The garden smelled sweet. The fragrance of flowers mingled with the musk of earth and fresh mulch. Translucent windows at the outer edges of the garden dripped with moisture from the humid air. Evvie ran a finger across one glass panel and watched as water droplets rained down, clearing away most of the gathered condensation. The air here tasted better than it did anywhere else in the city; it probably even tasted better than the air in the penthouse of the Ivory Towers, far above the acid clouds and the wretched stink of the lower city.
“I’m getting too old to keep the glass clean,” Mama Mae said. She crossed her arms and scowled at the finger smudge Evvie left on the glass. “Keeping the soot off the outside is hard enough. I don’t need you adding to my workload, missy.”
“Sorry. I’ll clean it myself. I promise.” Evvie sat up and smiled warmly at her grandmother. At first glance, the two of them looked nothing alike. Mamma Mae’s dark hair was streaked with gray. Her face was leathery and dark, with high cheekbones and russet-colored eyes. In contrast, Evvie looked like the ghost that haunted the garden. Though she’d inherited some of her grandmother’s handsome facial features, her skin and hair were white like porcelain and her clear eyes were the palest of blue. She was the spitting image of her grandmother if the woman had been completely drained of color.
She was an albino, people often whispered. Like them. Evvie scrunched her nose in distaste at the comparison to the Nobility that people often made when they saw her. The Nobility were old money aristocrats who lived in penthouses that capped the Ivory Towers. They could afford to live above the stench of pollution, far beyond the filth of the lower city. Most of the Nobility were albinos, like her. But looks weren’t everything. Evvie belonged to Mama Mae.
“I heard there’s going to be a fair at the town square on Saturday,” Evvie said. “We could go.”
Mama Mae pulled up an old wicker chair and sat heavily. She drew her knitting into her lap but didn’t respond. All the same, Evvie knew what that meant.
“I could wear a wig. Everyone in the lower city is pale, anyway. I’d hardly stand out.”
Mama Mae sighed. Her needles clicked against each other rhythmically, counting time by the number of stitches the old woman formed into a line.
Evvie hated to beg, but it was a special occasion, and Mama Mae always said it was okay to be selfish every once in a while.
The clicking halted. Mama Mae looked Evvie in the eyes and held her gaze for a long while. Evvie held her breath, forever hopeful. At last, the older woman relented. Her knitting needles picked up their rhythm once more.
“I suppose we could pick out your birthday present while we’re there. It isn’t every day my baby girl turns thirteen.”
Evvie squealed in delight and bounced up from her spot on the floor to give her grandmother a hug.
“Careful! These needles are sharp!” Mama Mae chastised. “And don’t forget to clean those windows. My poor garden hardly gets enough sunlight as it is.”
“I’ll clean them inside and out,” Evvie promised. “For the next week.” She rushed to the supply cabinet to get the window spray and rag.
“Make sure you have your respirator when you go outside,” Mama Mae warned. “And don’t forget your sunscreen. My friend Gina said the radiation is getting harsher with the recent solar flares. Her son, Tom, got a nasty burn across his bald patch last week. Lord knows your poor skin is sensitive enough without adding radiation burns to the mix.”
“I’ll be careful,” Evvie said. She’d already pulled out the tub of high-strength sunscreen she used whenever she went outside.
“That’s my girl,” Mama Mae said.
Evvie grinned. She loved making her grandmother proud. Carefully and thoroughly, Evvie covered every square inch of her body in sunscreen–even the bits that wouldn’t come in direct contact with the light. She layered up her clothes, even though the summer heat made the outside feel like a boiling wasteland, and put on a thin medical-grade mask before covering it with her respirator. Next came the sunglasses to protect her sensitive eyes, and then a rain jacket with a hood, just in case she got trapped outside during an acid rain. She fished out some ice packs from the cooler to tuck into the inner pockets of her clothes and hurried outside.
Even with a mask, filter, and respirator on, that first breath of air pollution nearly made Evvie gag. She practiced her cyclical breathing for a moment until she got used to it, then hurried to clean the windows. Black soot and ugly green streaks that stuck like grease covered the windows despite the fact that they’d been cleaned just a day before. The same slime and muck covered the streets and all the houses nearby, giving the neighborhood a grayish-green tinge that always felt dirty.
None of the neighbors were as careful to keep the outside of their homes clean as Mama Mae, but then most people in the neighborhood could afford clean air filters. Mama Mae’s garden was the only source of fresh air that she and Evvie could afford, so it was important for them to keep the house–especially the greenhouse–free of grime. Papa Emmett’s life insurance money, left to them after he passed away, kept Evvie and Mama Mae housed and fed, but it didn’t afford them any luxuries.
Evvie dutifully scrubbed the windows and cleared the window panes. She soaked the house siding in solvent and power-washed the muck away. She rinsed out the outside air filters, watching the black waste water drain down the driveway and into the gutter. Then she power washed the driveway to get rid of the black streaks left from cleaning the air filters. By the time she finished, the ice packs had long since melted away and sweat made the inner layers of her clothes cling uncomfortably to her body. She trudged inside to the mudroom and stripped out of her clothes, placing them into the decontamination bucket before she slid into the entryway shower.
There were still the inside windows to clean, but Evvie’s stomach growled insistently after all the work she’d already done. Promising herself she’d only take a short break, Evvie made a detour into the kitchen.
Mama Mae stood by the counter, cutting up carrots she’d pulled from the garden.
“I thought you’d be hungry, by now.” Evvie’s grandmother pushed a plate across the counter and piled some fresh carrots onto it. “Eat up, baby girl. You’ve earned it.”
Evvie danced with delight as she ate her food. Fresh vegetables were a rare treat. Since farms had to be grown indoors and transported long distances, most people could only afford prepackaged produce. Mama Mae typically grew vegetables to sell at the Flea Market to make extra money when they needed it, so even with a home garden Evvie didn’t often get to have fresh carrots.
“They’re delicious,” the girl sighed around her mouthful. “So sweet.”
Mama Mae kissed the top of Evvie’s head. “Then you have something in common.”
Evvie wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sweet,” she said. Raising one skinny arm up, she flexed her bicep. “I’m a warrior.”
Mama Mae cackled as Evvie grinned impishly up at her. “My little warrior,” the older woman cooed happily, wrapping both arms around Evvie’s head as the younger girl munched cheerily on her carrot sticks. “You make my life, baby girl.”
“You make mine,” Evvie agreed.