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Incubation

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In Rosie's world, it's always bright.

Lights are everywhere in Rosie's world, shining down into every corner and every cranny, outlining a world free from dirt and from dust. Rosie always can see everything around her room; one of the walls is made entirely of plastiglass, which the nurses have carefully explained won't break or scratch or tear no matter what happens. The other walls are padded. Rosie likes them like that because it means she can dance as much as she wants, whenever she wants, whirling around with her sister until they both get so dizzy that they stumble and all fall down.

They live in a room with one big window and one little door. Most of the time, they never have to leave, except whenever it's time to play. A nurse always comes to fetch them at the proper hour and help them get ready. Rosie knows the routine. The bar above the little door turns from white to blue; the handle clicks, and the door opens inwards, leading them through a tunnel into the hall, a tunnel that billows and flexes like a plastic caterpillar.

But when they aren't at playtime, they stay inside. Rosie doesn't get tired of being inside, because everything she needs is in her room. There are plenty of pillows, all stacked up together like a warm nest she can burrow into, and enough blankets to keep her warm from head to toe. The nurses bring new clothes when her old ones are dirty. Sometimes the doctors tell her and Posie to play with toys, and they measure which ones break first.

Posie is the best toy of all, though. She's beautiful, like a doll, and Rosie loves her -- loves her more than anything else in the perfect-white world they're in, where the air is always clean and cool.

Her sister tells her to look up. Rosie hasn't been paying attention.

Mr. Iggy is waiting on the other side of the window. He's brought breakfast. Breakfast comes in plastic bowls with plastic spoons, because metal becomes tarnished after it's in their room for too long. The spoons are wide and flat, and Rosie prefers it that way because they fit better in her hands. Sometimes she feeds Posie that way, spoonful-by-spoonful, milk dripping down Posie's chin. Her sister always makes such a mess, but Rosie likes to clean her up anyway, catching each little splash.

He toddles over to the shuttle box; the plastiglass rectangle juts out along one half of the window-wall, smooth and rounded on the edges and adorned with sleek lights that glare whenever Rosie tries to put her fingers inside. The box slides open. Mr. Iggy balances carefully as he reaches up, depositing the tray inside, his muscles extending like a stretchy blob of rose-colored fat.

Mr. Iggy is made of meat, Rosie knows. Cereal is good, and Posie is good, and fruit-cups are also good, but Rosie remembers more foods than just what the hospital gives her, and she knows that Mr. Iggy Piggie would taste sweet in her mouth.

He hurries away before she can convince him to put himself through the box, so Rosie settles with slumping beside Posie, and fits the curve of her sister's ear against her lips. Her sister tastes like medicine and rum, like their grandmother used to give them whenever Posie had a cough.

"I'm hungry," she whispers, except that she's not -- not really. Not in the stomach, which is normal hunger, but in the head. The same kind of itch crawls around in the back of her skull as an earthworm burrowing through wet loam. She could mention it to the doctors; she should, because they always want to know if anything changes, but the feeling vanishes whenever she tries to pin it down. And besides. It's fine, because Posie understands what she means, understands what the whimper translates to when Rosie makes an unhappy, mewling sound against her sister's scalp.

She disentangles herself eventually, and pads over to the box. They have toast and jam today. The food tray has an entire fresh orange for her and Posie to split. Rosie lets her sister have half.

She eats until her stomach is full, and Posie's is too, and then she wipes her mouth clean and goes back to sleep.


The next time she wakes up, it's to the tune of a tinny shriek being piped into her head, a looping cacophony of shrill bells and whoops and wails. Her hands are hurting again. It's a sneaky little ache that's crawling up both arms and makes her want to chew off her fingers, and Rosie hopes the nurses come soon.

The sirens keep ringing.

Rosie knows the rhyme. The nurses have taught it to her, so she can help take care of Posie too. She doesn't know if this is the right time for it, so she sings it, again and again under her breath, just to be sure. Lights are green, you can be seen. Lights are red, she whispers, stay in bed.

Stay in bed.

Stay in bed.

But now the lights are a strange, sickly amber, and Rosie cannot remember what that color means.

Suddenly the alerts shut down, one by one -- bang bang bang -- in a decreasing rhythm. Pressure locks open with a wheeze of fresh air. Distantly, she can hear the tinny voice of the automatic warning system advising residents to go about their normal business. The amber glow fades from the ceiling, replaced by the normal cool whites. Whatever disaster was on the brink of happening is over now.

A breakfast tray has been left outside their room. Mr. Iggy did not put it through this time. One of the drinking glasses has been turned over, spending juice in a sticky grape clot over the dishes. Some spilled into the cereal bowls. The milk has turned a sickly lilac from contamination.

Posie's stomach is rumbling, though, and grape-flavored milk can't be too bad when there isn't any other option, and Rosie is hungry as well. That decides it.

The shuttle box was left on the outside, though. This is a problem. In all her time at the hospital, Rosie has never been able to figure out how to make the box go back and forth without someone on the other side. Even if she could get it to open, there's still the problem of getting breakfast inside. Her arms are very big and long and winding, but Rosie doesn't think even she can reach the tray where it rests on the ground.

She's busy trying to figure out how to tie her bedsheets together and then maybe have them turn into something useful when a door opens further down the corridor, and a boy comes through.

He doesn't run away when he sees Rosie, like some of the newer nurses do. He's not even dressed in the right uniform either. Most of the people who come to visit Rosie wear clean white coats, or clean puffy white suits, or just white jackets that run from high-necked collars all the way down to their toes. This boy's clothes are brown. His hair is brown, and his shirt is brown, and the three big buttons on his jacket are as shiny as mirrors.

The boy crouches in front of the transparent wall separating Rosie's room from the hall. He doesn't look like a nurse or a guard or one of the long-throated doctors who hum and hover around her room. He looks younger, wilder around the face, like an animal unskinned and dressed in false leathers.

"Are you another patient?" she whispers.

Distant sirens whistle and click. The boy smiles.

"I'm the hero."


Jack's eyes are yellow as gold.

The color reminds Rosie of sweetened pear juice, or half-sucked butterscotch candies. They're gold like -- like the warning lights, she thinks suddenly, even though the comparison isn't quite right.

She reaches up to touch them, and her fingers rest against the thick glass instead.

Jack is busy with things on the other side of the window. He examines Mr. Iggy's tray with interest, extending a gloved finger to peer at the contents. "Is this yours?"

Rosie leans closer. "It's our breakfast."

One by one, Jack turns over the pill cups; he pauses to squint at the stamp on the bottom of one, the tip of his finger tracing over the ornate C. His voice is distracted. "Ours?"

"My sister," she explains, mildly annoyed that he hasn't acknowledged Posie yet; Posie stirs, sitting up from where she was sleeping on Rosie's leg, and Jack starts.

Rosie ignores the boy's reaction. It's not his fault if he didn't expect someone as pretty as her sister to be there. "Do you want to try one?" she offers instead, generously. "I can share. The nurses say I should eat them all up, but I know they'll be happy if I share."

Jack responds with a smile back, selecting one of the green pills for study. "All right. How about this one?"

Confident from the boy's acceptance, Rosie perks up. "Those are my favorite," she declares abruptly, even though all of them are okay. "If you like them, I can ask the nurses to bring more for the next time you're here?"

At first Rosie likes her idea; if Jack likes the pills, he might come back for more. But instead of equal enthusiasm, Jack only shakes his head and slips the medicine into a pocket.

"I think you shouldn't tell them this time, Rosie," is his calm suggestion. "Something this fun should be a secret just for the two of us. Just for you and me."

"And Posie," she adds, stubbornly.

"And Posie," the boy agrees after a thin-lipped moment, a corner of his mouth tight.

Jack's fingers claim one of the orange circle pills, mercilessly enveloping it inside his knuckles, rolling it around until it's gone and his palm is lightly coated with bitter dust. It's a neat magic trick -- Rosie scoots closer to try and figure out how it was done, but she can't get any closer than she already is now, smushed up against the glass.

Jack fiddles with her breakfast for only a little while more before finally picking it up with both hands, getting to his feet with a sigh. She thinks about warning Jack that the shuttle box doesn't like to open for everyone, but his hands are already working on the controls, and the lid yields to him with a placid beep.

The disinfectant sprays turn on as he pops open the box open. Jack flinches away, covering his nose automatically, and there's a trill of butterfly-quick notes that springs up from underneath his coat.

"It's only fresh air," Rosie sings out, crawling along her side of the window and waiting impatiently for him to finish sliding the tray through. She doesn't want to be impolite, but it feels like hours since she woke up hungry, and the cereal's been sitting out long enough that it's turned into purple grape juice mush. She ends up salvaging the toast.

She's so busy picking through the remains of breakfast that she almost misses Jack getting ready to leave. He hoists a bag gingerly over his shoulder -- a heavy canvas sack that bulges in strange places -- and gives a worried glance in the direction of the hall door.

"Our secret?" he reminds her with a conspirator's lilt, and Rosie hunkers down over her breakfast, thinking about marmalade eyes on cinnamon muffins.

"Our secret," she giggles, and then he is gone.


For a while, Rosie does not see Jack. He must have gone back to his own room. Rosie doesn't get many visitors, so she isn't sure if she should feel sad or not; none of them have requested her not to talk about them, so Rosie doesn't know what to do.

Posie doesn't have any ideas on the subject.

The nurses are quick to promise new songs when Rosie says she has finished all the old ones. They say that the playrooms are not available for Rosie and Posie to visit, but they don't explain what kind of accident happened to make them off-limits. She hopes that they will bring rhymes about boys with golden eyes, but she remembers her promise not to tell, and accepts whatever they sing to her.

One afternoon, the nurses are late.

Rosie has almost given up all hope for Story Hour when one of the doors in the hallway chimes open. The nurse who comes into view is shorter than the others, but that's not the only difference: this nurse is limping. Rosie is about to call out and ask what is wrong, why is the lady keeping her chin tilted down so her bangs are falling across her nose in a brown clump and making it hard to see her face -- but then the nurse shuffles in front of Rosie's room, and comes to a halt.

Then the nurse turns her head and pulls off her cap, and it's Jack again, coming into focus around the edges of himself as if he has just peeled off a layer of someone else's skin, revealing his own flesh underneath. The one thing he wouldn't be able to conceal is his eyes, Rosie thinks. She should have been able to recognize him anywhere just by looking at them, if she hadn't been too busy staring at his clothes.

"You make a very pretty girl," she says honestly.

Something underneath Jack's jacket snickers, and Jack soothes it with a pat of his hand, fingers protectively cupped -- like he has a butterfly in there, fluttering its wings so delicately that they might be crushed against the linings of his coat.

At first Rosie wonders if she's said something wrong, but Jack bows gallantly instead. "A hero does what is necessary."

He unfolds himself piece by piece then, pulling off the white nurse's coat and shaking out his familiar brown jacket instead. "I haven't found your records yet," he comments, distracted as he works. "Mr. Boots is a worthier adversary than I thought. Tell me, Rosie." As he carefully hitches the familiar leather pouch over one shoulder, a tiny pair of hands stretches out from underneath the flap, gripping a fold of his coat. "What exactly is happening in this place?"

Rosie blinks at the new inquiry. She hasn't heard anyone speak of the hospital as if it's anything more than a nice place for her and Posie to live in, and it's funny to think that there might be something wrong. She searches her memory; snatches of conversation drift back, scattered about her time in the Clean Room. "The doctors say that everything is... is progressing," she vocalizes carefully, not liking the shape of the word on her tongue, its sibilance, "on track?"

The status means nothing to her, but Jack frowns.

She likes how Jack leans against the partition when he asks his next question: something about how often she's getting her lunches these days. If the window wasn't there, she would be whispering directly into Jack's ear, but instead their bodies are flat against the wall between them. She can feel -- distantly -- the heat of his arm, and see the curve of his throat inches away. If she lowers her voice again, she might be able to make him come closer.

She presses her mouth nearer to the glass, leaving rings of fog behind.

Jack is careful not to touch the glass with his own cheek; he places a brown-leather glove between his face and the wall, so there's not even a smudge of oil from his hair left behind. Not like Rosie, who leaves an off-round nose print, matched by Posie, who scoots up to join her. "Have you been outside your room very much, Rosie?"

"Sometimes." She doesn't know what's important to her new friend, so she lists everything anyway, just in case. "Sometimes the nurses bring us to the Clean Room. Posie doesn't like it there. She says it's too cold."

"Does your sister ever talk?"

Automatically, Rosie covers Posie's hand with her own. Posie burrows closer against her. Rosie doesn't like it when people start looking at her sister funny, but Posie seems drowsy still, boneless as a warm cat about to slide back into a nap.

That's enough reassurance, and Rosie's worries are sated. "I can answer for both of us," she promises stubbornly anyway, just in case Jack gets any funny ideas.

Jack inclines his head in agreement. "Do you know anything about a girl named Gretel?" The questions are patient, but something in his wild, hungry face is not; there is a tension in the boy's smile that draws his lips up a little too high around his teeth, even though his voice does not change at all. "What about a girl named Red?"

Rosie fidgets, not trying to reveal her boredom. It's not fun to talk about other people. Jack should be asking about Posie, or about Rosie, or telling more stories about the Outside. But answering questions is better than him finding someone else to talk to, so Rosie listens to the list of demands.

The tiny face appears again over Jack's shoulder. As Rosie watches, its miniature nose wrinkles up, and gives a disdainful sniff.

"I haven't met either of them before," she insists, wondering if the creature is like Posie, if Jack has someone important to him as well that he brings with him wherever he goes. She can understand that -- a little -- except that the other girl doesn't look as nice as Posie, or as friendly.

Whenever Rosie has something she needs to get rid of, she puts it down the disposal chute in the corner of her room. The chute is full of funny-smelling steam that makes her feel sick if she breathes it too long, but every time she puts her dishes down the chute, they go away and she never sees them again. Once Rosie wondered how much the disposal could hold, and stuffed the top sheet of their bed, the middle sheet, two pillows, and one of Posie's shoes down before getting tired and resting; when she woke up, everything had been replaced with things that were new.

She wonders what would happen if she put the little girl on Jack's shoulder down there, if he would notice. Rosie is much better conversation than the other girl. It would only take a few seconds to get rid of her, and then she'd never come back.

"What's her name?" she asks on impulse, pointing a finger straight at the creature.

Jack turns his head to follow the direction, smiling as he realizes what she's referring to. His mouth turns secretive; the expression is shared by the miniature girl, as smug and warm and sweet as honeyed peaches.

"Israfel," he murmurs, and Rosie has the sudden conviction that he does not say any other person's name like that, and never will.


Jack disappears before the hour is over, covering Israfel gently with a fold of the nurse's jacket despite her dulcet squeal of protest.

Rosie spends the rest of the day scowling at the wall.

She distracts herself by braiding her sister's hair. The plaits come out too tight, tiny and irregular, and Rosie forces herself to calm down and brush until everything's straight and clean. Clean, clean, clean, she chants, just like the nurses like to remind her with their disinfectant sprays and lotions and facemasks.

She sleeps with her fingers in Posie's hair, limbs tangled together like always, her chin tucked into her sister's shoulder.

Her nap is broken later by an erratic beeping near the plastiglass window. It's Jack again, but he didn't wake her up first this time; apparently whatever he wanted to work on doesn't require Rosie's conversation to be a part of it. Israfel is nowhere in sight, but Jack's satchel is on his shoulder, so Rosie assumes the little girl is hiding there somewhere.

She squishes her face against the panel, but the angle is hard, and she can't see what Jack's hands are fiddling with.

"What are you doing?"

"Looking at the lock on your door," he answers reasonably, the full of his concentration upon his task. Another series of beeps floats by, followed by a blaring squawk. Jack does not hit the keypad from frustration, but an ugly cloud crosses his face. He balls up his hand and presses his knuckles against the wall, very slowly, and very firmly.

When he turns towards her, his stare is no less intent, but it's resumed being charming once more. "Do you ever think about leaving your room, Rosie?"

Rosie's fingers leave grey smears on the panel as she pulls them away. "I do go. Lots of times."

"Of course you do. I mean," Jack clarifies, smiling, "without a nurse."

The idea is strange, and uncomfortable. The nurses have always told Rosie never to leave her room by herself -- not even if her sister is with her, no exceptions, no breaking the rules. Rosie likes being a good girl. It's especially important because she has to be able to take care of Posie, who doesn't pay enough attention to keeping her clothes tied and her hair back and everything in place.

"I'd have to ask Posie," she hedges, wondering if saying no will mean that Jack will go away forever this time, disappointed because Rosie will not travel places like Israfel will.

The thought squirms around in her head after Jack has left. The nurses have not been visiting as often now, and in the empty hours left behind, Rosie has nothing to do but think. With the nurses away, she finds herself wondering. Maybe if she did go outside, she and Posie could see for themselves where Jack is exploring, what he's doing, who he's looking for. There are names that Jack has listed: Red, Muffet, Hansel. Maybe if she found out about them, she'd have something to tell Jack the next time he visits.

Maybe he'd even ask her and Posie to help him.

She finds herself wondering.


The warning lights are on again when Rosie wakes up. This time they are red, red as cherries or as Rosie's hair when it's wet, or Posie's shoes.

"Jack?" she whispers, leaning against the glass. Posie joins her there, her gaze searching in wordless concern, and that's when Rosie sees it.

The hallway is empty.

The doorway out of their room is ajar.

Rosie takes her sister's hand.