure, Mr. Mundell.” He inclined his head. “I’m sorry for ruining your potatoes.”
Another smile. “Aw, don’t worry about it. Nobody can resist them.”
“I’ve always wondered where potatoes come from. I never would have thought they came out of the dirt like grass.”
“What, are you from the city?”
She shrugged, pulling the blanket off her legs. Her pants were covered in dirt, and she stared guiltily at the soiled covers of the sofa. “Not this city,” she replied, draining the rest of her milk and reaching for the coffee. “I’m from Chania, but I got a three-month work transfer from the British Union to the United States of Canada, and then…well, the attacks and all. I got stuck.”
Mr. Mundell shook his head, his eyes smiling. “United States of Canada,” he snorted. “I’ve never heard such a ridiculous thing.”
She blinked at him. “What do you mean, exactly? That’s what it’s called.”
“Ha! No it isn’t. Only for the past few decades anyway. Just to save a couple of dollars.”
“Birch! Are you up there?” came the old woman’s voice from another room. Still chuckling, Mr. Mundell drove out.
Garnet sipped her coffee, not sure what to make of these strange people. Their kindness made her leery. What did they want from her? Surely hundreds of people had passed through here. Weren’t they tired of dealing with refugees?
Vainly, she brushed dirt from the sofa onto the carpet. Standing up, she saw that the mess was worse than it seemed. Sighing, she stood awkwardly in the center of the room, trying not to touch anything.
Ava came back through yet another entrance. Looking closely, Garnet saw two doors and two open entryways. This room was like a heart connecting different sides of the house. “Come on, dear, you probably want to wash up. Dinner’s in an hour.”
Taking Garnet’s dirt-smeared arm, Ava led her out and up a set of steep, rickety wooden stairs. “So you’re Mrs…?”
“Ava, dear. You can just call me Ava.”
“And you’re Mr. Mundell’s sister?”
She laughed. Their merriness was grinding. “Mr. Mundell? Is that what he told you to call him? He’s Eli, honey. Or Birch, if you prefer.”
“Just trying to get the whipper-snapper to show some respect!” Birch called as they passed a doorway. It appeared that he was in some sort of trophy room, one of the old-fashioned ones that had actual trophies.
Ava rolled her eyes at him and pulled Garnet along. “Here, honey, you can use this room for now. Bathroom’s right over there, at the end of the hall. There’re towels and shampoo and whatnot in there. You just come on back down when you’re ready.”
Gratefully, Garnet closed the door. She took off her sweater, hanging it on a bed post so it wouldn’t touch any of the furniture, which was more of the glass and wood variety, carved in intricate patterns. Strange lamps stood on metal stands, and there were a few pictures. One of a younger Ava, clutching the arm of a dark-haired man. There was a grainy photograph of a family of seven, and the members showed up in various combinations at different ages in the rest of the photos. She recognized Ava and Birch in some of them, but in others she figured they were too young for Garnet to place.
The room was about the size of her pantry back home, but it was cozy, somehow, with all the warm colours.
Garnet walked to the bathroom, and snapped her fingers. Nothing happened. She snapped them again. Still, nothing. She tried different rhythms, different numbers of claps. Finally, she crept down the stairs. In the kitchen off to the side, Ava was stirring a pot of something that smelled delicious, and Birch read to her from some sort of paper magazine.
“Umm, excuse me,” Garnet asked shyly. “The light in the bathroom doesn’t seem to be working.”
“Uh-oh! Might be time for a new lightbulb!” Lightbulbs? Were these people from the Stone Ages? Ava clipped up the stairs ahead of Garnet, who came into the room as the light turned on. Garnet stared as Ava gazed in puzzlement at the light switch.
“I’m sorry, I’m just not use to houses like these.”
“Old, you mean?” Ava asked.
“No! Not at all, just…authentic…”
Laughing, Ava patted her shoulder. “It’s alright, honey. Those snap lights are so annoying. Every time I dropped something or made a sound that sounded like snapping, the lights would go off. And anyway, getting up to turn off the lights is good exercise.”
Garnet nodded quickly, and when Ava left, took the quickest shower of her life. This place was so strange. She needed to get out of here as soon as possible.
When she got back to her room, she found that a dress had been left for her, along with some very old looking underclothes and a pair of leather shoes. Her dirty clothes were gone. Were these Ava’s? she wondered with a blush as she held up the lacy bra. But it was better than tracking dirt all over, she reasoned. And the dress wasn’t so bad, a pastel pale orange with a white silk ribbon and light green polka dots. The hem was trimmed in white lace, and though it was a little tight, at least it was clean. And it wasn’t knitted. Smoothing her damp hair, she walked down the stairs.
The table was set with ceramic plates and metal cutlery, glass glasses and cloth napkins. It was so…authentic. And she really meant it this time. She was afraid to touch any of it, knowing that somehow she was from a completely different world.
“Oh, look at you!” Ava said, setting a pot on a knitted potholder. “Now, Birch, doesn’t she look like me? I was so hot when I was your age, sweetie.” Birch wrinkled his nose at his sister. “Well, sit down, darling, dinner’s on. Your name is Garnet, right?”
She carefully sat in one of the heavy wooden chairs, smoothing her dress over her legs. “Yes. How did you know?”
“You were delirious when Birch brought you in. You kept saying, ‘My name is Garnet, I live in Chania, I have two children, and I need to call them right away.’ You know what they always say. Ain’t nothing more honest than a sleep talker.”
She had heard something like that. “Well, I do miss my children. And that’s what I kept saying at the airport, but nobody would let me make the phone call. I…Do you have a phone?”
Sadly, Ava shook her head and scooped spaghetti onto all three plates. “We haven’t had service in months. Nothing but those hand radios. It’s a miracle we’ve still got power and water, or that our land hasn’t been taken like some other folks around here.”
Garnet took a mouthful of spaghetti. “This is very good!” she said.
“Ancient family recipe.” Birch replied. “And we haven’t prayed yet.”
Garnet nodded, taking another bite. “Oh, sorry, I’ll be quiet.”
Birch looked a little exasperated, but he took his sister’s hand. Uncertainly, Ava reached for Garnet’s hand, but Garnet shook her head, continuing to enjoy her pasta. Ava and Birch closed their eyes.
“Dear Lord God,” Ava began, and Garnet almost choked on a turnip.
“Don’t you mean the Allsaint?” Garnet asked. They opened their eyes, and Birch looked at her with pursed lips.
“No, I do not mean the heathen Allsaint,” he said slowly. “I mean God. Father Almighty, Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, Holy Spirit and Eternal Counselor.”
Shocked, Garnet set her fork down. “B-but the Secularism Act. Only the Allsaint is sanctioned for worship. Occasional worship. Idolatry is seen as morally hindering and frankly, a waste of time.”
A storm seemed to be brewing on Birch’s face, but Ava cut in. “Honey, we don’t really tend to keep up with the times. We’ve never accepted the Allsaint. We were saved for Christ when we were babies, and we will worship him until we die.”
Garnet couldn’t believe what dramatic nonsense she was hearing. Of all the people to be rescued by, it had to be a bunch of religious insurgents. Old-fashioned, nostalgic Bible-beaters. “All religions except for the Secular Religion are against domestic regulations and recommendations,” she recited. “In some countries, all religious activities are banned. Canada and Britain are pretty lucky.”
Ava shot Birch a look, and after a moment, his face relaxed. “No, we’re all doomed. The Secular Religion is demon worship. Did you know that the Allsaint is Satan?”
Garnet wracked her brain, trying to remember where she had heard that name. “Like, the actor? Satan Reese?”
“No…Ava!” he wailed.
“Honey, would you like to have a talk, after dinner? We always love sharing our faith with others, and at the very least, setting the record straight about all these political reforms. Everyone is usually so content to just go with the flow and forget what they don’t want to think about.”
“Why after dinner?” Birch asked. “Dinner is for conversation, isn’t it? That’s what you always tell me.”
“Birch, we have a guest, we have to be polite. She’s a city girl, she was never educated about these things.”
Garnet bristled a little. Calling her uneducated was crossing the line. “Yes, I live to be enlightened. Do let’s have that talk right now.”
Ava reached over and squeezed Garnet’s hand. “Oh, honey, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“We still haven’t prayed yet,” Birch said grumpily, staring at his food that was no longer steaming.
“Okay, get on with it then,” Ava suggested. Impulsively, Garnet grabbed both of their hands.
“Alright. Dear Lord God: