7,300 Words

Day 21

I reach the dairy mid-way through my morning rounds, expecting to find Mary hard at work inside. But the simple wood structure is silent.

I knock on the door. “Mary? It’s Karen. Are you there?” Nothing. All three milking devons watch me from their pens, still unfed. This worries me.

I turn and scan the fence, forty feet of crisscrossed steel rising against the horizon. It is close here, oppressively so, but the only indication of recent contact is a small, gooey spot near the bottom. It’s still smoking. Probably a squirrel.

I leave the dairy and walk straight to the Colonial Adamstown gift shop, where Mary has been sleeping. That’s where I find her, still lying on a pallet of chair cushions and still wearing her period sack gown. I told her she could ditch the gown, but perhaps there was nothing else to be had. The gift shop t-shirts disappeared fast.

I glance down at my own pants and sneakers with a twinge of guilt.

“Mary, are you feeling okay?”

She shifts but doesn’t turn.

“We have to start the day. It will be hot soon, and the devons need feeding.”

“You feed them.”

“I’d be happy to.”

“You can milk them, too. And churn the butter.”

“Maybe you could show me how?” I have no intention of churning butter, but I’ll try anything to get her working. No one else knows the trade. Anna knew, but she had children, and they let all the parents leave before the fence went up.

I crouch next to Mary’s pallet and give her hand a squeeze.

“Stay in bed. The rest will do what they can. I’m just so glad you are still with me, out of all of them. I’m not sure what I would do otherwise.”

Mary rolls to look at me. I pretend to wipe at tears and hurry from the room.

A block down, I pause behind the stables and watch the front door of the gift shop. Mary emerges two minutes later and trudges toward the dairy.

The guilt trip worked. Not a great tool, but it’s one of the few I have left. I was general manager of Colonial Adamstown before the fence, and I’m general manager now—but without the bonuses, vacation time, and layoffs I once used to motivate the staff.

I walk through the center of town toward the main gate. Tourists once drove in by the thousands here; now it’s my only point of contact with our captors. Or saviors? We still don’t know how to think of them.

The fence rises before me, humming with electric current. Each link is the width of my forearm. It rings all 152 acres of the town and grounds. Even the golf course got stuck inside. The silversmith and the seamstress played nine holes last week, I’m told, though I never approved the time off.

An identical outer fence stands eighty yards beyond the inner fence across clear-cut ground. The two-fence setup has always confused us. Are they meant to keep us in, keep something out, or both?

I wave my arms at the big army truck beyond the second gate. A ruddy, gray tent ruffles in the breeze behind it.

The truck door opens and my liaison steps out. She walks into the tent and emerges with two soldiers. They lead her to the outer fence, unlock the gate, and pass her through. In the three weeks since this started, we have seen no one else.

The liaison trudges the eighty yards between fences and stops fifteen feet short of me.

She looks terrible. Fatigue written into every line on her face. “Yes?” She sounds annoyed.

“Anything new?”

Her expression darkens further. I’ve been told not to request communication unless there is a problem.

“No.”

“But you must know something.”

“We’re still assessing the nature of the threat.”

Always the same line. I want more. I have learned by now that requests for food, technology, clothing, medicine, and communication with loved ones are pointless, but I won’t give up on information. They refuse to tell us what’s out there, and that is unacceptable.

“You never come closer than fifteen feet. That means a virus, right?”

She gives me nothing.

“Morale is getting low in here.”

She shakes her head. “No, it’s not. I’ve been watching. Everyone is working hard. You’re doing well. I have faith in you, Karen.”

“But—”

“Trust me. This one has been on the books for a long time.”

Now that is something. “You anticipated this?” Not that I expect an answer. Even when they held us at gunpoint, building like mad to get the fences up, they told us nothing.

She closes her eyes, seems to drift. She wants to respond. Fighting protocol. “I may not be able to stay here much longer.”

“How long do we have to be in here?”

“Try to plan for the future.” She glances at the horizon, unsure of herself. “Even if the current in the fence fails—it shouldn’t, but if it does—don’t come out. No matter how much you might want to. Promise me. What you have in there … it’s good.” I nod, and she returns to the waiting soldiers.

I resume my rounds. This is my job: keeping up morale, managing workflow, making sure everyone contributes.

This one has been on the books.

I get it. As a professional make-believe colonial town, we have almost everything needed to survive the end of civilization.

Heirloom seeds, gardens, fields of period vegetables and grains, oxen and plows, long-wool sheep, draft horses, milking devons, chickens, game fowl, goats, and a bunch of little furry pigs whose name I can’t remember.

And people. Broadly speaking, there are two types here: the tradespeople and the useless people.

The tradespeople include the bakers, weavers, master gardeners, dairy workers, cooks, joiners, carpenters, a milliner, candlemaker, shoemaker, tinsmith, leathersmith, blacksmith, brickmakers, cooper, cutler, stable master, wheelwright, silversmith, gunsmith, cabinetmaker, and two nurses.

The useless people include the actors, historians, support staff, and gift shop and restaurant workers.

The useless people were my first challenge. I organized an apprenticeship system straight away, promising to rotate everyone after two months. Most went to help with planting.

I had to tell old Agee that we no longer needed a town crier. He tearfully offered up his bell, but I told him to keep it just in case.

A dull ringing shatters my thoughts. I’ve arrived at the blacksmith’s shop. He’s hard at work, banging away at glowing iron. Carol is with him, stoking the coals, his first apprentice.

That was my second task: updating the gendered colonial labor roles. They are fine for make-believe between the hours of nine and seven; less so when you’re told to do them until human civilization rises again.

I continue on. The morning is crisp. It will be hot later, but fall is coming. People nod as I pass. They ask questions about the outside; I shake my head.

I walk through the stables to make sure the horses are fed. I pass the basket maker, the armory, the bakery, and the grain stores, asking about progress at each.

Everything is in order. The liaison is right; we are doing well. If the world is truly over, they were right to keep us here. Because it’s not just about the food, the gardens, the animals, or the skills.

It’s the people.

At the risk of generalizing, the trade reenactors are wonderful. Polite, friendly, dedicated, and accommodating. They loved the distant past enough to make it their job, dressing in stuffy period wool to work all day in the hot sun. If you need people to continue on without modern technology or infrastructure, who else would you ask?

I wasn’t immune to the charms of this place either. I’m not saying it’s magic, but it sucked me in. I was a history major after all. Don’t blame me for going into administration. A woman has to eat.

There were plenty of job offers, but I needed this place. As it turned out, it needed me too.

I expected challenges to my authority in the first days after the fence. It didn’t happen. That’s how wonderful my people are.

But still I waited, expecting someone to demand a better room or two helpings of potatoes at dinner instead of one. Someone would refuse to work.

Yet here we are, three weeks in, and the worst I’ve dealt with is a dairy farmer who slept in.

I return to the dairy at noon. Mary already has two fresh gallons on the shelves.

Day 25

The liaison is gone. The tent and truck are still there, but she and the two soldiers have disappeared.

Losing her saddens me. She told us nothing, gave us nothing, but there was comfort in having her there.

Now it’s just us, the fence, and the silence.

Enough people ask about her absence that I hold a town meeting to address the issue. I lie, telling them the liaison left to deal with undisclosed security matters.

It’s important, this half-hope. My people have too much work to do. The less agitation, the better.

Day 31

Dinner at the Queen’s Tavern. This is a celebration; we have lasted a month, and things are solid. I authorized double helpings for everyone. I even had Agee take up his bell to announce the good news. It made him so happy.

Almost everyone fits inside. It’s become a tradition, dinner here at the end of the workday.

I’m wearing a formal period gown that I found in the town wardrobe; it seemed to fit the special occasion. The tradespeople give me a good-natured ribbing, but the actors are full of compliments.

Spirits are high, the conversation boisterous. Our Shakespeare troop acts out a few scenes for entertainment.

But despite my efforts to make tonight different, talk eventually turns to the Big Question. It happens every night, our endless source of fascination, debate, humor, fear, and anger.

The Big Question is simply this: What is out there?

Everyone has their theory, and the variations are numerous. But all the theories can be grouped into three broad camps: virus, aliens, or government experiment.

No explanation ever gets the upper hand, because none of them really work.

Virus is an obvious choice. It was the dominant world-ending scenario in popular fiction before the fence.

But we have seen no rotting corpses, no wandering sick, no smoke or fires. No lights are visible even from atop the Manor House at night. We have seen nothing at all.

The “aliens” theory is slightly more popular, but it doesn’t fit either. Richmond, a city of over a million people, is barely an hour’s drive away. Where are refugees? The fences would be thick with them. Where are the air battles and strange extraterrestrial ships?

That leaves the most popular explanation: government experiment.

It has a lot going for it. A secret experiment would explain away the lack of smoke, fires, refugees, corpses, battles, and everything else one normally associates with the end of the world. It also accounts for the electricity issue: we have none, but the fence still fries birds on the regular.

The “experiment” theorists also cite the parents to support their argument. If this was really about preserving the human race from a virus or aliens, they say, the army would have put the kids in here with us, not taken the parents away.

I always argue the experiment side. Not because it makes sense—it doesn’t—but because it’s my job to maintain morale. If this were an experiment, then all our loved ones would still be out there. We just have to wait.

But it doesn’t work either. Colonial Adamstown is a major tourist attraction in a highly-populated area; it’s not like they could just hide us.

The fence is still electrified because they designed it that way. The parents were taken because parents would have torn us apart in grief and desperation.

So, the Big Question stands.

Virus, aliens, experiment. What else could it be?

Well …

It could be the Something Else.

I prefer not to think about the Something Else. It’s the only theory I don’t know how to manage.

If this is a virus? Easy. We work hard, stay behind the fence, plan for the future.

Government experiment? Same.

Aliens? Same, and also train a ragtag resistance force with muskets and bayonets.

But the Something Else? I have no idea.

Candles are lit; the debate continues. The blacksmith tries mixing the “aliens” and “experiment” theories together, but everyone thinks he’s being greedy.

As soon as things get too heated, with personal insults bleeding in, I put an end to dinner and call for dishwashers.

I walk back alone to my room at the Manor House.

The tinsmith is waiting at my door. A quiet man with whom I’ve had little contact.

“What can I do for you … John?” It’s difficult to remember names; I’ve come to think of everyone by their trade.

“May I have a candy bar?”

I took all the candy from the gift shops to use as an incentive for good work. I give one to the most productive worker twice a week.

He looks down at his shoes. “I know it’s not my turn yet, and I haven’t been the most productive. There just … isn’t as much need for what I do.”

It’s true. We are well stocked with plates and utensils, though I had the tinsmith make some new sets last week to keep him busy. He is too old to be on his knees in the gardens.

He continues, “It’s hard here. I miss my dog. I can handle it, but I just need a little something. Maybe just half of one? I’ll never ask again.”

It’s pathetic, but I sympathize. The colonial diet leaves a lot to be desired. I give him a full candy bar on condition that he eat in private and not tell anyone. He shakes my hand with both of his and hurries away.

Day 35

Still nothing from outside.

Birds, squirrels, chipmunks, bugs, trees.

No rotting corpses, no big, green aliens, no government scientists with clipboards.

The stable master tells me a draft horse may be lame, but our oxen do most of the plowing, so I don’t worry.

The new apprenticeship rotations are working out. Mostly. Nobody likes doing the planting, but that can’t be helped.

I’ve been wearing my gown to dinner every night. It’s a time we all look forward to, the only true social gathering of the day, and I like to make it special.

Day 38

The printer has bronchitis.

I shouldn’t call him the printer anymore. Only the tourists ever needed demonstrations of 18th-century block printing, so I put him in the gardens straight away.

I’m surprised we managed this long without a real illness. Our nurses—thank God, we have them—are doing their best without antibiotics, but only time will tell.

If this had to happen, I’m glad it’s happening to the printer. He’s not a master at any essential skill. Losing him won’t sting as much as some of the others.

I bring the printer a candy bar after dinner. Getting bronchitis is the opposite of productivity, but it’s the right thing to do.

I myself have eaten three, but only on days when I’m at my best.

Day 40

Our first heavy rain. It was sorely needed. The downpour lasts all through the night.

I stand at my window and watch the fences crackle against the water. Bright blue arcs dance across the top, a glowing ring that stretches into the distance, encircling us all.

Not a single section is dark for as far as I can see.

It’s beautiful.

Day 42

The army truck and the tent are gone.

It happened during the night with so little sound that no one noticed.

This pleases almost everyone. Most think the army came back for their equipment, which means they are still out there, aiding virus survivors or fighting aliens. Even the experiment theorists suggest the army is playing tricks on us.

They could be right. Who else would have the keys to the truck?

I’m glad it makes them happy. Our life is here, and it’s my job to keep it on track, whether it lasts ten more days or ten more years. I don’t care who took the truck.

No, that’s a lie.

I do care.

I just don’t want to know the answer.

Day 43

I’ve been having nightmares.

Not the same one every time, but they are all of a theme.

I dream that I have missed something.

Sometimes I lose the week’s assignment sheet and can’t remember the rotations. Or I forget to visit a work site, and the day’s productivity is compromised.

But most often I dream that a person is missing. A man or woman has slipped away to some other part of the grounds, and I failed to notice for days or weeks.

It’s not out of the question. Of Colonial Adamstown’s 153 acres, we inhabit perhaps sixty. The golf course, some of the hotels, and the wooded areas across the north are largely unused.

Sometimes I dream that a person has been missing the whole time, living out on the fringes and sneaking food when our backs are turned.

I expand my morning rounds to include the entire northern arc of the fence. It makes for a beautiful walk, if lonely, with oaks and sun-dappled meadows and lots of quiet.

I haven’t found anyone yet.

Day 44

I decide to search the big hotel at the north end during my morning rounds. I walk through all ninety rooms, checking beds and bathrooms for signs of habitation.

I find nothing. It’s starting to smell in there.

I leave the hotel and peer across both fences at the forest beyond. The trees stand thick and quiet.

I try to imagine a Something Else out there, but imagination is not my forte. I’m better at motivation, planning, workflow.

It takes half an hour to get back to the inhabited side.

Sometimes, I think it was irresponsible of the military to include so much territory here. It’s a lot to manage, and I’m only one person. My rounds take so much longer now.

But I get it. They were planning for the future, giving us room to expand, houses and babies and new generations and all that.

Day 46

The tinsmith gives no prior warning that he has gone nuts.

There was the candy bar thing, I suppose, but a sweet tooth is not a symptom of madness.

If so, I have a touch of it myself.

I wake to the sound of screams. I’m up and through the door without a bit of grogginess, pulling on shoes as I go. I think my body has been preparing for something like this, limiting REM sleep in expectation of trouble.

I pause at the street. More screams; I follow the sound. The fence pops loud with contact somewhere up ahead.

Finally, I see the tinsmith. He is climbing the fence with constructed blocks on his hands and feet.

Some fifteen people have gathered below him to shout encouragement. This disappoints me. I need to maintain this community, and the fence is my greatest ally.

The tinsmith is doing well. Almost to the top. Not so old and fragile as I thought. His protections are quite clever, sturdy wood boxes with handles and hooks encased in leather.

They smoke with every new contact, and I wonder how he will negotiate the top.

He doesn’t even make it that far. One foot slips a link, dropping his unshielded right knee into the links. The metal sparks with contact; his body goes slack. His right foot wedges in, swinging the rest of him down and back against the fence. His whole body crackles and smokes, too tangled to fall.

God, the smell.

I order the whole group away, physically pushing the closest ones back toward town.

I tell them to gather in the theater. We talk through what happened for an hour or so, and I encourage my people to lose themselves in the therapy of work.

Day 47

The tinsmith’s body is unrecoverable. There isn’t much left anyway. Even his bones look like fired coal.

I have Agee take up his bell and announce a memorial service in the flower garden. Formal dress recommended.

The service is brief. I encourage people to say a few words, but no one knew the man very well, so all I get are twelve halting variations on he was an excellent tinsmith.

Some cry, but I’m too busy thinking for that. I knew someone would try the fence eventually. The Big Question has been leading us there.

But no one will try the fence now.

I’m not saying I’m glad the tinsmith died. I’m saying that if he had to die, I’m glad it happened this way.

Day 48

I emerge from the Manor House at dawn to find the blacksmith and his apprentice, Carol, waiting for me.

Carol has had a brilliant idea, he explains. She wants to fire our cannon at the fence.

Yes, we have a cannon. A restored original mounted on big wooden wheels. In the days before the fence, the militia reenactors would pack it with black powder and make noise for the tourists.

I tell them that we don’t have any cannonballs. The blacksmith says he can make one, easy.

I explain that the fence is here to protect us, but they don’t think so. We’ve seen no threats in forty-eight days now. And the blacksmith explains that a blast wouldn’t bring down the fence entirely, just make a hole that we could block later if needed.

I ask them to demonstrate the mechanics. They take me back to the shop and show me the cannon, packing stick, and a stack of wrapped black powder plugs.

I ask if this is all the powder we have. Yes, they say, but it should be plenty.

I ask if anyone else knows about their idea. No one does. At my request, they agree to keep it quiet for another day.

I return to the blacksmith shop after dark, draping a cloth over my lantern to mask the light. I find the black powder and cut open all but two of the plugs, spreading it across the damp grass outside.

The last two plugs must be hidden. I don’t want to close the door on the blacksmith’s plan forever. In ten years, perhaps, we could give it a try.

I carry the powder to the fence and follow it north. Tonight is darker than normal. Heavy clouds, no moon, no stars. Even my lantern seems inadequate. When I reach the hotel, I climb to the third floor and choose a room at random, stuffing the plugs underneath the mattress.

Satisfied with my efforts, I return to the fence.

But something is wrong.

I feel certain—certain—that something is watching me from the other side.

I raise the lantern as high as I can, but eighty yards is a long way, and the second fence isn’t visible.

I’m not a fool. I know how this looks. Me, alone in the dark with the unknown. Anyone would imagine things.

But I have never been so sure of anything in my life.

I decide to show I’m not afraid.

“Hello? Whoever you are, you’d better not try to get in. The fence is electrified. It would kill you in a heartbeat.”

The wind picks up, rustling the grass, and I imagine it sounds like laughter.

I run the rest of the way back to the Manor House, breathless. I fall twice.

Once safe in my room, I sit on the edge of my bed and laugh at my own fright.

My sleeves are torn, and my elbows are bleeding. I must find a new gown to cover the wounds.

Day 49

Dinner at the tavern. The blacksmith and Carol glare at me from across the table. I don’t want them telling everyone else what I did, but I’m not sure how to explain it in a way they can understand.

I simply had no choice.

People debate the tinsmith’s escape effort. They wonder why he failed and what it would take to succeed. I wish they would go back to the Big Question, but that’s a lesser concern now.

I’m more worried about what I felt out there last night. The Something Else.

Day 50

I spend the whole afternoon by the fence, searching the tree line, but there is nothing.

Day 51

The printer dies at noon. We bury him in the garden.

Day 55

I walk along the north arc at mid-morning. The sky threatens rain, and I would welcome it. The growing season is almost over, and we need good stores for the winter.

I have almost reached the hotel when the outer fence pops loud with contact.

I freeze and peer through the links. Smoke hangs in the air, but whatever hit the metal has fallen into the tall grass.

The grass rustles. It’s not dead.

I close my eyes, trying to slow my racing heart. When I open them, I nearly cry out in shock.

A man is there.

He is dressed like me. Not in a gown, I mean, but like period gentry. Fine satin coat and knee-length breeches, all crimson red. White stockings. At first, I think he must have raided our wardrobe, but he is outside the fence, and there are no gaps. I check every day.

Something else is off. The prescription on my glasses is a few years old, but I am sure that his skin is furry. Fine, dark tufts cover the backs of his hands and fingers, his neck, his cheeks.

He smiles and waves. I wave back, pure reflex. He beckons me to come to him as if there were no fence separating us.

When I give no response, he walks toward me, straight into the metal. The current jerks his body, and he falls into the high grass again. This time he does not get up.

Did I imagine him? Impossible.

I do not want this. I want green-skinned aliens, zombie hordes, and evil scientists.

I do not want this.

Day 56

I search the town for our spyglass, an 18th-century version of binoculars. The weaver has it. She and her apprentice, a teenage gift-shop boy, have been using it to watch birds.

I take it to the fence and search the spot where the furry gentleman fell. The grass hides his body, but the vultures are at it now, bald heads dipping and tearing. This comforts me.

Just to be extra sure, I fetch Mary and bring her to the fence.

I ask if she can see the vultures. She can.

It was a deer, I tell her.

“Why show me a deer?”

So you know that life goes on.

She seems puzzled but nods, and I walk her back to the dairy.

I’m not sure why I lied.

No, that’s not true. I do know why.

The Something Else must stay with me. It’s hard enough to manage these people as is, especially after the tinsmith.

The Big Question must remain unanswered.

Day 60

Everyone hates me. I can tell. People turn their faces on the street. They give short answers when I do my rounds, with no good mornings or good afternoons. No one talks to me at dinner.

The blacksmith and Carol have done this. They told. I’m sure of it.

We had a way out, and Karen ruined it.

I want to scream at them. The fence is there for a reason. The Something Else is out there. The liaison told us to stay inside.

Can they not see my value here? How quickly this place would fall apart without me? I’ve had too much faith in their intelligence.

Day 63

I sit at the northernmost end of the fence, watching the forest. This is my job now. I’ve had to cut back on my rounds, but monitoring the fence is paramount.

A horse whinnies in the distance, followed by the thump of hooves. Good, I think. Our lame draft horse is healed. The stable master will have a candy bar waiting for him at dinner.

But as the sound grows louder, I realize the horse is outside the fence. Seconds later, it bursts from the trees, a huge quarter horse with a golden mane, at least six feet at the shoulder.

It’s beautiful. But not as beautiful as the woman atop it.

She is a lady. I can tell straight away. Not furry like the man was. She rides side-saddle, her exquisite blue gown draped to hide her feet.

A laborer couldn’t afford a gown like that with a whole year’s wages.

I raise the spyglass for a closer look.

I was wrong about the fur. She does have it, a golden dusting across the hands, neck, and cheeks. Less than the gentleman, but it’s there.

She smiles at me. Her eyes dart down for a moment, and her smile takes on a mocking quality.

My sneakers. I pull the gown down to hide them, ashamed, then curse my own reaction. I lift the gown back up. I don’t care what she thinks of my shoes.

Well, I do, I just don’t want her to know.

She beckons me to come just like the man did. I can see her mouth moving. Almost hear her. It sounds like singing. Or is it laughing? I can’t tell.

She turns the horse—an expert rider, this one—and trots it east around the fence. For a moment, I am terrified she will follow the arc all the way to town, but she turns and rides away into the forest.

Day 64

I spend all morning and afternoon at the north fence, waiting and watching. I am hot, thirsty, and tired, but I was right to come.

She is back.

The lady rides out of the forest atop the quarter horse. Her gown is new; a golden beauty that sparkles in the dusk light. Even our seamstress could not produce a gown like that.

But I will not be intimidated. I’ve prepared words. I spent all night practicing so my voice would not tremble.

I stand and shout across the distance. I tell the woman that she is not welcome. We do not need her kind here. We are self-sufficient; a community of good, hard-working people. My people have chosen me to lead, and I say she must go.

I turn without waiting for a response, proud of my resolve, and march back across the field.

But I can hear her laughing. It fills my ears until I cover them with my hands.

I hurry back to town, eaten through with guilt over my day-long absence. Productivity will have crashed without my rounds.

But to my surprise, everything is in order. The work done, food prepared, the fields tilled, the animals fed.

Relief. I haven’t given myself enough credit. This is the fruit of my labor. My people know what must be done and make it happen.

I deserve a candy bar for this. Everyone does. I fill a satchel and pass them out at dinner, even to the blacksmith and Carol.

No one asks where I was all day.

I sit alone during dinner, planning next steps. Now that I have taken care of the Something Else, I can give this place my full attention.

I return to my room and fall into bed, exhausted, but sleep won’t come. I feel like I can still hear the lady singing, though I cannot understand the words.

Why do we have two fences? It annoys me. If we only had one, I could meet her face to face and ask her intentions.

She has a beautiful voice. How can I hear it from so far away?

She did not listen to me. She did not leave.

I must do something more.

Day 65

I rise before dawn and creep to the armory. I take one of the muskets and the small horn of black powder from the rack.

The gunsmith arrives just as I’ve finished packing the barrel. I ask him for a musket ball. He tells me there are none. Muskets are entertainment only, just like the cannon.

He asks why I would want to shoot something. Just bored, I say. It’s not my best lie.

He asks if I’m feeling okay, and I laugh. Of course, I am! This seems to relax him, but he warns me that a pebble won’t work as ammunition. It would blow the barrel apart in my hands.

I thank him, take the musket anyway, and hurry north to face the lady. I have no ammunition, but she won’t know that.

I arrive at the fence to find things much changed. The forest has retreated some twenty yards, opening a wide swath of soft green grass. The lady sits on a blanket there with her family, a boy and a girl in fine clothing and a handsome lord in coat and breeches.

And the food! Wine, bread, cheeses, meats, and fruit. We haven’t had fruit in weeks.

They seem happy. The lady touches her daughter’s hair, smoothing it, and smiles across the distance at me.

I hate that smile.

I raise the musket and put my finger to the flintlock trigger. The whole family watches, unconcerned.

A cry of shock breaks the silence behind me. I turn; Mary has followed me all the way here. I curse myself and try to block her view, but it’s too late. She has seen them.

The questions tumble out. Who are they? Where did they come from? Are there more? We are saved!

I tell her not to be fooled and give her the spyglass. Look at the hair on their arms and faces.

She looks but says she sees nothing. I take back the spyglass. She’s right. The fur is gone. It’s just a family of beautiful people.

Oh, they are tricky. They figured it out. And it’s working; Mary’s face is full of joy. She jumps and waves and shouts, and the lady motions for her to come across.

Mary races back toward town, but I grab her elbow. They’re monsters, Mary.

She seems frightened now. She tells me I’m hurting her.

The musket rests heavy in my grip. It wouldn’t take much.

But I hesitate too long. Mary jerks away; she is off and running before I can catch her. I follow, begging her to listen.

She dashes through town, shouting her good news. There are people outside the fence! Karen knew the whole time, and she didn’t tell us!

I have lost.

I expect angry accusations, even violence, but people are too excited to bother with me. They rush to follow Mary across the grounds, and I follow, lamenting the lost day’s labor.

Things have progressed beyond the fence. More gentry have joined the lady and her family. At least twenty now; gentlemen, gentlewomen, and children socialize in the morning sun.

The grassy space has become a meadow dappled with yellow flowers. Ornate carriages roll up on big wooden wheels, drawn by teams of horses. More gentry emerge from their hand-crafted doors.

I realize my terrible mistake. I shouldn’t have tried to hide them. No one will believe me about the fur.

My people call to them, cheering, asking for news. Is it aliens? Was it a virus? Has the government taken responsibility?

The well-dressed people can’t hear—or pretend not to. They just beckon us to come.

All except the lady. She watches only me, smiling her mocking smile.

I throw myself in front of my people and shout. Can’t you see what they are? Look at their clothing. Look at their hands. They’ve never worked a day in their lives! They aren’t like us. They just need us.

A cracking sound echoes out from the other side. One of the carriage wheels has broken. Two gentlemen in fine red coats lean down to assess the damage, but they seem confused.

The wheelwright shouts to them. I can fix it! I’ve been making wheels for ages. They smile and beckon him to come and help.

I get a bit intense after that. Screaming. You stupid sheep, can’t you see what’s happening? People lay hands on me. I think I may have bitten someone, but the faces are too blurry to tell who. Someone drags me away. It’s Carol. She’s quite strong now; I should never have apprenticed her to the blacksmith.

My people huddle, planning, pointing at the fence.

Two of the useless people drag me back to town and lock me in the gaol. I watch through the barred window as people hurry through the streets.

The blacksmith is making something; the ringing lasts all day and night.

Day 66

The guards lead me back to the north end at dawn. Others follow, all carrying tools and supplies from their shops.

At the fence, I see the blacksmith’s creation: a mammoth iron spade with curved edges. People attach it to a team of oxen and stab the point through the soil right by the fence.

The stable master gives the call; the animals pull. With just one effort, the spade carves a three-foot deep trench. They go again, and again, moving huge amounts of earth.

The gentry beyond the fence nod in appreciation.

The spade reaches the bottom of the fence in an hour. After two, there is enough space for a person to walk underneath.

The wheelwright is first through. He sprints across the eighty yards, and the rest aren’t far behind.

The lady rises to meet them. She speaks through the links of the second fence, and I can see my people nodding.

I don’t have to hear what she says. I already know.

Things move quickly after that. In another two hours, the tunnel is big enough for the horses and oxen to pass through. They lead the team to the second fence, drop the spade, and begin again.

My guards leave to join them. I’m no longer a problem.

I pull my knees to my chest and watch. The second tunnel opens, and my people pour through it. The lady introduces herself, all smiles, and gives instructions.

My people spend the day transferring everything we have to the other side. Food, tools, animals, plants, seeds, clothing.

The sun reaches the horizon, but they do not rest. The wheelwright fixes the carriage wheel; the gardeners plow new ground with the oxen.

The furry people—I will only ever think of them so—sip tea and watch.

The lady speaks to the blacksmith, and he walks back through the tunnels to me. He says the lady invites me to come. She will find a place for me.

I tell him I’m just fine over here. He says they have left me a week’s worth of potatoes in the tavern.

Night comes. Lanterns gleam in the dark, and still they work.

I return to my room and watch the distant lights from my window.

Day 70

I take all my meals at the fence now, if you can call potatoes and wine a meal.

I have no one to talk to. The other side is my entertainment, and what they have accomplished astonishes me.

Trees have been felled, land cleared, foundations raised. There are new living quarters, barns for the horses, a blacksmith shop. Something big is going up in the distance; a manor house, I think.

A new road stretches back through the trees. My brickmaker is paving it.

The new gardens sprout with green stems—this should be impossible at this time of year, but it no longer feels like the fall. It is warm, like middle summer, warmer than I can ever remember it being. The fall harvest will be big, whenever that comes.

At night, the forest glows with flickering lanterns. There is music and dancing. Food and wine. I often stay past dark, watching, listening. Sometimes I sing along.

I see less of the furry people now. But they are there. From time to time, the lady passes through on her horse, checking progress.

The tunnels under the fences are still open. There is nothing to stop them from coming through.

But the furry people don’t come for me.

They don’t need me. No one does.

Day 73

The potatoes are gone.

A few seeds were left in the granary. I planted them, but nothing has sprouted.

I am hungry, but I am trying. As long as I stay inside the fence, they have not won. My liaison told me that no matter how much I want to go outside, I must not.

I hold those words inside my mind. I must, because I do so badly want to go.

It is beautiful beyond the fences. There is a whole town there now; streets and lamp posts and carriages that pass all day and night. I could be happy there.

But they won’t have me. I have no skill to offer. I thought I was good at motivating people, directing them, but they have accomplished in just days what I could not in months.

I’m too old to learn a trade. I don’t want to apprentice. They would put me in the gardens, I think. That’s where I put the useless people when I was in charge.

They don’t even need historians. All of ours went over; I see them carrying water in the mornings.

A pointless degree. My parents warned me.

Day 75

I must go.

It’s that or death. I can’t survive here on my own.

Just making the decision is a relief. They may not want me, but at least I will know.

My gown is ragged and bloody. I search through our wardrobe for something presentable. All that’s left is a simple dress with patches across the waist. I pull it on and trade my sneakers for a pair of worn leather boots.

I walk through town slowly, lingering, saying goodbye to this place I worked so hard to build.

When I reach the fence, I find them waiting. They knew I was coming, somehow.

All the furry people stand in their formal best, gowns and coats and gleaming buckles. There must be a hundred all in a line. Even the children came. It’s a beautiful presentation.

They do not hide what they are this time; silky dark fur covers their hands and sprouts from their collars.

The lady stands at the front. Her fine golden fur and amber eyes glitter in the sunlight.

I pass under the first fence and cross the open ground to the second, but here I hesitate.

The lady motions for me to continue. Now that I am close, I see that her smile is not mocking at all, but welcoming. All their smiles welcome me. They understand who I am. They will have me.

None of my people are visible, but that no longer matters. They were never my people in the first place.

I hurry through the last tunnel. The lady glides forward, soft hands reaching. Tears fill my eyes. I have a place here. I won’t be hungry anymore.

I reach out to her.

You understand me, don’t you?

You know me.

I am just like you.

 

 

Walker McKnight lives in Atlanta with his asthmatic house panther and a remorseless muse. After a mini-career in international relations, he started writing all things strange and never looked back. Find him at walkermcknight.com and on Twitter @WalkerMcKnight.

 

 

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