Home > The Girl with All the Gifts(4)

The Girl with All the Gifts(4)
M.R. Carey

Melanie doesn’t get up off the bed. She just sits there and waits. She doesn’t like Dr Caldwell very much. That’s partly because the rhythms of the day get disrupted whenever Dr Caldwell shows up, but it’s mostly because she doesn’t know what Dr Caldwell is for. The teachers teach, and Sergeant’s people take the kids back and forth between the classroom and the cells, and feed them and shower them on Sundays. Dr Caldwell just appears, at unforeseeable times (Melanie tried to work out once if there was a pattern, but she couldn’t find one), and everyone stops doing what they were doing, or what they’re meant to do, until she’s gone again.

The clacking of the shoes and the clicking of the pen get louder and louder and then stop.

“Good morning, Doctor,” Sergeant says, out in the corridor. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“Sergeant,” Dr Caldwell answers. Her voice is almost as soft and warm as Miss Justineau’s, which makes Melanie feel a little bit guilty about not liking her. She’s probably really nice if you get to know her. “I’m starting a new test series, and I need one of each.”

“One of each?” Sergeant repeats. “You mean, a boy and a girl?”

“A what and a what?” Dr Caldwell laughs musically. “No, I don’t mean that at all. The gender is completely irrelevant. We’ve established that much. I meant high and low end of the bell curve.”

“Well, you just tell me which ones you want. I’ll pack them up and bring them over.”

There’s a rustling of papers. “Sixteen should do fine for the lower end,” Dr Caldwell says. Her heel taps on the floor of the corridor a few times, but she’s not walking because the sound doesn’t get louder or softer. Her pen clicks.

“You want this one?” Sergeant asks. His voice sounds really close.

Melanie looks up. Dr Caldwell is looking in through the grille in her cell door. Her eyes meet Melanie’s, for a long time, and neither of them blinks.

“Our little genius?” Dr Caldwell says. “Wash your mouth out, Sergeant. I’m not going to waste number one on a simple stratum comp. When I come for Melanie, there’ll be angels and trumpets.”

Sergeant mutters something Melanie can’t hear, and Dr Caldwell laughs. “Well, I’m sure you can supply some trumpets at least.” She turns away, and the click-clack-click of her heels recedes along the corridor.

“Two little ducks,” she calls. “Twenty-two.”

Melanie doesn’t know the cell numbers for all the kids, but she remembers most of them from when a teacher has called someone in the class by their number instead of their name. Marcia is number sixteen and Liam is number twenty-two. She wonders what Dr Caldwell wants them for, and what she’ll say to them.

She goes to the grille and watches Sergeant’s people go into cell 16 and cell 22. They wheel Liam and Marcia out, and down the corridor – not towards the classroom, but the other way, towards the big steel door.

Melanie watches them as far as she can, but they go further than that. She thinks they have to have gone through the door, because what else is down at that end of the corridor? They’re seeing with their own eyes what’s outside the door!

Melanie hopes it’s a Miss Justineau day, because Miss Justineau lets the kids talk to each other about stuff that’s not in the lesson, so when Liam and Marcia come back she’ll be able to ask them what Dr Caldwell talked to them about, and what they did, and what’s on the far side of the door.

Of course, she hopes it will be a Miss Justineau day for a lot of other reasons too.

And it turns out it is. The children make up songs for Miss Justineau to play on her flute, with complicated rules for how long the words are and how they rhyme. They have great fun, but the day goes on and Liam and Marcia don’t come back. So Melanie can’t ask, and she goes back to her cell that night with her curiosity, if anything, burning even brighter.

Then it’s the weekend, with no lessons and no talking. All through Saturday Melanie listens, but the steel door doesn’t open and nobody comes or goes.

Liam and Marcia aren’t in the shower on Sunday.

And Monday is Miss Mailer, and Tuesday is Mr Whitaker, and somehow after that Melanie feels afraid to ask because the possibility has opened up in her mind, like a crack in a wall, that Liam and Marcia might not come back at all, the same way Ronnie didn’t come back after she shouted and screamed that time. And maybe asking the question will change what happens. Maybe if they all pretend not to notice, Liam and Marcia will be wheeled in one day and it will be like they never went away. But if anyone asks, “Where did they go to?” then they’ll really be gone and she’ll never see them again.

6

“Okay,” Miss Justineau says. “Does anyone know what today is?”

It’s Tuesday, obviously, and more important than that, it’s a Miss Justineau day, but everyone tries to guess what else it might be. “Your birthday?” “The king’s birthday?” “The day when something important happened, years ago?” “A day with a palindromic date?” “A day when someone new is coming?”

They’re all excited, because they know it’s got something to do with the big canvas bag that Miss Justineau brought in with her, and they can see that she’s just as excited to show them what’s inside. It’s going to be a good day – one of the best days, probably.

But it’s Siobhan, in the end, who gets it. “It’s the first day of spring!” she shouts from behind Melanie.

“Good for you, Siobhan,” Miss Justineau says. “Absolutely right. It’s the twenty-first of March and, for the part of the world where we live, that’s … what? What’s the big deal about the twenty-first?”

“The first day of spring,” Tom repeats, but Melanie, who’s kicking herself for not seeing this sooner, knows that Miss Justineau is looking for more than that. “It’s the vernal equinox!” she says quickly before anyone else can.

“Exactly,” Miss Justineau agrees. “Give the lady a big hand. It’s the vernal equinox. Now, what does that mean?”

The kids all clamour to answer. Usually nobody bothers to tell them what date it is, and of course they never get to see the sky, but they’re familiar with the theory. Ever since the solstice, way back in December, the nights have been getting shorter and the days have been getting longer (not that the kids ever see night and day, because the rooms in the block don’t have any windows). Today is the day when the two finally balance. The night and the day are both exactly twelve hours long.

“And that makes it kind of a magical day,” Miss Justineau says. “In olden times, it meant the long dark of winter was finally over, and things would start growing again and the world would be renewed. The solstice was the promise – that the days wouldn’t just keep on getting shorter until they disappeared altogether. The equinox was the day when the promise was fulfilled.”

Miss Justineau picks up the big bag and puts it on the table. “And I was thinking about this,” she says slowly, knowing they’re all watching, knowing that they’re aching to see what’s in the bag. “And it occurred to me that nobody ever showed you, really, what spring is all about. So I climbed over the perimeter fence…”

Gasps from the children. Region 6 may be mostly cleared, but outside the fence still belongs to the hungries. As soon as you’re out there, they can see you and smell you – and once they get your scent, they’re never going to stop following you until they’ve eaten you.

Miss Justineau laughs at the horrified expressions on their faces. “Only kidding,” she says. “There’s actually a part of the camp where the soldiers didn’t bother to finish clearing when they set up this base. There’s lots of wild flowers there, and even a few trees. So…” – and she pulls the mouth of the bag wide open – “I went over there, and I just grabbed what I could find. Would have felt like vandalism, before the Breakdown, but the wild flowers are doing okay for themselves these days, so I just thought what the hell.”

She reaches into the bag and takes something out. It’s a sort of stick, long and twisted, with smaller sticks coming off it in all directions. And the smaller sticks have smaller sticks, and so on, so it’s a really crazy, complicated shape. And all over it there are these little green dots – but as Miss Justineau turns the stick in her hand, Melanie can see that they’re not dots. They bulge right out from the stick, as though they’re being forced up from inside it. And some of them are broken; they’ve split in the middle and they’re sort of peeling into ever-so-slender green lips and brackets.

“Anyone know what this is?” Miss Justineau asks.

Nobody speaks. Melanie is thinking about it hard, trying to match it up with something she’s already seen, or maybe been told about in class. She’s just about to get it, because the word means what it says – the way the big stick breaks into smaller sticks, and again and again, so there’s more and more of them, like breaking down a great big number into the long list of its prime factors.

“It’s a branch,” Joanne says.

Dummy, dummy, dummy, Melanie scolds herself. Her rainforest picture is just full of branches. But the real branch looks different somehow. Its shape is more complicated and broken up, its textures rougher.

“You’re damn right it’s a branch,” Miss Justineau agrees. “I think it’s an alder. A couple of thousand years ago, the people who lived around here would have called this time of year the alder month. They used the bark of the tree for medicine, because it’s really rich in something called salicin. It’s kind of a natural pain relief drug.”

She goes around the class, unstrapping the children’s right arms from their chairs so that they can hold the branch and look at it right up close. It’s kind of ugly, Melanie thinks, but absolutely fascinating. Especially when Miss Justineau explains that the little green balls are buds – and they’ll turn into leaves and cover the whole tree in green, as though it’s put a summer dress on.

But there’s a lot more stuff in the bag, and when Miss Justineau starts to unpack it, the whole class stares in awe. Because the bag is full of colours – starbursts and wheels and whorls of dazzling brightness that are as fine and complex in their structures as the branch is, only much more symmetrical. Flowers.

“Red campion,” Miss Justineau says, holding up a spray that’s not red at all but sort of purple, each petal forked into two like the footprint of an animal in a tracking chart Melanie saw once.

“Rosemary.” White fingers and green fingers, all laced together like your hands clasped together in your lap when you’re nervous and you don’t want to fidget.

“Daffodils.” Yellow tubes like the trumpets angels blow in the old pictures in Miss Justineau’s books, but with fringed lips so delicate they move when Miss Justineau breathes on them.

“Medlar.” White spheres in dense clusters, each one made out of overlapping petals that are curved and nested on themselves, and open at one end to show something inside that looks like a tiny model of more flowers.

The children are hypnotised. It’s spring in the classroom. It’s equinox, with the world balanced between winter and summer, life and death, like a spinning ball balanced on the tip of someone’s finger.

When everyone has looked at the flowers, and held them, Miss Justineau puts them in bottles and jars all around the classroom, wherever there’s a shelf or a table or a clear surface, so the whole room becomes a meadow.

She reads the class some poems about flowers, starting with one by Walt Whitman about lilacs and how spring always comes back again, but Walt Whitman hasn’t got very far at all before he’s talking about death and offering to give his lilacs to a coffin that he’s seen, so Miss Justineau says let’s quit while we’re ahead and reads Thomas Campion instead. He even has the same name as a flower, Melanie thinks, and she likes his poem a whole lot better.

But maybe the most important thing that comes out of this day is that Melanie now knows what date it is. She doesn’t want to stop knowing again, so she decides to keep count.

She clears a place in her mind, just for the date, and every day she goes to that place and adds one. She makes sure to ask Miss Justineau if this is a leap year, which it is. Once she knows that, she’s good.

Knowing the date is reassuring in some way she can’t quite figure out. It’s like it gives her a secret power – like she’s in control of a little piece of the world.

It’s not until then that she realises she’s never had that feeling before.

7

Caroline Caldwell is very skilled at separating brains from skulls. She does it quickly and methodically, and she gets the brain out in one piece, with minimal tissue damage. She’s reached the point now where she could almost do it in her sleep.

In fact, it’s been three nights since she slept, and there’s an itchiness behind her eyes that isn’t eased by rubbing them. But her mind is clear, with only the very slightest sense of a hallucinatory edge to that clarity. She knows what she’s doing. She watches herself do it, approving the virtuosity of her own technique.

The first cut is to the rear of the occipital bone – easing her slimmest bone-saw into the gap that Selkirk has opened up for her, through the peeled-back layers of flesh and between the nubs and buds of exposed muscle.

She extends that first cut out to either side, taking care to maintain a straight horizontal line corresponding to the widest part of the skull. It’s important to have enough room to work in, so she doesn’t squash the brain or leave part of it behind when she takes it out. She journeys on, the bone-saw flicking lightly back and forth like the bow of a violin, through the parietal and temporal bones, keeping the same straight line, until she comes at last to the superciliary ridges.

At that point, the straight line ceases to matter. Instead, X marks the spot; Dr Caldwell draws the saw down from top left to bottom right, then up again from bottom left to top right, making two slightly deeper incisions that cross at the midpoint between the subject’s eyes.

Which flicker in rapid saccades, focus and defocus in restless busy-work.

The subject is dead, but the pathogen that controls his nervous system isn’t even slightly deterred by the loss of a steering consciousness. It still knows what it wants, and it’s still the captain of this sinking ship.

Dr Caldwell deepens the intersecting cuts at the front of the skull, because the subject’s sinuses in effect create a double thickness of bone there.

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