Kimberly Gould’s Picture Choice: Both
Dry grass blades tickled the back of Mara’s neck as she lay on the sun-baked ground. She reached high, squinting in the bright afternoon light, trying to pinch the sun. The tip of her tongue poked out between her lips, settling in one corner as her concentration became absolute. Just a little more, a slight adjustment of thumb and forefinger…
The childish headband of wildflowers braided by her clumsy fingers slid down over one eye, and there, she had it. For a moment, her fingers and the fiery orb in the sky aligned, and she held solar magic in her hand.
“Lying there like that, you remind me of a John William Waterhouse painting.”
Startled, Mara dropped the sun and rose to her feet so quickly the flowers slipped down, creating a necklace of scratchy stems and sticky petals around her throat. She ripped it off, heart racing as she confronted the man in front of her. Leaves snagged in her hair, tugging a few strands loose and creating a disheveled mess out of the rest.
Her mind absorbed the details of him rapid-fire and out of order. Tall, older—rugged in a handsome way—eyes sky blue, dark gray shirt, firm lips she found entirely too kissable.
Mara knew she was staring; her mouth opened unattractively like a pale, gaping fish. It had been over three months since the last time she’d snuck out. It showed in the sallow tones of her skin and the quick blinking of sensitive eyes. She searched for her wits and came up empty, but she did manage to close her mouth.
“You probably don’t know who Waterhouse is.”
“Actually, I do,” she answered, a little acerbic despite what his presence could mean to her.
“I’ve seen his paintings.” It was a fib. She’d only seen images on her computer, which he’d know. Nonessential places like museums had closed their doors long ago.
He smiled kindly, choosing not to call her on her little white lie. “Well then, you’ll know what I mean if I say you would have been a perfect muse for him. A sun nymph with flowers in her hair.”
Mara’s heart stayed in her throat, knees gone all wobbly with nervousness.
“Is this where you tell me you want to take my photograph?” She looked pointedly at the camera held at his side, its black strap a sharp contrast against his tan trousers.
He laughed. “I’m afraid I couldn’t do you justice, darling. I’m a total novice. Blurry landscapes are more my forte.”
A warm gust of wind whistled by Mara’s ear. She pushed her hair back, gathering it against the side of her neck and holding it there. She didn’t want to miss a single nuance of his expression. If he planned to lunge, she hoped she’d catch the intent in his eyes first. He looked strong, but she was swift on her feet and nimble. Running would be her only chance.
Her mind frantic, Mara tried to remember what she had in her bag. There wouldn’t be time to grab it if she needed to flee, and any object that could lead him to find where she lived could have devastating consequences.
Thankfully, she’d packed only a light lunch and a book. She’d be sad to leave the book behind. She was at the best part; the sassy heroine ready to give herself in all ways to the handsome hero.
“You’re afraid,” he said gently. “Don’t be. I mean you no harm.”
“I didn’t think anyone else would be here.” The words came out in a rush, awkward with the implication she wanted to believe him.
“Neither did I. I haven’t seen another UV Tolerant soul in months. I was beginning to think I was the only one left in these parts.” He took a step forward, and Mara put a hand up as if to say stop, but he only bent his knees and settled on the grass.
“Government men came a few months ago. They took a lot of our kind, willing or not,” she told him.
“Yeah. I caught wind they were on their way and stayed out of sight. You must have done the same?”
She nodded, her fingers worrying the bottom of her shirt where her hemline was unraveling. Fear settled into nervous caution. He didn’t look like one of those men. Still…
“I have two younger brothers,” she said. “Both UV Intolerant. My parents are dead. They stayed out of the sun. The blisters and sickness came anyway. Now, I’m all those little boys have in the world.” If he wasn’t who he claimed to be, the appeal in her tone was probably useless, but she had to try.
The government men were paid too well to feel pity. They were also desperate. The number of people falling prey to the strange disease that made exposure to the sun lethal increased by the day. Top priority fell on finding treatments and cures, not on being humane. Scientists believed the few UV Tolerant individuals left carried the answers. They were gathered and kept in facilities no better than prisons, blood and tissue harvested daily, treated like lab rats—or worse.
“It’s all right.” He looked up at her with sympathy and kindness. She realized as he spoke she was starved for the simple comfort his weak platitude offered, and she sank down beside him, fighting tears.
“My wife and son are both gone. The whole world has turned upside down and inside out, so trust me—I understand.” He shook his head, turning to look at a small copse of trees to the north. Mara caught the shine in his eyes before he looked away. It was the honesty she discerned in his emotional reaction that finally eased the last of the tension from her muscles. The decline of adrenaline rendered her suddenly exhausted. She tipped her head back and let the sun wash her face, the warmth delicious after months of blacked-out windows and seclusion, the only outside time found under the chilly glow of a silver moon.
A few minutes passed in silence. “I’m sorry about your wife and son.” Mara knew sympathy came across empty in this day and age, but it didn’t feel right not to acknowledge his loss.
The world really was upside down. Perfectly healthy people died every single day, poisoned by the light. Those who managed to be diagnosed early enough and stay indoors, withered away, worn thin and sickly by constant darkness. Human beings weren’t meant to live like vampires. Her brothers were proof of that. Half the weight they should be, nearly translucent skin, dusky blue veins raised like little road maps under their flesh, eyes too big and hollow. Their futures were uncertain at best, short at worst.
“You should go soon, little nymph.”
Mara looked over at him, noting that he was younger than she first thought. Times were tough. Losses took their toll. He was probably only a decade above her twenty-two years.
“You’re too pale. You don’t want a sunburn. There are some who won’t appreciate seeing it. People with less than good intentions.”
She knew what he referred to. Times were desperate. People sold each other out for a few withered oranges as fresh food grew scarcer by the day. Transporting goods any distance greater than the number of hours of darkness available had become impossible, and decimated population numbers contributed to a stark decline in commerce. Essential services had crumbled under the weight of the epidemic.
Mara nodded and rose to her feet. He rose as well, reaching for her hand and pressing a bottle into it. “For your brothers. There’s enough for a few weeks. If you can, come back in two week’s time. I’ll try to bring more.”
She stared down at what he gave her, shocked to see the vitamin D label. The supplements had grown astronomically in value, controlled by pharmaceutical companies capitalizing on fear and illness to line their pockets.
“Yes, you can,” he said. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
She smiled, despite herself, the idiom reminding of quirky things her father used to say. Maybe he was older than she thought, after all.
“I don’t even know your name.”
“And I don’t know yours. Better that way for now.” He reached down and grabbed her bag, taking the pills from her hand and tucking them inside. He found the book and read the title. The man and woman on the cover, clutching each other in a feverish embrace, embarrassed Mara. She felt her cheeks get hot in a way that had nothing to do with the sun. They got hotter when he chuckled.
“Tell you what. I’ll borrow this. Insurance that you’ll meet me in two weeks. Plus, I could use something new to read.” He had the audacity to wink at her, throwing her off again about his age when those blue eyes sparkled with youth and vitality despite the tiny crow’s feet lurking in their corners. He spun on his heel and walked away, tucking the paperback in his back pocket.
Mara watched him go until the sun dipped lower in the sky, the glare spoiling her view. She turned for home, hurrying, wanting to get back to the boys. The precious bottle in her bag made the sweetest rattling sound, but it wasn’t the noise or the possibility of bolstering health that made her smile. It was the feeling she just might have made a friend that did that.
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Aleea lives in her imagination most of the time. It's an interesting place to be... Occasionally she can be coaxed out to chat on Twitter, though she finds it akin to torture to stick to that absurd 140 character limit. (@Aleeab4u)