Candra ran through the Garden on rough callused feet, ignoring the harsh light from Sola beating down on her neck. She had to move fast. There was only an hour left until she had to return to the Orphanage, and she had barely collected the required rations. She needed more.
They called it the Garden because it served as the primary source of food for the Orphanage, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a forest. Tall stalks of plants lined the small dirt paths, littered with the occasional tree with leaves of red and gold. If it weren't so deadly, it may even be considered beautiful.
"Candra, wait up!" Candra turned to see a young book with shaggy black hair struggling behind her. His feet were raw and bloody from slipping over the jagged rocks that littered the path of the Garden. He wasn't used to it yet.
"Shang, I told you to wait for me back in the Groves." Candra said with a sigh. The Groves were a smaller and much safer part of the Garden. The younger kids stayed there and collected small fruits while the older ones ventured into the more dangerous areas. Just touching some of these plants could kill them.
"But I wanted to help." He said, stopping just shy of her. He rested his hands on his knees, trying his best to recover his breath. Candra smiled on how hard he must have run to be able to catch up with her. But then her eyes caught the burn the size of a large handprint that cupped his neck. A reminder about what happened when Shang tried to be helpful.
Candra rubbed her eyebrows together and tried to think of a way to get Shang to go back. Unfortunately, Shang was as stubborn as he was excitable. If she tried to send him back, he would probably just continue to follow her deeper into the Garden. It was too dangerous to leave him to his own devices.
"Fine," she said, "you can come." Shang's face lit up with excitement, and Candra couldn't help but smirk. His attitude was infectious. There weren't many in the Orphanage that could muster a smile like that.
"But," she continued, "you stay right next to me. Do not touch anything else I say so." Shang nodded so fast that Candra doubted that he really heard her. She sighed. This was going to be a disaster.
Candra started walking again, and Shang trotted along beside her. Though Shang was several years younger, he already came up to her chin. It wouldn't take long for him to pass her. The thought made her sad. It's unlikely that she will be around to see that.
"All right," she said, putting the bag of food she carried at her feet, "the blue stalks are poisonous. If you touch its outer sticky layer, you'll be caught up in night terrors and a high fever until your body eventually dies. Do not touch it." Shang gave a very serious nod, then opened his mouth to ask a question, but Candra cut him off.
"The maize comes from the green stalks and is the most valuable item in the Garden. The more of those we have the happier the Masters will be." Both Candra and Shang flinched at the mention of the Masters. Shang opened his mouth again, but Candra continued.
"The maize only grows at the top of the stalks, high above both of our heads. We must use the trees to climb up toward the top of the stalks and pluck the maize from the top of the stalks. Understand?" Shang nodded, and then spoke,
"How are we supposed to get the maize when the green stalks are wrapped around the blue?" Candra smiled. Shang was right. The blue and green stalks are interwoven in a helix. That's what made the maize so valuable.
"The green stalks grow much higher than the blue stalks—"
"So, if you go high enough," Shang interrupted, "you can pick the maize without the risk of touching the blue."
"Yes," Candra replied, "That is why the Masters send the older children to retrieve it. It is easier for us to maneuver through the trees and retrieve the maize." The lie felt bitter on her tongue. The Masters sent the children in only because the children were more expendable. But it was better for Shang to believe in the Masters. He will avoid more beatings that way.
"So, all we have to do is climb the trees." He said, placing his hands resolutely on his hips.
"No," Candra said, "I will be climbing the trees. The blue stalks still intertwine with some of the trunk and low branches, and you are too young." Shang clutched his hands in fists at his side. No doubt he was tired of hearing it, she would be too. But it was true. Even the tiniest touch of the plant could kill him, and Candra wasn't willing to take the risk.
"But," she continued, "you can help me by collecting the fruit that I dropped toward you. If the maize stays on the ground too long the bugs will get to them." The bugs wouldn't even smell the maize by the time Candra descended from the trees, but it made the task sound more important to Shang. The smile returned to his face and his fists relaxed.
"I can do that!" he responded, lifting Candra's bag of food with far too much enthusiasm. Candra nodded before turning and making her way toward the nearest tree.
"Candra!" Shang shouted, causing Candra to stop and look back. He was gripping the bag especially tight, and his eyebrows were knit together with concern. He didn't have to say anything for Candra to know what he was feeling.
"I'll be okay," she called back. She saw the light tinge of pink on Shang's cheeks before turning back toward her task. The sight made the smile return to her lips.
Candra began to climb the tree, her hands and feet moving deftly against the bark to propel her upwards.
"Watch out for the blue!" Shang called up toward her. Candra looked down and saw that one foot was positioned precariously close to one of the blue stalks. Normally, this would not concern her, but with Shang watching so closely, she would have to be more careful.
She reached one of the higher branches, taking care to test its strength before wrapping her legs around it, and hanging from it like a bat. There were several green stalks within an arm's reach which had the small, oval-shaped food speckled about its surface. Candra started to pluck and toss them down to Shang waiting below. She worked quickly, there was very little time left until they were called back to the Orphanage.
The worst thing about such a menial task is that it left the mind open to wander. Candra thought, as she often did in times like this, about escaping from the Orphanage. Leaving, and never having to think about the Masters, or blue vines, or the Sickness ever again. But even if she was able to escape the Masters, there wasn't much in this world for an orphan. Sometimes, Candra wondered if this life was even worth living.
"Candra!" The alarm in Shang's voice knocked Candra from her thoughts and caused her to falter off the branch she was settled on. She grabbed for the other branches as she fell, but her fingers barely grazed them. It wasn't long until her body made full contact with the ground.
"Ouch," she breathed. She tried moving her fingers and toes to determine her injuries. There was pain, but she didn't think that she had broken anything. She let out a sigh of relief. She'd never fallen that far before.
"Are you okay?" Shang's face swam into her vision, concern etched in its creases. Candra couldn't help but laugh.
"Oh, I'm just peachy," she responded. She raised herself into a sitting position. There was some pain, but it was already fading from her body. She looked up at Shang, squinting against the light of Sola above him.
"Was there a reason you screamed at me while I was hanging in a tree?" Candra asked, rolling her shoulders as she attempted to warm the muscles and help the pain recede. Shang's mouth was hanging open, his eyes wide in shock.
Candra stood and waved her hand in front of his face.
"Hello, Shang? Are you in there?" Shang blinked a few times and snapped his head back and away from my hand.
"You just fell." Shang sputtered.
"Yes, I did."
"From a tree."
"A very tall tree."
"Was it?" Candra asked, shielding her eyes with her hand as she attempted to find where she fell from. It wasn't hard as there were a trail of broken branches and displaced leaves left in her wake. She had fallen from a height several grown men tall.
"Your hand!" Shang yelled. Startled, Candra looked at the hand Shang was pointing to, and she felt her heart sink when she saw the thin film of some substance sticking there. She dropped it and hid it behind her back, brushing it off with a smile.
"Just some tree sap from the branches. Did you need something?" Shang narrowed his eyes at her, continuing to scan her body for injuries. Finding none, he moved on, though his expression remained puzzled.
"I-I found something." Recalling his purpose seemed to renew Shang's urgency. Without a word, he turned and ran. Candra, still shaking off some of the residual pain, did her best to follow him.
They did not have to go far before Candra saw what Shang had been so concerned about. Resting at the base of one of the trees was a girl, barely older than Candra. But she resembled more a skeleton than a human being. Her cheeks were sunken in so that the shape of her skull was pronounced. Her body looked burnt from the heat of the sun. There was no telling how long she had been out here.
"Shang, can you make it back to the Grove?" Candra whispered.
"I can but—"
"I need you to go get Thane."
"But I can help you get her back," he resisted.
"No, I need you to get Thane. Tell him what you found. He'll know what to do."
"Go, Shang. Now."
Something about the tone of her voice made him listen. Shang took off in a run toward the South. Candra breathed a sigh of relief. At least he was going in the right direction.
Candra walked to the girl on the ground. Candra recognized the girl as Natara. While she was older than Candra, she came to the Orphanage a little while after. Unlike Candra, Natara still had memories of her parents. Often, Candra would hear her crying in the night, calling her parents names in her sleep.
Natara was still breathing, whimpering in pain. Candra sat next to her against the tree, pulling Natara over so that she was cradled softly in Candra's arms.
"Meme, Meme." Candra swallowed hard. She wondered for a moment, if Candra were the one on the brink of death, would she also call out for her mother?
"Shh," Candra said, "You're all right now. I won't let you be alone." Natara blinked. Her eyes looked toward Candra in a moment of clarity.
"Please," she wheezed, "please help me." Candra felt a sharp pain in her chest. She knew what Natara wanted from her. The Sickness was not uncommon among kids in the orphanage. Her body must have given out while she was in the Garden working. The environment did the rest.
Candra took a small knife from her pocket and palmed it in her hand. She clutched Natara tighter and began to sing to her.
"Usekhaya. Leave behind the pain that you knew. Remember those who left before you, they are waiting. Know that you are safe now. Usekhaya." Two pairs of footsteps approached the area. There were tears now running freely down Candra's face. Natara had fallen into a deep sleep. There was no telling how long she would remain alive, it would all depend on how long she has been out here without food or water. It could be days or hours.
Candra looked up, and her eyes met Thane's standing a few feet in front of them. His blue eyes were hard, and his shoulders were heavy with a weight beyond his age. Thane was the oldest child at the Orphanage, almost a man at 15. He knew just as well as Candra did what needed to be done. He nodded once, his grip tightening on the shovel in his hand.
She lifted the knife in her hand and moved Natara's body forward so that her back was available. Candra sliced into Natara's body above her shoulder and into the spine. Natara's body went completely slack. Candra moved out from behind Natara and placed another cut along the inside of her knee. Then she sat on her left side and took Natara's hand in hers. Thane, Shang, and Candra all watched as the blood seeped from her body, and her chest rose and fell in shallow, strangled breaths. Eventually, her chest stopped moving.
Thane came forward. Shang followed on the back of his heels, his eyes downcast and tears trailing down his face and onto the ground. He also held a shovel. Candra had hoped that it would be a long time before Shang saw something like that. This, in fact, was the first time that Candra herself had ended the life of someone infected by the Sickness. Though, she had seen Thane do it on numerous occasions.
Thane and Shang began to dig the hole at the base of the tree. It took them several minutes while Candra continued to hold Natara's hand. Eventually, when the hole was dug and the sun sat a little lower in the sky, Thane came over and extracted Natara's hand. Candra's hand fell numbly to the ground by her side. Thane and Shang lifted the body and placed it in the hole.
Candra stood while Shang and Thane began to fill the hole again. She walked over to the tree and picked up a few of the rocks that were stained with Natara's blood. She placed them at the base of the tree to mark where the girl had died.
When the boys finished, Thane lifted the shovels and began to walk back toward the Grove. Shang joined Candra at the base of the tree, staring at the bloodstained rocks that now laid there.
"I thought," he said, his voice hoarse, "that they were just normal rocks." Candra put a hand to Shang's shoulder, and he lifted his head to meet her gaze.
"And now you know," she said, "they're not."
Together, they retreated down the path that led back to the Grove. As they returned it was hard not to notice the rows of bloodstained rocks that glowed in the light of the waning day.