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Thanatos Labbs; The Claws (Chapter 1)
I walk home from school over a battlefield. The buildings are crumpling and hollow, the path is cracked and uneven. Wind wafts through the ribs of the lonely desolate structures that line the streets, the bricks creak with every breath like a final horrible rattle through a dying man’s chest. Repeated steadily, rhythmically, like with some glimmer of hope this part of the city could still be alive. Smashed concrete and thick steel planks stick out of the ground like the bones of fallen warriors.
Once upon a time apartments were filled with light and warmth and life, once upon a time the broken roads were packed with shiny cars and motor vehicles, once upon a time people lived above the ground instead of under it.
I kick a pebble across the road with the hard tip of my old, tattered school boot. The rock tumbles towards a rusted drain in the side of the road and is about to fall in when it bounces off a kink in the cracked cement, onto one of the unsnapped metal rods covering the drain, and lands safely on the pavement next to it. I stare at it. It has escaped the claws of fate, the fate of falling down, down the drain and landing with a plop in the water below, never to be seen again. It has escaped me, and my kick, and fate. I hate that rock. I am angry at it, annoyed. I despise it. I wish it had gone right down that drain where I put it.
I wish I was like that rock.
I know what you’re thinking. Pfft, he wants to be a rock? Who would want to be a rock, even one with super amazing bouncing skills?
Well, I don’t want to be like a rock, sort of. Not in a way that’ll make me solid and hard and made out of earth and stone like a rock is. I want to be like that rock, in the escaping the claws of fate-y way. Because right now fate’s sharp talons are clenched around my heart so tight, it’s all I can think about. And soon I’ll fall into my own drain, fate dragging me down. Because I don’t think the claws are going to let go.
Broken buildings still breathe but soon I might not.
When I get home, I open the trap door and walk through the decontamination chamber. The gas makes me cough, but it’s worth it to keep our home safe from the outside, or at least that’s what mum says when I complain. I dump my bag on the hallway floor and march into the living room. My brother sits on the couch, a controller in one hand, his expression blank, halfway through his homework. Hamper is always on his homework. I don’t know why he would bother. You can easily hack the work AI so that the teachers don’t know you’ve missed it. I go up to him and collapse on the couch next to him, making him bounce up and down. He ignores me. I wave my hand in front of his face. “Looks like Hampers dead,” I declare to nobody. “Dibs on his bed!”
He takes the virtual reality headset off and glares at me. He doesn’t speak, the school cut his tongue out years ago, for graffitiing bad things all over the wall. He’s lucky the punishment wasn’t something worse. That was the day he got to keep the bed, instead of all three of us kids sleeping in it. Now me and Felia are on a mattress on the floor. Mum and Dad sleep on the couch. Whenever Hamper comes home from school with another injury, another note explaining his behaviour, our parents fuss over him like he’s a sick baby. When I get in trouble, they tut, tut and say I deserved it, and occasionally I hear Dad make a comment about how he wishes the school had cut out my tongue. But that's probably just a joke.
Hamper gets all the special stuff.
Hamper makes some hand signals. One of them is very rude, but I ignore it. The others are words. I can tell what he says, though it takes me a while. Dad made us all learn sign language, but I wasn’t paying attention for most of the lessons.
“Stay for turtles?” I make out. He glares harder. He makes the hand signals again. “Wait… Can’t… wait for... tomorrow…” I gulp. He makes another hand signal, a finger slid across his throat. He grins. My stomach churns. Fate squeezes harder. I try to ignore it.
I know what will happen tomorrow. I really, really wish I didn’t.
When I go into the kitchen, Mum is standing by the table with a piece of paper in her hand. She doesn’t look up when I come in. When she finishes reading the letter, she notices me staring at her. She nods her head at the paper, and then looks at me. “Going to Thanatos, eh? Must be excited.” She doesn’t show any sign of being upset. I think she’s just really good at suppressing her emotions. I try to be like her.
“Yeah. I am.” I wanted to say it like nothing was wrong, but my voice doesn’t sound like I had planned it to.
“Lucky you. The letter says you’ll be going tomorrow, you’d better go pack your things.”
I don’t have any things except for another set of clothes, my tattered second-hand schoolbooks, and that crayon picture I saved that Felia and me drew when we were still four. But I don’t need any things for tomorrow. Not where I’m going.
“Yeah, I guess.” I tell Mum. She knows I won’t need my possessions at Thanatos. She’s playing along with the lie, I realise. Maybe she thinks it’ll be easier if we pretend what they say is true. If we ignore that we all know it isn’t. “I’ll go do that right now.”
She nods again, then goes out to give Hamper the last of the cookies. They have white fluffy mould growing on them, but they are still cookies, and chocolate chip ones as well. I would have given anything to try one, just a nibble… I guess I never will now. I will never even know what they taste like.
The school occasionally sends out food packages to students who have done well – the good kids need nutrition to make their brains work better or something, so that they can learn faster and graduate earlier and work for the school as soon as they are old enough.
Of course, Hamper didn’t earn the cookies, and the school would sooner be flooded in fluffy toys that fell from the sky than tell me I did a good job. No, Felia won the extra food, though she only got one, on the day she earned it. She told me it was the best thing ever in the world, and she was sorry that she hadn’t left me some, it had been so good that she couldn’t stop eating it. I did forgive her. Eventually.
Apparently Hamper has finished his homework because he marches in, his mouth full, and another cookie in his hand. I watch enviously as he takes a bite.
“Mmm…” He groans, putting on a look of pure bliss. He grins at my expression and picks a bit of mould off the cookie in his hand before shoving it in his greedy gob. Crumbs tumble from his lips at his overflowing mouth, fortunately there is a lot of room in there due to the absence of his tongue. He makes another hand signal. This one I recognise immediately, mostly because he uses it so much.
I stick my tongue out at him. I figure this really annoys him because he can’t do it back. He scowls, and heads down the ladder into our bedroom. We all share it, us kids and mum and dad. The room is always dark because there are no skylights, and the electricity is down everywhere but the school and hospital. The only electronic things we can use are battery or solar powered, and they have to be charged at the school.
I don’t like going down there when Hamper is in there too, because he’ll probably jump out from behind the wardrobe to scare me or something, and then laugh at me, so I go back into the lounge and wait for Felia to be back.
Since she’s a special kid she goes to homework club so they can boost her learning power, so I always have to wait for her to be back. It’s annoying. And I’ve noticed she keeps staying later and later at school, when I asked her why they are keeping her for longer than usual, she told me that she wanted to stay for that long, and they weren’t stopping her from leaving at all. Which is honestly ridiculous, because no one in their right mind would choose to stay at school.
I guess Felia must be in her wrong mind then.
Finally, after hours and hours, and maybe days, or years, I hear the latch on the trapdoor jingle, the fizz of the decontamination chamber gas, and the door creaking open. Small footsteps echo down the stairs. Felia’s shiny black boots appear, I watch them descend until the reach the floor, and then I look up at Felia. My face explodes into a grin.
Felia and I are twins, but she’s always been smaller than me. The top of her head comes up to my nose, and she had to look up at me, which makes me feel really tall. Her hair, tied back in its loose bun, is sort of flimsy and a dull dirty blond colour that is way different to my wild dark curls. people often think we can’t be twins because we don’t look or act at all similar, but we are.
Her nose is small, and snail shaped. Her eyes are a smooth hazel-brown, like choc-chip cookies. And she has the best smile I have ever seen, the kind that makes the sparks in her eyes twinkle like stars. Not that I’ve seen many people smile at me, so really, I wouldn’t know if it was the best.
I rush her into a hug, and we hold each other tight like there’s nothing else in the world but us.
For a second that’s what it feels like.
And then fate kindly reminds me it’s there, and I let go.
“Aster – I heard about – you’re going to Thanatos Labbs!” Felia says, her face lighting up.
Why she is happy, I do not know. It makes my gut twist even more.
“Yeah, I am. Tomorrow.”
She grins “You must be so exited! I wish I could go to Thanatos, but they say they need me at school. It’s a shame but at least you get to go.” Her voice is light.
I wonder if she knows.
Surely, she knows.
But if she does why is she so exited? It makes absolutely no sense. But I play along like I did with Mum. I let myself get exited with Felia.
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