Tag Archives: fiction

Diaspora: The Scattered (Section Four)

The forest had lost all of the appeal that it had had the night before.  The shine that had been there when I had been on the hunt, the magic, had dissipated into the air along with the smoke.  

“We should stay along the river,” I said quietly.  “Most societies build close to a water source.  If we are going to find another Enclave, that’s where it would be.”

“She’s right,” Four agreed, trudging on ahead.

We got to the water’s edge, close to where I had hidden the doe much earlier that morning.  I bent down and splashed the cool water on my face, wiping off some of the grime from the fire.  The grime of death.

“Are you okay now?” Ven asked.

I shrugged.  “As okay as I can be, I suppose.  I thought that Nine and I would always look after each other.  I thought that she would always be there for me.  And now she’s gone, and it’s all my fault….and I have to find her.”

“We will,” he said, taking up my hand that wasn’t holding the bow.  “We’ll find both of them.”

“How can you be so sure?”  We trailed down the path after Four, hand in hand.  

“I just am.  Sometimes, I just know things.  This is one of those things.  I know that we’re going to find them.”

Somewhere far in the distance, the sounds of bird calls drifted down to us through the trees.  “We should catch something to eat,” Four said, slowing down.  He pointed at the bow.  “Are you any good with that thing?”

I remembered the doe.  “I killed a deer earlier.  I hid it in the rocks up ahead, because it was too huge to haul back by myself.  That’s where I was when….”  I couldn’t finish the thought.

“Well I would say good for you….under any other circumstances….but….” Ven stammered.

“I know,” I said.  “But if it can help us now….”

The three of us crept towards the rocks and peered behind them.  The doe was still there, stuffed into the makeshift hiding place.  Four took a step back.  “I’m going to start a fire.  Ven, do you have a knife?”

Ven nodded.

“Good,” replied Four. He knelt on the ground and swept together a pile of leaves, sifting through them to make sure that they were all dry.  Producing a lighter from his back pocket, he struck it until there was a flame and then set the pile ablaze.  “Hand me a couple of rocks,” he ordered, pointing at the pile.  

Ven and I scrambled around, bringing him a pile of smaller stones from around the base of the outcropping.  He used them to make a ring around the flames, trapping them in one area.

Standing up, he brushed his hands together.  “Now, let’s go get that deer.”

*

We walked for three days along the river before we saw any signs of other civilizations.  The first thing that I spotted, from a distance, was their fire.  “Ven,” I whispered, tugging on his sleeve.  “Look!”  I pointed in the direction of the flames.

Four and Ven both stopped dead in their tracks.  “Fire,” Ven said.

“Friendly fire, or enemy fire?” asked Four at exactly the same time.

I pushed ahead of both of them, exasperated.  “Come on, guys.  Let’s just go check it out.”

I was the first of the three of us to step out of the cover of the forest, and I was met with a knife directly in my face for my trouble.  A little boy, no more than five or six, held a knife above his head pointed right at my face.  “State your business here,” he whispered.

I heard Four draw his own knife out of its sheath somewhere behind me.  “Don’t hurt her. We’re from Enclave number seventeen,” he told the boy.  “We’ve been compromised, and we’re seeking shelter.”

The boy lowered the knife slightly.  “What sort of compromise?”

“We were invaded,” Four replied.  “They took two women and killed everyone else.  We escaped and came in search of help.”

The boy dropped the knife altogether.  “I can take you to our leader.  He’s my dad.”

When Four didn’t respond, I said, “That would be really great of you if you could help us out.”

The boy stepped back slightly and indicated that we should follow him.  “Welcome to Enclave Five.”

As we moved forward into their complex, it occurred to me that I had never really given much ponderence to the existence of other Enclaves like ours.  I knew that they had to be out there, that we couldn’t be the only ones.  But to actually see another society was mildly jarring.  

The door to the complex was amazing–two giant slabs of ornately carved stone that swung outward when the little boy pressed his thumb onto some sort of touch screen device on the wall.  

“Whoa,” Ven said, watching the doors slide apart.

The little boy did not reply, but rather pushed through and kept on walking.  As we moved down the corridor, the people that we passed acknowledged the little boy by way of bowing in his general direction–and there seemed to be a great deal more people than had been at our Enclave.  The fact that his father was the Enclave leader would make him very important.  We reached yet another beautifully carved door, and the little boy raised one hand and gave it a single knock.

“Come in,” came the voice from within.

The boy swung the door open.  It was much lighter than the main doors had seemed to be.  A man was seated at the desk, rifling through some papers by the light of a lantern.  “Father,” the boy said, “These people are from Enclave seventeen.  They seek our assistance.”  The way that he talked so formally made him sound much older that he actually was.  He sounded nothing like I thought a little boy of his age should sound, like he was a forty year old in a five year old’s body.

“Okay, Sixty Three,” he said.  “I’ll take it from here.”  He waved a hand towards the door as a ways of dismissing his son.

Sixty Three…that meant that he was the sixty third person born into the Enclave.  Our Enclave had had all of twenty people, and most of them were not yet of adult age.  Sixty three….that seemed unfathomable.  

“Have a seat,” the man said, waving at the stone bench that was in front of his desk.  “My name is One,” he introduced himself, “and I am the leader of Enclave five.  You are…?”

I spoke up first.  “I am Thirteen, and this is Four and Eleven,” I replied, pointing to each of them respectively.  

“What can we do for you?”  One’s tone was not impolite, but it also lacked any signs of warmth or friendship.

“We are seeking assistance,” Four piped in.  “Our Enclave has been destroyed by the Others.  They kidnapped two of our citizens, and slaughtered everybody else.  We want to try and get our people back; we want to try and save them.”

One thought for a second before responding, “That’s preposterous.  You have no hope of fighting back against them on your own.”

“That is why we’ve come to you,” Four said quietly, with the slightest bow of his head.  “You hold the resources that we now lack.”

“What makes you think that we’ll help you?”

“Because they’re people too.  Just like you.  We are all people,” I replied.

He took another moment before asking, “Who are these people, that they are so important to you?”

“My wife,” Four replied.

“And my….sort of mother.  It’s complicated,” I added.

One sighed.  “It is not our policy to get involved in matters with the Others if we can possibly avoid it.  It’s how we manage to stay so prosperous.”

“We were prosperous too,” I argued.  “We stayed out of the way of the Others.  We didn’t get involved.”

“Thirteen,” Ven said softly, laying a hand on my shoulder.

“No!” I snapped, shoving his hand away.  “This isn’t right!”  To One I added, “It isn’t right for you not to help us.”

“We can provide you food, shelter, and resources,” he told us.  “But beyond that, we can not afford to get involved.  You are welcome to anything here.  But we will not go with you.  We can not afford to take that risk.”

“Let’s just go have a meal and think about what we’re going to next,” Four said quietly.  “We may as well take advantage of what they will offer us.”

One snapped his fingers over his head and whistled.  “Sixty Three!”

The little boy came scurrying back in from the corridor.  “Yes, Father?”

“Would you be so kind as to show these fine warriors to the dining area?”

“Certainly, Father.”  He pointed back the way we had come.  “Come, follow me.”

As we walked down the corridor, we took in the scene around us.  “This is an artist’s Enclave,” Ven said, pointing at one of the many paintings that lined the walls.  “The artwork is so beautiful.  I’ll bet they make all of their money in trade.  That’s how they have so many people.  They never really have to go outside their walls.”

Sixty Three pointed up ahead.  “That painting is one of mine.”

We came to a stop in front of it.  “This is amazing,” I told him.  I was struck by the fact that he was so young and was fulfilling the needs of his society already, while I was several years older than him and had yet to fulfill mine.  

“It will be quite valuable.  Father says that it could fetch at least six head of deer.”

“Wow,” Ven murmured.  “That’s more than I bag in a week.”

We followed Sixty Three through a doorway and into what was obviously the dining room.  “Oh my,” I exclaimed, taking in the scene.  The walls were lined with gas powered lanterns, and there was a plethora of different types of food in a buffet-like arrangement in the center of the room.  

“That is an amazing amount of food,” Four agreed.  

The three of us loaded up our plates with as much food as we dared, and then settled in at one of the great stone tables.  I took a bite of the meat.  It could almost be called delicate, it was so delectable after days of eating almost nothing.  It melted right in my mouth.  “This is delicious,” I mumbled around my mouthful of goodness.

“Some sort of lamb, I think,” Ven responded around his own mouthful.  “It’s amazing.”

We remained silent for the rest of the meal, chewing with earnest.  When I had finished, I laid my fork down across my plate and stared at the guys.  “What are we going to do now?  How are we going to get them back?”

“Maybe we should just take whatever we can get from here and head out after them,” Four said.  “This might be the only society we find.  And we don’t want to head too far in the wrong direction.”

Ven looked down at his plate and mumbled something that I couldn’t quite make out.

“What?” I asked.

“I said, maybe we should just stay here,” he repeated.  “I mean, they have it good here.  And what’s the point?  They’re probably already dead.”

I burst into tears and shoved back from the table, away from both of them.  “How could you say that?  How could you even think it?  Sure, maybe they are gone.  But we don’t know that.  We won’t know anything unless we go looking.”

“I just….I don’t know if it’s worth it.  I don’t know if it’s worth the risk,” Ven stammered.

“You’re just saying that because you didn’t lose anyone!  Just because nobody that you loved is gone, you think that you can just say whatever you want.  Well, you can’t.  It isn’t fair.”  I pushed the chair back and stood up.  “If you can’t see that, you might as well just stay here, and we can go on without you.”

When I said that, Four stood up too.  “Let’s go for a walk,” he told me.  To Ven, he said, “Think about it, brother.  Just think about it.”

Ven rested his chin in his hands, and Four and I turned and walked back out of the dining area.  We walked back into the corridor with all of the paintings, and stayed silent for several minutes.  Four broke the quiet by saying, “He’s just a kid.”

“So am I,” I spat.

“True that,” Four acknowledged. “But I believe that you’re much stronger than Eleven.  You’re stronger than anyone has given you credit for.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I think…”

He nodded, and we kept on walking until we reached a large area that appeared to be for some sort of training.  “This must be their area like our arena.”

“Yes,” he agreed.  “So much is the same, yet, so much is radically different.”

“My father says you can have anything you want,” said Sixty Three from behind us.  I hadn’t realized that he was following along.  “You can use any of our weapons.”

I walked up to the weapons rack and fingered an absolutely beautiful bow, carved out of some sort of red wood. “This is exquisite,” I said.

Four hefted a spear, tossing it up lightly to test it’s weight in his hand.  “I guess the arts thing carries over into crafting,” he responded offhandedly.  Taking another step forward, he came to a selection of gun weaponry.  “Oh my.”

“Have you ever fired one before?” asked Sixty Three.  When Four and both shook our heads no, he added, “It is quite simple, actually.  Much simpler than using a bow.”

I hugged my chosen bow protectively to my chest while still deciding which arrows to select for to fill the holder on my back.  “I like my bow.  Thanks though.”

Four, however, ran a hand over the guns with interest.  “Would you show me?” he asked the boy.  

Sixty Three nodded eagerly.  He picked up the gun.  “You put the magazine in here,” he said, loading the weapon.  Once it’s loaded, you point, click off the safety, and shoot.”

A loud booming sound echoed through the chamber, and the middle of a target some 500 feet away ripped to shreds.  “Whoa,” murmured Four. “That is somewhat awesome.”

“Somewhat?” I laughed, raising my eyebrows.  “More than somewhat.  Pretty damn cool.”

Sixty Three pushed something on the gun that made a long red beam appear out of nowhere.  “And this,” he said, “helps you aim if you don’t know how. You point the dot where you want the bullet to land, and then you shoot.  Easy.”

“Can I try it?” asked Four.  I could practically see the drool coming out of his mouth.

Sixty Three carefully passed him the gun.  I watched in awe as he leveled the red dot carefully at the target and then pulled the trigger. The momentum of the bullet blew the gun back against him slightly, and the bullet struck slightly off target.

“You have to account for the recoil,” Sixty Three explained.  “Make sure that you have a really strong grip.  Aim a tad lower.”

Four tried again and hit dead on in the center.  He stared down at the gun. “This little tool is quite amazing.  Why did we never have these?”

Nine would smack me if she knew I was even thinking about this, I thought to myself.  But she would want me to help her even if it was dangerous.  Wouldn’t she?  After a moment of thinking, I replied, “Personally, I think I still like the bow better.”  I hoisted it to loaded position, putting an arrow into nocks, and then raised it.  Aiming for the bullet hole that Four had left in the target, I drew back the string and let the arrow sail right through the hole and skid to the floor below.

“You’re quite good,” Sixty Three told me.

“I had very good teachers,” I replied nostalgically, suddenly wishing that Ven was with us.  To Four I asked, “Are you actually going to use that thing?”

He shrugged nonchalantly.  “I don’t see why not.  I mean, they have them.  Sort of gives them an unfair advantage if we don’t.”

“You’ll need this.”  Sixty Three pressed a box in Four’s hand.  “Ammo.”  At Four’s quizzical expression, he clarified, “Bullets.”

Four nodded.  “Got it.”

“Now,” the boy asked, “would like to spend the night?  We can give you beds for the evening.  Or you can move out now.  Whichever you prefer.”

Four and I exchanged a glance.  “I would rather enjoy sleeping in an actual bed.  It’s been a few days.”

“Me too, I suppose.  Lets do it.”

Sixty Three led us each to our own rooms.  Everything in mine was very plush, and I found that I didn’t really care anymore where Ven had decided to go.  I hadn’t realized that there were such radical differences in between Enclaves.  At home, in Enclave seventeen, my bed had been made of mostly stone.  Here, the beds were made of material that I had never seen before–both hard and soft at the same time.  There was a base of wood supporting the giant rectangle of strange fabric, and then a wide myriad of blankets and sheets draped across the top.  I changed into the clothes that had been laid out, feeling guilty at laying on the nice clean bed being as dirty as I probably was.  Crawling under the covers, I was passed out cold before another thought had the chance to cross my mind.

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Diaspora: The Scattered (Section Three)

I crouched down behind a tree, clutching my bow tightly against my chest.  How had this happened?  When had it happened?  I hadn’t been gone that long; it didn’t make any sense.  I took a single step forward, leaning out from behind the cover of the tree to see if I could make anything out.

A hand snaked out from behind me and covered my mouth before I could make a sound, dragging me back behind the tree and into the cover of the bushes.  I lashed out, the bow falling to the ground as I flailed with fists and kicked out with my feet, trying to score a blow against any exposed part of my assailant’s body.

“Knock it OFF!” a voice hissed.  “It’s me.  Quit it and be quiet!”

Recognizing Ven’s voice, I relaxed into his grasp.

“Are you okay now?” he whispered, so quietly that I could barely make out the words.  “If you aren’t going to scream, I’ll let you go.”

I nodded mutely, and he released me at once.

“Thank GOD you’re okay, Thirteen,” Ven hissed.  “I thought that you were still inside.”

“What happened?” I asked, pulling at his arm.  “We have to go back. We have to–”

“What we have to do is go,” he interrupted, turning me in the other direction, away from the Enclave.  “We have to go now.”

“No!” I cried.  “I’m not leaving!  I have to go back; I have to get in there!  Nine is inside!”

“We are going,” he ordered, tightening down so hard on my arm that it was sure to leave a bruise and hauling me further into the bushes.  “We have to get away before they find us.”

There was a loud booming sound somewhere behind us, and I peered back through the leaves to see more smoke billowing out of the door closest to us.  A man dressed all in black stumbled out of a new opening in the wall, then turned around to pull another man through the opening. They came spilling out, one after the other, and I had never seen any of them before.

“Who are they?” I whispered to Ven.

He held a finger to his lips to tell me to be quiet, and drew me further back into the brush.  His arm around me was confusing—I was scared, but at the same time I liked the way that it made me feel.  I liked the way that he made me feel.

The men trailed away in the other direction, disappearing under the cover of the forest’s trees.  I sat back against Ven for a moment, stunned into silence.  “What now?” I whispered, overwhelmed by the sheer number of intruders I had just seen flee into the woods.  “Do you think they’re all gone?”  I looked over my shoulder at him in time to see him shrug.

“I have no earthly idea,” he replied.

“I want to go back.  I want to go inside.”

“Let’s just wait a minute and see if any more come out.”

“How many WERE there?” I asked, aghast.

He shook his head.  “I don’t know.  There were so many.”

“What happened?” I asked again.

He sighed.  After a moment, he said, “We were eating breakfast.  They ran out of plates on the line, and I offered to go get some more.  I was in the supply room when they busted in.  I wanted to help; I wanted to do something.  But I heard what sounded like guns, a noise I haven’t heard since before the Great War.  And so I chickened out.  I dropped the plates and slipped out of the closet, and I ran.  I ran and I got out as soon as I could.  And then I found you. And here we are.”

“Here we are,” I repeated after him.  A few minutes later I whispered, “Do you think that it’s okay to go in now?”

“No one has come out,” he murmured.  “Which means they’re either hurt or hiding.  Or…”

“Don’t,” I said.  “Don’t even finish that thought.  And don’t be such a bloody coward.  We have to go back.”

I shrugged my way out of his grasp and pushed back through the brush towards the Enclave.  A few seconds later, he followed me.

“What are you going to do if you go in there?”

“I won’t know until I go in,” I told him, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

I walked down the path until I was up against the wall, and I tried to peer in through the hole.  I couldn’t see anything but smoke piles of crumbled brick.  No source of the fire, and no people.  I pulled back from the hole and followed Ven as he crept straight in through the door.

Reaching behind me, I clutched the bow and drew it forward, putting it to the ready just in case.  “Do you see anything?” I hissed.  “Anyone?”

“No,” he replied.  “Nothing yet.”

With my bow forward, I drew up beside him.  “Let’s go to where you saw everyone last.  Where you were eating.”

We moved down the hall together silently, stopped outside of the room.  The smoke was so thick that I had a hard time making anything out.  Before I could step into the room, Ven held out an arm and pushed me back.  “Don’t,” he choked out.  “Don’t go in there.”

“Why?” I asked.  “What is it?  What’s in there?”

His voice shook as he answered, “No one.  Not anymore.”

“What?” I cried out, pushing past him and into the eating area.

One, the leader of the Enclave, was slumped over in his seat, a single bullet wound right between his eyes.  His wife was on the ground next to him, and she had fared no better.  There were bodies all over, at every single table.  Men, women.  Children.

It felt like someone had taken my lungs and squeezed all of the air out of them.  A single tear trickled down my cheek as I whispered, “They’re dead.  Everyone here is dead.”

“Let’s go,” Ven said, resting a hand on my shoulder.

“What if Nine is here?  I have to know.”

“She isn’t here,” a voice came from behind an overturned table.  Slowly, carefully, Four stood up from within his makeshift hiding place.  “When they came, she wasn’t here.”

“Well where IS she?” I cried.  “Why isn’t she here?  We have to FIND her!”  Pushing away from the men, I tucked the bow under my arm and took off down the corridor at as fast of a clip as I could in the smoky darkness.

“Thirteen, wait!” Ven called after me.  “Stop!”

I pounded down the hallway until I reached our room, wrenching around the corner and falling down to my knees.  She wasn’t there.  She wasn’t under the bed, she wasn’t in the closet.  She wasn’t anywhere in the room.

I struck my fists against the concrete floor in frustration.  I had left her.  I had had something to prove, and I left.  And then everything fell apart.  The entire world had disintegrated.

“Thirteen,” Ven whispered, grabbing my fists before they could hit the concrete again.  “Stop.  Just stop.  This isn’t helping anybody.”

“It’s all my fault,” I moaned, sinking back onto my butt.  I remembered sitting in the same place less than a day earlier, watching Nine folding the laundry.  “This is all my fault.”

“How do you figure?” he asked gently.  “You weren’t even here.”

“Exactly,” I answered grimly.

“You couldn’t have stopped them,” he told me.  “There was nothing that you could have done.”

That didn’t make me feel any better.  “I have to find her.  I have to know whether or not she’s okay.”

“I think they took her.”  Four came up behind us.  “I think they took Nine and Six.”

“Your wife?” I asked, looking over at him.

He nodded.  “There was commotion in the hall. I heard women’s voice.  And I haven’t seen them.  So I think….”  His voice trailed off.

“What do we do?” Ven asked.  “Do you think we could go after them by ourselves?  There were so many. What’s our best bet?”

Four held his hands out helplessly.  “I would say that our best bet is to strike out and try and find the next Enclave.  See if they have men to help us.  We can’t compete against their arsenal, or their power.  Not by ourselves.  It would be more dangerous to the girls.”

“But what if something happens before we get there?  What if they kill them?”

“What if we rush after them now and we get killed ourselves?  Who’s going to help them then?”

I shook my head. After a moment I sighed, “So, where do we go?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” he shrugged.  “I suppose that any direction we head in we’re bound to run in to something eventually.  Question is whether that something will be good or bad.”

“Guys, we should get out of here,” Ven said.  “This place is a loss.  It’s going to crumble down around us.”

I accepted the hand that he offered and let him help me to my feet. Reaching back down, I scooped up the bow and clutched it to my chest.  “Fine then.  Let’s get out of here.”  All that I knew was that I had to find her.

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Diaspora: The Scattered (Section Two)

“I’m ready,” I informed Nine, leaning against the door frame.  “I was practicing in the arena again today, with the targets.  I’m definitely ready.” 

“I disagree,” she replied without looking up from the laundry that she was folding.  

“You haven’t even seen me!” I protested.  “Ven agrees with me!  He says that I’m ready for anything.”

Nine slammed a shirt down on top of the pile before looking up at me.  “Ven would say anything just to be with you.  You know that that man adores you.”

I shook my head.  “I have no idea what you mean.”

She laughed, “Thirteen, he has a ridiculous crush on you.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Think what you want.  But we’re just friends.”

“Okay,” she nodded, obviously not meaning it.  She sank back so that she was sitting next to the clothes instead of kneeling.  “So, tell me about your target shooting today.  Stationary?”

I shook my head.  “No.  Well, I mean, I did those too.  But I can hit dead center in the middle of the moving targets.  I could kill any animal.  You just have to give me the chance to try.  If I’m going to change things, if I’m going to go out and help and make things better, then I have to just do it.  You have let me.  There are no fairy tale godmothers in this world who are going to come and save us.  We have to provide for ourselves.”

“You have a very mature outlook for someone your age.”

“You aren’t that much older than me,” I reminded her, as I did on a regular basis.  

“Point taken,” she responded.  “I could watch you,” she murmured.  “I guess.  See what you can do.  Once I recommend you…” Her voice trailed off.

“Then I’d be a provider.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Can we go now?”  I could barely stop myself from bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet like a little kid in the candy store.  

“How about tomorrow morning instead?  I’m really tired.”

“Come on,” I whined.  “Please?”

With a smile she reached under the bed and dragged her shoes out.  “I suppose,” she replied.

“Okay, lets go!” I exclaimed a bit to excitedly.  I yanked Nine to her feet the instant that she had gotten her shoes on.  Before she could change her mind, I hauled her out into the corridor and dragged her towards the arena.  

When we arrived, I grabbed my chosen bow and arrows while she messed around with some of the targets.  “There,” she pointed, indicating a stationary target about two hundred feet away.  “Try that one first.”

“Easy,” I replied, loading the arrow and sending it flying without much thought.  It landed a hair off center, but still extremely close.  I had been a little too cocky.

“Not bad,” Nine acknowledged.

“I could do better,” I said, loading another arrow.  I let this one fly, and it landed dead on in the center.

Nine nodded her approval.  “Very nicely done.  How about a moving target?  A rabbit’s pace?”

I loaded another arrow, holding the bow at the ready.  “There,” she pointed to a target out in the shooting field.  “Remember to shoot where the animal will be, not where the animal is.  Anticipate it’s movements.  Sense it, and–“

“I know,” I interrupted.  “I can do it.”

“I’m just trying to be helpful.”

I raised the bow, tracking the target back and forth and counting down in my head.  I aimed for where I expected it to end up, let the arrow go….and missed.

Nine patted me gently on the back.  “That’s okay,” she said. “Maybe next time.  We can try again in a few months.”

“No!” I insisted, pushing her away.  “I can do it.”  I loaded yet another arrow and aimed again at the still moving target.  This time when I fire, I hit it close to where the hindquarters would have been on a live animal.

“That’s not going to kill anything,” Nine said in an extremely non helpful manner.  “That’s only going to wound it and make it more accessible for some other predator to eat.  And waste an arrow.  You aren’t ready.”

“You didn’t see me earlier,” I muttered, lowering the bow but still clutching it tightly in my hands.  “I’m really good.  I know I am.”

“Let’s just see, okay?  Practice for a few months more and then maybe we can try again.  How does that sound?”

“I hate you!” I screamed.  “Why can’t you just believe in me?”  I stormed out of the arena, the bow still wrapped up in my tightly wound fingers.  I could do it.  I would show her.  I would show everyone. Flying down the corridor and around the corner, I clutched the bow tightly to my chest and slipped into a maintenance closet as Nine’s footsteps followed after me.  

“Thirteen,” she called after me.  “Wait!  Let’s talk about this.  Don’t run away!”

I held my breathe.  Her footsteps paused for a second outside the door, but then she kept going.  I waited a few minutes and then quietly pushed the door opened and tiptoed towards the main door.  Ten steps.  Nine.  Eight.  Seven.  Six.  Five. Four.  Three.  Two.  One.  

I pushed open the door, and I was outside.  As it shut behind me, I became acutely aware of how quiet it was outside the walls.  Quiet, and dark.  I moved to the side, keeping one hand pressed lightly against the Enclave wall.  But after a moment, as my eyes began to adjust to the lack of light, I realized that it wasn’t really quiet at all.  The noise was just a different type than I was used to.  And the darkness was a different type too.  There was no sun, it was late at night.  No candles, no gas lanterns.  Only the moon and the stars.  It was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen.

My eyes had adjusted enough that I was able to move forward, and I felt the leaves of the trees and brush sweeping against my face as the forest absorbed me into its clutches.  Rushing water was ahead of me, alerting me to my location.  The water came from the river we used to route water into the Enclave.  If I stayed along it, I could  find my way both in and out of the forest without getting lost.  And if I stood in the water, I would be harder for the animals to smell.  At least, I was fairly certain of that last point.  

A squirrel darted across my path, and I jumped into the air and almost dropped the bow.  Exasperated with myself, I rolled my eyes and shook it off.  I was never going to catch anything if I was afraid of a tiny squirrel that was more terrified of me than I was of it.  I was also never going to catch anything in the dark.  I stumbled forward for a long time, until I could no longer feel my feet because they were so sore.  I felt my way along through the trees until I found a large outcropping of rocks, and I slipped in between them and waited for the sunrise.  

It seemed like I waited forever, but in reality, it couldn’t have really been too long.  The sun gradually rose above the horizon, and beams of light crept through the trees and illuminated the carpet of the forest floor surrounding the rocks.  I crept to the edge of the river and bent down to splash some water on my face before going back to pick up the bow.  No one had come looking for me yet.  Apart from Nine, no one had probably even noticed my absence.  And that was fine with me.  I would show them all when I came back with game to feed them for a week.  Maybe even more.

I licked my finger to make it wet and then held it out, testing for the direction of the wind.  I turned so that the wind wouldn’t carry my scent and started to walk forwardly stealthily.  It didn’t take long before I saw a doe leaning forward to fetch a drink from the river.  I stepped backward carefully until I was pressed up against a tree, and the doe remained unaware of my presence.  Slowly, carefully, I drew an arrow from the satchel on my back and loaded it onto the bow.  Quietly, so as not to frighten the doe, I drew back on the string and then let the arrow fly.  It struck the doe right in the side of the neck, and from the amount of blood it seemed to have perfectly struck the artery.  

I took a single step forward and watched as the deer fell to its knees, struggling to keep the grin off of my face.  Coming out of the shadows, I watched as its eyes closed.  I was overcome in a moment of sadness for the life that was lost, but only for a moment.  It was a beautiful thing, the cycle that kept the entire world moving forward.  It wasn’t a kill just to kill.  It was a kill to save other lives.  That made it okay.

I was faced with the conundrum of how to return my kill to the Enclave.  She was quite large for a doe.  I didn’t have any rope, just the bow and arrows.  I grabbed her by the hooves and dragged away from the river bank, but I only made it so far as the outcropping of rocks before I had to stop moving.  She was too heavy for me to take home alone, but if I went back to the Enclave and found Ven, I could get him to come back with me and tie the deer up properly so that we could return with it.

Pushing the deer back as closely to the rocks as I could manage on my own, hoping no other predators would get at her before I made it back, I made my way to the river’s edge and followed it back in the direction I had come.  I smelled smoke in the distance, carried to me on the very wind that I had been trying to avoid.  Someone had lit a fire.  I couldn’t see the smoke from under the cover of the trees, but it had to be a pretty large fire if I could smell it all the way out in the forest.  My pace quickened, my steps covering double the length they had previously.

When I came around the last bend in the river, the truth became blatantly apparent.  The Enclave was on fire.

 

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Diaspora: The Scattered (Section One)

(This takes place sixteen years after the prologue: https://girlinterrupted28.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/diaspora-the-scattered-prologue/)

Sixteen years later

I sank into the giant stone that served as a chair, relishing the cool feeling through my clothing.  I had just finished seventeen laps around the Enclave, and my entire body felt as if it had taken a beating.  But I was fit.  I was ready.  For what, I wasn’t sure.  But when it came, I was ready.

“Thirteen?  Where are you?”  Nine popped into the open doorway.  “Where have you been?”

I shrugged.  “I went for a run.  Not much else to do around here.  At least not today.”

“A run?  Where?”

“Just around the Enclave, not outside.  So don’t worry.  Which is not to say I didn’t want to go outside, because I definitely did.  Do,” I amended at the last second.

“Soon,” she replied, taking off her shoes and coat and shoving them under the cot that was directly across from mine.

My life was odd.  Even I didn’t fully understand it sometimes.   Nine wasn’t my mother, but she was a mother figure to me even though we were fairly close in age.  I let her tell me what to do.  I had never met my mother.  From the stories I had heard from Nine, she had died having me, and Nine had saved my life even though she was just a kid herself.  She brought me back to the Enclave.  In essence, I had no real family, at least not physically.  But everyone in the Enclave knew everyone else, and we had all bonded together as a unit of sorts.

Seventeen years ago, there was a Great War. Nobody even really remembers what exactly started it.  One country had nuclear weapons, the United States felt threatened and went after them, and….Well, the United States as it was in the year 2012 no longer exists.  Power is a rarity. I was four years old before I saw my first electrically lit room.  When people, when we, want things now, we have to work for them.

After the Great War, the nation had a massive shift in the way that citizens were classified.  There was the Enclave, where I lived.  We were the center of our society.  We had most of the resources, like food, water, and shelter, and we were very strong.  We worked together, and we worked very hard for all of the things we had.  Then there were the people who lived underground.  They didn’t want to participate in the organized ways of the Enclave, and chose to live out lives in wanting rather than the little bit of comfort offered within the Enclave walls.  The division didn’t make much sense, that people would choose to be below rather than above.  But we left each other alone.

Outside of the Enclave walls was a different picture.  That was where the savages lived, the Others.  They didn’t work with anyone; they were only out for themselves.  If someone got in the way of that….if someone interfered, well, that was it for that someone.  It was best to avoid the Others, to stay within the walls.  Though some people could acquire training to go outside, to be able to hunt and kill the animals that would feed the Enclave.  They were the providers.

I really wanted to be a provider.  Not just for the killing, because I wasn’t really that big of a fan of that.  For me, it was all in the getting out.  The pay off was in getting to actually see the world, really see it.

“Where did you go?” Nine asked.

I shrugged, getting up only to flop down again and drape myself across my tattered green cot. “I was just thinking….”

“About?”

“I think I’m ready.”

“For what?”

I hesitated for a moment before replying, “To be a provider.”

Nine looked me up and down.  “I don’t know.  I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“I’ve been practicing really hard with the targets,” I insisted.  “I can hit them dead in the center every time.  The instructor says I’m the best up and coming he has seen with a bow and arrow in a long time, and–”

“Thirteen–” she interrupted.

“No, really,” I pleaded.  “I know I could do it.”

The dinner gong rang somewhere off in the distance, signaling that it was time to eat and effectively putting an end to our discussion.  I got up without waiting for Nine to put her shoes on and drifted away down the corridor.

When I entered the hall where we gathered to eat, the line had already begun forming.  I grabbed a bowl and stood behind the last person, quietly waiting my turn.  He turned around and greeted me with a sly smile.

“Hello, Ven,” I smiled back.  Ven’s real name was Eleven, but he hated it and insisted that it sounded too much like a girl’s name.  He was a provider, and I aspired to be like him.  But I never let him know it.  The admiration would be too much for his ego.

“How’s it going?” he asked, reaching down to the bowl in front of him to ladle out some lovely looking gray substance.

“Great,” I replied.  I indicated the stew with my glance, “Mmm.  Tasty.”

“You’re too young to know what tasty is,” he retorted.

“I’m only two years younger than you!” I protested.

“Exactly.  You weren’t around before.”  He picked up a wooden spoon from the end of the line and moved to go sit at a table.

“Tasty is a freshly killed and roasted rabbit.  Or a deer.  Venison.”  I made a hungry smacking noise with my lips.

He went to go sit down at one of the tables, and I followed shortly after with my own bowl.

“Thirteen here,” he said to other man at the table, Four, “thinks that she would be better served by a freshly killed rabbit than this absolutely delectable stew.”

Four raised an eyebrow in my direction.

“I did NOT say that,” I argued.  “I simply said that I feel like a rabbit would be so much more tasty.  You know what I mean?”

Four stared back at me blankly, his left eyebrow still raised and quivering.  “My wife made this stew.”

“Oh, I…I didn’t mean,” I stammered uncomfortably.

He slapped me on the back.  “I’m kidding.  Just messing with you.”

I, in turn, turned and smacked Ven.  “Really, Ven, really?  Do you always have to try and mess with me?”

He shrugged.  “It breaks up the day.”

I rolled my eyes and shoveled my stew into my mouth. “Do you want to go practice with me later?” I asked Ven around a mouthful of food. “If you have time?”

“What, at targets?” he asked.

I nodded, swallowing another mouthful of stew.

“I guess I could,” he hedged.  “I mean, I don’t know how much time I have tonight.  But I could come for a little while.”

“You make it sound like such an obligation.”  I wasn’t trying to sound pouty, but I’m fairly certain it came across that way.

“I didn’t mean it that way at all.”  We had both finished our meager portions of stew by that point.  He walked back up to the serving area and grabbed two pieces of bread, one for each of us.  “We could go right now.”

“Really?” I asked excitedly, snatching the bread from his outstretched hand.  Then, realized that I sounded like a babbling idiot, I back peddled the excitement down to a “That would be great.”

He shook his head with a grin.  “You are so odd.”

I did a mock bow as we walked out of the eating area.  “Glad to be of service.”

Ven gave me a play shove, sending me across the corridor.  We ripped through our bread as we walked through the Enclave to the target arena.  It was a wide open space containing targets of all different shapes and sizes and types.  You could select a target to do basically anything you wanted–they could be stationary or even move back and forth or up and down.  I went to the weapons rack and selected my usual bow.  It was wooden with silver etchings, and in all of my practicing I had deemed it to be the most accurate.

“You’re going to use that one?” Ven asked, indicating my chosen bow.

I couldn’t tell whether there was a note of disdain or not in his voice.  “Why not?” I asked, feeling insulted.

He gave me another play shove.  “Be confident, Thirteen.  Be confident in your choice.  That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  There’s a reason behind everything.  So when I say, why this bow, for real.  Why this bow?”

I took in the bow again, really feeling the way that in settled in my hands.  “I like the way that it feels in my hands.  I like the lightness of the wood.  And I like how I feel when I hold it.  I like the way that it shoots.  It fits me.”

“Good,” he nodded his approval.  “Me, personally, I prefer the bows that are all metal.  It just feels more solid to me.  But you prefer wooden bows, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Facing the stand still targets, I picked up an arrow and tucked in carefully between the bow and the arrow nocks, which accepted it gracefully.  I drew my arm back, slowly and carefully, to my anchor spot along my chin, and then let the arrow land fly.  It crossed the hundred feet between where I stood and the target like it was nothing and landed square in the middle, vibrating back and forth as it stuck.

“How was that?” I asked Ven.

“Very good,” he nodded his approval.  “Very good indeed.  Try again, and try relaxing your grip on the bow just a smidge.”

I did as he suggested, and though I didn’t think it was possible, the arrow flew into the center of the target even more smoothly than it had before.  “Like that?”

“Exactly.”

I let a few more fly before he stopped me again.  “I have time for one more.  Let’s try a side to side.”

The side to side target was supposed to simulate a ground animal, like a rabbit or a squirrel. With a few presses of the control panel to the side of the weapons rack, Ven called one forward.  It moved back and forth, and I followed it with my eyes, bow at the ready.

“Now, Thirteen, remember.  Shoot where it will be.  Not where it is.  Anticipate the movement, and–”

Before he could finish, I had let the arrow loose.  It landed with a satisfying thwonk in the center of the target, and I lowered the bow.  “Like that?”

He laughed, “You don’t need me anymore, girl.  You have this down all by yourself.  You’re ready.

I beamed with pride;  I was definitely ready.

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Diaspora: The Scattered (Prologue)

The pain had started about an hour before, but Cassia still forced herself to keep walking and putting one foot in front of the other.  The tunnels were dark and cold, like nothing that Cassia had ever seen before.  She held her hand out in front of her face, wiggling her fingers back and forth as if she were making spirit fingers, but she could barely see them in the dim light.  And in her moment of pause, the rest of the party had drifted ahead.

“Please, wait,” she called up ahead, unable to see if anyone was actually there.  Her head spun, and she gave consideration to maybe sitting down for a spell.  

“Here,” came the call back.

Cassia rested her hand along the wall, feeling her way along until she could make out her group in the dark mist.

“We have to keep moving,” Patrick grumbled as she caught up to them.  “Pregnant or not, you have to be able to keep up with the rest of us.”

Cassia was at a loss for words.  “I just…”  She tried to catch her breath, short from having hurried along so quickly.  “Can I just sit for a second?”

Patrick handed her a bottle of water, and she could see a few of the others milling around behind him, waiting. “A quick second.”  He was not totally without mercy.

Cassia lowered herself to the ground, her almost to term belly hindering her ability to bend at the waist.  “Thank you,” she whispered, but he had already turned around to talk to someone in the shadows behind him.  

The relocation was vitally important to the salvation of their society, and that was something that Cassia full heartedly understood. The tribes from the Surface, the ones that they referred to as the Others, were always looking to take over the resources of the people from tribes like hers, the tribes that lived down below.  And so those tribes, the Diaspora, were continually moving, spreading, separating, and spawning new tribes and new ways to defend the things that they held dear.  As much as she understood this, all Cassia wanted to do was lay down in bed and never get up.

The baby was coming.  That much she knew.  But if she didn’t keep going, her people would leave the area without her–and that was decidedly not ideal.

Cassia finished the bottle of water, gritting her teeth against the tightness in her belly as she heaved herself back to her feet.  There was a scurry of feet overhead-the Others.

“Try to keep up,” Patrick admonished her.  “It is vital that we keep moving.

They walked as a group further down into the darkness.  Cassia longed for someone just to lean on, but she was too proud to ask, and too afraid to admit any from of weakness.  There was a booming sound from somewhere behind them, akin to the sound of a large barrier falling or an explosion.  Or both.  Which was, of course, the moment that Cassia felt an enormous gush of liquid from between her legs.  The baby was definitely coming.

“I…” she panted anxiously.

“What?” Patrick snapped, spinning around in exasperation.

“The baby,” she moaned, having no choice but to admit it.  “It’s coming.”

“When?  Now?”

A full contraction gripped Cassia, and that was the end of her ability to stay on her feet.  She slammed down on her knees against the concrete, biting down so hard on her lip that she started to bleed.

“Can it wait?”

That was quite simply the most ludicrous question that Cassia had ever heard.  But he was a man, and would never experience the level of pain that she was currently feeling.  Another contraction ripped through her–things seemed to be happening very quickly.  Too quickly.  She bit down again to keep from screaming.  “No, no, it can’t wait,” she spit out.  “She’s not waiting.”

He grabbed her by the elbow, hoisting her to her feet.  “Up here.”

Cassia stumbled after him, her teeth grinding together as he hauled her through the darkness and into a small slit off of the main tunnel.  “What is this?” she asked, sinking the ground in a poorly lit corner.

“For the good of….for the good of the tribe, for the good of everyone…we have to keep moving.  You’ll be safe here.”

Another contraction tightened across Cassia’s belly, and the scream escaped her lips before she could stop it.  

Patrick rushed to silence her.  “If you can stay quiet, Cassia, they won’t find you here.”

Cassia struggled to wrap her brain around what was happening.  Her worst fears were coming true–the tribe was leaving without her.  “Wait,” she pleaded.  “Pleased don’t go.  Please don’t leave me alone.  I need help.  Leave me someone, leave me anyone.”

“It isn’t safe,” he whispered, slowly backing away from where she had sprawled on the ground, fading into the shadows.  “If you can just keep quiet, it will be okay.  They won’t find you here.  You would only slow us down.”

Like hell they wouldn’t find her.  Like hell he wasn’t leaving both her and her incoming baby girl to die.  “Patrick!” she screamed as he retreated.  “Don’t leave me here, please don’t leave me here!  Don’t leave your baby!  Patrick!”

He was gone, not even the sound of his footsteps remaining.  But there was still the scurrying from above, and in the absence of other sound, that seemed to fill the space all around her.

The world faded out of focus.  It didn’t seem like things were normal.  This was her first baby, yes, but it seemed like the amount of pain was enormous and overwhelming.  Something inside of her didn’t feel right.  It felt almost like her insides were ripping apart. She screamed, her hands knotting into iron fists around the fabric of her dress.  It was not supposed to be like this.  She wasn’t supposed to be alone.  They were supposed to be happy.  They were supposed to be a family.  And now the entire tribe had gone on without her. The cold, moistness of the concrete seemed through her thin dress and into her skin, making her feel more alone that she had ever felt before.

She screamed again, feeling like her entire body was going to implode, and slipped out of consciousness.

When Cassia came to, there was a tiny little girl kneeling in front of her, so close that she could almost make out her features.  She couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old.

“You’re bleeding,” the girl said simply.  “You’re bleeding a lot.”

“I’m having a baby,” Cassia said, lacking any other way to say it to a small child.  “A little girl.  She’s coming right now.”

The girl frowned, staring at Cassia’s stomach.  “Out of there?”

The expression on the girl’s face was so comical that Cassia would have laughed in any other situation.  But the strength of the contractions made it impossible to laugh.  She didn’t want to ask the child for help, but there was nobody else to ask and she thus really had no other choice.  “Do you think that you could be a big girl and help me?”

“I am a big girl,” the girl clarified, seeming insulted at the suggestion that she was anything but.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Nine,” the little girl answered.  “My name is Nine.”

“Nine, I need you to look between my legs and tell me if you can see the baby.  Can you do that?”

Nine nodded eagerly.  “I think so.” After a moment, she added, “There’s a lot of blood.”

It suddenly occurred to Cassia that she and the baby might not survive.  How could she survive, in a dark, disgustingly unsanitary tunnel with all of the blood that was coming out of her?  And what about the baby?

“Do you see the baby?” she asked.

“Yes,” Nine said solemnly.  “I can see its head.”

Cassia screamed, ducking her chin down against her chest.  It hurt like hell.  There were no words to describe how much it hurt.  “I need you,” she panted, “to catch the baby when she comes out.  Don’t let her fall down and hit the ground.  Can you do that?”

Nine nodded.  “I’ll protect her.”

Blood.  So much blood.

The last thing that Cassia heard was the sound of a baby crying, somewhere far, far away.

 

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Blink (Part Eleven)

Lanie walked into the pharmacy, wandering down the aisles in search of what she was looking for, too afraid to ask.  ‘Pregnancy tests’, she thought, scanning through the merchandise on the shelves.  ‘There.’  She reached out and pulled one off the shelf.

Walking up to the counter, she put the box onto the counter face down.  Sliding it to the cashier, she paid for it without saying a word and then took the bag back to the bench outside.

“Nobody gets pregnant from just one time…right?” she whispered to no one in particular.  

She walked home through the cold as fast as she could, wishing that she had thought to wear a heavier jacket.  Imagining all of the different ways that she would tell Rich, should she have something to tell Rich.  Lanie jogged the last couple of steps up the walkway and let herself into the house.  Running up the stairs two at a time, she locked herself in the bathroom and threw her coat on the floor.

Lanie pulled the test out of the bag and ripped open the box.  It seemed simple enough.  Two pink lines equals pregnant.  One pink line equals not.  Definitely simple enough.  Pee on the stick and look for lines.  She could handle it.

*

Alex pulled his car back up to the garage, and I ran out to meet him.  “Did you find her?”

He shook his head as he slipped out the door of the car.  “I looked everywhere.  She didn’t call?”

I put my face in my hands as I shook my head.  “No.  Not yet.”

“What do we do now?” he asked.  “Should we call the police?”

“She doesn’t even know how to drive, Alex!” I snapped.  “She doesn’t know how to drive!”

As I started to cry, he put an arm around my shoulders and steered me back into the house.  “We’ll go inside and we’ll call,” he said gently.  “We’ll call.”

I settled on the couch as he picked up the phone to dial, springing up when the there was a knock on the door.  Yanking the door opened, I was faced with two uniformed police officers on the front stoop.

“Mrs. Bradley?”

“Alex,” I gasped, the words barely coming out.  

He came up behind me, and the phone fell to the floor as he opened his hand without thinking.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bradley?” the officer said again.  “There’s been an accident.”

*

Jenna pushed through the halls of the hospital, searching frantically.  As she moved forward without looking, she bumped right into Becca.  “Hey,” Jenna said, coming to a halt.

“Hi,” Becca replied.  “Have you seen her yet?”

Jenna shook her head.  “Not yet.  I just got here.”  She stared down at the tile floor, unsure of how to meet her friend’s eyes.

“There,” Becca pointed down the hall.

Alex gave my hand a slight squeeze, and I looked up through my fingers as my friends came down the hall.

“Hi,” Jenna said, kneeling down in front of me.  “How are you holding up?”

I shook my head.  “What are you doing here?” I asked the both of them.  “Don’t you guys have your own stuff to worry about?”

Becca hung back by the wall with her arms folded across her chest as Jenna answered, “Honestly, it’s nice to have something else to think about…if that makes sense.”

I nodded slightly, looking down the hall to check for the doctor.

“So what do you know?” Becca asked quietly, still hugging the wall.

“They won’t tell us anything,” Alex said, laying a hand on my knee.  “They won’t tell us anything, and they won’t let us in.”

Becca looked down the hall and then back to me.  “They’ll let me in.  Let me go down and check things out.”

I nodded without answering, laying my head on Alex’s shoulder.

“What happened?” Jenna asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” I moaned, burying my head in Alex’s sweater briefly before looking back at Jenna.  “I thought…I don’t know.  I thought we were doing well.  And then tonight, I went to talk to her in her room and she…she was hacking off her hair with a scissors.  So I started to help her,” I rambled, “and then she wanted to talk about something…but she couldn’t.  She…she wanted to leave.  I let her go out the door, but then before either one of us realized it, she was in the car and peeling out the driveway.”

“She doesn’t drive yet, does she?”

I shook my head.  “The police say she took a curve too quickly and flipped over.  They say she rolled several times before coming to a stop.  She had to be pried out of the vehicle.  She wasn’t conscious when they arrived…” I started to cry again as I continued, “I don’t even know if she’s woken up yet.”

Jenna sat down on the floor in front of me, looking up into my eyes.  “She’ll be okay,” she said.  “She’ll be okay.  She has to be.”

Becca came back out into the waiting area and crossed over to us.  “She’s not awake,” Becca said.  “She hasn’t woken up yet, and they are still examining her.”

“What else?” I pushed.

“Someone will be out in a minute to talk to you,” Becca answered evasively.

“Becca…what?”

She shook her head as Dr. Thade came through the swinging doors.

“Hello, Michelle,” she said.  “Alex.”  

Becca and Jenna stepped back slightly to give us a small amount of privacy.

“Your daughter sustained some pretty seriously injuries, but she’s stable now.  She has a broken leg, a few cracked ribs, and a concussion.  If you’d like, I can take you down to see her, but there are some things that we should discuss first.”

“Okay,” Alex answered.  “Let’s go.”

The three of us walked down the hall through the swinging doors.  Dr. Thade led us to her doorway.  I looked through the window at my sleeping daughter as Dr. Thade said, “There’s no really easy way to say this.”

“Just say it,” I whispered.

“I’m not sure if you knew this, but your daughter…She was pregnant.”

I didn’t realize I was falling until Alex and Dr. Thade both reached out and gently lowered me to the floor.  “Put your head down between your knees,” Alex said.

“I’m fine,” I hissed, angrily brushing his hand away.  “I’m fine.”

“Put your head down,” Dr. Thade ordered.  She squatted down in front of me.  

“She was pregnant?” I whispered.  “Do you mean she’s not now?”

“No, she’s not anymore.  She lost the baby.”

“What happened?” Alex asked, joining us on the floor.

“She was wearing a seatbelt.  We think that the pressure from that on her abdomen combined with the stress of the crash caused her to miscarry,” Dr. Thade explained.

“Oh,” Alex said.  “Okay.”

I lifted my head up from my knees slowly.  “She hasn’t woken up yet?” I said softly.  “She doesn’t know?”

Dr. Thade shook her head.  “She hasn’t regained consciousness yet.  She’s going up to the operating room shortly so we can put pins into her leg to mend the break.”

“I want to see her,” I said, putting my hand on the floor and struggling to swing myself upright.

“Let me help,” Alex offered, holding out a hand.  I took his hand and let him draw me to my feet.  We walked into Lanie’s room together.

“Hi, sweetheart,” I whispered, sitting down on the edge of her bed.  I took her hand, my head flooding with memories of doing the very same thing the day of the shooting.

Lanie stirred slightly, her head turning slowly towards me as her eyes cracked open.  “Mom?” she whispered.

“Hi,” I said, rubbing my hand gently on her forehead to push her hair out of her eyes.  “How are you feeling?”

“Hurts,” she answered, her eyes drifting closed again.  “Everything hurts.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Hi, princess.”  Alex came up on the other side of the bed.  

“Hi, Daddy,” she answered.

We all sat silent for several minutes, unsure of what to say.  Lanie finally broke the silence.  “I’m really sorry, Mom.  I’m so sorry.”

“For what, honey?” 

“Everything,” she answered.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “Don’t worry about it, sweetheart.”

Lanie looked at Alex.  “Daddy, can I talk…just to Mom?”

“Okay,” he agreed.  “I’ll be out in the hall if you need me.”

“What is it?” I asked gently as Alex disappeared.

“I have to tell you something,” she whispered.

“Lanie…”

“I…”  After thinking for a second, she rephrased her thought.  “Did…did they tell you?”

“Tell me?” I asked.

“About the baby?”

I nodded slightly.  “It would have been…better to hear it from you though.”

“I know,” Lanie answered weakly.  “I’m sorry, Mom.”

“It’s okay,” I answered.  “Sweetie, look…”  I turned away so she wouldn’t see me crying.

“What is it, Mom?” she asked, her voice trembling as if she as afraid to hear the answer.

“I don’t know how to tell you this.”  I wiped the tears off my cheeks before turning back to her again.

“Just say it,” she said, her voice a little stronger.  “Like you’re ripping off a band-aid.  Just say it.”

“Lanie…you were hurt pretty badly in the accident.”

“Just say it,” she repeated, her eyes filling up with tears.

“You…you lost the baby,” I stuttered.

She nodded.  “Okay,” she said quietly, a couple of tears trailing down her cheeks.

I folded her hand into mine.  “I’m sorry,” I said sincerely.

“It’s okay,” she answered sadly.  “I mean…maybe…I don’t know.”

“What?” I prodded gently.

“Maybe…maybe it’s better…?”  Lanie’s voice trailed off and she stared off into space.  “I mean…he’s gone, you know?  And…I just…It’s sad, but…I’m sad…I…”  She shook her head in frustration.

“Maybe this isn’t the best time to ask this but…it…It was Rich’s?”

She nodded silently.

“Did he know?”

“No,” she replied, shaking her head again.  “I never…got a chance to tell him.”

“I’m sorry that you have to go through this,” I said.

“Me too.  You…you have no idea.”

“You’re right,” I agreed.  “I don’t know what you’re going through right now.  But I do understand a little bit about pain.”

Lanie tried to roll over slightly, wincing at the pressure that it put on her injuries.  “What…?”

“You broke your leg in the accident,” I supplied.  “And a couple of ribs.”

She closed her eyes, trying to stop the flow of tears.  “This is…a lot.”  Opening her eyes again, she said, “I want to go home.  Can I go home?” she asked hopefully.

“Not today,” I answered.  “You might have to stay here for a couple days.”

Lanie began to sob openly.  “No matter how hard I try, Mom, I can’t run away from him…everything keeps coming back.”

“It hasn’t been that long, sweetheart,” I tried to console her.  “It’s like anything else, it takes time.”

“What if I…Mom, I…”

“What?” I asked.

“What if it never gets easier?”

“It does,” I insisted.

“You don’t know that,” she pointed out.  “I loved him so much, Mom.  I’ve tried so much…I’ve tried…to push it out, and I can’t.”

“You don’t have to,” I told her.  “You just…some day…You will be able to accept it.”

Her eyelids drooped with sleep.  “Not today, though.”

“Not today,” I agreed as she drifted off to sleep.

*

Jenna and Becca were sitting on opposite ends of the line of chairs when I came back out into the waiting area.  “She’s asleep,” I said to Alex.  

“That’s good,” he answered.

I sat down next to Alex.

“How’d she take it?” he asked.

I shrugged silently.  “She was okay, I guess.  As good as I could have expected.”

Becca got up from the chair she was sitting in, shrugging into her coat.  “I’m going to go.”

I felt my eyes flash, and the words were tumbling out of my mouth before I knew it.  “You’re leaving?  Just like that, you’re leaving?  As if it’s all better now?  Well, it’s not all better.  And you know as well as I do that it’s never going to be all better!”

“I think I better go too,” Jenna said.

“You are supposed to be my friends.  My friends,” I repeated, the second time with more emphasis.  “We were all friends.  And something happens, and suddenly you throw it all away?  Here’s a news flash—friendship doesn’t work that way.”

I picked up my own coat and stomped through the doors and out into the hallway.  “Michelle, wait!” Alex called, running after me.

Whirling on him, I cried, “I can not be the glue that holds everybody together anymore.  I just can’t.  I need some support of my own!”

Alex drew me in to his chest as my tears became the size of gumdrops and trailed down my cheeks at random.  They stood that way for a long time, and it took some time for it to click in my head that Lanie had been taken for her surgery.  I pulled away from Alex and began to pace up and down the hallway. 

Reaching out for me, Alex placed his hands on my shoulders to stop my constant motion.  “Michelle,” he breathed in my ear.  “Let’s just sit down now, okay?”

“I’d rather not,” I answered sullenly.

“Michelle.”

“No,” I answered, shaking my head back and forth before he could say anything more.  “Could you…could you go up to the gallery and watch the surgery?”
“Michelle,” he protested.  “She’ll be okay.  It’s only a broken leg; it’s nothing major.  I don’t think that I’m comfortable leaving you alone.”

“I’ll be fine.  There are plenty of people here that I know, Alex, I’d just…I want to know that someone is watching over her.”

He looked at me strangely.  “You don’t want to come, then?”
I shook my head.  “I don’t think it’s a good idea.  I just need a little space.”

“Okay,” he agreed hesitantly, before turning around and taking the stairs up towards the operating room two at a time.

I sank down into one of the chairs, and Jenna materialized and planted herself beside me.  “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.  “I didn’t mean to make you upset.  We didn’t mean anything by it.  It’s just…”

“I know,” I interrupted her.  I just can’t think about that right now.”

*

Jenna put her feet up on the coffee table, leaning her head back against the edge of the couch.  Her fingers folded comfortably over her very round pregnant belly.  “Do you think our babies will be friends?” she asked.

Becca shrugged, her hands caressing her own very pregnant belly.  “Maybe.”

“We could make them,” Jenna laughed.  “ I mean, if they spend every minute of every day together, they have to be friendly, right?”

“You don’t even know yet if yours is a boy or a girl,” Becca pointed out.

“And I don’t want to,” Jenna rebutted.  “It would ruin the surprise.”

“You aren’t even curious?  I’d be going crazy if I didn’t know he was a boy,” she said, gesturing to her stomach.  “Gabriel and I are buying everything boy right now, trying to get ready.  I don’t know how you do it not knowing.”

“Neutral colors,” Jenna insisted.  “A godsend.”

“Seriously…can you imagine if both of us have boys?  We grew up together…they could grow up together.  They’ll be built in friends, just like we were.  It’ll be amazing.”

“If I have a girl, they could get married.”

Becca reached out and hit her lightly on the arm.  “Thinking ahead much?”

“No,” Jenna laughed, “not at all.”

*

There was a knock on the door as Becca sat on the sofa, watching television.  She pulled it open slowly to find Jenna standing on the front stoop.  “Hi,” she said, too surprised to remember to open the door further.

“Hi,” Jenna said quietly.  “Can I…Can I come in?”

“Sure,” Becca answered hastily, pulling the door open further and then closing it as her friend entered.

Jenna wandered into the living room, almost bee lining to the fireplace and lifting a picture off of the mantle.  “You still have this,” she whispered, tracing over the photo with her fingertips.

“It was a long time ago,” Becca answered awkwardly.

“There aren’t too many pictures of the three kids together.”  Jenna’s finger came to a stop on her son’s face, and she held it there for several seconds before putting the frame back down on the mantle.  “It’s nice,” she said, trying to force a smile and failing.

“Why are you here?” Becca asked quietly.  “Not that I’m not happy to see you and everything, but…”

“Because it’s been a long time.  Because there were a lot of things that I’d forgotten.”

“Oh,” Becca answered, confused.  “Do you…Do you want to sit down?”

Jenna crossed to the couch and sat down without being led.  “I’ve missed you,” she started.  “I’ve missed you, but it’s been…”

“Hard?” Becca prodded gently.

Jenna nodded.  “A little.  I mean, I know that…”
“It’s okay, Jenna,” Becca interrupted.  “I understand…it’s been hard for me too.”

Shaking her head quickly, Jenna spit out, “No, I didn’t mean that it was harder for me than it was for you, I just…”
“I understand, Jenna,” Becca said again.

“Okay,” Jenna said, sinking back against the couch.  “Look…I…”

Becca perched on the edge of one of the armchairs, afraid to say anything at all.

Looking around the room, Jenna asked, “What happened to your walls?  What is…”

Shrugging slightly, Becca gestured at the wall.  “People hate me for what my son did.  Some days, even I hate me.  Like you.”

“I don’t hate you, Becca,” Jenna said quietly as tears sprang to her eyes.  “I could never hate you.  I just…I think that I needed someone to be angry at, and you were there.”

“I don’t condone what he did, and I never could.  But he was my son, and no matter how much I may hate what he did, no matter how much I might not like him, I do love him, and I always will.”

“I know,” Jenna agreed.  “I loved my son with all of my heart.”

*

I knocked on Becca’s door, truly surprised to find Jenna inside as well when I entered.  “Hi,” I said, not bother to rub the surprise from my features.

“Hey,” they both answered at the same time.

My eyes tracked back and forth between the two of them.  “This is…good,” I said, referring to the fact that the two of them were together.

Jenna shrugged as we all moved back into the living room.  “We’re working through some stuff,” she explained.

I nodded.  “That’s a good thing.  Look, I came to…I came to apologize.”

Shaking her head, Jenna disappeared into the kitchen without a word and returned seconds later with a bucket and a sponge.  “It goes without…….you…..you don’t have to say anything.”  She lifted a hand to the wall and began to scrub.

 

*

“If I could say anything to you right now…there are a million things that I would say.  I don’t even know where to begin.”  Jenna wrapped her jacket tightly around her shoulders, sitting down on the ground.  “There are a million wishes.  I have a million wishes for you.”

A chill whipped around me, damp rainy air leaking up the sleeves of my jacket.  Lanie and I waited a short distance away, our hands filled with keeping a handle on Jenna’s gift.

“I have a million wishes for you,” she whispered again, letting the phrase carry off into the wind.   “I hope you’re happy, where you are.  I hope you aren’t cold.  I hope you have a lot of friends, a lot of kids your age you can play with.  Maybe you even have a puppy.  Or a kitten.  It would be nice if you had that.”

I put an arm around Lanie, holding her close as we jostled the strings.

“I wish that you could have grown up…gotten to go to school…have a girlfriend…drive a car…get married, someday, but you won’t, and I’m sorry.  It wasn’t meant to be.  There are so many things that I wish I could give you, so many things that I wish I could say.  I don’t have enough time to say them all, Richie.  There’s never enough time, you and I, we didn’t have enough time.”

Lanie and I walked forward so that we were directly behind Jenna, and I squeezed her shoulder slightly to let her know that we were there.

“If I could give you one last hug, one last kiss…I would.  But I can’t reach you where you are right now, not until we’re together again…and I don’t plan on that happening for a long, long time.”

Jenna stood up and turned around to face us, reaching out and taking the fistful of balloons from our hands.  “You always liked balloons, you liked to see the different colors.  We were at the fair once, and you accidentally let your balloon go.  You started to cry,” she continued, “and I told you that when a balloon flies up into the sky, it represents a wish that someone wants answered.  I brought you balloons,” she said, holding them up to the sky while still clutching them tightly in her hands.  “They are all my wishes for you, Richie.  All my wishes, and I wish for you to have everything you ever wanted.  I wish for you to be happy.  I wish you peace.”

Jenna opened her hands and let the balloons fly gracefully up into the sky in a flock of rainbow colors.  “I wish you peace.”

Tagged ,

Blink (Part Ten)

Becca was sitting in the chair in the corner of her room when I entered.

“Hi,” she greeted me without turning away from the window.

“Hi.”  I pulled up another chair so that I was sitting beside her.

“They told me this morning that I could go home today.”

“That’s good, right?” I said encouragingly.

She hung her head so that her hair shielded her face from my eyes.  “I guess…I mean, I was happy for a minute, and then, I…”  Looking up, she said, “I realized that I don’t have much of a home left to go to.  A family makes a home a home…and I don’t have that anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Tell me about it,” Becca abruptly changed the subject.

“About what?” I asked gently.

“The memorial service, the funeral, the burial…the others.  Everything.”

I shook my head slowly.  “Becca, I…”

“What?”
“The funerals that we went to…they were lovely.  We had a hard time, but they were…very nice.”

“Gabriel…?” she whispered, not daring to ask about Doug.

“There were no funerals for them.  Gabriel was talked about in several articles—they named him a hero for saving all the kids in his class, but…You can put that together when you get out.  I can help,” I offered.

Smiling weakly, Becca drew her legs up underneath her in the chair.  “I guess.  It’s just a lot.”

“I know,” I replied.

“The others…the kids…How many were there?”

“Becca, do you really…”
“How many?” Becca interrupted.

“Fourteen students, one teacher…and Gabriel.”

She nodded slowly, her gaze drifted back out the window.

I reached out and gently grabbed up her hand.  “Don’t do this to yourself, Becca.”

“Do what?” she asked absently.

“Feel guilty.  You can’t, honey.  There was nothing you could have done.”
She closed her eyes as she squeezed my hand slightly.  Just as suddenly as she tightened her grip, she was suddenly pulling away.  “I wish…I wish that he would have killed me too.”

“Becca-“ I started to say.

“No,” she snapped, her eyes suddenly dead locked onto mine.  “No.  Why me?  Why did I live?  I should have died, Michelle, I should have died, and all of those people are dead and I’m still here.  It’s not fair.  It isn’t fair.”

“No,” I agreed.  “No, it’s not.  But you…This is survivor’s guilt, Becca, you don’t need to talk like that.  I don’t want to hear you talk like that.”

She rolled her eyes, shaking her head.  “Survivor’s guilt?” she scoffed.  “Because it’s such a wonderful thing to survive, right?”

“Please don’t talk like that,” I whispered, feeling my face sadden despite my efforts to fight it.

“All those people…they died, Michelle, they died.  And I’m still here.  What makes me so special that I’m still here, and they’re not?”
I shook my head.  “I think…What Doug did, Becca, for the most part…I think it was random.  But he loved you.  He loved you with all of his heart, and you certainly can’t feel bad that you survived while none of them did.”

“You can’t tell me what I can and can’t feel,” she retorted.

“I can tell you what I feel,” I answered quietly.  “I love Lanie with all of my heart, with every breath that I take…but when I see these other parents who’ve lost their children, when I see you…I almost…I feel badly that I still have her.  Do you understand?”

Becca nodded.  “I guess.”
“Nobody blames you,” I said softly.

“Yes, they do,” she answered matter of factly.  “I’m sure they do.”  Swallowing hard, she pulled herself up out of the chair and walked towards the door.  “Can you…get me out of here?  Can you take me home?”

“Sure,” I replied.  I didn’t know what else to say.

*

“Are you sure you want to go to your house?” I asked as we turned down her street.

“I’m sure,” she affirmed.  “I have things I need to do, things I…”

“Nothing that can’t wait a little longer if you need it to,” I pointed out.

“No,” Becca replied firmly.  “No, I want to go home.”

I pulled up into her driveway, and we walked up her front walk together.

“Michelle,” she whispered, her hand on my elbow.  The front door was slightly ajar.

“Let me go in first,” I said, stepping in front of her.

I pushed open the front door, walking forward into her living room.  Spray painted in bright red across her white wall were the words, “Their blood is on your hands.  Someone needs to pay.”

Becca came up behind me, murmuring the words under her breath.  “Nobody blames me, huh?”

I was at a total loss as to what to say, once again.  “I…”
“It’s okay,” she said, moving into the kitchen so she wouldn’t have to look at the wall anymore.  “I’ll clean it up tomorrow.”
“Let me help you,” I insisted.

“That’s okay, “ she said.  “I can do it.”

“But you shouldn’t have to,” I answered.

Her eyes glassed over slightly as she sat down at the kitchen table.

*

Lanie, Alex and I sat around the kitchen table at dinner, the only sound being the forks and knives clanking against the plates.  “How was your day?” Alex asked.

“We went to the memorial service,” Lanie answered.

“How was it?”

“Fine,” she said shortly.  “It was fine.”  Pulling her napkin off her lap, she folded it next to her plate and pushed her chair back.  “May I be excused?”

“Sure,” Alex replied.  As she disappeared up the stairs, he said, “How was it really?”

“It was okay.  We didn’t stay that long.  Lanie actually went up to the microphone, I was surprised.”

“And she was okay?”  He set his fork down, leaning back in his chair.

“She was,” I confirmed.  “Doug’s girlfriend came up to the mic after her, and we left after that.”

Alex raised an eyebrow.  “How was that?”

“It was…interesting.  I feel sort of sorry for her.  I just…”  My voice trailed off, leaving the thought unfinished.

“I understand.”  He picked up the dirty plates from the table and started rinsing them off in the sink.

I threw out my napkin, and went to the foot of the stairs.  “I’m going to go up and just make sure she’s okay.  I’ll be back.”

Alex nodded as he grabbed the dish soap from under the sink.

*

It was dark as they lay on the rooftop, staring up into the sky.  It was a darker dark than one would ever find in the city, and Lanie could pick out several stars that she never would have seen with her feet on the ground.  “It’s beautiful,” she whispered, almost afraid to break into the reverie.

“Lanie?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re beautiful.”

She rolled over into Rich’s arms, letting him enfold her against his chest.

“Say that again.”

“You’re beautiful,” he said obediently.  “Really.”

“I love you,” Lanie said softly.

Rich put his hands gently on the sides of Lanie’s face, sliding his fingers back so that they tangled in her long red hair.  Resting his forehead against hers briefly, he then pulled back and sat up suddenly.

“What?” she asked.  “Did I do something wrong?”

He shook his head.  “No, no, definitely not.”

Frowning, she questioned, “Then what is it?”

Rich sighed.  “As much as I want this…”

Lanie scooted forward slightly so that she could peer off the edge of the roof into the darkness.  “You can’t.”

“Yeah.  There’s just…a lot of stuff right now.  I don’t want to be in any serious relationship until I’m sure I have my head on straight, you know?”

She nodded, even though she didn’t.

“A lot of kids our age make that mistake, they put relationships in front of what’s really important.  I don’t want to be one of those kids.”

“Me either,” Lanie replied, knowing that’s what Rich would want to hear.

“So when we’re older, maybe.  But not now.”  Rich moved forward as well, so that he was sitting right beside her on the roof. 

“That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, right?” Lanie asked.

“We did share blocks,” Rich smiled.  Taking off his jacket, he draped it over Lanie’s shoulders.  “If we can share well…we can be friends.”  

“Okay.”

He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, reaching so that he could run his fingers through her hair.  “But it won’t be easy.  I think I care about you too much.”

“I know.  Me too.”

Rich drew her closer again, the signals that his body was sending her completely disagreeing with the words that were coming out of his mouth.  

“Rich,” she protested.

“Don’t say anything,” he said, putting a finger to her lips.  “Look, one time won’t hurt.  One time.”

His lips melted into hers, and Lanie found all of her misgivings melting away right along with them.

*

Lanie was standing in front of the mirror when I entered the room.  Before I realized what she was doing, the scissors in her right hand that she must have been hiding in front of her body, appeared.

“Lanie?” I asked, crossing rapidly to stand beside her.  “What are you doing?”

“Just stay away, Mom, let me do this,” she snapped.

Holding up a hunk of her hair, bright red hair that was just like mine, she stuck it between the blades of the scissors and cut.  As the foot long tail of hair fell to the floor, I noticed Lanie’s hand starting to shake.

She bit down on her lip, trying not to cry, as she grabbed another chunk of hair to put between the blades.  Her hands quivered as she struggled to grasp at the hair, and I reached out gently to cover her hand with mine.  “Can I help?”

Lanie shook her head furiously at first, but as she tried again and lost her grip on the hair again, she relented and surrendered the scissors.

I pulled up a chair.  “Sit,” I said, pointing down.

She sat in the chair without argument.

“Now,” I asked, “what are you trying to do?”

“Cut it off,” she answered simply.  “All of it.  I want to cut it all off.”

“Okay,” I agreed reluctantly.  As much I hated to cut off her beautiful hair, I would rather do it myself with my steady hands than have her try to do it while shaking.  As I started working my way around her head, cutting off hair at the same length as her original cut, I asked quietly, “May I ask why?”

After a minute or so, she answered, “Rich liked my hair.  So it makes me sad now every time…When I brush it, or run my fingers through it, or…It reminds me of him.”

“Okay,” I answered.

“I need to get rid of it,” she continued.  “I need to cut it off.”

I cut the rest of the bigger chunks off in silence, before grabbing a smaller scissors off the dresser to do some trimming.  “I’m sorry I’m not a hairstylist,” I said.

“It’s okay.  Thanks for helping me.  You didn’t have to.”

“Yes, I did,” I answered matter of factly.  “Of course I would.”

Snipping at the ends of her hair in silence, I pulled away and let her take in my work.  “Thanks,” she said again.  “Mom?”

“Yeah?”

She shook her head slightly.  “It’s nothing.  Never mind.”

“What is it?” I frowned, putting down the scissors and leaning against the front of the dresser.  “You can talk to me.”

Lanie bit down on her lip, her eyes shifting slightly as she considered words.  “Not yet, Mom, not about this.”  She stood up, walking towards the door.  “Is it okay if I go out for a while?”

“Where?” I asked.

She shrugged, shaking her head.  “I don’t know.  Just…out.”  Without waiting for an answer, she disappeared out the door.

I followed her down the stairs, reaching their base just as she went out the back door.

“What was that all about?” Alex asked, looking up from where he was drying the dishes.  “Was her hair shorter?”

“Yeah,” I nodded.  “She wanted to cut it off.  I have no idea…I think it had something to do with Rich.”

He raised an eyebrow slightly.

“She wanted to talk to me about something…but then, as suddenly as she brought it up, she didn’t want to talk about it anymore.”

“It’ll come,” Alex answered.

I came up behind him to help with the rest of the dishes, and as I picked up a second drying towel, I heard the car start up in the driveway.  “Is that…”

“The car?” Alex finished.

I threw the towel back into the sink and ran through the house out the front door, just in time to see my daughter who did not have her license back the car crazily down the driveway and peel away.

Tagged ,

Blink (Part Nine)

After taking Lanie home to Alex, I headed to the hospital to visit Becca.

Becca was lying in her bed, facing the wall.

The walls, curtains, decorations, equipment…everything around me screams hospital. Becca thought.  Her head felt as if it were filled with lead, and she couldn’t lift it up from the pillow.  This isn’t right. she thought.  I’m a doctor, not a patient.  I shouldn’t be in this bed, I should be helping patients, checking on my patients, I can’t take a nap, I…

I walked around the bed, pulling a chair up in front of her and watching as she slowly came awake.  The wave of reality crashed into her waking self all at once, and she moaned Doug’s name.

“Becca?”  I reached out a gentle hand and tried to turn her face towards me.  “Becca?  It’s me, Michelle.”

Tears ran down her face, and I found myself crying right along with her.  My vision blurred through the tears as she whispered, “What’s…going on?”

I shook my head, choking on my words slightly as I answered, “There was an…an…incident, Becca, do you remember?”

She buried her head in the pillow, shaking her head.  “No.  That was a dream, Michelle.  It was just a dream.  I don’t believe it; I can’t believe it…I won’t.   It was a dream.”  Lifting her head slightly, she met my eyes in search of reassurance that I wasn’t able to give.  “It was a dream,” she said, not quite as certain.  “You have to tell me it was a dream.”

“Becca…”

She rolled over so that she was flat on her back and lifted her shaking hands in front of her face, checking over the bandages.  “It…It was all real, wasn’t it?”

When she looked to me for confirmation, I nodded slowly.  “Yes,” I whispered.

Seeming to sink back into the pillow, her eyes grew very dark as they held on to unshed tears.  “I keep going back in forth…I’m numb; I’m not, I…It’s all…Where am I supposed to go?” she asked very quietly.  “What am I supposed to do now?”

It was a lot stickier for Becca, and I wasn’t at all sure of what to say.  “I don’t think there are any easy answers.”

“I loved him, Michelle,” she said, turning so that her words almost disappeared into the pillow.  “I know that you might not understand that, but I did.  And I tried to hate him…but I don’t know how.”

“You shouldn’t have to hate your son,” I answered quietly, even though I was pretty sure that I myself hated him.

“He took my husband.”

“I know,” I replied, for lack of a better word.

“He planned it, did you know that?  After sitting down for breakfast with me that morning, after shoving a pop tart in his pocket…he went to school and shot all those people.  He shot my husband.  And then, as I stood there and watched, he told me he loved me while he shot himself in the head.”

I was at a total loss for words.  “I wish that I knew what to say to you.”

“You don’t have to say anything,” she whispered bitterly.  “There’s nothing that you can say.  I should have seen it coming, Michelle, I should have seen it coming, and I didn’t.  Those kids are all dead because of me.  This is all my fault.”

“You can’t possibly think that, Becca.  This isn’t your fault.”

“I should have known.  A mother is supposed to know everything about her child…and I missed this.  I totally missed it.”

“Becca…”

“Look…I know you mean well, but…I just want to be alone, okay?”  She rolled back over so that she was facing the wall away from me without waiting for my response.

I grabbed my purse and coat and walked out the door.

*

“Mom?”

Jenna looked up from her book.  “Yeah, Rich?”

“What happens to us when we die?”

Frowning slightly, Jenna folded down the corner of her book and set it aside.  “Why…why are you asking me that?” she asked, taken aback that her thirteen year old would be having any concept of death.

“I was just wondering,” he answered innocently.

“You have a lot of years yet,” Jenna said, forcing the quiver out of her voice.  “You will drive, and graduate high school, go to college, get married have kids.  You don’t need to worry about dying yet, honey, not for a lot of years.”

“But how do you know that, Mom?  How do you know?”

*

As the phone rang again, breaking through Jenna’s memories, she very calmly reached over and yanked the cord out of the receiver’s base.  The ringing ceased as she returned her gaze to the photo album in her lap.

“Mark should be back soon,” Carrie said as she came into the living room from the kitchen.  “He went to…”

“I know,” Jenna said softly, breaking in before Carrie could finish.  “I know where he is.”

Carrie sat down next to Jenna.  “These are of your son?”

Jenna nodded, sliding the book over slightly so that Carrie could see.  “I was thinking maybe some photo murals for the funeral tomorrow…but there are so many.”

She turned another page, and Carrie pointed at one of the pictures.  Rich was sitting on the edge of a dock, his feet hanging off into the water.  “That one’s nice.”
“Rich didn’t like swimming,” Jenna replied.  “He only liked to get his feet wet.”

“Ah,” Carrie answered.

“Carrie?  Your son…did you ever talk about where…what happens when we die?”

“A little bit,” she answered.  “We talked about heaven.  But I was afraid of it…I kept thinking that I had more time.  And then, one day, I…I didn’t.”
“How did you make it stop hurting?”

“I didn’t,” Carrie answered instantly.  “It just…It’s a little less every day.”

“You keep promising that,” Jenna said.

“Yes I do,” Carrie replied.  “I believe it.  I know it.  I lived it, Jenna.”

“How do I do this?” I whispered, gesturing at the photo album.  “How do I sum his life up in a couple of measly pictures?”
“With your heart,” Carrie answered.

*

There was absolutely nothing in my closet suitable to wear to her son’s funeral.  Not one thing.  Mark came up behind her as she was staring into the closet and laid a hand gently on her arm.  “Jenna, you have to get dressed, we have to go to the church.”

She shook her head slightly, not turning away from the closet.  “I can’t…I can’t go.”

He drew away from her, a frown creasing across his face.  “What do you mean, you can’t go?  You…”  He shook his head.  “You have to go.”

“Nothing is right…I don’t have anything that’s right,” she answered, gesturing at the various items hanging in the closet.

Mark reached around Jenna, pulling out a pants suit.  “There’s this.”

“No,” she whispered.  “Not that one.”

He rolled his eyes, so slightly that it was almost miss able.  Throwing the pants suit onto the bed, he pulled out a dress.  “There’s this one,” he said angrily, throwing that across the bed as well.  “Or this one.  Or this one.  Or this one.”  He threw outfit on top of outfit over the bed as Jenna burst into tears.  “Any of these, any, Jenna, could you please just pick one, for the love of God?”  Mark threw up his hands in exasperation.

Jenna sank down to the carpet, wrapping her arms around her knees.  “Just…go…without me,” she sobbed.

As Mark stormed out of the room, Jenna curled into herself as the sobs wracked her body.  Reaching up onto the bed, she whipped the discarded clothing across the room with everything she had.  

*

“Maybe you’re right,” Mark said softly.  “Maybe this isn’t working.”

Jenna sat down on the edge of their bed, folding her hands softly in her lap.  “It hasn’t been for a long time.”

“So you’re saying it’s all my fault?”

“No,” Jenna stuttered, “no, not at all, I just, I…”

“It’s all my fault that you went and slept with somebody else?” Mark interrupted harshly.

“I said I was sorry,” Jenna whispered, unable to meet his eyes.

“You don’t get to be sorry.  You don’t get to say sorry.  You don’t get to say anything at all.  I don’t owe you anything.”

“You were never home!” Jenna screamed.  “You were never here!  What did you expect me to do, sit around and wait every day for you to decide that you loved me?”

“How dare you blame this on me?” Mark shot back.  “You were the one who went and slept with somebody else, not me!  I didn’t make that decision for you!  You did!  You should have known that I loved you, I shouldn’t have had to say it every day!”

“You never said it!” she cried.  “You never said it!”

Mark sat down on the bed suddenly.  “You’re right,” he admitted.  “I didn’t.  But you could have come to me, you could have talked to me.  You never even tried.”

“You didn’t want to listen,” Jenna replied.

Hooking his fingers through his belt loops, Mark studied the pattern on the carpeting.

“You’re just so angry, all the time.  I couldn’t bring anything to you, you never would have listened.”

Mark face was drawn with acceptance.  “We’re finished, aren’t we?”

“For now,” Jenna answered.  “I think we both made some pretty bad choices.”

“We did,” Mark stated.

*

I knocked softly on Jenna’s bedroom door before letting myself in.

“Jenna?  What happened?”

She shook my head, crying too hard to answer.

“Come here,” I said, pulling her up off the floor and onto the bed.  “Talk to me.”

“Mark’s…gone,” she bawled.  “I…I didn’t know what to wear…to…”

I squeezed my hand and walked over to the closet, selecting the perfect outfit within seconds and taking it off it’s hanger..  “This one, Jen.  This is perfect.”

She nodded, her crying coming under control as she took several deep breaths. 

“Let me help you get it on.  We have to get to the church.”

She nodded obediently and held her arms up so I could slip the dress over her head.

*

I kept a firm grip on Jenna’s elbow, steering her up the steps and into the church.  People tried to reach out and talk to her, but I kept them at bay with my steely gaze.

The funeral home had done a beautiful job with everything.  There were beautiful flower arrangements lining the pews, and a book of condolences at the church entrance.  Mark was sitting in the front pew, and Lanie was a pew behind him with Alex.  I kept my eyes on my feet, trying to avoid looking at the tiny coffin that lay ahead, and trying not to imagine what it would be like if it was my child inside.

Jenna and I sat down in the front pew, right next to Mark..  She kept a grip on my left hand.  Alex leaned forward to give my shoulder a quick squeeze.  I glanced at Lanie, meeting her eyes to check and make sure she was okay, and it was then that I felt Jenna’s hand leave mine.

When I turned back around, Jenna had moved to the front of the room and was standing at the coffin.  Alex and I both got to our feet at the same time, and I made it to the coffin just as Jenna laid her body across the top.  I looked to Mark to see if he would go up there with her, but he made no move towards her.

I stepped up behind my friend, laying my hand across hers on top of the wooden lid.  “Jenna?  Are you okay?”

She shook her head, her fingers clutching at the lid and her breath coming in short gasps.

I gripped her face lightly under the chin and turned her to face me.  “You have to breathe, okay?”

Jenna nodded, letting go of the coffin and standing up, swaying slightly.  Alex was right behind her, and he put an arm around her waist so that he could support her weight.  “You okay?” he asked her as she leaned into him.  

Jenna nodded again, and let Alex steer her back to the pew.

I sat down beside her, rubbing her knees in a manic circular motion.  “It’s okay, Jen, it’s okay.”

She clawed at her throat, ripping off the tiny cross necklace that she was wearing and throwing it to the floor.  “No,” she said hoarsely, “not really.  A parent isn’t supposed to outlive their child, remember?”  She gripped my hand so tightly that my fingers turned white, all circulation draining away.

I reached out and pulled her face into my shoulder, whispering into her ear, “You don’t have to look at it anymore, Jen, don’t look.”

Jenna buried her face in the fabric of my sweater, the darkness blinding her against the sight of the coffin.

“Deep breathes, Jen, focus on my voice, okay?” I rubbed comforting circles on her back.  “You can do this, Jenna, you’re okay, you’re okay.  Focus on me.  Don’t look, don’t look at it, just focus on me.”  

After several minutes, she sat up, once again taking in the sights of the church.

“That a girl.  You’re okay.  We’re right here,” I said.  

Jenna started to cough, and Alex produced a miraculous bottle of water from the depths of  my purse.  I screwed the cap off and hand passed it to Jenna, who took a grateful sip.   

I looked around the church, everywhere and anywhere but the front.  When the funeral began, Mark was nowhere to be found.

Tagged ,

Blink (Part Eight)

Jenna shuffled down the stairs to the kitchen the next morning, leaning on the railing the entire way to keep her balance.

“Hey,” Mark said, looking up from the stove.  “You up to eating?”

“Maybe just a little,” she answered, folding herself into one of the dining chairs to give her legs a rest.

“One pancake?”

“That sounds good.”

“We have to talk about stuff,” Mark said hesitantly.

“I know,” she said, taking the plate that he offered.  Stabbing at the pancake with her fork, she repeated.  “I know.”

Carrie appeared in the doorway, leaning against the frame and nibbling on a granola bar.  “Maybe not today,” she said, trying to gently guide the conversation.

“There’s a memorial meeting…service…whatever you want to call it…at the big church down the road from the high school today,” Jenna said, stirring a tiny piece of pancake into the syrup.

“Do you want to go?” Mark asked.

“Do you?” Jenna countered.

He nodded slightly.  “Yeah, sort of.  I think it would be nice.”

Staring down at her plate, Jenna answered, “Maybe.”

*

I knocked lightly on Lanie’s door before pushing it open slightly.

“Hi,” I said.

She looked up from the notebook she was writing in.  “Hey, Mom,” she said, clipping the pen to the cover of the notebook and setting it aside.

“I made breakfast,” I said, offering it as the only thing I could give to her.  “I thought maybe we could go downstairs and eat together?”  I couldn’t think of any other way to get her out of her room, and I didn’t want her to spend another entire day in there.

Pushing back the covers, Lanie slipped out of bed and pulled on her bathrobe.  “Okay,” she agreed, following me out of the room and down the stairs.

I pulled her chair out for her before I sat down in my own.  

“Waffles,” Lanie smiled slightly.  It was the first I had seen even resembling a smile since the shootings.  “You used to make these all the time when I was little, when you weren’t gone as much.”  She picked up the syrup bottle and drowned the waffles in syrup just like she had done when she was smaller.

“Little waffle with your syrup?” I cracked.

“Of course,” she answered.  After a couple of bites, she said, “Mom?  Don’t you have to go to work?”

“Not yet,” I answered.  “Not for a while yet.”

“Oh,” she answered.  After eating for a couple more minutes, she reached out and pulled over the morning paper.

“Lanie,” I said, trying to grab it away before she could look at it.

“Mom,” she snapped, pushing my hand away.  “It’s okay!  I want to see it.”  Unfolding the paper, she looked at the full color photo on the front page.  “That’s Mr. Watkins.  My homeroom teacher.”  Looking up at me, she asked, “He was Doug’s father, right?”
I nodded.  “Yes, he was.”

“He was my teacher.  It’s still…hard to believe.”  She pushed aside her now empty plate, pulling the paper closer.  “Can we…can we go to this?” she asked, pointed at an article on the lower corner of the front page.

I scooted my chair over so that I could look at the page beside her.  

“There’s a memorial service today.  I’d sort of like to go,” Lanie said quietly, tracing the picture of her teacher with her fingers.

“Are you sure?” I questioned gently.

She nodded, staring down at the table.  “It’s not real yet,” she answered, flipping open the paper to look at several more articles about the shootings on the inside.  “I need…I need to go.”

“Okay,” I agreed, not want to push any further.  “We can go.”

“I should go get dressed then,” she said, almost absently, pushing her chair back from the table.

“Do you want help?” I offered.

“Nah,” she shook her head.  “I’ve got it, I think.”  She started up the stairs, but stopped halfway to look back over her shoulder.  “I’ll call you if I need you.”

“All right.”

*

As we walked up the steps of the church, we had to make our way through large clutches of teenagers.  I kept one hand lightly on Lanie’s elbow and let her lead the way.  Several people said hi to her, but she kept on moving forward.  We walked into the church sanctuary, and Lanie gestured up front at the large pictures and floral arrangements.  “Look,” she whispered quietly.

“Do you want to go up closer?” I asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” she replied.  “Maybe…in a little while.  Let’s just sit for now, okay?”  

We made our way down the aisle, taking seats about halfway towards the back.  

“Michelle,” I heard someone say quietly.  

Turning around to look over my shoulder, I shot quickly to my feet.  “Jenna,” I said, moving forward to give her a quick embrace.  “You came.”

“You act surprised,” she said, giving me a shaky smile.

Mark came up behind Jenna and gave me a nod.  “Hello, Michelle.”

“Hello,” I answered, unable to keep the astonishment off of my face.

“Can we sit by you?” Jenna asked.  “I can’t handle being up front.”

“Of course, of course,” I answered hurriedly, nudging Lanie to move down so that Jenna and Mark could sit on the aisle.

As we took our seats, Jenna whispered to me, “I wanted to come, I really did, but now that I’m here, I just…”

I reached out and took her hand without saying anything.

On the other side of me, Lanie said, “I know what you mean.”  I didn’t even realize that she had been listening.

I put my free arm around my daughter’s shoulders, letting her rest her head on me.  Jenna stared dead ahead, her eyes seeming to drift back and forth among the floral arrangements and pictures.  Blood shot lines streaked across the whites of her eyes, filled with tears that she hadn’t yet, or couldn’t, shed.

  The principal of the high school stepped up to the microphone, and people around us took their seats.  Without saying anything, he pulled out a small lighter and walked out in front of the mike, lighting each of the wicks on seventeen white candles.  Lanie silently cried beside me as the candles were lit, and I squeezed her shoulder a little tighter.  Jenna continued to stare dead ahead and made no motions at all.

The principal picked up several index cards off the small stand by the microphone.  Taking a deep breath, he clutched them tightly in his hands before letting them fall to the floor.  “I had a speech prepared,” he whispered in the direction of the microphone.  “I had a speech prepared, but it wouldn’t do them justice.”

Lanie shifted slightly, pulling a folded up piece of paper out of her pocket.  When I looked over at her, she just shook her head.

“We are in the wake of a terrible tragedy.  This is nothing that any of us have ever faced before, and nothing that any of us know how to face.  We are making our way blindly right now, and the only way that we can make it through is if we do it together.  We need to talk about our feelings with each other so that we can realize how not alone we are, and so that we can be there for each other.  If anyone has anything that they would like to say, the microphone is open for you.”

My daughter slipped out from under me, moving rapidly up to the microphone.  Holding the mike with one hand, she held her piece of paper in the other.  “We were studying this poem in our literature class, Rich and I.   I thought of it the other day, when I was lying in my hospital bed.  I was in that bed because…Rich…”  

Lanie began to cry freely, and I fought the urge to get up and go to her, letting her stand on her own.

“I was in the bed…” she continued, “because Rich…I was alive…because Rich saved my life.  And…he…he’s gone now.”

Mark bit down on his lower lip, so hard that he drew visible blood.  Jenna tensed up beside me at the mention of her son’s name, staring into her lap as she fought back against her tears.  

“This poem made me think of Rich, and how strong he was,” Lanie stuttered, “and…I’m just going to read it now…”

I let Jenna fold into me, and she buried her head in my shoulder.

Lanie’s voice grew in strength as she read the words out loud.  “In Flander’s Field, the poppies blow. Between the crosses row on row.”  

I stared into the candles, letting the light burn into my eyes.

“That mark our place; and in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly.”

Jenna shoulders began to shake silently, and I rested the palm of my hand on the middle of her back, rubbing softly.

“Scarce heard amid the guns below, we are the Dead.  Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.”

So smoothly I almost missed it, Mark reached out and placed a gentle hand on Jenna’s knee.  I was in awe of my daughter’s strength; I couldn’t imagine doing what she was doing.

“Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”

Lanie folded the piece of paper back up and crammed it into her pocket, slipping around the line to come back to her seat.  

“That was beautiful,” I whispered to her as the next student stepped up to the microphone.

“It fit,” she answered simply.

The girl after Lanie in line began to speak, so softly that the microphone could barely pick her up.  “My name is Jodi,” she whispered.  “I don’t know a lot of you, and you probably don’t know me.  That’s okay.”

I racked my brain, trying to figure out who the girl was.  As her fingers grasped the microphone stand and her sweatshirt sleeves slid back towards her elbows, I noticed the bandages covering her wrists.  As she said the words, I figured out who she had to be.

“I was Doug’s girlfriend.  Like Doug, I was pretty much invisible.  But I was okay with that.  All of a sudden, I’m not invisible anymore.”

There was buzzing around the room as the saddened group digested this bit of information.  Some angry words were shot in the direction of the podium, and Jodi winced slightly, closing her eyes.

“I know that people wonder if I knew.  I didn’t.  I thought that he broke up with me because…I did something wrong.”

Lanie’s shoulder grew tense as she drew back in her seat.  “What is this?” she whispered.

“I…did,” Jodi said quietly.  “I did something…wrong.  I should have been better for him, stronger, I should have known what to say, how to fix him…how to make it better…I should have seen this coming.  And I didn’t.”

The principal stood up from his chair in the front row, coming up to stand behind Jodi.  He seemed prepared to usher her away from the podium.

“I just want to tell you all that I’m sorry,” Jodi finished.  “That’s really all I wanted to say.  I just want you all to know how truly sorry I am.”

Stepped away from the principal’s extended arm, Jodi moved away from the mike and fled out one of the side doors.

Jenna pulled away from me and grabbed her coat off the back of the seat, pushing past Mark into the aisle and out the door.  Mark closed his eyes, frown creases forming across his features, but he made no move to go after her.

“Mom,” Lanie said quietly, “you should make sure she’s okay.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t want to leave you alone.”

She grabbed her coat.  “I said what I wanted to.  I can wait in the car.  You should go.”

We gathered our things and moved quietly out of the sanctuary.  Jenna was sitting on the now empty front steps, her coat draped beside her.  True to her word, Lanie kept walking and headed back to the car, giving us a few minutes alone.

I sat down on the steps beside her, picking up her coat and laying it across her shoulders.

“Has it really only been…this is only the third day,” she murmured.

“It feels like forever,” I answered.

“It has been forever,” Jenna amended.  “It’s like being in hell.  This is hell.”

“Oh, sweetie, I…”

“I just want to cry,” she broke in.  “I just want to cry, but I can’t cry anymore.  I don’t have anything left in me.  At the end of the week, I’m going to bury my son, Michelle.  A parent’s not supposed to outlive their child.  It’s not supposed to happen this way.  I don’t know how to go on without him.”

“I don’t think you really go on without him…” I hedged.  “The memories will always be with you, no matter what.”

She shook her head.  “Not now, not yet.  I can’t think about him.  I’ve tried, and I can’t.”  

“You’ll get there.  It takes time.”

“Lanie…Lanie is a beautiful girl.  And I love her with everything, but…looking at her, looking at all of the other kids…it reminds me that he’s…Rich isn’t coming back, ever.”

“I’m sorry, Jenna,” I whispered.  “I’m so sorry.  I wish that I could do something more, but…”

“I know,” she answered, drawing her coat tightly closed around her shoulders to brace against the slight wind.  

“None of this feels real.  If this were anything else…if it had been anybody else…Becca would be here with us right now.  It’s still hard to absorb.”

“I miss her,” Jenna replied, quietly staring ahead.  “But it would hurt too much to see her.  She reminds me of…him.  And…he reminds me of Rich.”

“She understands,” I answered, even though I wasn’t sure Becca did.

“It’s just…that…When I got up this morning…Do you want to know what my first thought was?”

“What?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure I had a good guess.
“What to make Rich for breakfast.  It’s still not sinking in…like I’m waking up and starting that day, the day that it happened, over and over again.  I don’t know how to make that stop.”

“It takes time,” I said.  “It takes a lot of time.”

“None of know how much time we have,” Jenna argued gently.  “We could die any day.”

“You can’t talk like that,” I protested.  

“It’s true,” she whispered.

We joined hands, sitting in the quiet on the church steps with only the wind rushing around us.

Tagged ,

Blink (Part Seven)

Jenna was lying across the couch in the same position she had been when she hung up the phone, the receiver still clutched in her hand.  When the doorbell rang, she rolled over slightly, noting the sunlight streaming in the window.  She couldn’t remember whether or not she had slept.  The last thing that came to her mind was hanging up the phone.  

“Come in,” she called, but her dry throat made her call weaker than she wanted.  Drawing the blanket around her body, she tried to sit up, but she realized she was shaking horribly.  As she tried again to push herself up, the door swung open.

Mark came in, with Carrie close behind carrying a large duffel bag.  

Jenna shielded her eyes against the light.  “Hey,” she whispered.

“I remembered where the spare key was,” Mark said, taking off his jacket and draping it over the chair by the door.  “I was afraid you would be sleeping.”

Shaking her head mutely, Jenna realized she was blatantly staring at Carrie.  

“Where can I put this?” Carrie asked, holding up the duffel bag.

“The spare bedroom,” Jenna answered.

“Up the stairs, the second door on the right,” Mark clarified.

“Okay,” Carrie said, giving Mark a squeeze on the shoulder.  “I’ll give you guys some time alone.”

Jenna sank back into the couch cushions, her head swimming as Mark sat gingerly beside her.  “You came,” she said quietly.

“I said I would,” he calmly replied.  “How are you…holding up?”

She shook her head mutely.  “I’m not sure…I don’t remember sleeping.  I think I just laid here all night, I don’t know.”

He took the receiver off of the cushion next to them and put it back in the charger.  Carrie bustled past them, moving into the kitchen and continuing to give them some space.

“I’m not sure what to do now,” Jenna said, pulling her knees up to her chest underneath the blanket.

“I don’t think this is something that anybody’s prepared for.”

“I guess…” she answered, her voice trailing off at the end.  “Just sitting here…it still feels like he’s going to come down the stairs any minute, you know?”

Mark hung his head slightly, afraid to look at her.  “I just…I wish I would have spent more time with him, I…”

“I wish that too,” she interrupted.  

“When was the last time you saw him?” Mark asked.

“Waking him up for school yesterday.  The last thing I said to him was will do.  Will do.  I mean, if I would have known, I…”

“You couldn’t have known,” he broke in gently.  “There’s no way that you could have known what was going to happen.”

After several minutes of silence, Mark noticed her shivering.  “Are you cold?” he asked.

She nodded.  “I can’t shake it out of me; it goes all the way down to my bones.”

Getting up off the couch, Mark put a couple of logs in the fireplace and carefully started a fire.  Sitting down on the rug in front of the flames, he gestured to Jenna to follow.  Drawing the blanket even tighter around herself, she slid off the couch and down to the floor, finding her legs to be too shaky to provide support.  She scooted over next to Mark, her body welcoming the warmth from his fire.

“They’re calling him a hero, did you know that?”

“That’s what you said,” Mark replied.

“A hero.  As if that makes it better,” Jenna said bitterly.

“What…Did they tell you…”

She nodded slowly, biting down on her lip.  Thinking about her son’s last minutes made her stomach churn slightly, but she said, “Just what the other students said.”

Mark stared straight into the fire, giving her time to pull her self together and continue.

“He and Lanie…you remember Lanie?”

“Yeah.”

“He and Lanie went to the cafeteria with another girl.  I guess Lanie was introducing them or something.  There were a couple of explosions…”  She paused, taking care to take deep breaths as she thought about the fear her son would have felt during the explosions.  “They heard the shots out in the hall, but when they tried to get out, the door was chained.”  She struggled to keep breathing, and was dimly aware of Mark reaching out to touch her.

“It’s okay, Jenna, you don’t…”

She shook off his hand, trying to cycle her breathing like she would tell any patient having a panic attack.  “He…he led them into the backroom.  When Doug came in, he grabbed Lanie and pulled her out into the main room to be a lookout, jamming the rifle into her back.  When Doug tried to bring her back, Rich jumped him.”  Jenna looked up at Doug, her eyes filling with tears.  “Rich jumped him and knocked the rifle out of his hands, but Doug had another gun in his boot, and he…he…”

Jenna was gasping for breath by the time she finished, tears streaming down her face as she rocked back and forth.  She was no longer able to concentrate enough to focus her breathing, and realized in the back of her head that it was mildly out of control.

“Jenna,” Mark whispered, reaching out to smooth her hair behind her ear.  “It’s okay, you’re okay.  You have to breathe, okay?”

She shook her head violently, skittering away until her back was pressed against the couch.  Burying her head in the blanket, she wheezed desperately, gasping for oxygen.

“Jenna,” Mark crawled over to her, extending a hand cautiously.  “Try to take a deep breath and hold it, okay?  You have to try.  You’re hyperventilating; you’re going to pass out.”

Jenna looked around the room wildly, her hands shaking as her teeth and fingers started to lose feeling from lack of air.

“Hey,” Mark said, snapping his fingers in front of her face.  “Focus on me.  Focus on me, instead.  You can do this.”

She sucked in air desperately, the blanket falling away as she clawed at her throat.

“What’s going?” Carrie asked, sticking her head out of the kitchen.

“She’s having a panic attack.  I need something for her to breathe in, a paper bag or something, quick.  Before she passes out.”

Jenna curled in a ball on the floor, dizzy, but unable to stop her frantic breathing.

“Here,” Carrie said, rushing back into the room and handing Mark a small lunch sack.

Mark tried to place it in Jenna’s hands, but she was shaking too badly.  Wrapping his arms around her frail body, he lifted her up and held the bag to her lips himself.  “Breathe into the bag,” he instructed.  “Keep breathing into the bag, it will help slow your breathing.”

Jenna leaned heavily into Mark’s arms, too exhausted to sit up on her own.  After breathing for a few minutes into the bag, she felt her breathing return to something close to normal.  Mark pulled away the bag, and she continued to breathe regularly.  “There you go,” he said.  “That’s a little better.”

Mark scooped Jenna up, laying her back down on the couch.  

Carrie came up behind them.  “I brought a glass of water,” she said, putting it down on the nightstand with a straw inside.  “I found a straw, I wasn’t sure if she could sit up.”

Mark held it out to Jenna, who grabbed for the straw gratefully.  As soon as the water hit her stomach though, it started to churn again, and she had to bite down quickly on the inside of her mouth to keep from getting sick.  Gripping the top of the couch, she pulled herself into a sitting position and focused on not falling over as the entire room spun.

“Are you okay?” Mark asked.

She shook her head.  Rising on shaky legs, she crashed into the table and sent the water flying.  

“Where are you going?” Mark asked, alarmed.  He reached out a hand for her, but she shook him off and stumbled into the bathroom right down the hall.

Slamming the bathroom door, Jenna locked it behind her and collapsed to her knees.  She barely made it to the toilet before the water and all the other pitiful contents of her stomach were coming up into the bowl.  After the first wave, she wiped her mouth and tried to lean back against the wall.

The nausea came again, and she was retching so hard this time that her head was practically in the bowl.  There was nothing else in her stomach to come up, but every time the heaving stopped, she thought of Rich again, and every time Rich came into her head, the nausea came back.

There was a light knocking on the door as Jenna leaned her head on the porcelain seat, relishing the coolness against her sweaty forehead.  “Are you all right?” Mark called.

Jenna tried to answer, but her throat was burning, and the dry heaves came again.  She vomited repeatedly, and even though nothing would come up, the heaving wouldn’t stop.   

The door rattled as someone outside played with the lock.  It popped open slightly, and Carrie slipped inside.  “I thought it might be better if it was a woman coming in,” she whispered.

Jenna lifted her head slightly, the room spinning slightly as she gripped tightly at the sides of the toilet.  Carrie walked over to sink and wet a hand towel, kneeling down beside Jenna.  She willed her body to obey in front of her husband’s new wife, but the thoughts of Rich overwhelmed her again.

“It’s okay,” Carrie said quietly, seeming to understand.

Jenna started gagging again, and put her head down into the bowl, heaving more violently than the last time even though still nothing was coming up.  There a brief reprieve, and Carrie held her hair back, wiping away some of the sweat with the towel before laying it on the back of her neck.  At the cool feeling, Jenna started gagging again, retching as if there was something inside her that she desperately needed to get out.  He was dead, her son.  Dead.  She didn’t know how to process that; she didn’t know how to accept that he was gone.

When the heaving ceased for what seemed to be the final time, Jenna was shaking so badly that she couldn’t hold her head up.  Carrie leaned back against the wall, drawing Jenna towards her.  Laying Jenna’s head down in her lap, she produced another towel that Jenna didn’t even realize she had.  She cleaned Jenna’s face with a gentle touch before discarding the towel and rubbing her hand in small circles on Jenna’s back.  

“I lost someone too, once.  My little boy,” Carrie said, so softly that Jenna almost didn’t hear it.  “I know how it feels.”

Jenna nodded, her body too drained from being sick to do anything more.

“Let’s just stay in here for a little while, hon, and make sure you’re okay, all right?”

Jenna nodded again, closing her eyes and giving in to the exhaustion.

*

Lanie was sitting up in bed, the dark circles under her eyes standing out in stark contrast to the paleness of her skin.  “Hey there,” I said, sitting down on the edge of her bed.

“Hi, Mom,” she answered, putting aside the notebook that she was writing in.

“What are you writing about?” I asked gently, hoping she would realize that I wasn’t trying to pry.

“What I…remember,” she answered hesitantly.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I offered.

Lanie looked at me, her eye shimmering with unshed tears.  “I do…but I don’t know if I can.”

“Okay,” I answered.  “It doesn’t have to be today.  It can be whenever.  I just want you to know that I’m here if you need to talk.”

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You know I…I…I…I loved him, Mom.”  She chewed on her upper lip as a single tear fell off her cheek.  

I could practically hear her heart breaking, and I wished with all my power that it could be mine that was shattered instead of my daughters.  “I…Lanie, I wish I could make it go away,” I said honestly.  “I really do.”

“I know, Mom.  I’m just really sad,” she said, embracing me and letting the tears bleed into my shirt.  “I never got to tell him.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” I murmured, unsure of what else to say.

“Me too, Mom.  Me too,” she answered, pulling away and laying her head down on the pillow.

I stood up, taking that to mean that she wanted to go to sleep.  I was almost to the door when she stopped me.  “Mom?”

“Yeah?” I answered, turning around.

“Can you sit with me until I fall asleep?”

“Of course,” I assured her, cutting across the room and sinking into the papazon next to her bed as her eyes drifted closed.  

Lanie’s breathing took on the deep quality of sleep, and I let my own eyes drift shut as well.  It didn’t take long before I drifted off to sleep.

*

Lanie bent over her locker, pulling out her sixth grade math book.  Swinging her backpack from behind her to under one arm, she shoved the book in and zipped it shut.  

“Lanie?”

Lanie closed her eyes, the sound of his voice like nails on a chalkboard.

“Can we talk?”

She turned around, staring into Doug’s hopeful face.  “I guess,” she answered, leaning back against her locker.

“I was wondering if…”

“What is it, Doug?” Lanie snapped, fighting impatience.

“There’s…a dance on Friday.  I was wondering if…I was wondering if you wanted to go.  To the dance.  With me,” he added the last part as almost an afterthought.

Lanie shook her head slowly.  “I can’t.  I already have plans…”

“What are you doing?” 

She winced, she was sure visibly, as she said, “I have another date, Doug.  I’m sorry.”

“Oh,” he whispered.  “Okay, I guess, I…”

“What are you doing, nerd?”  One of the older kids, an eighth grader, slammed his hand into the locker above Doug’s head.

“Just talking,” Doug said, staring at the floor.

The boy grabbed Doug’s sweater and swung him around, shoving him into the opposite wall.  Lanie realized she was shaking slightly, and took a couple of steps backwards along the locker wall.

Spinning Doug around again, the boy slammed him to a stop right in front of Lanie.

“Stop it,” she whispered.

“What was that?” he asked nastily.

“Stop it!” she cried, a little more fiercely.  “Just leave him alone, okay?  He wasn’t going anything to you.”

“Don’t,” Doug hissed.  “I can handle it.”

The boy reached out and ripped Doug’s glasses right off his nose.  Dropping them to the linoleum floor, the boy stomped his boot down on top of them, shattering the lens into several pieces.  “There,” he said, an evil grin filling his face.  “Now you don’t have to watch your girlfriend save you anymore.”

*

Lanie sat bolt up right in bed, shaking off the dream.  I was at her side in an instant, balancing on the edge of the bed.  “What is it, sweetheart?”

She held her hands out in front of her, shaking her hands out.  “I had a dream about…Doug,” she answered, her voice quivering slightly.

“Are you okay?”

She nodded.  “It wasn’t anything that bad…it was…Did you know he asked me out when we were in middle school?”

“You never told me,” I responded, in awe, and found myself wondering how many other things Lanie had never told me.

“There was this dumb dance,” Lanie continued.  “He asked me out, and I had another date.  I think it was in…sixth grade.  And then right after he asked me out, this older boy came up behind us and slammed him around into the lockers.  He ruined Doug’s glasses, crushed them under his boot.”

“That’s awful,” I gasped.

“Yeah.  Doug cried,” Lanie replied sadly.  “But that was middle school, you know?  That was the way it was for some people…it just…happened.”

“Oh,” I said, pulling myself all the way up onto the bed.  “Did anybody ever do anything like that to you?”

Lanie thought for a second, leaning her head back against the pillows on her headboard.  Shaking her head, she answered, “Not really.”  After a second, she added, “Pretty much only when I was with Doug.”

“You guys were good friends when you were younger.”

“Yeah,” she said wistfully.  “I don’t remember when it happened, but…At some point, we weren’t really friends anymore.”  She started to cry again, and swiped at her cheeks with the edge of her comforter.  “And here I go, crying again.”

“It’s okay to cry,” I told her.

“I know, Mom.  You taught me that.  I’m just sick of it.”

I reached out and wiped away some of the tears.  

“Mom?”

“What’s up?” I answered.

“If I would have still been friends with him…do you think I could have stopped him from doing this?”

I closed my eyes, praying for the correct thing to say.  “You can’t think like that,” I replied.  “You can’t change the past.”

“I guess…” she accepted, stretching back out on the bed and closing her eyes.

I sat beside her on the bed, stroking her hair until she fell back asleep.

*

Mark stuck his head into the bathroom.  “Is she okay?” he asked quietly.

“She’s not feeling all that good,” Carrie answered.  “But I think she’s doing okay now.  Could you maybe carry her upstairs for me?”

“Yeah,” he said, bending down carefully and scooping Jenna up.  

“Watch her head,” Carrie said, cupping around the top of Jenna’s head to keep it from banging on the frame.

Mark walked up the stair carefully.  He went through the door, and Carrie ran ahead to peel the blankets back.  Placing Jenna carefully on the bed, he pulled the covers up and tucked her in.

“I’m going to sit up here for a little while longer and make sure she’s okay,” Carrie said, “and then I’ll come down.”

“All right,” Mark said.  “I’m going to go make some phone calls.”

“Okay,” Carrie said, draping the afghan from the back of the corner armchair across her lap.

As Mark left the room, Carrie leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes.

“What happened to your son?” Jenna asked, so quietly that Carrie almost missed it.

Jenna’s eyelids felt like they were weighted.  She let them drift shut again as Carrie talked.

“He was six.  He had acute leukemia.”

“I’m sorry,” Jenna whispered.

“Me too,” Carrie answered.  She got behind the armchair and pushed it closer to the bed, leaning over to wipe the sweat off of Jenna’s face.  “No more getting sick on me, okay?” she teased gently.

“Okay,” Jenna agreed.  “I’m definitely good with that.”

“It gets easier.”

“It can’t,” Jenna protested weakly.

“It does still hurt, every day.  But every day, it gets a little easier.  Every day, it hurts a tiny bit less.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes,” Carrie answered firmly.  “I do.”

“Okay,” Jenna murmured.

“You need to get some rest,” Carrie said, but before the sentence was out of her mouth, Jenna was already asleep.

 

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