When the rumor reached us, it spread over camp like a rotten smell. The Snatchers had come to our Wastelands to reduce our numbers. Again. But something changed. It has always been one child taken at a time. For the first time, it was two in one taking.
We arrive at Brackish, leading our horses straight to the town’s waiting crowd, here to be part of the burial ceremony, the aftermath. That’s all it seems we do anymore—get the news, mobilize, and arrive in time for a Sitting. Not like before when my father’s militia actually fended off attacks.
Father and I dismount from his horse. I set up my tent behind the crowd and smooth my unwashed hair down my chest over and over as I tremble at their murmurs.
“Second child taken…”
“Can we even have our Sittings anymore?”
The Snatchers have been attacking the Wastelands since before I was born. Father’s kept me away from them my whole life, almost sixteen years.
I’d usually grind my teeth and push against the kick of grief, followed by relief it wasn’t me who was taken. Then rage, numbness—an ocean of emotions that leaves behind a taste of guilt like days-old vomit. This time I’m too stunned, my thoughts untethered and floundering.
People of all ages gather around a heap of wood and burlap, sitting on their haunches, even the oldest, their joints creaking as others assist them. There’s gravity in the air as in every Sitting, every year. Everyone slumps, as if doing their best just to stay upright, but failing.
My father’s militia, the Defenders, are like exotic birds out of place, awkwardly stationing themselves between scrappy shacks. We’re nomads. But these townspeople are stationary, always coming back to their small, ramshackle houses that lean sideways and have holes for windows, made of stones and strips of wood held together with a mud paste—and it looks like many gave up on the paste. They’re like fragile shells of giant pecans. Bones of homes. The Snatchers’ yearly raiding and destroying is too much for the people. They’ve stopped trying.
The pungent smell assaulting my nose tells me that the bodies of the two children the Snatchers took a couple of weeks ago lie underneath the heap. The Snatchers returned them just yesterday.
I turn my nose to the sea, desperate to swallow the saltiness in the breeze. Most towns are drier than dirt and blend into one another, but not Brackish, the seaside town on the southernmost tip of the Wastelands. I’ve only waded in up to where my feet can still touch the sea floor, never farther. Only those who arrived by boat have—long ago.
From the ground I whisper. “Are w-w-we s-s-safe here?”
Father’s eyes are puffy and red, his forehead crinkly all the time now. He nods. “I’ll never let them get you, my girl. We’ll be off of this continent before you ever come across the Snatchers,” he says automatically like it’s all I care about. Maybe it is. Or has been, anyway.
My legs can’t stop jiggling and flexing in anticipation for the rest of the procession, the pull and push of the upcoming ritual sloshing through my veins. A parade of townspeople in a short two-step beat spills in from all sides, circling the heap before taking a seat where they join hands and sway side to side.
Like last year, a lady with flowing hair that brushes her hips, leads them. Grey-blue paint from the dye of the glass plant covers her face and limbs in an elaborate pattern of tiny, interwoven bones and skeletons, same as the rest of the caravan. Other days it’s floral or plant patterns. But on mourning day, the bones appear ready to pop off their skin. Her dark eyes gleam. A mask of macabre figures surrounds them, then trails behind her ears and crawls down her shoulders and arms in a single line, narrowing to the tip of her middle fingers.
I rarely memorize townspeople names. I scorned these lands so long ago that they’ve just been my temporary holding cell until we find a real home. Maybe then I could be someone else.
The woman focuses on me. Her eyes crinkle kindly.
I freeze every face muscle. I watch…and watch, reading people’s lips and expressions. Long ago, I decided that my face wouldn’t betray me. Strangers won’t get to know what’s in me. At least I can control that.
I picture the children’s bones on the dirt and push down the ache inside until only a hollow pit remains. What did the Snatchers do with them for an entire two weeks? Why does no one question it? Returned bodies hardly have a scratch. The horror of possibilities squeezes my throat.
Still, I can’t seem to push a tear out. Sometimes, I’m as lifeless as these Wastelands.
A grand elder opens his arms wide, rustling his patchwork kaftan, signaling for the Sitting to begin. His paintings are blue and cover his entire bald head. As he moves, the skeletons flash silver with the sun’s glare. Beads of sweat surface on his nose, the hot air stifles us early.
“Nineteen years ago, we came to Meridies Sur,” he begins, sounding short-winded, “to get away from the Obscura wars. To start over and be our own people. So few of us, scattered in these lands, trying to forget.” He inhales for two beats and his voice rises. “But these beasts keep our population further down, and keep us trapped in these lands of death.” He makes eye contact with me and the younger ones. “They can’t take everything from us.”
It’s strange when anyone uses this continent’s real name, Meridies Sur. My people just call it the Wastelands, an empty continent they arrived to long ago, before I was born and with few standing houses. There were no bodies or bones, just signs that people lived here once—doors left open, plates on tables, shoes next to beds, and dust—dust covering everything. Maybe war reached the previous inhabitants the same way it forced my people to flee here. Or worse, were their numbers reduced to zero? A shiver runs down my back.
The grand elder nods at Mask Lady with a sad smile. “Sreela of Indus, your turn to bear this burden,” he says in a raspy tone.
He hands her a torch and she sets the heap on fire. “These children will return to the earth,” she declares in a whispery voice and then taps her chest on top of her heart. Two quick taps. Like a heartbeat.
The crowd mimics her tapping and chants, “To our new home, Meridies Sur, the old Australia. Chalega chalega.” As if any of this changes anything for the stolen children.
Lately, it’s like a thin film inside my eyes is dissolving, creating tiny holes through which I now see low expectations, Defenders defending for long without getting much of anywhere. For years a tug deep inside hasn’t wanted me to ask anything. Or even care. But Father’s been promising we’ll get out of this continent since forever ago. We never talk about how we’re going to beat the enemy or why it’s taking us years.
My father, two uncles, and I could’ve done so many things had we not lived here. Like put together grand meals and feed leftovers to the cat, Fighter, that we would’ve had and…well not sure what else, but it’d all be great. It will be great, when it happens.
People’s eyes glaze over as they focus on the flames like moths pulled by light. Deafening crackles and sulfur-like smells of burning meat turn my stomach.
I know little about the landmasses north of our continent where my people came from. I struggle to remember what places used to be called, except for Indus, since it’s close to what it was called hundreds of years ago—India.
We didn’t do anything to the Snatchers, but still, they come—one to three times a year. We’ve found returned children days later—in the woods, towns, middle of the desert, by the river, everywhere—lifeless bodies with limbs splayed or in peaceful sleep-like positions, however they landed when they were dumped off. Or so I’ve heard. Father has made sure I never see a recovery.
One day we’ll defeat the Snatchers and never have to go through a Sitting again. Push it down, way down. Father will make everything better tomorrow.
The fire slows down, people get up one by one, leaving the Sitting area, not looking back. To the side, our soldiers are starting to pitch camp in a clearing. A cluster of gray tent domes appears like shiny beetles, sparkling in the sunlight, weather-resistant material meant to keep humans comfortable. The Defenders found these buried in the land, one more thing left behind.
I remain sitting, my legs heavy from the ceremony.
A double whistle cuts through the air and everyone jolts. Father hops up and speeds toward one of our soldiers with soul-sucked eyes as the soldier gallops in atop his horse.
Father raises both hands to the air. “What is it?” He’s trying to quiet his voice.
Our young soldier opens his mouth but can’t seem to get it out. “Commander.” He gulps. “Commander, they’re headed here now.” He flinches as though the words sting his tongue.
I suck in a breath as Father croaks. “In daylight?” He looks back at me, his gaze gentle but blanketed with fear. Staring into his coal-colored eyes is like looking into my own—one of the few similarities I have with him, aside from my bronzed skin.
Bug-eyed Defenders murmur all at once, shaky voices and half questions.
The Snatchers come at night—always at night—brazen, rioting, storming into houses, snatching a child. They have night vision equipment, technology I can only dream of. Our youngest soldiers tried something once in the largest town on our continent. Restless Defenders, crammed inside houses, hiding, defying my father’s command. The Snatchers went berserk and used bombs, weapons we couldn’t match. Non-snatched people died during an attack for the first time. Houses, dirt, and humans flew through the air. Our people scattered while the Snatchers retrieved every single one of their own and made a hasty retreat. Whenever townspeople manage to get away with their children, they return days later to find the Snatchers burned the empty town. “To put us in our place,” my Uncle Charly told me.
As I imagine the Snatchers’ swarm moving through daylight, my legs seem to take control and lurch me forward. Words burst out of me. “Th-that can’t be!”
The soldiers turn to me, their eyes flicker. On the other side of the pyre, one whispers to another. “Told you she could talk.”
I hardly heard it, but his lips moved just enough to read. I’m good at it after years of practice. But he doesn’t know that.
Father looks like he’s about to be sick. He leans into me, “Joe, you should take down your tent.”
I dig my nails into my arm. I’m done being out of sight. I need to help Father defeat the Snatchers whether he wants me to or not. I keep Father’s gaze. This time I’ll stay here, Father. I inch closer and draw a breath. We’ll come up with a plan together. This time—
I say none of this, and he snaps his attention to his soldiers. “We’ll travel to mid-continent now. Tell everyone to abandon town for a couple of days. The Snatchers must find an empty town,” he commands.
My ears ping, we haven’t been near north in years. I can’t help looking past the urgency and whisper to Father. “Do we have time to stop at the Gem since it could be a long—” That’s what my brain thinks it’s spitting out. In reality, I stumble out, “Do-do we have ti-time to s-s-stop at the Gem s-s-since it c-could be a long—”
“No,” Father snaps.
I jump back. Father never cuts me off. Never. He considers it vile to do so. Even though I’ve stuttered since I can remember, it gets worse if I rush.
I hurry into my tent made of lizard-like fabric, the high-tech material the people of the Wastelands no longer make. The cooler air in here is only about a ten-degree difference, but it’s so sudden, it makes the hair on my arms stand.
Father comes in and scoots next to me. “My girl”—he slumps and puts his hand on my shoulder—“forgive me. I know we haven’t been to your beloved place in the woods in years, but the Snatchers are up to something. Contaminants have also been found in the waters near North. I can’t put you at risk.” He squeezes my shoulder lightly. “I wish we could stay in places longer. I wish I could give you a stable home.”
Father knows too well how to get my attention. There’s no way I can stare at the ground after that. He hauls me around with him, one more burden. I’ve been dreading the day when he decides it’s time for me to stay in a town.
“O-okay.” I force a smile. But whys want to pour out. Why can’t this nightmare end? Why have you stopped defending? But I can’t let him send me away. So, I tuck away my whys and roll them into my sleeping bag.
With only satchels in hand, the townspeople clear out of town just as Father’s soldiers finish packing their water bottles and folded up tents back into their saddlebags. An unspoken agreement runs through my people. Run. Hide. Survive. Parents beg the skies that when the dust settles, their child won’t be gone. When all the continents on this eastern side of Earth joined to battle the West and renamed themselves to Oriens forever ago, they seemed to have given Meridies Sur the boot. We’re down here far below Indus and ignored.
The forest floor rustles when massive Uncle Charly walks up. He nods like I’m one of the soldiers. “Hello, Nibling,” he says in a deep, quiet voice. “You’re riding with me today.” With meaty legs, he stands like a rooted tree, rays of glowing sun lighting his hair like an orange flame.
A flickering catches my eye in the forest behind Charly, and I lean sideways to peer behind his six-foot-three frame.
Charly squints and observes me.
Another flicker again but farther up the hill, way behind Charly where a few lookout soldiers make their way down to the rest of us.
A tall, muscular figure steps from behind a tree with a shiny horse at their side. The person is glinting as well. I’ve never seen this so close up—advanced armor on both person and horse. None of our armor, equipment, or rocks shine like that.
The front of the helmet has hidden snake-like eyes. When they look behind them, it reveals a metallic molded face on the backside, open mouthed, red bulging eyes as if to tell us the Snatchers are always watching. The features are blurry from this distance, but enough to know the townspeople’s stories and whispers were all too accurate.
One moment an unsuspecting small boy is walking by. Next, the Snatcher is behind him, pressing a hand over his mouth, pulling him away. They boy hardly gets one kick into the air, while the Snatcher drags him off as if not even noticing the boy is writhing.
My knees wobble, and I take a couple of stuttered steps. Uncle Charly’s eyes widen, his body caught between getting to me and looking behind him. Perhaps the forest ground has opened up and swallows me. Maybe it’s shock weighing me down. Either way, instead of being brave like I told myself I’d be from now on, I wish the ground would gulp me away.
When I was twelve Father caught me spying on kids playing kickball, nothing unusual since I was petrified of interacting with others, even worse, kids.
“Oh good, you’re out,” he had said. “Those kids playing in that clearing are your age.” He pointed behind his shoulder with his thumb.
When I glanced to the clearing and back, Father went into a plea. “Please, Joe, promise me that someday you’ll go play with the others. Okay?”
His sad eyes hurt and while staring at the huge cracks splitting the baking ground I answered, “I p-promise.”
This seemed to have been good enough for him and I instantly felt the guilt of my father trusting in my broken words. I knew one day I’d have to play with the others. But not today.
Not today. The thought squeezes my ribcage now, having been so certain I was ready to become part of the plan to defeat the Snatchers just moments ago. My body pulses as the dragged boy’s legs and then shoes completely disappear into the bush.
Then my uncle’s head jerks sideways, he stumbles onto his knees. I stand in terror, forgetting how to breathe.
Around me, Father’s soldiers are going down in slow motion. There’s no blood, no yelling, and not much noise except for weak grunts and scuffling feet, people falling but not hard, some only halfway, slumping into trees or others.
I whip around, my legs pumping on air.
All I know is find Father.
Something strikes my back. I hit the ground before realizing it’s Father who’s thrust me down. His stare keeps me down and we stay immobile, breathing, our cheeks squashed to the dirt. His eyes are more focused than a cat about to pounce.
No one over sixteen has been snatched. We can’t figure out how, but Father is convinced the enemy is able to keep track of our ages. I thought I was about to be safe, but with the Snatchers changing tactics, I can’t be sure now.