Excerpt: Her of the Wood

Euodia leaves the tower through the tunnels. There are few people on the sidewalks here. The workers in the tower live in the tower. They eat in the tower; they sleep in the tower. She’s carrying papers in case she’s stopped, a request for a private worker from a woman named Orchid. They’ll show she’s transitioning from the tower to a private residence, a residence she can’t allow herself to think about right now. That will get her through mid-city. Then she’ll be in the edges, worker territory, where no one asks questions.

She passes a worker on his way back into the tower and wonders if he was out on business or if he’s taking a risk like her. Her eyes linger on him for a moment too long. He doesn’t seem to notice. This is her first time out since she was brought to work in the tower. She doesn’t think it’s common for workers to come and go, but she can’t be sure. She hopes it’s common enough that she won’t be stopped. There’s no one else after that for a while, though her heart stops every time she thinks she hears a footfall. She’s certain she’ll strain her muscles listening.

Eventually, the tunnel from the tower links up to tunnels from other city center buildings and those connect to the buildings from mid-city, where workers commute. She hops on an almost empty transport and stands by the railing nearest the doors. She doesn’t speak. No one speaks. They stand and look down. A few brave souls look up and out, but they do not make eye contact. The train speeds along the old streets, cracked and full of weeds under the rusty rails. The street lights are on even in these early afternoon hours because the buildings here block out all light. They’re supposed to be some of the tallest in the world, but Euodia doesn’t look at them. She grew up in their shadows.

As the car starts to slow, she looks up. The faces around her are beaten, subdued. They are what she feels herself becoming. She wants to look people in the eye and speak to them. She wants to help people. She looks back towards the lights outside the grimy windows. Her uniform had been a clean, dark black when she put it on this morning. It had stayed that way everyday in the tower, but she can already see residue from the unkempt streets on her shoes and some kind of tan powder has brushed itself against her leg. She has no idea what part of the city it’s come from and brushes it away as best she can. She moves towards the door with the rest of the crowd when the train stops.

Even in these crowds, those walking around her barely touch her. They know their boundaries. She’s moving at a slower pace than most, trying to calm her nerves, but no one notices. They just reform the flow around her, like water pouring through the gutters and gliding smoothly around a piece of trash. She forgot for a moment that workers are invisible, even to each other. No one will notice her here.

As the crowd moves from the platforms, the noise increases. Workers begin to talk, quietly, as unobtrusively as they can. They understand that as long as they keep their heads down, they can maintain a sort of autonomy. This is where they’re allowed to be, but that doesn’t make the guards any less frightening in their gear. Their knives and batons are always visible, and their glares always present. A worker is never allowed to forget their place, but they barter quietly, and sometimes, in the corners, they’ll trade gossip and quick stories before scurrying back to their homes.

Euodia looks over the browning fruit in a stall, hoping that no one sees her eyes dart up to the gate. There’s a covered truck and three guards standing nearby. Just as she steps forward for a closer look, a car comes out of nowhere. The car is sleek, clean, obviously from city center, and a wave of fear freezes her until she realizes that it isn’t here for her. She wants to escape, not be detained. She turns away, back to the stall, to collect herself and hears a crash behind her. When her breathing has calmed, though her heart is still pounding in her ears, she turns to look with the rest of the crowd.

The car’s hit the wall. It’s smashed up pretty badly, but the truck is fine. She watches as the guards run to the car and seizes her opportunity, working her way to the side of the truck closest to her, opposite the commotion. She peeks around the corner to make sure she’s still clear and sees them pull a driver from the car. Everyone knows how dangerous manual driving is, but right now, she’s thankful for this driver choosing not to use his autopilot. She reaches around the corner and up into the back of the truck to find a handhold and climbs inside. She’s barely sat down when a guard pops his head around the corner. He looks inside for a moment, and she doesn’t breathe. Her heart stops; time stops, but he just turns and walks away, and the world restarts around her.

It takes her a minute to catch up, to blink, to look around. Many in the group are older. Some are crying. A few are chained. There are three younger people on the truck, two men and one woman, and they all look angry. There’s a stubbornness to them that she trained out of herself long ago. She looks at everyone, and the face she wants to see isn’t here. She looks out the back, through the small slit between the fabric door and the truck wall. She wants to believe she’s coming, but any hope she had fades as the engine starts up. The alarms start, and the truck pulls out of the gate. She doesn’t bother to look back as she hears the gates close.

A pair of eyes catch Euodia’s attention. The woman is old, very old. She’s sitting on the floor across from Euodia, and she’s been crying. Their eyes stay locked for a minute until the truck hits a bump. Euodia’s made her choice. She has left Dracon, the only home she’s ever known.

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