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This time it was easy to spot the low space between two granite outcroppings. By pure luck, hunting for wild asparagus last week, Mal had discovered this opening on the other side of the first hill east of the settlement. It led to a clearing where a clump of scrub brush displayed a miracle in its spindly branches: a dense net of blackberry vines thick with fruit, still green and knock-you-back sour.
Every day since, she’d worried over that treasure ripening and vulnerable until she could get away again. But the fruit was untouched and black as a crow’s eye. She stifled a joyous yelp and swallowed a berry fat with juice. Her hunger, which never truly went away, had gotten worse since the bleeding started.
“Your Ma’s gonna beat you for eating before you bring those in,” Mikal ignored the thorns that tore at his bare arms and legs as he too shuttled more berries into his mouth than his bag.
He always said that, and she always answered it was worth it.
She was thirteen, old enough to go exploring outside the wall, and Mikal was always with her. Besides, everybody knew there were no special species around here except raptors, and raptors didn’t care about walls. She didn’t even try to hide her wanderings anymore; she just handed Ma the sack of whatever she scavenged and suffered the hard whacks that followed. But today Mal said, “She won’t. She quit beating me three months ago.” When it started.
They worked quickly and quietly, stuffing themselves as they filled their bags. “So why did she stop?” Mikal sounded dubious.
“If I tell you, don’t get all dramatic on me, okay?” He made a face at her. She might as well just say it straight out. “I’m dying.”
“Are not! Don’t be daft.”
“Am so. Ma told me a doc is coming to see me.” She sighed, “But nothing will help. It keeps coming back.”
“What keeps coming back?”
A blend of cackles and creepy chirps from the sky killed all talk. They both dove to the ground and rolled into the thorny vines, and for once Mal was grateful for her coveralls. They lay still as rabbits in dread of a fox. The gate was at least five minutes away at a full run; they’d be dead in two if they tried for it.
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