She was starting to lose track of how many days it had been. Macy had told her that she could hold onto the MDA for a week, but it felt like more than a week had passed. If anything, the chaotic events of the last week made Amity feel as if she had aged an entire year, as if her literal coming-of-age birthday was not enough to convince her that she was getting too old for things to stay the same.
At least for the moment, Bailey was with her in their little tent – albeit only for the moment. Likely thinking she wouldn’t want to be interrupted, he didn’t say anything to her when he walked in – only to be surprised when Amity called out to him from where she sat, a pen in one hand, MDA in the other, notebook in her lap.
“Are you too busy for a hug?” she inquired with a lilt, a pen in her sweating hand and a smirk on her face.
Bailey paused, somewhat flustered by his girlfriend’s comment, almost completely forgetting why he had come here. All he could recall was that whatever he had come for likely had something to do with his shotgun, hence the reason why he had just opened the gun’s chamber.
“Did you shoot something too many times?” Amity offered, still speaking in a somewhat teasing tone.
He paused again. “No – no, I didn’t,” he mumbled, then nodded when he remembered. “No, actually, Theo said this thing needs to be cleaned better.”
“Really,” Amity mused.
“Yeah,” he replied. “And some of the other guys need some rounds, too.”
Amity’s demeanor diminished slightly. “So are they actually shooting things out there?” she muttered, raising an eyebrow.
“No, no we’re not – I swear,” he assured, a nervous smile on his face. He proceeded to pull some shells out of a crate and set them in the pockets of his jacket. “Some of the other guys just forgot to load up.”
Amity rolled her eyes. “Okay, then.” She winced, looking down at her wrist again as something in it seemed to contort in a most uncomfortable manner.
Seeing her grimace and grunt as she thumbed the top of her wrist, Bailey pocketed the rest of the shells and put the shotgun down on the floor. “Are you taking breaks, Ames?”
She wrinkled her nose at that nickname, but paid it little heed. “Yeah,” she replied, shrugging the question off. “Yeah, I have.”
She hesitated. “What day of the week is it?”
Now was Bailey’s turn to roll his eyes. He bumped his lower palm against her head – just hard enough to make her flinch, but soft enough that she almost didn’t feel it. By the time he removed his hand from her forehead, he revealed traces of black residue on her skin. Almost immediately she could tell there was something wrong with her head now.
“Did you,” she began, chuckling. “Did you just smear oil on my head?”
“Sorry bout that,” he said. “Just some shotgun residue. Don’t wipe it on your sleeve!”
Fortunately for Amity, he had said that last part right when she was about to do just that. “Okay, then,” she said, wiping it with her bare hand, wincing when she pulled her hand away. It was better than staining her white sleeves, but now her palm felt as if she had stuck it in a vat of honey – and she couldn’t tell if that was going to make writing more or less painful for her hand to endure. Still, she couldn’t help responding to her boyfriend’s warning with a simple “Thanks.”
For what felt like the fortieth time that day, a short, high-pitched cacophony chimed from outside. Amity covered her ringing ears – a second too late – and grunted. “Someone’s been making that goddamn sound all day!” she said, groaning.
“Sounds like they’re swinging their pickaxe at something,” Bailey thought.
“I think I’m gonna swing a pickaxe at their head if they make that noise again,” Amity mumbled. “Seriously; I’m lucky I haven’t screwed up and torn a paper after hearing that sound so many times by now. This entire place is so noisy and I’m already having enough trouble concentrating on getting these notes copied as it is!”
Bailey almost seemed to sigh in silence as if contemplating his next words, then shook his head before speaking again, looking down at his girlfriend as he stood up tall while she buried herself in her paperwork. “You’ll have to get used to it.” He knew he would come to regret those words.
Amity clenched her jaw, but said little else on this matter. Compared to this pickaxe noise, all the conversations her uncle had had with scouts and the like in his tent next to theirs were less of an intrusion in her attempts at reaching zen when she was writing. This was despite the fact that those meetings tended to involve shouting, especially when younger scouts were involved. Still less ear-grating than swinging a pick at concrete for no apparent reason.
That man was always working, but at least that meant he was always leaving his niece to do her work. From what Bailey had told her about his parents, any time he wasn’t spending with the scouts was spent helping the family out with whatever mundane task they needed from him – as if fetching and supplying rations to everyone wasn’t enough of a task. Perhaps it would have been different if his parents had decided to have more kids than just him, in which case he would have been in a similar position to Amity where he was forced to tolerate children even in the dead of night.
While Amity mused over such things, she heard a jingling coming her way. She looked up to see Bailey’s shadow casting overhead. A hand in his pocket, he reached down to peck her on the cheek, then picked his gun and a cloth off the floor with one hand and left the room.
Just as quick as the kiss and Bailey had left, the ear-splitting shriek of a pickaxe on stone ruptured her tympanum. She was starting to contemplate shoving the pen in her ear just to keep herself from hearing the noise.
Before she could do anything insane, she took a deep breath and set the pen down, then rubbed her hand again. Now was a good time for a break; Bailey could thank her later.
It was only after considering the noise she had been enduring when she realized her uncle was not in any sort of meeting. Brushing the dust off her pants, she picked herself up and proceeded to exit the tent – right when the pickaxe struck the rock again.
“Shut the hell up!” she shouted, to no one in particular, then pursed her lips as if she were afraid of someone realizing she was the one who had said that. Screwing up her face, she proceeded to walk toward her uncle’s tent.
She was fortunate enough that by the time she walked in, her uncle did not mention anything about her outburst – though she wasn’t sure if he was just staying silent to spare her the agony or because he genuinely had not heard her. Judging by the fact that he had not tapped into his MDA with any sort of headphones, he most likely heard her.
When she walked in, he gave her a little wave despite directing most of his attention on the papers on his desk. Seeing the state he had put himself in, she did not directly respond right away. She instead drew closer to him in silence, going down a straight path as if walking along a long red carpet to meet him, unable to speak to him until she reached the end of it. Along the way, she saw that same bug-like machine just standing there, still as ever – though last time she saw it, she hadn’t asked if anyone had drained all the potential fuel from the torches.
Out of all the things she could have started the conversation with, Amity started with: “So, has it been a slow day for you, too?”
Keeping his eyes on his desk, Shafer shrugged. “No, not really. Scouts keep making noise all the time, and so are you.”
Amity clenched her fists; he had heard. Hoping to direct her attention from that embarrassing moment, she glanced upon the desk and noticed what looked like a bunch of maps and written directions for something she had no idea about. Among all the papers was her uncle’s MDA, which seemed to be installing something as several lines of text scrolled across at a rate too fast to read.
“Is that something from the scouts?” she inquired. “From Bailey, maybe?”
“I didn’t get anything from him,” he replied. “But no, these are from the sujourne – at least most of it is. They should be coming back pretty soon, too.”
“I see,” Amity said. “It sounds like a lot of writing they’ve been doing.”
“And they’ve been doing almost all of it by hand,” he said with a light chuckle. “Poor saps must’ve gone through hell if they ever got one of these things wet – which they have, judging by how shitty some of ‘em look.”
Directing her attention to where her uncle was pointing among the scattered papers, she noticed a few of them looked as if somebody had been using them as tissues. They looked a lot like what her hyperactive imagination thought her own manuscripts looked like when she pressed her sweaty wrist to paper for too long; simply thinking about that made her cringe.
“Doing it by hand,” she repeated, running a thumb up and down her still-aching wrist. “How I wish I didn’t know how that felt right now.”
For once, it seemed, Shafer perked up a slight bit. “Oh, right – you’re still doing that, aren’t you?” he asked. “Hasn’t it been a week by now?”
“It’ll be a week by tomorrow,” she corrected.
“I still can’t believe Macy let you play with that thing for so long and didn’t tell us,” he said with a scoff. “Of all people, you’d think she’d tell me or Persson, but instead she went right over our heads and made it your little toy for a few years.”
Her uncle’s wording made Amity raise an eyebrow. “Toy?”
“I said what I said,” Shafer continued. “And if you saw what MDAs were being used for before people started hacking them, you’d know what I mean.”
As much as Amity didn’t want to roll her eyes in front of her superior, this time she couldn’t help herself. “God, you know – Cynthia said something like that, too,” she replied with a snort. “Thought I was turning into some kind of gamer – as if I want to play the stupid Snake game on this thing forever.”
“So what was she letting you use it for?” Shafer inquired – though while his words suggested he had a genuine interest in what his niece was doing, the look of pure indifferent on his face implied he already knew.
Suspicious and confused, Amity eyed him with a sidelong glance. “For writing,” she said. “Like I just said I was doing.”
“But what do you mean?” he pushed. “Is it just a bunch of journal entries or some kind of diary like girls used to have?”
“There are bits and pieces of that, yeah,” she admitted. “But a lot of it was just writing whatever came into my head. Fictional stuff – like the stories my parents told me at night before bed.” Though, she wanted to add, her stories tended to be of a much more unique identity than the tales of old.
Her uncle was silent for a long while, almost as if he was struggling to process what she had just told him. Just as the silence was about to subside, he looked up at her with a very puzzled face – and for a moment, perhaps as a method of coping, she wanted to believe he was just very confused by the program he was trying to install, and not about to step all over her.
“So you’re making fairy tales?” he started. “What kind of good is that going to do you? Even if you have kids, they’re going to grow up and get too old for fairy tales, and then all the things you’ve written will have outlived their use.”
Whether or not her uncle had intended to raise his voice, his intentions did not change the level of wobble affecting her knees. “Not really fairy tales,” she corrected, looking off to the side as she spoke. “I was just wanting to write some stories and maybe novelize them.”
“Novelize them, and who’ll read them?” Shafer challenged. “And would you expect some kind of compensation for your work, despite nobody wanting any kind of book – let alone a fictional one?”
“Hey – Macy had some good books!” Amity argued. “The kinds she’s gathered up over time: she reads those aloud to the girls.”
“Which brings me back to my point: why write for sellers who have no way of compensating you and will stop being your audience once they grow up?”
Amity wasn’t sure how to respond to this question – especially when, she knew, her original goal with her writing was a means of escapism for her and nobody but her. Up until last week, the thought of sharing her work with someone else had never crossed her mind. Thanks to Toni and Cynthia, Amity had only now started opening up to others about her literature.
Contemplating her next words, she directed her gaze to the ground between herself and her uncle – during which time she started to realize that a mere two weeks ago, all she thought she ever wanted was someone to swoop her off her feet, be her man and share the rest of his life with her. Now she had all of that, but still she couldn’t help feel as thought things were still not going according to plan – like someone had put a hold on things before they could truly begin.
Even after this last week they had shared together, Bailey still had some growing to do before he would be considered an adult. Then and only then could things finally start going according to plan. In the meantime: writing – or at least copying old things she had written – occupied her time. At the same time she both loved and hated writing, but all this time she had spent with her notebook was clearly putting her over the edge.
She wouldn’t argue. “You’re right,” she said.
“What are you looking at the ground for?”
Before her uncle had mentioned it, Amity had almost forgotten she wasn’t even looking him in the eye anymore. The woman-in-training brought an unflinching gaze up to his and repeated herself. “You’re right. If I’m going to write, it should at least be something worthwhile. And just so you know: I’m only copying my stuff over now for the sake of longevity.”
“I really wouldn’t bother with it,” Shafer argued.
Beyond her intent, Amity raised her voice. “But I’m almost done! I just have a few more stories to copy over – just a few more and the MDA goes back to Macy.”
“That’s pitiful, really.” Gesturing toward the MDA on his own desk, he continued. “You’re now at an age where you actually might be able to make good use of these little things. Hell, with any luck, we might be able to find some old computers down in the passageways that we can repurpose to do the same stuff these devices do.”
Amity raised an eyebrow. “I guess that’s true,” she acknowledged. “But I don’t know anything about the kind of stuff you and the scouts out here are doing on those MDAs. I don’t think I’d be able to figure out an old computer, either.”
“Oh, please,” Shafer said with a grin. “You obviously know how to write on an MDA, and the scouts have found a bunch of documents in the passages. We’ve been thinking of hiring one of the scouts to make records of all the documents, but considering all you’ve been doing over the last week, I think I might have found the perfect person to take care of this job.”
“Me?” Amity asked. Though Shafer seemed to be expecting a smile, she couldn’t bring herself to do such a thing.
“You’d be the perfect candidate,” he said. “So what do you say about starting work tonight?”
She blinked a few times. “Can I at least get my stuff copied tonight?”
Her uncle’s response was an almost immediate and exaggerated sigh. “If you can’t start tonight, then you’re not going to be able to start at any point. And that is non-negotiable.”
It took everything within her to keep from scoffing at her uncle’s insistence – at the illusion of free choice.
Yet based on what he was implying a moment before, taking this job meant Amity would get to keep the MDA – at least for awhile longer. Though she wasn’t entirely sure if she would be keeping her exact MDA with no modifications made to it, she dared not ask; the last thing she wanted him to know at this point was that she was going to be holding onto these documents.
And if she did accept this offer: her wrist could finally catch a break. On its own, the opportunity to avoid arthritis was almost good enough of a reason to accept the position.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll do it. But when exactly do I start?”
“I’ll have someone get you later when it’s time,” he said – and just as soon as he did, a loud crash sounded in the distance, making them both jump. “What in the hell was that?”
While a little relieved that the tension that had permeated the air a moment ago had subsided, Amity couldn’t help feel both frightened and annoyed by the crashing sound. “Maybe it was from the same person who kept making that godawful noise from earlier.”
Shafer paid her little mind, stepping away from his desk, past his niece through the front flap; Amity followed suit. It was then when they noticed a puff of dust that had spread from the source of the noise.
Just before Shafer could ask, one of the nearby scouts came rushing over. “Shafer, sir!” he said. “We just found a body over by where the tower crashed.”
“What?!” he replied. “One of our men died?”
“No, sir – it’s a corpse.”
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