Rose shifted uncomfortably in her seat and then winced as it squeaked. She looked around in horror, but no one seemed to be paying any mind to the dirty little Earther. She knew it would be different in the sky, but she hadn’t expected it to be so clean.
Her mother would have loved it here. She worked so hard to keep their home spotless, an impossible task on the dusty and dry surface of the earth.
Rose watched as a few men in uniform spoke with each other on the other side of the room after one of them waved a hand in her direction. She knew they were talking about her and it made her more nervous than she had ever been in her life.
She fingered the small heart-shaped trinket she kept in her pocket for reassurance and fondly remembered the day she found it.
Rose and her friend Brynn had been exploring what remained of the burned-out town they lived in. There was no real way to know if the once-bustling metropolis had been a victim of climate change or bombs from the Sky People. At least, that’s what Brynn said.
Rose had her doubts. The Gods told them that the town was destroyed because the people living there hadn’t worked hard enough to feed the Sky People. She believed the Gods more than she believed Brynn. After all, she had seen them come down from the sky and promise a better life if they repented. She had also watched as they killed her mother for denying the truth that they had to share.
Rose enjoyed spending time with Brynn, in spite of her strange ideas. So she nodded and smiled whenever her friend said something uncomfortable, such as her claim that the Gods were humans just like them.
Rose and Brynn climbed over a particularly tall pile of rubble that was difficult to navigate. Shards of glass stood out from the mass of bricks and concrete at strange angles and the two girls slipped through delicately in order to avoid slicing themselves. A cut from one of those shards was deadly if you weren’t lucky enough to have access to medicine.
As poor scavengers, Brynn and Rose were not among the lucky ones. So they learned to be extremely careful.
Just as Rose was about to skirt around a particularly dangerous and rather large shard of glass, she saw something sparkle up at her in the sun.
“What is it?”
Brynn made her way around a few pieces of rubble as Rose bent to pick up the shiny object.
“Let me see!”
Brynn snatched it from her hands before Rose had a chance to examine it.
“Brynn! I found it!”
“I know. I just want to see it.”
Rose crossed her arms and blew a stray piece of hair from her face.
“You better not try and take it. I found it fair and square!”
Brynn rubbed some dirt off the surface of the object.
“Oh, Rose. You truly have found a treasure indeed.”
“What is it? You didn’t even give me a chance to look at it.”
“Rose, this is so special. And it is just for you. I couldn’t take it from you even if I wanted to.”
Rose craned her neck and almost slipped on the rubble as she tried to see what Brynn saw.
Brynn held out her arm to help Rose steady herself. Once she was settled again, Brynn stuck the treasure under her nose, so close that it blurred in her vision as she tried to focus on it.
“This is meant for you Rose, see? It has your name on it. R-O-S-E. You are very lucky indeed, Rose. This must be a good sign.”
“How do you know it says my name?”
Brynn clapped her hand over her mouth.
“Oh no. Rose, please. You must swear to me that you will never share this secret with anyone else, ever. If the Sky People learned they would smite our whole town. So many would die…”
She trailed off with a choked sob as she turned away and sprinted down the other side of the pile of rubble, seemingly heedless of her own safety.
Brynn stopped at the bottom of the rubble and keeled over onto a large metal box that had somehow managed to avoid the scavengers.
Rose scurried down the pile of rubble as fast as she dared, fearful that her dear friend had injured herself.
When she got to Brynn, the other girl’s face was red and swollen.
“Oh, Brynn, what happened?”
“It’s just…Oh, I’m so idiotic!”
Rose didn’t know what idiotic meant. As that thought occurred to her, she was suddenly overcome with an understanding of why her dear friend used so many strange words all the time.
Brynn could read!
And if the Sky People found out, they would surely kill Brynn and everyone she loved. And if they were angry enough they would send plagues and disasters to rain down upon the community that Brynn and Rose lived in.
Rose watched as her friend dissolved into a tearful mess in front of her.
“Brynn. Brynn, listen to me!”
She grabbed her friend's hand and made her look into her eyes.
“I won’t tell anyone about this, ever. It’s our secret. I promise.”
“But, but…” Brynn’s chest heaved as she held back another sob. “But if anyone found out you knew, they’d kill you and your family too!”
Rose clasped her hands tightly around Brynn’s.
“Then we better make sure they don’t.”
Brynn threw herself at Rose, enveloping her in a warm hug.
“Miss May? Miss May!!!”
Rose was snapped back to reality as one of the Sky People called her name. She looked to see a clean and very smartly dressed young woman standing in front of her with a flat piece of wood in her hands. She kept looking at it and scratching on it with a stick.
“Miss May, I have been trying to get your attention!”
“I’m terribly sorry. Um…”
The woman spun around so quickly it made Rose dizzy. Then she took off towards a door on the other side of the room. It was the same door that Rose had seen the Sky People standing in front of earlier when they gestured at her. The woman’s shoes made an odd clacking sound on the floor that Rose found to be surprisingly soothing.
Rose stood and scurried to catch up with the woman as she opened the door.
“In here. Sit right there on that chair and wait.”
The woman gestured to a chair that was placed in front of the cleanest table Rose had ever seen in her life. She took a tentative step into the room.
“They will be in to see you in a moment.”
And then the woman closed the door behind Rose. She jumped.
Rose jumped again as the bodiless voice shouted her name.
“You were told to sit!”
She looked around to see if she was alone. When she didn’t see anyone, she determined that the voice must belong to one of the Gods. She scurried to her chair and sat, primly crossing her ankles and folding her hands on her lap.
It seemed ages before anything else happened. Rose sat in the semi-dark, waiting for the voice to speak again, not daring to say or do anything without permission.
Finally, the door opened and a man walked in with another one of those wooden boards in his hand.
“Rose May, correct?”
“You have information about the thief?”
Rose grasped at the heart-shaped trinket in her pocket.
“I-I-I’m not sure.”
“You said you had information.” The man glanced at the board. “That’s what it says right here. We brought you to the sky so you could tell us.”
Rose clenched her fist tightly around the heart and took a deep breath.
“A-and I was told that my father could come with me. That you would let us move here a-and give him medicine and g-give me a better job.”
Rose looked down at her hands. The courage to speak that way to the man in front of her had required all her courage and now she had none left.
“Yes, I suppose we did promise you a prize in return, didn’t we?”
He smiled at her, then he stepped out into the hallway, leaving Rose alone again. After a few moments, he came back with a plate piled high with a steaming collection of foods that smelled better than anything Rose had ever smelled in her life. He placed it in front of her.
“This is how we eat here in the Sky. The Gods have blessed us with the best of the gifts our dying earth has to give us.”
He handed her a fork and then pantomimed eating the food. Rose had never used a fork in her life, but she figured out what he meant for her to do fairly quickly. She took a big bite of the food in front of her.
The man smiled again.
“Just tell me what you came here to tell us. Then we can transport your father here on the next ship and get him all of the medical care he needs. We will give you a job here in the Sky and you will never go hungry again.”
Rose couldn’t stop eating. She was so hungry and had never had anything so delicious in her entire life. She finished the last bite and then licked her plate clean. Then she sat back in the chair, satisfied in a way she had never known before. The man smiled at her again, though it wasn’t reassuring.
“Miss May? Are you ready to share your secret with us now?”
With a sigh and a sense of dread, Rose remembered the look on her father's face the last time she saw him. She remembered the desperation she felt trying to find food to keep him alive. She pulled the heart from her pocket and set it on the table.
“If this says my name, then my friend Brynn can read. If she isn’t the person you are looking for, then she probably knows them.”
The man picked up the trinket and examined it. His lips curled into a tight smile of the likes Rose had never seen before.
“Yes. This will do just fine. Thank you, Miss May. Someone will be along shortly to show you to your new lodgings.”
Then the man curled his hands around Rose’s most precious treasure, turned on his heels, and left her alone in the cold and sterile room.