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The boy walked the path behind the farm that was his home. Past the chomping tractors and the lowing of calves bubbling into the air, humid with cud dew. The wool on the boys' toes dampened as he slid between rows of corn stalks sprouting green above their amputated mothers.
He entered the glade and slapped bugs on his forearms. He smelled the cut lumber from the plot of adolescent pines his neighbors the Millers had just shaved off their land. He walked on a mowed lane between the Millers' farm and his family's and somehow his thoughts caught on the Stuhls.
The boy was in the same grade as Grant Stuhl and they had played together once in kindergarden at Grant's family's home in the trailer park near town. Grant's sister Carmen had been four at the time. Her black hair curved like a bell around her face. He remembered her with something dark smudged acrost her cheek, like a smushed grape or ant. He remembered her through a crack in the splintering plywood door to her and Grant's room.
And what happened to her - just awful. There had been an accident. Carmen came back to school, too deformed even for the mean kids to tease her, just a small armor of light metals and durable plastics. There was one chamber for her head, one for her torso, two hinged together for each arm and each leg. They percolated into each other every ten minutes or so, the teacher raising her voice over the bubbling and suctioning and the other kids pretending not to hear it. The acids would recombine and change hue, from ginger ale to manilla to sudsy red clay.
What a wieight for the Stuhls, the boy thought as he sat on one of the Millers' fresh stumps. It was only a matter of time before something went wrong. The teachers had told every class that the armor was experimental, to be gentle with Carmen. There had already been several near misses. Some acid would leak and the kids would run away from the puddle screaming and they say they had to pour filler into the hole of the head hatch to make up for what was lost. There was no place that could make more of the substance, it had all been squeezed from Carmen's matter in one terrible instant. The more the acid was watered down, the less Carmen there was fizzing in the chambers. Her robot voice dragged like a slowed tape, sometimes she would turn away from a question, not being able to process the idea in it.
The cicadas started while the boy had been thinking and he heard them now. He hadn't known it when he walked out his back door, but this was why he head come out here, to hear them sing, to get his feet wet. It had all sealed over with snow and now here it was unwrapped for him, just for him it felt like. He looked at the other stumps and wanted to see trees standing out of them. The pines had been ten years older than him and still they hadn't been big like the ones in the deep woods. How long do they have to grow to get big, if they weren't big at 19?