Justin and Amia were sitting under a tree at the edge of the training field three days after the attack. Amia had asked for a few extra days off from her regular duties and had spent them sitting under the trees with a vacant stare. Her father and Justin had yet to bring it up. Justin also couldn’t to do much because of his bruised ribs, so he’d spent a considerable amount of time sitting with his sister, trying to work out what was going on in her head.
Today she seemed fixated on horticulture. He hoped that the plants would calm the strange anxieties that seemed to be taking over her.
“I really feel like those trees out there should be producing more fruit by now,” she said, glancing between a picture in a book and a clump of spindly peach trees. “Doesn’t it seem like they’re too old to be producing so little?”
Justin followed her gaze. “I hadn’t really noticed.”
His statement was followed by silence from Amia. She skimmed through the book, muttering to herself occasionally. Suddenly, she looked back at the trees. “See, I’ve been think-ing that we’re experiencing lower and lower crop yield every year. Remember last year? We barely had enough peaches to make it through the winter. But none of the books in the li-brary have anything useful. Just basic explanations of tree diseases, but ours don’t really look diseased.” She set the book down.
Justin remained silent. He waited for her to look at him, but she just stared at the little grove of trees.
“Mia… can you help me understand what conversation we’re having right now?” he asked.
She sighed. Eyes still fixed on the trees, she whispered, “I just… I just don’t want to feel helpless is all. Taxes are due in a month, and after nearly losing the kids to those criers the other day, I just need to feel like something is going well.”
Taxes. The one thing that was always changing in the Dome. Each governor seemed to increase them. And since there was a new governor elected every ten years, they had now reached levels that were painfully burdensome to the smaller clans. This year they were all nearly starving as they saved and scrimped and sold everything they didn’t need in order to get the money. As far as he knew, they were still sig-nificantly short.
“Yeah, I heard about the taxes from Dad.”
There was a long pause. She glared at the grey-green dirt. “I mean why does the Governor even need all of that money?”
Justin glanced at his sister. Amia had never been anything except pro-government. From the time they were kids, despite her impressive use of profanity, she had always refrained from using the swears involving the governor’s name. She’d been the first one to whack a kid for using the ever popular ‘governor’s pants.’
“Maybe he’s building a swimming pool,” Justin said with a half-laugh.
“Enough jokes, Tintin! He’s taking everything and there’s nothing left for us. I just…” she struggled for words. “I just don’t see how we’ll stay alive. And the criers… they seem to get worse every year. Remember when we were kids? We used to play in the orchard.”
Justin nodded. Armaria had been a much safer, happier place even just five years ago. A crier sighting once every month or so. Plenty of game in the forest. Food on the table.
“So maybe the solution for now is to see what we can do about the orchard,” he said, placing a hand on the base of the tree and trying to push himself up. Her words released the anger he’d been actively repressing. Why were there criers coming out into the open areas? Why did they have to scrimp and save every penny to make sure they could pay taxes to a government that had done literally nothing for them? Why did his little sister have to sit like this, staring anxiously at a clump of half-dead trees, hoping she could find a way to get them to produce just one or two more peaches this year?
Amia was already standing. She smirked at Justin as he struggled to get to his feet. “Whose bright idea was it to have you sit down on the ground anyway?” She leaned forward to grab him under both arms and help him to his feet. Justin let out a soft groan.
“Okay, Grandpa, I’ll brace you. Let’s go look at those trees,” she said, laughing.
Justin shook off her offer of help. “If you want to play nurse, go hang out in the hospital. If I’m on my feet I’m fine. It’s just the standing up that gets me.”
“Okay, if you want to be a tough guy, be my guest. I only wonder how long you can keep up that act when you cry like a little baby every time you sit down.”
“You try getting bear hugged by a crier and tell me how you feel.”
“Next time don’t let it get so close,” Amia said with a cocky smile. Genuinely irked, Justin started to ask her how she would have fended the thing off if she had been in his shoes but decided it was best to drop it.
“Let’s take a look at those trees,” he growled.
“Don’t get angry, Tintin,” she chided him.
Tintin was the name she’d called him for most of their childhood. Now she only used it when he was annoyed with her because she knew it was hard for him to stay mad at her when she did.
“Anyhow, if you hadn’t been there…”
“Shh. Mia. I know.” He put his arm around her. They made their way to the grove of trees.
They began scanning the two or three trees closest to them, looking for any sign of disease. Justin knew from the begin-ning that there would be nothing. Nothing grew well here. That was just the way it was in the Dome. But if it made Amia feel better, he was willing to look at some trees. Amia waved him over to where she was standing. There was a line of small holes bored into one of the plum trees. He leaned in for a closer look. There were little grey bugs running all around the holes. Amia started to touch one.
“Don’t you know a sting beetle when you see one?” He grabbed her hand. “But this is definitely our problem.”
She glanced around and made a sweeping gesture with her arm. “They’re on half of the trees. Don’t sting beetles usually end up killing the trees?”
Justin walked among the trees, examining them closely. Sure enough, most of them were peppered with the things. “I’ve never heard of them ending up in an orchard. They usu-ally just eat dead, rotten trees. Guess I’ll have to run out to Athens when I get a little better and see if I can find a special-ist,” he said. “Till then, let’s see what can be done. Soil seems a little crumbly. Maybe we need to add some compost?”
Amia stooped down and scooped up some of the soil. Standing, she dropped it into her brother’s hand. The crumbly grains bounced off his palm. It looked too sandy. She’d never seen the soil out here look like this. Her gut twisted. “The en-croaching Badlands,” she whispered.
It was commonly accepted that the Badlands had original-ly been caused by the nuclear radiation from the bombs. They’d stayed at the edge of the Dome for a long time, but these days they were moving inward, infecting more and more of the ground each year. The government said the encroach-ment was due to the radiation being carried into new areas by underground streams. As of yet, there was no known way to fight it, and it seemed to have finally reached Amaria.
Justin frowned and shook his head. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mia. It’s the same as it always is. Armaria never had great soil.” But Amia could see her brother’s eyes narrow. This was different, and he knew it.
She and Justin looked at each other momentarily. He brushed the soil off of his hand brusquely. Amia thought she saw him shiver. He started to say something and hesitated, refusing to meet her eyes. “Well, maybe we just need some rain.”
The beetles’ grey backs glinted dully in the hazy green light as they scurried across the trees. Amia’s skin crawled. Sud-denly, she didn’t want to be here in these infested trees. “Let’s just go.”
She’d never known another home, and she was positive she would never be as happy anywhere else. She wandered around the living room carelessly. She’d had a decent child-hood, all things considered. She, her father, and Justin had created a happy family for themselves out of the ashes of their tragedies.
Her eyes landed on a picture of the three of them that had been taken when she was fifteen. Once every few years a man would come down from Athens and offer to take family por-traits for the price of three silver coins. Usually her father had refused it, but that year, for whatever reason, he had agreed. In the picture she looked awkward and visibly aggravated. Justin, who couldn’t manage a scowl to save a baby, was grinning from ear to ear. His arm was around her shoulder, and her father was standing behind them, smiling proudly.
“I should have smiled for Dad,” she muttered.
A few feet from that portrait hung two others, side by side; hints of a story that only her father really knew in its entirety. The first was a family portrait of her with her mother and fa-ther. She was an infant. Her mother was sitting in a chair, cradling her in her arms, smiling serenely. Her father was standing behind her mother, holding her shoulders loosely, leaned down slightly so that his cheek was gently resting against hers. He was looking down at Amia, clearly still amazed at being a father. This picture had probably been tak-en less than a month before her mother had died.
Gazing at the picture for the first time in maybe a year, she was reminded that she looked nothing like her mother. Sure, their physical traits were generally similar, but the actual sub-stance was entirely different. Her mother looked so calm and gentle. Amia couldn’t restrain a sigh as she compared that gentle peace to her own chaotic swarm of emotions. “I won-der if you would have liked me?”
Finally, her eyes rested on the last picture. It was one that had been taken about six months before Justin had come to live with them. It showed a very thin, sad looking man and a small, dour looking girl. She had been three at the time. She didn’t remember much of that time, but one thing was clear: life had gotten much better once her brother had shown up.
The three pictures brought up a flood of emotions that were instantly tainted by the beetles, the criers, the tax men, and that sandy soil. What hope could possibly exist for them? Sinking down into the chair next to the stove, she let the sobs wrack her body. Thank the green sky that her brother and fa-ther weren’t around.
Her whole life, she’d learned how to beat the odds, fighting and clawing her way to the top and making sure she was in control. Sure, things might get scary for a moment, but she would always overcome. Broken bones could be healed. Criers could be killed. Hunger could be staved off a dozen different ways if you were persistent and clever, and she was. But this was different. There were too many threats at once. She might manage to eliminate one only to fall to another. Even the slightest failure could end in catastrophe.
She stared at the wall. What was it her father always said? Deal with the most pressing problem first. In this case, that was tax day. It was barely a month away. They needed mon-ey. Her father never said how much, but the sum must have been significant. He and six other men had gone into Athens three times this month to look for extra work.
The problem was that Armaria had little it could sell. They’d already sold so many of their crops and livestock that it’d be a miracle if they survived the winter. “If only we could sell criers.”
Her mind did a series of somersaults and dragged her into a conversation they’d had with her father’s old friend, James Trinton, when he’d come through a month ago. She closed her eyes, trying to remember how it’d gone.
James was on his way to Macon. He didn’t go into specif-ics, just said he was looking for a business deal. He hadn’t come empty handed, either. As soon as hugs and greetings were out of the way, he’d handed Amia a chunk of pork so fatty and tender she’d nearly cried.
“You’re looking skinny, darling,” he’d said, kissing her on the cheek.
She’d stared at the meat, flabbergasted.
“Well, don’t stare at it, get to cooking it. I ain’t had nothing to eat in eight hours.”
“You won’t want Amia cooking it, then. Be on fire before she can get the pan hot,” Justin said with a chuckle as he pulled the meat from Amia’s hands.
Forty minutes later, they were crowded around the family table, silently stuffing spoonful after spoonful of pork and beans in their mouths. Somewhere around the second bowl, James had suddenly slapped the table, causing all of them to jump.
“I almost forgot to tell you!” he said. “Out in Athens there’s a fella buying the most doggone wild thing you ever heard of.”
Thomas had raised a curious eyebrow. “Really? What’s that?”
“Take a guess, Tommy,” he said mischievously.
“Horse hooves?” her father answered.
James balked. “What the hell would someone want with that?”
“You just said it was wild!”
“I heard about a man in Bungalow who buys fox heads,” Amia tried.
“No. Think wilder.”
“Rabbits’ feet,” Justin chimed in.
“By god, the whole mess of you Risks is unimaginative,” James teased.
“What then?” Thomas chuckled.
“Criers’ teeth,” James said, looking at them expectantly.
The three Risks nearly dropped their forks. James clapped his hands and guffawed.
“What in the world would any man want with a crier’s tooth?” Thomas asked incredulously.
“Claims they’re good for magic or some such hogwash,” James said as he gnawed on a bit of hambone.
“This is one of your yarns, isn’t it, James?”
“I swear by the green sun it ain’t!” James said, choking on a bit of his meat in his indignation.
Amia raised an eyebrow. “How much does a crier tooth go for, then?”
“Well, now that’s the crazy bit. This fella gives two silver coins for five teeth.”
“Looks like Armaria’s the richest clan in the whole Dome, Sis.” Justin nudged Amia with a laugh.
“What’s this man do with the teeth?” Thomas asked.
“Makes magic potions, best I can understand.” James took another bite.
Amia had rolled her eyes.
“I swear he does! Met the fella myself. Simon Greggory. Got a little ‘pothecary shop called the… what was it?” James scratched his brow, then snapped his fingers sharply. “Lame Sparrow.”
“How many teeth you reckon a crier’s got, Tintin?” Amia asked.
“You’ve got my kids talking in dialect, James,” Thomas said in a velvety soft voice. Amia and Justin froze and looked at their father. They both knew that voice well enough to know that their father was getting annoyed.
“Well, we are in old Georgia, ain’t we?”
“No reason for butchering English, far as I’m concerned.” Thomas practically purred.
James glanced at him and broke out into another loud guf-faw.
“Bright burning green sun, you never were one for Tom-Foolery, was you Thomas? You look hot enough to shoot steam. Alright, alright, I’ll behave,” James said, turning to Amia. “Now you stop with all the dialect, you little so and so. Your pa’s right, young lady like you gotta talk right or you ain’t never gonna get married.”
Amia wrinkled her nose. “Who says I need to get married?”
Justin chuckled. “Better watch your words, James, you’re in dangerous territory.” He turned to his sister. “Anyway, I bet there’s at least thirty teeth to one crier.”
“That’s twelve silver pieces each!” Amia exclaimed.
Thomas had whacked the table once, sending Justin’s glass careening toward the edge. “No one who wants crier teeth is up to anything good. If you ask me, this Greggory fellow sounds like a trouble maker.”
That had ended the conversation. There was nothing in the world that Thomas Risk hated more than trouble makers. Well, that and clan dialect.
Slowly all of the various pieces of her current situation spread themselves out before Amia, and she began to almost unconsciously fit them together into a plan. As far as she could calculate, they were no more than about twenty silver pieces short this year. That would be about fifty teeth. Just three criers would be more than enough.
Contemplation of how she’d get the teeth led to a mo-ment’s hesitation. The idea of digging up and pulling the teeth from rotting crier corpses was not only disgusting, it was likely dangerous. No one knew exactly what sort of dan-gers lurked inside a crier’s body, and it was likely that if she got cut while doing the work, she would die. Plus, she had no idea how she would extract the teeth. And she definitely had to remove them because carrying the rotting heads of three criers all the way to Athens was impossible.
On top of this, she was going to have to do it at night be-cause her father would never approve. He absolutely ab-horred this sort of thing. Here lay the greatest sticking point for Amia. She realized that when she gave the money to her father, he would not be proud, but disappointed. It was an uncomfortable thought. But the longer she considered how much she loved her home, her clan, and her family, the more she realized that this was something that she was absolutely going to do. It was impossible not to. She just needed a little help.