You’ve heard this story. Only this time she didn’t meet a wolf in the woods. There were no woods, no wolves.
Beside everyone knows men are worse than wolves. Sharper teeth too.
The only thing that was the same was the redness: the suit she wore was scarlet.
The knife she wielded was sharp.
Her name was Poppy.
Poppy was fifteen years old and had never seen rain. The longest drought on record, beginning six years before her birth.
She was born in Sydney, that city of less than fifty thousand souls existing in protective suits underground, beneath precarious shielding, on islands that had once, before the seas rose, been part of the mainland. The city had had seasons once. Now it was drought for years and yeas or floods and then years of drought again.
So many years Poppy didn’t quite believe in rain.
Her Grandma Lily refused to live in the city. Refused to move from the home that had been the family’s since the 1880s when trees could live outside, and sun and wind and rain didn’t kill everything.
Not hard-shelled insects, not bacteria.
Her grandmother said she could fix what needed fixing. She was an engineer. The shielding had mostly failed, the neighbourhood been abandoned; Grandma’s house, even with all her fixes, would be uninhabitable soon.
Grandma Lily hadn’t replied to Poppy’s last message. But Grandma often skipped mail for days, saving electricity to reduce the heat.
Poppy knew she was alive but her mum had decided Grandma was gone: she closed her eyes, breathed deep, let a tear roll down her cheek, before the moisture was reabsorbed into her suit with only a trace of salt left.
Poppy’s mum didn’t understand Grandma Lily; she wasn’t an engineer. But Poppy and her grandmother were the same kind: she was going to be an engineer too.
She messaged Grandma Lily again.
Poppy was desperate to see her, desperate, too, to get out of the city where she lived pressed too close to people whose faces she’d tired of. Poppy wanted to walk without being jostled, propositioned or pawed—it was always the same creeps, the unassailable doctors, teachers, lordly engineers—or admonished, or given work she didn’t want to do, or lectures on how they had to pull together if she showed any reluctance to do that random work.
She was sick of the two metre by two metre room she shared with her mother, where it was hard not to think of the tonnes of earth, and concrete, and other people’s homes pressing down on her. Where the walls were so thin signing was the only way to communicate privately.
She wanted to see the moon and the stars through less than six or seven layers.
If Poppy couldn’t escape—even for a day—she’d explode!
There was no prison. If you ran amock you were put outside, without a suit. The last time had been two weeks ago. An engineer tried to force himself on an apprentice, not caring that there were dozens of witnesses.
When a person left the city alone on foot it was punishment. Or suicide. There were rumours of people living out there wild. Poppy didn’t believe it.
She would have to walk. They couldn’t afford to hire a car, and with the winds still, public transport only ran during the day. All battery-stored energy was saved for hospitals and lowering the temperature at night.
Solar and wind power was all there was.
There and back it was only a two-hour journey. She had done it before with her mum.
This time her mum would not join her.
Her mother tried to reason with her, tried blackmail, threats. She didn’t raise her voice. No one ever did; eventually the ones who yelled walked out of the city without a suit.
Her Uncle Jon wished to see her. Poppy shook her head.
We owe him, her mother signed.
No, you owe him, Poppy didn’t sign.
Her mother’s best friend, Ana, nodded. It’s politic to see him.
Poppy felt the weight of their disapproval.
Their suits hung on pegs from the wall. Ana’s was yellow. The new suits were yellow or white or silver, to reflect light, not absorb it. Imported from India. Everything good came from there or the Americas.
Poppy went to see him. He wasn’t her real Uncle. Her mother and he had been friends when they were little. Then he became an engineer; she didn’t. Her mother owed him and owed him until now he owned her.
But he doesn’t own me, Poppy also didn’t sign. No one was ever going to own her.
She agreed to meet him in Whitlam Square with her suit on and hundreds jostling them. The shielding there was good—eight layers—the air breathable.
He was on the Council. A respected man. A popular, handsome man. Everyone said so. Everyone nodded and smiled at him as they went by.
They unsealed their visors so they could speak unmonitored. Signing wasn’t private in public. Uncle Jon’s suit was silver; the most expensive kind.
“There are bad things out there,” he said. She could barely hear him over the crowd. She did not lean closer.
“I’ll be careful,” Poppy said, not believing him.
“You might not come back,” he said, sealing his visor, walking away.
She wondered why anyone thought him handsome.
Even Poppy’s best friend Umami thought she was an idiot.
Not that I don’t long to be somewhere else. But there is no where else. Until we’re engineers. It’s the only here we’ve got.
Umami was an apprentice too. It was what anyone smart did.
Leaving the city alone on foot, even in a suit, was not.
They sat on top of the craft hall, in their suits—Umami’s was green, old, but not so old as Poppy’s—looking east at what had been the city of Sydney. Most of it under water except these few islands. Her grandmother on one of the closer ones.
They weren’t alone—they were never alone—but there were fewer people on this roof.
Is that a crack? Umami pointed to a fissure forming in the shielding.
Poppy nodded. There were too many cracks. Umami signed that she was reporting it. It would be added to the list.
They might not let you go.
I’m fifteen. They have to.
We’ll get to the Americas, or India, Umami signed.
The only places you could walk outside at night without a suit.
You and me. We’ll sit their exams and they’ll whisk us away.
It had been years since anyone from Sydney had managed it. Uncle Jon had failed five times.
I’ll be a chemical engineer and you mechanical.
In the city engineers didn’t specialise. They had to do everything; so nothing was done well. Grandma Lily’s words but Poppy knew it was true.
Did you hear some of the engineers have been getting exiled on purpose? They’re building a secret city.
I roll my eyes, Poppy signed, without actually rolling them. Those rumours had been around for years. Umami believed the most unlikely tales. Can you imagine? All those nasties building a hidden city? They’d kill each other in a week.
I guess, Umami signed. Be careful.
Everyone knew everyone’s business. They flicked their hands in disapproval when Poppy passed them in the halls. She stopped taking calls. She was fifteen; she didn’t need permission.
Out loud her mother said, “You are reckless. You are wrong.”
They always signed. Poppy could hear the neighbours agreeing. They, too, wanted everyone to hear.
Her mother’s words made her stomach tight.
Then her mother turned her back, did not sign, or say, another word.
Three days of silence.
Poppy felt cold.
She left without her mother’s approval.
NOTE: The rest of this story can be found in the anthology Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy.