Chapter 9 (Aronade: age 16/ Mark: age 18 — First Ghetto)

The Instructor leans forward. “I want you to go to Mison.” he tells me one day.

I look at him perplexed.

“Mison?”

“You know, the ghetto.”

“Yes, I know.” I reply. “But is it safe? I mean, with everything that’s been happening lately?”

There is silence. He breaks it.

“You will be given an escort in and out. It has already been arranged … it’s nonnegotiable.”

I guess there is nothing left to say.

There is a fence around Mison. There is a way inside … at certain hours of the day. A man at the gate lets me in, which is what the Instructor said would happen. But when I ask the man if he is to be my escort, he doesn’t respond. Instead he just shuts the gate, trapping me inside.

Coming upon Mison is surreal. It feels like a scenario. I watch a leaf trace its way in front of my path. That seems real, but then I’ve come to realize I’m too easily fooled into believing things are real despite my best efforts not to be.

Mison is a peculiar city. This place is dangerous; I can feel it. It had occurred to me years earlier that the danger of a place could change over time. Years ago under different circumstances this place might have been safe, even pleasant. Other people may have gone on with their daily lives without a need to fear.

But now it isn’t safe … now it is a threat to survival.

Today is a Sunday, and most of the streets are deserted. Is it always like this? I know the ghetto is set to be filled with more people, but surely there are more people already here than this. Are they hiding? What am I supposed to be getting out of this?

“What about work?” a man I pass by asks another man. “What are we supposed to do in this place?”

“There is plenty of construction work.”

“You mean build up this place? Make it more of a prison than it already is?”

Suddenly, I hear a distinctive female voice. It is familiar to me. Familiar enough that I find myself searching for the person it belongs to. Who could it be? I can’t place it. A classmate? I suddenly feel ashamed. People shouldn’t be here for entertainment purposes. I didn’t want to be here, but still …

I begin to look around for the guide the Instructor had promised me. I see no one who appears to be searching for me. There is something wholly disturbing when you come upon a scene fully expecting to find someone in particular there, and you find yourself utterly alone instead. A shudder passes through me. Is this some sort of game? It always feels as though I am being punished for something when something bad and unexpected happens. Maybe it has been Nan’s attitude towards me over the years that has caused me to think like this. But still, it is true nonetheless that my first instinct is to conclude that I have screwed up.

My next thoughts are a lot more practical: what do I do now? how will I get back out? bang on the front gate?

I wring my hands, willing myself not to panic — a lot of good that does me. It is starting to get dark. The few people around me seem to have a destination in mind. They walk with purpose. How easy it would be to be lost among them — pulled into a trap you are powerless to escape from. I sense it is like quicksand here — the longer you stay, the further entrenched you become.

I know now that I was stupid to rely on the Instructor to be my safety net. Who knows if he even has the power to get me out of here. Maybe all of his bravado is merely a sham.

And yet, I have never felt as though I’m in the position to disobey him. Has he suddenly unleashed his sadistic side on me and turned against me? I had thought he would only turn against me completely if I openly defied him. But then maybe that belief, too, was naïve. I’m not sure of anything involving my situation anymore, and that is saying a lot since my home situation seems tenuous on a good day.

Then, out of nowhere, I stop short and just stare. My eyes widen more with every passing moment.

“Mark.” I utter barely audibly.

My mind can’t wrap itself around the fact that I could be seeing him in front of me. His appearance seemed to come out of nowhere.

He turns and looks at me. I can’t tell if he is surprised to see me or not. He has a rather cryptic look on his face.

“Doesn’t he recognize me?” I wonder. I decide to call out to him again.

The man who looks like Mark begins to approach me.

“Come with me.” he states disinterestedly when he gets close enough to me for me to hear him.

He then turns and begins to walk off. My eyebrows furrow. I don’t know what to make of his behavior. Does he recognize me or not? At this point I’m even beginning to wonder whether I am wrong that this is indeed Mark.

Still, as I look around me, I realize I don’t have any good options but to follow him. I don’t want to stay here, and there doesn’t appear to be any trace of the Instructor’s guide. I decide the best thing to do is to follow Mark at a distance; that will allow me a chance to run away if need be — if it turns out not to be Mark but rather a lookalike. I proceed to catch up to him. Then, when I get close to him, I slow down to his languidly pace.

I see him turn his face to the side as though to look back at me with his peripheral vision. I feel myself blush. He seems to grin, but is that just my imagination? He turns his face forward and exhales deeply.

We wind through the brownish red streets, which grow and shrink in width.

I am looking around me while deep in thought … so much so that I don’t even notice that Mark has stopped and has turned in my direction. Therefore, I almost run into him.

I look up into his eyes; I am taken off-guard. I regain my footing. He looks at me with intensity. His mouth almost creases into a bemused smile. Then, he turns back around and begins to head under an arch. I notice that he has grown taller than he was the last time I saw him — the day we entered the destroyed city. But then the arches that day had been huge — had reached into the sky — a sky that shed large powdery snowflakes in its wake. Or, had it been dust from those collapsing buildings after all?

“Mark?!” I then cry out.

He responds to the determination in my voice. He turns around, a serious look crosses his face. But his look isn’t as serious as mine. I see him shift his shoulders uncomfortably. Is he afraid to face me? Afraid to be confronted by the fact he never came back for me? I am surprised by my sudden desire to put him at ease about that … but I don’t do it. Instead, I ask, “Where are we going?”

He looks upon me with curiosity for a moment then responds, “Away from this place. No one in their right mind would want to stay here.”

I nod. He is helping me escape. But I have to wonder if his being here is just a coincidence.

“Surely you don’t want to stay here?” he persists.

I can almost hear a hint of bitterness in his voice.

“No.” I return with irritation in my voice.

He nods then continues on his way. My pride makes me want to remain where I am standing until he says something that will make me like him again. But I have a feeling there is no time for that, and I really don’t want to stay here in this town turned prison. I continue to follow him.

Part of me, as I’m walking, tries to convince myself that after Mark leads me out of this place I won’t need to have anything more to do with him. But then Mark unexpectedly speaks to me again, “So is this another scenario?” he asks me, interrupting my train of thought. “Is the Instructor behind your being here?”

It’s a valid question and the answer is “yes.” But I don’t wish to answer the question, for I sense Mark’s interest has more to do with the Instructor than it has to do with me. And I’m sick of being a puppet on a string, being yanked around because of other people’s agendas. But there’s a tension in the air as silence ensues. I sigh and decide to say, “You can pretty much guess.” I begin to find myself angered. “I mean, really do I even have a life that’s my own? Isn’t someone always toying with me?”

I threw in that last question for Mark’s benefit. I still haven’t forgiven him for what transpired before, I guess. If he would apologize … sincerely … but he hasn’t.

And what is Mark doing here anyway? Was he sent in to retrieve me? Does that mean he is known by the Instructor? Or ,does he actually live in Mison? But if he can leave this place, then why doesn’t he? He had noted that I wouldn’t want to stay here. It doesn’t make sense that he would say that if he wants to be here himself.

Mark begins to move some stones from a structure ahead of us. They appear to be just a random pile that is arranged in no particular way. But it turns out it does cover up a hole that is in front of us. It’s already dark on the other side of the cavity.

At one point he just stops. He doesn’t turn back to me, and I realize this is the end of our journey together. If I walk away now, chances are good I’ll never see him again.

“You should come out of here for the night.” I suddenly say. “You can always walk me back to my home if you’d be so kind.”

He turns partially toward me. And I’m surprised to note by the illumination caused by a nearby streetlight that he appears to be hesitant. How could he possibly want to remain, especially after what he had said before? Is there some sort of punishment involved if his leaving is discovered? Is he afraid he won’t have the means to return? On this last question I think about his sister, who he probably still feels responsible for. If Mark truly has the ability to step out from his confinement, which it appears as though he does, then it must be something like that which is keeping him here.

I am prepared to let him go if that’s what he really wants. It’s beyond me at this point to beg him to stay with me. I’m simply too worn out emotionally to fight him on this. I watch as he looks down briefly then back at me. He seems to be looking at me from out of his peripheral vision again.

“Fine.” he states distinctly.

I find myself surprised by this change of events. I fully expected him to refuse me. I don’t have the time to consider what this change of heart could be about, for he is already proceeding through the cavity that leads to the outside world.

Years ago, I was introduced to a mansion and told that this was the Instructor’s house. I ended up staying there from time to time … particularly when the boarding school would have its holidays. I figured the Instructor felt too many questions would be raised if I stayed at the deserted boarding school during those times. The Instructor was very rarely home, and I never asked him where he went. Actually, I saw him leaving right after he told me to go to Mison.

I now find the house is completely dark — not a light is showing. Mark looks over at me as though expecting an explanation. I have none to give him. There isn’t a cloud in the sky nor any rain. It seems the electricity didn’t just go out on its own. The scene is odd; there’s no denying that. It certainly does make me hesitant to enter. And yet, where else can we go?

“I’m assuming this house isn’t usually kept as black as midnight.” Mark speaks.

“No.” I state.

“Well …”

“We’ll go into the gardener’s shed.” I suggest. “He has a cot in there. I can set you up in there.”

“Just like old times.” Mark begins sheepishly.

I just sort of look at him … without smiling. He did sound as though he was trying to make a joke of it. I can tell he is looking over at me, but I am not amused. So, I look away. Then, I roll my shoulders in an attempt to drive the tension from them.

“Follow me.” I tell him.

I lead Mark around toward the back of the mansion.

“So … he’s still doing scenarios …” he mentions while he follows me.

“Not as many anymore.” I return. “The whole world has become a scenario.”

We arrive at the shed. I find a light. Thankfully, it turns on. I think the gardener has a generator.

“Nothing much ever seems to happen in he gardener’s shed.” I inform him. “It should be safe to hang out here. The gardener isn’t set to return until a few days from now.”

“That’s more certainty than I can usually count on.” he tells me.

I look up at him.

“Will anyone wonder where you are?” I question.

“No. Sometimes I don’t return at night.”

I nod. I sort of assumed that would be the case.

“I suppose I should try to find you something to eat.” I offer.

I turn toward the main house. It is still dark. This is strange, but I’m mostly used to strange by now. After what I went through today, I’m not feeling particularly afraid.

“Wait!” Mark’s voice calls out. I turn back toward him.

“I would prefer it if you’d stay.” he lets me know. “You’ll never know if you’ll be detained inside. I figure we should talk since we’ve been given the chance.”

There’s a tightening in my chest as my eyes drift downward. I walk off to the side and sit down on the edge of the cot. Mark is still standing in front of me. I look up at him, my hands clutching the edge of the bed. I am hesitant to hear what he has to say. And yet, I figure it can’t be avoided forever.

I realize how long it’s been since we actually talked. I can tell that that moment is coming. I flush from the anticipation of it. This is someone I had almost lost hope of ever seeing again. All these years … we are both practically adults now. I try to recollect how I used to be; compare myself as I was then to how I am now. But it almost feels as though time has slipped away from underneath me. I am essentially the same person I was then. Some things have changed, and yet fundamentally I have remained the same. The question is whether he is the same. Or, has he, like so many others, faded into a shell of his former self over time?

“How has it been since …” he begins.

I tense. I find I am angry. Though I am glad he is here, both this comment and the comments from before remind me of the past when he wasn’t there for me … and when I didn’t know if he ever would be again. And I find that I am angry about that — that he abandoned me. I suppose it’s not surprising. I never did have a chance to work through my feelings. He was just gone.

“Fine.” I respond. “Things were pretty much the same after you left … Then, I was brought to the city. Apparently, it was the Instructor’s intention to send me here all along.”

“That’s strange.”

“Not really. Not if you know what I know … now.” I state evasively.

Mark nods distractedly. He seems to recognize that I don’t intend to finish that thought.

“By the way, it seems that the Instructor wasn’t the one who tried to kill you.” I inform him.

He surprises me when he says, “Doesn’t matter. He’s done enough.”

“I’m not defending him.” I quickly add, concerned that he will think I am allied with the Instructor.

“I know. We’ve discussed that before.”

I can hear a slight softness in his voice, which catches me off-guard. I bite my lip. I am hesitant to reveal all to Mark. I look off to the side.

“So, how is your sister?” I decide to ask, even though I realize that I am getting close to breaching a topic I do not want to discuss.

“She’s all right. She stays with our tante in the city.”

“That city?”

“That city.”

I believe we are referring to Mison. I am right, for Mark then informs me that Katie is living in Mison unregistered … as is Mark.

“We’re like rats in a bizarre social experiment.” he tells me. “They’re ‘special,’ after all.” Mark pauses, possibly so I could feel the full impact of his words. “So they can live it up while the rest of us have to die. That way they don’t have to share all of *their* resources with us.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I tell him.

“I don’t take it personally. Most people just don’t care.” Mark informs me.

“Then again, there may be some who are fooled, who believe what they’ve been told,” I put forth.

“Maybe at the beginning.” he responds skeptically.

“A lot can happen in a large city.” Mark continues on. “People can get lost there. People can lose track of people. Well, the public can lose track of people — the authorities seem to know a lot about what happens to each individual — if they’re alive or dead. Diseases spread. People can die from those diseases, or they can be killed in some other way, and then the authorities can blame it on the flu or typhus or something else. The point is they’re dead. And then they get cremated, and in the world’s eyes it’s like they just disappeared or never existed at all.”

“So, can I ask you … why is Katie staying there? It’s not a place I would want to be.”

He looks at me intently but remains silent. I realize how naïve my words must sound, as though most people are given a choice, but I can’t seem to stop myself from uttering the words.

“You must think me a fool. Obviously there’s some reason you can’t leave.” I acknowledge. “But that’s an issue for me. I’m not one for being controlled.”

He smiles.

“Me neither.” he agrees.

“And after all you went through to free her, and now she’s trapped again …”

“Well, she doesn’t seem to want to leave.”

I wait for him to elaborate.

 “It has to do with what happened to her before … because of the Instructor.”

“I realize she was abducted because of him.”

“How much do you know?” he asks me.

“How much do you?” I return. My eyes are shifty. I sigh. “I know she was taken because of me. He was trying to hide me and abducted the others to cause confusion about my whereabouts.”

I look for his reaction. He doesn’t give me one.

“Don’t ask me why he did that.” I whisper. “I don’t want to discuss it … not now. I mean, do you know?”

“No. I don’t know what you mean.” he admits.

A chill goes through me.

“Oh.” I mutter.

This is awkward. Should I tell him… about the disease I am carrying? And if not now, then when? I don’t know if I’ll ever trust him again as I used to.

“Don’t worry about it.” he assures me. “It doesn’t seem to matter now.”

I breathe. He has no idea how wrong he is. And yet, I can’t force myself to tell him my secret all the same. Still, I am glad he seems to sense this in me and has let me off the hook.

“So your sister …” I begin. “She likes it there?”

I can tell by the look on his face that I have hit a nerve. He seems displeased with his sister.

“She has changed a lot.” he states coldly.

“Well, she is growing up.” I remind him.

My argument doesn’t appear to convince him. But then again, what do I know? I’ve never met his sister.

“And your parents … they must be happy the two of you returned.”

“They are.”

I’m glad to hear him refer to them in the present tense. I had grown a little worried when I heard that his sister was staying with her tante. At least they’re alive, I tell myself. I don’t really want to ask where they are. I figure I’m asking too many personal questions as it is. It would seem wrong of me to ask him for more information since I am withholding information of my own. But I can tell there’s something in this line of questioning that has Mark on edge. Mark suddenly appears to be deep in thought. I think of trying to come up with something else to say, but honestly it is hard to think of anything to talk about that won’t seem obviously shallow. There is far too much baggage between us — far too much we will need to discuss … someday. Perhaps now just isn’t the time. It is getting late, and I am tired. Maybe I will feel less wary of everything in the morning.

“She has become besotted with some guy she met around the time she went missing.” Mark suddenly confides.

“Your sister?”

“Yes.”

“Wow.” I utter. “I had no idea. But … you don’t like this guy I take it.”

“No.”

“And your tante?”

“She doesn’t seem to care. That’s why Katie is staying with her. That and she lives in the city.” Mark hesitates a moment. “Anyway, that’s why I volunteered to come here — to keep an eye on her, but she won’t listen to me or our parents. And she won’t return home. And my tante won’t kick her out lest some harm befall her. Yet, it’s obvious she’s not being supervised … and like you said Mison is a problem.”

I look down. I feel I should say something that will make it better, but I can’t come up with anything.

“Like I said before, regardless of the reason, the Instructor was the one who did what he did. You aren’t responsible for his actions. You were a prisoner there, too. Actually … regrettably you still are.”

I look back up at him.

“What would you have done, though? If you had known who I was — that I was a part of things? Would you still have wanted to help me before?”

“You were still innocent …” he replies. “… still a victim.”

“And now? What do you think now?”

“The same.” he says.

I feel grateful and moved by his words. I am satisfied with his denial. And yet … does he know … about the enormity of things? That people died?

“I appreciate what you said.” I mutter. “I feel a lot of guilt about what happened. I don’t want to be the cause of somebody else’s suffering.”

“I can appreciate that, too.” he responds softly.

“Or death …” I manage to add.

“Then, you know?” Mark asks me. “That one of the girls died?”

“More than one.” I correct him.

Mark looks stricken then nods.

“I wish I had told you.” he confesses. “I discovered one of the bodies.”

I am surprised to hear this. Why hadn’t he told me back then? I start thinking about that time again. He is looking at me. His gaze is not intrusive, but it is inscrutable. That sort of annoys me. After all, I want answers.

“Why did you leave me?” I suddenly hear myself ask aloud.

My heart begins to pound in my chest. My face reddens. I want to take it back, but I can’t. It’s already out there. It’s not that I’ve changed my mind about wanting to know. I’m just not sure I can handle hearing the answer now. He shifts positions. He is clearly taken aback by my question. But suddenly, I don’t care if I’ve made him uncomfortable. I wait for his response.

I see him look down. He appears to be considering what to say. Then, he looks up at me.

“I could say that I thought my leaving was what you wanted …” he begins. “You clearly covered for me, so that I could escape with my sister … but I don’t really believe that. The truth is my priority was saving my sister. That’s what I set out to do.”

“Did you follow me that day … after I left?” I asks suddenly in a soft voice. Mark looks uncomfortable and guilty. Then, he admits that he had not.

“Going back later for you would have been a risk. He would have tracked us all down. And yet, I’ve regretted leaving you behind ever since. I don’t know what else I could have done. And still … it felt … it still feels wrong.”

I glance downward. I am silent. I had thought of the same logical arguments before … and yet, the feeling of personal betrayal aches in my chest. To think, I waited all these years for him to show up for me, and he never even tried. It was just happenchance we met again after all.

“Do you think you can forgive me?” he asks me.

Yes, it would take that, wouldn’t it?

I consider.

“I think so.” I let him know. “Like I said … I, too, feel bad. When I found out what he did … after he admitted … at least some of it to me. What he did because of me …”

“Not because of you.” he corrects. “He doesn’t care about you.”

“Do you?” I finally get the nerve to ask him after a few moments of silence.

“Yes.” he says.

I breathe. My eyes drift away again. It’s what I wanted to hear. And yet, can I believe it truly? I sigh.

“Thank you for helping me.” he tells me. “I realize actions speak more than words. Hopefully, someday I can prove it to you …”

I think on his words for a moment. I realize he feels guilty about me. I admit I want him to regret how we parted. And yet, guilt … that is another thing entirely. Guilt feels too close to pity to me, and I have no desire to be pitied.

“That won’t be necessary.” I say quickly. “For you to try to come up with some grand opportunity to prove yourself to me … It will just take time, I think … your being here consistently.”

“Maybe …” he replies. “But these are difficult times. You never know when something major will come up.”

“I guess things tend to happen around me, given I’m the Instructor’s puppet. Still, I don’t need you to take care of me like you did your sister just because she won’t let you take care of her anymore.” I protest.

Mark seems to take in my words with some gravity.

“You’re right about that.” he admits. “She won’t let me help her, and apparently you won’t either. Yet, I really do feel both of you need it. Then again, she has my parents and tante now. Who do you have?”

I am stunned silent. It is true that I have no people on which I can rely, and that it’s been that way ever since he left and never came back. And yet, he is here now. I remember when he first entered my life all those years ago. I had had no one to talk to before he came, and I felt that he provided me with someone I could confide in. The truth is that it is useful to have a sounding board. Sometimes it becomes difficult to work through what reality is when it comes to the Instructor. I need that.

“All right.” I agree. “Like I said, it would be nice to have you around. I need someone to talk with.”

He nods quickly and looks pleased.

“Well, if you need me, I’ll be around.”

“Are you going somewhere now?” I question.

“I’d better head back.”

“What?” I am surprised. I figured he would be staying in the shed tonight. I had no idea that he possibly never had any intention to do that.

“Don’t worry.” he assures me. “I’ll check the place over thoroughly before I go and make sure no one’s there. You wait here.”

“But what if someone sees you?!” I wonder. “I can never tell when someone like the Instructor may be there.”

“And what’s he going to do? I’ll just get out of there if I run into someone who might have cause to be there. But I’m not going to leave until I’m sure the house is secure. Maybe I can even get the lights back on for you.”

After rummaging through some nearby drawers and retrieving a flashlight, Mark heads out the door. I had forgotten how stubborn he can be.

I sit on the bed and wait for him to return. I try not to think about whether Mark will end up running into someone in the house. I have no idea what might happen if Mark runs into the Instructor. I try to imagine what the repercussions might be — but I honestly can’t guess what would come of it. I can never even tell for sure whether the Instructor is even being honest with me at any given moment. Is he really unaware of Mark’s existence?

And then there is Kurt. After what he tried to do to Mark, certainly Kurt could make things difficult for me if he found out about Mark’s presence here now. He has already done so much to get rid of Mark, so that the Instructor wouldn’t find out what he had done. Surely, Kurt won’t take it well if he discovers Mark has reappeared. Kurt is also unlikely to believe that Mark’s being back in my life is merely a coincidence. Nor is he likely to buy that Mark has come back into the picture for my sake. All I know at this moment is that I am hoping Mark will return to the shed soon and without incident.

It’s very hard to wait for Mark to return, but he does eventually come back.

“I’m done going over the place.” he announces. “There is nobody inside from what I can tell — unless there are some secret passageways like in the complex.”

He seems to be waiting for me to either confirm or deny this.

“I don’t know.” I tell him. “I haven’t noticed any.”

Mark suddenly appears concerned.

“I’m not sure then.” Mark declares. “I wish there were someone you knew who could stay with you. The electricity doesn’t appear to be working. I tried the fuse box, but it didn’t do anything …”

“I can stay in the shed.” I find myself offering, though I don’t really want to.

Mark seems relieved by my suggestion. I guess I will have to stay in the shed tonight after all, I resign myself.

Mark goes and checks over the door.

“Well, I’ll be heading out then.” He turns to look at me. “Oh, and make sure you lock this door.”

He waits to see my reaction.

“Sure.” I agree. “I will.”

I get up as he shuts the door; then, I secure the lock behind him. I’m aware that this lock wouldn’t be hard to penetrate if someone put forth the effort to break it. And yet, it would probably give me a heads up should someone try to enter the shed. That thought gives me some peace of mind, which will hopefully allow me to sleep.

Sleep doesn’t turn out to be so easily achieved. I have a lot on my mind. I can’t believe I ran into Mark again! Even after the disturbing visit into Mison, it’s the thing that sticks out foremost in my mind.

Of course, I have to wonder when I’ll see Mark again. It had occurred to me right before he left to discuss with him how we would arrange meeting up again. But I had hesitated, and he left. Now I have to wonder how we will get together without anyone spotting us. Mark doesn’t seem afraid of discovery — but he doesn’t know about Kurt. He only knows or at least suspects what the Instructor is capable of. I’m not even sure Mark believes me that the Instructor wasn’t involved in his near-death experience. Perhaps Mark thinks I’m being naïve about that. And still, it appears I’m the only one of us who’s worried about the Instructor finding out about Mark. Mark never has seemed to take the danger the Instructor poses to him seriously. Even though the Instructor wasn’t the one who had tried to kill Mark in the past, I have little doubt that the Instructor is capable of murder.

In the morning, I hear a car pull into the drive. I pull myself up and head to the window. Through the foggy window, I can see a dark car making its way up the driveway. I recognize it to be the woman who runs the house now, a Fraulein Blankenship. I don’t know her well — she is a recent hire — but I saw her arrive in the morning the other day. I figure it would be a good idea to follow her into the house. Hopefully, she’ll be able to get the electricity back on. In the very least, I will have the opportunity to change into my school uniform while someone else I recognize is around the premises. I figure it will be safer that way.

The woman hesitates in front of the mansion. She has left her car parked on the circle drive fronting the property. No doubt the lack of electricity has taken her off-guard. I approach her, and yet she isn’t looking at me. I figure it will be highly possible I will startle her if I can’t think of a way to make my presence known to her before I reach her.

I clear my throat softly. She turns and looks at me. I can tell she’s taken aback, but she doesn’t appear too disturbed. I am glad that her reaction isn’t more dramatic.

“I don’t know if you know who I am. My name is …” I catch myself. I almost gave her my real name. Spending time with Mark and hearing him call me Aronade had made me temporarily forget that the Instructor has renamed me. I have to focus. I am back in the thick of things again. The game of scenarios is back on. Nothing can be trusted.

I proceed to give the woman my new name.

“I live here.” I inform her. “Some of the time.”

She nods.

Then, she looks back at the house.

“What happened here?” she asks me.

I shrug. She looks at the house again.

“All right.” she tells me. “I guess I’ll have to call the caretaker … should we go inside?”

I nod. We head towards the house. It feels deserted, but you can never know for sure. Something about the daylight, though, makes it feel as though whatever might have been going on last night no longer is.

I stand by Fraulein Blankenship’s side in the kitchen as she calls the caretaker. Her voice if very soft, and she speaks particularly slowly.

“All right then.” she drones on. “I’ll see you then.”

She hangs up the phone. Then, she looks over at me.

“Should I call Herr Frankfort?” she asks me.

It takes me a moment to register that she’s referring to the Instructor.

I am at a loss as to how to respond. I have no idea why the electricity is off. Yet, I can’t think of a single reason why he would want us to call him.

“Let’s wait and see what the caretaker can do before we call him.” I tell her.

She seems relieved I made a decision. I find her passivity rather surprising. She seems like the opposite of Nan.

I decide to wait with her until the caretaker arrives. I figure I have plenty of time before I have to get ready for school. Plus, quite frankly, I’m not entirely convinced Fraulein Blankenship can handle this situation on her own. I have also decided I really don’t want her calling the Instructor unless it is absolutely necessary. At first I had been undecided but not anymore. Now I feel dread at the thought.

Strangely, it had taken quite awhile for the caretaker to show up. By the time he arrived, I had taken to sitting on a stool next to the kitchen counter. The tension in the room seemed to have mounted as Fraulein Blankenship and I had waited. I had taken a moment to look over Fraulein Blankenship, trying to get a read on where she was coming from. She seemed to be staring off into space. I’d seen that look on actors’ faces before when they were waiting for the next act to begin. And yet, that wasn’t proof of anything. Fraulein Blankenship had looked over at me. Was that a flash of recognition in her eyes? As though we were both in on the same joke?

But in the end, it was just a feeling. That’s when the caretaker had arrived.

Fraulein Blankenship stands and greets the man.

“We’re in need of some help with the electricity …” Fraulein Blankenship begins.

I watch the two of them discussing a course of action. Eventually, I get the feeling that they have things well in hand. There probably won’t be any answers right away as to what had happened, so I decide that this will be as good a time as any to go get ready for the day.

I head up the large staircase toward my bedroom suite. I am not particularly afraid of going up there on my own with two people waiting downstairs. Even if they turn out to be actors, they seem harmless enough. Seriously, I can’t afford to be worried all the time. If I allow doubts to take over my mind I will never be able to function. Indecision and self-doubt can be your enemies. It is best to be sure of your position before you face other people. Your lack of sureness can embolden them.

My room is just as I had left it. Nothing appears to have changed. I quickly decide to take a shower then prepare for the day. I am hopeful that everything will be set right by the time I get back from school. My preparations for the day are uneventful. I have to use the natural light from the outside to see what I am doing.

When I head downstairs again, I find Fraulein Blankenship and the caretaker in the kitchen. They are sitting around the counter drinking coffee and chatting. They look up blankly as I briefly enter the room and lay my bag on a nearby chair. I’m a bit dismayed by their behavior. It troubles me that they don’t appear to be doing anything to restore the power. Then again, maybe they’ve already arranged everything. I could always ask them what they are doing or planning on doing, but by now I am running late. I am also not sure I want to hear about it if the news doesn’t turn out to be good. I would rather hope for the best.

I remember I left my book bag in the kitchen as I head for the front door, so I quickly return. I am surprised by what I find there. I find the faces of Fraulein Blankenship and the caretaker flushed and their mouths unmoving. They are apparently actors after all, and they don’t seem to know what to do with themselves at this point. I know immediately the Instructor’s been at work here. Of course, he studied me long enough to guess what I would do … well, most of it … in regards to the electricity anyway.

I give them a wry smile, grab my bag, and head out.

As I’m passing by the front gate, I cast my eyes around me. I am looking for Mark, but I don’t see him.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

The Mind Master Chronicles: The Pawn Sacrifice

Jennifer Alice Chandler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Instructor.”

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

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

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

“But surely this can’t be.”

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

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

He looks at me disapprovingly.

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

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

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

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

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

Onkel? She means the Instructor, of course. Why hadn’t he accompanied us into the school? I don’t know. Perhaps, he was worried there would be too many questions asked. The only problem is I have no idea how to answer the questions we are being asked. I have a pretty good idea that I am no relation to the Instructor. Is Kurt his relative? Or, is he like me — just listed as such on a form? I still have no idea who Kurt is or how he factors into the Instructor’s life, and, therefore, mine. No mention had been made that he has the disease I have, which could kill the elite of this world — people like the Instructor. The Instructor calls them “the elite.” Apparently — I had learned on the train in hushed whispers, but it was still a dangerous conversation to have in public — that the elite had been genetically altered to live much longer, healthier lives than the rest of us. That basically cemented their position at the top of society’s pecking order. And then they decided that there were just too many of the rest of us; there are only so many slaves needed, I guess. Therefore, they purposed to kill most of us off with a virus they manufactured — one that they would be immune from. That is until a group of scientists in the city I had been living in cultivated a virus of their own that exploited a weakness in the genetically manipulated code of the elite and killed those who had that code. The elite destroyed the city, but I had survived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Instructor remains silent.

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

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

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

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

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

I look up and nod slightly.

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

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

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

Herr Hartheim then greets the Instructor like he belongs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Instructor just waits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liesel.” the Instructor states pointedly.

I am staring off into space.

“Liesel.” he repeats.

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

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

And Kurt … is his name still Kurt? Then, I remember that the Instructor called him Kurt in front of the headmaster. So, apparently, for some reason, he is still Kurt. Then again, I guess when they enrolled him — and who knows how long ago that was — they used his real name for whatever reason. If Kurt even is his real name …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am?” I repeat incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looks upon me keenly.

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

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

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

I am surprised. I’m just being released into the world only to find the Instructor has left some things out about how bad things are now. The prevailing ideology has already infiltrated the schools, the libraries, the media … even every facet of government and most of the military. The people who are not in power are either buying into it — dancing like a puppet on a string — or they are too afraid to admit they aren’t a part of it. The people who had once stood up against them are apparently long gone. You can feel a sense of emptiness — a void where the defiant used to be. What is the point of my coming out of hiding? What chance do I have here? And then, I think of Mark. Assuming he is still alive, will he change to fit in with the others? Certainly, my brother probably has changed over the years. He’s been around this for a long time …

I guess since I’ve been out of it for so long it strikes me all the more how strange it all is. I mean, it’s like being blindsided by a two by four. This place is a different world from what I’m used to. For one, before I wasn’t expected to behave much differently than I was already inclined to. Now the things I do in order to follow God will probably lead to my being persecuted.

I find I don’t like the world. Most of it isn’t real, and the parts that are real aren’t what I consider good. But people are seemingly buying into this vision. And they somehow know if they acknowledge the reality, the semi-pleasant facade will go away. It’s not that I want the world to be bad; it’s just denying the truth does nothing for me. Improve things by all means, but mass delusion isn’t my thing. Someone is always hurt when you try to cover up the crimes of perpetrators in order to maintain the façade. Also, it emboldens people to do the wrong thing since they know people are invested in covering up an immoral act.

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 4 (Mark: age 14 — Matilda)

Could I even return home without Katie? Would I even be permitted to step through the front door? That was the thought that crept into my mind but that I wouldn’t allow myself to dwell on.

No, instead I would think about where to begin looking for Katie. Unfortunately, I had no idea where to start. I had the letter. My father had brought it to me with the money before I left. I could imagine that it hadn’t been easy for my father to pry it away from my mother’s grasp. Still, I wondered what I could do with it. How could it possibly be put to use? Instead of being a help, it felt like the letter was stalking me — taunting me. And Katie’s trail felt like it was growing colder and colder.

After much thinking, I decided the first thing I would do was head to the nearest town and go to the police station there. I would see what I could find out and post a notice about Katie while I was there. My father had also given me a photograph of Katie. I would have to make copies. I would leave it with the notice. Should I leave my home address? I didn’t want anyone harassing my parents. But what choice did I have? There didn’t seem to be another address to use. I wasn’t planning on staying in any city for long. I only planned on staying the night at any given place then I would head to the next town. I wished I could tell my parents what I was planning to do — give them advanced warning. But I had no intention of going back home right then. I could have called — that was true — but I couldn’t bring myself to do so. I was sure that my mother would answer. I just couldn’t face that at that point. I knew I was being weak, but I just couldn’t deal with that just then. Hopefully, my father could manage my mother. I had to stay focused — focused on Katie.

I wasn’t really expecting the police to have any information on Katie. My plan was just to inform as many people as possible about Katie’s disappearance. Then, I would see what leads that might bring. Things appeared to be going just as I had expected. But then, that letter seemed to be burning a hole in my pocket. That letter — it seemed to bring grief on to me. Things seemed to be going well with the police this time — they appeared eager to help. Would that change with the introduction of the troublesome letter?

But how could I ignore it? Maybe I could convince myself that it had nothing to do with Katie’s disappearance. But try as I may, I just didn’t buy that. No, I had to show them — anyone who would listen.

“There’s something I have to show you.” I started.

The sergeant, who had been working with me and who had been remarkably friendly, raised an eyebrow.

“Oh?” he uttered.

I pulled the scroll from my pocket and handed it to the man. As the man read the letter, his eyebrows lowered, and I braced myself.

“What’s this?” the man asked.

“I found it in the outskirts of town.” I explained. “It could be irrelevant to Katie’s disappearance …”

“Did you show it to anyone else?” the man asked.

I thought that question was a bit odd.

“Just my parents and the magistrate.”

The man’s eyes were glued onto the scroll.

“Does it mean anything to you?” I asked with a glimmer of hope.

“Just wait here a minute.” the sergeant stated.

Then, he stood and headed for one of the backrooms. I just sat there — trying to figure out what that could be about.

I looked around the room as I waited. It hadn’t occurred to me that the man would take such an interest in the letter — let alone that he would take it with him. So often people had wanted possession of that letter for some reason. Still, at that moment, I found I was stuck. I could quite possibly need the letter in the future, so how was I going to get it back? I felt my muscles begin to tense as time passed. Where could that man be? Could I have misjudged him? Maybe he had contacted the magistrate and was getting an earful about me. Then I remembered what the magistrate had said. He had warned me not to show that letter to anyone else. For all I knew, the magistrate was on his way to have me arrested for manufacturing evidence. I considered fleeing but decided against it. I had to get that letter back. It might be the only remaining link I had to Katie’s location.

And still, my mind plagued me with the possibilities of what that sergeant may be up to. I even began to wonder if any of the men I’d been dealing with could know the man who wrote the letter — assuming it was a man.

Fortunately, at that moment, before I could become even more agitated by my thoughts, the man reappeared. I searched the man with my eyes. I was looking for the letter — I didn’t see it.

The man returned to the chair across from me. He breathed out heavily as he sat.

“I’m going to have to hold on to that letter.” he told me.

My eyebrows furrowed.

“I’ll need to know why.” I told him.

I was hoping the man wouldn’t call my bluff. I knew I didn’t have the power to force the man to release the letter. The man hesitated. I was hoping that I had been right initially when I felt that this man was sympathetic to my situation. The sergeant looked around him. Then, he began to whisper.

“I’m afraid you might not be getting that letter back again. It may be evidence.”

“Yes, it could be.” I reasoned, echoing the low volume of the sergeant. “So, you think my sister —”

“It’s not about your sister … at least not just your sister …”

My face contorted in confusion.

“I don’t understand.” I confessed.

The sergeant hesitated once again. Finally, he said, “There’s another case … another girl … another letter.”

My eyes widened.

“Who? Where?”

“I can’t tell you that. I’ve told you more than I should have.”

My mind reeled. This girl — she had to be local — or nearby at least. And if there was one, there could be more. How could I not have heard about this before? Had people been hiding this from the public? But why? To avoid panicking people? But what had happened to these girls?

“I need to know one thing.” I began pleadingly. “Is the girl still alive?”

The man looked sympathetic again.

“I don’t know.” he admitted. “She hasn’t been recovered.”

I wasn’t sure as I exited the building that I had done the right thing — leaving the letter with these men. But really what else could I have done at this point? I was just fortunate they hadn’t found an excuse to detain me. If I had refused to leave, I figured they would have detained me.

And it wasn’t as though I was walking away empty-handed either. I knew more than I did before. That man — the one who had taken Katie had done it before. I needed to find out about that other girl — but how? Who would talk to a kid about this? And what if they thought I was somehow involved?

I decided to head for the local inn. If I waited much longer, I might not get a room for the night. Maybe after some food and some sleep, I could make a good decision about what to do next. I hoped I could sleep — I didn’t want to think anymore. I didn’t want to think about Katie or about the fact that I had no place to go.

I retrieved the picture of Katie from my pocket. I was glad I had made a copy of the picture and still had the original. I just wished I had thought of doing that with the scroll.

“Young man … young man.”

I looked up. The man who was checking me in was talking to me.

“Oh, sorry. Is there a problem?” I asked.

“No … no.” the older man began.

I knew that people may wonder why I was on my own without my parents. I was hoping they would just think I looked young for my age. I now suspected that that wasn’t going to work — the “young man” comment suggested that it wasn’t.

“You seem awfully worried about something.” the man suggested, his eyes glancing over my signature on the sign-in form.

“I am.” I admitted, growing concerned about his interest in my actions.

The man looked up at me.

“Anything I can do?” the man asked.

“No.” I began, but then I stopped.

Maybe — maybe he could help.

“My sister — my sister is missing. I’m looking for her.”

I pulled out Katie’s picture. I felt I had nothing to hide. I decided there was no point in leaving the man with the impression that I did. And maybe he could help.

The man took the picture and began to stare at it.

“Pretty girl …” the man finally said.

I nodded.

“Her name is Katie. Like I said, we don’t know where she is.”

“And you suspect she’s here in Bad Hollow?” the man asked me skeptically.

I breathed out.

“I’m from Hanover Village. I’m going to all the surrounding communities with her picture.”

“I see …”

“Do you happen to have any information?” I persisted.

“No.” the man responded after a few minutes had passed.

He then passed the picture back to me.

“I’m afraid not.” he said. “I’ll go get the key to your room …”

The man turned from me and headed into the backroom. Well, I thought, at least it appeared I was going to get a room after all.

“103.” the man stated distractedly.

I gave him a look. The man seemed to be acting a bit strangely. Was it because of what I had said, or was the man just having a bad day? I felt a vague sense of apprehension, but I dismissed the feeling. I then turned from the man and headed towards my room. Along the way, however, I chanced a look at the key.

“121?” I read.

I knew that wasn’t the number the man had told me. Had he given me the wrong key or told me the wrong number? I decided to return to the front desk and find out.

When I got to the front desk nobody was there. I tapped my fingers on the counter. Then, I looked around me. I was hoping this issue would only take a couple of minutes to resolve, but now I would have to wait. The main problem was that with all the aggravation I had been experiencing recently I had about run out of patience.

Then, I heard a man’s voice coming from the next room. It could be the innkeeper, I thought. I decided to find out. I wanted to get to bed. I needed this day to end. I approached the door. I became aware that there was only one voice. I realized that the man was on the phone. I was about to turn around when I heard, “Don’t let it bother you … I just wanted you to know that someone is asking questions. I told you … a boy … says his sister is missing, too. I don’t know if I believe him. No, I doubt he had anything to do with Becky … he’s too young, I think. And why would he call attention to himself if he had. No, I didn’t tell him about Becky … he didn’t ask. Says he’s just posting notices about this other girl. I know … I didn’t know what to say — what you would want me to say about it. I thought I’d ask you first. Well, he’s staying the night, so you can talk to him in the morning. I tried to call Inspector Dietrich to confirm the boy’s story, but he had already left for the day. Listen, it will have to wait until the morning. Matilda — don’t. Matilda?”

The man sighed then replaced the phone on the receiver. Then, as though sensing that someone was there watching him, he turned and saw me. I, for my part, had entered the room during the course of the man’s phone conversation. I had decided not to hide anymore. I concluded that this man had information that may relate to my sister’s disappearance, and I intended to find out what that information was.

“You —” the man stammered.

I walked forward with the sudden confidence of a grown man and sat down in the chair that was in front of the man’s desk. I then retrieved the key from my pocket and placed it down on the desk in front of him.

“You gave me the wrong key.” I explained.

I leaned back in the chair. The man took up the key and looked at it.

“Oh, I see.” the man spoke.

He eyed me critically.

“I suppose you heard …” he started.

I nodded. The man sighed.

“Well, you may as well stick around then. She should be here any minute.”

I knew someone was coming — a woman. But even so, I wasn’t quite prepared for the frazzled figure, which appeared ten minutes later. She was out of breath. It unnerved me to see this woman in such a state of anguish — it reminded me of my mother.

“Matilda … Matilda!”

The woman looked at the innkeeper with a look of distraction plastered across her face.

“This is the boy I mentioned over the phone …” the man began, pointing me out to her.

She turned her eyes toward me.

“Mark Grayson.” I stated.

I stood and offered her my hand. I could suddenly guess what she was thinking; if she shook my hand she might be shaking the hand of the person who had taken Becky.

“You … have a sister … Herr Meyer said …”

“Yes. Katie.” I responded.

I quickly retrieved the photo from my pocket. I was hoping the photo would confirm my story to the woman. Fortunately, I was also in the photo taken of Katie.

The woman took the picture from me hesitantly. The look in her eyes suggested she was a lost person — unsure of herself. Unfortunately, when she got the photo in her hands she began shaking uncontrollably. I was horrified and didn’t know what to make of it. I looked toward the man — Herr Meyer — for help, but Herr Meyer didn’t appear to be surprised by the woman’s reaction.

“She … she…” the woman began.

“Katie.” I reminded her of my sister’s name.

Tears welled up in the woman’s eyes.

“She looks so much like my Becky!” the woman cried out.

Herr Meyer was quick to jump to his feet at that point and offer the woman called Matilda a chair. I was more than willing to give up my seat to the woman.

“Thank you.” the woman sniffled to Herr Meyer.

He nodded.

“Oh, I must look a fright!”

The woman patted down her hair and attempted to wipe the streaming tears from her eyes. I was just grateful that the woman appeared to be recomposing herself.

The woman looked at the picture. This time, however, she didn’t cry. She just stared at it blankly. I was at a loss as to what to say as an awkward silence ensued. After awhile, the woman appeared to come to her senses again.

“I’m sorry.” she said. “It’s just the resemblance — I didn’t expect that.”

I wanted to reach out and comfort the woman, but I decided against it. I very much doubted that the woman trusted me at that point. I would hate to have my efforts to comfort her actually have the opposite effect.

“Here. Let me make you some coffee.” Herr Meyer offered.

“I don’t want to be a burden …” the woman protested.

“No trouble.” the man insisted. “I already made some.”

Once Herr Meyer had stood and crossed the room, Matilda’s eyes fell squarely on me. Initially, it made me a bit uncomfortable. But as it turned out, I needn’t have worried.

“Herr Meyer was right.” she said. “You do look young.”

“I’m fourteen.” I returned.

Matilda sighed.

“My Becky is twelve.” she stated wistfully. “Mark … what brings you here?”

“My sister Katie …”

“I heard that part. What I am wondering is why this particular town.”

Now I was the one who sighed. I decided I could be honest with this woman.

“I was pretty much run out of my village. The magistrate didn’t want to hear about it …”

“I can relate to that.” the woman offered.

“Yeah …” I grew relieved that I finally found someone who could understand the situation I was in.

“He even accused me of faking the letter to make it appear that she was kidnapped.”

“Letter?” Matilda repeated. “What letter?”

I had forgotten I hadn’t mentioned the letter to Herr Meyer. So, therefore, Matilda didn’t know anything about it.

“Yeah.” I spoke hesitantly. “I found a letter on the outskirts of town … a scroll.”

I repeated what it said. At that point, I had it memorized. Matilda’s eyes grew wide.

“May I see it?” she asked me.

“I don’t have it anymore.” I bemoaned. “The police have it.”

Herr Meyer by then was standing by, coffee in hand.

“I know what you’re thinking, Matilda.” he said when she looked up at him. “But we shouldn’t go over there tonight. Let the police do their work. They are probably just running fingerprint tests on it.”

I frowned at that suggestion.

“And they’ll probably just find my prints on it.” I stated.

Matilda then reached out and patted my hand reassuringly.

“That just proves you had nothing to do with it.” the woman consoled.

She then managed a smile. Finally, she turned her gaze back to Herr Meyer.

“I know you mean well, Herbert.” she told him. “But you know I have to go over there. I have to make sure they know that I know the letter exists, and that it won’t go over well for them if it disappears like the last one did …”

Now it was my turn to be shocked.

“There’s another letter?” I questioned.

“Yes. At least there was. It was found by a group of Becky’s school friends next to a local well. I wish I had kept it … so you see, we can’t waste any time in getting your letter back.”

I nodded.

“I wish I hadn’t left it with them.” I stated with regret.

“I don’t think you were given a choice, were you?” Matilda reassured me. “We’ll see if I can do better. I’ve learned a few things about dealing with them.”

She winks.

“Let’s go, Mark. I’m sure the two of us together can get something accomplished.”

I nodded and followed the two adults from the room.

We drove in silence to the police station. I sat in the back and stared out the window. My lack of sleep was getting to me. Still, I had to stay alert — I had to see this through. I wanted to know about Becky, but I didn’t dare ask. It was clear that Becky had not returned, and the man who took her had not been caught. What else was there really to say? I was concerned about the future — about getting Katie back — not about what had happened in the past. It was true, I suppose, that the man’s behavior when he took the girls might give clues to the identity of the abductor. But how could that information possibly be helpful to me? I didn’t have the connections to track down any suspects. And were there any suspects? It sounded also as though the police here were disorganized, possibly incompetent, or corrupt. How much help were they going to be to me in finding my sister? I had my doubts about their investigation. I also had a feeling this search could last for years. That wasn’t acceptable to me.

By the time we made it to the police station, though it was only a short drive away, I had already lost most of my enthusiasm. I wanted my letter back, but I feared that would be about the only thing I was set to accomplish with my return visit to the police station.

I did wonder how the police officers would react to seeing me again so soon — let alone with the mother of another abducted girl. It may make them raise an eyebrow.

“Mark?” Matilda uttered, drawing my attention. “We’re here.”

I knew we were there. I just wasn’t all that sure I wanted to be.

“I’m coming.” I said.

I tried to keep up my interest in this effort — despite my doubts that it would be fruitful. I didn’t want Matilda to begin doubting me.

We headed into the station. Fortunately, Matilda did most of the talking; I was grateful for that. She explained everything: how her daughter had disappeared, how my sister had disappeared, how letters had been discovered in both cases.

The desk sergeant was so overwhelmed by Matilda’s rapid speech that he began to flush. Obviously, he didn’t know a thing about either case — or at least not much.

“All right. Let me go and get a detective for you.” he offered.

He didn’t wait for a response. He practically ran from the room. Matilda took a moment to catch her breath. She was deflated by the wait — as was I. As time passed, I began to suspect that deflating us could be the intent. I decided to try to boost Matilda’s morale. I tried to distract her with childhood stories about Katie. After awhile, Matilda just looked at me with sad eyes.

“They’re not going to give the letter back, are they?” she asked me.

I hesitated.

“No, I doubt they will.” I finally admitted.

She sighed. I feared she would burst into tears again. Though her lip did quiver, she didn’t cry. Apparently, she was out of tears.

Suddenly, she reached into her purse and retrieved something. It was a picture of a young girl — I assumed it was Becky.

She placed the photo in my hands then held my hands in hers. She finally closed my hands around the photo.

“Go.” she stated, her voice choking. “Go find them both … please.”

I nodded. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I would try. Maybe, with God’s help, I would succeed.

I wasn’t sure as I was exiting the police station that I was doing the right thing. It all hinged on whether the policemen there were corrupt or not. If they were corrupt, then I had no choice; I had to get out of there as soon as possible. They wouldn’t be inclined to help me, and more than likely they would be a hindrance. But if they weren’t corrupt, then I was making a mistake — one that could cost me precious time and possibly more.

So, which was it? I wished I knew. Could I trust Matilda’s judgment? It appeared as though I had to at that point. She was right about one thing at least: I would have to leave without the letter. I couldn’t imagine them just handing it back over to me. Maybe I didn’t need it after all, I consoled myself. I had memorized it. But still, I couldn’t be convinced that I hadn’t really messed up when I let that letter out of my hands.

I shuddered to think what my mother would say if she found out that I had lost the letter. But it couldn’t be helped now. Even if I tried to sneak into the station and take the letter back …

“Wait.” I thought. Maybe they would make a copy of it for me as I should have done to begin with. It was worth a try, I concluded. They couldn’t arrest me for asking. But then, I remembered the magistrate’s reaction, and it gave me pause. Still, I couldn’t imagine just walking away from the letter — not now.

I headed back into the police station. Needless to say, Matilda was surprised and none too pleased to see me returning.

“What are you doing here?!” she exclaimed as she approached me.

“I’m going to ask for a copy of the letter.” I told her.

Matilda stood there speechless. Apparently, that thought hadn’t occurred to her.

“Oh — kay.” she uttered.

Then suddenly, the desk sergeant re-emerged from the backroom.

“The detective on duty is going to make time for you.” he announced.

I approached the desk.

“Yes?” the man started.

“Can I have a copy of the scroll I gave you?” I asked.

I suddenly flushed. Maybe it was a mistake for me to admit I didn’t already have a copy. Maybe it would make them more likely to believe they could destroy the letter without consequences. Then again, if Matilda was right, nothing had stopped them from destroying her letter.

“A copy?” the desk sergeant repeated.

He appeared to be as dumbfounded as Matilda had been.

“Yes. A copy.” I repeated with some irritation in my voice.

“Umm …” the man hesitated. “Okay, I’ll ask.”

The man retreated from the room. I began to feel the ridiculousness of this situation. What was going on around here? Didn’t they have a protocol about these things? I kept my eyes on the door the man had left through. I didn’t want to face Matilda. I was afraid she would just advise me to leave again. Fortunately, the man returned faster than he had before.

“Okay.” the man began with more confidence. “You need to come back tomorrow morning …”

“Tomorrow morning?” I repeated in disbelief. “And then, I’ll get a copy?”

The man again hesitated.

“Then, you can talk to the lead detective on the case about getting a copy.” the man corrected me.

My jaw stiffened. I was sure at that point that I was being given the runaround. I was certain tomorrow if I returned they would have some ready-made excuse for not being willing to give me even a copy of the letter. I was by then convinced that these people were not on the level. Someone powerful had to be pulling their strings. And then it dawned on me where I should look for my sister next — with someone powerful.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

The Mind Master Chronicles: The Pawn Sacrifice


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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned instinctively toward the terror in her voice.

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

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

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

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

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

“And I’ve been to every one of them!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My mom is very upset.” I insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head dismally.

“A boyfriend?” the magistrate persisted.

“She’s only eleven!” I countered.

The man turned away.

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

“In the morning?!”

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

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

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

The man stopped and shot a disapproving look at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was signed, “The Taker.”

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

“Did you write this, boy?”

The magistrate had suddenly become hostile. I was surprised.

“No.” I responded coldly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.” I responded.

The man sneered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Katie! Have they sent for Katie?!”

I hesitated.

“Mark!”

“No.”

“But you …”

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

“Mark …” my father cautioned.

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

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

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

My stomach churned.

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

Both of my parents looked over at me.

“Here.”

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

“Here.” I said again.

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

“What is this?!” my mother demanded.

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

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

My father again took up the scroll and read it.

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

“Wait. You don’t think that I …”

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

Now my father’s hands were shaking.

“I know it’s bizarre —” I began.

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

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

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

“Yes.” I stated distractedly.

“No. Now!”

“What?”

“Mark, go get her now!”

“Charlotte.”

“Go!!”

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

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 7 (Mark: age 14 — Other Houses)

My travels to my next destination were largely uneventful. Yet, it seemed to me to take forever to get there. Then, there it was. The imposing structure was dark and foreboding. Unlike the last place, it had a gothic style. It lacked the light and airy feel that the other place had had. Yet, both estates had one strikingly similar feature: they both had massive grounds set far back from the main road creating a distinct feeling of seclusion.

Like the last place, there also didn’t appear to be anyone around. I fully expected that the place would be deserted as the last one had been. But still, I was there now, I figured. I would have to check it out as best I could. I proceeded — much as I had the last time. Once again, there was a door to an ancient basement composed of rough, slab rock. Once again, there was a room below with many chambers lining its walls. Quite honestly, the sight of the space freaked me out a bit. I sincerely doubted I would ever get used to sights such as these.

I breathed. How many more of these duplicate houses were there going to be? I turned and looked back toward the staircase. Where were the hostages taken, and were they still alive?

“Hello?” a tiny voice uttered.

I wasn’t even sure that I heard anything.

“Hello?” it repeated.

I looked around me. The sound was downright eerie in a place like this. Could it be coming from one of the rooms? I headed right away to the one closest to me. I would check them all out. At the third door, I found the voice and the girl who was attached to it. She stood deep in the shadows of her cell. Her eyes shut tightly as she winced at the brightness of the light. She looked pale and a bit haggard. Her clothes seemed well-worn. She appeared to be the same age as my sister with the same chestnut brown hair. There was definitely a resemblance. This must be his type, I concluded, with a shudder.

“Who are you?” she whispered with a hoarse and weak voice.

“My sister …” I started. “She’s like you. I’m trying to find her.”

The girl nodded slightly.

“There’s no one here but me.” she answered regretfully.

“Well, let’s get you out of here.” I stated decisively.

Then, in the back of my mind came a worry. What if by finding and saving this girl I would be tipping off my sister’s abductor that I was on to him and thereby lose my sister forever? But it couldn’t be helped.

We left the mansion right away. I was surprised that the girl named Nancy didn’t hesitate to go with me. But then again, maybe it was my age. It seemed unlikely that I could be her kidnapper. Plus, she was hardly inclined to remain behind in her cell.

I decided to walk off to the side of the road. I figured the road would be useful as a guide. Still, I didn’t want to be too visible or too easy to overtake in a car. This was a peculiar turn of events, I thought. Yes, I was aware there were other girls, but it never sunk in that I would find one — at least not one who wasn’t Becky. And why had she just been left there unguarded? Why go through all that effort to take her then just lose interest so easily? It didn’t make sense to me.

I was eager to ask Nancy for any information she may have that could prove useful in finding my sister. And yet, I found myself hesitant to do so as well. I wasn’t sure the girl could handle reliving the stress she must have experienced in this ordeal.

And then there were other questions: where could I take Nancy? where would she be safe? I found I didn’t trust most people anymore.

“Where are we going?” Nancy suddenly asked.

I felt bad when I noticed she was out of breath. I had started walking very fast without realizing it.

“I’m sorry. You’re probably not used to walking this much.”

“That’s okay.” she insisted. “I want to get as far away from there as possible. Only I want to make sure we go somewhere we can get help.”

“Yeah.” I stopped in my tracks. “Do you have any suggestions?” I asked her.

“Well … I kind of … I just want to go home.” she choked.

I felt suddenly compelled to reach out and hug the weeping girl.

“We need to keep moving.” the girl eventually blubbered.

“Yes.” I agree.

I let Nancy go. She wiped the tears from her face.

“Well, let’s do that.” I allowed.

Nancy looked up at me through her tears.

“Let’s get you home.” I added.

The homecoming for Nancy was very emotional. It was just as I imagined it would be if I managed to find my sister and bring her back. For a moment, I was afraid Nancy’s mother may collapse from the shock. As gratifying as their joy was, however, it also reinforced my own aching need to set things right in my family. I waited until the family didn’t seem to notice me; then, I slipped outside. I wasn’t really comfortable with the displays of praise and gratitude they had been showering on me. It was overwhelming. I was glad they were happy; that was enough. The only thing was I hadn’t escaped unnoticed after all, for Nancy soon followed on my heels.

“You shouldn’t be out here. You should be in there. They just got you back. You shouldn’t disappear again.”

“They know where I am.” she replied. “But where are you going?”

“I have to keep looking. Once he finds out you’ve escaped, the trail of my sister may grow cold.”

Nancy looked downward in dismay.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help you more. I don’t really know why I was taken, or anything about the man who must have taken me. I was just attacked from behind … I think with chloroform. Then, I woke up in that cell. Someone slipped me food every once and awhile but never spoke to me.”

“Well, maybe it’s better you don’t know more. Maybe it kept you alive.”

Nancy was moved. She came up to me and hugged me.

“For you to say that … to care about me, even though my not knowing isn’t in your best interest … thank you.”

“And thank you for giving me the hope she’s going to be all right.”

Nancy smiled.

“I’ll pray for you and your sister.”

I nodded.

“And I’ll do the same.” I paused. “By the way, I forgot to ask you what your plans are now.”

Nancy considered.

“I don’t know for sure …”

“You know, listen, I don’t need to know. Maybe it’s better that I don’t. I don’t want that kind of responsibility.”

She looked up at me.

“Just stay safe and out of his hands, all right?” I added.

Nancy nodded.

“You, too.” she told me. “Good-bye, Mark.”

“Good-bye.”

I felt a boost as I was leaving Nancy. I was hopeful I would recover my sister after all.

I decided to go to the next address right away. I was too nervous to wait — too much could happen. The situation at the next place was eerily similar to the last two. Only this time, I wasn’t going to bother searching the whole house first. This time I headed straight for the basement. The basement was there once again with much the same setup as the others. Had my suspect bought these houses for the basements?

“Hello! Hello?!”

I fully expected to hear a response. There was none. My stomach dropped. Maybe Nancy would turn out to be an anomaly after all. Perhaps all the others had been moved. Perhaps they had been moved because of me. Maybe my suspect had been alerted to the fact I had freed Nancy.

I decided to have a look around anyway. I couldn’t see leaving until I had a better idea of what was going on. I wanted to believe that there may still be someone around despite the silence. But still, it really didn’t feel that way. It didn’t feel as though anyone was there. In fact, it felt as though no one had been there for a long time.

I found I was a bit creeped out by the place. Maybe it was the smell. It smelled musty … and something more? But I felt compelled to look around anyway. I had to look. I had to make sure no one else was there.

The main room was very dark this time around. I was heading to one of the side rooms when I saw an object in the corner. I stopped. What was that? What was there? I couldn’t quite make it out, so I approached it. It took a moment for it to register what I was seeing. There was a body there — the body of a young girl. The smell then hit me with a new realization of what exactly I had been smelling. It was the smell of death. Dread seized me, and I began to retch. I retreated back to the staircase.

I shook all over as I stood near a step. I braced myself with one hand pressed against the wall.

I looked back toward the lifeless form. Just like Nancy had, the body resembled my sister. Could it be she? There was only one way to know for sure, but did I have the nerve to check? Could I force myself to go over there again?

Anger then seized me. Someone had killed this girl. It was pointless. Why had he done it? I had thought when I found Nancy that it meant that all of the girls would be found alive. At that moment, I rebuked myself for how naïve and foolish I had been. Was this the intended outcome for all of them? Was this how they all ended up if they weren’t rescued first?

I took stock of myself. It was time to stop stalling, for stalling was exactly what I had been doing. I walked over to the body and forced myself to turn her around to face me.

I unleashed my breath. It wasn’t my sister. Still, as I inhaled the putrid air again, I began to cough violently. It was too much. I couldn’t fathom that this girl was dead. How had she died? Why had she just been left here like this? And when had she died? Could this have happened as retribution for Nancy’s escape? I didn’t regret freeing Nancy, but was this the consequence of that? Could this have been avoided?

“I’m sorry.” I whispered. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

“Hello?” Suddenly there was a voice from one of the rooms. It choked much like Nancy’s voice had.

I spun around and headed straight for the room that was closest to me. At that moment, I was just grateful to have an excuse to move away from the body.

I whipped open the door. I saw a girl inside. She blinked repeatedly from the light, though dim, which had entered her pitch-dark cell. Then suddenly, she rushed forward and ran past me. She ran up the stairs without stopping. I was surprised by this girl’s reaction, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. It’s what I would have done in her place. There was a dead body in the room, after all.

I checked the other rooms to make sure no one else was there. There wasn’t. Then, I headed slowly up the stairs myself. I was feeling exhausted and deflated.

Where should I go now? To the authorities? How could I just leave that girl lying there? But there was a risk in reporting it, too. They might think that I did it. They may think that anyway. After all, I touched the body, and my fingerprints were all over the scene.

I stopped in my tracks. Maybe I was being set up. If I continued to look for my sister, then I might be taken in for questioning. And then, I would probably be arrested. But still, if I came forward, would they believe me? If the world weren’t so screwed up at that point, I might have said yes. But the fact was it was doubtful they would let me go. Well, so be it. I wouldn’t stop looking for my sister, and I would report the girl’s death … anonymously.

I continued to walk on … past a clump of trees … toward the road. And then, there was suddenly a breaking of something through the trees. I turned a startled look toward the disruption. It was the girl from before who had run off. I was surprised that she was still around. I had figured she had just kept running. Instead, she was standing there — unflinchingly staring at me.

“Who are you?” she demanded in a harsh tone.

“I’m not the one who abducted …”

“Oh, I know that!” she retorted.

“So, you know the guy? You saw him?”

“No, I didn’t say that. I just know it couldn’t have been you. I’ve been watching you. It doesn’t fit for it to have been you. Why would you have done *that* and then let me go? You’d have to be crazy, and you don’t seem crazy to me.”

I nodded then looked back toward the house.

“Do you know what happened to her?” I asked, referring to the dead girl.

“No.” she shuddered. “She was there like that when I woke up here. I don’t know if she died after I arrived, or they just left me there with a body rotting in the next room. Either way, I guess they did leave me there with a body rotting in the next room. I don’t even know if the person who took me planned on coming back or if he was responsible for her.”

I considered. I didn’t know what to say. Then, I remembered she had asked me a seemingly harmless question.

“My name is Mark.” I told her, purposefully omitting my last name. I didn’t feel comfortable giving that out. “I’m looking for my sister …”

“She isn’t the one who was …”

“No, I checked. It isn’t her.”

“But you figure it could have been …”

“Yes.”

“Me, too. And I don’t know what to do with that. I wanted to just run and run … but I didn’t know where to run to that would be safe.”

“You don’t have anyone to go?” I asked her.

She shook her head.

“I’m not from around here. I’ve been at a boarding school. During my vacation, I decided to travel with some friends … without permission. Some vacation! I’ll have to contact my parents to come get me. But like I said, where can I go to do that that will be safe? Actually, I was hoping you’d have an idea about that.”

“No. I’m not from around here either.”

“Well, there’s always the police, I guess … if I can find them before he finds me.”

She shuddered again.

“Will you go with me?” she suddenly asked me. “I could use the backup. They may not believe my story otherwise.”

At first it didn’t take long for me to decide to go with her. Yes, it was a risk, but it also seemed like an answer to my dilemma. This way, there would be some confirmation of my story — or at least someone’s belief that I hadn’t been involved in the murder. But then it struck me. Could I trust her?

Was I, in fact, being set up here? What was to stop her from saying I was the kidnapper once we got to the station? Even if she was a genuine victim, that didn’t mean she didn’t have Stockholm syndrome. Who knew how long she’d actually been there. And what if she or one of her family members had been threatened? Then, I realized that I didn’t even know her name. She had asked me for mine but hadn’t offered me her own. Did that mean anything? Or, was the strain I was under finally getting to me?

“I’ll take you to the police station.” I decided to offer.

It was the least I could do, but I had no intention of stepping inside.

The girl grew ever more anxious as we neared the police station. I watched her and analyzed her reaction, but I didn’t know what to make of it. There was more than one reason that she would be nervous. And then, we were there. I stopped short at the base of the steps leading to the old courthouse. The girl continued on at first, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I wasn’t following her. A man passed by me on his way into the building as I waited for the girl to notice I wasn’t coming. I wanted to see if I could make anything out of her reaction. She eventually did stop. Then, she just stood there silently for a moment. It took a while, but she did finally turn around.

“Aren’t you coming?” she asked awkwardly.

“No.” I responded. “I think you’ll be fine.” I reassured her.

“I …” She looked off to the side evasively. She seemed to be thinking on something. “I thought we agreed …”

“I’ve got to get going. You’d better get going, too.” I spoke definitively.

She seemed reticent to leave me. And yet, why should she be? I really didn’t consider myself to be that good of a protector. Eventually, she did turn away and ran into the building. I also left the area as quickly as possible, though I was curious as to what may happen once the girl got into the station. Had I been overly cynical, or had I been right to be wary? Maybe someday I’ll know, but I don’t know now.

I was glad I was able to make it out of that situation — it had shaken me. But another girl was free and the girl who had been killed could now be reported. Still, I knew I was running out of time to find my sister. At that point, it wasn’t just concern that my sister would be removed that I had, but also that she wouldn’t be alive when I found her. Though, it was a good sign that two girls had been left alive. Still, I also didn’t know if my actions had prompted the abductor to start killing off his victims.

But I didn’t have the time or energy to waste on thoughts such as these. The next place I chose would probably be my last chance to find my sister.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 8 (Mark: age 14 — The Complex)

I looked over the list of addresses. It was a monumental decision.

Since I had no idea which place would be most likely to hold my sister, I had to use other criteria to make a selection. I decided, therefore, not to go to the next closest location. It was too predictable; someone could be lying in wait for me. And if my sister had been there, chances were she would have been moved … or worse by now. After all, news of the escapes would probably reach the places nearby first. This realization got me to thinking. Maybe it would be better to go for a remote location. Perhaps that was where he would move the girls once he realized they had started to be freed. And maybe word hadn’t even reached a remote location that some of the girls were now gone.

I suddenly reflected back to what had happened. Why had he left that dead girl out like that? Who was supposed to find her? Was he intending just to leave that other girl imprisoned near the body? What could possibly have been the point to that? And then there was the fact the girls weren’t even being guarded — as though he really didn’t care if they escaped or not. He obviously wasn’t concerned about being identified for some reason.

I shook my head.

“There.” I said.

My eyes had landed on a location that fit my criteria. I had heard of the area; it was on the foothills of a mountain range. I had a good feeling about this place. I even prayed that my journey would be fruitful. Then, I headed off.

The landscape was uneven and uninviting. There was a thick pine forest so dense that it blocked practically everything from view. This was the place I had chosen to be my last-ditch attempt to find my sister. It wasn’t as though I intended to give up and head back to my hometown if I didn’t find her there. I just felt as though if it didn’t happen there it wouldn’t happen at all.

I chose an old logging road at the base of the mountains to begin my ascent. I had had to go to a county courthouse in the county seat to obtain a map of the area. Of course, that was a risk. But then, it all was a risk. Plus, it just made me even more convinced that this would be my last viable opportunity to rescue my sister. The man that had her would, no doubt, soon be made aware that someone was looking for him — assuming he didn’t know already.

But there was no choice for me but to move forward. I had been warned that although the weather had been unseasonably warm for this time of year — to think that the end of the growing season had been a mere matter of weeks ago — the mountains were a different creature altogether. The weather up there was highly unpredictable. The man asked me if I really intended to go up there dressed like that. I needed a better coat. I agreed with him, but I didn’t even have the money for a full meal at that point let alone a better coat. I suppose I was unprepared. But who prepares for circumstances such as these?

I didn’t tell him the reason I was there, and he didn’t ask. Perhaps, it wasn’t so uncommon for people to head into these mountains and lose themselves. The man I was tracking certainly had.

It did get progressively colder as I inched up the mountainside. Eventually, it began to snow. When the snow got to be ankle-deep, I had the feeling I was in trouble — that I was indeed unprepared. But I kept going; I lacked the will to turn back. I had time to think … too much time. As I sat next to the fire I had managed to build, my mind began to drift to thoughts of home. Would I ever see it again? Would it ever be the same?

Then days later, I reached it. The accumulating snow had slowed my progress, but I had gotten there. And it was imposing! It stretched gloomily across the landscape. And it was the first time that I felt I had truly arrived. Unlike the three prior mansions, this place felt like the man I was hunting for. It was a reflection of his aloofness, his sense of monumental importance, and his cruelty. It was a cold, dark place. I pulled my jacket tighter around me. I prayed then proceeded on.

The first thing I noticed was that the complex appeared to be occupied. There were lights on throughout. It had the feel of being lived in — unlike the other two locations. Of course, this made me wonder if the man in question would risk hiding any missing girls in a place that was seemingly occupied by other people. But then I realized the place was massive. It wouldn’t be hard to hide a solitary girl or even several within its walls.

The question became how would I get in without anyone noticing? Unfortunately, that particular task didn’t go according to plan.

I had thought I was quite clever and resourceful when I found an old door in the back of the complex. It appeared to be a service entrance that was rarely used. That was good. It was unlikely there would be any people around, and the door was rickety enough that I could easily pry it open. The room that was on the other side of the door appeared to be a very old pantry. It had lots of wooden crates crusted in dust. I tried to reclose the door, but my efforts to break in had caused the door to become misaligned from its hinges. I just left the door partially cracked open and proceeded forward toward the next door that I saw in the corner. When I had opened the outer door, I could see through the windows on it that there had been no one inside this room. But I wasn’t that fortunate with the second door I came across, for it was made of solid wood. Breaking through this second door — if it turned out to be locked — would not be easy. And if there were anyone in the area, chances were they would hear the noise. But I was never able to reach a conclusion as to what I should do next, for my thoughts were soon interrupted.

The first thing I heard was a creaking noise. I assumed it was the wind. It wasn’t until I caught the sight of something out of the corner of my eye that I realized that some form was rushing at me. But by then it was too late. Whoever it was laid me low with some object. And that was the last thing I remember of that particular room.

I can’t describe in mere words what it’s like to be trapped in a box the size and shape of a coffin. It isn’t a pleasant experience to say the least. It was dark and there was something on my face — some sort of plastic mask. Of course, my first thought was that my sister’s abductor had gotten the better of me. But what did he intend to do with me now? Obviously, just killing me outright wasn’t his intent. Did he plan on just leaving me here to die of suffocation? But then, why the face mask? Was he toying with me? Playing mind games? Perhaps, he was hoping to break me, so that he could extract answers from me.

If that were the case, I wouldn’t have long to live anyway, for I didn’t know anything that would be of any interest to this man … except the location of Nancy’s house. Hopefully, she was long gone, but still … Of course, I tried to force the box open — tried to search for a weakness in its structure. But I found no weakness.

I would have to wait, apparently, for someone to open the box.

I lay in that box waiting. I’m surprised I wasn’t more panicked than I was. For some reason, I was convinced that somebody would come back for me eventually. I really didn’t believe I was this guy’s intended victim. I decided I didn’t really think he would torture me. He probably just wanted to know what I knew. Of course, I wasn’t willing to tell him that. I determined I would fight him when he did come. I would get the drop on him as he had on me. After all, he wouldn’t be expecting me to be this calm …

For a while, I found there was oxygen coming out of this mask. To me this just confirmed my suspicions that the man didn’t intend to kill me — that I just wasn’t his type of victim.

The first time water had filled the box, I had been understandably upset. I tried to force the box open again, but none of my efforts to free myself ever seemed to work. Of course, it was hard to stave off panic at that point. I tried not to think about whether I would die or not. I just waited … trying to breathe as regularly as possible. After all, I still had the oxygen mask. I tried to pretend I was a scuba diver, and this was just a training exercise. I kept telling myself that if he wanted me dead he wouldn’t have given me an oxygen mask. I thought about my plans for escape — of how surprised this bastard would be when I emerged from this box ready to fight.

And I prayed … I prayed a lot. Then, eventually, the water began to recede. This experience ended up happening many times. Part of me was nearing a breaking point. But then, part of me was growing ever more defiant.

I just needed one opportunity — just one.

But the time did drag on. And then, I found I was getting peculiarly tired. Suddenly, I realized that the oxygen, which had been such a comfort to me, had stopped.

Then, I felt myself begin to panic. That’s when the water began to flow in. It was actually happening — he was actually going to kill me. I had been wrong. The man must be driven by sadism after all.

Then again, maybe he was just trying to break me down. I wanted to believe I would get a reprieve — that I would get a chance to fight back and free myself. It didn’t seem fair that I would be denied that opportunity. Instead of killing me right away, he had given me false hope that I would have a shot at living — presumably just to torment me. For when I felt the water begin to seep into my lungs, I knew I was set to die. I banged on the wood in vain. But then suddenly, the box opened, and the light stunned my eyes. I sat straight up, grasping at the airless mask, which still bound my face.

I got up and out of that box as quickly as I could. I had seen someone standing next to the box, but I hadn’t paid much attention to who that person was. I had intended to attack the person who opened the box, for I had assumed that person would be my captor. Thankfully, I had been so disoriented by my near-drowning that I hadn’t reacted in that manner. It took a moment for me to even get a good look at the person who had freed me. It wasn’t a man at all but a girl. And she was staring back at me in horror and disbelief.

Her name turned out to be Aronade, though it took a while for her to give me that information. I gave her my full name. I’m surprised I did that. She seemed to mistrust me; while I didn’t know what to make of her. No, I take that back. She was a breath of fresh air, I had thought.

So many people I had met I hadn’t known if I could trust them. Actually, there were few I felt I could trust. But Aronade seemed real to me. Plus, I could relate to her frustration with the situation. And I felt like she understood where I was coming from on some level. I realized I was angry, too. Yes, I was grieved about my sister’s disappearance, but I found I was angry that I had been made to feel responsible for it. What was I doing here? Why had I been sent on this impossible task? I had almost died alone at the hands of a sadist. And as much compassion as I had for my sister, I resented her, too. I tried not to. But people felt compassion for her, and no one felt compassion for me … except Aronade.

Still, I’m not sure how I felt about having feelings for her. She was just a kid, after all, I reminded myself. Yes, I wasn’t much older, but still … I figured at the time we could be friends but nothing more.

I don’t know why I didn’t tell Aronade about the dead girl at that time. Perhaps, I was afraid if she found out she’d be in even greater danger than she already was. Plus, truth be told, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to save her from this perplexing situation she was in. I spent sleepless nights thinking about that after I left. I had a lot of nightmares. What if Aronade were murdered? How could I live with that? I had planned on taking her with me and then telling her about the dead girl. But I never got the chance to speak with her again after I found my sister.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 6 (Mark: age 14 — First House)

I ended up wishing I had used the money for a taxi. At first, walking had seemed like the right decision. After all, the money my father had given me wouldn’t last forever. But now that it had started to rain — a cold rain nonetheless — I had begun to regret my decision. But it was more than that; it was frustration. Matilda had insisted once again that I leave after the desk sergeant had given me the runaround over making a copy of the letter.

So, I had left. But now I found myself once again having doubts. What if we had misread the situation? It wasn’t unnecessarily unreasonable that the man would be hesitant to supply me with a copy. After all, he didn’t know me or the reason I wanted a copy. And still, the part that bugged me about the situation was that it had been me who had supplied them with the letter. They wouldn’t have even known about it if it weren’t for me. And the letter was most likely about my sister and secondarily Matilda’s daughter as well. But then, they didn’t seem to care about Matilda’s stake in this situation either.

And what was more, they claimed to have lost the letter that had to do with Becky’s disappearance. Could I have any hope that my letter wouldn’t wind up the same way?

So, I had no proof as to what I was saying about my sister at that point. The only thing I got out of what had happened in Bad Hollow was the germ of an idea. If the police were hiding evidence, then someone powerful must be involved. So, I had gotten some sleep at the inn then headed out early the next day. I had thought of telling Matilda and Herr Meyer about my next move, but for some reason I didn’t. Then, I realized later why. What if they knew the man? Or, at least knew of him? People, it seemed, were less likely to want to believe that their town’s prominent citizens could be involved in something such as a kidnapping. If they thought I was wrong, they might even warn the man that some out of control kid was causing trouble. I couldn’t have that. If I were able to find a likely suspect, I couldn’t have that man tipped off that I was on to him. The first thing the man would be likely to do would be to move the girls somewhere they would less likely to be discovered.

So, I decided to head for the local library instead. I would search out local newspapers and those from neighboring communities. If the police knew this man and if he was indeed powerful, then I figured there would be a chance that this man would be referenced in an article in one of those papers. After all, it seemed pretty usual for a prominent man to be involved in some sort of philanthropy or another — if for nothing else than for a cover.

I decided right away that I wouldn’t ask for any help, and I would decline any offers for help as well. There was too great of a risk of being asked questions. Fortunately, the library was quite busy for that time of day. The clerks seemed to have their hands full, which suited me just fine. I was, therefore, able to blend into the crowd fairly easily. I was able to spy out the newspaper rack rather quickly, but I didn’t head there right away. Instead, I loitered around the stacks. I even started to read a book I found there. Then eventually, I decided I had wasted enough time, so I headed for the newspapers.

I chose several then took them to a nearby table and began leafing through them. My heart pounded as I did so, for I was very much aware of the significance of my search. I might soon stumble upon the identity of the man who held my sister.

Eventually, I stumbled upon an article that appeared promising. A man who could fit the profile of my suspect had hosted a fundraiser at his mansion. There was no photograph of the man associated with the article, and I could seem to find no such photograph no matter how long I searched. But one of the articles did have a picture of the house where the man had hosted the party. The article didn’t give the address directly, but it did make a reference to “the Briar Lane Trail house.” This would be enough to put me on the trail. Still, it wasn’t until I began to receive the unwanted attention of the library staff that I decided to leave. I had wanted to do a thorough review of the archives, but it was not to be. Well, at least I had something — a name and an address.

The question was where to find a map. The problem was if I got one from the library it wouldn’t take much for them to figure out what I was up to. So, I thought of a different idea. I would go to a convenience store and pick up a map of the area there. I could also get some other supplies such as food while I was there.

The stop at the convenience store proved to be uneventful. No one seemed to take much note of me, which was good. I actually watched the workers to see if they were keeping an eye on me. It actually surprised me a little that they weren’t. After all, couldn’t they sense me watching them? Wouldn’t that make them suspicious that I was up to something? Then again, maybe they just didn’t care anymore — if they ever had.

After getting the items from the store, I placed them in my bag. I kept the map out, for I decided I would waste no time before heading out in that direction. I figured the longer I took to get to my destination, the more likely evidence or even people may disappear. Anyone could tip off my suspect or even the police on me. And hence, I ended up on that wet, lonely road, which unfortunately wound deep into the countryside.

But at least I was making progress, I told myself. And the rain did have one advantage; it meant that nobody was likely to be lurking outside of the houses and liable to run into me.

The estates turned out to be massive in this community. Almost all of them sported a sprawling front yard. I became instantly concerned that I would have trouble approaching the home in question without being seen. And that was assuming I’d be able to get past the front gate —something which all the houses on the street seemed to have.

Not having an exact address did make me a little concerned. I had managed to make a copy of the article with the photo of the house in it. But what if I couldn’t see the house from the road? I could scarcely climb over every fence or even every other fence I came across.

But then — there it was — off in the distance. I checked the appearance of the house against the photo, but I really didn’t have to. It was the one.

The fact that I could see it so clearly was both good and bad. Though it allowed me to confirm I was at the right place, I had been hoping for a little more cover to hide behind — a few mature trees or at least some bushes. So, the question became should I wait out the several more hours for night to fall?

I decided to wait. If I were caught, then it would be over; there was no way people wouldn’t suspect I was up to something.

But something strange happened as I took shelter from the rain in a patch of trees close to the fence: nothing. There were absolutely no signs of life at the mansion. At first, I dismissed this peculiar observation. Enough time probably hadn’t passed, I figured. Plus, it was raining. But then it stopped raining and still no one appeared. A place this large and there were no workers here to maintain it? Then again, after more scrutiny, I began to wonder if it was indeed well maintained. I began to notice that some of the maintenance may have indeed lapsed. But still — I waited a bit longer, for it to grow just a bit darker. If no lights came on, then I would most likely have my answer. Could it be? Could the house have really been abandoned?

I cautiously made my way up the brick path that led to the mansion. I listened for any sound that indicated that I had been discovered. There were no such sounds; the place was stone silent. I began to relax a bit despite myself; it was hard to keep on alert for so long.

Eventually, I did discover some movement and some noise. It was in the courtyard right in front of the mansion. It was a single fountain, illuminated by a few spotlights. I guessed that the fountain was on a timer. But that was it. There were no other signs of life at that place.

I retrieved the newspaper article from my pocket. I wanted to refresh my memory as to what day the picture had been taken. Strangely, the picture had been taken only two months before. What had happened to make my suspect vacate this place? And yet, it couldn’t possibly have been completely abandoned. Someone had to be maintaining it to some extent, even if they were doing an inadequate job of it. The grounds didn’t look nearly as nice as the picture, but they didn’t look nearly as bad as I imagined that they would if the place had just been thoroughly abandoned. What had the problem been that caused the owner to leave? Had it been financial?

There was no indication that the place was being readied for sale. No, it felt as though the owner had just lost interest in the place — like it was some toy a child had gotten bored with. My suspect had just left — or at least that’s how it appeared to me. And whoever had been tasked with keeping up appearances to the outside world was barely doing their job.

I returned the article to my pocket. I felt suddenly emboldened to have a closer look around.

I found most of the main doors were still locked. There didn’t appear to be any lights left on — only the light from the waning day appeared to be illuminating the interior of the house. I couldn’t see any sign of anyone inside. The definite impression left was that the house was indeed empty. But how to get inside? I didn’t want to risk breaking anything if I could avoid it. The noise could definitely attract trouble onto me — especially if I was wrong, and there was indeed someone lurking around.

Creepily enough, one of the back doors turned out to have been left open. It slid open with a creak. Why did it seem to have been left open for a purpose? As though it was some invitation to enter? But then, maybe I was just fooling myself — just justifying my breaking in to somebody else’s home. But it felt the same as that scroll — it felt as though someone were trying to communicate something that the rest of the world couldn’t see. There was a reality here — it did exist. Katie had been taken away. There was a chance that this guy could be the one I was searching for. And if I was wrong, I would apologize to the guy. I felt emboldened by these thoughts and stepped across the threshold with new determination and confidence. I would see this thing through. I would trust my instincts or whatever the feeling was that was leading me forward.

One of the first things that I concluded as I made my way from room to room was that the house didn’t appear to have been lived in — not in the way I considered living. The rooms seemed more like movie sets than living spaces. Perhaps this was the way the rich lived, I thought, for appearances. But then, I thought there would have been some rooms set aside for personal use. It couldn’t all just be formal. But I found nothing — not anything but staged rooms that tried too hard to appear normal and impressive. It really was like an expensive hotel rather than a house.

There was one room that I had yet to check. It opened from a door off the kitchen. The door looked old — a lot older than the rest of the house. It was as though the house had been built around an older established property. And yet, it was odd; no real effort had been made to integrate the two spaces. What was more, the room the owner had decided to leave intact was the basement.

The old door led to old stairs — large slabs of stone really — chiseled rock from the house’s foundation. It was all very fitting and exceptionally creepy at the same time. I found a light switch on the kitchen’s side of the door and attempted to switch it on. I had heard the refrigerator running, so I presumed that power was still on inside the house. And yet, one could never know for sure — this part of the house being so old. Had anyone bothered to keep the electricity going down in the basement?

Then, on came an incandescent light, hanging from a wire attached to the ceiling. It shone brightly against the oppressive darkness. And yet, the light didn’t seem to extend very far all the same. The first thing I concluded was that someone had an appreciation for the dramatic. And once again, it felt to me as though no one else were around. So, I proceeded downward, even though I had no weapon with which to defend myself.

The next thing I took note of as I progressed downward was how surprisingly clean everything was. Yes, there was a dampness and the smell of mold, but I would have thought this area would have been in far worse shape than it was. My conclusion? Someone had, in fact, been putting some effort into maintaining this section of the house. In fact, it seemed to have more personality than the rest of the house in spades. I wasn’t sure that was such a good thing under the circumstances. Why put so much effort into a dark, dank basement and not the remainder of the house?

I did have a flashlight at that point. The batteries were old, but they still worked well enough. I breathed. Better to get this over with, I thought. The next thing that struck me was how very cold it became as I descended. And I could hear the sound of water — almost as though there was a river nearby. I expected to come across pools of water at any moment … but I didn’t end up seeing any water. Odd. I finally reached the bottom of the stairs. I stood on a cement floor within a circular room. There were four doors — all with wooden beams on their tops. Actually, it looked more like someone had just placed wooden slabs across the wooden thresholds to serve as doors. They were too loosely fitted for them to have been purposefully constructed that way. And yet, it was clear the floor had been recently swept — perhaps even more recently than the kitchen had been. I decided to take the door on the far left first; then, I would proceed toward the right.

I hadn’t been wrong about the door being loosely fitted. For a moment, I even wondered if it might not fall off from its frame when I opened it. Inside, the air of the makeshift room did smell a bit musty. It seemed the room’s door had been shut for a while at that point. I pointed my light around the room — tracing the room’s edges with my eyes.

I was surprised by what I saw in there despite myself. The room looked as though it had been set up to be occupied. There were a circular bench with a thin mattress, a blanket, and a pillow. In the corner were a washbasin and a toilet. All of these were surprisingly clean — as though no one had actually occupied this room. The other three rooms, I would find, had the same layout and design. But unlike the first one, the other three seemed to have been lived in. I didn’t know what to make of that other than to conclude that it probably wasn’t good. And if someone had been kept here, just where could that person be now?

There were some boxes left on a bookshelf in the last room. All the rooms had bookshelves with an assortment of popular fiction titles on them. I had leafed through them but found nothing aside from some dog-eared pages, which suggested they had been read. Just when they had been read was impossible to know. But the boxes could contain something important. Still, I didn’t want to get my hopes up; after all, they may just contain more books.

Only they weren’t books. They were trinkets and baubles that a young girl might collect. And there was one item of particular note to me — a wooden box — an exact duplicate of the one that had contained the scroll. I had found him! Or, at least I had found the residence of the man I was searching for! Questions raced through my mind. Where was my sister? And where was the man associated with this place? And how could I find the man and my sister? It was clear by then that they, and anyone else who had been here previously, were long gone by now.

I had already spent hours searching the house. Still, in order to be thorough, I searched the grounds as well. I found nothing more. I took the boxes with me but didn’t have much hope that they would do me any good. After the accusations the magistrate had flung at me implying that I had planted evidence, I had been left feeling spooked.

So little was known about my suspect … I only had a name. And really what good was that to me? It dawned on me that the name may not even be his real one. Something about this man’s life and his home seemed distinctly artificial. The man just didn’t appear to have any roots — any history here. He simply sprung up out of nowhere then just as quickly disappeared. Still, maybe I hadn’t reached a dead end. For this place, as big as it was, could merely be a summer rental. The man I was seeking could live somewhere else, I concluded, and I could find him there. Even if he had gone by an alias, there had to be a trail, even if it was just a money trail.

I concluded if I was going to catch up to this man, I was going to have to think outside the box. I decided the best thing to do would be to lie in wait at the house for whoever it was who was taking care of it. Then, I would investigate that person to find any business-related contacts that person had. Eventually, I hoped, I would get closer and closer to the man in question as I narrowed down his circle of contacts. It would probably take a while for this strategy to reach fruition, but I would wait if need be.

It took days for someone to come around, which really wasn’t all that surprising given the condition of the property. In fact, it made perfect sense given what I had seen — that someone had been coming to keep up the property but just not often enough.

The person who came around was a nondescript man — rather short and stout with a round face. I observed him puttering around the grounds from one of the floor windows. I had been staying in the room waiting for someone to show up. Now I was satisfied that this vantage point was giving me a good view of this man. Of course, I allowed for the possibility that this man could indeed be my suspect. After all, I had no idea what my suspect looked like, nor did I feel that I could safely ask around for a description.

It wasn’t inconceivable that the man would visit his own property under the guise of being the property’s caretaker. This was a man with many secrets, after all. Maybe one of his victims had escaped, and he was here to figure out if his secrets had been discovered. It would also seem to be somewhat of a risk to have a caretaker at all. What would a caretaker make of that basement if he discovered it? Could this man be in on it if he isn’t, in fact, the suspect himself?

Well, either way, I concluded this man was the closest link to my suspect that I had found thus far.

As it would turn out, however, it wasn’t a direct link. This man wasn’t an employee of the homeowner, but rather his girlfriend was. He was apparently helping her to keep up with the house maintenance as she was the only employee retained after the homeowner had left. She had probably been the housekeeper. I found she repeatedly visited a nearby employment agency. And it was at this agency that I would find more answers.

I may have been able to sneak into my suspect’s house undetected, but they didn’t give me the confidence that I could break into the employment office with the same amount of success. After all, that large house, oddly enough, had no security system. The employment office, located in the downtown area of a neighboring city, certainly did. One of my best advantages — one that I couldn’t afford to lose —was that my suspect didn’t know I was on to him. At least, I hoped he didn’t.

I decided to enter the employment office during office hours. If confronted about why I was there, I would ask for an employment application. True, they may find the request odd given my age, but it was the best plan I could come up with. I was planning on finding a place to hide then stick around until the office closed. Then, I would emerge from my hiding place and go looking for contact information about my suspect.

It was risky but doable, I figured. If I set off an alarm when I tried to leave the building, I figured I’d be long gone before the police arrived.

I managed to sneak past the front desk guy without being noticed. The place was actually quite busy. There was apparently an employment conference going on, so the man was too distracted to really notice me. But while the crowd was a boon for me in getting through the lobby undetected, it proved to be a problem once I got to the bathroom I had intended to hide in. There was actually a line forming outside of it!

I quickly concluded that this plan wouldn’t work. There was no way I could hide in one of the bathroom stalls without anyone noticing.

I left the area in frustration. Fortunately, it was at that moment that I caught sight of someone leaving a different room — a janitor’s closet. Perhaps, I could hide in there.

I was unsure about my new hiding place. It was a fairly large closet, but it didn’t have much in it one could hide behind. The best bet seemed to be the large trash receptacle in the corner. But what if it was needed and retrieved? Then, I would be caught. Still, I was inside the building at that point. What if I weren’t able to get this far again? I was keenly aware as well that I would have nowhere to go if I failed to retrieve my sister. Home just wouldn’t be home anymore. I made the decision I would hide behind the trash receptacle.

Initially, my heart pounded in my chest as I waited there. I realized that, unlike in the bathroom, I had no plausible reason to be hiding in a janitor’s closet behind a trash bin. This would be my last-ditch attempt, I told myself. At first the waiting wasn’t so bad. But then as time passed, my muscles began to stiffen.

There was one close call that day. And it surprisingly wasn’t caused by the cramping of my legs from having to crouch down in the same position for so long. But rather, as I feared, a custodian entered the utility closet and appeared to be starting an inventory of the supplies.

It took a long time for the man to leave. He seemed to be biding his time in the utility closet. And yet, it didn’t appear that he had anything to do really. And then, it dawned on me that the man’s shift was probably almost over, and that he probably didn’t have anything left to do. Perhaps, he was worried that if he went out in the main lobby someone would find something for him to do — something that might wind up causing him to stay on after his shift. I couldn’t blame him for not wanting that to happen; and yet, I was also having a hard time ignoring my discomfort as I sat crouched in that awkward position.

Fortunately, the man eventually took one last look at the clock then headed for the door. Suddenly, I held my breath. A thought that hadn’t occurred to me drifted into my mind. What if the door to the closet was locked at night? I waited. What a waste of a night this would turn out to be if I were locked in there!

Fortunately, there was no noise that indicated that a lock had been turned. Still, I waited. The room was pitch-dark now. There was no light coming in from underneath the door any longer. If I were to move and bump into something, anyone who might still be around could be alerted to it. No, I would wait — just a little while longer.

Eventually, I found I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to move. Only I had waited so long to try that I almost fell over anyway from the stiffness of my muscles. I felt around as I stumbled forward. I knocked into a mop or something, but I managed to catch it before it fell over.

Finally, I felt the door. It was a small room really, but it had seemed cavernous with all of these obstacles. I felt for the knob and was relieved when it opened. The building was now dark, but the light from the windows made it appear a lot brighter than the closet had been.

I was eager to get what I needed to do done. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest over the possibility of finally getting some answers. I checked many rooms. One seemed particularly promising. It was the largest and most brazenly decorated. It screamed “boss” to me. It also had several filing cabinets.

I set to work. The files were all locked, but I managed to find a key taped to the underside of the desk. I was loath to turn on a light. Fortunately, a nearby streetlight was providing some illumination to the room. If I brought a given folder over to the window, I could make out the words on it. The problem then became, which folder belonged to my suspect? Would he be listed with the same name as he had been in the newspaper, or would he be going under a different name? Either way, searching under the name from the article seemed to be the best strategy to begin with.

I was dismayed but not surprised when I found there was no file listed under the name that had been featured in the newspapers. I figured it had been fake. I groaned. It was going to be a long night after all. But I was determined to go through all the files I could until I found one that was unusual enough to be my suspect’s.

It took a long time but eventually I came across a file that looked promising. The chief feature of it that struck me as peculiar was how careful the wording was and yet simultaneously how vague. The person whose file this was had secrets, I concluded.

The biggest find in the file were the notations of contact information — specifically addresses. I wanted to rush from the building right then with this precious information in hand. I breathed.

I asked myself, “Is this really the guy? How sure could I really be?”

No, I felt sure. It had to be him. I decided I would have to take notes on the file. I couldn’t afford to tip off my suspect by taking the file with me. After having completed that, I carefully put everything away and headed for the front door. Only then did I think of something I hadn’t thought of before. If I broke out just then, there was a strong possibility I would trigger off some kind of alarm. I figured I’d be able to get away from the vicinity before anyone would catch me, but then the people here, and more importantly my suspect, would know that his information may have been compromised. I released the door handle grudgingly. No, I couldn’t have that. I would have to wait until the office reopened in the morning before attempting to escape. Only this time, I would hide out in the bathroom as I had originally planned. It would be far too suspicious if I were seen coming out of the utility closet in the morning.

I waited all night. Then, when some men came into the bathroom, I waited in one of the stalls for a little while before trying to blend in with the others. I just hoped unknown people frequented this place from time to time, and that there weren’t just employees expected there that day. I doubted I could pass as a regular employee. Fortunately, I discovered that a crowd of people were once again gathering in the lobby as I exited. A wave of relief passed over me.

I wanted to get as far away from the scene as possible. My relief grew the farther away I got. Then, the feeling of relief was replaced by a feeling of eagerness. Which address should I investigate first? Which one was my sister likely to have been taken to? There was really no way of telling for sure. And if I were wrong and were discovered that would be disastrous.

I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go to the one that was closest. After all, the longer it took for me to get to my sister the more likely it would be that she would be moved — as the girl who had been kept at the last place probably had been.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Chapter 5 (Aronade: age 16 — False Christianity)

There is again a juncture of two paths. But the decision is willfully made to continue down the same path as before — and hence another missed opportunity to turn away from the set course. But then, the reality is they never would have chosen to alter the course.

It had revealed itself; the inevitable conclusion to this path in all its disgusting glory. It was there for all the world to see where it led — what is was all about in the end — the ugliness of going down the path of sadism. How easily human beings are led astray without God! And yet, before the dust could settle, before people could even form two thoughts as to how one could choose a different way — assuming human beings are even capable of resisting the draw of the world on their own — some influence seemed to move in and direct the masses back down the same path. Of course, it took some time to delude people into believing that the monstrosity that was is always the conclusion of following the sadistic world-system. Yes, there were facilitators, eager drones who participated, but the result is the same regardless of the superficial forms the movement takes. It always ends in mass murder. Yet, people have become convinced that evil can be discerned by superficial aspects, inconsequential idiosyncrasies created by the characteristics of the group. They refuse to accept the world is evil — that having rejected God and His Messiah, Jesus, it will always head toward this form of depravity.

There have always been individuals who have rejected God and embraced Satan, and the rapidity of our society’s descent into depravity and the intensity thereof are a reflection of that. It used to be the descent of society was more gradual and there appeared, whether it was true or not, the chance for a person to change direction at the last minute and head back on to the path. But now as the world has become more like Satan, more sadistic and psychopathic, the chances of correcting one’s course seems to be diminishing as well. What’s more, it’s getting harder to see the difference between a person’s behavior and attitude who chooses Satan directly and the behavior and attitude of those who go along with the world. These world-system conformists are the so-called normal people. Some of them say they are Christians, but they are focused on the world-system. They want to change society to remove as many restrictions from themselves as possible. And they strive to alter their religion to make it compatible with the world-system. They seem to want to remove God from Christianity and to leave just a façade. It’s as though they’re saying, “It’s okay if you reject God so long as you don’t reject me.” It’s sad to me that nations have fought totalitarian overthrows at risk to their own lives, but that we capitulated out of fear of being rejected by the world. You need to be willing to stand up for God just as you depend on Him to stand up for you. You have to be unwilling to let go of God.

Originally, they sold us on that it was being deferent not to bring up God — that it would exclude other people. It seems the strategy now is to say you’re only a real Christian if you put other people ahead of God. Freedom of religion has been deemed offensive and openly attacked. Their goal is freedom from religion. Belief in the living God is only permitted inside a person’s mind. One wonders if eventually even that will be seen as too much. Will they then try something to root belief out of the individual? Efforts to create a society-wide aversion to mentioning God started to be put into place before I was born. Not only does this end up cutting God out of our daily lives and leads to decay, it also sets the precedent that mentioning God becomes prohibited; it becomes punishable. You will be ostracized — lose your livelihood. If I become one of those people today … so be it. What gives them the right to tell me what to do? No, I’m not an idiot. I know they are — not so subtly — discouraging me from being who I am. I’ve been trying to ignore them. Only what will they do when the rest of us refuse to go along? I have been wondering what will happen when I refuse to change. Because the fact is I am refusing to change. If my religion is not allowed to exist, does that mean I’m not allowed to exist either?

Do they really believe God is real? If so, funny they think their opinions would change His viewpoint. Maybe they don’t really believe in God … not really. They only pretend to. It is as though they think Christianity is just a set of principles. They think we’re clinging to what they think of as an antiquated religion — like a child would cling to a blanket. They condescend to wean us off of it, so they can have the world the way they want it.

It occurs to me that they had probably been waiting to be able to exercise control and dominance over others. They were biding their time, creating a pitiable imagine for themselves, so that when they implemented their doctrine very few would see it coming. I too fell for believing we were all just trying to be content within our own lives. I didn’t see it as the attack against God that it wound up being. I regret not standing up for Him, not challenging the belief that merely mentioning His name is harmful to others. I suppose they believe if no one learns about God He will no longer exist. They want a world without God and think they can have it. They want immortality on their own terms. They want an alternative salvation plan. They try to fashion an alternative reality to God — an everlasting earth — but it’s an illusion. Satan is the enemy. Those people who follow him and he uses are just fools — immoral fools but basically just fools.

They are trying to wean people off of Christianity with universalism. That way, people can reject God without recognizing they’re making a choice. That way they can keep the façade of righteousness while still being a part of the world. But God does not compromise with the world. You’re either for God or you’re not. If you are for Him, you have to take things on His terms. Religion is important when it accurately sets up the structure to show people how God wants to be worshipped. It’s not about you; it’s about God.

Only freedoms people care about are maintained. Only freedom to sin seems to be stood up for now. Freedoms such as speech and religion have been taken away. It seems people are perfectly fine giving up freedom of religion. What’s it to them? It’s a small price to pay to belong. After all, most of them have already chosen — at this point — the world over God. Some people worship the world like it’s a god. Yet, they are unwilling to admit that they made that choice and would rather not hear anyone question their actions. This is a world that can’t stand criticism of itself. It’s not enough for them to be allowed to do all manner of things, they also want to punish anyone who rejects participating in it.

Freedom from sin can only be gotten through Jesus Christ. Freedom to sin is the counterfeit version brought by Satan. To work, it also requires one to stifle his/ her own conscience by rejecting God as well as the willingness to silence any who follow God — sometimes by whatever means necessary. One also has to ignore that the inevitable result is one’s own destruction. By rejecting the concept of sin, people who buy into freedom to sin will believe they are liberated but in actuality they are still in bondage to their sin.

The world-system’s logic is Satan’s logic — where the highest principle upheld is the ability to exercise your own will no matter the cost. It’s not all that surprising that people would be open to it. They figure, “What if what we were told isn’t true after all?” They reason, “What if whatever impulses you have are actually good?” Then, you could pursue these urges without restraint! Who cares that the damage done to others is evident if you choose to see it? But then you do have to discredit those that hold to the old ways — who insist that it is wrong to do so. That’s where the scapegoating comes in. The victims — the vulnerable population doesn’t matter. And the naysayers? They brought their misfortune on themselves. For if those who follow the world are in fact “good” then it stands to reason the rest are evil.

You’re not supposed to trust your own instincts; that’s what the world says. They say majority opinion is the way to determine what the truth is and what the standard of morality should be. I don’t believe that. God sets the standard. God’s standard stands regardless of whether you reject Him or not. You will still be held accountable to that standard in the end. When people turn away from God’s standards, it’s not progress it’s regression.

The standards in society have become what we are comfortable with. But we are comfortable with far too much. People have become so deluded that things, which mere decades ago, would have registered as atrocities have become commonplace and normal in their minds. People rush forward to conform to the world’s standards in order to be considered “normal” without knowing who is setting the standard for them or why. In fact, they make it so that sanity is measured by how well you conform to the world-system.

Like I said, truth is found by consensus according to them — that’s the only way to know for sure. But what if what they’re feeding you is lies? What if they are even conflicting lies? If you’ve given up on any ability to discern the truth for yourself then what are you left with but mass chaos? It is also easy to manipulate and influence majority opinion. You simply over represent the number of people who believe something and stifle the ones who don’t. They want you to think the herd is moving on its own — spontaneously. They don’t want you aware that the group is being prodded from behind. God is my authority not other people. If you let the world be your conscience, you may as well say you no longer have one.

They taught me not to trust myself, but God is the only One I can trust to let me know the truth. Without Him, I am lost. And I would be like all those desperate people searching for a strong man to take over their lives, so they don’t have to think or feel for themselves.

Truth matters. Truth comes from God. It’s important not to let go of the truth. Forsaking the truth leaves you vulnerable to the delusions of the world-system. It is impossible without God to stand firm in any conviction. On our own, people will always bend to the world. Hold fast to the truth, even though people will try to convince you otherwise. Part of their propaganda campaign is to convince people that believing the truth makes you evil.

The snare that gets people into the world-system is the desire of people to exercise their will without consequences to themselves. This is different than the free will God allows which allows people to make decisions for themselves.

There is a conflict that arises with the world-system’s concept of will. For example, what happens when one person’s will inevitably conflicts with another’s? But it’s even more than that. The higher level Satan followers— the sadists of this world — have a will that desires to overcome and dominate the free will of others. But if there was real equality in the world-system, one person’s will would cancel out the will of another in an equal conflict. So, in order for some people to exercise their will at other people’s expense, categories of unequal treatment have to be created. Certain people are considered “special” and are not accountable for their actions. Others become scapegoats, who are deprived of their own free will, so that they can be exploited for the pleasure and prosperity of the sadistic elite. This is the way of the world. This is hypocrisy. This is the system that is created when people insist on their own will at all costs.

Since the Almighty God allows for free will, even though He has the ability to control everything, then why would He condone people taking total control over other people? I can’t see that He would. The only One who respects the free will of human beings is God. But just because you have free will doesn’t mean you have free will without consequences. Free will does not mean that there are no consequences when you choose to do things contrary to God’s will, which is always the right and perfect way. It merely means you have the choice to be obedient to God or to be disobedient to God. When there is a conflict between your will and God’s, you are supposed to defer to God’s will.

And still, some people think there should be no consequences to defying God …

People have become complacent in their thinking that they can indulge in the world without spiritual repercussions. The world has always been a snare for people, but as it gets worse it becomes an undertow — capable of dragging people down to a bottomless level of depravity … deeper than they could have imagined. So once again they’ve been sucked in — convinced they are doing something different, and that the same behavior will produce different results. And yet, here it is — the same thing again. The truth is they want things this way. And this is the way they will have them. The world will reject God more and more as Satan aligns it with his own worldview. Eventually, people will have to choose between God and the world-system — as well as reap the consequences for that decision. Satan will even eventually try to force everyone alive to choose between following him and their lives.

There is a reptilian coldness growing — a lack of human attachment, a pervasive void. Without God, it all means nothing.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020

Jennifer Alice Chandler

Chapter 3 (Aronade: age 16 — The Government)

I am sixteen now … at least I think I am.

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

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

So there’s once again the option of an authoritarian government — which will murder and steal for those in its power base — turning the conquered into a slave class, so that their constituency can have unsustainable levels of wealth for a time. Just as before, everything they will end up having will be at the expense of the people the totalitarian system exploits. And for some people that moral compromise will be worth it. Most people are murderers, and the longer you are of the world-system, the more you become that way. Even the last time, the perpetrators weren’t punished by the world because of the evil they did but because they lost.

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

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

It is disturbing how lawless people have become. They’ve gotten their way through violence and aggression before, so they can’t seem to stop themselves from continuing to try it. Laws they bother having tend to be about social control. Plus, there is wide interpretation and inconsistent enforcement of even those laws. In order to institute authoritarian control, they have dismantled all of the safeguards of the government that have allowed for resolution of conflict without violence. This may end up backfiring on the regime, but in the meantime, it harms all the rest of us. The tension in the world is growing; I can sense it. You can feel the bloodlust mounting. They don’t want to solve any problems nor restrain their own hedonism. It’s like they’re saying that if society becomes as corrupt as they are, they won’t have to kill to cover up their corruption. Well, congratulations to them. They have their way now; society is just as corrupt as they are — only the killing hasn’t stopped but increased. Plus, let’s face it, they don’t care if sadists kill people; they only care if people kill sadists.

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

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

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

Yes, we are definitely heading into a period of darkness; God knows if it’s the last one.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2020