By Anna Hayman
He wasn’t stealing. That was the thing about it. He wouldn’t have stolen a thing, not with this law. But finding things-- things especially of this kind-- that was a different story. A found thing was a thing that belonged to nobody, and therefore everybody, anybody; and today that meant that it belonged to him.
There was nobody in this patch of land. He knew that. People were not allowed back here at all. Something about the toxicity of the air, they said. It was a test that he was back here. If it was better than it was before, then it would be better. If it was worse, if it was toxic like they said, then he would no longer have to deal with things as they were, and that would be better, too.
Better was the point.
Still, he kept lifting his head to look back this way and that before letting his gaze fall back to the flower again. He had never seen one before-- he didn’t think that anybody had-- and he marveled at the scarlet color of it, the teardrop blankets, sprouting out on all sides from a rounded middle. It sat by itself; the ground all around him was the same dull brown as it had always been. He felt a burning urge to rub it into the backs of his hands, brush it over his cheeks the way he had seen his sister do with her makeup, bury the rouge into his skin so it may last a little while.
He looked around once more, taking in a huge breath of the clean air up here before dropping into a low squat before the flower. He held his breath for as long as he could, and then he dared to--he had to-- allow his lungs to work again. Once in, once out. Twice. Three times.
The air, he realized, smelled sweet. But not dangerous. No more dangerous than up there, and up there smelled no more dangerous than where he was from. He wondered if this was how they killed you, with this sweet scent, like the girl with the ruby red slippers was lulled to sleep in a film he had seen once. Maybe it was a low dose, and it took a whole field to have an effect, but he felt more awake than ever.
It was enough to make him do it. To pluck the flower by its root and to tuck it away into his jacket, quickly, in case the world would not feel the imbalance after all. For the first time, he was thankful for the loose fit of it; his treasure would stay safer this way. He took the extra precaution of wrapping his arms around himself, high across his chest as if he were cold, so that his arms would not flatten the fragile plant and the tension in his shoulders would not read in an unsavory way.
He began walking back to the limits, in a different way than as he came.