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Opportunity

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It rains, at the cottage by the sea.

Oleta sits in the low chair on the back porch. She folds one leg underneath herself and watches the sea, and the reflection of the stars as the water ebbs and flows. Rain spills off the cottage roof in gray threads. All the water creeps down the hill toward the shore.

When she was a kid - before she turned ten - there were woods behind their home. When water crept over the ground, through the tiny gullies between the trees, she and Hester would pull the plastic ends off of push-pops and set them down to sail. She remembers watching the rain on Hester's face, washing away the sticky orange smears from the push-pop. It was before they were ten but she does not remember how long before. Hester's face and her blue eyes are in Oleta's memory, but she does not have the context to guess their time or age.

On some of the tapes Hester mentioned time. She mentioned days and she numbered them. Four months and 27 days. Oleta remembers Hester saying that, but she doesn't have enough days in her memory to number. There was no moment where she turned her head and had years of memories again. Images, sounds, smells, and tastes have all come back in tiny pieces. There are so many of them, but she cannot stitch them together.

Some came back while she was in the Institute. They are innocuous and boring - to an adult, playing in a sandbox is boring, even if having the memory itself is remarkable - but Oleta tries not to think about them because they burn. It hurt, to get images of her younger self back when she was confined to the Institute.

Some came back when she was being shipped to this place. It was a long trip with a lot of time to stare off into the dark. The mind does strange things in the dark, like remembering using a blue pen to connect brown freckles on brown skin. It remembers the taste of sticky orange push-pops. (They tasted orange, like the color, not the fruit.)

Some come back when she sits in the low chair on the back porch of the cottage by the sea. Rain spilling toward the shore, and rain making streaks on Hester's face.

***

If she could spend most of her time in the low chair, she thinks she would. Being in the Institute was exhausting. Often, she thinks she should be doing something. More often, she thinks she deserves time where she doesn't have to do a damn thing.

It is possible from this chair to see the people who sometimes walk on the beach. It is not possible for them to see a person seated in the low chair. If you stand on the beach and face the hill where the cottage sits, you can see the outline of the structure but none of the details. There is simply too much distraction for the eye between Point A and Point B, and for half of the day the sun is in your eyes anyway.

This is why Oleta likes to sit in the low chair, with one leg folded up underneath her. From here she can observe the world without it observing her. Oleta has spent a significant portion of her life being observed. When the opportunity arises to opt out, she does.

But there are things to be done that cannot be done while sitting down.

She had thought that a small town would be rife with observation, no matter what the last cassette said. But no one follows her for a suspiciously long time at a suspiciously consistent distance. No one asks where she is from or why she has moved here. No one asks more of her than she cares to give.

Two months and thirteen days after she's arrived in the town, where no one watches her when she goes to get groceries, she does notice two green eyes peering up at her from about ankle height.

"Hello," she says. The sleek black cat at her feet meows. She gives him a sliver of her fish.

When she wakes up the next morning and steps onto the back porch, the black cat is curled into a small ball on the low chair. He is snoring tiny cat snores.

***

It is raining the day Hester walks in through the door on the back porch. The sleek black cat looks up, then turns his back on her and thumps his tail against the arm of the couch. (The one facing the painting.) Hester looks slightly puzzled and very wet: her hair is plastered to her skin and water squishes inside her yellow rainboots when she takes a step through the doorway.

"Hello," Oleta says. She tries to put down the glass she's holding but drops it instead. The cat meows and, tail swishing, pads into the bedroom to get away from her and her rudeness.

Hester helps her sweep up the glass. There are brown freckles on the backs of her brown hands.

***

"You named a black cat Shadow?" Hester asks.

"A cat would never reveal his true name."

"So you did finish A Wizard of Earthsea. "

"Yes." In the eleven months and two days since Oleta has been at the cottage by the sea, Oleta has had time to finish A Wizard of Earthsea .

She has had time to read a great many books. There is a small bookshop in town. They also occasionally sell shelves, which are made by someone in town who is now retired. In the time it took Hester to arrive at the cottage by the sea, Oleta purchased two small bookshelves. The first is full, and the second has three on the top shelf. She is filling them slowly. She places a book on the shelf when she finishes it. They are not in any kind of order.

Oleta has spent a significant portion of her life under many strict orders. When the opportunity arises to change that, she does.

***

They make new memories.

On days when it is not raining, they walk on the beach. Sometimes they point dogs out to each other. Sometimes there are no dogs. Sometimes, the new memories bring back pieces of old ones. Sitting next to each other at the dinner table. Practicing times tables. Oleta still gets things in bits and pieces. There is much she is missing that Hester is not. Hester is very careful before asking whether Oleta remembers something - so often the answer is no, and then Hester's face goes tight around her eyes and Oleta's shoulders stiffen.

They try not to talk about memories from the Institute, but that couldn't last for very long.

"I saw that you bought a cassette recorder."

Oleta links her fingers together. She is lying in the grass outside the cottage, looking up at the sky, and her hands are resting on her stomach. There is a scar slightly to one side of her right hand. It used to hurt quite a lot, but that pain had faded by the time Hester arrived.

Hester is sitting cross-legged on a blue plaid blanket. The blanket is pulled tight around her legs to ward off the evening chill. Shadow chews on the fringe.

"I thought it would be nice to record some music from the radio," Oleta admits. This makes Hester laugh, which makes her smile in turn. The cat spits out the fringe, smacks his lips, and meanders away. "I happen to like our local radio station."

They lapse into silence for a countable number of seconds, although Oleta isn't paying that much attention. She used to be obsessed with her inner clock. She pictured it sitting in her left wrist, where she would have worn a watch once. It never pulsed or buzzed, which was probably why most people had difficulty connecting with theirs. Olets had developed that particular skill as far as she cares to.

Hester says, "You didn't throw away the cassette I had sent here, ahead of you."

It is more difficult not to count this set of countable seconds. Oleta manages it by skillfully lying still and not noticing Shadow creeping up on her side until it is too late, and there are two small paws pressing into her spleen as the cat leaps across her to chase a real shadow across the lawn. Oleta oof s and rolls over onto her stomach. It was funny, but Hester is not smiling. She is looking down at the grass.

"Sometimes I … worried that you wouldn't want to hear the sound of my voice anymore. After all of the cassettes," Hester says, softly.

Oleta takes a moment to sit up. She crosses her legs underneath herself, so her left knee lines up with Hester's right, and her right knee with Hester's left. So. "Well," she says, "I wouldn't want to hear those cassettes again. Actually, if no one ever tells me to relax from now until the day I die, I'd be perfectly fine with that." She smiles, but Hester doesn't.

"When I sent you a new one, I was always worried you wouldn't actually listen to it. That you would give - that you would have no reason to listen to me anymore."

"That would have been pretty stupid of me."

Hester raises her head so that their eyes meet. "You gave me a lot of trust when I hadn't earned it."

Oleta taps her fingers against her knee. "I would have taken any chance to get out of the - to get out of there," she admits. Hester nods and does not say anything. Oleta realizes how that may have sounded. She lets out a breath. So. So, they have to do this now. It is not raining, the cat is not here, their memories do not match up, and they need to do this now. "Sometimes I worried that the next cassette you sent me would be warning me we had failed, and there was no way out after all," she says.

Hester draws back slightly.

"I know that you probably wouldn't have had time to make a cassette in that case, but I had the whole thing written in my head. You telling me that the next morning someone would be taking me to have my head removed from my shoulders, or something. You were sorry, but there was nothing left for us to try." Oleta rubs her thumb over the stitching on her jeans. "I know you remembered me, and we were friends, but we were also kids."

"It wasn't right," Hester says.

"You never really told me why you risked so much to help me."

"I did ."

"Not really." Oleta looks up. "Every time I got a cassette, I thought the first words would be, sorry, this is the last one. Hester, I would have done anything - everything - for a chance to get out of the Institute." The word burns on her tongue. "I don't remember all of the days we had together when we were kids. I don't remember all the things we did, or all the books we read, or whether either of us wanted pets or kids or whatever. I don't remember what I did to make you risk so much."

"You told me things you remembered," Oleta says. It burns on her tongue and in her chest, because this is a thought that started in the Institute, and all of those things burn. "But there were people who remembered me, from age 10 to the day the Institute took me, and none of those memories were enough for them to try to help me."

It is not raining. There is no sound but the still air to distract them from what they have to say, now. There is no one else on the hill that slopes down to the sea. There is nothing to watch but each other's faces.

Hester's face is tight around her eyes. "Because I needed you to be - to be, and the Institute would have stopped that. Because the world would be less without you in it, Oleta." There is water on Hester's face, but it is not from rain. "Because I would be less."

Oleta keeps eye contact, but holds both her hands out. "You asked me why I trusted you," she says.

Hester presses her lips together for a moment before returning the gesture, and curling her fingers around Oleta's wrists. Her thumb presses against the point where Oleta keeps her inner clock. Hester pulls Oleta to her feet, and they turn to look at the sea together. The reflections of stars bob up and down in the waves.

So much of her memory is still full of holes. She has an ocean full of memories of her sister. There's so many, but still whole swathes of uncovered land. There are mountains in her memory and Oleta doesn't think she'll ever see their peaks. Time with Hester bursts through in points like the reflection of stars on the water's surface.

"In there, I heard your voice, and I remembered something. I remembered looking at you and knowing I was about to forget you," Oleta says. She reaches out and cups Hester's face in the curve of her palm. "I knew it was almost my birthday and I wouldn't just forget you. I would have never known you."

Hester's face is wet. They are too close to the light from the house for the stars to reflect in her eyes.

Oleta inhales, slowly, and wipes away the swell of a tear with her thumb. "But in there - in the Institute, I heard your voice, and I remembered your face. I remembered your name. The thing is, I was wrong. I did forget you - but I knew you were gone. As soon as I remembered your name, Hester, I knew I had always known you weren't there."

"Oh," Hester says. She mouths something else, but no sound comes out. It seems that's all she can think of to say.

Looking at her now, Oleta realizes that in all the weeks they've had to create new memories, she has yet to make one of kissing Hester.

With the opportunity arising to fix that, she does.