Wood and Steel

By Laura Schiller

Based on: Uglies

Copyright: Scott Westerfeld

Ellie finds Sol in his workroom, trying to wrestle a five-foot sculpture into the hole in the wall.

"Material not recognized. Unable to recycle."

Sol swears, throws the sculpture to the floor, and picks up a chainsaw.

"Stop!" Ellie runs over to him, shouting over the roar of the saw, and taps him twice on the shoulder before he even notices.

He whirls around, pushing the safety goggles off his face. His silver hair sticks out like a hedgehog's quills. His distinguished middle-pretty face is twisted into a look she hasn't seen on him since they were uglies: rage and disgust.

"What are you doing?"

"It's trash," he says. "It's all trash. Look at it. I've been making the same pieces of kitsch for thirty freaking years."

Her first instinct is to protest. She loves his artwork, always has. But when she looks around, with the new perception given to her by what would later be called the "mind-rain", sadly, she can see what Sol means.

He works with wood. Never cut, of course; strictly deadfall, gathered up on walks along the greenbelt or provided by the Rangers. That's why the hole in the wall can't recycle most of his work. The touch of wildness in the sculptures, the visible grain, the smell, used to attract both praise and controversy in the city's art world. "Authentic", they called it. "Primitive." "Visceral."

But all she can see now is "pretty": kittens, owls, hedgehogs, dancing couples, bodies, faces, furniture. All as perfect and symmetrical as he could make them. Nothing at all like the clumsy carvings he used to make for her, that she has treasured all her life.

"You can … you can make something new, can't you?" Ellie falters.

"Don't be ridiculous." Seeing the look in her eyes, his face softens. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean … " He puts down the chainsaw and braces himself on a nearby table with both hands, as if his thoughts carried a physical weight to bow him down.

"We were happy before," he says, so softly she can barely hear him. "Why couldn't she have left well enough alone?"

A few weeks ago, Ellie would have had to ask whom he meant. But with her brain functioning properly, she can guess immediately that Sol is referring to their daughter.

Tally. Ellie still can't think of her without a stab of pain.

"You realize that at least some of this is our fault, don't you?" she says bitterly. "We're the ones who sent her back to that Cable woman. We convinced her to have the operation, even though she was obviously reluctant. Do you think she knew? Even back then?"

Tally's face that day is a blur, which terrifies her. Surely she should remember her own daughter's face, lesions or no lesions? The black-eyed, sharp-boned, scarred and flash-tattooed woman Ellie sees on the newsfeeds is nothing but a terrifying stranger. Is there anything left of her little girl?

"How should I know?" Sol lets out a sarcastic laugh. "She never told us anything. We lost her the minute she turned thirteen."

"We should have kept up with her. Asked questions. Found out what was going on inside her head."

"The overthrow of civilization, apparently."

"But can you blame her?" It's Ellie's turn to get annoyed, for the first time in longer than she can remember. "Brain damage, Sol, is not what I'd call civilization!"

"What, so you'd rather feel like this?"

He gestures sharply between them, at the argument they're having, at all the guilt and fear and anger and other complications. Something about that gesture, though, the graceless abruptness of it, reminds her of how he was at fifteen. He'd been the smartest person in her class, able to out-talk even his teachers in debates, whch drove them crazy, and she worshiped him.

She remembers him giving her a seagull made of clay, wings spread wide, eyes narrowed as if against a fierce wind.

"You wish you could fly too, don't you?" she asked him then. "Not just on a hoverboard around the city. Just naturally. Everywhere."

"Yes. Yes!" He caught her by the shoulders and grinned, a smile so intense it almost blinded her. "You get it. I knew you would! You're the only one in this brain-missing city with any sense."

They have been married for twenty years. So why does it feel as if Sol, her Sol, has been missing for all this time and she finally has him back?

She wipes away her tears and steps closer.

"Yes," she says. "I'd rather think my own thoughts any day."

"Doesn't that scare you?" Sol's voice cracks, just like it used to, all traces of middle-pretty complacency gone. "I'm scared. I'm so scared of what I've been thinking for the past few days. She … Ellie-wa, they turned our daughter into a Special. What was she doing, all those months? What did they make her do? She was in a war zone!"

His voice is sandpaper-rough with unshed tears. She throws her arms around him and lets him cry.

"Sh, Sol-wa, it's okay," she whispers. "She got free, remember? She was always so contrary, just like you. Looks like it finally came in useful. She freed herself, and now we have to do the same. It won't be easy. But we have to try, for her sake."

She breathes in his smell of pine sap and wood shavings, feels the softness of his hair as she smoothes it down. All these details she hasn't noticed in years, dulled by the fog of the bubblehead lesions, suddenly bright and sharp. How she loves him.

How grateful she is, despite everything, to her criminal daughter.

If only they could see her again.

"I have an idea," Sol says abruptly, stepping back to hold her at arm's length. Underneath the tears, there's a wild gleam in his hazel eyes. "My next carving – guess what it's going to be."

"What?"

"A wolf. Running. You know, like it's on a hunt. Fangs so sharp you could cut yourself on them. But the eyes … they'll be human."

Ellie closes her eyes and sees it at once. She shivers. It will be the most beautiful thing he's ever made, and also the most frightening.

Tally would be proud.