I did two things after my mother died. First I chopped my hair off with a dull knife, so I looked as ragged and torn on the outside as I felt on the inside. And then I changed my name.
Our ranch was a rambling place, with a saggy old house and a new barn. We lived with my uncle and his family, all cramped together in five creaky-floored rooms, fighting over the one upstairs bath. The place ran on grit and humor and strong coffee, with my mother in charge. She called my uncle ‘Petey’ and he answered to it. Mom gave everyone a nickname—everyone except me. Before she died my name was a sweet name, a little girl name. In my dreams I still hear her voice cherishing every syllable, turning that old name into a song.
My mom called me E.J. only once. A few months before she got shot, we were in the barn, fighting. Almost screaming at each other over something so stupid I can’t even remember why I was mad. The horses were stomping and snuffling in their stalls, feeling our mood. I don’t remember why we fought, but I remember her face, scrunched and red and hateful. I remember the tone in her voice when she said, “Don’t be stupid, E.J. I didn’t raise you to be a fool.”
She raised me to be anything but a fool. She raised me on books and laughter and hard, sweaty work. She raised me by herself. I would hear her at night sometimes, our rooms only separated by a thin wall. I heard her humming, I heard her crying. I heard the click of the light hours before morning.
After she died and I was sent away, I had nothing of hers to hold onto except my talism ring. When I stepped out of the shipping container into the grey damp of Eden, my name had become E.J. I borrowed my mother’s grit and the nickname she gave me in a moment of anger. I wore them like armor and left a little girl far behind me.
I have fifty-three talism in my safe. Fifty-three shiny trinkets I’ve stolen, or traded for or found. Before Eden, I didn’t know much about being a fetisher or using talism, except that talism bullets do not miss. Talism bullets go right where you tell them.
Life on our high-plains ranch sometimes took more than it gave. Sometimes the snow piled and the wind howled and our cattle died. Sometimes hungry coyotes snatched our calves, sometimes we were hungry and hunted our food. My uncle first taught me to shoot with a .22 rifle, then with a shotgun. I hated the sound, the recoil, the acrid smell, even the idea of what a gun could do. Until a pack of coyotes took twin calves on a cold night in an already lean year. Then I wanted the gun in my hand. I wanted bullets that would not miss.
Uncle Peter showed me brass-colored cylinders in his huge palm, but they didn’t look any different. Instead they buzzed, vibrating the air in front of my eyes and speaking a word in my brain–straight. I could feel how straight they would fly even as I heard our prey yipping and yowling in the darkness ahead.
He’d asked me if I wanted to take the first shot. I was thirteen, just beginning to realize my mutation. I grabbed the rifle and concentrated, letting the buzz travel from inside the gun to inside my head. Sending those bullets into the heart of a ragged, slinking smudge of fur at the far edge of my vision. I pulled the trigger and I did not miss. The animal yelped and screamed and died.
A part of me died when I saw what I’d done. By morning, just blood on pale grass and a scattered, scavenged carcass remained. I could feel the buzz of a smashed bullet lodged in the rib bone at my feet. I had tasted my gift and it was strong, bitter, acid.
Here in Eden I peddle shiny trinkets. Coin-finders and lock-openers and magnets. I pretend my gift is a trick, a lark, a game. A game I never play with guns.
The Gate is too much to explain exactly, so allow me to sum up: shiny, happy people on one side, invisibles on the other. The why of the Gate is also slippery, something about naughty fetishers, explosives, riots, dead innocents, fear and loathing, new laws to protect said innocents, that sort of sordid.
The how, however, is quite simple: electrified metal, five crossings between the sides. Shiny and happy get to cross, invisibles do not. I was not shiny, then, nor happy. But I got to cross all the time. Even pretty people crave what they can’t have.
Dad and I would stroll up to the window, some illicit item would exchange hands and across we went. I must admit, the land of quiet, clean, and tidy had its merits. Wide streets, trees with leaves. Grass. Ice cream vendors. Yapping dogs that wanted to lick my sticky hands, not nibble my fingers off in desperation.
I took it in—the smooth words and even smoother exchanges. Small parcels, wide, avaricious smiles. Favors promised, crisp bills exchanged. So very easy. The Gate began to dissolve before my eyes, to seem like a mere suggestion for the invisible MacFarlanes. Invisible in the deviously profitable sense, except for the couple of times I’d been caught and locked up by the Squad. Just twice, a few weeks in total. Part of the price to be paid as a fetisher in the illegal acquisitions trade.
And then Dad left.
And the Gate began to grow. Now I see its real-life proportions. Now the Gate fills my vision. Always flickering at the edge of my sight, lurking, taunting. Now I crave what I cannot have. Freedom. Movement. Salted caramel gelato on a warm waffle cone. A park with yapping dogs, slobbering tolerated. Being a visible girl.
I didn’t grow up with any girls my age. Maybe that’s why I feel most comfortable with boys, both the mature and immature varieties. Lucky recipients of the chromosome lottery, boys get to scratch where it itches and burp when they’re full. They say what comes to mind, and although their words might hurt you, they won’t spend hours coming up with words intended to destroy you. Boys are easy to trust and easy to sit in silence with. Just…easy.
When I first met my half-sister, I wasn’t sure what to be prepared for. Endless discussions about mascara and push-up bras? Giggling and squealing? Or worse, having nothing in common–no shared language, no experiences to bind us? I definitely wasn’t prepared for Ebony.
I wasn’t prepared for her fierce beauty and spontaneous hugging. For someone who did squeal, but like me, over X-Men comic books, Jane Austen, and Jane Eyre. For someone who wanted to share with me everything she felt and dreamed and wondered. For a partner in late-night snack-attacks. A friend during early-morning nightmare-attacks that still leave me shaking and breathless. Having a sister is different than I expected.
When you let a boy down, they forgive easy. They move on quickly. Sisters don’t always. Sometimes when you let them down, their eyes stay bruised and their smile cracks. Sometimes the words they don’t–or won’t–say crush your ribs and pierce the heart struggling underneath.
But sisters don’t stop loving you. Sisters hold on. People say blood is thicker than water, but the substance between sisters is thicker than blood. Stronger than steel wire. More changeable than a Scottish sky. A molten, unbreakable stuff that sometimes scorches, sometimes heals.
Having a sister isn’t always easy, or simple. But with my sister–with Ebony–I can break the silence.