I never thought I’d be here, on this road, under this sun. I never thought I’d smell this grass and walk this dirt with my bare feet and feel thirsty and hot and tired. I love feeling tired. I love the ache that starts in your sole and moves up to your knees and makes you shake your leg out as you stop to stretch.
I’ve been walking for a long time.
I lean against the fence post to ease the warm pull of the muscles in my back, bring my hand to my mouth out of habit, remember there’s no holocup there, no digital representation of water, no ones and zeros that can pour out of nothing and lie to my dry tongue. I’m glad for the discomfort. Glad that it’s real.
I wonder for a moment what water tastes like.
I rest, listening with my ears to the birds call to each other, to the crickets call to each other, to the frogs call to each other. I think about how my call is quieter than theirs.
I move on, heading toward the house.
It’s not much further now. I want to tap my wrist and let music dance in the space between my ears. Out of habit I try to change the channel but there is no channel to change, and I have to take a breath and remember that the only thing between my ears is my own head and it’s infinite and I should get to know it a little. And so I think. It’s boring at first, thinking, but you get used to it and soon it becomes richer and more vibrant than all the old music and shows and holosex.
Casseon was a good home, for a while, as was Liox, and Fyre and Astrafyre, the twin moons. Casseon was the best home, though “best” and “home” are relative to a slave. It was the warmest, and the masters the kindest, but eighteen years is a long time when you’re twenty-two.
The house is getting closer, little by little, inch by inch. I reach up and scratch the scar at the back of my neck, the scar that used to be a dent and before that was a wound and before that was a hole and before that was just the back of my neck, but it hasn’t been that since I was a very small child. It itches and it might always itch, they say, phantom sensation tickling nerves that weren’t ever supposed to be there. Like a limb that’s been removed and won’t stop hurting. I make myself stop scratching. They warned me to not scratch too much, I might scratch the hole right back only this time there won’t be a chip to take out and I might hit my spine.
I watch the sky while I walk. There is nothing to bump in to here and the sky is so close sometimes I fear I will be smothered. I like to watch it to make sure it’s not coming closer. It came closer once, on this road, when the men with the goggles came and took me when I was playing in the front yard building a moat for my mud castle and I screamed for my mother but they hit her and she fell and the blood fell into the moat and she didn’t move and they put me on their ship and drilled a hole into my neck and put a tiny metal brain in my spine and made me feel happy and content and confused and drugged while I worked the platinum mines on Touraline and the diamond mines on Klii and the wheat fields on Huros. It came closer on Fyre when The Kind Masters of Casseon came to rescue me from the evil masters of Fyre. They pulled me from the sunpit where I had been for two weeks for hitting the son of a master who had killed with stones the dog I was hiding under my bed. They made me call them The Kind Masters of Casseon as I mined their uranium. But they had no sunpits or electrowhips or dogbots so I was happy, as happy as a slave could be. The sky came closest when the revolution came to Casseon and the Slave Freers fought The Kind Masters and killed them, which made me upset and empty like a too-small cup of cold broth. They even killed the boy of The Kind Masters who was still small but was kind and once brought me a piece of bread, of real bread, but bread sits heavy in a stomach, heavier than one nutripill a week, so I threw it up. But they killed him, he was in the field and they crushed his head because he was a Master and they didn’t care.
Then they brought me here.
I am almost there. I have walked a long way. Miles and miles and miles and I am thirsty and hot and tired and it feels good to be thirsty and hot and tired because I know that it’s real and I hope there is water in the house. I hope there is bread in the house. I hope a lot of things but the one thing I want more than anything else I dare not hope for, because it is inside me, in my chest, and it pulls, and it is tight, and if I hope and it is not there it might pull itself out of my chest and my heart with it.
I am close enough now to see the front porch. Everything is smaller than I remember, and the mud castle is gone. I am sad. I don’t know why I am sad, of course the mud castle and the moat wouldn’t have survived eighteen years. But it is gone, and I am sad, and there is nothing to do for that kind of sadness.
Rushing out of the front door comes a wild man with wild hair wildly waving a gun toward me.
“Don’ ya come no closer, now!” he screams, and I collapse against a wooden fence post. I was not expecting to collapse. My legs are strong. I do not collapse. Perhaps I am tired. But I do not think that is it.
He sees me collapse and he sees that I am tired and he is no longer threatened so he runs to me and puts down the gun and I have buckled to my knees and I would throw up if my stomach remembered how.
So I cry.
“Woah, hey now, it’s, woah there,” he says. He pats my head like I’m an abandoned dog. He doesn’t remember how to do anything else. “You okay, son?”
He is kneeling in front of me and I look up and his face is wrinkled and dark and spotted and his hair is grey and mostly missing and his lips are torn and dry but his eyes haven’t changed. Not in eighteen years.
“Yes, Dad,” I say, and he gasps. “I am now.”