This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
It started out as a day like any other. It was raining outside and had been for several days. The dirt had turned into mud and the other children had been forced to play indoors. That made her sad. At least when they were outside she could pretend to be playing with them, she could watch the games they played and dream that one day she too would join in.
It was lunchtime when they came, adults carrying food for her to eat. Steam rose from the bowl. Whatever it was would be hot today, not that the temperature ever made any difference. She sat on her bed waiting, dreading what was to come, but knowing it was her duty.
They didn’t speak to her. They rarely did now. Everyone knew the part they had to play, including her. She took the bowl and examined the contents. Something green and leafy. Not red which was good. The red foods always made her violently sick. Looking closely she was sure she’d eaten this before, but cooked differently that time.
With a sigh she picked up the spoon and took a mouthful. It didn’t taste too bad. A little bitter maybe, but not bad at all. Of course that was no guide. She’d eaten foods before that didn’t taste bad and even some that she enjoyed the taste of. Every one had quickly made her be sick or feel ill, often both. She knew this would be no different.
The adults watched her, waiting for the reaction. Their eyes were slightly glazed. This was something they had been doing for several years now. They knew the routine as well as she did.
She felt the food sliding down her throat and reaching her stomach. There was no burn this time, for which she was grateful, and surprisingly the food sat in her stomach without reacting. This was unusual, but not unique. A few of the foods she’d been given took a few minutes to make her ill.
“Eat some more,” urged one of the men, breaking the normal silence.
She didn’t want to. The more she ate the worse the symptoms would be. She knew she had no choice, though. Reluctantly she ate another spoonful. Then another. They kept pushing and she kept eating, until the bowl was empty. She waited miserably, expecting the reaction to start at any moment. She was too focused on herself to notice the excitement amongst the adults, the expectant hush which had fallen as they studied her.
A minute passed without any ill effects. Then two minutes. She frowned, puzzled and unable to understand what was happening. Looking at the adults for answers only left her more confused. They were smiling, they almost seemed happy. Had she done something right? Was this what they were waiting for? To see her eat something without being ill?
Several more minutes passed and the adults became more and more excited. One of them patted her on her head, another planted a kiss on her cheek. They spoke at length but she couldn’t make any sense of what they said. Finally they left the room, leaving her on her own once again.
She turned back towards the window. The rain was still falling outside but she didn’t feel sad anymore. She felt… happy. She had done something right and had made the adults happy. Maybe they wouldn’t need a Special Child anymore. Maybe now she could go play with the other children. Maybe.
* * *
The adults returned at dinnertime. They were still smiling at her, pleased with her earlier progress. They had bought food, of course. It seemed the same as what she had eaten earlier, but cold this time. The adults waited expectantly as she took a spoonful and tentatively raised it to her mouth. Could she repeat the earlier success? Could she eat this without suffering the reaction?
Fighting down the butterflies in her stomach she ate the spoonful, savouring it in her mouth before swallowing. It was different than before. Cold, obviously, but also nowhere near as bitter. Something sweet had been added to the mix.
They urged her to eat more, not waiting to see what reaction she had to the first spoonful. She complied and they urged her to eat more. The bowl was empty before she had the chance to worry about any symptoms, and by that point she was fairly sure there wouldn’t be any.
The adults were ecstatic now. Their happiness was infectious. She felt like she wanted to dance and spin around the room, but she forced herself to stay put as the adults examined and discussed her.
* * *
The next morning the adults were back with another variation on the food she had been able to eat without a reaction. This time it had been cooked differently, baked or grilled until it was crispy. With a smile she took it from the plate without any urging, eating mouthful after mouthful, eager to please the adults once more.
She had eaten well over half when the reaction hit. Stabbing pains pierced her abdomen and she felt sick. A few moments later her vision started to get blurry and she could hear blood rushing in her ears. Then she was retching, throwing up every bit of the food.
When she was through she felt like crying. Her stomach still hurt but that wasn’t the cause. She had let down the adults. She had failed. The previous two meals must have been flukes. Now she was back to failing miserably.
To her surprise the adults didn’t seem upset. They weren’t as happy as they had been when she succeeded, but they weren’t angry as she had expected them to be. By the time they left she was both pleased and confused. Pleased the adults weren’t angry, that they didn’t feel she had failed in her duty, but confused as to the difference compared to her earlier failures.
* * *
The next meal was another variation on the same raw food which she was able to eat without any side effects. Over the next few weeks the adults kept returning — mostly with the plant prepared in new ways, but occasionally with something she had already eaten without any ill effects. Some meals made her ill, others did not.
As time went by she decided she understood what was being done. They were trying to find all the ways of preparing the plant that she could handle, then they would give her nothing but what she could cope with. She would be able to eat every meal she was given. Maybe then she could find out in exactly what ways she was the Special Child.
* * *
It was three weeks later and the adults entered her room yet again. This time they were carrying another bowl of something hot. When she looked inside it was soon clear that it wasn’t the plant she had been successfully eating. She was confused but they pushed her to try the food. She took a spoonful, putting it in her mouth. It actually tasted pretty good so she swallowed the mouthful.
She was reaching for a second spoonful when the reaction hit. Stabbing pains erupted in her stomach. She started to sweat and her vision blurred. She vomited the food back up, feeling it burn every inch of the way from her stomach to her mouth. It took a few seconds for her to catch her breath again.
She looked up at the adults wondering how they would react to her failure. They seemed disappointed but not angry. Having made sure she had finished being ill they cleaned her up then left the room, leaving her to her thoughts. She tried to understand what had happened. Why didn’t they just keep giving her the food she could cope with? Why had they changed what they gave her? Would they go back to giving her the food that she could cope with?
The adults returned the next day. Once again they brought something she hadn’t tried before. This time it started to blister her mouth as soon as she took a bite. She wasn’t able to swallow even a small amount. Once again the adults looked disappointed but not angry.
“We shouldn’t get our hopes up,” one said. “We have to be patient.”
They carried on talking, using words she didn’t know and arguing over points that made no sense at all to her. They left, but the pattern of her life continued as it had before — one meal she couldn’t eat after another.
* * *
It was about then that she met Danny. She’d seen him before, but he’d just been one more of the children she envied so much for playing outside. That all changed one evening, after her last meal of the day. It had been a good day. The adults had found a new food which she didn’t react to. They had been ecstatic. An ad hoc party had broken out outside and she saw many of the adults dancing and singing. It made her long to join them, but that wasn’t possible.
Then, as twilight approached, the door to her room opened. She was intrigued. She couldn’t remember the door ever opening so late at night. It opened fully revealing a surprising figure. She had expected one or more of the adults. Instead there was a child standing there, maybe seven or eight years old. He entered tentatively, head cocked to one side.
“Hello,” he said. “What’s your name?”
She shook her head, pointing to her mouth. She could understand but she couldn’t speak. That was another part of being the Special Child. He frowned.
“You can’t speak?”
She smiled at him, nodding.
“Then you can’t tell me your name?”
“OK,” he said. “I’ll call you Sally. My name is Danny.”
She smiled at him and gave a little wave. He waved back, shyly, then cranked up his courage and stepped into the room. He looked around, taking everything in, then pointed to the window.
“I see you sometimes. I see you stuck in here and looking out the window. Do you want to play with us?”
She nodded, smiling again.
“They say you’re the Special Child. Sometimes they say you will save us. Do you know…”
Danny rabbited on, talking enough for both of them. He told her about the games the children played. He told her about the rest of the settlement. He told her about his friends and his teachers. She lapped it all up, imagining how it would feel to live a normal life.
Much later Danny glanced out the window, stiffened, then scrambled to his feet.
“I’ve got to go. It’s dark outside. They’ll start looking for me soon. Goodbye, Sally.”
He ran for the door, pulled it open slowly, then slipped outside, closing it gently behind him. She sat for a long time staring at the door, a warm feeling inside. Was this what it felt like to have a friend?
* * *
Danny returned the next night, bringing with him more wonderful tales of the outside world. She listened in delight, her mind weaving vivid images from his words. She completely forgot the foods she’d had to eat that day, the reactions they had caused. For a short time she completely forgot she was the Special Child.
He returned again the next night, and the night after… and for several nights after that. During the day she watched him playing with the other children. Several times a day she’d catch him staring in at her. If he noticed he’d give a tiny wave then turn back to whatever game he was playing.
On the ninth day the food she was given caused a far worse reaction than normal. The adults clustered round her for several hours as a fever raged through her body. Finally one of them stepped forward, pressing something metallic against her neck. Moments later sleep washed over her, sweeping everything before it.
* * *
She woke with a start, finding Danny leaning over her looking worried. He asked if she was OK and she nodded. She was. The fever was gone. The pains were gone. Whatever the adult had done had worked.
That night Danny spoke about her. He told her the little he had been told, and it really wasn’t much more than she’d already heard. She was the Special One. She was the one who would save them. He didn’t know how, though. He asked her a few questions but she just kept shaking her head to show she didn’t know.
“It’s not fair,” he said as he prepared to leave her. “It’s just not fair. Whatever you’re supposed to do, they could still let you come and play with the rest of us.”
She shrugged. Maybe he was right. She didn’t know. She knew what her duty was, though, and she’d keep on doing it… no matter how ill it made her.
* * *
The next day at dinner time the adults fed her something she almost liked. It was a little sour but not too bad, and her reaction to it was unusually mild. She felt a little queasy, a little bloated, but otherwise fine. The adults seemed excited. Not as excited as when there was no reaction, but excited nonetheless.
Something else was different that night. When the adults left one of them, a man, stayed behind. He didn’t talk to her, he just sat in the corner. Waiting. She didn’t think anything of it. Everything the adults did was a mystery to her. This was just one more. And besides, Danny would arrive soon. She found herself getting excited, hoping he would return to telling her of the children’s games.
The moment arrived. Danny opened the door, slipped in… and froze as he spotted the adult.
“Dad!” Danny said. “What… why…”
“I thought so,” replied the man. Danny’s father. “When you started asking about her today I wondered why you had such a sudden interest. Then I realised what it might be. So I decided to wait.”
“Why shouldn’t I visit her? She’s shut away in here all the time. Why shouldn’t I keep her company?”
“Because she isn’t a little girl. I know that’s how you see her, but she isn’t. She’s so much more than that, and so much less. She’s our only hope. If something happens to her then none of us will survive. She has to be kept safe.”
“But it’s not fair!”
“Fair doesn’t come into it, Danny. I know she looks like a little girl, but she isn’t really. She’s… a machine, of sorts. A machine that reacts to food just like a little girl. You know we give her different food to what we eat. Do you understand why?”
“No.” Danny was sullen now.
“We’ve been on this planet for four years now. The only supplies we have are those we brought with us. That includes the food. Everything we are eating came with us, and soon it will start to run out. We brought food with us, plants and animals, but the plants all died. With no plants to eat the animals all had to be killed. Our only hope is to find things to eat that belong to this planet.
“That’s where she comes in. Most of the plants and animals we’ve tested would have killed you or me. We give them to her because they won’t kill her. They can’t kill her. Every time she samples something new we get a full breakdown on what is in it and whether we can eat it.
“So far she has found two things we can eat. Just two things, but without those we would be almost out of food now. Instead we have enough for another few months. It’s not enough, those two plants don’t give us everything our bodies need, but it gives us time to find more. And all that depends on her.”
“But it still isn’t fair! She’s a little girl!”
Danny’s dad sighed.
“No, Danny. She isn’t. I’m sorry you have to see this but…”
He had moved over to her whilst talking. She felt something metallic being pushed against her neck and once more darkness washed over her.
* * *
She woke to the light of morning. Her room was empty, Danny and his father were gone. Her head spun as she replayed what Danny’s dad had said the day before. What he’d said about food made sense, it explained why she’d had to eat dish after dish of food that had often made her sick.
The rest of it though… what had he meant by saying she wasn’t really a little girl. That was the one thing she had always been sure of. She couldn’t understand how she could be anything else.
She wrestled with everything she had heard, but she couldn’t make any sense of it. She decided to wait for Danny to come that night. Danny understood so much that she didn’t. Danny could explain it for her.
The adults came at lunchtime that day. Danny’s dad was with them but he refused to meet her gaze. She hardly noticed the food they gave her, even when it made her throw up. When the time came for the adults to leave she found herself watching anxiously. Would one of them remain behind again? If they did then Danny wouldn’t be able to talk to her.
To her relief they all left. She returned to looking out the window. Rain pounded the ground outside and there was no sign of the children.
As evening fell she became more and more expectant. Finally she heard movement outside the door. She waited for it to open. The handle turned… but the door stayed closed. The handle turned again and she heard it being rattled. Finally the movement stopped.
“Sally.” Danny called through the door. “I hope you can hear me. I can’t come see you anymore. Dad said… he said… I just can’t come and see you. Not for a while anyway. I’m sorry. I’m… I’m going to miss you.”
She wished she could speak, that she could reply. She’d never questioned her muteness before, but now it struck home. Moments later she heard him move away from the door. Pain stabbed into her chest, pain worse than any she had felt from eating the poisonous food. For the first time in her life she cried tears that weren’t related to suffering after eating something horrific.
* * *
She saw Danny the next day, playing with the other children outside. He kept glancing towards her, but when he caught her eye he would look away again quickly. She couldn’t read the complex emotions flying across his face as he did so.
The adults arrived with more food for her to try. She understood the purpose now which made the ordeal easier to endure. She actually felt a wave of pride as she forced herself to swallow the substance even though it was already burning her mouth. Even writhing on the floor in agony she felt better. She’d always known she suffered this for a reason. Now she knew what it was. To find food that was safe for the others to eat. For the adults. For the children. For Danny.
That evening was difficult, though. She kept expecting Danny to open the door and slip inside with a smile, or at least to talk to her through the door. Neither happened and eventually she fell into a restless sleep.
As days turned into weeks she still saw Danny most days, but he spent less and less time looking towards her room. Eventually he stopped looking at all. Her life returned to its previous pattern but she felt it was no longer enough.
Several weeks later they gave her something else to eat that didn’t cause any reaction. More than that, it made the adults very excited. She couldn’t follow more than a fraction of what they said, but it seemed this particular plant contained many chemicals that were essential for survival. They had made a big step forward in ensuring their long term survival, and she had played a major part.
There were celebrations again that day, parties which ran long into the night. She hoped Danny would find a way to visit her once more… but he didn’t. Eventually she fell asleep, wrestling with mixed feelings — happiness at what she had helped happen yet loneliness as no one had visited her since the adults left.
* * *
Over the next six months they found another eight foods that were safe to eat. After that things changed. They still carried out the experiments but there were fewer adults now, and the urgency had gone. They were still interested in the results, but they were no longer a matter of life and death.
She still saw Danny. Over the next few years she saw him grow up, maturing and playing with the children less and less. Then, one day, he was gone. Occasionally she would catch a glimpse of him hurrying past and each time she felt a tug inside her chest. He never looked her way, though, he never tried to speak with her again.
The adults came to see her less often now. Sometimes days would go by at a time without them visiting, and when they did they no longer spoke to her. No one told her she was the Special Child now. They simply gave her the food, watched her reaction, then left.
The gaps between visits continued to increase. One particularly long interval saw her alone for six weeks. She noted the days but spent most of her time looking out the window, watching the children play. When the door opened and someone entered she jumped slightly. The she smiled. They still needed her.
The food they gave her that day was delicious, and it didn’t cause any ill effects. The adults were pleased.
“You see,” said one. “I told you it was worth travelling so far. That gives us a backup for the blue-wheat.”
The others agreed. Soon they turned towards the door. One of them stopped the others.
“We aren’t likely to be back any time soon, are we? Shouldn’t we shut it down?”
She didn’t understand what they were referring to. Shut what down? There was nothing electronic or mechanical in her room. She was still trying to understand when one of the adults stuck something metallic against her neck and darkness swept in.
* * *
The pattern was set then. Waking up to find adults around her. Eating what they gave her. Being put back to sleep again. She had a vague sense of how long the sleeps were, or at least that they were much longer than normal sleeps. The only way to really tell was by studying the children playing outside of the window. From observing Danny and his friends she had an idea of how fast children grew up.
Comparing that to the changes in the children she calculated she was sleeping between a few weeks and a few months each time. The gap was getting longer, too. She started to worry that a time would come when they wouldn’t wake her at all.
* * *
That time came, but she didn’t know it. She slept her dreamless sleep as time dripped by outside. Some argued her usefulness had come to an end, that they now had more than enough varieties of food to survive whatever came.
They were overruled, though. Too many people still remembered watching their food stocks deplete, watching starvation coming ever closer. Some wanted her left in peace because of what she had done. Many more wanted it so she would always be available if needed. So the years passed by and she slept on without stirring for many years… until something different happened.
It took her a long time to wake up. When she did she found an elderly man sitting beside her. His beard and hair were white, but his eyes still held a hint of mischief.
“You’re awake. That’s good. I was starting to worry you couldn’t wake up anymore. Or didn’t want to. I wouldn’t blame you.”
Something about the man was familiar, but she couldn’t work out why. Had he been one of the adults? She looked around, wondering where the food was, but there wasn’t any. Seeing her confusion he reached out, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Sally, I forget that you have no idea how much time has passed.”
Sally? Sally! Everything slipped into place. This was Danny. An elderly Danny, but Danny nonetheless.
“I never forgot you, Sally. I couldn’t come close, I couldn’t let them know what I was planning, so I worked in the background. I worked hard and moved up the ladder. And finally I found myself in charge of large areas of the town, including the section that still held you.
“Even then I had to bide my time. People would have noticed. But not today. Today is a festival. Loads of children will be here. There are five other settlements now thanks to you finding the foods that were safe to eat. Everyone is gathering here. That means there will be hundreds of children running around and most won’t know each other.”
She hadn’t really noticed that he had a bag, but now he lifted it up and started pulling clothes from it. Children’s clothes. Girl’s clothes. Clothes which would fit her.
“Go ahead,” he said with a chuckle. “Put them on.”
He turned away and she took them as he asked, not really understanding why she was doing it. She took off the white dress that was all she’d ever known and pulled on the clothes. Once she was dressed he took her hand and pulled her towards the door. She froze, terrified of leaving her room, but Danny was having none of it. He pulled her through and down a corridor before leading her outside.
She stood blinking for a few moments, adjusting to the bright light outside, then she saw what looked like hundreds of children of all ages running, chasing, wrestling and talking. She glanced at Danny, uncertain what to do. He smiled back at her, a twinkle in his eye once again.
“I told Dad it wasn’t fair. I don’t care what he thought, you are a little girl. You deserve the chance to play. Now get on over there…”
She didn’t need to be asked twice. She rushed over to the children, then froze just on the outside. Several noticed her and struck up a conversation, despite the fact she couldn’t speak. Before long she was running with them, involved in some complex game.
Danny smiled at the sight. He knew one of the adults would realise who she was eventually. Then all hell would rain down, mostly on him. It didn’t matter. He’d kept a promise made far too many years before. He’d promised Sally she would get her chance to play. Now she had it, and she was loving every single second. She was more than worth the risks he’d chosen to take. For the first time in her life she was being the little girl he knew she was.