The Worlds of R. A. Hortz
THE GIFT

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THE GIFT, by R. A. Hortz

The long line of refugees waiting for their asylum hearings snaked around the burnt out tanks and discarded armaments that littered the former park. Here and there someone would kick at the yellow-brown dirt and turn up a body part, which would be quickly collected by one of the relief workers. The body parts did not elicit any comment. They had all seen so many shredded bodies that they were numb to the sight. Live shells, however, were another story. Twice already that day, Carina and her mother had hurried out of line to take cover behind some sooted piece of metal, while the disposal team disarmed the weaponed. When the all clear was sounded, the bedraggled supplicants quickly retook their places in the line, with only a minimal amount of quibbling. The refugees, on the whole, treated each other with utmost respect and courtesy. It was the only thing they had left to give each other. Worst of all, however, were the enemy fighters that would scream down out of nowhere and make low passes over the mass of refugees who would fling themselves onto the ground, praying that the cease fire had not ended.

"We're almost to the front of the line!" Carina clapped as the line inched forward, allowing her to see around the remnants of a wall that had been blocking her view. "Only four or five more groups, and we'll be in!"

Emina Dowd nodded to her daughter, hopping her chair forward without getting up. "Don't get too excited. It might still take the rest of the day for us to get seen." Trying to judge the time, she looked up at the sun, which was partially obscured by the dust and debris that had been ejected into the atmosphere from all the bombings. "It must be about noon. We'll get in today." She reassured herself.

"Do you know?" Madame Lucieu, their next in line neighbor, spoke up from her wheeled pallet. "I heard that last week some poor soul was stuck at the head of the line for almost two days. When they called him, he was off taking a leak and missed his turn. I heard the conscriptors got him as he was walking back to the end of the line. Poor thing was probably sent to the front lines right away." Madame Lucieu's rumormongering was cut short by the arrival of her servant, Turtle.

The twelve-year-old's gaunt, bowed form seemed almost too frail to carry the four small parcels that she clutched in her arms. Lucieu, who was unable to walk, had taken the young girl in after her parents had been killed. She had worked the girl hard, but she had also done her best to see that she was fed and cared for. In a world that was spiraling out of control, the two had forged a relationship that was mutually beneficial. In a way, they had become a family.

"I got the rations." She dropped the parcels in

Lucieu's lap and stood upright. "This is it for the day. The quartermaster said that they are not handing anything else out for a while, but he didn't know why."

"What? They can't let us starve. They have a duty to feed us, something..." Lucieu complained, flailing her skeletal arms.

Turtle shrugged her shoulders and selected one the packages for herself. "I believe that it was the Prophet Olieg who said, 'Eat when you can, and when you can't, fast.' For the time being, I plan on eating." With that, she plopped down on the ground and tore into the box.

"Madame, meager though they are, these rations are more than most of us have had in long time."

"I know. I don't mean to grumble. It's just that I assumed that we'd be taken care of here. Not treated like rats fleeing a sinking ship."

"But we are, Madame. We are."

"Umph!" she grunted. "Here, take your boxes. They're too heavy for me to hold."

Carina took two of the parcels from Madame Lucieu, and handed one to her mother, who whispered, "I think this means that they are pulling out. It's good that we're so close to the front of the line. Otherwise, we might be stuck here."

"What's that you say?" Lucieu looked up from her lunch.

"Nothing, I was just telling Carina that she should go take a leak after she eats. Don't want to end up like that fellow you mentioned."

"Ha!" Lucieu mewed.

Silence reigned over the small group as they finished with their meager meal.

"Here, since Turtle was nice enough to cook dinner, let me do the dishes." Carina joked as she gathered the discarded wrappers from their meals and stuffed them into one of the boxes in preparation for taking them to dump.

"Don't stray far, the line could move at any moment."

"Sure mom."

"And fill up the canteen while you're at it." Lucieu chipped in.

"Will do." Carina hurried off toward the Relief Center. There, rows of portable outhouses had been set up, interspersed with now overflowing garbage cans.

When they'd first arrived at the refugee camp, her mother had told her that she'd get use to the smell, but she hadn't yet. The most putrid of the camp odors emanated from the outhouses. It took her seven tries before she found one that wasn't as overflowing as the garbage cans. When she came out, her eyes were watering from the stench. Hopefully, she thought to herself, this would be the last time she had to use these facilities.

It was strange, she often thought. Of all the things she missed from before the war, she missed her old bathroom the most, especially the shower. It had been so long since she had felt really clean that she could hardly remember what it felt like to have smooth, soft skin that wasn't caked in filth. As she stood in line for her turn at one of the faucets that dispense potable water, she wished that she could, if nothing else, just rinse her hands under the warm, yellowish, fluid. That, however, was against the rules. For washing, they had to use the evil sulphur smelling surface water that trickled out of pipes scattered throughout the camp. She filled her canteen under the watchful eye of one of the relief workers, and hurriedly returned to the line.

The line had moved forward while she was away. Her mother now stood behind the Olversun's, who now had the enviable position at the head of the line.

"Where's your chair?"

"The workers took it, along with all our gear. They'll redistribute it to someone else. One way or another, we don't it them any more."

"Will you be OK?"

"Sure, if I get tired, I can always sit on the ground," she asserted.

Her mother had taken a bullet in the leg the month before, and the wound had never healed. A doctor, her mother had taken the bullet out herself. However, without any medicines, she had been unable to treat the resulting infection. The last time that she had caught her mother looking at the putrid wound, Carina had been sure that it was gangrenous, but her mother had denied it. Nonetheless, it was obvious that her mother was trying to hide the fact that she was in a great deal of pain.

"Did you get the water?" Lucieu piped up. Turtle had rolled Lucieu forward when the line had moved, and now lay asleep on the pallet beside her mistress.

Carina handed her the canteen and turned back toward her mother. "Look!" A tiny wisp of a man, wearing black rimmed glasses and the dark green overalls of the Relief Committee's administration staff was standing in front of the canvas door, that led into the holy of holies, the administration office. He pulled the door opened and motioned the Olversun's forward. In mass, Grandma Olversun, her two grown daughters, and a small boy of about six, surged toward the dark recesses of the temporary shelter.

"Good luck," Emina called out.

Dorothy, the eldest daughter turned around, tears of joy in her eyes. "Good luck to you too. Perhaps we'll see each other later?"

"Perhaps."

Carina stood by her mother and waved goodbye to the Olversun's. Now, they were next! She slipped her arm around her mother's waist and gave a squeeze. They would not know what happened to the Olversun's until after their own interview. None of the refugees ever exited the canvas door once they went in. They were secreted out the back. If their petition for asylum was granted, they would be taken to one of the refugee ships. If it was refused, they'd be taken from the camp in a closed truck and deposited, somewhere, miles away.

Emina pulled the cuff of her shirt toward her mouth and spit on it. Then turned on her unsuspecting daughter and began to scrub at Carina's face.

"Mom!"

"Hush, you never know, it might help?"

Carina stopped struggling and allowed her mother to rub the dirty, spit soaked fabric on her face. There was no hope, she knew, of getting her face clean without at least soap and water. At best her mother's efforts would just smooth the dirt out.

The minutes seemed to drag into hours as Emina leaned against her daughter, and waited. She looked toward the distant Oaksyn Mountains that were glowing orange. They had lived on the slopes of those mountains, once, long ago, before their world had descended into chaos. Rebel soldiers had set the woods on fire to drive the residents out of the hills. That fire still burned. Everyone was so busy killing each other that the fire had been left to die out on its own, when the rains came, or when the last tree was gone.

"How many?" The green suited bureaucrat called out.

"Two." Emina answered, coming out of her reverie.

"Come on, then." He waved them in.

Lucieu and Turtle were sound asleep. "We'll see them on the ship." Emina whispered, stopping Carina was calling out to them. "No need to wake them just to say that we're going in. Come on." She clasped her daughter's hand and led her toward the canvas door.

The interior of the shelter was cool and dark. Two air purifiers whirled quietly, creating a slight breeze that brought the smell of antiseptics and cleansers to their noses. When their eyes adjusted to the dark interior, they found themselves standing before a metal folding table. It was piled high with papers that had been shoved aside to create a space just big enough for a data console. The doorkeeper followed them into the room, shutting the door behind him. With the door shut, the sounds, and much of the smells, from the refugees outside were cut off. The two women approached the table.

"Stay behind the line." The doorkeeper warned.

They looked around and noticed a faded and scuffed strip of tape that was stretched across the floor.

"Sorry." They said in unison, and stepped back over the tape, away from the table.

"Names?" The middle-aged bureaucrat on the other side of the table called out, never once looking at the supplicants. When she first started working in the refugee camp, she had taken pride in the fact that she really cared about her work and the people she was trying to help. That was three weeks ago. In that short time she had become numb, to the horror, to the grief, and to her own emotions. The time she had spent on Arvell would haunt her for the rest of her life.

"I'm Emina Dowd, and this is my daughter Carina." Carina gripped her mother's hand tightly.

The inquisitor typed away at a small keyboard. "Ages?"

"I'm forty-seven, and Carina just turned sixteen."

"Occupations?"

"I am, was, a doctor. Carina use to be a student."

She typed away in silence for a moment. "On your initial application you stated that your entire family was seeking asylum, including your husband. You must know, I cannot hear your case without all the applicants being present. I'm sorry"

"Yes, I know." Emina hurriedly explained. "My husband, Flinn, died on our way here."

That was a lie. In truth, he had been executed by a squad of MP's that they had had the misfortune to run into. In the eyes of the military, any fully functioning adult male that was not in uniform was one of two things, a deserter or a spy. In either case, the punishment was death. When they spotted Flinn in the throng of refugees, they quickly pulled him from the crowd and tried and convicted him in a matter of seconds. The sentence was preordained - death. Without ever giving him a chance to explain, let alone prove, that he had been exempted from military service, they murdered him. All Emina and Carina could do was watch from the relative anonymity of the crowd. Had they stepped forward and tried to save him, they too would have met the same fate. As soon as she had seen the MP's approaching Flinn, Emina had grabbed Carina and dragged her deeper into the crowd, it was their only protection. They quickly lost sight of his mangled body as the crowd surged forward, hurrying to escape the gaze of the MP's who were eagerly looking for another potential victim.

"You should have re-filed your asylum application."

"I know, but when we reached the camp and I explained what had happened, they said not to worry. That I could update our file at the, this hearing."

"Um, unlikely."

"Look, here." Emina pulled a ragged piece of paper from her pocket. The gentleman that admitted us to the camp gave me this paper. It's his name and ident number. He said that if there were any problems that you could contact him!" The paper fluttered in her hand.

The doorkeeper stepped forward and took the paper and placed it on the table in front of the inquisitor. She looked at it, and set it aside. "It doesn't really matter. Your application is provisionally approved."

"What does that mean?"

"Basically, you qualify for asylum, but at this time we only have berths left for orphans and single mothers' with children under the age of three. You'll have to wait for another transport."

"How long will we have to wait?"

The inquisitor looked up for the first time. "As soon as we fill the last few berths that are left on this ship, we are pulling out. Tonight in fact. We've been warned that the cease fire is crumbling. It is likely that the insurgents will attack the camp in the next few days."

"But, what of all the refugees?"

"They'll have to fend for themselves as best they can. I'm sorry." She truly was. "You'll have to move along, I want to process as many people as I can before we pull out."

"You'll be back?"

"Maybe..."

"So your just leaving us all to die?"

The inquisitor just shuffled the papers on her desk in lieu of a reply.

"Madame, I'm dying already." She pulled up her pant leg. Her foreleg was a mass of oozing black puss. "See. It's gangrene. I'm a doctor, I know. The poison is already killing me. Without treatment I'll only last another week or two at the most. What will happen to my baby then?"

"My hands are tied. I can only accept orphans."

"Please." Emina fell to her knees, wincing. "I'm not asking for myself. Just take my daughter."

"Please mom, don't beg. We'll be all right."

"No, Carina, we won't. Don't you understand? If they leave us behind, we are both dead. But I'm the lucky one, I'll just die of my leg. Without anyone to protect you, the army will haul you off to some disgusting brothel where they'll use you until you rot to death or find the means of killing yourself." She turned toward the bureaucrat. "You've heard what they're doing to young girls, haven't you?"

She nodded. "George, please escort them out." The doorkeeper stepped forward.

"Wait, one last question. If she was an orphan, if I dropped dead just this second, you'd take her?"

"Yes, I suppose."

"You swear?"

"What? I guess. But..."

"I love you Carina, never forget that."

"Mom!" Carina shrieked as her mother pulled out a plastic, one bullet, disposable gun and place it to her temple.

"Make sure she is on that ship, please." Emina pulled the trigger.

The small explosion was muffled by the sound of Carina's scream, and the gatekeeper's cry of "She's got a gun."

Two security guards burst into the room with their weapons drawn, just in time to see the body hit the floor.

Carina knelt beside her mother and sobbed. "You didn't have to do this. I would have been OK."

One of the guards hurried over to the fallen woman and felt for a pulse. He looked up at the inquisitor. "She's dead."

"Carina Dowd." The bureaucrat's voice rasped out as she wiped a smear of blood off of her cheek. "I'm pleased to inform you that your request for asylum has been granted and that we have a berth for you on the Melody Rising. The ship is set to leave orbit this evening. And child, I'm sorry, I wish that this all could have been avoided."

"Thank you." Carina stood and turned her back on her mother's corpse. She held herself upright by sheer force of will. Her parents had died trying to save her and she'd not disgrace their sacrifice by becoming hysterical. There would be time to weep for them later, when she was safe. "What happens now?" She could hear them gathering her mother's remains and throwing tarps down, over the blood.

"Go through that doorway." The inquisitor pointed to her right. "They'll finish your processing through there, and you'll be taken to the ship as soon as we have enough people to fill the shuttle. Once on board, you'll be given a chance to get cleaned up and, lucky you, you'll get to sleep in a soft, clean bed tonight."

"Yeah, lucky me." Carina mumbled as she headed toward the doorway indicated, praying that the cease fire would hold until she was save on the ship. She stopped at the threshold as it dawned on her that Madame Lucieu was not going to be one of the saved. "My friend Turtle is next. She's an orphan too, can I wait for her so that we can go together?"

"If she's accepted, you'll see her on the shuttle, now hurry along, there's not much time left."

"Bye mom." Carina waved to her mother's lifeless body as it was carried out another door. "I'll make good use of this gift that you've given me." She promised as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and walked through the doorway that led away from Arvell and toward life.

Copyright R. A. Hortz - 2005



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