Jennifer Alice Chandler

The Mind Master Chronicles: Puppet on a String

Chapter 17

The Instructor ends up leaving Kurt and I alone in his office. Perhaps, he has some pressing matter to attend to. In any event, my eyes had followed the Instructor as he departed from the room; now, they turn back to Kurt. I am surprised to find that Kurt is hovering around the Instructor’s chair. I am even more surprised when he sits in his chair. He then assumes the same posture the Instructor had — replete with his fingertips pressed together in front of him. Still, it doesn’t appear to be meant as a mocking gesture but more of an homage.

“So, now do you have any questions for me?” Kurt asks me in such a way that I know that he is serious. And yet, I am tempted to ask him whether he is serious all the same.

“Ask you about what?” I decide to question him instead.

I instantly regret asking that question, for he throws his arms into the air in mock exasperation.

“Come now, Aronade!” he scolds me in a professorial manner. “You’ve got to be quicker than that!”

My eyes flash in anger.

“What could I possibly need to ask you about … our travel plans?”

“Beep. Guess again.”

“The school?”

“Not likely.”

“My past?”

“You’re getting warmer.”

I roll my eyes then proceed to stand.

“You forgot to say ‘Mark’.” he needles me.

I freeze in mid-step and look at him. There is no point in pretending I don’t know whom he is talking about. If he knows Mark’s name, then he knows enough. I hadn’t been sure before that Kurt even realized Mark existed. The fact that the Instructor hadn’t mentioned Mark had led me to believe that Mark’s presence had gone largely unnoticed. But, in retrospect, that conclusion had been naïve on my part. After all, someone had tried to kill Mark. That person had to know that Mark existed … And then I get to thinking, if exposure to my blood could kill the Instructor, why would he risk my foot being cut off? Unless he didn’t … unless that whole thing hadn’t been a proper scenario after all. Perhaps it was a different person …

“You!”

“Now would you have a seat, Aronade?” he speaks coolly while gesturing with his hand. I don’t like how he says my name. I look at the chair. Then, I sit down on it in a rigidly straight position. I next look back at Kurt, regretting that I am being forced to give him the attention he craves so desperately. Still, I have to cut myself some slack for not piecing it together sooner. So much has been happening recently … so much.

Kurt looks off toward the window, apparently enjoying the moment. I look off to the side in disgust.

“You tried to kill Mark!” I then accuse bitterly, breaking into his reverie.

“Who cares?” he remarks callously and without looking at me. His response seems to mirror the Instructor’s earlier one about the missing girls.

“Obviously, I do.” I retort angrily.

“Better be careful! The Instructor might become disappointed in you.”

“Same to you.” I respond.

He shoots me a look and then stands and begins to pace.

“Yeah, I really messed up by toying with him then leaving him behind for you to find. That’s why I got his sister here, so that he would just go away and the Instructor would never find out. You know, Mark’s not particularly bright. I had to build a fire to get him to the place his sister was for crying out loud! He walked right past it!”

And so had I, which I’m sure Kurt knows.

“So, by the way, do you trust that guy?” Kurt suddenly confronts me.

“Yes. What’s it to you?”

“Even after what you heard the Instructor say about somebody killing those missing girls when they thought they were you?”

“He also said he thought more than one was rescued and set free. They were probably the ones Mark helped.”

He rolls his eyes while I speak.

“Yeah, if you believe in coincidences. I don’t.” he scoffs. “Face it, Aronade, I did you a favor trying to kill that guy. If only I hadn’t overloaded that electrical fuse, you wouldn’t have so much to worry about now.”

The look on Kurt’s face suggests he actually believes he is making inroads with me in soiling my opinion of Mark. He isn’t, but it seems clear to me that he is deluding himself into believing that he is. Who knows why he is trying to make that case. So I will think better of Kurt and his actions? Hardly likely. But why bother otherwise? Mark is long gone — Kurt has seen to that — and, therefore, his argument is basically irrelevant at this point. Maybe Kurt just has no one else he can confide in about Mark and needs someone to brag to about his clever scheming. Who knows? Who cares? Certainly, I don’t. I am sick of hearing about it. And frankly, I dread the thought of the train trip into the city I will have to endure with this guy. I know it is going to be terrible.

“Are you serious?!” I protest. “How do you figure I’d have little to worry about, even if what you are saying were true?”

“Yeah right, Aronade. Face it, you’re fooling yourself. He’s obviously been playing you all along.”

“So, you’re trying to convince me you were trying to help me … a person you had never even met before …?”

“No, I was toying with him.”

I can’t possibly know whether what he just said is true, but at least that part sounded plausible.

“Does the Instructor know?”

“What do you think?” he returns. “Why do you think I’m bothering talking to you? We both have something to hide here. I exceeded my authority, and you don’t want the Instructor to know about Mark and to track him down. You know what he’s like.”

“Like you.”

Kurt laughs.

“The point is you don’t want that. So, I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”

I consider then nod.

“Good … Anyway, I bet you’re really pleased that the Instructor doesn’t know about Mark. I had to really work hard, so he wouldn’t find out! Then again, who can really tell what he knows or doesn’t know.” he admits admiringly. “Yeah, as I said, don’t worry. I didn’t tell him about Mark.”

What is he wanting? Me to thank him for that?

“Aronade?”

“Yes, of course.”

He smiles smugly.

“Only I have a few questions …” I tell him. “Are you prepared to answer them?”

He looks anxiously towards the door.

“All right, but make it quick.”

“My foot. Did you try to cut it off?”

“What? No.” he scoffs. “What are you talking about?”

I look at him in disbelief. Then, I play along. “The fan blade almost cut off my foot — in the vent while I was crawling through it. At first the fan was off; then, it started up again.”

“That’s too bad.” he states uninterestedly.

“Then, it was just a coincidence?” I emphasize the last word.

“I was just as surprised as you were when I figured out you must have stumbled out of that vent and freed Mark. Hey, the nearest I can figure from what you told me is that when I short-circuited the fuse the electricity was cut off; then, later the generator came on.”

My eyes narrow with skepticism.

“Anything else?” he asks.

“Where’s Mark?” I demand.

“How should I know?”

I glare at him.

“If he has any sense, he’s long gone. I hope that he is. As I said, that’s why I retrieved his sister for him to find, so he’d leave and never come back …”

“Katie …” I mutter.

“Yeah, whatever.” he mouths.

Then, Mark really is gone, I think.

“So, anything else?” Kurt pushes, impatience seeping into his voice.

“For now.” I say, my eyes still lowered.

“No!” he declares.

Then, he comes towards me menacingly. He grabs the arms of my chair, trapping me within it. I manage to look up at him dispassionately.

“No! No! No!” he screams. “This is it! This can never come up again, understand?!”

“Yes.” I state coldly.

He finally backs off and smiles.

“All right.” he says, pleased with himself again.

I stand up then, knowing that he doesn’t have the authority to stop me despite his egotistical display.

“It’s good that we’ve reached an understanding, Aronade, since we’ll be working together.”

“Working together?” I repeat.

“Yes, the Instructor wants me to take you back into the city with me and help you blend in there.” Kurt reminds me.

I make no comment on that. I find I am eager to get out of the room. Still, I look back as I exit, for I think I feel his cold eyes boring into me. Sure enough, I am right; he is standing there staring at me. I shudder inside at the thought of the train ride with him that awaits me in the future. I hope it won’t turn out to be just the two of us.

As I shut the door behind me, I mark how relieved I am to be out of there. It is an amazing feeling to be free again. But then, I guess I’m really not free — not in the way I had been when I was with Mark. No, I am just unattended, that is all. But I tell myself that given I had been escorted by Kurt when I arrived back at the complex, being unescorted is a definite improvement.

I take to readjusting to my old reality pretty well under the circumstances. It is almost as though I had never met Mark at all. Nan is waiting for me in my room when I get there. She is to help me pack up for my new life in the city. I feel fortunate that we are to leave the Instructor’s silly costumes behind; there is clearly no place for them where I am going.

I do wonder about Nan. How much does she know, and when had she known it? Is she like the Instructor … an elite? Would the disease I’m carrying kill her?

Speaking of my doing other people harm, are there any remaining kidnapped girls that are going to be released? And are the kidnappings going to be stopped? I will have to ask the Instructor about that. Even though it would mean asking him another question on the same topic, I feel I have to do it.

“Well, it seems as though we’ve got everything.” Nan announces.

I look at Nan for a moment, trying to figure her out. She has been on my mind since I learned about … my condition. Is she one of them, too? Perhaps even a relative of the Instructor? Is that why she turned on me all of a sudden?

“Who are you to him … the Instructor?” I hear myself asking.

She glares at me.

“What difference does that make to you?” she returns with a sigh.

“You seemed to not like me all of sudden.” I mention.

I regret saying it, almost instantly, after it escapes my lips. What do I expect her to say? Of course she is going to blame me. She does not disappoint. I sigh and let my mind wander as she rants. I figure this may be the last time I will see her. Well, I think, at least this episode makes me care less whether I ever do see her again. I also come to the conclusion that she knows pretty much everything about me that the Instructor does. Where all this resentment comes from, I determine, I’ll probably never know for sure.

I expect to see Nan on the train as I board. She had come to the station with me but then disappeared. But as the obscured figure in the seat next to my assigned seat turns, a different face is revealed. My face falls.

“I decided to take Nan’s place on this particular trip. I trust you’re not too disappointed, Puppet.” the Instructor informs me.

So it turns out Nan isn’t to accompany us on our journey — which sadly I am partially grateful for. For it is sad to think that I find her absence to be preferable under the circumstances. After all, I am to be stuck with Kurt and the Instructor the entire way. How badly my relationship with Nan has deteriorated that I would prefer her not to be here as a buffer!

I feel fortunate to have gotten a window seat in the passenger compartment of the train. It allows me to avoid interaction with other people and to think. It feels extremely odd interacting with loads of people; I have been so isolated for so long. The Instructor, however, seems to be in his element. He is sitting next to me and seems eager to take in observations of everyone in the room. Kurt sits across from me, and it becomes awkward and uncomfortable for me to avoid his stare. But I try anyway.

“Yes, it’s a whole new world out here.” the Instructor gushes. “Some people can’t stand it, Puppet, but I find it fascinating. It’s like chess when you’re planning a checkmate. Sometimes you chase their king around the board just to see their reaction. Will they panic when they realize it is over? What look will cross their faces at the moment when that realization takes hold?”

“Yes, this is going to be a long trip.” I think. I know it for certain at this moment. Nothing seems to put a damper on the Instructor’s limitless observations about the world. It is as though he has been saving up all sorts of mostly tedious trivia to tell me. All of it is abstract. There is nothing about specific people or places. I try to pay attention as the train starts up and rolls forward from the station. I know there is a possibility that what he is saying could prove useful to me one day, but I find that my brain can only take so much. I can only hope that if I can indeed use his insights about this world, which I am unaccustomed to, that I will remember what he has said when I need it.

“Be careful what you say to people.” the Instructor warns. “If they don’t like it, they’ll punish you. Then again, you don’t have to say anything to be accused of saying something. Still, it’s better that they don’t have any proof.”

I am only fascinated by one thing about the Instructor’s ramblings, and that is the fact he seems to be enjoying this whole thing so much.

I find that even Kurt appears to be zoning out at this point. He had been eagerly listening to the Instructor earlier, and I had felt fortunate to get some of the Instructor’s attention off of me and onto Kurt … at least for a little while. But as the miles ground on, Kurt’s gaze had turned toward the window and the rolling landscape beyond.

You’d think I would have been fascinated to see the view, given it was an unusual experience for me to see it, but I dared not completely turn away from the Instructor. Plus, my thoughts were on something — someone else: Mark. It is hard for me not to think about him whenever I am given a moment to reflect. I wonder where he is. And despite the fact that I realize how foolish it is, I half expect to see him around every corner waiting to come and rescue me. But it isn’t me he had come to rescue — it was his little sister, Katie. I have very little doubt he would have taken me along with them if it had panned out that way — but it hadn’t. And as I said before, it probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway even then. Everything that I have learned since I returned to the complex has just confirmed what I had suspected. I am too important to the Instructor — or at least to his plans —as it turns out. He would have tracked me down. But Mark and I had no way of knowing that at the time. So, I figure Mark’s desire to help me, if he could have, had been sincere.

Not that it makes it that much easier to take that I have essentially been abandoned to this odd life under the Instructor’s thumb. I feel trapped. It is strange to me that I haven’t felt this way before, for I have been trapped all along. Perhaps the constant evolving layout of the complex had masked that feeling. Yet somehow, it has now become obvious, and I actually feel the fact that I can’t leave. So, my reality has begun to wear on me.

And now I have Kurt to deal with as well. Speaking of Kurt, every time I get to thinking about Mark he seems to be able to tell. He starts to stare at me relentlessly at those moments; it has really begun to creep me out!

I begin to look around the room with just my eyes, so I won’t tip off the Instructor that I am not paying attention to him. I do this until Kurt stops looking at me. Kurt can see my eyes, though the Instructor can’t. Looking away seems to keep Kurt at bay … for a little while anyway.

In the meantime, I observe the people around me, and I try to figure out why the Instructor is so intrigued by them. At first glance, they seem normal enough to me. There is indeed a woodenness about their interaction that seems off, though. It reminds me of the Instructor’s actors. I am about to confront the Instructor with my suspicions that the people on the train are merely actors, too. But then, I realize there is an uneasiness — a lack of conviction in these people that wasn’t present in the actors. It is as though they are looking to take their cue from someone else but can’t find that person. No, these people are real … and yet they aren’t.

End of Book One

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020