From the round window in the attic, Clara could see down to the street. There weren't any vehicles, ground or otherwise, spitting steam on that hot day. Swirling blurs of heat made the ground look like it was shaking. Clara used to spend a lot of time outside running her hands and toes through the grass and dancing in the sun before the air spoiled.
Clara saw a few people run past her house with stained cloths covering their noses and mouths. Some had gray-brown splotches of dirt and old oil. Others were rags with crimson blood and yellow bile, which happened more after the news of the first quake finally reached their city. Every morning Clara sat in Academy where her teachers lectured with different sequined or braided scarves over their faces.
"There's something going around," Mrs. Amberline told them. She was a tall woman with her bright hair always flowing around her shoulders and a glowing smile even when it was hidden behind a scarf. "They send you darlings here to learn, not to catch a cold!"
A shrill alarm outside made Clara's heart skip a beat, but she tuned it out and scooted away from the window. Clara slid off the upholstered bench and brushed down her skirt, fluffing the petticoat beneath. Her teachers taught her to present the best version of herself. She liked to dream that she would be on one of the airships crossing the sea to the mainland and she would strap into a rocket leading out to where the dead sky ends; it would be most important that she present her best self to a new world.
As of today, however, she and her family were trapped as the air continued to rot.
Clara skipped across the finished attic, her brown locks bouncing around her. With each footfall, her toes curled into the carpet that softened the sound from the attic to the rooms below. She stopped beside a few large bookshelves stuffed with everything from school textbooks to picture books her parents read with her as a baby. It was her study area, but she didn't need it anymore.
Her favorite teacher, Mrs. Amberline, had always encouraged Clara to study hard for her exams and read everything a teacher handed her. She instilled in Clara the passion to help the greater good and advocate against bullying and hatred right up until the day she received a letter that she had been picked to go to the mainland. Mrs. Amberline would be part of the world's future.
Clara slid a book from a low shelf; it was a colorful history of the Presidents and the highlights of their reigns. She scooped up a toy turtle that rattled a little as she plunked herself onto the carpet. Her skirt plumed beneath her before settling down in a halo around her folded legs. Clara propped the book open in her lap, spun the crank on her turtle and set it down so it could continue its path, waddling the diameter of her skirt.
The sirens that had been going off the same time every morning for the last two weeks could no longer drown out the shuttering, clicking gears of her aged turtle. Her parents bought her the kit to build Toddle the Turtle when she first started at Academy. It was the first gear puzzle she put together herself and she brought it to class to show off. It seemed important at the time.
Clara jumped again at the rapping on the attic door.
"Clara? Sweetie, are you up there?"
"Yes, mama!" Clara pressed her hands over her pounding chest.
"I wish you wouldn't lock the doors. You know I want to be able to reach you in case of bad people."
Clara remembered the would-be looters after the first wave of citizens left for the mainland including many police officers. Her father, a war veteran, was prepared. He had a stockpile of guns that was meant to keep their family safe. While he might have woken up screaming in the middle of the night or he slurred his words from taking one too many happy pills, he was able to clear every background check.
If only her house had metal detectors to scream at intruders with weapons. Her teachers held drills at Academy to keep them safe in such situations rather than running into danger and pretending anyone could be a hero.
Clara went down the short flight of stairs and unhooked the latch. She swung the door open and met her mother's half formed smiled. Her mother's face was gentle, but in just two weeks, new deep wrinkles appeared. Clara guessed her mother was quite scared; everyone left behind was a little frightened when it became clear that people were leaving and never coming back.
At Academy, representatives from the mainland performed silly skits in every classroom explaining what to expect when the sky began to drip. Clara thought she should be more afraid, but she just kept saying she would be okay. Her teachers taught her well and her parents loved her and helped her with her studies. That meant she would be okay.
"Clara, you have a visitor," her mother said.
Clara frowned. "But people don't visit anymore. Everyone is bolting and digging."
"It is strange, but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Come on, love."
Clara and her mother traversed the hall and the creaking staircase into the boxy living room that felt more like a bunker than a home. There was one window looking over the lawn alongside their house. Once she could smile and wave at her friend next door who shared a few classes with her at Academy, but now the windows were sealed with boards.
At the door a towering woman with golden flowing hair stood in a leather coat and decorative scarf beside a suitcase half her height. Her gloved hands were wringing around each wrist, but otherwise her smile was soft with the slightest crease between her brows. Clara knew the look. Many of her teachers shared it when students were given their free play hour around springing seats and tall metal contraptions in the courtyard playground.
Clara's own unsure smile brightened immediately. "Mrs. Amberline!"
"Clara Beaumont, the little mind churner," Mrs. Amberline said, kneeling and holding her arms wide. Clara ran forward and let her teacher embrace her. Piles of material from the skirt and petticoat enveloped Clara's little frame until she nearly disappeared in it. Mrs. Amberline held her back and smiled. "I was hoping to have a quick word with you before...I didn't have a chance. Darlinda, would you mind if I spoke to Clara alone for a few minutes?"
"Oh, not at all," Clara's mother said. Clara waved to her as she went through the door on the far side of the living room and around a corner. Soon they could hear continued plinks of silverware and sputtering water from a crusting faucet.
Clara looked back at her teacher and was shocked to see her stern brow and her lips as nothing more than a thin gash between her glowing cheeks.
"Clara," Mrs. Amberline spoke just above a whisper. "I'm leaving for the mainland today. Right now. There's a car on the street taking me to the airport."
"Then why are you here?" Clara asked.
Mrs. Amberline took a shaky breath and grabbed Clara's little hands in her own.
"I came to see you, my star. You're my hard worker, you don't make waves, and even if you don't get top marks at first, you know how to adjust. I'm leaving, and yes, our next life will need the officials to lead and teach and keep the peace, but we still need the people who make a life possible. We need people to be taught. Clara, we need people like you. I have to make the federals see that."
"I'll show you to them when we arrive. They'll see that I can't leave my shining light behind."
Clara's eyes widened. A glossy film of tears formed and one droplet trailed down her cheek. "You're gonna take us? Oh Mrs. Am-!"
Mrs. Amberline covered Clara's mouth and shook her head. "Please keep quiet!" she said in a hoarse whisper. "Clara, no. It's just you. I can only take you."
"But-" Clara looked back towards the door where sounds of clinking china fluttered into the room.
"I know this isn't perfect," her teacher continued, "and I know you want to save the whole world, but sometimes to save the many, we have to respectfully let go of the few."
"...but my parents…"
Mrs. Amberline wrapped Clara in another tremendous hug as her body shook a little with tiny sobs.
"Your parents are kind, loving people, I'm sure, but they can't give you the best chance to survive. You won't be alone. I will be your family. We will learn together just as we always have. That is why you're sent to Academy six days a week. Your teachers have to give you a dependable future. It has never meant more than it does right now. Please, my sweet girl, let me take you away from certain pain."
Clara fidgeted and stepped back. Her cheeks were wet and her hazel eyes reddened. She took quivering breaths as she stared at Mrs. Amberline reflecting her sadness back at her.
"I don't want to be in pain," Clara said. Mrs. Amberline nodded to her words. "You won't leave me?"
"Never. I won't go anywhere without you. I'll protect you."
Mrs. Amberline covered her mouth, suppressing an enormous sigh and shuddering breath from her own sobbing. Clara had never seen her cry like that before and she had seen so many faces of her favorite teacher. Clara found herself embraced again, but she was unprepared and choked for a moment in the swathes of material on the woman before she was held back again.
"There's little time," Mrs. Amberline said. She withdrew a familiar cog turtle from the suitcase. "I gave one of these to my daughter…" Her voice drifted for a moment, but soon her focus returned. "There are a few pieces that will work to boost the anti-grav on my suitcase. No one will know what sort of luggage is inside."
Clara barely registered her words as Mrs. Amberline fiddled first with the inner cogs of the turtle and then with what was revealed to be a now empty suitcase. With a few clicks, the suitcase began to hum and vibrate in a way that made Clara's heart race and yet she was smiling.
"Now quickly. You'll get inside and you cannot say a word until I open the suitcase. Only me. There's a thin sheet of lead covering your presence. Don't be scared, okay? Can you be strong for me?"
Clara's mind was spinning, but she nodded. Before she accepted Mrs. Amberline's hand to step in, she paused.
Clara ignored any argument. She bounded upstairs, her bare feet padding along the steps. Faster than she ever had, she was down the hall, and up the carpeted attic steps. Her turtle continued making its path around the book she left behind. Clara snatched the turtle and whispered a quick goodbye to the attic before running back downstairs.
Soft words from the doorway leading out of the living room drifted up the stairs. Mrs. Amberline spoke briefly to Clara's mother and then shooed her off with a smile. When she caught sight of Clara, she took the girl's hand and let her back to the door, helping her shimmy into the oversized luggage, and tucking her skirt between her legs.
Clara clutched her turtle close and took one last look at the boxed-in living room before a second soft material covered her and she heard a zipper buzz around her feet and head. Everything was dark for a few moments. Or for a lifetime. She couldn't tell. All she could think as she felt the world sway and grow hot was that she was right not to be afraid. She was taught well.
"Clara, love," Mrs. Amberline's voice barely pierced the veil of metal and fabric. "Be strong for me. I will be with you the entire time."
Clara nodded, but no one could see. She hugged her turtle and counted her blessings for having family like Mrs. Amberline. She let her eyes drift shut to the buzzing around her and dreamed of her new world.