Monthly Archives: April 2020

CampNaNoWriMo; The Twelve Chapter Two

Ask and ye shall receive, my fellow quarantined friends. Enjoy!

THE TWELVE: CHAPTER TWO

The Great War exploded the year before my mother died, when I was six. I only know of the war what I have learned in my church history classes; I barely remember my life before. Government debt in the states had spiraled out of control. The then-President was sending the military to countries where our country had no business being. The leadership of what was then The Sect thought that they could handle the country better. The Great War ensued, where the The Sect leaders eliminated those who were not supportive of the good of the country as a whole. The people, rising up behind the The Sect because they favored a decrease in debt, gave The Sect the forces they needed to propel their plan forward. When the government fought back, it was slowly eliminated; this resulted in the disintegration of many cities that refused to cave in to the new way that was taking over. The population of the country greatly decreased. The loss of the government as the country had known it resulted in the creation of The Sect, the front arm of The Sect and a governing force over all of the citizens of the basin. The last remaining survivors of our species.

The Sect resides in what used to be Estes Park, Colorado. Prior to the Great War, it was the base camp for the Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a village, but one that catered to resort life and mountain adventures. It was a large tourist attraction, surrounded as it is by mountains. But now it is nothing more than a mountain headquarters, a place for The Sect to be secluded, yet still able to maintain control. Their leadership expands from our main headquarters of The Sect all the way across the Estes Park basin. Many small settlements litter the mountains, but I never leave The Sect. I have no reason to.

Our school is located in a big hotel that used to be called The Stanley. It was the set of a movie once where a man killed a lot of people; this is not a movie we would ever be allowed to see. People would come from miles around to take ghost tours through it. I have never seen a spook, not once in ten years, or at least not one that wasn’t toting The Book. The complex is surrounded entirely by trees with no view of the surrounding area down below. Our classes are held in rooms throughout the building; all of the children of The Sect stay in dormitory like sections within the hotel. There is a large playground in the back yard with a view of the mountains where the childcare women take the children to play. After today, I will be one of them. I will be graduating from the program.

“Good morning.” Beaty tapped her desk with a pen as I entered the classroom.

“Good morning, ma’am.” I had learned from the beginning how to behave properly. How to answer right away, and more importantly, speak to my elders and to men only when spoken to. I had always been a fast learner; Beaty told me that frequently.

I took my place among the other students. There were twelve of us in all. I was the last one to arrive.

Beaty stood up and walked around to the front of her desk, slapping her pen against the palm of her hand. “Now that we’re all here,” she said with a pointed look at me, “let’s begin.”

I checked my watch—I wasn’t late. I was two minutes early.

“Today, you will be graduating from the program into adulthood.”

We exchanged looks but remained silent. She was not directly addressing any of us in particular.

“At graduation, you will receive your assignments for your function within our workforce. In one week, you will attend your Combining, and will learn who your rest-of-life partner will be. I have faith that you have all studied well and will be positive assets to The Sect, both in propelling our society forward and helping to spread our good word to those who still remain outside of it, as few as they may be.” She looked at each one of us in turn. “The most important thing that you can do now, as adults, will be to uphold the tenants of The Book and of The Sect, and to make everything you do for the glory of our society.”

Beaty went into the coat closet and rolled out a rack of white graduation gowns. “These are one size fits all robes,” she explained. “You will wear them through the ceremony to signify that your purity and your dedication to The Sect.” After a pause, she added, “Does anybody have any questions before we get ready?”

After glancing around the room at each other, we all shook our heads. We got up as a unit and went to the rack, each of us taking a white robe and pulling it over our clothes.

“Can you help me fasten the back button?” my friend Maria asked, turning to face away from me. I obliged, and then turned so she could also fasten mine.

“Thank you,” I said.

She nodded back at me and turned to see where Beaty was. Upon noticing she had stepped into the hall, Maria whispered, “Who do you think we will be Combined with? How do you think they choose?”

I shrugged, my eyes on Beaty’s back as I whispered back, “I’m not sure that’s for us to know.”

She nodded in understanding and turned to help another girl with her robes. Once the twelve of us were all fully gowned, we formed a line at the door and stood in silence as we had been taught since kindergarten. We followed Beaty down the hall, our white robes trailing along the red carpet, down the hallway and down the stairs. In the main room of the building, in front of the old gray stone fireplace, were lines of folding chairs filled with students. Only the youngest were talking, sitting in the front and swinging their legs back and forth against the chairs as they were shushed by their teachers. The twelve of us took our seats facing the other students and folding our hands quietly in our laps while we waited.

Beaty greeted the room from her podium, and teachers and students alike fell silent. “First, the boys will become men,” she said. The six boys stood up, and when she called their names they crossed the stage to stand beside her. “Brandon Bane,” Beaty called the first name.  “Construction.” I stopped paying attention and missed the other five; before I knew it the boys were finished. The audience applauded politely and the boys returned to their seats. Beaty moved on to the girls. “Alana Fischer. Culinary. Maria Samuels. Mending.” Three more names, and then it was finally my turn. “Melanie Johnson. Childcare.” I stood up and took my place beside the other girls before my brain could stop me. Children. Childcare. I had never been fond of the little ones, but it was my place to do what The Sect dictated without question. The six of us stood together, girls becoming women, while our fellow students and former teachers applauded our achievement. We took our seats and Beaty closed the program with the same words we had earlier about how we would be good, pure disciples of The Sect and uphold all of the rules established by The Book. I had heard it all so many times, I had to pinch the inside of my arm more than once to stay awake. She closed by directly addressing us: “Tomorrow, you will join the workforce. Tomorrow, you will do us all proud. Even more so than you have today.”

#

As I stared into the small pool of children sitting in the math classroom that day, Beaty’s words from the day before rang in my head. I wasn’t so sure this was for me, childcare. I had reported to the childcare center that morning to find out that I would be responsible for the four and five year olds. I wasn’t the only one in the room; they were not only my responsibility. But it still felt like a lot. I wanted to be successful, but I was uncertain as to my skills or to the level of devotion I could provide to the task. I wasn’t sure I wanted it enough, or that I would even be a good leader. But it was where I had been placed, so it was where I would be.

“Hello.”

A tiny little boy with blonde hair was staring up at me. I knew that the appropriate response was to tell him he needed to wait to speak until spoken to, but he was too cute. I simply replied, “Hello.”

“I’m five.” He held up his hand and spread out his fingers to make sure I could see them all clearly. “One, two, three, four, five.” As he counted out loud, he folded the fingers down into his palm.

I smiled, unsure of how to answer him.

He continued, unaware of my discomfort with our conversation. “Do you know what that means?” He was bouncing up and down on his toes, so I assumed it meant something good.

I sank down into a squat so that I was more on his level. It seemed like the natural thing to do. “I don’t,” I admitted.

“That means I get tested today. Well me and my friends. To find out how smart we are and where we place.”

“That sounds…fun,” I replied after a moment’s hesitation. It didn’t really. But I didn’t know what else to say.

There was a knock on the open door behind me. I rose and turned around to see Beaty behind me. “Good morning,” she nodded to me.

“Good morning, ma’am.”

She said good morning to the other two leaders in the room and then turned back to me. “I’ll need you to help escort the five year olds up to the testing room. Today’s the day we will place them into their new class, provided that they pass their tests. Would you gather them please?”

I nodded, never finding myself more uncertain than I did in that moment. I didn’t know who was five among the children in the room, other than the little boy I’d spoken to. I hadn’t been in the room long enough to even know how many children were in it. If this was a test for me on my first day, it was a test I would fail. “I…” I stumbled.

“Here!” The little boy I had spoken to earlier beamed at me as he waved over eleven other children. “We’re here!”

I raised my hand, trying to appear more authoritative than I felt, and gestured for them to get into a line. They did as I asked without question, all of them seeming as excited as the little boy I had met when I first arrived. “Follow me,” I commanded. They fell in like little ducklings directly behind me as I walked ten paces behind Beaty.

When we arrived in the testing room, they seemed to know what to do without being told. Each of them took a seat, filling up the twelve desks. Beaty stood in the front of the room by the chalkboard, and I folded awkwardly into the corner by the door, unsure of where else to stand. Beaty thrust a stack of papers at me. “Melanie, please distribute these packets to the students.” As I took the papers, I noticed the large stopwatch that was hanging around her neck. “Place them upside down on each desk.” I walked up and down the aisles, doing as I was told, while she addressed the children. “Today, you will take a math test. This test consists of fifty questions to gauge how much you have learned over the course of your beginning education. It will be timed. You have thirty minutes to complete it once the timer begins. You may not ask for help. You may not look at anyone else’s paper.” I returned to the front of the room. “When you are done, turn your paper over and put your head down on your desk.”

The little boy from earlier raised his hand, no longer bouncing.

“Yes?” asked Beaty, pointing in his direction.

“What if I need a pencil?”

“You have two pencils on your desk,” Beaty snapped back, her voice illustrating a loss of patience.

“But what if I need more?” he protested.

Beaty shot the little boy a look that could only be described as condemnation. He was instantly quiet, his chin going down to his chest as his hands folded upon his flipped over test packet. I finished distributing the tests and returned to the front of the room as Beaty held up her stopwatch, clicked the button on top, and called “Begin.”

The children flipped over their booklets, ripping the testing seal off the side, and began frantically scribbling. The timer hung around Beaty’s neck, glowing orange, and I watched the minutes tick away. Thirty minutes didn’t seem like much time for fifty math problems, especially not for a five year old. I wondered what types of problems were in the test book, but I didn’t want to ask to see it unless Beaty offered it to me first. It didn’t seem right; I was not her equal. I didn’t remember taking this test. But maybe I hadn’t. I was not five when I came to The Sect.

“Fifteen minutes,” Beaty called out.

The scratch of pencils against paper increased. A little girl in the front pressed down so hard that her pencil snapped. She quickly threw it to the floor and grabbed a new one with barely a pause in her frantic writing. I looked at the little boy, the only one I had met. He was sitting quietly, no longer writing, but his head wasn’t down. Did that mean he wasn’t done? Or was he simply not following directions? I took a step forward to check on him, but Beaty held out a hand to stop me. When I looked over at her, she shook her head. I stepped back to lean against the wall and wait. The time dwindled down. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

“Time. Flip your booklets over and put your hands behind your head.” Beaty nodded in my direction, which I took to mean I was to collect the books. I stepped forward and went down the aisles grabbing papers while the children held their arms up with their fingers interlocked behind their heads as if they were in trouble. When I got to the little boy, his hands were still folded on top of his test book, not behind his head. I tried to take the booklet, but he wouldn’t lift his hands.

“Brian,” Beaty said from the front of the room. “Please remove your hands from the test booklet and put them behind your head.”

As I watched, his chin began to quiver, but he continued to stare straight ahead without lifting his hands.

“Now, Brian.”

He still didn’t move. I collected the remaining tests booklets and placed them on the desk in front of Beaty, looking to her to figure out what I should do. After dismissing the rest of the children, she crossed the room and slid the booklet out from under his arms. As she flipped through the pages, she noted, “Most of this is blank.”

Brian’s jaw was hard, his teeth ground tightly together, none of the joy from early remaining in his features.

“Why is it blank? You had thirty minutes.” Beaty’s eyes bore into him like knives.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Beaty clutched his booklet in her hands. “You will answer the questions.”

Brian looked at me uncertainly as his fingers tightened around the pencil that was still in his grasp. “Is it too late?” The tremor in his voice broke my heart.

Beaty produced a thick wooden stick from her back pocket and slapped it against her palm. “You will answer the questions,” she said against, emphasizing each word with a whack against her palm.

Brian looked back and forth between Beaty and I.

“Nineteen times two,” Beaty barked.

“I…I…” Brian stammered.

Thirty eight, I willed him to say.

“Thirty six?” It was obviously as the words left his mouth that he knew they were wrong.

Before I could even take a breath, Beaty had struck him across the hand with the wooden stick. Bright lines of blood laced across his knuckles, and he burst into tears. “Nineteen times two.”

He shook his head, tears streaming down his face. He tried to get up, but Beaty ordered me to hold him down in the seat. I complied, placing my hands upon his shoulders. I tried to make my grip as gentle as possible, but he still squirmed underneath me.

“Nineteen times two.”

When Brian didn’t answer, she hit him across the hands again and again. After the first time, he didn’t try to move. He didn’t try to run away, or hide his arms. He seemed to understand that there was no hope. While I watched, his knuckles split and cracked blood ran freely. Brian sobbed so hard that tears and snot streamed down his cheeks and he was gasping for breath.

And then, just as suddenly as it had began, it stopped. Beaty took a step back, her fingers clutching the fabric of his jacket. He stood up and followed her silently out of the classroom while I sank into one of the desks, alone. When I closed my eyes, it hit home that this would be the rest of my life. Forever.

That night after dinner, as I sat alone in my room, I flipped through The Book and searched for some sort of sign, an answer. A reason why. But there was nothing. No magical glowing neon sign that made what had happened to Brian okay. I was used to opening The Book and seeing the answers. But not this time.

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I Lose People, I Lose Myself

Sun came in the windows for a brief moment today. There’s been a lot of gloom. I’m used to being outside. I went from buzzing around all day every day to sitting on my butt in a nest of blankets and pillows playing video games and reading the occasional book. And writing. Sometimes. I’m supposed to be writing. I’ve written some, every day of quarantine, but I’m trying too hard and I know it. I need to work on something else. I need to write but I want to be outside.

The weather is reflective of my mood, though I can’t think of a metaphorical way to say that. It just is what it is. Perhaps the sun too fears the virus; it hides behind clouds and peeks out sporadically to see if the coast is clear. I am reminded of a professor long ago who used to joke about English majors being ready for the zombie apocalypse. When I look outside, when I go outside, that’s what it feels like. The few people who are out wear masks, and those who care queue up six feet apart to enter their destination. They’re talking about creating mass graves in the city parks to deal with the overwhelming number of dead. I never imagined the world would really be like this, despite an upbringing of disaster and horror films. The back of my head echos with thoughts of who the first to zombify will be. As a result, I don’t go outside much. We aren’t supposed to anyway. Stay at home. Social distancing. I’m an introvert, yes, but it still sucks. I miss it. I want to walk and run and breathe fresh air and, for lack of better imagery, frolic in the tulips. Divorced nearly ten years, I find myself in a place mentally that I can’t define, a void where I can’t go out and I can’t see friends and I can’t work. And I can’t go outside.

It feels like my marriage.

My ex-husband wasn’t too keen on the outdoors normally. He was a pretty boy; he spent more time in the mirror getting perfect every morning than I spent in an entire week. He didn’t like to sweat. I’d camped with my grandma a lot as a child, but the ex wasn’t into that. He was, however, into ultimate frisbee. To this day, I don’t know why. The park surrounding the college near where we lived had an amazing frisbee golf course. He called me after my merchandising shift one night to tell me to meet him, and his family, there. He and his brother and his mother and his father and his sister and her maybe by then husband would be playing the entire course. I wasn’t in the mood after a ten hour workday to battle bloodthirsty mosquitos in near darkness when I hadn’t even had dinner yet. But I went. I had to. I was driving his car to work after my recent accident, and I knew he’d want me to drive him home. So I changed in the work bathroom into something more presentable.

The then-husband took my hand when I got there, wove his sweaty fingers into mine and soaked my palm. I could tell by the way he squeezed that I had pleased him. It wasn’t often that he gave me that feeling. I breathed in the dark air, the unidentifiable-to-me tree scents. I took all that for granted back then, when I could go outside whenever I wanted. The most important thing to me then was that the husband was happy. He wrapped an arm around me to pull me in, whispered “I’m winning.”

“I know,” I replied. It seemed like the only thing to say. Anything else that hinted he might not win didn’t feel right. I was in enough trouble. I had to be careful.

I crashed my car on a Sunday afternoon, a few weeks prior. 

The husband and his family were at a concert by the lake in the city where I lived then. Normally I loved concerts. When I was a kid, my grandma would take me to see big band concerts, jazz, symphonies, and the like. But on that particular weekend, sitting in a green camping chair under the white temporary tent, watching the husband press buttons and sliders and try to make the band sound good while everyone praised him for being such a wonderful Christian example and starting his new sound engineering business, it was all too much. I had always thought that because he was a Christian he was good. I didn’t know then that those two ideas weren’t necessarily married, but I was beginning to get an idea. I feigned a phone call from work that urgently needed my attention and promptly got in my car and took off. 

I drove towards the store, fully intending to go there so he’d see me on the GPS. I remember the soundtrack to a “A Walk to Remember” blaring as I opened the car windows to enjoy the 80 degree day, not caring in the slightest that people could hear me singing along with Mandy Moore. It was a straight shot down the rural highway, a maybe twenty minute ride. 

At the third stoplight, a Ford F150 slammed into me from behind. My singing stopped instantaneously as I tried to rapidly process what had happened. The thoughts came quicker than I could hold on to them:

Was this my fault? I was stopped at the red. He smashed me from behind. The husband is going to kill me. Oh god, he’s going to have to leave the gig. What am I going to tell him? How much is this going to cost us? 

I got out of the car. I’d never had an accident before; I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to. My chest, face, hurt where I’d slammed the dash, but the injuries my car had sustained were much worse. The enormous back truck had crunched its way over the truck of my Oldsmobile accordion style. Glass from the back windows was all over the highway.

The truck was driven by an off duty police officer who summoned his coworkers before I really understood what was going on. He claimed I had failed to signal a lane change before stopping at the light, despite the fact that my signal was on. By the time the husband showed up with his entire family in tow, I had been issued a citation for failure to signal and a tow truck had been summoned to remove my totalled vehicle from the road. 

He wasn’t mad. Somehow, he wasn’t mad. We went back to the gig in the family van and packed up all the sound equipment, headed home, and watched “A Walk to Remember.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t my favorite movie anymore. But for the following weeks, he made me pay for my transgression in different ways. A sideways look here. A changed channel there. An off putting comment about the dinner I’d cooked or the long hours I was working, that I couldn’t always go to church on Sundays. He wasn’t working by that point; his budding new business had taken over all of his time yet produced minimal income. He was jealous of me, but I didn’t see that then. 

That felt erased as we stood on the path in the middle of a bug-ridden unlit woods, searching for the next frisbee hoop. He pointed with the frisbee. ‘Think I can make it?”

My answer was automatic. “Of course.”

He didn’t make it. The frisbee bounced off and got lost in the darkness, but I plunged after it without a second thought. Into the bushes I went, scraping my arms on prickers.

“Do you see it?” He made no effort to follow or help me.

As I plunged further in, a branch grabbed my untethered hair and pulled, eliciting a yelp.

“What’s the matter? See a ghost?”

I kept my mouth shut, my fingers closing around the blue plastic disc. Gently disentangling myself from the wooded bark fingers, I slipped back to the path and handed him his treasure. “Try again,” was all I replied. “You can make it.” And he did.

He was the victor of his family unit, and we left the woods hand in hand. He was happy I’d come, happy I’d played along. He liked when I–

A blast of light greeted us in the face as we emerged from the trailhead to the parking lot. Headlights. I’d left his car headlights on. Did he blame it on the ten hour work day, the lack of breaks or food? No, he blamed it on my ever-present idiocy, a fact he drove home without speaking as his nails dug into my palm.

“Let us drive you both home,” his mother insisted when the car wouldn’t start. We lived around the corner from them then so it wasn’t inconvenient.

I knew when he said no that things wouldn’t end well. I feared what would happen in the dark as we waited for the tow truck to arrive with jumper cables. I was right to fear.

I was right to fear then, but am I right to fear now, fear that I can’t go outside, that I might get sick, that the not-real zombies might get me? The fear is different now, but it feels the same today as it did back then, fear of this virus that waits in the unknown, fear of the husband that cracked in the dark. And I don’t know what that means, if my life is any different now than it was then, if I’ve come so far to be the same person I always was, trapped inside without friends and unemployed. I watch an episode of a zombie show where one of the survivors gets the phrase “I lose people; I lose myself” sharpied onto his forehead with permanent black marker. I realize how much I miss a life it took me so long to rebuild, a life quarantine makes me feel like is being erased. I try the words on my tongue, “I lose people; I lose myself.” I hold my furry best friend a little tighter, and I count the days till life might resume again.

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CampNaNoWriMo!!!

I will probably not share all of this, as I would ideally like to edit this old neglected novel for publication, but here is a little taste!

The Twelve, Chapter One

There’s an old saying I heard oncepeople in glass houses don’t throw stones. I never really understood what it meant. Until the day I held that stone in my hand.

“You’re so different now. Someone I don’t recognize.”

I took in Ashley’s face and realized that she too was someone unrecognizable. It had been years since I’d seen her. Nearly ten, to be precise. And suddenly she was here, in front of me. But she wasn’t the little girl with the pigtails that I remembered. “I don’t know you either.”

“That’s exactly it. We were best friends, Lanie. Best. Friends.” Ashley twirled a long strand of hair around her finger and sighed. “I miss you. I miss hanging out. I miss going to school together. I miss all the things. I sneak up here all the time, wanting to see you, to talk to you. And this is the first time I’ve gotten you alone.”

“We could still hang out,” I replied, but it sounded lame even to my ears. And I knew it wasn’t true.

“The Sect has changed you. Ever since you left, you’ve been someone else. I’ve been watching you, this person I don’t know anymore. And I don’t want to know her. I want the old you.” A single tear trickled down her cheek.

I turned away, unwilling to watch but unsure how to defend myself. “It hasn’t changed me. It hasn’t.” My protest sounded weak even to me.

“You were never a follower. The Sect made you one.”

I could feel the eyes on the back of my neck before the person spoke. “There is nothing wrong with that.” Beaty’s voice was calm, authoritative. She placed a hand on my shoulder and forced me to move so that she stood between Ashley and I. “Absolutely nothing. Lanie is an upstanding citizen within The Sect. About to graduate from the education program. A strong future leader. And you, young lady, would be wise to follow her example rather than force her to follow yours.”

Ashley didn’t cower away from Beaty as I would have done, but rather, drew herself to her full height and looked Beaty straight in the eye. “I’m not the one forcing her to do anything,” she spat. “That honor belongs to you.”

I could see the fire in Beaty’s eyes as she grabbed Ashley around the arm and dug in her nails, pulling her forward. “I’m not sure you know who you’re talking to.”

Ashley kept her chin up, defiant. “I know exactly who I’m talking to. We all know who you are.”

“Then you know that women in The Sect should remain silent unless spoken to. Unless told to speak. You are out of line.”

I remained silent, in the background.

Beaty’s nails dug deeper into Ashley’s skin, but Ashley didn’t move an inch. “Fuck. You.” She spat at Beaty’s face.

Beaty took her free hand and swiped it angrily at her cheek before hauling Ashley, against protests, down the pathway towards the square. My mouth suddenly free, I jogged after them crying, “Wait, she doesn’t know any better, I can handle this, I can help her, I can

Ignoring me, Beaty chained Ashley to the stockade. “It’s too late for this girl, Lanie. You can’t save her.”

I shook my head, confused. “But God can save anyone. That’s what you taught me.”

“Not this one, Lanie. She’s different.”

Ashley hung limply, but her eyes still breathed fire. They bored into mine.

“I don’t understand.”

Beaty placed a stone in my hand. “She needs to be taught a lesson. She needs to know that she can’t go against The Sect. She needs to know that what she said is not okay.”

I looked down at the stone in my hand and then back up at Beaty. “I don’t understand,” I said again, weaker this time.

“Speaking against The Sect is a crime that can’t be tolerated. This girl will be stonedand to prove your loyalty, you will be the first to throw.”

I felt the weight of the stone in my hand, more emotional the physical. Beaty took a step back, but I could still feel her breath on the back of my neck, her eyes boring into my skull. Ashley locked eyes with me, and for the first time I could see a flicker of fear behind the fire.

When my stone struck her flesh, that fire died. After the first stone it was easy. I found myself picking up stone after stone after stone as her flesh became bloody and raw. For her disrespect. For her disloyalty. For her anger. For going against The Sect. For going against me.

I didn’t stop throwing until I felt Beaty’s hand on my shoulder. “Good,” she whispered. “Well done, faithful servant.” With a step around me, Beaty moved forward and cut Ashley down. The fire inside her extinguished, Ashley crumbled to the ground and did not move. My hand dropped to my side, and I realized that I was the only one who had had to throw a stone; I had thrown so many, been so consumed, that no one else had joined in. I had faced my temptation and proved my loyalty all by myself. I was once again good in the eyes of God.

I turned around and walked away proudly, not waiting to see whether she lived or died, and went back to my hut and the life that I had earned, knowing that I had proved myself for one more day. I knew that I would never see Ashley again.

I didn’t know then to feel shame.

#

I became a part of The Sect when I was not quite eight years old.

Back then, Ashley and I were best friends. We were in the same class, shared crayons, alternated weekend sleepovers at each other’s houses, the like. That day as we headed home from school, we drifted past the park like we did every other day.

“Let’s go swing!” Ashley grabbed me by the arm and dragged me towards the swing set. She didn’t really give me a choice.

“I need to tell Mommy I’m not coming home. I’m supposed to go straight home. I promised, when she told me I could go to school by myself.” I planted my sneakers in the ground and drew her to a halt.

“Come on,” she whined. “Just for a little bit.”

I looked at the swings and then back at Ashley. I knew Mommy would be mad, but I couldn’t resist. I let my backpack slide off my arm to the ground and joined Ashley on the swings. We were quiet, our legs pumping back and forth.

“Do you think we can touch the sky?” Ashley asked after a few minutes of silence.

I pumped a little harder. “Maybe?” Each time I swung up, I imagined that my feet were touching the clouds. The sun on my face, I closed my eyes to pretend I was bird and pumped and pumped and pumped my legs. I drove myself so high that chain went limp for just a second and I was in free fall. I squealed, and then, picturing that I really could fly, I jumped from the swing.

I was disappointed when my feet hit the ground. There was a minute there, when I was in the air, where it felt like I would go up instead of down. I sank into the dirt as Ashley landed beside me, giggling.

“That was fun!” I laid on my back in the dirt and she laid beside me.

“It was,” she answered, still laughing.

We joined hands and made snow angels in the grass. After another few minutes, I reluctantly admitted, “We should go home. I’ll bet Mommy’s worried.”

“Yeah.”

We sat up slowly and then crossed back to the sidewalk where we’d left our backpacks. I slid my arms into the straps of my bag much more slowly than I had taken them out and we trudged down the sidewalk, suddenly less eager to go home.

“We should do this every day,” Ashley said as the park disappeared behind us.

“That’d be fun. But I’ll have to ask Mommy. To make sure it’s okay.”

“Me too.”

It was much too soon when we found ourselves standing in front of our houses. “So, can you come over tomorrow?” Ashley asked. “We can watch ‘Flash Forward’ and eat popcorn and stuff.”

“Sure!”

We said goodbye, and I jogged up the steps. When I tried the front door, it was locked. I didn’t understand; Mommy was always home when I got home. I tried again, and then leaned over the railing into the bushes to look inside the front window. Everything was dark. I felt around my neck for the key that always hung there. I had never had to use it beforeMommy was always home. I was worried it wouldn’t work. But when I stuck it in the door, the knob turned right away.

“Mommy?” The lights were off as I stepped inside. “I’m home!”

There was no answer.

I flipped the light switch by the front door and dropped my backpack on the ground by the coatrack. “Mommy?” I tried again. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

When she didn’t answer, I decided she wasn’t home. I wondered where she might be, but I wasn’t really worried. I took off my shoes and then went into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. Peanut butter and bananas and a little dab of sugar. But only a little. Mommy would be mad if I had too much. I sat down at the kitchen table and ate my sandwich slowly, trying to remember if I had any homework I was supposed to do. When I was done eating, Mommy still hadn’t returned from wherever she’d gone. I went to the fridge and poured myself a glass of milk and then downed it in three gulps. Still no Mommy. With no homework, I could read my new book; it was about a boy wizard and some sort of stone. Everyone at school was talking about it, but this was the first time I had been able to find a copy in the library. I went to get the book from my backpack and then trudged up the stairs. I was looking forward to snuggling in under my blankets and reading into the night. Or at least until Mommy came home. Then she might read to me, which was fun in a different way. She would give the characters different voices and make them come alive. It was my favorite part of the night.

I got to the top of the stairs, took a few steps, and found myself squishing into the carpet. I wrinkled my nose and took a step back, touching the carpet with my toes again. It was wet. The carpet wasn’t supposed to be wet. As I opened my mouth to call again, to see if Mommy was around, I heard water running in the bathroomMommy was home. Another step forward sent water up around my toes and soaked my socks. “Mommy?” I called, confused. I knocked on the bathroom door. “There’s water everywhere, Mommy.”

There was no answer.

“Mommy, open the door!” I knocked several more times, and then finally just opened the door. It was dark inside the bathroom. So dark, that I didn’t see at first. Mommy was in the tub, and the water was running, running over the sides and onto the floor. It was over the tops of my feet and still sloshing. “Mommy?” I whispered. “You need to shut off the water. You always tell me not to waste water.”

When she didn’t answer, I turned on the light. And then I could see, suddenly, and everything was much too bright.

Mommy was in the bathtub, but her arm was flopped over the side. Open. Red. There was bright red everywhere. The rug by the tub was pink where it used to be white. Red streaked the sides of the tub in the places the water didn’t flow. I reached out, slowly, to touch her. She didn’t move. “Mommy?” I shook her, softly at first, and then harder. Harder. Her head slipped from its resting place into the water, and I had to grab her to keep her from going under. “Mommy, I don’t know what to do!” I was crying as I shook her, again and again. “Mommy, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,” I said over and over.

And then I remembered. In an emergency, you call 911. I dropped her into the water and ran down the hall into her bedroom, where I normally wasn’t allowed, but I was sure that she would make an exception this time. I dialed the number, just like they had shown me in school.

“911. What is your emergency?”

“It’s my mommy,” I cried, “she won’t wake up.”

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” the woman on the phone said. “Can you tell me your address so we can send someone to help your mommy?”

I told her the address, but I knew that it wasn’t okay. I didn’t know how she could say it was. I dropped the phone onto the bed and ran back into the bathroom. Mommy’s head was under water, her hair streaming out like seaweed. I lifted her head up and pressed my face to hers, willing her to wake up, willing her to make bunny noses with me, willing her to do anything. But she wouldn’t. She didn’t.

I reached out with my free hand, the hand that wasn’t behind Mommy’s head, and shut off the water. As I let her go and sank down onto the rug, I realized that the book I had been waiting so long to read was on the ground, in a puddle. Ruined.

 

I don’t know how long it was before the men in uniforms showed up. It could have been a few minutes; it could have been a few hours. When they did come, I thought they would make her wake up. But they didn’t. And it was only after they had pulled her out of the water and laid her down on the ground that somebody thought to take me out of the room. The man led me downstairs and set me down on the couch, and then he started talking on the phone. I remember sitting there for a really long time, uncertain as to what to do. People went in and out all around me, and then I looked up and there was a woman standing in front of me. She was tall, her dark brown hair wrapped on top of her head like a schoolteacher, and she peered down at me in front of her over the top of her glasses.

“Hello,” she said, shoving her glasses back up her nose.

I blinked up at her without answering.

“When an adult says something to you, you should respond.”

I blinked again silently, my eyes following the men in uniforms as they pushed a big bed on wheels behind the woman, a bed with a black bag on it. A body? Mommy?

The woman staring at me cleared her throat. “Let’s try this again. Hello.”

I watched as the men pushed the bed out the door and it shut behind them. The house was suddenly much quieter. I wondered where Ashley was. I wondered if my Mommy was ever coming back, if she would ever wake up.

The woman grabbed my chin and made me face her again. I cried out in surprise. “I said hello,” she repeated a third time.

“Hello,” I whispered.

“That’s better.” The woman perched on the edge of the chair across from me and folded her hands in her lap. “I’m Elizabeth Beaty.”

“Okay.”

“I see your manners need some work,” she muttered under her breath. I flinched, but she continued, “I need you to pack up your things. Only the most important ones. You can take one suitcase.”

“Why?” I asked. “Where am I going?”

“You’re going to come live with me. At the home for children who don’t have homes.”

“I have a home,” I protested. “I live here.”

“Not anymore.”

“I can’t leave! I have to stay here for when Mommy comes back!”

I tried to hide behind a couch pillow, but she took it away from me. “You don’t have a choice, child.” She checked her watch. “You have five minutes.”

I could tell from the look on her face that she wasn’t lying. I scrambled up the stairs, my already soaked socks slipping down around my ankles, and skidded into my room. I started throwing random things into a duffel bag I found in the bottom of my closet. A few books, pictures, pants and shirts. Underwear. My toothbrush. The thing I grabbed last was my teddy bear, a worn old stuffed animal that had spent every night on my pillow since I was two. Jamming him on the top of my other things, I forced the zipper closed and made my way back through the flood to where Beaty was waiting by the front door. She checked her watch and gave me a nod, the sort of nod a teacher gives when you do something right.

She took my hand and led me out the door and down the path to her car. I saw nothing around me but the black haze, the overwhelming knowledge that my mommy was never coming back. That I was never coming back.

I belonged to The Sect after that day.

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