Tag Archives: fiction

CampNaNoWriMo; The Twelve Chapter Two

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

THE TWELVE: CHAPTER TWO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” I said.

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

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

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

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

#

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

“Hello.”

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

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

I smiled, unsure of how to answer him.

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

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

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

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

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

“Good morning, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if I need a pencil?”

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

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

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

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

“Fifteen minutes,” Beaty called out.

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

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

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

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

“Now, Brian.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

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

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

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

Brian looked back and forth between Beaty and I.

“Nineteen times two,” Beaty barked.

“I…I…” Brian stammered.

Thirty eight, I willed him to say.

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

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

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

“Nineteen times two.”

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

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

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

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CampNaNoWriMo!!!

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

The Twelve, Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remained silent, in the background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t know then to feel shame.

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was,” she answered, still laughing.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

“Me too.”

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

“Sure!”

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

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

There was no answer.

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

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

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

There was no answer.

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

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

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

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

“911. What is your emergency?”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

I blinked up at her without answering.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” I whispered.

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

“Okay.”

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

“Why?” I asked. “Where am I going?”

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

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

“Not anymore.”

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

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

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

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

I belonged to The Sect after that day.

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StayHomeWriMo Day 2!!!

Writing prompt: Pick five words at random from different blog posts, tweets, or articles and use them all in a scene. Words assigned at random by my Facebook friends because I am incapable of being random myself: amazing, moon, mercy, cacophony, elastic.

**Disclaimer, I’m not a huge fiction writer anymore!

Rebeckah’s heart was a cacophony of emotion as she drove her boot heel into the soft flesh of the stranger’s throat. His last words before she’d pepper sprayed him and knocked him flat, “Why won’t you answer me, pretty lady, do you think you’re better than me?” echoed inside her head as the feeling of his dirty fingers on her arm refused to fade. It had happened so fast–his fingers on her arm one second and then him crying on the ground like a little baby from the pepper spray pain. Her boot made contact before she totally realized what she was doing.

The man coughed and sputtered beneath her as he struggled to take back the air she was stealing, but she wouldn’t let up. Couldn’t. Rebeckah was tired. It wasn’t this one man in particular. He hadn’t done anything worse than anyone else. It was all the men. It was every catcall, every whisper, every side eye, every preposition of a kiss, or something more. She was TIRED. Women were just expected to be elastic, to bounce back, to sit down and shut up and take it and then take it some more. Rebeckah didn’t want to take it. Rebeckah wanted to make a difference; she wanted to change the world.

The man bashed his palm against the ground again and again, a cry for mercy when he had no voice with which to speak. The power she felt as she really threw her weight into him, as she stared down at his pepper spray addled eyes and his dead fish hands, was the most amazing feeling she had ever felt. Her heart calmed, the cacophony silenced, and she knew what she had to do.

Rebeckah lifted her boot just before the man’s eyes closed. She wasn’t like him. She was better, or at least, she hoped to be. This was her difference she sought to make, not so much in the letting him go, but in the making him remember. What he’d done; what she’d done. That she’d had a chance to end him and let him go instead. The moon was high in the sky as she walked away, round and blood red in a way she had never seen before, and Rebeckah hoped he was grateful for this chance to see it.

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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.”

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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.

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