“About what?” I ask.
“Did he ever tell you why he named you Gene?” Epap asks. If he’s mocking me or joking around, it’s not showing in his voice or steely gaze.
“Hold on,” I say. “You think I’m the Origin because … it’s in my genes? You think the cure for the duskers is in my genetic code?”
Their wide eyes and gaping mouths are answer enough.
“C’mon now!” I snort. “Don’t be ridiculous! Look here, a name’s just a name! A sound. There isn’t any special meaning attached to it!” I look at Epap. “You’re going to tell me that Epap has some special significance? Or Ben does? Or Jacob?”
“Actually,” Epap says, and his face is blooming with realization, “they do. All our names do. The Scientist said he christened us according to some aspect uniquely ours. Ben got his name after Big Ben, a mythical clock tower, because of his chubby arms and legs when he was a baby. He named Jacob after the biblical character because of how he walks with a slight limp. As for Sissy, he named her ‘Sis’ so Ben would remember they’re siblings, half-siblings, anyway. Eventually, we just started calling her Sissy because of the way it rolled off the tongue. He named me Epap—”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” I say. “He gave you cute names. I’m happy for you. But I can tell you this: he never explained my name to me. It was just a name. No special significance attached to it whatsoever.”
But it’s as if they haven’t heard me. They’re smiling, eyes wide with awe. “This whole time,” Jacob says, his eyes glistening, “right in front of us. The Origin. The cure for the duskers, the salvation of humankind. The freakin’ Origin.”
I stand awkwardly before them, wanting to wave off their attention and unwarranted conclusions. The stiff leather on the sofa creaks.
“Well, there’s hope for you dunderheads after all.”
It’s Sissy who’s spoken. We turn to her. Her eyes are open, her head propped up on the sofa arm. She’s trying to smile. “Maybe I should pass out more often,” she says. “Remove myself from the picture. Apparently, it forces you guys to think on your own. Come up with some pretty good ideas.”
“It was me, Sissy!” Ben shouts, smiling and running over to her. “I was the one who thought of it first!”
She kisses him on the cheek. “But of course you did. You’re my brother, aren’t you?”
Ben points at me proudly. “And he’s the Origin.”
SISSY IS UP for only a few minutes before she violently heaves into a basin. She wipes her mouth free of dangling vomit, tells us she feels better now that it’s out of her system. The odor is foul, and I take the makeshift vomit basin outside. When I return, they’re having a heated discussion.
“We should get on the train,” Jacob is saying, one hand cupping the elbow of his other arm. “I really believe it’s why the Scientist brought us to the Mission. This place, it’s like a waiting room where we board a train to paradise. Okay, it’s a weird waiting room, I’ll grant you that much. It’s filled with eccentric regulations and ruled with an iron fist. I get it. But it’s a waiting room nonetheless.” He sighs with frustration. “A week from today, we’ll be eating at fancy digs or being paraded in luxury around town and laughing at these silly suspicions. This is the time to be celebrating, not second-guessing the Scientist. He brought us here to get on the train. I mean, how much more obvious can it be?”
“If that’s the case, why didn’t he board the train himself?” Epap says.
“He was waiting for us, for Gene—the Origin—to arrive. Probably, he wanted to board with us and personally escort us to the Civilization.” He waves his arms in frustration. “He’d be rolling in his grave if he could hear us now.”
“And you just made my next point for me. Because he is in a grave. If he was waiting for us, why did he kill himself?” Epap asks.
Jacob swallows hard. “I don’t know,” he says, his voice shaky. “Maybe he was expecting us to arrive much sooner. Months, years earlier. When we didn’t show, maybe he thought he’d failed us and that he no longer deserved to go to the Civilization. But we can honor his life now by going where he’d strived for years to one day take us: the Civilization.”
The room falls into a heavy silence.
“I don’t know, Jacob,” Sissy says quietly. “I’m sorry, but there’s something unnerving about the Civilization. About the Scientist’s suicide. I think we honor him best by staying alert and using our heads. We need to know more before boarding the train.”
“And how long is that going to take? A week? A month? A year?” Jacob’s eyes settle on Sissy’s brand. “We can’t stay here indefinitely.”
Sissy notices Jacob staring at her brand, and half turns her arm. “We have food and shelter here,” she says. “This mark they gave me tonight is nothing. A little scratch. Barely hurt at all.” She gives him a reassuring smile. “We’ll be fine here.”
Jacob stares down at his feet, his eyes glistening over. “You know me, Sissy,” he says, his voice shaking with emotion. “I’d never go against what you decide for us. If you say you need more time to investigate, then I believe you. But find out quickly, will you? And promise you won’t keep us here a day longer than necessary?”
She walks over to him, pulls his head against her chest. His body, taut with tension, wilts with release. He puts his arm around her waist, his body quivering against hers. Tears stream out of his closed eyes. “Not a second longer, okay, big guy? You’ll be the first to know. Hey, no more crying! You’re too big for tears now.”
Jacob nods, wipes the tears off his face.
“You’re such a dunderhead, you know that?” Sissy says, ruffling his hair.
THEY SETTLE IN for the night, the three younger boys sharing the bed, Sissy on the sofa, Epap on the rug. I take a tall wooden stool out into the hallway, position it next to the window. I want to keep watch, I tell them, just in case.
I hear their voices murmuring in the room, their banter somber and low-key. Eventually, their voices turn to silence, then to light snores, their breathing synchronized even in the unconsciousness of sleep. I think to walk into the room, lie down on the bed. They will make room for me as they always have. But I stay rooted on the stool and gaze out the window. I need to be alone.
The rain, falling with the intensity of forty days and nights, comes to a sudden stop. After an hour, when even the runoff dripping off the eaves ceases, a clean silence overtakes the night. The clouds break but imperfectly; moonlight pours through the shredded skies in a fragmented, haphazard splash across the range of mountains.
Did he ever tell you why he named you Gene?
My thoughts are interrupted by the creak of floorboards. Sissy—pale and ashen like a ghost—floats down the dark stretch of the hallway. The duvet is wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl.
“Why don’t you come back to the room?” she says quietly. She walks over when I don’t answer. Our shoulders almost touch as she looks out the window. Her sleeve is rolled up; dark shadows cover her forearm.
I place my hands tenderly on her arm, draw her into the moonlight. The branding wound looks even worse now, the puckered skin oozing with discharge. “Oh, Sissy.”
Her eyes harden, but they’re different this time. With the boys, to veil her pain, her eyes were set like reflecting shields. But now I can see past the flinty hardness where lie pools of deep hurt and anger.
She tells me she does not remember very much. She only recalls the wooziness that beset her after drinking the soup, the sensation of being carried away, then nothing until she was back in my room. Where she found herself branded. “I’m sure they must have also searched me,” she says, and even in her whisper I can hear the rage. “I don’t know what’s worse—knowing they did it, or not being able to remember it ever happened.”
“I’m sorry. I tried to find you—we did, Epap and I. But…”
“We can’t let this get to us,” she says, quietly, but again I see the flash of rage in her eyes. “I mean, don’t get me wrong: I want to kick the living hell out of them. But we can’t afford to get sidetracked. Our number one priority,” she says, turning to meet my gaze, “is to find out about that train. Running around with my own personal vendetta will only get in the way.”
Beads of her condensed breath glimmer on the window. Her arm trembles slightly in my hands.
“You sure you’re okay, Sissy?” I reach up to brush aside the hair covering her eyes. “Hey, maybe we should all just take off. Pack our bags and leave. Venture into the woods.”
“No,” she says. Very quietly. “Where would we go? How would we survive? Winter’s coming. Besides, Jacob’s right. Maybe the train really does take us to the Promised Land. We can’t ditch that possibility too soon—it might be the best option we have.”
We fall quiet. The clouds stretch thin then split apart, allowing more moonlight to illuminate the village. Gradually, Sissy’s posture begins to relax, the expression on her face softens. She leans against me, our shoulders slightly touching. I’m suddenly all too aware of the give of her flesh against mine. I’ve been holding her arm this whole time; slowly, I pull my hands back. Her arm drifts down to her side.
“What is it?” she says.
I swallow. “Nothing.” We gaze outside again. The sound of snoring drifts down the hallway.
“C’mon,” she says, “we should get some rest. Come back to the room, there’s plenty of space, it’s warm.” She puts her hand on my elbow. “Sleep will clear our heads. In the morning maybe we’ll think of something.”
I shake my head.
She stares intently at me. “So much the lone wolf, Gene.”