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  • The Unwilding
  • Rebecca Nison (bio)

Tonight Flora will free her twin brother from his cage.

Their mother zonks herself out on sleeping pills every night, but Dad's so soft a dozer that a single jangle could catapult him awake. Five keys biting into Flora's fist, shouldering a bag of crucial supplies on one side and a bag of mangoes on the other, she is a delicate balancing act. She's always been clumsy: a small, bumbling girl with big, unsteady hands and fingernails ragged from picking. She slides the three keys into the three mouths of the three dead bolts of the basement door and tiptoes downstairs, where dozens of humidifiers wheeze moisture into the air.

In her bag of crucial supplies: Culver Ochs's Becoming the Fittest: Survive the Wild (14th edition), a fleece blanket, rope, two thermoses, a Swiss army knife, postcards, magazine clippings, one notebook two-thirds filled, one pen, a Sea World cap, and a bottle of crushed pills, the label peeled off.

Flora has allowed herself one indulgence: a ring with a stone the color of skies before rain, left to her by long-estranged Gran Odella. Though she's been raised to believe that superstitions are bunk—"pacifiers for the stupid," her mother calls them—tonight, Flora chooses to think of this ring as a good-luck charm. A talisman. A reminder of where she's headed, the new world to come.

Tonight Flora will free her twin brother from his cage and shepherd him to the wilderness where he belongs.

Behind the bars that contain him, the thriving leaves of monsteras are as large and intricate as tortoise shells. Heart-of-flame bromeliads live proudly up to their names. Ferns taller than Flora's waist sway in the manufactured breeze of the industrial fan.

As twins go, these two share few resemblances. Three weeks ago, Flora graduated as valedictorian of her high school class. At eighteen [End Page 19] years old, Penn couldn't point out the letter A or decipher a single word from the speech she gave at that podium. If he were somehow offered a seat in their father's seventh grade American history class, he would flunk out (to say the least). Though he holds all of history within him, Penn Harlan Morrow can't recite a single sentence about the past.

Ask Penn what country he lives in. Ask him the definition of nation. Ask him What is 1+2? He'd have no answers. He has no concept of war. He's never even seen an expanse of land. If you were to show him the real sun in the real sky, he might wrinkle his sloped forehead and hoot long and high in confusion. Offer him a view of the waxing crescent moon, and he'd swipe at the thing, try to pull it down from the sky and chow down on it. Over seventeen years have passed since he's been above ground. At that point, he had no eyes or ears.

Biologically speaking, Flora Dash Morrow is, and has always been, an ordinary human—but her twin is unnamable. As far as she knows, no similar creature has ever roamed the earth. According to her best guess, Penn's currently something like a Sahelanthropus tchadensis, the common ape ancestor of humans and chimps. Right now he's curled up in a nest of leaves on a thick branch of the truncated Ugandan ironwood Dad installed here months ago. For most of his life, Penn hasn't slept in anything even this vaguely resembling a bed.

Penn's hands and fetal position and hominid face exhilarate Flora. He's come such a long way.

A few months ago, Penn was a breed of monkey that hasn't traipsed the earth in millions of years. At their seventeenth birthday, he was a long-extinct lemur-like creature. According to their parents, both Flora and her brother were born at the same moment—she, a screeching baby girl of seven pounds two ounces, and he, a single-cell bacteria stuck inside a drop of liquid clinging to her newborn cheek. Too microscopic to be seen...


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pp. 19-32
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