“Malcolm, I’ve called you in to tell you how things are,” my guardian began in that voice they all had---full of sizzle, like a rattle. His eyes didn’t blink, I noticed. I sat in front of him on a bench with a thick cushion and fat legs, my feet not touching the floor. It was his office in the old Audubon Foundling House, on the Islands of New Orleans. The lit sconces with half shades above our heads were giant fireflies to me. I asked them for help, maybe for strength. Could I be strong? I didn’t know. This was the first time Lazarus had ever summoned me. I was only five, and I was shivering.
At dawn the cook Marilee had awakened me with news of this meeting, said I needed to get ready. Instead of breakfast, she had made me drink a tumbler full of something foamy and yellow, which tasted like chalk. Half an hour later, my stomach exploded--fifteen runs to the bucket. She said that got rid of the worms. In the garden she poured kerosene on my head, then A strange green oil. After, in the sunlight on the banks of the Old River, she combed out my nits. Finally, she led me to a room with a large stainless steel tub on a pedestal, a shock. I was used to being hosed down. She scrubbed me with stinky pine soap, washed my hair and rinsed it twice, lifted me out in a fluffy towel. She gave me new clothes which made me very proud: a collarless shirt and thin pants that fell past my knees. She’d sent me down the hall to my guardian’s office, with my head still wet.
Lazarus noticed my teeth shattering. “I trust your ablutions were not too taxing?”
I didn’t know how to answer.
“That Marilee was gentle?” He leaned back, and the slow, thick features of his padded face closed in. He was round-shouldered with a big head, his hands small. I stared at him, failed to speak.
“She praised you, said you were quite the little stoic, the silent type.” Then, a very long pause. My friend Ariel had told me, you always have to wait when you talk to them. They are slow on purpose to drive us crazy.
“So, to begin. There are two kinds in this world, the lucky and the unlucky. The lucky have a Trust. If you don’t build one you will have a hard, hard life—and it will end, like---” he tried to snap his fingers, but he couldn’t, his overskin was too slick for that. For some reason he looked surprised. “Do you know what I mean when I say, end? Do you know about the unlucky? What happens to them?”
You were supposed to say, “The unlucky do the so-long goodbye.” But the rough boys in the play yard chanted, they dribble down the drain. They suck the black. It was the most dirty, awful thing that could happen. “ I know,” was the first phrase I uttered. “It will never happen to me.”
Lazarus was pleased. “Now, we can dream, the wise men say, but we can’t observe eternity, so we shouldn’t say never, but we can say, `not for a very long time, a very long- ’ ”
“Never!” I tossed my head, which somehow I knew he’d like.
“That’s the spirit. That’s the Promise of the Reveal, which is so far, being kept. We aren’t supposed to tell our counts, but I’ll do it: I’m approaching two hundred—do you realize how long that is?” he smiled, showed bluish teeth.“And this is all you have to know, for now: there are two kinds in this world, those who are certain they will not last, and those with wonderful lives, and every reason to hope for eternity, like me: we are Heirs, or for slang, “T’s,” for Treated. Now, we don’t insult the unfortunates by calling them dirty Low Naturals, or Nats, or Lowns. We use their Enclave names. Free Wheelers, Chef Menteurians, Port Gramercerians, and so on. Why add to their misery with cruel epithets?” ( I didn’t know what epithets were.) “And those with hope like me are the Treated ones who don’t have to do that dirty awful thing , at least, not any time soon.” (His laugh, a gush.) “We prefer to be called Heirs. The only difference between Nats and Heirs is the Trust. To be an Heir, you must be Treated, and to be Treated, you need a Trust. Money. And it’s best to start building one as soon as you can.” His face widened. “I’ve brought you in to say that you can begin today. The scouts from Celebration Sims picked you out. You have a role already! That’s why we’ve cleaned you up. A marvelous opportunity. Don’t let us down. Most of all, don’t let yourself down!”
Just outside the door—footsteps. Lazarus looked up.
A large man was standing there in a pale green cloud of a suit. He was fair skinned, with a black mustache. I wasn’t sure if he were an Heir or not. I’d only seen a few. But when he came in and squatted down and touched my shoulder, I knew. .
“Malcolm!” this stranger said, his voice deep. “I’m Jeremy. How are you?”
He was at my level, and a little hilarious—besides the mustache, two very thick eyebrows made a big ‘M’ at the top of his face. His dark hair was thick and short. He looked up at Lazarus, “Oh, my, where do you get these gems? So fresh, still wet from his bath. Delightful. Look at the bones, the little pretty lip.” Returning to me, he added, “Ready for adventure?”
I nodded yes, though I wasn’t sure.
“You have to speak.” he said.
“Speak boy---” Lazarus commanded.
“Yes,” I said, in my normal tone. But I saw they wanted more, so I took a deep breath and shouted, “YES. ADVENTURE.” I was eager to please.
“Oh my,” Jeremy said, with a grin that straightened his mustache. “Lungs. Very useful.”
Lazarus finally came out in front of his desk and stood quite close to me. I was thrilled to be so near him. He was a sort of father, in my dreams, though I knew in truth that I was fatherless. He leaned in for a moment, cleared his throat. I was about to get what my mate Ariel had called The Speech.
“Now, dear boy, so far, you have been very brave. But there is more to endure. At times, the contrast between this place and the world of Heirs, will make you consider your life here one of suffering. The things you have to do to add to your Trust may seem very hard. You will struggle. But the good news is you will have years, decades, and centuries, to iron out any wrinkles, to unbend any kinks. We have marvelous therapies for you once you are one of us: intricate, sublime. Implants. Extracts. Reprogramming. Re-description. Everything that happens to you out there can be cured. I’ve done it. You can too. This is all Prologue. This is all just your Prologue!”
Prologue, I eventually decided, meant you weren’t supposed to live now, so you could live later, when you deserved to.
“I have it here, hope it’s the right size,” Jeremy said, bringing out a thin silver ring with a figure eight lying on its side in the middle. “This is your Nyet collar. Nyet is Not Yet Treated. It says you have a chance. So you are ahead of the rabble.” He opened the clamp, put it round my neck, and closed it again. Then he threw back his head so I saw his, a black-greenish line with a squiggle in the middle, digging into his Adam’s apple. “See, the same! When you are twenty, you get a new one, at your Boundarytime. You dedicate, become confirmed. Then you are on your way, just like me!”
Lazarus hovered a few inches away, “First day on the job!” Then he stepped back, so Jeremy could take my hand.
As I was marched off, I distinctly remember I wanted Lazarus to hug me.
And, what is sad, I already knew how wrong it was to want such things.
The last time I went to see my guardian, it was my idea, not his---
I had worked all my life in the Sims. I was lucky, I had a great Trust, and was getting ready for the Boundarytime, the ceremony.
But then I received word my money was “in escrow,” that someone else had first claim on it. The WELLFI Bank would only answer my queries by saying, “Ask your Trust’s Executor.”
I tried contacting Lazarus, over and over—first , he was having procedures in Memphis, but when he returned, no word. No explanation. I had to go, get an answer.
I was living and working on the shore of the Sea of Pontchartrain then. Soon as I could, I hitched a ride to Audubon Island with a young fisherman named Serio from Chef Menteur Enclave. He had a single stop to make, in Port Gramercy, and then we were headed across to New Orleans Islands. Eight hours’ journey, I thought.
I stood on the prow as we pulled away from the dock, touching my Nyet, my Not-Yet, collar. It was now as tarnished and tight as Jeremy’s had been when I first met him. I was planning to get a new one, my last, very soon. There were transgressions I’d confess then, things I’d promise to give up—in fact, in preparation I was fasting, toting up my sins. I tried to tell myself I’d get the answers from Lazarus, that all would be put right. Underneath, though, I was terrified---
I managed until we came to our first stop. There, I was thrown into jail for a single conversation.
Then, I escaped. That’s when the men came to kill me.
Moira Crone is the author of three books of stories and a novel. The former director of the creative writing program at Louisiana State University, she lives in New Orleans. Her stories and non-ficiton have appeared in Oxford American, The New Yorker, Story Quarterly, and over two dozen other journals and many anthologies. She received the Robert Penn Warren Award from the Southern Fellowship of Writers, for the body of her work.