First Chapter of On the Other Side

I TURN OVER, RUNNING MY hands along the rough sheets, and almost, for a mere minute, think I can touch my feet to the floor. But I can’t. A web of wires straps me into place: it’s the circuitry of the NAP equipment. I sigh and pull them off, freeing myself from the cords that hold my hopes and dreams. The final sensors come free of my scalp and that little place over my heart, and I wrap the remaining wires in a loop and hang them over the edge of the EKG, which stands among various other life-supporting machines with names spelled in a similar, confusing combination of letters. A thrill seizes me, making it impossible to let the wires go, and I smile.

Two more days, I say to myself and let the wires hang free.

Two more days, and I’ll be me.

 

I take a deep breath and run my hands through my waist-length locks to calm the wayward strands popping to life in the humidity filling my room. After pulling my clothes from a pile on the floor, I slip on yesterday’s jeans and my damp leather boots, perfect for a day out in Orleans. Creeping out of my bedroom, I find that the sun has bathed our gray kitchen in golden warmth; its early April rays seep in through the little window above Mama’s sink and other holes scattered throughout our walls. Chicken, my dog, is almost hidden by the black pile of hair he becomes when lying down, but there he is, dozing in front of the wood stove. I give a tiny whistle, quiet enough for him alone to hear, and his tail beats the floor, stirring up wisps of dust. From the bowl on our table, I grab three of my mama’s chive-spiced rolls. I put one to my nose, and there’s nothing—no scent, no smell of flour and baking soda. With a shoulder shrug, I toss one to Chicken. He swallows it and follows me out the door as I close it behind me. I wrap the other two rolls in an old cloth and put them in my bag for later. I like my breakfast with a view.

 

On my stoop, basking in the sun, I survey Rue d’Orleans and take in my place in the world. At this time of the morning, even though it’s Sunday, boats creep past, some with the gentle roar of a luxury motor but most paddle-led down the street, stacked with men on their way to the Wall. Here, in the Quarter, children don’t have a traditional education; instead, we take our parents’ vocation as our own. Most of the men and their sons are simple laborers like my family. They spend their lives building and rebuilding a Wall that isn’t just a wall. It’s a great stonework structure that runs the width of Orleans, acting as a dam, to keep the Quarter under River water and the Ward drier than bricks crafted by our laborers’ dirty hands.

 

Our house sits four blocks from the highest flood waters and what is left of Jackson Square. But the River still laps at our front stoop. In a former life, this little outdoor space was a gallery for the wealthy family that lived here before the Flood filled the streets, engulfed the homes, and changed our way of life.

 

Tied to the decaying wrought iron of the porch, is my boat. I step in, set Chicken beside me, and push off. A boat in the Quarter is the only real way of getting around. We aren’t foot people like those who live on coveted dry ground in the Ward, and a good boat is a sign of pride for the richest of us. A boat doesn’t just mean transportation. It means employment—adventure, too, if you have time to find it. Time, however, here in the Quarter, is a luxury few of us can afford.       

A gentle paddle in the water takes me past Rue Dauphine and Rue de le Levee. My eyes glide over the buildings as they lean over me, hiding the sun, their backs broken with age. Many of the oldest buildings are collapsing these days. Holding themselves together with manmade brick and mortar, but with no life within, they have no reason to stand. My heart lurches as I pass the relic known as Galatoire’s, a remnant of its green canopy flapping in the breeze, a specter from a day when the place was bursting with people living life to the fullest. I can almost hear their sounds of pleasure in a world brimming with music and food. I’ll never see this Quarter, a place where happiness knew no bounds, but part of me clings to that untouchable past as if I’d been there. I have no inkling where this desire comes from, but I suspect it has everything to do with NAP.

 

The single way to escape the Quarter is to find your Name and Purpose, and the only way to do so is to join NAP. Before the Flood, the United States government imploded. Consecutive presidents failed to resolve the problems plaguing the country: no money or jobs, no food, no reason to care. As a result, a movement swept the nation; angry voices rose up and called for the U.S. to cleanse itself of its wayward children. In the end, the people asked and the government couldn’t answer one question: how can people who don’t know their true purpose act as effective leaders? In response, the government channeled its dwindling funds into NAP, or the Name Acquisition Program—an agency established with the singular mission of producing men and women designed to efficiently lead the nation.

 

NAP began its duties by diagnosing the government’s problem as a “lack of self-awareness” among its leaders, a complete failure of the human condition to which they would develop a cure, but as NAP and its science were perfected, nature caused havoc in the United States. The Mississippi River rose after months of continuous rain, wiping out cities on its banks and filling to the brim those that it didn’t obliterate. The United States government couldn’t bounce back, so it relinquished full control of its governing procedures to the new NAP agency, which extended its services to the everyday citizen. As a fresh ruling power, NAP declared that children were to acquire their Name and Purpose in a process beginning at age five—one that began as voluntary but became the saving grace for those cities not evacuated or abandoned after the Flood. With its leadership, NAP brought structure and direction and a life of plenty for those who'd join them. We’re told every city has a wall like Orleans which divides it in two, one-half for those who exist under NAP’s care after earning their Names and another half for those who subsist until they do.

I don’t know anything else outside of these and a few more facts—some people never evacuated Orleans, like my stubborn parents, their neighbors, and their families, and there must be life outside of our city. But with the Flood making Orleans an island unto itself, all I believe to be reality is what NAP graciously provides. A final truth I trust is the only one that matters:  twenty-five years after the Fall of the American government, those who fully surrender to NAP become valuable and irreplaceable members of society.

 

That’s how it works, and as I tell myself the story of the Fall again, the excitement about my approaching surrender to NAP sends a welcome chill through me. I’m not just excited to surrender myself as the final step of the process. I’m ready, more ready than I’ve ever been to do anything in my life.

 

I paddle on down Rue d’Orleans into an alley where the rooves hover over me like clouds. I stop beside a flaking gray wall and wonder what stories the building would tell, if it could speak. The need to know my past keeps me looking over my shoulder because even though plundering the abandoned buildings lining Jackson Square is illegal, I still do it. Most of us are brave enough to join NAP, but not enough to dig through the crumbling architecture here and bring forth its treasure. As I tie the boat to an old bit of cross, I can see Anthony waiting for me behind a darkened window. A hint of his red shirt catches the sun, and I imagine the smile on his face when I offer him my mama’s roll.

 

I’m at my favorite place in the entire city now—the Saint Louis Cathedral. Before the Fall, it was a place of worship. Today, its first floor is flooded to the tops of the stained glass windows, and its three steeples pierce the water to reach for the sky. I step out of the boat onto a ledge and press my weight against the plaster wall. Anthony’s hand slips through a crack in the window and pulls me in as a piece of purple glass rips my shirt. I slip and fall against him. His breath catches, and I feel his heart against my hand. I have no idea why he does that—sighs at my presence—but my fingers tingle at some memory. My brain struggles to sort the pieces into something comprehensible, and I suppress the frustration as I push myself away from his chest. Anthony frowns, and I know I’m supposed to think he’s beautiful, but I just can’t.

 

Anthony Baker is my one friend. My skin is lighter than his, but like me, he shares a mixed heritage. His father is white, his mama was black, and it shows itself in his golden skin. His hair, dark and clipped close to the scalp, sets off his green eyes. I envy his eyes; they’re not dark emerald as mine, but the color our flood waters take on before the dawn—raw and deep, yet light and magical. They tell me everything he’s thinking before he says it, while he accuses me of being a closed book.

 

“Hey, Hill,” he says. He’s propped against the wall, his legs crossed at the feet. He’s the one person I let call me Hill. My given name is Hilaria McCleod, or at least it will be for the next two days.

Each night, for the past eleven years, the NAP equipment in my bedroom has taken my memories, my dreams. At first, it was a snippet here and a snippet there—a snapshot of my father’s smile, the sound of the wind against my windowsill—things so small I almost didn’t miss them as they were recorded in electronic bits and removed from me somehow. But overtime, the fragments NAP has taken have grown more numerous, and I don’t even remember what they are anymore. The pieces equaled the sum of me. To get me back, to retrieve what I have lost and earn my Name, I will enter into a coma and face my darkest dreams and fears. With every nightmare I face and conquer, I’ll earn back a section they’ve taken from the puzzle I’ve become, and at last, I’ll be whole. I’ll be given the Name NAP says I was meant to have and endowed with a sense of who I am supposed to be, provided solely by my new Purpose. After sixteen years of living life in the Quarter, I want…I need so much more. Surrendering to this existence is not an option. It never has been. The coma is only one small risk I must face. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

 

“I’ve got something for you,” he says, bringing me back to myself. Anthony reaches down to the window’s ledge, and retrieves a package. I raise my finger for him to wait, and I wave for Chicken to join us. I pull out the old cloth from my bag and spread it beside where we stand. Anthony sits first beside Chicken, and I follow. From our resting place, I have a perfect view of the cathedral and its arched ceiling. Cherubs, fat and round, float above us on puffy clouds. Below us, the decaying carcasses of wooden pews sway just beneath the surface of the water. I hand Anthony a roll. He stares at it, and I don’t dare ask when he ate last. He sets it aside, but the remnants of hunger are on his face.

 

“As I was saying,” he says and gestures to the small wooden box on his lap. “I have something for you.” He places it into my hands, his fingers grazing mine as he pulls away.

 

Its veneer is faded and damp. Rusted hinges hold the lid in place, and mildew clings to the flowers inlaid into the top. I look up, and Anthony’s eyes are expectant.

 

“It’s beautiful,” I say, a little breathless.

 

"For your birthday,” he says and takes the box back.

 

Anthony opens it to reveal a tired doll on the inside. Her tutu is no longer pink, but she’s still balanced on a pedestal in front of a cracked mirror, her arms aloft in some dance pose I don’t know the name for. With a twist of a knob, Anthony sets the ballerina to dance, and a tune fills the air around us. I smile for Anthony, knowing the trouble he went through to dig the gift out of some shadowy place and give it life again.

 

“I know Surrender Day is soon,” he says, his eyes downcast, “but I wanted you to still have your present.”

I try to understand Anthony’s reservations, the hesitation in his voice. Surrender Day isn’t just about me. For everyone who has turned sixteen from January of this year until now, it’s the day we give ourselves to NAP—surrendering at last to complete the process—because sixteen is the prime age to undergo the required coma. Three times a year, NAP hosts the Surrender, and this time, I’ll walk through the gates without looking back. Anthony will be by my side, but some of us go more willingly than others.

“Thank you,” I say as I run an appreciative finger over the lid of the box and gesture to his roll with my other hand. “Eat.”

 

Anthony smiles and picks up the small offering I’ve brought him. He eats the bread, breaking the brown crust into small chunks before slipping it into his mouth. He chews as if he’s thinking about every bite, making it last. When he’s finished, I tuck my roll into his hand, and he takes the food, confirming what I suspect. His dad is out of work again with no new clients to tattoo. More than likely, he’s passed out somewhere on the illegal alcohol some in the Quarter consume to drown their misery. I don’t let myself feel sorry for him because things are about to change. I recline against the cathedral wall, and listen to the sounds around me: Chicken nibbling at Anthony’s crumbs; Anthony’s breaths; water against the walls. Today is perfect. Anthony and I will get in my boat and go where the spirit takes us. Tonight, when I go to bed, today’s journey will join my other precious memories. If I remember it tomorrow, fine. If I don’t, I will get today back soon enough.

 

“Are you ready?” Anthony asks, out of the blue it seems.

 

“For?”

 

“To leave all this behind. To get your Name. To be a Ward,” he says.

 

I don’t know what to say. There are no words strong enough to answer his question.

 

“I know you are, but I’m not,” Anthony adds quietly.

 

How can he not be ready? For most of his life, Anthony has prepared for tomorrow. Eleven years of his life are gone in bits and pieces, filtered through the NAP machines to get him out of the Quarter for a better life. This is not a light decision. This is a time and place he can’t come back to.

 

“I am never coming back,” I state without question.

 

“I will,” Anthony says, his voice even softer than before. “They can’t take away the fact that this is my home. But they’ll try,” he adds, and his mouth draws into a fine line.

 

I close my eyes to consider what he’s revealed. The benefit of NAP is that there is no fault in your desire to escape the Quarter. When you awake from the coma, you know who you are and what you want out of life—it’s that simple. There should be no need, no inclination, to go back to the old you. So, leaving everyone and everything from your past behind and not feeling guilty about it is a reward. Simply put…you’ve earned the right to let them go.     

Anthony doesn’t think about it this way. He sees NAP as cheating, breaking free of the Quarter with no hard work, an easy way out. He can’t bear to look at those around us and witness their suffering. Anthony possesses the empathy I lack, and it’s obvious his heart is pure, too pure for the Quarter. That purity is something NAP will cure in him.

 

I once admired Anthony’s purity. Now, it’s his weakness.

 

“I want to spend the whole day with you,” I say, trying to change the subject. “What do you want to do?”

 

“I want you all to myself today,” Anthony says, his smile returning. “How is that different than any other day?”

 

We spend the day in my boat, our faces to the sun. I feel the warmth on my cheeks, and I let Anthony hold my hand as we drift around the Quarter, Chicken at our feet. We go nowhere in particular outside of our usual spots to hunt for relics—an old restaurant, once called Oceana, and the cemetery where a stray bone passes us, loosened from its grave by the flood waters.

 

At twilight, Anthony tells me to go home. We row back to his house on Rue St. Phillipe where a single candle burns in the window. His dad must be home, and the little flame glows because they only have electricity to power Anthony’s NAP machine.

 

“Need me to stay?” I ask.

 

He shakes his head and sends me on my way. He wants to say something but doesn’t, so I paddle back to my house as the sun settles behind the edges of the River.

 

Chicken leaps onto the stoop as I tie up my boat. When a rustling comes from the roof, I raise the music box over my head as a shield to protect myself. I peek around the wooden edge of the box as bats burst from our chimney, a hundred black bodies or more against the purple sky. Slumping against the wrought iron in terror, I panic at the pounding of their wings against the damp evening air. Something about bats, although I can’t remember what, terrifies me. I scramble into a corner where the porch meets the wall and pull Chicken to me with the hand that isn’t holding Anthony’s gift. Chicken presses a cold nose to my cheek until the creatures pass, and I stand on wobbly legs and gasp for breath. These rodents in our chimneys are a Quarter staple, but I’ll never become used to them.

 

Fingers white-knuckled around my birthday present, I elbow open the kitchen door, and my family shifts their eyes to me in unison. My mama, Cleo, and my daddy, Bram, glare at me as if I’ve committed some egregious sin. Ace, my little brother, looks between them and me, his green eyes wide. A cake—a rarity because of the cost of fine flour—is perched on the table; a single candle from one of our holders sits in the middle, burned to a nub.

 

Mama rubs her hands on her checked apron before turning on me. “Hilaria, we said six o’clock.” The words are heavy with her accent.

 

“I—” I try to explain, but she cuts me off.

 

“It is seven-fifteen, Hilaria. Where have you been?” Mama asks, her tone disapproving. Sweat glistens on her dark upper lip from cooking.

 

“Out with Ant—”

 

Mama shakes her head then lets it hang, and her long braids sweep around her shoulders. She raises a wide, tan palm into the air. “No, wait, Hilaria. I don’t want to know.”

 

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my daddy shake his head at me, too. Mama takes off her apron and lays it on the table beside the stove before ensuring the fire is out. Despite the used pots, it looks like she’s stopped cooking supper somewhere in the middle.

 

“Happy birthday, mwen pitit fi,” she says before walking out of the kitchen. The bedroom door slams behind her. Daddy stands, gives me a weak hug, and follows after Mama, leaving Ace and me alone.

Ace and I both have our daddy’s copper hair, and a loose wave hangs in his eyes. I reach out to move it, and he stops my hand.

 

“Are you mad, too?” I ask, before drawing the music box in front of me and hugging it close.

 

“Yes and no,” he says. He fingers a broken corner on the table.

 

“Why?” I ask. “What did I do?”

 

Ace looks down, a frown on his tiny, tanned face. “You’re different, Hilaria. You’re not my Hilaria anymore.”

 

Our eyes meet for just a second before he leaves the room. I don’t have to ask him how I’ve changed. He’s five, but he’s seen the equipment in my room and knows what it means for me.

 

I shake off his criticism though because he can’t understand my reasons for doing what I’ve done with my life. For this reason, I will never have kids. There’s no use in explaining to him why our relationship is different. Ace won’t comprehend it until he surrenders. A twinge of something pushes from my stomach into my throat, tugging me to run after him, but I hold back the wave of emotion carrying me away because I don’t understand where it comes from. It’s guilt, incomprehensible guilt, I know I’m supposed to feel at our parting, but I don’t.

 

I sit at the table and free the music box from my grip. Before I open it, I put the cake on the floor and let Chicken have it. The little doll in the box twirls, and I remember a part of me that once wanted to be a princess. When I was five, the NAP official came to rescue me. Like a prince, but in a white robe, he climbed upon the horse of Andrew Jackson’s statue that breaks the water in the heart of Jackson Square and called for us, the directionless children who needed a path. My hand shot up, I gave them my name—Hilaria McCleod—and he took away the fear that I would be trapped here the rest of my days. The NAP message was clear even then: there is no other way out of the Quarter.

 

I owe NAP everything: my hope, my future, and my freedom. Soon, all of it will come together. My family may not see it now, but this is best for me. If living in the Quarter has taught me anything, it’s that life is too short to not put me first.

 

I sit a long time after the music box goes quiet. I wind it up again and let the princess dance unaware of how I envy her freedom.

© 2020 by Nicole Aube. All rights reserved.