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A Third's Purpose

Lily Robinson


Step 1- Wake up.

As I grew older, the first step of my routine became the easiest part, the painless part. When I was young, I would give my mom trouble in the mornings. When I heard her, “Venus, it’s time to wake up,” I’d cocoon myself with blankets. I tried my best to stay silent, like I was still asleep. It always failed though. I couldn’t help but giggle at my own defiance. My mother would step into my room as quietly as she could, the wood floors squeaking under her weight. My giggling intensified because I knew what to expect next. She leapt on me, poking me in the sides and tickling me ferociously. The blankets came off of my flailing limbs and together we’d shriek and laugh. As the years went by, my resistance stopped being cute and I got up on my own.

Step 2- Run

Somedays I would tie my shoes up tight and run for miles around the woods. Those were the good days. Other days I’d leave my shoes at home. My bare feet exposed to the elements while I ran the same distance. Just in case. Mom told me they could find me at anytime. We might not have the luxury of putting on our shoes, we’d have to run barefoot together. The calluses have built up from years of bleeding feet and rocks under my skin, but I relished the feeling of soft grass. I carefully navigated the forest, avoiding the places with poison ivy. Before I learned my lesson, I ran with irritated hives on my feet for days. My favorite was after it rained, when the dirt turned to slippery, cold mud. It was sweet relief compared to the sharp sticks and prickers that lined the forest floor.

Step 3- Swim

Mother used to say that I was lucky to be born someplace warm. It used to be called California, but that was before half of the country was lost in the war. Still though, the water could be frigid some mornings. It was the kind of cold that made your bones hurt and your skin blue. The current was strong in the river near our cabin, and swimming was as straining as running. It was just in case. If I could swim against that terribly strong force, I could be the one who gets away.

Step 4- Scream

I added this step after mom was gone. She would have thought that they’d find us immediately. I think being alone now warrants screaming. It was the hardest part, forcing me to think about the miles that separate me from the world. Being angry makes the routine unbearable, so letting it out is necessary. Screaming until my throat feels like it is being ripped out. Screaming until I cry and fall to the ground. Screaming because I am here, in the wilderness, alone, and I am scared. “Fear is a good thing, Venus. It keeps you on your toes.” The fear built up in me is enough to last a lifetime. I let out a small bit of it everyday, just in case my lifetime is not as long as we’d hoped.

With the last step of my morning ritual, I feel the strength in my own body. The best part about a routine is having the ability to finish it, neatly tucking it away into the back of my brain until the next day. When mother was alive she would heat the kettle up for a bath while I finished the routine. I would wash the dirt and sweat off my body while she cut up an apple for me in the next room. At home, I could take extra care to rub the soles of my feet, watching the water brown from the mud. I could hear the fire crackling and mom humming a song from childhood. When my mother was alive, she made the old cabin a home. An escape from the reality of my difficult mornings.

My father and his father built the cabin together before the world, “went to shit.” It has been standing alone in the woods for close to forty years, but it looks much older. The cabin is small. It has two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, and a cramped living space with a fireplace. The walls of the inside are bare besides small cobwebs in the high corners. Certain spots of the wood floor would creak under the weight of my mom, and me as I grew. The floor would occasionally give me splinters on the soles of my feet if I wasn’t careful. I grew accustomed to wearing thick wool socks to prevent the pricks. Each door of the house has a distinguished squeak when they’re opened more than an inch. The door to the outside is the loudest, hinges amber from rust.

The outside is marked by the weather and surrounding environment. I’m sure the area was clear at one point, but years of neglect have caused the grass around the cabin to grow wild. All four sides of my home are covered with vines. The spindly green tendrils climb up the walls, reaching and grabbing at the divets in the wood. The base is covered in small patches of moss where the wood becomes wet from the rain-soaked ground. When I was young, I would scrape at the moss, getting dirt under my fingernails. I’d peel chunks of moss off and hold them in my palm, petting them like a small animal. Little black bugs would crawl off of the moss and onto my hands, making them tickle. Mother would never let me bring any of my findings inside. She’d watch me from the window to make sure I didn’t stow anything away in my pockets.

The windows are scraped and dirty from years of dust, wind, and rain. When she felt inclined, my mother would wipe down the insides of the window in an attempt to “pretty,” our home. It was a lost cause though. The window in mother’s room had a long crack down the center. I used to trace my finger along the indentation, feeling the jagged edges. Once a small piece of the glass found itself loose, poking the tip of my finger. I sucked on the wound, tasting the metallic drop of blood that bubbled up. I didn’t tell my mom, and I didn’t stop going to the window to feel the broken glass.

Mother used to yell, “This house is falling down around us!” She did this as she set a plastic container under one of the many leaks in the ceiling. One particular day, I had been playing outside all morning. I listened to the rolls of thunder in the distance getting closer. Despite the annoyance with the holes in our roof, I loved the rain. I loved the way that the earth knew it was going to rain before anyone else. The leaves on the trees would turn, exposing their undersides to the sky. The small water-loving animals climbed their way out of their homes. Inside the house, mom was too distracted by her storm preparation to pay attention to me. I found a small frog near the front door. I sat with him, moving my hand closer to him with each passing moment to avoid scaring him. By the time the rain began to fall, I was confident that this frog was happy in my company. In one quick motion, I scooped him up and carried him into my bedroom. The containers on the floor had already started collecting rainwater. I set my frog in one of the containers and watched him. The frog sat, unmoving, until my young attention span lost interest. I chose to watch the lightning from the window until I fell asleep. A few days after the storm, my mom found my frog friend dead in the corner of my room. I soon realized that I did not have the capability to give life, only the ability to end it.

My mom taught me how to pretend to be a, “useful women.” Once a week, after a warm bath, I would head to the market to get my serving of food. Mother had decided about seventeen years into my life that she was too old to make the journey so often. The trail to the market wasn’t much of a trail at all. It stretched about a mile through the woods, on rocky, uneven ground. Every passing year, new obstacles would arise along the path. Occasionally you’d have to climb over a fallen rotted out tree, or crawl under entwined branches blocking the way. Mom taught me the rules to the market once it was my turn to go. They were simple, but there was a lot of room for error.

1. Wear plain clothing. The less noticeable I am, the better.

2. Do not make eye contact. The other women shopping in the stores had children of their own, they could sense a Third. They could see the defectiveness in my eyes and would report it. Mother used to say that childbearing women would never accept my kind. She had always been extremely paranoid.

3.Only get the necessities. The women with bright clothing filled their baskets to the brim with cookies and candies. The colorful boxes attracted the eyes of their little babes who forced them to comply. They’d toss the sugary sweets into the basket and move on to the next aisle, kids in tow.  It wasn’t against the rules to observe how normal people live. It was a habit I picked up at a young age. I’d watch my mom wash and hang our clothing to dry, and how she swept out the dirt I tracked indoors. It became much more exciting when I was able to leave the house. Even if it was only to purchase plain grains and meats, it gave me a chance to see the rest of my small town.

Food tickets were given out weekly, the amount depending on the number of family members. At least, that is what the government told us. But us less fortunate tend to notice when higher members of society are awarded more than their fair share. The government only gave mother enough food tickets for one person. They didn’t know she had a child. She had pushed me out of her in a lonely cabin and kept me hidden from the outside world for as long as she could. She had tried so hard to make a child with my father. By the time she noticed she was pregnant, my father had been drafted into the war. They wrote letters back and forth, but eight months in to carrying me, the letters stopped coming. She grieved heavily when the final letter showed up, addressed in unfamiliar handwriting. It started with, “I regret to inform you,” and ended with “God bless.” That’s when she stopped believing in God. She hugged her swollen stomach and cried for days. The sadness she felt caused me to come earlier than expected. Mother said that she thought the pain was going to kill her, that she hoped it would. When I came out, I didn’t cry, but my mom did. Her wish for death did not come true. She came out of her depression when I turned a year old. She was no longer alone in the world, and she loved me despite what I was; a Third.

After I was born, my mom waited for her sobs to pass before checking in between my legs. That’s when she realized what I was and began to cry again. After the war poisoned the air, women began birthing Thirds at an alarming rate. They had all of the charms of a baby girl but lacked the usefulness. Like me; big green eyes, a dark head of hair, and rosy cheeks.  No vagina, no uterus, no future of bearing children. A barren spot where my femininity ought to be. My body, a shattered hope of living out a normal life.

The country claimed that there were simply not enough resources to allow the Thirds to live. After all, what is the point of feeding and educating us into adulthood if we weren’t useful in repopulating the dying earth? If a Third was born, it was to be immediately taken away from the mother and smothered by the superbly trained physician. This was under the assumption that no woman would be crazy enough to have her child outside of a hospital, a crime punishable by death. Mother had no desire to be alone in the cabin again, even if it meant raising a child with little value to society.

When my mom got sick, I would take extra time at the market, avoiding going back home to her painful groans. I would sit outside on a bench and watch the line for food tickets grow and shrink. One day, a dark haired woman stood close to the end, rubbing her large stomach. There it was, what I would never have. People smiled at her while they walked past. They got a sense of joy from a woman living up to her potential. Growing life is no small task, it is a woman’s purpose. I looked down at my stomach. Years of completing my morning ritual had made me hard and flat. My body was thin and muscular, nothing like the plumpness of pregnancy. The woman touched her round form and seemed content. She was not alone in the world, like I was soon to be. I mimicked her, inflating my lungs with air and feeling the slight protrusion. Unlike her, I didn’t feel at ease. It had made me angrier than ever before. “Lesser is woman, but even lower is the thing that cannot contribute to the population.” The government had made it’s stance clear long ago.

Boys would occasionally smile at me as I sat observing. Their eyes would linger on me a bit too long for comfort. Each time, I was reminded of what I would never have. No man can truly love a Third. At least that’s what my mom said in her fits of hysteria toward the end. She apologized until death took her, but it stuck with me even years later.

Throughout her life, my mother did everything for survival. She and my father had been in constant opposition of the war. They lived on the outside of society in the cabin in the woods. Her days were filled with reading books and guides to living in the wilderness. She learned about different plants, what was poisonous and what was medicinal. She learned to start fires and tell the time by the stars. The hope was that they would go forgotten if the draft was brought back. Times were changing though. In order to preserve resources, every citizen had to register with the government. They were fingerprinted, and their blood was taken for DNA. Tickets replaced old forms of currency, and community mailboxes were installed to make sure every citizen was within reach. They had to comply, or risk starving. It didn’t matter how far they tried to run, the reach of the war extended across the world. My father wouldn’t return from the war, so my mother raised me in the only way she knew how. She taught me how to survive.

When I was little, I was scared of the dark. Noises from outside the window gave me goosebumps all down my arms and thighs. The house creaked and groaned with footsteps of monsters. Demons tapped their pointy nails on the roof. Every bit of the unknown caused panic within my young mind. Mother tried her best to rid the monsters with stories and brushed my hair with her fingers while I fell asleep. The only thing that ever seemed to work was a candle. She would light the tip of the tall candle every night before tucking me in. I’d watch her carefully place it into a lantern for safety. Every time I woke up in the middle of the night, I would look to the flickering candle flame. The evil lurking in the dark transformed into the wind blowing tree branches and small animals scampering about.

The glow of the lit candle became my new obsession. I’d watch until I could no longer hold the weight of my eyelids. I’d watch it bounce and dance, projecting shadows onto the cabin walls. Some nights I’d even choose to stand from my bed and dance with it. I spun around, my sheet draped on my body like a gown. I bent my legs and pushed up off of the floor, kicking my small limbs behind me and landing in a pose. Wind and flickering flame was the song of my choice. The beauty of something so simple, so small. I wanted to reach out and touch it, but mom had always warned me not to.

My fascination turned to wanting, and I began to dance closer to the lantern. I decided that mother would never find out if I let myself feel the light just once. I opened up the lantern and pulled the candle out by it’s waxy base. I held it between my hands and tiptoed over to my bed. Now was not the time to wake up my mom in the next room. I sat on my bed my knees beneath me and held the fire at eye level. I waved one finger over the tip of the flame as quick as I could, watching it move with the air. I repeated several times, getting slower with each pass. Working my way up until I held my palm over the flame. My heart rushed with excitement and I felt the sting of my palm. My fingers tensed with the pain, and I bit my lip hard. The pain was unlike anything I had ever felt.

I pulled my palm away after a moment. My eyes were watery and heavy. I brought the candle back to its rightful place and looked at my palm in the dim lighting. The skin was pale and bubbling. Gently, I ran a finger over the wound and felt the texture of my new skin. I let myself cry, still feeling the burning like I had never taken the candle away. I knew my mother would see it the next morning. I knew that I would lie to her about how the blisters came to be. She would start keeping the matches on the highest shelf she could find, only taking them down to light the fireplace. “Fire is for survival,” mother would say. I could never tell her that I didn’t want to survive, I wanted to live.

When my mother died, I realized screaming was necessary. As I dug her grave, I thought of how she had so desperately begged for death. How she couldn’t stand the idea of living without my father. How she stayed angry until a year after my birth. How she apologized to me everyday for taking me for granted, and regretted wanting to end her life. After my baths, my mom combed the knots out of my hair with her fingers and told me how I made her life worth living. I’d lay my wet head back against her chest, her fleece soaking up the dampness of my hair. I was at ease, feeling the rise and fall of her breath, and the warmth that came along with it.

Like most things in my life, her words became distorted as I got older. They were a reminder that she, like those that hated me, had found her purpose within creating another life. It made me bitter. The year leading up to her death allowed my feelings to escape me. She laid in bed, sleeping heavily, while I cursed and cried. Selfishly, she had kept me alive so that she wouldn’t be alone again. She raised me safely and securely, ensuring that the world wouldn’t take me away from her. With every morning run, every grain of rice, she forced me to live a life despised by the world around me. Her sickness made her weak, and seeing her cry made me nauseous. The woman who’d based her life on strength turned frail, and withered away with each plate of food uneaten.

Crimes in this world rarely go unpunished. Committing a petty crime results in a deduction of food tickets and probation. Committing a crime while on probation results in losing all ticket “privileges.” The privilege to live. The best way to kill off your people: tell them their demise is no one’s fault but their own. It’s a dangerous world, people need to eat, and they will find a way.

One day, about two years after mother’s death, I left the bench outside the market and began to walk home. It was dusk, and I had to move quickly before the path home became too dark. The entrance to the path is marked by an old playground. All that is left standing of the park is a swing set and tipped over slide. The swing set had been put up long before I was born. It was rusted and partially hidden by overgrown weeds and vines. The weight of a small child would cause the contraption to turn to dust. This wasn’t something to worry about though. Most children were not able to play outside. They spent their days in school buildings until the sun went down. Mother told me that the government thinks we’re dumb. Our children were compared to those in the east, and we did not stack up. More schooling and preparation was necessary to rebuild the country. I, of course, was prescribed a different method of learning. I read whatever books my parents had kept from their years of university, and my mom filled in the rest.

As I reached the swings, I felt two hands grab the back of my shoulders. The aggressor turned me around in one swift motion. He reached for the grocery bag hanging from my wrist, causing me to pull away. In that moment, I looked at the man. His face was like leather. I could see the texture and the depth of his wrinkles from sun exposure. The hair on his head was matted, like he had been sleeping on the ground. I could see his collarbones through his dirty white shirt. Despite his thin stature, his hands had a strong grip. The desperation was apparent in his red eyes, and his hollow cheeks suggested he had not eaten a full meal in a long time.

Panic swept through my body when I came to the realization that this man would do anything for something to eat. Two winners was not an option, only one of us would be walking away with a week’s worth of food. He pushed me back into the swing set. I heard the clang of the hollow metal pole before I felt the intense pain in the back of my head. I fell to the  ground, and with a swift kick to my side, the man grabbed my bag and ran away. My vision blurred with the pain. I felt consciousness slipping away from me. I allowed my body to succumb to my dizziness, and blackout.

I opened my eyes to the bright fluorescent lighting on the ceiling and the low buzzing noise that came with it. The smell, a mix of lemons and chemicals, burned the inside of my nose. Immediately, I knew where I was, and I knew had to leave. I ignored the pounding sensation in my head and sat up in the hospital bed. I pulled up the hospital gown and felt relief when I realized they left my underwear on. I surveyed my body. My arms had small scrapes scattered like constellations. I was bruised from the altercation, but I had seen worse come from my morning ritual. I wiggled my toes, making sure everything was of proper function, and I stood up.

Since including step four of my routine, I had rarely felt the lump in my throat. Before my mother died, I got the feeling often. It was a piece of me that I needed to push down and hide. I had to keep myself together. Since letting out my scream, the feeling in my throat had dissipated into numbness. There though, in the hospital, the lump came back. I began to regret my bold attitude. I tiptoed into the hallway, checking both ways to make sure none of the staff had seen me. The walls were the color of eggshells, lined with landscape paintings every ten feet. It was a failed attempt at hiding the sterile, unwelcoming nature of the building. The sound echoed off of the walls. As I kept walking, the beats of heart monitors turned into the laughter of families and the cries of newborns.

I turned the corner, passing a frowning scrub-clad nurse who had emerged from one of the rooms. She held an infant in her arms. It’s eyes were closed. It seemed unbothered by the noises in the hallway, including the man’s cries from within the room. The nurse walked with the baby, slowly, savoring the time the baby had left in the world. I stopped to watch. She walked into a room across the hall, closing the heavy wooden door behind her. I held my breath, waiting. I’m not sure what I was waiting for. I tried to burn holes through the walls with my eyes, but my own gaze began to blur with tears. I wanted someone to yell, to scream for the child. I wanted someone to be angry, to say that this isn’t right. Nothing came. Somewhere, in another hospital room, a new mother would have that title stripped from her as soon as she received it. She was sedated. The doctors know there is no force stronger than a mother protecting her child. Of course the doctors, and she would become convinced that it was for the best. But for now, she was a mother in its truest form.

After an eternity, the nurse exited the room without the baby. She took a deep breath and smoothed the crease in her shirt. She was not the evil I had imagined. Her eyes were red and heavy, proof of sleepless nights. Her cheeks were flushed and her lips pressed into a hard line. Her emotions were on full display as she moved briskly to the bathroom a few doors down. When she disappeared inside, I turned my attention the room with the baby. I couldn’t shake the fear and anger, but I had to see for myself. I pushed my body against the weight of the door, and side-stepped in.

The room was different than the rest of the hospital. There was a soft crib in the middle of the room, lined with stuffed animals. The wallpaper was made to look like a jungle. Monkeys swinging from vines and friendly tigers roamed the leafy ground. Besides the counter with a syringe disposal, the room did not seem to belong in a hospital at all. The windows were large and gave a beautiful view of the woods, while most rooms faced the parking lot. There were large indoor plants in each corner, making the space feel one with nature. The door shut out all the noise in the hallway, leaving only a soft lullaby coming from the speaker in a high corner. For a moment, I let myself feel at ease. They’d made the perfect room for a young child.  

I walked towards the crib and looked over the walls. The baby lay in the center, unmoving. It was as if it had been frozen in time. I reached my hand out to touch its soft cheek. It was still warm. I felt for a pulse, but could not find any evidence of life. My knees buckled and my body suddenly felt heavier. The skin on my knuckles turned white as I grasped the edge of the crib. The throbbing in my ears drowned out the lullaby.

When my mother asked me about the dead frog, I lied. I told her that it had come in on it’s own. She pretended to believe me, but it didn’t stop me from crying at night. At some point, we all learn our true nature. We see the world for how it really is. My mother had always told me about the dangers that lived outside our cabin, but I never truly knew what it meant until I carried the dead infant in my arms. I wrapped it in a blanket and left through the hospital’s fire escape. As I dug the small grave, I let out the cries and screams I had been holding in since the hospital. I placed the baby in, covering it’s swaddled body in loose dirt. I desperately wished I had taken the baby alive. I wished to raise it like my mom raised me.