“They say it’s almost one in four thousand now,” Reba said, mustering all of the modesty she could manage for her twenty years of life. She looked into her cup of tea to avoid the needful eyes of the four women seated at the cafe table with her.
“Oh. My. Jeesus,” said Dawn, pulling a scream back down into her stomach, “Does that mean Ed — ”
“It means Ed has a career on Washington’s Island starting in two weeks,” said Reba. “We move into our house down there this weekend.”
The four other women at the table were the things nearest to family that Reba had managed to collect in her short time since graduating Covenant School. Dawn, the matriarch of the group, was three years Reba’s senior, and presided over weekly tea as confessor, sage, and jury. She wore slim black pants and yellow-white button-down blouse covered by a worn Covenant School athletic jacket. To her left sat Mingxia, who Dawn introduced to the group months ago as “her long lost heart.” Mingxia, wearing a simple cotton dress under a black wool poncho, immediately became the favorite of the group, able to lift spirits and temper Dawn’s intensity. Reba knew almost nothing about what swam beneath Mingxia’s calm surface, and she’d never dared dip her toe in. To Mingxia’s left sat Paula and June — sisters and Concordance locals.
Ruby, Dawn, and Mingxia all moved to the Concordance for Covenant School. Paula and June were born a year apart and raised in the lower hills along the Mon River. They received sponsorships to attend the school, and were among the most well-known students in the Concordance. Paula was slight and intense, and had permanent visual and audio aids prominently implanted over her eyes and behind her ears, with wires trailing down behind her school jacket. June, five inches taller and nearly twice as heavy, fit awkwardly on the aging chair against the table, and shifted her weight back and forth rhythmically.
“But you and Ed — you aren’t unioned,” said Paula, thinking through the implications of being chosen for a Career.
Reba reached into the pocket of her school coat and clasped the cold metal in her hand. She breathed deeply and pulled it out, fumbling to put it on her left ring finger before the others could react.
“Ed and I — “ she reached out her hand to show the thin gold band and Dawn immediately grabbed it.
“You fucking got married?” This time Dawn did nothing to hold in her screams. “When?”
“Last night,” said Reba, feeling the small room of the cafe start to close in. “At the courthouse.”
“And you didn’t invite us?” Dawn let go of Reba’s hand and gestured to the group. “Don’t you need witnesses?”
“Ed’s brothers were there. And the Career lawyer,” said Reba. “It was just for the books, Dawn. These things just — . We only had a few days to get the whole thing figured out.”
“Congratulations,” said Mingxia, as she pulled Dawn’s arms down to the table and opened her face to flood Reba with compassion. “Truly. What a wonderful event! We need to celebrate.” She lifted her teacup into the air for a toast, and Paula leaned quickly over to June and mumbled something something.
“Thank you,” said Reba, hoping that a storm would blow through and disrupt the conversation. “We’re just so lucky, you know?” She raised her cup meet Mingxia’s with a clink.
“Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back,” said June. She stood while holding onto the table to prevent a previous mistake, turned, and hurried out of the cafe.
“So tell us,” said Dawn, before Reba had time to collect a thought. “how did it really happen?”
“The lottery,” said Reba. She pulled her hands back into her stomach. “Like I said.”
— — -
Ed liked living on the island. It was still in the limits of the Concordance, but floated in the middle of the Upper River, separate from the main land’s desperate attention. The work was tedious — he walked a circle through a sterile hospital throughout the night and recorded “times of patient unrest “— but after a year of living the Career life with Reba he couldn’t imagine going back. He twisted the simple gold union band he wore and whistled for Duke to follow.
The island was only four miles end-to-end and on most afternoons, after a few hours of restless sleep, Ed had taken to the habit of walking their dog around the southern perimeter. Duke would lead and Ed would follow, biting at his fingernails and cuticles all the while — the combination of little sleep and the disquieting comfort of Career life feeding the nervous obsession. They walked down around the far edge of the island, toward the cliffs along the riverbank which marked the halfway point of their walk. As they neared the rocky outcropping, Duke stopped and barked sharply, scratching into the ground beside a worn tree stump. Ed yanked on the lead and Duke resisted before beginning to spin in circles — the signal for Ed to pull out a bag for Duke’s “business,” as Reba liked to call it.
Having a dog was a privilege on the island. Ed had earned Duke in a training competition held among the hospital staff. Once a quarter, the staff stops their research to hold the “comp”, as it’s called, and there’s always a fantastic prize to be won for the recorder with the highest scores.
The competitors are suited up in sensory gear to make sure no one‘s on stims or hardware and then are given a series of physical and mental exercises to complete against a timer. One by one, the recorders race against the clock and each other while the staff watches and keeps score. Sometimes the challenges are as simple as untying a knot or holding your breath. Often, they bordered on the extreme.
When Ed found out he had won the comp last year, he was collapsed in a corner of the testing room, exhausted and bleeding from bites on his arms and legs from having just strangled the life out of a wolf’s genetic facsimile with his bare hands. As a token of his success, he was presented with sweet puppy Duke, who ran over from the arena entrance and licked the sweat from his face.
Ed reached down with a bread bag and picked up the droppings before standing and looking toward home. The afternoon sun was impaled through the hemlock trees along the trail, and it would soon be time to start preparing for another evening walking the halls of the hospital. Reba would be home soon to say goodbye. He whistled to Duke and turned to start back on the short walk.
As a child growing up in the down flow of the Uni-Con complex, Ed never imagined he’d be able to walk a dog— his dog — through the woods in the afternoon. The parks and forests were private property in Concordance — sold off by to C-Levels throughout the city twenty years before Ed was born. As a child, Ed had been invited to a public birthday party at a private zoo owned by the Chief Genenome Officer at UC. Giant lizards with saddles patrolled through the park, taking the children on rides past the pens of the man-bears reaching out to shake hands, under the whale tanks, and through the elephant sloth habitat. It was the highlight of his childhood, and he kept a picture his mother had taken of him on the lizard on his memcache at all times.
When they had almost made it back to the house, Ed replayed a memory of his mother talking with him on the bus ride home from the birthday party.
“You could be there one day,” she said to Ed, beaming. “Your Uncle Tom is a groundskeeper for the Rothbergers. He said they said he was an important member of their team.” She gripped his shoulders tightly as the bus swayed back and forth. “You could be an important member of their team, too, Eddy.”
If he told his mother now — that at twenty two he was a certified recorder, living and working on Washington Island— with a salary — … He winced in pain as he bit too deeply into the edges of his left ring finger. The nail was chewed back to the raw red edges of the finger, and a thin river of blood was forming along the crescent of the cuticle. Ed sucked the tip in his mouth for a moment before his thoughts began racing again and he moved on to another incessant jagged edge.
— — -
“Hi,” Reba mumbled as John climbed into bed. “Morning already?”
“Morning,” Ed said. “Sorry to say.”
Reba rolled over slowly to face Ed and buried her face under his chin. She squeezed Ed’s hands between hers and exhaled deeply.
“Wake me up in an hour,” she said, half asking before drifting away.
“Sure thing,” said Ed. He allowed her warmth to unfreeze his bones from the night at the hospital and moved his hands to her stomach in an act of instinct.
— — -
“Ed, honey — ,” Reba called from the bathroom attached to their bedroom, “I’m gonna head out.”
Ed opened his eyes to a sliver of light from the bathroom door and spun his hips to turn onto his back. He wasn’t sure where the sound had come from.
“I’ll see you tonight for dinner, okay? We should go out to celebrate,” Reba opened the door with one hand while manipulating a tooth brush with the other, “just us, you know?”
Ed remembered where he was. Remembered the woman in the doorway with the white foam around her mouth. Remembered why they should celebrate. He smiled simply.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he said, still fighting off sleep. “I’ll wear a shirt and pants.” Reba laughed.
“A shirt and pants huh?” She turned back to the bathroom and Ed could hear the sounds of her spitting and rinsing. The clink of the toothbrush and the flick of the light switch. “I’m so proud to have a husband who will wear a shirt and pants when he takes me out.”
She moved toward the bed and leaned down to Ed for a kiss. She smelled like mint and warmth.
“I’ll see you tonight.” Reba kissed Ed quickly and tussled his hair before standing again.
“Tonight,” Ed managed to utter before turning to his side again.
“Ed — ,“ Reba paused for a moment. “I noticed this morning when I got up — did you take your ring off last night? Usually it’s in the dish, by the sink.”
Ed’s eyes opened fully, knowing Reba’s tone well enough to know when something was wrong.
“My ring?” Ed asked, feeling his finger. It was gone. “In the dish?”
“Nope. And I checked your hand earlier too just in case. What if I dropped it down the sink? Remember that, last time? I’m so sorry, Ed.”
Ed thought back to the night before, and couldn’t remember if he’d taken the ring off before showering or not. In any case, it didn’t seem important enough to stave off sleeping.
“It’s fine,” he said. “Really. I’m sure I just left it somewhere.”
“Are you sure?” Asked Reba. She had a habit of taking on Ed’s mistakes as her own.
“I’m sure, Reba.” Ed sat up calmly and reached out for her. Reba moved into Ed’s open arms and held him tightly until he fell back to a quiet sleep.
— — -
Ed had torn apart the bathroom sink trap and checked every pants pocket he owned. He’d rummaged through his gear bag and lunch pale, and, over his third cup of coffee, thought endlessly about his day. He couldn’t, in all that thought, find the ring. It was lost.
He was off work for the next two and a half days — a “maintenance adjustment” — whatever that meant, and he lamented how things were beginning. He stood in the kitchen and stared out into the island, chewing mindlessly on the tips of his fingers. Duke brushed against his legs and sat gingerly. Ed looked down into the waiting eyes of his companion and sighed.
“Let’s go, buddy.” Duke leapt at the invitation and ran to the back door of the house, where his lead, and Ed’s shoes, were waiting. A few minutes later they were out in the afternoon sunlight and headed toward the riverbank. Most everything would be okay, he decided. The ring was just a ring. It didn’t mean anything to them, or to their family’s future. Not on this island.
They curved down the riverbank toward the rocky outcropping that marked the halfway point of their walk. The boulders along the bank sat 20 meters above the river, and from them Ed could look out on the Confluence and see everything from the old children’s hospital to the Uni-Con Tower in the golden triangle. A thin shimmer hung in the air over the land between the rivers — evidence of the industry and success that the area has experienced since the Reconstruction.
What a time to be alive, Ed thought to himself.
Duke began barking abruptly and pulled Ed out of his daze. The dog was digging down into the grass and dirt around a 0ld warn stump. Ed remembered picking up after the dog in the same spot the day before before going to the bathroom. Ed picked up the shit and — could he have lost the ring?
Ed’s adrenaline spiked and he yanked Duke’s lead to pull him away from the tree stump. He bent down and began running his hands over the patchy grass and dirt, feeling for the familiar feeling of the gold band. His fingers gripped more deeply, tearing at the ground, searching for anything that might feel like it doesn’t belong. Something not made by nature. And he felt it. The metal edge. The fucking ring. Finally.
His fingers pulled at the ring and were met with unexpected resistance. Ed leaned into the ground and began digging away the dirt and weeds surrounding the edges of the ring. When he revealed the golden facade, he saw that something had grown through it and was holding it in place, right under the surface. Ed moved in a fever, digging a trench on either side of the object to reach under and rip the thing from the firmament. He braced himself and pulled again, falling backwards as the ring slipped away easily.
Duke greeted Ed on the ground with a lick — confirming that he was in fact still awake. Ed looked down into his hand and found the ring. His ring. He breathed out a long sigh before slipping it back onto his finger.
He stood slowly and moved toward the stump. Unsure of his senses, he knelt more closely to the ground paused a moment, and sunk with nausea.
Half of a human hand was bursting from the ground, fingers pried toward the sky in rigor mortis. Ed swallowed the bile raging through him and looked more closely at the hand to confirm his horror — to know that it was true.
Along the edges of the yellow, desiccated fingertips, Ed could see the jagged edges of his nervousness. The soreness and insistence from years of concern, staring back at him from the island. He dug out the ground around the hand and, after confirming it was attached to something more, shoved it back deeply into the ground. He covered it with loose dirt and gravel before sliding a fifty pound stone from the rock ledge over to the stump to seal the breach.
When he finished, Ed walked Duke further down the bank to where they could reach the cool water of the Upper River. He washed his hands in the swirling water as Duke drank his fill. He tried to remember what it was like as a child to stand on the opposing bank, in the heart of the lower slums of Concordance — what it was like to stand there, and look out at Washington Island, open and dreaming. He bit at his nails and quickly forgot that he couldn’t remember.