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CHAPTER ONE

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My mother's favorite old-world house is haunted, I'm sure of it. When the sun hits it just right, the shadows of the ornate wooden banister look like a person reaching out for something, and the creak in the front door is like a voice, whispering a language at me that I can't understand. I've theorized ghosts before in the past, but on my daily visits to watch the sunrise, I have never actually seen one. But I've never felt quite alone either. I've felt comfort—the kind my mother used to give me. The kind I don't feel too often anymore except here.

There's no relief from the cold beneath the caved-in roof. I shiver as I navigate through the entryway, stepping over stray shingles. I'm nowhere near dressed for the weather, wearing only flannel pajamas and my mother's corduroy jacket. Tomorrow, I'll bring a blanket, although I know at some point soon, when the winter comes, I'll have to stop coming, at least until the temperatures rise again. It won't be this week, however. I'll muster through as long as I can. Watching the sunrise from my own bedroom window just isn't the same.

Once I get to the center of the room, I stop and lie down on my back, looking up and out at the sky. It's a perfect view. I never paid much attention to sunrises growing up. If I'm honest, I always missed them. Like most, I slept in, awakening to a sky already gray and a morning well under way. But after my mother left, a newfound restlessness took her place. Now, whether I like it or not, I watch dawn break every morning.

It's nothing sensational. A mixture of pale orange and lavender that appears brownish the poorer the air quality. I hear it's always this way in Notness, where they've stripped most of their land clean to build manufacturing plants. At least we in Eldae get the essence of colors, faint as they may be. Today's is the usual muted tangerine, getting more and more beige by the second. So pollution is bad today, I register. Good to know.

Few works of literature from the old world survived the End, but in one of them—a small poem found tucked within a cookbook with its byline ripped off—the sunrise is described to be vibrant. Vivid. With pinks and reds and indigo, streaked across the sky like a painting. Some mornings I look up through the roof at the brown and recite some lines of the poem in my head, and it baffles me how at one point, hundreds of years ago, the sunrise actually looked that way. But the world was different back then. We call it the old one for a reason.

We're taught the lesson of the End every year in school, to make sure we never forget. It began with a string of natural disasters—fires, earthquakes, and mass floods that rose high enough to engulf full countries. Quarrels as to who was to blame broke out between the remaining nations, which escalated into a full-scale nuclear war. Nearly everything and everyone was decimated.

But it was not a full apocalypse. Those who survived crawled out from the rubble, picked themselves up, and resolved to make good use of the last livable pieces of land left. They sought to create a new world—one more peaceful than that before it. Instead of breaking apart into separate nations like before, they formed a single country which they named Delicatum—a reminder of the delicate balance between us and this land. Delicatum has a single sovereign leader, to be elected every half decade as per the people's choice. This was all very important to our founders: the single country, the single leader, the unity in it. For if history has taught us anything, it is that the more countries and leaders and general separation, the more potential for conflict.

Delicatum is comprised of three united states, each serving its own purpose for the country. The largest state is Notness, which takes up most of what used to be the middle and western parts of North America. They specialize in manufacturing all of our commodities, with thousands of factories spanning the spacious land. And while many sovereigns have certainly attempted to push for more environmentally friendly means of production, the whole country lives under a near-constant shroud of smog.

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