It was a cocktail of career babysitting and Blackboard Jungle1 that lured Therese Fletcher into teaching. She was the sort of girl who tried to keep her baby-dolls on a regular feeding schedule, and lingered at the children’s table long after the grownups had invited her into their company so she could “look after” the younger kids. There was something about the idea of helping children grow up into their best selves that inspired her.
Admittedly, it would have helped if she’d ever developed the ability to say no to anything more willful than a tree, but passion is always a good start.
She managed to snag a job at St. Mary’s Catholic Primary School fresh out of university. Not that it was hard. Even fifteen years after the war, Australia was still hungry for teachers. A lot of women went into the field merely to pass the time waiting for a husband, or in the misguided belief it would somehow train them for motherhood, or simply because it was a respectable job for a lady with plenty of holidays. Many men meanwhile Miss Fletcher came to discover became teachers solely to avoid the draft, venting their bitter misplacement on generations of students.
Therese, though, she did it all for the kids.
Her first day on the job, she stumbled into her classroom a full five minutes after the morning bell. “Sorry, sorry,” she said as she plonked down an armful of handouts and spare stationary, “possum died in my car.”
As the rows of students exchanged confused glances or tried to stifle laughter, Therese remembered what company she was in. “I mean—I meant to say—good morning!” She picked up a stick of pink-chalk, writing out her in cursive name on the chalkboard. “My name is ‘Miss Fletcher’,” she said a little too deliberately, before turning to face the children. “I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of fun together!”
Her students new chorused, “Yes, Miss Fletcher,” sending the woman’s soul aflutter. She spotted a scholastically green Granny Smith waiting on her desk. A black-haired, freckled little boy near the front of the class was grinning.
She beamed. “Whichever of you did this shouldn’t have.” Just to show how much she appreciated the gesture, she took a bite out of the apple… only to wretch as the hot mustard hit her tongue, her sputtering and coughing almost drowned out by laughter.
Those children made Therese Fletcher’s life utter hell for the entire school year. She still cried the day they graduated grade-two. It didn’t matter if they stuck tacks on her chair or coined a whole alphabet of unflattering nicknames. She was there for their benefit, not the other way around.
The year after Therese’s professional debut, the United States and the USSR nearly destroyed the world, before the Flying Man remade it all together. There was nothing all that special about Miss Fletcher’s dread and fear during the Cuban Crisis, save maybe for how keen it was. Even she classified herself as “wobbly.” An art critic would’ve said her actual memories of those days were more impressionist than representative.
What stuck with her was what happened after.
She had been pouring herself a coffee in the St. Mary’s staff-room when she asked the breakfasting grade-three teacher (one of the draft dodgers), “Is Liam Michaels sick?”
Mr. Ferguson’s hot cross bun hovered in front of his mouth. “Huh?”
“…Liam Michaels,” Therese said slowly. “Boy in your class. Black hair, plastered with freckles? I taught him last year. Haven’t seen him around the yard lately.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Ferguson. “You didn’t hear? The freak-finders got him.”
Therese frowned. “The what got him?”
A shrug. “That new ministry or whatever it is the government set up to round up the supers. The DHDA2 I think it’s called. Not surprised that little shit was one of them.” He smiled at Miss Fletcher. “Think he zapped the mustard into that apple he gave ya?”
Therese didn’t answer. She was too busy trying to figure out why the government would fear a child.
The end came while she was on lunch monitor duty. The sun was beating down on the school green hard enough that Therese thought she could hear the grass drying under her feet. A boy and a girl were arguing their case over some kind of soccer foul, but it was like trying to listen to crickets argue. She was so tired.
“And then he said it didn’t count if he used someone else’s hands… are you alright Miss Fletcher?”
The teacher began to sway. “Sharing is caring, kids…”
The children managed to catch her before she hit the ground. They even helped drag her to the nurse’s office. That bemused her in the exhausted corner of her mind she had retreated to. Wasn’t this supposed to be the other way around?
The nurse sent Therese home with orders for a blood test. She had been expecting something simple. An iron deficiency, maybe.
She hadn’t expected leakumeia.
An old, nearsighted GP to prophesied her doom like he was cancelling his weekend in the country. There was no question about Therese staying on at St. Marys. Even if she could in the state she was in—even if they would let her—she wouldn’t force children to watch her whither.
A strange democracy of appearance ruled St. John of God’s oncology ward. All kinds of people entered that place: men and women, the young and old, the ugly and the beautiful. But they looked the same in the end. Bald and frail, reeking of death and disinfectant, with plastic IV vents peeking out from under their sleeves. A forest of barren trees, holding on through their last winter. People had always told Therese she had very large eyes, but now they seemed bulguous and fly-like set in her nearly naked skull. She began to recoil from mirrors the way a vampire would.
For six months, strange men did things to Therese she didn’t understand, clumsily trying to burn and poison the rogue cells inside her while hopefully leaving some of Miss Fletcher intact. Sometimes, they managed almost managed to get it all, but it always returned, mutated and more virulent than ever. Darwinism in action, she imagined herself explaining to her class.
Many times, Therese wanted to tell the troupes of doctors and nurses to just leave her alone; let her spend her last few months able to keep a mouthful of spag-bol down.
She didn’t, of course. That would be making a fuss.
Eventually, the doctors themselves conceded defeat, pumped Therese full of morphine, and told the nurses to keep her comfortable until the end. It was a relief, honestly. Between long stretches of dreamless, opioid-induced sleep, Therese wondered if any of her students would remember her. It was an odd thing, being a teacher. For a year, you’re the one of the most important grown-up in a child’s life. Then, they’re gone from yours.
One day (she had lost track of things like morning or night) her mother crept into her hospital room3. The poor woman’s face was shadowed by worry like it always was, but there was some other emotion else playing across her features like light through stained glass. “Therese, honey, there’s someone here to see you.”
“You can have the fruit-basket.”
“No, luv, it’s not that. She says she’s an… an alternative specialist, and she’s interested in your case.”
Therese made a vaguely affirmative croak. Her mother looked out the door. “You can come in.”
The orange cloak the hook-nosed woman wore almost made Therese think she was hallucinating. She was surprised to notice that she carried a leather purse instead of a doctor’s bag.
The woman smiled gently over her, introducing herself in a soft teutonic tone, “Hello, Therese, I’m Eliza Winter. Some people call me Żywie, long story.” She looked over at Therese’s mother. “Mrs Fletcher, it would be a great help if you could fetch me some coffee.”
As the elder Fletcher scurried off, Żywie lay her hand on Therese’s arm. “Alright, let’s get started with this.”
Therese was wondering if the woman was some kind of faith healer, when what felt like warm water rushed into every corner of her body, like someone was running a hot bath inside of her. If this was the Holy Spirit, she liked it.
“Wh—what are you…”
Żywie shushed her. “It’s alright, friend. Right now, I’m just seeing what the damage is.” She hummed to herself. “I’m surprised you’ve hung on so long in this state. You must be a real fighter.”
Therese was glad she didn’t laugh. That would’ve hurt like hell. “Blame the doctors.”
Żywie chuckled. “If you say so. Tell me, Therese, what do you do with yourself?”
“I was a teacher.”
“You are a teacher,” the healer corrected, her smile brightening, “so am I.”
“Primary or secondary?” Therese wheezed.
Żywie tilted her free hand. “A bit of both. We’re a small school, not quite big enough for more than one class yet. It’s getting crowded, though. We’ve hired some help, but he’s just one man. Bit intense for the little ones, I think. High-school teachers, you know?”
Therese nodded weakly. “I do. So smug, too… Miss Winter?”
“Are you a super?”
“…Yes. If I sounded hesitant, it’s only the times we live in. I’m sanctioned, but some patients react badly. Is it a problem?”
“Good to hear. Our school teaches supers. Used to just be for children whose parents couldn’t handle it, but since the sanctioning laws…” Żywie shook her head. “We have a lot on our hands.”
Therese coughed. “How can people do that? ‘Sanctioning’ children…”
“Damn straight, Miss Fletcher.” Żywie lifted her hand. The water left Therese, but not the warmth. “You’re probably going to fall asleep in a sec. Everything will be alright.”
“If you say so…”
When Therese Fletcher awoke, Żywie was gone. Not only that, but Therese felt better. Refreshed, even. Sleep hadn’t done that for months. And her scalp was itchy—was that hair? How long had she been asleep?
Before she could process any of that, her mother was crushing her shoulders in a hug.
“It’s a miracle, a bloody miracle!”
“Wha—Mum!” Therese was surprised by the strength of her voice. She’d just said almost two whole words and hardly even felt winded. “What happened?”
“That woman—the lady in the silly hood—she fixed everyone in the hospital?”
“What do you mean ‘fixed’?”
“Cured! Healed! Didn’t matter if someone came in with cancer or a broken leg or a bloomin’ cold!” The old woman pressed her face against her daughter’s chest. “You’re better, Therese. You’re better…”
Therese didn’t know what to say. She felt like time had been rewound six months. Like the cancer had never happened at all. She spotted an envelope resting on her bedside table. “What’s this?”
Her mother remembered herself, picking it up and handing it to Therese. “The lady came back. Told me to give you this when you woke up.”
Therese looked at the letter. It was sealed with red wax, indented with a Galapagos finch in flight against the letters “NHI.” Tilting her head, she opened it.
Congratulations on a splendid recovery. In light of this wonderful news, your experience as an educator, and your open-mindedness towards the needs and happiness of posthumanity’s children, we would like you to consider taking up a teaching position at our New Human Institute in the Avon Valley. Room and board provided for, salary starts at ￡5,000 a year. Our card is enclosed.
Best wishes, Dr. Herbert Lawrence, Ph.D
“What’s it say?” asked her mother eagerly.
Therese set the paper down on her lap. “I think I have a job.”
Dr. Herbert Lawrence helped Miss Fletcher down from the ute’s cabin, the young woman blushing slightly from the chivalry of it.
“Well, what do you think?”
The Institute stretched out before Therese like all the kingdoms of the world. Waves of gold grass rippling in the summer breeze, dotted with buildings and islands of miracles. Tigers stalked machine-boys, girls dug their way to China while fending off whirlwinds of fire that somehow left no mark on the ground they crossed.
“It’s wonderful, Lawrence,” Therese answered. “Uh, sorry about the car-sickness. Never coped well with country roads.”
Lawrence laughed, dabbing at his collar with a handkerchief. “Think nothing of it, my dear.” The old man looked out over his playing students. “We are both only human…”
Żywie, a bald, dark-skinned fellow in all leather, and a brunette, vested young man with a full, but closely trimmed beard were marching towards the truck.
The healer hugged Therese. “Good to see you, Miss Fletcher!” She looked the woman up and down. “Notice any irregularities?”
Therese shook her head. “No, nothing like that.” She laughed nervously. “Honestly, cancer might the best thing that ever happened to me!” She took the black man’s hand and shook it. “You must be Basilisk.”
Basil winced. “Pleased to meet you, lady… you probably shouldn’t have shook my hand.”
Therese withdrew quickly. “Oh, sorry.”
Basilisk smiled. “Eh, just don’t touch anything important for a while.”
“No need anyway,” said the bearded man as he hoisted Therese’s luggage from the tray. He beamed at her. “I’m Bryant Cormey. It’ll tell you what, it’ll be nice having some baseline company around here. Well, I suppose there’s Lawrence and Mrs Gillespie, but they hardly count.”
Lawrence chuckled. “Please, Bryant, I don’t deserve that. Mary, maybe.”
“I’m nothing special,” said Therese. “I’m just amazed Lawrence is willing to pay me what he is…”
“To be fair,” said Żywie, “you don’t get sick-leave.”
A little boy was running full pelt towards the adults. Even yards away, Therese was struck by the blue of his eyes. She remembered what she had skimmed of The New Child.
She leant forward. “Hello! You must be Maelstrom!”
The boy ran past her without stopping. “The pterodactyl’s loose!”
The only answer Therese Fletcher got was talons wrapping around her shoulders, carrying her off screaming into the sky.
After Stratogale managed to rest her from the pterodactyl’s clutches, and Tiresias donated some of his stronger drink, the NHI staff were somewhat surprised that Therese Fletcher didn’t reconsider her new position at the school.
“Kids will be kids.”
Her hands shook when she said that, but she seemed to mean it.
It was eventually decided Therese would mostly cover science at the Institute. It was a subject she took to well, even if her new students quickly developed a special delight in bringing up the ways they violated scientific principles as was she explaining them.
“Every chemical reaction needs fuel—yes, aside from your flames, Snapdragon.”
“While Haunt’s powers are very interesting, as a general rule, two objects cannot occupy the same place at once.”
Tricks helped. One day, she topped off a class by sucking an egg into a beaker with one of Żywie’s precious Dunhills.
The children actually clapped. For just a second, Therese felt like a superwoman.
“Thank you, thank you. I want three new facts about heat from each you by tomorrow.” She looked over the garrison of little heads. “Ex-Nihilo, could you please stay behind for me?”
At the back of the classroom, the teenager shared a dubious look with Stratogale and Reverb, only to shrug and say, “Sure.”
Once the room was empty, she sighed. “What’d I do?”
Therese stepped out from behind her desk to sit in one of the too-small plastic chairs next to Ex-Nihilo. “Nothing, sweetie.” She eyed the girl’s belly. The baby wasn’t showing much yet, but it was unmistakable to anyone not raised in a monastery. “It’s just… look, I’m not a nun. I know teens experiment—not that I’m judging—and we all slip up some time. I mean it’s 1963! It doesn’t have to be the end of the world. In fact, I’m glad people here aren’t making a big deal out the situation.”
Ex-Nihilo shook her head slowly. “What are you talking about?”
Therese put a hand on the girl’s leg. “Nothing really. But if you ever want someone to chat to about… options, I’m here.”
Realization struck Ex-Nihilo’s face. “Oh, you don’t know yet, do you?” She stood up. “This wasn’t an accident.”
“…You got pregnant on purpose?” Therese asked. “For the love of God, why? Did some boy in town say he’d marry you? Because for one thing, you are way too young—”
Ex cut her off. “You don’t get it.”
Therese almost recognized the look on the child’s face. A lot of it was guilt, or maybe shame, but she remembered a sliver of it in her mother, the day Żywie came to see her.
“I’m pregnant because it was my turn.”
She slammed the door behind her, leaving Therese alone.
Lawrence heard a timid knock at his office door. It probably said something about the Institute or his life that it sounded relatively novel to his ears. “Enter.”
Therese Fletcher crept into the study like she was sneaking up on a sleeping pope. “Evening, Lawrence.”
The good doctor grinned at his newest hire. “Ah, Therese! How was class today?”
Therese settled in one of the leather chairs. “Good, good. So, I’ve noticed that Ex-Nihilo is… you know”—she covered her mouth and whispered, as though a goblin crouched in the corner might overhear her—“in the family way.”
“Ah,” Lawrence folded his hands on his desk, “I am aware.”
“I didn’t think you weren’t. It’s just—she said she got pregnant on purpose. Because it was ‘her turn.’ Is Ex-Nihilo… well?”
“I assure you, Therese, Ex-Nihilo is in fine mental health. I wouldn’t have had her participate in our stirpiculture if she wasn’t.”
Lawrence sighed. “I suppose it is better we have this conversation now rather than later.”
And so, Lawrence explained his stirpiculture. It wasn’t the easiest sell, to say the least, but whenever Therese felt an objection well in her throat, Lawrence already had a rebuttal ready.
“It is a fact that girls more than three years Ex-Nihilo’s junior successfully bear and rear children in cultures all over the world, and that’s without the assistance and care of our Żywie.
“The artificial delineation and prolongation of childhood is very much an invention of my parents’ generation…”
“I did consider in-vitro, but sex is both natural and an important bonding agent of human relationships. In fact, bonobos…”
He sounded so sure of himself. So so at ease with the idea. Therese couldn’t imagine feeling that certain about what to have for breakfast, let alone what Lawrence was talking about.
“…Do you understand, Therese?”
Therese nodded shakily. “Yes. It’s just a lot to take in.”
“I can imagine. Feel free to come back if you have any more questions.”
Therese Fletcher walked out of Lawrence’s study like she was waking up from a dream—the kind you couldn’t decide whether you liked it or not, and would only stop turning it over in your head like a sharp, shiny toy when sleep took you again.
She bumped into Mrs Gillespie on the staircase. The old lady smiled at her like an old friend. “Ah, Miss Fletcher. You weren’t checking in on Dr. Lawrence, were you? He’s such an interesting conversationalist in the evening.”
Miss Fletcher said, “Yes, he is. He was just explaining stirpiculture to me.”
Mary Gillespie frowned sympathetically, hugging the younger teacher. “Oh, I know it can be a bit of a shock at first. I helped set it up and even I didn’t know what to think of it for a while. But it’s a noble goal, I assure you.”
“Lawrence was very clear on that,” said Therese. “It still sounds rather… drastic.”
Mary didn’t answer for a moment. “…My husband died fighting in the Great War, Therese. Because dusty old treaties written by dead men said he must. My sons and grandchildren died twenty years later because of decisions they had no part in. Because of hatred and prejudices older than nations and empires. History is like a madman adding story after story onto a house with no foundations. Eventually, it all comes crashing down. If these children are going to thrive, if any of us can, they need a fresh start. A clean slate. Do you hear what I’m trying to say, Therese?”
“I think so.”
Therese Fletcher skipped dinner that night. Instead, she drank alone in the little cottage assigned to her, already accumulating the thin film of dust that constitutes a home.
Stirpiculture. Such an odd word. It sounded like something a marketing executive would use to sell maternity wear. Knowing what it meant didn’t make it any less strange.
Therese knew the outside world would scorn it. But then, the outside world was imprisoning children in windowless, concrete caves, all because of accidents of birth or chance. Because of the actions of a man whose name they didn’t even know, who just wanted to world to not be on fire. What right did the outside world have to judge anything here? What right did she have? Herbert Lawrence was an Oxford educated psychiatrist. He’d braved the battlefields of Nazi-occupied Europe, and kept the Institute alive in a time when supers were less popular than Frankenstein’s monster. Therese Fletcher had three years of teacher’s college and less than eighteen months experience reminding eight year olds how to spell their names.
And then there was Mary. Thirty years of teaching, all that loss. What did Therese’s past have that could compare? Her father? She barely knew the man. Cancer? Death was only inconvenient to the people you left behind. Nothing next to a child.
No, she was a child next to these people. God, she wasn’t even twenty-five. How could she argue with them? The children were happy and healthy. Wasn’t that what mattered?
Therese sipped her wine. Her fingers were throbbing.
Therese Fletcher awoke only when the summer stuffiness and the sun against her eyelids made sleep unbearable. She’d taken the batteries out of her alarm clock days ago. Still half-dreaming, the teacher staggered over to her cottage’s kitchenette, slammed the kettle down on the stove, and started trying to light the damn thing. It took Therese nearly a full minute to remember Lawrence had cut off the gas, too.
Sighing, she pulled her dressing gown over her pyjamas, picked up the kettle, and ventured out into the fresh air in search of hot water to caffeinate.
The weather outside was glorious. The sky was a perfect blue, with just enough clouds that it didn’t seem harsh or barren. Insects dipped and dived in and out of the long grass like tiny seagulls hunting for fish. Now and then, a wave of cool air broke over Therese.
For the first few of days of what she had started thinking of as “the anarchy” Therese had stayed in the big house with the other teachers, as Lawrence had implored them to. For their safety, he insisted. But there was something about the atmosphere in there. The house felt tinier than it had before, and everyone was so on edge, like they were those Japanese soldiers hiding in their jungle boltholes because they didn’t know the war was over.
In the distance, a cohort of children waved at her. “Mornin, Therese.”
When Therese first emerged, she’d half-expected the kids to carry her off for sacrifice like Ann Darrow, but to her surprise, the children treated her much the same way they always had. Namely, they sometimes remembered she existed. Therese knew she was nobody’s favourite. But that was alright.
She found Mels and Alberto (the former felt much less attachment to her human name than the latter) sitting around an extinct bonfire, nursing cups of coffee. The psychic was holding an ice-packet to his temple.
Therese smiled. “Good night?”
Alberto groaned. “Don’t think so loud…”
“David and Louise fell out of the sky and Al here helped the children share stories last night.” Fran said, pouring some coffee for the teacher. “It was nice.”
Therese took the proffered cup gratefully. “Aw, sorry I missed it.”
Alberto added, “Mabel came clean about Circle’s End.”
“Oh.” Therese could remember when Lawrence and Mary first explained where Mabel had come from. Much to her shame, she hadn’t been able to look the girl in the eye for weeks. “How did the other children take it?”
Fran shrugged. “I think they’re still processing the idea. I mean, it was only last night.”
“Honestly,” said Alberto, “some of them are just impressed Mabel managed to kill that many naturals.”
Mels put a steadying hand over hers. “Kids, they don’t know what they’re saying.” She shrugged. “Or thinking, I guess.”
“I mean,” said Alberto, “Morality or what have you aside, most of us would have to get up very early in the morning to kill hundreds of people.” He looked at Fran. “Well, you and David probably could. Tom would just stick his arm out like he was riding in a car and run right through us. Bella could whip up a cyclone, too, I bet. And I guess I could make everyone think there was a stampede or something and send them off a cliff like a lemmings…”
Fran was about to tell Alberto to shut up, but Therese was laughing. She regarded the teacher curiously.
“…What? It’s funny.”
“So how’d you do it, Fran?” Alberto asked.
“I’d drown you all” Melusine said flatly.
“Real creative. Therese, how’d you kill us all?”
Therese jerked back slightly, apparently surprised she was being consulted. Then she grinned conspiratorially. She felt like she was back at one of her teenage slumber parties. “I’d wait till Mels was asleep and light a grass fire!”
That was limp, wasn’t it? Therese thought to herself.
Alberto however was nodding. “Pragmatic. I like it.”
Therese felt strange talking to Fran and Alberto like this. Weren’t they supposed to be on different sides? Or at least Fran was, she honestly wasn’t sure whose side Alberto was on anymore.
Since when were there sides?
Melusine grinned slyly at Therese. “You know, a little bird—Sadie sent it—told me Cormey’s got a picnic-blanket laid out on the hill.” She arched her eyebrows. “I think he’s waiting for you.”
“I can confirm it,” Alberto said. “Cheeky bastard pilfered my booze.”
“Oh—is he?” Therese stood up. “I should get going. Nice talking to you two.”
Françoise and Alberto watched the human woman run back to her cottage, smiling.
“She can do better,” said Fran.
Therese Fletcher and Bryant Cormey lay together on their checkered blanket, white-wine bubbling away in hand, watching the children downhill go about day. It was a little like watching early man attempt medievalism, if early man was into witchcraft.
Therese was in a brown and cream dress she had agonizingly selected as nice, but not showy. She’d never been sure what she and Bryant were to each other. They’d done… things together, especially in the last couple of months, but Therese couldn’t quite decide if that was because of anything besides loneliness and availability. It wasn’t as if there was a big market for human women under sixty at the Institute. Still, her mother always told her not to let an opportunity slip past her.
Therese stretched out luxuriantly. “God, the sun’s nice today.”
She could feel Bryant nodding against her side. “At least there’s that. I swear, this bloody power-cut will do my head in. Trying to sleep in the house… you remember those convicts who spent months in the bottom of ships?”
“Oh, it’s not so bad. I think it’s rather relaxing, in a way. Reminds me of a book I read once. Earth Abides4. About a plague that wipes out nearly everyone.”
“You know, it almost was. Everything fell apart, but people just kept on going. Doing what they needed to, being decent to each other. Pennies into arrowheads and all that. It made the end of the world sound so peaceful.”
“That’s from the Bible, ‘Earth Abides’.”
Therese knew full well it did, the book itself said so, but men loved flattery. “Is it? I always fell asleep in church.”
“ ‘Men come and go, but the Earth abides.’ ”
“Sounds more like Proust than Moses.” She rolled over to face Cormey. “You know, if you’re so miserable up in the house, you could always bunk in my cottage…” Therese hoped her grin wasn’t too schoolgirl.
“I still don’t like you sleeping alone out there, Therese. Not with the children running wild. You’re not even wearing your null-fluid!”
Therese laughed, blushing. “You’re talking like they’re going to murder me in my sleep.”
Cormey went very vocally silent.
“Oh, Bryant, really.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time for a few of them.”
Therese sat up, glaring at her colleague. “Tom and Mabel were accidents and you know it.”
“Tom and Mabel?”
She sighed. “Haunt and Phantasmagoria, I mean. My point still stands.”
“What about those idiots from town?”
“One, that was mostly Mels. Two, they made up. Three, they were strangers. The kids know me.”
“How well can mortals know gods? The ones in the old stories certainly dropped their favourites when they felt like it.”
“I don’t think I’d go that far…” She lay back down, eager to change the subject to something more productive. “You ever see yourself having kids?”
Therese found herself slightly disappointed. “Why not?”
“I mean, what would be the point?”
“Does it have to have a point?”
“With the new race coming, I think it ought to be considered whether any of us having kids is in the best interest.”
Therese raised herself by her hands, looking right into Bryant Cormey’s eyes. “What are you saying?”
“You’ve heard Dr. Lawrence and the Physician, more new humans are being born every year, even forgetting naturals who make the change. Any children I had wouldn’t be able to compete! Why do you think Lawrence never married?”
“I just assumed it never happened for him…”
“With that kind of dosh? Give me a break. He just knows there’s no use cluttering the world with dead-ends. Our genes are like a candle in Times Square, Therese. That’s why I had Żywie fix it up for me.” Bryant smirked up at Therese. “Shame she didn’t do the same for you. All the fun, none of the burden.”
A sharp, bitter slap across his face.
Therese looked at her hand like it’d come from someone else. She hadn’t struck another human being since she could remember.
Bryant was rubbing his cheek. “What was that for?”
Angry tears blurred Therese’s vision. “You just said you thought I should be sterilized!”
“Therese, it’s nothing personal. You’re a lovely girl. It’s just evolution. Our time’s over. Why waste our lives bringing up useless eaters—”
Therese punched him in the ribs, over and over. “Children are not ‘useless eaters’!” She stood up and started walking away, but not without looking back at Cormey. “And I like candles.”
Allison and David were playing tag across the skin of the river, raising pillars of water and suddenly freezing patches to try and trip each other up. Allison had the lead, leaning hard on Żywie’s legacy within her and about seventy years of collective track experience.
Ten legs behind her, David growled, his eyes broiling like sea-form.
A flat tooth of ice shot up from the river two inches from Allison’s nose. She leapt over it, landing facing her friend. Poking her tongue out at him, she continued running backwards… until the water parted beneath her feet.
“No fair!” she shouted from the bottom of a dry well with watery walls.
David grinned from the edge of the hole, his arms folded. “Fair’s for humans.”
David spotted someone them watching from the shore. He frowned. “Huh. Therese is looking at us.”
With a rare use of Sadie’s song (too much like the world’s biggest show-off) Allison hovered to the surface. “She is. Why?”
“Dunno.” He tilted his head. “Looks sad.”
Allison forced herself to listen to the baseline woman’s ordinary song. “Sounds it.”
David started walking towards dry-land. Allison rolled her eyes. Sometimes David could be so boring. Still, she followed.
David blinked when he got close enough to see his teacher’s face. She was smiling. “What’s the matter, Therese?”
Therese startled. Since when could Maelstrom do that? Did her blood look upset or something? She composed herself quickly, putting her smile back on. “Oh, nothing’s the matter. I was just watching you two play.”
Allison stepped off the water and huffed. “Don’t lie, I can hear your song.”
Therese looked at the two children, their strange eyes boring into her, and she sighed. No tears. Hers was a dry misery, echoing through her like wind over an extinct lake. “But I was happy just then. That’s the problem.”
Allison sat down sullenly beside her. “That sounds dumb.”
“Didn’t want to say, but yeah,” said David.
“You don’t understand. You two… everything’s gone wrong, and you’re happy because everything’s gone wrong, and you being happy makes me happy and—” Therese’s head drooped. “I don’t know what to think anymore.”
“So, dumb,” said Allison.
David patted the lady on the arm. “It’s okay to change your mind sometimes. I did.”
Therese laughed joylessly. “God, I’m useless. Can’t even keep my stupid bloody feelings from a couple of nine year olds. That’s half my job!” She rapped the side of her head with her knuckcles, repeating “Useless, useless, useless!” before pointing a thumb at Allison. “Look at Myriad! What have I ever done for her?” She turned to address the girl. “I used to read a book every night just so you might pick up something from me! Did you ever notice?”
Therese groaned into her hands.
“I don’t think you’re useless,” said David. “I used to think I was useless, and I’m pretty sure I was wrong.”
Therese’s fingers parted just enough for her to look at the boy. “Of course you’re not useless. You’re basically a god. You were Lawrence’s golden boy.”
“Eww. Please don’t. That still makes me feel kinda gross.”
Allison shrugged. “I don’t mind you.”
“Not really. Most of the other grownups, they know I know more and they still try to tell me things. You didn’t.”
“But telling you things is our job.”
The child shrugged again. “You didn’t try telling me what I had to be.”
Therese’s back straightened. “Kids, can I ask you something?”
David and Allison looked at each other, before shrugging and nodding.
“How did you honestly feel about the married days? From the start. Before all this.”
David answered first. “It was kinda just how I thought it was always going to turn out. But I didn’t like looking at Mabel or Allie or Louise or all the other girls and thinking about it. It made playing with them feel weird.”
“Just seemed kinda yuck,” said Allison. “Babies and all that.”
Therese nodded. “Do you think the other kids felt that way?”
“Mostly,” David answered.
“I kinda think it got worse when it was happening.” Allison chimed in. “Didn’t really think too hard about it till it really started, you know?”
The teacher got to her feet. “Thank you. That’s all I needed to know.” She looked down at David. “You never really liked being called Maelstrom, did you?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen enough to figure that out two years ago.”
With that, Therese Fletcher turned and headed back towards the house.
Therese could hear Lawrence and Mary arguing through the walls. Plaster-muffled voices teetering on the crumbling edge of civility, so full of tension it’d be a relief if they just started screaming. They made her feel young, like the child of a marriage one pen-stroke away from divorce. Her fingers ached like they’d gotten caught in a car door, but that didn’t matter.
The only phone at the New Human Institute resided in Lawrence’s study. The teachers were free to use it, of course. Hardly a week went by where Therese didn’t talk to her mother or order something from a catalogue. But Lawrence was always in the room. Usually reading or scratching away at paperwork, but always there. It was one of those little things she’d never considered much. Like why the children didn’t have shoes.
Therese picked up the receiver, hoping to God Lawrence hadn’t cut the phone line along with the other utilities, and started dialing. Each digit felt like a syllable of some dark spell.
A rattling, toneless voice said, “DDHA helpline, how may we be of assistance?”
Therese took a deep breath. “I would like to report abuse at a demi-human containment facility.”
“…Wait, do you work at an asylum?”
“No! I mean, yes, sort of.”
“Ma’am, this line is for the public’s convenience in reporting demi-human sightings and incidents. Internal issues are to be taken to your supervisor or head of staff.”
“My ‘head of staff’ is the problem—”
Therese was knocked to the carpet. The phone dangled from its cord in front of her face.
Lawrence grabbed Therese by the shoulders, pulling her up to his face. Boozy breath hissed out from between his teeth. “You faithless cunt.”
Lawrence dragged the woman by the wrist out of his study. “Get out!”
Therese staggered after the old man, struggling to keep her footing.
“I should have guessed it’d be you, Therese. You always were weak. Pale. Like a ghost that hadn’t bothered to die. This, after we saved your life!”
Therese stopped dead in her tracks, pulling her hand back. The old man’s grip was weaker than first seemed. “…But you didn’t save my life, Laurie. Eliza did. And she left you.”
Lawrence smacked her, the sound drawing Mary up the stairs. “Lawrence, what’s going on?”
“Miss Fletcher was trying to undo us, Mrs Gillespie.”
Therese had already recovered. “Mary, you’re a far better teacher than me. You were a mother. You can’t still think what we’re doing is right.”
Mary stuttered, rubbing her hands. “Therese, dear, it’s complicated…”
Miss Fletcher glared at Lawrence. “I used to think so, too. I think he just uses very complicated words. But he’s right about one thing. I was weak. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop being weak if I stay here. ”
Lawrence pointed at the staircase. “Then go. Get out of my school.”
Therese started walking. “I don’t think this has been a school for a long time, Laurie.”
She stopped for a moment next to Mary. “Look after them, please.”
“Therese, dear, we can talk about this—”
Therese smiled sadly. “No, we can’t.”
She made it to the first floor just in time for Comey to step through the door.
“Therese! I’m—I wanted to say I’m sorry for—”
Therese kissed the man lightly on the cheek. “It’s alright, Bryant.” She stepped through the door. “Look me up if you come to your senses. You’re too good for your own rubbish.”
As she shut the door behind her, Bryant glanced up the stairs to see Lawrence scowling down at them.
“What the hell just happened?”
Alberto strolled cackling out the library. “Oh, my God, that was fucking priceless.” He looked up at Lawrence. “Guess that’s one less salary you got to pay. No great loss. I mean, it was just Therese Fletcher.”
Therese Fletcher trudged along the grey mortar of the Great Eastern Highway, luggage in hand, her thumb outstretched. She wasn’t too worried about not getting a lift into Northam. It was only two o’clock. Time to think.
What was she going to do? She had money at least. She could probably stay with her mother for a while. God, how was she going to explain everything to her?
…Maybe that could wait till after she found herself a flat.
Therese stopped walking.
Wait, had she actually left the children? Because Lawrence said so?
Therese turned around. The night wind suddenly shredded through the thin fabric of her dress, and the stars shone coldly down on her.
The teacher dropped her suitcase and flung her arms around herself. “What the—”
There was a man, standing at the edge of the trees that girded the road.
“Hey!” Therese called out. She tried to think of a follow up question. “…Do you know what happened to the sun?”
Without a word, the man turned and walked into the trees.
Normally, every one of Therese Fletcher’s instincts would be screaming to not follow.
That night (if night it was) she didn’t listen.
As Therese walked, she noticed something off about the trees. Their trunks appeared to have gotten thicker since she last noticed, their canopies almost triangular, like a storybook. And the grass felt strange. It crunched beneath her feet.
She looked down: snow. She didn’t think that happened in WA besides at Bluff Knoll.
Therese glanced back up at the man she was following. He was dressed for winter, in rough blue jeans and a brown jacket with white fleece poking out the collar. “Uh, excuse me, sir?”
The man didn’t answer, his pace staying steady. For reasons she couldn’t name, Therese kept following.
Eventually, after what felt like miles of forest (was there even a forest around the highway?) the man stopped at the lip of a pond—barely greater than a puddle. He finally turned to face Therese.
There was stars in his eyes.
Therese approached him slowly, looking over his shoulder down at the pond. Her reflection gazed back, more perfect than if it lived in silver.
“…What do I need to do?”
The man pointed into the water.
She dove, right into the reflection.
Therese Fletcher crawled out of the tiny bathroom mirror, squeezing through its square corners and grunted as fell stomach first onto the linoleum floor.
Timothy Valour opened his bathroom door, calling behind him. “I’ll be down in a…”
Miss Fletcher smiled dazedly up at him.
“Hi, Tim!” She remembered her business, and her smile vanished. “We need to talk about the Institute…”
“…Sorry, Val, we might have to cancel the reservations.”
1. A groundbreaking 1956 high school drama that featured a young Sidney Poitier as the ringleader of the exact kind of class he’d be saddled with about a decade later in To Sir, With Love. ↩
2. The Department for Helping Destroy Apples, presumably. ↩
3. Mr. Fletcher had died during the early stages of the Second World War. Sometimes, in the worst parts of her treatment, his daughter forgot that. ↩
4. The only work of science fiction from American historian and English professor George R. Stewart. ↩
1 thought on “Chapter Forty-Eight: The Prime of Miss Therese Fletcher”
Remember kids, nobody is a minor character.
(Except probably Doctor Carter)