Since writing the excerpt below, my vision for this world and the characters within it has changed considerably. Even in this iteration of the narrative, the characters and the story itself are different from what I envisioned in November of 2013. But I want to celebrate writing that I am proud of, and part of that celebration involves sharing it with you today.
Not knowing Republican Shee hadn’t been a hindrance in the disputed territories, but inside a government run hospital staffed almost exclusively by Shee physicians it was proving to be a real liability.
Corelli Jones stared uncomprehending at the paperwork in front of him. His skin felt hot and cold under his clothes and the terrified lump in his throat was making it hard to breathe.
The Shee attendant, who had been sitting with him patiently for three and a half minutes of unbroken silence, finally betrayed a hint of discomfort and twitched one of the long quills that had been laying comfortably still across the scaled crest of her scalp. She stilled it and said, gentle as she could, “Water? Would you like?”
It was an English word Corelli recognized. He forced a closed mouth smile and put the pen down to shift the sleeping infant in his arms. “Please,” he said. The attendant got up from her seat and left the exam room, closing the door behind her, and only when he heard the latch did Corelli exhale raggedly and lean against the table. He bore the heel of the hand not supporting Gabriella into his forehead. Alone, he bit his lip and smothered the sob before it could come out.
They knew. They had to know. No human on New Persepolis grew to adulthood without fluency in the dominant Shee dialect unless they were from the disputed territories. Crossing the border into Republic territory without submitting to immigration processing was grounds for execution. Humans with counterfeit identification papers–or none at all–were as likely to be terrorists as refugees, the prevailing thought was. Better to err, with extreme prejudice, on the side of caution. The attendant had probably gone to page security–immigration, if Corelli was very lucky. An agent if he wasn’t.
Gabriella would end up a ward of the state and grow up with no knowledge of him. There was no way to ensure she made it to Diederik without implicating him in their dangerous and illegal border crossing, and the cache of funds they’d stashed outside the city would end up in the Republic’s coffers long before it would ever be of any benefit to Gabriella. This gambit had been a risky one, but Corelli thought he had prepared for everything.
Evidently, assuming that humans would be presented with human language intake papers at the hospital had been one assumption too many. What a careless mistake.
The latch twisted. Corelli sat up straight, pushed his black hair back out of his eyes, and steadied himself for the sight of a Republic agent. But it was another human who came through the door instead. A man who looked like he was transitioning, too, and still sported a slight softness around the edges of his features, with the beginnings of a beard along his jaw and a kippah resting against his curly brown hair. He wore no name badge and so couldn’t have been an employee or volunteer. A visitor or patient, then, but with an air of authority to his movements that Corelli recognized as police. Once you’d read the signs, it was hard to unread them. Some things were universal on both sides of the border.
Seeing Gabriella still asleep, the human policeman closed the exam room door very quietly, then set a plastic cup of water on the table in front of Corelli. He sat down in the chair the Shee attendant had vacated. Corelli stared at the cup in confusion.
“The nurse said you were thirsty,” the policeman explained. “You speak English?”
Corelli said nothing. He took the intervening second or two of silence to size his company up. He looked strong. He had brown eyes and a tired, honest face. He wore a wedding ring. This didn’t feel like the beginnings of an aggressive interrogation, but it was hard to know for sure when they were only two sentences into their exchange. Liars and interrogators were excellent chameleons.
He picked up the cup and took a sip. He realized after he swallowed how thirsty he was. “Thank you for this.”
The policeman made a modest, ‘no trouble at all’ gesture with his hands. He sat quietly while Corelli drank, and Corelli realized that he was probably expected to say something else. Possibly something revelatory about himself, something to break the ice, to give the other man the edge in this trust building exercise. Well, he wouldn’t do it. Corelli set the cup down and curled his arm around Gabriella, who was beginning to stir but wasn’t yet fully awake.
The policeman didn’t let the silence stretch on for long. Maybe he could tell that he’d been shut out. He leaned a forearm on the table. “I’m Imanu’el ben-Eliakim,” he said. “What should I call you?”
My name, Corelli thought, and remembered he had two. But one name belonged to Patrick’s spouse, and that person couldn’t leave a paper trail straight to his new life. He’d cocked up so much, he couldn’t afford to cock this up too.
In the silence that followed, Imanu’el looked at him carefully and said, “You didn’t come in through the emergency room and you don’t look unwell. You’re here for some other treatment?” Then, when Corelli still said nothing, he asked, “Are you afraid to talk to me?”
“No.” Yes. Terror made his hands sweaty and his throat dry. He looked back at Imanu’el, and when the words came, they were stiff and toneless after being held in his chest too tightly. “Are you with the police?”
Imanu’el’s response was prompt, but deliberate. He took care with his words. “Not at the moment. I’m not on duty. I’m a patient, like you.” He pushed up his sleeve further to reveal his wrist band.
“But you are police,” Corelli insisted and felt the bottom ready to drop out below him.
“I’m a patient, and I want to help you with your intake paperwork.” Imanu’el wore weary patience like an old suit he could put on in the dark. He reached across the table and picked up Corelli’s papers just long enough to glance at them. “Is your first name Jones?”
Corelli’s jaw worked soundlessly, before he said, “No.” And, having gone that far, it felt almost like a relief to say, “Jones is my surname. I’m Corelli Jones.” Because he wasn’t before, but now he was, and Imanu’el wrote his details down without asking any questions.
Line by line, he filled out the rest of the paperwork with details that Corelli supplied him in a soft, unsteady voice that gradually regained it strength as the seconds passed by and no security teams burst into the exam room to cart him off to a detainment camp. At one line, Imanu’el looked up at him again. “And the treatment you’re here for?” he asked.
It was strange for Corelli to realize that, in all the upheaval of his flight from Phenix City, he had all but forgotten something that had, since his early adolescence, defined his identity, even before he had the words to describe it. The realization almost made him laugh, but he turned the sound into a cough instead. “Testosterone injections,” he said, and noted well the way Imanu’el gave him a second glance. “And estrogen blockers.”
“You’ve been on them both before?”
Corelli shook his head, his thoughts drifting. “I did have the chest surgery earlier this year, after she was born.” He shifted Gabriella gently in his arms, but she didn’t wake. “I’d had plans to start the hormones afterwards, but.” His words didn’t trail off so much as he cut them off sharply, and turned his wary eyes back to Imanu’el. This was too much to reveal to a stranger, even one who seemed kindly disposed.
Imanu’el waited another moment as though expecting him to finish, then dropped his eyes. He made notes on the paper. “The estrogen blockers didn’t agree with me,” he confided after a moment. “Make sure you take calcium supplements.”
When he was finished, Imanu’el gave the paperwork back to Corelli and stood up. “I’ll tell the nurse we’re finished,” he said. “They’ll speak to you in English from now on. Try not to worry about it.” Then, before Corelli even thought to act on the unfamiliar welling of gratitude in his chest, Imanu’el let himself out of the exam room, leaving Corelli alone with his intake papers, and a drowsily gurgling infant who now blinked up at him from his arms with dark, content eyes.
A week passed before Corelli saw Imanu’el again. He spent much of his time alone with Gabriella, and tried to think of Diederik as little as possible.
He’d been hopeful, initially. Corelli had dealt across the border with the local black market enough times to know who would buy the illegal currency of the Free States, and had told Diederik to take a portion of his savings to names he knew and recognized as dependable, if not trustworthy. “Don’t give them everything,” he’d said, handing him the wrapped parcel of bills. “Just enough for us to get started. Hide the rest. We can exchange it over time as needed once we’ve taken care of the necessities. Once you’ve found an apartment, come find me at the hospital.”
Diederik had looked very young, then, looking down at the package in his hand. His mop of disheveled brown curls desperately needed a comb dragged through it, and his jaw would benefit much from a shave. They’d both been sitting cross-legged in the shelter provided by an old storage shed behind an abandoned farm. Diederik had Gabriella in his lap, but she’d dozed off an hour ago, her little head cradled in the crook of his elbow. “So, enough for the apartment, the identification papers,” he began quietly so as to let her sleep. When he looked up again, he gnawed at his lower lip. “When they ask who sent me, what name should I give them?”
Corelli hesitated, jaw working, then cleared his throat. “The other one,” he said and cursed the slight waver in his voice, but he couldn’t control it and knew that Diederik would understand why. He bore the knuckles of one hand against his chin, his lips, in thought. “You don’t need to tell them why, and I’m sure they won’t ask. They’ll just want the money.”
They’d bedded down in the shed that night, laying close together with Gabriella between them. In the semi-darkness, Corelli had curled his arms around his daughter and kissed her forehead. But his eyes had been on Diederik, who quirked a crooked half-smile at him and reached out to stroke his callused, machinists fingers across Corelli’s cheek. “Go to sleep, Mr. Jones,” he’d whispered, a touch of his usual whimsy in his voice. And Corelli had.
After his first night at the hospital, Corelli woke later than he’d intended and worried that he’d missed Diederik’s arrival entirely. He dressed Gabriella in a clean onesie that the staff had provided, then approached the reception desk with extreme caution. The tired-looking Shee attendant had his slitted amber gaze turned distractedly out the nearest window, watching late morning sunlight filter in through the trees. Corelli cleared his throat, and the attendant looked at him instead. He asked something in Shee, which made Corelli’s anxiety spike, then repeated himself in English. “Can I help you?”
It was just a question, not an interrogation. Corelli took a breath. “I’m expecting a visitor,” he said, then winced when Gabriella snagged hold of a fistful of his hair. He canted his head to the side and struggled to disentangle his hair from her fingers as he spoke. “Can you tell me if anyone by the name van der Merwe has come by?”
Drolly, the attendant said, “You’re going to have to spell that,” and Corelli did, lips pursed irritably.
The attendant picked up the visitor ledger and flipped through it. When he looked up and shook his head, Corelli staved off the sudden rush of disappointment. It had only been one day, he reasoned. It would have been much to expect him to have accomplished all of his tasks already. But when Corelli returned the next day, and then the next, and still throughout the week there were no visits, no calls, there was no voice across the loudspeaker paging him to reception, he felt a strange hollowness in his chest. He would not deign to call it heartbreak because then it would have to follow, logically, that he had been in love. He rejected that notion firmly, but could not reject the sickening possibility that he had been abandoned.
Most of the other patients didn’t live at the hospital, Corelli discovered, but most of the other patients weren’t fugitives from the disputed territories. Even calling it a hospital was misleading. Susa Convalescence lay several miles away from the nearest human settlement of Middleton Heights, tucked away in a peaceful bit of wooded wilderness that didn’t see much through traffic. The majority of the patients taking rooms at the hospital were new mothers who weren’t yet recovered enough to return home. At first, Corelli stayed in their ward and spoke English with the humans who preferred it. But some of them looked at him strangely, and Corelli could tell, as he had always been able to tell back in Phenix City, that they could not reconcile in their minds the hormones that he took with the infant he had carried to term. They were polite enough not to ask their questions outright, but their eyes were transparent in an honest, offensive way, and after a few days of weathering their stares in chilly, reproachful silence, Corelli requested a transfer to another ward.
It was the right decision. He found that he preferred outpatient convalescence, anyway. No one is a conversationalist while recovering from surgery.
The hospital grounds consisted of the surrounding wilderness, as well as an interior courtyard that featured a modest rose garden and a stone fountain fountain whose copper spout had gone the color of turquoise with age long ago. In the mornings and evenings, Corelli would walk with Gabriella through the rose arbors and hedge rows, to the fountain. He’d dip his hands in and bring up a palmful of cool water, then let it slip through his fingers while Gabriella marveled at the sight of so many water droplets glittering as sunlight caught in them. Corelli let her stand with one tiny hand braced on the lip of the fountain, while she reached out with the other to gracelessly smack the water’s surface. For her it was a wildly entertaining game, and that was all that was needed to make her smile and laugh. For Corelli, seeing her contentment was a balm for his bruised heart.
Five days passed peacefully in this way. While he forced himself to think less often of Diederik, the tension and fearful anxiety that had accompanied him across the border had begun to fade, and an itching boredom was settling in its place.
On the sixth morning, he endured his first injection at the faciliy with clenched teeth, then took Gabriella down to the courtyard. It was too early in the year for the air to have the crisp, autumnal bite to it that it did. Corelli set Gabriella down near his feet and crouched to wind his scarf snugly around her neck and shoulders. That’s when he saw them through the rose arbor–Imanu’el, and a dark-skinned woman beside him, her natural hair bound into a long, thick braid that rested like a length of heavy rope over one of her shoulders. They were seated on the lip of the copper fountain, their hands linked, their heads bent together in intimate conversation, and Corelli knew immediately that he’d trespassed upon a private moment. An ugly resentment curdled in him, too. When had Patrick ever treated him with such tenderness?
That was hardly the fault of the couple in front of him. He gathered up Gabriella and stood, but his shoes must have made some noise on the paved pathway, because as he turned to leave he heard Imanu’el call out, “Corelli? Corelli Jones?”
“Baba,” Gabriella babbled, smiling, and pawed at his face with both hands. Her little voice carried a fair distance, and any chance Corelli had of slipping away unnoticed was gone. He sighed, lips pressed into a thin line, tucked a dark ringlet behind his daughter’s ear, and left the shelter of the arbor.
“I don’t mean to intrude,” he said, putting cheer in his voice and a charming smile on his face. He bounced Gabriella once where he perched her on his hip. “We were just out for a stroll in the nice weather and all paths converge here, it seems.”
Imanu’el had risen to his feet, and so had the woman with him. He was dressed in his policeman’s uniform, smart and black and sporting the Republic’s sigil as a patch on his shoulder. Corelli allowed himself a moment of private satisfaction that he had been right, which he had no time to savor at all before Imanu’el approached him, reserved but smiling. “The garden is for everyone. You aren’t intruding,” Imanu’el replied, his eyes crinkling fondly at their corners when he looked at Gabriella. “How have you both been settling in?”
“It’s a hospital ward, not a suite in a luxury hotel, but we’re doing all right. Aren’t we?” Corelli tapped a gurgling Gabriella on the nose once, gave both Imanu’el and his companion a smile, and in extending the gesture to the woman as well knew in a glance that the conversation she and Imanu’el had shared was not finished. The expression on her face was distant and contemplative, but she met his eyes with her hazel ones and summoned up a smile of her own that was dazzlingly white and sincere. “Hello,” she greeted him softly.
Beside her, Imanu’el grew flustered. “Forgive me,” he said and rested his hand against her shoulder. “This is my wife, Clementine.”
Corelli thought, What a ridiculous name, but said, “Good to meet you,” with a graceful smile, and held out the hand that wasn’t supporting Gabriella. He loathed the artificialness of pleasantries but had always been very good at them, which Patrick had liked, and so Corelli had cultivated his demeanor carefully until it met with his husband’s satisfaction. A beguiling host made the medicine of their ruthless business go down sweetly. Corelli felt his smile slacken. Somehow this felt like trickery, but how else was he supposed to interact with people?
His momentary discomfort didn’t seem to affect Clementine, who took his hand in both of hers. His relief was short-lived. “Imanu’el spoke to me a little about how you met,” she said, her voice gentle as though she spoke to a skittish horse. “I do hope you’re finding things to be a little bit easier now that–now that your paperwork is sorted. You should know that we’ve helped people like this before. This place–” She gestured around herself, at the garden, the hospital building, “–is safe.”
Corelli looked sharply at Imanu’el, who looked plaintive, and that was enough. It was a peculiar sensation, growing dread. Not dread alone, but outrage, too, like a flash of white heat behind his eyes and at his temples. Clementine knew. Who else? Corelli wondered. Imanu’el, of course. He was her source. So who else had he told? The Shee nurse who had processed his intake paperwork, certainly, and he wasn’t wholly convinced of her trustworthiness. Corelli pressed his lips into a thin line that still gave some indication of having been a smile, and extricated his fingers from Clementine’s.
She looked between them cautiously and clasped her hands together. Corelli noticed for the first time that she dressed like a doctor, her summer dress covered by a practical lab coat. “I’ve upset you.”
“No, I have,” Imanu’el interrupted. “This is my fault.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Corelli lied acidly and stepped back from them. His tone had the desired effect and stopped them both short of following him, their eyes wide. Good. What further interest could a rude stranger hold for them? If he was fortunate, they would go out of their way to avoid crossing paths with him from now on. Unless they chose instead to reveal him to the authorities, now that he’d burned the bridge between them.
Doubt curled around him coldly, but it was too late to change course now. “I’m going to take Gabriella inside,” he announced and turned to leave them. “Enjoy your morning.” He didn’t trust himself to speak another civil word as he walked away, and they let him leave in silence.