Jennifer Alice Chandler

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’d 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 were made from new constructions. I have never had to crawl through dust before. I straighten up and stretch. How long could I reasonably expect to avoid going in? Could I just pretend I hadn’t noticed? Would this be the moment I would choose to defy my benefactor?

I groan. Not today, I decide. I bend down and examine the vent. When I find that the faceplate 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 faceplate 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. I am somewhat put off, however, when I see the fan blades soon after. They are barely lit by the light from my room, yet I can tell the space between the blades is narrow. Still, no scenario has gone unplanned 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 ease.

“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 could 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 quickly 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 would 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, or 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? 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 panels 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 ever be relied upon, when at last I come upon something different. I finally feel some of the metal grating 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. 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.

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 aloud.

The fact that no one is around — that no one is there to answer to 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 up 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!

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 8

I have been at the complex for a long time. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit I’ve never really gotten used to it. Sometimes I thought that I had … but I haven’t. I managed to get a few hours of sleep. Then, I woke up stiff and exhausted in the morning. I am filled with tension; Nan’s all-day work session has left me shaken. Had what happened recently even been real? At this moment, it is hard to say; it all feels unreal. What is worse is that I feel an increase in my sense of dread. Dread is a force that has crept up on me steadily over the years. With every negative change that occurs, I am left with one more sliver of helplessness piled on my emotional plate. There seems to be nothing I can do to ward off these frequent changes either. I try to control my emotional response to these events — but there’s only so far you can go with that. After awhile, you realize you are constantly bracing yourself for the next onslaught, the next wave of trauma. It is an exhausting way to live.

And yet, I feel more strongly than the dread a sense of urgency that there is indeed something I need to do. This feeling drives me to stir myself from bed.

The sun is already up. It has the type of brightness that only happens on clear winter days when the ground is completely covered by snow and ice. The sun reminds me that the day has already begun for everyone but me. I find I am concerned about what trouble Mark may have gotten himself into overnight, but I am also wondering what plans Nan has in store for me.

What will happen if she keeps up with this workload? I know eventually I will break. What would become of me, then? And it bothers me that I indeed have a breaking point. Can Nan sense that if she just keeps pushing me that my energy will eventually run out, and I will have to beg her to let up? What would she do to me if I refuse to keep going? Stop feeding me … lock me in my room? Would the Instructor intervene? It is all academic. I won’t know what is going to happen until it happens. In the meantime, I have to prepare myself for my next encounter with Nan. I have to hide my fear and my dread. I have to bluff my way through the day and make her believe that I’m not shaken at all by her games.

Part of me wants to track down Mark and see how his overnight search went. It wouldn’t surprise me that he spent most of the night looking for his sister. He could probably tell that I wasn’t up to continuing on much longer. It is even doubtful, to me at least, how much help I could possibly be to him anyway. It would probably make more sense for him to routinely search at night and sleep during the day — thereby minimizing the chances of being caught by the staff here.

But what if he does find his sister? It is quite possible he will just leave without saying good-bye to me. Waiting around to do so would be an unnecessary risk to both Mark and his sister’s safety. And yet, if that happens I will never know for sure whether he is safe or whether something bad had befallen him. That is a difficult realization for me. It makes me wish that I could accompany him on his searches. But how can I possibly do that with Nan monopolizing my daytime hours?

I grudgingly decide to hold off on seeing Mark. I can’t risk being seen wandering around near where Mark is hiding. I somehow have to let him go. I hope he’ll find his sister and get out of this place. And then … I realize there isn’t much more I can do to help him — besides trying to get him food anyway. And pray … I can pray.

I decide to go ahead and change my outfit for the day as I wait for Nan to come fetch me. I choose a simple navy blue dress with a pleated skirt. I think the color goes well with my long, straight dark brown hair. It is true that I look pretty nice in this outfit. Maybe wearing it will dissuade Nan from making me work too hard today. And … it is also true that I find I am invested in looking nice because of Mark. Part of me feels guilty for caring about such silly things. After all, he is looking for his sister. It seems doubtful he would have come all the way here if that wasn’t important. Still, it isn’t as though I can leave before Nan comes to retrieve me anyway. So, I really have nothing better to do with my time. But where is Nan?

Usually she’d either deliver me my breakfast or take me to the kitchen to eat. Then, I would be free to either do as I pleased or do what the Instructor had set out for me to do. It is strange that the sun is so fully up, and there is still no sign of Nan. Is she still angry with me? It is true that we have been arguing a lot more and with a lot more intensity recently than we have in the past.

Though, it isn’t as though we’ve ever been close. Still, I had become used to having her be a part of my daily life. I guess even mildly disturbing things can become comforting when you get used to them. Then again, it is probably just one change too many for me in such a short time. Mark’s sudden appearance has left me feeling rattled. That combined with Nan acting out more has left me feeling as though everything in my world is spinning out of control.

After another fifteen minutes, I decide I have had enough of the waiting. I will go to the kitchen by myself. I walk toward the door defiantly. I pull at the knob; my eyes widen as it stiffly resists me.

“What?” I utter.

I’ve been locked in my room! My lip quivers with agitation. I release the knob. My brow furrows. I consider. How long am I to be kept in here? The answer comes soon after. Apparently, Nan has been waiting for me to try the door, for I can hear her footfall start up from a nearby spot in the hall. I guess she wouldn’t have been able to make her point if I hadn’t discovered the door was locked before she came to retrieve me.

I stare out the window as she opens the door. I figure it will do me no good to look upon her with irritation, and I don’t trust myself not to do so given my current mood. She seems to hesitate at the doorway. Eventually, the pervasive silence gets to be too much, and I turn my face toward her just enough to glance at her. I see the flicker of a smug smile cross her face. At least I don’t have to worry about one thing: I don’t have to hide my frustration from her; she is enjoying it.

“I see you’re dressed. It’s good you can still manage that on your own.” she laughs.

When I remain silent, I hear her huff and realize I have misplayed my hand. She has to feel that she’s won if I am going to have a chance to win instead. I sigh.

I force myself to look defeated as I turn and make my way across the room. She eyes me skeptically for a brief moment. Then, she smirks again.

“Unfortunately, your breakfast has probably gotten cold already.” she needles me.

Then, she laughs robustly. I hope she will lose interest in her attempts to harass me soon. Her mood is far too unpredictable lately; it worries me. After all, I have somewhere else I want to be.

I am eventually able to follow Nan out the door and towards the kitchen. I don’t want to give her the opportunity to lock me in my room again. Nan doesn’t look pleased that I am following so closely behind her. I can’t say I am any more pleased to be near her either. Actually, I would have just as soon have had her call off seeing me at all today, so that I could have a break from her — even if it meant going hungry. Alas, that is apparently not to be.

“Well, I see you’re up early.” she notes coolly.

“Am I?” I question blankly.

“I would have thought you’d have been dragging your heels after yesterday.”

Yes, it surprised even me when I woke up with any energy left at all. The fact is I just can’t seem to force myself to relax completely. I slept, but it had been a very light, unsatisfying sort of sleep. Then, I awoke more alert than I usually do. I’m not sure how long it will take for me to relax again. I am simply too wound up to rest. As it turns out, under these circumstances, it worked to my advantage. I want to leave Nan with the impression that her efforts to get under my skin have failed.

True, there is a risk she will increase her efforts to break me, but deep down we both know she can only push things so far; the Instructor won’t tolerate much more. I won’t be permitted to become a full-time scullery maid. No, it suddenly feels as though it is possible that I may win this battle, and that Nan might actually have to admit defeat … to herself at least.

We arrive at the kitchen.

“I wouldn’t think there’d be much left to do given how thorough we were yesterday.” I choose my words carefully.

When I look up at her, she appears to be analyzing my expression.

“Yes, I guess we did most of the kitchen work yesterday.” she agrees. “It’s good to get things back in order.”

I knew it was a risk mentioning the progress we had made, but I thought it was best to acknowledge how much we had accomplished in the kitchen. There is always a chance that she’ll find another room for me to clean. And given how immense this place is, there would be more than enough rooms to select from for a long time to come. But I hope that by mentioning the kitchen cleaning as being accomplished it will give her a way to back off of me without losing face. She won’t have to admit she was defeated after all. We had just merely finished the job we had set out to do. It is done.

I am relieved when I notice that most of the tension has gone from the room. But I am careful not to appear to be too happy about it. I realize how sad it is that we have gotten to the point in our relationship where my happiness upsets her. But, for whatever reason, that is the way it is. I have to accept that.

Actually, I think that my meeting Mark has helped me. It is nice to have someone to talk with who isn’t playing mind games with me — even though I remind myself that chances are he won’t be staying long.

I try to look glum once I begin to eat my breakfast. I frequently cast my eyes out a little window that is above one of the sinks. Not that I can see much out the window, for it is frosted. Yet, the light it emits is comforting anyway. Plus, it gives me something else to focus on. I am afraid if I pay too much attention to Nan it will set her off.

“Eat up fast!” Nan suddenly informs me. “There is more work for you to do for the Instructor — a lot more.”

“Okay.” I respond in a purposefully uninterested tone.

Once I consume the last spoonful of porridge, she shouts, “Go, get to the library!”

I have resigned myself to suffer through Nan’s idea of revenge. There is no point in fighting her. I can’t get back to Mark until Nan loses interest in me for the day. I just know the more I react to her behavior, the longer it will last. I stand as though I am in no hurry; then, I meander towards the exit.

“And, Aronade …” she calls after me.

I turn to look at her.

“Be sure to go straight there.” she chides.

“Of course.” I reply blankly.

I work diligently through the stack of papers in the library, not allowing it to get to me how long it is going to take me to finish. Not only don’t I want to give Nan the satisfaction of seeing me distressed, but I also know that a bad attitude will only cause me more harm than good. The closer I get to the bottom of the stack the more anxious I become. I entwine my fingers and stretch out. As tired as I am, I have to keep going. Then, a chill runs up my spine. It is as though I can feel eyes upon me. What if this isn’t the end of it? I could completely see Nan dumping more work in front of me right as I finish in order to break me. She could easily follow me around all day if she wants to. I sit back in my chair suddenly. My shoulders slump. I sigh.

“Losing steam?” I hear Nan ask in a triumphant tone. Her voice is coming from behind me.

“Can I have a break?” I think to ask.

“I guess if you need one, what can you do?” she taunts me.

I remain seated. I proceed to stare out the window. I can feel the tension grow behind me. She is probably growing impatient. I know I would. Good … let her.

“Well, are you ready to begin again?” she asked me in an exasperated tone.

I groan slightly, pick up my pencil, and grudgingly start back to work. After a few moments, Nan sighs loudly in frustration.

“You know, the longer you take the longer you’ll be stuck here.” she tells me.

I force myself not to smile too broadly. But had I been wrong about Nan wanting to detain me here? No, more than likely the appeal for Nan to wait around has diminished. It is the not allowing me to have my way that she is interested in, after all. If I want to slack off, she will make sure I finish. Suddenly, Nan huffs.

“Then again, why should you be rewarded for being lazy?”

I freeze but don’t look at her. She laughs.

“I’ll be right back. I suggest you be done with your work by the time I get back.”

I can hear her leave. Then, the door is shut and locked. I pull my work toward me and restart it with vigor. It is a couple minutes after I finish that Nan returns.

“So, you can finish your work when you have to, huh?”

I look up and over at her.

“Well, you’re not going to waste my time while you play your games.”

She starts to head for the exit.

I am the one playing games? I guess I am at that, but she drove me to it this time. Still, it appears that I am about to be locked in the room again for my efforts. Is that my fault? Maybe. Chances are I would have been locked in anyway. But now what? It seems there is nothing I can do. Any attempts to make things better will only make things worse at this point.

When Nan returns, I am prepared for the worst. I have to admit I am surprised when she reappears with a bucket of cleaning supplies. She seems satisfied with herself.

“If you are going to wander off, I might as well put you to work.”

I have to force myself not to smile; I am getting out.

The supplies Nan gives me are for polishing wood. I am to bring her to the spot I end up choosing in order to show her my completed work. She advises me that I’d better do a good job and get a lot accomplished. I am grateful that Nan considers her time too valuable to waste supervising me directly.

It doesn’t take me long to concoct a strategy. I will choose a spot a bit farther away from the spot I left Mark earlier. Next, I will meet up with him. Then, we can talk leisurely as I finish up my work for the day. I am strangely excited about it. Certainly, being able to talk with Mark will make the time go faster. I really am looking forward to having some real company. The only real thing I get from Nan is her anger. And the Instructor … even his name is a pseudonym.

I take up the bucket while trying my best not to look too eager to go. I keep my eyes down and my emotions quelled. I purposely go in a different direction than I intend to go later as I head away from Nan. I wait awhile before looking back to see whether I am being followed. I hadn’t heard any footsteps; still, one can never be sure. It is hard to wait to look back actually, but I know if I am being followed that it will only raise questions if I do look back. Still, I am relieved when I finally allow myself to turn around, and I find no one there.

There is always a chance I am being watched without my knowledge. I just feel it could be true. But it can’t be helped. If there is no way to keep my meetings with Mark a secret, so be it. I will warn him about my concerns, but he seems determined to look for his sister here. If the danger doesn’t deter him, why should it me? Suddenly, I think to myself that I wish someone would look for me …

I place the bucket of supplies next to a rather distinctive staircase. I use a rag to polish some of the wood. I cast my eyes around me to see whether Nan is nearby. I see nothing.

I decide to leave my cleaning supplies here and come back for the things later. I then — finally — head to where I last saw Mark. I decide the best thing to do is to put on a show. I will try several doors and inspect any that open. I hope that will obscure my interest in the room Mark is in. Whether this will prove to be an effective strategy or not, I don’t know. However, it makes me feel better. I make my way down the hall, trying to appear uninterested in the rooms I am checking. Still, it is hard to hide my frustration when I am forced to check out a room I really have no interest in. But I feel compelled to go through the motions anyway; I just don’t stay long. Eventually, I make it back to the room I really want to enter. Then, it is the moment of truth. Will Mark be on the other side of the door? Or, has something happened while we were apart? Of course, I begin to worry that the room may not be there upon my return. I laugh at myself for how odd that sounds … but it is my reality.

My heart pounds as I near the room; I brace myself as I grasp the knob. I open the door, for it is still unlocked. It is pitch-dark inside. I feel for a light switch after I secure the door behind me. I don’t want anyone seeing Mark from the doorway. Then, nothing … or, at least what appears to be nothing. For once the light flashes on and my eyes adjust, I am instantly dismayed. Though it is clearly the same room I remember from the previous night, there are no signs that Mark, or anyone else for that matter, has been here.

I look back at the shut door in confusion.

“Hi.” a voice calls out from behind me. I recoil as I turn to look at him. He looks at me quizzically. An awkwardness begins to ensue as we stare at each other.

“Sorry.” Mark says. He had emerged from the wardrobe. Apparently, he had hidden all his things and himself inside of it. I don’t know why it hadn’t dawned on me that he could be in there. Maybe I had grown so sure that he would have disappeared by the time I got there that I took it for granted that he was gone. I breathe a couple of times, trying to steady myself.

“I didn’t mean to scare you.” he offers.

“I know. I just …” I pause. “Anyway, I did bring some food.”

I bring out the food I had squirreled away and place it on the table.

“Good. I needed some.” he tells me.

“Have you made any progress?”

“Some. But really it’s all or nothing. Either I find her, or I don’t. I can’t really feel successful until I do.”

“Yes.”

Mark goes to a chair and sits down on it. Then, he begins to eat.

“I wish I could have gotten more.” I bemoan.

 “I’d rather eat less and not get caught.” he returns.

I nod.

“So, you’ll probably leave right away if you find her …” I begin.

“When I find her …” he trails off. “I’ll probably leave as soon as I can …” He pauses and looks at me squarely. “Have you thought anymore about your leaving with me?” he then questions.

I stare at him — unsure of what to say. I’ve decided I’m pleased that he asked me after all … but … that is all I know at the moment.

“I’m not sure.” I say, casting my eyes downward.

When I look back up at him, I can tell he is confused and disappointed.

“I guess I had thought it was a given that you’d want to leave.” he mentions.

“It’s just … I’ve been here so long.” I tell him. It sounds like a weak excuse … even to me. “Besides, where would I go?” I ask him.

“Don’t you have any family?”

“A brother, but I don’t know where he is. He was off to see some distant relatives of ours when … everything happened. No one else is left.”

I look away.

“I’m not really anyone’s problem right now, and I want it to stay that way.” I explain. “Here … at least I know I am wanted here. They wouldn’t work so hard to keep me here if that weren’t so.”

“But aren’t you really a prisoner? I mean, you can’t just leave.”

I shrug.

“I’ve never tried. Maybe it’s just … I don’t want to go back to before. Here … I don’t feel safe exactly, but I’ve gotten used to it. I think I can handle myself. What happened before … I can’t handle that; it was too much.”

I can tell he is confused by my vague allusions to my past. I am grateful that he doesn’t press me on it. Still … part of me wishes he would, for part of me does want to talk about it. But then, there isn’t really much to say; I was so young at the time. So much of what happened is unknown even to me. The fact is I am the one who needs to ask questions of someone who knows a lot more about my own life than I do. But I feel that there really isn’t anybody left to ask. And besides that, I truly don’t want to think about it anymore after all.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 4

It isn’t until Nan begins dragging me back to my room, so I can wash up for dinner, that it dawns on me that the door to the garden may have automatically locked on the other side. If I can’t find my way back to Mark, and if I can’t do it quickly, what will become of him?

I wring my hands as Nan accompanies me back to my room. I am worried. Surely they know where Mark is despite my impulsive action of shutting him outside. I had probably been wrong before when I had thought that he wasn’t in on the game. So, given that he probably is an actor, surely they won’t make him stay out there just to keep the game going. Then again, I wouldn’t put anything past the Instructor.

As we make our way back to my room, Nan continues to lecture me about my absence and my grimy appearance. I try to shut her words out as best I can, so that I can focus instead on the route I will need to take to get back to Mark. Still, when she utters the words, “I guess we’ll have to see what the Instructor has to say about your behavior,” I freeze inside. That is the last thing I need to worry about. Then suddenly, I hear myself asking, “Doesn’t he already know?”

Nan shoots a look of annoyance at me.

“As though he doesn’t have more important things to do than keep track of you all the time.” she blasts back.

Is that true? Could I really go unobserved for periods of time? That is a new thought for me. Could they lose track of me? Nan then presents me in front of my bedroom door.

“Get cleaned up fast. Don’t dawdle, and perhaps your dinner will be waiting for you when you’re done. Of course, I should really just make you eat as you are right now.” she chides me.

She waits for me to enter my room, which has an adjoining bathroom; then, she locks the door behind me. The first thing I look for upon entering the room is whether there is any sign that the removal of the grate had been noticed. I would have expected that it would have been replaced if it had been, but it wasn’t. Instead, it is still where I had placed it before I crawled into the vent — behind my bedpost. Quickly, I set to work putting the grate back on lest Nan become curious as to where I had acquired my filth.

Once I am satisfied that the grate is at least as presentable as it had been before, I set off to clean myself up as quickly as possible. I am very aware that the longer I take to rid myself of Nan’s attention, the longer that Mark would be forced to endure the frigid conditions outside. How long can he last before serious damage is done to him? Once again, I wonder whether they would really make him stay out there in these conditions just to keep the façade going. Before today, I would have said no. But now, as I said before, I wouldn’t put anything past these people. Still, part of me grows frustrated having to waste time going through the motions — as though we don’t all realize that this is a game. Maybe, for once, I should just confront Nan and the others. Maybe that would put a stop to it finally. Maybe that is what they are waiting for me to do.

I am finally clean. Though, my wet hair gives me no comfort as it only reminds me of Mark and what he must be going through. It seems to take an eternity for me to dry off my hair with a towel. Once I am dressed, I head as swiftly as I can to the door. There, I knock, so I can be released. Nan seems a bit surprised by my sudden reappearance. But then, she smirks.

“I guess you’re hungry after all.” she states with satisfaction.

We head for the kitchen.

The kitchen is as glowing, warm, and inviting as it always has been. The curved stone and wooden accents are homey. A pot boils cheerily in the fireplace. Yet, the scene is still steeped in an artificial air, which sucks some of the comfort from the room.

“I kept it warmed up.” she grouses. “Though, it would have probably served you better if I hadn’t.”

Nan gives me a nice, warm bowl of soup, some buttered bread, and an orange.

“Thank you.” I utter with sincerity.

She nods grudgingly then turns away from me.

I watch her work out of the corner of my eye. She doesn’t appear to be watching me. I then look at the offerings and think of Mark. I am tempted to sneak away food from my plate for him. Since Nan has never given me permission to take food away with me, I figure the easiest item that I could sneak away with would be a portion of the bread. I manage to lay claim to the bread, but as I reach my hand forward with further sneaky intent, I freeze. No, this situation can’t be trusted. I’m still not completely sure what to make of this situation with Mark yet. If I’m caught, and Mark isn’t an actor after all, then the Instructor could be told about him. And the Instructor is probably around by now and able to be told. Certainly, Nan would probably wonder where the orange peels and the soup bowl went.

Now, she had never searched my person for confiscated food before. Surely, the fact that I had something to hide now wouldn’t cause her to start searching me. Still, the bread will have to do. She won’t have cause to look for the bread.

Then, I get to thinking about the fact that I haven’t tried to sneak out food before. Why hadn’t I? Am I really that subject to Nan’s approval? That thought troubles me, for the truth is it had bothered me when she had turned on me seemingly overnight. I stiffen.

“May I leave now?” I ask her in a cool tone of voice.

I look up into her eyes as she turns toward me. She shrugs off her indifference.

“Suit yourself.” she manages, turning her back on me once more. “Just make sure you get that work done that the Instructor left for you in the library …”

I get up from my place and head for the door. I try to shrug off my feelings as easily as Nan had hers, but I find it is more difficult for me. I am grateful for one thing at least. I am, for once, getting off easy. This is particularly fortunate as I have something very important to do. My pace quickens as I recall that Mark was last seen outside. I dread the thought of what state he may be in if he had remained where I had left him.

I am a bit worried that I will have trouble retracing my steps back to the outside garden. After all, I had a lot of difficulty tracing my way back towards my room. Indeed, I might have still been looking for my room if Nan hadn’t tracked me down.

But it turns out returning to the garden entrance isn’t as difficult as I feared it would be. It makes sense. After all, it had been my journeying through the airshaft that had caused me to become so disoriented. Still, I breathe a sigh of relief when I recognize the glass doors in front of me. It is kind of eerie, though. There is now an intense darkness on the other side of the panes, and a sort of fog has rolled in just inches beyond, which clouds the glass. I fear that death has come in. I, therefore, rush forward and clutch at the door handle.

The first sound I hear as I breach the seal of the door is a rush of air. Then, there is silence, as though the air outside is holding its breath. Finally, I am struck by how truly cold it is outside. I immediately feel panic at this realization. How much time has elapsed since I was last here? Am I about to come upon a dead body, frozen? And what if Mark is still alive but dying? How would I be able to help him? I know I can’t afford to think like this; I simply don’t have the time. I will have to figure out a plan once I know what I am up against.

My first instinct is to head outside immediately to look for Mark. But fortunately, it dawns on me that the door may close behind me; then, we’d both be trapped out there. So, I first try calling out to Mark, even though I am afraid to call out too loudly lest it attract the attention of the wrong person. The level of volume I am comfortable with, however, doesn’t seem to produce any results. I decide I will have to venture outside after all.

And still, I know I will have to find a way to wedge the door open before I proceed. But how? I look around me. Eventually, I spy a part of a wooden molding that has started to pull away from a nearby doorframe. Perhaps if I can rip away part of the aging strip, I can use it to keep the door ajar. I figure it is worth a try. As I walk towards the wooden piece, I notice that the door to the outside has started to slide shut as the wind blows in. I am very grateful at this point that I hadn’t gone outside before securing the door! Who knows when they would have found me!

I kick the wooden wedge underneath the door to make the fit more secure. I am less concerned at this point about how I will get the wood back out than I am about insuring it won’t come loose. Once I am satisfied that the door is set, and that it would take someone a lot of time and energy, as well as quite a bit of noise, to free it, I go ahead and venture out.

I am nearly breathless as I enter the space where I last saw Mark. I hunch down in order to block out some of the bitter chill, but I still found myself shivering anyway. I am petrified that I will be too late, and he won’t be there … at least, not alive. I then wonder whether people think that if they can conquer winter they can conquer death itself.

I scan the area for Mark. As I look around me, my fears seem to be realized. A cold winter breeze is blowing snow over the only remaining sign that he’d ever been there: his footprints. Apparently, enough time has passed that the imprints of his footfall have been partially buried. And yet, since traces of Mark’s path still linger I am fortunately able to track him to a distinguished-looking tree dead center in the garden. It is a tall, deciduous tree with many limbs branching out into the sky; the leaves had fallen long ago.

“Mark!” I call out, though my voice remains restrained.

I hold my breath for a moment. But then, relief sweeps over me as I see him step out from behind the frosted tree. Apparently, he had been hiding himself there. Mark seems a bit taken aback by my reaction to him. He couldn’t possibly understand what his unexpected appearance means to me.

“Let’s get you inside!” I insist.

I take his hand and begin pulling him toward the door. Once we get back inside, the moment swiftly becomes awkward. So, I decide to present him with the bread I got for him.

“Here.” I tell him. Mark just stares at the bread for the longest time. Therefore, I look at the bread with a bit more of a critical eye.

“It’s not much.” I conclude. “But I can get more later … maybe.”

“Thank you.” he finally says.

For the first time I notice that both his voice and his hands are shaking.

“Are you all right?” I wonder, suddenly filled with concern.

“I’m fine.” he sniffs.

“Of course, what am I thinking? It is bitterly cold.” I pause. “I should take you to my room …” I say without thinking it through. He looks at me questioningly. That seems to get him thinking.

“No,” he declines before I could even process the offer myself. “I’ve come too far to risk being caught now.” he seems to say this mostly to himself.

 I look at him for a moment, trying to figure out what he means by that. I furrow my brow.

“I don’t know what to do with you then …” I admit.

He says nothing. Why on earth would he even want to stay out here in this hallway under these circumstances? Maybe he is wanting to leave the complex entirely and is just having a difficult time letting me know.

“Are you wanting to go — to leave this place?” I question him.

He raises his head and looks at me quizzically.

“No.”

“I guess there isn’t really any place to go this time of year.” I allow. “I don’t know how you even managed to get here …”

“No, I mean, I have business here.” he informs me.

“Business? What business? What are you s doing here?”

Then, he suddenly looks off into the distance. Now I am thoroughly confused. What is with this guy? Mark seems as though he is trying to avoid being candid with me. I don’t appreciate that. I am about to turn away; I don’t need this.

“I could ask the same thing of you.”

His voice is hoarse. It breaks apart — unsteadily stopping and starting. The rawness of his tone intrigues me. It is different … somehow.”

“How do you mean?” I ask him. “Where would I go?”

He considers me for a moment.

“You’re right. There are just forest patches and expanses of snow beyond — not to mention the wild beasts. I suppose you’re right.” he backtracks. “There really is nowhere to go.” He pauses. “Then again, perhaps once my business is done here I can take you with me.”

I blink.

“Is this some sort of game?” I ask myself.

He says nothing more, and it becomes clear he doesn’t intend to. The subject is dropped, so I decide not to think on it anymore.

“Anyway, we still have to find somewhere to put you. Even though Nan’s not around anymore … at least I don’t think so …”

 “Nan?”

“The housekeeper. The woman from before …” I trail off again. “Do you want me to go get her — go get someone to help you?”

“No, that wouldn’t be a good idea.”

I consider his words in a mood of frustration.

“I need access.” he suddenly informs me. It is almost as though he can tell I am beginning to mistrust him. “Can you give me that without anyone knowing?”

“I — I don’t know.” I admit.

“Please … I’m looking for someone.”

His eyes are pleading; he seems earnest.

“I could look for you … but it is a large space.”

Mark doesn’t seem to like the idea of my searching around.

“Is the offer for me to hide out still good?”

I hesitate. It seems clear that Mark has no intention of just hiding out. He is going to look for someone — assuming that is even true. And f it is true, I am sympathetic. However, how can I risk getting into trouble for a stranger? I had lost what little freedom I had long before.

“Can I trust you?” I ask him. “If I can find a spot to hide you, will you stay there? I will help you look for your person, but you can’t wander around on your own.”

He just looks at me for a moment. Then, he finally nods.

 “Of course. I can’t expect you to risk yourself.”

“Good.”

I am relieved that he seems to understand my position. I just hope I can really trust him. “Speaking of which, I have to go. They’ll come looking for me.”

I cast my eyes back to the door. It is still open at this point.

“You can wait in the hall outside this door for now … until I can come back. That way, if anyone shows up, you can hide out there.”

“All right.” he agrees.

“I’ll try to come back this evening. I just hope they don’t lock me in my room … What?”

He has an odd look on his face.

“Nothing.” he responds. “I’ll wait for you.”

I smile weakly. I then head to the door in order to remove the wooden slab, so it can close again. As I near the door, it strikes me how truly cold it is out there. I guess Mark’s presence had made me forget that. But then, I conceive of another problem. Not only am I risking my health by spending time in this inclement weather, I am also risking detection by Nan. All she would have to do is look at my flushed face to figure out that I was outside. I have to warm up quickly before I go to the library. I can’t risk running into Nan before I rid myself of all the traces of the cold.

After I dislodge the wood, I begin rubbing my hands together. Then, I use the heat I generate to warm my face.

I sigh. This is going to take a while. It is hard to stand still and wait. I am filled with adrenaline. Part of me wants to rush to the library to get my obligation there over with, but I know somehow this impulse is just a moment of immaturity.

I have to wait until I warm up. That is when it occurs to me, if I need a cover story, why not make it true? I could go exploring around. No one said I couldn’t. Nan wouldn’t like it and most likely disapprove, but what difference would that make? All right, it does bother me, but it can’t be helped. I’d rather she think I am immature than have her find out about Mark.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 5

I usually enjoy exploring. There is one positive thing I can say about the Instructor: he has a lot of imagination. He also, apparently, has plenty of time on his hands. Not to mention, how much money it must take to assemble the scenarios. Earlier on, I wondered whether I might be able to reach the end of the Instructor’s concoctions. I admit I was disappointed when I then found myself in the exact same place I had started from. Somehow, the Instructor had managed to send me in a circle without my even realizing it.

In the end, I concluded it was fitting. My entire life with the Instructor was one mind game after another. He is always sending me off in circles. Still, in the back of my mind, I often wonder whether he could have considered every possibility. Maybe there will be something someday he will have failed to consider. It occurs to me that Mark may just be one of those unexpected things. Then again, perhaps it will end up being just another lesson to put me in my place … but I can’t help but feel that this is somehow different.

It is time. The chill has left my body, and I am ready to potentially face down Nan. She doesn’t disappoint.

“Where have you been?!” Nan demands.

She actually rushes at me, her eyes wide, and wrenches my arm back.

“Ouch!” I protest.

I was expecting the possibility she may be waiting for me, but the intensity of her reaction is shocking all the same. I also don’t want her manhandling of me to become a regular thing. Nan isn’t afraid of me, but she is intimidated by the Instructor. At that moment, the only thing I can think to do is fake the confidence that the Instructor would find disfavor in her physically abusing me. So, I glare at her defiantly. It seems to work — this time.

“I’ve had enough of your attitude today.” Nan puts forth. “You obviously don’t respect my time at all. I’m not your servant. I don’t answer to you.”

“You didn’t tell me …”

“Save it!” she exclaims. “You have work to do, and I’m going to lock you in here until you get it done.”

My eyes widen. Not wanting to look at her angry face anymore, I cast my eyes downward. I can hear her breathe for several minutes. Finally, I hear her footsteps recede. The door is shut. She seems to make a point of locking the deadbolt as loudly as she can.

I release my breath.

“Well, I guess I’ll get to work.” I tell myself.

There is no telling when Nan will return to fetch me. Her anger may lead her to leave me here for many hours. Still, I know there is a limit to how much she will be willing to push this.

The only thing I can do to help my situation is try to be ready when she does show up. After all, that is the soonest that I could be released, and I can’t lose that opportunity. I will focus on that.

I work with fervor on the busywork the Instructor provided for me to do. Normally, I would lose focus after awhile and need to stop. Then, I would scan across the massive book collection in the library with my eyes and select one that struck my fancy. This day is different, however; I am all business. Not only because Mark is waiting for me but also because being trapped in this room is unnerving me. It would be just like Nan to come back right before I would normally finish. Then, I would have to plead with her not to leave me in here twice as long. I have no intention of allowing that to happen if I have anything to say about it.

The only thing that distracts me is any noise I hear in the background. I keep worrying Nan will come back before I am ready … but it turns out to be just a false alarm. The complex is just settling. And then … I am done. I look through the papers again to make sure I haven’t missed anything. Then, I look around the library. Perhaps more work has been squirreled away in a nook somewhere in the room. I search; I find nothing.

I sit down in a nearby chair. Then, I bite my lip. Is this a trick? There has to be more. I wait. It isn’t that long of a wait really … I am startled by her abrupt reappearance soon after.

I recoil. Nan looks surprised when she beholds the pile of neatly stacked papers on one of the end tables. She looks between me and the pile. She then goes over to it and begins to look it over. As her eyes peruse the papers, my eyes go to the door. She has left it open. I am tempted to bolt for it, but I decide against it. After all, what good will that do in the long run? Nan takes her time to look over every piece of paper. Finally, she declares, “You may go.”

I force myself not to smile. Instead, I swiftly head toward the door. I am prepared for her to yell after me, but she doesn’t. I manage to get out of the room without being told to go straight to my room. In theory, I could go wherever I want without risking getting into trouble for it. Still, I have to admit it is starting to become late.

The sun is starting to set. I’ve always been intimidated by the grounds at night. Whether it is real or not, the sound of some animal can be heard howling off in the distance. It may be just another trick of the Instructor’s to keep me from wandering around the grounds at night. Of course, if that is the case, at least it would mean that I’m not being watched at night. Tonight especially, I can only hope that that is the case.

I am a bit wary of going directly to Mark. It feels as though I am more likely to be followed if I go straight there. But I can’t risk the possibility of being locked inside my room. The temperature difference is so great between the outside and the inside tonight that I can sense the heat being drained from the complex, even while inside. Even though Mark hadn’t seemed too concerned about the bitter weather before, it seems to have gotten worse. What if he had had to seek refuge outside again? I was loath to leave him out in the cold any longer than necessary.

So, I head straight to Mark. I call out to him — though in a restrained voice — once I reach the hall. A chill goes through me when there is no response. Could the worst have happened? Could Mark have been driven outside?

After propping the door open again, I venture outside. It is eerily quiet. Snow has settled upon the footsteps that had been there before. The waning light casts a glow upon the landscape.

For a second I think I am alone. Moments later, Mark steps out from behind the tree. As it turns out, my concerns for his health hadn’t been unwarranted. The expression on his face betrays that he is suffering. I wonder instantly how long he’s been out here this time.

I motion with my head, beckoning him to follow me inside. He seems to gather the gist of what I am trying to communicate and does so. It isn’t until I am well near the door that I allow myself to wonder once again where I will take him once I do get inside. It is too bad it isn’t summer. Then, in theory, he could have remained outside under the tree. It would have been the perfect place to hide him. But now where could I put him? I know of nowhere that will work. We had stumbled upon no empty rooms that seemed secure when we had searched for an exit to that other section. And while my wanderings before I went to the library had given me an idea of the current layout of the premises, I hadn’t thought of selecting a hiding spot for Mark at that time. What choice do we have other than to look now? I hadn’t anticipated finding this garden, after all. Certainly, there has to be a warm room somewhere in this massive place that no one will have cause to look into.

We are both stone silent as we cross the threshold into the warmth. I can feel Mark’s anxiety to my left, and I know I have to work to conceal him as soon as possible. Then, Mark begins shaking uncontrollably. It is a wonder he is still awake … or alive for that matter. I again try to remember a spot that will work for my purposes.

“Aronade.” Mark speaks my name.

“I’m trying to think of a place to put you.” I tell him.

I am afraid he may be losing faith in my ability to help him, but he just looks at me blankly. It seems he is too cold to care at this point. It is hard to think under this kind of pressure. I try to focus. The hiding place should be far enough away from the kitchen and my room but not too far away from either. Certainly, it would be good for it to be out of hearing range but within walking distance.

It is no use. I’m just too tired to come up with anything tonight. I make a snap decision as I finally succeed in freeing the wooden wedge and unleashing the door: I will have to take him to my room. It is a risk, but I can’t sleep not knowing if he is all right. He needs blankets in the very least. And if I have to, I will hide him under the bed … or even in the vent. Then, tomorrow I will go looking for a more suitable place to hide him. Feeling confident in my decision, I begin to lead him back to my room. Yes, this is a great plan — much better than staying out in the open looking for some unknown place to hide him in. After all, I figure the sooner he is out of sight the better. Now the only problem left to deal with is convincing Mark of the rightness of my plan. Will he go for it?

I am quick to pull Mark into my room when I get there. My heart is pounding as I shut the door behind us. I then scan the room for any signs of disturbance. I usually leave the light on when I exit the room, and I left it on this time. Once, years before, some actor had been waiting in the dark for me to return in order to start a scenario. I was so freaked out by that incident that I decided to always leave a light turned on. I proceed to look around the room and check any place someone could be hiding. I am even more anxious than I usually was while doing this. Adrenaline is once again coursing through my veins. Mark is standing by the door watching me go through my routine. I don’t feel embarrassed, though; he seems to understand why I am doing it. The irony, of course, is that some of the spots I am checking may end up serving as spots for Mark to hide in should it come to that.

Having satisfied myself that no one is around, my attention goes back to Mark, who is still shaking uncontrollably. I go to the closet to retrieve some blankets. I hand them to him. He strips off his shirt and wraps the dry cloth around himself.

“Where are we?” he asks moments later.

I hesitate. I hadn’t come up with a clever way of explaining why I ended up bringing him here after all.

“My room …” I admit.

Mark turns and starts scanning the room with his eyes. He looks perplexed. I feel embarrassed.

I do note that his voice has become stronger — as it had been before he got trapped out in the cold. That pleases me. Then, suddenly, my eyes catch sight of a smear of red on the back of his head. Mostly I am concerned by this sight, but admittedly I find myself also relieved to have something else to focus on. I now suspect that whatever the full story behind Mark’s situation is I probably don’t want the details. Somehow, I know that the details will affect things for me. Everything has been tipped off-balance since I entered that air duct. I had caught a glimpse of something hidden beneath the surface, and I instinctively hadn’t liked what I saw.

“Your head — it’s bleeding!” I exclaim.

Mark takes his hand and wipes it across the point on his skin where the blood lies.

“Oh, it must have happened when he clobbered me. It probably froze when I was outside before.”

I frown.

“That must have been hard on you.” I offer. “I should have brought you a blanket or something before.”

“Yeah, well, it seems just getting back to this room is hard enough.” he tells me.

I couldn’t read his tone, but it doesn’t appear as though he is criticizing me for my delay.

“Well, let me get some supplies, so I can tend to your wound.” I conclude.

Suddenly, as I turn from him, he grasps my hand. I look down and stare at his hand. Then, I raise my eyes and look him in the eye. I wait for him to say something.

“Don’t bother with that.” he tells me. “We need to start searching for her.”

“Her?” I utter.

“My sister.”

He releases my hand. I smile briefly. Then, I blush when I realize I am relieved that the girl in question is his sister and not his girlfriend. This is so odd, I think, as I consider my reaction. Then, moments later, I get to considering what he just said. Nan is the only woman I am aware of that lives here. Could she be his sister? Then again, it is possible I don’t know all of the employees that work here. I realize suddenly it must take many people to run this place. And certainly, the man who locked Mark in that coffin couldn’t be known to me … Still …

Mark’s sister may even be a scenario actress, I conclude. Though, since the actors never seem to give more than one performance, if she were around it would seem she would have to be part of a future production. Maybe I could make contact with her, then. Or, perhaps even sooner! Maybe we could find her before the scenario begins if we start looking for signs of new construction. After all, that spot will be where a new scenario will inevitably occur, and the actors will be brought in to rehearse for it there.

“Maybe if I knew something about your sister …” I start. “Is your sister an actress?”

Mark looks at me with confusion etched on his face. It is true that I came up with that thought out of seemingly nowhere.

“An actress?” he repeats. “You mean like in a school play?”

“No. Here.” I return.

“I don’t know what you mean. My mom would never allow her to come here to act or whatever. She’s just a kid … only eleven years old.”

“Eleven?!” I repeat.

“Yeah, she’s about your age.”

I redden.

“I’m twelve!” I object. Almost thirteen … I think. And apparently, Mark thinks I’m just a kid, too!

But that’s not the important thing here, I remind myself. I shake my head in disbelief when I try to wrap my mind around this newest piece of information. I was sure that his sister was older than he is … that she works here … that he has come looking for her for some reason. I have seen children before in the scenarios, but I had always assumed they were being supervised by their parents. What is more, Mark is not only telling me that his sister doesn’t have parental permission, but that she also isn’t even an actress.

“What is she doing here, then?” I wonder to myself.

Have I met her? Has she, in fact, been become one of the scenario actors without Mark knowing about it? What could have become of her? Why hasn’t she returned home? It has been awhile since they ran a scenario with actors around here. Are the actors not allowed to return home? Given that they never do more than one performance, it begins to make me wonder and worry what has happened to them all.

Then again, maybe her situation is as mine. No … not as mine … I don’t have parents anymore. There are people who actually want this girl back — people who are probably from some place far away from here. Why does Mark think she is here anyway? And why does he seem so surprised by my question about acting? His behavior either confirms he isn’t an actor or proves he is a good one. But his story about a missing sister is too complicated for a scenario. It is so complicated that it almost has to be true.

Mark reverts his gaze forward again.

“This … your situation … is a lot different from the others.” he suddenly informs me.

“Others? What others?”

Mark seems to hesitate. His eyes drift downward, and once again he seems to be mulling over something.

“What do you want to know?” he asks me suddenly after regaining eye contact with me.

“I’m not sure …” I start. And I’m not sure what he means.

Mark appears to be struggling with something.

“How much do you know?” he inquires while looking at me again. “About the missing girls?”

“Missing girls?” I stammer.

“Yeah, for all I know you’re one of them.”

I am stunned by his words. What could he mean? I know his sister is missing, but there are others? Is it possible? And for him to believe that I could possibly be one of them … what is that about? It is true that parts of my past remain a mystery to me, but that doesn’t mean I’d been abducted.

I shudder against the chill I feel inside.

“You okay?” Mark asks me.

“I think so.” I say.

 “Are you cold?” Mark persists.

I shake my head.

“No, I just have a lot on my mind.” I tell him.

He nods in understanding.

“Yes, of course.” he acknowledges.

A moment passes.

“Yeah, my sister is one of those girls I referred to. She disappeared from our village, and all I could find to mark her disappearance was a wooden box with engraved heart on it and a letter inside.”

“A letter?”

“Yeah, a scroll to be exact. It read: ‘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 on you, I’m letting you know what my intention is. Accept it. What you’ve lost will never be recovered — The Taker.’ ”

I am deep in thought over those words. But then suddenly, I become aware that Mark is staring at me.

“What?” I utter in confusion.

“Do you recognize those words?” Mark asks me anxiously. Apparently, he has gotten over his reticence in confiding in me and now is looking for answers from me.

“Recognize them? No … why?”

Mark breathes out his noticeable frustration.

“Anyway, I’m trying to track down where my sister was taken.”

My eyes then wander around the room, taking it all in. All that has happened in the last few hours is still unreal to me. I look over toward the vent. To think I almost died in there! It would appear that Mark and I had both almost died. But why? Is this a sign that the games the Instructor plays are being taken to a new level? But to make death a possibility and without any kind of warning … Perhaps, I have grown too complacent by allowing myself to believe I am important — that the Instructor has invested too much time and training in me as a test subject to simply cast me away. Maybe this has all been some sort of diversion for him. Maybe the real lesson I am to learn from all this is that I am as expendable as anyone else; that there is no safety to be had. I shudder again.

“I really am sorry you were caught out there.” I decide to offer, eager to change the subject. I look up at him. He places his hand on my shoulder reassuringly; I am surprised by this. Then, he shakes his head. “No, really.” he assures me. “I’m glad that you acted so quickly … and that you came back, of course.”

Mark then sits down on a nearby sofa. He wraps himself tightly in the blanket. I sit on the edge of my bed … unsure of what to do next. I am glad Mark seems to have accepted staying in my room, though.

Mark brings out the bread I had gotten for him; he had been holding it underneath his blanket.

“I’m sorry it’s not more.” I let him know. “I’ll try to think of a way to get more.”

“It’s fine.” he replies. “I didn’t expect anything.”

I nod.

“I do wonder …” I start. “… whether they’ll notice you’re missing and come looking for you.”

I instantly regret bringing this up while he is trying to eat, though it has been on my mind.

“Yeah … they probably will. Though, they may think I left.” Mark decides. “But I’m not going to leave.”

He suddenly stands and starts to pace.

“Though he may wonder how I got out of that coffin, he’s not likely to think we met, and that you’re helping me, is he?” Mark mentions.

“No.” I agree. “Probably not.”

“You know, on second thought, this may not be the worst place to hide tonight.” Mark concludes.

“I can look for some place else tomorrow.” I offer. “In the meantime, there are a couple of places in the room …”

“I would appreciate that. Listen, I’m not wanting to make your life more difficult … I realize that I may end up putting you in a bad position. I would leave if I didn’t need to find her.”

I ponder that. Frankly, I am feeling more and more as though I am already in a bad position. I have been trying to convince myself that the day’s events aren’t as troublesome as they seem, but I can’t quite believe it. Actually, strangely enough, I feel safer with Mark here. I have been unnerved by scenarios in the past but not particularly frightened. Now I am frightened. Having someone to face whatever happens next with gives me a certain level of comfort. And still, I can feel a sensation of dread begin to creep into the fringes of my mind. I know I am going to carry my fear over the incident in the air vent for a while. I just feel uneasy and tense.

“It’s fine.” I assure him. “It doesn’t bother me that you’re here.”

Mark actually seems surprised. Then, he nods. After that, he sneezes.

“I guess I’m going to get sick after this.” he bemoans.

I look at him sympathetically, but I am thinking that he is truly fortunate to be alive at all. I still can’t wrap my mind around that, and yet it is so. How could a scenario have gone so terribly wrong? I want to ask him, but, before I can work up the nerve, he tells me he is going to try to get some sleep on the sofa.

“Oh.” I say with an edge of disappointment to my voice. “Would you mind if I kept the light on?” I ask him. “I usually do.”

He seems to understand.

“Doesn’t matter to me. Nothing but the sun itself could keep me awake now.”

Mark makes himself as comfortable as possible on the sofa, though the sofa is a bit too short for him. He uses the decorative pillows under his head.

I lie on my left side facing him. I know right away that it is going to take me awhile to fall asleep; I am much too wound up for that. I suppose part of my current insomnia is a control issue. I feel that if I can stay awake I will have time to consider things and sort through my feelings about what has happened. If I opt to sleep, I might sleep until Nan comes to fetch me. Then, I will be at the mercy of whatever plan she has in store for me for tomorrow. Plus, the decision to sleep or not to sleep appears to be the only thing I have any control over. And yet, I realize that even that sense of control is merely illusionary. Eventually, I will have to sleep; my body will force me to. I can’t avoid it forever. Yet, it pains me to succumb to it before I have the chance to figure something, anything out …

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 6

I awake sometime in the night to utter darkness. I’m not sure how long it has been dark. Perhaps the darkness itself woke me. As I sit up, I become aware almost immediately that there is a form standing at my bedside. I gasp.

“It’s me.” Mark whispers. “I think your light may have burned out. That or someone has cut the power to your room.”

I instantly think of the vent and how it had likewise gone out. Right now, I can hear the fan’s labored grinding continue on. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the electricity in my room is still operational. After all, when the fan had gone out before the lights had remained on. Apparently, the two aren’t on the same circuit. I have a clock, but it is an old-fashioned windup one. My bathroom is lit by a lantern. The old circuit in there blew out long ago and was never replaced. I didn’t want any strangers in my room anyway.

As I sit on the edge of my bed, I contemplate what I should do. Is another scenario starting this soon? Should I hide Mark? I have barely had any sleep, but I have had enough that my brain is now rebelling over my being awake.

“I wonder what’s going on with the electricity around here.” I ponder aloud. “Is it a malfunction, or has someone turned it off on purpose?”

I’m not expecting Mark to have an answer. I am surprised when he heads to my bedroom door and opens it. He shuts it moments later.

“The lights in the hall are on, but it’s impossible to know about your room.”

I wait a moment, straining my ears to discern any noise that would signify an approaching scenario. There are none.

“Do you have any light bulbs?” Mark asks me.

“No, I let Nan know when I need one, and it’s replaced.”

I find I am unnerved by this turn of events. Even though the light bulbs have burned out before, it has never happened at night — never when I had hours until morning to wait in utter darkness. True, I could leave the door to the hall open, but there is no way I will be able to sleep, then. Plus, that would make it more likely that Mark’s presence will be discovered by Nan or someone else.

“I could stay up.” Mark offers.

“No, I’m being silly.” I reply. “It’s just been a long day. I’ll have it corrected in the morning …”

Only I then realize I can’t. I can’t let anyone into my room with Mark here.

“Do you think you may wake up at dawn?” I ask him suddenly. “I’d rather not have Nan track me down.”

“I’ll wake you up.” he assures me.

Somehow, I feel confident that he will. I decide to try to sleep again.

“Aronade.” I hear a male voice say. “Aronade.” it repeats.

I open my eyes. I am a little disoriented at first. I try to place myself. I look over at the form standing next to me. His shape is just starting to become visible in the oncoming daylight. It is Mark. Of course, it is Mark. He had offered to wake me up before Nan came around. For a moment, I allow my mind to filter through the previous day’s events. It all seems so strange still. And yet, some of the emotional impact has lessened, which is what usually happens when I sleep.

“Thank you.” I mutter.

And I am grateful that his offer to wake me has allowed me to sleep. Though, I do have to wonder whether he has been able to sleep much at all. He probably needed to sleep more than I did. Then again, today I have to act as though nothing unusual is going on. I doubt I could have pulled that off if I hadn’t slept.

I feel like lying here for a little while longer, but I know I have to get up. For one, I am wearing the same outfit I had had on the day before. I have to get dressed and make myself presentable.

“I guess the best place for you to hide, if someone tries to come into my room while I’m in the shower, is under my bed.”

“What about the vent?” Mark asks me.

I cast a look over at the vent and shudder slightly.

“No one will look for me there.” he suggests.

Apparently, not being detected is foremost on his mind in terms of concerns. I reluctantly agree that his suggestion makes the most sense.

“All right. I’ll let you out after my shower.”

I hesitate. But then I realize I can’t afford to. Mark may have prevented me from oversleeping, but time is still slipping away. And yet, I still find it emotionally difficult to remove the grate to the air vent. It turns out my fear over almost getting my foot cut off is still raw. I shiver inside.

Meanwhile, Mark is a good sport. Without a complaint, he crawls into the narrow, dusty tunnel. I hear him sneeze. Is it the dust or a cold coming on? Either way, his sneezing may give away his location should it come to that.

“I’ll be fine.” he calls out suddenly, as though anticipating my thoughts. I replace the grate then head as swiftly as I can to gather my things together.

I make quick work of getting ready. I am surprised by how fast I manage. Given how sluggish I felt when I first got up, it shocks me. If I could give myself a solid pat on the back, I would have — that is until I step out from my bathroom and into my bedroom. And there is Nan, sitting on the sofa Mark had occupied not long before. I catch my breath. What is she doing here? Is she waiting for me? It can’t be that late.

I force myself not to look toward the vent. Instead, I look at the clock. No, it isn’t that late. I know I need to shake off the look of dread from my face and act natural … but it is a struggle.

Nan, for her part, just sits there silently, staring at me.

“Is there a problem?” I hear myself suddenly asking. “I’m not running late.”

Not that there is anything assigned for me to do, I think.

Nan seems to be assessing me, and I find it to be annoying. I am also a bit concerned that maybe she suspects something is peculiar about my previous day’s activities.

I sigh.

“Do you know whether the electricity has gone out? My light went off last night.” I decide to go ahead and mention.

When Nan finally speaks, her voice is stiff.

“It’s probably just the bulb. Bring it to me; I always change it.”

I look at her skeptically for a moment; then, I go to retrieve the old bulb. It occurs to me that by the time Nan finally gets around to giving me a new bulb the power to my room might be restored … if it had been deliberately cut. I wouldn’t, therefore, be able to tell whether it really is the bulb that’s the problem or whether the electricity had, in fact, been purposefully cut.

As I hold the bulb in my hand, I can’t resist the impulse of shaking it in order to determine whether the telltale noise — the tinkling sound that indicates a burned-out bulb — is present. I hear nothing.

Of course, Nan looks at me with irritation as I hand off the bulb to her. She obviously doesn’t appreciate my little experiment. She takes the bulb and places it into the pocket of her apron.

“How much does she know?” I wonder.

Is she just trying to psyche me out, or are she and the Instructor privy to everything I do? Am I just fooling myself in believing I can do anything without being watched? I stifle a shudder.

“I’ve decided …” Nan says suddenly and purposefully. “… that today would be a good day for you to help me scour the kitchen.”

My eyes widen. This is a first. Is she serious? Yes, she is. I do not know what to say. I am torn between demanding to know why that day in particular and protesting over the unfairness of it all. At first, I am concerned she will be watching my reaction. But apparently, I needn’t have worried about that. For having delivered the unwelcome news, Nan is quick to stand and make her way towards the door.

“I’ll be expecting you in the kitchen in fifteen minutes.” she tells me as a parting shot.

I turn an annoyed look toward her as she exits. There is a sly smile on her face. So, I only have fifteen minutes, and then I will be gone for most if not all of the day. I can’t expect Mark to stay locked in the vent for the entire day. There has to be a better plan than that. I grow angry with Nan. Of all the days she could have pulled this! Then again, there is no way to know whether her timing is truly a coincidence.

It must have been a shock for Mark when Nan let herself in while I was in the shower. Speaking of Mark … I become aware how silent it is in here; it is almost too quiet. Is Mark still here? He is being so quiet that he is either no longer around or he is waiting to make sure we are alone before he stirs. Then, a scary thought occurs to me. Surely, Mark hasn’t crawled farther into the vent as I had! Perhaps I should have warned him not to!

As I approach the vent, I can tell pretty quickly that Mark is still there; I can see the bottom of his boots. I can also detect a slight wheezing in his breath. Thank goodness he hadn’t sneezed!

“Mark, are you okay?” I ask him.

I am grateful to see him move. Slowly, he extends his feet. Then, he begins pulling himself towards me. Eventually, he manages to make his way back out of the vent. Finally, he starts to cough — though, he does his best to stifle it. I decide there is no need to tell him that the vent isn’t going to work on a routine basis … that is fairly obvious. I can tell by his body language that he has no interest in going back in there. Yet, where else can he hide? I am now afraid that under the bed will be a far too obvious place. What if I leave him there only to find he has disappeared while I am gone?

“Well, I’m going to have to find somewhere nearby to hide.” Mark states matter-of-factly, confirming that we are indeed on the same page about that at least.

I’m not surprised.

“So you heard Nan?” I ask him.

He nods.

“I can’t stay in there all day.” he confirms to me.

“Still,” I start. “It would be better to look for another place tonight. I know there aren’t any good places to hide in here, and someone could come in … But I’m almost inclined to think you should just stay here — maybe hide in the bathroom if you hear someone coming.”

Mark considers. I hope he will agree with me quickly, so that I can leave. It is getting close to the time I need to leave for the kitchen. It does bother me to think I will have to wonder whether he will disappear from my room while I’m gone, but it bothers me more to think of him searching for somewhere to hide in the complex without me.

“All right.” he finally agrees, much to my relief. “But you do know this isn’t going to work long term?”

“Long term?” I echo.

The idea of “long term” has become foreign to me. Even stranger is the idea that this situation with Mark could last awhile. While it certainly is true that I can in no way continue to hide a boy in my bedroom, I am baffled by the thought that he would even consider remaining at the complex “long term.” Given what happened to him, I would think he would be eager to leave once he found his sister. And how long could that take?

If I thought it would do any good, I’d simply ask someone where she is. But given the mind games the Instructor plays, asking anyone would probably just drag out the situation. Plus, I’m still not completely sure that Mark isn’t just an actor playing out a scenario … only his near-drowning had been so dreadful that it makes it nearly impossible for me to believe he would remain around here just to get paid.

No, I think he is telling the truth. And I also think finding his sister without seeking help from the others around here is the best option. Now, it could be that they are aware of everything Mark and I are doing. But if they aren’t, my hiding him is the best thing I can do for him. But I need time — time to come up with a strategy, or at least time to catch my breath.

I know it is time for me to head to the kitchen, even though I don’t want to. Like I said, I am more than slightly annoyed with Nan. Even if this hadn’t been a particularly inconvenient time — with Mark’s sudden appearance and all — it would have still been annoying. I am used to having most of my time to myself. It is true that I can’t count on any given moment because of the scenarios, but I have mostly grown used to that. On the other hand, the idea that a large chunk of my free time may be reduced at a whim of Nan’s has me chafing.

“Well … I’ll be back later.” I decide.

“All right.”

I start to open the door. Then, I stop short. “Remember what you agreed to …” I look back at Mark’s brown eyes. “You won’t search on your own?”

His eyes stay on mine. It takes him a moment to respond, but his words are steady.

“That’s right.” he affirms.

Suddenly, I see his hand reach out to me. Slowly, I take it up. We shake hands.

“Thank you.” he tells me.

I nod. Then, I head out. I feel something gripping in my chest. I place my hand on the pain. It is probably going to be a long day. I have to force myself to control my apprehension. After all, I still have to deal with Nan.

Nan is cooking breakfast as I enter the kitchen. She is facing the stove, her back towards me. She doesn’t turn around as I come in. I sit at one of the stools near the counter. There is a bowl of fruit nearby. I think of taking a piece for Mark, but I decide against it. There is something about this situation that I don’t trust. Nan is acting peculiarly in my view. I decide to err on the side of caution.

I realize I have to take the day as it comes. If Nan senses I have an agenda that will surely complicate things. That would only further delay my seeing Mark. Plus, I need to trust Mark’s word that he is going to remain where he is until I can get back to him.

After what I feel is a prolonged time, Nan finally acknowledges my presence. She scoops up some food onto my plate and brings it to me.

“As soon as you’re done eating, we’ll get to work.” she informs me.

I say nothing. I don’t feel like placating her. If this is the way it is going to be today, so be it. I don’t have to pretend to like it. Nan starts to clean up her pans as I eat. I analyze my food. There is unfortunately nothing here that will save until the end of the day. Besides that, where would I hide it until then?

The good part of saving back my food for Mark is that, unlike the fruit in the bowl, Nan will probably not notice it is missing. The bad parts are that the food I am given is mostly perishable and that giving it away means there is less for me. In addition, sneaking away with any food carries the risk of being caught and being forced to answer the inevitable questions as to why the food was taken in the first place.

“You seem less hungry than usual.” Nan points out.

I look at her quizzically. It doesn’t seem true — I had already determined that nothing I have can be set aside for Mark. Does she want it to be true?

“We’re going to have a long day today …”

“Is the Instructor here?” I hear myself asking, interrupting Nan’s train of thought.

She purses her lips. It is true she usually becomes agitated when I bring up the Instructor. It probably reminds her that she can only push things so far with me. If she crosses that invisible line, the Instructor won’t like it. Ultimately, he has to be the one in control. Maybe part of me does want to remind her of that — to stop her gloating. But I am also curious to know where the Instructor is. Given everything that has happened recently, I want to know what he is up to now. I assume he must be around here somewhere. When is he going to reveal himself and inform me about the current lesson he feels compelled to teach me?

“Well, I don’t see him here, do you?” Nan scoffs.

“I meant around.” I reply stiffly. “Has he asked to see me today?”

“No.” she returns in a skeptical tone. “Surely, you know by now that if he had requested you you’d be told to ready yourself, so that you can be taken to him immediately.”

I shrug. I guess that’s the way it usually went. I actually have no way of knowing for sure how things are when I’m not around. Nobody talks about what goes on around here outside of my presence. Nan is even more annoyed with me now. I can tell she is thinking up ways to make me pay for my insolence.

“Are you finished yet?” she asks me in a sharp tone, breaking the silence.

I am beyond being surprised by this sudden rebuke. The first time Nan became intolerant of me it had shocked and disturbed me. Since then, it has become so commonplace that most times I hardly react to it at all.

“Yes, I’m ready to work.”

“We’ll see.” she says.

As I get up from my chair, I wonder how best to play this. Should I work as hard as I can? Maybe she does need the help. Maybe it will please her, and she’ll get off my back. Then again, maybe she wants to see me fail. If that is the case, my doing a poor job would give her satisfaction. In the end, I can’t quite figure out where she is coming from. So, I decide to do a good job but pace myself. That way, I won’t burn out during the course of the day.

One thing I feel fairly certain of is that I am going to be in the kitchen awhile. I have to prepare myself for that reality. As much as I want to go back and check on Mark, I know any anxiety I show over wanting to leave the kitchen will only make the situation with Nan worse. She seems to want a reaction of some kind, and I am determined not to give her one. I think it is wiser this way. After all, as I’ve noted, I have no idea what kind of reaction she is hoping for. Though, I do have to admit my having no reaction whatsoever would more than likely not be what she is hoping for. Still, if I am fortunate, maybe she will give up trying to get a reaction and let me go earlier. But I can’t allow myself to think like that; I can’t become invested in leaving sooner.

Nan doesn’t disappoint in regard to the length of the list of tasks I am to complete. Everything that could possibly need to be done is on the list. I first have to wash the dishes. Then, everything from the floors, to the stove, to the counters, to the refrigerator needs to be scoured. I am surprised when she doesn’t ask me to go back to my room for a toothbrush in order to further the effect of my drudgery!

I even have to get up on a ladder to dust the light fixtures and collect any cobwebs. I am given a break for lunch and dinner, and still I am exhausted by the end of the day. It is a good thing, I conclude, that dirt doesn’t accumulate all that fast. I certainly would find it difficult to do that much activity on a daily basis. And yet, I wouldn’t put it past Nan to haul dirt into the room overnight just to mess with me.

All the while I am working, I try not to think about how tired I am becoming or how much I wish I were elsewhere. I know it would eventually break me if I let myself go there only to have Nan add to my list of chores — which she seems to take great pleasure in doing. I have to just live from moment to moment and hope that the energy will come when I need it. I remember praying a couple of times; I am simply not used to doing this much work. Mark has to wait for me, I keep repeating to myself.

Eventually, even Nan can’t come up with anything more for me to do. After she has me wash the dinner plates, a look of consternation crosses her face.

“Well.” she grudgingly admits. “You’re free to go.”

“Thank you.” I say, with a slight smile. I made it!

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

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 complex, she soon discovers that the Instructor’s games may not be so harmless after all. In fact, they may be deadly.

The Mind Master Chronicles: Puppet on a String

The Mind Master Chronicles: Puppet on a String

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 have to 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, 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’m writing 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 knew whether he would tell me the truth. Secondly, even if it were true at that one moment 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 and reveal that he is aware of more 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. And it isn’t just feedback he’s getting from the actors that lets him know things 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 … 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 in 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 was 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 shut 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.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 9

I remember my first scenario. It was quite disturbing. I must have been ten then. I had gone to the kitchen as usual that morning. The kitchen had been my one spot of normalcy — of consistency. It had always had a warm feel to it — with the glow of the old-fashioned stove. The smell of stew boiling away was a daily feature. Come to think of it, there were days when Nan seemed to like me then. It actually all appeared to change the day of that scenario. Or, perhaps I changed. After all, my sense of stability had fallen out from underneath me.

When I entered the room, I was shocked. There had appeared a large hole in the middle of the room. I blinked several times unable to process what I was seeing. Had this hole always been there but was merely covered up? Never had the landscape been altered this swiftly before.

“Nan?!” I called out. “Nan?”

There was no answer. And the smell — the familiar smell of the stew was absent. Something was desperately wrong. I began to feel a sense of panic well up inside of me. Some very early memory was threatening to break through. I had lost almost everything years before, and this situation reminded me of that — and I hated it. I also hadn’t realized before that I had emotionally latched on to this room and everything it contained.

Of course, I didn’t head down the foreboding staircase I had spotted inside the hole right away. I looked about me and considered my options. I could return to my room. I could stalk the halls. And yet, my eyes kept lighting upon the hole in the center of the floor. Maybe it was just a delusion, but it would seem that there was no resolution to my uncertainty apart from that staircase. Even though I knew on some level that I could wait out the situation, I was only ten. My curiosity got the better of me. Despite my past, I was still confident enough to believe I could handle myself no matter what the situation was.

So, I headed for the stairs. The first thing I noticed was a cool breeze wafting up towards me. The smell was odd. Instead of the expected smell of freshly cut wood, I detected a musty scent. I stopped briefly. This space couldn’t possibly have been here for a long time. How could this be? Where was this musty odor coming from? Despite my hesitation, I continued. I did look back up the stairs. I was tempted to go back up, but I didn’t. I wish I had.

The room below was circular. The floor was made up of precisely cut stone. The wood rafters above me seemed to be cut in such a way to make them appear as though they had been hastily made. But it was clear that it had been cut with the same precision as the stone. It was all a façade — just as everything else. Yet, there were elements that couldn’t be explained. Cobwebs and dust lined the rafters. I would discover later on that there is a room full of spiders, which produce the webs for the scenarios.

When some people who were down there caught sight of me, they flew into motion. I was seized by a hulky woman almost immediately. I don’t know why I was so passive about it. Then again, maybe I do. It was a shocking turn of events. Plus, I was so used to adult authority at that point that I didn’t think it wise to fight it — despite the fact that these were strangers to me. As it turned out, the Instructor would later insist that not blindly following authority figures was one of the chief lessons to be learned from this — the first scenario. He was proud of me for having figured this out — but mostly he was proud of himself for coming up with the lesson. Regardless … I was swiftly shoved into a cell, which seemed to be by design. Also, as most of the things around the complex, the cell was designed to appear to be different from the way it actually was. Artificial touches created the illusion that the cell had been there for some time. In actuality, it had been recently constructed. In other words, it had been made for me.

“What — what’s going on?” I had managed.

They shut the cell door behind me. The woman sneered at me.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to come down here. Hey, wait!” I pleaded as I watched the strangers head up the stairs toward the kitchen. I stood there for a moment in shock. What was going on? Perhaps I should have asked them to contact the Instructor on my behalf.

“Should I wait for them to come back or call out to them now?” I wondered.

I decided to sit down on the wooden bench. Something told me that if I annoyed these people too much they might never come back.

Still, as time passed, I began to believe I had made a mistake by not calling out before. Certainly, they weren’t still waiting around in the kitchen all this time. But perhaps, they had been there a little while after they disappeared from view, and they would have come back if I had called out to them then.

The only solace I had was that the opening at the top of the stairs hadn’t been sealed up. If it had been, I would have felt completely buried in that space. And yet, I wrung my hands. I was filled with self-recrimination. What was I thinking allowing mere curiosity to drive me down here? As I grew hungry and thirsty, I told myself that this alarming situation couldn’t last forever. After all, certainly nothing happened around here without the Instructor knowing about it, or at least finding out about it. In this case, I was right about that. Eventually, I had been released and received my lecture.

The next time I had a scenario it had been much easier to take. I could tell right away that something was different. The room had been altered in some subtle yet intentional ways. I had thought to myself, “It has the markings of scenario, and it has begun.”

I stop short, and Mark turns and looks at me. We have been searching for quite awhile by now. I am very worn out, and my reveries have caused a chill to crawl up my spine. Am I fooling myself? How could the Instructor not know what I am doing right now?

“What?” Mark wonders.

I look up at him. It can’t be helped. If the Instructor knows, he knows. All that means is that I don’t have much time. Certainly, it also means that a scenario is about to begin soon. I look behind me. The weird thing is that usually a scenario would begin when I went to a predetermined place at a predetermined time. Not only is this the first time I suspected a scenario long before it began, but it is also the only time I don’t know where to go or what to do to begin it.

I blink. Nothing. All is silent. Still, whatever is going on, I have no intention of letting my guard down again.

I shudder once more.

“We’d better get as much done as we can. I’m not sure how much time I have before they come looking for me. Actually …” I hesitate. What should I reveal? It occurs to me that I am actually ashamed to explain this aspect of my life to Mark. Trying to make it seem logical to him would just make me look weird. And the thing of it is, even though I would agree with him that my life is strange, I have a feeling I would become defensive if he views it that way. Like it or not, I feel my life here is a reflection on me.

“Someone who lives here enjoys playing games.” I decide to say. “I am almost expecting this to be one of those games.”

I am relieved when a look of understanding crosses Mark’s face.

“If this is one of the games, it will start soon enough.”

“Well, I don’t want to be caught here.” Mark notes quickly. “So, you’re right. We’d better cover as much ground as possible as quickly as possible.”

The rest of the search is uneventful. Then, we call it a day.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 3

I rush into action, turning aside any doubts that this is really happening. If I get mocked for being wrong, so be it. It is better to be humiliated than to be consumed with guilt while standing over a dead body.

I search frantically for a way to open the coffin. Not surprisingly, the coffin appears to be airtight and water-sealed. There are latches on the side of the coffin. Should I try to pry them open? Is there even time for that? Certainly, there has to be a button or something to release the top. I begin pulling and prodding at every groove and button I can see. I even run my hands around the surface of the coffin trying to discern something unusual that I can’t see. It isn’t until I reach under the overhang of the lid that my fingers catch hold of something distinctive. It seems like a small lever. I yank at it greedily. Slowly, the top begins to rise, and with it the water begins to flow out. Then, I step forward in order to get a better look inside.

As it turns out, that isn’t really necessary; for, seconds later, a person — a male form — sits straight up. With one solid movement, he pulls at the ventilation mask that had been about his face. Then, he puts forth the effort to climb out of his prison — coughing the entire time. Streams of water cascade down his nearly drowned form. I am taken aback and stand speechless in front of him. After he collects his breath, he stares at me with a mixture of distrust and disbelief. He can’t seem to fathom my being there any more than I can his being there. I just don’t know what to make of it.

At first I think the boy isn’t real. It’s not that I think he is some sort of illusion or anything. I just think he is a plant — another actor in the mind games. Yet, his look of confusion is unexpected; he seems surprised by my presence. Most of the others seem to be expecting me. My arrival seems to be the cue for them to begin their scene. But this is different somehow. His emotions are raw and spilling forth from his eyes. Still, I am unsure. Maybe he is just a good actor. The idea that the Instructor will have something to ridicule me for is unacceptable to me.

Yet, as our eyes meet and his eyes bore into mine, it is as though I am looking into a mirror. Not physically, of course, but emotionally. Yes, I can honestly say that this is the oddest scenario I have ever experienced — bar none. And that is saying something!

Is it just my imagination? The boy now seems to be sizing me up. My brow furrows. I’m not used to an actor analyzing me. I am the one who is supposed to figure out what game he is playing. The boy just stares at me. I decide to break the silence. But just as I open my mouth, he speaks, “Who are you?!” he suddenly demands.

 My eyebrows lift. I am taken aback by the fierceness of his tone. I stare back at him in disbelief.

“Can you speak?” There is desperation in his voice.

“Yes.” I utter. “I’m just not sure why you need to know that.”

I feel the awkwardness of my response. I can tell it isn’t normal. This conversation is troubling me on multiple levels. For one, I had decided to assume he already knew who I was. The second part is that it reminds me how many times the Instructor has warned me not to tell people who I am. He has even set up scenarios to test me on that. Is this another test? It is certainly effective if it is. The boy’s demeanor had nearly compelled me to admit my name. It is only when he speaks again that I feel the muscles in my shoulders finally relax.

“I’m sorry. You don’t know me. Of course, you must be afraid.” he acknowledges.

I blink.

“I’m … fine.” I stammer.

“How could you be … being here?”

For some reason, I suddenly turn to see whether anyone else is around. There is no one. I sigh in relief. Then, I think, “What am I doing?”

Even though it feels as though this isn’t a usual scenario, it has to be, right? Yet, though he seems to know something about this place, he just doesn’t seem in on it.

“You know this place?” I ask.

“Somewhat. I have been to others like it. I’ve met others. I hope this is the one.”

“The one?”

He sighs. He seems exhausted. The boy then coughs again. It is a cough that comes from deep inside his lungs. I can hear his lungs wheezing dreadfully. He keeps his eyes fixated on me with such intensity. Usually, the actors have a way of looking at you without really looking at you — as though they were looking through or beyond you. This guy does not. He is looking right at me, making me feel transfixed by his stare. His dark brown hair is short, but his bangs appear longer after being weighed down by the copious amounts of water that has drenched him. He shudders suddenly — his body no doubt is becoming aware of the cold that surrounds us. I don’t know what to do. I have no blanket or towel, and I am cut off from the only source of those things that I know of: my bedroom.

He wraps his arms around himself to minimize the shaking he is suffering from.

“What happened to you?” I put forth, unable to contain my curiosity. Still, can I expect an honest reply?

“I don’t know. I was trapped. I woke up in there. He kept flooding it with water off and on. This last time it didn’t seem that the oxygen mask was working. Oh, thank you for letting me out.”

My eyes widen. I nod with an unblinking stare. This has to be hands down the strangest story an actor had ever told me! Is this guy new? What am I saying — they are always new to me.

“You’re welcome.” I reply.

I look around me. Someone must be watching, I think. The same someone who almost sliced off my foot more than likely. How else could they know I’d arrive in time to save this guy’s life? Certainly, this person must have a sick sense of humor. And this boy — what could make it worthwhile for him to take on such a job? I can’t imagine choosing to be nearly drowned. Does he even realize how close he came to death given the maniac at the switch?

“Do you want something to eat?” I find myself asking him after several minutes of not being able to think of anything else to say.

He looks at me with distrust mixed with confusion.

“You have something on you?” he sounds skeptical.

“No, but we can go get something.”

His reaction is telling, even though I can’t be entirely sure what it means. Still, it reinforces that something about him is different. He seems to feel compassionate towards me; and yet, he appears to be unwilling to follow me anywhere.

“I can go get it myself and bring it to you.” I offer.

For a moment, I think he may decline as he doesn’t seem to trust me. But then apparently, he becomes satisfied with my response, for he then turns his attention to the room.

“Is this somewhere else we can go?” he asks me suddenly. “Now that I think on it, I really don’t want to wait around here for him to show up.”

“Neither do I.” I admit. Then, I remember that the way back to my room is blocked by that fan. “Only I’m not really familiar with this area.” I add.

His gaze is sympathetic as he nods.

“All right. Then, we’ll just have a look around and see what we can find.” he tells me in a reassuring tone.

He passes by me and heads out of the vault and into the computer room. Then, he goes beyond into the corridor. I follow him. At first, I assume he knows where he is going. The thought even occurs to me that maybe he had been the one who almost cut off my foot, and that the near-drowning is a ruse to throw me off, so that he wouldn’t get into trouble with the Instructor. But then, the boy stops short, and I almost run into him. He looks unsure how to proceed. He gazes first down one end of the hall and then down the other when confronted with the massive corridor. I have seen that look of being lost many times — only not in the eyes of the actors but in my own eyes while staring into a mirror. It seems genuine.

When he looks to me for direction, I am taken aback.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been here before.” I say.

“Of course.” he responds, which surprises me all the more. What did that mean?

“Let’s see …” he starts.

While his attention is directed away from me, I try to figure out where my room is in relation to where I am standing. But I had been so disturbed from having been in that vent that I hadn’t noticed where I had come out. Perhaps, if I found the vent again … I scan the hallway looking for something familiar to guide me back.

“To the left … I think that may be where the vent I crawled out of is located.”

The young man turns to me. I am expecting that he will want an explanation, but he doesn’t ask for one. Instead, he just nods and heads in that direction.

I trace the wall with my eyes, hoping I will see the familiar outline of the vent and the dislodged metal frame I had been able to push out. I am relieved when I spot it. Somehow, it would have bothered me if I had had to admit I was wrong to him. He stands there staring at the metal grate for a moment. Then, he turns to me and asks, “You came through that?”

He is incredulous. Still, it seems to me a strange reaction for him to have given what he just went through. That’s when I recall the layers of dust that must still be clinging to me. I nervously brush my forehead with my hand. I must look a fright, I think.

The boy turns a skeptical look onto me. Then, when he sees me nervously fidgeting, he smiles knowingly. Then suddenly, he reaches his hand out toward my face. I freeze as a sudden rush goes through me. But then, he simply picks some cobwebs from off my hair and wipes them onto his soaked pants. Suddenly, his smile is gone, and he looks at me with all seriousness.

“We’d better get going.”

“Through there?!” I stammer. “The fan’s back on; we can’t go through there.”

“Well, we’ve got to get somewhere. Eventually, he will come back.”

“So, there was someone there.”

The boy nods.

“Well … I do have to find a way back before they miss me. I’d better start looking for one.”

I continue down the hall in the direction we were already heading. The truth is I really don’t feel like going back toward the room where I had found the boy. The boy’s disheveled and wet appearance is enough to unnerve me. It disconcerts me on a whole new level. I try not to think what I am thinking: that this is proof that something is seriously wrong here. I know deep down I will eventually have to face that fact. But at this point, I am determined not to. I will think of something else — anything else — besides that.

As we wander around without a firm sense of direction, I begin to think on something I’ve thought about hundreds of times before: this place is truly a maze of seemingly infinite corridors. I gave up long ago on the idea that I could wrap my mind around it, or even memorize its contours. And then, I discovered that the layout actually changed. That was a decisive moment for me. That was when I realized that I had been, in fact, just clinging to the false hope that I could master this place and with it what my life had become.

There are other complications to the design of this place as well. For example, I don’t have access to everywhere at any given time. Oftentimes, areas will become unavailable when they are being altered. Once the timing is right, those areas will be opened up to me, and a scenario will begin.

It has all become a sort of predictable chaos. Whereas I appreciate consistency — something my life lacks — predictability grates on me. It produces an eye roll, a “here we go again” reaction after awhile. But mostly, it is the feeling that my life isn’t my own that is pervasive. I am always on someone else’s schedule, performing someone else’s agenda. And I am given no choice in the matter. And worse yet, I realize that this situation could go on indefinitely. I am given no reason to believe otherwise.

So, that is another thing that makes this occurrence with the boy remarkable. I don’t know whether I can stand to hope that this means a change — a positive change — to my circumstances. I have been praying for a way out of this trap. Could this be it?

I am tempted to ask him for his name, but what if he lies? I can’t stand the thought of being made a fool of. But it turns out my deliberations are unnecessary, for the boy raises an eyebrow when he catches me looking at him and asks,

“So …” he begins. “Do you have a name yet?”

My eyes shift toward him slightly.

“Aronade.” I whisper. I decided to hold back my last name. He eyes me but doesn’t seem surprised that I am whispering.

When I realize what I have just spoken, I turn my full gaze upon him.

“How about you?” I offer.

It would be nice not to have to refer to him as just “the boy” in my mind anymore.

“Mark Grayson.” he puts forth.

“Mark …” I repeat.

I guess I am hoping that saying the name out loud will help me decide what to make of this situation with the teenager. It doesn’t. I realize then that I have no context for what normal is anymore. My mind has been forced to grow so accustomed to the abnormal that I have little foundation with which to judge what is happening around me. I will have to relearn how to observe with a critical eye. All this time the Instructor has been acting as though he is preparing me to not be manipulated by other people. Instead, it seems as though he has left me ripe to be molded by him. That, I decide, isn’t acceptable to me.

I look Mark over. No, I still don’t have a clue about him.

As we walk down the hall, I begin checking doors to see whether they will open. Mark stops suddenly and just stares at me. He seems disturbed by my actions.

“What are you doing?” he asks me.

“Well, we can’t just stay in this hallway all night. We’ve got to find a way out.”

He looks away and considers.

“Still, we could get caught.” he points out.

“We could either way.” I insist. “The longer we’re out in the open, the more likely we are to be caught. Besides, there may just be one way out. And if that’s so, we might as well accept that the exit is probably already being watched.”

My adrenaline is running again, but I know that it won’t last. My body is getting tired, and I know the more I give in to self-doubt, the weaker I will become. Finally, a knob turns. I exhale.

“I’ve got one.” I finally declare.

I am afraid for a moment that it will turn out to be a closet. The door is relatively small and indistinguishable. Fortunately, I can tell as I crack the door open that there is space on the other side of it. The fact that the door emits no noise but seamlessly opens shows it has been well-maintained. Chances are, I conclude, that the door has been utilized frequently by someone to gain access to this section of the complex. In fact, visits through this door apparently are so frequent that said person doesn’t bother to lock the door at all. Then again, while the door shows signs of use, this section of the complex doesn’t appear to have been shown the same amount of care. So, whoever is frequenting this area isn’t like Nan, who would never inhabit a space that is so filthy.

I have the sudden thought that tracing my way back to the more well-used areas of the complex will turn out to be no easy task. The hall on the other side of the door is much larger than the one Mark and I are leaving. It has a tall ceiling, more and bigger doors, and is well-lit throughout. The question then becomes whether it is better to check the individual doors or just head straight down the massive hall and hope to run into something familiar. Again, I am stymied by my inability to envision which direction I had gone while I was in that vent. I had been turned around and now have no sense as to where my room is. It appears that the hallway may run parallel to my room. But what if the vent is at an angle? One thing is certain — this doesn’t appear to be the same hallway as the one off my room. And yet, it could lead to that hallway. Mark, seeming to sense my confusion, turns to me.

“I’m not sure where I am!” I stammer, casting another look around me just to be certain. Mark doesn’t appear particularly surprised or disappointed.

“My hallway, the one with my room, is smaller than this one.” I explain. “But I can’t tell how I can connect back up to it.”

“Well, let’s just go in that general direction, checking doors as we go, until we run into something familiar.” Mark suggests in a smooth, even tone of voice.

I can’t help but mark the sharp contrast between his demeanor and his raggedy and wet appearance. It unnerves me. Yet, I can’t help but appreciate the insight of his observation. Why not try both methods? The only thing left to do is to figure out the general direction in which we should head. As I try to visualize what scraps I could remember from my ill-advised journey through the vent, I can’t stop the feeling that the best option is angled toward the right — somewhere back toward where we had come from. We would probably be closer to my room by now if we had headed in the opposite direction when we exited the room where I found Mark. Would there have been an open door in that area, though? There is no way to know that now. I do, however, take comfort in the fact that this hallway is better kept than the last one had been … by far. Surely, that means we are bound to run into something familiar soon.

“This way.” I tell Mark with renewed confidence.

I do feel a little silly for seeming to be so confident now given how confused I was just moments before. Yet, I am somehow reassured that I will eventually find my way back … or, at least, that someone will find me and take me back. I’m convinced things aren’t as dire as they had seemed. Perhaps, I’m even beginning to believe that all of what has happened today can be explained away. It’s strange how the mind can be. Even though I know my everyday life is far from normal, it is what I am used to, and there is some comfort in that. Truth be told, I don’t feel prepared to handle another major upheaval in my life — even though that is exactly what has come.

While the hallway remains unfamiliar to me, it does hold an unexpected area of interest for me that temporarily makes me forget all about my room. Along the side of a wall is a massive glass window at the center of which is a glass door. The glass door leads to an enclosed space with a little garden inside. Of course, I am not able to see the garden at first since the space is unlit. But once I near the glass and press my face to it, I am able to make out the shapes of leafless trees. What is more, right next to the panes, snowflakes slowly and softly fall to the ground.

“Wow!” I utter.

To think this was here all along — a sliver of the outside world — calm and peaceful without the wolves that usually hunt the forest. I could read out here in the springtime … if only I can find my way back here! I bite my lip and look around me. Mark, who I had forgotten for a moment was here, reaches forward and tries the door handle. It opens! He looks at me for a moment then, bracing himself against the cold, steps into the space. I can’t imagine why. Curiosity? Or, maybe he thinks I recognized it? Either way, it doesn’t seem wise for him to be out there in the cold as he is still soaked through from that incident earlier.

“Mark.” I state.

I start to follow him when a voice calls out from behind me and freezes me in place. Suddenly, someone has burst onto the scene. Well, at least this scenario is interesting.

It is Nan! And her brow is furrowed with irritation!

“There you are!!!” Nan accuses.

The edge of the doorframe is in my hand as I turn toward the agitated Nan. A chill runs through me. This has never happened before. Never has this woman broken her façade of being … well, not exactly kind but at least a professional caregiver before — not to this degree anyway. Could it be that Mark is, in fact, real? I suddenly desire to see him again as soon as possible. He is at this moment something precious I can’t replace. But if this situation with Mark really is something unplanned, for once, I know I can’t tip them off to his presence here. I have to play the usual game until I can get time to myself to think. Instinctively, I push the door shut.

“What have you been up to?” she demands. “You’re a mess!!”

“Exploring.” I state.

“Of course you were.” She rolls her eyes. “Who cares how long I’ve been waiting to serve you dinner! I have half a mind to starve you out tonight!! What gets into you?!! I wondered whether this would happen when you became a teenager — you’re developing a rebellious streak, aren’t you?!!”

“Am I? A teenager, I mean. I’ve lost track of the years.”

She looks at me skeptically, but I am not just being sarcastic. I’m not sure what reality is at this point. This topsy-turvy world I am a part of has taken its toll. Still, I can tell that Nan isn’t amused.

“You know, you’re right! Even though you’re practically a young woman, you act like a spoiled child!!”

I just look at her in a daze. I am afraid that she will ask about the garden — afraid that she will insist on going out there and then discover Mark. Before her outburst, I wouldn’t have been worried about her discovering Mark as I would have figured she probably already knew about him. But now I am afraid. Somehow I know it is imperative that I keep him hidden from her — from them all.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 7

As I leave the kitchen, I become aware that it is later than I realized. Though the sun sets early in the winter, I am surprised to see that darkness has already descended full force. I have lost an entire day! It will be a major blow to me if Nan makes this forced servitude a regular thing. How would I deal with that? This concern becomes another one for me to lock up in my mind — to sort out at a later time.

Instead, I choose to focus on the food I managed to save back from my dinner. I had hidden it in a cupboard before I did the dishes, not knowing how much longer I would be stuck there or what would be required of me before I was finally permitted to leave. I had grown a little worried after I had hidden it that I wouldn’t be given the opportunity to retrieve it without Nan noticing. What if she excused me then stood there staring at me until I left? But she hadn’t. She turned her back on me. I tried to be both careful and yet swift in my escape. And I appear to have been successful in my efforts to retrieve the items destined for Mark without having Nan catch me. Then again, around here one could never know for sure. For all I know, I remind myself, everything I do around here is being observed. But then, maybe they think that my being aware of that possibility disinclines me to try anything unusual, and they have given up on bothering to watch me anymore. I could see the Instructor becoming bored with observing me on a daily basis. Who knows? There is no way to know.

When I first re-enter my room with my stash of food, I am disturbed. From the feel of the place, there doesn’t seem to be anyone here.

“Mark?” I whisper.

Suddenly, Mark appears in the doorframe of the bathroom. My face, I’m sure, betrays my relief.

“I have food for you.” I mention.

I stretch out my hands toward him. He nods and manages a half-smile. Then, for a moment, I consider that he may be disappointed. After all, there isn’t much: bread, some cheese, and some loose grapes. Thankfully, my evening meal could last at room temperature for a while. Still, there was little I could do to safely get more. I just knew if I tried, Nan would find out.

As it turns out, Mark shows no sign of disappointment. In fact, he seems pleased. Yet, I wonder how long he can possibly subsist on such a sparse diet. It is yet another reason that he can’t afford to stay here hidden with me indefinitely. There are far too many complications for that.

Mark begins to eat his food. I sit down on my bed and watch him until he looks up at me. After I realize I had been staring, I look away.

“You were gone awhile.” Mark points out.

I look back at him.

“Yes.” I groan. “Nan had me working most of the time. I have no idea why she chose today of all days to start in on me.”

Mark suddenly stops eating. A distressed look crosses his face.

“Do you think she suspects I’m here?” he asks me.

I consider for a moment.

“I don’t know.” I answer truthfully. “I don’t usually know what they know at any given time. I wish I did … at least I think I do.”

He nods and continues eating.

“I’m sorry that the day was such a waste.” I put forth. “It’s already past dark outside, and I don’t even know what will become of tomorrow. For all I know, Nan will have me occupied all day tomorrow, too. It doesn’t seem to do any good telling her ‘no’ either. At least, it hasn’t helped in the past …”

“Well, there’s only one thing to do, then. Look around tonight.” Mark states hurriedly.

I blink a few times.

“It’s perfect.” he continues. “That Nan will be asleep, and the place will most likely be deserted. Everyone will expect you to be in bed after the day that you’ve had.”

And there’s a reason for that, I think to myself. I am exhausted. Even though his suggestion and the reasoning behind it makes sense, it hadn’t even occurred to me that he would insist I stay up after I got back. I took for granted that I would be able to rest. Now I have to wonder whether I can will myself to keep going. I don’t, after all, seem to have any adrenaline left to draw upon, and all my muscles ache. But it does make sense … what he said makes sense. And I know if I sit around second-guessing it any longer, I will lose what little energy I still have left. And still, I hesitate. I am not used to being out after dark; the night before had been an anomaly.

“And when does Nan go to bed?” I wonder to myself.

I can’t recall her ever coming to my room in the evenings after I have dinner, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t somewhere milling around.

Still, if we’re going to do this thing, I decide the best thing to do is to have me venture out first. Then, I will have Mark trail behind me at a safe distance. That way, if I do run into Nan, Mark will hopefully be able to conceal himself before he is spotted.

I’m surprised when he takes up my hand. He does so without any noticeable emotion.

“Let’s go.” he tells me.

As I step out into the hall, it all seems so unreal to me. Even the yellowish lights lining the hallway cast an unnatural glow to the scene. Who knows what awaits us out here! Is the man who trapped Mark in that coffin regularly around this time of day? If he is, he is probably not being supervised and that makes him all the more dangerous. But can it be helped? My mind keeps returning to the fact that there is no better time to get this done. Mark is adamant that no one catches him while he is looking for his sister. This is by far the best time to wander around this place without being seen; the complex is pretty much deserted — not that it’s usually milling with people … unless there’s a scenario.

This time, unlike when I entered the vent, I did think to take a flashlight with me. It is a pretty tiny one, however. I had insisted on having one when I was younger, so that I could aim it around the room if I heard a noise. Now it will be utilized for a different purpose; there may be vents or even darkened rooms we will need to check out. Certainly, my experience in the vent has shown me it is better to be able to see where I am going.

I quickly become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand. On a good day, the complex is labyrinthine and mysterious. Yesterday proved that even after all of these years I am still unaware of all the nooks and crannies it contains. Then, there is the constant reordering of the layout. Even if I memorize everything one day, soon after it will become different. I conclude that there really is no way to effectively search the entire place. If we are able to find Mark’s sister that will be one thing. But if we don’t, I won’t be able to guarantee to him that she still isn’t here … somewhere. And he seems so intent on finding her, so concerned. How will he take it if we come up empty? Will he remain, trying to find some obscure spot we have yet to check? Or, will he go looking some place else? How will we go about finding the information he seeks?

“I honestly I don’t know where to look.” I admit.

“It doesn’t matter. I intend to look everywhere. Once we’re done searching a place, I’ll leave a mark on the door with this.”

He shows me a pocket knife. I shudder — not at the knife but at the idea of making marks on the woodwork. Assuming we are able to find Mark’s sister, he will leave me here to face the consequences alone. How will I answer the questions?

“Wait. Is that really necessary? What if they discover the marks before we are able to find your sister?”

“I’ll be sure to make it subtle — just a scratch. From what I’ve seen, there’s a real danger in going around in circles.”

Mark looks at me for a moment, seemingly gauging my reaction to his plan.

“That could work.” I acknowledge. “Assuming the rooms we mark aren’t altered later.”

Mark smiles. I can tell that he thinks I am joking. He doesn’t realize that I am serious. I could have explained it to him … then again, maybe I couldn’t. Either way, I decide not to try. There are far too many new strange things happening at this point that I no longer wish to deal with the old strange things — things that I have gotten so used to that they seem normal to me now. Perhaps, I will tell him later … I would feel guilty if I let him leave the complex thinking he’d looked everywhere for his sister when, in fact, he had not.

“This place is strange.” Mark points out. Though, I can’t help but think that that is an understatement. “Some of the rooms are covered in dust and others have places that look as though they have been cleaned. But there’s never any sense to it. It seems random. Then, there are places that appear new, but it’s as though dust was placed in them to make them look older.”

Mark isn’t telling me anything new — nothing I haven’t already observed on my own. But his disclosure makes me think that perhaps it would be better for Mark to experience the reality of this place firsthand — rather than learning about it all through me. Yes, if an urgent situation arises that would be one thing. But barring that, there is nothing that could replace firsthand experience in helping him understand this place and my life here.

“It’s easy to get lost.” I point out. “The truth is I’m not too familiar with this layout yet.”

Mark is staring straight up, seemingly mesmerized by the lofty, vaulted ceilings.

“This is just … odd.” he mumbles.

“I think it is beautiful actually.” I mention.

He looks over at me with curiosity.

“Well, we obviously need to look somewhere you haven’t been before since you haven’t seen her.”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps if we go as far as we can straight forward …” he suggests.

“The only problem is that here there is no straight forward …” I tell him. “… only circles.”

“Yes, of course.” he chastises himself. “That is the way of it, isn’t it?”

As we walk down the halls, I am optimistic to some degree and yet a bit fearful as well. I am used to reacting to circumstances beyond my control. Now I am taking action in a situation, and I feel unsure as to whether or not I can handle it. Scenarios always resolve themselves whether I handle them in the best way or not. At worst, I would get a lengthy lecture from the Instructor. But what if this endeavor ends in failure? What will the consequences be? It is at moments such as these that I realize I have no one in which to go to for advice. Before Nan had turned ugly on me, I used to view her as a potential confidant. After that, there was no one.

I look up at the back of Mark’s head as he leads the way. I hardly know him. And surely he will leave as quickly as he appeared once his sister is found — if we are fortunate enough to find her. For a second, the thought occurs to me that I could actually leave with Mark if he has to go looking for his sister at another location. But I quickly dismiss the thought. It is far too scary for me to even contemplate. I have lived in the complex … I don’t even know for how long. As strange as it is, I can’t just leave it behind. Where else could I live? Who would take care of me? These thoughts cause me anxiety. I brace myself then breathe. No, this is Mark’s deal. I will help resolve it, hopefully, and this — his life — will go on separate from mine. I feel as though a wall has gone up around me. I feel some measure of safety in that.

We reach our first crossroads.

“So, we turn left?” he asks me.

“Umm … sure. As long as we’re consistent.”

I was originally thinking right, but left is fine with me. So, left it is.

It doesn’t take long for us to realize that, once again, most of the doors are locked. Mark uses his pocket knife and forms an “L” near the bottom of the doors to indicate that the doors were locked when we tried them.

“It’s too bad we don’t know what the date is.” I bemoan.

Mark doesn’t seem to fully understand that things around here tend to change depending on the day. We may end up needing to check the doors periodically to make sure their status hasn’t changed.

“But I guess it’s not necessary to have the date. We could check back tomorrow and place ‘unlocked’ on any doors that open.”

“You think they’ll open tomorrow?”

“They could.”

Just as I figured, that thought hadn’t occurred to him.

“That is certainly going to make things more complicated. It makes me think we should find a way to unlock these doors now. That way we can rule them out en masse and not have to repeatedly recheck them.”

Only I know better; things could change anyway. Still, it is a moot point tonight. We’ll probably have plenty of rooms to search this go around. I will have to come up with a way to explain to Mark how things work around here, but I will wait until later for that.

While we are searching, I recollect a place that may work for hiding Mark. I can remember an area — an alcove — with several smaller doors, a short staircase, and the warm glow of glazed glass lamps. I had taken more note of the pleasant atmosphere of that spot than any the others, even though overall it was less extraordinary than most of the other scenery I had seen.

“I think I can trace my way back.” I announce when I explain my plan to him.

Mark doesn’t question me. He simply and silently follows behind where I lead. There is some stress involved in trying to retrace my steps. I can see where I want to be in my mind’s eye, and yet there is still some nagging doubt as to whether I can actually find it. The Instructor likes to make things confusing for me. It wouldn’t be the first time he repeated the same pattern or look of an area just to throw me off. Everything, after all, is a lesson to him — a chance to make me question my instincts and my judgment. This day, however, I have taken the initiative to rely on both without his consent. I smile as the area I am expecting comes into view.

The thought then occurs to me that with the Instructor having been away, things haven’t been changing lately — at least not from anything the Instructor has been doing. Instead, they are the changes one would expect if no one interfered. For example, a thin layer of dust has begun to settle on a step, and I actually behold a real spider beginning to craft its web. Such little things and yet such real things!

As I turn the knob of one of the doors in the alcove, I am happy to find a room on the other side. Sometimes there would be nothing but a wall on the other side of a given door— if the door even opened at all.

Once I discover that there is indeed a room beyond the door, I quickly usher Mark inside. He seems a bit surprised by my eagerness as I shut the door behind us. I shut the door with both hands in order to guarantee that it is secure. Then, it is dark. I can hear Mark breathing.

“I’m not sure that there’s a light in here.” I realize.

“That’s fine.” Mark responds in a deep voice.

“I do have a flashlight.” I counter.

I fumble around in my shirt pocket for the small flashlight I had placed there. Eventually, I am able to retrieve it and turn it on.

I sense Mark is less impressed with the space than I am. Maybe if he could see more of this room than he can by the light from the flashlight, his opinion of the whole area will improve. I consider searching the walls for a switch. But almost as though he has anticipated my thoughts, he adds, “It’s probably better that there is no light on in here to draw attention to me.”

 “Yeah, that’s a good point.” I agree. “I’ll just leave the flashlight with you.”

I pause.

“I can try to get you some more food …” I then offer.

“I have enough food for now.” Mark surprises me by informing me. “Though, I do appreciate the offer.”

“Oh, I guess I can pick my timing in acquiring it more carefully next time if that’s the case.”

“Exactly.” Mark sounds pleased that I have followed his lead.

 “So … what now?” he asks me.

I shrug.

“I guess we keep looking?” I guess.

He smiles. Not surprisingly, it is the response he wanted to hear.

One of the rooms we manage to enter next is small and very dusty. I find I am mostly grateful that it is dusty. It means to me that nobody has been in it for a while — that it isn’t a part of any current scenario. The room is vacant and apparently has been for some time. It feels abandoned. There isn’t much in the room. It has a couple of chairs, a table, and a wardrobe. The detailing of the woodwork on the edges of all the furniture is pretty intricate — with swirls and reliefs.

It isn’t easy to strike a balance between speed and thoroughness. Sometimes the Instructor likes to hide important items such as switches in obscure locations. There could be a whole network of hidden tunnels just waiting to be discovered. I think I am going to have to explain all this to Mark … only it turns out I don’t have to. He already seems to know. His hand slides purposefully along the edges and under ledges. There is a look of determination in his eyes. I can almost feel his anticipation. It is as though he’s done this many times before — only now he seems to believe it is about to pay off … finally.

Mark goes immediately to the wardrobe and starts to examine it. He opens it and looks inside. It appears to be empty. He moves his hands along the interior edges and grooves. He checks the floor for markings, pushing away the fine layer of dust that has settled there. He even drags one of the chairs from beside the table and uses it as a stepping stool, so that he can examine the top of the wardrobe.

I watch him with curiosity, fascinated to know what he is thinking — how he knows to be so meticulous in his inspection. Eventually, instead of just staring at him, I decide to make myself useful. After all, I have some idea where levers may be hidden and what they may look like. I basically go around the room searching the walls and floors and scanning the ceilings with my eyes. Lastly, I stand on the table and stare up at the light fixture above me. Of course, I can’t reach it. It actually turns out to be pretty exhausting and time-consuming work. Then, I remember I was already exhausted when I started out on this endeavor from my day’s grueling labor. I debate within myself whether I should remind Mark of this. The fact is I can appreciate his position. He had been holed up all day waiting to start searching, which had been at my request, I might add. To ask him to stop for the night when we have accomplished so little doesn’t sit well with me. And yet, could he appreciate my position? Where I am coming from?

Mark’s eyes suddenly shift to the side towards me.

“What?” he asks me.

I had been staring.

“It’s nothing.” I tell him.

“You know …” Mark speaks suddenly.

Since I am in the middle of fretting, I wait with anticipation over what he will say next. Maybe what he says will help me figure out what I should do.

“This may be a good place for me to hide.” he states.

What about the other room I had found for him?

“This room is closer to yours.” he notes.

I look around the room with new eyes. Maybe he is right. There doesn’t appear to be any surveillance equipment in the room. It is warm enough. He could hide in the wardrobe if need be. Best of all, there are signs that the room hasn’t been entered in some time. The only problem I can see is that there is no water source and no bedding. But that’s probably true of all the rooms.

“I’ll have to see whether there are some other rooms around here for other needs, but for sleeping this seems good enough.” he concludes.

“Except there’s no bedding.” I point out. “But then, I could go get you some.”

“Can you find your way back?” he asks me as I make a motion to leave.

“We’ll see.” I quip.

I head back towards where I remember my room to be. As I progress, I am reassured by the trail of markings Mark had made upon the doors. I also feel more at ease that Mark isn’t out in the open at this point. I hadn’t realized how anxious I had become that he would be caught.

When I get back to my room, I try to think of everything that he may need. First, I grab the bedding he had used earlier. Then, I find a pitcher to hold some water in. I get some extra soap and towels as well. Then, I head back. My arms are full at this point. So, I decide, I could always come back later if I think of something else.

“Thank you.” he says when he sees the stuff I have brought for him. He begins to take it from me. “You know, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that is a great place.” he hesitates for a moment. “Maybe it’s better to start the search up again tomorrow.” he announces suddenly.

I look at him questioningly.

“You’re going to look around on your own, aren’t you?”

A look of recognition flashes into his eyes making him look guilty.

“Really, it may not be a bad idea that you do that.” I acknowledge.

I surprised even myself when I came to that conclusion. I am even more surprised when he suddenly grabs me by the hand.

“Don’t worry. Even if I find her, I won’t leave you behind.”

I am incredulous for a solid minute. That topic … he brought it up again. I had been hoping that he wouldn’t. Where would I go? I could only remember flashes of my past life, and something inside me tells me it is long gone. There is certainly affection lacking from the people here, and the changing environment isn’t enough of a distraction anymore. But still … to leave … is it really any better anywhere else? I feel a chill go through me — deadening my emotions towards him a little.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” I forewarn him.

 He releases my hand.

“I’ll come looking for you tomorrow in this room.” I conclude.

I start to leave.

“Just be careful.” I then advise him after I had considered for a moment.

Suddenly, I don’t want to leave, for I am afraid of what will happen when I do. Will he disappear?

“It will be all right.” he tells me, seemingly sensing my hesitation. “Come back here when you have the time. I’ll probably be around.”

 “Yes.” I smile wanly. “There’s a lot at stake.” I decide to add.

“Of course.” he acknowledges.

I know I can’t just linger around here forever; I need to sleep. So with that, I turn and walk out.

I head back toward my room. I do feel some relief that I have been released from my obligation towards Mark for the night.

And yet, I am anxious. Still, it seems clear that I am so exhausted that I will eventually fall asleep despite the stress I am under.

It occurs to me for the first time as I re-enter my room that the light has been fixed. When had it been fixed? While I was out searching with Mark, or before when Mark had been hiding in the room? And if it was the latter, who had changed the bulb? I don’t recall Nan leaving the kitchen for any length of time while I was there. I don’t like the idea that some stranger has been in my room. I also don’t like not knowing for sure whether the power had been cut or not.

“You’d think I would be used to the games by now.” I grumble to myself.

I look around the room, trying to tell whether anything has been messed with. Nothing appears to have changed in any way that would suggest a scenario is being prepared. I then put the room back in order as it had been before Mark’s stay. I fluff up the sofa cushions and pillows. I hide any remnants of food at the bottom of the wastebasket. After I am done, there seems to be nothing else to do but try to sleep.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020