Escape Pod 687: Four of Seven

Four of Seven

By Samantha Mills

In the waning light of an artificial sun, Camelia Dunlevy climbed a mountain with her sister on her back. Delilah was a hollow weight, bird-boned from reconstructive surgeries, unbreakable.

The trouble wasn’t her bones, but her lungs. She panted in Camelia’s ear, unaccustomed to altitude, a small sound that might as well have been a war drum. Camelia couldn’t call for help, she couldn’t leave Delilah behind, she couldn’t walk the road for fear of company men.

And her sister was still giving bad directions.

“There’s a path up the western slope,” Delilah whispered, her breath hot and tickling. “I swear it.”

“There’s no path.”

“I came up once, with Aster.”

“Then you were on a tram.”

“Yes. I saw it out the window.”

“I don’t know what you saw, but it wasn’t a path!”

An explosion rocked the mountain, pelting them in pebbles and moon dust. Camelia dashed behind the nearest bush—a sickly, transplanted thing, hardly any cover—and counted the seconds before the familiar grind-whir-scream of a strikebreaker started up. Distant, but not distant enough.

Camelia angled east, toward steeper—but better shielded—ground. She was fifty-two years old, much younger than she ought to have been, sheltered by decades in a climate-controlled office and still in no fit shape for this climb.

She tried not to think about how thin Delilah’s fingers were, or how bent her back. She tried not to think about the life expectancy of miners on Excelsior.

“This way is longer,” Delilah complained. “You never listen to me.”

“Because you’re always wrong. I hate taking you places.”

“Why did you come then?”

Shouts reached them on the breeze, megaphone chants turned into angry droning by the distance, and Camelia sighed. “Because you called, dummy.”

Two hours earlier they were buckled up in Camelia’s rover, snug as plantaworms. Two hours earlier they were bickering and making amends, making amends and bickering, one usually masquerading for the other.

And then they reached a knot of protesters, more than two dozen people clogging the roadway, all modded. Camelia nudged the rover through a sea of prosthetic arms and legs, luminescent tattoos, hinge joints, breathing tubes that arced delicately over shorn skulls. She nudged past wooden signage and neon projector bulbs aiming slogans at the dome overhead:

Mining not Mourning

Clean Lungs, Clean Hands

Your Limbs Are Your Own

“I’d be out there if I could walk right now,” Delilah declared, and Camelia bit her tongue because Delilah couldn’t, that was the point. Who did these people think they were hurting if they blocked up Hospital Road?

And then the road lanterns flared three times in rapid succession, a dispersal warning, and Camelia sped the rover as fast as she dared, lurching and spinning on balding treads, her heart ratcheting terribly at the sound of two enormous hatches sliding open to the east and west. The hatches screeched on rusty tracks, hydraulic nightmares birthing an oversized suppression response.

Twin strikebreakers rose from underground, each one a gruesome construction of steel tubing with a man at the controls—protective suits for tunnel-diggers adapted for authoritarian use.

The company couldn’t afford a wage increase, but they sure could afford to put down protests.

Camelia and Delilah were only trying to reach the hospital at the top of the mountain. But company men wouldn’t differentiate between a pair of old women seeking medical care and the protesters decrying how mediocre that care would be.

She thought she’d gotten them clear of the altercation—one hundred feet past, two hundred feet past, the projectors and signs and suppression units shrinking in her rearview—and then the protesters unveiled an oversized response of their own: an electro-dampener.

The short-circuiting wave of the electrical bomb rolled over them in an invisible bubble, a blanket force, a silent, merciless, indiscriminate stopping power.

The rover died. The fighting began.

Nearly three hundred feet below the scuffle, a thousand miners were on shift inside the increasingly hollow core of Excelsior. These were the family folks, the elderly, the ill, the most heavily indebted—in other words, those most vulnerable to disaster if they dared come up to join the strike.

They crawled the endless dizzying cave networks of the moon like ants, like locusts, like piranhas, stripping all they could carry and skittering out of the way for the next pair of hands. They wore rubber masks on their faces, dented around the edges and scrawled with the initials of every worker who’d owned them before. They lived one bad filter away from catastrophe.

Miners emerged from every shift caked in the toxic rot of the interior. They collected it from acid-pitted stalagmites and stalactites of astounding size, sticky and green and incredibly combustible: exsane speleothem, viridian tar, blasting salts, the miracle fuel that launched humanity into the stars.

Twenty percent of them would be dead by the age of forty. Less than half of the remainder would make it through their sixties. Perhaps one in a hundred would manage to buy out their contracts and retire.

Camelia sympathized, of course she did. Their parents had fled the war-torn surface of the Earth with two children in tow and a third on the way. They flew in search of a better life. They signed a work contract to pay for their tickets to the outer ring, same as everyone else, and their labor made possible the establishment of the colonies. It was terrible work, dangerous work, but necessary. Earth was doomed, and only the most gullible of dirt-side worshippers thought otherwise.

The Moonreach Company was saving humanity, and all they asked was a return on their investment.

They had to stop. Delilah was light-headed, gasping about tunnel vision. Camelia lowered her to the ground, grateful for the break but fretting about the time. They had less than three hours to reach the hospital admissions desk, or they’d be locked out till morning.

“There are snacks in my bag,” Delilah whispered, because of course there were. All of the Dunlevy girls were practical and prepared, shaped by a lifetime of calculating everything to the last cent.

Camelia picked past a familiar assortment of cheap painkillers, tissues, hair ties, and reading material, to the shrink-wrapped snack bars at the bottom.

“I can’t believe you’re still eating these,” she said. “They’re practically lard on a cracker.”

Delilah snatched one from her hand. “They get me through the day, don’t they? Not all of us can afford canned green.”

Camelia looked away, stung by the same old sniping. The sun had finished its power-down cycle, turning the landscape a dull night-light green, and she almost laughed thinking what a marvel Ander’s Mountain had been when she was young. Taller than the morning fog. Spotted all over with living plants. Now all she could see were seams and hatches. It was the moon’s grandest storage unit and moisture farm, held together with roots and bolts.

The not-sky came to life with small purple lights and the click-clack whir of surveillance drones taking position. Robotic voices echoed across the mountainside in stern unison, declaring emergency curfew.

“Get up, get up, get up!” Camelia resisted the thread of panic, the little voice telling her it was already too late, she hadn’t moved quickly enough, she’d ruined their chances same as she’d ruined everything else.

She shouldered the too-fragile weight of her sister and wished, for the ten thousandth time, that there were more of them left.

It had never been easy being the fourth of seven sisters.

Ophelia, Rhea, and Aster were the older girls, a tight-knit trio with one- or two-year gaps between them. Hannah, Delilah, and Calliope were the younger girls, another trio of similar spread. Each set had a bossy older girl, competitive middle girl, and tagalong baby, their roles cemented in the fierce flush of youth and carried well into adulthood.

And then there was Camelia, three years below Aster, three years above Hannah, simultaneously an older sister and a younger sister and an only child sandwiched between two inseparable cliques.

Absolutely solid middle.

She loved them fiercely, but she couldn’t wait to get away, to carve out a place for herself, to fly back triumphant and buy out their parents’ contracts—and yes, outshine her sisters a little bit in the process.

When she qualified for the Intercolony University scholarship program, there were two transportation options. The longer, cheaper route was two years aboard an educational vessel, taking lower level courses along the way and then finishing advanced work in the halls of New Andertown.

Or there was the shorter, more prestigious route. Two weeks aboard a sub-FTL ship—a long delirious orientation with a group of privileged youth she’d never cross paths with on the ground—and a full degree on campus, a surefire path out of the communes and into society. The drawback: for every day that slipped by aboard the good ship Education Prime, slightly more than a year passed on the quietly orbiting colonies it left behind.

And Camelia meant to take the longer route, she really did.

Camelia paused for a moment to catch her breath, one hand pressed to a faux boulder, warm and thrumming with the power of the engine within.

“Are you all right?” Delilah fretted.

“I’m fine,” Camelia said shortly. “Just breathing.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called.”

Camelia sighed. “Don’t apologize.”

“But you sound mad.”

“I’m not mad!” Camelia pushed off the boulder. Of course she was mad, but not because of the call. She was mad because they were caught in a damn mining strike, and she should have taken a different route, and she didn’t know how the hell she was going to fix the rover without taking out credit—

And yes, okay, a little bit mad about the call itself because Delilah never factored in travel time, she always hemmed and hawed until it was nearly too late to get anywhere. Camelia was mad because they’d barely seen each other in months—maybe three times since Hannah’s funeral, every visit skittish and brief—because it hurt to see Delilah with her company-issue bird bones and fading jobsite tattoos. It hurt to hear her raspy breath.

It was easier to be mad than admit it.

Delilah gasped. Camelia immediately veered into the false vegetation to help her down.

“No, no,” Delilah said, strangling on the words. “Keep going.”

“Is it the pain?” A stupid question.

Delilah nodded, a small dig against Camelia’s shoulder, gasping too hard to speak. She had described it over the phone as a series of contractions, like a knife stuck in her abdomen being twisted and released, twisted and released.

Camelia’s breath hitched as well, but she was battling furious tears. Only one goddamn hospital would take Delilah’s credit, one hospital. Not even a thirty-year miner could afford her own rover, but the company only covered one hospital at the top of a goddamn mountain, and they’d just shut down the only tram that reached it.

Purple light washed over the slope, blending with the gray-green surroundings like a tide of sick, and a flat atonal voice demanded, “Papers. Produce your papers.”

A surveillance drone.

She’d run away from home, that was the only way to describe it. She was furious about something she could barely even remember now, a culmination of eighteen years feeling unseen. A thundering litany of self-righteous justifications fueled her march to the Education Prime, into the enrollment office, through the paperwork, through the launch.

It wasn’t until they began accelerating that panic hit, and by then it was far too late. Camelia sat through orientation in shock. Not a single word penetrated the wall of math cascading through her head, minutes and hours being converted into days, weeks, months.

She spent nearly the entire two-week journey in her bed, barely emerging for food and enrollment presentations, answering every friendly overture with monosyllables. She attended one whirlwind icebreaker event in which the other students lifted drinks to those they’d left behind, and only a few looked as dazed as Camelia felt. The rest of them were raised for this, held at arms’ length by monied families planting the seeds of their own retirement. What better way to cement the company legacy than to launch your child three decades into your future? They returned, young and virile and only a handful of years out from under your influence, ready to take over the family business and support you the last of your days. The rich didn’t gamble on the affection of grandchildren.

And when Camelia got there, when she ran wobble-legged through the gilded lobby of the University office, begging directions to the ansible—when she waited on the line, nearly vomiting with nerves, for somebody to fetch her mother to the neighborhood call booth—only then did the weight of fifteen years overwhelm her, the immensity of the distance between this rock and the one she called home.

She whispered, “I’m so sorry,” and her mother’s tone was brisk to hide its brittleness, resigned to a pain that was still fresh for Camelia, because of course she’d had all the time in the world to prepare for this conversation, and she outlined the last fifteen years like they were side notes in a history book while her daughter wept.

Aster and Hannah had both been married, and Aster’s second child was on the way. Papa had lost a lung to the mine, two years back. The company wouldn’t take an extension on their contract to pay for it, not at their age, so instead (and here she sounded grateful but bitter, so bitter) Ophelia and Rhea had shouldered the cost. Twenty years apiece bought their parents’ retirement and sealed their own fates. They’d never leave Excelsior short of a miracle.

Unspoken remained the fact that none of the other girls would, either. They just hadn’t yet signed away enough years to break the illusion of maybe.

“I’ll work so hard,” Camelia swore. “I’ll take the physics track, I’ll work through breaks to graduate faster, I’ll live cheap and send you everything else I make until we can buy everyone out—”

“There’s something else.” Her mother’s voice cracked, a sound Camelia had only heard three or four times in her entire life. “I don’t know how to say it, so I’m just going to say it. Calliope is dead. Nine years ago. Sepsis, after a broken leg…”

She continued to explain, but Camelia hardly heard a word over the static in her ears.

It wasn’t until she was eleven years old, and just discouraging people from calling her Melly, that Camelia realized her family was poor.

The realization only took as long as it did because their home was identical to every other home in their neighborhood. Her parents left at the same time every morning for the same job as all of their neighbors. Cocooned as she was in this web of symmetry and sameness, it took a class trip to the mining administration building to crack an egg of questions in her chest.

“Why don’t we have windows?” she asked at dinner. “At the office everyone had their own screen. And their own room with their own desk, and their clothes were all different colors, and they gave us sandwiches for lunch with three different cheeses—”

It was Aster who snapped, “We can’t afford those things, Melly.”

Their parents were working late and their older sisters were getting dressed for their shifts at the laundry, so Aster had boiled up noodles. At fourteen she’d already adopted the authoritative tone of their mother, though only when Ophelia and Rhea were out of the room. At school or in town, the Dunlevy girls were a united front, but at home there was a clear, unforgettable hierarchy.

A hierarchy which, as usual, had Camelia on baby duty. Specifically, holding Calliope in her seat. The two sisters spaced between them weren’t strong enough to wrangle a squirming five-year-old who was sick of eating noodles.

“Why not?” Camelia asked, dodging a grimy hand.

“Because we’re miners.” Aster shoved two bowls at her. For a moment she looked angry, but the expression quickly twisted into something else. “Listen. Just promise me you won’t ask mama or papa about this, all right?”

It was embarrassment on her face. Aster was embarrassed. That more than anything else shut Camelia up, that more than anything cast the dinner table in a disorienting new light. The chipped bowls. Hannah and Delilah eating in their underwear so they wouldn’t get their day clothes dirty. Calliope scratching her chair with the same dented child-size fork that at least four girls had used before her.

Camelia didn’t ask their parents about cheese or clothes or windows, as promised, but after that evening she noticed every plate of noodles, every hand-me-down, every sliver of soap stretched out by glomming it onto the next bar. Her heartrate picked up when Ophelia and Rhea compared receipts from the laundry, and if she stayed awake she could hear her parents on the pull-out couch, whispering late into the night about numbers. They had done a remarkable job keeping their finances out of the younger girls’ hearing, but they couldn’t disguise the fact that they had seven children stacked into two small bedrooms while they slept in the den.

A year later, when Camelia’s class made their first trip to the academic test center, she scored so high the counselor set down a whole binder full of career options. Camelia hardly had to look. She’d already made her decision, a life plan sketched in her mind in colored chalks.

Anything off-moon. Anything with a third bracket salary. Camelia had her sights set on New Andertown, and from there she’d work anywhere in the colonies if it meant she could bring her family along.

“Papers,” the drone repeated, and the purple light above its glossy camera face began shading toward red.

“Bottom…pocket…” Delilah breathed. She huddled at Camelia’s feet, eyes squeezed shut. She was too pale, too weak, they were wasting time over nothing.

But Camelia dug through the bag again, slowed by the shaking of her own hands. Her own ID was already scanned, but if Delilah was wrong, if she’d left hers at home—

There. Camelia held out the card. It was a little thing, to hold so much weight.

The camera shuttered. The light flickered back to full purple. The voice of a live operator emerged from the machine, human but with hardly more inflection than the recording: “You’re violating curfew.”

“Our rover was disabled,” Camelia said quickly. “We were already on the road when curfew was announced. We’re trying to reach the hospital, maybe you could send—”

“This sector is on curfew until further notice.” A flash bulb went off. The camera shuttered. A time-stamped photo of their faces was filed away as evidence: Camelia angry and unsurprised, Delilah still gasping at her feet.

“You may continue to the hospital,” the drone-operator conceded. “Your tickets for curfew violation will be posted within three business days.”

Delilah cried out, but the drone was already lifting away, the communication line cut, and when Camelia offered her back, Delilah latched on without another word.

A ticket was bad news for Camelia, but for her sister it might prove disastrous. Delilah already lived dollar by dollar. Depending on what the fine totaled, she would have to ask Camelia for help.

Every family was a network of debts, difficult to quantify and impossible to settle. Sometimes Camelia thought she’d drown in them. These little ones, a handful of dollars here and there, were the most contentious. They were tiny reminders that she could never save a buffer for future emergencies because there were always so many damn emergencies.

But the heaviest debt of all, the one she’d never stop repaying, the one that would haunt her to the grave? The fact that she’d escaped the mines, but in a boat only big enough for one.

Camelia never had to crawl on her belly through a pancake squeeze or hook a lifeline to a stalactite thirty feet above a cavern floor. She never scraped her hands raw collecting blasting salts with gloves two weeks past their fail point, or had her lungs scraped even rawer to remove the glitter-green dust that broached the cracks of old breathing masks.

Camelia never needed bird bones or braces. She worked in an office, fielding calls from buyers, and drove home in a rover, and slept in a one-room apartment she paid for by herself, and ate three meals a day, not one of them boiled or gathered by the roadside. She’d failed everyone but herself.

So it didn’t matter if her back was creaking with the strain, if her knees were threatening to give out, if her shoulders were howling with the awkward clutch of a living, breathing backpack who seriously should have asked for a ride first thing in the morning instead of hemming and hawing till she was in crisis. It didn’t matter that Delilah hadn’t visited in a month, that their last call ended in tears, or that Camelia was never going to forgive her for an off-hand comment made in the flush of grief at their father’s wake: “You’ll be fine.”

Camelia carried her sister up the mountain because it was the only help she had to offer, and because if their situations were reversed Delilah would have shown up with stirrups.

Unfortunately, Camelia had lacked that determination at eighteen. She only moved through the motions of school, leaving her dorm just long enough to attend class before slinking back to the yawning emptiness of her room. She’d never been alone in her life, and now she faced endless hours of isolation. How many days, months, years had she spent studying, testing, pushing herself to succeed? She’d had teachers and tutors and study groups and proctors. And not one of them had taught her how to leave home.

She barely lasted a year. A year of mediocre grades, of mistakes and misunderstandings and learning that a bit of innate smart wasn’t special in a school that skimmed up the best the twelve colonies had to offer.

A year of being absolutely solid middle.

She crawled home the long way, two years aboard an educational vessel dropping off recent grads and picking up late-starters. She worked in the kitchen to offset the cost of her return, and, far from the administrators who would have frowned on such charity, the instructors let her sit in on low level admin and language courses.

Everyone was there when she arrived (everyone but baby Calliope, of course), assembled in their parents’ too-small home under a welcome banner like she’d come back from a long hospital stay. Two parents and five sisters and three spouses and four nieces and nephews she’d never met, and her parents were old, old for miners at least, early sixties and looking every minute of it. Her sisters were in their thirties and forties, grown women, working women, family women, and Camelia was just shy of her twenty-first birthday, a baby without a plan.

She steeled herself for recriminations, humiliation, the inevitable questions about what went wrong. But her family opened their arms and didn’t breathe a single word about school or job prospects, and that was somehow even worse, like they hadn’t held out much hope anyway.

Camelia let the usual chatter swell all around her. The atmosphere and the volume were unchanged, but the subject matter was almost incomprehensible. She’d missed eighteen years of in-jokes and hard times. She’d missed weddings and funerals and births, Hannah’s transition, her father’s lung transplant, a dozen financial disasters, every one of which was solved by her sisters chipping in more of their time, their lives, their livelihoods.

Even Camelia’s failure gave her an advantage over them. She was young and fresh and without debt. She’d learned enough of the intercolony standard dialect on the ride home to qualify for an office job: year-to-year, no long-term wage locks, subject to advancement as she earned more certifications. She made just enough to get by as long as she didn’t have any accidents. But her dream of buying out anyone else’s contract was dead.

There was a particular brand of bitterness to her guilt. It was the knowledge that the only way she could have exceeded her circumstances was by striking out on her own. Hundreds of thousands of miles away, surrounded by ambitious students raised to take charge of the machines of industry, Camelia had faced a choice: her family or her future.

And she’d chosen, she’d chosen, it hadn’t even come close.

She only wished she could forget what she’d given up.

The hospital revealed itself like a cool lake after miles of desert mirages. It towered, seven stories of brick and glass, nearly brushing the curve of the habitat dome.

Camelia staggered into the lobby on legs gone lighter than the high-altitude air. Fresh strength buoyed her at the sight of scrub-clad bodies bustling through the end of their shift. “We made it,” she said, but Delilah didn’t answer beyond an encouraging wheeze.

An enormous clock flash ominously over the admissions desk, but seventeen minutes was seventeen minutes. They were at the window and they couldn’t be turned away. Camelia slumped to her knees, and then there was a flurry of activity: the hunt for medical papers, the recitation of symptoms and credit numbers, the hasty triage to make sure Delilah wasn’t about to die on their squeaky-mopped floor.

“I heard there’s trouble down-mountain,” the receptionist said, eyes on her screen as she copied over Delilah’s medical card info.

Wearily, Camelia said, “I’d check the radio before leaving, if I were you.”

And then the wait. Delilah was curled up in a wheelchair, head lolled on her chest, breath shallow. Camelia sat next to her, running a hand up and down her sister’s arm, warming the chapped skin like their mother used to do when the heater went out.

“I’ve always hated coming up here,” she said. Delilah sighed, and whispered, “So did Calliope.”

Camelia’s breath caught, and she looked away. It was too much to think about now, not here, not breathing antiseptic air under shadow-scouring lights. Baby Calliope was eighteen when she died, the same age Camelia was when she ran away, the same age she was when she got the news.

Their parents went next, one after the other, only five years after Camelia returned home and halfway through the twenty that Ophelia and Rhea had shouldered to pay for their retirement. Camelia was so stunned she couldn’t even cry at the funerals.

They had a fifteen-year respite before Ophelia died, her lungs practically turned to stone, and by then Camelia was awake to the future that loomed before her, and she wept so hard she couldn’t hear the litany. The next year it was Aster, only sixty but infection-prone from a bad pneumonia in her teens, and by the time Rhea died, strong Rhea who’d seemed immortal till she fell in a mining accident, Rhea who only had one child and forbade him from buying any of her time—by then, Camelia had hardly any tears left at all.

Now Hannah was scarcely a year gone, and her funeral had been so small, just Camelia and Delilah and two of their nephews who begged the day off work to lend support. Camelia had never settled down herself, and she hadn’t been around when her sisters’ kids were small—she was just young Auntie Mel to them, and she couldn’t imagine what vague affections they’d bother reciting when her time came.

“Delilah,” she said, her voice breaking (she’d got so far without crying, and now her face was traitorously wet), “Delilah, I don’t want to be the last of us.”

But her sister was unresponsive, overcome by the journey and whatever torment wracked her body from within. The nurse returned, all sympathy and smiles, and took the handles of the wheelchair.

Camelia’s hand slipped back into her own lap, and she watched her sister disappear through flapping doors.

Before all of that. Before university, before career testing, before shift work, before the definition of the word poor, it was just seven girls raising a racket in a cookie cutter house on a company road, seven girls with only twelve years separating the oldest from the youngest.

Later, when Delilah was desperate to go to satellite camp, they all did chores around the neighborhood for two months to raise the money for her ticket.

And when Aster contracted her first lung infection, Ophelia and Rhea took turns night-nursing her, Camelia read to her in the afternoons, even baby Calliope tried to cheer her up with a silly toddler dance.

And when Hector finally told them what they all already knew, and asked to be called Hannah, and cried—not because she was afraid, but because of how much it would cost—the rest of them laughed because she’d considered for one second that she’d have to bear it alone.

Before all of that. Before the stress sank in, before the constant calculations and little indignities. Back when their parents were still concealing how poorly off they were (though they all knew long before they knew they knew; the longer they spent in school the more they compared their life to life in the vids)—

Even then, their mother was preparing them for the world ahead. After every sibling squabble and jealous tantrum and melodramatic threat to run away, she would gather the aggrieved parties close and tell them, so often and so firmly that Camelia couldn’t even remember the first time:

“One day your father and I will be gone, and you’ll have to take care of each other. That’s it. That’s what matters. In this life, all you have is your family.”

Camelia slept, against her better intentions. She should have been forced out at the closing hour, but the receptionist made some excuse about waiting for the roadway to clear and keeping the lights on for security, and ultimately, she stayed at her desk and let Camelia shut her eyes.

Little mercies meant the most.

Camelia woke to a gentle nudge. She lurched up, momentarily forgetting that she was slumped over in a hospital waiting room. Every strained muscle had stiffened: her legs, her back, her neck—

But it was Delilah. Delilah was sitting next to her, pale and sunken-eyed with fatigue, and very much alive, very much still here.

“What is it?” Camelia rubbed at her face, hoarse and thirsty. “Is it your lungs? Is it…” She couldn’t even finish the thought.

“They did a scan…” Delilah ducked her head, limp hair swinging forward, shoulders hunched, and Camelia wanted to grab her, shake her, beg her to just spit it out and be done with it—and Delilah coughed. “It’s a gallstone.”

Camelia blinked. “What.”

“A gallstone. The pain was my gallbladder contracting, it…” She put a hand on Camelia’s shoulder. “Oh Melly, don’t cry. It’s not so bad.”

Camelia had buried her face in her hands. She looked up with tears on her cheeks, but she wasn’t crying. She was laughing. “Oh my god, you bitch. I carried you up a mountain for a gallstone? Oh my god. Oh my god!”

“Well they can lead to worse problems,” Delilah said, a bit sniffily all things considered. “The doctor asked me to monitor fat intake for now…” She trailed off, embarrassed.

Camelia sighed. “It’s the snack bars, isn’t it?”


“Oh, come here.” Camelia pulled her close, breathing in a familiar blend of dust and cheap detergent. Delilah murmured, “Don’t worry, Melly, you’re not rid of me yet,” and Camelia’s shoulders shook again, but this time she kept her face hidden.

And then the receptionist coughed, waiting pointedly to the side with her coat firmly cinched and a bag in her hand, and they broke apart.

Delilah swayed a bit—not terminally ill after all, but still a sixty-three-year-old miner with half her body weight in prostheses—and asked, “How are we getting home?”

Camelia put a steadying hand under her arm and helped her toward the door. “I don’t know,” she said. “But we’ll figure something out.”

About the Author

Samantha Mills

Samantha Mills

Samantha Mills lives in Southern California, in a house on a hill that is hopefully not a haunted hill house. Her short fiction has also appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and Diabolical Plots.

Find more by Samantha Mills

Samantha Mills

About the Narrator

Ibba Armancas

Ibba Armancas is an Inland Empire PBS writer/director and TV host whose COVID-themed educational kids show “Pandemic Playhouse” airs Friday starting January 2021. You can find out more about her, it, and her puppet pals at

Find more by Ibba Armancas