Wilder Girls – Rory Power

Something. Way out in the white-dark. Between the trees, moving where the thickets swarm. You can see it from the roof, the way the brush bends around it as it rustles to the ocean. That size, it must be a coyote, one of the big ones hitting shoulder high. Teeth that fit like knives in the palm of my hand. I know because I found one once, the end of it just poking through the fence. Took it back and hid it under my bed. One more crash through the brush and then the stillness again. Across the roof deck Byatt lowers her gun, rests it on the railing. Road clear. I keep mine up, just in case, keep the sight raised to my left eye. My other eye’s dead, gone dark in a flare-up. Lid fused shut, something growing underneath. It’s like that, with all of us here.

Sick, strange, and we don’t know why. Things bursting out of us, bits missing and pieces sloughing off, and then we harden and smooth over. Through the sight, noon sun bleaching the world, I can see the woods stretching out to the island’s edge, the ocean beyond. Pines bristling thick like always, rising high above the house. Here and there, gaps where the oak and birch have shed their leaves, but most of the canopy is woven tight, needles stiff with frost. Only the radio antenna breaking through, useless now the signal’s out. Up the road someone yells, and out of the trees, there’s Boat Shift coming home. It’s only a few who can make the trip, all the way across the island to where the Navy delivers rations and clothes at the pier the ferries used to come and go from. The rest of us stay behind the fence, pray they make it home safe. The tallest, Ms. Welch, stops at the gate and fumbles with the lock until at last, the gate swings open, and Boat Shift come stumbling in, cheeks red from the cold. All three of them back and all three of them bent under the weight of the cans and the meats and the sugar cubes. Welch turns to shut the gate behind her. Barely five years past the oldest of us, she’s the youngest of the teachers. Before this she lived on our hall and looked the other way when somebody missed curfew.

Now she counts us every morning to make sure nobody’s died in the night. She waves to give the all clear, and Byatt waves back. I’m gate. Byatt’s road. Sometimes we switch, but my eye doesn’t do well looking far, so it never lasts. Either way I’m still a better shot than half the girls who could take my place. The last Boat girl steps under the porch and out of sight, and that’s the end of our shift. Unload the rifles. Stick the casings in the box for the next girl. Slip one in your pocket, just in case. The roof slopes gently away from the flattop deck, third floor to second. From there we swing over the edge and through the open window into the house. It was harder in the skirts and socks we used to wear, something in us still telling us to keep our knees closed. That was a long time ago. Now, in our ragged jeans, there’s nothing to mind.

Byatt climbs in behind me, leaving another set of scuff marks on the window ledge. She pushes her hair over one shoulder. Straight, like mine, and a bright living brown. And clean. Even when there’s no bread, there’s always shampoo. “What’d you see?” she asks me. I shrug. “Nothing.” Breakfast wasn’t much, and I’m feeling the shake of hunger in my limbs. I know Byatt is too, so we’re quick as we head downstairs for lunch, to the main floor, to the hall, with its big high ceilings. Scarred, tilting tables; a fireplace; and tall-backed couches, stuffing ripped out to burn for warmth. And us, full of us, humming and alive. — There were about a hundred girls when it started, and twenty teachers. All together we filled both wings off the old house. These days we only need one.

The Boat girls come banging through the front doors, letting their bags drop, and there’s a scramble for the food. They send us cans, mostly, and sometimes packs of dried jerky. Barely ever anything fresh, never enough for everyone, and on an average day, meals are just Welch in the kitchen, unlocking the storage closet and parceling out the smallest rations you ever saw. But today’s a delivery day, new supplies come home on the backs of the Boat Shift girls, and that means Welch and Headmistress keep their hands clean and let us fight for one thing each. Byatt and me, though, we don’t have to fight. Reese is right by the door, and she drags a bag off to the side for us. If it were somebody else, people would mind, but it’s Reese—left hand with its sharp, scaled fingers—so everyone keeps quiet. She was one of the last to get sick. I thought maybe it had missed her, maybe she was safe, and then they started. The scales, each a shifting sort of silver, unfolding out of her skin like they were coming from inside. The same thing happened to one of the other girls in our year. They spread across her whole body and turned her blood cold until she wouldn’t wake up, so we thought it was the end for Reese, and they took her upstairs, waited for it to kill her. But it didn’t. One day she’s holed up in the infirmary, and the next she’s back again, her left hand a wild thing but still hers. Reese rips open the bag, and she lets me and Byatt root through it.

My stomach clenching, spit thick around my tongue. Anything, I’d take anything. But we’ve got a bad one. Soap. Matches. A box of pens. A carton of bullets. And then, at the bottom, an orange —a real live orange, rot only starting to nip at the peel. We snatch. Reese’s silver hand on my collar, heat roiling under the scales, but I throw her to the floor, shove my knee against the side of her face. Bear down, trap Byatt’s neck between my shoulder and my forearm. One of them kicks; I don’t know who. Clocks me in the back of the head and I’m careening onto the stairs, nose against the edge with a crack. Pain fizzing white. Around us, the other girls yelling, hemming in.

Someone has my hair in her fist, tugging up, out. I twist, I bite where the tendons push against her skin, and she whines. My grip loosens. So does hers, and we scrabble away from each other. I shake the blood out of my eye. Reese is sprawled halfway up the staircase, the orange in her hand. She wins. CHAPTER 2 We call it the Tox, and for the first few months, they tried to make it a lesson. Viral Outbreaks in Western Civilizations: a History. “Tox” as a Root in Latinate Languages. Pharmaceutical Regulations in the State of Maine. School like always, teachers standing at the board with blood on their clothes, scheduling quizzes as if we’d all still be there a week later. The world’s not ending, they said, and neither should your education. Breakfast in the dining room. Math, English, French.

Lunch, target practice. Physicals and first aid, Ms. Welch bandaging wounds and Headmistress pricking with needles. Together for dinner and then locked inside to last the night. No, I don’t know what’s making you sick, Welch would tell us. Yes, you’ll be fine. Yes, you’ll go home again soon. That ended quickly. Classes falling off the schedule as the Tox took teacher after teacher. Rules crumbling to dust and fading away, until only the barest bones were left. But still, we count the days, wake every morning to scan the sky for cameras and lights. People care on the mainland, that’s what Welch always says. They’ve cared from the second Headmistress called Camp Nash on the coast for help, and they’re looking for a cure. In the first shipment of supplies Boat Shift ever brought back, there was a note. Typed and signed, printed on the Navy’s letterhead.

FROM: Secretary of the Navy, Department of Defense Commanding Officer, Chemical/Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF), Camp Nash Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) TO: Raxter School for Girls, Raxter Island SUBJECT: Quarantine procedures as recommended by the CDC Implementation of a full isolation and quarantine effective immediately. Subjects to remain on school grounds at all times, for safety and to preserve conditions of initial contagion. Breach of school fence, save by authorized crew for supply retrieval (see below), violates terms of quarantine. Termination of phone and internet access pending; communication to route only through official radio channels. Full classification of information in effect. Supplies to arrive via drop-off at western pier. Date and time to be set via Camp Nash lighthouse. Diagnostics and treatment in development. CDC cooperating with local facilities re: cure. Expect delivery. Wait, and stay alive, and we thought it would be easy—together behind the fence, safe from the wildwood, safe from the animals grown savage and strange—but girls kept dropping. Flare-ups, which left their bodies too wrecked to keep breathing, left wounds that wouldn’t heal, or sometimes, a violence like a fever, turning girls against themselves. It still happens like that. Only difference is now we’ve learned that all we can do is look after our own. Reese and Byatt, they’re mine and I’m theirs.

It’s them I pray for when I pass the bulletin board and brush two fingers against the note from the Navy still pinned there, yellowed and curling. A talisman, a reminder of the promise they made. The cure is coming, as long as we stay alive. Reese digs a silver fingernail into the orange and starts peeling, and I force myself to look away. When food’s fresh like that, we fight for it. She says it’s the only fair way to settle things. No handouts, no pity. She’d never take it if it didn’t feel earned. Around us the other girls are gathering in swirls of high laughter, digging through the clothing that spills out of every bag. The Navy still sends us enough for the full number. Shirts and tiny boots we don’t have anybody small enough to wear them. And jackets. They never stop sending jackets. Not since the frost began to coat the grass. It was only just spring when the Tox hit, and for that summer we were fine in our uniform skirts and button-downs, but winter came like it always does in Maine, bitter and long.

Fires burning in daylight and the Navy-issue generators running after dark, until a storm broke them to bits.


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Updated: 20 May 2021 — 17:37

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