For background, Hanneli and Shayna are 11-year-old girls who have been raised in a society that is trying to survive a totalitarian government by hiding away in tunnel communities. But, increasingly, people are chafing at being relatively safe, but cut off from the world. Besides, as the girls have just found out, it's not always safe where they live. Not at all.
Hanneli changed quickly into her nightgown, but Shayna just stood still, too shocked and sick to move. Hanneli helped her change into her nightgown and steered her into the lower bunk.
The lower bunk was carved out of the hardpan dirt that had been in place when the burrows were dug. The upper bunk was composed mostly from scraps of an old bus, which had become worthless topside after tyrants had seized fuel supplies, let the roads fall into disrepair, and made a sport of strafing anyone who was moving around without permission. Hanneli had painted that bunk bright colors. The lower bunk she’d tried to brighten with a mural, with less success, which is one reason she generally slept in the top bunk. That, and she liked climbing up and down the ladder.
As she lay there, Shayna traced the failed artwork with a finger. Usually she liked the pale light thrown off by nightlights. Now they made it so she could just barely see why Hanneli thought she might simply whitewash the wall and call it an improvement.
Hanneli had scooted right up into the top bunk, but now she came carefully down. She put her finger to her lips, and cocked her head, listening to Bella’s breathing.
“All right, I think she’s sound asleep enough we can do this without much danger, but if it sounds jumbled, forgive me, because I’m a bit of a mess,” Hanneli whispered. She took hold of Shayna’s hands, and bowed her head. Speaking low and softly, she said, “Dear God, Please help us in every way we need help, which I’m sure You know better than we do. Help us to be silent about what happened, until we can talk about it without putting someone’s life in danger. Please make it soon that we can talk, at least to our parents. Please help the man who helped us, and have mercy on his soul and reconcile him to You, if he isn’t already, so that he’ll know better what to do, and so if he gets killed he can come home to You, especially if he gets killed because he rescued us. Lord, help the servicemen who saw us tonight keep silent, until it is right to talk. Please jumble whatever message may have been sent, or make the receivers of it consider it of no account, so they don’t come after us, unless it’s Your plan that they should root us out now. Prepare our hearts for whatever lies ahead, and give us sleep this night so we are stronger to face the day. In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.” She squeezed Shayna’s hands, and let go, and started to get up. She got back on her knees and took Shayna’s hands again, and bowed her head again. “Sorry, Lord, I forgot something important. Dear God, please give us wisdom, and help us use that instead of our own ideas, especially now, when everything is more dangerous than usual. In the precious name of Jesus we pray, Amen.”
She sat back on her heels. “Anything you’d like to add?” she asked. Shayna shook her head. Hanneli scooted almost-silently up the ladder and into bed. Right away, she fell asleep.
Shayna lay awake for a long time, her head full of fractured and frightening thoughts, and then she, too, fell asleep.
As Shayna woke up, she looked around the room and thought The world ought to be different. How can it be the same when I’ve been through so much? As soon as she thought it, she realized how crazy it was, and nearly laughed out loud. But then the horrors of the night insisted on being remembered, and she didn’t laugh.
Hanneli’s feet swung out of bed onto the ladder, and soon all of her was in view.
“Up and at it, girl,” she said, trying to be cheerful, but not quite succeeding.
“You sound not so chipper this morning,” Bella said, from across the room. She sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes. “Bad night?”
“Yes, actually. I got stuck in a nightmare, and it took forever to get out. And, by the way, it wasn’t Carlos who sent that note. It was a rotten trick by somebody else. Never mind the details. Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen, all right?” Hanneli said.
“All right, unless you think they might cause you more trouble, in which case I think you should tell me who it was,” Bella said.
“I’m not worried about more trouble. I’ll let you know if I change my mind,” Hanneli said.
“All right. I’m off to fix breakfast. Any requests?” Bella said, as she got dressed.
“Pumpkin pancakes?” Hanneli said.
“Good idea. I think we’re down to the last of the pumpkin, and we ought to use it up. I’ll see,” Bella said. “Shayna, do you like pumpkin pancakes?”
“I’ve never had any,” Shayna said. “I’m not sure I can eat anything, anyway. I don’t feel very good.”
Bella went to feel her forehead. “Ugh. You’re clammy. Not good. I’ll fix some broth or gruel of some sort. You’ll need to eat something. No school for either of you today, I guess. I’ll tell Mom and Dad. Why don’t you girls set up the tea table, and you can eat in here?”
“Yes, mother,” Hanneli joked.
Bella felt her forehead. “You’re a bit clammy, too. Ooh, boy. This could be fun. You sure you’re up to pumpkin pancakes?”
“Absolutely. Besides, the spices are good for bad tummies, right?”
“You have a bad tummy?”
“Sort of. I think it’s just from the nightmare, though. It was that sort of nightmare,” Hanneli said.
“All right, I hope so. I’ll be back in a bit. Try to get dressed and the table set up. Maybe it will make you feel better to get up and scrubbed and otherwise put together. Besides, then I can get to your bedding later to wash it. If you’re up to getting up, Shayna?”
“I think so,” she said. She got up to prove it, but wobbled.
“I’ve got her,” Hanneli said, propping her up.
Bella hesitated, but decided to leave the friends to help each other, while she fixed breakfast. Off she went.
“Oh, I’m so sorry I came,” Shayna said, as soon as the coast was clear.
“Me, too. I mean, I like to share adventures, but not nightmares. Do you think you’re sick on top of everything else, or just still shocked and stressed?”
“I’m not sure. Oh, Hanneli, what if I brought what Dad has, and it’s really bad, and somebody else in your family dies, like Miles?”
“Then it happens. I think the chances are at least a kazillion to one, so let’s not worry about it unless somebody gets deathly ill, all right? Besides, Bella knew the risks when she invited you, and we all decided to go along with her. We’re kind of like the early Christians who freaked out the Romans in that regard.”
“I guess I don’t know that story.”
“Really? I’ll have to look up the details because I forgot them, for that matter it might have been Greeks instead of Romans, but basically a plague hit and most pagans were fleeing the city, and others were tossing sick people out into the gutter to get them out of their houses, but Christians went the other way and tended the sick, even total strangers, and when those Christians died, other Christians went in and picked up where the others left off, and when they died, others moved in. It totally freaked out the pagans, especially since the reports were that the Christians were dying cheerfully, without any regrets. Some historian of the time recorded it, along with his amazement at how different the Christians were from everyone else. I love that story,” Hanneli said.
“Bella says you girls aren’t feeling well?” Mrs. Charbonneau said, from the doorway.
“Oh, we’re not terribly sick, but we’re a little clammy and our stomachs are doing flip flops and tying in knots. But just a little. I’m not worried,” Hanneli said.
Mrs. Charbonneau grinned. “Girl, I think you came out of the womb refusing to worry about anything. I never met such a kid,” she said. She ruffled Hanneli’s hair and gave her a hug. “Just to be on the safe side, let’s set you up with the tea table in here, and keep you away from your father and brother, shall we? I’ll get a scented candle, too. I’m not sure the flame actually kills enough germs to matter, but it’s a good excuse to put nice smells into the room, right? Just remember to not let it burn very long, so it doesn’t eat up too much oxygen. Our ventilation is good, but it has its limits.” Seeing Hanneli looking decidedly patient, she added, “Not that I think either of you girls need any reminding on that.” She got thoughtful. “For that matter, I’m not sure one candle could ever pose a problem. But let’s stay on the safe side, shall we? You might crank the manual air exchanger a time or two, too, if you think about it. It’s probably better than a candle for getting rid of germs anyway.”
Hanneli grinned. “I do that anyway, quite a bit, just for fun, when Bella’s not around,” she said. “In case you want to use it, it’s over there, Shayna,” she added. She pointed out the crank, set where Bella could reach it while in bed. “Do you have one in your room?” she asked.
Shayna had to stop and think. Some places she’d lived had air cranks that brought fresh air down and vented stale air up, but most didn’t, especially the ones built later, after people got used to counting on electrical systems, or other higher tech solutions. She shook her head.
Mrs. Charbonneau set about pulling a small table with folding legs out of a cranny in the wall. Hanneli took a couple of chairs down from nearby hooks, where they were stored out of the way. She stood on tiptoe to reach them. Mrs. Charbonneau watched her. “I’m not quite used to you being so tall, you know. I wonder how much taller you’ll get? You’ve been growing like crazy lately.”
“Tell me about it. I was showing Shayna the emergency escape door last night, and we both almost got stuck going in and out,” Hanneli said.
Shayna thought that was getting a little too close to talking about what had happened, but Mrs. Charbonneau didn’t seem to question that two girls would go in and out of a pet door after bedtime, just to try it out.
“Is the shower open?” Hanneli asked.
“I think so. Your father is using his foot as an excuse not to take a shower, and Reuben said he had to run to Fernando’s place this morning for something. Shayna, are you all right? Sit down, dear,” Mrs. Charbonneau said, rushing over to help Shayna into a chair. “You look like you could faint, girl. Perhaps we should call – I mean go down the tunnel and get – your mother? Oh, dear, this blackout is going to take some getting used to.”
Shayna looked at Hanneli, who looked nervous, which is what she felt like herself, since Fernando was Carlos’s brother. That spot had been such a good spot for kidnapping, and who knew if Miss Couch had any team members left behind who might want to use it now? That seemed really, really unlikely, but so had being kidnapped by your own teacher.
“Any idea what Reuben was up to, Mom?” Hanneli asked.
“I have an idea, but it’s just a guess. I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Why don’t you get the tablecloth on, while I go help Isabella in the kitchen?”
“Sure, Mom. Glad to,” Hanneli said, popping over to the room’s built in closet, and rummaging in a chest.
Mrs. Charbonneau went out of the room.
Hanneli spread an embroidered tablecloth on the tea table. As she made it smooth and square, she said, “I wish I could find out what’s going on down there.” She stood straight up. “Hey! I have an idea. You stick your head out the emergency door and look down the tunnel that direction, while I keep an eye out for anyone coming from the kitchen.”
Shayna stuck her head out the little door and looked. People were out in the tunnel, hurrying to morning appointments. Some of them laughed at her, which is when she realized that she hadn’t changed out of her nightgown yet, or combed her hair. To make it worse, somebody was rolling a cart down the tunnel, blocking her view.
The person rolling the cart waved at her and put his finger to his lips. He also made a silly face at her, which was a silly thing to do if he wanted her to be quiet, she thought.
She pulled back into the room, and dove for a hairbrush and her clothes. She ran to close the door, and started getting changed.
“It’s all right. Reuben was out there. He’s all right,” she said. “And, um, I think we’re going to have company, probably.”
“That would explain why you’re getting dressed so fast, I guess. But, really, you saw Reuben? And, um, he doesn’t look grim or anything, like somebody might be forcing him to do something?”
“Nope. He was clowning around, actually.”
“That’s a relief, although probably he’d clown around during a bombing raid. Honestly, he’ll make you crazy sometimes,” Hanneli said.
There were raised voices in the front room. Hanneli shoved Shayna behind her, before tiptoeing to the door and opening it a crack.
“You might have asked me first,” Mr. Charbonneau said, loudly.
“Since when do I need your permission to get my sister a birthday present?” Reuben said back, also a bit too loudly.
Hanneli opened the door wide and stared at what Reuben had brought home.
“Hi, Sis. I know your birthday isn’t for another week, but Bella said you weren’t feeling well and would be staying home from school, and plants are supposed to kill at least some types of germs with their roots, or leaves, or something, and they make fresh air, and besides I thought it would cheer you up. Tah dah. A super duper, improved plant center. Grow lights. Pots. Potting soil. Seeds. It’s portable. Washable. Made by me and Scott, just for you, with the help of Mr. Alcorn, with plans approved and improved by our own Mr. Leo Talent. Fernando and Carlos have been hiding it for me, and they got a few plants started for you. Most are edible, but this one over here is just for fun. See? You touch the leaves and they fold up. Don’t eat on that one. I don’t know that it’s poisonous, but I don’t know that it isn’t.”
Hanneli’s jaw was down.
Bella laughed. “Hang on. If we’re having her birthday early, let me get my gifts. Pancakes are ready, if anyone wants to start, but I won’t be a minute.” She popped out the front door.
“Wow,” Hanneli said. “Just wow.”
She started to walk to the rolling cart and its wondrous plants, but Reuben held up a hand.
“Unless there’s something in your bedroom this morning that a brother can’t see, let me get it set up in there before I head off to school. I’m in a hurry. Move, lass,” he said, screwing his face into a caricature of someone eyeing a prize at a finish line.
Hanneli and Shayna stepped aside. Reuben roared the cart into Hanneli’s bedroom, finding a spot for it near the head of her bed.
“It would have been bigger, but the only place we could figure out where to put it was here, and so we had to make it small enough to fit. Sorry,” he said. He grabbed the power plug and climbed up the bunk bed ladder, reached over to an outlet on the ceiling, and plugged it in. The grow lights came on, casting a fresh, daylight glow down on the pots.
“Hey, Shayna. Where you lived before this, did they have all the electrical plug-in places in the ceiling? I’ve heard some places actually put them within reach,” he said.
Shayna furrowed her brow and concentrated on remembering. “We’ve had them both up and down, I guess,” she said.
“I’ve heard that putting them way high was to keep them out of the reach of children,” Reuben said.
“And just see how well that works,” Bella teased from the doorway. “Happy Birthday, Hanneli,” she said, holding out a potted plant and a watering can. Behind her, a neighbor held a floor lamp equipped with a grow light in one hand, and a beautiful wooden plant stand in the other.
“Great minds think alike,” Reuben quipped. He checked the time. “Oops, I’ll be late for school if I don’t hurry. See you later. I hope you feel better soon. Bye.” He hopped to the floor, dashed to the kitchen, grabbed a couple of unbuttered pancakes to eat en route, and was out the door, just like that.
“Maybe we could set that up over there, near your bed, Bella?” Hanneli said.
“Considering that Reuben beat me to the spot I had in mind, I guess we need to find somewhere for it,” Bella said. She handed the plant to Hanneli, the watering can to Shayna, and retrieved the light and stand from the neighbor.
“Thank you, Mrs. Carter, for helping,” Hanneli said.
“Happy early birthday. Catch you later,” Mrs. Carter said, taking her leave.
“That does it. I am going to cry now,” Hanneli said. She held the potted plant close and smelled its flowers, with tears streaming down her face. Soon, she was sobbing.
“You leave your father to me. It’ll be all right. I’ll check back later,” Mrs. Charbonneau said. She gently closed the door behind her.
After the plant stand and floor lamp were set up to her satisfaction, Bella went to warm up breakfast. “I’ll be back soon, I promise,” she said, as she headed out of the room.
Hanneli closed the door, and leaned against it, so that no one could open it without her knowing. She sniffled, and wiped tears off with her sleeve. “Oh, Shayna, I hope the lieutenant gets things worked out soon. It’s going to kill me, looking at these plants, and not being able to tell anyone that I saw trees. Real trees. Could you believe how big they were? Oh, wait, you’ve seen some before, haven’t – Oops, doorknob.” She stepped away from the door just before it opened.