Jennifer Alice Chandler

Mind Master Chronicles (Book 1): Labyrinth

Twelve-year-old Aronade plays a lot of games, but they aren’t games of her own design. These games have been crafted by a man who goes by the name, “The Instructor.” He creates these mind games called scenarios in order to teach Aronade “lessons” about how the world truly operates. But when Aronade discovers a nearly drowned teenage boy from the outside world at the compound, she soon discovers that the Instructor’s games may not be so harmless after all. In fact, they may be deadly.

ACT I

Chapter 1

11/1

Dear Diary,

I don’t really know what date it is. I think it is November 1st. Anyway, I’m surprised I’m even bothering to write down my thoughts. I’ll end up carrying my notebook with me and holding it close to me, so he doesn’t get his hands on it. If he did get his hands on it, he’d think me such a fool for exposing my innermost thoughts like this. But Nan, my caregiver, mentioned in passing having a diary as a girl, and it got me to thinking. The thing of it is I’m sick of just having thoughts trapped in my head with no one to share them with. (I’m looking around the room now.) I’m always feeling as though I’m being watched. Crazy, right? He said in passing he’d respect my privacy in my room — which is where I am now. But doesn’t that imply he doesn’t elsewhere? I was tempted to ask the Instructor whether these suspicions were true, but I decided against it. First of all, who knows whether he would tell me the truth? Secondly, even if it were true at that one moment that doesn’t mean it would stay true later on. It would be just like him to change that reality to make another example of me. So instead, I’m keeping my eyes and ears open — waiting for him to slip up and reveal that he is aware of more that I do than he should be — to find out when he spies on me and when he doesn’t bother to. But I have to be careful not to tip my hand and let him know that, for once, I’m testing him. Subtly is key.

For instance, I already know he’s watching me somehow during the scenarios — the information he’s been getting isn’t just from the actors either. He knows what I do — how I respond when no one else is with me. Still, even as I congratulate myself for how clever I am to have figured this out, I could kick myself for having this need to express my feelings honestly. If I were smart, I’d just be writing down meaningless things to throw him off. But alas! Fundamentally, I am a person who feels too much and falseness wears on me. So, if I accept myself the way I am, at least I can give myself credit for choosing the least dangerous way to vent my feelings. So long as he doesn’t start noticing I’m using more paper or noticing the new bulk under my clothing where my diary is hidden, I should be fine. As for the danger I mentioned, I’m not implying mortal danger …

“Aronade!”

That’s my name. Nan is calling me.

Nan acts as though I have been hard to find. She had looked for me in my room earlier, and I hadn’t been here. She is accusatory, as though I have been avoiding her intentionally. I haven’t been. Doesn’t matter. I think the whole conflict is silly. I always end up in my room eventually. Most of the time, I am in my room. I am particularly here a lot in the winter … which for all intents and purposes is happening now. I always seem to wind up catching a cold or something else in the winter. Most of the time, after I recover, I will spend extra time in my room. It is here that I work up my nerve to start it all up again. After all, once a scenario starts it could take awhile to stop. But eventually, the boredom of just staying in this room does wear on me, and I head to that same doorknob again and venture forth.

Unlike my doorknob, most of the other doorknobs in this place open to a different room — a different world seemingly — every time. It is amazing how much things can change in a matter of hours! Just as though in a dream, the entire landscape can be transformed. The architecture of the new spaces juts out in almost perverse angles. And yet, just as the man who designed it, there is a sense of purpose to the display. The edging of the rails smoothly curve together; no knots or holes are visible. Obviously, the Instructor spends quite a bit of time on the construction of the layouts — it is merely the moving of the already-finished pieces that must take such a short time.

But what is the purpose of the scenarios? To entertain me? To distract me? Or, is the enjoyment for him alone? Am I merely to be watched as a rat in a maze would be? Usually, though, I don’t mind these episodes. I like exploring. I also enjoy the distraction.

Speaking of the Instructor, he is why Nan has come. I am to go see the Instructor; he is expecting me.

The Instructor … I wring my hands. Why does he want to see me today? That is always the question I ask myself when he summons me. What does he want now? What is he up to? I can remember the first time I became wary of him. I was very young when I was first introduced to him. I was expecting some sort of parental figure — someone to welcome and reassure me. What I got instead was a distant man who analyzed me with cold detachment. Though I would conclude he wasn’t out to harm me, he also had no interest in showing me any marked kindness either. He hasn’t even told me his real name. Instead, the only other things — besides food and the roof over my head —he gives me are the lessons. He teaches me lessons on how the world works in his view. And when he feels I can’t learn well enough by words alone, he has scenarios set up to demonstrate what he is trying to impart.

It didn’t take me long to come to dread my meetings with him, which oftentimes, but not always, involve some elaborate dinner. These meetings would generally come up out of nowhere — their timing sporadic. It certainly made it impossible to anticipate them or completely let my guard down either. But then again, the value of not letting one’s guard down was one of his lessons.

I head toward the room where I usually meet with the Instructor. I wonder what the lesson he has for me could be this time. I am considering this when I become aware that I have eyes upon me. He is sitting in the same high-back chair he had been in the last time I saw him. When I look at him, he is eyeing me with curiosity.

“Won’t you have a seat, Aronade?” he offers.

As I pull back the chair that he is motioning to and prepare to sit, I feel the need to say something.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting.” I tell him.

Part of me wants to break the awkwardness of the moment.

“How could you know I would summon you today?” he returns with a dismissive wave of his hand.

I sit down.

“That is true.” I admit.

“Anyway, this will be a short meeting …”

I wait.

“I’m going to be traveling for a while. I thought this would be a good time for you to continue with your studies. You will be permitted access to the library. If you find the time, you might explore as usual. But remember, you aren’t allowed to leave the grounds.”

“Of course.”

The Instructor takes out a pocket watch and checks it.

“Given that I did not expect it to take so long to find you, I am afraid I will not have the time to eat with you today.”

“Of course.”

He leaves without further word.

This isn’t the first time he has disappeared. I had never had any warning before, though. I just grew accustomed to his unpredictable schedule. Sometimes I’d see him many days in a row; other times months could pass without word. I learned rather quickly to avoid asking Nan what was going on. The one time I did, she glared at me with ferocity. When I didn’t catch on right away, she cleared her throat and turned from me.

“So, why tell me now?” I wonder when I am assuredly alone.

It isn’t as though I would have known that he wasn’t around somewhere on the vast estate. In fact, I would have assumed he was still here. Is he going to be gone a particularly long time? Or, does he just want me to believe he is gone? There is no way to know with him. And yet, I am determined not to let my guard down and risk another lecture. This is particularly true now that I have something to hide (my diary). The only question is should I go to the kitchen to retrieve my lunch — which is probably what is expected of me — or head off to my room for some much-needed time to myself?

I decide it is best to do what is expected of me. I head toward the kitchen. Not surprisingly, Nan is waiting for me. Of course, the Instructor hadn’t told me to go to the kitchen, but years of experience here told me that I wasn’t welcome to loiter in the Instructor’s spaces after he left. In fact, it was Nan who taught me that. I had lingered once, and she had come to fetch me with her, by then, usual display of displeasure. She doesn’t hurt me, but she does scare me a little. Maybe if I had enough reason to, I’d be willing to stand up to her. But it isn’t the time; it is still time to lie low.

“You are to eat. I will then take you to the library as the Instructor charged you.”

Nan likes to pretend she is in with the Instructor, but many times I can tell she knows less than I do.

“All right.” I agree.

I can always sneak out from there later. The sooner I can get away from Nan, the better.

“You’re awfully compliant.” she suddenly accuses.

I look up at her. I remember then that I can’t afford to underestimate this woman.

“Maybe you are finally ashamed of how you behaved this morning?” she chides.

“How was that?” I mutter.

Nan stops peeling the potatoes and glares at me.

“The Instructor pointed out that there was no way that I could have known I had been sent for. I’m allowed to wander around.” I remind her.

That shuts her up. Nan continues to peel; her face twists into a sneer. Eventually, she slides a bowl of soup in front of me. She doesn’t bother to look at me again.

“Eat up. Then, I’ll take you to the library.”

“I’m done.” I later proclaim.

There is no noticeable reaction.

“I can find my way to the library on my own.” I tell her.

Chapter 2

11/16

It has been weeks since I last saw the Instructor. Only the work he has left me to do remains as a reminder of him. I am sitting on the edge of my bed when the fan in the vent stops running. At first it makes a sort of raw grinding noise. Then, it starts to slow to a halt. I listen as it completely goes dead. Then, I roll my eyes and sigh.

“Again?!” I cry out to myself in dramatic fashion. I lie back down and sprawl across the bed. But as the moments tick by, the silence gets to me. I sit up and look at the annoying fan squarely. It is unfinished business that I will have to get to eventually. How can I avoid it? I’ve never been able to avoid it before.

I decide to go to the vent for a closer look. I notice that the vent looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned in a while. That is both strange and to be expected. It is expected because I have lived in this room for a while, and I’ve never seen the vent cleaned. Yet, it is odd all the same because most scenarios are made from new constructions. I have never had to crawl through dust before. I straighten up and stretch. How long can I reasonably expect to avoid going in? Can I just pretend I hadn’t noticed? Will this be the moment I will choose to defy my benefactor?

I groan. Not today, I decide. I bend down and examine the vent. When I find that the grate to the vent had just been placed on rather than secured, it pretty much confirms to me that this is, in fact, a scenario I am meant to perform. I lay the grate to the side of the vent, stoop down once more, and crawl in.

“Of course, this was meant to be a scenario!” I think. “Why else have such a large vent?”

Still, it is a bit of a tight squeeze … but nothing I can’t handle. Good thing he didn’t wait until I was any older to try out this scenario! And yet, I am somewhat put off when I see the fan blades soon after. Even though they are barely lit by the light from my room, I can tell the space between the blades is narrow. Still, no scenario has failed to be perfectly planned thus far; surely this one isn’t going to be the exception. He must have accounted for my size and realized I could do it.

As I start to contort myself in every direction I can think of to maneuver my way into the convoluted opening, I do have a doubt cross my mind. And yet, as I begin to find more and more of my body on the other side of the barrier, my doubts begin to recede.

“I can do this.” I tell myself. “It is annoying, but I can do this.”

Then, finally, I manage to pull all but my left leg through. I take a moment to take a breath. I can’t tell you how relieved I am. True, I could possibly have to go back through the other way … but I have done it! And surely if I did it once, I can do it again. Then, I hear it: a start of something — an electric hum replacing the pervasive silence — the sound of the old rusty blades grudgingly replacing their newfound rest with movement! My eyes widen in horror as I swiftly wrench my foot from their grasp.

“What?!” I cough as a wave of scattering dust engulfs me.

“Why?! Why would he do this?!” I stammer.

I stare at my foot; then, I move it around in a circle. My mind imagines what it would have been like if it had suddenly been gone. I can’t wrap my mind around that. The Instructor is always playing mind games, but I have never been injured, nor have I come this close to being injured before. I bite my lip. Perhaps, it had just been for show. Or, maybe a mistake had been made, and he had thought my foot had been safely on the other side of the blade.

A moment later, I make the mistake of breathing in without having anything over my mouth to protect my lungs from the dust. I begin to cough violently. I suddenly feel as though I am drowning in sand. I hesitate to leave for a moment wondering whether the fan will be stopped again to allow me to go back through to the other side. But I can only linger there a moment. I can’t stand being where I am any longer. Covering my mouth with my arm as best I can, I begin to crawl away from my room and farther into the darkness. A little way forward it occurs to me that I have no idea where I am going, nor what may befall me as I go. So, I have to feel ahead of me — not only the sides of the shaft but also the floor in case there is a sudden drop-off. If the Instructor is trying to teach me not to take my safety for granted, it certainly has worked. Apparently, taking my safety for granted could cost me my life.

I do start to feel an increase in my anxiety level as the complete darkness overtakes me. Where is this tunnel going? What is the point of all this? I start feeling the sides of the shaft for some sort of exit. There has to be an exit — there just has to be! Only all of the grates I come across seem fixed into place. I consider just waiting for someone to come and rescue me, but the noxiousness of the dust drives me forward. I can’t stay here. Certainly, no one would expect me to stay there. I continue to creep along, not feeling that my footing can be relied upon, when at last I come upon something different. I finally feel a metal grate begin to give. It only gives a little, but, now that I have grasped hold of this sliver of hope, I’m not about to let it go without a fight. I manage to turn myself around and begin kicking the grate I’ve found with all the intensity I can muster. Fortunately, the foot I had managed to rescue from the whirling blades begins to make progress. And eventually, the grate gives enough that it creates a space — a space large enough for my form to eke through.

As I stumble out of the filthy tunnel, I am greeted by a very long and very dark corridor — straight one way and then down the other it runs. Old, curved stones crawl up the sides and sporadic candles line the carved recesses. There appears to be doors, too, made of old warped wood — wood warped, no doubt, by the drips of water that are slipping from the ceiling. It is this water, more than likely, that weakened the grate I was able to kick open. My first thought upon taking in the scene is how strange it all is — even for a scenario. Clearly this is an older part of the compound; the rust, the cobwebs seem real.

The dust still fills my lungs. I give a light cough; the sound echoes. Yet, I can still hear the fan buzzing away in the distance. And there is another noise beyond the dripping water. It sounds like the hum of a generator. Yes, it is definitely the sound of electricity.

Suddenly, an anger brews inside of me. Perhaps the place where the generator is located is where the switch to the fan is located. Perhaps whoever almost maimed me is also there. I am suddenly taken with the desire to confront that person. Usually, the scenarios seem like a game, but this time it has become serious. This person has to be told that he or she messed up. I plan on telling the Instructor the same thing — assuming I don’t lose my nerve in the meantime. But for now, my nerve is still with me, and I am determined to use it.

I stalk forward, listening for the noise. I am trying to tell whether it is getting louder or softer and, therefore, whether I am getting closer or farther away from its source. Then, at one of the old doors, I can hear it distinctly — on the other side. I pull at the knob. The door is locked. I instantly become determined that that wouldn’t stop me. I quickly notice that the hinges of the door are on my side for some reason. I looked around me. I may be able to use the candlesticks to dislodge those hinges. I blow out a flame on one of the candles then retrieve the candlestick. The ornate, curved embellishments on the candlestick may prove useful in forcing the rods of the hinges upward. Seized with adrenaline, I set to work. It does occur to me that I must look a little more than half-mad trying to break into that room with a candlestick. And maybe I am. For all I know, the room’s occupant is a big, scary-looking man. But at this point, I don’t care. All I can think about is the dust in my lungs, and the fact that I could have lost my foot … or even my life.

Despite the adrenaline I am filled with, it ends up taking a long time to dismantle the hinges. Certainly, if there is a backdoor to the room I am trying to enter, whoever had been inside would have had plenty of time to be long gone by now. Or, worse yet, that person is waiting for me.

I am out of breath by the time I conquer the door. Still, I have some satisfaction over having overcome the door at all. It is hard to imagine the Instructor would have anticipated my choosing to react to the problem in this way. Though, in a way, it confirms what Nan has been saying about me for months. Only what Nan had meant as an insult, I now see as a triumph. I am defiant. I can’t be controlled … not completely anyway.

I pry open the door. I am surprised to find the room dark and the air inside stale. There is a computer along one wall. A line of static moves slowly upward across the screen. A program seems to be running on it. Still, there isn’t any evidence that anyone had been here in the last hour; it seems to be running on its own. Sometimes you can just feel when a room has been empty for a while. My shoulders slacken as my tension eases. I realize I am relieved that no one is here. So much for my bravado!

But then, seconds later, confusion strikes me.

“What is the point to all of this?” I wonder again.

The fact that no one is around — that no one is there to answer me — leaves me dumbfounded. I look around the room, scanning for some sort of clue as to what I should do next. I spy the noisy generator in the corner of the room. At the moment, it is humming softly, though with the occasional loud hiccup. Next to the generator is an old metal door with large studs lining it and a small circular window on top. There is something about that window that draws me to it. There appears to be condensation on it — as though the temperature on the other side of the door differs from that of the room I am standing in.

With singular purpose, I head for the door. When I arrive, I proceed to wipe the pane with my hand. A light film of water comes up underneath my fingers. I wipe my hand on my shirt. With dismay, I realize that the window is fogging up again. That’s when I noticed there is a small light shining on the other side of the door. The light is casting shadows around a space about the size of a walk-in closet.

I probably should be hesitant to proceed, but my next action is, nevertheless, to pull at the door handle and to open the door. Surprisingly, it isn’t locked. Within the room, the tiny light bulb is flickering. The only other object I can see appears to be a large chest — the size of a man. Is it … a coffin?

I shrink back.

“What — what is this?” I stammer.

I bite my lip. Should I leave here? Suddenly, I hear a faint beeping noise coming from the coffin. I spot a red flashing light coming from the side of the wood. Drawing closer, I realize it is a digital clock, and it is ticking down. There are only twenty seconds left on the clock. What is going to happen when the time runs out? Is it a bomb?

I seem incapable of moving. Is there even time to run now? Seconds after the time expires, a different noise is emitted. It is a high-pitched squeal. Then, there is the sound of water rushing through a pipe, which I hadn’t noticed before. It is attached to the coffin. Moments later, I am shocked when I hear a pounding noise coming from the container. In a state of shock, I head toward the coffin. It takes a moment for it to sink in that someone is trapped inside of the coffin! My next thought is that the coffin is filling with water!

Mind Master Chronicles (Book 2): Puppet on a String

Sixteen-year-old Aronade’s life has changed dramatically. She was taken from the compound and placed in a private school for the elite, a group of people genetically altered to increase their longevity. She is still reeling from the knowledge she is a carrier of a disease that could kill the elite. Her benefactor, a man who goes by the moniker of the Instructor, is using her as leverage to stop the elite from wiping out the rest of humanity. Only it has become clear that the Instructor cares little for anything but the game he’s playing. And if Aronade has to be sacrificed in order to win that game, so be it.

Cover image made with photos bought from Depositphotos.  The authors of the photos are oily18 and vichie81.

Cover image made with photos bought from Depositphotos.  The authors of the photos are KinoMasterDnepr and OndrejSchaumann.

ACT II

Chapter 1 (Aronade: age 12 — Intro into the Elite World)

 

It started off subtly enough … an old familiar symbol here and there … delicately placed, though slightly different, I suppose. It matched the agenda of the times. It took on a familiar bitter and hardened ideology. And the perception of the horror that existed then … well, it could easily be denied. This ideology recurring portends bad things are coming. I knew we would be in trouble when they started justifying parts of the Nazi ideology again. It is like a dark cloud has crept up and overshadowed everything. And now that it is overhead there is no way to get out from underneath it.

There was a time when people wanted to run away from the reality of the world that they had faced. But they didn’t leave the world-system; they tried to create a new reality within the world-system. They pretended the old reality was a bad dream — a fluke. It was something that could be buried in the past — as though human evil ever quit cycling back. They taught this new world-system façade to their children and pretended it was real. Not surprisingly, it eventually crumbled. This collapse left their children unprepared for the reality lurking beneath the surface. Subsequent generations, without an acknowledgement of the innate evil of the world-system, didn’t see the world as being as evil as it is and weren’t wary enough of it … at least not at first. People let their guard down to the evil, and it steadily crept back in until it got to the point where we are now … right back to the conditions where it had begun the last time … Only now the scale seems larger. Things are also going faster this time around. Since most people won’t choose God’s way — because that would mean giving up the world and the sin within it — it stands to reason we won’t have to wait so long to see the fruition of their master plan this time.

So there’s once again the option of an authoritarian government — which promises to murder and steal for those who submit to their ideology, promises to turn the conquered into a slave class. And for some people that moral compromise will be worth it. Most people are murderers, and the longer you are of the world-system, the more you become that way.

If you are operating in the world, there appear to be only two choices: become the persecutor or become the persecuted. That’s what it eventually comes down to when society is allowed to slide down into the depths of sadism. You can’t control your enemies without violence and coercion. And, therefore, as much as you may believe you are fundamentally better than your enemy is and that the world would be better off with you in power instead, the truth is inevitably that the same evil, which is Satan, will creep in every time.

I find truth is irrelevant to these people. They don’t feel they should be bound by reality. They are busy spinning their own reality. They are in power, so they can dictate what reality will be. It has gotten to be so bad that you find yourself waiting to find out what the “truth” will be based on whoever is in power at the moment. Of course, they aren’t content to just dictate orders — to be upfront about the fact they are the ones who have the power, and that they are using it to control most people. No, they seem compelled to play mind games. Do these manipulations — this messing with people’s heads serve some sort of purpose? Does it reduce resistance, or is it just a part of sadism? Either way, there seems to be a need to have people buy into their fantasy world — a need for them to justify themselves. They want you to thank them when they stab you in the back.

I had really been expecting an invading army — that our identity would remain. I hadn’t expected our whole world to rot from the inside out. In the past, a nation or nations tried to overthrow other nations. Then, they established rules. Now they establish the structure then create the ruling nation from it. Citizens don’t know how to fight the invasive system without leadership.

It is disturbing how lawless people have become. They’ve gotten their way through violence and aggression before, so they can’t seem to stop themselves from continuing to try it. Laws they bother having tend to be about social control. Plus, there is wide interpretation and inconsistent enforcement of even those laws. In order to institute authoritarian control, they have dismantled all of the safeguards of the government that have allowed for resolution of conflict without violence. This may end up backfiring on the regime, but in the meantime, it harms all the rest of us.

The tension in the world is growing; I can sense it. You can feel the bloodlust mounting. They don’t want to solve any problems nor restrain their own hedonism. It’s like they’re saying that if society becomes as corrupt as they are, they won’t have to kill to cover up their corruption. Well, congratulations to them. They have their way now; society is just as corrupt as they are — only the killing hasn’t stopped but increased. Plus, let’s face it, they don’t care if sadists kill people; they only care if people kill sadists.

Don’t people see that the world is rotting? Now people seem to get off on imposing their will on others. It’s not that they don’t know; it’s that they don’t want to know. They introduce chaos in order to take down the established governments. Then, they use tyranny to take away the free will of the masses and establish total control over life and death for themselves. It’s not enough for them to exercise their own free will; they have to exact their will over others. Their idea of peace is everyone submitting their will to them. They don’t like for you to have boundaries. Actually, it’s more than that — they won’t tolerate you having them. They have to have control over every aspect of your life for some reason. And they don’t want any of us to be able to live a life independent of their control and influence. That is never a good thing.

All right of self-determination has been taken away from us. People will probably look back and wonder what happened. How could this be? How could we have let this happen knowing what we knew before? How could we let them get away with it — allow them to manipulate us into believing we deserved to be controlled by them?

Yes, we are definitely heading into utter darkness.

 

I am called Aronade. I began writing things down at age twelve. Then again, I don’t know what my exact age is; I had lost track of the years long ago.

I find that it helps to write things down right after they happen. It’s very therapeutic. Rereading what I write, on the other hand, can be unnerving. All those raw, unprocessed emotions can cause me to relive the pain. But I digress …

I am going to the city. We arrive by train.

“Don’t assume you know where anyone is coming from.” the Instructor warns me.

“Think about it, Puppet. Of course they are going to maneuver it that way; it makes sense. It’s like a game of chess. Right and wrong have nothing to do with it; it’s about winning. I’d advise you not to take it personally.”

“You have to become used to being alone. You can’t afford to be too dependent on them.”

“Instructor.”

He looks at me, and I can tell that he doesn’t like even this level of familiarity — even with just my using his moniker instead of his name.

“Surely, they aren’t this absurd.” I insist. “They make no sense.”

“Oh, if only it weren’t true, but you have to get used to it. You can’t show your disapproval, or they’ll single you out.”

“But surely this can’t be.”

“I’m assuring you that people can indeed convince themselves that whatever they come to believe in is ingenious … and, well, you can see how refreshing it is to have someone sane to talk to.”

“Yes, I saw that.” I say, referring to Mark.

He looks at me disapprovingly.

“You’re getting lax on your grammar. It’s ‘I see that!’ ”

I am annoyed and think to dispute with him —insist that I didn’t make a mistake, but I am too tired for the effort. Plus, he doesn’t seem to know about Mark.

I am greeted by a great big old building, which is to house me for years to come. It isn’t unlike the compound I had come from — only less modern. The spaces are certainly narrower and even gloomier than the spaces I had grown accustomed to. All I can see from room to room are neat, orderly rows of desks. And yet, I have an odd feeling of familiarity all the same. It is like I had left one prison and come to another. I had no idea earlier that the time I had had traveling between the compound and the school would be the only opportunity I would have to enjoy being outside a facility for a long time to come.

“So, are you two siblings?” the official who is bringing us into the school asks. I look at Kurt funny. Where did she get that idea? We look nothing alike. For one, he has pale blonde hair, and I have chestnut brown. His eyes are a pale grey; mine are an assortment of colors. It just seems odd she would even think that …

“It says here your onkel is guardian to you both.”

Onkel? She means the Instructor, of course. Why hadn’t he accompanied us into the school? I don’t know. Perhaps, he was worried there would be too many questions asked. The only problem is I have no idea how to answer the questions we are being asked. I have a pretty good idea that I am no relation to the Instructor. Is Kurt his relative? Or, is he like me — just listed as such on a form? I still have no idea who Kurt is or how he factors into the Instructor’s life, and, therefore, mine. No mention had been made that he has the disease I have, which could kill the elite of this world — people like the Instructor.

The Instructor calls them “the elite.” Apparently — the Instructor elaborated on the train in hushed whispers, but it was still a dangerous conversation to have in public — how the elite have been genetically altered to live much longer, healthier lives than the rest of us. That basically cemented their position at the top of society’s pecking order. And then they decided that there were just too many of the rest of us; there are only so many slaves needed, I guess. Therefore, they purposed to kill most of us off with a virus they manufactured — one that they would be immune from. That is until a group of scientists in the city I had been living in cultivated a virus of their own that exploited a weakness in the genetically manipulated code of the elite and killed those who had that code. The elite destroyed the city, but I had survived.

At this point, I have no memory of the incident. At any rate, I am a carrier of the virus. It apparently does no harm to me or people like me, but it could be extracted from my blood and utilized as a weapon. That’s the reason the Instructor took me in — as a bargaining chip — as blackmail. When he told me about this, he seemed unconcerned about his own safety — about the virus possibly being extracted from me, so that means of exposing it to the elites could be found. For him, he said, it is the excitement of the gamble — of the game.

“At least I’d win. I don’t bluff, Puppet. I only play when I have the cards. Unlike the others, I realize I won’t live forever. I find this game more than enough of a reason to get me out of bed in the morning.”

“Now I really don’t know what to believe.” I determine.

The Instructor, for some reason has decided to hide me at one of the elite’s private schools.

“I thought it best for you to see the real world-system from the inside.” the Instructor had said.

“But isn’t it more dangerous among the elites?” I had asked him.

“No, it’s more dangerous among those desperate to become one of them.” the Instructor had returned.

“We’re distant cousins.” Kurt speaks up suddenly, redrawing my attention to what is going on around me.

I had forgotten there had been a question asked. I am grateful that I hadn’t been put in a position where I may feel compelled to lie, but, then again, it’s not as though I correct Kurt either. Though, I do wonder why he added the word “distant.” Wouldn’t cousin have been sufficient? Oh well, at least he didn’t say we were siblings.

The woman seems to take Kurt’s response as a fitting explanation. She doesn’t question Kurt further and, like I said, I am glad to see her let it go. I only wonder how many more questions people will have for us.

The woman is leading us somewhere. It turns out to be the office of the headmaster. It is a round room with big windows, and it is filled with mahogany furniture. I spy a tall, older man sitting in a grand leather chair facing us. Opposite him sits another man; his back had been facing us before, but he now turns toward us as we enter.

I almost gasp when I recognize the Instructor, but, fortunately, I catch myself in time. He wouldn’t have liked it if I had shown such weakness. Why should I be surprised that he had made his way here in secret and then waited for us to make an appearance at the headmaster’s office?

But what has the Instructor been telling the headmaster? Would his and Kurt’s version of reality match up? I don’t worry that the Instructor has been saying bad things about me. That doesn’t seem to be his way. I, after all, am just his pawn. It isn’t my destruction he is angling for. And yet, I have no doubt at this point that he could very easily sacrifice me if the need arises. I mean nothing to him but a means to an end. The question is: what will my end be?

I look over at Kurt. He doesn’t seem surprised to see the Instructor here but maybe that is an act. Then again, the Instructor does love to catch people off-guard so much and so often that it may have started to seem like a commonplace occurrence for Kurt after awhile.

As I’ve said, I have no idea what kind of relationship Kurt has with the Instructor. Perhaps, he has been in the Instructor’s presence more often than I have. Though, for whatever reason, Kurt hasn’t learned the Instructor’s lessons. Once again I wonder, what is the point of Kurt?

I begin to wonder if Kurt is going to spy on me much the way my caregiver Nan had done. I wouldn’t put it past the Instructor to devise such a scheme. Now maybe the Instructor just wants to ensure my safety — or I should say his investment’s safety — by having Kurt around me. Maybe he doesn’t really care what I do or don’t do. It is impossible for me to say what is real in this situation. And yet, there isn’t much doubt in my mind that Kurt would relish the opportunity to tell the Instructor anything that I did do — so long as it didn’t reflect badly on him as the incident with Mark had.

Mark. I still can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that Kurt had tried to kill Mark — and in such a grotesque manner. Who does that? What am I dealing with in Kurt? He seems to think he is like the Instructor, and even I think so … up to a point. But if they really were alike, why is Kurt so eager to keep Mark a secret? Does Kurt enjoy putting one over on the Instructor? No, not if Kurt’s admiration for the Instructor is sincere anyway.

Who can really tell with Kurt? Still, if the Instructor wants me to have a protector, Kurt is ill-suited for the job. He should have chosen someone like … like Mark.

I catch myself as a lump forms in my throat. Could people tell as I sit stiffly in the chair next to the Instructor that I had ceased from breathing for a moment? How close had I come to being rid of this version of life? Would Mark really have been able to take me with him? I will never know now. He is gone — long gone. He left me behind. Not that I can blame him for that. No, actually I can, but I try not to. I need to believe he was my friend. I can’t stand to think that that had been a lie.

“So …” the headmaster begins. “Your onkel has chosen well for you by placing you both at our academy.”

“No … I’m onkel just to her.” the Instructor surprisingly corrects the man.

Kurt seems dismayed. Why would the Instructor deny Kurt is his relative but claim me as his relative instead? Unless he thinks that acknowledging Kurt will cause people to discover his (the Instructor’s) real identity. Still, Kurt obviously hasn’t come to that same conclusion; he is noticeably unnerved.

The headmaster looks at the Instructor with curiosity on his face.

“Of course, Kurt has been one of ours for quite some time now.” the headmaster adds, seemingly trying to distract everyone from the apparent awkwardness of the moment. “I believe I met his  tante … Tante Nan …”

The Instructor remains silent.

“Has she seen the information pamphlets?” the headmaster asks the Instructor, referring to me.

“Not yet …” the Instructor informs him with almost a giddiness in his voice.

The headmaster proceeds to fish out a brochure. He then hands it to me.

Kurt turns his eyes toward the window. I take some time to look over the pamphlet — not only as a show of respect to the headmaster but also because I figure the information could prove useful. And the fact is, when it comes to the Instructor, you never know when something that has been given to you could be arbitrarily taken away.

“Yes, I and my staff assembled this guide for students. They have found it very helpful I am told. I am the Herr Hartheim mentioned in the literature. That’s what you will call me.”

I look up and nod slightly.

“You’ll find the people here come from all over, but they are all like you. We keep the strictest standards at Durhorst Academy. Your onkel has been able to vouch for you quite well. And we were able to find room for you.”

“And I appreciate it, Hartheim, very much. I had to be sure that my niece wouldn’t be forced to mix with people who weren’t … well … elite.”

My eyes shoot up. Did he say “elite”? Did he mean it in the context of what he and I had discussed on the train? I look at the Instructor and can tell right away that’s exactly what he meant. I am surprised they are being so open about it.

Herr Hartheim then greets the Instructor like he belongs.

“She’s one of us.” the Instructor insists in regards to me.

Herr Hartheim laughs and nods approvingly. I expect the Instructor to shoot me a glance warning me not to overreact. Instead, he smiles with amusement. I reflect on the fact that I am to be surrounded daily by people who, if they find out who I am, would want to kill me … and that I could play a role in killing them without even intending to.

I stare off into space, trying to look as blank as I can. I can’t wrap my mind around the fact I am at an academy for the elites. Of course, at moments like this, I have to wonder what Kurt is thinking. Is he one of them, too? How can I be sure he won’t tell them I’m not? I’m in as much danger as they are really. I am now under their thumb. Is Kurt’s only motivation to keep quiet about my secret his admiration for the Instructor? Forgive me if I don’t think that is enough to rely upon. Is the Instructor really invested in my survival at all, or is he merely a gambler — putting it all on the line for the thrill it gives him? Only it is my life he is gambling with … and possibly others.

And what about Nan? Is she one of them, too? She did look scared for a moment when she thought I’d been cut once. I had forgotten that. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s one of them, though. Why would she take on the job of taking care of me if that was the case? Maybe when I cut myself she was just afraid of becoming like me … a carrier.

And really who are the elites anyway? I know only what the Instructor has told me about them, which isn’t much. They must be powerful, though, if they could destroy a whole city without repercussions. This man, Herr Hartheim, is apparently one of them. Does everyone in the world know who they are, or is it a secret? Does he only allow the Instructor to talk openly about it because he thinks we are all elites, too? And if it is a secret, why is it a secret? Are they afraid of my disease — of people who might want to use it to do them harm? Now that would be ironic given what they want to do to everyone else! Still, it would explain the Instructor’s rather giddy reaction. He loves this type of thing.

It bothers me how much I don’t know. Surely I will have to learn a lot more about the elite and fast if I’m going to succeed in passing myself off as one of them. It would stand to reason that I should know much more than I do; anyone would expect that.

“Well, do you want to stay for the tour Herr Frankfort?”

Frankfort? Is that the Instructor’s real name? No, I doubt that … it is probably made up like my familial association with him. The Instructor apparently uses aliases. One has to wonder how he would know if one got compromised. But then, maybe that is the fun of it — the thrill of the game.

Then, I begin to wonder if Frankfort is to be my last name, too. What if Herr Hartheim hadn’t mentioned that name just now and someone had asked me what my last name is? Not only have I never heard of the name Frankfort before, but I certainly can’t use my real last name anymore. So, I would have drawn a complete blank. How awkward would that have been? How potentially disastrous! What? Am I supposed to scheme to get all of this personal information out of these people without arousing anyone’s suspicion? How woefully ill-prepared am I for all of this! I wonder if Kurt is in the same position as I am … though I can tell just by looking at his expression that I won’t be getting any help from that quarter.

“Why yes, I may as well. I’d like to see the layout of things.”

“Of course.”

The two men stand with great care and a rather regal air. I stand slowly, trying to appear as dignified as possible. Kurt just stands. The Instructor shows just the slightest trace of disapproval towards Kurt. When I look at Kurt again, I can tell he has seen the Instructor’s face, for he has grown even paler. Maybe … could Kurt be afraid of the Instructor — not just of his disapproval but of him?

The tour is a bit hokey. It is made even the more so by the Instructor’s reaction to it. His eyes absorb every detail of the school’s layout and features as though the minutia hold the most poignant fascination for him.

“I do have an appreciation for architecture.” he expresses to Headmaster Hartheim.

He casts a knowing look at me. I don’t know whether to cringe or laugh. Of course, the best reaction is to not react at all — which is what I try to do.

Kurt, on the other hand, lets his eyes wander around with disinterest seeping across his face. He sighs from time to time. I surmise that the sighing is to show his dissatisfaction over being ignored. I conclude this because his sighs are loud, and they seem to be preceded by moments when Headmaster Hartheim and the Instructor have their backs turned to him. Kurt couldn’t seem to care less if I notice him or not.

“Well, that’s about it.” the headmaster informs us. “You’ve seen just about everything now … except the student dorms.”

The Instructor just waits.

“Well, I can look up their room numbers, and we can see their rooms … I’m sure that they’re ready. I reserved two singles as you requested. Kurt can be transferred right away.”

“Singles? That sounds boring!” Kurt declares suddenly.

The Instructor turns a venomous look on to Kurt. If Kurt had wanted the Instructor’s attention, he certainly has it now!

Suddenly, the Instructor smirks with satisfaction, which surprises me.

“Kurt apparently prefers having a roommate.” the Instructor starts drily. “But I believe if we asked him, his roommate would probably thank me for standing my ground.”

Both men laugh at Kurt’s expense. Kurt’s expression grows sour. He then glares at me for some reason.

“Oh, and I feel I have to mention — even though you are probably already aware — but even so … the school will have to be moved out of the city eventually. In fact, we are already in the process of looking for a new site … in the countryside.”

The Instructor’s face falls. I know that look. It usually signifies that the Instructor’s will has somehow been thwarted. But how would that apply in this situation? Moments later, the Instructor catches me looking at him questioningly. So, he turns his glowering mug on to me. I look away.

“Ah, yes.” I hear the Instructor comment. “That isn’t convenient … but I do see why you think it may be necessary.”

“It is. It is.” Herr Hartheim insists.

The Instructor scowls at the man’s back. I can tell that this isn’t over.

“Liesel.” the Instructor states pointedly.

I am staring off into space.

“Liesel.” he repeats.

I look over at him with surprise plastered on my face.

Liesel? Is that to be my name here? And I’m just learning about this now?

And Kurt … is his name still Kurt? Then, I remember that the Instructor called him Kurt in front of the headmaster. So, apparently, for some reason, he is still Kurt. Then again, I guess when they enrolled him — and who knows how long ago that was — they used his real name for whatever reason. Or, maybe Kurt isn’t really his real name after all …

Either way, I am apparently being given a new name: Liesel. I wonder if Kurt can be trusted not to call me Aronade. But then the Instructor’s displeasure seems to be enough to motivate him to try. Still, it occurs to me that I am having yet another layer of my identity stripped away. I am like one of those maple seedlings that twirl down to the earth. All those around me are springing up in their youth. But I am a fraud … outwardly I am one of them — but inside? How long am I going to live? Am I going to be allowed to live?

The Instructor has apparently lost interest in me and what’s happening around me again, for he is quick to say his goodbyes once we make it to the threshold of my dorm room.

“Well, I think that about wraps up my need to be here.” the Instructor announces.

I don’t know how to account for the sudden panic I feel at his departure. Certainly it isn’t affection for the Instructor, and, therefore, anguish that he’s leaving that I’m feeling. It’s more like the feeling you have when you’re thrown into the deep end of the pool; and yet, you still don’t know if you can swim. Actually, I highly doubt that I can.

His parting words to me, which are spoken in whispers, are: “We all play games … it’s what we do with our time. The world is our game.”

I consider this parting shot less than helpful. Who knows when I will see him again?

“You are a bit … overly sensitive.” the headmaster makes note of me.

“I am?” I repeat incredulously.

It occurs to me that he is comparing me to Kurt … and finding me wanting. Incredibly, Kurt is apparently their ideal, and they are determined to put their full energies into making him succeed. It feels strange to me. What is Kurt set to accomplish? It is true that Kurt can be charming with others. But is that really a skill? Apparently, around here it is. The only thing I can see Kurt as having is a penchant for killing — but since Mark survived, he is not particularly good at that either. At least, I hope he isn’t.

But what is it to me if they find me to be a disappointment? I’m not invested in these people or in this world of theirs.

But something does continue to trouble me, however. I am dubious of Kurt’s relationship with the Instructor. Does he have a similar role that I have? Could I be replaced by him? And if I am, what will become of me? In some ways it is worse now that I know the truth. Before I could just pretend that the worst thing that could happen to me was my being kicked out onto the street. Now I realize my very life is on the line. Just a word for the Instructor or even Kurt could doom me. That knowledge makes living in the same facility as Kurt all the more miserable. It would have been bad enough just to know what he had tried to do to Mark.

When I find a moment alone with Kurt, my curiosity gets the better of me, and I ask him, “So, are you one of them, too — one of the elites?”

“I’ll never tell.” he tells me without giving an explanation as to why. Does he refuse to answer out of fear that I might try to give him the disease, or at least threaten to, if he were an elite? Or, is it fear that others will turn on him if they realize he is one of us “inferiors”? Of course, he seems pleased I can’t say which one it is.

“So, are you related to him — the Instructor?” I venture.

He looks upon me keenly.

“Just as with you …” he sneers; his tone drips of sarcasm. He probably figured out I am trying to get the answer to my prior question another way. “He’s my onkel … even if he denies it.”

I realize there is no way to know if the Instructor is really Kurt’s onkel or if this is just part of the game.

It would make sense if they were related. After all, it actually is the only way Kurt’s presence here makes any sense to me.

I look off to the side. I never thought I’d miss the compound. Perhaps it is because I never thought I’d be permitted to leave it. But at this moment, as I look about the confines of the school, I realize that what little freedom I had had before is about to be curtailed. I had left one prison only to discover I had been trapped in a prison within a prison. What is the point of escaping when there’s nowhere to escape to?

At least before some of my time had been my own. True, I had always felt as though I was being watched. Sadly, it was only at the end of my stay at the compound that I realized that I had not actually been watched the entire time. Then again, what difference did it make if it was the entire time or not? Certainly some of the time I had been watched. And since I couldn’t tell when those times were, it had the same effect as if I had been observed the entire time.

But still, there is no denying that I am being observed constantly now. I can feel it as well as see it. There is Kurt for one. And there are so many employees that we pass as we walk the halls who don’t even make a secret out of watching us. I wonder if even in the dark I will be able to feel invisible. I’ve always been the kind that has tried to carve out a corner of the room for myself. The problem is will they even permit me to have that much?

I feel trapped suddenly, and I want out. Yet, I quickly resign myself to the fact that I can’t escape — at least not yet. And I also can’t afford to panic — to lose my composure. I can’t think about the future. I will find someplace for myself … or not.

One of the first things I find that the elite do when I first meet one of them is to ask me questions to see if I have their worldview or not. There is a distinct feeling that if I don’t I will be ostracized from their company. I’m not one of them, of course. But the Instructor is one of them — both physically and mentally — so that is enough to allow them to tolerate my presence among them … at least for now.

 

Chapter 2 (Mark: age 14 — The Disappearance of Katie)

 

I go by the name of Mark. My life had been pretty typical for a very long time — nothing extraordinary, just average. I was coming in from the fields one day. In the summers I had gotten to helping my onkel on the farm. I’d been doing it for a couple of years. By then, I was about to turn fifteen. I was, therefore, allowed to take over more of the work and receive a regular man’s wage as well. I felt it was the first time I had been treated as a man, and it gave me a lot of confidence. I would end up needing that confidence.

When I got home that evening, I was running late. I thought my mother would get on me about holding up dinner. Instead, I was met with a completely empty house. After calling out names and receiving no response, I took to feeding the dog scraps that I had scrounged up for him. Then, I waited at a chair next to the dining room table.

I grew antsy as the sun began to set. I decided to go outside and have a look around. The town square was down a hill; I could see the town square from my porch. There were plenty of people gathered there. I knew right away that something was going on. There were no festivals, no events scheduled for this time of year — not with most of the village busy harvesting. I decided to go down there and see what was going on.

I could hear voices rising in discord from among the masses as I approached. When one … then another … then another … caught sight of me, they turned and looked at me. That had never happened to me before.

“Mark!” I heard my mother’s voice calling out from behind me. “Mark!!”

I turned instinctively toward the terror in her voice.

“What is it?!” I exclaimed. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s been … there’s been …” She struggled to breathe. “Your sister … Katie … I can’t find Katie! I looked for her, but I can’t find her!!”

“I’m not sure what you’re telling me.” I responded.

“Those kidnappings … the people being brought to the cities and kept there … I think Katie must have been taken …”

“Hold on — I mean — have you really looked everywhere? You know Katie; she’s always wandering over to someone else’s house.”

“And I’ve been to every one of them!”

I was still not panicked at that point. The fact that my sister could have been taken into the city as part of the relocation program seemed highly unlikely. Then, I thought of something.

“Well, is anyone else missing?” I asked, sure that I had stumbled upon the way to calm my mother’s nerves.

Instead, my mother appeared to be frustrated that her predicament was not being understood.

“I don’t know … I don’t know. What difference does it make?!”

“Because they wouldn’t just take one girl.”

“But they get other people to go into the city by refusing to let their loved ones go.”

“But just one family?” I countered. “They’d tip off the whole village that the program has started in this town just to take one inconsequential girl?”

My mother made a face at the reference to Katie as being “inconsequential.” I immediately regretted having said that. I had merely wanted to show the unlikelihood that Katie had, in fact, been abducted. I was sure at that moment, however, that the only way my mother would be fine again would be for Katie to be produced safe and sound in front of her. Anything short of that wouldn’t be good enough.

“Listen, I’ll go look for her.” I offered.

“I already have!” my mother retorted. “If you want to help, please go the magistrate and tell him what I told you. Have them send a man to the city to find Katie. Maybe they will let her go. But even if they don’t, she’ll need some money and food … Mark!”

“All right. All right, I’ll go.” I agreed, though I was fairly certain it would prove to be a waste of time.

I would not be disappointed. Although the magistrate managed to keep his professional composure, the same couldn’t be said of some of his staff members, who I could hear laughing in the background.

“My mom is very upset.” I insisted.

“And I suppose your sister Katie … she isn’t the sort of girl who would run off …”

I stood stock-still, but I could feel my face begin to redden. The fact of it was she was exactly the sort of girl who would run off — not far and not for long — but she was flighty. I wondered if I should own up to that fact. Would it help or hurt my case in getting help to find her?

It was hard to say what the magistrate made of my reaction to his question, but he seemed to suddenly have a newfound compassion for me.

“All right. Here’s what we’ll do … we’ll form a search party and scour every nook and cranny for her.”

It was exactly the type of thing I had proposed to my mother, and that’s why I was certain that she wouldn’t go for it.

Maybe it was weakness on my part, but I found it easier to just go along with the magistrate’s plan to organize a search party for my sister rather than go home and give a status report to my mother. The truth was I didn’t really want to deal with my mother’s anguish at that point. And really, what could I do to change the magistrate’s mind about sending someone into the city to look for my sister? Nothing.

In the back of my mind, I knew that the hour was fast approaching for my father to return home from his buying expedition; he had to purchase inventory for his store. I was hoping my father could deal with my mother much better than I could. But once again, the realization struck me that the only thing that could make a real difference for my mother at that point was finding my sister.

Everyone seemed to have high hopes when the search began. The turnout had been surprisingly good, though I suspected that some of my fellow teenagers were just bored and looking for something different to do. The magistrate did a good job organizing everyone — and on such short notice as well — his secretary noted.

There was this feeling that it wouldn’t take very long — that the erstwhile girl would be found being irresponsible with her time no doubt. And then, we would all be home before darkness settled in. Only it wasn’t to be.

An eerie silence set over the once enthusiastic crowd once they realized they had looked everywhere they could think to look.

“Are you sure she doesn’t have any other friends?” the magistrate asked, turning to me.

I shook my head dismally.

“A boyfriend?” the magistrate persisted.

“She’s only eleven!” I countered.

The man turned away.

“Well, have your parents come to my office in the morning, and we’ll talk.”

“In the morning?!”

“Yes, in the morning!” the magistrate shot back.

Things had gone from bad to worse for me. Now I had to return to my mother not only empty-handed but also having wasted much time. Worse still, the magistrate seemed intent on wasting even more time.

“What about sending someone to the city?” I called after him.

The man stopped and shot a disapproving look at me.

“That theory of your mother’s is absurd.” he spat. “I’ll tell her that tomorrow!”

The man walked away. I stood there frozen. I didn’t know what to do. But home seemed like the last place I wanted to be at that moment. So, I decided — I would continue to search — every inch of ground until I found a trace of where my sister may have gone. Anything seemed better than facing my hysterical mother at that point. Still, I had no conception of what I was going to find or what an impact it would have on my life.

“What is this?” I uttered as I came upon it.

“It” was a small pile of disturbed soil in the middle of an arc of trees. The light seemed to settle on the center of it — illuminating it.

The setup drew me like a moth to the flame. Something was there — I knew it — just as I had known early on during the search that my sister would not be found that day.

Maybe it was a waste of time, I thought. Maybe I was just trying to avoid going back home empty-handed. I could visualize my mother weeping and my father’s quiet disappointment. I sighed. I would just take one quick look at what was hidden there, and then I would go back home and face the trouble that awaited me there.

When I came to the disturbed soil, I began to move it around with my foot.

“This is a waste of time.” I concluded.

But then, I struck something. My eyebrows furrowed for a moment. Still, at that point, I wasn’t sold on the idea that this was indeed something. Then, the semi-buried object began to move with the movement of my foot — dislodging some of the dirt as it went.

“What …”

It was wooden — probably a keepsake box containing the “treasures” of a young kid who wanted to keep those items a secret. By the looks of what I could see of the box, it appeared to be feminine. Could it belong to a girl? Maybe even to my sister? If so, maybe she had even been here recently to visit it.

I finally stooped down and unearthed the container. It was a well-crafted box with carved ornamentation — little flower petals adorned the edges. They were all painted in various pastel colors. Then, dead center on the lid was a carving in the shape of a heart — not the symbol but rather the organ. This carving struck me as being rather gruesome for a girl’s keepsake box.

I opened the box. In it were not the possessions one would expect a child to hide. Instead, there was a single, pristine white scroll with brass handles on the ends — tied loosely with a golden ribbon and sealed with a golden seal.

I hesitated for a moment. Perhaps, I had misjudged the situation. There was no way this scroll could be Katie’s. What could she possibly want with a scroll? Since it didn’t belong to my sister, I began to think I had no business messing with it anymore. I considered putting it back in the box — seriously considered it. And yet, something told me not to. It may have been wrong, but I decided to read it. Maybe Katie was exchanging messages with someone, and that person knew where she was. In other words, I was desperate, and this was the only unusual thing I had found.

I was careful when I began to unfurl it. I wanted to do as little damage to it as possible, given that it wasn’t my property. But then suddenly, as I looked at the contents, I no longer cared about preserving the integrity of the parchment for its owner.

Scrawled in shaky handwriting was the following, “There is nothing quite as maddening as losing something important to you. Have you lost something important to you? Is that why you’re reading this? Unfortunately what I’ve taken I’ve taken for good. But since I have pity for you, I’m letting you know what my intention is. Accept it. What you’ve lost will never be recovered.”

It was signed, “The Taker.”

I re-read the letter in disbelief. I shook my head. Somehow I knew this wasn’t a joke. I rolled the scroll back up — this time without the care I had shown to it before. Still, I knew the scroll was important. It was evidence, so I would preserve it all the same.

 

“Did you write this, boy?”

The magistrate had suddenly become hostile. I was surprised.

“No.” I responded coldly.

“I think you’re trying to convince me of your mother’s theory …” the magistrate scoffed.

“Hardly.” I responded. “This isn’t something that would be left behind if they took Katie to the city …”

I tried to take the scroll back, but the man resisted.

“I’ll keep a hold of this …” the magistrate insisted.

“Why?” I returned. “You said it was a fake.”

“Are you admitting that it is?” the man countered.

“No.” I responded.

The man sneered.

“Stubborn.” he said, flinging the parchment back at me.

“I’ll let it go this time, but I better never see it or hear of it again, hear me? Or, I’ll use it as evidence against you!”

I glared at the man, but I was quick to pick up the scroll all the same. I was just glad the man hadn’t destroyed it. Still, I knew then that the man would be no help to me or my sister. In fact, I figured the man may prove to be an obstacle. There was no way I was going to believe that the letter meant nothing. No one could have staged that letter this soon after my sister’s disappearance. No, more than likely, the letter had been left by someone involved with my sister’s abduction. And I figured she must have been abducted — it was just too cruel of a thing for my sister to be involved in willingly. And the letter was just too much of a coincidence — too odd not to have something to do with my sister’s disappearance.

But would anyone believe me — what with the magistrate undermining me and accusing me of writing the letter? But I knew of one person who would believe me: my mother. Now I had an idea of how she felt. She had been wrong about Katie having been taken to the city in order to force us to move there, but she hadn’t been wrong about something bad having happened to Katie. And at that moment, instead of dreading having to face my mother, I was suddenly filled with the overwhelming need to see her again.

My mother was sitting with my father at our dining room table. When I entered the room, my stomach dropped. My mother was weeping into my father’s chest.

“Did something happen?” I asked in an alarmed tone.

My mother’s reddened eyes shot up to mine — the eyes of her only son.

“Mark! Where have you been?!” she accused.

I slowly shut the door behind me. Nothing had changed, I concluded. Only my absence had been noticed.

“I’m sorry.” I decided to apologize. “I was delayed …”

“Katie! Have they sent for Katie?!”

I hesitated.

“Mark!”

“No.”

“But you …”

“Listen, I don’t have any pull with these people. I’m only fourteen!”

“Mark …” my father cautioned.

“Then, why were you gone so long?” my mother asked.

My father placed his hand on my mother’s hand. She looked over at him.

“Why was he gone so long? It’s already dark outside!” she persisted.

My stomach churned.

“Listen … I found something …” I mumbled. “Listen!”

Both of my parents looked over at me.

“Here.”

I quickly retrieved the scroll from my pocket. I would give it to them. Let them make of it what they would. I didn’t know how I had gotten this responsibility, but I didn’t want it. Someone needed to take it from me. My father was the one who stood up and approached me.

“Here.” I said again.

My father took the scroll and headed back toward the table. My mother grabbed at the scroll with trembling fingers.

“What is this?!” my mother demanded.

“I found it. It’s the only thing I found. No one else has seen her. I can’t be sure that it’s not related to Katie.”

“How? How could it not be?” she whimpered.

My father again took up the scroll and read it.

“What — what is this?” my father asked. “It’s not funny, Mark!”

“Wait. You don’t think that I …”

“No … no, but this just isn’t normal …”

Now my father’s hands were shaking.

“I know it’s bizarre —” I began.

My father looked up at me dismally then nodded. I could guess what he was thinking. If Katie was gone, and it was due to the individual who wrote this letter then the situation was pretty dire. It hadn’t struck me just how dire the situation was until that exact moment. This realization made me almost wish that I hadn’t brought the letter — or at least that I had presented it with more sensitivity than I had.

Suddenly, my mother broke out into a fit of fresh tears. Her body racked with grief. I stood there helplessly as my father began rubbing his wife’s back. I wished I could be anywhere else but there … but I knew it would be weakness on my part if I left just then.

“She’s gone! She’s gone!” my mother wailed. “Mark! You have to find her!”

“Yes.” I stated distractedly.

“No. Now!”

“What?”

“Mark, go get her now!”

“Charlotte.” my father put forth.

“Go!!”

I packed a bag and left. My father did manage to run after me and give me some money for the road. But he couldn’t manage any words. Neither of us could. The truth was our house would probably never be a home again until Katie’s whereabouts were determined.