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Daphne should have know it was going to be a grey day. She woke up with a bone-crunching headache that radiated down her spine and into her shoulders. It was a blisteringly hot morning. The sun oozed slowly over the yard, and by the time Daphne woke up every puff of air felt like it was on fire.
“No, it’s mine!” Wilhelmina said as she snatched the little wooden horse away from her brother. They’d been squabbling since dawn when Paige retreated to the corner of the house to silently work on her knitting. Daphne’s early morning dreams were punctuated by angry squeals and Lemon’s agitated barks.
She groaned as she dragged herself out of bed. Hadn’t the agreement been that she’d provide food and shelter for their neighbours and Paige was responsible for childcare and discipline?
When Felix accidentally tipped his breakfast onto the floor after his sister playfully tried to snatch it away from him Daphne felt something small and brittle in her diaphragm snap. Lemon slurped up the now dusty food as the girl giggled and threw a handful of her own meal onto the floor. In that moment a jagged fleck of the anger and fear Daphne had buried deep inside herself bubbled up her esophagus and rolled over her tongue before she knew what was happening.
“Both of you stop it!” The children froze. Paige grumbled at them without following through on her threats so often that they’d long since learned to ignore her warnings. They’d never seen their quiet, patient, timid neighbour raise her voice before, though.
“Sit down and be quiet,” she said as she begrudgingly scooped another serving of gruel onto the boy’s plate. “You will never waste food or feed the dog table scraps again. Have I made myself clear?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Wilma stared at the table and took a small, halfhearted bite of food while her brother attempted to eat his meal as quickly as possible. He knew Esther was coming back today to give them all special medicine. Maybe that was why Miss Daphne was so uncharacteristically authoritarian?
After breakfast Felix, Wilma, and Lemon were swooshed out of the house while everything was tidied up. Ephraim and Isaac were busy repairing tools in the shed and the children had been given strict instructions not to bother them. Instead Felix challenged his sister to a game of tag until they were both too warm to continue. While they cooled down in the shade Wilma began rubbing dust into Lemon’s fur. Every time he shook it off she giggled and gathered up another handful of it to sprinkle on his head.
Lunch was a quiet affair. Daphne had been expecting her visitor to show up before they ate, and it was unnerving to know a virtual stranger might be entering her house while she was busy taking the bread out of the oven and making a simple stew. The afternoon scraped over her last nerves as the sun began its descent. Esther really should have arrived by now.
“Well, we should get some more water,” Isaac said a few hours after lunch. Normally he and his brother performed this chore first thing in the morning or right before sunset.
“It’s too hot outside for that long walk,” Daphne said as a flicker of irritation tickled her lungs. She wasn’t happy about being crammed into a hot, tense, too-small house with 5 other people all afternoon either, but Esther had reiterated over and over again how important it was for everyone to be scanned and vaccinated.
“Ill be back soon,” Isaac said. His mother’s sharp tones were rubbing him raw today. What he needed even more than a fresh glass of water was an hour of peace and quiet during his slow walk to a bigger stream. Sparrow Creek didn’t dry up every year, but the weather last winter had been particularly dry. They were now in the middle of an unusually hot summer.
“I should help you,” Ephraim said suddenly. It was true that Isaac couldn’t carry all of the empty water jugs by himself, but it wasn’t strictly necessary for all of them to be filled. He just preferred not to be left alone with the bickering children and the tension in Daphne’s voice as she fumbled through her herbs for a mild painkiller.
Ten minutes after they left Esther arrived at the homestead breathless and covered in perspiration, and so it was that she once again missed out on meeting MacArthur’s sons. Daphne accepted the scans and vaccination warily. It was doubtful they would work, but she’d seen much more painful cures being touted in previous epidemics.
If nothing else it gave her the opportunity to observe the stranger’s medical care up close. Swallowing bitter tea or rubbing pungent salve on a sore muscle made sense, but Daphne couldn’t imagine how the tiny pieces of metal the stranger injected into everyone’s arms were supposed to prevent or cure anything.
“It realigns your ions,” Esther said when Paige pressed for more information. Daphne was too embarrassed to ask what an ion was or how hers had become so unstable, but she hoped it would bring more mobility to her sore knee. Esther’s scanner had picked up on the injury, but when Daphne asked if there was anything they could do to fix it the woman was eerily quiet. Maybe even the capital didn’t know how to fix old injuries?
“Well, I could have told you mine were defective!” Paige said as she rubbed her sore forearm. “They’ve been hurting for years.”
“What time will your sons be back?” Esther asked as she carefully wiped down her equipment. Ordinarily she might have written off the teenagers as noncompliant, but her supervisors had insisted that everyone in this family participate in the program.
“Soon,” Daphne said. Only fools would take a long walk on such a hot day. When suppertime rolled around with still no sign of her sons, though, Esther was forced to move onto the next house with the promise that she’d come back again soon to ensure Isaac and Ephraim were healthy and vaccinated. Daphne felt the ball of fear in her diaphragm pulse as it grew a few inches bigger.
Supper was a quiet affair. The children were groggy from a long day of waiting, and Daphne felt a twinge of pain in her arm every time she moved it while slicing the bread and rehydrating some vegetables. She couldn’t say the rest of her felt any better or worse and wondered how long it would take for the vaccination to work. There were no stories tonight, just gentle hugs and an early bedtime.
It was nearly midnight before her sons arrived back home. Lemon was the only one still awake to greet the bleeding boys who limped into quiet little house.