First published in 2001 by Another Realm

Outside in the warm summer night, children ran chasing fireflies. Their voices echoed off cement walls and bounced down empty streets. Invisible in the darkness, their small bodies would appear and disappear in puddles of lamplight as they darted down the sidewalks.

At ten p.m., their mothers’ voices floated out of windows. “Come home, come home! It’s time now!”

There were groans and complaints ending in stifled yawns as the children walked slowly towards home. They all wandered home except one. She hid in the shadows, her eyes fixed on the tall wire fence surrounding the housing development. The fence was too high to climb. Cars went in and out of the front gate, but Mr. Jennings, the security guard sat in a little wooden house and worked the button that opened the gate.

The girl sat and stared fixedly at the fence, but it never moved, an opening never appeared, and after a quarter of an hour, her older brother came and led her home.

“Come on, Stupid,” he said as he took hold of her arm, none too gently, and pulled her to her feet. “As if you didn’t think we’d find you. What do you want to do? Spend the night outside? Get eaten up by bugs? Hurry up, dinner’s ready.”

“My name’s not ‘Stupid,’ it’s ‘Dawn.'” The girl yanked her arm out of her brother’s grasp and rubbed it.

“Mom is going to be angry if you stay outside one more time like that,” he said.

“I don’t care.”

The dinner was cold by the time she sat down to eat. The fluorescent light hurt her eyes. She dug her fingers into the cracks in her plastic chair and looked with silent distaste at her plate.

“Eat it.” Her father’s voice was low.

Dawn pinched her lips.

“Eat it, it’s good for you,” said her mother. She darted a glance at her husband. Her face was very white in the harsh light. They all looked bleached of any color. The table was pale green plastic, the chairs had metal legs that were cold to the touch, and the plates landed on the table with a hollow clatter that took away Dawn’s appetite.

Her three brothers leaned over their plates and scooped the meatloaf into their mouths with flashing forks. Their brown eyes were so clear they looked yellow in the bright lights, and their pupils were mere pinpricks.

“Eat,” said Dawn’s father again. His red flannel shirt moved when he breathed. Dawn fixed her eyes on his collar and didn’t answer. Her fingers worried the little cracks in her chair, and a piece of plastic fell on the floor.

After dinner, the children left the table and went to their room. Dawn hadn’t eaten anything but three bites of her dinner roll and a leaf of anemic salad. From her bedroom, she heard her mother’s worried voice.

“She’ll starve to death if she won’t eat.”

“We can’t force them,” her father’s deeper voice was soothing. “You know that. When she’s hungry she’ll eat, then everything will be fine.”

“The others were so much easier.”

“Maybe girls are different.” Her father didn’t sound concerned. “I’m going to work now.”

“Already?”

“Can’t you hear the engines starting?”

“I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

Dawn lay stiffly on her narrow cot and waited until her brothers fell asleep. Light from the streetlight cast a greenish glow into her window. Slowly, silently, she sat up. As quietly as she could, she slid the sheet off and swung her feet off the bed. She held her breath. There was no change in the slow breathing around her. She stood up and looked out the window. Their house was the last one in the development. It was built alongside the high fence, right next to the empty field where the sawed off trunks of trees gleamed whitely in the moonlight.

Five hundred yards of shattered forest cast jagged shadows onto ground. The field was a tangled labyrinth of fallen logs, branches and vines. Bulldozers plowed across it, clearing great paths. Her father drove one at night after the lumberjacks cut down the trees during the day. The bulldozers pushed the felled trees onto trucks that drove them away.

Her father. Dawn’s mouth moved as she worked it over the words “father, mother, brother, brother, brother.” Then she clamped her mouth shut. It wasn’t right. Nothing was right. Her eyes strayed over the field, following the hill as it sloped upwards, up towards the great forest that loomed over the development. Now all that could be seen from the valley was a skyline of huge trees that backed up against an endless primeval forest. Moonlight filtered through the branches of the pine trees and cast sharp shadows on the hill.

The small girl lifted her eyes towards the twin moons. Both were thin crescents. Moths fluttered around the streetlights, circling the globes as they sought the moonlight. Dawn felt like one of those moths, beating her wings against the frosted glass, lost in confusion.

The forest whispered to her. Dawn shivered violently as the sound of splitting wood reached her ears. Then she eased back into her bed.

* * *

“Breakfast!”
Dawn pulled her shorts on and shrugged into her shirt. The polyester felt odd to her, little threads catching on her fingernails.

“Let me see them.” Her mother clucked and took the fingernail file out of a drawer. “Sit here, I’ll fix that hangnail. Didn’t you like your cereal?”

“It was fine.”

“You didn’t finish it.”

“Why am I here?” Dawn asked.

Her mother looked confused. “What a strange question. We’re here to clear the forest for more developments. You know that.”

“Yes, but why am I here?”

“You’re part of our family. Now stop asking questions and run outside and play.”

“You never answer my questions,” Dawn said. “I want to know here we came from. Why can’t I remember when I was little?”

“We came from a place far away in the sky,” her mother said, a little line appearing between her eyebrows. “We left because there was no more space left, and we were asked to build the developments. We’re pioneers.”

“Why can’t I remember?” Dawn wailed.

“You’re too little, that’s all. Go play now.” Her mother watched as she left, then sank down on the sofa and cried. Her husband found her huddled there, and gathered her in his arms.

“Be patient,” he said.

“She asks so many questions.”

“She’s young. She’ll adapt. Give her time.”

“Do you think we should continue the program?”

“What else can we do?” he spoke firmly. “They’re our only hope.”

“But she can’t ever go past the gate, you know what will happen if she crosses the barrier!” The woman’s voice was high.

“Hush. Someday the scientists will fix it so that the children will stay children. Here, let me rub your shoulders. Relax, it’s all right. Dawn will be fine, I promise.”

Another day. Children played tag in the dusty lot behind the Shop N’ Go market. Gardeners pulled heavy hoses behind them as they watered the bushes planted along the streets. Housewives hung laundry on the lines in their back yards. Children threw balls at each other, and caught them.

Lumberjacks worked all afternoon. The whine of buzz saws reached a crescendo each time a new tree fell, and Dawn sat in the shade beneath the open window and wondered what her parents had meant.

Some children found Dawn and set about teasing her. After an hour or so, her brothers stepped in and rescued her. She had a tear in her shirt and her knee bled.

“You mustn’t fight,” her mother sighed, dabbing iodine on her knee.

“I was just standing still,” Dawn said. Her head hurt and she wished it were night already. It was hot outside.

“Stay inside and rest,” said her mother.

Dawn sat in the kitchen, her thin arms crossed on the plastic table, her heels drumming listlessly on the metal legs of her chair. The clock ticked as the dusty afternoon wore on.

When evening came, her mother shooed her outside. “That’s enough sulking, go play with the others now.”

The lamps were lit. Moths blundered about, their fragile wings singing on the streetlights. Fireflies blinked in the sultry air. Children shrieked and ran after them, catching them in glass jars. A game of hide and seek was organized. Dawn was cornered and made to join in.

She looked at the horizon. A red line showed where the sun had set. The moons had not risen yet. “All right,” she whispered.

“Dawn’s playing hide and seek!” the children shrieked.

In Dawn’s house, in the kitchen, her parents cocked their heads and listened. “She’s playing with the others,” her mother said, and they smiled.

One of Dawn’s brother started counting. “I’m it!” he yelled. “One, two three…” The children scattered.

Dawn followed her other brothers, until they turned and told her to find another hiding place. Their eyes were yellow and very fierce in the night.

Near the security guard’s cabin was a lone evergreen bush. Its prickly branches swept the ground, offering a hiding place for someone small enough to slip beneath it. Dawn barely rustled the needles as she hid. The scent of pine made her heart pound. She touched the scaly trunk and tears trickled down her cheeks. “Why am I so different?” she whispered.

Mr. Jennings heard her. His window was always open. He leaned out, his arms folded on the windowsill. To anyone watching it would appear that he was simply relaxing a moment in the cool evening. “I’ve been watching you,” he said.

Dawn didn’t answer. Her throat was so tense it hurt to breathe.

“You’re not like the others,” Mr. Jennings continued. “They should never have brought you here.”

“I want to go back,” said Dawn. All the longing she felt was distilled into that sentence. Her voice barely stirred the branches, but it reached Mr. Jennings’ ears. His hands tightened on the sill, knuckles whitening.

“Do you want to try to go back now?” he said, conversationally. “Now, before they miss you?”

“The lumberjacks are still out there,” said Dawn, her heart beating even faster.

“They’re on the other side of the development. They’ll never catch you.”

“My brothers will run after me.”

“You’ll have to run faster,” said Mr. Jennings. He smiled. In the night, his teeth gleamed very white.

“Has anyone gone back?” asked Dawn.

“A few, in the beginning. You have to try. If it works, maybe they’ll stop stealing their children from the forest.”

“Why did they start?” she asked.

“I don’t know why. Perhaps this planet won’t let them reproduce. They had to steal the forest’s children.”

“I don’t remember, I just feel longing,” said Dawn.

“When you reach the trees, it will all come back to you.” The man was silent a moment, listening to the chirping of the night creatures. “I never liked what they were doing here. Cutting down trees hundreds, no, thousands of years old trees so they could set down boxes made of cement and plant their puny bushes.”

Dawn crouched beneath the tree. “What will happen when I cross the gate?” Her voice was low and very strained. The thin line of light that marked the laser gate seemed to pulse like a living thing.

“They’ll come after you. Go, go now. I’ll push the button on three. One, two, three!”

She shot out of the bush, the needles tearing at her shirt and hair. One, two, three strides, and she hit the pool of bright light cast by the spotlights. Four, five, six more strides and she passed the gate. The night swallowed her and she ran. Her eyes took a minute to adjust to the darkness. Her foot caught in a root and she fell, tumbling head over heels. She lay in a heap, panting, frightened, ears straining towards the development. All she heard was her brother’s high voice. “One hundred! Ready or not, here I come!”

She sprang to her feet and looked uphill. Five hundred meters of sand and tree trunks, a maze of sawdust and branches, then the tree line, and freedom. A sob caught in her throat. She ran in a zigzag, pushing through the brush, getting tangled, falling, then suddenly standing stock-still, listening. Down below, in the development, the children were calling her name. “Dawn! Dawn! Come out now!” She drew a gasping breath and turned again towards the trees. Her brothers would hunt her. They would come after her now.

Fear lent speed to her trembling legs. She struggled up the hill, conscious now of the shouts and eager whines coming from below. Her brothers had been changed back, and now they ran on four legs, their yellow eyes gleaming, lips drawn back from sharp white teeth.

Dawn topped the ridge and stared, a low moan of hopelessness coming from her throat. A new fence had been built. The tall trees seemed to mock her now, towering over the new, silver fence. She ran up to it and seized it in her hands. As she touched it, she started to change. Her hands shrank, grew harder, black and pointed. She pitched forward and stood on four legs. Her neck lengthened, her ears grew, and a tail twitched then lifted in fear. She was a deer. With a bound she left the ground behind her and launched herself at the fence. It hit her on the chest and she fell backwards, tumbling into a tangle of brush.

Panicked, she thrashed, struggled, then managed to escape. She ran alongside the fence, looking for a hole, a weak spot, an opening. Three wolves topped the rise and spotted her. Their howls reached a crescendo. The deer spun around and dashed at the fence. At the last minute, she saw a space where the fence had yet to be fastened to a post. She pushed her head into the hole and leapt through. The wolves’ jaws snapped on empty air. The deer vanished into the dark forest.

In the development flashlights flickered as parents gathered their children. They stood in the circles of lamplight and stared with pale moon faces at the forest. Then in tight groups, they made their way to their cement-block houses, sat at plastic tables, and ate their dinners in silence. In his guardhouse, Mr. Jennings sat alone. He crumpled an evergreen needle in his hand, and the scent made him smile into the empty night.

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