Marah had been Kohl’s girlfriend for over a year. Like Kohl, she was a highly popular junior, and as such would actively avoid any interaction with sophomore rabble such as Rowan. But these were extraordinary circumstances.
“It wasn’t like that,” Rowan managed to blurt out before she swung again. This time he deflected her hand. She broke a nail but didn’t seem to care. If nothing else, Kohl’s gleaning had given her perspective.
“It was exactly like that! You went in there to watch him die!”
Others had begun to gather, drawn, as most are, to the scent of conflict. He looked to the crowd for a sympathetic face—someone who might take his side—but all he saw in the faces of his classmates was communal disdain. Marah was speaking, and slapping, for all of them.
This is not what Rowan had expected. Not that he wanted pats on the back for coming to Kohl’s aid in his last moments—but he wasn’t expecting such an unthinkable accusation.
“What, are you nuts?” Rowan shouted at her—at all of them. “You can’t stop a scythe from gleaning!”
“I don’t care!” she wailed. “You could have done something, but all you did was watch!”
“I did do something! I . . . I held his hand.”
She slammed him back into the locker with more strength that he thought she could possibly have. “You’re lying! He’d never hold your hand. He’d never touch any part of you!” And then, “I should have held his hand!”
Around them the other kids scowled, and whispered things that they clearly wanted him to hear.
“I saw him walking in the hall with the scythe like they were best buddies.”
“They came into school together this morning.”
“I heard he gave the scythe Kohl’s name.”
“Someone told me he actually helped.”
He stormed to the obnoxious kid who made the last accusation—Ralphy something or other. “Heard from who? No one else was in the room, you moron!”
But it didn’t matter. Rumors adhered to no logic but their own.
“Don’t you get it? I didn’t help the scythe, I helped Kohl!” Rowan insisted.
“Yeah, helped him into the grave,” someone said, and everyone else grumbled in agreement.
It was no use—he had been tried and convicted—and the more he denied it, the more convinced they’d be of his guilt. They didn’t need his act of courage; what they needed was someone to blame. Someone to hate. They couldn’t take their wrath out on the scythe, but Rowan Damisch was the perfect candidate.
“I’ll bet he got immunity for helping,” a kid said—a kid who’d always been his friend.
“Good,” said Marah with absolute contempt. “Then I hope the next scythe comes for you.”
He knew she meant it—not just in the moment, but forever—and if the next scythe did come for him, she would relish the knowledge of his death. It was a darkly sobering thought, that there were now people in this world who actively wished him dead. It was one thing not to be noticed. It was something else entirely to be the repository of an entire school’s enmity.
Only then did the scythe’s warning come back to him: that he would receive no kindness for what he had done for Kohl. The man had been right—and he hated the scythe for it, just as the others hated Rowan.
* * *
2042. It’s a year that every schoolchild knows. It was the year where computational power became infinite—or so close to infinite that it could no longer be measured. It was the year we knew. . . everything. “The cloud” evolved into “the Thunderhead,” and now all there is to know about everything resides in the near-infinite memory of the Thunderhead for anyone who wants to access it.
But like so many things, once we had possession of infinite knowledge, it suddenly seemed less important. Less urgent. Yes, we know everything, but I often wonder if anyone bothers to look at all that knowledge. There are academics, of course, who study what we already know, but to what end? The very idea of schooling used to be about learning so that we could improve our lives and the world. But a perfect world needs no improvement. Like most everything else we do, education, from grade school through the highest of universities, is just a way to keep us busy.
2042 is the year we conquered death, and also the year we stopped counting. Sure, we still numbered years for a few more decades, but at the moment of immortality, passing time ceased to matter.
I don’t know exactly when things switched over to the Chinese calendar—Year of the Dog, Year of the Goat, the Dragon, and so on. And I can’t exactly say when animal activists around the world began calling for equal billing for their own favorite species, adding in Year of the Otter, and the Whale, and the Penguin. And I couldn’t tell you when they stopped repeating, and when it was decreed that every year henceforth would be named after a different species. All I know for sure is that this is the Year of the Ocelot.
As for the things I don’t know, I’m sure they’re all up there in the Thunderhead for anyone with the motivation to look.
—From the gleaning journal of H.S. Curie
* * *
The Force of Destiny
The invitation came to Citra in early January. It arrived by post—which was the first indication that it was out of the ordinary. There were only three types of communications that arrived by post: packages, official business, or letters from the eccentric—the only type of people who still wrote letters. This appeared to be of the third variety.
“Well, open it,” Ben said, more excited by the envelope than Citra was. It had been handwritten, making it even odder. True, handwriting was still offered as an elective, but, aside from herself, she knew few people who had taken it. She tore the envelope open and pulled out a card that was the same eggshell color as the envelope, then read to herself before reading it aloud.
The pleasure of your company is requested at the Grand Civic Opera, January ninth, seven p.m.
There was no signature, no return address. There was, however, a single ticket in the envelope.
“The opera?” said Ben. “Ew.”
Citra couldn’t agree more.
“Could it be some sort of school event?” their mother asked.
Citra shook her head. “If it was, it would say so.”
She took the invitation and envelope from Citra to study them herself. “Well, whatever it is, it sounds interesting.”
“It’s probably some loser’s way of asking me on a date because he’s too afraid to ask me to my face.”
“Do you think you’ll go?” her mother asked.
“Mom . . . a boy who invites me to the opera is either joking or delusional.”
“Or he’s trying to impress you.”
Citra grunted and left the room, annoyed by her own curiosity. “I’m not going!” she called out from her room, knowing full well that she would.
• • •
The Grand Civic Opera was one of several places where anyone who was anyone went to be seen. At any given performance, only half the patrons were there for the actual opera. The rest were there to participate in the great melodrama of social climbing and career advancement. Even Citra, who moved in none of those circles, knew the drill.
She wore the dress she had bought for the previous year’s homecoming dance, when she was sure that Hunter Morrison would invite her. Instead, Hunter had invited Zachary Swain, which apparently everyone but Citra knew would happen. They were still a couple, and Citra, until today, hadn’t had any use for the dress.
When she put it on, she was far more pleased with it than she thought she’d be. Teenage girls change in a year, but now the dress—which was more about wishful thinking last year—actually fit her perfectly.
In her mind, she had narrowed down the possibilities of her secret admirer. It could be one of five, only two of whom she would enjoy spending an evening alone with. The other three she would endure for the sake of novelty. There was, after all, some fun to be had s
pending an evening pretending to be pretentious.
Her father insisted on dropping her off. “Call when you’re ready to be picked up.”
“I’ll take a publicar home.”
“Call anyway,” he said. He told her she looked beautiful for the tenth time, then she got out and he drove off to make room for the limousines and Bentleys in the drop-off queue. She took a deep breath and went up the marble steps, feeling as awkward and out of place as Cinderella at the ball.
Upon entering, she was not directed toward either the orchestra or the central staircase leading to the balcony. Instead, the usher looked at the ticket, looked at her, then looked at the ticket again before calling over a second usher to personally escort her.
“What’s all this about?” she asked. Her first thought was that it was a forged ticket and she was being escorted to the exit. Perhaps it had been a joke after all, and she was already running a list of suspects through her mind.
But then the second usher said, “A personal escort is customary for a box seat, miss.”
Box seats, Citra recalled, were the ultimate in exclusivity. They were usually reserved for people too elite to sit among the masses. Normal people couldn’t afford them, and even if they could, they weren’t allowed access. As she followed the usher up the narrow stairs to the left boxes, Citra began to get scared. She knew no one with that kind of money. What if this invitation came to her by mistake? Or if there actually was some sort of big, important person waiting for Citra, what on earth were his or her intentions?
“Here we are!” The usher pulled back the curtain of the box to reveal a boy her age already sitting there. He had dark hair and light freckled skin. He stood up when he saw her, and Citra could see that his suit revealed a little too much of his socks.
And the usher left them alone.
“I left you the seat closer to the stage,” he said.
“Thanks.” She sat down, trying to figure out who this was and why he had invited her here. He didn’t appear familiar. Should she know him? She didn’t want to let on that she didn’t recognize him.
Then out of nowhere, he said, “Thank you.”
He held up an invitation that looked exactly like hers. “I’m not much into opera, but hey, it’s better than doing nothing at home. So . . . should I, like, know you?”
Citra laughed out loud. She didn’t have a mysterious admirer; it appeared they both had a mysterious matchmaker, which set Citra working on another mental list—at the top of which were her own parents. Perhaps this was the son of one of their friends—but this kind of subterfuge was pretty obtuse, even for them.
“What’s so funny?” the boy asked, and she showed him her identical invitation. It didn’t make him laugh. Instead he seemed a bit troubled, but didn’t share why.
He introduced himself as Rowan, and they shook hands just as the lights dimmed, the curtain went up, and the music exploded too lush and loud for them to be able to hold a conversation. The opera was Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, The Force of Destiny, but it clearly wasn’t destiny that had hurled these two together; it was a very deliberate hand.
The music was rich and pretty, until it became too much for Citra’s ears. And the story, while easy to follow even without a knowledge of Italian, had little resonance for either of them. It was, after all, a work from the Age of Mortality. War, vengeance, murder—all the themes on which the tale was strung—were so removed from modern reality, few could relate. Catharsis could only gather around the theme of love, which, considering that they were strangers trapped in an opera box, was far more uncomfortable than cathartic.
“So, who do you think invited us?” Citra asked as soon as the lights came up for the first act intermission. Rowan had no more clue than she did, so they shared whatever they could that might help them generate a theory. Aside from them both being sixteen, they had very little in common. She was from the city, he the suburbs. She had a small family, his was large, and their parents’ professions couldn’t have been further apart.
“What’s your genetic index?” he asked—a rather personal question, but perhaps it could have some relevance.
He smiled. “Thirty-seven percent Afric descent. Good for you! That’s pretty high!”
He told her that his was 33-13-12-22-20. She thought to ask him if he knew the subindex of his “other” component, because 20 percent was pretty high, but if he didn’t know, the question would embarrass him.
“We both have 12 percent PanAsian ancestry,” he pointed out. “Could that have something to do with it?” But he was grasping at straws—it was merely coincidence.
Then, toward the end of intermission, the answer stepped into the box behind them.
“Good to see you’re getting acquainted.”
Although it had been a few months since their encounter, Citra recognized him immediately. Honorable Scythe Faraday was not a figure you soon forgot.
“You?” Rowan said with such severity, it was clear that he had a history with the scythe as well.
“I would have arrived sooner, but I had . . . other business.” He didn’t elaborate, for which Citra was glad. Still, his presence here could not be a good thing.
Scythe Faraday did not make any move to end their lives. Instead, he grabbed an empty chair and sat beside them. “I was given this box by the theater director. People always think making offerings to scythes will prevent them from being gleaned. I had no intention of gleaning her, but now she thinks her gift played a part.”
“People believe what they want to believe,” Rowan said, with a sort of authority that told Citra he knew the truth of it.
Faraday gestured toward the stage. “Tonight we witness the spectacle of human folly and tragedy,” he said. “Tomorrow, we shall live it.”
The curtain went up on the second act before he could explain his meaning.
• • •
For two months, Rowan had been the school pariah—an outcast of the highest order. Although that sort of thing usually ran its course and diminished over time, it was not the case when it came to the gleaning of Kohl Whitlock. Every football game rubbed a healthy dose of salt in the communal wound—and since all of those games were lost, it doubled the pain. Rowan was never particularly popular, nor was he ever the target of derision before, but now he was cornered and beaten on a regular basis. He was shunned, and even his friends actively avoided him. Tyger was no exception.
“Guilt by association, man,” Tyger had said. “I feel your pain, but I don’t want to live it.”
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” the principal told Rowan when he turned up in the nurse’s office, waiting out during lunch for some newly inflicted bruises to heal. “You may want to consider switching schools.”
Then one day, Rowan gave in to the pressure. He stood on a table in the cafeteria and told everyone the lies they wanted to hear.
“That scythe was my uncle,” he proclaimed. “I told him to glean Kohl Whitlock.”
Of course they believed every word of it. Kids began to boo and throw food at him, until he said:
“I want you all to know that my uncle’s coming back—and he asked me to choose who gets gleaned next.”
Suddenly the food stopped flying, the glares ceased, and the beatings miraculously stopped. What filled the void was . . . well . . . a void. Not a single eye would meet his anymore. Not even his teachers would look at him—a few actually started giving him As when he was doing B and C work. He began to feel like a ghost in his own life, existing in a forced blind spot of the world.
At home things were normal. His stepfather stayed entirely out of his business, and his mother w
as preoccupied with too many other things to give much attention to his troubles. They knew what had happened at school, and what was happening now, but they dismissed it in that self-serving way parents often had of pretending anything they can’t solve is not really a problem.
“I want to transfer to a different high school,” he told his mother, finally taking his principal’s advice, and her response was achingly neutral.
“If you think that’s best.”
He was half convinced if he told her he was dropping out of society and joining a tone cult, she’d say, If you think that’s best.
So when the opera invitation arrived, he hadn’t cared who sent it. Whatever it meant, it was salvation—at least for an evening.
The girl he met in the box seat was nice enough. Pretty, confident—the kind of girl who probably already had a boyfriend, although she never mentioned one. Then the scythe showed up and Rowan’s world shifted back into a dark place. This was the man responsible for his misery. If he could have gotten away with it, Rowan would have pushed him over the railing—but attacks against scythes were not tolerated. The punishment was the gleaning of the offender’s entire family. It was a consequence that ensured the safety of the revered bringers of death.
At the close of the opera, Scythe Faraday gave them a card and very clear instructions.
“You will meet me at this address tomorrow morning, precisely at nine.”
“What should we tell our parents about tonight?” Citra asked. Apparently she had parents who might care.
“Tell them whatever you like. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re there tomorrow morning.”
• • •
The address turned out to be the Museum of World Art, the finest museum in the city. It didn’t open until ten, but the moment the security guard saw a scythe coming up the steps of the main entrance, he unlocked the doors and let the three of them in without even having to be asked.
“More perks of the position,” Scythe Faraday told them.