I snap open my eyes. Only the ceiling above me, the hole grinning down at me as it always does. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing changed.
It was just a dream. No need to get nervous. No need to feel guilty. But I can't sleep anymore. It keeps coming back to me, like an accusation, as if it really happened. I feel horrible, but not nearly horrible enough. I want to be angry at myself, but some part of me wants to keep on thinking about that dream, see it again and again. I feel horrible. I can't sleep.
I get up as carefully as possible, glad that Ophelia sleeps like a rock and won't notice a thing. I wander over to the window. The horizon is already slightly pink, but the air is still cold and biting. I put my hand into my pocket – the box is still there; I never had a chance to put it away after coming back yesterday. But even the box can't get the dream out of my mind; if anything, it just makes my memory clearer.
I deeply hope that those tales about elves having mind-reading powers aren't true. I'm sure nothing good could come out of them finding out what I dreamt just now – and Cirion finding out, that would be even worse. My cheeks are running red. He'd better not find out!
What's going on with me now? Isn't it bad enough to think well of an elf and not hate him? Isn't it bad enough to think about him all day? Why then do my nights have to be full of him as well? Am I not doing enough illegal things already?
I feel tainted. I really want to wash my hands, as if it's them that are dirty – no one can wash my mind. It's like I've betrayed everything already, and the worst thing is, I don't even want it to stop.
"Hey! Katty!" I turn around and see Cal, surrounded by a small huddle of glaring rebel friends. "You want to come?"
I look up the hill at Grandmama and Ophelia, just in time to see Grandmama turning around to yell: "Katarina! Keep up!"
"I can't," I murmur to Cal, looking at the muddy ground. "Church."
"What?" Cal scoffs. "When has church ever helped anyone?" She looks at her rebel friends as if to confirm this. Then she turns her fierce eyes back on me. "Well fine, go to church. You can come some other time. I'll have you notified."
"Katarina!" Another yell from Grandmama. This time I hurry to answer it. Grandmama catches my arm as I come on a level with her. "What are you thinking, talking to rebels like that?" she hisses in my ear. "You want all the spies to hand you in?"
"I'm sure no one saw," I reply.
"Even so. Better not to get any risky habits!"
Talk about risky habits. Just going to church is risky, doesn't she know that? Any meeting of more than five people is strictly illegal; if it's ever found out, we'll all be in for it. But Grandmama doesn't seem to see that. I think she prefers to take her chances: she doesn't want to risk it with the elves, but she's even more afraid of risking it with God.
Only a few candles are alight in the underground room when we get there, filling the air with the spicy smell of burning. There's never much light here: there's too few candles and we don't know how many years we'll still have to save up for. As it looks like, though, probably there won't be any of us around to use them within the next fifty years or so.
Ophelia has walked ahead to catch us enough floor space before the church fills up too much. Now she's sitting half waking half sleeping: she's never been very attentive, especially not in the dark and especially not in church. She's only a quarter awake by the time I sit down beside her, and Grandmama has to give her a hard jab in the ribs to make her move over and not droop over the space she's been saving.
I'm always filled with a very strange feeling in church. I sit on the cold, damp ground and stare up at the cross on the wall, made, like everything else in this place, from old corrugated tin found on the rubbish dump, part rusted already. I think of all the things Mama used to try and explain to us, the things I never really understood: How can we forgive? What's the sense of turning the other cheek? Why does God let all of this happen to us? Sometimes I wish I didn't have to come here every week, and could just treat Sunday as only another day. Sometimes I think God must hate us if he allows the elves to treat us this way. Sometimes I wonder whether God even exists. Other times I think I become like Grandmama, and just come in case I might get in trouble for not coming. Or maybe I'm like those who come because God seems to be the only one left caring. Though some days I end up wondering whether all of that is just a lie.
Today, like many other days, I sit and wonder whose side God is on. Our side? But then why are we all suffering like this? The rebels' side? But then why do they never quite succeed? The spies' side? But then why do they keep getting beaten up and punished by the rebels? The elves' side? I feel cold just thinking about it. Please, not the elves' side… please, not the elves' side… If you're there, whoever you are, if you are good, you wouldn't be on their side – would you? Please, not the elves' side…
The flickering lights are growing dimmer. Most of the candles are burning terribly low. I hear the whisper of pages being turned as the pastor opens her thick book. She's the only person I know besides Mama who ever dared openly show that she owns an illegal thing like that. She greets us as she always does, calling us "sisters." The word feels so strange in a place so divided. In this room we are together, but outside in the real world, we fight over food, we fight over land, we fight over rubbish and we fight over our opinions.
Then she reads, in the quiet half-whisper that is as loud as anyone dares speak in an illegal meeting: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you."
The candles flicker as if they are shaking their heads, revealing what most of us must be thinking. It's the last thing anyone wants to hear. "But we must hear it," the pastor explains. "In these times especially we should remember that we should not return hate with hate, but treat with kindness those who do us wrong."
She talks mostly about in-village fights, problems with rebels, problems with spies, but what I keep seeing in my mind is the elves. My enemies are not Josie and Cal, whom I can live with. My enemies are the elves. I wonder if the pastor can do that, be kind to the elves and not hate them… because I certainly can't. They've done too much to us for me ever to forgive them. I want them to know what it was like that night when they took Adelio away. I want them to feel every single Raid night, and know what I had to live through. I want them to know the pain I felt when I realised that Mama isn't coming back. I want to hurt them the way they hurt me. I can't love my enemies.
Of course, I don't hate Cirion. But Cirion's different. Isn't he?
At the end of the sermon we whisper a song, low and subdued like the candles: "Be still my soul", before going back outside into the dirt and pouring rain, the smell and the depression, and disgusted eyes from the other side of the street. I doubt my soul ever pays attention. As soon as I'm thrown back into the middle of my life again, it hits me like a wave and I think I'm going to drown in my own never-ending frustration. How can my soul be still?
As soon as we're out, Ophelia wanders off, Grandmama finds a fellow gossiper to catch up with, and I find Josie smiling smugly up at me as though she knows exactly where I've been and has been waiting for me all this time. She looks even scruffier in the rain, with rivers of water trailing down the sides of her face and strands of hair plastered across her cheeks and forehead.
She looks happy to see me, which she rarely has before. I have half a mind to turn around and go back into the underground church, but doing so would look too suspicious and get too many people into trouble.
"Horrible rain, isn't it?" she exclaims, laughing and whipping some hair out of her face, splashing droplets everywhere.
"M… yes," I say, just to be friendly and get this conversation behind me faster. "Look, I should be getting home… my grandmother has things she wants me to do…"
"No she doesn't." Josie grins. "She doesn't allow you to work on Sundays." Somehow she manages to get more and more disturbing by the minute. She knows everything! I think I'd better watch what I say or do around her from now on.
"So," she says after a while, when we're far enough for no one to hear, "how's it going? You know, with him?" She looks at my face as if trying to read it. "Has he given you anything yet? Presents, promises?" She looks almost hungry for an answer.
"Why should an elf give me anything?" I ask, trying to sound like a good average human girl should, and hoping that my voice doesn't give away how bad I am at lying.
"You don't need to hide it from me," she says, suddenly looking pained and even annoyed. "Anyway, you can't. Sooner or later, I'll know it all. There's nothing you can hide." Her dark eyes burn into me. "What did he tell you yesterday at the river? He was looking rather closely into your eyes, wasn't he? Are you sure he's completely trustworthy? Can you even be sure you know what he really wants?"
"I seriously don't know what you keep trying to tell me!" I exclaim, though I know there's no fooling her anymore.
"Trust me," she says darkly, "I know more about elves than you'd even dare to think. I could tell you things about that friend of yours that would make you never want to see his face again."
"You're making it up!" I say, more to convince myself than her. "You're making it all up just to scare me! Why don't you just leave me alone?"
Suddenly, a hand latches itself onto Josie's shoulder and drags her back so hard that she stumbles and falls into the dirt. "You leave Katarina alone, you hear?" Cal cries, kicking mud over her with a bare foot. "You slime! Get away before I give you your well-deserved lesson!"
But the rebels don't seem to be planning on letting Josie get away any time soon. One of them pulls her back to her feet before she can find them herself, and sends a fist flying right into her face, making her fall right over again. I just stand there staring.
"Filth!" They kick her. "Slut!" Blood drips from her nose, mingling with rain. "Think you can hide from us, can you?" Her lips are smudged red. But still, behind a tangled curtain of black hair and blood, she smiles her smug smile.
Finally Calvinette grabs her by the throat and shakes her. "You survive today," she hisses, "but next time, we'll give you what you really deserve."
Josie doesn't flinch. She doesn't run as soon as she is let go, but stands defiantly, dripping with rain and mud and blood. She looks just bursting to speak, to say something great and significant. Her eyes glow with the same hate I see in Calvinette's. She won't admit the pain.
"You wait." Her voice is trembling. "You wait." And she is gone.
I am here even though I told myself to stay away. But just the thought of someone showing an interest in my life and some small hints of understanding, however impossible it is, has pulled me back again. The river has never looked so beautiful, the grey sky never so clear. Even the piles of rubble and cracked ends of pipes seem to smile.
"Tell me about yourself," Cirion says. Does he know that every kind word he speaks to me nearly makes me melt? Does he know that this is the first time anyone has asked me about myself, about my life?
"I'm sure you wouldn't want to know," I reply. "There's not really much to say…" But his eyes ask me to go on. And suddenly I realise that there's not too little, but too much, that I want to tell him. The rebels, Cal with her missing teeth and vengeful eyes. Josie, who gives me a knowing look every time she passes me by, tattered remains of an ancient dress sticking to thin, muddy legs. Ophelia, knitting day and night because that's the only choice in life she has. Grandmama, concerned only with keeping us alive. And Mama… Mama with her books and her words, like light in the daily darkness of our lives.
But I can't tell him all of that. He's an elf – how could I ever forget that? One wrong word, and it will all be over. I must not say a word about the books. I must not say a word about any rule-breaking. Best not to talk about the rebels. Best not to talk about the spies. Best not to talk at all, actually.
I know I can't trust him. But I trust him anyway.
"I was born a year after your people came. This is all I know," I begin. "I don't know what happened to my father. I can't really remember him – Ophelia does, but we don't talk about him much. She's my sister; one year older than me." I stop and look at him, half expecting him to be bored, or to break out into an evil grin and tell me I've been tricked. He does neither, so I carefully go on.
"We live with our grandmother because our mother... disappeared. I think they were afraid of her – she helped many people in the village."
"In what ways?" he asks quietly.
I shift uncomfortably. "Well... just... I don't know, giving people hope, telling them not to give up... She wasn't afraid to do the right thing, even if it was against the rules." I stop, and look down at my hands, my chewed-up dirty fingernails, wishing I could hide them. "She kept our baby brother hidden for a whole year before they found him and took him away. For some reason they take away all the men and boys. I don't suppose you know?"
He hesitates, shakes his head, but doesn't explain.
"I guess they wouldn't want you to know. Maybe they're worried even their own people wouldn't like it."
"What else did your mother do?" he asks.
"Well, everyone loved her, and I guess that bothered your people." I swallow down the books. I will not mention the books. Mama always told us to keep them secret, from everyone and anyone. I trust Cirion – but never enough for the books. "She gave us hope." I shrug and quickly change the subject. "Of course even when she was around it was still hard. There's so many rules, and so many rumours of rules... we're always scared of doing something wrong. And even if we don't break any rules, we still get in trouble. Everyone in the village is afraid, either of your people or of each other. And the rules also keep us permanently where we are, always hungry, always cold, always dirty…
"And then there's the Raids every night. That's those 'health inspectors' of yours," I explain. "They don't always go to every house, but still – the fear alone is enough. They come and take things away, and usually they make as much mess as possible while they're at it." I look up at him. ""That's why I can't keep your present. If they find it, they'll think I stole it. And anyway… they have the harshest punishments for humans who try to get close to elves…"
I take the box out of my pocket and once more hold it out to him. "Please take it back." He takes it absently into his hand, looks at it a little. "I don't mean to be ungrateful, of course," I say quickly. "But you can't risk anything where I come from. If the elves don't get me, there's other humans who will."
He nods and smiles. "I understand." And I feel that he really does.
For a while, we just sit there in silence, and I gaze at the river, at the fence that just some days ago he helped me cross. "You know," I murmur, breaking the silence, "you're the first I've ever told this much to."
"And you are the first I have ever listened this much to," he replies. Then he sighs and looks up at the sky, as if trying to guess where the sun is at. "I need to go back," he says. He smiles at me. "But I will see you again."
I can't help but smile too. The world has changed.
Only when he's left and out of sight do I realise that he has forgotten the box and it's still lying there. I hesitate, then decide it can't just be left lying here, would be just as suspicious by the riverside as in my pocket. So, once again, I let it slip into my pocket.