She was born with the rain kissing her cheeks. She came wailing into our world in the heart of the monsoon season, when the rain thundered down on the pokok nd the damp rising heat dragged itself over your skin like a familiar lover. Her mother was lost in the rain, taken by the tuhan nd I, her devoted father, had sad eyes forevermore
When everyone bowed their head in prayer, I kept my eyes open, scanning around the canteen. On the platform at the end of the room, the Guardians sat, all of them with their eyes downcast. I raised my head just slightly, enough to look at the other tables in the room, and I still couldn’t see that distinct hair colour. Poppy was not here – and I hadn’t seen her all day. I clenched my fingers around themselves, pushing into the back of my hands until the points underneath them bleached from the pressure. I bowed my head again, just as the Guardians muttered “Amen”, and then looked up, blinking at the clinical light just as everyone else was.
I kept my eyes on my lap as the food was passed around. We had stew again tonight, and a roll of bread each. When no one was looking, and the Servers had passed me by, I placed my hand fully over my knife, which rested on the table next to my bread plate. The cold metal shocked my skin, and yet I carried on, bringing it down slowly onto my lap, and folding it into my jacket. I picked up the fork, and started to eat, like the rest of the kids. I kept my eyes on the Guardians, and the Servers, who kept circling our tables, proffering more food when they saw someone was low. I kept my pace slow, making sure to not attracted unwanted attention.
Finally, the meal ended. We chorused our thanks to the Servers, as they moved in to remove our plates. The girl who always served me leaned over my shoulder to take my plate, and I took my chance. I brought the knife out from my jacket and lunged upwards, swinging my arm around her and pressing the knife to her throat. She shrieked, and the bustle of the canteen came to a standstill.
“3504, what is the meaning of this?” one of the Guardians asked, holding her hands up to stop the other Servers coming to their colleague’s rescue. I backed up, pressing the knife further into the girl’s neck. She whimpered.
“Where is she?” I asked, surprised by how steady my voice sounded.
“Where is who, 3504?” another Guardian asked, an old man this time. I snorted.
“WHERE IS SHE? WHERE IS POPPY?” I shouted, nodding my head in the direction of where she usually sat. Spittle flew from my mouth and it caught in the web of the girls hair.
“Poppy?” the old woman asked, her face carefully emotionless.
“3506! POPPY!” I shouted, reciting her number. 3505 had died in an accident when we were seven, and so the two of us had always been next to each other since. The old woman lowered her hands, but the Servers did not move.
“3506 has gone for Education, 3504. She had missed classes and is making up for her absence by spending her lunch break in tutorials.” Her voice sounded reasonable enough, but there was something underlying it. I didn’t trust her.
She said “I know what it’s like to be dead”. Her eyes were fixed firmly on the horizon, as if by staring at it she could make the world bend to her will. Poppy had always been this way, even when we were children. Strong-willed and, frankly, a little bit scary. She titled her chin in my direction, but didn’t take her eyes off the blood-red sunset. “Did you hear me, Ezra?” she asked, and I looked up from my book. My hair fell in my eyes, obscuring her face in shadow, but I could see her figure silhouetted against the dying rays.
“Yes,” I said, looking back down at my book. I couldn’t remember what I had last read. “You said you know what it’s like to be dead,” I repeated, turning back a page. Had I read any of this at all? I couldn’t remember. I shut the book and put it down on the dry grass with a sigh. “You’ve never been dead, Poppy, so how can you know what it’s like?” I asked, challenging her to tell me. She bit her plump bottom lip, and twisted her finger in the fabric of her t-shirt.
“I don’t know,” she finally said, breaking the silence. I had been staring, without realising, at the repeated gesture of her tugging and twisting and pulling at her t-shirt hem. A thread in the seam had snapped from the force and was fraying – it caught the light when she breathed in. “I just… I just know,” she said with conviction, nodding once, as if proving a point to herself. “I remember it being cold, and dark, and very very quiet. But I wasn’t scared; I was very calm and almost… dreaming,”
“How’d you die, then?” I asked, leaning back on my hands. My elbows bent in, like always, that weird quirk you get when you’ve broken both elbows and they haven’t healed quite right. Poppy let go of her t-shirt, and pushed a lock of wheat-coloured hair behind her ear before she wrapped her arms around herself, not looking at me.
“I think I drowned,” she said quietly, and then she sat still. I felt the wind brush across the sensitive skin on the inside of my arms, and I shivered. Her large blue eyes flicked over to look at me, but then turned away. She stared out over the fields again. “I think I fell into water, and drowned,” she murmured, and a chill ran up my spine.
“You’ve never even been swimming,” I pointed out to her, and she clicked her tongue in annoyance. “How can you know what it feels like to drown in a body of water if-?”
“I don’t know, okay?!” she snapped, turning to face me, her body set in defence. Her knees had raised to her chest, and she hugged them close, balancing on the tree stump she had perched on. I would’ve toppled backwards, myself. “I can’t remember anything else, Ezra. But haven’t you had them yet, these weird dreams that make you feel like… like…”
“Like…?” I prompted, searching her face.
“Like you’re someone else. Like you’re not who they said you were.&rdquo